When William Came by Saki (1913)

Invasion literature

According to Wikipedia:

Invasion literature (also The Invasion Novel) is a literary genre that was popular in the period between 1871 and the outbreak of the First World War 1914. The invasion novel was first recognised as a literary genre in the UK, and is generally said to have started with George Tomkyns Chesney’s novella The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer, published in 1871, an account of a German invasion of England prompted by the recent Franco-Prussian War. Invasion literature played to national anxieties about hypothetical invasions by foreign powers and was very popular, not only in the UK. By 1914 the invasion literature genre included more than 400 novels and stories.

Examples of classic invasion literature which I’ve reviewed include:

H.G. Wells’s classic The War of the Worlds is, arguably, the high point of one aspect of the genre, playing to anxieties of terrestrial invasion but adding an entirely new layer of alien invasion onto it, an idea which has, obviously, spawned tens of thousands of copycat alien invasion fictions.

When William Came

When William Came is a relatively late example of invasion literature, being published as it was only a year before the outbreak of real war with Germany, in August 1914. The novel starts when the Germans, under Kaiser Wilhelm, have already invaded and conquered Britain, sometime in 1915 (see below for how the date is calculated).

The entire brief conflict is over by the time the main male protagonist , Murrey Yeovil, arrives back in his defeated homeland to observe the atmosphere of a London and England superficially unchanged but now under the control of the Kaiser, his German army and police.

Plot summary

At the age of 24, handsome youngish Murrey Yeovil inherited a fortune and has spent it journeying and adventuring to the back of beyond. Somewhere in Siberia he came down with marsh fever and was nursed by local tribesmen for weeks before he finally staggered to the nearest settlement, and eventually made it to a Finnish town where he rested & recovered, read the papers, and heard the news that Britain had been conquered in a lightning naval strike by Germany.

Chapter 1 The singing bird and the barometer

The novel opens with pretty Cicely Yeovil in her house in Berkshire Street, in fashionable West London, sitting in a swing chair and observing herself in a mirror. She is, we are to take it, an emblem of precisely the sort of self-centred narcissism rampant among England’s upper classes, which allowed Britain to be defeated.

Cicely is in the company of Ronnie Storr, a handsome man about town. They discuss the fact that she is expecting her husband, Murrey Yeovil, to arrive home today. He was in Russia when Germany invaded: ‘Somewhere in the wilds of Eastern Siberia, shooting and bird collecting, miles away from a railway or telegraph line’.

They speculate how Murrey will take to the German domination of things, and review the attitudes which their friends have taken to England having been invaded: from the tragical tone of many of London’s High Society who have either taken themselves off to their country retreats or left the country altogether, either for exile in Continental capitals such as Paris, or have fled to Britain’s colonies abroad which, a trifle illogically, have remained British. The most notable of these is the king, who has set up a new court in Delhi, jewel of the British Empire. Everyone (in the high society Saki is concerned with) refers to the German invasion by the euphemism ‘the fait accompli‘.

A servant announces the arrival of Tony Luton.

Tony Luton was a young man who had sprung from the people, and had taken care that there should be no recoil. He was scarcely twenty years of age, but a tightly packed chronicle of vicissitudes lay behind his sprightly insouciant appearance.

Tony has made a career as a singer of popular songs. He is one of a number of anticipations of the slim, clever form of Noel Coward (who was to become famous during the 1920s) which crop up throughout Saki’s fiction.

The threesome discuss the impending first night of a performer they all support, the daughter of a landed family, Gorla Mustelford, who has taken up ‘expressive dance’. When Tony announces that the Kaiser himself is going to attend the first night, Ronnie tells Cicely she simply must hold a first-night party for Gorla and she willingly agrees. They all agree she must invite Lady Shalem.

Grace, Lady Shalem, was a woman who had blossomed into sudden importance by constituting herself a sort of foster-mother to the fait accompli. At a moment when London was denuded of most of its aforetime social leaders she had seen her opportunity, and made the most of it… Lady Shalem, without being a beauty or a wit, or a grand lady in the traditional sense of the word, was in a fair way to becoming a power in the land.

Chapter 2 The homecoming

Murrey Yeovil arrives at Victoria station and is irked when the taxi driver speaks to him in German. He arrives home and Cicely is full of sympathy as she listens to more details of how he got fever in the back of beyond, was tended by tribesmen, eventually made it across Russia to a health resort in Finland where he stayed for weeks to recover his strength.

Murrey is still only three-quarters well again, his face is grey and sallow. He is upset by the post-conquest changes: ‘the alterations on stamps and coinage, the intrusive Teuton element, the alien uniforms cropping up everywhere, the new orientation of social life.’

Chapter 3 The Metskie Tsar

Yeovil goes to see his doctor, Dr Holham, and this is an opportunity for Saki to describe in detail what happened to him in Russia, from the marsh fever he came down with to the slow and shocking realisation of Britain’s defeat.

It’s also an opportunity for the doctor to fill him (and the reader) in on a more precise description of the sequence of events, namely: the war was triggered by a frontier incident in East Africa, then next thing we knew the Germans attacked on all fronts. Their ships combined with aircraft defeated ours. They had numerical superiority so could defeat us in several places simultaneously. The Germans hadn’t initially planned annexation, but, once they realised it was a possibility, Warum nicht? and so Britain has become a sort of Alsace-Lorraine. (The king has fled to Delhi and set up an alternative court. Not the first time, as the narrator dryly points out, there has been a king ‘across the water’.)

Dr Holham says the Liberal Party had been in power for ‘nearly a decade’ and so were widely blamed for the defeat. (Since the Liberals won a landslide victory in the 1906 election this places the fictional invasion in about 1915, two years into the book’s future.) Yeovil expresses his bluff, manly patriotism:

‘But, surely—a nation such as ours, a virile, highly-civilised nation with an age-long tradition of mastery behind it, cannot be held under for ever by a few thousand bayonets and machine guns. We must surely rise up one day and drive them out.’

But Dr Holham crushes him by describing how quickly the British abandoned thoughts of resistance: for everyday life must go on, people must eat, work, earn money, business must trade. The golf links are filling up again, sport is resuming.

The doctor then goes on to make a special case of London, explaining that London is to an unusual extent a cosmopolitan city, and its art world is intrinsically cosmopolitan and less patriotic than the rest of the country:

You must remember that many things in modern life, especially in the big cities, are not national but international. In the world of music and art and the drama, for instance, the foreign names are legion, they confront you at every turn, and some of our British devotees of such arts are more acclimatised to the ways of Munich or Moscow than they are familiar with the life, say, of Stirling or York. For years they have lived and thought and spoken in an atmosphere and jargon of denationalised culture—even those of them who have never left our shores. They would take pains to be intimately familiar with the domestic affairs and views of life of some Galician gipsy dramatist, and gravely quote and discuss his opinions on debts and mistresses and cookery, while they would shudder at ‘D’ye ken John Peel?’ as a piece of uncouth barbarity. You cannot expect a world of that sort to be permanently concerned or downcast because the Crown of Charlemagne takes its place now on the top of the Royal box in the theatres, or at the head of programmes at State concerts.

So, in this view, London’s art world and High Society is, by its nature, less patriotic than the rest of the country, or even unpatriotic. It’s quite a vicious claim for Saki to be making and all the more surprising because he made his entire career out of detailed depictions of precisely this class.

Saki’s antisemitism

So far, so cutting. But then, to my surprise, the two characters step over a line and transition from being anti-London to becoming overtly antisemitic.

‘And then there are the Jews.’
‘There are many in the land, or at least in London,’ said Yeovil.
‘There are even more of them now than there used to be,’ said Holham. ‘I am to a great extent a disliker of Jews myself, but I will be fair to them, and admit that those of them who were in any genuine sense British have remained British and have stuck by us loyally in our misfortune; all honour to them. But of the others, the men who by temperament and everything else were far more Teuton or Polish or Latin than they were British, it was not to be expected that they would be heartbroken because London had suddenly lost its place among the political capitals of the world, and became a cosmopolitan city. They had appreciated the free and easy liberty of the old days, under British rule, but there was a stiff insularity in the ruling race that they chafed against. Now, putting aside some petty Government restrictions that Teutonic bureaucracy has brought in, there is really, in their eyes, more licence and social adaptability in London than before.’

This speech combines a number of antisemitic tropes:

Antisemitic trope 1: Jews everywhere

That the Jews were somehow everywhere, ‘many in the land’. Certainly the 1880s and 1890s had seen large-scale immigration of Jews to Britain fleeing from pogroms in Russia. Between 1880 and 1900 an estimated 150,000 Jewish immigrants arrived in London, mostly settling in the East End where competition for housing and work caused much ill feeling and gave rise to the nativist, anti-immigration party, the British Brothers League. It was lobbying by the League and a shrewd alliance with sympathetic MPs which led to the 1905 Aliens Act, which was the first attempt in British law to limit immigration.

But the rhetoric around Jewish immigration (astonishingly, hair-raisingly racist as it appears to modern sensibilities) exaggerated the impact that 150,000 people made on a filthy, over-crowded London whose population was already five million. If there was competition for sweatshop jobs and appalling housing conditions, these were present before the Jews arrived. These were English problems created by decades of English exploitation and neglect.

Antisemitic trope 2: Jews cosmopolitan

The second antisemitic trope is that the Jews are essentially ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘rootless’ and therefore intrinsically less patriotic or incapable of patriotism in the way that other ‘races’ are (the French ‘race’, the British ‘race’, the German ‘race’ etc); that they actively prefer London under enemy occupation as it is more like the continental capitals they are used to.

This is just a slur, a libel, which the doctor himself goes on to qualify as being untrue for most if not all British Jews. But that doesn’t stop him expressing it and Yeovil nodding sagely as if they’ve both made a penetratingly wise analysis of Edwardian society’s many ills.

Edwardian anxieties

Because that’s what’s at the root of the problem: Edwardian society’s profound anxiety about itself.

The Boer War and poverty The ruling classes and their cronies in the Press had been shocked by Britain’s poor showing in the Boer War, which should have been over in a few months but dragged on for two and a half painful years (1899 to 1902). They were shocked to discover the terrible state of the working class men rounded up from the slums of London, Birmingham and Glasgow and packed off to the distant Veldt where they were easily outclassed by the fit guerrilla fighters of the Boers. (The most quoted statistic is that, of the young men recruited for the war from the slums of Britain’s cities, as many as 40% were unfit for military service and suffered from medical problems such as rickets and other poverty-related illnesses.)

The decadence At the other end of the social scale there was an ongoing moral panic about the moral decline of the sons of the super-rich upper classes, what the antisemitic polemicist Arnold White called ‘bad smart society’ in his 1901 diatribe Empire and Efficiency. The worry that the British Empire would go the way of the Roman Empire, which everyone agreed had collapsed due to its moral decadence and self-indulgence. To every decent chap’s horror there were even artistic and literary movements which prided themselves on their ‘decadence.’

The Oscar Wilde trial (1895) gave the enemies of decadence a focal point and symbol with which to whip all these decadent tendencies, and try to enforce more martial virtues, the old Roman Republican virtues of heroism and self-sacrifice. But, as Saki’s own stories amply demonstrate, set as they are among fantastically decadent, orchidaceous young men and catty Society women, this campaign had a very limited impact. While the Germans were aggressively building up their fleet of Dreadnoughts, Imperialists of the Kipling brand warned of the dangers of attack, and called for a physical and moral revolution across the land, but Kipling’s tone is one of a prophet in the wilderness who becomes all the more anxious the more he is ignored.

Military rivalry In addition to the threat of moral collapse from within and armed threat from Europe, Edwardian England was faced with other seemingly intractable problems. Civil war was threatening in Ireland and the entire political class was taking sides over the conflict. An evermore militant trade union movement supported a Labour Party which was threatening to gain more MPs and overturn the duopoly of power between Conservatives and Liberals which had lasted over a century. Women of all classes were united in the surprisingly disruptive and divisive Suffragette Movement. And various colonies threatened rebellion and revolt, not least the jewel in the Crown, India, with its growing Indian National Congress  party, founded 1885.

Jews as scapegoats

The great advantage of having a scapegoat is that everything can be blamed on them. All the anxieties and resentments and furies of all the different classes and parties in Edwardian society could be focused on just one convenient figure – the ‘Jew’. Society becoming too luxurious and decadent? Blame it on the corrupt spirit of the Oriental Jew. Society too greedy and money-minded? Blame it on the Jewish banker. Society aflame with Socialist agitation? Blame it on the Jewish Socialists. The East End packed with filthy hovels? Blame it on Jewish immigration or rackrenting Jewish landords. Good, solid British culture being borne down in a welter of cosmopolitan art and radical theatre? Blame it on Jewish intellectuals and Jewish impresarios (later on, Saki goes to lengths to point out that the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties which features in the story is managed by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt, continuing his theme that cosmopolitan Jews run everything).

There was no social, political or cultural problem too large or too small which couldn’t be laid at the door of the scapegoat figure of ‘the Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the good, solid, traditional British blah blah blah values.

Against this backdrop Saki creates a fine, upstanding, huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ Aryan hero who is associated with clean, healthy living, either in the wild, among wolves on the distant steppes of Russia, or fox hunting across unspoilt Wessex. Murrey Yeovil’s structural role in the narrative is to act as a clean, upstanding contrast to cosmopolitan London and its moral corruption and idle, upper-class chatter, as described by his sidekick Dr Holham:

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience.’

It was psychologically easy for people like Saki or his characters to channel their ill-focused dislike of modern life, with all its rapid changes and stresses and anxieties, first onto The City, the embodiment of alienating Modernity, and then onto the figure which generations of antisemitic prejudice had created as somehow the embodiment of everything which was corrupting about modern urban life, ‘the Jew’.

Antisemitism as problem avoidance

Like all racist stereotypes, antisemitism allows the believer to avoid having to confront the intractably complex and difficult issues about his own society and his own relationship to it. Just possibly it was not foreigners who were responsible for the corruption and superficiality of London life, for mass poverty and slums, for high crime rates and the growth of radical socialist politics: maybe it was the British ruling class themselves who were responsible for creating this anxious and divided society. But you can see how an entire class would prefer not to look its own failure in the face, and much prefer to blame them, the others, the outsiders, the rich Jews, the poor Jews, the bankers, the Socialists, they’re all in it together, it’s a great Jewish conspiracy!

Antisemitism as a bonding force for antisemites

And like all socially shared stereotypes, antisemitism also allows its exponents to bond together, to cement friendships, to assert shared values, exactly as Yeovil and the doctor do in this chapter. There’s a particularly unpleasant and telling way in which the antisemites use periphrases to refer to Jews: referring to ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’, or people whose ancestors hale from ‘the Jordan valley’, or use cod Biblical phrases like the alleged fact that they are ‘many in the land’. The antisemites think they’re being so clever, so civilisé, using their fancy codes and crossword-clue style allusions to Jews. But they’re not; they’re being thick and racist. Antisemitism is a stupid person’s idea of ‘clever’.

Summary of discussion of antisemitism

To sum up: antisemitism is not actually the central theme of this book, it is ‘merely’ an unpleasantly recurring leitmotif, a subset of the bigger issue the text sets out to investigate, namely Britain’s moral, political, cultural and military collapse. But it has an impact on the modern reader out of proportion to its relatively minor presence in the text, because of the calamitous history which was to come later and which we, now, know so much about.

Considered as a fiction, it is fascinating to see how Saki shows that antisemitism has arisen in Murrey Yeovil’s character, how it derives from this simplistic city-country dichotomy, and how it has become horribly intertwined with notions of patriotism versus ‘rootless cosmopolitanism’, corrupt town versus noble country and so on. Saki the novelist gives Murrey’s antisemitism a great psychological plausibility.

And it is always possible that Saki is pulling the basic fictional trick on us of fooling us into sympathising with, or taking seriously, a character who he himself despises. But it doesn’t feel like that. It feels like Murrey Yeovil really is the ‘hero’, albeit flawed, of this slender novel, and that his bitter resentment of Jews is included in the novel because Saki himself, at least in part, shared it.

And so I’m afraid the broad vein of antisemitism which runs through this novel has permanently tainted my enjoyment of all Saki’s other works. Anyway. Back to the plot summary:

Chapter 4 ‘Es ist verboten’

The morning after Yeovil’s long chat with the doctor, he comes downstairs to a scumptious breakfast prepared by servants (when did servants stop being a thing in England? The 1940s?). Cicely explains to Yeovil how many of their upper-class friends have either retreated to their country estates, or have moved to one of the colonies. (It is, on the face of it, an anomaly that the colonies continue to remain British, though this is directly addressed later on by a German character who says the Germans simply have no interest in winning or running them. All they want is the freedom to develop their own colonies, which they have now won.)

Yeovil goes for a walk through Hyde Park where he notices Teutonic changes: for example, the tea rooms have changed to a continental bar serving lager and coffee, a troop of shiny German cavaliers rides by, and a policeman gives him an on-the-spot fine for walking on the grass (as they do in Switzerland), warning him that walking on the grass is, under the new regime, ‘verboten’.

Chapter 5 L’art d’etre cousine

Cicely holds a lunch party to which come her sort-of boyfriend Ronnie Storr, as well as the insufferable chatterbox Joan Mardle. After idle chat, Joan moves on to discuss the law about the House of Lords. All titles will lapse unless the holder takes an oath of allegiance to the Kaiser.

Then to the issue of Gorla Mustelford and her first night of ‘suggestive dancing’ at the Caravansery Theatre. Interestingly, ‘suggestive’ doesn’t seem to have the meaning it has for us now i.e. sexual suggestiveness, for Gorla is doing a dance ‘suggestive of the life of a fern’, so it seems to mean something more like imitative or mimicking.

Joan Mardle has realised the Yeovils are poles apart on the great question of the day, which is whether to acquiesce in the German conquest or resist. Cicely insists she will throw a party for Gorla’s first night though, out of consideration for Murrey’s views, not at their home but at a restaurant.

Chapter 6 Herr von Kwarl

Portrait of an adviser to the government, Herr Von Kwarl, sat at his favourite table in the Brandenburg Café at the bottom of Regentstrasse (i.e. in Berlin), and discussing the Occupation with Herr Rebinok, the plump little Pomeranian banker. They play chess (with comically aggressive comments) then discuss the future of the Occupation. Von Kwarl dismisses the notion of Delhi assembling a coalition against them. No, the pressure point is the young generation of Brits: will they acquiesce or revolt? In particular, over German plans to introduce national service which Britain has never had before.

Chapter 7 The Lure

Cicely and Murrey have diametrically opposed reactions to the Occupation. She is given very persuasive arguments that the old values and ways must be maintained despite everything. She is a ‘gradualist’. She believes British values may come to infiltrate the German Empire, a kind of reverse takeover which may end up dictating the whole drift of German policy. Alternatively, there may come a moment in the future which is propitious to an armed uprising. But not now: for the moment, normal British life and values must be preserved. In particular she holds out to Murrey ‘the lure’ of the chapter’s title, which is that he should resume his place with the East Wessex Hunt, maintaining the best traditions of an independent England.

Among the small squires and yeoman farmers, doctors, country tradesmen, auctioneers and so forth who would gather at the covert-side and at the hunt breakfasts, there might be a local nucleus of revolt against the enslavement of the land, a discouraged and leaderless band waiting for some one to mould their resistance into effective shape and keep their loyalty to the old dynasty and the old national cause steadily burning.

Chapter 8 The First Night

The first night of Gorla Mustelford’s dance show, included on a mixed bill at the Caravansery Theatre of Varieties. ‘Everyone’ is there but the chapter is mainly a vehicle for Yeovil’s jaded reflections on London’s sell-out society with its ‘babble of tongues and shrill mechanical repartee.’ There is an unpleasantly antisemitic passage about the prevalence of Jews from many countries in the audience.

At first sight and first hearing the bulk of the audience seemed to comprise representatives of the chief European races in well-distributed proportions, but if one gave it closer consideration it could be seen that the distribution was geographically rather than ethnographically diversified. Men and women there were from Paris, Munich, Rome, Moscow and Vienna, from Sweden and Holland and divers other cities and countries, but in the majority of cases the Jordan Valley had supplied their forefathers with a common cradle-ground. The lack of a fire burning on a national altar seemed to have drawn them by universal impulse to the congenial flare of the footlights, whether as artists, producers, impresarios, critics, agents, go-betweens, or merely as highly intelligent and fearsomely well-informed spectators. They were prominent in the chief seats, they were represented, more sparsely but still in fair numbers, in the cheaper places, and everywhere they were voluble, emphatic, sanguine or sceptical, prodigal of word and gesture, with eyes that seemed to miss nothing and acknowledge nothing, and a general restless dread of not being seen and noticed.

This soon segues into Yeovil’s equally bitter meditations on other classes who have too-readily accepted occupation, but nonetheless, its rank antisemitism leaves a very bad taste in the mouth. Yeovil contrasts the English high society sellouts with the Bulgarian people who put up a fight against their oppressor and so are now (1913) independent (of the Ottoman Empire).

Thoughts about those who have sold out or accepted ‘the fait accompli’ focus on the figure of ambitious social climber Lady Shalem, who has kept London society going and whose husband will soon be rewarded with a Barony by a grateful Kaiser.

There is also a loud tiresome American. Saki clearly hates Americans cf. the honeymoon chapter in The Unbearable Bassington. They’re one more symptom of the ghastly modern world which he hates, along with motor cars and continental cafés and cosmopolitan Jews.

The ‘redoubtable von Kwarl’ makes a ‘visit of ceremony’ to Cicely’s box. Yes, she is very well in with the new ruling class, her husband observes, bitterly.

Chapter 9 An evening ‘to be remembered’

The narrator fiercely criticises Gorla Mustelford’s graceless, restless dancing and lambasts the superficiality of the audience. By contrast with the fine balance of his short stories, in this novel Saki’s contempt and almost hatred of the English upper classes is revealed in all its bile and anger.

The Kaiser arrives, slipping into his box with no fuss except that the entire theatre stops to stare. Yeovil is disgusted at their sycophancy.

And then the performance is over and everyone goes to the party Cicely has arranged at a restaurant where the narrator lets rip his contempt for the pretentious loudmouth prattle of ghastly London High Society, awful people shouting their banal opinions at the tops of their voices.

The narrative pans over various groups until arriving at the popular singer Tony Luton, who had himself performed at the evening’s gala, sweet-talking the elderly and very rich Gräfin von Tolb, who has taken up residence in Berkeley Square.

Chapter 10 Some reflections and a Te Deum

It is the day after the Mustelford first night and Cicely’s wildly successful party. The chapter shares with us Cicely’s strategic analysis of how the success of the party has positioned her within London’s new, post-conquest world. The friendship of Lady Shalem was important, but the patronage of the Gräfin is vital. She tries to be polite to Murrey over breakfast but he gets bitter when she asks if he has read about her supper-party. He makes another antisemitic remark.

‘There is a notice of it in two of the morning papers, with a list of those present,’ said Yeovil; ‘The conquering race seems to have been very well represented.’
‘Several races were represented,’ said Cicely; ‘a function of that sort, celebrating a dramatic first-night, was bound to be cosmopolitan. In fact, blending of races and nationalities is the tendency of the age we live in.’
‘The blending of races seems to have been consummated already in one of the individuals at your party,’ said Yeovil drily; ‘the name Mentieth-Mendlesohnn struck me as a particularly happy obliteration of racial landmarks.’
Cicely laughed.

It shows you how, for people of Yeovil and Saki’s ilk, the nations of the world were composed of clearly defined races, the Teuton, the Anglo-Saxon, the Latin, the Muslim, the Arab and so on. More controversially, they have a primitive feeling that miscegenation, or the marrying across racial lines, is unfortunate, and hence the joke about Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn, whose name shows she is a ‘cross’ between Scottish and Jewish ‘blood’. For some reason the very rootlessness of Jews, the way they have no fixed nation but crop up as citizens of many other nations, offends Yeovil and brings out these unpleasant cracks.

On a separate subject, considered as a fiction, it is a simple but effective idea to position a husband and wife with polar opposite views about the novel’s central issue, i.e. how to respond to the catastrophe of being conquered and humiliated; to have the differing attitudes to being conquered dramatised within a marriage, with the wife, in particular, worried that her plans to become force in London High Society, might be derailed by her begrudging husband.

Chapter 11 The tea shop

Yeovil goes for a walk down Piccadilly and into Burlington Arcade, whose entire west side of shops has been removed to make way for German-style café tables at which a very cosmopolitan mix of peoples and languages are drinking their coffees and syrups and listening to a band playing the latest transatlantic jingles.

From around the tightly-packed tables arose a babble of tongues, made up chiefly of German, a South American rendering of Spanish, and a North American rendering of English, with here and there the sharp shaken-out staccato of Japanese. A sleepy-looking boy, in a nondescript uniform, was wandering to and fro among the customers, offering for sale the Matin, New York Herald, Berliner Tageblatt, and a host of crudely coloured illustrated papers, embodying the hard-worked wit of a world-legion of comic artists. Yeovil hurried through the Arcade; it was not here, in this atmosphere of staring alien eyes and jangling tongues, that he wanted to read the news of the Imperial Aufklärung.

So, as I stated earlier, Yeovil’s animus against Jews is only a part of his broader revulsion against the entire mixed-up, multiracial, polyglot, cosmopolitan world which he hates.

Yeovil hurries through the Arcade, on through Hanover Square and then drops into a tea shop off Oxford Street. Here he gets talking to a pastor, a man with ‘a keen, clever, hard-lined face, the face of a man who, in an earlier stage of European history, might have been a warlike prior’, who explains that the working classes blame the defeat on the politicians and ruling classes, despite the fact it was they themselves who voted for peace-making politicians (i.e. the pacifist Liberal Party).

All morning Yeovil and everyone else has been expecting a Royal Proclamation announcing that the British will be compelled to perform the same military service as the Germans. It is a brutal humiliation, then, when the newsboys shout a special edition of the papers is hitting the streets, and the pastor grabs a copy and shares it with Yeovil to discover that: the Imperial Aufklärung is precisely the opposite. From now on no Britons will do military service, training, wear a uniform or be able to bear arms.

The martial trappings, the swaggering joy of life, the comradeship of camp and barracks, the hard discipline of drill yard and fatigue duty, the long sentry watches, the trench digging, forced marches, wounds, cold, hunger, makeshift hospitals, and the blood-wet laurels—these were not for them. Such things they might only guess at, or see on a cinema film, darkly; they belonged to the civilian nation.

In other words the Germans consider the British have proved themselves unworthy of bearing arms. It is the extreme of national humiliation.

Chapter 12 The travelling companions

Yeovil takes a train down through an idealised countryside to ‘Torywood’. It was plain from The Unbearable Bassington and becomes plainer still here, that Saki loathed the city and fetishised the idealised English countryside.

Tall grasses and meadow-weeds stood in deep shocks, field after field, between the leafy boundaries of hedge or coppice, thrusting themselves higher and higher till they touched the low sweeping branches of the trees that here and there overshadowed them. Broad streams, bordered with a heavy fringe of reed and sedge, went winding away into a green distance where woodland and meadowland seemed indefinitely prolonged; narrow streamlets, lost to view in the growth that they fostered, disclosed their presence merely by the water-weed that showed in a riband of rank verdure threading the mellower green of the fields.

On the stream banks moorhens walked with jerky confident steps, in the easy boldness of those who had a couple of other elements at their disposal in an emergency; more timorous partridges raced away from the apparition of the train, looking all leg and neck, like little forest elves fleeing from human encounter. And in the distance, over the tree line, a heron or two flapped with slow measured wing-beats and an air of being bent on an immeasurably longer journey than the train that hurtled so frantically along the rails.

Now and then the meadowland changed itself suddenly into orchard, with close-growing trees already showing the measure of their coming harvest, and then strawyard and farm buildings would slide into view; heavy dairy cattle, roan and skewbald and dappled, stood near the gates, drowsily resentful of insect stings, and bunched-up companies of ducks halted in seeming irresolution between the charms of the horse-pond and the alluring neighbourhood of the farm kitchen. Away by the banks of some rushing mill-stream, in a setting of copse and cornfield, a village might be guessed at, just a hint of red roof, grey wreathed chimney and old church tower as seen from the windows of the passing train, and over it all brooded a happy, settled calm, like the dreaming murmur of a trout-stream and the far-away cawing of rooks.

It was a land where it seemed as if it must be always summer and generally afternoon, a land where bees hummed among the wild thyme and in the flower beds of cottage gardens, where the harvest-mice rustled amid the corn and nettles, and the mill-race flowed cool and silent through water-weeds and dark tunnelled sluices, and made soft droning music with the wooden mill-wheel. And the music carried with it the wording of old undying rhymes, and sang of the jolly, uncaring, uncared-for miller, of the farmer who went riding upon his grey mare, of the mouse who lived beneath the merry mill-pin, of the sweet music on yonder green hill and the dancers all in yellow—the songs and fancies of a lingering olden time, when men took life as children take a long summer day, and went to bed at last with a simple trust in something they could not have explained.

On the train journey, very schematically Yeovil meets two ‘types’. The first is a visiting Hungarian who tuts about Britain’s fate, saying Britain grew soft: ‘great world-commerce brings great luxury, and luxury brings softness.’ The British lost faith in their Christian religion but were not virile enough to restore Paganism.

A word on paganism

Paganism and its embodiment in the great Greek nature god Pan, are threads which occasionally surface in Saki’s stories, notably the one specifically about Pan, The Music on the Hill, from The Chronicles of Clovis (1911). But a very strong feel for the countryside is present in many of his stories and both of the novels and this sometimes rises to the level of almost visionary or religious intensity, which is where the spirit of Pan comes in.

This blog post by John Coulthart gives a useful background to Pan in the art and literary world of the 1890s. At least five different things were involved. 1. The rejection by legions of sensitive artists and writers of the urban world of commerce and industry in preference for the unspoilt pagan countryside. 2. The sense that Christianity had become completely hollowed out as the vehicle for any kind of religious raptures or ecstatic visions. 3. Whereas many of these artists were the product of a century or more of the Classical literature which was taught in all private schools, giving rise to the cult of evermore exquisite classicism. 4. It was strongly tinged with homosexuality. Pan is a beautiful, svelte but wickedly immoral young man; in other words a fantasy object for many gay writers and artists, of which Oscar Wilde was one and Saki clearly another. The two occurrences of the word ‘pagan’ in this novel associate it with young, manly virility. The first one is here, in this passage, where the Hungarian train traveller tells Yeovil that true paganism is associated with a level of virile manliness which the English have lost:

‘I know many English of the country parts, and always they tell me they go to church once in each week to set the good example to the servants. They were tired of their faith, but they were not virile enough to become real Pagans; their dancing fauns were good young men who tripped Morris dances and ate health foods and believed in a sort of Socialism which made for the greatest dullness of the greatest number.’

And the second is when Yeovil witnesses some young German soldiers marching by, exciting and glamorous in their uniforms and virile young manliness:

A sudden roll of drums and crash of brass music filled the air. A company of Bavarian infantry went by, in all the pomp and circumstance of martial array and the joyous swing of rapid rhythmic movement. The street echoed and throbbed in the Englishman’s ears with the exultant pulse of youth and mastery set to loud Pagan music. (Chapter 11)

OK, there’s nothing overtly gay about either passage, but we know it is there. In fact ‘pagan’ could, in the right context, virtually be a codeword for gay.

5. Lastly, alas, I think there is also an antisemitic element to Saki’s paganism, too. In the sense that Saki appears to find the organised Christianity, the Church of England, of his day, risible, as, admittedly, many other writers of the time did too, and states his preference for full-blooded and virile paganism. But it’s only a small step from this position to identifying the really repressive part of Christianity as the Old Testament with its forbidding God Jehovah and his long list of prohibitions and his repressive attitude towards the clean, young, healthy male body worshipped by the Greeks – and from there it’s only a small further step to blame the Old Testament on ‘the Jews’ and – bang! – you can, once again, blame ‘the Jews’ for everything bad and repressive about society, and the antisemite is back on his familiar stomping ground.

Back to the plot

Back on the train, the Hungarian asks Murrey to compare and contrast the pusillanimous Brits with his own people, the Hungarians, who ‘live too much cheek by jowl with our racial neighbours to have many illusions about them.’ Interestingly, by ‘race’ he doesn’t mean the modern notion of skin colour, but is clearly referring to Austrians, Roumanians, Serbs, Italians, Czechs, what we would think of as ‘nationalities’. These terms have changed their meaning over the last century. Anyway, his point is you always have to have your guard up and Britain let hers lapse.

The Hungarian gets out at the next station and is replaced by a big, red-faced English angler. This is a classic type of the pub bore and Yeovil gets angry when the bore booms on about Britain’s intrinsic superiority, a nation such as ours is bound to kick out the sausage-eaters, and so on. Not, replies Yeovil, without great effort and self-sacrifice. By the end of their short conversation Yeovil is filled with Kiplingesque contempt for the jingoist who is full of words with no understanding of the hard work and sacrificed involved.

And with that parting shot he [the jingoist] left the carriage and lounged heavily down the platform, a patriot who had never handled a rifle or mounted a horse or pulled an oar, but who had never flinched from demolishing his country’s enemies with his tongue. ‘England has never had any lack of patriots of that type,’ thought Yeovil sadly; ‘so many patriots and so little patriotism.’

Chapter 13 Torywood

Murrey has been taking the train down to the hilariously named ‘Torywood’, whose train station is, of course, the epitome of bucolic England. Yeovil is picked up by a dogcart, which gives him opportunity to vent his grumpy spleen about the horrid new invention of the motor car, which, of course, began its ruinous ascent in the Edwardian decade (see Wind In The Willows).

Torywood is the country seat of Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten. She has devoted her life to the maintenance of the county and the country which is described in woolly, Kiplingesque rhetoric.

In her town house or down at Torywood, with her writing-pad on her knee and the telephone at her elbow, or in personal counsel with some trusted colleague or persuasive argument with a halting adherent or half-convinced opponent, she had laboured on behalf of the poor and the ill-equipped, had fought for her idea of the Right, and above all, for the safety and sanity of her Fatherland. Spadework when necessary and leadership when called for, came alike within the scope of her activities, and not least of her achievements, though perhaps she hardly realised it, was the force of her example, a lone, indomitable fighter calling to the half-caring and the half-discouraged, to the laggard and the slow-moving.

This is a laughable portrait of the Tory fantasy of the benevolent aristocrat, conveniently eliding the centuries of oppression of rural workers which had brought her family to this happy state. Lady Greymarten is old and frail now, but she enjoins Yeovil to fight on. The contrast between old and fading but still unbowed gentility and the preening exuberance of ‘cosmopolitan’ London couldn’t be more clearly expressed:

Yeovil said good-bye to her as she stood there, a wan, shrunken shadow, yet with a greater strength and reality in her flickering life than those parrot men and women that fluttered and chattered through London drawing-rooms and theatre foyers.

It is clearly designed to bring tears of patriotism to your eyes, although it may bring tears of mocking laughter to the modern reader’s eye. If things are defined by contrast with what they are not, then the clean and healthy countryside needs there to be a corrupt and dirty city, to set itself against.

His own country had never seemed in his eyes so comfort-yielding and to-be-desired as it did now when it had passed into alien keeping and become a prison land as much as a homeland. London with its thin mockery of a Season, and its chattering horde of empty-hearted self-seekers, held no attraction for him, but the spell of English country life was weaving itself round him, now that the charm of the desert was receding into a mist of memories. The waning of pleasant autumn days in an English woodland, the whir of game birds in the clean harvested fields, the grey moist mornings in the saddle, with the magical cry of hounds coming up from some misty hollow, and then the delicious abandon of physical weariness in bathroom and bedroom after a long run, and the heavenly snatched hour of luxurious sleep, before stirring back to life and hunger, the coming of the dinner hour and the jollity of a well-chosen house-party.

Fantasy of English upper class, ‘timeless’, country life conveniently emptied of the its actual inhabitants, the farm workers and small town merchants and lawyers and increasing number of commuters. Fantasy.

Chapter 14 A perfectly glorious afternoon

We are plunged back into the subtle corruptions of London life, with Yeovil’s wife, Cicely, ensconced in the fashionable Anchorage restaurant, along with fashionable young Ronnie Storr, the musician who she refers to as her ‘lover’ and ‘boyfriend’. She has, apparently, had many during her marriage to Murrey.

They discuss in a languid Noel Coward sort of way how Tony is becoming too famous as a musician to remain her lover much longer. ‘You’ve got a charming young body and you’ve no soul, and that’s such a fascinating combination.’ He is giving a piano recital that afternoon and they go through a typical Saki list of London High Society who will be attending which, of course, includes some well-placed Germans.

Storr performs magnificently to the loud applause of the gentry and nobles present. But when the Duchess of Dreyshire asks Yeovil (now back in London) what he thinks, he replies by quoting a fierce piece of verse about patriotism, Boadicea, an Ode by William Cowper. To Murrey’s surprise, young working class Tony Luton takes up the refrain before himself storming out.

The flow of polite chatter resumes and Saki describes at length the chitter-chatter of the privileged, including Canon Mousepace, Mrs. Menteith-Mendlesohnn, the popular novelist Rhapsodie Pantril, the Gräfin von Tolb, Leutnant von Gabelroth, Joan Mardle, the Landgraf.

Later, it was reported in the newspapers that the popular singer Tony Luton had turned down an offer by Messrs. Isaac Grosvenor and Leon Hebhardt to renew his contract and had signed on instead with the Canadian merchant marine. The point being that he has quit the shallow world of ‘art’, the theatre and endless London gossip for a real job in the ‘real’ world. Which Saki approves with editorial heavy-handedness:

Perhaps after all there had been some shred of glory amid the trumpet triumph of that July afternoon.

Chapter 15 The intelligent anticipator of wants

Both of Yeovil’s old clubs have disappeared, one off the face of the earth, the other off to Delhi. He tries its replacement, the Cartwheel, which turns out to be as busy as Piccadilly Circus and with a distinct presence of ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen, wearing tartan waistcoats of the clans of their adoption, flitted restlessly between the tape machines and telephone boxes’. Another one of the many throwaway antisemitic remarks which litter the book.

Yeovil is about to turn round and leave when he is buttonholed by Hubert Herlton who has become a ‘fixer’, a putter together of buyer and seller, a sort of early version of the World War Two spiv. Hubert predicts that German immigration will slowly increase and more cities and towns develop a majority German population. Herlton is sharp enough to remember Yeovil is a hunting man and used to hunt in East Wessex, so briskly announces that he has a fine horse lined up for him, and a ‘hunting box’ or country base, complete with paddock and garden.

Yeovil points out a chap named Pitherby crossing the vestibule. Herlton reveals the Pitherby is set fair to acquire a barony and so has been laying a goodly stock of game to be hunted, in accord with his new status, and is buying off Herlton some Hereford cows, a swannery, a heronry, and a carp pond!

Chapter 16 Sunrise

A strange chapter, standing completely alone from the rest of the text, in which a Frenchman in what we take to be remote India, comes across an English woman bringing up her children in a remote isolated farmstead, where they can swim in the lake and shoot among the reeds. Her husband is dead and she is in exile from occupied England.

The chapter title is explained because, as the sun rises on the Frenchman talking to this woman, her children unfurl the Union Jack on a flagpole on a hill and everyone stops to salute it. Presumably this interlude exists to show the patriotic sacrifice that some people are prepared to make for good old England, and to compare and contrast this with the London society which is carrying on as if nothing has happened, even sucking up to their German conquerors.

Chapter 17 The event of the season

In a Turkish bath in Cork Street W1 a vapid young man Cornelian Valpy regales his fellow bathers with details of the frightfully clever ball held at Shalem House last night, where guests went as a character from history and their partners had to be their prevailing characteristics, such as George Washington and Truth.

It is a long roll call of the hypocritical Quisling high society we have been meeting throughout the novel: the Duchess of Dreyshire as Aholibah, Billy Carnset for her shadow, Unspeakable Depravity; Leutnant von Gabelroth as George Washington, Joan Mardle as his shadow, typifying Inconvenient Candour; the loud-voiced Bessimer woman as the Goddess Juno, with Ronnie Storre to represent Green-eyed Jealousy; the author Pitherby dressed as Frederick the Great to promote his sycophantic biography of the German ruler, accompanied by an uninspiring-looking woman, supposed to represent Military Genius; Cornelian Valpy dressed as the Emperor Nero and Miss Kate Lerra, typifying Insensate Vanity.

Valpy has time to explain that Cicely Yeovil has found herself a new boyfriend, much prettier than her old one, Ronnie Storre. What he doesn’t realise is that Ronnie is in the Turkish bath, overhears this comment, and stalks out. The point of the chapter is to demonstrate London’s cesspit of narcissistic partying and vapid gossip.

Chapter 18 The dead who do not understand

November in the country, country wives putting up shutters and the fox which has been hunted but not caught, retreats into the depths of a spinney as the hunters return to their kennels and stables. We are in the country so, of course, it is Yeovil we find riding home exhausted by a good day’s hunting.

So far, so stereotypes, but there is a smidgeon of interesting psychology in the way that, having been vaunted as the man who hates the fait accompli and loathes the facile acceptance of the new conquerors by his wife and her smart set, and was told by Eleanor, Dowager Lady Greymarten to ‘fight on’… actually, he rather likes the life of a country squire, he likes the hunting:

The pleasures of the chase, well-provided for in every detail, and dovetailed in with the assured luxury of a well-ordered, well-staffed establishment, were exactly what he wanted and exactly what his life down here afforded him. He was experiencing, too, that passionate recurring devotion to an old loved scene that comes at times to men who have travelled far and willingly up and down the world. He was very much at home… Horse and hound-craft, harvest, game broods, the planting and felling of timber, the rearing and selling of stock, the letting of grasslands, the care of fisheries, the up-keep of markets and fairs, they were the things that immediately mattered.

In other words he is tempted to forget all about the ‘good fight’ and relapse into a life of rural contentment. He is tempted.

Except that it’s gotten late, night is drawing on and when Yeovil stops at a pub to enquire directions he discovers he’s a long way from home. The publican tells him there’s a young man with a motor car in the bar heading in his direction, why not stable his horse here for the night and get a lift? Yeovil says yes, then is mortified to discover the motorist is one of ‘them’, Leutnant von Gabelroth, who had, by a wild coincidence, been present at the musical afternoon at Berkshire Street.

The drive takes them past a village church where Yeovil’s ancestors are buried and he is so ashamed that he turns his head in the opposite direction. That is the meaning of the chapter’s title. In Yeovil’s mind, his dead, his ancestors, will not understand his betrayal of their country.

Thus, after being dropped at his spacious and comfortable country house, having had a lovely bath and a fine dinner in the company of the local doctor, at the end of a perfect day, Yeovil is alone with his thoughts and the guilty self-accusation that he is somehow betraying his country, his race and his ancestors.

Here, installed under his own roof-tree, with as good horseflesh in his stable as man could desire, with sport lying almost at his door, with his wife ready to come down and help him to entertain his neighbours, Murrey Yeovil had found the life that he wanted—and was accursed in his own eyes. He argued with himself, and palliated and explained, but he knew why he had turned his eyes away that evening from the little graveyard under the trees; one cannot explain things to the dead.

Chapter 19 The little foxes

It is May, ten months after Yeovil’s return from Siberia, and his wife Cicely is enjoying luncheon in the Park in company of her latest toyboy, Larry Meadowfield. They are there because there is to be a Grand Parade of boy scouts. This organisation has been given all manner of privileges by the Kaiser. Via the usual selection of Quislings and collaborators – Cicely Yeovil, Gräfin von Tolb, Joan Mardle, Sir Leonard Pitherby, Lady Bailquist, Herr Rebinok, the little Pomeranian banker – we learn that there is trouble brewing in the Balkans and so it is all the more important that the grand parade of boy scouts pledges its allegiance to the Kaiser who is waiting, with his son and foreign dignitaries, on a specially erected stage.

But the boy scouts do not come, the crowd starts whistling and booing in mockery and an unnamed young man with a worn grey face (Murrey Yeovil) realises that although he himself might have made a shameful peace with the new regime, hundreds of thousands of the younger generation have not, and will fight on.

In thousands of English homes throughout the land there were young hearts that had not forgotten, had not compounded, would not yield.

So the novel ends on this rousing patriotic note of defiance.


Thoughts

1. Is it even a novel?

When you first read that the subject matter of When William Came is a fictional German invasion of Edwardian England, you wonder whether it will be action-packed, whether there will be fighting, that it might be a ‘thriller’. In the event, it is none of these things. It is a study in the psychology of defeat and one which, in its mannered superficiality, and in comparison with accounts of the disasters which were to follow in the rest of the twentieth century, would be easy to overlook or dismiss as trivial.

In terms of structure, it was a simple but effective idea to divide the psychology of defeat into two broad streams or strategies and to allot one to a husband and one to a wife, so that the different paths of acquiescence can interplay with domestic psychology, and with ‘gender identity’: the woman’s approach, the man’s approach. Makes it more rich and complicated, or, perhaps, less simple-minded.

Even less original is the notion of dividing the responses to enemy occupation into a broadly Town and a ‘Country’ response, given that this is one of the oldest dichotomies in world literature. But Saki’s intimate knowledge of High Society and his malicious wit make the London scenes deliciously satirical; and his less well-known but deep love of the English countryside gives the rural scenes a sumptuously sensual depth.

Above all, he really can write, creating long, luscious sentences ripe with description, which build into huge paragraphs which, especially in the rural scenes, have an almost physical impact on the senses.

The pale light of a November afternoon faded rapidly into the dusk of a November evening. Far over the countryside housewives put up their cottage shutters, lit their lamps, and made the customary remark that the days were drawing in. In barn yards and poultry-runs the greediest pullets made a final tour of inspection, picking up the stray remaining morsels of the evening meal, and then, with much scrambling and squawking, sought the places on the roosting-pole that they thought should belong to them. Labourers working in yard and field began to turn their thoughts homeward or tavernward as the case might be. And through the cold squelching slush of a water-logged meadow a weary, bedraggled, but unbeaten fox stiffly picked his way, climbed a high bramble-grown bank, and flung himself into the sheltering labyrinth of a stretching tangle of woods.

2. Nationhood and patriotism

From a historical point of view, the book is an interesting stroll round the different ways notions of patriotism, race and identity were discussed in 1913 England. One of the most striking things, for me, was philological: Saki uses the word ‘race’ not in our modern sense of ethnicity and skin colour but more as we nowadays say ‘nation’. Thus he talks about the French race, the Italian race, the British race, ‘our’ race, and so on. It seems to have been a much more specific and much more clearly defined idea.

For Saki, or for his characters Yeovil and Dr Holham, each race must remain, in some sense, pure and undefiled by mixing with foreigners (hence the running joke about a character named Mrs Mentieth-Mendlesohnn who exists solely to demonstrate the perceived incongruity of a Jew marrying a Scot; it’s worth remembering that Saki, real name Hector Munro, was himself of Scottish descent).

This is more than what we mean today by racism, because it isn’t defined by skin colour; it’s a deeper sense that every nation has its unique culture, language and traditions and that these are weakened when they are blended into a mongrel mix. Hence Yeovil and Holham’s shared dislike of London’s cosmopolitanism, as evidenced in the ‘Munich or Moscow’ speech I quoted earlier.

On this interpretation, cosmopolitanism creates a fake metropolitan culture which neglects national traditions in preference for the magpie highlights of international art and culture. (Interesting to reflect how this negative view of London as an international city cut off from the rest of the country, hotbed of a cosmopolitan liberal elite, has persisted through the past 110 years, and is generally agreed to have been an issue in the drawn-out Brexit debate and then to have played a part in Labour’s shattering defeat in the 2019 general election.)

London is seen as being in some sense unfaithful to its own native traditions; its cosmopolitanism is a form of betrayal.

3. Jaundiced view of London High Society

One of the things that comes over most strongly throughout the book is Saki’s real hatred of the vapid, pleasure-seeking, shallow, unpatriotic and narcissistic London upper classes.

‘People of the world that I am speaking of, our dominant world at the present moment, herd together as closely packed to the square yard as possible, doing nothing worth doing, and saying nothing worth saying, but doing it and saying it over and over again, listening to the same melodies, watching the same artistes, echoing the same catchwords, ordering the same dishes in the same restaurants, suffering each other’s cigarette smoke and perfumes and conversation, feverishly, anxiously making arrangements to meet each other again to-morrow, next week, and the week after next, and repeat the same gregarious experience. If they were not herded together in a corner of western London, watching each other with restless intelligent eyes, they would be herded together at Brighton or Dieppe, doing the same thing.’

Again and again he criticises this class’s smallness, its incestuousness, and its smug, narcissistic self-congratulation. In a sense the entire premise of the plot, that the Germans will easily defeat us if it comes to a fight, can be seen as an extended slap in the face for these people and this culture which utterly failed to appreciate that there is a Real World of never-ending conflict and competition out there, and you need to be armed and ready to defend yourself against it. It was Kipling’s warning, rephrased in Saki’s very different, mordant and ironic style, but with the same sense of urgency.

4. Antisemitism

I’ve said enough earlier, but Munro’s antisemitism is a blot or stain on this book which also casts a long shadow over all his other works. It is interesting to see how antisemitism can be derived so simply from the postulates listed above, almost like a mathematical formula:

  • each nation or race should remain pure and true to its traditions
  • big cities are places where cosmopolitan elites deny and mock their national traditions, go soft, and indulge in evermore luxury and decadence
  • this is not only ‘immoral’ but leads to the fatal neglect of army and navy, leading to military defeat, France in 1870, England in this novel
  • ‘Jews’ are the most ‘cosmopolitan’ ‘rootless’ elements in modern urban society
  • ‘therefore’ these ‘rootless’ ‘cosmopolitan’ Jews are the greatest threats to the nation

A twisted logic whereby all these anxieties about national safety and resentments at the heedlessness of the rich and fury at everything you don’t like about the modern world can be focused onto the convenient and defenceless figure of the ‘Jew’, stereotypically seen as rootless, cosmopolitan, with no fixed homeland, and therefore the enemy of all the values listed above.

And how narrowing the focus onto this convenient scapegoat lets the antisemite off the hook of having to confront the real causes of England’s unease: the centuries of exploitation of her own deeply immiserated working classes, the Victorian century of ever-wider conquest and exploitation of peoples right around the world. Edwardian England was racked with social and political issues:

  • the rise of militant trade unions and the new Labour Party
  • the suffragettes
  • rebellion in Ireland
  • revolt across much of the Empire, not least the jewel in the Crown, India

But none of this is mentioned in the novel. Instead, and standing in for them, we have his sick obsession with ‘Hebraic-looking gentlemen’ and their untoward prominence in show business. How stupid. How entirely inadequate to the complexities of the time.

When William Came made me realise that antisemitism is a way for people to refuse to face up to the uncomfortable facts about their own country and society and social failings. It is a stupid ‘solution’ for stupid people who aren’t capable of grasping, defining or analysing the genuinely difficult questions  their society needs to address. It is a cop-out. Antisemitism is an explanation for idiots.

A note on spelling antisemitism

I checked online to find out whether to use a capital S in antisemitism and discovered that I shouldn’t be using the hyphenated form of either the thing or the person. The advice of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance is to use the forms ‘antisemitism’ and ‘antisemite’, so that’s what I’ve done here and will do in future.


Related links

Saki’s works

The Unbearable Bassington by Saki (1912)

The spirit of mirthfulness…certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth

‘Comus,’ she said quietly and wearily, ‘you are an exact reversal of the legend of Pandora’s Box. You have all the charm and advantages that a boy could want to help him on in the world, and behind it all there is the fatal damning gift of utter hopelessness.’

Saki published two novels. This is the first one, relatively short (47,720 words) and cast in 17 chapters. It has a slim plotline which I will now summarise:

Executive summary

Francesca Bassington is a member of London’s High Society. She is 40, a widow, and living in a very nice house in Blue Street, surrounded by her precious possessions. The house was left to her by her friend Sophie Chetrof when she died, but only till Sophie’s daughter, Emmeline marries, at which point it will revert to Emmeline (and her husband). Emmeline is still only 17 but that gives Francesca only 4 or five more years of possession and it makes her anxious.

Francesca has one cherished hope which is that she can persuade her only son, the difficult tearaway Comus Bassington, to marry Emmeline.

Once this is all explained, we get a chapter showing Comus at his boarding school where he is shown gleefully thrashing Emmeline Chetrof’s brother, Lancelot, thus permanently turning Emmeline against her. Oh well, so much for that plan.

Jump forward two years and Comus is now 19 and a dashing, slender, good looking addition to London society. He comes to the notice of the fabulously rich Elaine de Grey and the most of the rest of this short novel is devoted to describing the rivalry between young, selfish Comus, and twenty-something handsome Courtenay Youghal for her hand.

This basic premise is spun out via scenes depicting classic activities of the class Francesca and Comus belong to – dinner parties, society gossip, riding in Hyde Park, the opening of a new art show at a fashionable gallery and the first night of a new play, all of which give Saki ample opportunity to display his knowledge of Edwardian High Society, and its refined gossip and malice.

In the event quite a trivial argument with Comus (he asks Elaine for yet another loan to cover his gambling debts, while they’re sitting in deckchairs by the Serpentine) is the straw that snaps Elaine’s patience, and she stalks off by herself. Later she goes out for dinner with Youghal and says yes to his proposal of marriage.

News of this gets back to Francesca, who has a confrontation with her son in which she says that, since he has blown all his opportunities for advancement in London (first with Emmeline, then with Elaine) there’s nothing for it but to throw himself into the Empire. Her brother, Henry Greech, has news of an opening ‘in West Africa’. Comus accepts this meekly but with great misery. He attends the first night of a play, drinking in the sights and (bitchy) sounds of London society, knowing it is the last time he’ll ever see them.

There are three remaining scenes. In one, we see Francesca on honeymoon in Vienna, discovering that Youghal is every bit as selfish and self-centred as Comus, when he forces her to go to a masked ball and has a whale of a time, leaving her bored and disconsolate.

In the second scene, we find Comus in some God-forsaken hole in West Africa, fiercely hot, exhausted, mildly feverish, and oppressed by the pointlessness of being so utterly outside his own set of values and identities. The Africans seem to him like so many teeming ants and he hangs his head in genuine despair.

In the final, short scene, Francesca is in her lovely house in Blue Street, surrounded by her lovely belongings, when she receives a telegram saying Comus has died of illness. Everything turns to ashes. She would give all her wretched belongings just for him to walk through the door. The rest of her life will be misery and anguish.

Despair

Bleak, isn’t it? It leaves a real taste, not of mere unhappiness, but of powerful despair in the mouth. Suddenly the text felt like an echo of Joseph Conrad’s stories about white men who go to pieces in the Tropics and a harbinger of Graham Greene’s despairing novel, The Heart of the Matter. Comus’s utter abandonment reminded me of the end of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Black Mischief. In fact maybe it fits into the tidy little tradition of English fiction describing how horrible a posting to the colonies was. (Would Orwell’s Burmese Days be included?)

Room for psychology

What’s interesting about Saki’s first novel is he has taken advantage of the extra legroom provided by the form to write in a far more leisurely, expansive and descriptive style than he allowed himself in his short stories.

All of chapter 1 is devoted to a thorough description of Francesca’s home, its furnishings, how they match her personality, and then a leisurely tiffin of tea and cucumber sandwiches with her brother, Henry. Normally, his short stories are cut back to the bone, sometimes barely more than short scenes or snippets of dialogue. Some of the stories in Chronicles of Clovis contained longer descriptions, especially of the countryside. In this novel Saki is able to develop that side of his writing.

Something else happens as a result of the extra legroom, which is that it becomes considerably less funny. If you’re writing a dialogue between two characters whose sole purpose is to set up a series of one-liners, nothing hinders the quest for comedy. If you’re essaying a long paragraph describing the interior of a middle-class woman’s home, well, there’s scope from some dry remarks, but it would be self-defeating to try and do it all in a series of quips. The prose, by virtue of aiming to be descriptive, must be flatter. Not without Saki’s characteristic droll, ironic inflection. But without the quotable gags.

Same goes for description of character. Here’s a typical description of young Comus:

Gaiety and good-looks had carried Comus successfully and, on the whole, pleasantly, through schooldays and a recurring succession of holidays; the same desirable assets were still at his service to advance him along his road, but it was a disconcerting experience to find that they could not be relied on to go all distances at all times. In an animal world, and a fiercely competitive animal world at that, something more was needed than the decorative abandon of the field lily, and it was just that something more which Comus seemed unable or unwilling to provide on his own account; it was just the lack of that something more which left him sulking with Fate over the numerous breakdowns and stumbling-blocks that held him up on what he expected to be a triumphal or, at any rate, unimpeded progress.

And a comic description of the errant Comus:

In seventeen years and some odd months Francesca had had ample opportunity for forming an opinion concerning her son’s characteristics. The spirit of mirthfulness which one associates with the name certainly ran riot in the boy, but it was a twisted wayward sort of mirth of which Francesca herself could seldom see the humorous side.

The boy was one of those untameable young lords of misrule that frolic and chafe themselves through nursery and preparatory and public-school days with the utmost allowance of storm and dust and dislocation and the least possible amount of collar-work, and come somehow with a laugh through a series of catastrophes that has reduced everyone else concerned to tears or Cassandra-like forebodings. Sometimes they sober down in after-life and become uninteresting, forgetting that they were ever lords of anything; sometimes Fate plays royally into their hands, and they do great things in a spacious manner, and are thanked by Parliaments and the Press and acclaimed by gala-day crowds. But in most cases their tragedy begins when they leave school and turn themselves loose in a world that has grown too civilised and too crowded and too empty to have any place for them. And they are very many.

As you can see, that description is not only longer than we’re used to from the short stories, but also more serious. Almost a requiem for the generations of boys turned out by Britain’s public schools, who are heroes and stars at school and quite unprepared for the long disappointment of real life, a querulous note found throughout early and mid-20th century English literature.

Detailed plot synopsis

Chapter 1

Introducing Francesca Bassington and her beloved house in Blue Street, W. filled with her beloved possessions, but how the whole thing hangs be a thread because she only has the house

Chapter 2

At their public school, young Comus and colleagues thrash Lancelot Chetrof, young brother of the heiress Francesca was hoping Comus could be set up to marry.

Chapter 3

Francesca Bassington attends a high society party given by her friend Serena Golackly, and spies up and coming star, Courtenay Youghal:

a political spur-winner who seemed absurdly youthful to a generation that had never heard of Pitt. It was Youghal’s ambition—or perhaps his hobby—to infuse into the greyness of modern political life some of the colour of Disraelian dandyism, tempered with the correctness of Anglo-Saxon taste, and supplemented by the flashes of wit that were inherent from the Celtic strain in him…

She spies a politicians who has just been made governor of a Caribbean island and engages him in conversation:

Sir Julian Jull had been a member of a House of Commons distinguished for its high standard of well-informed mediocrity, and had harmonised so thoroughly with his surroundings that the most attentive observer of Parliamentary proceedings could scarcely have told even on which side of the House he sat. A baronetcy bestowed on him by the Party in power had at least removed that doubt; some weeks later he had been made Governor of some West Indian dependency, whether as a reward for having accepted the baronetcy, or as an application of a theory that West Indian islands get the Governors they deserve, it would have been hard to say. To Sir Julian the appointment was, doubtless, one of some importance; during the span of his Governorship the island might possibly be visited by a member of the Royal Family, or at the least by an earthquake, and in either case his name would get into the papers.

Her plan is to get to know him over several meetings and slowly plant the seed of the idea that her son, Comus, would make a wonderful personal secretary in his new position. Next morning this careful scheme is wrecked when, next morning at breakfast, she sees her son has written a witty letter to the Times disinterring some old speeches of Jull’s in which he is ignorant and rude about the West Indies. Once again, Comus has scuppered Francesca’s best-laid plans!

Chapter 4

A wall of ice slowly grows between the mother, trying her damnedest to get Comus a good position in life, and her son who seems hell-bent on wrecking everything. The are both invited to dinner at the home of the ageing Lady Caroline Benaresq:

She came of a family whose individual members went through life, from the nursery to the grave, with as much tact and consideration as a cactus-hedge might show in going through a crowded bathing tent.

And:

Lady Caroline was a professed Socialist in politics, chiefly, it was believed, because she was thus enabled to disagree with most of the Liberals and Conservatives, and all the Socialists of the day. She did not permit her Socialism, however, to penetrate below stairs; her cook and butler had every encouragement to be Individualists.

Hard not to love Saki’s permanent tone of wit and irony bordering on the rude. Anyway,

Chapter 5

Introduces us to the fact that, when he was 16, Courtenay Youghal was seduced by an older woman ‘some four or five years his senior’, Molly McQuade. Since then they have maintained a flirtatious friendship. Now they are meeting in their familiar trysting place of the London Zoo, where Youghal delicately breaks the news that he is planning to get married (to Elaine de Frey). They are both people of the world now, and Molly is relieved to hear the lady has money. Saddened that this phase of their relationship is coming to an end but she begs him to come visit her and her husband in the country for hunting once he’s bedded in to the new marriage. It is nowhere indicated that this is a sexual relationship, maybe we are meant to be sophisticated enough to take this as read.

Chapter 6

Elaine de Frey sits in her stately garden and lets her two suitors, the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the spoilt schoolboy Comus Bassington, spar wittily for her affections. Things crystallise when Comus pettishly takes the silver bread and butter tray down to the lake to feed the swans and then refuses to give it back because he wants it, the spoilt schoolboy.

Chapter 7

In Bond Street Francesca bumps into the tiresome Merla Blathlington before shaking her off and continuing to a bridge party at Serena Golackly’s, where there is gossip and catty competition, not least with Ada Spelvexit, a tiresome do-gooder among the poor (‘Hostesses regarded her philosophically as a form of social measles which everyone had to have once’) and Lady Caroline Benaresq, an ageing Socialist and demon bridge player.

The gossip turns towards the up and coming politician Courtenay Youghal and the women speculate who would make a good wife for him when they are joined by dapper George St. Michael who tells then Youghal is pairing off with the fabulously rich Elaine de Frey

Chapter 8

Out riding in the country, Elaine is forced out of the main road because a circus is passing by and is astonished when the man who greets her turns out to be the once-famous adventurer and traveller, Tom Keriway, who was struck down by illness and retired to an obscure farm. And here he is. It is a beautifully kept place but Keriway reveals it is the seat of all kinds of Darwinian struggles and can’t conceal that he is bitterly unhappy. The countryside often brings out the really bestial (wild animals eating children) and tragic in Saki, as in the Hardyesque short story, The Hounds of Fate.

Chapter 9

Late June in Hyde Park. Courtenay Youghal is riding his ‘handsome plum-roan gelding Anne de Joyeuse’ up and down. He is buttonholed by Lady Veula Croot and they have a sly political duel, being of opposite parties, before being interrupted by a dimwit named Ernest Klopstock.

Not far away Elaine de Frey and Comus Bassington are sitting on deckchairs. She likes him but is getting bored by his selfishness and he oversteps the bounds when he asks her to lend him £5, partly to pay a £2 gambling debt. Elaine agrees but gets up rapidly and says she is leaving, for Comus not to accompany her. It is a snub.

She bumps into Courtenay and insists he takes her to luncheon, which he does, at the Corridor, with its fatherly maitre d’ who discreetly asks Courtenay whether he is engaged to the young lady. ‘Tell him yes,’ said Elaine, on impulse.

Chapter 10

At the Rutland Galleries for an exhibition of Mervyn Quentock’s collection of Society portraits. Comus regards Quentock’s portrait of his mother and sees in it an expression he hasn’t seen for years, now that he permanently irritates and mortifies her. It inspires him to be nicer and above all fulfil his mother’s plan to marry Elaine de Grey. Amid other gossip a little flurry is caused over by the doors when Courtenay arrives. Pressing closer Comus overhears others gossiping the news that Courtenay and Elaine are now engaged.

Chapter 11

After lunch with Courtenay, Elaine returns to the house in Manchester Square where she is staying with an aunt, and reflects on her decision to accept Courtenay. She feels ‘an unusual but quite overmastering hankering to visit her cousin Suzette Brankley’ who has also recently announced her engagement. She pops round the two women bitchily try to outdo each other, Elaine winning and damping her cousin’s mood, specially when her young man appears, the boring Egbert, who speaks pompously to the visible embarrassment of Suzette and her mother, who is also present.

All this time Elaine had been pondering a long and soulful letter to Comus explaining her reasons, but on returning to her aunt’s place she finds a message from him has been delivered briskly acknowledging the news and returning the fiver she’d lent him, along with the notorious bread-and-butter dish which caused the big argument in chapter 6.

Reading the letter again and again Elaine could come to no decision as to whether this was merely a courageous gibe at defeat, or whether it represented the real value that Comus set on the thing that he had lost.

Chapter 12

Francesca is desperate to know the latest about Comus and Elaine but fritters the morning away with a few female friends wittering endless gossip. And then a walk in the Park after lunch leads to her bumping into the dreaded Merla Blathington, who witters on about chickens, and then George St. Michael arrives who in a few swift words confirms Francesca’s worst fears: Comus has blown it with Elaine.

Comus himself turns up and they have an argument. Having failed to bag an heiress, Francesca can see nothing for it but for Comus to disappear off to some colony. Her brother Henry told her the other day he can get Comus a little job in West Africa. Comus says they needn’t be that drastic, he can get a job in England, at, say, a brewery. But Francesca knows that remaining in England will mean Comus is always vulnerable to the lure of the West End, of racing and gambling and sponging off her till she dies. No. West Africa it must be.

Chapter 13

That evening Comus goes to the theatre which is an opportunity for Saki to satirise the upper class types one met there in the Edwardian era, lords and ladies, an archdeacon, the ageing gossip Lady Caroline Benaresq (who is a recurring character throughout the book, as are Serena Golackly and Lady Veula), the authoress of ‘The Woman who wished it was Wednesday’ (is that a jokey reference to G.K. Chesteron’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?) with much chat about the church and politics. It is comically taken for granted that the play is an irritating intrusion into the true function of theatre which is to allow upper-middle-class people to meet and gossip and display themselves.

Everyone is there, but Comus sits through it all in a daze of misery, knowing that he is seeing it for the last time before being consigned to the Dark Continent. Lady Veula is the only person who acknowledges him, with her lovely smile and sad eyes.

Chapter 14

Francesca hosts a farewell dinner party for Comus. It is not a happy affair and is dominated by two show-off men, Henry Greech MP, her brother, and Stephen Thorle, brought by Serena Golackly because he is alleged to ‘know all about’ tropical Africa, but turns out to have loud opinions about everything. Lady Veula is present again, and shakes Comus’s hand goodbye. The mood is bleak, Francesca spills her champagne when she tries to make a toast, she can’t wait till everybody leaves. Comus adjusts his toilette and heads out for a night on the Town for one last time.

Chapter 15

Elaine has married Courtenay. They are on their honeymoon in Vienna, staying at the Speise Staal. Elaine is disillusioned and bored. At lunch she is irritated by three Germans talking endlessly about food, and the even worse party of Americans comparing everything unfavourably to the fabulous cherry pie they make back home. Two of Elaine’s extensive collection of aunts are staying at the hotel, a younger blameless one, and the older, shrewder Mrs. Goldbrook. They act as chorus to her obvious unhappiness.

Courtenay has arranged for them to go to a masquerade ball that night. Courtenay has a wonderful time dressed as harlequin, but Elaine is bored, ending up chatting inconsequentially with a Russian who a) tiresomely compares her to the same Leonardo painting that everyone does b) explains that Russians like culture so much because it is an escape from their real life, which is grim. (Interesting point coming from Saki who had been a foreign correspondent in Russia and, indeed, written a book about Russian history.)

The next day the aunts hear the two newly-weds sharply diverging accounts of the night before and conclude that Elaine is going to be unhappy.

Chapter 16

Cut to Comus in blisteringly hot West Africa where he is profoundly depressed by the sense that Africans are like ants and their life is the life of the teeming ant nest, going on with endless repetition, no variation, no progress, and no meaning.

The procession of water-fetchers had formed itself in a long chattering line that stretched river-wards. Comus wondered how many tens of thousands of times that procession had been formed since first the village came into existence. They had been doing it while he was playing in the cricket-fields at school, while he was spending Christmas holidays in Paris, while he was going his careless round of theatres, dances, suppers and card-parties, just as they were doing it now; they would be doing it when there was no one alive who remembered Comus Bassington. This thought recurred again and again with painful persistence, a morbid growth arising in part from his loneliness.

And:

Here a man simply made a unit in an unnumbered population, an inconsequent dot in a loosely-compiled deathroll. Even his own position as a white man exalted conspicuously above a horde of black natives did not save Comus from the depressing sense of nothingness which his first experience of fever had thrown over him. He was a lost, soulless body in this great uncaring land; if he died another would take his place, his few effects would be inventoried and sent down to the coast, someone else would finish off any tea or whisky that he left behind—that would be all.

And:

He would pass presently out of the village and his bearers’ feet would leave their indentations in the dust; that would be his most permanent memorial in this little oasis of teeming life. And that other life, in which he once moved with such confident sense of his own necessary participation in it, how completely he had passed out of it. Amid all its laughing throngs, its card parties and race-meetings and country-house gatherings, he was just a mere name, remembered or forgotten, Comus Bassington, the boy who went away.

He dreams of London where life had a meaning, where he had a place in it, where people had souls and complex personalities and purpose. Now he knows he has just become a dwindling memory, ‘Comus Bassington, the boy who went away’. He watches some native boys playing, fighting and chasing each other, then joined by some girls. He can never take part in their life, he is exiled forever. He puts his head in  his hands and sobs.

Chapter 17

A few days before Christmas Francesca receives a telegram saying Comus is severely ill. Then another one saying he is worse. She goes out for a walk round St James’s Park and dwells on her relationship with her son, all the false turnings and arguments right up to the ill-fated farewell party.

She returns home to the telegram waiting in the hall and takes it into her drawing room and, now, she hates every article in it because dashing, laughing, mocking Comus is there no more. She realises she hates it all, would give it all if only her beloved son would walk through the door.

Who does walk through the door is her irritating brother, Henry, bearing the ‘bad news’ that the big painting she’s so fond of is not in fact by the well-known artist Van der Meulen but is a good copy. He notices the anguish in her eyes and pats her hand and tells her not to be downhearted. Francesca clutches the telegram tighter in her hand in her anguish and begs for her brother’s inconsequential consolation to end.

It is an image of real, genuine, tormented anguish and a very dark, grim and upsetting note to end this light, mocking novel on.

Themes

In the middle part of the novel it is about a woman who has to decide between two lovers, a very old plot. And basing a novel on the theme of making a good marriage or marrying for money is as old as the genre, if we take the first English novel to be Pamela; or, Virtue Rewarded (1740) by Samuel Richardson.

Mother-son relationship

It is a prolonged and sometimes very insightful meditation on the intensity, the loves and hate, the Freudian ambivalence inherent in the mother-son relationship.

London high life

Plenty of scenes show off Saki’s knowledge of London high life – a gallery opening, first night at the theatre, riding in Hyde Park, dinner parties and so on, all conveyed with effortless insider knowledge, and generously spiced with malice and gossip which seemed to be the upper class’s main occupation.

Politics

Hector Munro’s first real job was writing political sketches which blossomed into a full-length satire on Westminster Alice in Westminster. This gives his mockery of British politics real authority.

It is striking to see how many of our political concerns, in 2021, were thoroughly understood and shared by the bien-pensant liberals of 1911. The aim of levelling up and increasing equality and being ‘for the many never’ goes out of fashion. It is a permanent interest of a steady proportion of the educated classes. Munro mocks and satirises gabby, well-meaning intellectuals, as is the wont of authors from his class and education.

Henry Greech had made an end of biting small sandwiches, and settled down like a dust-storm refreshed, to discuss one of the fashionably prevalent topics of the moment, the prevention of destitution.

Ah destitution, how ghastly it must be!

‘Talk is helpful, talk is needful,’ the young man was saying, ‘but what we have got to do is to lift the subject out of the furrow of indisciplined talk and place it on the threshing-floor of practical discussion.’ The young woman took advantage of the rhetorical full-stop to dash in with the remark which was already marshalled on the tip of her tongue. ‘In emancipating the serfs of poverty we must be careful to avoid the mistakes which Russian bureaucracy stumbled into when liberating the serfs of the soil.’

It’s the same kind of satire of high-minded ‘socialists’ which you find in John Buchan’s third Richard Hannay novel, Mr Standfast, which opens with extended satire on vegetarian, sandal-wearing socialists; or, later, in many passages of Aldous Huxley’s 1920s satires.

Christianity

As in all his stories, Christianity is presented as a joke, an affair of doddery old churchmen whose values the entire society pays ritual obeisance to but utterly ignores.

‘The dear Archdeacon is getting so absent-minded. He read a list of box-holders for the opera as the First Lesson the other Sunday, instead of the families and lots of the tribes of Israel that entered Canaan. Fortunately no one noticed the mistake.’

The British Empire

Saki has a pretty negative view of the British Empire.

What the woke and anti-racist and progressive commentators of our time (2021) tend to forget in their hurry to condemn all British history for its imperialism and racism is that for a lot of the time, a lot of people deprecated the Empire. The British were the first nation to ban the slave trade and then had the navy to enforce a very effective international ban on slave trading. Paradoxically, the two nations which were the last to ban slavery, Cuba and Brazil, are regularly held up as beacons of cool multiculturalism, while the earliest nation to ban it,m Britain, is held up for condemnation.

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries there were very vocal opponents of the British Empire – the entire Liberal Party in the 19th century, and most of the Labour Party in the 20th. For many educated people, the British Empire was a scandal and an embarrassment, as were the gung-ho public school types who went off to run it.

Whereas when the French tried to give Algeria independence in the 1950s it nearly triggered civil war, several coup and assassination attempts, Britain granted independence to India with almost no domestic opposition, and went on to grant independence to its African and Caribbean colonies with barely any comment.

Insofar as the entire novel ends with its protagonist packed off to a colonial hell-hole where he dies in utter misery, it ends with a blazing symbol of the futility and inappropriateness of ’empire’ and this retrospectively highlights the anti-imperial comments which run through the novel.

‘Courtenay Youghal said it in the House last night. Didn’t you read the debate? He was really rather in form. I disagree entirely with his point of view, of course, but some of the things he says have just enough truth behind them to redeem them from being merely smart; for instance, his summing up of the Government’s attitude towards our embarrassing Colonial Empire in the wistful phrase “happy is the country that has no geography”.’

‘West Africa,’ said Comus, reflectively; ‘it’s a sort of modern substitute for the old-fashioned oubliette, a convenient depository for tiresome people. Dear Uncle Henry may talk lugubriously about the burden of Empire, but he evidently recognises its uses as a refuse consumer.’

There was nothing individuals like Francesca or Comus could do to alter the geo-political realities of their day, but they didn’t approve of the empire. Comus and Courtenay both think it’s an embarrassing joke.


Related links

Saki’s works

The World In Winter by John Christopher (1962)

I told my son (21 and a science fiction fan) the title of this book and, even before I’d begun to summarise the plot, he said, ‘So it’s about a new ice age’ – which pretty much sums it up. But with a lot of unexpectedly strange and odd aspects.

Like the same author’s Death of Grass (1956: virus kills all edible grasses i.e. wheat, oats etc plunging the world into famine) or John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951: the whole world goes blind) or J.G. Ballard’s two eco-disaster novels, The Drought (1964: fresh water runs out) and The Drowned World (solar flares warm the atmosphere and melt the icecaps; published, incidentally, the same year as this novel, 1962) The World In Winter takes the premise of one simple but huge catastrophe hitting the world, and then studies the effects of the resulting social collapse through the eyes of a handful of middle-class characters.

Part one – London

1. The sun cools

The Big Disaster is that the amount of radiation (i.e. heat) coming from the sun declines – not hugely, by about 10%, but that is enough. The formerly temperate latitudes become uninhabitably cold, which includes England and the city where the story is (rather inevitably) set, London. It’s called the Fratellini Effect after the Italian scientist who first reported it.

2. The middle-class characters

are as follows: Andrew Leedon works on a documentary TV show (presumably for the BBC). He is married to Carol, they live in Dulwich and have two boys both away at boarding school, Robin and Jeremy. Leedon’s job as a journalist makes him cognate with the protagonists of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, journalist and documentary scriptwriting couple Mike and Phyllis Watson. It’s an obvious and handy device, especially for a disaster/apocalypse novel, because it means your characters work in a newsroom and so directly or through colleagues, learn about events from all round the world, allowing the author to describe global developments from a panoptic point of view, while saving selected ones for your characters to go and experience in person – very much the procedure of The Kraken Wakes.

But Christopher is notably more gritty than Wyndham. It’s emphasised that Leedon’s marriage is not full of love; Carol is more selfish than he realised, although stunningly good looking.

Andy’s Editor-in-Chief, McKay, introduces him to a senior civil servant in the Home Office, David Cartwell, posh, charismatic and married to rather plain Madeleine (this is emphasised and important to the plot). The two couples, the Leedons and Cartwells, socialise a few times, then, one night when David is tied up with work, he encourages Andy to pop round and see Madeleine (‘Maddie’).

It takes 40 pages or so for Andy to discover his wife, Carol, has started an affair with charismatic David, and David is none-too-subtly encouraging him (Andy) to start an affair with his wife, Maddie. Carol comes to meet David off a flight at Heathrow, to tell him in the bar that she’s having an affair.

Andy still loves his wife and hopes that either Carol or David will tire of the other, but this is because he hasn’t grasped that they are both promiscuous by nature. He is shattered when she tells him she’s already had three or four affairs behind his back. Poor Andy carries on clinging to the hope that Carol will take him back, long after he’s been forced to move out of the marital home and gone to live in a hotel. He pops round to see Maddie regularly, to pour out his woes and cry on her shoulder. At first he is distraught and she is upset and they share their unhappiness. Eventually the inevitable happens and they start a relationship, but it is sort of half-hearted, born out of their mutual plight rather than mutual attraction.

So the main surprise in the book is the amount of effort Christopher devotes to analysing this four-way affair in great detail before any of the Big Disaster arrives.

3. Stages of social collapse

Christopher’s aim is to establish the very boring, mundane, ordinary lives of some rather nice, upper-middle-class professionals. Only intermittently do any of them discuss what is at first only one news story among many others, the minor story about some boring-sounding meteorological changes, which one or other of the men is occasionally involved in writing about or discussing at civil service meetings. We are fed more information about the Fratellini Effect, about the volume of heat which reaches the earth and estimates of the percentage by which it appears to be declining…

When The Big Collapse comes, it comes fairly fast, over the course of an autumn and increasingly severe winter in England. First snow falls heavily in the south of England, including London. The Thames freezes over as far as Chiswick and then the Pool i.e. the centre of trade in and out of the country. Transport becomes difficult. The government asks people to ration coal and food.

David invites Andy for a drink (they have carried on being drinking associates, David in the carefree charming manner of the eternal public school winner, Andy in the angry sulking mode of the eternal cuckold). David advises Andy to take Carol and the boys to Africa, probably to one of the old colonies. Andy thinks David is joking. He’s not. A week or so later, meeting again down the pub, David hands Andy an envelope from Carol. It tells him that she really has a) taken the boys out of school b) sold their family house c) flown to Lagos. Andy is scandalised. David says it’s going to get a lot worse.

Troops start patrolling the railway termini. Glasgow is in the hands of a mob. Later Andy and Carol are walking in Hyde Park when they get caught up in a riot inspired by agitators at Speakers’ Corner, a mob which rampages off to Harrods to loot it for food. Andy says he’d better move in with Maddie. Save money, energy, and to protect her.

David explains to Andy that the government is setting up a security fence around central London, marked by barbed wire, policed by the army with guns – to be called the Pale. In the last scene of part one, Andy goes on a tour of the perimeter fences with a patrol of two armoured cars led by Captain Chisholm, tall, early twenties, Yorkshire accent. When one of the cars breaks down in heavy snowdrifts outside Kings Cross an ugly crowd gathers which Chisholm disperses with tear gas.

Moving on, Andy persuades them to take a slight detour through the snowdrifts to St Bart’s hospital. The hospital is half-wrecked with plentiful broken windows and frozen corpses in the deep snow around the main entrance. They hear screams and down a side alley discover a nurse in the process of being gang-raped. They come to her rescue, shooting one of the three rapists dead and helping her into the armoured car, where she sits sobbing quietly. But when they come to the barbed wire barricade at St Paul’s the lieutenant in charge won’t allow her to be admitted into the Pale. Orders are orders. There isn’t enough food to feed the current inhabitants of the Pale. While the two men argue, the nurse gets out of the car and, without a word, turns and trudges off through the heavy snow. I think it’s meant to be an image of utter resignation and despair.

Back within the Pale, David pays Andy and Maddie a last visit. They are both permanently dizzy from hunger, they are eking out supplies of coffee with 2 or 3 cups a week. David says he is in charge of the evacuation plan and can get them on one of the last flights out of England. It’s now or never. Maddie initially says no but David blackmails them by saying, in that case, he won’t go and all three of them will stay and starve in snowbound London. So Maddie agrees to leave.

Part two – Nigeria

Which means that part two opens and remains set, rather unexpectedly, in Nigeria circa 1962. Now, Nigeria had only gained its independence from Britain in 1960, so… Well, presumably the recentness of independence from colonial mastery feeds into Christopher’s characterisations and plot. Throughout this part I was trying to gauge how much is straight disaster novel and how much is liberal satire on the white colonial master brought low.

Andy and Carol arrive and check into a hotel only to discover most of the menial staff are poor European whites. Andy goes to see Carol who, you will recall, left some months earlier. She is nicely ensconced in a flat and has sent the two boys to boarding school in Ibadan; some people always come out on top. They meet in a bar, which has been recently decorated with murals of frozen Europe. Carol warns Andy conditions are hard here in Nigeria. Would he consider a job in the army training Nigerians? Rumour has it there’s going to be a pan-African war against apartheid South Africa, but Andy is not that kind of man. As he’s leaving he loiters to chat to the poor white doorman and accidentally sees Carol re-entering the club on the arm of a prosperous-looking Nigerian dressed in evening suit. Aha. She has found a sugar daddy. His name is Adekema. She was always that kind of woman i.e. resourceful, resilient and adaptable.

When Andy and Maddie go to the bank to change the savings they had wired ahead, an unnecessarily gleeful assistant manager tells them that a Nigerian government edict has recently declared Sterling non-existent. There is no money for them to extract. They go to complain to the British Embassy but discover the embassy staff are in the same plight. From now on all Brits are going to have to sell what possessions they have or get whatever jobs they can, from a standing start. Like Carol, the embassy guy suggests Andy tries to get a job in the Nigerian army.

Maddie and Andy walk down to the beach with their few possessions, lie under the stars and Andy finds himself crying for the old world and the lives they have lost. Maddie undoes her blouse and bra and cuddles him to her bosom where he cries his eyes out. This exactly recalls the scene in The Kraken Wakes in the Caribbean island where, after seeing the exploding anemone creatures snaring people all round the square in their sticky cilia and drawing them together into mulched balls of flesh, the male protagonist Mike Watson finds himself uncontrollably weeping and having to be consoled by his tougher wife, Phyllis. So much for ‘boys don’t cry’ (page 96).

The embassy recommended they try a man named Alf Bates, so Maddie and Andy go see him. Unlike the pukka protagonists, Alf is working class, as indicated by his name, his accent and by the terms he uses to describe the locals, which include ‘blackie’ (which I don’t think I’d hear or read before) and other, less flattering terms, which you can guess.

Alf suggests to Maddie that she becomes an escort in a bar on the lagoon, which Andy angrily rejects. Then he fits them up with somewhere to stay, although he warns them it is a slum, a bad, African slum. And it is, indeed, one room with loose floorboards, one of which you pull up to poop into the space under the building, a roof made of leaky corrugated iron, a bed made of greasy sacking, no other furniture. It is Maddie’s turn to have a moment of utter misery and Andy tries to comfort her (page 113).

Andy applies to join the Nigerian Army. Though he is told he is too old, at 37 (page 105) for a combat role, he is eligible to become a trainer based on his National Service in the Tank Regiment. However it’s only at this point of the process that the civilised Nigerian interviewer reveals that he will have to pay £120 dash or bribe. Andy doesn’t even have ten pounds. So that option closes.

On Alf’s advice Maddie has wangled a job at the local hospital. Not even as a nurse, but a cleaner. Andy comes down with a fever. Paying a local woman to tend to him while Maddie’s at work and paying for medicines uses up the last of their money. Now they have to survive on her salary and the occasional scraps she can filch from the hospital kitchen.

Thus these two former prosperous, middle-class white people are living in abject poverty when, one day, Andy is approached in a local market by a well-dressed Nigerian who asks him if he’ll appear in a documentary about poor white refugees. There’s a pound in it for him so Andy jumps at the chance and is duly filmed buying some tat from a stall for the cameras. A few days later Andy is visited by a polite and smartly dressed Nigerian who he recognises as an African intern who he was kind to when he and some peers visited Andy’s TV studios back in England, way back at the start of the novel. He recognised Andy’s face, and now he is repaying Andy’s favour.

His name is Abonitu. His uncle is the Chairman of the Television Board. Abonitu is a producer and he’s looking for an assistant. Would Andy like to be his assistant? Andy leaps at the chance! So on this wonderful day, he is whisked from insanitary poverty to a penthouse room in a hotel. He has new clothes, a new pad, good food, he and Maddie can afford to take a maid. Their lives are transformed out of all recognition. Suddenly they are back in middle class-land, eating at restaurants, drinking in clubs, fussing about the vintage of wines or whiskeys.

But the Carol-David-Maddie plotline continues. Carol invites him for a drink. She tentatively suggests that, as and when David finally leaves London and arrives in Lagos, Maddie might get back together with him. In which case… she hesitantly suggests, do you think there’s any possibility of her and Andy getting back together? Andy is torn between scorn and the embers of love for Carol.

Later there’s a visitor to Andy and Maddie’s apartment. It is a Brit, Wing-Commander Peter Torbock. He confirms that things in England are finished. The royal family and government have fled to the West Indies. He reveals that David (still in London, remember) asked the wing-commander to smuggle a letter past the censorship to Maddie here in Nigeria. In it David says he isn’t coming after all. He hates change. He’s going to stay in London. Torbock shares a drink or two, discusses his own future: he fancies settling in South Africa, even if it does mean fighting in the war with the rest of Africa which everyone is talking about. He’ll be flying back to London one last time then that’s it.

Next morning when Andy wakes up there’s a note on the table and breakfast nice and neatly laid for one. Maddie has abandoned him. She left bright and early and harassed Torbock into taking her with him on the flight back to London. Despite all they’ve been through, and what they’ve meant to each other, she’s decided she wants to be with David.

Cut to Andy getting plastered on a bar crawl down by the marina, Lagos’s entertainment hotspot. There’s a very loud jazz band and three strippers onstage while Abonitu informs a very drunk and surprised Andy that several African countries are mounting expeditions not just to northern Europe, but to Britain in particular. Egyptian and Algerian ones are leaving in the spring but the Nigerians plan to steal a march on them by setting off this winter. Abonitu is going as documentary-maker to the expedition: does Andy want to go too? What has he got to lose – he says yes.

Part three – Back to England

Part three is long and packed with scenes and descriptions. The African expedition sails to Brittany where the pack ice makes further progress impossible, so they unload the fleet of hovercraft they’ve brought with them, in order to travel over the solid ice covering the English Channel.

Guernsey Andy and Abonitu are in the slowest hovercraft which falls astern and loses the others in a dense mist. They end up completely lost and come ashore on Guernsey, sticking up out of the surrounding ice. They are immediately surrounded by men with guns and an imposing man on a carthorse.

This man claims to be the Governor of Guernsey, takes them through the snowdrifts to a former hotel, asks to be called Emil, ignores Abonitu (because he’s black) and continually humiliates a man he calls ‘the Colonel’, the former governor of the island. Emil spends the evening getting steadily more drunk as he holds court to his captives, but a little after they’ve been shown up to a spare bedroom the ‘Colonel’ sneaks in and helps them escape. They go down through a drain to the beach, where they take by surprise the guard of Guernsey men standing over the hovercraft with guns. Having crept aboard the hovercraft and overpowered the Guernsey guards on it, they fire up the engine and, while the African soldiers pick off the men on the quay who are now alerted to their getaway, Andy steers the hovercraft over one of the fishing boats Emil’s men had used to block the harbour (tense moment!) and out onto the open ice.

Andy helped save Abonitu’s life and so the pair are now blood brothers.

Mainland England They find eventually rejoin the main convoy and continue round the Isle of Wight and up the River Itchen to Winchester. From the beginning there have been tensions among the Nigerians and between Abonitu and the thuggish leader of the expedition, Mutalli. On several occasions Abonitu makes good decisions and humiliates Mutali in front of the others. For example, he suggests that the sentries being set weren’t sufficient and were lazy into the bargain, so he insisted they be doubled and monitored.

Fight Next morning the only other two whites on the expedition, two technicians, were found to have absconded. It’s this which triggers a showdown between Mutalli and Abonitu which quickly escalates into a knife fight. The Africans form a circle and the two men go for each other. Just like in the movies the bigger, stronger man, Mutalli, is initially winning, and cuts Abonitu a couple of times, before he fatefully slips on a patch of ice and, as he tries to regain his balance, Abonitu is able to head butt him to the floor, then kick him in the head, then kneel over him and stab him repeatedly.

Thus Abonitu becomes the expedition’s de facto leader and institutes much tighter discipline. Having crossed ‘country’ (locked under the pack ice) the expedition of hovercraft arrive at the Thames valley and make their way downstream towards London. At Chiswick they come across what looks like a battlefield, with the ice spiking what look like thousands of bodies strewn across a field. Some of the ice has been hacked away and bits of body chopped off, obviously to be eaten. That’s how things are, now, in ice-bound England.

Frozen London The craft pass a frozen Battersea Power Station and the Tate, the latter shows signs of having been on fire, most of the marketable art was sold long ago, the enjoyment of these kinds of scenes deriving from the frisson of seeing places you’re so familiar with (well, if you’re a Londoner) transformed by disaster and ruined. They finally stop at the Palace of Westminster and create a base there. All kinds of ironies about the former colonial masters, now having an expedition of Africans venture into their ruined territory…

The expedition attacked But the expedition is attacked almost immediately by men with guns. In fact, the expedition comes under continual attacks, mounted in shifts, and then snipers start up, firing from the spires of Westminster Abbey. Eventually the Africans are forced to create a laager of hovercraft out on the Thames. They abandon all thought of peacefully exploring the streets of London. They are under siege.

Colonial ironies The sniping continues and then the natives start to push metal protection walls out onto the Thames creating a series of firing shields. Throughout all this Andy repeatedly asks Abonitu why they’re even there, what the point of the expedition is, and no really convincing answer is given. It felt to me more as if the author enjoyed the symbolism of civilised high-tech Africans returning to the ruined, dead heart of the old empire which once (very recently) ruled and dominated and defined them. This topic results in a lot of conversation about savages and empire and colonialism and barbarians, which is quite ‘witty’ and ironic, but doesn’t quite justify the actual story, the narrative.

Parlay Eventually it dawns on both of them that maybe someone should go and parley with the natives and, well, since Andy is the only white man in the entire expedition… So Andy sets off walking across the frozen Thames towards the embankment, waving a white flag and, to his relief, they stop shooting.

The Governor of London The natives throw down a rope ladder onto the frozen ice, heave him up over the embankment, identify him as white and unarmed, and take him along the Embankment to Charing Cross, up and across Trafalgar Square. Here he is blindfolded before being led into some building, and up some carpeted stairs, and into a room where he hears the voice of the person his captors tell him is ‘the Governor of London’ and…. it is none other than his old frenemy, David Cartwell!

Now there is one of those Big Reveal scenes, where Dr No or Goldfinger or whoever the Baddie Mastermind is, explains the true nature of the situation our hero has been trying to piece together.

Thus David explains to Andy why he likes it here in deep-frozen London and how he came to be in complete control of what was once defined as ‘the Pale’, lording it over the surviving men and women. He puts a proposition to Andy: hack through the cables powering the lights on the hovercraft, give the attacking English just five minutes to overwhelm the Africans and he will be rewarded. Andy is openly sceptical: what, be rewarded with a pitiful existence in a deep freezer? Not very appealing.

David replies that they have evidence that the Fratellini Effect has bottomed out. Not only that, but the weather is stabilising and improving. They’re hoping for a partial thaw next summer, when they may be able to grow things and get the country ‘back on its feet’.

Enter Maddie Andy says he’ll think about it but then David plays his ace and orders someone else to join their tete-a-tete, the someone else being none other than his former lover, Maddie! and they proceed to have a gushy lover’s reunion. Rather absurdly, she declares that it was Andy she really loved all along; in fact Andy is the first to admit that the whole thing feels like a fairy tale (page 222).

At first Andy accuses Maddie of only being so lovey-dovey to him because David put her up to it in order to persuade him to betray the Nigerians. But Maddie says that as soon as she arrived back in London she regretted ever leaving because she realised it’s him she loved all along. At which point she removes her thick fur coat and reveals that she is pregnant. The baby is his. ‘Oh darling I love you.’ ‘Yes I love you, too etc.’ For me, by this point, the novel had ceased being credible or interesting. Hollyoaks on ice.

Andy is taken back to the Embankment and freed to walk back across the frozen Thames to the hovercraft.

All through this part three, Abonitu has been referring off and on to England as his ‘queen’, who needs to be taken, owned, possessed and ravished. Now, when Andy tells him he saw Maddie, these metaphors go into overdrive and I realised the author intends us to see both men as being on personal quests for quixotic females: Andy for ever-changeable Maddie, Abonitu for the remnants of colonial Britannia. This seems quite attractive when I summarise it, but in the actual reading, seemed heavily contrived.

Abonitu says they should set up base in the Tower of London, it would be more ‘symbolic’, and from there they can storm and burn their way westward, as if it really were turning into some kind of medieval allegory.

Anyway, the climax of the story is that, as Abonitu is debriefing Andy on his conversation with David, Abonitu turns his back to get some more brandy, Andy leans over and grabs his rifle and then clobbers him over the head with the rifle butt. Abonitu falls unconscious and then Andy makes his way sneakily around all the hovercraft, pulling out the cables which feed the floodlights, as per David’s instructions. When the night-time English attack begins, the Nigerians find none of their floodlights work, so they can’t illuminate the frozen Thames, so they can’t see where the attackers are, with the result that the Londoners they easily storm the African hovercraft.

Christopher appears to be a bit bored by his own ending. The last chapter is two pages long and finds David, the victor of the Battle of the Frozen Thames, dictating terms to Abonitu, the loser. He announces that he will let Abonitu and his men return to Africa in one of the hovercraft, retaining the other 10 for himself. He tells him to tell the African nations that Britain is still a sovereign state and will not accept colonial status, and so that, when and if he (Abonitu) returns, it should be as ambassador to an equal country.

In the end, the novel hasn’t been much about the new ice age, but about middle-class relationships and adultery, and about national and ethnic identities and loyalties. In the end, Andy is true to his country and his race. I couldn’t tell if this was meant to be deeply ironic, satirical, or straight-on patriotic.

Thoughts

It’s an odd book. Lots of it is very well described – the crappy one-room slum shanty in Lagos, in particular, stays in my memory as an emblem of immiseration. But many elements stick out as odd: leaving aside the basic premise (sun cools, new ice age etc) the prolonged focus on the tangled affairs of the two middle class couples and the way they become so central to the story, in particular the way David the smooth civil servant ends up becoming Governor of a post-disaster London, all this seems…

Then the wholesale removal of the action to Nigeria is an unusual and disconcerting development, particularly the way the protagonists are plunged into such utter poverty and misery.

And then there’s the bizarreness of the African expedition to darkest England (does Nigeria possess lots of hovercraft?) which is made even weirder by the protracted episode with the drunken Governor of Guernsey and his vicious mistreatment of the former governor, the now-humiliated ‘Colonel’.

Some of these sound good in theory, in a high level summary, but read very oddly in the flesh, when written out into sentences and paragraphs of narrative. At moments it seems more like a bad dream than a realistic narrative.

The book is as deliberately and consciously far from gee-whizz ray guns and rocket-ship space opera as Christopher can make it and has men crying in despair and a fairly serious analysis of the shifting moods and emotions in a complex menage-à-quatre, it has a multi-tiered depiction of race both within a former imperial colony and among the former colonised who find themselves in the position potential colonisers, at which point the novel becomes a meditation on race relations much more pregnant with meaning than the original sci fi disaster.

And yet…. somehow, all these powerful and fierce images and elements, somehow they don’t all quite add up, lots goes on but it doesn’t cohere and, despite the adult themes, it doesn’t feel… fully grown-up. 


Credit

The World In Winter by John Christopher was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1962. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism, in order to reach the safety of the remote valley where his brother owns a farm where they can plant non-grass crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but with two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger in the memory
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The World in Winter by John Christopher – the amount of heat emitted by the sun suddenly declines; not totally, but enough to plunge the temperate zones, specifically northern Europe, into a new ice age, and so all Europeans who can afford to, flee to Africa. Here the novel acquires black characters who accompany the main protagonist on a colonising expedition back to frozen England – the entire novel told through the tangled love affairs of two middle-class London couples
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

2010s

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953)

The Kraken Wakes is told in retrospect, by a man living in a drowning world, when most of England is under water due to the melting icecaps, looking back over the events which slowly led up to this catastrophe [in fact the action of the book seems to cover about ten years], who tells us he is setting out to piece together an account of the events leading up to the catastrophic present.

It began so unrecognisably. Had it been more obvious – and yet it is difficult to see what could have been done effectively even if we had recognised the danger. Recognition and prevention don’t necessarily go hand in hand. We recognised the potential dangers of atomic fission quickly enough – yet we could do little about them. If we had attacked immediately – well, perhaps. But until the danger was well established we had no means of knowing that we should attack – and then it was too late. However, it does no good to cry over our shortcomings. My purpose is to give as good a brief account as I can of how the present situation arose – and, to begin with, it arose very scrappily….

Like Day of the Triffids, Kraken is a first-person narrative told by a polite and well-meaning, middle-class man, in this case named Mike Watson. He’s a journalist with the (fictitious) English Broadcasting Corporation, which, in a recurring joke, people are always mixing up with the BBC. The fact that both stories are told by very much the same kind of young middle-class man made me speculate that Wyndham probably realised he needed a different tone or register for his narrator in order to prevent the two books sounding the same.

So that’s probably the reason why, whereas Bill Masen’s account in The Day of The Triffids is consistently grim and often horrifying, the narrator of this book keeps up a chirpy, facetious tone throughout. In fact, the central feature of this book is the narrator’s relationship with his smart and sassy wife, Phyllis, herself a documentary scriptwriter, with whom he keeps up a solid stream of jokey banter and backchat and has a very 1950s kind of relationship, to the extent that it’s made jokily clear that it’s very much the wife who wears the trousers:

‘But, with a pressure of tons, and in continual darkness, and – ‘ I began, but Phyllis cut across me with that decisiveness which warns me to shut up and not argue…

‘A man of perception,’ I said. ‘For the last five or six years – ‘
‘Shut up, Mike,’ said my dear wife, briefly. (p.124)

‘Mike, darling, just shut up; there’s a love,’ said my devoted wife.

This snappy husband-and-wife banter completely differentiates the books from the rather grim, serious-minded tone of Triffids and makes this catastrophe feel much more like a bank holiday outing. This tone is established in the short prologue, or ‘Rationale’ as he calls it, which opens the book, Mike and Phyl are looking out over the English Channel, nowadays full of icebergs because the Arctic icecaps are melting and the sea-level is drastically rising, and he first suggests writing some kind of account of the disaster which has overtaken the world. Good idea, she says, and offers to help.

Plot summary

Phase one (pages 11 to 72)

Journalist Mike Watson is on a honeymoon cruise with his new wife, Phyllis, when they see five red shapes, fuzzy and gaseous, speed across their wake and crash into the sea. So he was lucky enough to be in at ‘the start’. There are other sightings, including from an RAF fighter pilot who encounters some of these flying speedballs, shoots one which promptly explodes. The years go by and Watson becomes the meteor specialist at his broadcaster, all the letters from cranks and flying saucer spotters are sent on to him. And yet reports continue to come in of groups of red dots flying at high speed across the sky and into the ocean, generally at its deepest parts.

At ECB Watson finds himself lumbered with reporting on the steady trickle of sightings of the fireballs and builds up a reputation as an expert. As such he is invited to the Admiralty where a Captain Winters shows him a map of the oceans with lines drawn showing the descent of the many fireballs reported over the past few years, which shows how they have all entered the water near the oceans’ deepest points, up to five miles deep, where the water pressure is up to five tons per square inch!

And that’s why he and Phyllis are invited aboard a Royal Navy mission to the Caribbean, where a bathysphere containing two men is lowered deeper than any such vehicle has gone into the deep sea before. It’s a tense and detailed description which leads to the inevitable – at the deepest depths where no fish are, the two men in the little metal sphere think they see some vague shape moving just out of reach of the lights. Next thing they are cut off. The cable is winched up and the hawser it was attached to hasn’t been cut, it has been fused. They try again with an unmanned sphere carrying cameras, this too gets to about the same depths, the watching crew see something, then all power is cut.

Actually they’re invited to witness this expedition because of Phyllis. She is a documentary scriptwriter (while the narrator Mike is a straight journalist). So the idea of having a husband and wife team means Wyndham gives his pair twice as many chances to be invited on expeditions or to meet and interview key figures and experts as the story unfolds.

In this respect, the solo nature of the narrator of Triffids emphasises the sense of loneliness and isolation which is one of the harrowing aspects of that book which describes how one man slowly uncovers the impact of the catastrophe; whereas the dynamic in Kraken is the exact opposite – he needs a number of sources in order to present a synoptic overview of events: and so having what are in effect two protagonists doubles the number of contacts and interviews and sources the book can use.

And a great deal of it is second-hand, in the sense that Mike and Phyllis – having been on the doomed bathyscaphe expedition – begin following every aspect of the story and scouring the news for related stories.

Thus, after another interview with Captain Winter back at the Admiralty, they go on to monitor new developments. So they meet up and interview a journo from NBC who accompanied an American version of the bathyscaphe expedition. All the hacks were on a separate ship accompanying the navy vessel and were watching their bathyscaphe via remote cameras when shouts from above brought them all up on deck in time to see some kind of electric charge surge up the cable, light up the ship like a Christmas tree, and then it exploded.

Something is down there, snipping the wires of these bathyscaphes, and then sending up enormous electric charges. The NBC guy tells them it’s not the only one. Another research ship has disappeared near the Aleutian Isles.

Time passes, three years to be precise (p.41) during which Mike and Phyllis celebrate the birth of son William and then mourn his death 18 months later. And then more reports of sinkings come in: the Americans lose a cruiser off the Marianas, the Russians east of the Kuriles, a Norwegian research ship in the Southern Ocean. I.e. the pattern extends.

When the Americans lose a destroyer their patience snaps. They invite half the world’s press along to witness an experiment with an atom bomb, which is towed out to above the deepest part of the sea off the Philippines where the destroyer was lost – it is released and allowed to sink several miles into the depths, then detonated. Mike and the other spectators see the eruption of water, the cloud forming above it and then their ship is buffeted by the wave, but little apart from that.

Back in London our pair have dinner with another couple of journos who swap theories and opinions. One of them recounts the theory put forward by a certain Bocker, which is the one the reader has figured out by now, which is that the ‘fireballs’ are some kind of spaceships carrying intelligent passengers who have evolved in a deep sea environment and now have come to colonise earth’s. They didn’t take kindly to the investigating bathyspheres, took to destroying the ships attached to them and now – they speculate – will not take kindly to having an atom bomb exploded over their heads.

In the coming months several more atom bombs are dropped into the depths with unmeasurable affect (p.53). But through the grapevine Mike and Phyllis learn that several of them failed to go off. That’s worrying (p.57). Several more research ships have disappeared.

Phyllis interviews Dr Matet, noted oceanographer and friend of Captain Winters of the Admiralty. He tells her oceanographers have begun to notice major discoloration of the oceans’ major flowstreams, as if vast amounts of the ooze on the ocean beds is being disturbed (pp.59-61).

They jointly interview Alastair Bocker, eminent geographer (pp.63-65). He has developed his theories further. If intelligent life has come from beyond earth, and if it thrives at the enormous pressures of the deep ocean, then they can be seen as settlers or colonists who will set about making the found environment more congenial to their civilisation. And if someone starts dropping massive bombs on their heads, we shouldn’t be surprised if they retaliate.

They read about a tsunami killing 60 or so people on the remote island of Esperanza. Neither of them know where that and Phyllis has never heard the word tsunami.

Phase one ends with a couple of pages of Phyllis reading out a draft script for ECB, written in amazingly purple prose about the mysterious depths of the great oceans, and bringing together all this scattered evidence to wonder what’s afoot…

Phase two (pages 73 to 182)

Part one – Ships being sunk

Years earlier they had bought a cottage in Cornwall with money left by an aunt of Phyllis’s. It has a fine view across a river, more land and to the sea beyond. I always think that, if you’re appearing in an apocalyptic end-of-the-world novel, it’s always a good idea to have a comfy country bolthole to retreat to.

In the Times is a report of a Japanese ocean liner, the Yatsushiro, which sank in moments, drowning over 700 passengers and crew. A day or two later an official statement is put out blaming it on ‘metal fatigue’. Our heroes are sceptical, sounds like a cover-up story. Phyllis imagines all those men, women and children as the freezing water gushed into their cabins, and is inconsolably upset.

Guests come to stay (Harold and is posh wife, Petunia or ‘Tuny’) and the posh wife without hesitation blames all these incidents on the Russians and lambasts Western politicians who are, she thinks, refusing to name names and, in effect, appeasing the commies. In her view Bocker is a fellow traveller propagating a Soviet cover story. General conversation, the guests go to bed and leave a few days later.

Mike works on a book commission for a history of royal love lives, Phyllis is writing a history of a stately home. A month later they hear the news on the radio that the huge British liner, the Queen Anne, has sunk. Half an hour later the head of EBC news and features rings up and says they want a half hour feature about it – why? Because rumour is going round that the Russians did it and might swell into enough of a movement to begin to pressurise the government to do something, risking escalation into, ultimately war.

Having written it they drive back up to London and arrive to hear that two more ships, American this time, have gone down. Now the Americans are angry and send a flotilla of battleships to the area loaded with high explosive and another atom bomb. But two of them are blown up as they get near the area, one was carrying the bomb primed to detonate at five miles depth, the other ships turn and flee, a few more being caught in the eventual blast, five surviving.

But now it’s official – there’s something down there. A global conference is held, at which the Russians walk out in protest. Watson is typically sarcastic about business as usual being resumed. Scientists devise anti-vibration protection and ‘dolphins’ which are supposed to spot the enemy, close in and blow up, and we get a description of an apparently successful trial. Governments declare the seas sailable again, and prematurely declare that ‘the Battle of the Deeps’ has been won (p.111). But it hasn’t. A month later a clutch more ships are sunk.

Part two – The sea tanks (pages 112 to 182)

But the real thrust or point of phase two is an entirely new development, which is the advent of the so-called sea tanks and their revolting sticky anemone weapons.

Reports start to come in from remote islands in the Pacific of some kind of attacks taking place on remote communities. A ship which investigates the next day discovers a poor shorefront settlement completely denuded of people, all the houses, trees and other objects glistening with a foul-smelling slime, and huge regular grooves running up the sand (pages 114 to 121).

As more and more reports come in, the authorities realise they are co-ordinated attacks. Bocker is consulted for his opinion. Mike is invited for a drink by EBC’s head of news and features (Freddy Whittier) who tells him that one of the stations’ sponsors is fed up with the lack of knowledge about these creatures and so is sponsoring an expedition to go and find out more. He has commissioned Bocker to lead it, since he has been right about the situation from early on. And since Bocker now holds advanced theories about the location of the enemy bases in the deepest parts of the oceans, Bocker calculates the next attacks will come in the Caribbean.

Since Phyllis and Mike have been in on it from the start, Bocker asks for them to come along as representatives of the media. So they fly to the island of Escondida and have barely arrived before there is an attack on a nearby island. (It is typical of the book’s deliberate flippancy that Mike translates Bocker’s scientific work into his own joky idiom when he says, ‘if we were disappointed, we were also impressed. It was clear that Bocker really had been doing something more than a high-class eeny meeny miney mo, and had brought off a very near miss.’ Eeny meeny miney mo 🙂 )

The team consists of Dr Bocker and two close assistants, Bill Weyman and Alfred Haig, Mike and Phyllis, Muriel Flynn, Johnny Tallton, the pilot, Leslie, Ted the cameraman, Alfred who rigs up bright stage lights down at the harbour and the streets into the square in case there’s a night attack.

In the most sustained and imaginatively intense passage in the book, they are woken one night, ten days into their stay, by an attack. They hear screams and shooting from the harbour, then see people fleeing across the main square which their hotel looks out onto. Then they finally see the ‘sea tanks’. Imagine an elongated egg, thirty or forty feet long, made of a dull, lead-like metal. Slice it along its length and place the flat surface on the ground, a bit like half an avocado, except longer than a car (p.138). Well, Mike and Phyllis watch these huge half-avocados made of dull leaden metal slowly moving forward, apparently without wheels, several of them barging through the sides of houses. They take up positions in the square, despite rifle bullets pinging off them. Then very slowly bulges begin to appear in their carapaces, turn into globes attached by spindly threads and then the globes break entirely free and hover in the air.

Then with a crack they explode and unleash scores of very long tentacles or tendrils which whip out in all directions. If they touch inanimate objects they fall to the floor but, somehow, if they touch anything human, even the clothes or shoes of a human, they stick. At the first bang Mike and Phyllis had instinctively recoiled but not fast enough and one thread attaches to Phyllis’s forearm. Almost immediately the thing starts reeling its threads back in, drawing every animate person along with them. Within seconds Phyllis is being drawn from the bedroom where she’d withdrawn, into the main room and towards the balcony. Mike grabs her round the waist and grabs the bed-leg with the other. Now it becomes a trial of strength and for a moment Mike is scared he’ll lose his grip but then Phyllis lets out a scream and the sticky tendril has torn a six-inch strip off her forearm and some of the skin from her fingers but it is withdrawing, without her.

Mike runs to the window in time to see the sequel, which is people from all parts of the square being drawn willy-nilly towards the anemone thing. There’s Muriel from their team, being pulled along by her hair, and Larrie, who seems to have broken his neck in the fall from his hotel window, and now Mike watches the disgusting sight of all these people being drawn closer and closer and finally packed and squidged into a ball of compressed flesh. Then the ball of people goes spinning away back down the street it came from, towards the sea.

Scattered firing from villagers who have rifles continues but makes no impression on the sea tanks which continue to release the anemone weapons until they’re quite done, and then slowly return backwards the way they came back into the sea. Long before that happens Mike is beside Phyllis, washing her wounds and tearing up bed sheets to dress them.

Only then do we learn, from Phyllis’s side of the dialogue, that Mike himself is crying and she is holding him in her arms (p.143). In a very understated, British way, they have both been severely traumatised.

Next day Bocker holds a conference of the survivors. The mood is grim. They speculate about the meaning of the attacks. Is it for food or sheer malice? Bocker gives one of his speeches (of which there are a number punctuating the book) in which he wonders whether man’s domain on earth might be under threat. Maybe humanity’s days are numbered…

Mike and Phyllis fly back to Britain with what film Ted the cameraman was able to take and eye witness accounts. Back in the office they discover similar attacks are proliferating all round the world and the number of sea tanks rapidly escalating into scores. Captain Winters of the Admiralty invites them in to give an eye-witness account to a senior admiral who asks them their opinion of Bocker’s theories and this is the trigger for more earnest, and strategic pondering on what ‘we’ (humanity) should do next.

They go down to the cottage in Cornwall but can’t get away from the news which brings accounts of multiple attacks all round the world. Almost as a throwaway we learn that ocean trade has all but dried up and so Britain is having to airlift in food and other essential supplies. It can be done but is very expensive and so the price of everything has shot up and rationing of some items has appeared. (When Kraken was published post-war rationing had still not completely ended.)

As news comes in of more and more attacks all round the world, Phyllis cracks. She had built herself an ‘arbour’ in the cottage’s garden, somewhere she could work outdoors on her ‘novel’, but one day Mike finds her sitting in it, slumped across the manuscript, crying her eyes out. She can’t think of anything except the state of war, and can’t get the shock of what they saw in Escondida out of her mind. For some relief they motor over to North Cornwall for some surfing and a day’s brisk activity does them good. But on the way back they make the mistake of turning on the radio, immediately hear more bad news, which takes them right back to the horror of the sea tanks, and Phyllis bursts into tears again.

Mike calls a doctor who gives Phyllis a sedative and recommends a Harley Street nerve specialist. It is only now, however, that we learn that part of her problem is that Mike has been talking about the incident on Escondida in his sleep, and makes it clear that in his dreams he sees Phyllis, not Muriel, being dragged across the town square and slowly mashed to pulp along with all the other victims. He too needs rest. And she needs a break from his nightmares and sleep-talking.

And so Mike travels by himself to stay in a room in a manor in Yorkshire, stops work, takes the phone off the hook, and devotes himself to long walks over the moors. After six weeks of rest cure he feels like a new man. Until he drops into a pub after a long hike and the radio is on and he overhears news of a massive attack on a port in north Spain where an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives.

By now the authorities all over the world are fighting back against the aliens. Ports large and small are either abandoned or heavily fortified. Tanks and artillery are deployed. And air forces put on high alert. And this has begun to pay dividends. If the sea tanks are hit by tank shells or airplane cannon shells they explode dramatically. There’s an extended passage describing the attack on Santander and how the local military called in air strikes which proved surprisingly effective. (I had to remind me that all this would have taken place under the military dictatorship of General Franco.)

His restful mood disrupted, Mike returns from his Yorkshire hotel to the cottage in Cornwall only to find Phyllis is long gone. She’s tidied up and locked up and apparently gone back up to London. When Mike arrives at their London flat he is surprised to find it deserted. He phones his pal at EBC, Freddy Whittier, and discovers that Phyllis lasted just a week in the Cornwall cottage by herself before she returned to the London flat and resumed work, writing material about the attacks. Freddy flabbergasts Mike by telling him that Phyllis has gone off with Dr Bocker to Spain, to investigate the scene of the recent Santander attacks. Bored and lonely, Mike spends the evening at his club (p.175). [His club?]

In the early hours of the next morning he gets a call from Freddy and at first panics, thinking it is bad news about Phyllis. Far from it, she’s doing fine in Spain. Freddy is ringing to say a taxi’s on its way, a plane ticket has been organised, and he’s being sent by the EBC to a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland which has just been attacked by what people are now calling the ‘bathies’. This journey and what Mike finds are not described in any detail. It is simply the trigger for the new development that the bathies now for the first time start to attack the coastline of Britain, which quickly reverts to a spirit-of-the-Blitz state of militarisation. Ports and harbours are mined and barb-wired, military deployed, RAF put on alert.

The British government lends all military aid to the Irish. (It is an interesting sidelight on history, that Mike the narrator sees this as the Irish being prepared to forgive and forget and put ‘the past in the past’ – an interesting insight into the rockiness of Anglo-Irish relations even in 1953.) Anyway, the bathies have lost the element of surprise and large numbers are blown up by the mines they trundle over, by depth charges dropped on them, by air strikes or artillery. Their casualty rate on some raids is 100% while human populations have learned simply to flee out of range at the first warning. The only raids England suffers are in Cornwall, and the only one with any real consequences is an attack on Falmouth Harbour.

A few days after the Falmouth raid, the attacks cease, worldwide (p.179). Dr Bocker makes one of his periodic comments on the situation in a speech in which he says his early suggestions that we try and communicate with the enemy were obviously wrong. Now he recommends a policy of total annihilation, before they launch the next phase of their attack, whatever that might be.

Phase three (pages 183 to 240)

The move from phase one to phase two was relatively smooth and continued the tone of the normal world and its activities. Phase three, however, opens with a jolt, literally, as the small boat Mike and Phyllis as navigating through water at night bumps into a net. As Mike begins tampering with it a flare goes up illuminating the scene and a rifle shot goes off. Mike looks across at the sides of the flooded valley, to the parade of houses which disappears under the water, and hears a voice warning him away. Aha. As Mike fires up the engine and their little boat putters away, Phyllis asks where they are and, as Mike replies, somewhere in the Weybridge area, the reader has his or her suspicions confirmed. Yes, we are clearly in full-scale disaster mode now.

For, as the text quickly explains, the aliens did indeed launch the next phase, though it took a while for humanity to catch on. Quite simply, it was to melt the polar ice caps and flood the world, completely flood it, until it is a world of water – just the way the aliens like it!

As usual it crept up very slowly on an unsuspecting humanity, not least because most trans-ocean shipping had been suspended for some time, and the weather ships which would have noticed changes in temperature and, especially, widespread fogs, had ceased to observe things. But the fogs become increasingly apparent in Siberia and north America. Then spotter planes report back on vast numbers of icebergs being calved from the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. All of which leads up to another article by Bocker, this one titled The Devil and the Deeps.

Bocker and polyphony

I’ve come to realise that Bocker’s articles provide a sort of structure, or regular punctuation of the narrative, each appearance of article he writes crystallising the sequence of events to date and then making drastic suggestions, which his readers and hearers are consistently not ready to listen to.

Not only that, but they add to the multiplicity of voices in the book. As it has progressed, Bocker has emerged as a Cassandra figure, the first to speculate the fireballs were from another world, the first to theorise that the incidents of the sinking ships might not be accidents and the great flows of ooze might be more than a natural occurrence, but indicate the work of industrial intelligence in the ocean deeps. His articles have taken on a more and more Biblical tone of apocalypse and prophecy. They add to the spectrum of voices and register, which also includes:

  • the serious factual briefings from Captain Winters or the admiral
  • the scientific briefing about ocean-bottom ooze from Dr Matet
  • eye-witness accounts from the American journos in ships accompanying one of the first to be blown up
  • opinions of fellow journalists (Mallarby of The Tidings and Bennell of The Senate, p.44)
  • radio broadcasts, including the dramatic one of the ship trying to steam away from where a navy ship carrying an atom bomb went down (p.97)
  • newspaper articles and leaders (p.207)
  • even the hammy radio script which Phyllis herself writers (pp.70-72)

It’s a very polyphonic novel.

Anyway, in terms of the plot, Bocker’s article is the first one to grasp the enormity of the situation, something which he then expands on when Mike and Phyllis go to pay their by now regular visit. After some chatter it boils right down to this: the authorities will act too late because they always do; in any case, there’s probably no practical way to stop then; so the best strategy is – find a nice self-sufficient hilltop – and fortify it!

And so it comes to pass. Slowly the sea levels rise. In London the embankment is sandbagged but overflows anyway. But this is just the beginning. Bocker joins Phyllis to review the urgent work put into raising the embankment parapets by ten or 12 feet. Waste of time says baleful Bocker.

All round the world the waters continue their rise. Hundreds of thousands build levees but the smart money starts to abandon the cities and the low-lying ground and move to the country. Mike’s narration takes us through two successive years when, on each year, the spring tides broke through whatever barriers were erected. After the second flooding of London the authorities acknowledge that they’re going to have to leave.

What gives all this a frisson of familiarity is not only the fact that we now know that the ice caps are melting and the sea level is going to rise, but the shambolic response of the authorities to the gathering crisis, a make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude which we have all seen in the British government’s response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

News comes in of refugees from flooded Holland and Denmark. When they tramped into north Germany, fighting broke out. In England, too, refugees from the drowning East found high land along the Chilterns barricaded off. In London, people moving from the riverside towards Hampstead and Highgate found roads barricaded and snipers taking potshots from windows. And then the barricades were stormed. The emergency electricity supply failed. Looting broke out.

Mike and Phyllis move their stuff through the half-anarchic, half-orderly streets to a last-ditch studio and offices which the EBC have rigged up at the top of the Selfridge’s building in Oxford Street. They hear of increasing panic flights, of cars being stopped their occupants turfed out, widespread looting. Parliament moves to Harrogate, 700 feet above sea level.

Their bosses had imagined the small crew manning the station (complete with oil and petrol reserves, power generators, and as much food as they could loot from the store beneath) would remain and carry on presenting entertaining variety radio programmes until summoned north. In reality, as the year advanced, order broke down, the streets flooded faster than expected and became the prowling ground of armed gangs of looters, who they had to fight off several times.

By spring of the following year the staff in their redoubt have been reduced from 65 to 25, most requesting to be evacuated by the helicopter which can land on the store’s roof. (Note: helicopters play a small but significant role in both Triffids and this novel.) There’s an effective scene when, one bright sunny day, Mike and Phyllis walk down to Trafalgar Square. The water is lapping against the parapet on the north side. There is a sheet of solid water down Whitehall to the half-submerged Houses of Parliament. Seagulls squawk from St Martin’s in the Fields. They are surprised to see a speedboat come roaring under Admiralty Arch and zoom away down Whitehall. Phyllis says let’s leave. Mike agrees. They’ll need a boat.

But they hang on through another season. Their old friend, Freddy Whittier and his wife, who had stayed with them in the Selfridges redoubt, take a helicopter out. A few weeks later he phones to tell Mike and Phyl not to follow them. The government area of the town is under siege. Civil war is about to break out. He promises to get the next chopper back to London but, although it leaves Harrogate it never arrives. A week or so later the Harrogate office are dictating the latest in a long line of forlorn, futile, spirit-raising announcements, denying rumours of fighting and collapse, when the phone line goes dead. It is never restored.

Another winter comes round. The streets are almost empty, though the few people you meet are carrying guns. They hear the counties surrounding London have set up miniature fiefdoms and repel refugees. They still have plenty of food and oil for the generator but when the water level reaches Oxford street and starts to drain into the basement of the Selfridge’s building, they feel it’s time to move. On bright May day Mike finds Phyllis up on the roof looking across the lake that is Oxford Street and crying. She says what all people going through tribulation say, since the time of Job and before:

Look at it, Mike! Look at it! We never did anything to deserve all this. Most of us weren’t very good, though we weren’t bad enough for this, surely. And not to have a chance! If it had only been something we could fight – . But just to be drowned and starved and forced into destroying one another to live – and by things nobody has ever seen, living in the one place we can’t get at them! (p.229)

She’s breaking down. It’s time to go. Mike finds a fibre-glass dinghy and loads it up. They say goodbye to their remaining colleagues and set off upriver. And that’s where we found them as the start of this final section. Turned back by a net and sniper and taking shelter in the top story of a flooded house.

In the middle of the night Mike hears a bumping against the wall and springs out of his sleeping bag in time to see a smaller vessel bumping against the wall before drifting away. He gives chase in the dinghy, grapples and boards it to find the body of a woman shot dead. He turfs the corpse over the side.

It’s a motorboat named the Midge. He and Phyllis transfer their goods into it and take to the coast to navigate (in an amateurish way) down towards Cornwall. In fact first they return to central London and load up with maximum provisions. The last remaining team in Selfridges think they’re crazy and try to persuade them to stay. But once they’ve loaded everything they can think of, they set off downstream towards the Thames Estuary and then round and along the Channel coast. The journey takes a month, with scattered observations of what the English landscape, coast and cliff look like under 100 feet of water.

The cottage is still there. It has been ransacked but is physically sound. Only now does Phyllis reveal that the summer several years ago when she developed an interest in bricklaying and built the arbour, supposedly to shelter and write in… well, she buried a load of stores in it. Nobody’s found them. They should be alright for a while…

Now these are the last pages. Mike tells us he began writing his account in November. Now it’s January. The rate of seawater rise has decreased. The sea tanks have been reported but don’t find many victims and all the little scattered communities post watchers, so the inhabitants know to flee. The hill their cottage sat on has become an island. People leave them alone. The winter has been bitterly cold, with howling gales. Sometimes the sea has frozen. It is becoming an Arctic climate. Soon nothing will grow. They decide to rig the Midget with a sail and dead south, presumably to France.

Two endings

Ending 1

The 1973 British Penguin paperback which I own ends thus:

Just as I was expecting the couple to sail off into the blue, there is a dramatic last-minute reversal. One day as they’re preparing the yacht Midget for her big journey, a strange sailing boat enters their backwater and hails them. The man has a message. Over what radios survive have come messages announcing a government of reconstruction. Speech given Dr Bocker (him again, right here at the end of the narrative) saying the water has ceased rising. Mike and Phyll are astounded to learn that only between a fifth and an eighth of Britain’s land remains. But the population has collapsed. Three hard winters and no medical provision has seen millions die of pneumonia and related diseases.

Now they’re going to try and organise and rebuild. The messages ended with a list of specialist personnel required. Mike and Phyll’s names were on it. They are requested to report to London. The man even tells them the boffins seem to have developed some new device to combat the bathies. A device which emits powerful ultrasonic signals. Developed by the Japanese. Already it’s been trialled by them and the Americans and seems to have cleared some of the shallower deeps. Large amounts of white jelly have floated to the surface, same as what exploded with such force from the sea tanks when they were shelled.

Suddenly, suddenly there is hope. It’s going to be hard surviving in a world changed out of recognition and yet… they will face the future bravely!

Ending 2

Intriguingly, the online version of the novel I referred to ends differently, thus:

This version begins its final section at the same moment, with Mike and Phyllis preparing the Midget for her voyage but, instead of a sailing boat coming up the creek, they are amazed to see a helicopter (Wyndham and his post-apocalyptic helicopters!). It circles their island, then hovers just above the uneven stones and heather, a briefcase is thrown out then a figure clambers down a short rope ladder and dusts himself off as the helicopter lifts off and flies away.

As they run up to him they realise it is Dr Bocker! Again! Phyllis embraces him and bursts out crying. Mike walks up and shakes his hand. He admits it has been lonely, very lonely and depressing. They help him up and down to the house, where Bocker produces a flask of whiskey! and proceeds to explain. He first flew to London where the BC crew told him Mike and Phyl had come to Cornwall and so he followed.

They are going to rebuild, The water has ceased to rise. They have lost a lot of land and a lot of people. But he estimates with what remains they can feed five million people. The population of Britain has collapsed from 46 million to just five million! Bocker says the country has disintegrated into tens of thousands of micro communities each defending their own and utterly isolated.

Step one is to break down that isolation by producing thousands of cheap battery-operated radios and dropping them on the communities, helping them get back in touch, broadcasting the new central authority’s plans. That’s where Mike and Phyll come in. He needs experienced and confident broadcasters to lead the operation.

Mike and Phyl are both stunned, above all by the revival of community, the sense that there are others out there, and they can work together. But what about the bathies, what about the evil aliens lurking in the deeps? And this is when Bocker tells them about the ultrasonics weapons which the Japanese have developed and seem to work really well. They’ve sent plans to the Americans who have started to mass produce them. (America, Bocker tells us, was hit nowhere near as badly as Britain. Britain is a cramped over-crowded place and pays badly for it when put under pressure. America is vaaaast.)

For a while, none of us spoke. I stole a sidelong glance at Phyllis; she was looking as though she had just had a beauty treatment.
‘I’m coming to life again, Mike,’ she said. ‘There’s something to live for.’

What about the Arctic cold? Bocker replies the scientific consensus is that the water will slowly warm up. Improbably, he claims the climate may end up being better than it used to be. In other words, this ending feels as if it was written to order to be significantly more upbeat than ending A. Maybe – along with the reference to America not being hit nearly so badly and about to mass produce the weapons which will save the world – maybe this version was written specially to flatter an American audience.

Thoughts

When I read this as an impressionable adolescent my imagination was fired to extraordinary heights. After H.G. Wells, Wyndham was my god when I was about 13, and the scene in the Caribbean town square where the alien globules explode into masses of sticky tentacles stayed with me for years. However, returning as a jaded adult and a man tired out from raising a family and hanging on to a demanding job, I read and experience this book completely differently.

I am now struck by the cleverness of the book’s narrative structure, and by the tone. By structure I mean two things:

1. One is the way he makes the protagonists journalists in order to allow them not only to be sent to a number of key scenes and incidents (they see the first fireballs land in the sea, they witness the first atom bomb being dropped in the deeps, they are the first Western eye-witnesses of the disgusting coelenterates) but also to interview a number of key experts, namely Captain Winters from the Admiralty and, most importantly, to really get to know Alastair Bocker, the book’s main theorist for the entire sequence of events.

2. Second aspect of structure is the way the story is told by a husband-and-wife team. Mike is the sole narrator but Phyllis gets to interview some of the experts, or they jointly meet other witnesses over dinner or drinks, and her opinions are as important as, and often sharper than, her husband’s. This dyad gives us not only gives the narrative access to more important people and eye witness, it also means the husband and wife team spend a lot of time discussing events, pondering and analysing and speculating and, of course, taking the viewer with them in their theories and speculations.

And this ‘pair structure’ is just part of the way the information about the story comes in from multiple sources. Because they are journalists working for a broadcast outlet, they sit in the nerve centre of an organisation devoted to bringing together information from every possible source, from everywhere round the world. And, after their accidental eye witnessing of some of the earliest fireballs landing in the sea, Mike finds himself early on lumbered with the task of co-ordinating other news on the subject, nobody in the early stages realising it will go on to become the story of the age.

3. But the biggest and most dominant aspect of the book for me as a married man, is the tone. The entire book is drenched in the way Wyndham conveys the relationship between Mike and Phyllis, in fast-talking, witty banter. It reminded me a bit of the Thin Man movies (1934 to 1947) based on the smart-guy, knowing banter between husband-and-wife detectives, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Mike and Phyllis argue, they make up, she cuts across him during interviews and he knows when to shut up, they discuss ideas for stories and edit each other’s work. Thinking about it, Wyndham obviously not only wanted to differentiate the book, in structure and tone, from Triffids, but possibly also from standard science fiction, of the kind he’d been writing with so little success since the 1930s.

In the 1960s critics came to unkindly dismiss this approach as ‘cosy catastrophe’, but you can turn that critique on its head and point out that Wyndham was trying to take science fiction tropes away from the wide-eyed, boys-own-adventure world of the American SF magazines, and situate it, instead, precisely among the urban, middle-class bourgeoisie. To see what happens when you take characters who could come from a respectable drawing-room drama, who drink sherry before dinner and are oh-so-blasé about news reports and government statements – and then drop them into the middle of a world-shattering catastrophe.

I thought it was a telling moment when Mike and Phyllis are lounging by the pool on the island of Escondida and Phyllis jokingly says she feels as languid as a character in one of Somerset Maugham’s stories from the Far East (p.127). Maugham’s stories (which I have comprehensively reviewed elsewhere in this blog) are set among the pukka, public school-educated, colonial classes, and this passing reference is a reminder of the broader world this story is meant to be set in, and of the class Mike and Phyllis don’t really belong to, but certainly can relate to. What would happen to these pukka sahibs and memsahibs if catastrophe struck their world? Of course they’d carry on talking and acting the same, right up till the bitter end.

So from the point of view of the ‘radical’ 1960s, maybe The Kraken Wakes can be seen as a cosy catastrophe (as Brian Aldiss jokingly dismissed it). But maybe it’s also by way of being an experiment in mixing genres, of applying bubble gum disaster science fiction to drawing room drama characters and seeing what happens.

4. Loneliness I will now compare and contrast Kraken and Triffids. And I’ve already mentioned it, but the lasting impression of The Day of The Triffids is of intense and soul-harrowing loneliness. It’s a book with multiple levels of isolation and aloneness:

  • the protagonist is isolated when the rest of the world is struck blind
  • the entire world’s media (meaning, in those days, the radio and newspapers) ceases to function, so everyone becomes isolated, with no way at all of knowing what’s going on except by world of mouth
  • thus the protagonist has to find out what’s going on utterly by himself
  • and no sooner has he met a potential soul-mate who he can share his feelings with than she is kidnapped and taken off he knows not where, thus redoubling his sense of isolation and abandonment

But the fundamental metaphor at the centre of the narrative – blindness – is itself about eternal isolation from the visual understanding of the world, a theme which is rammed home on numerous occasions, when he either sees the blind in pitiful operation or reflects on the essential isolation which blindness imposes on its sufferers. There’s a searing moment when Masen comments on how quiet a blind world is because everyone is forced to listen to try and figure out what is happening. The only sound is the quiet shuffling of shoes along pavements and the sobbing of the newly blind in their infinite misery.

In the depth to which these tropes extend, in the multiple levels the story taps, Triffids approaches fable or allegory, and I found the totality and intensity of its vision truly terrifying.

So Kraken comes as an extraordinary contrast: it couldn’t be more the opposite, the jokey flippant, knowing, media-savvy tone of the two protagonists meaning the book is buoyed on a tone of knowing flippancy.

‘I wish,’ said Phyllis, ‘that I had been kinder and tried to pay more attention to dear Miss Popple who used to try to teach me geography, poor thing. Every day the world gets fuller of places I never heard of.’

Even when it becomes clear that the incident on Escondida has caused them both some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, this emerges only obliquely, and all the more movingly because of it. And in the later stages, even when Mike has to go to a rest home and Phyllis goes down to the cottage to recover: the stress and psychological impact is strongly hinted at and sort of described –but in this book the reader is never really as psychologically involved as I felt I was in Triffids.

Cold War references

I’ve mentioned some of the examples as they arise in the text, but it’s worth emphasising how strongly present Cold War themes are throughout the story. This operates at multiple levels.

At a ‘serious’ level, some of the experts, the men from the Admiralty or Bocker, discuss the possibility that the whole thing is a Russian ploy, some kind of new-fangled Russian attack.

In a different way, both Mike and Phyllis make jokey, ironic references throughout the novel to ‘our Russian friends’, ‘the other side’, ‘the Soviets’ and so on. Again and again they invoke, satirise and ridicule the Cold War rhetoric which the Russians had perfected about their ostensible quest for ‘peace’ (despite the obvious fact that they had occupied and continued to oppress all the nations of Eastern Europe).

Here’s an example of Wyndham pastiching Cold War rhetoric when, early on, the American government makes a formal complaint to Russia about the fireballs encroaching US airspace.

The Kremlin, after a few days of gestation, produced a rejection of the protest. It proclaimed itself unimpressed by the tactics of attributing one’s own crime to another, and went on to state that its own weapons, recently developed by Russian scientists for the defense of peace, had now destroyed more than twenty of these craft over Soviet territory, and would, without hesitation, give the same treatment to any others detected in their work of espionage…

The fact that Mike is a journalist allows Wyndham to give satirical swipes at the rhetoric of the press releases and communiques the Soviets perfected during this era, which managed to combine a pious wish for peace with barely disguised threats of retaliation and, always, the comic opera boasting that, whatever new technology the West developed, the Russians thought of it first and had already made it bigger and better.

Mr. Malenkov, interviewed by telegram, had said that although the intensified program of aircraft construction in the West was no more than a part of a bourgeois-fascist plan by warmongers that could deceive no one, yet so great was the opposition of the Russian people to any thought of war that the production of aircraft within the Soviet Union for the Defense of Peace had been tripled. Indeed, so resolutely were the Peoples of the Free Democracies determined to preserve Peace in spite of the new Imperialist threat, that war was not inevitable – though there was a possibility that under prolonged provocation the patience of the Soviet Peoples might become exhausted.

Then there’s the level of public opinion – because it’s a global phenomenon, Wyndham’s journalist protagonists regularly discuss the impact on public opinion of each stage of the ‘invasion’ and part of this public opinion is concern about ‘the other side’, and a predisposition to blame everything bad on the Reds.

This aspect – popular opinion – is actually embodied in one of the characters, Tuny, the self-important, pukka woman from Kensington who is the partner of Harold, an old friend of Mike’s. The pair come down to stay at Mike and Phyl’s Cornish cottage and, over dinner, Tuny leaves no-one in any doubt that she knows the entire thing is a Russian plot and that our government is refusing to say so out of fear. In her florid opinion, it’s appeasement all over again.

Quite distinct from the novel’s ostensible subject matter, all this is fascinating social history. At the end of the day The Kraken Wakes is a middle-brow work of fiction (i.e. has no particular aspiration to purely literary merit) but that makes all the more revealing the kinds of thoughts, conversations, opinions about world politics which Wyndham considered typical of the day (and of his likely readership).

The ‘two intelligent species’ problem

Having now read all of Wyndham’s four great novels, I can see that there is a strong unifying thread or impulse underlying all of them, namely the question: ‘Can two intelligent but completely different species cohabit on the same planet?’

Hitherto Homo sapiens has regarded itself as unquestionably the most intelligent species on earth and, probably, anywhere, and swanked and lorded it over creation. In Wyndham’s big four novels, humanity is suddenly confronted with creatures which present an existential threat: in Day of the Triffids, it’s the triffids; in Kraken, the deep sea invaders from space; in Chrysalids, the post-apocalyptic survivor communities are confronted by a new superspecies of human whose leaders treat old-style humans as animals to be eliminated; and in Midwich it is the alien children whose hive mind begins to present a threat to humanity.

All of these novels dramatise the plight of a planet divided into two opposing camps, two types of intelligent species who live in an uneasy balance of peace which, in all four novels, is knocked off kilter and in which our side is put on the back foot.

The point I’m driving at is that you could argue that the deep structure of all four novels embodies or reflects the Cold War rivalry between two highly intelligent, highly armed, aggressive camps – the capitalist and communist worlds – who live in an uneasy peace which could, at the slightest incident, be toppled over into catastrophic conflict.

In other words, that John Wyndham’s novels are Cold War novels not just by an accident of history or in incidental details or in the opinions of some of the characters, but in their deepest structure reflect the challenge of how two utterly opposed types of intelligence can inhabit the same planet without wiping each other out.


Credit

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1953. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.

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John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)

This is a much more interesting and genuinely horrifying book than I expected.

I thought I knew the story well enough from fond memories of the 1962 Cinemascope film version, but I was wrong. Like all films, the movie version requires action and so, in the film, the triffids are much more prominent and horrifying from the start. However the book, like all books, has the space to be more thoughtful and psychological than any movie or TV series, and so it came as a surprise to discover how much less of a part the triffids play in it, and instead how full the novel is with moral and philosophical speculations. The lead character:

  • spends a lot of time meditating on the nature of ‘normal society’, how fragile and contingent it is
  • has numerous conversations about the morality of deciding who to save and who to abandon in a disaster scenario

In addition, there’s a surprisingly persistent discussion of the nature of ‘class’ in 1950s England, which comes to revolve around the ambiguous character of Coker.

Above all, focusing on the monsters underplays the extent to which the book is more grippingly a terrifying vision of an entire world gone blind. It’s that, the advent of universal blindness and all its implications, far more than the monsters, which absolutely terrified me. J.G. Ballard gave his novel about global warming and melting ice caps the bluntly descriptive title, The Drowned World. For the first two-thirds of the book, when the triffids are mostly peripheral to the protagonist and his adventures, the novel could have been more accurately titled The Blinded World or Planet of the Blind.

John Wyndham

Wikipedia sums Wyndham up well:

John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris (July 1903 to March 1969) was an English science fiction writer best known for his works published under the pen name John Wyndham, although he also used other combinations of his names, such as John Beynon and Lucas Parkes. Some of his works were set in post-apocalyptic landscapes. His best known works include The Day of the Triffids (1951) and The Midwich Cuckoos (1957).

After attending the unorthodox public school, Bedales, Wyndham didn’t go on to university but had a succession of jobs while he tried to launch a career as a writer. He sold science fiction stories to American magazines while also writing detective stories. He was 36 and not at all successful when the Second World War started, in which he initially served as a censor, was a fire warden in London, and then saw action as a corporal cipher operator in the Royal Corps of Signals, taking part in the Normandy landings.

After the war Wyndham continued to struggle as a writer until, at the end of the 1940s, he made a conscious decision to alter his style and treat subjects in a more realistic, less Americanised and pulp manner. The first book he wrote in this new voice was The Day of The Triffids which remains his best-known and most successful work to this day.

His reputation rests on the first four novels he wrote under the name John Wyndham during the 1950s – The Day of the TriffidsThe Kraken WakesThe ChrysalidsThe Midwich Cuckoos – each of which conceives an astonishingly powerful scenario depicted with tremendous imaginative immediacy. He also wrote quite a few short stories, some novellas and later novels, but none match the haunting power of these big four fictions.

The Day of The Triffids

Chapter 1 The end begins

The first-person narrator, William ‘Bill’ Masen (p.17) is nearly 30-years-old (pp.53 and 147). He is ‘a very mediocre biochemist’ (p.243).

The narrative opens as Bill wakes up in a strangely silent hospital. He’s in because of a vicious sting he got across his eyes, whose treatment required his eyes to be swathed in bandages. That’s why he missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the amazing natural firework display of the night before, as earth moved through the debris of a passing comet, creating thousands of shooting stars and green flashes across the sky. He heard all about it on the radio and the nurses who came to check on him told him how wonderful it was to see.

The following morning he wakes to a strange silence, not only in the hospital but in the usually busy streets outside. Intrigued and then worried, he eventually decides to undo the bandages over his eyes himself, first carefully feeling his way to the window to lower the blinds so his room is dark. To his relief, his eyes appear to be working fine though he gives them an hour or so to acclimatise to full daylight before venturing out into the hospital.

Here he discovers, to his growing horror, that everyone has gone blind. Doctors, nurses and patients are all stone blind. Some have fallen down stairs and hurt themselves. He helps a smartly dressed consultant to his office who, after trying the phone and finding it dead, throws himself out the fifth floor window. Going downstairs to the lobby, he finds it a sea of moaning blind people milling about trying to find the doors, crushing the weak against the wall, in helpless confusion.

Too many for him to help. He finds the service stairs, makes it down to a back alley and across the road to a pub, the Alamein Arms. It is open but empty and he discovers the landlord, very drunk, getting drunker. Landlord tells him that this morning, when his wife discovered she was blind and then that the kids were, too, she turned on the gas and lay on the bed. They’ll all be dead by now. He didn’t have the guts.

By now Masen and the reader are thoroughly harrowed. I found this opening chapter genuinely scary, a terrifying vision of the entire world struck blind. Masen downs another double brandy to stop his hands shaking, then leaves the pub to face this brave new world.

Chapter 2 The coming of the triffids

Chapter two takes us back into the past to tell us Masen’s backstory and explain the backdrop to the opening chapter. It is told from the contemporary, post-catastrophe situation and so is sprinkled with the idea that everything he is going to describe is from the old world, the world before the cataclysm, the world when people could see.

It contains passages where he laments that nobody back then, back in the Old World, really understood how interconnected all the goods and services they took for granted were. You turned on the tap and water came out; you went to the shops and they were full of food; you picked up a phone, turned on the radio or TV, and everything worked, as the result of the collaborative interaction of hundreds of thousands of people scattered across the globe. Now all that has finished, forever, and that is the basic, fundamental thrill that all post-apocalyptic novels give.

He tells us about the origin of triffids, the derivation of their name which refers to their three legs. In quite a convoluted passage he explains that they appear to have been bred in Soviet Russia in a genetic experiment associated with the name of the discredited biologist Lysenko. He goes into quite a convoluted, cloak-and-dagger story about a dodgy middleman, Umberto Christoforo Palanguez, who approaches a Western fish oil company and says he has a product which will revolutionise the market. He is referring to the oil which can be harvested from these ‘triffids’.

Umberto then commissions a Russian working in some kind of experimental lab to smuggle out some seeds of these new genetically-modified organisms, which are collected by a light airplane which is going to fly them to Umberto in the West. However, the plane is involved in a mid-air collision and millions of triffid seeds, light as air, float around the world with the trade winds.

At first they were treated as a rare novelty and in a slightly too pat coincidence it turns out that the narrator was one of the first to see them in England, as he discovers a specimen growing in his garden in the suburbs of London. That is until he is bending over it one day when its loose swinging ‘arm’ clobbers him, at which point his father uproots and destroys it.

But Masen goes on to defy his father’s wishes that he get a sensible degree and a secure profession and instead studies biology and finds himself a few years later working in an experimental triffid farm. By this point it has become well-known that the triffids produce cheap oil and other foodstuffs. The downside is we learn that the plans not only grow to a huge size but can uproot themselves and walk forward on their three stumpy ‘legs’. Worst of all, they possess a really long flexible arm, like a whip, which is covered in poison sacs. One whipping blow from a full-grown triffid and the poison lashed into a human’s flesh is fatal. And so all the workers at the triffid farm take elaborate precautions and wear outfits a little like a beekeeper’s, covering every inch of the skin in leather protection, and wearing a metal grille mask.

A colleague of Masen’s at the triffid farm, Walter Lucknor (p.46) has spent a lot of time observing the plants and developed some idiosyncratic theories. He thinks the triffids use the odd bunch of sticks down at the front of their ‘bodies’ to communicate. He thinks they can talk to each other.

In a disturbing conversation down the pub one day, after work, Lucknor dwells on the triffids’ tremendous survival effectiveness. It worries him that they know just where to sting a person, namely on the unprotected face and across the eyes – rendering their prey blind. Lucknor makes the worrying point that, if forced to choose between a blind man and a triffid, he’d bet on the triffid every time (p.48), just part of a casual conversation but which, to the narrator, later on, comes to seem grimly prophetic.

These two opening chapters create an awesomely complete setup. The narrative is so tightly bound, every part contributes to every other part. It has the fully-formed feel of a myth or legend.

And then comes the day when Masen and Lucknor are working in one of the compounds of farmed triffids and Masen is bent over one when, without warning, it lashes its sting against his mesh mask with such force that some of the poison sacs burst and spatter into his eyes. It’s only because Lucknor acts promptly to wash his eyes and then provide the antidote to the poison that his sight was saved, but still an ambulance comes, they bandage his eyes and off to hospital he goes, missing out on the great meteor shower in the sky which took place on the fateful night of Tuesday 7 May

Chapter 3 The groping city

Masen decides to head into central London. Like The War of The Worlds the thrill, the horror, comes from reading about places you’re familiar with, and the streets of the capital which most people have visited at some point, now empty of all traffic and strewn with blind people pitifully feeling their way along walls and railings, occasionally bumping into each other.

Masen records what you might call the standard thoughts about the collapse of civilisation. Slowly he sees people becoming angrier, more violent, covetous, stealing parcels off each other in case they contain food, increasingly prepared to smash windows and grope around inside in case it’s a food shop. Initially he is reluctant to behave the same way. He takes food from a delicatessen which a car has ploughed into, but leaves the correct money on the counter.

But as Masen continues his odyssey along Piccadilly, stopping for free brandy at the Regents Hotel, before walking through Soho, it begins to sink in that all the values and morality of the old world have evaporated. Only people ruthlessly focused on their own survival will survive.

Several times he comes across children or toddlers who can see in the care of blind mothers. Quickly they attract crowds of the blind who need their help and the children start crying in fear. Once Masen encounters the leader of a gang of blind men, all drunk, he’s promising to take them to the Café Royal for a piss-up and when one of them mentions women, the leader reaches out to a blonde young woman fumbling blindly by and hands her to his follower. Masen, being a decent chap, intervenes to stop this and, the next thing he knows, is waking up on the pavement having obviously been punched very hard.

My head was still full of standards and conventions which had ceased to apply. (p.59)

Now Masen begins to refer to the fact that he is writing all this from the vantage point of ‘years later’, long after the events, long after civilisation as we know it has ended. As he watches the crowds of looting leaderless, blind people he realises:

There would be no going back – ever. It was finish to all I had known. (p.60)

Chapter 4 Shadows before

In Soho watching the crowds Masen has much the same thoughts as crop up among the characters in John Christopher’s disaster novel, The Death of Grass, namely – if only a handful of people are going to survive this catastrophe, who should it be? And who should choose? Should you try to help everyone? Or is it only practical to restrict your help to a small group? In which case, who? How on earth do you decide who?

Masen comes across a brutish blind man in a side alley viciously beating a young woman cowering on the ground who’s tied with rope round the wrists and held by a leash. Masen beats the man and cuts the cord, releasing the girl, and they both nip out of the blind man’s reach.

Masen takes her to a nearby pub, where she recovers and tells her story. She’s Josella Playton (p.66) who lived at a posh house in St John’s Wood with her mummy and daddy and servants. She’d been to a big party on Monday night and had such a bad hangover she’d gone to bed early on Tuesday afternoon, having taken a sleeping draught and thus missed the comet.

They find an abandoned car in Regent Street and drive between the scattered pedestrians through Regents Park across to St John’s Wood and to Josella’s nice house. They haven’t walked far up the drive before they see the body of a man on the gravel, with a red welt across his face. In a flash Masen realises it’s a triffid sting. He sees the triffid hiding in the undergrowth. They skirt around it and into the house where they find Josella’s father dead in the living room – but not before another triffid has a go at them from the halway; they hurriedly slam the door shut. Then one comes lumbering across the garden. Masen hurries Josella into the car and they drive off as she bursts into tears.

Chapter 5 A light in the night

Masen drives them towards Clerkenwell, to a factory he knows which makes anti-triffid masks and weapons. By King’s Cross there’s a huge crowd blocking the way and they hurriedly exit the car before they’re pulled out by the mob. They make it on the foot to the factory, load up with weapons, then scout around and find a ritzy tower block, go up some stairs and break into a luxury apartment.

Once they’ve established it’s quite safe, Masen goes on a sortie for food. As he exits, a door further down the corridor opens and a young couple, obviously blind, leave their flat. The man navigates to the big window opposite, embraces his sweetheart and then steps through, plunging them to their deaths.

That’s two suicides Masen has seen, Josella being beaten up, people being crushed to death, the landlord who told him about his wife gassing herself and the children, young women getting parcelled out to rough men to abuse, children crying in the streets which are full of pitiful whimpering crowds. Brian Aldiss made the unjust criticism that Wyndham’s novels depicted ‘cosy catastrophes’, but this doesn’t feel at all cosy. It feels utterly harrowing.

Masen and Josella use an oil stove to fix up a fine meal and drink all the apartment owner’s sherry and wine. Afterwards, looking out the window, Josella notices a light pointing directly up into the sky, presumably a beacon, presumably set by someone who can see. But the thought of making their way across London’s increasingly lawless streets in the pitch black deters them.

Chapter 6 Rendezvous

Next day Masen and Josella drive towards the University of London building, see a crowd milling round the fence, park up Gower Street, make their way through back gardens to see a crowd laying siege to the gates. They watch the leader of the blind mob arguing with some kind of representative of the sighted people within. When this ‘leader’ seizes one of the insider’s arms and the mob turns ugly, those on the inside disperse it with sub-machine gun fire.

Once the mob has cleared, Masen and Josella present themselves at the locked gates and, as sighted people, are immediately let in. They discover a community of 30 or so people who have barricaded themselves into Senate House, most sighted although they have brought a few blind partners along. They are introduced to ‘the Colonel’, a plump chap trying to keep up a military bearing, and a colleague, Michael Beadley, who explains that they plan to load up with as much food and resources as they can, then leave London as soon as possible.

Masen is tasked with going to collect foodstuffs from various warehouses. When he returns, the others raise an eyebrow at him half filling a lorry with anti-triffid weapons. It turns out none of them have seen one, none of them have had anything like the experience Masen and Josella had at her parents’ house. But, having seen the movie half a dozen times, we, the readers, know better.

This chapter sees the inauguration of the theme of class in Britain. As Masen listens, he finds the man leading the mob difficult to place within England’s stratified class system because his voice veers between the educated and the common.

His voice was a curious mixture of the rough and the educated, so that it was hard to place him – as though neither style seemed quite natural to him, somehow. (p.118)

Indeed we will meet this man, Coker, later in the London episodes, and beyond and his amphibian nature, a man between two worlds, becomes a sort of symbol of the plot, or of all the characters, raised in one world, but having to face a completely different one.

Chapter 7 Conference

Having settled in with the Senate House community, Masen and Josella are called to a conference of the community in a lecture hall. A succession of speakers outline the need to leave London. It falls to a sociology professor from Kingston University, Dr. E. H. Vorless, D.Sc., to give a long speech saying times change and values with them. Everyone is going to have to work in the new world, and he predictably upsets the women present by pointing out the simple truth that they are going to have to breed, a lot, no more 2.4 children per breeding pair. If their children are to stand any hope of recreating anything like civilisation there are going to have to be a lot of them.

A number of women forcibly object – feminists because they don’t want to be treated like chattels; from the other end of the spectrum, a spirited Christian woman makes a speech from the floor saying she and others will not bow to this godless immorality, and gives the Christian interpretation that this entire catastrophe is God’s punishment for modern immoral society, a claim which can be made about more or less any society at any point in history.

Masen and Josella listen, smiling at the controversy. After the meeting they go out into the square behind Senate House and sit on a low wall. Masen is surprised when Josella suddenly says she’ll be happy to pair off with him. And then stunned when she says that he will also have to take responsibility for two blind women as well. It’s only fair. They will breed while he hunts, guards and so on. The new tribalism.

Chapter 8 Frustration

In the middle of the night, Masen is woken by shouting and the smell of smoke. People are yelling ‘Fire! Fire!’ He gets dressed in a flash and runs downstairs only to trip and fall and be knocked out. When he awakes he is in a small room, bare of everything but a bed and his hands are tied. A rough cockney geezer unlocks the door and gives him some food, but doesn’t untie his wrists.

Coker comes in. He is the ringleader of the mob who were baying at the gates of Senate House. He explains they broke into the building, started some small scale fires and set up tripwires at the bottom of stairs. It’s one of those that Masen tripped over. Then Coker’s gang rounded up the sighted people, tied them up or carried their unconscious bodies to the new location.

He gets out a map. He has a plan. He has divided London into sectors. Each sector will be assigned one sighted person and a group of the blind. Masen is assigned Hampstead. First he is tied to very tough blokes, no way he can jump them. So he’s given a group of blind people and he drives a lorry full of them to Hampstead. He scouts around for them and finds an empty hotel where he quarters them. Then he has to take them on foraging missions. This is it. He’s not intended to go back to Coker’s HQ. This will be his life, his future.

He describes how wearing it is trying to supervise blind people looting shops and loading stuff up. Not only that but some of them have started to report sick, stomach pains. On one expedition a few days in, they walk round the corner and one of the goons he’s tied to is shot down. Masen and the other hurriedly retreat back round the corner and Masen forces the other one to free him. He tells his group to walk away, stick together, stay in the middle of the road. He himself grabs a stick and pretends to be blind tottering along.

Round the corner comes the man who shot at them, the confident red-headed leader of the another gang which was looting one of the shops Masen was taking his posse towards. Red head walks behind Masen’s cohort, with Masen blindly tapping along the pavement behind him. Then one of the sickest of Masen’s gang falls to the floor, clutching his stomach. Red hair walks up to him, looks with distaste, then calmly shoots him in the head, turns and walks back to his gang.

Masen rounds up his gang, finds a lorry and takes them up Hampstead High Street. They’re looting a shop under his supervision when they’re attacked by triffids causing a mad panic. Many of the men are stung across the face, Masen leads them out the back of the shop, over a few walls into a small garage where he packs them into a Daimler and roars off past some triffids which lash out with their ten-foot stings. Things are going from bad to worse.

That night a blind girl comes to his bedroom at the hotel where they’re boarded. She has been sent by the others to offer herself to him to make him stay. Masen is overcome by the tragedy of so much beauty and freshness and innocence forced to abase itself. In the morning it is a warm day and for the first time he smells the smell of rotting flesh. The dead of London are rotting. Leaving the house he passes her room, she calls him in. She has got the mystery ailment, fever and bent double in cramps, she begs him for something to end it. Masen goes to the nearest chemist, finds something toxic, gives it to her and a glass of water, and leaves the house weeping.

God, the sense of loss, the immense human suffering, weighs heavily on the reader, well this reader, anyway.

Chapter 9 Evacuation

The book is full of meditations on what you’d have to do to survive, the steps you’d have to take, how you would have to change and adapt, drop a lot of the old ‘civilised’ values, be ready to defend yourself and yours.

Since I was sixteen my interest in weapons has decreased, but in an environment reverting to savagery it seemed that one must be prepared to behave more or less as a savage, or possibly cease to behave at all, before long.

So he drives to a gunshop in Westminster, which he thoroughly loots, and then heads to Victoria because he thinks that’s the part of London allotted to Josella. It is deserted like everywhere else. Wyndham makes a penetrating comment that the newly blind, people afflicted by this tragedy, prefer to nurse it silently indoors.

He finds an old blind lady. He gives her some cans and a can opener and she tells him she was part of a group led by a sighted woman and he prods her to give him enough of a description of the hotel where they were based for him to find it. But it is empty apart from a decent bloke who’s dying of the plague in the foyer. Masen gets him some water and the dying man confirms Josella was there but she’s left with her troupe. Doesn’t know where.

Masen drives back to the University of London. It’s now empty but inside someone has drawn an address on the wall, Tynsham Manor, near Devizes, Wiltshire. Masen finds four of the lorries are still there, including the one he loaded with the anti-triffid weapons. Well, so he’ll head off for Devizes in the morning.

He goes for a last walk in Russell Square, finds a triffid hiding in the undergrowth and blasts its top off with a shotgun. If you shoot the top of a triffid off it’s like decapitating it. It ceases moving or being a threat.

He sits against a big tree in the gardens, saying goodbye forever to London which is starting to reek of its dead. Then hears footsteps on gravel. He’s scared and, for the first time, realises what it was like for primitive man and what it’s going to be like for him – living in continual fear. Then the figure steps forward and he sees that it is… Coker, the orator, the mob leader, who kidnapped him and the others.

They decide to make a truce. Coker admits his initial strategy was wrong. Michael Beadley’s crew was right in wanting to leave London altogeher. They declare an amnesty for the past and will work together, leaving London together. They go into Senate House and so to bed.

Next morning they leave London in the two most-loaded lorries. Masen describes the difficulty of driving along roads littered with cars. They stop for gas and food. At one stop Coker quotes Shelley, which is slightly odd because Roger, a character in the 1956 apocalypse novel, The Death of Grass, is also given to quoting poetry, including Shelley. Was Shelley particularly popular in the 1950s, among middle-brow readers of science fiction?

And now we get an extended passage about the class system as Masen asks Coker straight out how come, a week ago he was rallying a London mob in broadest cockney but now is sounding quite middle class and quoting Shelley when he wants to. For someone like Masen this is confusing (p.161). Coker explains that he comes from a working class background but educated himself at night school so he could talk the language of the educated, the nobs, the people who run things (p.162). Still, Masen quietly proves his superiority by correcting Coker when he misquotes the famous lines from John Milton’s Lycidas, ‘Tomorrow to fresh woods and pastures new.’

Chapter 10 Tynsham

Masen and Coker arrive in their lorries at the manor house in the village of Tynsham in Wiltshire, as indicated by the message scrawled inside Senate House. It is populated by refugees from London but they discover that the Colonel and Michael Beadley are not there, as they expected. Instead they are shown through to the office of Miss Florence Durrant (p.172), who turns out to be the prim Christian woman who objected, during the conference at Senate House, to polygamy and breeding as being unchristian and immoral.

Our guys learn that when the London posse arrived at Tynsham there quickly developed a rift between Miss Durrant and her high-minded followers and the Colonel, Michael Beadley and most of the men. Most of the men left with the Colonel, drove off, Miss Durrant has no idea where. This left the community at Tynsham with five sighted women, a dozen blind women, some blind men and no sighted men at all. They have rounded up survivors from the nearby village and are planning to run a godly and moral community. On arrival they had discovered the mansion’s inhabitants had been killed by a few triffids loose in the grounds. Miss Durrant and the other sighted women had broken into the manor’s gun cupboard and blown the tops off 26 triffids. Over the previous few days more stragglers had arrived from London, mostly women. But not Josella. Masen is disappointed – he’d had been hoping all the way down that he’d find her here.

Masen chats to a young woman mending clothes by candlelight. Suddenly the electric lights come on and she is amazed. It was Coker, he found the generator and turned it on. He is appalled that the women hadn’t found it or realised there would be one. He takes it out in a big rant at the young darner, saying women are parasites, convincing themselves and men that they are too delicate, too spiritual and too high-minded to work. That’s why hitherto most have latched onto a man and then lived like leeches off his pay, while irresponsibly breeding children who others will have to educate.

Well, there’s a view you don’t hear very often these days, when the women of the past are uniformly portrayed as helpless victims of the patriarchy. The young woman storms out, Masen bursts out laughing.

Chapter 11 And further on…

Masen spends a sleepless night. He had hoped to find Josella at Tynsham, he is bitterly disappointed (a novel needs a  plot and so Masen’s quest for Josella is developing into the main motor of this one – as the Custance party’s odyssey across England to Westmorland is the motor of The Death of Grass). When pushed, Miss Durrant told them that the Colonel et al had headed off for a place called Beaminster in Dorset. Masen and Coker decide to go looking for them and drive off. More careful driving along car-strewn roads. Masen notices there are very few animals about, only vacant cows lowing to be milked.

In a place called Steeply Honey they see a man apparently trying to warn them away who, the moment he steps out his front door, is whiplashed by a triffid. Pushing on into the high street they park, Masen gets down, and is immediately confronted by a fair-haired man with a rifle.

Chapter 12 Dead end

But Coker has seen all this from the cab of the other truck and now enters from the side, pulling his weapon on the man. Both agree to lower them. Turns out fair hair is one of just three sighted people. They thought Masen and Coker were the advance guard of some mass gang from the city who they expect to come marauding at any moment. Masen and Coker put them straight – the cities are just massive mortuaries now. No marauding parties are coming from them.

The three locals take them to a fortified manor whither they’ve taken lots of weapons and food and turned into a base. From here, Masen and Coker persuade them to embark on a systematic sweep of the surrounding countryside looking for the Colonel’s party. They use maps to divide up the territory and set off on long lonely drives round the country, regularly beeping their horns, but find nothing.

It’s in these passages that we learn for the first time that the animals have been blinded by the comet, too. Cows and sheep are blundering around blinded. That explains his occasional references to seeing no animals except a few birds.

One of the locals manages to get a helicopter at a local airport working, and they fly low over large parts of the countryside, but they don’t find the London gang. They encounter scattered groups in farms and holdouts. When they land, these isolated groups simply refuse to believe the catastrophe is universal. Rather than joining together, they prefer to stay in the little groups and places they know. It is a very persuasive description of ‘disaster fatigue’, the refusal to accept what’s happened or to think straight. And trauma. The preference to stay within a small tight-knit community in places they know. Fear and trauma.

On one of his trips Coker unexpectedly recruits a forceful old lady, Mrs Forcett, who is a great cook. But the days are passing and nothing is changing. Coker makes a big speech saying they need to group together in as large a community as possible so that the labour of the many can enable the few to be teachers and pass on knowledge, otherwise the future is utter barbarity. For that reason he announces he is going to drive back to the Christian community at Tynsham. With its walls, extensive land and large buildings it has the potential to become an organised agrarian community.

Masen sees the force of Coker’s argument but, in the small hours, realises he is not going to go with him. He needs to find Josella, it is his quest. Back in London, on that moony evening when they sat outside Senate House and she surprised him by saying she wanted to pair off with him, she had mentioned her dream house, a lovely country house on the north-facing slope of the South Downs. Now, Masen knows he must seek her there.

Chapter 13 Journey in hope

So next morning Coker and the other three pack up and head off back north to Tynsham while Masen heads east to the South Downs. He becomes increasingly lonely driving through the silent countryside and the empty towns. In the New Forest he is startled when a small girl runs out into the road waving her arms. She is ten and named Susan, she asks him to come and see Tommy. Tommy is lying on the lawn of her house with the tell-tale red welt across his face where he’s been stung by a triffid. Masen spots it and blows its top off with his shotgun. Then confirms that Tommy is dead. Susan had been sent to bed early on the fateful night of the comet. Both her parents had been struck blind. First her father had gone to get help and never returned. Then her mother. She had a narrow escape from a triffid and warned Tommy not to go outside, but one day he had and… Masen buries the little boy, feeling desolate. Then loads up and takes Susan with him.

When it gets dark he stops for the night, scopes out a safe house, makes a meal, then outs Susan to bed. A little later he hears her sobbing and goes up to comfort her. The truth is he needs comforting, too.

Next day it rains heavily. They arrive on the north side of the South Downs around Pulborough. He has no idea where Josella’s house is or whether she’d be there. He has a brainwave. As it gets dark he finds a big detachable lamp attached to a Rolls Royce, sets it up on the front of the lorry and shines the powerful light across the long reach of the hills. There’s a bit of suspense and then, rather inevitably, Susan sees an answering light flickering in the distance. Excitedly they set off, it’s a long way, the rain obscures the view, the roads don’t go where you want them to, but eventually they identify the house on the hillside, drive up the drive, the door opens and out comes running… Josella!

I jumped down.
‘Oh, Bill. I can’t — Oh, my dear, I’ve been hoping so much…. Oh, Bill…’ said Josella.
I had forgotten all about Susan until a voice came from above. [in the cab of the lorry]
‘You are getting wet, you silly. Why don’t you kiss her in-doors?’ it asked.

Chapter 14 Shirning

The house is called Shirning Farm. Masen discovers it is owned by Dennis and Mary Brent. They’d been hosting guests, Joyce Taylor and Joan and Ted Danton on the night of the meteors. All five had been blinded. A few days later Ted had ventured out from the farm but never returned. Then Joan went to find him and never returned. Mary had been half-sting by a triffid through a part-open window, so they slammed all windows and doors shut, nursed her back to health and Dennis cobbled together an outfit covering all his skin and a mask from wire mesh, and had ventured on several terrifying trips to the nearest village in search of food.

Then Josella had arrived. Masen learns that a) she had been grabbed by Coker’s gang on the night they attacked Senate House b) she had been allotted a troupe of blind people to lead in the Victoria area c) when they began to drop like flies from the plague she’d made her way back to Senate House d) by enormous coincidence overhearing the shot of Masen decapitating the triffid in Russell Gardens on the same night when Coker had also returned and the two men had made a truce. But fearing a trap, Josella had turned back, taken a car and driven south to Shirning.

So now there are three sighted people there – Bill, Josella and young Susan – and the three blind ones. They set about fortifying the house, going on food trips. After three weeks Bill drives back to Tynsham Manor and returns with grim news. They’re all dead. Looks like the plague killed everyone. There was some kind of note pinned to the door but the piece with the text on had been torn off by someone or something, presumably a message about where the survivors were headed. Masen searched for hours but couldn’t find it anywhere.

Josella breaks down in tears. She wasn’t made for a life like this. Bill tries to reassure her that there must be thousands of groups like theirs scattered all over Europe. They just have to link up, he says, without much conviction.

Chapter 15 World narrowing

Quite a long passage describes the passing years, how Masen makes numerous trips to local towns for supplies and oil and petrol for the generator, fairly often goes up to London and watches its decay, grass colonising the rooftops, plaster facades falling into the street.

They erect a strong fence against the triffids, but on several occasions the plants break through and have to be fought off with flame throwers. Young Susan studies them closely and becomes convinced they can communicate and they have intelligence. They are watching and waiting.

One day he drives Josella to the south-facing part of the Downs and they sit looking down over the sea. They discuss the world their children will inherit, they wonder whether to tell them a myth, a legend about the old times. Masen worries that stories about the ancestors who had magic devices would crush the young, sit like a stifling shadow over them.

Then he shares with Josella (Josie) his theory that the event on that fateful night was no comet at all. What if the flashes which blinded everyone were the product of one of the numberless weapons satellites circling the globe at the start of the Cold War, which contained a weapon deliberately intended to burn out the optic nerves? What if it was an utterly man-made catastrophe after all (p.247)? God, that makes it even worse.

They have talked themselves into a mood of philosophical resignation, going so far as to say that if it all ends tomorrow, at least they will have had this time… when they hear a droning and realise a helicopter is approaching from the west. They start dancing around, waving their arms and shouting, but well before it gets close enough to see them, it abruptly changes direction and heads north inland.

The point being, its appearance destroys the mood of wistful resignation they had conjured up. Now both are on edge – maybe things aren’t sliding elegiacally towards an end. Maybe, somewhere, some people are doing a whole lot better than they are. How can they find them?

Chapter 16 Contact

Driving back from this jaunt they see smoke rising and they – and the reader – become terrified that it is the cottage at Shirning, the triffids have broken through the fence and some disaster has occurred.

Sure enough the fire is on their land, but it is the smoke stack not the house and… the helicopter they saw from the beach has landed in front of the house. Out of the house to greet them comes Ivan Simpson, the same man who had pinched a helicopter and landed it outside Senate House in London all those years ago.

He tells them that after they decided to leave Miss Durrant’s Christian commune at Tynsham, the Colonel and Michael Beadley’s group had gone north into Oxfordshire (and not south-west to Beaminster – that had been a complete fabrication on Durrant’s part) and spent two years building up a defensible property there. But after two years the proliferation of triffids all along the perimeter fences made them realise that maintaining the fences and patrolling the grounds against triffids had become impossible.

So Beadley’s group moved lock, stock and barrel to the Isle of Wight, figuring an island was the optimum defence. They had spent years eradicating the triffids with flame throwers from every inch of the island. In the spring seeds blow over from the mainland but it is reasonably easy to spot them and burn them out before they can grow.

All through this period Simpson had taken jaunts in the helicopter and landed wherever he saw survivor communities. A dead giveaway from the air was the dark band of triffid foliage surrounding any populated settlement.

There are now about 300 of them in the Isle. And then Coker had turned up. He told the story of Tynsham’s end. Some women arrived from London and they brought the plague. Coker quarantined them but it was too late, it spread, Coker and others fled but took it with them. Eventually they settled down in Cornwall, using a river as a block against the triffids, but it wasn’t secure. When Sampson discovered their community from the air, landed and explained about the security of the Isle of Wight, Coker’s group chose to go, packing into fishing boats and making the journey by sea.

Chapter 17 Strategic withdrawal

Next day Masen sets out on a day-long trip to fetch coal. When he returns he sees an odd, military style vehicle parked in the driveway. Josella exits the house to greet him and makes signs to be wary, and is followed by a tall tough looking man in combat fatigues. Josella introduces him as Mr Torrence. Torrence introduces himself as the chief executive officer of the Emergency Council for the Southeastern Region of Britain. Their base is in Brighton which is running out of food. The council have devised a plan to take over, or manage all the small communities within reach of Brighton. They’d heard about Shirning but not been able to locate it until Susan lit the fire yesterday.

Now Torrence presents a menacing offer. The council is a semi-fascist dictatorship. They have drawn up plans to sequester blind people on every habitable settlement near Brighton, twenty blind to two sighted. Slowly Masen realises that he is to treat them as serfs. He will give them food enough to work the land. When Masen protests that it’s preposterous, he’s not sure he’s got enough food to feed his six, Torrence explains he can feed the blind on mashed up triffid. On cattle fodder, in other words. As to working the land, there’s a shortage of horses, so he can get the blind to pull a plough. They will be little more than human pack animals. Masen, in turn, will ‘hold’ the property on the authority of the council in Brighton. It is pretty much a reversion to feudal authority.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, Torrence goes on to justify his council’s authority on the basis that other organisations are probably springing up across Europe, soon they will organise and become powerful. England needs to generate a social structure, and food enough to feed the new young generation while they are trained to fight. He is, in other words, like all fascist organisations, basing his entire social structure on the anticipation of war.

Throughout this recitation Masen has veered from honest indignation to realising that Torrence is deadly serious and will confiscate the farm by force if they don’t go along with the scheme. More than that, Torrence says they will take Susan with them, claiming it is for her own good, but Masen can see she’ll be held as a hostage for his good behaviour.

Masen and Josella decide the best thing is to play along, to reluctantly and grumpily acquiesce. They do so and Josella volunteers to feed them. She puts on a big spread with lots of wine, lots of conversation till late in the night, trying to allay the suspicions of Torrence and his men and the latter, eventually, are put to bed in spare rooms.

At which point Masen and Josella round up the others. She had already pulled out some honey on his instructions. Now he sneaks out to the drive and pours the honey into Torrence’s military vehicles gas tank. Then Masen sneaks everyone out of the house and into the half-track. When they fire up the half-track’s engine it obviously wakes Torrence and his men but by that time Masen has driven the half-track at top speed through their carefully assembled protective gate and halfway down the battered road. They park a few hundred yards away and, looking back, can see the waiting triffids piling through the breached gate, even as lights go on in the house. Torrence and his men presumably make it to their vehicle because our team hear the sound of the ignition starting up but then sputtering and dying as the honey is sucked into the engine. Then silence. How grisly! Torrence and his four men are trapped inside a vehicle utterly surrounded by triffids, never to be able to escape. Or if they try, inevitably to be struck down… My God!

The abrupt ending

And that is the end. Quite suddenly, on the last page, Masen ceases his narration. They rendezvoused with Simpson who flew them over to the Isle of Wight and Masen declares that his own, personal account can now hand over to the broader account of the community on the Isle of White which has been written by a certain Elspeth Cary. It’s been a long and gruelling read. I felt upset and harrowed by many of the details. The text’s final words are:

So we must think of the task ahead as ours alone. We believe now that we can see our way, but there is still a lot of work and research to be done before the day when we, or our children, or their children, will cross the narrow straits on a great crusade to drive the triffids back and back with ceaseless destruction until we have wiped out the last one of them from the face of the land that they have usurped.

Hard not to feel this is an anti-climax, a very abrupt ending. Then again, it would have been difficult to continue at the same level of detail descriptions of the flight to Wight, the settling into the community and the many, many years which have followed. It would have required a second volume and, in fact, several authors have written sequels to the Wyndham original which carry the story on…

The persistence of America

Throughout the story, numerous characters express the conviction that the whole world may be blinded, but not America (pages 194, 201). They refuse to believe that America can have been affected. The isolated rural groups Masen meets around page 200 all refuse to accept that America won’t come to rescue them. The theme reaches a climax in the blind (sic) insistence of a young woman they meet in the West Country that America simply must be unaffected.

‘The Americans will be here before Christmas,’ said Stephen’s girl friend.
‘Listen,’ Coker told her patiently. ‘Just put the Americans in the jam-tomorrow-pie-in-the-sky department awhile, will you. Try to imagine a world in which there aren’t any Americans – can you do that?’
The girl stared at him. ‘But there must be,’ she said.

This directly echoes the way some characters in John Christopher’s disaster novel, The Death of Grass, cling on to the belief that America has somehow survived the catastrophe which has plunged Europe into barbarism. The British survivors pick up radio signals from America long after the BBC has gone off air…

The way the theme of this ‘Micawber fixation on American fairy godmothers’ as Coker sardonically calls it (p.202) appears in both books meshed with my recent reading of a couple of history books about the immediate post-war period (The Accidental President by A.J. Baime and Crucible: thirteen months that changed our world by Jonathan Fenby) to make me realise the deep sense people who’d lived through the Second World War must have had that there was support and succour out there in the West – that even while they were bombed night after night by the Luftwaffe, everything would be OK as long as America was still free. In both these novels the survivors of apocalyptic events in England still look to American for succour and simply refuse to believe it, too, has been devastated.

Both novels make you realise the vast impact which American aid and money and general moral support during and after the Second World War had on the psyche of the war-torn populations of Britain and Europe, and how the sense of America’s dominance lived on long afterwards in Europe’s fictions.


Credit

The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1951. All references are to the 1974 Penguin paperback edition.

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John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships, attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

Damned to Fame by James Knowlson (1996) part 2

…his view that suffering is the norm of human life, that will represents an unwelcome intrusion, and that real consciousness lies beyond human understanding
(Knowlson summarising how Beckett found his deepest beliefs reinforced by the philosopher Schopenhauer, page 268)

This is a truly excellent literary biography. Knowlson documents Beckett’s life with immense thoroughness but shows a completely sure touch, a very satisfying sense of taste and tact throughout, not only regarding the complexities of Beckett’s private life (a lifelong companion and a small cadre of mistresses) but in tracing the sources and gestation of his many works, and lightly, intelligently bringing out their important aspects.

I summarised the first third of the book, up to the 1930s, in my last blog post. But that only covered 200 of the Damned To Fame‘s 700 or so pages and, as I tried to summarise the rest, I found there was simply too much material, it was overwhelming.

And so I abandoned a chronological summary in favour of looking at topics from Beckett’s life and works, some big and serious, others short and frivolous, as the fancy took me, to create a mosaic or collage of a review.

Affairs of the heart

Ethna MacCarthy Beckett was a slow starter, which was traditional for his time and place (1920s Ireland). As a tall but timid student at Trinity College, Dublin, he fell in love with Ethna MacCarthy, also studying modern languages, a strong, independent-minded feminist (p.58 to 60). He was swept off his feet by her intelligence and charisma but she had plenty of other admirers and it emerged she was having an affair with an older man, a married college professor (plus ça change…). A few years later, just before he quit his job at Trinity College, Dublin and left Ireland for the last time, he took Ethna for a night out in his car and, whether drunk or showing off, crashed it down at the docks, escaping with bruises himself but seriously injuring Ethna who had to be taken to hospital. The guilt never left him (p.143).

They kept in touch and remained good friends though Beckett was discombobulated when she embarked on a long affair with one of his best friends from college, Con Leventhal (even though Con was married). This affair continued until Con’s wife died, in 1956, at which point he immediately married Ethna. But fulfilment turned to tragedy when she was stricken with cancer and died in 1959. Beckett remained close friends with both of them.

Later on, we are told that the happy memories of love which haunt Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape are likely reworkings of his memories of Ethna.

Peggy Sinclair In summer 1928, having returned home after having graduated from Trinity College Dublin and a brief abortive spell as a teacher at a boarding school in the North, Beckett returned to Dublin and fell deeply in love with his second cousin, Ruth Margaret Sinclair, generally referred to as Peggy, daughter of his aunt Cissie and the Jewish art dealer William ‘Boss’ Sinclair with whom she had moved to the town of Kassel in north Germany. Peggy was only 17 and on her first visit to Ireland. 22-year-old Sam drove her around in his dinky sports car, took her to galleries and the theatre, she was overawed. After a few months she returned to her parents in Germany, but they exchanged letters, he visited her in Kassel a few times over the coming years, and when she went to dance  school in Austria (in Laxenberg, south of Vienna, pages 83 to 86), visited her there, too, all this despite the very strong disapproval of Beckett’s parents for whom 1. Boss’s notorious poverty 2. Boss’s Jewishness 3. the fact Sam and Peg were cousins, all resulted in strong opposition to the relationship. He visited Kassel quite a few more times over the coming years, although the affair with Peggy came to an end and she became engaged to another man. But Beckett was devastated when she died terribly young of tuberculosis in May 1933.

Lucia Joyce When Beckett took up the post of exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure, his predecessor Tom MacGreevey introduced him to James Joyce and his circle in February 1928. This included Joyce’s wife, Nora, son, Giorgio, and daughter Lucia. Born in 1907, so just a year younger than Beckett, she was clever, creative and wilful and fell in love with the tall, quiet Irishman whom her father used as a secretary and assistant. She asked him to take her out for meals, for walks and so on and generally hoped they would fall in love. She was slender and had some training as a dancer. According to Beckett, even at this stage, she was bulimic (p.150). When it became clear Beckett wasn’t interested, Lucia accused him to her parents of leading her on. Nora never liked Beckett, had taken against him, and Lucia’s accusation was all it took to force Joyce to drop Beckett, much to the latter’s devastation (pages 103 to 105). Later Lucia was to suffer a mental breakdown into irreparable mental illness. Beckett, reconciled with Joyce at the start of 1932 (p.156), went on to watch his mentor devote huge energy and money to trying to find a cure which, slowly, friends and family realised would never work.

Mary Manning Howe In summer 1936, back in Dublin staying at the family home, after failing to get an affair going with a woman named Betty Stockton, Beckett had a brief whirlwind sexual affair with a friend since childhood, the now married Mary Manning Howe (p.229).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil While in hospital after being stabbed in Paris in January 1937, he was visited by Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil, and a friendship slowly grew which was to become the key relationship of his life. She was austere, intellectual, puritanical – not unlike his mother in many respects, although maybe not insofar as, being a good post-war French intellectual, she was a fervent communist. Profile of her character page 296.

Suzanne shared with Beckett their panic flight from Paris after the initial Nazi invasion in 1940 (pages 297 to 302). Then, when they returned, the risks of his life as an operative for the Resistance until they were forced to flee Paris a second time when their cell was betrayed August 1942, and he and Suzanne fled south on foot to the safety of the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur.

In the bleak post-war period she doggedly supported his writing and hawked his manuscripts from publisher to publisher. Despite his many infidelities to her, in the conversation with Knowlson at the end of his life, Beckett repeated that he owed her ‘everything’ (p.473).

Peggy Guggenheim (1898 to 1979) At the time the relationship with Suzanne began, Beckett was involved in a passionate affair with heiress Peggy Guggenheim who was madly in love with him and nicknamed him ‘Oblomov’. The mismatch between the super-rich socialite heiress and the frugal, moody Irish intellectual is amusingly detailed by Knowlson, pages 281 to 288. She was obsessed with him for a good year, although Knowlson suspects Beckett mainly kept things going because of the influence she could bring to bear on promoting his artist friends such as Geer van Velde.

Pamela Mitchell 32-year-old American working for Beckett’s American publisher, arrived in Paris to meet with Beckett in September 1953 to discuss rights and editions. He showed her the town and they had a brief fling, with follow-up letters after she returned to New York and further visits and meetings until January 1955 (pages 398 to 403).

Barbara Bray (1924 to 2010) In 1957, on a trip to London to supervise the premiere of Endgame and the radio production of Krapp’s Last Tape Beckett met Barbara Bray, 18 years his junior, a widow with two small children, who had been working as a script editor for the BBC Third Programme. Knowlson writes:

She was small and attractive, but, above all, keenly intelligent and well-read. Beckett seems to have been immediately attracted by her and she to him. Their encounter was highly significant for them both, for it represented the beginning of a relationship that was to last, in parallel with that with Suzanne, for the rest of his life. (p.458)

In 1961 Bray quit her job in London and moved to Paris, taking an apartment in the Rue Séguier where Beckett regularly visited her. She had a piano. He played Schubert, Haydn or Beethoven on it (p.595). He routinely visited her, she came to see him on his trips directing abroad, they were in most respects an item for the rest of his life. Which is interesting because he continued to live with Suzanne and go with her on increasing numbers of foreign holidays which Knowlson describes in winning detail (Lake Como, Sardinia, Tunisia, Morocco, the Canaries).

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil part 2 When Bray announced in 1961 that she was packing in her career with the BBC in London and moving to Paris, Beckett’s reaction was unusual. He promptly married Déchevaux-Dumesnil in March 1961 in a civil ceremony in Folkestone (pages 480 to 484). This was ostensibly to ensure that, if he predeceased her, Déchevaux-Dumesnil would inherit the rights to his work, because there was no common-law marriage under French law – but maybe also because he wanted to affirm his primary loyalty to her. But as soon as they were back in Paris he went to visit Barbara and spend much of his free time with her. Barbara outlived Sam and Suzanne (who both died in 1989) only passing away, in Edinburgh, in February 2010.

There appear to have been other, more fleeting dalliances: Jacoba van Velde, older than Beckett, literary agent and novelist (p.519). Mira Averech attractive young journalist, who interviewed him (p.553).

The BBC

The BBC played a key role in commissioning and producing and broadcasting Beckett’s work to a vastly wider audience than it would have reached via the theatre alone. The second half of Knowlson’s book is stuffed with accounts of commissions and productions overseen by Donald MacWhinnie, radio director and then director of TV drama, Head of BBC Radio Drama 1963 to 1977 Martin Esslin. In other words, Beckett had very powerful supporters within the national broadcaster, who supported him at every step of his career. There’s a book on the subject. Its blurb states:

This book is the first sustained examination of Samuel Beckett’s pivotal engagements with post-war BBC radio. The BBC acted as a key interpreter and promoter of Beckett’s work during this crucial period of his ‘getting known’ in the Anglophone world in the 1950s and 1960s, especially through the culturally ambitious Third Programme, but also by the intermediary of the house magazine, The Listener. The BBC ensured a sizeable but also informed reception for Beckett’s radio plays and various ‘adaptations’ (including his stage plays, prose, and even poetry); the audience that Beckett’s works reached by radio almost certainly exceeded in size his readership or theatre audiences at the time.

Beach

As a boy Beckett went on summer holidays with his parents to Greystones, a seaside resort village just down the coast from Dublin, complete with fishermen, cliffs and a pebbly beach. He played with his brother but also spent hours skimming stones across the waves or staring out to sea. Beaches and the sound of the sea figure heavily in works like Embers and Cascando and the protagonist of Molloy famously spends a couple of pages working out which order to suck a collection of 16 pebbles he’s gathered from the beach (p.28).

Beckett, the surname

Beckett is originally a French name. The family are descended from French Huguenots who fled persecution in the 18th century, first to England and then on to Dublin (p.6) – a fact which adds colour to:

  1. the way Beckett subsequently returned to live in France
  2. the several of his texts which are ‘about’ refugees, namely Lessness (p.564)

Breath

Beckett’s fury at Kenneth Tynan for letting the super-short, absurdist theatre piece, Breath, which he contributed as a personal favour to Tynan’s ‘ground-breaking’ 1969 extravaganza, Oh Calcutta!, be festooned with naked actors, and then going on to print his name in the published script opposite photos of the naked men cavorting onstage during the production. He owed Tynan a big debt of gratitude for writing a rave review of the first English production of Waiting For Godot which helped turn critical opinion in its favour back in 1953. But his behaviour over Breath infuriated Beckett who called Tynan a ‘liar’ and a ‘cheat’ (pages 565 to 566).

Censorship

Lifelong opponent of censorship, whether it was the Irish Free State banning Joyce in the 1920s, the Nazis banning Jewish and degenerate art in the 1930s, or the British Lord Chamberlain insisting on stupid edits to his plays before they could be performed in London in the 1950s and 60s. He banned his own works from being performed in apartheid South Africa, and publicly supported writers suffering from state censorship or persecution.

Chess

Beckett was a serious chess player (p.9). He was taught to play by his brother Frank, and then learned more from his Uncle Howard who once beat the reigning world champion, José Raúl Capablanca y Graupera, when the latter visited Dublin. He was a noted chess player at his private school (p.43). He inherited a Staunton chess set from his father (p.627).

His first published story, Assumption, contains allusions to chess. Murphy plays a game of chess against the mental patient Mr Endon in Beckett’s first novel, Murphy (p.210). In fact Beckett really wanted the cover of Murphy to be a photo he’d seen of two apes playing chess (p.293).

Later in life Beckett played against Marcel Duchamp (p.289), he played against his friend the painter Henri Hayden, when the latter came to live in a village near Beckett’s rural retreat. Beckett built up a large collection of chess books, many given as gifts by friends who knew his interest or on sets like the magnetised chess set given to him by the artist Avigdor Arikha (p.595). When ill or isolated at his country bungalow at Ussy, he played against himself or played through famous games of the grandmasters.

Damned to fame

At first glance this seems like a melodramatic title, but it’s a quotation, from Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic comic poem, The Dunciad, whose subject is the fantastic lengths utterly talentless writers will go to to become famous. The short phrase thus contains multiple ironies, and Beckett used it of himself with maximum irony (p.644), and again (p.672).

Drinking

Teetotal as a youth and student, discovered alcohol in Paris and never looked back. In adult life, especially socialising in Paris, he often became drunk in the evening. Knowlson details numerous evenings of hard drinking with certain cronies, notably the two Irishmen Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee. Suzanne hated his drinking: she had to cope with him rolling home in the early hours, disturbing her sleep, his late start the next morning, and resultant bad mood and depression.

Favourite dish

Mackerel (p.416).

Finney, Albert

Finney was cast in a production of Krapp’s Last Tape at the Royal Court in 1972. He was completely miscast and Beckett found it hard to hide his boredom and impatience, at one point falling asleep. The more Finney tried his full range of colours and emotions the more impatient Beckett became. At one point, with unusual bluntness, Beckett held up his little finger and declared there was more poetry in it than in Finney’s entire body (p.596).

Foxrock

Village south of Dublin where, in 1902, William Beckett bought some land and had a family house built for him and his wife, Maria Jones Roe (widely known as May), named it ‘Cooldrinagh’, where Sam’s older brother, Frank, was born in 1902, and where Samuel Barclay Beckett was born on 13 April 1906. He was named Samuel after his maternal grandfather. According to Knowlson, nobody alive knows where his middle name came from. The house was named Cooldrinagh after the family home of Beckett’s mother, May, which was named Cooldrinagh House. The name is from the Gaelic and means ‘ back of the blackthorn hedge’ (p.3). There was an acre of land, a summerhouse, a double garage and outbuildings (p.14).

French

Despite being a native English speaker, Beckett wrote in French because — as he himself claimed — it was easier for him thus to write ‘without style’. English had become overcrowded with allusions and memories. He had experimentally written a few poems in French before the war, but it was only on his return to post-War Paris that he began to write in French prose.

By adopting another language, he gained a greater simplicity and objectivity. French offered him the freedom to concentrate on a more direct expression of the search for ‘being’ and on an exploration of ignorance, impotence and indigence. (p.357)

However, this had an unintended consequence which becomes abundantly clear as Knowlson’s book progresses into the 1950s and Beckett acquires more writing in either French or English, which is the effort required by translating his work from one language to the other. Knowlson quotes countless letters in which Beckett complains to friends about having to translate monster texts such as L’Innomable or Mercier et Camier from French into English.

He in effect gave himself twice the labour of an ordinary writer who sticks to just one language.

This explains the complexity of a timeline of Beckett publications because very often there is a lag, sometimes a significant lag, between the publication of a work in French (or English) and then of its translation into the other language, which makes his publishing record complex and sometimes pretty confusing. And then there was German.  Beckett took it on himself to translate, or at least supervise translations, of all his plays into German scripts. The biography brings home how this turned out to be a vast burden.

Generosity

Legendary. ‘Few writers have distributed their cash with as much liberality as Beckett’ (p.603). Knowlson quotes Claude Jamet’s story of being in a bar with Beckett when a tramp asked him for his coat and Beckett simply took it off and handed it over, without even checking the pockets! (p.408). Jack Emery met him in La Coupole bar and watched as a beggar approached Beckett with a tray of shabby postcards and Beckett promptly bought the lot (p.642). He gave money and support without stint to almost anyone who asked for it. He supported actor Jack MacGowran’s family after he died, and numerous relatives after spouses died. He gave away most of the money from the Nobel Prize, supporting friends and relatives in times of grief and difficulty.

An outstanding example of this is the support Beckett gave to an American convict, Rick Cluchey, serving time in San Quentin gaol, California, for robbery and murder. In prison, Cluchey became a changed man, who read widely and began to direct and act in plays. He wrote to Beckett asking permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot, and this was the start of a friendship which lasted the rest of his life, as Cluchey, once released on probation,  put on further Beckett productions, securing the great man’s artistic and financial aid (p.611, 613).

Late in life his friends worried that Beckett was a soft touch. He was unable to refuse requests for help

Germany

In September 1937 Beckett left for what turned into a seven-month trip to Germany. It is possibly a scoop for this biography (I don’t know, I haven’t read the others) that Knowlson has obtained access to the detailed diary Beckett kept of this seven-month cultural jaunt which saw him tour the great cultural centres of Germany, and so is in a position to give us a day-by-day account of the visit, which is almost all about art. Beckett systematically visited the great art galleries of Germany, public and private, as well as getting to know a number of German (and Dutch) artists personally. As well as experiencing at first hand the impact on individual artists, of galleries and ordinary people of Nazi repression. He loathed and despised the Nazis and is quoted quite a few times mocking and ridiculing the Nazi leaders (pages 230 to 261).

Ghosts

At one point I thought I’d spotted that Beckett’s use of memories, of voices and characters from the past amounted to ghost stories, shivers. But then they kept on coming, one entire play is named Ghost Trio and the ghost theme rises to a kind of climax in A Piece of Monologue:

and head rests on wall. But no. Stock still head naught staring beyond. Nothing stirring. Faintly stirring. Thirty thousand nights of ghosts beyond. Beyond that black beyond. Ghost light. Ghost nights. Ghost rooms. Ghost graves. Ghost … he all but said ghost loved ones…

When Beckett was directing Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls (1976) he told her to make the third section ‘ghostly’ (p.624). In other words, everyone and their mother has been well aware for decades that Beckett’s final period can is largely defined by his interest in ghosts, ghostly memories, apparition, and voices from beyond the grave (as in What Where).

Maybe the only contribution I can make is to point out that it’s not just the style and presentation of many of the later plays which brings to mind ghosts and faint presences, but there’s a sense in which much of the actual content is very old. What I mean is that about ten of Beckett’s total of 19 plays date from the 1970s and 80s – out in the real world we had fast cars, speedboats, supersonic jets, ocean liners and rockets flying to the moon, but you’d never have known it from Beckett’s plays. In those plays an ageing man listens to memories of himself as a boy in rural Ireland (That Time), an ageing woman paces the floor ridden by memories of herself in rural Ireland (Footfalls), an old man alone in a room waits for a message from his lost love (Ghost Trio), an ageing man remembers walking the back roads while he waits for the appearance of his lost love (…but the clouds…), an ageing man remembers back to his parents and funerals in rural Ireland (A Piece of Monologue), an ageing woman sits in a rocking chair remembering how her old mother died (Rockaby), an ageing man sits in a room listening to a doppelgänger read about his younger life (Ohio Impromptu), an autocratic director poses an old man on a stage (Catastrophe).

My point is that although the form of all these plays was radically experimental and inventive, often staggeringly so, the actual verbal and image content of most of the late works is very old, Edwardian or late Victorian, ghostly memories of a world that vanished long ago, 50 or 60 years before the plays were first performed. Hence the widespread sense that Beckett was the ‘last of his kind’, emblem of a vanished generation (hence the title of Isaac Cronin’s biography, Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist). It was because the actual content of almost all the later plays and prose more or less ignores every technological advance of the 20th century in favour of memories of trudging round rural back roads, walking hand in hand with his father, walking along a riverbank, of a small girl struck dumb till she became uncontrollably voluble (Rockaby), of dismal rainy rural funerals. Watching A Piece of a Monologue again, I am struck by how the central action is lighting an old-style lantern by fiddling with the wick, chimney and shade. All of this stuff could straight from the time of Thomas Hardy.

Illness

For someone so phenomenally sporty (rugby, cricket, swimming, long distance running, boxing and motorbike racing) Beckett was frequently ill. As a boy he suffered from night anxiety and as an undergraduate from insomnia combined with night sweats and a racing heart (p.64). He was knocked out one term by a bout of pneumonia (p.63). On his first return from Paris in 1930 he presented his parents with the sight of a young man stricken by a rash on his face and scalp (p.118).

  • May 1931 struck down with a case of pleurisy (p.130).
  • a painful cyst that developed on his neck required an operation in December 1932 (p.166)
  • May 1933 the same cyst had to be treated again (p.168)
  • July 1933 an abscess on his palm needed treating. Following the death of his father he developed night sweats and panic attacks (p.172)
  • August 1934 acute abdominal paints (p.185)
  • throughout 1935 the night sweats and heart which had triggered his psychotherapy persisted (p.200). Knowlson points out that Beckett gives the antihero of his first novel, Murphy, a vivid description of these heart problems (p.215)
  • Christmas 1935 bed-ridden with an attack of pleurisy (p.222)
  • 1936 on his German trip he developed a painfully festering finger and thumb (p.241)
  • January 1937, still in Germany, a lump developed on his scrotum that became so painful he was confined to bed (p.243)
  • September 1937 confined to bed with gastric flu
  • 1946 cyst lanced and drained (p.366)
  • 1947 abscess in his mouth and tooth problems (p.366)
  • August 1950 takes to his bed with a high temperature and raging toothache (p.380)
  • 1956 several teeth removed and bridges built (p.438)
  • 1957 abscess in the roof of his mouth (p.438)
  • 1958 persistent insomnia (p.456)
  • June 1959 bad attack of bronchial flu; exacerbation of the intra-osseous cyst in his upper jaw (p.464)
  • November 1964 operation on the abscess in the roof of his mouth, creating a hole into his nose (p.530)
  • July 1965 surgical graft to close the hole in the roof of his mouth (p.535)
  • 1965 extraction of numerous teeth and creation of a dental plate (p.535)
  • April 1966 diagnosis of double cataracts (p.540)
  • 1967 treatments for cataracts included eye drops, suppositories and homeopathic remedies (p.547)
  • February 1967 fell into the garage pit at a local garage and fractured several ribs (p.547)
  • April 1968 severe abscess on the lung, which had been making him breathless and weak, required prolonged treatment (p.558)
  • end 1970 – February 1971 operations on the cataracts in his left and right eye (pages 579 to 581)
  • April 1971 nasty bout of viral flu (p.582)
  • 1971 periodic bouts of lumbago (p.587)
  • November 1972 has eight teeth extracted and impressions made for dental plates (p.596)
  • 1970s – continued depression, enlarged prostate (p.645)
  • 1980 muscular contraction of the hand diagnosed as Dupuytren’s Contracture (p.660 and 679)
  • April 1984 bedbound with a bad viral infection (p.696)

Illustrated editions

An aspect of Beckett’s lifelong interest in art was the way many of his later texts, for all the lack of colour and description in the prose, turned out to be tremendously inspirational for a whole range of artists, who created illustrations for them. The volume of Collected Shorter prose gives an impressive list indicating the extensive nature of this overlooked aspect of the work.

  • All Strange Away, with illustrations by Edward Gorey (1976)
  • Au loin un oiseau, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1973)
  • Bing, with illustrations by H. M. Erhardt (1970) Erhardt also produced illustrations for Manus Presse of Act Without Words I and II (1965), Come and Go (1968), and Watt (1971)
  • Foirades/Fizzles, with etchings by Jasper Johns (1976)
  • From an Abandoned Work, with illustrations by Max Ernst (1969)
  • Imagination Dead Imagine, with illustrations by Sorel Etrog (1977)
  • L’Issue, with six original engravings by Avigdor Arikha (1968)
  • The Lost Ones, with illustrations by Charles Klabunde (1984)
  • The Lost Ones, illustrated by Philippe Weisbecker, Evergreen Review, No. 96 (Spring 1973)
  • The North, with etchings by Avigdor Arikha (1972)
  • Séjour, with engravings by Louis Maccard from the original drawings by Jean Deyrolle (1970)
  • Still, with etchings by William Hayter (1974)
  • Stirrings Still, with illustrations by Louis le Brocquy (1988)
  • Stories and Texts for Nothing, with drawings by Avigdor Arikha (1967)
  • Nohow On: Company, Ill Seen Ill Said, Worstward Ho, illustrated with etchings by Robert Ryman (1989)

Interpretations, dislike of

One of Billie Whitelaw’s great appeals as an actress to Beckett was that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose. It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and how Richardson was comically disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

In a similar vein, Knowlson quotes his exasperated response when Beckett went through the reviews of the English production of Godot, saying:

he was tired of the whole thing and the endless misunderstanding. ‘Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I don’t understand.’ (quoted page 416)

Repeatedly actors asked for more information about their characters and their motivations, but Beckett politely but firmly repeated his mantra:

I only know what’s on the page (p.513)

It’s ironic because Beckett of all people should have known why everyone who came into contact with his texts would waste vast amounts of time searching for sub-texts, symbolism, allegory, and a universe of extra meaning. Because simply taking things at face value is one of the things human beings are useless at. Making up all kinds of extravagant meanings and elaborate theories is what humans excel at.

Intrusive narrator and Henry Fielding

There’s a great deal to be said on this subject because lots of the prose works involve not only an intrusive narrator but multiple narrators and narratives which collapse amid a failure of narrative altogether. But one detail stuck out for me from Knowlson’s biography, which is the direct influence of the eighteenth century novelist Henry Fielding. If you read Fielding’s shorter comic novel Joseph Andrews (1742) and his epic comic novel, Tom Jones (1749) you find that the narrator is a very active participant, not only describing events but giving a running commentary on them, moralising and judging and reminding us of previous events or warning of events to come. Once you get used to the 18th century style, this can be very funny. Obviously Beckett brings a completely different sensibility and a highly Modernist approach to what is more a ‘disintegrating narrator’. Still, it is fascinating to read in Knowlson that he specifically cites Fielding as showing just how interactive and interfering a narrator can be in his own text. It is August 1932 and Beckett has returned from Paris to the family home outside Dublin where he immerses himself in reading:

One of the most significant items on his reading list was Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews… He probably learned a lot from Fielding’s novels (for he went on to read Tom Jones) while he was writing the stories of More Pricks Than Kicks. This influence can still be detected in Murphy and continued even into the postwar novel trilogy. It can be seen in what he described as ‘the giving away of the show pari passu with the show’, in a balance and an elaborateness of phrase, and…in the playful pr ironic comments of a self-conscious narrator who makes regular intrusions into the text of his narrative. (page 165)

Ireland

There’s a lot of scope to discuss Beckett’s Irishness, how ‘Irish’ his own personality was, and his characters and his creations, but I don’t feel qualified to comment either way. Knowlson occasionally mentions Beckett’s love of the Irish countryside but only rarely addresses the subject of Beckett’s ‘Irishness’. Three aspects of the issue interested me:

1. Protestant Beckett wasn’t Catholic Irish, like James Joyce and the majority of the population. He was a Protestant, his mother was a God-fearing believer who took him to church every Sunday, and the private school he went to was redolent of strict Protestant teaching. It’s arguable that, although he lost his faith, Beckett retained this strict, almost Puritan turn of mind, in both his lifestyle, which was very spartan and simple, and, of course, in the unromantic, tough, self-punishing nature of his works.

2. Irish Partition I was surprised that Knowlson made so little of the partition of Ireland and the year-long civil war that followed 1921 to 1922. Beckett was born and raised in a suburb of Dublin, where his mother and brother continued to live, but the private secondary school he attended was in what became, while he was still attending it, part of Northern Ireland. The war was a long, drawn-out and very traumatic experience for the nation, but Knowlson barely mentions it and it seems to have had no impact on Beckett, which seems hard to believe. The entire subject of Irish nationalism is conspicuous by its absence.

3. Rejection of Ireland Again, it is underplayed in Knowlson’s book, but reading between the lines, it appears that some Irish considered Beckett moving to Paris in October 1937 and his continued living there was a studied rejection of his home country, a rejection he repeated at key moments of his career. Certainly Beckett, driven to exasperation by a lack of money, job, prospects, any success as a writer and the nagging of his mother to get a job, finally and decisively quit Ireland in September 1937 to make a permanent home in Paris. Knowlson says Beckett found Ireland too ‘narrow-minded and parochial’. He wrote to his old schoolfriend, Geoffrey Thompson, that the move to Paris was like being let out of gaol (p.274). Ironically, only a few weeks after emigrating, Beckett was recalled to Dublin to act as a witness in a libel case brought against a book which appeared to lampoon his beloved Uncle, ‘Boss’ Sinclair, and was subjected to a fierce cross-questioning by the defending QC which raised the subject of Beckett’s ‘immoral’ writings in order to question his credibility. This gruelling experience set the seal on Beckett’s rejection of his homeland:

His remarks about Ireland became more and more vituperative after his return to Paris, as he lambasted its censorship, its bigotry and its narrow-minded attitudes to both sex and religion from which he felt he’d suffered. (p.280).

The theme recurs when Beckett himself imposed a ban on his works being performed in Ireland: In 1958, upon hearing that Archbishop John McQuaid had intervened in the Dublin Theatre Festival programme, forcing the organisers to withdraw a stage adaptation of Joyce’s Ulysses as well as Sean O’Casey’s The Drums of Father Ned, Beckett responded by cancelling his permission for the Pike Theatre to perform his mimes and All That Fall at the festival.

The theme recurs again in the context of Beckett being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1969 because, super-reluctant to attend the award ceremony himself, instead of asking the Irish Ambassador to accept it, according to the convention whereby a demurring author is represented by his country’s ambassador, Beckett instead nominated his long-standing and loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572). It was a typical gesture of friendship and personal loyalty but some Irish commentators took it as a calculated slight to his homeland.

So, just like his hero James Joyce before him, Beckett had a complex love-hate relationship with his homeland. Irish emigré Peter Lennon spent time with Beckett and recalls:

The sense of Ireland was strong in him, there was a subterranean emotional involvement… [but he also] despised the ethos of the place. (quoted page 490)

Mind you this argument is countered by the fact that, of all the honorary degrees he was offered during his lifetime, the only one he accepted was from his old alma mater, Trinity College Dublin, which he flew back to in order to receive an honorary D.Litt. degree on 2 July 1959 (pages 469 to 470).

Keaton, Buster

In the early 1960s Beckett developed a treatment for a short silent film to be shot with American collaborators. As a boy Beckett had loved the classic silent movies of Charlie Chaplin et al so the American producers approached a number of the greats, including Chaplin, Zero Mostel, Beckett’s friend MacGowran, but they had other commitments or weren’t interested.

Thus it was that they came to invite the legendary Buster Keaton, who delighted everyone by agreeing. Knowlson points out how the pair had a secret artistic affinity, a Keaton movie like Go West featuring a protagonist named Friendless, who is all alone in the world – closely related to Beckett’s worldview (p.54).

However, the actual meeting between Beckett and Keaton was a famous disaster, with Beckett invited into the Keaton apartment where Buster went back to sitting in a chair in front of the TV watching a game of American football sipping a beer from the fridge. After a few conversational gambits Beckett fell silent. Impasse (p.522).

The film ended up being shot over a few sweltering days in lower Manhattan in July 1964 during Beckett’s first and only trip to the United States.

London

Beckett lived in London for two years in 1934 and 1935. He lived first in rooms in Chelsea and then in the Gray’s Inn Road, locations invoked in the novel he wrote about the period, Murphy.

Beckett hated London. Dirty and noisy and cramped. It infuriated him the way strangers called him ‘Paddy’ in shops and pubs. In later life he referred to London as ‘Muttonfatville’ (p.512).

Jack MacGowran (1918 to 1973)

Beckett wrote the radio play Embers and the teleplay Eh Joe specifically for MacGowran. The actor also appeared in various productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame, and did several readings of Beckett’s plays and poems on BBC Radio. MacGowran was the first actor to do a one-man show based on the works of Beckett. He debuted End of Day in Dublin in 1962, revising it as Beginning To End in 1965. The show went through further revisions before Beckett directed it in Paris in 1970. He also recorded the LP, MacGowran Speaking Beckett for Claddagh Records in 1966 (the recording sessions described at p.539). Whenever he was over in Paris visiting, chances are the lads would go out and get slaughtered. Even worse when the duo turned into a threesome with fellow Irish actor Patrick Magee (p.514). After MacGowran’s death Beckett wrote immediately to his widow Gloria to offer financial assistance for her and daughter, Tara (p.599).

May Beckett

Tall, lean-faced, with a long nose, when you look at photos you immediately see that Beckett has his mother’s appearance not his father, who was round-faced and jovial. May Beckett had an unforgiving temperament and she ruled Cooldrinagh House and its servants with a rod of iron (p.5). Very respectable, she attended the local Protestant church every Sunday. Everyone found her difficult and demanding, she had regular shouting matches with the servants, but could descend into days of dark depression. A family friend, Mary Manning, said Beckett ‘was like his mother, he was not a relaxed social person at all’ (p.223). As he grew up Beckett developed an intense love-hate relationship with her until, by his twenties, he found it impossible to live in the same house. Beckett referred to her ‘savage loving’:

I am what her savage loving has made me (p.273).

His two years of psychotherapy in London (1933 to 1935) rotated around his unresolved relationship with this woman who was so difficult but who, in so many ways, he took after. According to his schoolfriend and doctor who recommended the therapy, Geoffrey Thompson, the key to Beckett’s problems was to be found in his relationship with his mother (p.178). It is, therefore, quite funny that the long and expensive course of psychotherapy was paid for… by his mother.

Mental illness

Beckett himself suffered from depression, as had his mother before him. It was partly deep-seated unhappiness triggered by his father’s death in 1933 which led to his two-year stay in London solely for the purpose of psychotherapy. The condition recurred throughout his life, in fact the second half of the book becomes quite monotonous for the repeated description of Beckett, if he had nothing immediate to work on, spiralling down into depression and isolation (p.441). As late as his 70s he was dosing himself with lithium as a treatment (pages 616 and 644).

He knew he had an obsessive compulsive streak, which could sometimes be regarded as determination and courage, at others simple neurosis: in his German diary Beckett refers to himself as ‘an obsessional neurotic’ (p.252).

Interesting to learn that during his London period (1934 to 1936) he visited his schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson who had taken up the post of Senior House Physician at Bethlem Royal Hospital in Beckenham, where he observed the patients and learned about their diseases (pages 208 to 210). It was these trips and Thompson’s account which Beckett reworked into the fictional Magdalen Mental Mercyseat where the antihero of his novel Murphy finds a job. This real-life contact with mental patients (Knowlson quotes Beckett describing individual patients and their symptoms) was reinforced when Beckett undertook a series of visits to Lucia Joyce after she was confined to a hospital in Ivry in 1939.

This ‘long-standing interest in abnormal psychology’ (p.615) translated into characters who make up ‘a long line of split personalities, psychotics or obsessional neurotics’, as Knowlson calls them (page 590). Possibly Beckett’s works can be seen as a kind of escalation of depictions of various mental conditions, from the light-hearted neurosis of Murphy, through the more serious mental breakdown of Watt, but then taken to out-of-this-world extremes in the Trilogy, and particularly the collapse of subject, object and language in The UnnamableFootfalls is a particularly spooky investigation of strange mental states and situations such as the protagonist’s radical agoraphobia and chronic neurosis (p.616).

Miserabilism

Miserabilism is defined as ‘gloomy pessimism or negativity.’ It’s so obvious that Beckett’s work concentrates oppressively on failure and negativity that it barely needs mentioning. Soon after the war he gave his beliefs classic expression in the avant-garde magazine transition:

‘I speak of an art turning from [the plane of the possible] in disgust, weary of its puny exploits, weary of pretending to be able, of being able, of doing a little better the same old thing, of going a little further along a dreary road.’

And, when asked what the contemporary artist should be striving for, he wrote:

‘The expression that there is nothing to express, nothing with which to express, nothing from which to express, no power to express, no desire to express, together with the obligation to express.’

His position didn’t budge much in the remaining 45 years of his life.

Music

He came from a very musical family. Beckett’s grandmother (Frances, Fannie) was very musical, wrote songs, set poems to music. Her son, Beckett’s Uncle Gerald, was very musical, piano in the house, spent hours playing duets with young Sam (p.7). Their daughter, Aunt Cissie, also very musical. Cissie married a Jewish art dealer, William ‘Boss’ Sinclair and moved to north Germany, where Boss tried to make a career dealing contemporary art. In his 20s Beckett went to stay with them and fell in love with their daughter, Peggy, a few years younger than him.

Beckett grew up able to play Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart piano pieces very well, as well as lighter pieces like Gilbert and Sullivan (p.28). At private school he carried on having music lessons and gained a reputation for being more or less word perfect in the entire Gilbert and Sullivan oeuvre (p.43).

In his first year at Trinity College Dublin he commuted from his parents house, but in his second year moved into rented accommodation, where he installed a piano. He was by now into modern French music and studied and played the piano music of Debussy (p.65). It is, maybe, revealing that Beckett hated Bach. He described him to a friend as like an organ grinder endlessly grinding out phrases (p.193). He had pianos in most of his lodgings and houses. Once living in France he regularly listened to concerts broadcast on France Musique (p.453). In 1967 he bought a small Schimmel piano for the house in Ussy, which he played Haydn and Schubert on (p.546).

Music is overtly important in plays like Ghost Trio (named after a piano work by Beethoven) and Nacht und Träume (named after a song by Schubert). But it is arguable that many of Beckett’s plays, and certainly the later ones, are conceived as musical in rhythm and performance, and are dependent on essentially non-dramatic but musical ideas of repetition, repetition with variation, counterpoint, introduction of new themes, and so on (p.193).

What is important to him is the rhythm, choreography and shape of the whole production. (p.551)

Thus, when he wrote That Time he conceived of it as a sonata, paying meticulous care to the entrance and exits of the three voices from the protagonist’s past. Into the 1980s he was still listening to classical concerts on the radio, playing the piano and made a number of composer friends. Knowlson points out how many of his works have been set to music or have inspired composers (p.655).

Visitors to his supervision of a 1980 production of Endgame noticed that as the actors spoke his hand beat out the rhythm like Karajan conducting an orchestra. ‘It was all about rhythm and music’, said one of the actors (p.668). He particularly loved Schubert and it is a Schubert song which inspired Nacht und Träume and Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise which inspired the play What Where (p.685).

Nobel Prize

1969 23 October Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. (pages 570 to 573). He and Suzanne experienced this as a complete disaster, ending their life of peaceful anonymity. They were on holiday in a hotel in Tunisia and the announcement had an immediate impact in that the hotel was besieged by journalists and photographers.

Beckett accepted, recognising the honour, but couldn’t face attending the ceremony as he hated all such events. There was some sharp criticism back in Ireland when, instead of asking the ambassador of the nation of the winner i.e. the Irish ambassador, Beckett instead asked for the award to be given to his loyal French publisher, Jérôme Lindon (p.572).

Later Beckett blamed the award for a prolonged period of writer’s block which immediately followed it.

Not I

Inspired, or at least crystallised, by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in Valletta cathedral in Malta (p.588), and a holiday in North Africa where he was fascinated by the locals wearing djellabis. The original conception was of the woman speaker strapped into a device above the stage with a spotlight on her face as she spoke at breakneck speed, taking four pauses or breaks, during which the tall, faceless figure at the side of the stage wearing a djellabi slowly raised and then slowly lowered his arms, as in a gesture of helpless compassion.

But rehearsals for various productions eventually persuaded Beckett the play didn’t need the auditor at all, and the figure was quietly dropped from the 1975 BBC recording with Billie Whitelaw. And Beckett admitted to Knowsley that maybe the entire notion of the auditor was simply ‘an error of the creative imagination, a rare admission (p.617).

Ohio Impromptu

Beckett wrote this piece for American actor David Warrilow to play the part of Reader, a man sitting at a table next to a silent doppelgänger, reading out a narrative, a story which the audience slowly realises applies to the two men onstage. Beckett wrote to tell to Warrilow to read it as if it was ‘a bedtime story’.

O’Toole, Peter

Beckett hated him, and was infuriated when his agent, Curtis Brown, gave O’Toole permission to stage a production of Waiting For Godot in 1969. Possibly Beckett disliked O’Toole because one boozy night down the Falstaff pub in London, O’Toole was about to throw his friend Peter Lennon down the stairs before Beckett personally intervened. Or maybe it was just his florid, attention-grabbing acting style, the histrionic opposite of everything Beckett’s minimalist theatre stood for. He called the resulting production ‘O’Tooled beyond redemption’ (p.567)

Painting

Visual art was very important to Beckett. He had started to systematically visit galleries and develop his taste, as a student (p.58). In summer 1927 Beckett travelled to Florence, calling on the sister of his Italian tutor at Trinity College, and systematically visiting museums, galleries and churches (pages 71 to 75). During his two years as lecteur in Paris he visited as many galleries as he could and immersed himself in the French tradition. Back in Ireland in 1931, he resumed his visits to the National Gallery (p.140). After his father’s death, at a loss what to do, it’s not that surprising to learn that he applied to be an assistant curator at London’s National Gallery (p.174).

A decade later, Beckett was to spend no fewer than seven months, from September 1937 to April 1938, on a really thorough and systematic tour of the art galleries of Germany. One of the features of Knowlson’s biography is that he got access to Beckett’s detailed diary of this trip and so gives the reader a city-by-city, gallery-by-gallery, painting-by-painting detailed account of not only the paintings Beckett saw, but also of the contemporary artists he met in cities like Hamburg, Berlin and Munich (pages 230 to 261). The first work he wrote in French after the war was an essay on contemporary art (page 357).

Beckett had a very visual imagination and many critics have found analogues for scenes in the prose and plays among classic paintings of the Old Masters, and by his own account, a number of works were heavily inspired by works of art.

Thus Waiting For Godot, notable Godot – in which the final scene of both parts, of two men looking up at the rising moon mimics Caspar David Friedrich (p.609), and Breughel paintings inspire various poses of the four characters; while Not I was directly inspired by Beckett seeing Caravaggio’s painting Decollation of St John The Baptist in the cathedral in Malta (p.588).

Decollation of St John The Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1608)

Artistic friendships In November 1930 he was introduced to the Dublin painter Jack B. Yeats who was to become a lifelong friend. Travelling in Germany in 1937 he met Dutch painters Geer and Bram van Velde who became enduring friends. When he bought the cottage in Ussy outside Paris he found himself in proximity to the French painter Henri Hayden and his wife, Josette, who Sam and Suzanne had got to know well during their wartime stay in Roussilon, and who became close friends for the rest of their lives.

Paris

Paris came as a revelation to Beckett when he moved there for to take the post of lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure in 1928. He was quickly introduced to James Joyce and other members of the anglophone literary community, but also flourished in the city’s permissive, experimental avant-garde artistic and literary atmosphere. It was with reluctance that he moved back to Ireland in 1930.

Years passed with occasional visits and reunions with old friends before his patience with Dublin and living with his mother in the big empty family house finally snapped in September 1937, and he left Ireland for good to try and make his way as a freelance writer in Paris. However, he hadn’t been there long before he was stabbed in a random altercation with a pimp in Montparnasse. His lifelong partner Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil visited him in hospital and began caring for him. Once he’d recovered, she arranged for Beckett to move out of an expensive hotel into a flat at 6 Rue des Favorites.

They inhabited the Rue de Favorites flat for 20 years, but eventually their lives had diverged so markedly that they needed a bigger space. Beckett was a night owl, staying out late often getting drunk with friends when they were in town, and disturbed her when he got home. Suzanne was a morning person and disturbed Beckett’s lying-in when she woke. Plus the mistresses. His unexplained absences became harder to bear in a small space.

Thus in 1960 they moved to a larger space, a seventh floor apartment at 38 Boulevard Saint-Jacques. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its layout (p.472). It allowed them to live partly companionable, but partly independent lives. A notable feature of the flat was that from it he could see the windows of the Santé prison. He sat staring at a prison for long stretches of his day. Some visitors entered his apartment to discover him standing at the window semaphoring messages to the prisoners: ‘They have so little to entertain them, you know’ (p.642)

Poetry

In my opinion Beckett’s poetry is pants. Here’s part of an early poem:

But she will die and her snare
tendered so patiently
to my tamed and watchful sorrow
will break and hang
in a pitiful crescent
(The Yoke of Liberty, 1932)

And a few years later:

a last even of last time of saying
if you do not love me I shall not be loved
if I do not love you I shall not love

the churn of stale words in the heart again
love love love thud of the old plunger
pestling the unalterable
whey of words

God, it’s dire, the ineffectual repetition of ‘love’, the woeful metaphor of the heart as a pestle grinding away at words. Flat and lifeless and clichéd.

Beckett’s poetry is so poor because, in my opinion, he had little or no feel for the sensual aspect of language. He has nothing of what Keats or Tennyson or Yeats or TS Eliot had for language, an unparalleled feel for the mellifluous flow of sensual speech. A reviewer of his first collection of short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, is quoted as writing that Beckett ‘has imitated everything in Mr Joyce – except the verbal magic and the inspiration’ (quoted page 184). I think that is dead right. Hardly anywhere in Beckett’s works is there ‘verbal magic’ in the sense that an individual phrase leaps out at you as a miraculous use of language. The opposite. They’re often heavy with cliches and triteness. Here’s part of a short poem he wrote in 1977:

one dead of night
in the dead still
he looked up
from his book (p.647)

No Beckett really does not have the magic touch required for poetry. Instead Beckett does something completely different with language. For me his characteristic strategies are paring back language, omitting key syntactical units, and above all using repetition, the clumping of key phrases which are nothing in themselves but acquire power by dogged repetition.

Traditional poetry requires a certain charge behind individual words. And yet this is the precise opposite of how Beckett works. Beckett works by applying the exact opposite of the mot juste, he works through processes of paring down, creating key phrases, and then repeating the hell out of them. He sandblasts language. Thus, in my opinion, his most successful ‘poetry’ is in the play Rockaby, where no individual word has the kind of poetic charge you find in Eliot or Larkin or Hughes or Hill – it is all about the remorseless repetition. 

till in the end
the day came
in the end came
close of a long day
when she said
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
another like herself
another creature like herself
a little like
going to and fro
all eyes
all sides
high and low
for another
till in the end
close of a long day
to herself
whom else
time she stopped
time she stopped

My contention is that he is a great writer despite his lack of feel for language, because of his systematic methodology. He doesn’t feel or express so much as process language, submits it to distortions, denials and repetitions in order to make his language pared back, hard, white bone (‘All the verbs have perished’, as he wrote of his short prose piece Ping, p.542).

His prose and theatrical dialogue doesn’t work with language, doesn’t facilitate expression – it does something to language. Manipulates and twists it into a kind of abstract sculpture. And this, in my opinion, helps to explain why his poetry is so pants.

Politics

It is striking that there is so little politics in Knowlson’s account. He devotes precisely one sentence to the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin (p.36) when Beckett was 10, and only 2 sentences to the partition of Ireland and the tragic Irish civil war which followed, (June 1922 to May 1923) when Beckett would have been 16 going on 17. There is a brief mention of the IRA, but only because the sister of his Italian tutor at college might have been an IRA operative (p.73). There is only one mention of the Great War and that only in connection with the impact it had on the calibre of teachers when Beckett was still at secondary school (p.44).

Again, most accounts of the 1930s are heavily coloured by the terrible international situation but this is mostly absent from Knowlson’s account. For example, in the second year of the Spanish Civil War (1936 to 1939) Nancy Cunard sent a questionnaire round eminent artists and writers asking which side they would support and why (Authors Takes Sides in the Spanish Civil War). Beckett sent back the famously short and pithy reply: “UP THE REPUBLIC!” I might have blinked and missed it but I don’t think this is mentioned in Knowlson’s vast tome.

The Nazis do come into it when Beckett makes his seven month tour round Germany from September 1937 to April 1938. Beckett despised and mocked them (pages 238 and 297). But they are considered more from the point of view of the material impact their bans and prohibitions had on the local artists Beckett met and came to respect. Similarly, when they begin to enforce their racial edicts in Paris in 1940, it is the direct practical impact on his friends and acquaintances which Knowlson emphasises (page 303).

Similarly, after the end of the Second World War, the entire Cold War is not mentioned at all in the book, Suez, Indo-China, Hungary, Cuba. Silence.

One area which is briefly covered is the war in Algeria. This affected Beckett because his publisher, Jérôme Lindon, became involved in a campaign to publish graphic accounts of the French Army’s use of torture in Algeria, which made the publisher the target of death threats (pages 492 to 495). We find Beckett helping other writers and actors who lost work because of their principles opposition to the war.

Twenty years later there’s a passage about Beckett, violently against the apartheid regime in South Africa, giving permission for a mixed-race production of Godot, and the issues surrounding that (pages 636 to 639).

But Knowlson makes the important point that Beckett’s post-war political activity was very constrained because he was not a citizen of France and only allowed to stay on sufferance. His carte de séjour could be withdrawn by the French government at any moment. Hence, tact.

Maybe this is because the book was already very long and Knowlson’s publishers and editor made him remove anything not directly related to Beckett. Possibly it’s because just too much happened in the Twentieth Century and once you start filling in this or that bit of political background, where would you end? Especially as Beckett was tied to the politics of not one but three countries – Ireland where he was born, England where he spent some time and a lot of his plays were premiered, and France which was his adoptive home. That’s a lot of politics to try and summarise. If you throw in America, because it was an important location for the premiering and performance of his plays, then that’s an awful lot of national and international politics to make even cursory references to. So maybe that explains why the book contains as little or as brief references to world affairs as are possible.

Psychotherapy

One of the revelations of Knowlson’s book is the extent of Beckett’s psychotherapy. His sense of frustration at not knowing what to do in his life, exacerbated by the death of his beloved father in 1933, and the very tense atmosphere of being a grown adult stuck at home with his disapproving mother, led to an escalation of physical symptoms – night sweats, panic attacks, heart palpitations. Beckett described to Knowlson how, on at least one occasion, he was walking down the street when he came to a complete halt and couldn’t move any further (p.172).

Beckett’s good schoolfriend Geoffrey Thompson was now a doctor and recommended psychotherapy. It is startling to learn that, at that time, psychoanalysis was illegal in Ireland (p.173), so he had to go to London to be treated. And so it was that Beckett moved to London in January 1934 and began an astonishingly prolonged course of treatment with pioneering psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion at the Tavistock Clinic. This continued for two years, three sessions a week, lying on his back dredging up memories, while his hyper-critical intellect dissected them, analysed the positioning of the protagonists, their words (the London years as a whole are described on page 171 to 197).

The actual physical experience of therapy, and the theories of the mind it invokes, both provide a plausible underpinning to much of Beckett’s work, particularly the prose works where characters lie in the dark, imagining, visualising, listening to the voices of memory. The haunting prose work Company consists of 15 paragraphs of memories from boyhood and young manhood, seeded among 42 paragraphs describing the situation of the protagonist lying on his back in the dark and remembering:

To one on his back in the dark a voice tells of a past. (p.653)

In October 1935 Bion took Beckett to a lecture by Carl Jung. Some critics have read Jung’s theories of archetypes, of the anima, of the female and male parts of the psyche into the split personas, into the very male male and very female female characters and protagonists.

Freud and Jung, between them, cooked up quite a handful of theories about the multiple aspects of levels of the mind, a fissiparation which was only complexified by their hordes of followers, respectable and not so respectable (p.616). Temperamentally predisposed towards them, they provided ammunition for Beckett’s attack on the Cartesian notion of the mind as unified and rational. Freud transformed human understanding forever into a completely different model of a mind divided into all sorts of fragments and compartments.

But both Freud and Jung and most of their followers thought that, with long expensive therapy, these various contending psychic forces could be brought into some kind of harmony, that people could be helped to master their neuroses and compulsions. As Freud put it, ‘Where id was, there let ego be’, and therapy undoubtedly helped Beckett, indeed the case is made that it transformed him from a haughty, arrogant, self-centred young man into a far more socialised, generous and considerate person. But he never believed the self can be saved. All Beckett’s post-war works can be seen as explorations of exactly the opposite – ‘Where id was… there is more id, and more id behind that, multiple ids, a wilderness of ids.’ A problematics of the self.

In Beckett’s case, voices, the voices, the voice that drives the narrators of The Unnamable and How It Is, the voices that taunt the protagonists of That Time and Eh Joe and Footfalls, and texts which collapse in the failure to be able to make sense of any narrative, to establish any centre, any self amid the conflicting claims of language reduced to wrecks and stumps, as in the devastating Worstward Ho

Late in his career, on 20 September 1977, Beckett met the American avant-garde composer Milton Feldman. Over a nervous, shy lunch Feldman said he wasn’t interested in setting any of Beckett’s works but was looking for their essence. Beckett got a piece of paper and told Feldman there was only one theme in his life, and quickly wrote out the following words.

to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself
by way of neither

He later expanded this by another ten or so lines and it became the basic of the monodrama which Feldman composed and called neither. But the point is that Beckett considered this the very core of his project – the endless shuttling around of the mind, the psyche, the spirit call it what you will, looking for a solid reliable self which doesn’t exist. Here’s the opening ten minutes of the resulting ‘opera’.

P.S. It is funny to learn that Beckett was startled when, in his October 1935 lecture, Jung revealed that he never took on a patient unless he or she had had their horoscope read. This is the kind of voodoo bunkum which led Freud to disown and ridicule Jung. But the tip about the horoscope led Beckett to make it an important structuring element in his first novel, Murphy (p.208).

Quietism

The general sense of Quietism is a passive acceptance of things as they are, but in the tradition of Christian theology it has a more specific meaning. It means: ‘devotional contemplation and abandonment of the will as a form of religious mysticism’. Beckett deepened his understanding of Quietism in the 1930s in his reading of the German philosopher Schopenhauer. For Schopenhauer, what drives human beings is will – ‘a blind, unconscious, aimless striving devoid of knowledge, outside of space and time, and free of all multiplicity’. The ‘world’ as we perceive it is a creation of the human will which may or may not bear any relation to what is actually ‘out there’. For Schopenhauer, it is this endless will, driving us on and inevitably banging us against limitations and frustrations which is the cause of all our pain and suffering. Well aware that he was coming very close to Eastern religions in his attitude, Schopenhauer argued that the only redemption or escape from the endless, hurtful engine of the will is the total ascetic negation of the ‘will to life.’ Damp it, kiss it, crush it, negate it, transcend it.

When it’s put like that you can see, not so much that Schopenhauer’s thought ‘influenced’ Beckett but, as so often with the thinkers important in a creative writer’s life, that Schopenhauer helped Beckett think through and rationalise what was, in effect, already his worldview. Once you identify it, you realise it is Beckett’s core view of the world and attitude to life, described again and again in variations on the same idea:

  • The essential is never to arrive anywhere, never to be anywhere.
  • What a joy to know where one is, and where one will stay, without being there.
  • Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness.

He and so many of the narrators of his texts, don’t necessarily want to die, as such. Just not to be. To cease being. Not to be, and not to know.

Radio

Beckett wrote seven plays for radio, being

  • All That Fall (1957) commissioned by BBC produced by Donald McWhinnie, small parts for Patrick Magee and Jack MacGowran
  • From an Abandoned Work (1957) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • Embers (1959) BBC Radio 3: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by Donald McWhinnie
  • The Old Tune (translation of a play by Robert Pinget) (1960) BBC: Jack MacGowran and Patrick Magee directed by (Beckett’s lover) Barbara Bray
  • [Rough for Radio I – written in French in 1961 but not translated till 1976 and never broadcast in English]
  • Rough for Radio II – written 1961, broadcast BBC Radio 3 1976, Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Billie Whitelaw directed by Martin Esslin
  • Words and Music (1962) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee
  • Cascando (1963) BBC Radio 3: Patrick Magee

They include some of his most haunting pieces such as Embers (44 minutes in the original BBC production featuring Jack MacGowran), the torture play Rough For Radio II, and the haunting Cascando, featuring Patrick Magee. The list also indicates 1. the central role played by the BBC in commissioning and broadcasting important works by Beckett 2. the specific role of Donald McWhinnie as director of the earlier radio plays 3. the close association with two key Beckett actors, Patrick Magee (who appears in all of them) and Jack MacGowran.

Beckett refused permission for his radio plays to be made either into TV productions or stage plays. He said they were expressly designed for their medium alone. Asked about the possibility of transferring the radio play All That Fall to the stage, Beckett wrote: ‘It is no more theatre than Endgame is radio and to ‘act’ it is to kill it. Even the reduced visual dimension it will receive from the simplest and most static of readings … will be destructive of whatever quality it may have and which depends on the whole thing’s coming out of the dark.’ [emphasis added]

Resistance

On 1 September 1940 Beckett, back in occupied Paris after a brief flight to the south, joined the French Resistance. He was inducted into the Resistance cell Gloria SMH, run by Jeannine Picabia, daughter of the painter Francis Picabia. Knowlson goes into fascinating detail about the cell’s structure and work. Basically, Beckett continued sitting at his desk in his Paris flat, where he was registered with the authorities as an Irish citizen and a writer. His job was – various couriers brought him information written in a number of formats from typed reports to scribbled notes, and he translated them from French into good clear English, typed them up – then another courier collected these notes and took them off to an unknown destination where they were photographed and reduced to something like microfilm, before being smuggled south to the free zone of France by a network of couriers (pages 307 to 308).

It was the perfect role and the perfect cover since, as a bilingual writer, his flat was covered in scribbled notes and manuscripts in both languages although, if the Germans had actually found and examined the incriminating documents he would have been in big trouble. Written records exists in the French archive of the Resistance and of the British Special Operations Executive in London, which amply confirm Beckett’s identity and role.

Although the group paid lip service to the idea that all members only knew the names and details of a handful of other members, in practice Beckett thought too many friends who had been recruited who would give each other away under interrogation. But it wasn’t from an insider that betrayal came, and the most vivid thing about Beckett’s war work is the way it ended.

Basically the group was infiltrated by a Catholic priest, Robert Alesch, who railed against the Nazis in his sermons and came fully vetted. What no-one knew what that Alesch led a florid double life, respectable priest on Sundays, but coming up to Paris from his rural parish on weekdays, to indulge in nights of sex and drugs with prostitutes. He needed money to fund this lifestyle. So he inveigled his way into Cell Gloria and, as soon as he’d been given details of the members, sold it to the German authorities for a sum which Knowlson calculates as the lifetime earnings of an average worker. It was August 1942.

The Nazis immediately began arresting members, including Beckett’s good friend Alfred Péron, who was to die in a concentration camp. A brief telegram was sent to Beckett and Suzanne who immediately packed their bags ready for immediate flight. Suzanne went to the flat of a friend where she was briefly stopped and questioned by the Gestapo, who let her go and returned, traumatised, to the flat she shared with Beckett, they finished packing and left within the hour. Later the same day the Gestapo arrived to arrest them, and placed a permanent guard on the flat (p.315).

They went into hiding in various safe houses across Paris, before preparing for the long and dangerous trek by foot south towards the unoccupied zone of France, with the major stumbling block of having to arrange with professionals, passeurs, to be smuggled across the actual border. (It is fascinating to learn that Suzanne and Beckett spent ten days hiding out with the French-Russian writer Nathalie Sarraute, who was holing up in a rural cottage with her husband. They didn’t get on. (pages 316 to 317.)

After much walking and sleeping in haystacks and begging food, the couple arrived at the small village of Roussillon, in the Vaucluse département in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur. Why Roussillon? Connections. A friend of Suzanne’s had bought an estate near the village and knew about local property and vacancies in the village. There they made a new life, initially staying in the small village hotel, then through local contacts finding a vacant property in the village, lying low, rerouting the small payments Beckett was owed from his father’s legacy and his handful of published books.

One of the major aspects of their two years in the village which gets no coverage is the fact that Beckett undertook demanding labour on local farms. He became a trusty and reliable farm labourer in the south of France, specifically for the Aude family, members of which Knowlson has tracked down and interviewed for eye witness accounts of Sam the labourer – managing the livestock, helping with ploughing and sowing and also, during the season, helping to trample down the grapes for that year’s wine. Can’t get more French than that (pages 323 to 326). Of course the motivation to do it was the extra food it brought Sam and Suzanne during a time of great privation.

Knowlson also brings out the fact that it was far from being a life of ‘rural idiocy’ and that a surprising number of intellectuals, writers and artists lived in the vicinity who quickly formed convivial social circles, dwelling on the charming, elderly lady novelist Miss Beamish, who lived with her ‘companion’. Autres temps (p.330).

After a lull, while they found their feet, Beckett rejoined the Maquis (their archives date it as May 1944) and helped out when he could by storing armaments in the shed of their village house (page 337). In this new situation, Beckett volunteered for more active service, going out on night trips to recover parachuted arms and was given training in the remote countryside on firing a rifle and lobbing grenades, but the local leaders quickly realised his poor eyesight and unpractical nature militated against fieldwork (pages 337 to 338).

All in all you can see why his prompt volunteering for the service, his unflinching integrity, his continued service even in the South, earned him the gratitude of the Free French government once Paris was liberated by the Allies 19 August 1944 and why, before the war was even over, in March 1945 he was awarded the Croix de Guerre.

Revelation (pages 351 to 353)

Possibly the most important event in his life came when Beckett was back at the family home, long after his father’s death, just after the Second World War and all its tribulations, suffering the cloying attentions of his aging mother and frustrated at the difficulty of getting his pre-war writings published, an unemployed, largely unpublished ‘writer’, fast approaching 40, when he had a life-changing revelation.

Since his character, Krapp, discusses a life-changing revelation which came to him as he stood on the pier at Dún Laoghaire, generations of critics have assumed something similar happened to Beckett. But one of the huge selling points of Knowlson’s biography is that he got to ask Beckett questions like this, directly, face to face, or in extended question and answer correspondence, and was able to get at the definitive truth of cruxes like this. And thus it was that Beckett told him to set the record straight ‘for once and all’, that it was in his mother’s room in the family home, that he suddenly realised the way forward.

At a stroke, he realised his entire approach to literature was wrong, that he must do the opposite of his hero Joyce. Joyce was the poet of joy and life, which he celebrates with texts which try to incorporate sounds and smells and all the senses, try to incorporate the entire world in a text, which grow huge by accumulating new words, mixing up languages, swallowing the world.

In books like More Pricks Than Kicks and Murphy Beckett had come off as a sort of half-cocked Joyce, adding his own quirky obsessions with repetitive actions to heavy, pedantic humour and outlandish characters. Now, in a flash, he realised this was all wrong, wrong, wrong.

‘I realised that Joyce had gone as far as one could in the direction of knowing more, [being] in control of one’s material. He was always adding to it; you only have to look at his proofs to see that. I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowledge and in taking away, in subtracting rather than in adding.’

He realised at a stroke that he must be the laureate of rejection, abandonment and decay, all the fleeting moods and expressions of failure and collapse which had been neglected in literature, ignored and brushed aside so that the author could get on with writing his masterpiece.

But what about taking that failure, the failure of the text to get written, as the subject of the text? What about listening to the voices the author hears in his or her head, as they review a page and conclude it’s rubbish, start again, or sit and ponder the alternatives, voices saying one thing, then another, making one suggestion, then another? What if you made those voices, the voices you hear during the process of writing but ignore in order to get something sensible down on the page – what if you made those voices themselves the subject of the writing?

This not only represented a superficial change of topic or approach but also made Beckett face up to something in himself. Previously, he had tried to write clever books like Murphy while gloomily acknowledging to himself and friends that he wasn’t really learned and scholarly enough to pull it off. Pushing 40 he felt like a failure in all kinds of ways, letting down successive women who had loved him, letting down his parents and patrons when he rejected the lectureship at Trinity College Dublin, failing to get his works published or, if they were, failing to sell any – a welter of failures, intellectual, personal and professional

What if, instead of trying to smother it, he made this failure the focus of his writing? Turned his laser-like intellect inwards to examine the complex world of interlocking failures, from deep personal feelings, all the way up to the struggle to write, to define who is doing the writing, and why, for God’s sake! when the whole exercise was so bloody pointless, when – as his two years of intensive psychotherapy had shown him – we can’t really change ourselves. The best we can hope for is to acknowledge the truth of who we are.

What if he took this, this arid dusty terrain of guilt and failure and the excruciating difficulty of ever expressing anything properly as his subject matter?

‘Molloy and the others came to me the day I became aware of my own folly. Only then did I begin to write the things I feel.’ (quoted page 352)

Beckett was rejecting the Joycean principle that knowing more was a way of creatively understanding the world and controlling it … In future, his work would focus on poverty, failure, exile and loss – as he put it, on man as a ‘non-knower’ and as a ‘non-can-er.’ The revelation ‘has rightly been regarded as a pivotal moment in his entire career’.

(Sentiments echoed at page 492).

St-Lô (pages 345 to 350)

Early in 1945, Beckett and Suzanne returned to Paris to discover that, although their flat on the Rue Favorite had been occupied, it had been left largely untouched (unlike other friends’ apartments which had been ransacked). Beckett then set off back to Ireland, of course stopping off in London to meet up with old friends and also hawk round the manuscript of the ‘mad’ novel he’d written during the long nights of his exile in the south of France, Watt. He was struck by the bomb-damaged shabby nature of the city. Then on to Dublin where he was upset by the appearance of his now aged mother.

But Beckett then found it very difficult to get legal permission to travel back to Paris. Things were confused, the bureaucracy was immense. So he took the opportunity of applying for a job in France, mainly to get official permission to return, namely as quartermaster/interpreter with the Irish Red Cross who were setting up a hospital in the Normandy town of Saint-Lô.

This passage is fascinating as social / war history. St-Lô had been utterly destroyed by allied bombing, with barely a building left standing. Knowlson explains the plight of the town and then the practicalities of setting up a hospital before investigating Beckett’s role.

Altogether the war radically changed Beckett. It humanised him. He went from being an aloof, arrogant, self-centred young man, to becoming much more humble and socialised. In his farmwork and then the work at St-Lo he was able to put aside his problematic psychology and just get on with it. Both experiences forced him into close proximity with a far wider range of people, from all classes, than he had previously met.

(Interestingly, this is the exact same point made in the recent biography of John Wyndham, who served in the London Air Raid Warning service during the Blitz, and then as a censor in Senate House, His biographer, Amy Binns, makes the identical point, that his war service forced Wyndham into close proximity with people outside his usual class [both Beckett and Wyndham went to private school] and resulted in a deepening and humanising of his fiction.)

Skullscapes

The word and concept ‘skullscape’ is Linda Ben Zvi’s, from the recorded discussion that followed the production of Embers for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, recorded at the BBC Studios, London on January 1988. Since Zvi suggested it has become common currency because it captures at least three qualities,

1. the bone-hard, pared-down prose works

2. the obsession with the colour white, the whiteness of the cell in All Strange Away, the rotunda in Imagination Dead Imagine, the whiteness of the cliff in the short text of the same title, the whiteness in Embers

bright winter’s night, snow everywhere, bitter cold, white world, cedar boughs bending under load… [Pause.] Outside all still, not a sound, dog’s chain maybe or a bough groaning if you stood there listening long enough, white world, Holloway with his little black bag, not a sound, bitter cold, full moon small and white…

The whiteness of the snow the man trudges through in Heard in the Dark 1 or the snow through which the old lady trudges in Ill Seen Ill Said, the spread white long hair of the protagonist in That Time, the White hair, white nightgown, white socks of Speaker in A Piece of Monologue:

White hair catching light. White gown. White socks. White foot of pallet edge of frame stage left. Once white.

The long white hair of Listener and Reader in Ohio Impromptu, the pure white overall of the Assistant in Catastrophe, and the Director’s instructions to whiten the Protagonist’s skull and hands and skin.

3. but the real application is to the prose works which seem to take place entirely inside the head of the protagonist or of the narrator or of the text, trapped in a claustrophobic space, a bonewhite space:

Ceiling wrong now, down two foot, perfect cube now, three foot every way, always was, light as before, all bonewhite when at full as before, floor like bleached dirt, something there, leave it for the moment…

Stabbing in Paris (pages 281 to 284)

and Suzanne Back in Paris Beckett was returning from a night in a bar on 6 January 1938 when a pimp came out of nowhere and started squabbling with him and his friends, insisting they accompany him somewhere and then, out of nowhere, stabbed Beckett in the chest. The blade narrowly missed his heart but punctured a lung, there was lots of blood, his friends called an ambulance, and he was in hospital  (the Hopital Broussais) recovering for some weeks. Initially it hurt just to breathe and for months afterwards it hurt to laugh or make any sudden movements. Beckett was touched by the number of people who sent messages of goodwill. Among his visitors was Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil. He’d met her a decade before on a few social occasions in Paris (playing tennis) but it’s from the period of her hospital visits that stems the deepening of their friendship into what became a lifelong relationship.

Beckett met his near-murderer, a well-known pimp with a criminal record M. Prudent, because the police caught him, charged him, and Beckett had to attend the trial. He got to meet the man in the corridor outside court and asked him why he did it. According to Beckett the pimp shrugged his shoulders in that Gallic way and said ‘Je ne sais pas, Monsieur’ – I don’t know – before adding, embarrassedly, ‘Je m’excuse’. Sorry. Possibly Beckett simplified the story because it rather neatly reinforces his philosophical convictions that we don’t know why we act as we do, that it is impossible to know ourselves, that it is highly likely there is no such thing as one, unified self.

Suicide, against

Oddly, maybe, for a man who suffered from lifelong depression and whose work is often about despair, Beckett was against suicide. He thought it was an unacceptable form of surrender. It was against the stern sense of duty and soldiering on inculcated by his Protestant upbringing, amplified by his private school which placed a strong emphasis on duty and responsibility (p.569).

And Knowlson sees this in the works. Despite the widely held view that Beckett’s work is essentially pessimistic, the will to live, to endure, to carry on, just about wins out in the end. Witness the famous final phrase of The Unnamable: ‘I can’t go on, I’ll go on’.

Suzanne Deschevaux-Dumesnil (1900 to 1989)

Beckett’s lifelong partner, Suzanne Dechevaux-Dumesnil, was key to his success. After the war Dechevaux-Dumesnil became his agent and sent the manuscript to multiple producers until they met Roger Blin who arranged for the Paris premiere of Waiting For Godot.

In the 1930s, Beckett chose Déchevaux-Dumesnil as his lover over the heiress Peggy Guggenheim after she visited him in hospital after his stabbing. She was six years older than Beckett, an austere woman known for avant-garde tastes and left-wing politics. She was a good pianist which was something they had in common.

During the Second World War, Suzanne supported Beckett’s work with the French Resistance cell Gloria. When the cell was betrayed, together they fled south to unoccupied France and took up residence in the village of Roussillon. As Beckett began to experience success their lives began to diverge, with Sam increasingly called on to travel to England or Germany to supervise new productions of his works. He also had a series of affairs, the most important with Barbara Bray who became his lifelong lover. The move in 1960 to a bigger apartment in Paris allowed them to live more separate lives and for Suzanne to socialise with her own, separate circle of friends.

In 1961, Beckett married Suzanne in a secret civil ceremony in England in order to legally establish her as heir to his works and copyrights and estate (pages 481 to 482). The classic love triangle Beckett found himself is the supposed inspiration for the play Play, written at this time (p.481).

Together they had bought a piece of land in the Marne valley and paid for the building of a simple writer’s house. At first Suzanne resented the long spells she spent there on her own when Beckett was going up to Paris for work or abroad. Later she grew to dislike going there and eventually ceased altogether, making the house in Ussy into a lonely, psychologically isolated location where Beckett wrote a lot of his later works, works in which a solitary, isolated individual stares out of the window or lies in the dark, often reminiscing about the past… As in the prose work Still (p.593).

Knowlson comments that in the last ten years of their lives people who met them as a couple often commented on how short tempered and irritable they were with each other. Suzanne is recorded as saying ‘celibataires’ (page 665). But there was never any question of him leaving her.

Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil died at age eighty-eight in July 1989, five months before Beckett. They are both interred in the cimetière du Montparnasse in Paris.

Swearwords, prolific use of

Beckett wasn’t shy of using the crudest Anglo-Saxon swearwords. He used them liberally in his correspondence (in 1932 he wrote to a friend that he was reading Aldous Huxley’s new novel, Point Counterpoint, except he called it ‘Cunt Pointer Cunt’, p.161) and they are sprinkled intermittently throughout his works:

  • Simone de Beauvoir objected to Beckett’s first story written in French, The End, because of its Rabelaisian references to pissing and farting (p.359).
  • Balls, arse and pee in Endgame, which Beckett reluctantly agreed to alter for the English censor (p.449)
  • the c word plays a startling role in the novel How It Is
  • ‘Fuck life’ says the recorded voice in the late play, Rockaby (page 663).

Telegraphese, use of

According to the dictionary telegraphese is: ‘the terse, abbreviated style of language used in telegrams’.

You are there somewhere alive somewhere vast stretch of time then it’s over you are there no more alive no more than again you are there again alive again it wasn’t over an error you begin again all over more or less in the same place or in another as when another image above in the light you come to in hospital in the dark. (How It Is, 1961) (p.602)

Television

Beckett wrote seven plays for the evolving medium of television. He strived to take advantage of the way TV has just the one point of view, unlike the audience at a theatre which has a much more panoramic view of the action. It is revealing that he heartily disliked a TV production of Waiting For Godot even though it was directed by his loyal director Donald McWhinnie. At the party after the viewing Beckett memorably said:

‘My play wasn’t written for this box. My play was written for small men locked in a big space. Here you’re all too big for the place.’ (quoted page 488)

As the 50s moved into the 60s Beckett encountered difficulties with other adaptations and slowly his approach hardened into a refusal to let a work be translated into another medium (p.505). When Peter O’Toole expressed interest in making a film version of Godot Beckett simply replied, ‘I do not want a film of Godot,’ (p.545).

Theatre

The most obvious thing about the theatre is how arduous and complicated it is having to work with all those people, producers, directors, actors and technicians, not to mention set designers, props and so on, especially for someone so morbidly shy and anti-social as Beckett.

Beckett acutely disliked the social side of theatre, and in fact couldn’t bear to go to the first nights of most of his plays – he sent Suzanne who reported back her opinion. He used the vivid phrase that, once the thing had finished rehearsals and had its dress rehearsal and first night, then it’s the ‘start of all the dinners’ (p.554).

Knowlson’s book charts how, from the success of Godot in 1953 until the end of his life, Beckett entered into a maze of theatrical productions, as new works were written, then required extensive liaisons with producers and directors, discussions about venues and actors, negotiations with state censors and so on. The book becomes clotted with his complex calendar of appointments and meetings and flights to London or Berlin or (on just the one occasion) America.

As to his attitude to theatre, the later works make it quite clear he saw it more as a question of choreography, his scripts giving increasingly detailed descriptions of movements, gestures, and how they synchronise with the words to create a ballet with words. It is no accident that several of his works are mimes, or mechanical ballets, like Quad. Or approach so close to wordlessness as to become something like four dimensional paintings (the fourth dimension being time) such as Nacht und Träume.

Themes

Some of Beckett’s most cherished themes: an absence of an identifiable self; man forced to live a kind of surrogate existence, trying to ‘make up’ his life by creating fictions or voices to which he listens; a world scurrying about its business, ignoring the signs of decay, disintegration and death with which it is surrounded. (p.602)

1930s

Beckett’s 1930s can probably be summed up as a long decade full of frustrating attempts to get his works published and, when he did, discovering no-one was interested in them. Only hard-core Beckett fans or scholars are interested in any of these:

1929 Dante… Vico… Bruno… Joyce (essay)
1930 Whoroscope (poem)
1931 Proust (literary study)
1932 Dante and the Lobster (short story)
1934 Negro Anthology edited by Nancy Cunard, many works translated by Beckett
1934 More Pricks Than Kicks (series of linked short stories)
1935 Echoes Bones (set of linked poems)
1937 attempts a play about Samuel Johnson but abandons it
1938 Murphy (first published novel)

Murphy is the only one of these you might recommend to someone starting Beckett, and maybe not even then.

Tonelessness

Voices toneless except where indicated (stage directions for Play)

For most of his theatre productions Beckett made the same stipulation, that the actors speak the words without expression, flatly, in a voice as devoid of emotion or expression as possible. Thus in 1958 he told director George Devine the actors of Endgame should speak the words in a ‘toneless voice’ (p.457).

For Beckett, pace, tone, and above all, rhythm were more important than sharpness of character delineation or emotional depth. (p.502)

Sian Philips was disconcerted to discover just how mechanical Beckett wanted her recording of the Voice part of Eh Joe and the ‘vocal colourlessness’ he aimed for (p.538). He explained to actress Nancy Illig that he wanted her voice to sound ‘dead’, without colour, without expression (p.540). He made sure the exchanges of Nagg and Nell in a German production of Endgame were ‘toneless’ (p.551). He struggled with Dame Peggy Ashcroft who was reluctant to give an ’emotion-free’ performance of Winnie in Happy Days (p.604).

In this respect Knowlson mentions Beckett recommending actor Ronald Pickup to read Heinrich von Kleist’s essay about the marionette theatre, in which the German poet claims that puppets posses a mobility, symmetry, harmony and grace greater than any human can achieve because they lack the self-consciousness that puts humans permanently off balance (p.632).

Billie Whitelaw remembers him calling out: ‘Too much colour, Billie, too much colour’. That was his way of saying ‘Don’t act.’ (p.624) Surprisingly, given his preparedness to jet off round Europe to help supervise productions of his plays, Knowlson concludes that he was never an actor’s director. He never let go of his own, intense personal reading of the lines.

Translation

It’s easy to read of this or that work that Beckett translated his own work from French into English or English into French but it’s only by reading Knowlson’s laborious record of the sustained periods when he did this that you realise what an immense undertaking it was, what a huge amount of time and mental energy it took up. That Beckett composed many of his works in French sounds cool until you realise that by being so bilingual he gave himself twice the work an ordinary writer would have had, and the later pages of Knowlson ring to the sound of Beckett complaining bitterly to friends and publishers just what an ordeal and grind he was finding it.

Trilogy, the Beckett

The Beckett Trilogy refers to three novels: Molloy, Malone Dies and The Unnamable. There’s a vast amount to say but here are a few key facts (pages 371 to 376):

  • Beckett wrote all three novels and Waiting For Godot in just two and a half years, from May 1947 to January 1950.
  • Probably these four works are the highlight, the most enduring of his works.
  • Beckett himself disliked the use of the phrase The Beckett Trilogy to describe them.
  • Arguably, The Unnamable takes the possibility of writing ‘fiction’, explores what happens when you abandon the existence of a stable narrator or plot or characters or dialogue, to the furthest possible extreme. This explains why for decades afterwards he struggled to write any further prose because he was trying to go on from a place he conceived of as being the ne plus ultra of fiction. Explains why so much of the later prose amounts to fragments and offcuts, starting with the dozen or so Texts For Nothing that he struggled with in the early 1950s (p.397), and what he was still calling, 20 years later, ‘shorts’ (p.578). To understand any of it you need to have read the Trilogy and particularly The Unnamable.

Ussy

In 1948 Sam and Suzanne took a break from Paris by hiring a cottage in the little village of Ussy-sur-Marne, 30 kilometres from Paris in the valley of the Marne which he was to grow to love (p.367). Sam and Suzanne continued holidaying there intermittently. After his mother died on 25 August 1950, she left him some money and Beckett used it to buy some land near the village and then, in 1953, had a modest two-roomed house built on it, with a kitchen and bathroom. This was to become his country getaway and writing base. Knowlson gives a detailed description of its plain, spartan arrangements, including the detail that the flooring was of alternating black and white tiles like a chess board (p.388).

Waiting for Godot (pages 379 to 381)

Written between October 1948 and January 1949 (p.378). It is interesting to learn that Beckett told a friend that Godot was inspired by a painting by Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon.

Caspar Georg Friedrich, Man and Woman Observing The Moon

Man and Woman Contemplating the Moon by Caspar David Friedrich (c. 1824)

But I think the single most interesting fact about Godot is that it was written as a kind of break or pitstop during the writing of the Beckett Trilogy, after he had completed Malone Dies and before he embarked on the daunting monolith of The Unnamable. It was the same subject matter but approached in a completely different angle and medium, and with numerous other elements, not least the music hall banter and silent movie knockabout slapstick.

Wartime background Another anti-intellectual interpretation of the play is Dierdre Bair’s contention that the play recalls ‘the long walk into Roussillon, when Beckett and Suzanne slept in haystacks… during the day and walked by night..’ Although Knowlson is dismissive of this view, he suggests an alternative ‘realist’ interpretation, namely that the basic situation and many of the details derive form the way Sam and Suzanne (and their friends in exile and, in a sense, an entire generation) had to sit out the war, filling in the time as best they could until the whole bloody nightmare came to an end (p.380).

Bad reviews in London It took two and a half years between the premiere of the play in Paris and the premiere of the English version in London, a long, drawn-out period full of delays and disappointments which Knowlson describes in excruciating detail, plus the way it opened to terrible reviews (very funny) until the situation was transformed by two favourable reviews from the heavyweight critics, Harold Hobson and Kenneth Tynan, to whom Beckett was eternally grateful (even if they later had an angry falling out) (pages 411 to 415).

Success and economic breakthrough in America The American premiere came three years after the French one. It opened in January 1956 in Miami, directed by Alan Schneider who was to become a long-time collaborator of Beckett’s and was a fiasco. The audience had been promised a comedy and hated it. By contrast, another production opened on Broadway in April 1956 and was a smash hit, running for a hundred performances, paying Beckett $500 a week, plus royalties from the paperback script which was sold in the foyer. Suddenly, Beckett found himself, if not exactly rich, in funds and making money for the first time in his life. God bless America! (p.423).

Billie Whitelaw (1932 to 2014)

Actress Billie Whitelaw worked with Beckett for 25 years on such plays as Not I, Eh Joe, Footfalls and Rockaby. In her autobiography Billie Whitelaw… Who He?, she describes their first meeting in 1963 as ‘trust at first sight’. Beckett went on to write many of his experimental theatre works for her. She came to be regarded as his muse, the ‘supreme interpreter of his work’. Perhaps most famous for her role as the mouth in the January 1973 production of Not I. Of 1980’s Rockaby she said: ‘I put the tape in my head. And I sort of look in a particular way, but not at the audience. Sometimes as a director Beckett comes out with absolute gems and I use them a lot in other areas. We were doing Happy Days and I just did not know where in the theatre to look during this particular section. And I asked, and he thought for a bit and then said, “Inward”‘.

She said of her role in Footfalls, ‘I felt like a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting and, in fact, when Beckett was directing Footfalls he was not only using me to play the notes but I almost felt that he did have the paintbrush out and was painting.’

‘Sam knew that I would turn myself inside out to give him what he wanted… With all of Sam’s work, the scream was there, my task was to try to get it out.’

Whitelaw stopped performing Beckett’s plays after he died in December 1989.

One of her great appeals is that she never asked him what lines meant, only how to speak them (p.598). In this respect she was the opposite of actresses like Peggy Ashcroft or Jessica Tandy, who both played Winnie in Happy Days and both pissed Beckett off with questions about her character and life story and motivation and so on. That was not at all how he conceived of theatre or prose.

The only thing important to Beckett was the situation. (p.506)

It is about the surface, there is only the surface, there is nothing behind the performance except the performance.

In a similar spirit he got very pissed off with actors (or critics) who asked him what Waiting For Godot meant. It means what it says. Knowlson repeats Beckett’s account of reacting badly when English actor Ralph Richardson bombarded him with questions about Pozzo, ‘his home address and curriculum vitae’, and was very disappointed when Beckett told him to his face that Godot does not mean God! If he had meant God, he would have written God! (p.412).

That said, Knowlson describes Beckett directing Whitelaw in her long-anticipated performance in Happy Days in 1977 led to unexpected problems. Billie turned up having learned the entire text only to discover that Beckett had made extensive minor changes of phrasing plus cutting one entire passage. Whenever she made mistakes she could see him putting his head in his hands and eventually his constant scrutiny made it impossible for her to work and she asked the director to have him removed. Surprisingly, he agreed, she got on with the production, and the final result was stunning.


Credit

Damned To Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson was published by Bloomsbury Publishing in 1996. All references are to the 1997 paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Murphy by Samuel Beckett (1938)

‘Unless you want me to call a policewoman,’ said Murphy, ‘cease your clumsy genustuprations.’
(Murphy page 56)

This is Beckett’s first published novel. I expected it to be an improvement on his first published book, the collection of linked short stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, but the essential feel, the worldview and style are very much the same.

Hard to read

It’s a very difficult book to read. Though only 170 pages long it took three days because I was so reluctant to pick it up and quick to put it down to do almost anything else.

The prose is mannered, stilted and extremely repetitive. Quite quickly I realised that its paragraphs rarely move the story along or analyse character: they almost exclusively consist of repetitions, iterated phrases spinning out a handful of ideas or words, sometimes driving you mad with frustration, irritation and boredom.

Take this passage where the lead figure, Murphy, has moved into a garret which he discovers has no form of heating. ‘No heating!!’ he exclaims to the friend, August Ticklepenny, who has fixed him up with a new job and the garret. ‘Why couldn’t someone just extend the electricity or gas up there to fuel a heater?’

He went on to speak of tubes and wires. Was it not just the beauty of tubes and wires, that they could be extended? Was it not their chief characteristic, the ease with which they could be extended? What was the point of going in for tubes and wires at all, if you did not extend them without compunction whenever necessary? Did they not cry out for extension? Ticklepenny thought he would never stop, saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways. (p.103)

Repetition

‘Saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’. Now arguably this was to be Beckett’s central contribution to 20th century literature, Repetition, the depiction of characters absolutely paralysed in their physical activities or thought processes and doomed to endless repetition.

In this respect Beckett is obviously undertaking quite radical experiments with the form of the novel, largely throwing out traditional notions of ‘plot’ or ‘character’ or ‘character development’ in order to focus on ‘saying feverishly the same thing in slightly different ways’ to such an extent as to create a new sort of poetic.

But so even the most trivial aspects of the lead character’s life are described with a pedantic thoroughness which are surely on the obsessive-compulsive spectrum.

  • When he stops in a tea room for a cup of tea, Murphy spends at least a page working through a series of ploys he could use to get the reluctant waitress, Vera, to top up his cup for free.
  • When Murphy takes the six biscuits he bought at the tearooms to Hyde Park, he lays them out on their paper bag on the grass, and then elaborately works through all the possible permutations of eating them in different orders, 120 ways, apparently, though it all depends whether he keeps the ginger biscuit fixed as the first choice, or mixes it in with the rest.
  • When Murphy starts work at the lunatic asylum, we are given a grindingly precise description of the layout of the building in every detail, which lacks any warmth or sympathy, is completely irrelevant to the ‘plot’, but pursues the description with obsessive pendantry.

I am probably using the term incorrectly, but it seems to me the narrative has a kind of autistic quality. It doesn’t bother much to describe other people or relationships between people – the ‘dialogue’ mostly just reveals misunderstanding and the ‘characters’ inability to communicate.

Comic?

Now, from some angles this obsession with the most trivial details could be made to seem comic – that a grown man puts so very much thought into how to arrange his six biscuits sounds, in principle, like it could be handled comically. The trouble is that, in practice, I found it grindingly boring, but more than that, brain-inflamingly frustrating.

For page after page the text maintains its obsessive and repetitive focus on the inner workings of the over-educated, under-motivated slob of an antihero as he shuffles round London, not really trying to get a job and surviving on a pittance while he does the only thing he enjoys, which is pore and pick over his own interminable mental lucubrations at gigantic length.

He distinguished between the actual and the virtual of his mind, not as between form and the formless yearning for form, but as between that of which he had both mental and physical experience and that of which he had mental experience only. Thus the form of the kick was actual; that of caress virtual. The mind felt its actual part to be above and bright, its virtual beneath and fading into dark, without however connecting this with the ethical yoyo. The mental experience was cut off from the physical experience, its criteria were not those of the physical experience, the agreement of part of its content with physical fact did not confer worth on that part. It did not function and could not be disposed according to a principle of worth. It was made up of light fading into dark, of above and beneath, but not of good and bad. It contained forms with parallel in another mode and forms without, but not right forms and wrong forms. It felt no issue between its light and dark, no need for its light to devour its dark. The need was now to be in the light, now in the half light, now in the dark. That was all. (p.70)

1. To be fair, this is not a completely characteristic passage, it comes from the four pages of chapter 6 in which the narrative comes to a dead stop while the narrator undertakes to explain to us the nature of ‘Murphy’s mind’. But the basic ‘ideas’ expressed in it underpin the whole book, and the obsession with the inner workings of Murphy’s self-absorbed consciousness is very much the book’s real subject.

2. Spending this much time on the experience of consciousness reminds us that Murphy was published in the late 1930s, when Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology was one of the dominating intellectual themes on the continent, picked up and refracted through the heavyweight existential philosophy of Martin Heidegger.

The phenomenological approach of examining and describing the inner workings of the mind is important to the writings of Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. In fact, Sartre’s first novel, Nausea, was published in this same year as Murphy, 1938, and is also about an aimlessly unhappy man (a post-graduate researcher in Sartre’s case), so obsessed with his own thoughts and feelings that the real world becomes intolerably alien and threatening to him, filling him with the nausea of the book’s title.

The plot

Murphy is a shiftless layabout, a ‘seedy solipsist’ (p.53) (much like Belacqua, the male protagonist of Beckett’s previous (and first) book, More Pricks Than Kicks).

He’s living in London. He’s met a streetwalker named Celia on the corner of Stadium Street and Cremorne Road in Chelsea (which nowadays looks like this). Celia is now haplessly trying to look after weird Murphy. His favourite hobby is tying himself to an armchair in dingy flats (in this he foreshadows the various trapped protagonists of Beckett’s later plays) and rocking rocking rocking back and forth, a process described several times in numbing detail.

As with Belacqua, it struck me that Murphy is a glaring epitome of the clever young would-be writer who is full of fluent sentences and feel for language, but has no real subject to write about. He wanders the streets not really looking for a job and feeling mighty superior about it.

For what was all working for a living but a procuring and a pimping for the money-bags, one’s lecherous tyrants the money-bags, so that they might breed. (p.49)

(This vaunting superiority to the bourgeoisie with their regular jobs and pay packets reminds me of the intellectually superior but wretchedly poor protagonist of George Orwell’s 1936 novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. A common delusion among young layabouts of all ages, that being poor but ‘free’ is superior to having a job, money and a life.)

Celia reports all this to her paternal grandfather, Mr Willoughby Kelly, who suggests she chucks him.

Meanwhile, in faraway Dublin (288 miles as the crow flies), Professor Neary smashes his head against the statue of Cuchulain inside the General Post Office building because he is in love with Celia, how or why, I never understood. He is rescued by one of his students, Needle Wylie who promises to track her down for him, by employing a private detective, Cooper. They meet the very beautiful Miss Counihan. It emerges that Murphy was till recently a student of Prof Neary’s and made all sorts of promises of love to Miss Counihan before leaving for London, after which no-one has heard from him.

Murphy goes to a tea rooms and spends a lot of time finagling to get a free top-up of tea from the reluctant waitress Vera. This process takes a long time. I could quote the several pages it stretches on for. Everything happens with a teeth-pulling slowness.

He is approached by an impecunious Irish poet, Austin Ticklepenny, who bewails his job at a mental home, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat. ‘Mental Mercyseat’ made me laugh, though it’s more Irish than English-sounding, and is obviously one of the many aspects of the book which are intended to be funny, like most of the characters’ names.

Murphy escapes from Ticklepenny, having dumped him with paying for the tea and biscuits ha ha! much to the frustration of Vera the waitress, and takes a bus to Hyde Park, where he is debating in what order to eat his biscuits when he is asked by a clairvoyant to mind her dachshund while she feeds the sheep (which apparently lived in Hyde Park back in those days) lettuce which she’s brought for them.

After the immense thoroughness of Murphy’s calculations about the biscuit, the dog eats them while he’s not looking! The sheep refuse the lettuce. Murphy falls asleep.

Murphy awakes in the park. It’s night. When he gets back to the flat he shares with Celia he discovers her spread-eagled, face-down on the bed. Why? Well, first we have to read chapter six describing in great detail the tripartite character of Murphy’s cerebellum and sensorium, and then the narrative moves on to more distractions so that we never, in fact, find out.

The old man in the room above is found having slashed his throat with a razor. Celia negotiates with the hard-bitten old landlady, the virgin Miss Carridge, for her and Murphy to move into the dead man’s smaller room and so pay less rent. With his usual punning obscurity, Murphy says to Celia:

‘A decayed valet severs the connexion and you set up a niobaloo as though he were your fourteen children.’

This is typical of the ‘dialogue’ which is not really intended to be communication between human beings in the way you and I are used to. Instead it is a laborious literary in-joke.

Niobe is a figure from Greek legend whose children were slain by the gods and lay unburied while she wept for them. This figure of weeping Niobe is a commonplace classical reference in Elizabethan literature i.e. Shakespeare. Beckett has made it into a very James Joycean joke/pun by combining the words Niobe and hullabaloo into niobaloo. So this apparently gibberish sentence can be explicated as Murphy criticising Celia for weeping for some dead old servant as extravagantly as Niobe did for her children. ‘Severs the connexion’ being a fancy phrase for ‘dying’ which obviously references the severing of the old man’s artery.

Whether you enjoy this book, and a lot of Beckett in general, will come down to whether you found pleasure in that sentence, whether you were able to decode its literary references, and whether you think it was worth the effort.

I can see what he’s trying to do, I can see how he is making his hero into a kind of linguistic car crash and that he is highlighting the absurdity of all communication, and the absurdity of language as a whole, and the ridiculousness of texts themselves.

I think I understand the intention, and appreciate a lot of his strategies of repetition and numbingly detailed analysis of language and thought. And if you read short passages, it has a gladsome liberating effect. But if you try to read it as a novel i.e. to read extended sections at one go, it becomes very wearing.

Murphy goes off to see about starting the job he had discussed with Ticklepenny at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (chuckle).

Celia takes the Tube to Hyde Park to see if she can find her wheelchair-bound protector, Mr Kelly, flying his kite, because this is his hobby. Unbeknownst to her, Celia is followed by a man named Cooper who is acting as a private detective for Wylie so as to find Celia so as to reconcile her with his revered Professor Neary.

Maybe I slept through the paragraphs where it was explained but I never did understand why Neary was so besotted with Celia. Anyway, Celia doesn’t find Kelly in the park. Cooper doesn’t speak to Celia, but follows her home to the flat she shares with Murphy in Holloway.

Meanwhile, Murphy is introduced to the head nurse at the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat, Mr Thomas (‘Bim’) Clinch who, it turns out, has staffed the place with his family, including his twin brother Mr Timothy (‘Bom’) Clinch and an aged uncle, ‘Bum’ – obviously humorous names. It is obviously intended at some level as a comedy.

Murphy is enraptured by the place and especially the offer of a garret room on the premises, instantly moving into it and pulling up the ladder up to it in order to prevent anyone else ever entering it. Solipsist heaven! He forgets all about Celia.

Chapter 10 is long. The private eye Cooper joins Neary, Wylie and Miss Counihan (who is convinced she is in love with Murphy) to discuss their plans, and then they all proceed to meet Celia in her flat. The dialogue throughout this chapter is, I think, some kind of satire on all the normal dialogue ever written by novelists and playwrights. It applies Beckett’s overlocution and vocabularical exuberance to every single statement… for twenty pages!

‘One of the innumerable small retail redeemers,’ sneered Miss Counihan, ‘lodging her pennyworth of pique in the post-golgothan kitty.’
But for Murphy’s horror of the mental belch, Celia would have recognised this phrase, if she had heard it. (p.144)

If you recall, Wylie has paid Cooper to find Celia so as to bring her together with his infatuated patron, Professor Neary.

But they all behave so incomprehensibly that I just read the words and sentences for their verbal quality, ignoring the dialogue and so-called ‘plot’ because I suspect both are made complex and/or impenetrable, deliberately to frustrate and provoke the ‘conventional’ reader.

I think the characters all agree to spend the night in Celia’s flat while they wait for Murphy to return there.

But Murphy doesn’t return. He does a night shift at the mental home. Some paragraphs describe his closeness to the dwarfish psychotic Mr Endon. On this night shift Mr Endon somehow gets out of his cell and releases some other inmates but any reader hoping for mayhem or some kind of romantic climax is disappointed, for all the inmates are all locked safely back up – though not without a compulsive-obsessive description of the home’s elaborate security systems and the schedule according to which warders are meant to visit each cell throughout the night.

Murphy plays a game of chess with Mr Endon. The game is laid out in standard chess notation in the text so we can follow it. In fact it includes po-faced comments on particular moves, as if it was annotating a fiendishly clever game between grand masters. But in fact, if you play it out, as I did on my own chess set, you quickly realise it’s gibberish, not played with any serious intent.

In fact there’s a useful video on YouTube which works through the entire chess game in Murphy. After just two moves you can see it’s unorthodox and after four or five you realise it’s a nonsense game, a mockery of a game. On the YouTube video you can hear the (Russian?) guy who made it laughing at the ridiculousness of the moves.

For me this epitomises the book, as Beckett may well have intended it to. In every respect – in terms of narrative, plot, style, dialogue, character and setting, Murphy is – deliberately – a travesty of a mockery of a sham.

From small puns to larger pratfalls to the inconsequence of most of the dialogue, to the silliness of the plot, the entire text is a ‘joke’, or a series of interlocking ‘jokes’, clever, witty and, in some passages actually quite funny – but taken as a whole a very heavy and demanding read.

After the night shift ends Murphy heads back to his garret, stripping off his clothes as he walks through the dark grounds, till he’s naked. He lies in the wet grass trying to remember Celia, his mother, his father, anyone, and failing. He goes up to his garret, sits naked in his beloved rocking chair, rocking rocking rocking back and forth, as usual described in autistic detail. I use this word because several friends have autistic sons and this kind of rocking back and forth, sometimes accompanied by moaning, is a big feature of their behaviour as I have personally witnessed it.

Then the gas heater Murphy’s rigged up explodes and kills him. Oh. That was unexpected.

In the next chapter Celia, Miss Conihoun, Neary, Wylie and Cooper are summoned from Celia’s flat by the head of the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat  Dr Angus Killiecrankie, to learn that Murphy is dead.

They are taken to see his scorched corpse in the refrigerator room. They confirm Murphy’s identity, Celia pointing out the birth mark on his thigh, which gives rise to the bad taste joke that, by being important to the identification, it is also a kind death mark. Birth mark, death mark, I see the play on words, indeed the play on ideas. Maybe someone with a different sense of humour from mine would find this very witty.

One by one the various characters drift off, some pairing off on the way.

In the short final chapter Celia takes her grandad to Hyde Park to fly his kite. She is absent for a while during which she has sex with someone for money. She needs money, after all. Old Mr Kelly dozes off and his kite string falls out of his hand, snaps and the kite flies off into the sky, lost forever. He clambers out of his wheelchair and totters after it yelling in despair till Celia catches him up, with help from passersby restores him to the wheelchair, and pushes him home.

The End.


Superelaborate style

There are far fewer really arcane and obscure words in Murphy than in Pricks, which is a shame because I enjoyed looking them up. But Murphy‘s basic approach is still one of exorbitant super-pedantry and arch contrivance for its own sake.

The blue glitter of Mr Kelly’s eyes in the uttermost depths of their orbits became fixed, then veiled by the classic pythonic glaze. He raised his left hand, where Celia’s tears had not yet dried, and seated it pronate on the crown of his skull – that was the position. In vain. He raised his right hand and laid the forefinger along his nose. He then returned both hands to their points of departure with Celia’s on the counterpane, the glitter came back into his eyes and he pronounced:
‘Chuck him.’ (p.17)

I suppose this might be funny if you have the right sense of humour. Sometimes I do. I found some of it funny, the insistence on a madly pedantic precisionism, the more trivial the gesture or thought the more extreme description is devoted to it. Thus the text is worried and nagged by an obsessive attention to the characters’ precise physical positions and movements. Often it is more modern ballet than fiction.

(This obsession with characters’ precise positions and movements would become central to Beckett’s plays of the 1950s and 60s, where every gesture of the stricken protagonists becomes charged with hypertrophic punctilio.)

And intellectual tricksiness. The adjective ‘pythonic’ in the quote above refers to the oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece, where the supernatural pythia supposedly spoke its prophecies through the mouth of a woman put into a demonic trance. So that one phrase ‘classic pythonic’ is enough to indicate – to those in on the joke – that the text is (absurdly) comparing Grandad Kelly to an ancient Greek oracle – an absurdly mock heroic comparison.

This fact goes some way to explaining the glitter of his eyes and his generally unnatural gestures, notably placing his left hand ‘pronate’ on his skull, pronate meaning “to turn into a prone position; to rotate (the hand or forearm) so that the surface of the palm is downward or toward the back”.

And once you’ve grasped this fact you realise that the whole paragraph is, in its arch, contrived way, an elaborate joke. The joke is in the contrast between the classical epitome and its degraded modern-day embodiment. It is in other words, the classic Modernist trope of holding up the classical world as perfect, as a model of dignity and decorum (implicitly in Eliot’s The Waste Land, more overtly in Joyce’s Ulysses) and contrasting it with the sorry sordid shambles of the modern world.

This is why many critical studies of Beckett describe him as the last of the Modernists, a Johnny-come-lately to the game of contrasting the marmoreal perfection of the classics with the squalid spit and sawdust de nos jours.

The same structural disjunction underlies the boom-boom ending when, after a paragraph making this calculated intellectual parallel, which is leading the (informed) reader to expect a declaration of potency and magnificence – all Grandad Kelly comes out with is the bathetically commonplace output, the pub slang expression: ‘Chuck him’.

Bathos refers to rhetorical anticlimax – an abrupt transition from a lofty style or grand topic to a common or vulgar one (Wikipedia)

I happened to ‘get’ this joke because I had the opportunity of a very literary education, so I spotted the python allusion and thus grasped the overall dynamic of the paragraph and the mock comic intention. But I doubt whether anyone who studied more worthwhile subjects than ancient and modern literature would get the reference or realise the humour.

So is it funny? Yes, to the correct audience.

Humourless humour

Is a joke which isn’t really funny still a joke? Does a joke need humour to be a joke? Can you have an utterly humourless joke, which has the structure of a joke, the shape of a joke, a build-up and a pay-off – but none of the warmth and collusion required for humour? These are some of the questions Murphy raised in my mind.

The modern introduction to the edition I read is by a Beckett scholar who talks breezily about Murphy being a great comic novel but, perhaps wisely, doesn’t give any actual examples of its comedy.

Is there comedy in the sustained mock-heroic tone, the use throughout of ridiculously highfalutin’ language to describe what are in fact very humdrum activities?

At this moment Murphy would willingly have waived his expectation of Antepurgatory for five minutes in his chair, renounced the lee of Belacqua’s rock and his embryonal repose, looking down at dawn across the reeds to the trembling of the austral sea and the sun obliquing to the north as it rose, immune from expiation until he should have dreamed it all through again, with the downright dreaming of an infant, from the spermarium to the crematorium. (p.51)

It’s a very distinct and striking style of writing. But is it funny? Is it meant to be?

Neary arrived the following morning, Cooper threw himself on his mercy, abated not one tittle of the truth and was turned off with contumely. (p.77)

For me this is the central question in reading early Beckett: I can see that much of it is intended to be arch, contrived, dry, bookish, intellectual, rarefied, allusive and ultra-clever humour – but I wonder if many other people do, and I wonder whether any of us should give a damn.

This was a joke that did not amuse Celia, at the best of times and places it could not have amused her. That did not matter. So far from being adapted to her, it was not addressed to her. It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered. (p.88)

‘It amused Murphy, that was all that mattered.’

Since Murphy is transparently another avatar of frustrated, impoverished, unpublished, would-be highbrow writer Beckett, maybe we can simply say, ‘It amused Beckett, that was all that mattered’. Beckett and his tiny number of pre-war readers. The introduction is very long on the book’s textual history, and very short on actual analysis, but it does include its sales figure.

1938 – 568 copies
1939 – 23
1940 – 20
1941 – 7

The remaining stock was destroyed in an air raid. In all, Beckett made £20 out of this book – before income tax. Not Harry Potter, is it?

It was only after Waiting For Godot completely transformed his fortunes in 1953, that publishers rereleased Beckett’s early novels and they quickly found a place in a retrospectively-created canon of his works, now used as evidence to interpret the difficult post-war plays, and to argue for his mock heroic, comedic roots.

Leslie Fiedler

Leslie Fiedler (1917 – 2003) was an American literary critic whose writings about American novelists I really enjoyed as a student. About Beckett, and Murphy in particular, he wrote in the New York Times:

Too much of the merely mannered is present, too much evidence of a desire to twit the bourgeoisie, too many asides, too many heavy-handed cryptic remarks, too much clumsy surrealist horseplay.

Which I agree with. But I can also see that amidst the mechanical verbiage of this over-erudite novel is the core Beckett which will emerge after the Second World War; that once he had abandoned the attempt to have realistic characters or plots or dialogue, he would arrive at grim scenarios where human puppets, trapped in repetitive plights, repeat the same meaningless gestures over and again and speak a speech composed of the inane repetition of shreds and tatters of clichéd, stereotyped, worn-out language.

As Fiedler also points out:

But the eerie deadpan humour is already at work: the gravely mathematical working out of all the possibilities of the most trivial situation, the savage eagerness to find in the disgusting occasions for laughs. It is as vaudevillian of the avant-garde that Beckett especially tickles us, converting its most solemn devices into quite serious gags.

‘Serious gags’. Maybe that phrase encapsulates the difficulty I’m having coming to terms with this book.

Astride the grave

Typical of the stretched humour is a paragraph describing how Murphy’s problems go right back to his vagitus. I had to look up ‘vagitus’ to find out that it means ‘a new-born baby’s first cry’ – and then read on to process the extended ‘joke’ that Murphy’s vagitus was not on the international agreed standard of A (on the musical scale) but a woeful double flat of A, thus missing the correct note by two semi-tones.

Never mind, writes the author – ‘His rattle will make amends’ (p.47), obviously meaning his death rattle. Birth-cry, death-cry. Everything comedic is here, a kind of structural symmetry, a neatness of vision and phrasing – everything except the warmth or the unexpected jolt which characterises a good joke.

Instead, this paragraph’s flat, obvious nihilism reminds me of one of the most famous quotes from the 1953 play which made Beckett’s name, Waiting For Godot:

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.

This kind of self-pitying, maudlin, depressiveness strikes me as very male. Having been present at the birth of both my children I know that no-one gives birth astride the grave, they give birth in a cluttered operating theatre surrounded by surgeons and nurses, in a welter of blood and other substances. And – contrary to Beckett – it is actually quite a happy moment for all concerned.

Believing in Beckett’s words involves a kind of wilful denial of the world as we know it to be. The focus on the grim and pointless is contrived. I.e. it is not necessary. I.e. it is a choice whether to enter his artificial and gloomy worldview or not. Ditto the style.

Irish

About half way through I had a kind of breakthrough. To keep myself going in what seemed a never-ending slog, I read chapter 9 – the long description of Murphy’s arrival at, and work duties in, the Magdalen Mental Mercyseat (I grant you the name is quite funny) – out loud and in an Irish accent.

Suddenly, it all made a lot more sense. Read – perceived and processed – in a received English, BBC accent, lots of the text seems pretentious and flat. You can hear this in the impeccably English pronunciation of actor Ronald Pickup, reading a clip from Murphy on YouTube. The prose falls dead from his lips.

Read, however, in the accent of a Dublin chancer, with a bit of a brogue and touch of the blarney and comic inappropriateness, as of two peasants discussing the finer points of your man St Augustine, I realised that quite a lot of the time the text is winking at you slyly, out of the corner of its eye.

Here is Murphy reflecting on the notion that the mental cases in the sanatorium are in fact correct to despise the worldly chaos of the scientists and psychiatrists. They are in fact happy to be locked up in their little worlds – as indeed Murphy would love to be completely sealed in his, but keeps falling afoul of the horrible quotidien.

(It’s a separate issue that this is a dangerously childish, misinformed and romantically adolescent view of mental illness which isn’t – as I have witnessed it in my own family – much of a seraphic, Buddhist self-containment.)

Anyway, Murphy thinks:

The melancholic’s melancholy, the manic’s fits of fury, the paranoid’s despair, were no doubt as little autonomous as the long fat face of a mute. Left in peace [by the authorities] they would have been as happy as Larry, short for Lazarus, whose raising seemed to Murphy perhaps the one occasion on which the Messiah had overstepped the mark. (p.113)

‘The Messiah overstepped the mark’. Saying it out loud in a cod Irish accent suddenly recalled the tone of all those characters in James Joyce who discuss religion and politics in floods of high-flown language which are liable at any time to give way to a sly crack or gutter phrase, all the better to puncture the mood.

‘Ah, sweet Jaysus, he was a good man, I’ll grant you that, but not always strictly following the orders of Him Upstairs, if you know what I mean. Ahr, that raising of Lazarus from the dead, sure I think that was overstepping the mark a bit, what do you say, Seamus?’

Maybe as an Englishman I’m not allowed to try on this accent, but it is the mocking sacrilegious tone found in Joyce’s early stories, the Joyce who gave us ‘The Ballad of Joking Jesus’.

From this point onwards it struck me that the prose ought to be declaimed in a larger-than-life Irish accent, as of a Dublin pub politician declaiming with the gift on him of a divine afflatus, giving maximum weight to every rare and toothsome topic, rolling and relishing his fine array of grandee locutions but keen to avoid the accusation of being a preening gobshite by occasionally ducking into street slang for the humour it gives the audience of his erogatory ejaculations.

Murphy meets the improvident drunken Irish poet Augustus Ticklepenny who had been prescribed work at the mental home in a bid by an estimable German doctor to cure him of his alcoholism. Being relieved of the stressful burden of writing poetic epics for the Ole Country turns out to work surprisingly well.

This view of the matter will not seem strange to anyone familiar with the class of pentameter that Ticklepenny felt it his duty to Erin to compose, as free as a canary in the fifth foot (a cruel sacrifice, for Ticklepenny hiccuped in end rimes) and at the caesura as hard and fast as his own divine flatus and otherwise bulging with  as many minor beauties from the gaelic prosodoturfy as could be sucked out of a mug of porter. No wonder he felt a new man washing the bottles and emptying the slops of the better-class mentally deranged. (p.57)

Only in the scenes in the mental home did the book make total sense to me. Here is the appropriate subject for Murphy’s spavined consciousness and it is no coincidence that Murphy surprises Bim, Bom and Ticklepenny by turning out to have a wonderful empathy with the closed-in mental cases, shut up in their own worlds. For that is how he would devoutly love to be, himself.

The fully at home feel of the asylum scenes tend to show up the earlier scenes of being pointless in London for the rather shabby contrivances they are (counting biscuits in Hyde Park!) and when we return to what has now become the travelling gang of Neary, Wylie, Counihan, Cooper and Celia the narrative falls apart, and the dialogue becomes dismayingly divagatory – as presumably intended.

The text – like the lead ‘character’ – is only really at home amid a certain kind of utterly fictional mental illness. Which also points forward to the bleak post-war plays, much shorter, much more focused, than his earlier palaverously periphrastic prose.


Contraptions and contrivances

1. Astrology

The first half of the book is threaded with an elaborate concern for astrology, with Murphy very aware of the position of planets rising and falling in the various star signs and so on, and the narrator similarly concerned to pin down the precise dates, times, and positions of the planets when various events occur. Thus Celia meets Murphy ‘on midsummer’s night, the sun being then in the Crab’ (p.10).

In chapter three Murphy opens a long analysis of his star signs, lucky numbers, days, colours, years and so on that has been generated for him by ‘Ramaswami Krishnasawmi Narayanaswami Suk’.

Is this meant to be a satire on the post-Great War fad for all things spiritual, of the kind that snared W.B. Yeats or Conan Doyle? Murphy periodically relates Suk’s predictions to all the subsequent happenings in the book.

For Chaucer in the 1300s, astrology is a sign of his intellectual delight in the beautiful complexity of God’s wonderful creation. It closely counterpoises lots of events in The Canterbury Tales, notably the long Knight’s Tale which is awash with astrological symbolism.

In Beckett, this transient interest in astrology feels very like a) another elaborate but somehow contentless scaffold, a machine to help generate more reams of prose b) an affectless piss-take.

It is indicative that the astrology theme disappears in the book’s second half. In my opinion this is because the reality of the mental home eclipses it i.e. the text finds its proper subject matter.

2. Timeframe

Much is made in commentary and introduction of the elaborate timeframe of the novel, with characters and narrator carefully referring to specific days, weeks, months in which events occur, referring back to them, calculating the time past or to go before further meetings or activities.

Fine. I can see this generating innumerable PhDs, but, again, it doesn’t really add to any enjoyment of the narrative, unless you accept that the needless becluttering of the text with bootless incunabula is the point of the text. The divagations are the purpose.

Sex

Surprisingly for such an alienated, disconnected narrative, there are regular references to sex. I think that some, maybe all of them, are at least partly there to cause controversy and fuss in the faraway 1930s, the decade when Joyce’s Ulysses and Lady Chatterly’s Lover were still banned.

For example, it is broadly hinted that Celia, the streetwalker enjoys being tied up and ravished, what we might nowadays call BDSM.

She could not go where livings were being made without feeling that they were being made away. She could not sit for long in the chair without the impulse stirring, tremulously, as for an exquisite depravity, to be naked and bound. (p.44)

And it is strongly hinted that Ticklepenny has his job at the sanatorium – and wangles a job for Murphy – because he is the gay boyfriend of the head man there, ‘Bim’ Clinch.

Earlier in the book there is a not-so-subtle reference to kissing and not of the kind which removes the clapper from the bell i.e. French kissing.

In the final stages Miss Counihan emerges as a Baywatch babe:

Miss Counihan rose, gathered her things together, walked to the door and unlocked it with the key that she exiled for that purpose from her bosom. Standing in profile against the blazing corridor, with her high buttocks and her low breasts, she looked not merely queenly, but on for anything. (p.136)

‘On for anything’ another example of bathos, of ending a mock heroic description with a crude, pub locution.

Maybe these deliberately close to the knuckle references are what Fiedler meant by ‘twitting the bourgeoisie’.

The Beckett vision

There may or may not be an absurdist, nihilist, existential, phenomenological, post-Christian or whatever philosophy behind the novel. One thing that is certain is that phrases periodically pop out which certainly do anticipate the monocular and above all repetitive vision of the post-war plays.

So all things hobble together for the only possible (p.141)

So all things limp together for the only possible. (p.146)

Buried amid the textual tapenade, are ripe examples of the tone, the phraseology and the crippled worldview of the plays which made Beckett famous.

Kneeling at the bedside, the hand starting in thick black ridges between his fingers, his lips, his nose and forehead almost touching Mr Endon’s, seeing himself stigmatised in those eyes that did not see him, Murphy heard words demanding so strongly to be spoken that he spoke them, right into Mr Endon’s face, Murphy who did not speak at all in an ordinary way unless spoken to, and not always even then.

‘the last at last seen of him
himself unseen by him
and of himself.’

A rest.
‘The last Mr Murphy saw of Mr Endon was Mr Murphy unseen by Mr Endon. This was also the last Murphy saw of Murphy.’
A rest.
‘The relation between Mr Murphy and Mr Endon could not have been better summed up than by the former’s sorrow at seeing himself in the latter’s immunity from seeing anything but himself.’
A long rest.
‘Mr Murphy is a speck in Mr Endon’s unseen.’
That was the whole extent of the little afflatulence. (p.156)

The poetry of paucity, the prosody of impoverishment.


Credit

Murphy by Samuel Beckett was published in 1938 by G. Routledge and Company. All page references are to the 2009 Faber paperback edition.

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson (1614)

Bartholomew Fair is a very long comic play set in London’s huge and sprawling Bartholomew Fair. The fair had been held every year on 24 August since the 12th century in the precincts of the Priory at West Smithfield, outside the Aldersgate, and by Jonson’s day had grown into a massive, teeming festival of entertainment, sideshows and crime.

Reflecting the size and complexity of its subject matter, Bartholomew Fair is a very decentralised play. There is no hero or central authority figure, although a couple of the more monstrous caricatures come to dominate the narrative. Instead there are some 33 speaking parts which sprawl across an unusually long text.

The characters can be divided into two categories: the regular fair stallholders who remain their colourful selves throughout the play, such as fat Ursla, keeper of the roast pig stall, and Edgworth the cutpurse; and the visitors to the fair, a more disparate crew who can be sub-divided into three groups:

  1. A citizen family made up of John Littlewit – immensely proud of his own cleverness and of his beautiful wife Win-the-fight, her mother Dame Purecraft, and Purecraft’s spiritual father, the vehement Puritan, Zeal-of-the-land Busy. Win is pregnant, so one motive for the family going to the fair is to buy some of the roast pig it was famous for and she is yearning for; but another is so Littlewit can see the puppet show he has written.
  2. Another family party led by Bartholomew Cokes, a legendarily simple-minded idiot, his tiny angry tutor Humphrey Wasp (who Cokes winds up by referring to throughout as ‘Numps’), his fiancee Grace Wellborn (who is reluctant to marry Cokes) and Cokes’s married sister, Mistress Overdo.
  3. A pair of witty gallants – Winwife who is a suitor for the hand of Dame Purecraft, and Quarlous (who at one point accuses his friend of ‘widow-hunting’). These two only go to the fair once they’ve learned the Cokes family are going, because they reckon the latter will behave so stupidly as to be good entertainment.

Omitted from this list is Justice Overdo. One of the main themes of this complex play is the legal situation of wards of court. Through the Court of Wards, Justice Overdo has ‘bought’ Grace Wellborn, i.e. become her guardian, expressly in order to marry her – and her fortune – off to his idiot brother-in-law Cokes. One of the complex ironies of the play is that Justice Overdo ploughs through the fair seeking out relatively minor misdemeanours while all the time blind to the gross moral (albeit legal) crime which he was committing (the issues is explained in detail on page 98 of the New Mermaid edition).

Similarly short-sighted and troublesome is the butt of the other Big Theme of the play, which is Puritanism. For over forty years, ever since the earliest plays began to appear on Elizabethan stages in the 1570s, Puritan preachers and writers had been violently denouncing plays and, by implication, most forms of imaginative writing. They accused them of dramatising and thus glamorising all manner of crimes, including murder and adultery, stirring up bawdry at every point, and also as providing a cockpit for gallants and fine ladies and city merchants and prostitutes and petty criminals to meet and indulge their basest passions.

When the play was presented to James I in 1614 Jonson wrote a short verse prologue specifically addressing the king and the trouble he had with non-conformists and Puritans – ‘the zealous noise of your land’s faction’ and their ‘petulant ways’ – is mentioned as early as line 3 and makes up most of the content:

Your Majesty is welcome to a Fair;
Such place, such men, such language, and such ware
You must expect: with these, the zealous noise
Of your land’s faction, scandalised at toys,
As babies, hobby-horses, puppet-plays,
And such-like rage, whereof the petulant ways
Yourself have known, and have been vext with long.

So an overbearing city official (Overdo) and an overbearing humbug (Busy) are the two main, serious, satirical butts of the play – but there are plenty of other victims, large and small.

Cast

Visitors to the fair

John Littlewit, a Proctor
Solomon, Littlewit’s man
Zeal-of-the-land Busy, suitor to Dame Purecraft, a Banbury Man
Winwife, his rival for Dame Purecraft, a Gentleman
Tom Quarlous, companion to Winwife, a gamester
Bartholomew Cokes, an Esquire of Harrow
Humphrey Wasp, his tutor
Adam Overdo, a Justice of Peace

Win-the-fight Littlewit
Dame Purecraft, her mother, and a widow
Mistress Overdo
Grace Wellborn, Ward to Justice Overdo

Fair people

Ezechiel Edgworth, a cutpurse
Nightingale, a Ballad-singer, who Edgworth slips the purses after he’s cut them
Mooncalf, dim and slow tapster to Ursula
Dan Jordan Knockem, a horse-courser, and a ranger of Turnbull – who talks continually about ‘vapours’
Lanthorn Leatherhead, a hobby-horse seller (toyman)
Valentine Cutting, a roarer or bully
Captain Whit, a bawd with a thick Irish accent
Trouble-all, a madman
Bristle, Haggis } Watchmen
Pocher, a Beadle
Filcher, Sharkwell } door-keepers to the puppet-show
Northern, a Clothier (a Northern Man)
Puppy, a wrestler (a Western Man)

Joan Trash, a gingerbread-woman, always bickering with Leatherhead the toy-man
Ursula, an immensely fat pig-woman
Ramping Alice, a prostitute

Costard-monger, Mousetrap-man, Corn-cutter, Watch, Porters, Puppets, Passengers, Mob, Boys, Etc.

The plot

Before it even starts, there is an unusual prologue in that the first person on-stage is a young stage-sweeper who gives a lengthy moan about how the play they’re about to see is nothing like Bartholomew Fair, he (the sweeper) knows it much better and gave the playwright many useful suggestions which he mocked and ignored.

The stage sweeper is then shooed offstage by two new arrivals, a book holder and scrivener, the former announcing he has come to make a deal with the audience. He gets the scrivener to read out a mock legal contract between author of the new play and the audience, which goes into some detail about how they are only allowed to criticise the play according to the entrance fee they’ve paid, and if one man has treated others audience members he can criticise to the extent of his payment but the others must be silent, and other humorous joshing about audiences and their criticisms. He says the play isn’t going to hearken back to former glories, nor is it going to feature servant-monsters from a Tale or Tempest (usually taken as a reference to Shakespeare’s recent plays The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest). He also goes out of his way to tell the audience to beware of spies and ‘politic pick-locks’ who would interpret this or that character as a libel on the famous and powerful. Such people must be exposed and mocked. All is for entertainment.

Act 1

The entire first act is set in Littlewit’s house, as we meet the man himself, in a good mood and fussing over his wife Win, lovely Win, la Win what a lovely day etc. Then one by one other characters are introduced: Winwife who, it is explained, is a suitor for Win’s mother, Dame Purecraft. Quarlous, who also fancies the Dame. To both Littlewit explains 2 things, 1. that Dame Purecraft has taken to visiting Bedlam to see the mad people, so anyone wooing her would do well to act a bit crazy and 2. just a few days ago her superior in the Puritan religion, Zeal-of-the-land Busy has come from Banbury to stay with them.

The act ends with Littlewit persuading his wife, Win, that she wants to go to the fair to eat pork at the famous pig shop – Littlewit also telling his wife that he has written a play for the puppets that he is itching to see performed.

Key characters

It is a vast play, 180 pages of solid prose whereas others in the New Mermaid hover around 100 to 120 pages, half of that in verse. In other words, it’s just packed with words and verbiage. Some of the characters are given whole pages of dense prose without paragraph breaks to explain their character and purposes.

Quarlous and Winwife play the role of The Observers, a pair of smart alec gentry who are cleverer than all around them. Having observed Littlewit and his compliant wife in the latter’s house – and then the arrival of Coke, the gangling, 19-year-old idiot heir – they declare to each other that following these dimwits to the fair will amount to excellent sport. And so they saunter through the rest of the play, sardonically observing the follies of the rest of the cast, pretending to sympathise while egging them on.

Thus they spend several pages outdoing each other with insults and abuse of Ursla, the pig woman, telling her how fat she is, while she replies with rich Bartholomew insults, until she is so infuriated she goes into her stall and emerges with a red hot scalding-pan, and gets into a fight with the two cocky young men, which she loses and in falling over manages to badly burn her leg so that half a dozen of the fair people have to carry her into her stall (II, v).

Master Overdo dresses up as a madman in order to infiltrate the world of the lowlife stallholders and is amusingly over-shocked by even the slightest scams and adulterations of food or drink or tobacco which he overhears, and has the stage to himself at quite a few early points to make mock heroic speeches about his bravery in going undercover and what he has to put up with in the performance of his duty – pomposity which is clearly intended to be mocked. Specially after he gets into dispute with Edgworth the cutpurse and ends up getting beaten up.

‘It is a comfort to a good conscience to be followed with a good fame in his sufferings. The world will have a pretty taste by this, how I can bear adversity; and it will beget a kind of reverence towards me hereafter, even from mine enemies, when they shall see, I carry my calamity nobly, and that it doth neither break me, nor bend me.’

Zeal of the Land Busy is a conspicuous hypocrite, depicted as endlessly stuffing his face (‘he eats with his eyes as well as his teeth’) while making long speeches about the sins of the flesh. He rails so loudly against Leatherhead’s toy stall and upsets Joan Trash’s basket of gingerbread men all over the floor, so that Leatherhead calls officers who, seeing all this, arrest Busy and take him off to the stocks.

Act 4

In a separate storyline Overdo (in his disguise) is placed in the stocks and learns that a man who he convicted the year before lost his place at the fair and his mind, and Overdo is chastened, and listening to other stories it dawns on him that compassion is suitable for a judge (IV, i).

After this chastening experience they take him out the stocks just as new officers rock up with Zeal-of-the-land who they had intended to put in the stocks but now the ravings of the madman Trouble-All has persuaded to take Busy in front of Justice Overdo instead.

Coke wanders round the fair being an imbecile. He has two purses. When the one containing only a little silver is pick-pocketed he makes a great show of waving around the other one and telling everyone it is full of gold, interspersed with joining in a long ballad about cutpurses sung by Nightingale, in the middle of which Edgworth does indeed pick Coke’s pocket, cutting the strings which attach his purse to his hose, and slipping it to Nightingale when no-one is looking (III, 5).

Except that Quarlous and Winwife are watching and see everything. They approach Nightingale and Edgworth, tell them they saw everything but won’t tell the officers, so long as the two crooks carry out some scams on simple-minded Cokes. Thus in a later scene they arrange for a pear-seller to stumble and drop his pears at Cokes’s feet. So naive is Cokes that he hands his hat, cloak and sword to a kind bystander as he stoops down to collect all the pears – and the bystander – Edgworth – promptly runs off with Cokes’s stuff – who stands up again, looks around, then starts shouting ‘Thief thief!’

Quarlous and Winwife – Quarlous is really the ringleader – commission Edgworth and Nightingale to steal from Wasp the black box containing the warrant for Coke’s marriage to the (very reluctant) Grace Wellborn III, v).

Meanwhile, in their flaneuring round the fair stirring up trouble, Quarlous and Winwife have been accompanied a lot of the time by Grace Wellborn, the poor young woman engaged to Cokes. In Act 4 she explains the situation. Her parents died leaving her a ward of court. Justice Overdo ‘bought’ her from the court and has now engaged her to his idiot brother-in-law, Cokes. Grace has now choice. If she refuses the marriage she will have to herself pay Overdo the value of the estate which he bought to buy her.

This outrageous story lights a spark of love in both men’s hearts and before we know what’s happening, Act 4 scene iii opens with the two men in a swordfight over Grace’s favours She begs them to desist. They say she must choose one of them. She says that’s ridiculous, she only met them a few hours ago. Instead she suggests they write in some writing tablets a name apiece, and then ask the first person to come past to choose one. They agree, write their names and the next person to appear is the madman, Trouble-All, whose every sentence is asking whether people have Justice Overdo’s warrant for their behaviour. He has difficulty understanding the task then ticks one of the two names more or less at random.

Now, Grace made the two suitors promise she wouldn’t show them which name was chosen till she was safely home, but in any case at this moment Edgworth rolls up to tell the pair of gallants that Wasp has fallen in with a droll set of company and that, if they come to watch, they enjoy his discomfiture and watch the box being foisted off him.

Quarlous watches half a dozen of the fair lowlifes playing a stupid game of ‘vapours’ where each person just has to contradict the speaker before him. Edgworth makes sure a fight breaks out between testy little Wasp and the Irishman, Captain Whit, and in the confusion steals the marriage licence (intended for Cokes and Grace) out of Wasp’s black box. Officers arrive to arrest Wasp (their role seems to be to punish everyone who is uppity and overbearing) and meanwhile, Mistress Overdo has been left without her man in the company of these rowdy gamesters and has been trying to calm them and stop them fighting.

Now she asks Whit if he can arrange for her to go for a pee somewhere. Just then fat Ursla enters and Whit asks her if Mistress O can use the ‘jordan’ in her booth to which she points out it is already being used by Win, Littlewit’s wife who we saw, in an earlier scene, saying she needed a leak. Knockem comes upon Whit in a corner with Mistress Overdo trying to help her and the conversation takes a bawdy turn as the rough fairmen make rude innuendos to Mistress Overdo which – I think – she quite enjoys.

Anyway, as Mistress Overdo goes into Ursla’s booth or tent, Littlewit and Win emerge – her presumably relieved to have had a pee – and Littlewit announces he is off to see the puppet show that he wrote and off he goes.

The point is – this leaves Win by herself just by Ursla’s booth and Mistress Overdo within it and sets Ursla thinking – the various rascals and cutpurses she knows will be tired and randy by the end of the fair and she has no ‘plover or quail’ (meaning wenches, meaning whores) ready for their entertainment. And here are two posh and rather silly women abandoned, Win and Mistress O. Ursla suggests to Kockem that they ‘work on’ the two women, with a view to making them compliant with the wishes of the whore customers they know will be arriving soon.

Kockem and Whit immediately set about persuading dim Win that a married woman’s lot is a terrible thing and she would be much better if she became a ‘lady’, wore fine clothes bought for her by her countless male lovers. Win is immediately dazzled, but the plan is knocked awry because, inside Ursla’s tent, Mistress Overdo encountered a real whore / punk, Alice of Turnbull, Ramping Alice, who has started beating and belabouring her. The men – Whit and Knockem – quickly dispatch Alice – after some choice insults have flown about – and resume seducing Win with visions of fine clothes and a coach of her own.

Enter Edgworth who has given the marriage licence he stole out of Wasp’s black box to Quarlous. Edgworth offers Quarlous the women in Ursla’s booth, fine green women he promises, but Quarlous scorns such an offer and warns Edgworth he saw him cut a purse so holds the threat of the hangman over him.

Edgworth exits and enter the watchman, Haggis, bearing Wasp to the stocks which they lock him in. (If you remember Wasp got into a fight with a bunch of roughs and Mistress Overdo shouted for the watch to come and restore peace, and because testy old Wasp wouldn’t stop shouting ‘A turd i’ your teeth’ at everybody, they arrested him.) Quarlous saunters by and enjoys teasing Wasp in the stocks.

As he does so the other officers bring back Zeal-of-the-land Busy and Justice Overdo still in disguise. They lament that they can’t find Justice Overdo anywhere and his assistants don’t know where he is so, in the absence of his authority, they’ll clap these two troublemakers min the stocks and proceed to do so – so for a while Wasp, Overdo and Busy exchange moans.

Trouble-All enters. Now Quarlous has been looking for him ever since he indicated in Grace Wellborn’s writing tablets which man should marry her to ask him which he chose – but the officers now tease Trouble-All and call him a madman so Quarlous is taken aback to learn that the man who has made the decision of whether he will marry Grace or not is insane. By a ruse Wasp escapes from the stocks and the officers, when they return, argue about whether they were locked properly, undo them with a view to redoing them tighter but at that moment Trouble-All enters and the mocking escalates into a fight, during which Overdo and Busy take advantage to escape. When they stop fighting the officers look round and are horrified that their prisoners have escaped.

During this confusion, improbably enough, Dame Purecraft, the widowed Puritan falls in love with Trouble-All because, like many stage madmen, he speaks clearly and nobly (if obsessively and repetitively). While Dame Purecraft declares her love for Quarlous-as-Trouble-All, Quarlous has dressed like this in order to ask Grace to see the chapbook and see which name ‘he’ ticked. Turns out it wasn’t him, it was Winwife. The secret is out.

So: Grace admits it to Winwife who is over the moon and they exit. Quarlous is sunk in dejection as Dame Purecraft tells him she loves him – at which he rounds on her with a snarling abuse of all Puritans. To which she reveals that she is indeed a hypocrite and gives a long list of the deceptions and cons she has been carrying out under cover of being a deacon for the past seven years, not least mulcting gifts from all the suitors she’s led on – and goes on to indict Zeal-of-the-land as ‘the capital knave of the land’ and listing his crimes and deceits – presumably to the enthusiastic applause of the audience.

Quarlous turns to the audience and ponders. Well, he’s definitely lost Grace and has no other prospects in sight. Dame P has just said she’s worth some £6,000. Well… why not marry her, he has Cokes’s marriage licence in his pocket, all he has to do is scratch out the name, marry the widow and come into a fortune and a juicy wife. Yes. He’ll do it.

At this point Justice Overdo-in-disguise approaches Quarlous, thinking he is Trouble-All who he has so much offended, and reveals his true identity and offers to do anything to make reparations, offers him a blank warrant signed and sealed by him. Quarlous jumps at the opportunity, Overdo gives him such a warrant, and Quarlous is left reflecting how powerful this disguise of insanity can be.

Act 5

Act five centres around the puppet theatre and the play Littlewit has written for it. But of course various other plotlines come to a climax.

Enter Leatherhead (who for the rest of the play takes the alias Lantern) and Filcher and Sharkwell, who are going to stage the puppet theatre. Leatherhead reflects that although Biblical subjects are topical (like the fall or Nineveh or Sodom and Gomorrah) domestic subjects like the Gunpowder Plot are best.

Enter a) Overdo in a new disguise, that of a porter, still bent on his misguided mission to seek out ‘enormity’ before, as he plans, bursting forth in all his magnificence to rain down justice on his people. At least that’s how he sees himself; b) Quarlous, who has disguised himself as Trouble-All the madman.

The playmen and their booth: enter Cokes followed, as he now is everywhere, by a flock of children who’ve realised he’s an idiot, he reads out loud the playbill for the benefit of the audience i.e. it is going to be a parody of Marlowe’s heroic poem, Hero and Leander. Enter Lovewit who one of the boothmen owners won’t let enter though he protests he is the author of the damn play!

Littlewit greets Cokes and is surprised to see him without a cloak or hat – Cokes laments how he has lost everything at the fair – both his purses, his clothes and all his friends. Like an idiot, Cokes is excited about the play and asks if he can meet the actors or visit the changing room. Amused, Lantern explains that both are a little small.

This conversation takes in references to contemporary actors, including Richard Burbage and Nathan Fields, before Lantern explains that they commissioned Littlewit to adapt Hero and Leander for modern times and modern audiences. Indeed, we learn that the Hellespont has been translated into the River Thames, Leander is a dyer’s son from Puddle Wharf, and Hero a wench of Bankside, who is rowed one morning over to Old Fish Street and Leander, spying her alighting at Trig Stairs (these are all real locations in Jacobean London) falls in love with her. Or with her white legs. It is a crude, funny burlesque of the Marlowe poem.

Other character arrive for the play: Overdo still in disguise as a porter; Winwife now attached to Grace (they both hear Cokes being very dismissive of Grace who he’s never liked); and the two posh women who have been talked into becoming whores, silly Win and pompous Mistress Overdo, both wearing masks, swanking in fine clothes and enjoying having chairs pulled out for them, men dancing attendance; and Wasp – when Cokes tells Wasp he knows he’s been in the stocks, Wasp laments that his authority over his pupils is now at an end. (To be honest this doesn’t make much impact, because Wasp never seems to have had any influence at all over the idiot Cokes.)

They settle down to watch the play in bad rhymed verse as the puppets play the parts of Hero the fishmonger’s daughter, and Leander the dyer’s son. Cokes keeps interrupting when he doesn’t understand bits, or to praise bits he does understand.

This is by far the funniest part of the play, not least because it is the most self-contained and comprehensible. The reader easily understands that the puppet play is an outrageous burlesque of two classical stories, the tragic love affair and Hero and Leander and the legendary friendship of Pythias and Damon. In Littlewit/Jonson’s hands these become raucous fishwives and drunks. The famous friends fall out as they compete to hurl insults at the lovers which descends into a fight. And a little later puppet Damon and Pythias comes across puppet Hero and Leander snogging, start insulting her as a whore, she turns, bends, flips up her skirts and says they can kiss her whore arse, at which they kick her arse, and all the puppets descend into fighting again. All this while Cokes, like an idiot, repeats various parts of the bad verse, telling everyone else how much he admires it, and then cheering when the puppets start fighting. It’s also funny the way the puppetmaster, Leatherhead/Lantern, whispers asides to Cokes, about the onstage action, as if the puppets are real people.

So as a scene it is by far the most coherent and comprehensible and the comedy is as funny now as it was 400 years ago.

All this argy-bargy wakes up the puppet ghost of Dionysius but he’s barely delivered a speech before into the whole scene bursts Zeal-of-the-land Busy, fired up with rage and fury against the play and against the fair in general. But his wrath against the puppetmaster, Leatherhead, is neatly diverted against the puppets themselves, and Busy finds himself engaged in a Public Debate About Morality with a puppet – much to the derision of the onlookers.

The debate reaches a climax when Busy accuses the puppets of what Puritans had been accusing the theatre and actors for 40 years or more, namely that theatre was an unnatural abomination for encouraging men to dress up as women and women to dress up as men. The puppet Dionysius gleefully refutes Busy by lifting up his skirts and revealing that – he has no sex at all!

Deflated, Busy acknowledges defeat and sits down.

But this is the moment Justice Overdo chooses to throw off his disguise and carry out his Grand Promise to discover the ‘enormities’ of the fair and punish them all.

OVERDO: Now, to my enormities: look upon me, O London! and see me, O Smithfield! the example of justice, and Mirrour of Magistrates; the true top of formality, and scourge of enormity. Hearken unto my labours, and but observe my discoveries; and compare Hercules with me, if thou dar’st, of old; or Columbus, Magellan, or our countryman Drake, of later times. Stand forth, you weeds of enormity, and spread.

Immediately all the shady characters – Knockem, Whit – start sneaking away. But the real point is that, instead of dispensing justice and creating order, Overdo’s presence raises confusion to new heights. Ursla comes running in chasing the real Trouble-All, who has stolen her pan because, as Ursla explains, some nasty man stripped Trouble-All and borrowed all his clothes. Overdo turns to the man he thought was Trouble-All, who is in fact Quarlous and now admits it. Overdo orders the two masked women in the audience to unmask and they are revealed as Win – so Littlewit is appalled to see his wife dressed up as a whore – and Mistress Overdo – and the Justice is dumbstruck to see his wife dolled up like a trollop. Worse, she is immediately sick into a basin having drunk to excess (explains how the rogues got her to dress that way in the first place).

While Overdo is struck dumb, Quarlous – the witty cynical gallant who has in many ways been a chorus and instigator of scams – now steps forward and takes the Justice’s function, pointing out the true state of affairs.

  • The man Overdo took a liking to early on in the fair and has been protecting throughout is none other than Edgworth the cutpurse, who stole both Cokes’s purses and helped stir up the fighting which got Overdo and Wasp landed in the stocks.
  • Grace Wellborn, who Overdo intended to marry off to Cokes, has now become ward to Quarlous, who filled in the blank seal and signature he gave him to this effect.
  • Quarlous hands Grace over to Winwife, who won her in the little game where she wrote their names down and got the first passerby (who happened to be Trouble-All) to choose one. But since Quarlous is now Grace’s guardian, Winwife must pay him the value of her estate in order to free her for marriage. (This is a little difficult to follow, but it was the law of the land at the time.)
  • Quarlous hands Trouble-All back his cloak and gown and thanks him for the loan.
  • Then turns to his wife, Dame Purecraft, whom he has married in the guide of the madman Trouble-All, and who he now promises he can be mad whenever he pleases.
  • And then points to Wasp and facetiously thanks him for the marriage licence (which Quarlous got to steal out of Wasp’s black box) which he has used to marry the widow.

So Zeal-of-the-land Busy has been publicly humiliated and revealed as a hypocrite; Justice Overdo revealed as a man puffed up with own self-importance who doesn’t have a clue what’s going on, and his wife was on the verge of becoming a drunken whore; Wasp has lost all authority over his pupil; Littlewit has realised his wife was also easily led to become a fairground bawd; Winwife did win a wife, but only by default, not out of his own abilities.

And Quarlous is the clear winner and impresario of the entire play. As such he reprimands the justice:

QUARLOUS: Remember you are but Adam, flesh and blood! you have your frailty

And then goes on to perform the traditional role of inviting everyone to an end-of-comedy celebration feast at Overdo’s house:

QUARLOUS: Forget your other name of Overdo, and invite us all to supper. There you and I will compare our discoveries; and drown the memory of all enormity in your biggest bowl at home.

And then the Epilogue steps forward to address the king and asked if he was pleased. Presumably he was, as Jonson wasn’t thrown into prison! In fact by this stage, Jonson was well into his second career as a writer of masques for the royal court, and was in the highest favour.

Thoughts

Long Bartholomew Fair is so epically long – twice as long as a play like The Shoemaker’s Holiday – and consists of walls of solid prose unrelieved by passages of verse like all the other Jacobean comedies I’ve read – that I was just relieved to get to the end of it.

Numerous characters Both Volpone and The Alchemist have a much smaller cast of characters, much more focused plots and move much faster. There are so many characters in Bartholomew Fair that I found it difficult to distinguish many of the minor ones, especially the rogues who only appear in a few scenes, like Puppy and Cutting and Northern and Haggis and Filcher and Sharkwell.

Difficult prose This is compounded by the fact that 17th century prose is difficult to read. It’s unusual to get even a single sentence that doesn’t contain at least one obscure word or expression, or isn’t part of an elaborate metaphor which is incomprehensible without a good footnote. So you are continually stopping to read the notes and understand what they’re saying.

Different motivations And at a level just above the verbal, it’s often difficult to understand what the characters are trying to say or do. Even when you’ve understood every word in a speech it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve understood why the character said it or what they were driving at. You are constantly rubbed up against the fact that, on a verbal and minor psychological level, the people of 400 years ago had different moment by moment concerns, and expressed them in language, metaphors and elaborate conceits, which are hard to grasp.

Disease Despite these obstacles, several things do come over loud and clear. The first is how utterly unlike our times the Jacobean era was in two obvious respects: the brutality of its punishments and the virulence of disease. There was no medicine worth the name and not only the recurring pandemics of plague, but smallpox, typhoid, syphilis and a host of other diseases killed or maimed a large percentage of the population and there was nothing the so-called doctors or anyone else could do about it.

Brutality As to the punishments, it is hair-raising the way even minor offences led to hanging, and the play refers throughout to the ritual whereby the condemned were taken in carts from the various London prisons to Tyburn to be hanged amid much popular celebration. But even worse in its way was the commonness with which whipping and scourging was applied. Ramping Alice the prostitute was whipped and scourged simply for being a prostitute.

Therefore the people in this time, as for centuries before and for some time to come, lived between two dire threats, the threat of catching, suffering horribly and dying from appalling diseases – and the threat of infringing one of any number of man-made laws and being subjected to capital punishment or extremely violent punishments.

Sex The next most obvious aspect is the absolute drenching of the play in sex and sexual innuendo. As with most comedies there’s a marriage plot (who will marry Grace Wellborn?) surrounded by seemingly endless jokes about marriage and adultery, endless references to the cuckold’s horns which arise when a man’s wife is unfaithful to him. But it’s far deeper than that, not a page of the text, not a minute of the play goes by without someone making a comment which has a sexual implication or double meaning. In these plays sex is everywhere, all the time.

Theatrical convention Now you could take this at face value and say something like, the Elizabethans and Jacobeans lived in a society which was massively less sexually repressed than our own, in which everyone all the time is making sexual comments and innuendo. Except that, as the editor of the Mermaid edition of The Shoemaker’s Holiday, D.J. Palmer, emphasises, plays like this should not be taken as documentary evidence of 1600s London life – far from it. They are entertainments and follow the conventions of entertainment, many of which have stayed the same from Chaucer to TV sitcoms like ‘Allo ‘Allo, Open All Hours or Last of the Summer Wine.

For centuries – in fact for millennia, because the Greeks and Romans did it, too – playwrights have used bawdiness and double entendre to make people laugh and have flooded the stage with sexual innuendo and byplay precisely because it was and is so lacking in everyday life. Characters on stage are licensed to be outrageously forward and suggestive (just as they are licensed to fall into despair and kill themselves or rage and storm and murder people) precisely as an outlet for feelings and impulses which most people, most of the time, in most societies we have records of, have been forced to repress and contain.

Overdo As to the obvious themes of the play, these are embodied in arguably the two key figures are Justice Overdo and Zeal-of-the-Land Busy. The justice is probably the more important one and his storyline concerns the way he adopts a disguise to seek out ‘enormity’, but this is problematic. Arguably going in disguise means abdicating the responsibility he has to be there in person – we see the watchmen at a loss what to do without his authority – and has a secondary indictment in that the ‘enormities’ he thinks he discovers are trivial. The main point of his storyline though, is seeing close up the impact a casual judgement of his against Trouble-All had on the poor man, namely to drive him mad.

Busy Zeal-of-the-Land Busy has less stage time than Overdo but is a more vivid character, not least because the Puritan rhetoric he uses is so very distinctive and, in its way, attractive. Here he is warning his little flock about the perils of the fair:

BUSY: The place is Smithfield, or the field of smiths, the grove of hobby-horses and trinkets, the wares are the wares of devils, and the whole Fair is the shop of Satan: they are hooks and baits, very baits, that are hung out on every side, to catch you, and to hold you, as it were, by the gills, and by the nostrils, as the fisher doth; therefore you must not look nor turn toward them.—The heathen man could stop his ears with wax against the harlot of the sea; do you the like with your fingers against the bells of the beast.

He is taken down twice, once when the widow, Dame Purecraft, reveals to Quarlous and the audience all the scams she and he have been foisting on their ‘brethren’ for seven years, and then when he loses his Public Debate to a puppet.

Conclusion

Complicated and obscure as some of it is, the broad plotlines are still totally accessible and Bartholomew Fair is not only sometimes very funny but turns into a thought-provoking meditation on social and cultural power which is still relevant to our times.


Social history

  • The Hope theatre where the play was performed, was also used for bear-baiting. On bear days the stage was taken down to allow packs of dogs to try and maul bears to death while the bears defended themselves and spectators gambled on the outcome.
  • King James opened a public lottery in 1612 to raise funds for the colonisation of Virginia (a colony often mentioned in these plays). James Fort, Virginia, had been founded in 1607, and would be renamed Jamestown.
  • It was a popular stereotype that Dutchmen consumed excessive amounts of butter.
  • Bridewell prison specialised in sexual offenders. The sex worker Ramping Alice was recently an inmate where she was flogged and scourged i.e. cut with the scourge.
  • A waistcoat, when worn without a gown over it, was the sign of prostitutes, who were sometimes known as ‘waistcoateers’.
  • Words for sex worker: prostitute, whore, bawd, jade, punk, waistcoateer, green woman,
  • Tailors were supposed to be a) bawdy, presumably because they saw their clients in states of undress b) greedy, having enormous appetites.
  • Colliers, black from their trade, were thought to be a) notorious cheats b) associated with hell.
  • The trade of working with feathers to make and sell fans and puffs and perukes was associated with Puritans, especially in the Blackfriars area (location of the Blackfriars theatre and also where Jonson lived). The contradiction between their vehement raging against worldly vanity, and the fact they made a handsome profit out of catering to that vanity, did not escape the Puritans’ critics.

Related links

Jacobean comedies

Cavalier poetry

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Roaring Girl, or Moll Cutpurse by Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker (1611)

‘Perhaps for my mad going some reprove me:
I please myself and care not else who loves me.’
(Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl)

According to Elizabeth Cook, editor of the New Mermaid edition of The Roaring Girl, Middleton was for centuries dismissed as just another member of the flock of playwrights who swarmed in London between about 1590 and 1630 and who collectively produced over 600 plays of all styles, shapes and sizes.

It was T.S. Eliot’s 1927 essay about Middleton which made a solid claim for him being second only to Shakespeare among the playwrights of the era, not least because he wrote enduring plays in both the major genres, of tragedy (The Changeling and Women Beware Women) and comedy (The Roaring Girl and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside), and which began the 20th century rise of his reputation.

The Roaring Girl stands slightly to one side of Middleton’s comedies, firstly because it was a collaboration (with Thomas Dekker). (It is fascinating to learn that the majority of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays were collaborations, because of the furious demand of theatres which often only staged new plays for a week or two before requiring yet more audience fodder.)

It is also slightly unusual because it is based on contemporary fact, namely the life of Mary Frith, a notorious character of the time, widely known as ‘Moll Cutpurse’, who had gained a reputation for wearing men’s clothes and behaving like a young tough. Contemporary accounts describe her as ‘wearing men’s clothes, appearing on the stage, drinking, swearing, making “immodest and lascivious speeches,” prostitution, pick-pocketing, forgery, and highway robbery’. Frith inspired numerous contemporary accounts, including a chapbook written by John Day titled The Mad Pranks of Merry Moll of the Bankside (1610) and appearing in Nathaniel Field’s Amends for Ladies (1611).

Cast

Moll, the Roaring Girl

The posh men

Sir Alexander Wengrave
Young Sebastian Wengrave, his son – the ‘hero’
Neatfoot, his servant
Gull, his page
Ralph Trapdoor, his spy
Sir Adam Appleton
Sir Davy Dapper
Jack Dapper, spendthrift son to Sir Davy
Sir Guy Fitzallard
(Mary Fitzallard, his daughter, in love with Sebastian Wengrave – the ‘heroine’)
Sir Beauteous Ganymede
Goshawk, a deceiving gallant
Laxton, another deceiving gallant
Greenwit, assistant to Laxton in some scams

Curtilax, a Sergeant
Hanger, his Yeoman (both commissioned by Sir Davy Dapper to arrest his spendthrift son, Jack)

City merchants and their wives

Tiltyard, a Feather-seller
Mistress Tiltyard
Openwork, a Sempster
Mistress Rosamond Openwork – Goshawk tries to seduce her
Hippocrates Gallipot, an Apothecary
Mistress Prudence Gallipot – Laxton tries to seduce her

Act I

Oddly, Moll, the start of the play, doesn’t appear for the entire first act. Maybe one aim was to make her eventual arrival onstage that much more ‘dramatic’. Instead both scenes of act one are set in Sir Alexander Wengrave’s grand house where he is grandly entertaining guests.

Scene 1 is set in the chambers of his son, Sebastian, into which is shown a young woman dressed as a disguise. This is quickly revealed to be Mary Fitzallard who Sebastian is in love with. Why, she asks, has he been ignoring her? Because, he explains, his father is grand and ambitious and is demanding a huge dowry from her parents. But Sebastian has a plan which he now explains: he has not seen Mary for a while because he is pretending to be in love with the notorious man-dressing, roaring girl, Moll Cutpurse. His father will be so worried about that match that he will see marriage to Mary as the preferable alternative.

Scene 2 introduces us to Sebastian’s father, Sir Alexander, who is grandly hosting a party of posh friends who he proceeds to share his sadness that his son is driving him to an early grave by being in love with a ‘man-woman’, Moll Cutpurse. Father and son have a flaring row in front of everything and Sebastian stomps out and the guests leave. At which point a new servant presents himself, one Ralph Trapdoor who has been recommended to Sir Alexander. This is handy. Sir Alexander orders Trapdoor, and to find Moll, inveigle himself into her good books and find some way to destroy her.

Act II

Scene 1: The three shops The gallants who had been Sir Alexander Wengrave’s guests in act 1, are now seen drifting between three London shops, chatting to the shopkeepers, flirting with their wives and ribbing each other. We see  Laxton flirting with Mistress Gallipot of the tobacco shop, borrowing money from her and telling the audience, aside, that he doesn’t like her much but strings her along with promises of a sexual dalliance, meanwhile borrowing money from her to spend on other women.

Finally, enter Moll Cutpurse, chatting and joshing with the shopwomen. Laxton – who has emerged as the randiest and most cynical of the gallants – pesters her to make a date with him and eventually she gives in and agrees to meet him at Gray’s Inn Fields at 3 that afternoon.

Trapdoor then enters, spots Moll, and quickly offers to be her servant, flirts and fawns over her. She’s suspicious but agrees to meet him, also, in Gray’s Inn Fields between 3 and 4. The gallants go off to chase a duck with spaniels on Parlous Pond!

Scene 2: A street Sebastian makes a soliloquy about love during which his father enters, unseen, and spies on him. Sebastian notices this (‘art thou so near?’) and steers his speech round to indicating he is in love with Moll Cutpurse, to his father’s predictable dismay. Moll herself enters, accompanied by a porter carrying a large viol on his back (?) and Sebastian woos her. She is polite but rebuffs him – “I have no humour to marry: I love to lie a’ both sides a’ th’ bed myself” – saying she is chaste and will never marry.

Enter a tailor and there’s some crude joking about him taking her measurements for a pair of breeches, an item of clothing normally worn only by men, which Sir Alexander watches with predictable horror.

Sir Alexander comes forward and rebukes his son, saying that Moll will disgrace him because she is a whore and a thief, throwing in the fact that all the worst women in London are called Moll. Sebastian defends her against these general slurs – ‘Would all Molls were no worse’ and exits.

Sir Alexander is genuinely upset and, on this reading, I began to feel sorry for him. But he resolves to pursue and shame Moll. In a final soliloquy, Sebastian decides that he must share his plan with Moll in hope that she will help him and Mary.

Act III

Scene 1 – Gray’s Inn Fields Laxton is hanging round waiting impatiently for Moll to keep her appointment. When she arrives, dressed as a man, he doesn’t at first recognise her. But when he does, she delivers a brilliantly impassioned speech in defence of women and attacking all lecherous men like Laxton who think that just because she smiles and jests and drinks a toast a woman is hot for sex, whereas she is just being human, and Moll draws her sword and forces him to fight, ferociously wishing Laxton was all men who think like him, so she could punish the entire sex.

LAXTON: Draw upon a woman? Why, what dost mean, Moll?
MOLL: To teach thy base thoughts manners: th’ art one of those
That thinks each woman thy fond, flexible whore
If she but cast a liberal eye upon thee;
Turn back her head, she’s thine, or amongst company,
By chance drink first to thee. Then she’s quite gone;
There’s no means to help her, nay, for a need,
Wilt swear unto thy credulous fellow lechers
That th’ art more in favour with a lady
At first sight than her monkey all her lifetime.
How many of our sex by such as thou
Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name
That never deserved loosely, or did trip
In path of whoredom beyond cup and lip?

‘Have their good thoughts paid with a blasted name?’ It’s a rousing speech that rings down the ages and is still true. Moll cuts Laxton, he refers to the blood running and needing a surgeon and runs off shocked. — He has demonstrated his lack of manliness, his lack. He lacks stones i.e. testicles.

Enter Trapdoor enters. Moll, still dressed as a man, bumps rudely into him, flicks his face and taunts him to attack her. It’s only when he refuses, that she reveals her identity and he immediately fawns and asks to be her man. She calculatingly agrees, promises to pass on to him her hand-me-downs and they exit off to St Thomas Apostle’s, east of St Paul’s. — Trapdoor also shows himself to be all mouth and no trousers, when he refuses to fight with Moll-as-man.

Scene 2 – Master Gallipot’s house And now to another unmanly man, the nagged ‘apron husband’ Gallipot, whose wife despises him for being weak and feeble. This, we realise, is why she wishes an affair with Laxton (although in act 2 we saw how Laxton, in reality, despises her and only strings her along to extract loans from her).

Laxton has smuggled her a letter in which he blethers her with sweet words before coming to the point that he needs £30. She is just agonising over how to get this for him (and her anxiety about money, pawning some belongings but maybe being found out – in a flash reminded me of Madam Bovary and the horrible mess of debts she gets into 250 years later) when her husband comes in, wondering why she’s left the dinner party they’re hosting for friends.

Gallipot spies his wife reading but as he calls to her (‘Pru’) she tears up the letter and invents a sob story on the spot, saying that she and Laxton were engaged to be married, but he went off to the wars, she heard he was dead, and so she married Gallipot, but now Laxton is back and wants to claim her as his wife. Gallipot is horrified as he loves his wife and has had children by her which us why, when she cunningly suggests buying Laxton off with thirty pounds, he readily agrees.

The dinner party guests come out and comment on Mistress Gallipot’s unhappy appearance with much bawdy and obscene double entendres, some of them guessing that Master Gallipot is having an affair, that’s why she looks so upset. They say their goodbyes.

Whereupon Laxton himself enters, complaining about apothecaries (remember we last saw him being cut and slashed by Moll). In what is presumably a comic scene, Mistress Gallipot quickly conveys the lies she’s told her husband (that she and Laxton were engaged), Laxton picks it up quickly, and they both smile as Master Gallipot begs him to accept £30 to make all right between them. Gallipot goes into his house to organise the money and Laxton genuinely praises her for her quick-witted deceitfulness.

Scene 3 – Holborn Street Sir Alexander with some of his grand friends. Enter Trapdoor who silkily tells him that Sebastian and Moll plan to meet at 3 o’clock in his (Sir Alexander’s) chamber to have sex. So. They will trap the pair. To give a cover to their meetings, he instructs Trapdoor to behave as an angry debtor, and so the spy leaves.

His friends, Sir Adam Appleton and Sir Davy Dapper come over to talk to Sir Alexander and the latter reveals that his own son, Jack, is far worse than young Sebastian, he spends a fortune whoring, drinking, and gambling. Sir Davy explains he has decided to teach young Jack a lesson: he will arrange to have Jack arrested, hoping a few days in the Counter (the debtor’s prison) will make him realise the value of money and hard work.

Alexander and Appleton exit, and two officers enter, namely Sergeant Curtilax and Yeoman Hanger. Sir Davy gives them their commission to arrest young Jack and indicates the pub he’s drinking in, just over there, and leaves the pair to capture him.

Just at this moment Moll and Trapdoor stroll up and, spying Curtilax and Hanger in hiding, realise they’re about to arrest someone, Moll decides to save whoever it is. And so when Jack Dapper and his servant Gull emerge from the pub, and just as Curtilax and Hanger move in, Moll and Trapdoor run forward, holding the officers off and telling Jack and Gull to leg it, which they promptly do. Moll’s thoughts: ‘A pox on ’em! Trapdoor, let’s away.’

Act IV

Scene 1 – Sir Alexander’s chamber Sir Alexander and Trapdoor await Moll and Sebastian. Sir Alexander gets Trapdoor to place various valuables around the room, confident that Moll will steal them and, when they bring constables to catch her with them later, it will guarantee she’s thrown into prison, if not executed. They hide.

But instead, Sebastian enters not only with Moll, but with his true love, Mary Fitzallard, dressed as a pageboy. Moll comments wryly as Sebastian kisses Mary, in a boy’s outfit, and then expresses her gratitude to Moll for helping them. Moll observes the valuables laid out as if on purpose to tempt a thief but says that, since she is no thief, they do not tempt her. Instead Sebastian invites her to play on the viola de gamba which she turns out to be skillful on, and accompanies herself singing a couple of songs.

Sir Alexander steps forward and interrupts the playing but it has no great dramatic effect at all. None of the three seem surprised or worried to see him. The conversation carries on, whereby Sebastian appears to have been securing the money – forty shillings – to pay her (I think; I didn’t understand this passage). His father quizzes Moll who claims to be a music teacher and Sir Alex asks her to play the ballad about the witch.

Then Sir Alexander gives his son four ‘angel’s’, being gold coins worth ten shillings each. He has marked them somehow, maybe pierced them. His Cunning Plan is Sebastian will give the marked coins to Moll and, later, Sir Alex will get the constables to arrest her saying they were stolen.

This is act 4 and, for me, absolutely none of this love plot intrigue is working in the slightest. The Roaring Girl feels less engaging than any of the Restoration comedies I read.

Scene 2 – Openwork’s house Two of the merchants’ wives we’ve meant moan about how pathetic their menfolk are. Mistress Openwork laments that Goshawk told her a pack of lies about her husband being in Brentford with a whore, and told her he’d take her there to prove it. It was all lies, as Openwork discovered when she confronted her husband who is now standing in the shop waiting for Goshawk to arrive so he can give him a beating.

For her part, Mistress Gallipot laments that Laxton turned out to be a lying, unmanly deceiver, ‘a lame gelding’. Men get it in the neck in this play. It’s like a feminist manifesto.

This morphs into a long and really unfunny scene. Goshawk now arrives and wants to hurry Mistress Openwork into the boat he’s got waiting but first she insists on bringing Mistress Gallipot with them, which he reluctantly agrees to, then Master Openwork comes up and she furiously accuses him to his face of having an affair with a whore at Brentford. Master Openwork is vehement that this is a lie and then starts demanding who told her this lie and – to cut a really long story short – she admits it was the (now terrified) Goshawk. Enraged, Master Openwork draws his sword and Goshawk piteously begs for forgiveness.

Now, I suppose this is intended as one more proof that sweet-talking gallants are full of ****, but it took pages to get there and I found none of it either funny, or particularly well written. Master Openwork has a little soliloquy opining that the world is a rotten place full of cheats and liars. Well spotted, mate.

In part two of this scene, a young man dressed as a summoner enters and delivers a summons to Master Gallipot. It claims to be a legal document summonsing the Gallipots to court for breach of contract. This has been arranged by Laxton. We learn that after the thirty pounds he was given a few scenes ago, he asked for a further £15. Now Master and Mistress Gallipot threaten the summoner with violence who quickly takes off his wig and reveals himself to be one of the gallants’ associates, Greenwit.

Mistress Gallipot had gone along with the deceit earlier, but now snaps at the size of the sum being extorted. She turns to her husband and confesses everything – that Laxton led her on, but this was all a lie, she was never betrothed to Laxton. Furious, Gallipot now turns to Laxton who is trembling with fear.

With surprising chivalry, Laxton quickly makes up a version of a ‘confession’ which completely exonerates Mistress Gallipot, claiming he set out to seduce her as a challenge, when she claimed to him and his friends that women were virtuous, but she stood solid and unflinchingly loyal to her husband etc etc, and thus Gallipot is mollified and calmed down.

In fact so calmed down that he promptly forgives Laxton and invites him in for a celebration feast (!?).

So, by the end of Act 4, two merchants’ wives – citizens’ wives – have had their virtue assailed by two upper-class ‘gallants’ – Laxton and Goshawk – who both turn out to be lily-livered eunuchs. The women are smarter than the men and their husbands are made of finer stuff, loving and forgiving. And, it feels like half the play is over, as the forgiving merchants invite the foolish gallants in for a feast – something which generally only happens at the very end of a play.

Act V

Scene 1 – A street Enter Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede and Thomas Long. Moll tells Jack how it was she who saved him from the sergeants and he thanks her. As a sidenote she explains she spotted Trapdoor was a spy and has disposed of him as a player shoves a halfpenny across the board. They are joined by Lord Noland.

At which point Trapdoor enters, like a poor soldier with a patch over one eye, accompanied by a sidekick, Tearcat, all in tatters. They approach Moll and her friends and, at first, pretend to be poor, maimed soldiers from the wars and beg for money. But the account they give of their foreign fighting and travels is so obviously garbled that Moll and her friends realise they are fakes.

Moll tears to eyepatch off Trapdoor’s face – the kind of stylised gesture which is taken to transform someone’s appearance in these plays and suddenly render someone in disguise, recognisable. Then, in a peculiar passage, Trapdoor shows off his skill at using canting terms, and Moll interprets his stream of canting for the benefit of her educated friends (Jack Dapper, Moll, Sir Beauteous Ganymede, Thomas Long, Lord Noland) so much so that they egg the couple on to a canting duel, telling Trapdoor they’ll give him some alms if he performs for them, and this eventually leads into Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat singing a song entirely in canting language.

Paradoxically, this was one of the few parts of the play I really understood, because the situation – educated, well-off people patronise beggars – is easily graspable, and because the posh people’s dialogue is remarkably and unusually lucid. Thus after Trapdoor uses the term ‘niggling’, Jack says: ‘Nay, teach me what niggling is; I’d fain be niggling’ and a moment later Sir Beauteous comments: ‘This is excellent.’

Trapdoor is paid off and departs. I rather liked him, he was an honest rogue.

Now enters a gallant cutpurse and four or five followers, who threaten to attack our chaps, but brave Moll a) interprets all the cutpurses are saying in their slang and b) outfaces them i.e. intimidates them into abandoning their plan to rob our chaps. They are scared of her and her swaggering reputation. In fact, they truckle to her. Moll declares a particular purse was recently stolen from a man attending the Swan theatre and demands it be returned. The leader of the cutpurses meekly says he’ll see what he can do and they all exit.

The real-life Mary Frith was, apparently, known for righting wrongs and returning stolen purses (sounds a bit too Robin Hood to me) and this encounter prompts the other characters to say how she has been unfairly criticised by society. Now she gives a long speech declaring her innocence of all crimes, saying she merely is acquainted with criminals and knows their cant and tricks solely to help innocent victims. It is a speech in support of all people calumniated by society, not just her but all the women called whores and men called cuckolds who are entirely innocent. People call her Moll Curpurse and blacken her name because she dresses, does and says what she likes – the implication being that people resent and are jealous of her freedom.

MOLL: Good my lord, let not my name condemn me to you or to the world.

If Mary Frith had commissioned this play it could hardly give a more favourable portrait of her!

And so after this long scene of canting and cutpurses leading up to Moll’s second Great Speech, they all head off to the pub.

Scene 2: Sir Alexander’s house The love plot of the play is resolved, namely Sebastian and Mary’s Cunning Plan works. Sir Alexander is still under the misapprehension that Sebastian is madly in love with and planning to marry Moll Cutpurse. He is at home with some of his friends and advisers when a servant comes in to tell them Sebastian and Moll have been seen landing at the Sluice on the Lambeth side of the Thames. But just as they’re planning to go and intercept them, Trapdoor (so we get a bit more Trapdoor) arrives to say the couple have been seen alighting at the Tower i.e. in the opposite direction. Sir Alexander is stung with indecision.

At this moment enters Sir Guy Fitzallard, mother of Mary Fitzallard that Sebastian is in love with. From the start he is aggressively angry towards Sir Alexander, telling him his (Guy’s) daughter wasn’t good enough for him, he blocked his son and Mary’s romance, well much good it’s done him and he hopes he’s happy that his son is now marrying one of the most disreputable women in London, ‘that bold masculine ramp’, Moll Cutpurse. He mocks him, saying he will soon be grandfather to a ‘fine crew of roaring sons and daughters’ who will stock the suburbs with crime.

Well, Sir Guy says – what would tortured Sir Alexander give if he – Sir Guy – could intervene and prevent it happening? He goes on to say, in front of the other nobles present as witnesses, that bets his entire wealth that he can prevent this marriage and, caught up in his enthusiasm, Sir Alexander, accepts the bet, saying he will immediately give Sebastian all those lands he had planned to, if he simply doesn’t marry Moll.

The authors really drag these final scenes out. Enter Moll (dressed as a man) for just a minute or so, just enough time for Alexander to berate her and her to mock him for his greed and short-sightedness, then exits.

So I wasn’t amused but irritated when the authors drag out Alexander’s and our agony even further by having Sebastian enter, accompanied by Sir Guy as if this is the final version of the wedding, and hand in hand with… Moll… wearing a mask. Sir Alexander is delighted his son has married anyone but Moll… but then she takes off her mask and he collapses prostrate that all his plans lie in ashes. God, get on with it!

Moll delivers a comic speech, telling him how lucky he is to have a roaring girl as a daughter in law, men will fear him, crooks will avoid him, and so on. Sir Guy asks Sir Alexander if he will hold to his bet (all Sir Guy’s estate against half Sir Alexander’s) but Sir Alexander insists – now he’s won the bet (the bet that Guy would be able to prevent the marriage of Sebastian and Moll, and it looks like he’s failed), at which point….

Moll steps aside and Sir Guy introduces the real bride who is, God be praised, Mary Fitzallard after all, ceremonially accompanied by Lord Noland and Sir Beauteous Ganymede, and followed by all the London merchants and their wives, so that all the characters are on stage for the happy finale.

Sir Alexander is in flights of ecstasy and in heroic verse praises his son and gives him half his wealth and lands – as promised – and then his beautiful new daughter-in-law, and they graciously accept. Moll points out that she has done everyone a favour organising this happy outcome and Sebastian says she will be rewarded. Sir Alexander apologises for misjudging her.

Enter Trapdoor (hooray, the only character I really like) who kneels before Moll and abjectly apologises for scheming against her, explaining that he laid out the valuables in Sir Alexander’s chamber, hoping to snare Moll, and that he also gave Moll the four marked gold coins (angels) as part of a scam to have her arrested. Moll is surprised, the onlookers are shocked, Sir Alexander abjectly humiliated, and apologises.

I found Sir Alexander’s explicit and clear statement that he has learned from his experiences not to judge people by their reputations and not to listen to rumour, more effective than the savage punishments which conclude Ben Jonson plays:

Forgive me; now I cast the world’s eyes from me
And look upon thee freely with mine own:
I see the most of many wrongs before thee,
Cast from the jaws of envy and her people,
And nothing foul but that. I’ll never more
Condemn by common voice, for that’s the whore
That deceives man’s opinion, mocks his trust,
Cozens his love, and makes his heart unjust.

Sir Alexander ends the play by saying this happy day will be celebrated every year, and he hopes all who have watched it will go away as pleased as he is.

Thoughts

Not funny

Maybe I read it on an off day, but I didn’t find The Roaring Girl at all funny. It contains scenes which are theoretically humorous, but failed to raise any smile to my lips. It lacks the delightful whimsy of The Shoemaker’s Holiday or, at the other end of the spectrum, the savage farcicality of Ben Jonson and his scheming grotesques.

It inhabits an odd no-man’s-land, in which everyone is a gull or crook of one kind or another but none of them really inspire entertainment. Moll’s speeches about how easily women are calumniated were the only things which really woke me up, that and the character of Trapdoor who I warmed to as the nearest thing to a Jonsonian imp, like Mosca in Volpone.

Overall I felt there was something clever, calculating and rather mechanical about it, and kept returning to T.S. Eliot’s words:

The comedies are long-winded; the fathers are heavy fathers, and rant as heavy fathers should; the sons are wild and wanton sons, and perform all the pranks to be expected of them; the machinery is the usual Elizabethan machinery; Middleton is solicitous to please his audience with what they expect; but there is underneath the same steady impersonal passionless observation of human nature. (Thomas Middleton by T.S. Eliot)

Gender etc

Clearly ‘gender’ is a major theme of the play insofar as Moll is a woman behaving as men are supposed to, and not just men generally, but roistering, swaggering, canting, drinking, fighting men. And the play goes to some lengths to demonstrate how feebly unmasculine just about every other man in the play is, compared to her.

Feminist art and literary critics long ago developed a rhetoric about neglected women artists or authors and female characters who rebel, buck the trend and subvert the patriarchy, which make them all sound the same. They make ‘the patriarchy’ sound as if it was the same thing in 1603 or 2003, and rebel women all sound as if they had the same ‘smash the patriarchy’ mindset as contemporary gender studies professors. In other words, they make the past boring by being so predictably and narrowly ideological about it.

Obviously the figure of Moll is striking but what’s a bit more interesting is the way she was not suppressed by The Patriarchy for wearing men’s clothes and swearing etc. What is hiding in plain sight in the simple existence of this play, is the fact that, far from being in any way suppressed or silenced – as feminists love their heroines from the past to have been – Mary Frith was in fact lionised, widely written about and – in this play at any rate – praised to the heavens, depicted as a moral exemplar, teaching true Christian morality (judge people by their deeds not their reputations).

Feminist critics like to write about Moll ‘subverting gender norms’ and ‘transgressing gender-based rules of clothing and behaviour’ as if it was a thrilling conspiracy which only you and I, paid-up members of the feminist gang, can understand. And yet here she was up on stage in a play written to unstintingly praise her, to the applause of a fee-paying audience, in a play which was widely reprinted through the ages.

In other words, if she was ‘subverting’ anything, that ‘subversion’ was very comfortably accommodated in a best-selling play performed to approving audiences.

In other words, Moll entirely conforms to the deeply entrenched stereotype of the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure which dates from at least Robin Hood through to any number of 20th century ‘rebels’, and which Hollywood has made billions of dollars carefully crafting and presenting to audiences who, for a happy couple of hours, can thrill to the ‘subversive’ exploits of James Dean or Bruce Willis or whoever the rebel-with-a-heart-of-gold figure of the hour happens to be, before going back to their suburban homes and their workaday world.

Yes, the figure of Moll may well ‘transgress’ half a dozen easy-to-list rules of Jacobean England – dresses like a man, swaggers like a man, drinks like a man, familiar with the criminal underworld like a man and this ooh-so-daring audacity gives timid feminist critics multiple orgasms – but at a meta-level I’d have thought it’s pretty obvious that Moll entirely conforms to the enduring stereotype of the naughty boy or naughty girl whose exploits we love sharing for a couple of hours at the theatre or cinema, before the entertainment ends.

In a really deep sense, maybe that’s what entertainment – of all types – actually consists of: whether at the circus or a funfair or the cinema or a theatre – it’s entering into a world of excitement and thrills and kings and queens or cops and robbers or thrilling rides – all of which we pay for because, by definition, they are outwith the reality of our boring everyday lives, shopping, cooking, eating sleeping, and commuting to boring jobs in shops and factories and offices.

So when feminists rhapsodise that Moll ‘subverts’ the social norms of her day, all they’re really saying is that she’s in a play. Macbeth subverts the values of the time by being a king killer. Othello subverts the values of the day by murdering his wife. Volpone subverts the values of the time by being an outrageous crook. All the tricksters in hundreds of these city comedies ‘subvert’ the values of the time by virtue of being crooks and criminals. Is there a play from the period where the lead characters do not subvert one or other ‘social norm’ of the time?

Feminists just valorise and prioritise one among the many, many types of ‘subversion’ which occur in almost all these plays, because it is the one dearest to their heart, the only issue which counts for them, the issue of gender, the ‘issue’ which justifies their existence.

But, not being feminists, we are not constrained and blinded by their ideology, and so can read everything they have to say, assimilate it, take it on board, add it to our perspective, but still see that the play contains many other non-gender ideas and themes and images, as did the society of its day.

One of the most obvious is the language of crime…

Canting

Canting was one of the contemporary words used to describe the prolific growth of slang and argot used by thieves and cozeners. There was a very rich literature describing these, even at the time. Indeed, whenever there was a periodic outbreak of plague, such as in 1603 and the theatres went into lockdown, writers like Dekker and Middleton switched to writing satirical or descriptive pamphlets about London life, mostly concentrating on lowlife and criminals.

Dekker wrote a number of pamphlets about contemporary events, but his ones focusing on criminals or ‘cony-catchers’ include The Belman of London (1608), Lanthorne and Candle-light, Villainies Discovered by Candlelight, and English Villainies and he gives an often-quoted definition of ‘canting’:

‘It was necessary that a people, so fast increasing and so daily practicing new and strange villainies, should borrow to themselves a speech which, so near as thy could, none but themselves could understand; and for that cause was this language, which some call pedlar’s French, invented…. This word canting seems to be derived from the Latin verb canto, which signifies in English to sing, or to make a sound with words, that’s to say, speak. And very aptly may canting take his derivation a cantando, from singing, because amongst these beggarly consorts that can play upon no better instruments, the language of canting is a kind of music, and he that in such assemblies can cant best is counted the best musician…’
(Lanthorn and Candlelight by Thomas Dekker)

Anyway, the point is that this play is stuffed with canting terms and street argot, so much so that not only does the Mermaid edition feature notes at the bottom of each page explaining key words, but also (and unusually) a seven-page appendix devoted to canting terms. Highlights include:

  • darkmans = the night
  • lightmans = the day
  • shells = money
  • stamps = legs
  • curbers = thieves who hook goods out of open windows using a long stick with a hook at the end
  • cheats = the gallows
  • bing = to go
  • nip a bung = steal a purse
  • Rom-ville = London

And Act 5 scene 1 is a festival of canting – it contains the canting exchanges between Moll and Trapdoor-as-beggar, who drops entirely into canting terms to impress and/or confuse his educated interlocutors.

TRAPDOOR: My doxy? I have, by the salomon, a doxy that carries a kinchin mort in her slate at her back, besides my dell and my dainty wild dell, with all whom I’ll tumble this next darkmans in the strommel, and drink ben, and eat a fat gruntling cheat, a cackling cheat, and a quacking cheat.

Before Moll, Trapdoor and Tearcat then deliver a canting song! The footnotes again say that one of the best explanations of the profession or trade of cutpurse is again given by Dekker, who provided a neat explanation of key roles and terms, in this clip from The Bellman of London:

He that cuts the purse is called the nip.
He that is half with him is the snap, or the cloyer.
The knife is called a cuttle-bung.
He that picks the pocket is called a foist.
He that faceth the man is the stale.
The taking of the purse is called drawing.
The spying of this villain is called smoking or boiling.
The purse is the bung.
The money the shells.
The act doing is called striking.

You can look up these and numerous other obscure terms in the online version of the play, linked to below.


Related links

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

The Knight of the Burning Pestle by Francis Beaumont (1607)

It is the spring of 1607 and a play is just about to start in the Blackfriars theatre. Unlike Shakespeare’s Globe theatre across the river, the Blackfriars is not open to the elements but roofed, and it is also small, meaning tickets are more expensive (sixpence compared to a penny admission at the Globe). Not surprisingly, it caters to a more upmarket audience, including courtiers and men-about-town who like to think themselves a cut above the middle-class merchants and artisans of ever-expanding London. The Blackfriars was a venue for ‘coterie drama’ for gentleman ‘wits’, in contrast to the more popular drama of writers like Shakespeare and Thomas Heywood across the water in Southwark.

One last point. The Blackfriars theatre was associated with the fashion for boy actors who grew increasingly popular from the turn of the century, specifically the members of the troupe called The Children of the Queen’s Revels. These boy actors were generally between the ages of 8 and 12! Yes, boys originally played all the roles in this play and many like them. Girls, women, heroines, matrons and old ladies, dashing heroes and crotchety old men – all played by boys.

The prologue

Anyway, a new play is about to begin and the actor playing the Prologue steps forward dressed in a long, black velvet cloak and a garland of bays to address the audience, setting the scene for the troupe’s new play which is entitled The London Merchant. But he hasn’t even completed three lines of the prologue before he is rudely interrupted by a member of the audience, who climbs up onstage to talk to him.

It quickly becomes clear that this man is George, a London grocer, and he starts decrying the new play before it’s even begun, moaning that it’s another one of those satires which mock honest merchants like himself.

Taken aback, the Prologue asks what he’d like instead. The merchant replies he wants to see something which stars a merchant like himself, and tales of romance and adventure. At which point his wife, Nell, starts yelling from down in the audience that she wants to see a play about a grocer who is a knightly hero and kills a lion with a pestle! – a random, off-the-wall suggestion which the loudmouth grocer promptly takes up.

The Prologue complains that they should have told him this request month ago, it’s too late now, they’ve rehearsed the new play and have no boys free to play a merchant. ‘I’ve got the solution’, says the merchant, ‘let my boy Rafe play him, his acting and impersonations are the highlight of every party’. And he promptly gets Rafe to prove it by hauling him onstage and getting him to declaim part of Hotspur’s speech from Henry IV part 1, loudly and confidently.

The Prologue reluctantly agrees that Rafe is pretty good, and tasks one of the assistants to take him backstage to be rigged up in acting apparel, then the Prologue asks for the merchant and his wife to be seated. Comically, they hustle and bustle themselves among the stools on the stage. (This was another feature of the Blackfriars theatre – that supposed wits and gallants paid extra to sit onstage throughout the play, making comments on it or chatting among themselves or grandstanding to the audience.)

By sitting on the stage you have a signd patent to engrosse the whole commodity of Censure; may lawfully presume to be a Girder; and stand at the helme to steere the passage of scaenes; yet no man shall once offer to hinder you from obtaining the title of an insolent over-weening Coxcombe…. If you know not ye author, you may raile against him, and peradventure so behave your selfe, that you may enforce the author to know you.
(The Gull’s Horn-Book by Thomas Dekker, 1609)

The grocer and his wife now rudely push themselves and their stools in among these posh gentlemen, presumably causing amusement in the wider audience down in auditorium at this breach of decorum.

Now the Prologue recommences his speech and out of this initial confusion it emerges that the play is going to have three distinct strands:

  1. The original plot of The London Merchant in which two young men – gentle but stupid Humphrey and charismatic but unpredictable Jasper Merrythought – vie for the hand of the merchant Venturewell’s daughter, Luce, with the usual round of complications.
  2. Rafe’s narrative – The Knight of the Burning Pestle – in which he dresses as a traditional knight errant of romance, is assisted by his squire and page (a fellow apprentice named Tim and a dwarf named George), declaims high heroic poetry and has a series of mock heroic adventures, some of which are based on Cervantes’ recent novel Don Quixote, but many of which stem from the same Iberian romances and mock heroic romances.
  3. Finally, the continual interruptions and commentary from George and his wife, specially whenever Rafe enters – applauding his every move when he’s onstage, and barracking the other actors and demanding his return whenever he’s absent, plus their running commentary on almost everything else, including the reactions of the audience and the gentlemen on stools.

It’s funny but it’s a real ragbag. Jasper, the rascally apprentice, is fired by merchant Venturewell, but manages to ravish young Luce off to the romantic venue of Waltham Forest. There’s an episode where the couple lie down to sleep, and Luce indeed falls asleep, at which point Jasper undergoes a curious transformation and decides he will wake her, threaten her with his sword, declaring he must have her blood to avenge her father’s wrongs (in booting Jasper out of his apprenticeship). This is ludicrous to begin with but is made doubly so by the immediate intervention of Nell the grocer’s wife, who’s never liked him and now starts damning his behaviour.

Later the pallid, useless apprentice Humphrey enters and confronts Jasper, who promptly beats him black and blue, leading Nell the grocer’s wife to not only berate him again, but cross over to poor HUmphrey and offer him several herbal remedies for his poor bruises.

Meanwhile we learn that Jasper’s parents are Old Merrythought and Mistress Merrythought, and their younger son, Michael, still lives with them. Old Merrythought is a strange ‘comic’ creation, he speaks almost entirely in songs, unstoppably answering every question and accusation and request by singing an excerpt from one of the many popular songs of the time.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: I would not be a serving-man
To carry the cloak-bag still,
Nor would I be a falconer
The greedy hawks to fill;
But I would be in a good house,
And have a good master too;
But I would eat and drink of the best,
And no work would I do.

He is utterly spendthrift, gay and merry, giving absolutely no thought for the morrow, and so drives his wife mad with his careless insouciance. In fact his wife has determined to leave him because he has spent all their money on drinking and partying.

OLD MERRYTHOUGHT: This it is that keeps life and soul together, mirth; this is the philosopher’s stone that they write so much on, that keeps a man ever young.

Nell, the grocer’s wife, once again is fiercely critical of Old M, not least in the scenes where he shows his complete indifference to his wife, for being ‘an ingrant old man to use his bed-fellow so scurvily’.

The London Merchant moves towards a big scene in the final act, where Venturewell has recaptured his daughter Luce, from Jasper, and locked her in his house, preparatory to her marrying the good apprentice, Humphrey. Jasper concocts a Cunning Plan, which is to pay a boy and some carriers to convey a letter to Venturewell saying that he, Jasper, has died and he has one dying request, can his corpse be conveyed into Venturewell’s house so that Luce can pay her last respects, say goodbye, and be ready to marry Humphrey.

As you might expect, this is a scam, the coffin arrives and Jasper is in it alright, lying still under a black velvet cloth. Venturewell allows it into the living room and leaves Luce to weep and mourn and declaim a page of sad verse over the body of her beloved, before Jasper suddenly leaps up out of the coffin and nearly scares her to death. He quickly gets her to swap places, covers her with the velvet cloth and gets the boy and carrier to convey her out, as if carrying Jasper to a cemetery.

Meanwhile, Jasper hides and covers his face in white flour so that, when Venturewell comes back on stage, Jasper suddenly appears like a ghost, terrifying Venturewell and threatening to haunt him for the rest of his life until he makes things right, beats and punishes Humphrey. Poor Humphrey enters at this stage and is promptly beaten for the second time in the play.

This is more or less the climax of the main play as Venturewell promises to do absolutely anything to make things right with the ghost and avoid being haunted – at which point Jasper reveals that he is not in fact dead, invites Luce back onstage, and gets the relieved Venturewell to agree to their being married. Finally.

Meanwhile, this narrative has been interwoven with a series of comic mock-heroic escapades featuring Rafe.

RAFE: My name is Rafe; I am an Englishman,
(As true as steel, a hearty Englishman,)
And prentice to a grocer in the Strand

It is clear from the moment he comes back onstage, hurriedly dressed up in the best knightly costume that the boy players can be spared, and sets about telling his squire (Tim the apprentice) and George the dwarf that they must no longer call him Rafe but address him as ‘the Knight of the Burning Pestle’ and so on, that his segments are going to be the most amusing.

RAFE: I charge you that from henceforth you never call me by any other name but “the right courteous and valiant Knight of the Burning Pestle;” and that you never call any female by the name of a woman or wench, but “fair lady,” if she have her desires, if not, “distressed damsel”; that you call all forests and heaths “deserts,” and all horses “palfreys.”

Three of his adventures stick out. He and his liegemen travel out to Waltham Forest (where their tracks cross, at various points, Jasper and Luce, and Mistress Merrythought and her son, Michael) and put up at the Bell Inn which is transformed, in his imagination, into a castle.

The host of the Bell twigs to the joke and then Rafe to visit the cave of the monster Barbaroso who is, in fact, the village surgeon-barber, and where they find three ‘victims’ languishing in his ‘dungeons’, who are in fact a customer having his hair cut and two others undergoing the totally quackish treatment Elizabethan surgeon-barbers were famous for. (The red and white swirly pole outside barbershops to this day recalls the times when surgeon-barbers let blood as well as shaving and trimming their customers.)

And lastly Rafe leads a number of his fellow prentices out to Moorfields in what, onstage, amounts to half a dozen small boys drilling with toy weapons, but in Rafe and the grocer’s imagination, becomes an army training before setting off to the wars in France.

But, Nell, I will
have Ralph do a very notable matter now, to
the eternal honour and glory of all grocers.

All the way through Rafe’s high-blown heroic poetry and noble sentiments, especially when he meets a damsel in distress (for example Mistress Merrythought when she gets lost in Waltham Forest), are undercut by the fact that he occasionally lets slip that he is in fact a grocer’s apprentice whose girlfriend is Susan, a cobbler’s daughter from Milk Street.

What’s odd because it’s inconsistent about these scenes is that we all understand they have been extemporised i.e. they’re not part of the rehearsed play being performed for us – and yet Rafe and the other characters in his ‘romance’ parts of the plot – the innkeeper and his daughter, the barber Barbaroso and his victims – all play along with the gag. This doesn’t really make sense – how could all these people be prepared, dressed and rehearsed with no time?

And it’s even weirder, because they are not only – on the face of it – extemporising with impressive speed, they are extemporising a play within a play within a play: because not only is Rafe 1. performing a play whose scenes 2. have been inserted into The London Merchant, but 3. he is shown explaining to the actors playing an innkeeper or a barber, that they in fact need to 3. speak and act on another level, as heroic characters from romance.

Some of Rafe’s scenes closely echo scenes in Cervantes’ long fiction Don Quixote, the first part of which had been published only a few years earlier, in 1605, although there is scholarly argument about whether Beaumont took the scenes from Cervantes or from earlier mock heroic comedies which are common sources for both.

The Rafe plot concludes after the grocer and his wife loudly demand a heroic ending for their Rafe and so, once the Jasper-Luce-Venturewell happy ending is tied up and they’ve exited the stage, Rafe staggers onstage with a fake arrow through his neck, as if mortally and heroically wounded in the wars, before delivering a long and ‘moving’ death speech and expiring to the floor – despite the disapproval of one of the main players:

WIFE: Now, good husband, let him come out and die.
CITIZEN: He shall, Nell.—Ralph, come away quickly, and die, boy!
BOY: ‘Twill be very unfit he should die, sir, upon no occasion — and in a comedy too.

Nell the grocer’s wife is beside herself with emotion, and immediately makes Rafe get to his feet and take a bow and introduces him to the fine gentlemen sitting on their stools and commends him to the audience. Everything has a happy ending and the audience go away happy.

The title

The title has about three sources and/or meanings. The pestle was one of the many signs hanging outside the shops of tradesmen in London, the pestle from a mortar and pestle used to grind up the spices sold at a grocer’s shop.

The pestle can also be thought of as a kind of weapon, along the lines of a club, and appears as such on the heraldic shield which the players quickly knock up for Rafe. And on the level of sexual innuendo which absolutely drenched Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, it symbolises a penis, and the burning sensation can be attributed to the very common sexually transmitted diseases of the period, syphilis and gonorrhea.


Related links

There is no author’s name on any of the early printed editions of the play and the tradition grew up that it was one of the many collaborations between Beaumont and John Fletcher. Thus the 1913 edition of the play which Project Gutenberg has transferred online indicates that the play was written by both authors. But according to the editor of the 1986 New Mermaid edition, Michael Hattaway, recent, detailed studies of the play’s language have conclusively proved it was by Beaumont alone.

Jacobean comedies

Elizabethan art

17th century history

Restoration comedies

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