Shot in Soho @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Shot in Soho is an exhibition of photographs documenting life in the Soho district of London over the past 60 years or so.

It is not is an encyclopedic, systematic or historical overview. Instead it consists of generous selections from half a dozen or so specific photographic ‘projects’ made by particular photographers – some historic i.e. dating back to the 1960s, others made more recently, in the 2000s or 2010s. Three of them were commissioned specially for this exhibition by the Photographers’ Gallery, along with a series of podcast interviews of local inhabitants.

Although the sets are deliberately not hung in chronological order, I found it easier to make sense of them chronologically. And to give away the plot, in my opinion the first two sets of black-and-white photos, from the 1960s, were head and shoulders above the rest in terms of style, atmosphere, composition and impact.

The Undressing Room by John Goldblatt (1968) BLACK AND WHITE

Born in 1930, Goldblatt emigrated to South Africa in 1955, where he earned his living as a photographer. He returned to the UK and worked for publications like The Sunday Times, The Jewish Chronicle and The Observer. He took the series of photos on display here on four consecutive nights backstage at a Soho strip club on spec . Unfortunately, they didn’t sell, which is surprising because this set includes by far the best photos in this exhibition.

Take this photo of an ‘exotic dancer’ reading the paper in the dressing room. Not only is this almost nude young woman very sexy, but it is the composition – the lining up of her vertical leg with the leg of the woman behind; the way both legs take your eye to the electric heater in the background – reminding you how cold and draughty most of these backstage rooms probably were, especially in the wet and windy winter. It is the 45 degree angle of the newspaper balanced on her thigh, the simple unstyled 60s look of her hair falling over her shoulder, the way the other girls in the background are looking round, maybe aware of the photographer, but she is sweetly oblivious, absorbed in what she’s reading. It’s lots of things which make this photo so evocative and memorable.

Untitled from the series The Undressing Room (1968) by John Goldblatt © John Goldblatt. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

Soho Observed (1968) by Kelvin Brodie BLACK AND WHITE

Back in the 1960s Brodie (b.1932) worked on assignments for the Sunday Times covering routine street works and accompanying police and charity workers in Soho, snapping young people caught up in its criminal underworld or, at the other end of the social spectrum, some of the area’s ancient shopkeepers.

Kelvin Brodie for the Sunday Times Magazine (1968) © Times Newspapers Ltd

Twenty-Four Hours in the Life of Soho by William Klein (1980) COLOUR

Then the visitor makes the huge leap to colour, albeit a grainy analogue, pre-digital kind of colour,

American-born French photographer William Klein (b.1928) was commissioned by the Sunday Times to do a photo feature on Soho. His rough and ready street shots capture the Soho I knew when I first visited it as an impressionable teenager, full of ugly people with manky haircuts, wearing flairs, smoking fags – look at the men on the left. Men from C&A.

Shoes polisher, Rocky II etc, Piccadilly 1980 by William Klein © William Klein

The Brewer Street Work (1990-2013) by Corinne Day

Day was born in 1962 and died in 2010. Most of her personal and professional work was shot in a flat she kept in Brewer Street, at the top of a 1930s block. The Raymond Revue Bar was across the road. At the end of the working day, friends or models or artists would drop by and Day photographed them all.

Day is famous, apparently, for doing a photo-shoot with the then 16-year-old Kate Moss, which made both their reputations. The photos on show here capture a rough and grimy, rather dirty flat, with rollups and empty booze bottles rolling on the floor as cool young people smoke, drink, joke and pose for her camera. The same kind of vibe as Tracey Emin and her famous bed. 1990s cool young pretty things.

Georgina Cooper, Interview Magazine ‘That Imaginary Line’ January 1996 by Corrine Day © The Corrine Day Archive. Courtesy of the Corrine Day Archive

The Colony Room Club (1998-2001) by Clancy Gebler Davies

Born in 1966 Davies blagged her way into the famous private members’ club and was eventually asked to join. When she ran up a huge bar bill the owner offered to let her work it off by working as bar staff. Part of the reason for being a member was you could drink as much as you wanted, late into the night. The owner let Davies take her photos once she’d gained everyone’s trust. The result is a series of photos of people – mostly men – getting drunk and behaving drunkenly.

The Colony Room Club (1999-2000) by Clancy Gebler Davies © Clancy Gebler Davies. Courtesy of the artist

Soho 2011 by Anders Petersen BLACK AND WHITE

Petersen (born in 1944) was commissioned specially by the Photographers’ Gallery to make a project in Soho in 2011. Published as a book, Soho 2011 captures night time embraces and drunken performances for the camera. He befriended locals in the street, in pubs and cafes and bars, shot them in situ or invited them back to his studio. He uses high contrast and graininess to create a sense of drama.

Soho 2011 by Anders Petersen © Anders Petersen

Looking for Love (2018) by Daragh Soden

Soden (b.1989) was commissioned specially by the curators of this exhibition to create a contemporary portrait of the area. He responded by thinking of Soho as a place where people ‘hunt for love or lust’. Pardon me for heaving a big, heavy sigh at the sheer stereotyped inevitability of that approach. According to the wall label his project ‘examines how we perform and relate in the pursuit of love, sex, romance’. So. Yet another series of photos of sexy chicks and cocktail glamour.

Looking for Love by Daragh Soden (2019) © Daragh Soden

Soho Then (2018/19) by Clare Lynch

The show is rounded out with a series of podcasts. There’s a bench, we’re invited to sit on it and put on the headphones hanging on it, and listen to a series of six podcasts by Soho residents who reminisce about specific streets and buildings in this compact grid of streets, cafes, bistros, shops and bordellos. This series was actually commissioned by the Photographers’ Gallery itself.

Thoughts

In the later 1980s and throughout the 1990s I worked in television production (as researcher, assistant producer, producer, producer/director and then series producer), at offices and studios just north of Oxford Street.

Sometimes at lunchtime, and especially in the evenings, I went strolling down into Soho to windowshop or meet mates for a drink. I had my stag night in Soho in 1997. I worked at quite a few independent edit suites in Soho. This exhibition didn’t really capture the Soho I knew and experienced for quite a long time on a daily basis.

For a start all artists and curators are obsessed with sex, which they dress up in the smart terminology of gender and desire. Still shagging, though. In terms of photography – naked people, strip clubs, prostitutes, dingy streets, and the looming threat of policemen, all create an agreeably louche atmosphere, a Weimar 1930s vibe, it makes everyone feel a lot more continental than we really are. Makes prostitution seem a lot more glamorous than it is. None of these photographers seem to have uncovered any use of drugs or people trafficking or violent pimps on any of their travels.

But in any case you can walk round Soho during the day and not notice any of that night-time stuff. What you see is the shops – the shops and bistros and restaurants, which often had a wonderfully cosmopolitan flavour, testament to the French, Italian, Maltese, Chinese, Hungarian, Jewish and Bengali populations. Lunchtime in the pub, evening meal at the Gay Hussar, then cramming into the Coach and Horses to hear the legendarily rude landlord Norman shouting at people. I did all that twenty five years ago.

There’s nothing at all here about the music shops. After leaving the gallery I went into Schott’s music shop and browsed some sheet music before dropping into the Yamaha shop and playing a very expensive electric guitar which the shop assistant kindly plugged into a big amp in a soundproof practice room. None of that, nothing about shopping which is a far more popular and democratic activity than sex, in any of these ‘projects’.

Nothing at all either about the TV and film editing suites, let alone the fact that many film and advertising companies have lined Wardour Street since the 1960s. The people who work in those swish offices don’t get pissed and hang out with hookers in the evenings, the Americans in particular were ruthlessly efficient and professional in my day. None of the slick professionalism of the advertising, TV and film worlds of Soho appears in any of these ‘projects’.

And the markets. I often stopped in at Berwick Street Market on the way home of an evening, loving walking past the thronged stalls loaded with fresh food, artisan bread and, oh my God, the wonderful cheese stall which I can still smell twenty five years later.

And the media clubs. The Groucho Club has been in Dean Street since 1985 and the Soho House in Greek Street since 1995. I was never a member of either but was taken along by people who were, meeting loads of media and showbiz celebrities. On one memorable evening in 1996 at the Soho House I mingled with a big party of New Labour consultants, cocky arrogant bright young things who knew they were going to win the next election and were celebrating in advance with ice buckets of champagne and by nipping into the bogs to snort a line and emerge motor-mouthing how fabulous Tony and Gordon were. The point is there’s nothing here about the upmarket, glitzy world of TV, film and media in the area.

And the music, live music. Did it occur to no-one to include something about Ronnie Scott’s world-famous jazz club, or the Marquee or the Vortex Club, or to photograph musicians making live music in any of the modern clubs?

No. Strip clubs, models, drinking and snogging are the order of the day. To sum up, then, this exhibition presents a very narrow and tendentious image of Soho as a land of strip clubs and skinny models, cops and boozers and private clubs where people can behave appallingly – which was only ever a fraction of the truth.

The exhibition – ironically – completely misses out on Soho’s genuine diversity, not just its sexual diversity, but its class and professional and employment diversity – the real weirdness or urban thrill of watching blue-overalled delivery men carrying boxes of fresh fruit past the Ann Summers shop while a couple of pony-tailed video editors pop into a sandwich bar and three men in smart suits emerge from the Warner Bothers offices, a motorbike courier goes past carrying fresh rushes to an edit suite, while a group of advertising account handlers come out of a late lunch at Wagamama, and the outside tables along Old Compton Street are filled with queers sipping lattes and admiring each others’ poodles.

Soho was and is much, much more interesting than this exhibition conveys. In fact this exhibition could almost be taken as a sort of epitome of how narrow and impoverished in outlook and experience modern art and photography can be.

Curators

  • Julian Rodriguez, Head of the Department of Film & Photography, Kingston School of Art, Kingston University
  • Karen McQuaid, Senior Curator, The Photographers’ Gallery

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

William Blake @ Tate Britain

This is the largest survey of work by William Blake to be held in the UK for a generation. It brings together over 300 famous and rarely seen works, from the whole of his career, from all of his publications and projects, and sets them alongside works by contemporaries, friends and influences, in a blockbuster exhibition which spreads over 13 rooms.

Engraving

Blake was born in 1757 into a poor family in London’s Soho – his father was a hosier – who, nonetheless, supported his ambitions to be an artist. Aged 15 he got an apprenticeship to an engraver. At the age of 21 he became a student at the Royal Academy. He appears to have been studious, the exhibition contains a typical plaster cast classical statue which students had to sketch along with Blake’s drawings of it.

Distinctive style

Muscles But from early on Blake developed an idiosyncratic and eccentric way of depicting the human body. Most of his work is depictions of the human body. Most of the bodies in question are naked or draped in simple Biblical robes, and all of them are extremely muscley, with a heavy, musclebound weight which is reminiscent of Michelangelo. Although the curators don’t mention it I’ve read somewhere that this striking musculature is in fact anatomically inaccurate, and designed purely for expressive purposes.

Capaneus the Blasphemer (1824-1827) by William Blake © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Flat and close Other elements of his style include the lack of perspective. Figures almost always appear in a flat space. This gives them dramatic immediacy and directness, as in this striking image.

The Great Red Dragon and the Beast from the Sea by William Blake (1805)

Noses In both these images note the strikingly aquiline noses of his figures. Sounds trivial but its a trademark of his style.

Anti-commercial art Blake rejected much of the commercial art of his day, came to despise the Royal Academy, hated the way late 18th century art was dominated by society portraits or landscapes of rich people’s properties.

Visual purity He wanted to forge something much more visionary and pure. This search for a kind of revolutionary purity reminds me of the Republican phase of the art of the French painter Jacques-Louis David, which also features: legendary, classical or mythical subject matter; half naked men showing off their six-packs; in striking poses; flowing robes and togas.

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

But a comparison with David vividly brings out the difference: Blake was never an oil painter. None of his works evince the kind of lavish, luxurious depth and perspective and colour and light and shade of an oil painter like David.

Most of Blake’s images are engravings, of which he produced over a thousand, and a central quality of an engraving is its flatness.

There are also watercolours but, as the curators point out, these have the clarity of line, formality and flatness of engravings which have simply been coloured in.

There is rarely any perspective or depth. The backgrounds are generally sketchy. All the focus is on the (generally melodramatic postures) of the foreground figures.

Cain Fleeing from the Wrath of God by William Blake (1799-1809) © The Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University

Illustrations

Cain Fleeing exemplifies a major fact about Blake’s visual work, which is that the majority of was illustrations for classic works. Over his life he was commissioned to produce illustrations for:

  • Mary Wollstonecraft – Original Stories from Real Life (1791)
  • John Gay – Fables by John Gay with a Life of the Author, John Stockdale, Picadilly (1793)
  • Edward Young – Night-Thoughts (1797)
  • Thomas Gray – Poems (1798)
  • Robert Blair – The Grave (1805–1808)
  • John Milton – Paradise Lost (1808)
  • John Varley – Visionary Heads (1819–1820)
  • Robert John Thornton – Virgil (1821)
  • The Book of Job (1823–1826)
  • John Bunyan – The Pilgrim’s Progress (1824–1827, unfinished)
  • Dante – Divine Comedy (1825–1827)

The exhibition features generous selections from most of these works, for example ten or more of Blake’s illustrations for the Grave or Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard, etc.

Bad pictures

What comes over from many of these obscure and little exhibited illustrations is how bad they are. Milky, washed out, strangely lacking in the dynamism which Blake, in his written works, claimed for his art.

Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard, Design 113 by William Blake (1797-8)

Bad, isn’t it? All the illustrations for the Elegy are like this.

Towards the end of his life Blake made 29 watercolour illustrations of the Pilgrim’s Progress which are similarly not much mentioned in his oeuvre. Being woke, the curators suggest this might be because his loyal, hard-working and artistic wife, Catherine, is said to have had a say in designing and colouring them, so their neglect is a sexist conspiracy. Maybe. Or maybe it’s just because they’re not very good. Here’s an example.

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

The composition, the use of perspective, the crappy buildings, the ludicrous posture of the figures, and the badness of their faces – everything conspires to make this picture, in my opinion, poor. And there are lots more of this low standard in the exhibition.

Good pictures

But what makes it impossible to dismiss and hard to evaluate is that Blake was also capable of coming up with images which turned his manifold weaknesses – the lack of depth, the odd stylised postures, the inaccurate anatomy – into strengths. This is true of many of the illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. Take this depiction of the fate of the corrupt pope – the very unnaturalness of the postures and the weirdness of the setting work in its favour. To make it a deeply strange and troubling image.

The Simoniac Pope’ by William Blake (1824-7) Tate

Take another of his archetypal images, Newton. The closer you look, the weirder it becomes – not least his musculature which makes him look more like an insect with a segmented back than a human being – and yet, and yet… it’s so weird that it’s true – true not to lived life or anything anyone’s ever seen, but to something stranger, more mysterious and more visionary.

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

Of course Blake was also a poet, an epic poet, a writer of immense long epics featuring a mythology and mythological characters he made up out of a strange mishmash of the Bible, the classics and Milton. Not many people read these long poems nowadays although, as it happens, as a schoolboy I read all of them cover to cover in the Penguin Complete Blake edition, so I have a feel for the vastness and strangeness of his imaginary world.

Blake produced the poems in books which featured his own line illustrations and decorations of the handwritten texts.

  • Songs of Innocence and of Experience (edited 1794)
  • Songs of Innocence (edited 1789)
  • The Book of Thel (written 1788–1790, edited 1789–1793)
  • The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (written 1790–1793)
  • Visions of the Daughters of Albion (edited 1793)
  • Continental prophecies
  • America a Prophecy (edited 1793)
  • Europe a Prophecy (edited 1794–1821)
  • The Song of Los (edited 1795)
  • There is No Natural Religion (written 1788, possible edited 1794–1795)
  • The First Book of Urizen (edited 1794–1818)
  • All Religions are One (written 1788, possible edited 1795)
  • The Book of Los (edited 1795)
  • The Book of Ahania (edited 1795)
  • Milton (written 1804–1810)
  • Jerusalem The Emanation of the Giant Albion (written 1804–1820, edited 1820–1827 and 1832)

The exhibition features many of these illustrations to his own verse. There is, for example, half a room devoted to individual pages from America a Prophecy, which have been removed from the book and framed as prints. Some of them are displayed in doublesided cases set up on plinths so that visitors can walk around and see both sides. The most immediate thing you notice is how very small they are, old-fashioned paperback book size, which makes much of the writing very hard to read without a maginifying glass.

Title page of America a Prophecy, copy A (printed 1795) by William Blake © The Morgan Library

The shorter works

Even his contemporaries struggled with the obscure mythology, strangely named characters (Los, Urizen) and difficult-to-make-out plots of the longer poems. By contrast, two of the shorter works have always been popular, namely the pithy proverbs gathered in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell:

  • “Those who restrain desire do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained.”
  • “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”

and the short and simple poems in Songs of Innocence and of Experience, which contain his best-known and most anthologised poems. Of these probably the most famous is 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

It is undoubtedly a classic, but there is an odd and telling thing about it, which is that has become, over time, essentially, a children’s poem.

And this is emphasised by the illustration Blake did for it, which often comes as a shock to people who are familiar with it as an isolated text before they come to it in Blake’s illustrated version. It’s not just a children’s book illustration. It’s almost a baby‘s book illustration.

Tyger Tyger from Songs of Experience (designed after 1789, printed in 1794) by William Blake

Extremely hit and miss

And I think at some stage during the exhibition, it struck me that at some level, Blake is not a serious artist. He took himself very seriously, the small group of acolytes who gathered round him in his last years – the self-styled Ancients – took him very seriously, and critics and curators ditto, but… his long poems are all but incomprehensible and his own illustrations to his books are strange but often curiously childish and amateurish. His illustrations for Pilgrims Progress or the Elegy are deeply damaging to your sense of him as an artist. Some of the illustrations of Paradise Lost or Dante have a peculiar power, but many feel weak or half-finished. And strange random images throughout the exhibition leap out as expressing something no-one else had conceived or tried.

The Ancient of Days

Because every now and then, his peculiarities of style and technique (he pioneered new methods of acid engraving which the exhibition explains) come together to create something magical and genuinely visionary, something of depth and maturity.

‘Europe’ Plate i Frontispiece, ‘The Ancient of Days’ (1827) by William Blake (1757-1827) The Whitworth, The University of Manchester

The curators end the exhibition with this painting, which Blake was working on right up to his final days, at his house overlooking the Thames. Who is it, what is he doing, nobody is sure, although the hand gesture which seems to be creating a sort of compass is, unexpectedly, a negative gesture in Blake’s symbolism, because mathematics and science are the enemies of the liberated and revolutionary imagination which Blake defended and praised.

Still, as with so much of the rest of his ‘thought’ and personal opinions, it doesn’t matter. Again and again the curators have had to admit that nobody knows what this or that picture really means or whether it is illustrating this or that scene from one of his vast mythological books – so much about Blake’s output is scattered, broken up and mysterious, that one more mystery doesn’t make any difference.

At his best, Blake created images of startling power and resonance which, even if we don’t understand their intention or meaning, have stood the test of time. But the high risk this exhibition has taken is placing that dozen or so brilliant imagines amid a sea of ok, so-so, mediocre and downright poor images which do a lot to dilute their impact.

Two gaps

No explanation of Blake’s politics The curators mention in several places that Blake was a revolutionary thinker who engaged with the Great Issues of his day, and list those Great Issues as political revolution, sexual politics, and slavery, and he certainly did, in his long radical poems and his notes and essays.

The odd thing is you’d expect there to be, in such a big exhibition, some sections devoted to Blake the Revolutionary, explaining his revolutionary  views, his support of the American and French revolutions, his ideas of the power of the unfettered Imagination, sexual liberty and his violent anti-slavery sentiments.

But panels or sections devoted to Blake’s beliefs are strangely absent. His views are mentioned in passing, in the context of t his or that work, but you can’t make sense of a work like America A Prophecy without some explanation of the attitude English radicals took to the war their own government was fighting to put down men committed to freedom & Liberty.

No explanation of Blake’s mythology More importantly you can’t understand a lot of his images without delving into Blake’s own mythology, which was built around praising the power of the unfettered Imagination, in the arts and politics and private life, and which he elaborated out inventing a whole cast of pseudo-Biblical gods and goddesses.

This also was strangely absent – I mean all it would have taken was a panel explaining the symbolic roles of the characters he invented for the epic poems:

  • Urizen is the embodiment of conventional reason and law
  • his daughters Eleth, Uveth and Ona represent the three parts of the human body
  • his sons Thiriel, Utha, Grodna, Fuzon match the four elements but are also aligned with the signs of the Zodiac
  • Los is the fallen (earthly or human) form of Urthona, one of the four Zoas

and so on, to at least give you a flavour of how strange, eccentric, but oddly beguiling his personal mythology could be.

Maybe – I’m guessing – the curators wanted to focus narrowly on his art, and on the technical ways in which he experimented with techniques of engraving, and with the immediate facts of his biography. That would explain why there were rooms devoted to particular patrons such as John and Ann Flaxman, Thomas Stothard and George Cumberland, Thomas Butts and the Reverend Joseph Thomas.

I bought the audioguide. At the end of several sections on specific series of works, it said; ‘If you want to know more about the relationship between Blake and John Flaxman, press the green button’. My point being that all the additional information was biographical. Not one of them said: ‘If you want to hear more about Blake and the French Revolution, Blake and slavery, Blake and sexual Liberty, Blake’s theories of the imagination’ – all topics I’d love to have heard given a modern summary.

This biographical approach also explains why there is a big reproduction of a period map of London with markers indicating where Blake lived over the years. And even an entire room recreating the room in the family home in Broad Street where Blake staged a quirky one-man show in 1809, a show which was a disaster as hardly anyone showed up and the one critic who wrote about it dismissed Blake as ‘an unfortunate lunatic’.

I may be wrong but it seems to me that the curators have opted for a heavily biographical approach to Blake’s work, placing the works in the context of his real life career and biography, his houses and wife and friends and champions and critics. This is all interesting in its way, but not as interesting as Blake’s imaginative universe.

At the age of eight William Blake saw the prophet Ezekiel under a bush in Peckham Rye, then a rural backwater south of London. A few years later he had a vision of a tree full of angels nearby and, a month after that, a third vision of angels, walking towards him through the rye.

Blake really meant it. All through is life he claimed to have visions of angels and other divine beings, dancing and cavorting in London fields and streets. He was a visionary in the most literal sense of the word.

Although – with over 300 images – this exhibition is thoroughly documented and copiously illustrated, maybe the reason I left feeling so frustrated and dissatisfied was because I felt that Blake’s weird, peculiar and compelling imaginative universe had been almost completely left out of it.

There were plenty of framed pages taken from the illustrated versions of his ‘prophetic books’ covered with verse. But the verse itself wasn’t printed out on a label on the wall for us to actually read. There was an introduction to the subject matter of each one, but little explanation of what they meant or what he was trying to achieve.

This exhibition feels like a big, elaborately assembled, beautifully curated and presented catalogue of all Blake’s visual works. A list. A documentation of his works. But somehow, with all the fiery life, rebellion and pride of the Imagination taken out.

Blake’s life is presented as a story of professional frustration – rather than as a life of extraordinary imaginative triumph.


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

This is a detailed summary of the plot of Identity by Milan Kundera. It aims to recreate the experience the reader has of only slowly discovering who it concerns and what it’s about and what happens, and also to recreate the continual sense of slight disorientation the book gives you – a feeling which snowballs in the second half, where the reader eventually realises that the book has actually crossed the line from ‘reality’ into ‘fantasy’, and is prompted to go back and try to figure out where it happened.

In other words, Identity is a clever, playful and deliberately teasing little book.

But it all starts very modestly with a middle-caged couple going to spend a weekend in a hotel in Normandy…


Chantal at the hotel

Jean-Marc and Chantal are going to spend the weekend at a small hotel on the Normandy coast. Chantal arrives first, freshens up and goes into the dining room. She overhears the waitresses discussing the disappearance of some rich person as described on a popular TV show Lost To Sight. She wonders how anyone can go missing in a world where every move is monitored by CCTV camera, where privacy is dying. She imagines losing Jean-Marc that way one day.

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

Meanwhile Jean-Marc has gone to Brussels to see an old school friend, F, because he is dying. They were close until he heard that F. refused to stand up for him in a meeting where he was universally attacked. At that point he completely cut F. out of his life. Looking down at F’s wasted body Jean-Marc realises how stupid that was. F. describes having an out-of-body experience.

F. describes some incident from their school days which Jean-Marc can’t remember. Suddenly it dawns on him that the purpose of friendship is to keep old memories alive.

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

After a bad night’s sleep troubled by a dream, Chantal walks down to the beach. On the way she observes fathers festooned with sacks and slings carrying babies and pushing prams. They have been daddified. On the beach she watches more dads flying enormous kites. She reflects that none of these absorbed men will turn and look at her, flirtatiously. Men don’t turn and stare at her any more 😦

Types of boredom

Jean-Marc has driven from Brussels to Normandy and parked at the hotel. He walks down to the beach, passing a girl wearing a Sony Walkman and half-heartedly jiggling her hips. Being a Kundera character he has to analyse and categorise everything, so he posits three kinds of boredom:

  1. passive boredom – the girl dancing and yawning
  2. active boredom – the men flying kites
  3. rebellious boredom – kids smashing up bus shelters

Down on the beach he comes across sand yachts being raced. Suddenly he sees one hurtling at high speed towards Chantal far out on the beach. He runs towards her trying to warn her. In the event, the sand yacht passes wide of her and, as he catches up with her, he realises it isn’t her at all.

Chantal is menaced in the café

This is because Chantal had got bored of the beach and gone up to a café complex perched on a cliff. It’s empty apart from a surly waiter and his mate, who deliberately intimidate her, turn up the rock music loud, block her way and threaten to prevent her from leaving. At the last minute they laughingly step aside so she can exit, her heart pounding with fear.

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

Jean-Marc is appalled that he couldn’t tell his lover’s reality from a distance. He arrives back at the hotel and goes up to the room they’ve booked to find Chantal waiting. She is still in shock from the encounter in the café but she is also having a sustained hot flush. I surmise this is from the menopause, though Kundera doesn’t use the word; all we know is she is ashamed of feeling hot and perspiring. She tries to distract him by blaming her odd mood on the thought she had earlier – men no longer turn to stare at her.

Chantal’s work in advertising

A few hours later they’re at dinner, discussing her work in an advertising agency. She describes her two faces, the mocking one which thinks advertising is ridiculous, and the hard-faced professional one which has allowed her to succeed.

Now the company has got a brief to come up with adverts for a funeral parlour. This allows the characters to quote poems about Death, namely some lines from Baudelaire, as you do.

Chantal’s dead son

Talk of death makes her think of her son by her first husband, who died when he was just five. Her husband and his family told her to hurry up and have another one so that she would forget. This filled her with so much loathing that she vowed to divorce him and so a) she went back to work, not as a teacher as she had been but in advertising and b) as soon as she met Jean-Marc and was sure he was the one – she left her husband.

That night Jean-Marc has a dream in which Chantal appears to him vividly in every detail, except for her face. How do we know when someone is the person we love? If their face completely changed, would it still be the same person?

Existence and identity

By this stage (page 32) the reader has realised that the novel is a classic Kundera production, insofar as it is a prolonged meditation on a theme of existence, an aspect of the human condition. There’s no secret about it. The title broadcasts it. The theme is identity, what it is, and how fragile it is, how it can vanish and reappear from moment to moment in our quotidian lives.

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

The next morning Jean-Marc wakes up to find her already in the bathroom cleaning her teeth. For a moment he watches her unobserved being functional. Then she notices him and her whole body changes into the softness of love. They drive back to Paris and he drops her at work. Later, that evening, Jean-Marc arrives at Chantal’s advertising agency, and catches a glimpse of her being swift and professional with two colleagues and wonders at the change in her identity.

That morning, in the bathroom, he had recovered the being he’d lost during the night, and now, in the late afternoon, she was changing again before his eyes. (p.33)

By this stage, the reader realises the point of the book is just these fine distinctions, the way the two central characters, and the author, notice and analyse the myriad fine shifts in identity, from moment to moment, and across larger periods, during the change in their relationship.

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

When she was a girl Chantal had a fantasy about being as powerful and ubiquitous as a fragrance which would spread through the lives of men. But she was not by nature promiscuous and, as she’d grown older, had become more monogamous. So monogamous and devoted to Jean-Marc that she began to have feelings about her dead son where she was glad he was dead. Why? Because it meant her devotion to Jean-Marc, to her chosen one, was total.

The anonymous letter

One morning she receives an unsigned unmarked letter with the text: ‘I follow you around like a spy – you are beautiful, very beautiful’, which upsets her all day. Luckily, when she gets home, her letter is trumped by one from the hospital telling Jean-Marc that his old schoolfriend F. has died. This triggers a couple of pages on ‘the meaning of friendship’ i.e. to keep memories alive, memories being necessary for maintaining ‘the whole of the self’.

With typical morbid negativity, Kundera (well, his character) considers that friendship is dying and that modern friendship is merely ‘a contract of politeness (p.46).

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

CUT to a different type of scene and a new character, Leroy, who is supposed to be the whip-smart head of the advertising agency where Chantal works. Every week he does a presentation analysing a campaign which is in the media. Having worked in TV for 15 years I don’t recognise anything Kundera describes about TV, his version is far more casual and chaotic than the well-organised, budgeted and crewed TV productions I worked on. Similarly, I don’t believe this portrayal of an advertising agency. The character Leroy instead comes over as a sexed-up university lecturer, a type Kundera was familiar with since he was an academic for decades. The ‘analysis’ Leroy gives is about sex sex sex – the humanities lecturer’s favourite subject and not, as the advertising and marketing people I’ve met, about ratings, audience segments, personas channels and ratings. Leroy doesn’t sound anything like an advertising exec. He sounds like a film studies lecturer:

‘The issue is to find the images that keep up the erotic appeal without intensifying the frustrations. That’s what interests us in this sequence: the sensual imagination is titillated, but then it’s immediately deflected into the maternal realm.’ (p.50)

He goes on to tell his staff that new film footage shows the foetus in the womb sucking its own willy, fellating itself. Can you imagine a modern advertising executive playfully mentioning that in a presentation about a new campaign? No.

The self-fellating foetus

Amazingly, at the end of the day, when she climbs the stairs to the accompaniment of loud banging and drilling (because the lift is out of order), and in a menopausal flush, the self-fellating foetus is what she chooses to tell Jean-Marc about. Which prompts his clever-clever thought that the foetus feels a sexual impulse before it can even think of pleasure.

So our sexuality precedes our self-awareness. (p.53)

Modern society spies on everyone

But she has a different take on it. Chantal is appalled that even in the womb, ‘they’ can spy on you, that nowhere is safe nowadays from the prying eyes of the media, and she tells macabre stories of how they cut off Haydn’s head after his death to analyse his brain and various other famous clever people whose brains were experimented on after their deaths. Influenced by her hot flushes, she blurts out that only the crematorium, only being burned to ashes, means you will be finally, completely safe from them.

At the grave of her son

Next day she visits her son’s grave and talks to him. She realises that, if he still lived, she would have to have engaged herself with the horrible world and accepted all its stupidities. His death freed her to revolt against a world she hates, to be truly herself. She silently thanks her dead son for this gift.

The second anonymous letter

Chantal receives a second, longer anonymous letter, the author has been following her movements. It’s signed C.D.B. The reader reflects that this is another aspect of identity, where identity is withheld, the letter is from someone but a person with no name.

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

Jean-Marc recalls his dead friend F. telling him about a boyhood memory he (F.) has of Jean-Marc, namely that at age 16 or so Jean-Marc was disgusted by the eye, by the eyelid sliding over the cornea. Jean-Marc went on to choose to study medicine aged 19, but after three years realised he couldn’t face blood and guts, the body, its decay and death.

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

Chantal receives more letters, which are becoming more passionate, in a French way. The writer dreams of wrapping her in a red cardinal’s costume and laying her gently down on a red bed. So she buys a red nightdress, as you would do if an unknown man was writing you anonymous letters, and is wearing it when Jean-Marc comes home one day, and she sashays round him, seducing him, and so he ravishes her and, thinking of the letter, she climaxes. She shares the fantasy of wearing cardinal red in a crowd and, aroused a second time, he makes love to her again. I admire the rapid recovery time of his penis. Or is he just an empty cipher for the author’s psychological-erotic fantasies?

The obsession of all Kundera’s books with love-sex is wearing me down. There is so much more to life than love-sex.

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

At first Chantal thinks the author of the letters is a moony young man who’s often in the local café. But one day she walks boldly almost up to him as he sits outside nursing a glass of wine, giving him ample time to at least smile, but he doesn’t register her existence at all.

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

Then she suspects it’s the incongruously well-dressed beggar who hangs about in their square, near the big lime tree. To test her theory she goes up to him and offers money into his outstretched hand, only at the last minute realising she doesn’t have any coins then, worse, that the only paper she has is the ludicrously large sum of 200 Francs. The beggar is flabbergasted and she realises it isn’t him.

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

Then she begins to suspect it is Jean-Marc, specially when she realises that the pile of bras she’s been hiding the letters under has been riffled through, then carefully restored.

And indeed, on page 88 this suspicion is concerned as we flip over to Jean-Marc’s point of view, and are told why he wrote her an anonymous letter. It was to cheer her up when he saw she was depressed, after she had said that men no longer turn to look at her in the street i.e. she has become middle-aged and unattractive. That’s why he playfully signed the second one C.B.D. short for Cyrano de Bergerac, the lover who hid behind the mask of another. Soon he wrote another one, and soon he became hooked.

How writing the letters changes Jean-Marc’s view of himself and of Chantal

And as he did so, it created a different idea of Chantal in his mind. The fact that she has kept and hidden the letters from him, suggests she might countenance an affair with an anonymous letter writer. She is ready to be unfaithful.

For her part, Chantal has a whole fleet of complicated reactions (the point of a Kundera novel is to place the characters in a situation and then analyse their motives and reactions to the nth degree), the main one being the disturbing suspicion that Jean-Marc is trying to trap her. But why? Because he is going to dump her for a younger model.

The flush

Worth pausing to consider The Flush. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being a key incident was that, after turning up on his doorstep from her remote provincial town, Tereza a) made love with Tomas but then b) came down with a heavy flu fever. He was forced to nurse her back to health and during that nursing discovered all kinds of emotions within himself he didn’t know he had. That fever recurs again and again through the story, as the characters reassess its importance and consequences.

Kundera uses the same technique here with respect to Chantal’s hot flushes. The first time the couple met was at a conference at an Alpine hotel, where he was a ski instructor and invited along to mingle with the guests after a session. They were briefly introduced and made a little small-talk then went their ways. But the next evening he went back determined to find her again, and the moment she spotted him, she flushed crimson all across her chest and breasts. That flush decided their love, for both of them.

Now she is flushing again, although it is due to the menopause, her physiology confusing, or sending confusing signals, over the terrain and memory of that initial, primal flush. This is a key element of a Kundera narrative, repetition with variations, variations of interpretation.

Back to the narrative

Jean-Marc is sad because by creating a simulacrum of a lover, he has conjured into being a simulacrum of Chantal. And if Chantal is not real, but a simulacrum, then so is their relationship. And in fact so is his life, which he has committed to her. He decides to end the whole thing and writes a farewell letter.

He’s just about to post it in the apartment building mailbox when he is accosted by a woman with three children – it is Chantal’s sister-in-law, the (rather bossy) sister of Chantal’s first husband, the one who blithely said let’s have another child to help us forget the one that’s just died.

The fantasy

Quite abruptly the book changes tone and pace. Up till now this couple had been drifting peacefully from episode to episode, a morning here, arriving at work there, cleaning teeth, hiding letters – and Kundera has been cascading his own thoughts and their thoughts and analyses of each others’ feelings like confetti in the breeze.

All of a sudden the pace picks up and it turns into a farce, then a fantasy, then a kind of nightmare all happening in real time i.e. in one extended breathless fifty-page-long passage.

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

The sister-in-law’s kids run riot in Chantal’s room and Jean-Marc feebly tries to get them to leave. He is distracted by the sister-in-law flirting with him (in KunderaWorld a man and a woman cannot be in the same space without flirting and talking about sex), she even leans forward and whispers the bedroom secrets of Chantal and her first husband in Jean-Marc’s ear.

At which moment Chantal herself arrives in the door. She is livid. She bought this place to get away from her wretched sister-in-law and her brood. And then she sees that the kids have rifled through her pile of bras which are all over the floor, one of them on one of the kids’ heads, and the mystery letters are scattered all over the floor. She orders them to leave, all of them, orders her sister-in-law to leave.

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

She and Jean-Marc have a blistering argument in which she asserts that she bought this flat so as not to be spied on, with the heavy implication that his letters say he is a Spy and, worse, she knows that he has been searching her room till he found her stash of his letters. And he realises she knows and is crushed. And in a few swift exchanges they reduce their relationship to ashes.

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

With steely self-control she goes into her bedroom, closes the door and doesn’t come out all night. Jean-Marc is forced to sleep on the spare bed. Early in the morning she has packed her bag and declares she is off to a conference in… in… London springs to mind, yes, London. In fact her office had been planning a trip to London, but not for three weeks. Several points:

  1. Earlier in the novel the seed of this was planted when Kundera invented an ageing English lecher who hit on Chantal on a visit to her office and left his card. They often joked about this figure who they blew up into a master of monstrous orgies, and gave him the nickname Britannicus.
  2. This had led Jean-Marc in the final letter, to suggest that he was ending the series because he had to leave to go to, to… on a whim he had written London.
  3. Incidentally, Chantal sleeps badly because, being trapped in a Milan Kundera novel she has all sorts of inappropriately intense erotic dreams. The narrator wonders whether all virtuous women have to combat erotic orgiastic fantasies all night long, before showering and facing the day with a straight face (p.115). Let me ask my female readers: Do you struggle every night with erotic fantasies of sexual promiscuity? In my opinion, this is more ageing male sex fantasy.

In fact Chantal has no plan but stumbles out the house and onto the first bus which comes along. As it happens it is going to the Gare du Nord from which trains head to London, she at first imagines she won’t get off at that stop, then she does, then she buys a ticket, then she bumbles down onto the platform where – in a coincidence which doesn’t make sense in any rational terms – she discovers her entire office waiting for her! What! How, why?

On the Eurostar

Onto the Eurostar they get and Chantal finds herself seated opposite the self-style super-clever boss of the advertising agency, himself sitting next to a middle aged female admirer. (Makes it sound more like a cult than a professional place of work.) Remember how Leroy regaled his staff with stories about the foetus that could self-fellate in the womb? Well, now he treats Chantal and the older woman to a prolonged analysis of the command in the Book of Genesis (‘Go forth and multiply’) which boils down to the categorical imperative that everyone must fuck. Chantal is wet and aroused. She admires Leroy for his ‘dry as a razor’ logic (while this author thinks he’s a dickhead).

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

Down into the black hole of the Channel Tunnel the train hurtles as Leroy continues his prolonged sermon on the important of sex and coitus and coupling and fucking, while the middle-aged woman wails about ‘the grandeur of life’ etc, and Chantal sitting opposite her fantasising about leading this prim and properly dressed lady to Leroy’s bed, which is set on a grand stage amid smoke and devils.

Jean-Marc decides to head off Chantal at the Gare du Nord

Meanwhile, Jean-Marc had woken up to discover Chantal gone and himself packed his bags, he knows when he’s not wanted. He leaves his keys on the coffee table, slams the door and blunders out into the street. London? OK, London, he hails a cab and asks it to take him to the Gare du Nord. Here he blunders up to the ticket desk, buys a ticket to London, and is the last person to board the Eurostar, setting off through the carriages to find Chantal.

Jean-Marc sees Chantal behaving like a different person on the Eurostar

He does, spotting the back of her head as she engages in the long ‘razor sharp’ fantasy about fucking and deflowering the prim lady. Jean-Marc is appalled (yet again) at how unlike his Chantal she seems, animated and confident and professional. Though he doesn’t know that Chantal is now consumed with eroticism, imagining the middle aged lady stripped naked and forced to take part in an orgy while all around naked bodies couple and bump (p.134).

Jean-Marc tried and fails to reach Chantal in the London terminal

The train arrives in London and everyone disembarks. Chantal goes off to a phone booth to make a call (we are still before the era of mobile phones) and when Jean-Marc tries to get to her he is blocked by a film crew (film crews often play this role as frustraters, getting in the way, as in Slowness and the Farewell Party) filming a group of oddly dressed children, presumably for a commercial, and when he tries to push through he is firmly restrained by a policeman. By the time he’s let go, Chantal has disappeared.

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

Now Jean-Marc is lost, walking the streets of London, and he feels he has returned to his true self, a drifter, a loser – Chantal always made five times what he earned, he was always dependent on her charity. Now he’s homeless and looking for a bench to doss down on.

He finds one in a typical Georgian London square, opposite a big house with a grand portico and when the lights go on inside he knows this is the house where Chantal has come to attend the orgy, the orgy led by that lecherous Englishman who visited her in Paris, ‘Britannicus’.

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

Jean-Marc opens the door (unlocked) and goes up the stairs to a first floor where a huge clothes rack holds the clothes of all the people he knows are stripped off and fornicating like wizards in a room not far away. But at this point a tattooed bouncer in a t-shirt appears and manhandles him back down the stairs and into the street. I couldn’t help warming to this bouncer, one of the few characters in the book not overloaded with smart-alec psychological analysis.

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

Chantal is in the middle of an orgy, or is dominated by the image of an orgy where, at the moment of climax, all the participants turn into animals. She opens her eyes to find she is naked and a blonde woman is trying to drag her somewhere for a sexual encounter but the spittle in her mouth makes Chantal want to gag (as in fact, we have seen her revolted reaction to the thought of the saliva in other people’s mouths throughout the novel; the Saliva theme is up there with the Flushing theme as a recurring image throughout the book).

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

Then she is alone in a big cavernous room with the host, Britannicus, who is of course fully clothed and pulls up a chair and starts reassuring her that she is perfectly safe. He calls her Anne and she protests it is not her name, they are stripping her of her identity, but she can’t remember what her name is, she can’t remember anything about herself, she can’t she can’t…

And then she wakes up and it was all a dream.

Seriously. It was all a dream. ‘Wake up, wake up,’ Jean-Marc is shaking her awake and she wakens, hot and sweating and terrified from this long elaborate dream and everything is alright and she is safe in his arms.

Now, on the last page, Kundera invites the reader to decide at just what point his story ceased being ‘realistic’ and turned into this rather delirious dream, just where ‘reality’ crossed ‘the border’ into ‘fantasy’: was it when the train went into the Channel Tunnel? when Chantal announced she was leaving for London? maybe even when Jean-Marc began sending those letters?

Who knows 🙂 and it is difficult to care enough to try and decide. As if he himself can’t be bothered, Kundera only devotes a short paragraph to the questions and, unusually for him, doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead, in the last paragraphs, Chantal and Jean-Marc are in bed together. Once she has totally woken up, she vows she will henceforth sleep with the light on every night, so she can see him.

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

Having read his book of essays on the theory of the novel I understand how Kundera regards the novel as an investigation of aspects of human existence. That explains why, having chosen ‘identity’ as the theme of this one, he then crams every possible permutation on the theme into this little text. And yet, even on that basis – as a self-consciously contrived experiment – it seems oddly… limited. After years of thought, is this little story of two lovers who have an argument the most thorough investigation he can think up of the theme of identity in the modern world? Very limited…

Early on, the book contains some very sensitive moments, moments which genuinely capture the strange and evanescent feelings you might have for a lover or someone you’ve been married to for years, sudden distances and misapprehensions. These are delicately done. When Jean-Marc mistakes the woman on the beach for Chantal, or sees another side to his lover when she’s at work, these are novelistically interesting and on-point for his theme.

The trouble is that these early subtle moments are lost in a story a) whose scaffolding i.e. the plot, becomes more and more crude and stupid as it progresses, and b) are set next to examples of blundering crudity – for example, the extremely crude and horrible sex soliloquies of the monstrous head of her advertising agency, Leroy, yuk, what an idiot, and what crude bluster.

These are so bad and boorish and coarse that they tend to destroy the delicate filament of the earlier, subtler perceptions, blowing them away like a gossamer spider web in a hurricane.

The abiding memory of Identity is not so much of pornography – in a way straightforward pornography might be refreshingly honest, but the striking thing about the orgy scene is that there is, in fact, no description at all of an actual orgy – but of a sensibility which is obsessed with the erotic urge, which can’t conceive a human character without having him or her immediately thinking erotic thoughts, waking from steamy dreams, flushed by arousal, fantasising about whispering erotic provocations in the ears of the daddies on the beach (as Chantal does), imagining each other’s former sex lives, even the ghastly sister-in-law is within minutes flirting outrageously with Jean-Marc, leaning forward to whisper Chantal’s sexual practices with her first husband in his ear… not pornography so much as lust lust lust.

And this crude hectoring about sex and eroticism and fantasy and orgies, for me, eclipses and overshadows the more subtle insights Kundera has about identity in a relationship. Shame.

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

Are Kundera’s books flirtations? Does Kundera flirt with his readers? I am not using the word in its ordinary sense, but as he himself defines it in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, p.142)

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

Throughout the book there is a permanent erotic charge and expectation, from Chantal imagining trying to seduce the daddies on the beach on page three or four, onwards. The night after she has the big argument with Jean-Marc, she is plagued with all manner of erotic fantasies. Then, on the Eurostar, she can’t control her fantasies about stripping and serving up the prim middle-aged woman to her boss at the advertising agency to be raped on a stage amid smoke and devils. That’s quite steamy, wouldn’t you say?

And then the entire fantasy sequence which constitutes the final third of the novel climaxes in her attendance at an orgy which is paralleled by Jean-Marc’s feverish jealous fantasies about what she is doing in the big smart house, and what is being done to her, at the orgy.

Except that… there is no orgy. She awakes (strangely, with no explanation of how she got there or why she’s naked) in a remote room in the big house in London, where no sex is going on at all, and she is alone. She (and we) actually sees no sex taking place, she has no sex with anyone, no contact with any man at all. Her only contact is with a blonde woman whose only role is to remind Chantal of her long-running aversion to saliva and French kissing, yuk.

So both of the key characters fear and fantasise about a gross, mass orgy and yet… we never see a single breast or penis, and no sex of any kind is described.

In this sense, then, the entire book can be seen as a prolonged promise of sex, ‘without a guarantee’. In other words, the entire novel can be seen as Kundera engaging in a prolonged ‘flirtation’ with the reader.

Credit

Identity by Milan Kundera was first published in Linda Asher’s English translation by Faber and Faber in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

Good God this is one of the most wonderful, uplifting, informative and visually fabulous art exhibitions I’ve ever been to!

In 1925 Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab set up the Grosvenor School of Modern Art, a private British art school, in his house at 33 Warwick Square in Pimlico, London. He ran it with Claude Flight and, although it taught many skills, including composition, design and dance, it was Flight’s course in making prints from linotype which made it famous and, eventually, gave rise to the term the ‘Grosvenor school’ of prints.

Linoleum was regarded as a cheap, industrial material, and the technique of printing with it seen as an introductory skill, useful for teaching children, maybe, but no more. But Flight thought it presented the opportunity to create simplified and stylised images which reflected the speed and angularity of modern life. He is quoted as saying it had no tradition behind it, unlike traditional methods of print-making, where the artist was always looking over their shoulder worrying how Dürer or Rembrandt would have done it.

Carving lino was easier and cheaper than carving wood, requiring far fewer specialist tools. And, in line with the school’s bohemian principles, Flight thought lino could be used to create prints cheap enough for the working man and woman to afford, that it could and should be ‘an art of the people for their homes’.

Usually two to four blocks are cut, each containing different elements of the design, and then printed in sequence onto fine Japanese paper, each block printing a different element and colour in the final design.

It was the 1920s – the Jazz Age – and the school operated amid the heady mix of Art Deco in design and architecture, combined with the Modernist impulse in art which had found its purest expression in the short-lived Vorticism and Futurism from just before the Great War.

Vorticism was invented by the artist Percy Wyndham-Lewis and the poet-publicist Ezra Pound, and combined the formal experiments of French cubism with the dynamic machine-worship of Italian Futurism. The first room of the exhibition includes some prime examples of Vorticism from during the Great War, by leading exponents like Christopher Nevinson and Edward Wadsworth. Flight had studied alongside Nevinson at the Slade School of Art, so there is a direct biographical and stylistic link, with Flight absorbing Futurist ideas about how to convert the movement, energy and speed of urban life into images characterised by simplification, stylisation and dynamic lines and curves.

It was almost worth the price of admission to see these Vorticist works alone. I nearly swooned. I love to distraction their depiction of angularity and energy. Seeing not the skull beneath the skin, but the machine-like aspects of the human anatomy, men marching to war like robots, townscapes morphing into geometric patterns, everything becoming hard, technological, everything organic turning into engineering.

Tempting to show an example, but this exhibition is about the Grosvenor school. What Flight and his two lieutenants and then a suite of students did, was take the really mechanistic hardness of Vorticism-Futurism and give it a human face, somehow making it feel warmer, more likeable. Many of their designs became instant classics.

This exhibition brings together 120 prints and sketches, posters, woodcuts and lithographs, along with magazines, articles, exhibition programmes and some of the tools used in carving the lino, to create a joyous overview of the Grosvenor school tradition of lino printing, to show us the range of subject matter they covered, and to introduce us to the ten or so main exponents of lino print-making, displaying many of their greatest hits, and helping us learn to distinguish between their subtly different styles.

The Big Three

Claude Flight pioneered the new approach and look. Here’s a very early example, from before the school was even founded, of his style. Regent Street is turned into simplified curving architecture, and the passing buses are linked by curvilinear lines which emphasise the dynamism of their movement.

Speed (1922) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Claude Flight. Photo © Elijah Taylor

Cyril Power lectured in architecture but also became a prolific and characteristic lino printmaker. Each colour in this design will have been carved on a different block. Look at the amazingly dynamic effect created by the swirling lines both above and below the merry-go-round, and by the whizzing effect of the passengers closest to us whose bodies have been changed by their speed, from vertical humans to horizontal blurs of movement.

The Merry-Go-Round (c.1930) by Cyril Power © The Estate of Cyril Power. Bridgeman Images/ photo The Wolfsonian–Florida International University

Sybil Andrews worked as the school secretary but was already a craftswoman and artist in her own right. Andrews emerges as very nearly the star of the entire show. Good God, she had an extraordinary eye for converting everyday scenery and activities into Art Deco stylised images of extraordinary vim and energy!

Concert Hall (1929) by Sybil Andrews © The Estate of Sybil Andrews. Photo: the Osborne Samuel Gallery, London

These three have the most prints on display and sustained activity throughout the 1920s, 30s and into the 1940s, when Power and Andrews were commissioned to create poster for London Transport, creating images of Epsom Races, Wimbledon or racing at Broadlands, which are gloriously on display in the final room of the show.

More peripheral figures

Most of the prints on display are by Flight, Power or Andrews. But they are set among works by half a dozen others.

The Australian women Three young women artists travelled from Australia to Pimlico to study with Flight and power. They were: Ethel Spowers (1890 – 1947), Eveline Syme (1888-1961) and Dorrit Black. Their works are scattered throughout the exhibition, and are generally slightly softer and less angular. Slightly. It varies. Here’s Spowers.

Wet Afternoon (1929-30) by Ethel Spowers © The Estate of Ethel Spowers. Photo: Osborne Samuel, London

Eveline Syme recorded a visit to Italy in prints. There was a wall of these and they were very pretty but – to my mind – lacked the fizz and energy of the pictures set in London or England. They could be illustrations from a straight travel book.

Outskirts of Siena (1930-1) by Eveline Syme. Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Spowers, Black and Syme returned to Australia and became instrumental in organising exhibitions and promoting the school in their homeland. The exhibition includes some prints depicting the vast, open spaces of the Outback in the Grosvenor school style.

Lill Tschudi (1911–2004) Tschudi was Swiss. Although she depicted activities, work and sport as much as the others, Tschudi’s images have a distinctive quality of their own. From the evidence here, they were less curved and dynamic, and a little more blocky and static, the colours a little more pastel.

Gymnastic Exercises (1931) by Lill Tschudi © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. Photo: Bonhams

Tschudi has half a dozen works on display. Much less well represented, fleeting presences among the main participants, are a handful of works by two men, William Greengrass (1898 – 1972: a wood engraver, sculptor and became a curator at the V&A) and Leonard Beaumont.

Greengrass is represented by this picture of a young family on a beach holiday. It certainly is stylised, it has an abrupt angularity. But it doesn’t – to my eye anyway – have any of the energy and dynamism of the classic Power and Andrews works.

Windmills and Balloons (1936) by William Greengrass. Photo: Bonhams/ © The Estate of William Greengrass. All rights reserved, DACS 2018

Beaumont is represented by a small number of works which seem to owe more to Art Deco vibe than many of the others, in the straightforward way they depict women’s bosoms.

Whereas nudity is conspicuous by its absence in the works of Flight, Power and Andrews, in both the most memorable works by Beaumont on show here, lithe, nubile women pose slender and athletic, like countless thousands of other slender, topless, female sculptures and statuettes during the joyous heyday of Art Deco.

Nymphs, Errant by Leonard Beaumont (1934) Photo Museums Sheffield/ © The Estate of Leonard Beaumont

Work and sport

In one of the most interesting wall labels I’ve ever read, the curator – Gordon Samuel, one of London’s leading specialists in Modern British painting – explains major social changes which took place in the 1920s and 1930s. This was the passage of legislation which limited the length of the working day, and of the working week, and created a number of bank holidays when all workers were allowed to down tools and relax.

The direct result of this legislation, and the seismic change it brought about in the work habits of most of the working population, was to create leisure industries.

Cinemas and dance halls saw a boom in business and were built across the land. But just as significant was the explosion of interest in sports of all kinds. These ranged from the posher end – tennis and horse racing – through new motor sports like motor racing and speedway racing, through to a surge of health and fitness activities among the young. I live near a lido, in fact I’m going swimming there later this afternoon. Like most of Britain’s lidos it was built in the 1930s, in a wonderful Art Deco style, as part of the boom in sports and healthy activities. (This was the decade when the Ramblers Association was founded [1935], from which we have many photos of healthy young chaps with walking socks and hiking boots and knapsacks and pipes heading off into the Lake District.)

The energy and competitiveness of sport naturally played to the Grosvenor School style, and there are numerous examples here of dynamic, colourful depictions of exercise, sport and fitness.

Speed Trial (c.1932) by Claude Flight © The Estate of Cyril Power. Photo Osborne Samuel Gallery London / Bridgeman Images

Not only sport and leisure, though. The 1930s was a highly politicised decade when many artists and intellectuals responded to the Great Depression by adopting socialist or communist politics, and by creating all kinds of works which explored the hitherto occluded world of the working classes. Think of George Orwell travelling to Wigan Pier and going down a coalmine, or the work of the Mass Observation sociological movement, or the poetry of W.H. Auden which celebrates machines and work.

Flight wanted to create ‘an art of the people… an art expressed in terms of unity, simplicity and of harmony’, and he, Power and Andrews created some striking images of hard, manual, physical labour – particularly well done in a sequence of five magnificent prints by Sybil Andrews.

Sledgehammers (1933) by Sybil Andrews

I like dynamic, semi-abstract art of the Vorticist, Futurist type. But I also respect art which manages to capture the reality of work, the kind of hard physical labour which men and women have spent so much of their lives performing, for so many millennia.

Andrews and Power emerge as the most consistent creators of strong, striking designs, with Andrews probably the better of the two – very close – a fun topic to discuss after seeing the show. But the Swiss artist Lill Tschudi also created some really bold images of men at work. (Note the obvious contrast between the studied angularity of Tschudi’s figures and the razor straight telegraph wires, and the dynamic curves of the figures in the Andrews, and the way the background is entirely stylised to emphasise the energy and activity of the working men.)

Fixing the Wires by Lill Tschudi (1932)

The exhibition culminates with two rooms dedicated to London and its transport system, with a suite of vibrantly evocative images of the Tube, with its escalators, lifts, winding staircases and dynamically curved platforms. Power and Andrews were commissioned by Frank Pick, the Managing Director of London Underground in the 1920s and ‘30s, to create a set of posters publicising sporting events people could reach by Tube. Most of the resulting posters are on display here, along with preliminary sketches and draft works, giving you a fascinating insight into the works in progress.

God, this is an absolutely brilliant exhibition, not only because of the consistent quality of the works on display – all of them are good, and many of them are outstanding – but also because of the fascinating light it sheds on London and English social history between the wars. What’s not to love?

The Tube Station (c.1932) by Cyril Power. Photo: Osborne Samuel Gallery, London © The Estate of Cyril Power

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)

Cassandra Darke is 71 years old, which is an immediate change and relief from the protagonists of Posy Simmonds’s two previous graphic novels, Gemma Bovery and Tamara Darke, who were both nubile, lithe, sexy, twenty-something, young women whose lives revolved around a series of romantic ‘liaisons’.

By complete contrast, right from the start of this book we are in the company of, and listening to the narrating voice of, plump and bustling, grumpy old misanthrope Cassandrara who is more than usually bad-tempered because it is Christmas-time and we know from her previous cartoon strip that Posy Simmonds particularly dislikes Christmas, as does her Scrooge-like creation.

However, if the reader thinks they’ve escaped from ‘Simmonds World’, a smug, self-centred world of upper-middle-class, white London professionals, where all the women are obsessed by men and define themselves by their sexual relations (or lack of) with men – they would be wrong.

The character of Cassandra is great – she doesn’t give a stuff about anything, swears freely and has a bad word for everyone, but, barely had I started enjoying her rude obnoxious character than – like all Simmonds’s women – she began to define herself, and her life and career, in terms of men, starting with her husband, Freddie.

Thus it was forty years earlier that Freddie and Cassandra set up a swish art gallery together. However, some time later Freddie ran off with Cassandra’s half-sister, Margot, and the pair got divorced. Cassandra was able to carry on earning a living by dealing art from home, and from writing. Then, decades later, Cassandra bumped into Freddie at an art fair and he told her he’d been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease and asked if she like to take over the old gallery from him. She agreed to.

Anyway, this is all background to the issue which dominates the opening pages, which is that Cassandra has been caught dealing fake copies of valuable sculptures. She has charged a rich American collector £400,000 for an illegal copy of a limited edition modern piece of sculpture and he has found this out and sent her a letter threatening to take her to court.

Thus the book opens on a note of unease as Cassandra, although in posh Burlington Arcade surrounded by happy Christmas shoppers, is show trying to avoid the widow of the sculptor in question, and delays going back to the gallery, strongly suspecting that bad news is waiting for her. As it is.

In a sequence which is now shown but briefly referred to, Cassandra is duly tried and convicted of fraud, her case being reported in sundry newspapers. She might well have gone to prison but – being posh – is let off by the (woman) judge with a hefty fine and told to do community service.

Nonetheless, she still has to sell off her private art collection and the house in Brittany (I know: imagine the heartbreak of having to sell your house in Brittany!) to pay the fine.

Here is the first page of the book, establishing Cassandra’s look and character, and the central London setting of most of the story, and straightaway the sense that something is wrong. Cassandra is trying to avoid Jane McMullen, wife of the sculptor whose work she has fraudulently sold, and who – it turns out – is looking for her in order to deliver the letter which accuses her of dealing in fakes.

First page showing Cassandra emerging from Burlington Arcade and spotting an old acquaintance she wants to avoid © Posy Simmonds

December 2017

The accusations, her arrest, and trial and conviction and sentence are all dealt with very quickly, and the narrative jumps to a year later, December 2017, as Cassandra is nearing the end of her community service.

We now find Cassandra without work but still living in her nice house in ‘Osmington Square, SW3’ i.e. Chelsea, nowadays populated by rich Chinese and Russian billionaires and their wives and nannies.

Osmington Square, where Cassandra lives, mostly empty apart from a few Russian or Chinese nannies and their charges © Posy Simmonds

Cassandra gets home to find an invitation to Freddie’s memorial service – the Alzheimer’s has finally killed him. She takes a taxi to the service and hides up in the gallery of the Mayfair church, making acerbic comments about all the other attendees, including her half-sister Margot (who Freddie ran off with all those years ago) and Margot and Freddie’s grown-up daughter, Nicki, who Cassandra cheerfully refers to as a ‘shit’.

Then Cassandra sneaks out and walks through the dark Christmas London streets, morbidly reflecting on Freddie’s sad decline into senility, thinking how she would prefer to commit suicide than end up like that, and then weighing the different methods of killing yourself. Cheerful stuff!

Cassandra ponders different ways to kill herself © Posy Simmonds

Once home, Cassandra finds gravel in her kitchen which looks like it must have come from her small back garden, and at first panics and thinks someone has broken in. But she discovers nothing has been stolen, calms down, and then decides it must be Freddie and Margot’s grown-up daughter Nicki, who she let stay in the downstairs flat the previous year, and for some reason has come into the main house.

Cassandra goes down to the basement flat to explore, and finds some dirty clothes and then, rummaging in the linen basket – finds A GUN, a pistol! Christ!

A gun and a peculiar pink glove with kind of raised blotches on it, and a little make-up bag, all bundled up in dirty linen and stuffed at the bottom of the bin! What is Nicki involved in?

Cassandra goes back to the house and sits obsessively running through all the other people who have had access to the flat, for example the two different cleaners she’s used, any other friends or relations… but keeps coming back to Nicki, bloody Nicki. A GUN! What the hell is she doing leaving a GUN in her flat?

The events of 2016

In order to discover how we got here the narrative undergoes a big flashback, going back in time a year to the middle of 2016. It was then that Nicki Boult, Freddie and Margot’s daughter, turned up out of the blue at Cassandra’s gallery, saying that she was broke, had lost her studio in Deptford and her share of a flat, and asking Cassandra if she can stay?

After initially saying No, Cassandra relents and says Nicki can stay in the basement flat providing she earns her keep by doing regular chores for Cassandra.

Nicki Boult arrives, asking Cassandra for a job or a place to stay © Posy Simmonds

(As a side note, Cassandra tells us about Nicki’s art, which is a kind of performance art. Nicki goes to galleries and stands in front of paintings of women being harassed, attacked or raped, copies their poses or has written on her body or clothes the message RAPE IS NOT ART and has a friend video it all. Radical, eh? As Cassandra sourly points out: ‘And you think that people can’t work that out for themselves?’)

Anyway, Nicki moves in and is soon helping Cassandra with all sorts of chores from walking her repellent little pug, Corker, to helping with prints and such. We see Cassandra going about her usual day, being rude to everyone she can – telling kids cycling on the pavement to get off, calling a jogger a ‘prancing ponce’, insisting a woman pick up the poo her dog has just deposited, and so on. She’s a great stroppy old woman.

Cassandra being fabulously rude to everyday people in the street (French translation) © Posy Simmonds

So the pair’s daily routine is established and settled by the time of the first big important sequence in the plot, which is the hen party of Nicki’s friend, Mia. Nicki doesn’t really want to go, not least because Mia’s booked a burlesque session to kick-start the evening, but reluctantly she dresses up as a cowgirl, wearing kinky boots, a pink tutu, a pink bra and pink cowboy hat. She looks like a strippagram.

She is, in fact, another one of Posy Simmonds’s nubile, leggy, twenty-something, single women who look so sexy in a bra and panties (cf all the pics of Gemma Bovery stripped naked or in black stockings and suspenders.)

Nicki at Mia’s hen night, in her pink tutu and bra, and drinking too much © Posy Simmonds

Nicki goes to the party but is ill at ease and drinks too much. The girls play a game of Dare and Nicki’s dare is to get a phone number off a complete stranger, so she is egged on to go up to the bar and approach a rough but handsome dude for his number. Drunkenly, Nicki gives him Cassandra’s name and phone number, but when it’s his turn to give his, as the dare demands, the guy refuses. He and his mates are moving on so he asks if she wants to come? But Nicki realises she’s drunk too much, is going to be sick, and stumbles downstairs to the loo.

Suddenly the stubbly guy from the bar appears behind her, puts his hand over her mouth and pushes her into a side room, presumably intending to rape her. Nicki bites the hand over her mouth drawing blood. The guy slaps her and grabs her again but she reaches down and back to grab his balls and squeezes. The guy loses his hold and staggers backwards, allowing Nicki to escape into the girls toilet. Here she waits and waits until the coast is clear, stumbles back upstairs to her friends, half explains what happened, wraps her coat around her, they’ve called an Uber for her. But!! The guy and his mates are still hanging round outside, so she dodges into an alleyway.

Here Nicki is terrified to discover another young man lurking in the shadows (men! they’re everywhere!) but this one is friendly and guesses she’s hiding from the three bad guys. He tells her when they’ve gone and she stumbles back into the street, orders another Uber, staggers out of it up to Cassandra’s front door because she realises she’s lost her keys… incoherent.. Cassandra looks at the state she’s in with disgust.

Next morning Cassandra is going about her business when she is surprised to get a text on her phone: ‘Big mistake Cassandra!! Break yr fucking legs thats a promise cunt’. It’s from the would-be rapist – remember, Nicki gave him Cassandra’s name and phone number. Amusingly, Cassandra thinks this txt might be from a rival art collector and sends a rude text back, only to receive another: ‘ur dead meat whore’.

Much puzzled, Cassandra returns from a little walk to find a young man on her doorstep, very polite, looking for ‘the young lady’. Cassandra guesses he means Nicki and explains that Nicki lives in the basement flat.

Cassandra gets on with her day. It’s a Sunday and since her ‘lady who does’, Elsa, doesn’t come at the weekend, Cassandra has to fix her own lunch (fix her own lunch! I know, how dreadful! Personally, I am continually brought up dead by the little details in all Posy Simmonds’s graphic novels which indicate just how posh and privileged her character are: not actual aristocracy, just used to a certain level of culture and education and savoir vivre – fine food, fine wine, fine art, fine writing.)

Cassandra phones the rival art dealer and quickly discovers it’s not him sending the texts. In fact, while they’re talking, another abusive txt arrives, plus a photo of whoever it is’s dick. Cassandra is too mature to be offended, just startled and puzzled.

Later Nicki surfaces. She has been for a walk and a chat with that bloke she met briefly in the alleyway, now we learn he’s called Billy. How did he find her? Last night, drunk, she dropped her keys in the alley, which had her address on them. Now Billy tells us more about the would-be rapist and txt abuser. He’s Dean Hart, a nasty piece of work. Billy gives her a full profile: he and Deano grew up together, they used to hang out and do graffiti together, then Deano went a bit mental, took to snorting coke and gambling, supported by his family who are East End crooks.

Later, we see Billy on his way home, back to his mum’s flat in a tower block. He is waylaid by some of Deano’s sidekicks who tell him Deano wants to see him. (This and the subsequent conversation Billy has with his plump, working class mum are a welcome change from the bourgeois writer-and-art-dealer class Simmonds usually deals with.) Billy’s mum said someone called round asking for him, a Dean something. Billy says, ‘Next time tell him I don’t live here any more, I’ve moved out.’ He packs his things and leaves, walking away from the East End council flats…

Simmonds and her young women: love love love is still on Nicki’s mind. It is, after all, weeks since Nicki’s last relationship, weeks, people! So she obviously needs a new man in her life asap. All Simmonds’s heroines can’t function without a man (Gemma Bovery, Tamara Drewe and now Nicki). Thus she goes out for a drink with Billy, their eyes meet, she wonders whether he fancies her? Ooh-er, it’s so exciting! They leave the pub, snog, walk, then run back to the basement flat for a shag.

Trouble is, Billy’s in a fix. Not only has he not gone to meet Deano as his minders told him to – he’s got something that belongs to Deano – a GUN!

Down in the basement, after the shag, Billy tells her more. A while ago Deano bumped into him in some pub and persuaded him to go with his minder – his uncle ironically nicknamed ‘Nanny’ – to Newbury races. They gambled and made money, get bored, drive home in gathering mist, get lost looking for some country pub and pick up a girl hitch-hiker.

Billy falls asleep, wakes up as they arrive back in London, turning into Billy’s family’s scrap metal yard. Deano gets out with the girl and heads into the house, ignoring Billy, telling Nanny to bring his fags and the tripod. (Tripod? Maybe to film him and the girl having sex.) Billy is rooting around for the fags when he finds some odd kind of pink glove, and a little make-up bag, and a jacket, heavy, with something bulky in it. It’s A GUN! What the…?

Billy suddenly wonders what he’s doing hanging round with these people and… here’s the crux and the slightly implausible thing about the entire plot — he pockets the gun and the glove and the make-up bag. Nanny doesn’t notice, he’s busy in the boot getting the tripod out, now he locks the car with a remote and walks off across the yard ignoring Billy and Billy thinks… screw it! and runs off in the other direction. With the gun and the glove and the make-up bag.

Now he’s on the run from Deano and his mob, with a gun of theirs. He tells Nicki all this, says he’s moved out of his mum’s place, is kipping on a mate’s floor. And so Nicki asks him to move into the basement flat.

Back to Cassandra’s narration. Cassandra spends the day visiting three old ‘friends’ who might possibly be behind the mystery texts, but they are all quite frank and friendly, it’s obviously none of them. Mystery.

Nicki explains her next art project, making objects out of the cardboard boxes the homeless sleep in on the streets of London. Nicki on the phone describing how wonderful Billy is to a friend. Then Nicki has a call with Billy while he’s at work on set. Via basic electrics and wiring he’s got himself a career as an electrician on TV productions.

Cassandra hosts a dinner for gay Teddy Wood and his partner Yves – wonderful food and wine ruined by the very loud love-making of Nicki and Billy downstairs. Amusing pictures of a furry of bodies and limbs – Cassandra envisions two pigs rutting and is furious the evening is spoiled.

Next day, walking in the square, Billy admits to Nicki that he lied about his family situation. In fact he was once married and has a son, Jack. Nicki berates him for lying, and asks if he’s telling the truth now? Of course, he smiles at her. OK, she says.

Cassandra books her regular Christmas trip to a five star hotel in Biarritz – she usually loves the bracing winds and isolation, but this time has bad dreams, cuts the trip short and returns to London.

Cassandra watching Billy and Nicki snogging in the park – and then on holiday in out-of-season Biarritz © Posy Simmonds

Arriving home in Osmington Square earlier than anticipated, Cassandra is horrified to find her house festooned in fairy lights and illuminated Father Christmases and a crowd gathered outside. A friend of Nicki’s is collecting donations in a bucket because they are putting on a show in support of the homeless and the show is… Nicki doing a striptease in the window! At the show’s climax Nicki removes the big feathery fans to reveal her bare breasts each adorned with a shiny star over the nipple! Posy Simmonds does love drawing naked foxy babes.

Cassandra doing a burlesque strip tease in the window of Cassandra’s house to raise money for the homeless © Posy Simmonds

Furious, Cassandra storms inside, turns off the power and the lights and gives Cassandra a good talking to, accusing her of caring bugger-all for the homeless but putting on the show to promote herself, her brand, on social media.

She also makes the fairly obvious point that how can doing a strip-tease be considered an act of the ‘feminism’ that Nicki is always going on about? Surely she is ‘playing out male fantasies’, ‘objectifying the female body’ and all the other things she claims to be vehemently against?

Anyway. Cassandra gives her till Saturday to clear out.

December 20 17.15 One of Deano’s associates, Pete, tracks down Billy’s ex, Dee, and tells her that Billy won a packet on a long-term bet on the horses, and he and Deano want to give him his winnings. Naively, Dee tells Pete that Billy said something about a party in a pub in Soho tomorrow.

December 21 20.15 Pete waits at the Jutland pub, in phone contact with Nanny in a waiting Range Rover. He spots Billy, then follows him through the West End to catch a bus west, phoning his movements through to Nanny who follows.

Meanwhile, this is the same December 21st that the novel opened with, the one where Cassandra is in Burlington Arcade, avoiding Jane McMullen because she knows she is going to hand her a letter telling her her fraud has been discovered and her wronged client is going to sue.

Now, having arrived late at the gallery and been handed the letter and reading it and realising her world is about to come tumbling down, Cassandra arrives back at her house same time as Nicki, disgruntled and worried. She, absent-mindedly asks Nicki to take her ugly little pug Corker to ‘do his thing’ in the square.

Nicki does so but at that moment her mum (Margot, Cassandra’s step-sister who stole her husband Freddie off her 40 years ago) rings on her mobile, to tell her the news about Cassandra i.e that she’s been caught out in her fraudulent dealings. Distracted, Nicki lets the little dog, Corker, wander off.

Meanwhile, Billy has got off the bus from the West End and walks through the snow and darkness towards Osmington Square, followed by Pete, who is giving directions to Nanny who is following in the Range Rover. They pull up in the square and the next thing Billy knows he’s confronted by Pete and Nanny, who punches him in the face, knocks him down and kicks him in the ribs. The dog barks so Pete kicks it in the head. The thugs wander off as Nicki comes running up. She calls an ambulance. She realises Corker is dead.

Next day we see events from Cassandra’s point of view. Nicki’s mother (Margot) turns up to collect Nicki and drive her to their home in the country. With Billy in hospital, Nicki had gone through his rucksack and found the gun and a weird pink glove. She wraps it all up in an old sheet and shoves it in the bathroom bin of the basement flat and gets in the car with her mum. On the drive west she finds herself telling her mum about Billy and his, er, ‘involvements’, triggering a lecture about getting mixed up with the criminal classes.

December 2017

So this brings us back to where we started – to a full year later, and to Christmas 2017 (all the previous section happened in the run-up to Christmas 2016). (Does that mean the gun and the glove have lain hidden in the downstairs flat for a whole year? I am slight confused by this or, if I’ve understood it correctly, slightly incredulous.)

So here we are right back at the scene from near the start of the book where Cassandra has just found the gun and glove and make-up bag in Nicki’s bin and is wondering how the hell it got there. On impulse – and a bit drunk from drinking most of a bottle of claret – Cassandra brings the gun and glove and the clip of bullets up from Nicki’s flat, handles it drunkenly, before stashing it in her own washing machine.

Next day (the day after Freddie’s memorial service which we saw at the start of the book) Cassandra phones Margot, Freddie’s widow, to find out where Nicki is so she can question her. She finds out that Nicki is now living in a shared house in Tooting and working at a swanky art dealers in Dover Street. Cassandra goes to the dealers and confronts Nicki about the gun. Nicki bombards her with explanations, about it being Billy’s, well, not Billy’s it really belongs to Deano who she’s never met, and Billy took it and she was etc etc. Cassandra becomes very confused and threatens to call the police. Nicki say that’s rich, coming from a convicted fraudster.

Cassandra turns away in fury. Too angry to catch a bus home, she pads the streets of London at Christmas-time – thus allowing Simmonds to give vent to one of the most consistent of her themes – something which appears throughout the Posy comic strips – a really jaundiced venomous hatred of Christmas. ‘I pad past Christmas windows, their sterile perfection contrasting with the scrum of shoppers inside, racking up debt, sharing their seasonal bugs – norovirus, coughs, colds, flu.’

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds © Posy Simmonds

Back home in bed, Cassandra has a nightmare in which she is back in court and the judge accuses her of pandering to rich art collectors, price fixing, knowingly taken part in the laundering of money by criminals until the judge finds her… ‘a waste of space’. Reflecting that maybe her whole life has been a waste.

Cut to Billy at MacDonalds with his mum and son Jack. He’s surfing through the news on his phone, as you do, when he stumbles across a news item about a woman’s remains recently found in a wood, with a quilted coat and a distinctive pink glove! Same as the one he took from the car! Same as the one belonging to that hitch-hiker! God, is the body hers?

Billy is stunned. He immediately leaps to the conclusion that Deano and his lot must have murdered and dumped the hitch-hiker.

He texts Nicki and they meet on the Embankment. Now it is that we learn for the first time that, after he got beaten up and hospitalised, it was Billy who suggested they break off the relationship. If it was a relationship. As usual for a Simmonds heroine, Nicki is confused about her emotions and her feelings etc.

Sometimes Nicki wondered if all that stuff hadn’t happened, would she and Billy still be an item?They’d never examined their relationship at the time, had left their feelings for each other unspoken. It wasn’t just sex, there were feelings, Nicki knew. Quite strong feelings. (p.76)

(Maybe this is what helps the book feel like ‘chick lit’ – the heroine’s endless agonising about whether she has feelings and what kind of feelings and whether he shares her feelings and, you know, they need to talk about their feelings and their relationship, we need to talk, I need to talk, are we an item, do you have feelings, is this just about sex or about something more…? Repeat ad infinitum without ever getting anywhere, as the Bridget Jones’ column and books and movies amply demonstrate.)

Back to the plot: Now, at their rendezvous on the Embankment, Billy tells Nicki that Nanny and Pete have been keeping tabs on him, sending him photos of places he’s been to. They’ve turned over his flat twice and demanded to know where the gun is. But he just keeps lying and saying he never took it. (I find it a little hard to believe this has been going on for a year: if I was them I am sure I could hurt him until he admitted nicking the gun and… simply handed it back over. Wouldn’t that be the simple thing to do?)

Like a good middle-class young lady, Nicki tells him he should go to the police. Like the working class boy he is, Billy says no, it’ll be Deano and Nanny’s word against his, and whatever happens, sooner or later they’d get their revenge.

Cut back to Cassandra and some tiresome feminism is injected into the story. She is sitting at home at Christmas feeling sorry for herself, feeling that the world finds her a ‘failure as a woman’ because she hasn’t lived as ‘a woman ought to live’ i.e. got married, had children, grandchildren. I’ve news for her: the world doesn’t give a toss what she does with her life. Only in her head does this self-condemning monologue grumble on. Meanwhile she has led a pampered, privileged life most of us could only fantasise about: she’s had more than enough money, a good education, choice, freedom, travel, comfort, art, opera, theatre, films, books… Ah yes, but ‘society’ (whatever that is) considers her ‘a failure as a woman’ (whatever that means). This is what my daughter (the 17-year-old feminist) calls ‘white feminism’ i.e. the self-centred grumbling of privileged, white, middle-class women. Get over yourself.

There’s a knock at the door and Cassandra opens it to find Nicki with Billy. Nicki admits the truth, about giving Deano Cassandra’s phone number at the hen night (thus explaining Deano as the source of the violent threats and the dick pic), explains how Billy is involved, swears he fled the scene with the gun, brought it with him in his backpack when he moved in with Nicki (which explains the existence of the gun), how they’ve come to the decision to tell the police, but they need the gun. Where is it?

Furious, Cassandra kicks them out, and then – Billy having told her that the body and suspected murder were reported on ‘Crimefile’ – she looks up and watches it on the BBC iPlayer. Through her eyes we watch as the programme interviews the couple out walking their dog who found the corpse.

Cassandra finds herself wondering who the poor woman was. She gets out the gun and glove and the little make-up bag from the washing machine where she’d stashed it. Rummaging through it she comes upon a pack of paracetamol with the label of a pharmacy still attached. She looks it up and discovers this pharmacy is way out East, so Cassandra catches the tube out there to go and investigate.

Cassandra on the tube © Posy Simmonds

Cassandra wanders round the scuzzy district of Lowbridge Road looking for the pharmacy. The Asian couple who run it can’t remember any particular young woman buying it (and, anyway, wasn’t it bought over a year ago?) and neither can any of the other shopkeepers she tries, though she does pick up the knowledge that some of the houses in the area are packed with sex workers, foreign mostly.

Cassandra asks the pharmacy in Lowbridge Road whether they remember who bought the bottle of paracatemol © Posy Simmonds

In fact ill luck befalls her and Cassandra manages to lose her wallet, containing her cash and bank cards. Thus she experiences a whole 90 minutes of feeling poor and abandoned. It starts to rain. She begins to panic. No Oyster card, no money for a taxi. Finally she realises she can pawn her gold necklace, and makes enough money from it to buy a tube fare back to Knightsbridge, where she is once again safely among her people.

Back in her house, Cassandra gets the gun and glove out and ponders her next move. Thinking about the slimeball who sent her those vitriolic texts, she takes a photo of the gun and texts it back to him, a year after the original exchange: ‘Hi, remember me? Keeping your gun safe. And the left hand glove too. Vital evidence I’d say. What’s it worth to you, Deano? You tell me. Cassandra’

Cut to the office of Deano’s scrap metal yard where we learn that i) prolonged taking of drugs has half-unhinged Deano and ii) when the text arrives, it prompts another outpouring of regret, with Deano saying he never meant to kill that girl.

Soon afterwards, Deano goes for a drink and (incredibly fortuitously) sees Billy. Deano follows Billy to a bar where he’s meeting Nicki. Nicki tells Billy what Cassandra’s done i.e. only gone and texted a photo of the bloody gun to Deano, the silly so-and-so. Billy says he’ll go mental! Outside, Deano sees Billy and Nicki smooching and recognises her from that nightclub a year earlier, the infamous hen party evening when Nicki told him her name was Cassandra, and then bit him and squashed his balls.

When Nicki and Billy part, Deano follows Nicki down into the Tube, gets out at Knightsbridge stop with her, follows her along into Osmington Square. Simmonds does that thing where she uses just pictures, with no words, to rack up the tension, in this instance to portray the nagging anxiety of a woman walking on her own in the dark.

Now Deano makes his move, accosting Nicki in the street brandishing a knife, demands the gun, demands to know where she lives. Nicki starts screaming HELP! At that moment, Cassandra, who – as we have seen – had been playing with the gun, emerges from her front door holding it like an American cop, pointing at Deano.

Momentarily confused, Deano loosens his grip on Nicki who runs off. Deano recovers his nerve and crosses the road to Cassandra, who says, ‘Drop it, I’ll shot’, but he knows she won’t. Instead she throws it over the railings into the basement area, but Deano attacks her anyway and, after a tussle, stabs her in the stomach. ‘Stupid arse… what have you done?’ she gasps as she clutches the wound and falls to the pavement. Deano panics and flees. Nicki calls an ambulance and gives a statement to the police.

A wordless page follows which shows Cassandra in bed in hospital, sleeping, on a drip. Waking and talking to the police. Back to sleep. And then:

January Cassandra recovers and winds up the story, tying up all the loose ends.

She’s come to stay with her half-sister Margot in the country (a very idealised super-rural country, a country of postcards very like the perfect countryside around Stonefield in Tamar Drewe). She’s learned not to despise Margot so much, realising she has a lot in common with Margot and that what Margot calls ‘healing’ and ‘closure’ are actually quite enjoyable.

Dean Hart was arrested and confessed to the stabbing which, along with the bloody knife and the photos Nicki took of the fight, convicted him. He also confessed to strangling the girl during sex play a year before. Nanny and Pete were also arrested.

Best of all, Cassandra’s enquiries about the dead girl were followed up by the police who went to Lowbridge Road and on to a squalid flat inhabited by five other girls. Her name was Anca Radu, she was 23, grew up in a Romanian orphanage, was groomed and trafficked to the UK as a prostitute, escaped from the flat, hitched a lift, but was dropped in the middle of nowhere, which is where she had the bad luck to be picked up by Deano, taken to London and then killed, accidentally or not.

Lastly, in hospital the doctors discovered that Cassandra has pancreatic cancer. Given the gloomy thread running throughout the book in which Cassandra periodically worried about becoming senile like her poor husband, and pondered different ways of killing herself to avoid that fate, the reader understands when Cassandra says this diagnosis is a perfect solution. It comes as no surprise that she has chosen not to receive treatment.

She is selling the house in Osmington Square and will give the proceeds to charities, including refuges for women.

Thoughts

Issues

One of the pleasures of the book is the way that various contemporary ‘issues’ familiar to Londoners are dramatised via the characters.

Off the top of my head I remember the several places where Nicki and Cassandra discuss or argue about the purpose and merits of ‘feminist’ art.

Similarly, the ‘issue’ of homelessness is raised via Nicki’s burlesque strip tease fund raiser, but also in the paired moments when Cassandra refuses to give change to a beggar (at the start) and does (after herself being briefly moneyless in the East End).

And the entire plot rotates, to some extent, about sex trafficking from eastern Europe. Other thoughts – about art and class are snagged, or rise briefly to the surface of situations or conversations then disappear again. Taken together, these issues, large or trivial, and other references (to Uber taxis) make the book feel surprisingly contemporary. Gives the reader the simple pleasure of recognition, of recognising the rather mundane world around us transformed into art, well, comic strip cartoons.

White collar versus gangland crime

Implicit in the whole story is the contrast between Cassandra and her smart, Mayfair form of white-collar crime, and the much more brutal, unhinged crime of Deano and his family out in the East End. Two wrongs, two types of wrong, and prompts broader comparisons between life in Chelsea and life out East in the endless tower blocks of east London.

Cassandra’s redemption

Obviously the narrative arc as a whole depicts Cassandra’s ‘redemption i.e. by doing one brave act she stops being such a grumpy so-and-so and sheds her grumpy, sourpuss persona. No more fretting about how ‘society’ sees her. No more dismissing Margot who, at the start of the book, she had found unbearably pompous and touchy-feelie. Instead, acceptance of her own mortality, acceptance of emotions and emotional intelligence.

It is a timeless stereotype that urban characters have to go to the countryside to be ‘complete’, to achieve ‘authenticity’.

Most of all, maybe, it wasn’t the act of bravery – pointing the gun at Deano and saving Nicki so much as the sympathy Cassandra showed for the once-unnamed and now identified person of the murdered woman. It was discovering her identity more than anything that happens to wretched Deano, which matters most. Giving her a name, an identity, and so some respect.

Loose ends and problems

But many things are left unresolved and unredeemed. Cassandra is still a convicted criminal. We have no sense whether Billy and Nicki are going to live happily ever after, or even whether Deano will go to prison. Presumably…

In terms of plot there is a glaring hole which is the improbability of Billy nicking Deano’s gun in the first place. Even he can’t explain why he did it and it is left to the reader to conclude that he did it because otherwise there would be no story.

And the flashback structure – which worked so well in Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe – left me a bit confused. The mapping of two Christmases onto each other, the year long gap, forced me to go back and reread bits to understand the precise sequence of events. And also the way Billy split up with Nicki after he’d been hospitalised wasn’t told at the time, but reported a year later, in retrospect, so it took me a moment to fit that into the timeline.

Art

The use of colour makes for a deep and rewarding visual experience. But to be honest, although some pictures seemed to me to perfectly convey the intended atmosphere – especially lots of the scenery, of London or the countryside – there is an obstinate ungainliness or scrappiness about almost all of the frames which nagged at me, which held me back from going over the top and declaring it a masterpiece etc.

For example, here is Cassandra in a shop near Burlington Arcade, presumably Fortnum and Masons. The top picture of her mooching across a snowy road with her snub nose, pince-nez, slice of lipstick along her thin lips, and characteristic trapper’s fur hat, are all immediately grabby and evocative.

But in the pic below it, look at the girl standing on the right. She just feels to me anatomically incorrect and, stylistically, a throwback to the Posy strip of the 1980s. If Cassandra is fully imagined and drawn, many of the peripheral characters feel less so.

Cassandra in Fortnum and Masons © Posy Simmonds

Here is Cassandra arriving late at her gallery to find the gallery assistant furious that she’s been delayed getting away and organising her own Christmas. Look at the assistant’s face. It is oddly unstable, in the first picture she is characterised by enormous shark’s teeth and big angry eyes – throughout the sequence she has lizard eyes i.e. not with a circular human black pupil, but with vertical slits of pupils. But then in the right-hand picture she suddenly has much softer features and just dots for eyes, a reversion to the Posy strip style, which suddenly makes her seem much less offensive, much less real. In the bottom row second from the left, something odd has happened to her left eye. It’s an example of the way many of the faces in Simmonds are unstable and undergo sometimes striking variations.

Cassandra and her gallery assistant © Posy Simmonds

I know I’m nit-picking but you will read articles claiming Simmonds is the pre-eminent graphic novelist in Britain and I’m not entirely sure. Although I liked the scenery and many of the settings, I still didn’t wholeheartedly enjoy her depiction of faces which too often seemed odd, inconsistent and sometimes positively cack-handed.

Still, that reservation apart, it’s a very enjoyable graphic novel and a very skillful weaving of so many contemporary ‘issues’ into what is, in the end, an extended cartoon strip. And the real point is Cassandra’s journey to redemption, to a form of happiness and closure. If you focus on that, on the skill with which she imagines, describes and draws the central figure – then nitpicking about details tends to fade away.


Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.

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Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England in 1873, at the age of 20. He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo priasing numerous aspects of English life and London – and contains several rooms full of the English paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I looked at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered.

It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to paint a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison but in his own blocky style, to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job with the art dealing firm Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for the popular prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’.

VanGogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he included their names and his responses to their works, in his many letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not Van Gogh’s last painting! The painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. And so the aim of the display is to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

Promotional video


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Austerity Britain: A World to Build 1945–48 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories (to date; the plan is to take them up to 1979) have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contains two ‘books’:

Should one review the portmanteau volume – Austerity Britain (692 pages long in its current Bloomsbury paperback edition) – or the two ‘books’ it contains? I’ve chosen the latter option, because each of the ‘books’ is so dense and packed with information that they require separate posts.

Approach

What makes the books so delightful and addictive is that they are an oral history. Rather than the stats and graphs of an economic history, or the acts and votes of a political history, or the treaties and negotiations of a diplomatic history, Kynaston’s account quotes at length from diaries, letters, journals and accounts kept by the widest range of people alive during the period, as they react to events large and small, national, international and parochial.

Fairly regularly he stops to consider this or that ‘issue’ – rationing, nationalisation, town planning – in what you might call the traditional historical way, describing key publications or speeches in that area. But then he swiftly returns to the more gossipy main stream of his approach, to quote housewives, workers, local officials.

The result is to be led through the key events and debates of the period, but to see it overwhelmingly in human terms, in the words of the people who shed and led debate but also the reactions of the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Some of the voices

The Famous

  • Neil Kinnock, future leader of the Labour Party, aged 3 when the war ends in 1945
  • Patrick Stewart, 5, moved along by a policeman for singing outside a polling booth in 1945
  • Bill Wyman, bassist with the Rolling Stones, starts grammar school, 8
  • Glenda Jackson, aged 9 when the war ends, starts grammar school in 1947
  • Alan Bennett, 11, spent VE Day in Guildford
  • Kenneth Tynan, drama critic to be, now Birmingham schoolboy, 18
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, 24
  • ultra-royalist James Lees-Milne, diarist, architectural historian, worked for the National Trust, 36
  • Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon literary magazine, 41
  • Noel Coward, playwright, aged 45
  • J.B. Priestley, novelist and radio broadcaster, 50
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, 53, commenting on the insanity of the atom bomb
  • Harold Nicholson, British diplomat, author, diarist and politician, 58
  • Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, politician and diarist, 58

There are hundreds more but this gives a flavour. Kinnock is quoted as remembering the prefab house his parents moved into. Bill Wyman remembers how going to grammar school in 1947 cut him off from his working class roots, though the boys at his new school teased him for being poor. Lees-Milne is very posh and quoted liberally throughout with his generally negative reactions to the Labour government.

Connolly, as a magazine editor and essayist, wrote reams of material, but Kynaston quotes him, fascinatingly, commenting on the way the great wall of left-wing / communist solidarity among artists, writers, poets and so on during the 1930s simply evaporated after the war and had quite disappeared by 1947. The problem was that they finally had a ‘socialist’ government and there wasn’t a man or woman in ‘the movement’ who wasn’t bitterly disappointed at the reality (p.235). The same sentiment is expressed by George Orwell, who in his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn (1942), wrote confidently about the general public’s swing to the Left and the notion of central planning but, by 1946, had become disillusioned (pp.45, 173).

All this was exacerbated by the Berlin Airlift, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the general start of the Cold War. I hadn’t realised that this led to actual legislation banning car carrying communists from public office, with the ruin of many a career.

There are also extensive quotes from key players in politics, from the diaries or letters or speeches of men like Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister), Hugh Gaitskell (Minister of Fuel and Power), Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health overseeing the creation of the National Health Service), Ernest Bevin (Foreign Secretary who oversaw the independence of India, Israel etc), Herbert Morrison (Deputy Prime Minister), Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer).

Slowly you get a feel for their personalities, achievements and disagreements. Around them swim all kinds of minor figures, private secretaries, and MPs, and policy makers such as Michael Young, who wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto (Let Us Face The Future), coined the term meritocracy and went on to play a key role in setting up the Consumer Association and the Open University.

The Obscure

Kynaston takes his lead from Mass Observation, set up in 1937 by three Cambridge graduates, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation aimed to:

record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events. (Wikipedia)

Kynaston relies heavily on material from the M-O archive now held at the University of Sussex. This takes many forms. M-O carried out tailored surveys on specific issues throwing up statistical results of the numbers in favour or against particular policies. Their contributors often reported on conversations overheard on the street, on the buses or tube, at the theatre etc. And other contributors kept detailed diaries. The most famous of these was Nella Last (1889-1968), who wrote over two million words about everything she died, heard and observed, from 1939 to 1966, making her one of the single largest contributors to M-O.

But Kynaston quotes from a large number of other diarists and recorders, including:

  • Michael Burns, grew up in Tolworth
  • Lawrence Daly, coalminer
  • Alice ‘Judy’ Haines, a young married mother of two living in Chingford
  • Anthony Heap, a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras
  • Mary King, retired teacher
  • Gladys Langford, deserted by her husband, living alone in the Woodstock Hotel
  • Ernest Loftus, headmaster of Barking Abbey School
  • Edith Palmer, ex-pat’s daughter, late-20s, arriving in England from Kenya
  • Mrs Michael Pleydell-Bouverie who spent three years on behalf of the Daily Mail speaking to ‘the Women of Britain’ about homes and housing
  • Kenneth Preston, a middle-aged English teacher at Keighley Grammar School
  • Marian Raynham, a housewife from Surbiton
  • Henry St John, son of a sweetshop owner, living in Bristol
  • Sir Raymond Streat, head of the Cotton Board
  • Rose Uttin, housewife from Wembley
  • Mrs Madge Waller

Post-war issues

So what do these people comment on and discuss? A huge array of issues and problems which faced Britain right from the moment war ended (Victory in Europe 8 May 1945, Victory in Japan and the final end of the war, 15 August). As stated, Kynaston is not a conventional historian of diplomacy or economics. Issues appear insofar as they impinged on the minds of his huge cast of Britons. None of them are pursued in detail and, after 300 pages, I realised that he rarely comes to a conclusion about any of them. Instead we are presented with a variety of opinions, from top politicians and expert down to housewives and coalminers – and then he moves on.

Domestic affairs

  • Rationing
  • The General Election 5 July 1945
  • The Labour government’s attempts to:
    • nationalise industry
    • set up a National Health Service (launched, after much struggles with the doctors, on 5 July 1948)
  • The housing crisis
  • Education  (everyone accepted the 11-plus, the division between grammar and technical schools, and nobody touched the public schools which were [and are], according to Kynaston, ‘the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege’, p.153)

International affairs

  • Surrender of Germany, suicide of Hitler
  • Atom bombs dropped on Japan
  • Berlin Blockade and airlift
  • June 1947 Marshall Plan
  • February 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia

But most of the people Kynaston quotes have little or no interest in international affairs. After initial relief that the war is over, and then shock at the revelation of the atom bomb, most people sink back into their customary indifference to international affairs (and to politics generally).

Britain might as well not have an empire at all. The independence of Israel and India/Pakistan are not mentioned. Decades ago I read the comment by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, that the tragedy of the British was that all their history took place abroad – by which he meant in the empire.

One of the biggest aspects of the book is the way the British Empire is almost completely absent from it. The people Kynaston quotes are struggling to make ends meet, to find somewhere to live, find a job, and then find food to eat. He quotes a survey of 2,000 adults made in 1948 which revealed that only 49% could name a single British colony. The majority of those surveyed could not name a single British colony.

And so, since so few people knew or cared about the empire, Kynaston devotes much space to popular radio programmes (Woman’s Hour, first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC’s Light Programme, the popular comedy It’s That Man Again), to the very slow spread of television (only 50,000 sets in 1945). There is more about the Grand National than there is about Gandhi, more about Stanley Matthews (the footballer) than Stalin.

In this book nobody travels abroad (nobody can afford it) but plenty of people have a summer holiday at Margate or Morecambe or at Billy Butlin’s new holiday camps (first one at Skegness in 1936).

Kynaston gives us the results of the key test matches and FA Cup Finals for 1945, 46, and 47, as well as the Epsom Derby, and reports from greyhound races and boxing matches – while all kinds of high-minded middle-class commentators lament that the average working man seems more interested in a pint, a packet of fags and the sports results than he does about the Iron Curtain.

The intellectuals and the masses

This reflects what, for me, is the main impression of the book, which is the enormous divide between the relatively small educated liberal intelligentsia – the policy makers and politicians and thinkers and writers and architects and planners – and the vast majority of the population, still very working class, often illiterate or, as Kynaston puts it:

the profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon (p.267)

Kynaston shows how all of the 1945 Labour government’s policies were not just controversial but opposed by large number of people, even the working people the Labour Party claimed to represent. For example, efforts to pass laws guaranteeing the trade unions representatives on boards of the new nationalised industries (a policy followed in Germany) were rejected by the unions. Why? Because they preferred to negotiate wages from a position of freedom and strength (p.229) It was a mindset which, arguably, crippled British industry for generations.

Similarly, it is fascinating to read how many ordinary people (not just the usual suspects, Tory MPs and toff writers), really hard core working class people, were suspicious of, or actively against, the welfare state, the new system of national insurance and the National Health Service.

The gaping chasm between well-meaning left-leaning university-educated intellectuals and ‘the masses’ is probably best demonstrated in the area of housing. Vast amounts of Britain’s housing stock was destroyed by German bombing. But a fair percentage of what survived was desperately rundown slums, particularly in the industrial cities – London’s East End, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and so on contained acres of slums, houses with no running water, gas or electricity, millions of people living with no indoor toilet.

The chasm comes about when the planners and architects put their heads together to solve the problem. There was debate and argument at all levels, but roughly speaking, people wanted houses with a little garden of their own, and the planners wanted to put them in blocks of flats. People wanted their bombed out city centres to be restored to how they were before the war. Urban planners and go-ahead young architects wanted, on the contrary, to demolish what old buildings were left, and create sweeping new town centres, dominated by pedestrian precincts and car parks, surrounded by ring roads. As he writes of the brave new plan devised to demolish and rebuild central Plymouth:

There was little or no local consultation, with all objections overruled. (p.36)

The opening of the book is devoted to arguments about how to rebuild Britain and, through the thicket of specific details about new schemes for Plymouth or Hull, one gets a really clear feel for the divide between those who know best what the people want, and the people themselves – not least, of course, because Kynaston’s whole book is devoted to the people’s voices. He quotes one of the founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrison:

worried most by the way that planners and others associated with the matter talked as if they were winning over the general public when they were only winning over each other. He had never met any group of people who ‘scratched each other’s backs’ more than planners did. (p.47)

In Bristol the local retail association organised a poll which showed that only 400 were in favour of the new Broadmead shopping centre, while 13,000 opposed it. The planners ignored this and all other opposition, and went ahead and built it.

This Great Divide, this sense of a mass population profoundly alienated from their lords and masters, grows as the book progresses from the May 1945 General Election through to its end point, 5 July 1948, the day the National Health Service was inaugurated. Intellectuals at the time were agonisingly aware of it. Various papers and reports guesstimated that ‘the thinking minority’ ranged from 20% down to a mere 5% of the population (p.55). How could they break out of their bubble to really engage with the great unwashed (an expression coined around 1830 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton)?

Ronald

Maybe the single biggest surprise is the couple of pages devoted to the four months spent by American actor, Ronald Reagan at Elstree Studios making a war movie called The Hasty Heart (pp.314-315). Reagan was appalled by the filthy London smogs and rundown hotels, and – although he went out of his way to praise the director and all the other technicians he worked with – it was a grim first-hand sight of socialism in action which, in his view, amounted to stoppages dictated by the militant trade unions, six-hour queues at hospitals, gaunt impoverished passersby and mile after mile of slate-roofed council houses in the rain.

So far so anecdotal: but Kynaston goes on to say that Reagan himself, writing twenty years later in the 1970s, pointed to this trip to Britain – to seeing the ‘natural’ economic order of free markets replaced by rationing and state interference at every level, and the resulting lack of all basic facilities in a culture dominated by the petty tyrannies of trade union shop stewards and local government officials – as a defining moment in his journey to the Right.

So that, considering Reagan’s centrality to world politics during the 1980s and the role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, of communism, and even of full-blooded socialism as a viable political programme, there’s a case for saying that these few months in rainy Hertfordshire changed the history of the world.

General impoverishment

Kynaston devotes pages to political debates about Marshall Aid, about the end of Lend-Lease, about the currency crisis and devaluation of sterling, and so on.

But by far the biggest and most enduring subject of the book is RATIONING, the rationing of food and clothing, which not only continued after the war, but got worse, a lot worse. From the poshest in the land down to a variety of housewives, Kynaston’s quotes convey the sheer numbing crushing effect of days and months and year after year of shortages of meat, bacon, milk, sugar, butter, even of bread.

Demobbed soldiers, or visitors from abroad (including the American playwright Tennessee Williams), or British children arriving in Britain back from the colonies (Cliff Richard arriving from India in 1948, aged 8) all noticed how pale and underfed the population looked. For years after the war the gas supply was weak and the electricity was turned off at certain times of day. Witnesses like Harold Nicholson testify that even in the best London clubs, the food came in minuscule portions and was barely edible.

And then in February 1948 the population was afflicted by the coldest winter of the 20th century. Young Roy Hattersley remembers sledging down the middle of usually busy streets (p.199) but thousands of the elderly and the infirm died. And millions had to dig a path from their back doors to their outside toilets.

There are thousands of wonderful anecdotes, gems and insights throughout the book – but the predominating image is of impoverishment and endurance.

The queue for rationed food - symbol of post-war Britain

The queue for rationed food – symbol of post-war Britain

P.S. Obscure novelists

A lot of the people Kynaston quotes are, inevitably, writers, a self-selecting cohort since he is himself a writer dealing with written records which ‘writers’ dominate.

Your ears prick up at the famous ones (Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing) but he also introduces us to a cocktail party of less well-known writers from the period, a list which has the effect o making you realise how selective ‘literary history’ is, picking out the half dozen ‘serious’ writers from each era or decade, and letting plenty of other authors drop into obscurity.

It is one of the many many pleasures of the book to come across forgotten authors he mentions, and google them and toy with tracking down and reading their (mostly forgotten) works:

  • Ruby Mildred Ayres b.1881 – one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century
  • Ethel M. Dell b.1881 – author of over 30 popular romance novels
  • Naomi Jacob b.1884 – author and actress
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett b.1884 – novelist
  • Angela Thirkell b.1890 – author of a series of 19 novels set in Home Counties ‘Barsetshire’
  • James Lansdale Hodson b.1891 – journalist and novelist
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 – novelist and poet
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 – Irish novelist and short story writer
  • Mollie Panter-Downes b.1906 – novelist and writer of Letters from England for the New Yorker magazine
  • Pamela Hansford Johnson, Baroness Snow b.1912 – novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic
  • Denton Welch b.1915 – writer and painter
  • Sid Chaplin b.1916 coal miner who wrote novels about mining communities in the North-East
  • Joan Wyndham b.1921 – rose to literary prominence late in life through the diaries she had kept about her romantic adventures during the Second World War

Related links

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908)

‘We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession.’
(A policeman, talking to the novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Syme)

Chesterton’s paper-thin characters

Having just read four novels on the trot by H.G. Wells, I am well aware that one of Wells’s notorious shortcomings is the way his characters are often mere pawns in scenarios or plotlines designed to convey Wells’s social, technological and political ideas.

At least that’s what I thought until I read these two novels of Chesterton’s. Wells’s characters have Shakespearian depth compared to Chesterton’s.

Chesterton’s characters are names attached to attitudes, or positions, and a great deal of the interchanges between these entities are really the cut and thrust of opposing ideas in a debating society.

I find Wells’s characters endearing because, by comparison, they do have real back stories and histories – for example, Wells goes to maybe silly lengths to give realistic depth to his character Bert Smallways. He builds up our sense of Bert’s ability with mechanics and engines, at repairing bicycle and motor bikes, a skill which will come in handy as he proceed through the adventures in the novel, The War In the Air.

Chesterton’s characters, by contrast, are almost all the same. They all give clever speeches. They are all fond of paradoxes. And very fond of generalising about human nature, about God. Reminiscent of the kind of ‘soft’ theologising you get in Graham Greene. But whereas Greene does it (at length) in his novels mainly to make the reader share Greene’s basically suicidal worldview by blackening human nature at every opportunity…

Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.

We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.

In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

… Chesterton does it to make the reader chortle with the recognition of a clever paradox, to satirise the progressive philosophies of his day, and to point to something deeper and more mysterious about human existence.

The introductions to The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man Who Was Thursday confidently extract from them certain ‘messages’ and ‘meanings’; but the experience of actually reading the books is nowhere near as clear-cut and simple. I found them both to be murky and difficult reads. I sensed that a ‘message’ was being propounded, I just couldn’t work out what it was.

Chesterton’s characters are, in fact, so featureless and interchangeable that they do, often, interchange. The Man Who Was Thursday is not so much a novel, more a fantasy entirely concerned with false identities and secret sides, and characters who flip, in a moment, from being on the side of darkness to being on the side of light – or vice-versa.

The plot

The novel is set in the present-day, Edwardian era, where we find two poets in the garden of an artist’s colony, located in a fictional new garden city, named Saffron Park.

Mr Lucian Gregory, the red-haired poet, is holding court. All the young ladies of the town flock to admire him and his daringly ‘anarchistic’ sentiments. But on this evening Gregory is confronted by another poet, flaxen-haired Mr Gabriel Syme, who politely doubts the anarchist’s ‘commitment’.

Gregory argues that poetry is anarchy and breaking the rules. This makes the young ladies swoon with excitement. Syme counters that poetry is law and gives as an example the wonderful poetry of the London Underground, where you have a map and know exactly which station is coming next on any journey. Law and logic and certainty are the only poetry (says Syme).

Angered, Gregory waits for the party to end then confronts Syme outside the ground of his house. In a feverish conversation Gregory reveals that he really is an anarchist and makes Syme swear not to tell anyone. At which point Syme reveals that he is really a policeman, but that Gregory must swear to tell no-one. They both solemnly swear to keep each other’s secrets.

You see how Chesterton’s taste for symmetry and paradox overcomes any attempt at ‘realism’.

Gregory promptly takes Syme along to a pub which contains a secret table which – in true James Bond style – at the touch of secret button descends down through the floor to a basement below the pub.

This turns out to be the meeting place of the most dangerous Anarchists Club in London. Syme accepts all this with upper-class sang-froid. He is told he is attending a meeting to decide who will become the next leader of this anarchists’ ‘chapter’. He learns there are seven anarchist groups, each ruled by someone given the codename of a day of the week. Head of the entire Anarchist Movement is a mysterious man named Sunday.

As it happens the man named ‘Thursday’, who was leader of this section, recently passed away and tonight they are voting for his successor. Everyone expects Gregory to be elected ‘Thursday’, but he is suddenly overcome by worry that, making them all sound too dangerous will prompt Syme to denounce them all to his police colleagues.

So Gregory makes a surprisingly tame speech recommending they obey the Law, which is met with general disappointment from the assembled anarchists. At which (in a characteristically Chestertonian paradox) Syme the policeman leaps to his feet and makes a startlingly violent speech, denouncing Gregory’s pacifism – and he is elected by an overwhelming majority. Humorous paradox, and ironic reversal.

Thus Syme is made the new ‘Thursday’ and is led off down a secret passage which opens onto the Thames where a steam boat is waiting – leaving Gregory seething with anger and impotence. It is, to say the least, odd to the modern reader that Gregory keeps his promise not to expose his rival – but then the entire novel is odd, and is really more of a psychological fantasia than a ‘novel’. If you try applying realistic criteria you will get nowhere.

The man who was Sunday

The steam boat chugs along to the Embankment in central London where ‘Thursday’ is met by ‘the secretary’, a posh man with a disfigured face who takes him through the streets up to Leicester Square where the Anarchists are holding a meeting on a balcony overlooking the tourists.

Their leader, Sunday, has a theory that if you loudly announce to everyone that you are an anarchist no-one will believe you. Thus they make their plans to blow up kings and emperors, at an open-air restaurant while waiters come and go bringing drinks and dishes, tut-tutting and laughing at those funny old anarchists who do like their little jokes. Irony. Paradox.

Syme is greeted by the assembled anarchist leaders as the new Thursday and promptly introduced to Monday, Tuesday etc. Chesterton takes the time to introduce them all to us, along with their real identities and histories, including a grey-haired professor.

After all the introductions, Sunday does in fact call them away from the terrace and into a locked room, where he announces that one among them is a traitor!!

This is a scene I’ve seen in so many James Bond and other spy adventure movies, I wonder if it originated with Chesterton. Probably not, in which case I wonder if an origin can be found – or whether the trope of the spy among the band of conspirators, the traitor in our midst, is not in fact as old as story-telling.

Anyway, Sunday ratchets up the tension with furious denunciations of the as-yet-unidentified spy in their midst, and Syme is just about to stand up and confess that it is he when, to his amazement, a scraggy-haired Polish anarchist does just that – stands up and confesses to being a policeman, throwing his blue police card onto the table.

Sunday is incomprehensibly magnanimous, and asks him to go now and promise not to tell their plans to anyone (!).

Then Sunday gets down to organising an assassination outrage against a politician visiting Paris. After this the group break up and go their separate ways.

Syme is pursued

There is then a spookily atmospheric sequence where Syme wanders along to a Soho restaurant… only to find the so-called Professor has followed him.

Syme gets up, walks through Covent Garden and stops in a pub… only to find the Professor sitting at a table.

Syme storms out and runs along to St Pauls, its dome shimmering as night falls and with it a shower of snow and hears, in the snowdrift quietness… the sound of the Professor pottering along behind him.

Gripped by a kind of panic fear Syme runs on through the black London streets, down to the docks and ducks into a rough pub. Where the Professor walks through the door straight after him.

Sequences like this fully justify the novel’s sub-title, ‘A Nightmare’. There is something fully nightmareish, something creepily uncanny, about this unstoppable pursuit.

The Professor finally confronts Syme, asking whether he is a policeman, which Syme furiously denies. ‘Shame,’ replies the Professor’, because I am,’ and he tosses onto the table the same type of blue police identity card that the Pole had done earlier, at the same time ripping off the mask which makes him look like a senile old man, to reveal a fresh-faced young chap beneath!!!!

So now Syme knows that three of the seven dangerous anarchists sitting round the meeting table off Leicester Square… were in fact policemen (the one who got throw out, himself and now, the Professor)!

Double identities and ironies!

Revealing the other police spies

This has taken us up to chapter 8 of 15. To cut a long story what happens next is that Symes and the Professor then track down the other three members of the group and discover, one by one, that they are all policemen masquerading as anarchists.

Unmasking the last one requires the by-now assembled squad of undercover policemen to catch the ferry to France and track down the last member of the seven, who was nominated to be the assassin sent to blow up a leading politician in Paris. The last of the seven is a French aristocrat named the Marquis de Saint Eustache.

This turns into a really compelling and weird fantasia of a sequence as our man Syme ends up fighting an elaborately staged duel with the Marquis, under the misapprehension that the latter is actually an anarchist.

During the duel (with fencing swords) Syme repeatedly sticks his point into the Marquis with no apparent result. Exactly as in a nightmare where, whatever you do to stop it, the monster keeps getting back up.

The solution of the mystery, revealed at the climax of the contest, is that the Marquis is wearing an early type of bullet-proof vest.

Anyway, the Marquis has no sooner revealed that he, like all the others, is in fact an undercover policeman than the train, which everyone thought he was intending to catch to Paris to carry out his terrorist outrage – pulls into the nearby station.

Chased by anarchists

To the horror of the assembled anarchists-now-revealed-as-policemen, a great crowd of genuine anarchists swarm out of it, all wearing Keystone Cops-style black masks over the tops of their faces, and led by none other than the ‘secretary’ who had escorted Syme from the Embankment to the anarchist meeting in Leicester Square, in the earlier chapter.

The chase is on! Our chaps run through woods with the gang of black-masked figures gaining on them. They arrive at a farm the marquis knows, where the kindly old owner lends them horses. But the anarchists are still gaining on them and then they are horrified to hear the sounds of horse galloping after them and to recognise the kindly old man among them. He is one of the Enemy!!

Our chaps gallop onto another house where a friend of the Marquis’s lends them cars and off they zoom. But one breaks down and they hear… other motor cars chasing them, look up and see the ‘friend’ among their pursuers. The whole world is against them!

This nightmare sense becomes overwhelming when they arrive at a fishing village on the coast and… the entire population rises up against them, forming a mob, joined now by the horse riders and the car drivers, creating an enormous crowd of black-masked anarchists and villagers and fishermen who surround them and chase them down onto a pier, pushing them further and further out till they reach the end of the pier and have nowhere left to turn.

The earth in anarchy

No wonder this chapter is titled ‘The Earth In Anarchy’. Apparently, Chesterton wrote the book during a bout of severe depression. It was partly caused by the great wave of anarchist, socialist, positivist and nihilist thinking which swept over Europe in the 1890s and 1900s. All these trends were materialist, denying the existence of a ‘soul’ or God, insisting on the purely material view of life as a constant struggle unmediated by any kind of transcendent values.

As a devout Anglican, Chesterton found all of these philosophies represented profound attacks on his most deeply cherished beliefs and all the things he loved in life.

The Man Who Was Thursday is thus a kind of ecstasy of horror, a vision of a world borne down in a great black tide of nihilism. As he explained: ‘It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date.’

At this, its hysterical climax, Syme, pushed to the end of the quay, suddenly rebels and runs straight at the anarchist crowd and, in particular, at the ‘secretary’ who is leading them. He accuses them of being filthy anarchists who deny the beauty of order and law and life.

At which point the ‘secretary’ steps back, tears off his mask and announces ‘I arrest you in the name of the law.’

‘The law?’ screams Syme. ‘But you’re anarchists.’

‘No you’re the anarchists,’ says the secretary. ‘I am a policeman and these are my deputies, and we have dressed up as anarchists as a disguise, to try and mix in with you.’

!!!!!!

The crowd which has been chasing them all this time was doing so because they had been told they were pursuing dangerous anarchists. They aren’t anarchists at all. The entire thing has been a mistake and a misunderstanding.

‘There is some mistake,’ [the Secretary] said. ‘Mr. Syme, I hardly think you understand your position. I arrest you in the name of the law.’
‘Of the law?’ said Syme, and dropped his stick.
‘Certainly!’ said the Secretary. ‘I am a detective from Scotland Yard,’ and he took a small blue card from his pocket.
‘And what do you suppose we are?’ asked the Professor, and threw up his arms.
‘You,’ said the Secretary stiffly, ‘are, as I know for a fact, members of the Supreme Anarchist Council. Disguised as one of you, I – ‘
Dr. Bull tossed his sword into the sea.
‘There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council,’ he said. ‘We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn’t be wrong about the mob,’ he said, beaming over the enormous multitude, which stretched away to the distance on both sides. ‘Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.’

Note this last little speech. Bull is one of the anarchists-who-is-really-a-policeman and here he expresses one of Chesterton’s shibboleths.

It is the intellectuals who we should be worried about, the intellectuals who are promoting anarchy and socialism and nihilism, the intellectuals who are attacking everything good and sweet and clean.

By contrast, the so-called common people have never lost touch with the real values of life, with country lanes and Anglican churches and pints of good old English ale.

Who is Sunday?

So all the six anarchists named after the six days of the week, who are now all revealed to be policemen in disguise, catch the ferry and train back to London and all troop off to Leicester Square to confront big black-suited Sunday. He is still (as in a dream) sitting eating on the balcony overlooking the square where they left him. To be honest I didn’t understand the ending at all. Here is the Wikipedia summary:

Sunday reveals that setting them against each other was all part of his Master Plan. In a surreal conclusion, Sunday is unmasked as only seeming to be terrible; in fact, he is a force of good like the detectives. Sunday is unable to give an answer to the question of why he caused so much trouble and pain for the detectives.

Gregory, the only real anarchist, seems to challenge the good council. His accusation is that they, as rulers, have never suffered like Gregory and their other subjects and so their power is illegitimate. Syme refutes the accusation immediately, because of the terrors inflicted by Sunday on the rest of the council.

So the crux of the thing seems to be that Gregory (the poet, the man we met in the opening scene) is the only spokesman for real anarchists – and he says that the opinions of Syme and all the rest are not valid because they have never suffered.

Only Gregory and his kind have suffered, and their terrorism is justified by their suffering.

But Symes denies this. He and others like him have suffered. The anarchists don’t have a monopoly of suffering. Syme shouts:

‘No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, “We also have suffered.”‘

A dream

And then… it all turns out to be a dream! Syme awakens. He has napped while on a country walk. He resumes his walk along a country lane, in a little epiphany of the kind of values, images and ideas which Chesterton values: the countryside, tradition, good fellowship.

And this hymn leads up to a vision of one of the pretty young women who Syme had met and chatted to in that garden at the start of the novel.

As [Syme] gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’

* * *

When men in books awake from a vision, they commonly find themselves in some place in which they might have fallen asleep; they yawn in a chair, or lift themselves with bruised limbs from a field. Syme’s experience was something much more psychologically strange if there was indeed anything unreal, in the earthly sense, about the things he had gone through.

For while he could always remember afterwards that he had swooned before the face of Sunday, he could not remember having ever come to at all. He could only remember that gradually and naturally he knew that he was and had been walking along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion. That companion had been a part of his recent drama; it was the red-haired poet Gregory. They were walking like old friends, and were in the middle of a conversation about some triviality. But Syme could only feel an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.

Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky.

Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.

Sunday’s parting question as the nightmare collapses – ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’ is the question Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38–39. It is a challenge to Syme and maybe to the reader, asking whether they have the ‘commitment’ to follow in Jesus’ footsteps… Maybe this makes sense to a Christian but within the context of the novel it is difficult to… pin down, to really understand.

Metaphysical landscapes

At its most intense – in the sequence where Syme is followed by the spooky Professor across London, and in the delirious chase scene across the French countryside where everyone on earth seems to be pursuing our heroes – The Man Who Was Thursday becomes a really effective spine-chiller.

And throughout there is an otherworldly sensibility at work. Chesterton’s is a mind which doesn’t flow toward the concrete but naturally leads him off into apocalyptic theological and symbolical landscapes. Here he is summing up Syme’s first impression of the other anarchists sitting round the conference table.

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again.

Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something – say a tree – that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself – a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

‘An ultimate horizon, visions from the verge.’ That is where a lot of Chesterton’s imagination is always tending. He is always moving from the actual towards the metaphysical, but the metaphysical with an Edwardian twist.

The strangeness of some of these visions reminds me of the weird otherworldly landscapes conjured up in C.S. Lewis’s great science fiction trilogy, or even in Wyndham Lewis’s very peculiar theological science fiction novel, The Childermass.

London landscapes

However, the parts of the book I liked most were when Chesterton’s natural taste for the fantastical is tied, anchored and embedded in naturalistic descriptions of Edwardian London.

For example, on the tugboat journey from the secret basement where Syme is elected ‘Thursday’ to a mooring at the Embankment near Charing Cross, where he first meets the ‘Secretary’ and is escorted to Leicester Square.

Over the whole landscape lay a luminous and unnatural discoloration, as of that disastrous twilight which Milton spoke of as shed by the sun in eclipse; so that Syme fell easily into his first thought, that he was actually on some other and emptier planet, which circled round some sadder star.

But the more he felt this glittering desolation in the moonlit land, the more his own chivalric folly glowed in the night like a great fire. Even the common things he carried with him – the food and the brandy and the loaded pistol [which he has brought from the anarchists meeting] – took on exactly that concrete and material poetry which a child feels when he takes a gun upon a journey or a bun with him to bed.

The sword-stick and the brandy-flask, though in themselves only the tools of morbid conspirators, became the expressions of his own more healthy romance. The sword-stick became almost the sword of chivalry, and the brandy the wine of the stirrup-cup. For even the most dehumanised modern fantasies depend on some older and simpler figure; the adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane. The dragon without St. George would not even be grotesque.

So this inhuman landscape was only imaginative by the presence of a man really human. To Syme’s exaggerative mind the bright, bleak houses and terraces by the Thames looked as empty as the mountains of the moon. But even the moon is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.

The tug was worked by two men, and with much toil went comparatively slowly. The clear moon that had lit up Chiswick had gone down by the time that they passed Battersea, and when they came under the enormous bulk of Westminster day had already begun to break. It broke like the splitting of great bars of lead, showing bars of silver; and these had brightened like white fire when the tug, changing its onward course, turned inward to a large landing stage rather beyond Charing Cross.

The great stones of the Embankment seemed equally dark and gigantic as Syme looked up at them. They were big and black against the huge white dawn. They made him feel that he was landing on the colossal steps of some Egyptian palace; and, indeed, the thing suited his mood, for he was, in his own mind, mounting to attack the solid thrones of horrible and heathen kings. He leapt out of the boat on to one slimy step, and stood, a dark and slender figure, amid the enormous masonry. The two men in the tug put her off again and turned up stream. They had never spoken a word.

Chesterton’s point in the middle of the passage is a conservative, Christian one, that even the little things in our life are illuminated and somehow redeemed by repeating older, more noble ‘figures’ and archetypes.

Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no denying the majesty of his description of day breaking like the splitting of great bars of lead, nor the power of his description of Syme leaping onto the slimy steps of a quay, a slender figure dwarfed by the enormous stones of the Embankment.

For Chesterton that physical description is the basis for his theological points; but for me the physical description is the metaphysical. The depiction of the actual world around us – whether in well-chosen phrases or in lines of pen or charcoal – is, for me, the really true worship.

The seven days of the week

Monday

He was the Secretary of the Council, and his twisted smile was regarded with more terror than anything, except the President’s horrible, happy laughter. But now that Syme had more space and light to observe him, there were other touches. His fine face was so emaciated, that Syme thought it must be wasted with some disease; yet somehow the very distress of his dark eyes denied this. It was no physical ill that troubled him. His eyes were alive with intellectual torture, as if pure thought was pain.

Tuesday

The man’s name, it seemed, was Gogol; he was a Pole, and in this circle of days he was called Tuesday. His soul and speech were incurably tragic; he could not force himself to play the prosperous and frivolous part demanded of him by President Sunday… Gogol, or Tuesday, had his simplicity well symbolised by a dress designed upon the division of the waters, a dress that separated upon his forehead and fell to his feet, grey and silver, like a sheet of rain

Wednesday

A certain Marquis de St. Eustache, a sufficiently characteristic figure. The first few glances found nothing unusual about him, except that he was the only man at table who wore the fashionable clothes as if they were really his own. He had a black French beard cut square and a black English frock-coat cut even squarer. But Syme, sensitive to such things, felt somehow that the man carried a rich atmosphere with him, a rich atmosphere that suffocated. It reminded one irrationally of drowsy odours and of dying lamps in the darker poems of Byron and Poe. With this went a sense of his being clad, not in lighter colours, but in softer materials; his black seemed richer and warmer than the black shades about him, as if it were compounded of profound colour. His black coat looked as if it were only black by being too dense a purple. His black beard looked as if it were only black by being too deep a blue. And in the gloom and thickness of the beard his dark red mouth showed sensual and scornful. Whatever he was he was not a Frenchman; he might be a Jew; he might be something deeper yet in the dark heart of the East. In the bright coloured Persian tiles and pictures showing tyrants hunting, you may see just those almond eyes, those blue-black beards, those cruel, crimson lips.

Friday

Next a very old man, Professor de Worms, who still kept the chair of Friday, though every day it was expected that his death would leave it empty. Save for his intellect, he was in the last dissolution of senile decay. His face was as grey as his long grey beard, his forehead was lifted and fixed finally in a furrow of mild despair. In no other case, not even that of Gogol, did the bridegroom brilliancy of the morning dress express a more painful contrast. For the red flower in his button-hole showed up against a face that was literally discoloured like lead; the whole hideous effect was as if some drunken dandies had put their clothes upon a corpse. When he rose or sat down, which was with long labour and peril, something worse was expressed than mere weakness, something indefinably connected with the horror of the whole scene. It did not express decrepitude merely, but corruption. Another hateful fancy crossed Syme’s quivering mind. He could not help thinking that whenever the man moved a leg or arm might fall off.

Saturday

Right at the end sat the man called Saturday, the simplest and the most baffling of all. He was a short, square man with a dark, square face clean-shaven, a medical practitioner going by the name of Bull. He had that combination of savoir-faire with a sort of well-groomed coarseness which is not uncommon in young doctors. He carried his fine clothes with confidence rather than ease, and he mostly wore a set smile. There was nothing whatever odd about him, except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead. Syme’s eye always caught the black glasses and the blind grin. Had the dying Professor worn them, or even the pale Secretary, they would have been appropriate. But on the younger and grosser man they seemed only an enigma. They took away the key of the face. You could not tell what his smile or his gravity meant. Partly from this, and partly because he had a vulgar virility wanting in most of the others it seemed to Syme that he might be the wickedest of all those wicked men. Syme even had the thought that his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see.

Sunday

At the nearest end of the balcony, blocking up a great part of the perspective, was the back of a great mountain of a man. When Syme had seen him, his first thought was that the weight of him must break down the balcony of stone. His vastness did not lie only in the fact that he was abnormally tall and quite incredibly fat. This man was planned enormously in his original proportions, like a statue carved deliberately as colossal. His head, crowned with white hair, as seen from behind looked bigger than a head ought to be. The ears that stood out from it looked larger than human ears. He was enlarged terribly to scale; and this sense of size was so staggering, that when Syme saw him all the other figures seemed quite suddenly to dwindle and become dwarfish.


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The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908)

Slowly, broadly, invincibly, there grew upon Bert’s mind realisation of the immense tragedy of humanity into which his life was flowing; the appalling and universal nature of the epoch that had arrived; the conception of an end to security and order and habit. The whole world was at war and it could not get back to peace, it might never recover peace. (Chapter Ten, The War in the Air)

The War In The Air is often referenced because in it Wells so accurately anticipated lots of details of aerial warfare – dogfights, bombing raids, even what the earth looks like from up in the air – none of which existed or were possible when he wrote the book in 1907 and when the most primitive flying machines had only just been invented.

In other words, I knew before starting that it was a masterpiece of imaginative prophecy.

But my heart sank a bit when I began to read it and realised that it’s another one of Wells’s mongrel books, in that it’s a real mish-mash of subject matter and tone.

Thus he chooses to recount the outbreak of this epic world war (sometime around 1914, i.e. in his then-future) and the triumph of the mighty German airfleet – via the adventures of the comic figure of Bert Smallways, keeper of a failed second-hand bicycle shop in suburban Kent. Bathos.

Bert Smallways

In fact, once you settle into them the fifty pages at the start of the novel which describe the suburban adventures of Bert and his business partner, Grubb, are both interesting and amusing. Interesting because they’re packed with Edwardian social history. Wells gives a review of how the Kentish village where grandfather Smallways lives (Bun Hill) is slowly engulfed by the spread of London suburbs, roads, railways, telegraph as the 19th turns into the 20th century, along with a blight of advertising hoardings, bicycles and new-fangled motor cars.

Amusing because Bert and Grubb’s pitiful attempts to set up and run their bicycle repair and hire shop are played entirely for laughs.

The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles – indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency. (Chapter 2)

I enjoy this kind of gentle, Dad’s Army-type humour about the foibles and failings of ordinary English folk.

What makes it a Wells novel, though, is that this review of social and technological changes brings us up to the present and then… goes beyond it, into the future.

After the bicycle and car, old grandfather Smallways then watches the further developments of aerial monorails which soon criss-cross the country, dangling from vast metal pylons, and soon put the railways out of business. Wells also describes the advent of a new style of motor cars which have only two central wheels and travel at previously unheard-of speeds.

I.e. the story naturalises and domesticates what are in fact bold speculations about near-future technological developments.

One of these is the development of a new kind of flying machine which Bert and his mates, in among their other misadventures, read about in the newspapers. they even glimpse displays of the new flying machines because they live quite close to the Crystal Palace where some of the new-fangled machines go up and fly around.

Mr Butteridge inventor of the airplane

The rambunctious inventor of this new type of airplane is a certain Mr Butteridge who is treated with characteristic Wellsian facetiousness: he is fiercely secretive about his invention as well as being passionately in love with his mistress.

After several comic mishaps which made me think of The Last of the Summer Wine (Bert and Grubb take two young ladies for a Bank Holiday spree until Bert’s motorbike suddenly catches fire, leading to much mayhem), Grubb and Smallways are forced to acknowledge that their bicycle shop is no longer a going concern. So they close it down, and go down to the seaside to try their luck as ‘entertainers’.

They have just set up stall on the beach at Littlestone and begun singing to bored holiday-makers and curious children when everyone sees a strange sight – an air balloon coming drifting not very far above the ground trailing ropes behind it.

Yelling from it is none other than Mr Butteridge, shouting at the scattered holiday makers to catch the ropes and pull him down. And this is what a smattering of male day trippers proceed to do, grabbing the dangling tow ropes to pull down and stabilise the balloon just above the cobbles of the beach.

Butteridge explains that he was taking a pleasant day’s flight when his companion became ill. He then sets about manhandling the unconscious lady in all her Edwardians bustles over the side of the basket between its ropes and stays. It’s a fiddly, difficult business and he is just in the middle of it when a gust of wind comes along and — tips Butteridge and his lady out onto the sand, bumps the basket suddenly to the side so that Bert tumbles head-first into it and then — having thrown all the other hands off the ropes, Bert finds himself whooshing quickly high, high up into the sky in the runaway balloon.

No matter how preposterous the story, Wells has a real gift for fiercely imagining all the details of the scenarios he works up. On almost every page there are vivid touches which take you that much further into the story, and overcome your rational indignation at its silliness. Here’s Bert, having just fallen into the balloon’s car and half-stunned himself.

He had an impression he must be stunned because of a surging in his ears, and because all the voices of the people about him had become small and remote. They were shouting like elves inside a hill.

‘Like elves inside a hill’. That image has stayed with me for several days since I read it.

Anyway, Bert drifts east in the balloon over the English Channel, across France and then across Germany. There is a comic sequence in which he tries to land and throws out the iron anchor at the end of a rope which then proceeds to ravage its way across a small German town, smashing windows, ripping off rooftiles and prompting an angry crowd to chase him shouting abuse in German. It is only when the balloon drifts over an enormous field of huge man-made dirigibles, that he is finally shot down and comes back down to earth.

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

With the German attack fleet

It turns out that Germany is on the brink of declaring war against Britain (as so many people in 1908 feared she would do) and is mobilising this vast secret fleet of airships. Bert is taken before the commander-in-chief, the tall, blonde, merciless Prince Karl Albert.

But there is a complication: up in the balloon Bert had had time to rummage around in the basket’s various cupboards and drawers, fortunately finding food, but also uncovering a load of technical plans for Butteridge’s new airplane design.

And discovering that Butteridge had been planning to sell the designs to the Germans. The revelation that Butteridge was a traitor floors simple-minded Bert. But worse is to come for the German high command now mistakes him for Butteridge, under the impression that he has fled England with plans to deliver to them. Bert is forced to go along with their misunderstanding and pretend to be a famous inventor!

You can imagine the comic misunderstandings as Bert pathetically tries to play up to his role of genius, despite being nothing more than a failed second-hand bicycle salesman. Because of the comical German accents I was reminded of the TV show, ‘Allo ‘Allo. It feels about that level of silliness.

And because the Germans think Bert has brought them important plans, without a bye-your-leave he is ordered to accompany the fleet as they set off on the aerial attacks which will mark the outbreak of the war in the air, as a technical adviser.

So Bert is bundled into the lead airship of the German fleet, the Vaterland, put under guard of the humane, English-speaking Kurt, and up he goes, witnessing the sight of the vast German attack fleet of the future, scores of vast zeppelins, each of which carries a number of new-design fighter planes, or Drachenflieger.

This allows Wells to give soaringly evocative descriptions of what it is like to fly, what it is like to rise above the level of the clouds into pure sunshine, what it is like to look down over the patchwork quilt of farmland, over sunlight reflected on rivers, over cities, and then over the broad Atlantic Ocean. All invented: no human being had done this when Wells wrote his lyrical descriptions of what it must be like.

The battle of the North Atlantic

Then Bert witnesses the Battle of the North Atlantic (chapter 5), when the airship fleet comes to the help of the German High Seas fleet as it attacks the American Atlantic fleet of the Eastern seaboard of the USA. Wells gives a really vivid description of watching a sea battle among the huge dreadnought battleships of the day, the shells, the explosions, the sight of men like ants swarming out of the guts of wrecked ships as they sink, and then wriggling in the water amid explosions of steam and oil.

Nobody had ever seen sights like these before. Wells’s imagining of them is vivid and often disgusting. Bert is sickened by the sight of so much destruction, pain and death.

Attack on New York

Then the fleet flies on to New York whose pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, economics and culture, even in 1907, Wells fully describes, before going on to intensely imagine the attack on New York (subject of chapter 6). After the airships have flattened Wall Street and the City Hall, the New York authorities surrender.

But the population of this great metropolis can’t understand or accept this and spontaneous attacks on the hovering airships break out from all over the city, with the result that the terrible, inflexible Prince Karl Albert orders Broadway to be demolished. Bert watches the incendiary bombs fall, smashing buildings and sending flame waves through the thronged streets, burning countless men, women and children to death. Horrible anticipations of the firestorms which will destroy Coventry, Hamburg, Tokyo, 35 years later.

That night a storm comes up, battering the German airships, and in the middle of it America’s air force attacks, the plucky little fighter planes taking on the huge German airships, the battle illuminated by lightning and thunder, to Bert’s terror.

The Vaterland is hit by bullets, then its steerage hit by American planes, so that it tips nose upwards, some airmen falling down through the galley to their deaths, while Bert fastens himself inside a locker. For days the Vaterland drifts helplessly with the wind northwards, over desolate Canada, till the remaining crew down her in a barren frozen wasteland. Here the Prince takes charge of the survivors, makes the wounded comfortable, distributes rations, builds a camp and orders all the men to erect a vast radio antenna in order to contact the rest of the fleet and call for rescue.

A world at war

Bert pitches in with the other survivors. After five or six days of this intense bleak existence, the Germans get their radio working and discover that the whole world is at war: air fleets have burned London and Berlin and Hamburg and Paris, Japan has devastated San Francisco, and China has mobilised its fleet of planes and airships.

Hence the title of chapter 8 – A World At War. Wells gives an overview of what happens: turns out all the nations of the world all along had secret fleets of airships which they are now launching at each other. Half of Europe attacks the other half. India becomes involved in attacks to the North. A Chinese-Japanese fleet attacks San Francisco and then flies across the entire American continent to attack Niagara, which has become the American base of the German fleet. Even the nations of South America launch fleets of their own.

The uniquely new aspect of aerial warfare is that air fleets can bombard enemy territory but can’t really hold it. Rebellions against the ‘victors’ can break out anywhere, and airships are relatively cheap and quick to build so that at some remote location a ‘conquered’ country can quickly build a new fleet, which can then sail to the main cities of the attackers, and devastate them.

Wells makes the impassioned case that air warfare will therefore, of necessity, by an unstoppable logic, be relentlessly destructive, each side able to inflict potentially endless devastation on the other’s centres of population, but never being able to securely hold them and quell opposition. The resulting war will be endless and endlessly devastating.

Camp Niagara

Meanwhile a German zeppelin has found the crew of the downed Vaterland at its temporary camp in Labrador, picks them up (including Bert) and conveys them all to the town of Niagara, which the Germans have turned into their land base in the United States.

Bert is dragooned into the base of German flight crews, heaving and carrying crates of ammunition or tanks of liquid hydrogen and so on, to provision the resting airships. All at once the zeppelin he arrived in lifts off and Bert, running to watch, witnesses the epic battle between the entire German fleet of 67 airships and the 40 airships of the Southern Wing of the approaching Asiatic fleet.

The battle is, as usual with Wells, grippingly and thrillingly described, as little Bert Smallways looks up at the sky turned fiery battlefield, as well as witnessing the Asiatic forces land and storm the American buildings held by shooting German airmen.

Bert watches the lead German airship destroyed by attacking Asians till it crashes into the river above Niagara Falls, gets caught in the bridges and man-made paraphernalia around the islands, before finally getting washed over the falls, rolling and turning, collapsing into a mash of metal and silk and machinery. Bert runs to the edge of the falls to watch the wreckage be washed, half-submerged, down the river.

There goes Kurt, the only German who was his friend, and the fleet that brought him half way round the world, the symbol of Europe.

On Goat Island

Now Bert is alone on Goat Island, at the mercy of the landing Asian armies. Hiding behind trees and bushes he watches the Asiatics seek out the last hiding Germans and chop them to pieces with swords. Then mine and set fire to all the remaining buildings of the Niagara base. Then return to their sleek Asiatic planes or climb up rope ladders into the air balloons, and so depart.

Suddenly all is quiet. Bert realises with a shock that he is marooned on Goat Island as the one bridge which connected it across the river to the mainland was destroyed by the German zeppelin which crashed onto it.

Bert wanders round the entire perimeter of the island realising he is stuck. He discovers a locked-up tourist cafe, breaks into it and opens tins of corned beef and milk for a meal. Then sits and watches the amazing Niagara falls and the smouldering ruins of the town across the waters.

Although Wells couldn’t know it, this long passage reminds me of a later English sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard, the poet laureate of abandoned cities, ruined motorways, moribund high rises and derelict amusement arcades.

Bert finds the corpse of an Asiatic flyer who had fallen onto a tree trunk and been spitted. He discovers another body snagged in bushes at the edge of the island. This one he pokes with a long stick to dislodge and is heart-broken to see it turn over and reveal the face of Kurt, the English-speaking German who was so kind to him, yet had felt an eerie foretaste of his own death (they had got to know each other and had several long conversations on the zeppelin flight across the Atlantic).

Bert’s eerie solitude ends with the discovery that two Germans had survived the crash of the airship by the island, notably the mighty and militaristic Prince Albert himself and a servant.

The Germans seize Bert and start bossing him around, ordering him to repair the broken Asiatic plane. He discovers that they have hidden all the food in the refreshment cafe.

Eventually, their arrogant manner makes mild-mannered Bert rebel and, seizing the machine gun he had rescued from another Asiatic warplane, Bert threatens the two Germans – who promptly turn tail and run.

Thus begins a classic example of the trope of two enemy combatants stuck on a small island and trying to hide from / eliminate the other. Bert doesn’t know whether the Germans have weapons of their own. He realises he can’t afford to go to sleep. A literary reference for this situation might be Lord of the Flies but it reminded me more of the movie Hell in the Pacific where Lee Marvin plays a World War Two pilot downed on a remote Pacific island with a Japanese castaway, both of them at each other’s throats.

In the end Bert tracks the pair down, discovering the prince asleep. Foolishly the German reaches for his sword and – as in a thousand movies – Bert pulls the trigger before he knows what he’s done, killing Prince Karl. The other German runs off leaving Bert to endure more anxious hours wondering whether he’s about to be ambushed at any second, until eventually he finds a rope the German had tried to fling across the broken stretch of bridge in order to escape. The rope is frayed and broken. Looks like the German failed in his attempt, and must have drowned.

Bert now fixes the broken Asiatic fighter plane (they are very small and the motors are not unlike those of the motor bikes Bert is familiar with. I was struck that Wells foresees that the wings of fighter plans will flap, profoundly wrong).

Among the Americans

After further comic mishaps Bert eventually flies the little plane off the island and makes it some way south before running out of fuel and crash landing somewhere in the American countryside.

He wanders past various isolated settlements until he reaches a provincial store full of good old boys. When Bert tells them his remarkable story, they give him food for free, and then bring him up to date with the news, namely that the war has escalated into a global conflagration and led to the widespread collapse of civilisation all around the world.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic

When one of the tobacco-chewing old timers laments that some Brit named Butteridge died just after inventing a new kind of flying machine which might have protected the Yanks against the Asiatic hordes (he says an estimated army of a million Asians has landed on the Pacific coast) and goes on to say that rumour has it that some spy shot him and stole his balloon and all his plans – Bert chokes into his beer, and reveals that he was that man and that he still has Butteridge’s original plans stashed away in his chest-protector (an item of clothing he has managed not to remove in the entire previous fortnight’s adventures and which is, by now, very smelly).

Accepting this revelation very dryly, the leader of the saloon decides they must take the plans to the president in order for America to defend itself. But where is the president? Well, the saloon drinkers know that he and his cabinet are constantly on the move to escape the relentless bombing of the Asiatic air fleets.

Bert and the American village leader, Laurier, set off by bicycle (the monorails, which had replaced trains, have all stopped running because all the power stations have been bombed). It turns into a six-day-odyssey across a bombed-out, ruined America, through smouldering towns, past gangs of suspicious locals armed with guns, past black men strung up from trees by lynch mobs, through a country falling to pieces.

The Great Collapse

In the final chapter – The Great Collapse – Wells adopts his hieratic, prophetic tone.

He reveals that ‘we’ – the author and his audience – are now living in the peaceful era of the World Government, ‘orderly, scientific and secured’. He is looking back to what is now far enough in the past to constitute a particular historical era. He and his audience, looking back, can see how, just as Western civilisation reached its peak of productivity, wealth, peace and security – it exploded in this great catastrophic war.

A universal social collapse followed, as if it were a logical consequence, upon world-wide war. Wherever there were great populations, great masses of people found themselves without work, without money, and unable to get food. Famine was in every working-class quarter in the world within three weeks of the beginning of the war. Within a month there was not a city anywhere in which the ordinary law and social procedure had not been replaced by some form of emergency control, in which firearms and military executions were not being used to keep order and prevent violence. And still in the poorer quarters, and in the populous districts, and even here and there already among those who had been wealthy, famine spread.

And then came the great plague.

It is eerie how accurate Wells’s prophecy was: six years after the book was published a world war erupted, leading to four years of unprecedented destruction which nobody expected or could control, which led to the end of four major empires, the utter collapse of Russia into years of anarchy and civil war and something similar in Ukraine and Poland, plus major collapse in Germany.

All followed by the influenza epidemic which killed more people than all the fighting (it infected 500 million and may have been responsible for as many as 100 million deaths).

Utter devastation

Utter devastation

And Bert Smallways? He and Laurier finally track down the President of the USA and hand over the blueprints of the Butteridge airplane, which are also telegraphed to Britain.

Being simple and cheap to make it can be mass produced by communities all over both countries. But the result isn’t, as you might expect, to fight off the Asiatics or to win the war. It is to end Western civilisation, which collapses into local warbands, warlords, medieval city states, gangs of prowling vigilantes, stragglers, beggars, bringers of disease, famine and pestilence. It is 14th century Europe at the time of the Black Death.

Bert sails back to Britain

Job done, Bert cadges a lift from a British ship in Boston which sails across the Atlantic, is stricken with plague halfway, the survivors are picked up by another ship with a depleted crew, they are shot at in Madeira, and finally arrive in Wales to discover complete social collapse.

The buildings and monorails (and the advertising hoardings Wells hated so much) still stand, but there is no money, no credit, no central authority, half the people are dead, the other half starving, armed bands protect precious arable land.

Bert makes his way across this devastated landscape, into England, to Birmingham where what’s left of the government is still trying to fight the war. He finds there is no place for him here and leaves just before the city is incinerated by a mass raid of Asiatic airships.

He hikes south via Oxford, crosses the Thames at Windsor, and finally arrives at his brother’s house in Bun Hill to find his brother lean and feverish, his wife upstairs dying of plague, and Edna – the Helen of Bert’s great odyssey, the woman whose memory has kept him going through thick and thin – living with her mother at Horsham and terrorised by a local hoodlum, Bill Gore, who wants to marry / rape her.

By this time, as you might expect, Bert has been considerably changed by his experiences. He is no longer an innocent abroad, no longer the man who threw up when he saw his first battle.

Now he is lean, tanned, has been in many fights, and is armed.

When local tough Bill comes a-visiting Edna the next day, Bert doesn’t even bother parlaying but simply shoots him dead on the spot, then shoots his number two, then wings the number three as he runs off.

Bert then swaggers down to the local pub, announces he’s just shot the local gang leader, and asks who wants to join the Vigilance Committee he’s setting up? Intimidated, they all do. Bert establishes himself as the leader of the gang.

And he marries Edna and they farm the land, raising crops and livestock, living from year to year, defending their community against marauders. Edna bears 11 children, most of whom live, there are rich years and lean years, occasionally the shadow of an airship floats overhead, whether one of ‘ours’ or one of ‘theirs’ nobody knows or cares any more.

I found Well’s description of the complete social collapse of early twentieth century civilisation, and its quick reversion to medieval levels of society, powerfully compelling. Reminded me of the umpteen television series about the end of civilisation which I watched as a teenager in the 1970s, such as Survivors.

And I found the brief overview of Bert and Edna’s lives, now converted into tough farmers who breed and then, in their own time, pass away and are buried, genuinely haunting.

Epilogue

Set in the future, thirty years after the Germans started the world war which ended civilisation, the book’s last ten pages depict Tom Smallways, Bert’s brother, now a bent-over old man of 63, worn by decades of work in the fields, and one of Bert’s younger children, a son, Teddy, who’s come to stay.

They wander through the ruins of Bun Hill while old Tom tells the little boy about ‘the old days’, when there was ample food, when people could read, when there was clean water and sewerage and electric power and motor cars.

All gone now. Now they live amid the ruins of the old civilisation as the Britons lived among the ruins the Romans left behind, marvelling at the giants who must have made these fabulous buildings.

Now there is no knowledge of metalwork or even how to make clothes. People dress in shreds and tatters left over from the old days.

And Tom scares the little boy with legends about the big ruins to the north known as LONDON. One of the villagers went looking for booze there, got lost and swears that, as soon as the sun went down, the souls of the millions of dead rose again, and walked the streets in all their old finery, dodging between the hansom cabs and the motor cars, until they saw him and all crowded round to abuse him, and he saw that their faces were all screeching skulls.

The book is titled The War in The Air, which sounds quite energising and romantic. I had no idea it ended with such a powerfully imagined vision of the complete collapse of Western civilisation and its reversion back into the obscurity of a new dark age.


Wells’s vivid imagination

When Bert and Grubb take two young ladies out for a Bank Holiday spree all goes fine until Bert’s antique motorbike springs a petrol leak which then catches fire. He stops, the lady gets off screaming while first Bert and Grubb, and then various passersby all get roped in trying to put out the galloping fire. At one point a motor car stops driven by a posh, upper-class chap who offers the chaps his tarpaulin to smother the flames.

Then everybody realised that a new method was to be tried. A number of willing hands seized upon the Oxford gentleman’s tarpaulin. The others stood away with approving noises. The tarpaulin was held over the burning bicycle like a canopy, and then smothered down upon it.

‘We ought to have done this before,’ panted Grubb.

There was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished. Every one who could contrive to do so touched the edge of the tarpaulin. Bert held down a corner with two hands and a foot. The tarpaulin, bulged up in the centre, seemed to be suppressing triumphant exultation. Then its self-approval became too much for it; it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.

I think that’s just a brilliant passage. The description of how the flames slowly penetrate the covering is wonderfully accurate. I’ve seen flame eat through a covering material just like a ‘bright red smile’.

And then the reflection of the red flames in the goggles of the Edwardian motor car driver is like a close-up from a movie. Brilliantly imagined and described.

Although his plots are often ludicrous, almost every page of a Wells novel contains moments like this, intensely imagined and vividly written.

Political pamphleteering

They also contain long passages in which Wells gives vent to his personal feelings of outrage at corrupt government and warlike generals.

Here he is, taking his place in the long tradition of liberals and humanists lamenting that governments waste so much money on building ever-more sophisticated and expensive weapons of war, while the children of the countries the arms are meant to be ‘protecting’, starve in the streets.

So it was that Bert Smallways saw the first fight of the airship and the last fight of those strangest things in the whole history of war: the ironclad battleships, which began their career with the floating batteries of the Emperor Napoleon III in the Crimean war and lasted, with an enormous expenditure of human energy and resources, for seventy years. In that space of time the world produced over twelve thousand five hundred of these strange monsters, in schools, in types, in series, each larger and heavier and more deadly than its predecessors. Each in its turn was hailed as the last birth of time, most in their turn were sold for old iron. Only about five per cent of them ever fought in a battle. Some foundered, some went ashore, and broke up, several rammed one another by accident and sank. The lives of countless men were spent in their service, the splendid genius, and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put, stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost – that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.

And though Wells didn’t know it at the time, this was more or less what happened to the vast dreadnought battleships of his day, the competition to build which helped fuel rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the Great War.

After all the huffing and puffing, after all the warmongering newspaper editorials and speeches, after the expense of hundreds of millions of pounds and Deutschmarks, the British and German fleets ended up bringing their decades of rivalry to a climax at the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 (‘fourteen British and eleven German ships sank, with a total of 9,823 deaths’). Thereafter the enormously expensive German fleet spent the rest of the war bottled up in port until it was scuttled in 1918. Futile waste of money doesn’t begin to describe it. Hence Wells’s rage.

Wells’s prefaces

Wells was as profuse in interpreting his own novels as he was recklessly prolix in writing them. This novel had a whole series of prefaces tacked on the front as the years went by, in each of which he manages to give the novel a different spin.

1921 preface

In the 1921 preface printed in the Penguin paperback, he categorises The War In The Air, alongside some of his other novels, as a ‘fantasia of possibility’, meaning that he takes one scientific idea and then pursues it to its conclusion.

Some of these ideas (the notion of a time machine or invasion from another planet) are obviously fanciful. This one was a more realistic working-through of the consequences of unrestricted war in the air.

In an interesting insight, or suggestion, Wells argues that aerial warfare will eliminate the old-fashioned idea of a war with defined fronts, of specific locations where armies fight each other and either win or lose.

Instead, he predicted that the militarisation of the air would lead not only to vastly greater destruction than mankind had ever known before – but that it would also make wars oddly indecisive. Both sides would be able to reduce each other’s civilisations to smoking rubble before it was really clear who had won.

This didn’t happen in the immediate future, in the First World War, when airplane technology wasn’t advanced enough to make any impact on the conflict. But it is very much what happened in the Second World War, when Allied bombing and the Russian advance reduced Germany to rubble, but not before the Germans had devastated towns and cities across the continent, namely in Britain, but also in the devastating Blitz on Poland right at the start. America devastated mainland Japan for months without persuading the Japanese to surrender. It took not one, but two atomic bombs, before the Japanese finally saw sense.

1918 preface

By contrast, the 1918 preface doesn’t mention any of this. In this one Wells makes a shorter, sharper point, arguing that – in light of the catastrophe of 1914-18 – there could only possibly now be one position in international affairs, which was to call for a World Government.

Our author tells us in this book, as he has told us in others, more especially in The World Set Free, and as he has been telling us this year in his War and the Future, that if mankind goes on with war, the smash-up of civilization is inevitable. It is chaos or the United States of the World for mankind. There is no other choice.

This idea – the necessity of a World Government to prevent the end of civilisation – was to be the central issue Wells plugged away at for the rest of his life.

Regarding the narrative, Wells in his 1918 preface refers to it as ‘a pamphlet story – in support of the League to Enforce Peace’.

I am just struck by the way that Wells’s restless imagination was unable to stay in one place even when he was referring to his own works: this one novel was, at various times, both a ‘fantasia of possibility’ and ‘a pamphlet story’.

And in neither preface does he mention the more obvious fact that it is also a broadly comic novel.

You can see why, to ‘serious’ critics and writers, Wells’s novels became a byword for being artistic messes – scientific prophecies jostling for space with earnest political commentary, whimsical social comedy pressed up against jaw-dropping science fiction visions, sentimental love stories morphing into daring espousals of Free Love.

From about 1900 Wells chucked everything and the kitchen sink into his books, which become steadily longer and more chaotic.

In order to enjoy them you have to abandon literary criticism, have to forget the urgings of Henry James or Joseph Conrad that the novel ought to be a high-minded and beautifully written aesthetic whole – and just accept that they are part-pamphlet, part-technological prophecy, part Ealing Comedy, part self-interested plea for free love, part awe-inspiring visions of a future world in ruins – and enjoy all the different bits, styles and tones of voice, as you stumble across them, for their own sake.

Wells’s underlying sense of futility

But, as I pointed out in my review of In The Days of The Comet, I also couldn’t help getting the strong feeling that underlying all Well’s bumptious humour and angry politics and technological wizardry is a deep, abiding sense of the futility of all human effort.

Sooner or later in all his books, that note is sounded and seems, to me, to be the foundation of all this writing.

Here is Lieutenant Kurt (the only German who treats Bert decently, as the sit in the base in Canada waiting to be rescued) admitting to Bert that he will never see his sweetheart again.

‘You’ll see ‘er again all right,’ said Bert.

‘No! I shall never see her again…. I don’t understand why people should meet just to be torn apart. But I know she and I will never meet again. That I know as surely as that the sun will rise, and that cascade come shining over the rocks after I am dead and done…. Oh! It’s all foolishness and haste and violence and cruel folly, stupidity and blundering hate and selfish ambition – all the things that men have done – all the things they will ever do. Gott! Smallways, what a muddle and confusion life has always been – the battles and massacres and disasters, the hates and harsh acts, the murders and sweatings, the lynchings and cheatings. This morning I am tired of it all, as though I’d just found it out for the first time. I HAVE found it out. When a man is tired of life, I suppose it is time for him to die. I’ve lost heart, and death is over me. Death is close to me, and I know I have got to end. But think of all the hopes I had only a little time ago, the sense of fine beginnings!… It was all a sham. There were no beginnings…. We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness. New York – New York doesn’t even strike me as horrible. New York was nothing but an ant-hill kicked to pieces by a fool!

‘Think of it, Smallways: there’s war everywhere! They’re smashing up their civilisation before they have made it. The sort of thing the English did at Alexandria, the Japanese at Port Arthur, the French at Casablanca, is going on everywhere. Everywhere! Down in South America even they are fighting among themselves! No place is safe – no place is at peace. There is no place where a woman and her daughter can hide and be at peace. The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing overhead – dripping death – dripping death!’

‘We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness.’

Wells felt the grim relentlessness of the Darwinian struggle for survival, and that the latest technological discoveries of the Scientific Age meant that these once-small and localised struggles would now spread right around the globe, become unstoppable, spelling a universal war, and a sky dripping with death.

He could see it, literally imagine every detail of it, see the bombs falling and the cities destroyed and the fleeing human ants incinerated by firebombs – way before any of his peers could and he warned about it in everything he wrote – but nobody else imagined it as intimately, as terribly, most people ignored it and carried on writing about love affairs and garden parties, and it drove Wells wild with frustration.

Hence the despairing tone at the end of yet another preface he wrote to this book, this time at the end of his life, in 1941, in the depths of the new world war.

Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in [the 1921 preface], twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – 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 – 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 – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – 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 – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – 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 – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – 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

Other science fiction reviews

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

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
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

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
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

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
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, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew 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

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 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
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian 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 ‘trilogy’ describing 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
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
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 to solve a murder mystery
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
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

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
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 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
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 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
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 a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
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
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 Forever War by Joe Haldeman The adventures of William Mandella, one of the first to join up for the elite forces organised to fight the Taurians who humans encounter as soon as they discover interstellar travel, in a novel often taken as an allegory for the undending Vietnam War, in which Haldeman himself actually fought.

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, namely the 1950s
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
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

Liza of Lambeth by Somerset Maugham (1897)

This is Somerset Maugham’s first novel, the first publication in a writing career which went on to last over 60 years.

Maugham trained as a doctor for five year at St Thomas’s Hospital in Lambeth and saw at first hand the terrible poverty in the slums of the area, the drunkenness and the narrowness of working lives and expectations.

But this novel also tapped into a popular movement among the cultural elite, because the 1890s saw a wave of novels and factual books about working class poverty and the slums of London, such as the notoriously brutal and pessimistic A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison.

This is the cultural context for Maugham’s relatively brief (120 pages) tale of bright, vivacious Liza Kemp from the Lambeth slums and how she falls in love with another woman’s husband.

The plot

Liza is 18, a lively working class girl who lives with her widowed mother in Vere Street, Lambeth, off Westminster Bridge Road.

Everyone liked her, and was glad to have her company.

Liza works in a local factory. She dresses colourfully and is always the first to make a joke or start a sing-song. For all that she is, in reality, an underdeveloped teenager from the slums.

She looked at her own thin arms, just two pieces of bone with not a muscle on them, but very white and showing distinctly the interlacement of blue veins: she did not notice that her hands were rough, and red and dirty with the nails broken, and bitten to the quick.

Chapter one The opening scene establishes her as ‘the pride of her alley’, the most confident, best-dressed young woman in the street, who all the men want to dance with. The scene where the young women dance to the music of an organ grinder and Liza finds herself by accident running into the arms of a tall dark stranger could be from a musical, could almost be from West Side Story (though with Victorian bustles and corsets).

Chapter two This man is Jim Blakeston, tall, bearded and virile, who’s just moved into the street along with his fat wife and five kids.

‘E’s got a big family – five kids. Ain’t yer seen ‘is wife abaht the street? She’s a big, fat woman, as does ‘er ‘air funny.’

Meanwhile Liza has been pursued for some time by earnest young Tom, who works in another factory, earning a respectable 23 shillings (95p) a week.

It was a young man with light yellow hair and a little fair moustache, which made him appear almost boyish; he was light-complexioned and blue-eyed, and had a frank and pleasant look mingled with a curious bashfulness that made him blush when people spoke to him.

The pair had walked out together earlier in the year, but then Liza lost interest. Which doesn’t stop Tom pestering her.

Chapter three Liza’s home life, i.e. her mother is an alcoholic who steals Liza’s wages and moans about her hard lot in life. Liza steps outside and is confronted by pale, shy Tom who invites her to come on a street outing to Chingford, but she says she can’t cos she doesn’t want to lead him on.

Liza walks over to her friend Sally’s house, and they banter, walk down to the bridge where Sally meets her young man and Liza walks back to the street alone, then comes across the new man, big strong tall bearded Tom, playing with two little kiddies on his knee, who cheekily asks her for another kiss. She gives him what for and strolls on only to be playfully attacked by some of the young boys, wrestling free and finally making it home in time to cook Sunday dinner.

Chapter four Bank Holiday and the day of the big outing to Chingford leaving from the Red Lion pub. Liza initially says no but allows herself to be persuaded to go by the wheedling of her would-be lover, Tom when, possibly, it’s the fact that big Jim is also going on the outing which decides her.

Chapter five The Bank Holiday outing to Chingford aboard a horse-drawn carriage, with a riotous crew of proles dressed up the nines and bantering fit to bust. Frequent stops at pubs, much drinking and then, at Chingford, a vast picnic.

Then they all set to. Pork-pies, saveloys, sausages, cold potatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cold bacon, veal, ham, crabs and shrimps, cheese, butter, cold suet-puddings and treacle, gooseberry-tarts, cherry-tarts, butter, bread, more sausages, and yet again pork-pies! They devoured the provisions like ravening beasts, stolidly, silently, earnestly, in large mouthfuls which they shoved down their throats unmasticated.

At one point couples paired off but Liza didn’t want to get caught with Tom, and preferred walking through the woods with Jim and his wife, so that Tom, after some arguing, went off in a huff. More beer, a hilarious donkey ride, a coconut shy, more beer and then the concertinas come out for a sing-song. Tom is too shy to take part, whereas Jim is a big confident singer. You can see where this is all heading.

The long ride home starts out with drunken singing but soon the couples sink into silence, many falling asleep. Liza is sitting between Tom and Jim and isn’t surprised that Tom sheepishly slips his arm round her waist, but is surprised when Jim slips his hand along her thigh to hold her hand. Torn between two lovers.

Back in Westminster Bridge Road the men peel off to the pub to have a last drink, Liza setting off with Sally and then finally walking by herself, when Jim comes running up the empty street behind her, and insists on having a good night kiss which she at first resists, and then acquiesces in.

Chapter six Next day at the factor everyone’s nursing a hangover (Maugham doesn’t tell us what is produced in this factory). On the way home Liza and her friend Sally admire the poster for a play. Further on she passes Jim’s house, he strolls out and then along with her for a bit and asks her to the theatre.

Back at her house Liza sits on the stoop with Mrs Stanley whose husband was drunk the night before and battered her so badly she had to go to hospital. Still, he’s a sweetie when he’s sober (how many times have we heard that?) Liza finds her mind drifting off, at work and while chatting to Mrs Stanley, over and again to thoughts of big strong Jim.

Chapter seven A few days later Sally is late for work and explains she was up late going to the play with her man, ‘Arry, and how Liza ought to get Tom to take her. Liza boils over with contradictory emotions, despising Tom, massively attracted to Jim but also angry with Jim because he hasn’t mentioned going to the theatre again, because he didn’t stroll round to her house the other night as he’d mentioned doing.

On the last night of the play’s run, the night Jim originally suggested taking her, she dolls herself up and goes along and finds Jim waiting for her outside the theatre, but determines to act affronted and offended. In they go to see the play and there’s a full description of the night’s complicated entertainment, with singers while they queue, the melodramatic play itself, which has an interval with a comic turn before returning to the climax.

Then they go for a drink near the theatre, walk back towards the river and sit on a bench between trees under the stars. Maugham describes Liza’s feelings of breathless helplessness, swooning against the big man. He puts his arm round her and they go for another drink at a more local pub, where Liza’s petrified they’ll be seen. Lastly they loiter at the side alley which leads into Vere Street, Jim kissing and her and then – I think – asking to have sex with her.

‘Liza,’ he said in a whisper, ‘will yer?’
‘Will I wot?’ she said, looking down.
‘You know, Liza. Sy, will yer?’
‘Na,’ she said.
He bent over her and repeated –
‘Will yer?’
She did not speak, but kept beating down on his hand.
‘Liza,’ he said again, his voice growing hoarse and thick – ‘Liza, will yer?’

To my astonishment Jim then punches her in the stomach?????

Suddenly he shook himself, and closing his fist gave her a violent, swinging blow in the belly.
‘Come on,’ he said.
And together they slid down into the darkness of the passage.

‘Whaaaaat?’ as my kids, mimicking American TV, like to say, ‘was that all about?’ Is it meant to be an accurate representation of working class playfulness? A violent blow? And she just accepts it??

Chapter eight Liza awakes yawning and stretching luxuriously on Sunday morning. It seems they did have sex – ‘the delicious sensation of love came over her’ – in which case a) where, in the street? b) wasn’t she a virgin? Wouldn’t there have been some amount of pain and discomfort involved? And fear of pregnancy? And sexually transmitted disease?

Not in this story. Liza wakes, stretches, surveys her sordid little room littered with cheap knick-knacks with pleasure and pride, dresses and goes out into the street where she joins in with a gang of boys playing cricket, even includes Tom, passing by, in her spirit of wellbeing. Then she spies Jim’s daughter Polly emerging from his house, further down the street, and runs over to introduce herself, and then strolls along arm in arm with Polly on the family errand (which is to buy some ice cream).

‘I was just goin’ dahn into the road ter get some ice-cream for dinner. Father ‘ad a bit of luck last night, ‘e says, and ‘e’d stand the lot of us ice-cream for dinner ter-day.’
‘I’ll come with yer if yer like.’

That evening, after dark, Jim taps lightly at her window and she sneaks out of the house to meet him in the dark and kiss passionately.

Chapter nine There follow weeks of happiness as the couple meet at various locations along Westminster Bridge Road where they stroll hand in hand, or in the park where they lie in the summer sunshine in one another’s arms, or, when September rains comes, she sits on his knee on benches on the Embankment, wrapped in his coat, safe in his enfolding arms, saying nothing, exchanging long passionate kisses.

But they are spotted, a few times that they’re aware of and probably plenty of others, with a predictable response from ‘the community’. Polly stops talking to her. Mrs Blakeston regards her with anger in her eyes. Jim reports that his wife has stopped talking to him. Clumps of women gossip about her, then go silent and frigid as she walks by. Even the boys she used to play cricket with start mocking her and her ‘husband’. Everyone knows about the affair.

Sally gets married to her ‘Arry. (I wonder if this is where they got the names for the movie from. I doubt it.) Their comic marriage service (with a few pints in the pub beforehand to stoke up courage and much sniggering and poking in the ribs by ‘Arry’s mates at the most suggestive parts of the service) brings the community together and is obviously designed – in its innocence and community – to provide a comparison with the bad feeling generated by Liza and Jim’s affair.

Chapter ten November comes. It’s cold and foggy. Liza and Jim take to meeting in the warm waiting rooms of railway stations at Waterloo and Charing Cross, but they’re smelly and packed with people. One day Liza says she can’t go on like this. Jim asks her to move in with him. She says she can’t leave her mother. Anyway, they’d have to get married and live together decent-like, and they can’t do that while Jim’s married to his missus. And so on. They’re both miserable.

One day she bumps into Tom, who is nowadays embarrassed to talk to her. She reflects how simple and innocent life with him would have been and wishes he’d make a first move and they could be friends again, but he blanks her.

Sally is disgustingly happy with her married state for the first few weeks, but ‘Arry is a traditionalist who insists his missus stops working in the factory and stays in the kitchen and gets ready for baby care. He’s backed up by Sally’s mother who points out that she herself:

‘ad twelve, ter sy nothin’ of two stills an’ one miss.’

But quite soon ‘Arry starts beating Sally. Only when he’s had a few drops, mind. Otherwise he’s a sweetie, Sally tells Liza through her sobs.

Liza spends so long comforting Sally that she’s late for that night’s rendezvous with Jim. He emerges from a local pub, quite drunk and irritated that she’s late. For the first time they argue, she tries to restrain him from going back into the pub, he lashes out and, not really meaning to, catches her face with his arm. He is instantly full of contrition and apologies and they make up.

But next morning she has a black eye and passersby and loafers in the street call out all kinds of hilarious banter about her and her big-fisted lover. Mortified, LIza runs home sobbing tears of shame.

Chapter eleven ‘Arry’s behaviour gets worse.

”E ain’t wot I thought ‘e wos,’ she said. ‘I don’t mind sayin’ thet; but ‘e ‘as a lot ter put up with; I expect I’m rather tryin’ sometimes, an’ ‘e means well. P’raps ‘e’ll be kinder like when the biby’s born.’

Sally warns Liza that Mrs Blakeston (Jim’s wife) is gunning for her and, sure enough, Mrs B finally confronts Liza outside the Vere Street pub. Quite a crowd gathers to cheer her on as she accuses Liza of stealing her husband, breaking up a happy home, taking his money, and being nothing more than a common prostitute. She slaps Liza, then spits in her face, at which point it becomes a cat fight.

This is bitter fighting with teeth and claws and blows rained everywhere. The watching men ironically shout ‘Time’ and start to organise it as a proper fight, with seconds to refresh each of the fighters and time out between rounds. The women without exception back Mrs Blakeston, calling Liza a homebreaker and whore.

Suddenly Jim pushes through the crowd and forces the two women apart. Then another man pushes through. It is mild-mannered long-suffering Tom and he takes Liza home, up to her room and gently dabs away the blood and sweat with a wetted towel. She bursts into tears, says what a bad woman she is, how she is not worthy of him, apologises for snubbing him. Tom accepts it all and asks her if she will marry him. But she says no, she is not worthy, and then clinches it by telling him she thinks she’s in the family way. Taken aback for a moment, Tom girds his loins and still offers to marry her. But Liza still says no. He leaves. She sinks on her bed in utter misery.

Cut to Jim dragging his wife home (her nagging all the way) upstairs to their room where she refuses to shut up, bating him till he snaps and really violently attacks her. Daughter Polly tries to drag him off but Jim slaps her hard and sends her reeling across the room, so she runs downstairs to the two men and a woman having tea in the flat below. One man refuses to interfere between man and wife on principle and the other is scared of being hit, so it is the exasperated woman who runs upstairs to find Jim kneeling on his wife’s chest and beating and beating and beating her in the face.

The woman drags Jim off and shames him into stopping so, with one last vicious kick of his bleeding wife, Jim slams the door and goes to the pub.

Liza’s mum comes home to find her daughter bedraggled from the fight outside the pub, with a blood-stained face and one eye swollen up. She offers Liza a nip of spirits. In a long scene the two women get slowly drunk, Liza realising, for the first time, how spirits (previously she was a beer girl) make you feel just fine. I think we are witnessing the birth of an alcoholic – like mother, like daughter.

Chapter twelve For a day and two nights Liza lies sweating and in increasing agony. Her mum thinks it’s her first whiskey hangover, but in facts it’s fever leading to a miscarriage. Mrs Kemp runs upstairs to fetch Mrs Hodges, who turns out to be a sort of nurse who helps with confinements. Only then do they fetch the doctor, who makes an examination and predicts that Liza is going to die. A crowd gather in the hallway outside. Tom pushes through into the room, and tries to make Liza hear him but she is unconscious. Later Jim comes, seizes her face in her hands and tries to apologise. She hears nothing as her life ebbs away.

What makes this chapter a tour de force is the fact that, amid Liza’s slowl decline and death, Maugham depicts the friendship that quickly grows between whining, complaining Mrs Kemp (Liza’s mum) and the tidy, discreet, nodding Mrs Hodges from upstairs. They discuss which liquor is best and swap stories about coffins and undertakers, all the while sipping brandy – purely for medicinal purposes – as Liza slowly dies.

The cackling camaraderie of the two old ladies is brilliantly done, and much more vivid and eerie than all the love scenes which preceded it. They are like two alcoholic Norns, prattling inconsequentially while life drains out of the young girl on the bed.

Eventually, there is a dry rattle from Liza’s emaciated body and everyone in the room feels the cold, blanking presence of Death.

It’s a genuinely macabre and spooky ending, and it strongly anticipates Maugham’s gift for creating powerful scenes and prattling characters, which he would turn out to be able to express better in the stream of plays he wrote in the Edwardian era, than in his less-successful novels.


Social history

Well, they’re not as poor as the Jagos depicted in Arthur Morrison’s brutal novel, A Child of the Jago. In the Jago (an East End slum) nobody has a job so they literally starve unless they can steal something every day.

Whereas all the characters in Vere Street appear to have a job, and enough wages to splash around on drinking and eating at pubs. Nobody seems to think twice about going to the theatre, or splashing out on the Bank Holiday outing to Chingford. These are all things the inhabitants of Morrison’s novels could only dream of.

The women are baby factories. Jim’s wife has borne him nine children – of whom only five are still living – plus the miscarriage, and she’s pregnant again. Sally’s mum had twelve live births, two still-births and a  miscarriage. Liza’s mum had 13 children. Obviously, only free birth control and sex education could begin to tackle this plague of babies.

Alcohol is the only escape (none of the mass-produced drugs of our era, or the addictive medicines e.g. opioids).

Men beat their wives, sometimes unconscious. Everyone accepts this, even the wives.

Maugham’s style

There’s something very flat and mechanical and literal about Maugham’s descriptions. He doesn’t jump to the interesting bit of an action, as a narrator he doesn’t make any sudden moves, but describes every event flatly and factually like an instructions manual.

The organ-man was an Italian, with a shock of black hair and a ferocious moustache. Drawing his organ to a favourable spot, he stopped, released his shoulder from the leather straps by which he dragged it, and cocking his large soft hat on the side of his head, began turning the handle. It was a lively tune, and in less than no time a little crowd had gathered round to listen, chiefly the young men and the maidens, for the married ladies were never in a fit state to dance, and therefore disinclined to trouble themselves to stand round the organ.

The text is marked by the heaviness of phrasing which was never really to leave him, as well as the occasional odd infelicity of word order.

The dancers stopped to see the sight, and the organ-grinder, having come to the end of his tune, ceased turning the handle and looked to see what was the excitement.

Wouldn’t that be better as ‘what the excitement was’ – or the more flowing ‘what was causing all the excitement’? ‘Stilted’ might describe the relationship between young William and his readers.

‘Look at ‘er stockin’s!’ shouted another; and indeed they were remarkable, for Liza had chosen them of the same brilliant hue as her dress, and was herself most proud of the harmony.

He was sitting on a stool at the door of one of the houses, playing with two young children, to whom he was giving rides on his knee.

On every pages there are sentences which make you stumble and choke a bit. Compare and contrast with the bounding fluency of the writer I’ve just been reading, E.W. Hornung and his high-spirited Raffles stories.

Raffles had been leaning back in the saddle-bag chair, watching me with keen eyes sheathed by languid lids; now he started forward, and his eyes leapt to mine like cold steel from the scabbard.

Exciting and melodramatic, Hornung is always zeroing in on the vivid look and gesture. Maugham is the exact opposite, describing mundane details in a very mundane style.

It really seemed an age since the previous night, and all that had happened seemed very long ago. She had not spoken to Jim all day, and she had so much to say to him. Then, wondering whether he was about, she went to the window and looked out; but there was nobody there. She closed the window again and sat just beside it; the time went on, and she wondered whether he would come, asking herself whether he had been thinking of her as she of him; gradually her thoughts grew vague, and a kind of mist came over them. She nodded. (Chapter 8)

On the plus side, Maugham’s prose is remarkably free of the facetiousness and irony of a writer like Arthur Morrison who, in his stories of slum life, is addicted to sometimes archaic and ponderous phraseology.

Scarce was it dark when the Dove-Laners, in a succession of hilarious groups – but withal a trifle suspicious – began to push through Mother Gapp’s doors. (A Child of the Jago chapter 22)

By contrast Maugham’s prose is – for its period – surprisingly clean and streamlined.

Bank Holiday was a beautiful day: the cloudless sky threatened a stifling heat for noontide, but early in the morning, when Liza got out of bed and threw open the window, it was fresh and cool. She dressed herself, wondering how she should spend her day; she thought of Sally going off to Chingford with her lover, and of herself remaining alone in the dull street with half the people away. She almost wished it were an ordinary work-day, and that there were no such things as bank holidays. (Chapter 4)

Compared to the elaborate facetiousness and sprinkling of archaisms in Morrison or Wells, this is the streamlined prose of the future. In her brilliant biography of Maugham, Selina Hastings points out that he deliberately chose the style of the French realists, of Zola and especially Maupassant:

I had at that time a great admiration for Guy de Maupassant… who had so great a gift for telling a story clearly, straightforwardly and effectively.

(The novel’s composition, publication and reception are discussed on pages 53-57 of Hastings’s biography, including the accusation that he had plagiarised some of it from A Child of the Jago.)

Censorship

When I read A Child of the Jago I was very struck by the remark of Robert Blatchford, a contemporary socialist activist and reviewer, whose review is included in the appendices and who said A Child of the Jago was hopelessly unrealistic for two glaring reason:

  1. it omitted the fierce swearing which the underclass used incessantly
  2. it omitted sex

Maugham addresses the issue of swearing in the text, calmly explaining that due to the censorship he cannot reproduce working class speech:

That is not precisely what she said, but it is impossible always to give the exact unexpurgated words of Liza and the other personages of the story, the reader is therefore entreated with his thoughts to piece out the necessary imperfections of the dialogue. (Chapter 1)

‘Oh, you ——!’ she said. Her expression was quite unprintable; nor can it be euphemized. (Chapter 1)

‘I know wot yer mean, you —— you!’ Her language was emphatic, her epithets picturesque, but too forcible for reproduction. (Chapter 2)

‘Bli’me if I speak to ‘im again, the ——.’ (Chapter 7)

‘Well, I think you’re a —— brute!’ She felt very much inclined to cry. (Chapter 7)

‘You’ve come in at last, you ——, you!’ snarled Mrs. Kemp, as Liza entered the room. (Chapter 8)

‘I tell yer I shan’t shut up. I don’t care ‘oo knows it, you’re a ——, you are!’ (Chapter 11)

‘Be quiet!’ he said, and, closing his hand, gave her a heavy blow in the chest that made her stagger.
‘Oh, you ——!’ she screamed.

Fill in the blanks. Are they just ‘damn’, ‘bastard’ and ‘bitch’? Or something much worse? (In fact these blanks cant be concealing the word ‘bitch’ because ‘bitch’, to my surprise, is actually spelled out in chapter 11.)

As to the sex, because Maugham’s subject is several love affairs, there are numerous momewnts of at least chaste physical contact between the sexes, with strong hints of something more. On the Chingford outing ‘Arry boldly puts his arm round Sally’s waist, Tom tries to put his arm round Liza’s waist (‘Keep off the grass’, she banters).

On the tense night when I think she loses her virginity, there is a heavily symbolic moment when Liza puts her hand on a bollard and Jim puts his big strong one on top and refuses to move it, despite her pleas.

And this bollard scene is full of feverish descriptions of Liza’s feelings as she alternately rebelling against Jim, and then swoons against him overcome by the sex urge, eventually looking up into his face to be kissed.

So there is much more treatment of the sex instinct in Maugham than in Morrison, although the cultural censorship of the time still meant he can’t possibly describe anything like actual love making. The couple go off into the night and then… Liza awakes luxuriously in bed, thinks of Jim and ‘the delicious sensation of love came over her’. The reader is left to draw their own conclusion.

Dialogue

A lot of the book is in dialogue form. Is this a good depiction of working class London speech from 1897?

Leaning against the wall of the opposite house was Tom; he came towards her.
”Ulloa!’ she said, as she saw him. ‘Wot are you doin’ ‘ere?’
‘I was waitin’ for you ter come aht, Liza,’ he answered.
She looked at him quickly.
‘I ain’t comin’ aht with yer ter-day, if thet’s wot yer mean,’ she said.
‘I never thought of arskin’ yer, Liza—after wot you said ter me last night.’
His voice was a little sad, and she felt so sorry for him.
‘But yer did want ter speak ter me, didn’t yer, Tom?’ she said, more gently.
‘You’ve got a day off ter-morrow, ain’t yer?’
‘Bank ‘Oliday. Yus! Why?’
‘Why, ’cause they’ve got a drag startin’ from the “Red Lion” that’s goin’ down ter Chingford for the day—an’ I’m goin’.’
‘Yus!’ she said.
He looked at her doubtfully. (Chapter 3)

Whether it is quite accurate or not, there’s certainly a lot of it, I’d estimate that more of the book is dialogue than descriptive prose.

This clearly prefigures Maugham’s success as a playwright in the years ahead, particularly the sombre final scene where Liza lies dying and the two old biddies drink together and swap inanities. It feels like it is on stage, a simple but very effective scene.

And the turns of phrase

Maugham uses one or two Cockney turns of phrase which seem to have disappeared without trace, but deserve to be remembered.

‘Two pints of bitter, please, miss,’ ordered Jim.
‘I say, ‘old ‘ard. I can’t drink more than ‘alf a pint,’ said Liza.
‘Cheese it,’ answered Jim. ‘You can do with all you can get, I know.’

Me an’ ‘Arry, we set together, ‘im with ‘is arm round my wiste and me oldin’ ‘is ‘and. It was jam, I can tell yer!’

‘Swop me bob, ‘e’s gone and lorst it!’

You ‘it ‘er back. Give ‘er one on the boko.’

‘When a man’s givin’ ‘is wife socks it’s best not ter interfere.’


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (romantic novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

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