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 by H.G. Wells I am well aware that one of their shortcomings is the way the humans in them are often pawns in scenarios or plotlines designed to convey Wells’s social, technological and political ideas.

At least I thought so 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 a realistic depth to his character Bert Smallways. He builds up our sense of Bert’s agility with mechanics and engines, at repairing bicycle and motor bikes, a skill which comes in handy later in his 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, the kind of ‘soft’ theologising you get in Graham Greene. But whereas Greene does it (at length) in his novels solely to make the reader feel suicidal 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 solely to make the reader chortle with the recognition of a clever paradox. 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 them is nowhere near as clear-cut and simple. I found them both to be murky and difficult books: 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 often interchange. The Man Who Was Thursday is not so much a novel and 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 in a fictional new model town, 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. On this evening he is confronted by another poet, flaxen-haired Mr Gabriel Syme, who politely doubts his 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, were you have a map and know exactly which station is coming next on any journey. Law and logic and certainty are the only poetry.

Angered, Gregory is waiting for him outside the ground of his house at the end of the little party, and in a feverish conversation reveals that he really is an anarchist and makes Syme swear not to tell anyone. At which Syme reveals that he is really a policeman, but that Gregory must swear to tell no-one. They both 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 a James Bond manoeuvre – at the touch of secret button descends down through the floor to a basement below the pub.

This is the meeting place of the most dangerous Anarchists Club in London. Syme takes this all with upper-class sang-froid. He is told he is attending a meeting to decide who will become the next leader of this ‘chapter’. 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, which is met with disappointment. At which Syme 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.

Syme is made the new ‘Thursday’ and 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 the entire novel is odd, and is really a psychological fantasia more than a ‘novel’. If you try applying realistic criteria you will get nowhere.

The man who was Sunday

Thursday is met by ‘the secretary’, a posh man with a disfigured face who takes him through the streets to Leicester Square where the Anarchists are holding a meeting on a balcony overlooking the tourists. 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 in the open air while waiters come and go bringing drinks and dishes, tut-tutting and laughing at those funny old anarchists, who do like their little jokes.

Syme is greeted as the new Thursday and introduced to Monday, Tuesday etc. After a survey of the other anarchists, Sunday calls them back inside to a locked room, and here 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 it’s as old as story-telling.

Anyway, Sunday ratchets up the tension with furious denunciations of the spy, 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 he gets down to organising an assassination outrage against a politician visiting Paris, after which the group break up and go their separate ways. There is then a pretty convincing sequence where Syme wanders along to a Soho restaurant… only to find the so-called Professor among the other anarchists, has followed him,. He 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, 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.

Anyway, the Professor now 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! So now Syme knows that three of the seven dangerous anarchists sitting round the meeting table off Leicester Square… were in fact policemen!

Double identities, symmetries and paradox!!

This has taken us up to chapter 8 of 15. To cut a long story what happens 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 assembled policemen to catch the ferry to France and track down the assassin sent to blow up a leading politician in Paris, the last of the unmasked anarchists, 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 he is truly a baddy. 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 answer, 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 a policeman than the train, which everyone thought he was aiming to catch to Paris to carry out his terrorist outrage – pulls into the nearby station. To the horror of the assembled anarchists-now-revealed-as-policemen, a great crowd of 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 led Syme from the Embankment to the anarchist meeting in Leicester Square.

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 gaining on them. 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. They 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… motor cars chasing them, look up and see the friend among them. The whole world is against them.

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

No wonder this chapter is titled ‘The Earth In Anarchy’. Apparently, Chesterton wrote the book during a bout of severe depression. It was partly the impact of the great wave of anarchist, socialist, positivist, 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 constant struggle unmediated by any kind of transcendent values.

As a devout Anglican, Chesterton found this a great assault on his values 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 rebels and runs straight at the crowd and the ‘secretary’ who is leading them, and accuses them of being filthy anarchists who deny the beauty of order of 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 dangerous anarchists. But 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 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, who is still eating on the balcony overlooking the square. 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 – spokesman for the real anarchists – 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.”‘

And then… it all turns out to be a dream! Syme awakens and is walking 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 leads up to a vision of one of the pretty young women he had started the novel chatting to in the garden in Saffron Park.

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 – 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 rather 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, 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 – are, for me, the height of artistic achievement.

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.

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.

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.

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)

I’d always known that The War In The Air is famous because in it Wells anticipated lots of details of aerial warfare, dogfights, bombing raids, what the earth looks like from up in the air – none of which existed or was possible when he wrote it in 1907 and the most primitive flying machines had only just been invented. In other words, that it was a masterpiece of imaginative prophecy.

But my heart sank a bit when I began it and realised that it’s another one of Wells’s mongrel book, in that it’s a real mish-mash of subject matter and tone. Thus he chooses to recount the outbreak of war (sometime around 1914, i.e. in his then-future) and the triumph of the mighty German airfleet – via the comic figure of Bert Smallways, keeper of a failed second-hand bicycle shop in suburban Kent.

In fact 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 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, along with a blight of advertising hoardings, bicycles and then the new-fangled motor car.

Funny 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 the review of social and technological changes brings us up to the present and then… goes beyond it. 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, along with motor cars which have only two central wheels and travel and previously unheard-of speeds. I.e. the story naturalises and domesticates what are in fact bold technological speculations.

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 and even see a little of the displays living, as they do, quite close to the Crystal Palace where some of the new-fangled machines disport themselves. The rambunctuous 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 pack in the bicycle shop 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 and other stuff. Yelling from it is none other than Mr Butteridge, yelling for help, shouting at the scattered holiday makers to catch the ropes and pull him down. And this is what a smattering of male day trippers do, grabbing ropes and stuff to pull down and stabilise the balloon. Butteridge explains 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, a fiddly, difficult business in the middle of which a gust of wind comes along and — tips Butteridge and lady out onto the sand, bumps the basket into Bert so that he tumbles head-first inside and — having thrown all the other hands off the ropes, Bert finds himself whooshing quickly high, high into the sky.

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’s impressions 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 in the balloon drifts east over the Channel, across France and then across Germany. After 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, he is eventually shot down when he drifts over an enormous field of huge man-made dirigibles.

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

It turns out that Germany is on the brink of war with Britain (just as Wells in In the Days of the Comet had also predicted a war between Britain and Germany) 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, finding food, but also finding a load of technical plans for Butteridge’s new airplane design. And he had been planning to sell the designs to the Germans. So the German high command is under the impression that Bert is Butteridge, the famous inventor.

You can imagine the comic misunderstandings as Bert pathetically tries to play up to his role of genius inventor, despite being a failed second-hand bicycle salesman. Because of the comical German accents I was reminded of the TV show, ‘Allo ‘Allo.

And because they think he 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. 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 attackfleet 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.

Then Bert witnesses the Battle of the North Atlantic (chapter 5), when the airships come 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.

Then the fleet flies on to New York whose pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, economics and culture, even in 1907, Wells 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 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.

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 attacking the airships, all lit 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.

Bert pitches in with the other survivors. After five or six days of this intense bleak existence the radio is got working and they discover that the whole world is at war: they 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 had secret fleets of airships which they now launch at each other. Half Europe attacks the other half. India becomes involved in attacks to the North. A Chinese-Japanese fleet attacks San Francisco and then covers 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 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 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 the resulting war will be endless and endlessly devastating.

Meanwhile a German zeppelin has found the crew of the downed Vaterland at its temporary camp in Labrador, picks them up (including Bert) and coveys 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 milling 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 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 battles 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 landing Asiatic forces storming 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, before finally getting washed over the falls, rolling and turning, collapsing into a mash of metal and silk and machinery, then he runs to the edge of the falls to watch it be washed, half-submerged, down the river. There go Kurt, the only German who was his friend, the fleet that brought him half way round the world, the symbol of Europe.

Now he is alone on Goat Island, at the mercy of the landing Asian armies. From 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. Then return to their sleek Asiatic planes or climb up rope ladders into the air balloons and so depart.

There follows a day described in some detail when Bert realises he is marooned on Goat Island as the one bridge which connected it across the river to America has been destroyed by the German zeppelin which crashed on it. Bert discovers a locked up tourist cafe, breaks into it and opens tins of corned beef and milk in order to feed. Then sits and watches the amazing 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 modern cities, ruined motorways, abandoned high rises and derelict amusement arcades. He 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 then 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 suffered a foretaste of his own death.

Bert’s eerie solitude is ended with the discovery that two Germans had survived the crash of the airship by the island, notably the great Prince Albert himself and a servant. Thus begins a classic example of the trope of two enemy combatants stuck on a small island. The Germans immediately begin bossing Bert around, order him to repair the broken Asiatic plane, and hide all the food in the refreshment caff. Their imperious manner makes mild-mannered Bert rebel and, claiming the machine gun he had rescued from another Asiatic warplane, he threatens the two men who promptly turn tale and run. Now follows one day of intense anxiety for Bert doesn’t know whether they have weapons of their own. He realises he can’t afford to go to sleep. A literary reference might by Lord of the Flies but it reminded me 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, holding the gun out aggressively as the prince starts up from a doze. 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 turns tail and runs, Bert later finding a rope the other tried to fling across the broken stretch of bridge, to escape.

Bert now fixes the broken Asiatic fighter plane (they are very small and the motors not unlike motor bikes and the wings flap, a detail Wells got profoundly wrong). After comic mishaps Bert flies it off the island, and crash lands on the mainland, wanders past various isolated settlements until he reaches a provincial store full of good old boys. When he tells them his remarkable story they give him food for free, and then fill him on the collapse of civilisation all around the world which has been caused by the war which has quickly escalated into a global conflagration.

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), rumour has it 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 previous fortnight’s adventures and which is, by now, pretty pongy.

Accepting this all very dryly, the leader of the saloon decides they must take the plans to the president. Where is the president? Well 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 have replaced the trains, have all stopped running because all the power stations have been bombed) and 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 string up from trees by lynch mobs, through a country falling to pieces.

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 distant enough to be a particular historical era: 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 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 the plague

It is eerie how accurate Wells’s prophecy was: four years of war nobody expected or could control or end, 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.

And then 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? Having found the president he hands over the blueprints of the Butteridge airplane, which are telegraphed to Britain. Being simple and cheap to make it can be knocked up by communities all over both countries, and is. But the result isn’t 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.

Job done, Bert cadges a lift from a British ship in Boston which sails across the Atlantic, is stricken with plague halfway, picked up by another ship with a depleted crew, shot at in Madeira, arrives 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 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, finds there is no place for him and leaves just before the city is incinerated by a mass raid of Asiatic airships, hikes south via Oxford, crosses the Thames at Windsor, 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 Bert has been transformed from an innocent abroad, changed out of all recognition from the man who was sick when he saw his first battle. He is now lean, tanned, has been in many fights, and is armed. When local tough Bill comes a-visiting the next day, Bert simply shoots him dead on the spot, then shoots his number two, then wings the number three as he runs off. Bert goes 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 community leader.

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. And the quick overview of Bert and Edna, converted into tough farmers, who breed and then, in their time, pass away and are buried, really haunting.

Epilogue

Set in the future, thirty years after the Germans started the world war which ended civilisation, these last ten pages depict Tom Smallways, Bert’s brother, now a bentover 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 aid the ruins of the old civilisation as the Britons lived among the ruins the Romans left behind, marvelling at the giants who made the fabulous buildings. Now there is no knowledge of metalwork or even how to make clothes. People dress in shreds and tatters from the old days.

And Tom scares the little boy with legends about the big ruins to the north know 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 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 a powerfully imagined vision of the complete, long-term collapse of Western civilisation back into the obscurity of a new dark age.


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 leak which catches fire. He stops, the lady gets off screaming while Bert and Grubb, and then various passersby all get roped in to trying to put out the galloping fire. At one point a motor car stops driven by a posh upper class chap who offers use of 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 brilliant. The description of how the flames slowly penetrate the covering is exactly what it looks 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 described.

Political pamphleteering

As 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, among the earliest in long 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 this is more or less what happened to the vast dreadnought battleships, 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 marks, the British and German fleets fought the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 (‘fourteen British and eleven German ships sank, with a total of 9,823 deaths’) and thereafter the enormously expensive German fleet spent the rest of the war bottled up in their harbours.

Interpretations

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

In the 1921 preface printed in the Penguin paperback, he categorises this, as 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 is a more realistic working-through of the consequences of unrestricted war in the air.

Interestingly, Wells argues that aerial warfare will reduce the old-fashioned idea of war with defined fronts, locations where armies fought each other and either won or lost. 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.

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 line in international affairs, which is 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.

Anyway, regarding this novel, Wells in his 1918 preface refers to it as ‘a pamphlet story – in support of the League to Enforce Peace’.

Regardless of its content, 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 is 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 a mess, scientific ideas jostling for space with earnest political commentary, whimsical social comedy pressed up against sentimental love stories, jaw-dropping science fiction visions morphing into daring espousals of Free Love. From about 1900 Wells chucked everything and the kitchen sink into his books.

You just have to abandon high-minded critical strictures and accept that they are part-pamphlet, part-technological prophecy, part Ealing Comedy – and enjoy all the different bits, styles and tones of voice, while you are in them.

Futility

But, as I pointed out in my review of In The Days of The Comet, I can’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 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!’

Wells felt it all, felt the grim relentlessness of the Darwinian struggle for survival, and how 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 ranted and raved and warned in everything he wrote – but nobody else imagined it as intimately, as terribly, 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 in 1941.

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
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…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Liza of Lambeth by Somerset Maugham (1897)

This is Somerset Maugham’s first novel, the first publication in a writing career which lasted 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 cultural movement, 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 page) tale of bright, vivacious Liza Kemp from the slums and how she falls in love with another woman’s husband.

The plot

Liza is 18, a lively working class gel 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 confident 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 (with more bustles and corsets).

Chapter two This man is Jim Blakeston, 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.’

Liza is pursued 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.

They walked out together earlier in the year but now she’s not interested.

Chapter three Liza’s home life, i.e. her mother is an alcoholic who steals her 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. She 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 is 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 by the wheedling of her would-be lover, Tom when, possibly, it’s the fact that big Jim is going 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, coconut shy, more beer and then the concertinas come out for a sing-song. Tom is too shy, 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.

Back in Westminster Bridge Road the men peel off to have a last drink, Liza setting off with Sally and then 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 the 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 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. 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 she 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 if the play’s run, the night Jim originally suggested taking her, she dolls herself up and goes along and finds Jim waiting for her but determines to act effronted and offended. There’s a full description of the night’s complicated entertainment, with singers while they queue, the melodramatic play itself, which has an interval and then 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, him kissing and her and then – I think – asking her to have sex with her.

‘Liza,’ he said 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.

‘What,’ as my kids, mimicking American TV, like to say, ‘is that all about?’

Chapter eight She 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 with its cheap knick-knacks with pleasure and pride, 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, before spying Jim’s daughter Polly emerging from his house, further down the street, running off to introduce herself, and then strolling along arm in arm with her 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. Polly stops talking to her. Mrs Blakeston regards her with anger in her eyes. Jim reports that his wife has stopped to him. Clumps of women bend and gossip looking at 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.

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 (with a few pints beforehand to stoke up courage and much sniggering and poling in the ribs at the suggestive parts of he service) is obviously designed – in its innocence and community – to provide a comparison with the bed feeling generated by Liza and Jim’s affair.

Chapter ten November comes. It’s cold and foggy. They 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. 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 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. ‘Arry is a traditionalist insisting 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:

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

But quite soon ‘Arry starts beating her. 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 she 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’s gunning for her and, sure enough, she confronts Liza outside the Vere Street pub, where 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 rather 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 and homebreaker and whore.

Suddenly Jim pushes through the crowd, holds 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. He 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 back for a moment, Tom still offers to marry her but she 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. Polly tries to drag him off but he slaps her hard and sends her reeling across the room so she runs downstairs to the two men and a woman having tea. One man refuses to interfere between man and wife on principle and the other is scared of being hit so the exasperated woman runs upstairs to find Jim kneeling on his wife’s chest and beating and beating and beating her in the face. The woman drags her off and shames him into stopping so, with one last vicious kick, he slams the door and goes to the pub.

Liza’s mum comes home to find her daughter bedraggled, with a blood-stained face and one eye swollen up. She offers her a nip of spirits. In a long scene the two women get 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 the lady, a Mrs Hodges, who turns out to be a sort of nurse who helps with confinements. They fetch the doctor who predicts that Liza is going to die. A crowd gather in the hallway outside. To pushes through and tries to make her listen 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 extraordinary depiction of the friendship that quickly grows between whining complaining Mrs Kemp and the tidy, discreet, nodding Mrs Hodges. They discuss which spirit is best and swap stories about coffins and undertakers, 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 to alcoholic Norns, prattling inconsequentially while life drains out of the young girl on the bed.

Eventually there is a dry rattle and everyone in the room feels the cold blanking presence of Death. It’s a genuinely macabre and spooky ending, and you can read in it Maugham’s gift for creating 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. In the Jago nobody has a job so they starve unless they can steal something every day. All the characters in Vere Street have a job, and enough wages to splash around 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.

There is in abundance 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, including the accusation that he had plagiarised A Child of the Jago.)

Censorship

I was very struck by the remark of Robert Blatchford, a contemporary Socialist activist and reviewer, who said A Child of the Jago was hopelessly unrealistic for two glaring reasons, one of which was that it omitted the fierce swearing which the underclass used incessantly.

As to this swearing, Maugham calmly explains 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? (It can’t include ‘bitch’ because ‘bitch’ is spelled out in chapter 11.)

As to the sex, because Maugham’s subject is love affairs, there more at least hinting of physical contact between the sexes than in Morrison. On the Chingford outing Harry is boldly putting 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 please.

And this scene is full of descriptions of her feeling as she alternately rebels and then swoons against him, 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 means 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’.

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 is a simple but very effective scene.

And the turns of phrase

One or two turns of phrase 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

The Hole in The Wall by Arthur Morrison (1902)

Morrison’s oeuvre

Morrison is remembered for his bleak novel about a squalid East End slum, A Child of the Jago, and the related collection of short stories about slum life, Mean Streets, but he was nothing if not versatile. At the same time as he was producing his dark stories of slum life, he turned out no fewer than 25 short stories about a respectable middle-class detective, Martin Hewitt, and another series of stories, about a corrupt detective, Horace Dorrington.

The third in the loose trilogy of books about London low-life, To London Town (1899) was surprisingly upbeat, and he then wrote a collection of stories about a legendary folk magician of Essex, Cunning Murrell, published in 1900. Morrison also wrote several one-act plays, and a stream of articles about Japanese art about which he made himself an expert. An impressively diverse output.

The Hole in The Wall

Morrison published The Hole In The Wall in 1902, and it marks a return to a working class milieu of his first stories – but with the twist that it’s set very firmly amid the sight and sounds of London’s old docklands, amid sailors, dockers, lightermen and the river police.

The novel is formally interesting because it alternates between the first-person narrative of an eight-year-old boy, little Stephen Kemp, and chapters told by a third-person narrator about characters and events beyond Stevie’s ken.

It is a crime thriller. Almost all the characters are corrupt, greedy and guilty of at least one crime. It features two brutal murders, a drowning, a grotesque blinding scene and climaxes in one of the characters being burned to death. So it is frequently very dark and grim, way painting a much more lurid picture of lower class life than A Child of the Jago had done. And yet not only the presence, but the narrative voice of little Stevie, who doesn’t understand most of what he sees and cleaves to his grandfather as a figure of hope and trust, lend a curious wistful sweetness to the story.

I found the combination really powerful and read the book in one sitting, compared with Jago which I struggled to finish. Partly, I think, because Hole is like a modern thriller, made up of short chapters with melodramatic scenes, and conveys a really effective atmosphere of dread and tension – whereas Jago, or at least the OUP edition of Jago which I read, is so festooned with historical notes and references, that it often feels more like a documentary than a work of fiction.

Moods and settings

When little Stevie’s mother dies in childbirth, Stevie is taken in by his kindly if gruff grandfather, Old Nat, Cap’en Nat as he’s generally referred to, landlord of The Hole in the Wall pub on the river’s edge in Wapping, ‘the bilge of all London’, as he calls it.

Cap’en Nat is big and strong, inspires fear in all his customers, even the hardened crooks, but is sweet and gentle with young Stevie. He is an ideal grandad.

This is overwhelmingly a tale of the London docks. Little Stevie’s mum’s house was hard by the docks in Blackwall, and Stevie has grown up amid the sight and sounds of ships and sailors and cargos. He’s hardly ever seen his dad because he’s a sailor on a merchant vessel owned by the small Wapping trading firm of Marr and Viner, spending most of his life at sea. He is currently on a voyage to Barbados.

The world as seen through eight-year-old Stevie’s eyes is strange and wonderful and often very funny. Early on Morrison gives us a comic portrait of the dead mother’s sisters – Stevie’s aunts – at the wake, all smug sanctimoniousness, sharp elbows and hard-heartedness, and the way one of them bullies her feeble husband.

Later on we meet one of the regulars at the pub, Mr Cripps, an ironically depicted, high-minded ‘artist’ who pays for his drinks in kind by furnishing the small bar at The Hole In The Wall with scores of paintings of ships under sail. Cripps is notorious for the endless delays he’s made about getting round to paint a sign for the pub. ‘A picture of a hole in a wall, what could be more simple?’ asks Old Nat. ‘Well,’ the shabby alcoholic artist replies:

‘It may seem simple enough; that’s because you’re thinkin’ o’ subjick, instead o’ treatment. A common jobber, if you’ll excuse my sayin’ it, ‘ud look at it just in that light—a wall with a ‘ole in it, an’ ‘e’d give it you, an’ p’rhaps you’d be satisfied with it. But I soar ‘igher, sir, ‘igher. What I shall give you’ll be a ‘ole in the wall to charm the heye and delight the intelleck, sir. A dramatic ‘ole in the wall, sir, a hepic ‘ole in the wall; a ‘ole in the wall as will elevate the mind and stimilate the noblest instinks of the be’older. Cap’en Kemp, I don’t ‘esitate to say that my ‘ole in the wall, when you get it, will be—ah! it’ll be the moral palladium of Wapping!’

This deserves to be said out loud and acted with plenty of ham. It’s funny, and Cripps is a regular character, providing a comic chorus to all the events of the novel, just as Stevie is a wide-eyed innocent witness to them all.

Contrasted with the friendly, humorous atmosphere of the pub, is the outside world and the slum-dwellers, whores, thieves and muggers who infest the dark streets of Wapping, especially of one particular alley of ill fame which Morrison names the Blue Gate.

There are quite a few night-time scenes describing the really pitiful slums of the area – the drunken dancing and fights and robberies – and, early on, a grim description of the murder of Marr, partner in the shipping firm which owns the ship Stevie’s dad’s sailing on. Marr had absconded with the firm’s money, got drunk and is easily lured into a literal den of thieves. Here one of the thief’s harridan mistress realises with mounting horror that the gang are not just going to mug him, but to murder him.

Between the comic warmth of the pub and the grim and lurid descriptions of docklands at night, there is the daylight world of the docks, where grandad Nat takes Stevie and which is described through Stevie’s young eyes as an Arabian Nights scene of wonder and marvels. This is his first sight of Ratcliffe Highway.

I think there could never have been another street in this country at once so foul and so picturesque as Ratcliff Highway at the time I speak of… From end to end of the Highway and beyond, and through all its tributaries and purlieus everything and everybody was for, by, and of, the sailor ashore; every house and shop was devoted to his convenience and inconvenience; in the Highway it seemed to me that every other house was a tavern, and in several places two stood together. There were shops full of slops, sou’westers, pilot-coats, sea-boots, tin pannikins, and canvas kit-bags like giants’ bolsters; and rows of big knives and daggers. (Chapter 7)

He goes on to describe all the different nationalities of sailors that you see strolling up and down the Highway. On a different expedition grandfather takes him to the sugar dock where he sees piles of sugar bigger than any boy could imagine, and discovers plenty of it lying around crystallised in the street or warehouses and docks, which you can just snap off and suck for free.

The plot

The plot centres round an early version of a MacGuffin. According to Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The MacGuffin’s importance to the plot is not the object itself, but rather its effect on the characters and their motivations.

The dying stranger

In The Hole In The Wall, Cap’en Nat, Stevie and a few regulars are in the pub one evening when there’s a sudden bang and grunt against the parlour door. They open it and an unconscious body slumps onto the floor while another figure – which had been stooping over it – leaps up and runs off, with Cap’en Nat in hot pursuit.

It is an inky night so Cap’en Nat can’t see the identity of the figure he pursues down the quayside steps and who jumps into the captain’s own dinghy, casts off and within seconds is lost amid the maze of barges, coalers and lighters moored to the river bank.

Stevie had also given little-boy chase but almost immediately trodden on something soft which he assumed was grandad’s tobacco pouch – the Cap’en had been filling his pipe when the bang on the door happens. So Stevie scoops it up and follows the fleeing figures.

The fugitive gets away, the characters all crowd round the man on the floor who has been stabbed in the chest, puncturing the lung, and he quickly drowns in his own blood. One of the many macabre images which imprints itself on the young boy’s memory.

The fortune in notes

More importantly, when Stevie shows his grandad what he picked up, it turns out to be a notebook containing a huge amount of cash – £800 in white banknotes! This is the MacGuffin or target or goal or treasure, which triggers the complicated action of the second half of the novel.

In scenes which are shocking or upsetting or lurid or conspiratorial, the reader then slowly learns that:

  • The brig Stevie’s dad (and Cap’en Nat’s son) was aboard as first mate, the Juno has gone down and he was drowned. But not before they receive a letter from him claiming that the owners want it to sink in order to claim the insurance and that the corrupt captain has tried to run it aground several times, with only Stevie’s dad preventing him. Now (he writes, in his last letter) he is worried that they’ll murder or drug him in his sleep, and do it so he goes down with the ship. Which is what then appeared to happen, according to newspaper reports…
  • The Juno was owned by the firm of Viney and Marr. They were teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Their plan was to sink the Juno and quickly claim the insurance money in order to pay off their creditors. But due to the delays caused by Stevie’s dad, and the rumours that spread about the ship (at each port it docked some of the crew jumped ship with stories about its owners’ plans) the insurance money might now be difficult to claim. So the partners had liquidated all their assets and gathered the cash into the pocket book – the one Stevie found.
  • But no sooner had they done this than Marr did a runner, betraying his partner Viney and taking all the money. But he didn’t get far. He’d begun drinking in pubs along the Highway and we meet him, very drunk, in a squalid furniture-less thieves den, accompanied by the prostitute known as Musky Mag, serenaded by the sinister blind fiddler, Blind George, and loomed over by the book’s bully-boy murderer, Dan Ogle. Mag picks Marr’s pocket but Dan indicates he wants more than that. Later, three sailors are seen staggering down to the docks, singing and weaving. In fact only two of them are actually walking, supporting the middle figure who appears comatose. It is Marr. They have killed him. (In later scenes, we see Mag alone in the room where the murder took place as night falls and, with Poe-like or Dickensian luridness, she watches the shadows recreate the shape of the black thing which lay there i.e. Marr’s body).
  • Having murdered Marr for the pocket book full of notes, Ogle gives the pocket book to an associate to hide somewhere safe but, following him, sees him make for Grandfather Nat’s. Now we have already seen enough through Stevie’s eyes to begin to realise that Cap’en Nat is in fact a ‘fence’, a handler of stolen goods. He is careful about it – dodgy-looking blokes come to the snug bar, show him silvery objects which Stevie only partly sees, and he sends them out again. But tips a wink to a pale quiet man who sits in the corner of the pub all day, who then goes out to negotiate with the bringers of stolen goods. The reader realises that what’s going on is that Nat assesses the loot, then the pale man actually pays for it. Thus, if ever caught or questioned by the police, Cap’en Nat can honestly say that he never pays for stolen goods.
  • We learn more about Cap’en Nat’s illicit activities when, in one tense midnight scene, Stevie hears noises and creeps down the stairs from his bedroom in the attic, squeaks open the door into the lumber room – and discovers Cap’en Nat receiving smuggled tobacco, handed up to him through a secret opening in the floorboards of the bit of the pub which overhangs the river, by the lighterman Bill Stagg (chapter 14).
  • Back to Ogle following his associate. Ogle realises that his associate was clearly making for Cap’en Nat’s in order to get rid of the hot money (the bank notes had numbers which would be recorded and noticed if handed in to a proper bank). Infuriated, Ogle catches up with him right at the door of the pub, stabs him and is in the middle of getting the pocket book out of his pockets when the door opens and Cap’en Nat gives chase.

All of that is the background to the scene we witnessed, of everyone quietly drinking when there’s a thump at the pub door, the figures slumps into the bar and Cap’en Nat gives chase of the person we now know was Ogle.

So, number one, Marr and Viney are responsible for the death of Cap’en Nat’s son and Stevie’s father. Stevie notices a change come over his granddad, a new bitterness and determination.

  • However, it turns out that the crooked ship-owner Viney has something over the Cap’en. Years ago, when Nat was still a sailor, a man was lost overboard on a ship on which he was first mate. The Cap’en insists the drowned sailor was drunk, but Viney says he can bring witnesses to prove that the Cap’en murdered him, by throwing him overboard. The fact that he can be blackmailed and silenced by the man who more or less killed his own son hardens the Cap’en’s heart, but it is very effective that we see this process mostly through the eyes of little Stevie who notices a change come over his revered granddad.
  • There’s an added complication in the form of the gaunt harridan of a cleaning lady who the Cap’en employs, Mrs Grimes. Always sneaking around the place, she spies the pocket book being opened and assessed and, in a broadly comic scene, later steals it and tries to smuggle it out of the house in the rubbish scuttle. Unfortunately for her, the drunk artist Mr Cripps is hanging round (as usual) and offers to help the little lady – in order to suck up to the Cap’en – but when he grabs one end of the scuttle and Mrs Grimes refuses to let go of the other, the scuttle tips over and spills out the loot, hidden under the rubbish. Nat sacks her on the spot, with typical graciousness refusing to report her to the police, and giving her a week’s pay. Mrs Grime is a convincing portrait of an embittered harridan and this kindness only drives her to even greater heights of vindictiveness. From now to the end of the book she bends all her energies to ruining the Cap’en anyway she can think of.

A congeries of conspiracies

So the scene is set for the final third of the book to boil down into a very complicated series of manoeuvres between five crooked characters who are all conspiring to regain the pocket book and its £800 and/or ruin the Cap’en – namely Dan Ogle the murderer, his girlfriend Mag, Viney seeking to get his money back, Blind George who knows what is going on and sees the opportunity to squeeze a percentage of the loot for himself, and vindictive Mrs Grimes.

After murdering the unnamed associate on Cap’en Nat’s door, Ogle flees Wapping and is hiding out in the lime works out on the remote marshes towards the River Lea, owned by the brother of Ogle’s brother-in-law. This brother makes his first appearance as a stranger wandering around Wapping, his clothes stained with white lime, and so he is henceforth referred to as ‘the limy man’. The remote setting is a pretext for Morrison to give vivid descriptions of what was then waste land on the edge of London – with one particularly good description of the sun setting over the smog of London in the west.

Out to these remote wastes comes Ogle’s mistress, Mag, with beer and sustenance, though Ogle treats her with all the casual brutality which Bill Sykes shows towards Nancy in Oliver Twist.

Then out to this remote location comes Viney the crooked shipowner, who has learned through the grapevine that Ogle somehow has gotten hold of his money. The pair of crooks have a long interview in which they consider every variation of theft, burglary and mugging of the Cap’en to get the money back, before Ogle settles on a simple plan. Viney will knock on the pub door late one night, after closing time, and when the Cap’en opens, Ogle will step up behind the Cap’en and crack him on the head. Then it will be easy to clean out the pub, not only of the £800 but all the other goods hidden there.

The blinding of Ogle

So far so wicked and corrupt. But there is a big twist in the story. Blind George, the wheedling, whining, calculating blind musician and crook, tipped off as to Ogle’s location, rather improbably taps his way all the way out across the waste marshes and finds Ogle in some half-derelict sheds at the bottom of his brother-in-law’s limeworks. Here he has a lengthy interview with Ogle wherein he, George, tries to bargain for a share of the loot.

Ogle rudely and brutally denies him any involvement and their argument quickly gets out of hand, with Ogle pushing George and George retaliating with his stick which cracks Ogle hard on the wrist and makes him see red. Ogle knocks George to the ground, kicking and punching him till his face is red and bloody. All the while George is yelling out, ‘Attack a blind man, would ye? Wouldn’t be so easy if you was blind, too, then, would it? If we woz both blind I’d give yer a licking’ and so on.

What I hadn’t anticipated is that, after a scene or two back at the pub in order to vary the scene and pace, the narrative returns us to follow a shadowy figure tapping its way across the wasteland the next evening, carrying a sort of sock full of something. Progressing down the muddy banks of the River Lea. Soaking the sock. Then everso quietly going to the door of the ramshackle shed where Ogle is sleeping. Silently lifting the latch. Tiptoeing inside…

And then there is a truly blood-curdling scene – because the figure is Blind George and he is carrying lime which he was soaked in the water in order to turn it into the highly acidic quicklime and, before Ogle can waken, he has thrust two handfuls of quicklime into Ogle’s eyes and holds them there despite the man’s kicking and punching and fighting, holds them there long enough to sear the flesh of his face and to blind Ogle.

Then he lets go and sneaks away from the screaming figure. ‘Now we’re equal, Dan Ogle,’ he mocks. ‘Now you know what it’s like to fight in the dark,’ and he slips away as the limy man comes running from his nearby cottage.

Ogle is taken to the Accident Hospital. Cut to Viney arriving at the hospital after he’s heard the news, to discover Mag in floods of tears. Nonetheless, despite his permanent injury, Viney discovers that Ogle is more determined than ever to get ‘his’ money.

Fiery climax

And so – partly seen through Stevie’s eyes, partly through the third-person narrator – the story builds to its climax. Viney and Ogle go through with their plan. Viney takes Ogle to the alley beside The Hole In The Wall and positions him by a post just a step or two from the back door. Then knocks. The Cap’en answers.

Viney is nervous. The Cap’en has all sorts of reasons to hate him, it is late at night in a dark alley. But to Viney’s astonishment, when he demands the money, instead of arguing a bit, something in Cap’en Nat snaps. Up till now, for the entire time that they’ve had the pocket book, Grandfather Nat has sworn to Stevie that the money is theirs, finders-keepers, there’s no other claimant and that they will use it to pay Stevie through a good public school, kitted out in all the right togs, and make a ‘gentleman’ of him.

But news of the death of his son, and the his last letter which revealed that the shipwreck was all a wicked scheme by Viney and Marr, made the Cap’en, at first, flare up with anger and then… and then… realise he is sick of crime and a life of crime.

Now, to Viney’s amazement he turns, goes up to Stevie’s room and, to Stevie’s dismay, gets the pocket book out from its hiding place and insists that he ‘has to do right’; he has to give it back to its rightful owner.

Back in the alley he hands the pocket book over to Viney but then – seizes him and insists that they’re going to the police with the whole story. The Cap’en will admit he held onto the pocket book and money which wasn’t his, he’ll even come clean about the drowning incident on the boat all those years ago – but he’ll also tell them all about how Viney and Marr conspired to sink the Juno for the insurance money. It’s time for him to come completely clean and make a new start.

Viney whines, complains, argues and then wriggles himself free and sets off down the alleyways towards the Highway, with the Cap’en in hot pursuit. Stevie has watched all this from his bedroom window, pulls on some clothes and also goes haring off after his granddad.

‘Police, police, stop thief’ the Cap’en yells as he runs. When Viney sees a couple of constables approaching over the bridge of the lock which separates the spit of land the Hole In The Wall sits on from the mainland, Viney instead heads for the actual lock gates, which are narrower, much more precarious, and only secured with a low chain (as anyone who’s crossed an English lock knows).

In his panic and in the dark Viney misses the sharp angle where the two lock gates meet, trips over the low chain which always lines locks gates, and plunges into the bubbling water at the foot of the gates, instantly disappearing in the strong undertow.

The Cap’en and Stevie arrive along with the police who’d been crossing the bridge and a crowd of neighbours woken by the hue and cry. But they are still staring down into the bubbles and swirl of water, when others raise a cry. The Hole In The Wall is on fire!

Remember that Ogle had been left by a post deep in the darkness of the alleyway, waiting to strike the Cap’en and equally surprised when Nat simply handed over the money? Well, once everyone ran off, he saw his opportunity and had blundered into the pub in search of goods and money. But, in doing so, he had knocked over the paraffin lantern and the dry old house had gone up like a torch.

Now a huge crowd gathers round the flame-ridden building and watch horrified as a human figure appears shrieking in agony at a window, a human torch. It is Ogle. First blinded, then burned to death. When the fire brigade arrives its sole concern is to protect the neighbouring buildings. The Hole In The Wall is a lost cause. As Stevie laconically records:

And that was the end of the Hole in the Wall: the end of its landlord’s doubts and embarrassments and dangers, and the beginning of another chapter in his history – his history and mine.

A swift half page coda ties up the loose ends. Viney’s body was never found. Ogle’s body was found, burned to a crisp. Humorous Mr Cripps tried to claim insurance for the loss of his priceless works of art. Mrs Grimes continued her vendetta against the Cap’en and was eventually locked up for assaulting a police officer in her frustration. The Hole In The Wall was rebuilt in brick and renamed. The Cap’en, or Captain Nat Kemp to give him his proper name, turns to honest work, enlarging the nearby wharf which he owned and setting up a company of lighters or flat-bottomed barges.

And little Stevie? In a plain sentence which, after so much storm and stress, moved me to tears:

As for me, I went to school at last.

Characters

This feels the most Dickensian of Morrison’s novels. In the Jago life is too brutal for people to be afforded much description. They just fight and steal and sometimes seem a bit interchangeable, in activity and appearance.

What is Dickensian is the way the brutality of this novel is leavened by the innocence and charm of eight-year-old Stevie, which allows Morrison to approach his characters with a bit more genuine humour than in the Jago.

Also the point of the Jago is that its inhabitants are trapped in it, stuck in a very limited space with only occasional outings to Shoreditch High Street or a little further afield as relief, creating a horrible sense of claustrophobia.

By contrast, the characters of the Hole range widely, and the presence of the mighty Thames, the bustling Ratcliffe Highway, the other pubs and alleys, and the wide wasteland towards the River Lea, all this variety of scene somehow allows for more variety and colour among the characters. Grim they may mostly be, but they are more variegated and vivid and lively than the Jagos.

There was one quiet little man in their midst, who, when not eating cake or drinking wine, was sucking the bone handle of a woman’s umbrella, which he carried with him everywhere, indoors and out. He was in the custody of the largest and grimmest of ladies, whom the others called Aunt Martha.

On the victim’s opposite side sat a large-framed bony fellow, with a thin, unhealthy face that seemed to belong to some other body, and dress that proclaimed him long-shore ruffian. The woman called him Dan, and nods and winks passed between the two, over the drooping head between them. Next to Dan was an ugly rascal with a broken nose; singular in that place, as bearing in his dress none of the marks of waterside habits, crimpery and the Highway, but seeming rather the commonplace town rat of Shoreditch or Whitechapel. And, last, a blind fiddler sat in a corner, fiddling a flourish from time to time, roaring with foul jest, and roiling his single white eye upward.

The man’s right eye was closed, but the left was horribly wide and white and rolling, and it quite unpleasantly reminded me of a large china marble that lay at that moment at the bottom of my breeches pocket, under some uniform buttons, a key you could whistle on, a brass knob from a fender, and a tangle of string. So much indeed was I possessed with this uncomfortable resemblance in later weeks, when I had seen Blind George often, and knew more of him, that at last I had no choice but to fling the marble into the river; though indeed it was something of a rarity in marbles

It was anything but a clean face on the head, and it was overshadowed by a very greasy wideawake hat. Grubbiness and unhealthy redness contended for mastery in the features, of which the nose was the most surprising, wide and bulbous and knobbed all over; so that ever afterward, in any attempt to look Mr. Cripps in the face, I found myself wholly disregarding his eyes, and fixing a fascinated gaze on his nose; and I could never recall his face to memory as I recalled another, but always as a Nose, garnished with a fringe of inferior features.

She was scarce an attractive woman, I thought, being rusty and bony, slack-faced and very red-nosed. She swept the carpet and dusted the shelves with an air of angry contempt for everything she touched… ‘Ho!’ interjected Mrs. Grimes, who could fill a misplaced aspirate with subtle offence… It was not long ere I learned that Mrs. Grimes was one of those persons who grumble and clamour and bully at everything and everybody on principle, finding that, with a concession here and another there, it pays very well on the whole; and so nag along very comfortably through life. As for herself, as I had seen, Mrs. Grimes did not lack the cunning to carry away any fit of virtuous indignation that seemed like to push her employer out of his patience.

There was a knock at the back door, which opened, and disclosed one of the purlmen, who had left his boat in sight at the stairs, and wanted a quart of gin in the large tin can he brought with him. He was a short, red-faced, tough-looking fellow, and he needed the gin, as I soon learned, to mix with his hot beer to make the purl. (Bill Stagg)

I was not prepossessed by Mr. Viney. His face – a face no doubt originally pale and pasty, but too long sun-burned to revert to anything but yellow in these later years of shore-life – his yellow face was ever stretched in an uneasy grin, a grin that might mean either propitiation or malice, and remained the same for both. He had the watery eyes and the goatee beard that were not uncommon among seamen, and in total I thought he much resembled one of those same hang-dog fellows that stood at corners and leaned on posts in the neighbourhood, making a mysterious living out of sailors; one of them, that is to say, in a superior suit of clothes that seemed too good for him. I suppose he may have been an inch taller than Grandfather Nat; but in the contrast between them he seemed very small and mean.

Dickens’ influence broods over the whole story. The Hole In The Wall pub reminds me of the The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters pub in Our Mutual Friend. The scenes out on the marshes towards the River Lea remind me of the opening and the ending of Great Expectations. The bully boy Dan Ogle reminds me of Bill Sykes from Oliver Twist and the pathetic devotion of Musky Mag reminds me of the equally ill-rewarded loyalty of Nancy.

The way so much adult brutality is seen and only partially understood by an innocent boy reminds me of Oliver Twist, and also David Copperfield, and Pip. Little Stevie is a very effective creation. We know that little Arthur Morrison grew up near the docks in Poplar on the Isle of Dogs where his dad was an engine-fitter. A lot of Stevie’s impressions and feelings have the force of real experiences and memories.

And the way the narrative is split between Stevie’s innocent point of view and the unadulterated view of the omniscient narrator, reminds me of the similar split between the first-person Esther Summerson chapters and the third-person narrator chapters of Bleak House.

This is a gripping novel – not, maybe, a work of art like Henry James or Joseph Conrad, but with far more psychological penetration and artfulness than Morrison’s detective stories. If you read A Child of the Jago you should read this too.

Sea songs

This is one of the songs performed on the fiddle by Blind George.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

E.W. Hornung

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Martin Hewitt, Investigator by Arthur Morrison (1894)

Arthur Morrison wrote some 24 stories featuring his charming, affable and calmly logical detective, Martin Hewitt, and his sometime assistant and confidant, the journalist Brett (I don’t think we ever learn his first name). Morrison collected the stories into four book-length volumes. This is the first volume, containing the first seven stories.

They solve at a flash the question I raised in my review of Tales of Mean Streets, which was whether Morrison’s use of elaborate facetiousness, garnished with Biblical locutions and ironically high-falutin’ turns of phrase, was unique to him or part of the wider style of the time.

Because it is completely absent from these detective stories, which are written in a much plainer, simpler, to-the-point style. So the answer appears to be that Morrison used his heavily jocose voice to deal only with his tales from the underworld. The over-elaborate phraseology was part of a strategy of irony – ranging from sarcasm to satire – which controlled and shaped his anger and disgust at his subject matter.

Here is an example of Morrison in underworld mode in an excerpt from his most notorious short story, Lizerunt. I’ve italicised the phrases which I’m talking about, which are facetious in their unnecessary grandiosity.

When Billy Chope married Lizerunt there was a small rejoicing. There was no wedding-party; because it was considered that what there might be to drink would be better in the family. Lizerunt’s father was not, and her mother felt no interest in the affair; not having seen her daughter for a year, and happening, at the time, to have a month’s engagement in respect of a drunk and disorderly. So that there were but three of them; and Billy Chope got exceedingly tipsy early in the day; and in the evening his bride bawled a continual chorus, while his mother, influenced by the unwonted quartern of gin the occasion sanctioned, wept dismally over her boy, who was much too far gone to resent it.

It’s the juxtaposition of would-be posh phraseology such as ‘a month’s engagement’ or ‘the occasion sanctioned’, with the chaotic reality of the drunken, shouting underclass, which creates the effect.

Whereas in the Martin Hewitt stories of decent chaps solving crimes among, on the whole, more decent chaps, the prose is… well, pretty clean and decent, thus:

Those who retain any memory of the great law cases of fifteen or twenty years back will remember, at least, the title of that extraordinary will case, ‘Bartley v. Bartley and others,’ which occupied the Probate Court for some weeks on end, and caused an amount of public interest rarely accorded to any but the cases considered in the other division of the same court. The case itself was noted for the large quantity of remarkable and unusual evidence presented by the plaintiff’s side – evidence that took the other party completely by surprise, and overthrew their case like a house of cards.

Clear and considered, isn’t it? More than that, it is suave and confident. It is upper-class English, the confidently long, well-balanced and well-arranged periods of the urbane professional class. The case ‘was noted for’, generated an interest ‘rarely accorded to…’ – this is the tone of a doctor or lawyer or scholar.

The narrator’s address to ‘those who retain any memory… etc’ evokes his imagined audience, a community of leisured professional men, readers of quality newspapers, followers of public affairs, and mature enough to have been following these affairs for fifteen or twenty years.

These are the opening two sentences of the very first Martin Hewitt story and they conjure up the entire moneyed, professional class within which the fictional detective operates, and for whom the stories are written. If ‘officialese’ is used to counterpoint and mock the grim affairs of the slum-dwellers in Mean Streets and A Child of the Jago, here it is used to stroke the rich, and accentuate their finer feelings and pukka decency.

For the clients and locations are (in general) posh, notably Sir James Norris (baronet) whose country house is the setting for The Lenton Croft Robberies, Sir Valentine Quinton, owner of ‘an old country establishment’, Radcot Hall, and a wealthy wife whose jewels are stolen in The Quinton Jewel Affair, Lord Stanways is the wronged owner of The Stanway Cameo, and so on.

And another quality they share with the Holmes stories is that the subject matter – the jewels or things stolen – are often the best in the world – the world-famous x, the renowned y, the famous affair of the z. They are eminent, which a) makes them shine out against the vast majority of police detective work which is, after all, usually among the poor and wretched – and b) has the flattering effect of making the reader feel eminent, too. As if we are all used to hob-nobbing with lords and ladies and top jewellers and art collectors and so on.

The stories offer the pleasure of flattering both the reader’s intelligence (if we can spot the culprit before Hewitt, and certainly before the slow and obtuse Brett) and social standing.

Martin Hewitt and Brett (Hewitt is clean shaven, on the left) illustrated by Sidney Paget

Martin Hewitt and Brett (Hewitt is clean shaven, on the left) illustrated by Sidney Paget

This volume contains:

  • The Lenton Croft Robberies (published March 1894 in The Strand magazine)
  • The Loss of Sammy Crockett (April 1894, The Strand)
  • The Case of Mr Foggatt (May 1894, The Strand)
  • The Case of the Dixon Torpedo (June 1894, The Strand)
  • The Quinton Jewel Affair (July 1894, The Strand)
  • The Stanway Cameo Mystery (July 1894, The Strand)
  • The Affair of the Tortoise (September 1894, The Strand)

The stories

1. The Lenton Croft Robberies

Lenton Croft is the country seat (near Twyford) of Sir James Norris. Meeting Hewitt at the train station, Sir James outlines the case: three times in the last year, female guests have had valuable jewellery stolen from them. Each time the windows to the room in question were only slightly opened or closed altogether, or people were in a nearby room. Each time a spent match was found just where the jewellery went missing.

Martin is shown around the house in great detail, receives a precise account of each theft, asks questions about all the staff. He stops at the stables to chat to a servant with a dog, rather to Sir James’s impatience, then asks to see the rooms of the servants.

And solves the case. Sir James’s faithful secretary, Vernon Lloyd, keeps a pet parrot. He has trained it to keep quiet by keeping a spent match gripped in its mouth but, once introduced into a room – either through an only slightly-open window or, as on one occasion, hidden in the room when both windows and doors are closed – to find the nearest shiny thing, drop the match, nab the shiny, and wait for his master.

they confront Lloyd and he confesses.

2. The Loss of Sammy Crockett

The key to an important case is held by one ‘Gaffer’ Kentish, owner of the Hare and Hounds pub in the northern town of Padfield, where he is a trainer of athletes who run in the local competitive races. Hewitt travels there and puts up in the pub to get to know Kentish and try to get the facts he needs from him.

The task is made simpler when Kentish’s star runner, Sammy Crockett, goes missing, just before a championship race in which Kentish has bet lots of money. Some mystery is created by the discovery of scraps of paper near the place Crockett was last seen, and the fact that the trail left by his spiked running shoes stops dead yards from a fence, as if the man had flown up into the air – but Hewitt sees beyond these distractions to the heart of the matter, which is that Crockett has been kidnapped by a bookmaker rival of Kentish’s, named Danby, who also happens to be a property developer and has locked Crockett up in one of a little parade of shops he’s building in a new estate.

Hewitt and Kentish’s tough son break into the shop, punch the local tough guarding Crockett, take him back to Kentish’s pub where he is fed, rested, massaged and – proceeds to win the ‘Padfield Annual 135 Yards Handicap’. With the result that Kentish willingly gives Hewitt the information he needed to solve the other, more important case with which the story began.

3. The Case of Mr Foggatt

Brent explains Hewitt’s theory of ‘accumulative probabilities’ i.e. facts which are in themselves trivial can, if rare enough, gain importance as they increase in number. One odd circumstance means nothing: life is full of oddities. Two odd circumstances, combined, begin to suggest things. Three odd things begin to narrow down the range of possibilities, and so on. Thus the accumulation of evidence points you to the solution.

‘Trivialities, pointing in the same direction, became important considerations.’

‘A fat, middle-aged man, named Foggatt’ who has rooms in the same building off the Strand where Hewitt has his offices and Brett his apartment, is found shot dead. Hewitt and Brett had dined at the latter’s club and were enjoying a cigar in his rooms when – bang! They run upstairs and pry open the locked door with a poker. The body is there, by a gun with one shot fired, all the windows closed.

Seven or so weeks after the inquest, Hewitt invites Brett to dinner at Luzatti’s, off Coventry Street. He insists they sit at a particular table, in chairs opposite

a rather fine-looking fellow, with a dark, though very clear skin, but had a hard, angry look of eye, a prominence of cheek-bone, and a squareness of jaw that gave him a rather uninviting aspect.

Hewitt starts talking about bicycle racing and the young fellow can’t help being interested then joining in. When the young man calls for coffee, to Brett’s amazement, Hewitt reaches out and pinches the half-eaten apple off his plate. The man notices but says nothing and, moments later, makes his excuses and leaves.

Hewitt asks the amazed Brett if he can recall the contents of the dead man’s apartment when they broke in? Did he, for example, notice the half-eaten apple on the table? At the time Hewitt took a plaster cast of the teeth marks in the apple. Now he goes home and does the same to this apple. They are identical.

A few days later Hewitt receives a long letter from the young man who signs himself Sidney Mason, explaining that Foggatt ruined his family. A financial genius, he used Mason’s weak father as a front man for all his deals, until they went sour, at which point Mason’s father was sent to prison which he endured for three years, before killing himself. Thereafter Mason was brought up by his mother who struggled with poverty and shame and social stigma, but he never knew the name of the man who had ruined his family.

His father’s old colleagues and good luck helped him to a clerkship in a legal firm, where he more than once bumped into Foggatt without a clue who he was, each time the fat man betraying inexplicable signs of nerves. Finally Mason bumped into Foggatt in that very house, on an errand to someone else, but Foggatt was sweating and turned white. He invited young Mason to his rooms that evening and there, after offers of brandy and cigars, Foggatt offered him £500 to emigrate and start again, say, in South Africa and then began apologising about his father.

At which point the scales dropped from Mason’s eyes and he realised Foggatt was the wretch who blighted his family. So he grabbed the revolver off the mantelpiece and shot the man dead. Hearing steps on the stairs he locked the door on the inside, made for the window, stepped out onto the ledge and closed it, then reached out to a metal gutter just about within reach, pulled himself up and onto the roof and made his escape.

At his first inspection of the room Hewitt had instantly realised the only way of escape was by reaching over to the gutter and pulling yourself up – therefore he was looking for a tall, and very fit man. Several times he had seen Mason around in legal offices and that night at the restaurant, seeing him at a table, had taken a gamble, based on intuition, at engaging him in conversation.

This summary shows you how a Hewitt story follows the detective template – violent crime, apparently unsolveable because of lack of evidence, the canny detective sees evidence and links where nobody else does (the apple), revelation of the culprit’s motivation in a long and sentimental backstory.

But… It still has a big hole, namely the accident that Mason happened to work in the Law trade so that Hewitt saw him around legal offices – and the whopping coincidence that Mason happened to be in the restaurant the night Hewitt and Brett dine there.

4. The Case of the Dixon Torpedo

Morrison starts many of the stories with exactly the kind of general thoughts and reflections upon the nature of crime and detection with which the Holmes stories often begin. Here, there are a couple of paragraphs about the importance of accident and coincidence before we get on with the plot.

One fine day at 1.30, Hewitt has a visitor in his office.

A gaunt, worn-looking man of fifty or so, well, although rather carelessly, dressed, and carrying in his strong, though drawn, face and dullish eyes the look that characterizes the life-long strenuous brain-worker.

It is the inventor and engineer F. Graham Dixon comes to visit Hewitt on a matter of national importance. Dixon has designed a new, much more effective torpedo. Detailed plans of it were stolen from his office this morning. They were there in the drawer of his desk at 10am this morning. His office is locked. He has two assistants, Worsfold and Ritter, who he trusts. Only the postman came to deliver some letters. It is the usual fol-de-rol of highly detailed circumstances which make the theft, on the face of it, impossible and which are in fact designed to highlight the uncanny brilliance of the detective.

I suppose nobody ever did so much devastation in a photographic studio in ten minutes as I managed.

While they’re puzzling over it a ‘Mr Hunter’ arrives asking to meet with Dixon. It is the second time he’s called today, to discuss new technical innovations. His assistant puts the man off, who stalks off in a huff. Suddenly Hewitt is galvanised. To cut a long story short, he had seen ‘Hunter’ place his walking stick in the walking stick and umbrella stand, an odd thing for a casual visitor to do. Hewitt has Dixon get his men out of the way, and retrieves the stick. It turns out to be a hollow tube with a crew top. Inside are the missing plans.

Hewitt tells Dixon to call the more junior of his two assistants in. When faced with a direct accusation of guilt, the man breaks and confesses. Hewitt tells him to write a note to his confederate, ‘Mr Hunter’, telling him to meet him here at the offices, which will be empty, at 6pm.

This is a blind: Hewitt just wants the address, which is a shabby street in Westminster. He goes there, finds from the concierge that Mr Hunter is more generally known as ‘Mirsky’, goes up to his room, inveigles the man into the hall, then jumps into his room, slams and locks the door. Now he investigates at leisure and discovers a dark room set up in a corner and negatives drying of the famous torpedo plans. He exposes all the plates and gathers up all the negatives.

But he discovers something more which is photos of Russian bank notes. Mr Mirsky has been forging Russian roubles and Hewitt links this with recent police reports of forged roubles flooding Russia, allegedly from London. Here is the source.  Through a window Mirsky sees Hewitt rummaging through his things and holding the fake rouble prints, a look of terror on his face. He scarpers.

Hewitt returns to Dixon’s office, hands over the negatives, and says it’s up to Dixon what he wants to do with the wretched assistant.

The plan had been simple. After bribing the assistant, Ritter, to take part, Mirsky had observed his walking stick and had a facsimile made with a hollow tube. Ritter had come to work with the fake stick. He had taken the first opportunity to screw the plans up tight and slip them into the fake stick and place it in the stand. Hunter had arrived, placed his stick in the stand, made a fuss about an appointment, then retrieved the hollow stick containing the plans, gone back to his rooms and made the photographs. Then replaced the plans in the hollow stick, returned to Dixon’s offices, made another fuss and switched the sticks again, leaving the hollow one, for Ritter to find a moment to extract the plans from, replace where they should be, all good. They thought the plans would be absent for just a few hours and no-one would notice.

Dixon foiled the plan by asking to see the plans first thing.

Hewitt’s detective work really boils down to noticing Mr ‘Hunter’ put his stick in the stand. The rest follows from that.

The addition of the fact that Hunter-Mirsky was mass producing faked roubles doesn’t really contribute to the solution of the torpedo blueprints. It happens side by side but doesn’t affect the case or its solution. It appears to be clever but (I may be being rather dim about this) I don’t think makes any material contribution to the case.

I’m probably drawing too big a conclusion on the basis of slender evidence, but it seems that it’s a characteristic Hewitt moment in that it gives the appearance of complexity and cleverness, without the substance.

5. The Quinton Jewel Affair

As usual a few preliminary remarks, this time to the effect that Hewitt keeps surprisingly up to date with the ever-changing slang of the criminal underworld, and especially Romany language of gypsies.

Sir Valentine Quinton lives in Radcot Hall with his wealthy wife, who owns a collection of rare jewellery including the famous ruby sent to this country to be sold by the King of Burma, set in gold and bought by Lady Quinton. One fine evening it is all stolen by a true professional.

A week later Hewitt and Brett are just stepping into his offices near the Strand, when they are accosted by an irate Irishman. He’s just been pointed towards Hewitt by a passing copper. The Irishman proceeds to let loose a long, complex tale in a transcription of Irish dialect.

‘Well, I got along to me room, sick an’ sorry enough, an’ doubtsome whether I might get in wid no key. But there was the key in the open door, an’, by this an’ that, all the shtuff in the room – chair, table, bed, an’ all – was shtandin’ on their heads twisty-ways, an’ the bedclothes an’ every thin’ else; such a disgraceful stramash av conglomerated thruck as ye niver dhreamt av. The chist av drawers was lyin’ on uts face, wid all the dhrawers out an’ emptied on the flure. ‘Twas as though an arrmy had been lootin’, sor!’

Whereas I was fairly confident that Morrison caught the accent of working class Londoners in his slum stories, I’ve no idea how much his transcription of Irish peasant speech is accurate or not, but it certainly dominates the first half of the tale.

The gist of the story is that he was on the train from the West, where he’d just arrived from rural Ireland. When the train didn’t stop at a particular station the stranger sitting opposite him said, ‘Drat’, he’d wanted to get out at that stop, and asked Leamy to take the heavy sealed bag he gave him to a certain address in London while he, the speaker, got the first train back to the missed stop.

Leamy dutifully takes the bag to the requested address and hands it over to a fellow named Mr Hollams, was paid for his troubles, then set off to find some lodgings in the big, bad city. And what’s happened since is that he’s been accosted and assaulted every day since – mugged in the street, drugged in a pub, pushed under an underground train (which he survived unscathed) only to find the doctor who attends him going through his pockets and, finally, having his apartment comprehensively turned over.

Now, this reader confidently deduces that the man who gave Leamy the bag was the thief who stole Lady Quinton’s jewellery. And the man Leamy gave the bag to, was the head of the gang. And the fact that he’s been mugged and searched every day since suggests something was missing – the famous ruby! And if it was not in the bag then the original thief must have kept it.

Hewitt and Brett stroll round to the address of this Mr Hollams only to come upon a fight. A figure with a half-torn coat is struggling up the steps from the area, with two others hanging on to him, one brandishing a revolver. As soon as they’re in the street the two antagonists desist and Mr Torn-Coat makes off.

Hewitt recognises him as Sim Wilks, a well-known burglar. They follow him along Buckingham Palace Road where Hewitt amazes Brett by suddenly adopting the posture and speech of a successful rowdy. He claps Sim on the back, insists he knows him, drags him into a pub for a few beers and insists on lending him a few quid since he’s just carried off a good job and is rolling in swag.

It is this scene which justifies Brett’s opening paragraph about Hewitt’s familiarity with thieves’ slang, because he liberally uses it in buttering up a very suspicious Wilks and the text has copious footnotes telling us that ‘cady’ means hat, ‘touch’ means robbery and ‘cannon’ means drunk. During this swaggering drunken piece of acting, Hewitt tips Wilks the nod that the gang at 8 Gold Street (where we’ve just observed Wilks being manhandled by his boss, Hollam) is about to be raided by the coppers. Is that so? says Wilks musingly. Then pleads another engagement and leaves.

The general idea is that Hewitt has planted the notion that Hollam is about to be arrested, so that it’ll be safe to go and get the ruby from the hiding place where he put it after the robbery. There then follows a sort of tense sequence where Hewitt and Brett follow Wilks to Euston, catch the same train as him, get off at the same station, follow him along winding country lanes at a distance and then catch him red-handed in a church graveyard, removing the ruby from its hiding place behind the brick of a table tomb.

Wilks is arrested for theft, Hollam for receiving stolen goods, Lady Quinton has her jewellery restored, and Michael Leamy gets a respectable job as a doorman ‘guarding the door of a well-known London restaurant’.

Reviewing the logical content of the story you see that the crime was virtually solved as soon as Leamy was pointed towards Hewitt and told his story, particularly once he’d named Hollam as the fence. The solution entirely depended, then, on the Irishman happening to have come across Hewitt’s name and deciding to contact him.

The flim-flam about Hewitt’s competence with criminal slang bears some relation to his ability to speak to Wilks in his own argot, but our heroes could quite simply have followed Wilks to the ruby’s hiding place with much the same result. It feels more as if the idea of dialects – Leamy’s Irish and Wilk’s criminal – colours the story, rather than drives or explains it.

6. The Stanway Cameo Mystery

The ‘famous’ Stanway cameo is discovered by one of the fleet of travelling agents who scour Italy for precious relics, and sold on to the eminent art dealer, Mr. Claridge of St. James Street. He sells it to the Marquis of Stanway for five thousand pounds, the Marquis intending to donate such a rare piece to the British Museum. The piece is kept at Claridge’s for cleaning.

One morning Claridge goes into his office to find it gone. The trapdoor to the roof has been forced and the door into his inner room also forced open by a jemmy or crowbar. A few rooftops away the luxury bag which contained it is discovered by the police. Claridge immediately reimburses Lord Stanway the £5,000 he paid for the piece.

Puzzled, Lord Stanway strolls round to Hewitt’s chambers and hires him to solve the crime. Hewitt goes through the motions, studies the layout of Claridge’s offices, interviews his staff, gets Claridge to describe his precise movements the evening before the crime, and so on. A great deal is made of a Mr Woollett, a jealous rival collector, who has rooms whose windows overlook Claridge’s offices. This seems too obviously a red herring, even to a non-detective story reader, like myself.

Long story short, Hewitt has almost immediately realised that Claridge destroyed the cameo himself and faked the burglary. Every detail of the way the trap door and office door were forced rings fake. Crucially there are spots of rain on a dusty old hat on a peg beneath the trapdoor. It had spitted a bit when Claridge was in the office at the end of the day, but was otherwise a fine clear night. Ergo, whoever ‘forced’ the trapdoor did it during the early evening when Claridge was still there. Ergo Claridge did it himself.

Confronted point blank by Hewitt Claridge breaks down and confesses. His motive was that, upon cleaning the cameo, he realised it was one of the best fakes ever made. But if this fact ever got out his reputation as a dealer would be ruined, the value of all his existing stock plummet, he would lose all his clients. He’d spent a long afternoon pondering all the possible consequences (which he explains in detail to Hewitt and the reader) before opting to fake a burglary and dispose of the cameo.

This option, although expensive, got him off the hook and preserved his reputation. Hewitt sits back, points out the flaws in his procedure and lets things stand. No crime has been committed. Nobody is out of pocket except Claridge himself. He’ll let the police do their best and if they find nothing further – so be it.

7. The Affair of the Tortoise

Two characters live in a row of new buildings near the National Gallery. One, a Mr Rameau, is a big, loud, colourful black man, often drunk and argumentative. He drinks, shouts, parties, slides down the bannisters and intimidates the other inhabitants. The other is a small Frenchman Victor Goujon, once a skilled watchmaker who hurt his hand and has fallen on bad times. Rameau intimidates and taunts Goujon. Goujon has a pet tortoise. Rameau plays with it and one day throws it against a wall so hard he cracks the shell. Goujon goes mad with anger and vows to kill the big man.

Goujon gets a job back in France, packs his bags and leaves. Later the same day Rameau is found dead by the maid, with a hatchet wound in his head and a piece of paper on his chest on which is scrawled puni par un vengeur de la tortue – ‘Punished by an avenger of the tortoise.’

The maid goes to fetch the landlord but when they return – the body has gone!!!!

Everyone assumes the culprit was angry little Goujon but Hewitt sets about dismantling this hypothesis, not least by comparing the ragged scrawl the death note is written in with an example of Goujon’s small precise handwriting which has been found by the police. Also, Goujon is too slight to have carried a big dead man anywhere.

Long story short, they’ve all misunderstood the note. La Tortue is the French name of an island off the north coast of Haiti. Rameau is a member of the brutal, corrupt family which ruled Haiti under the psychotic President Domingue. Domingue’s political opponents took shelter on La Tortue where Domingue’s forces tracked them down and all but exterminated them. Then there was a revolution in which Domingue was overthrown. Our victim, César Rameau, was brother to Domingue’s nephew and Chief Minister, Septimus Rameau.

After the coup, he fled to England where he took rooms in a modest house but carried on the brutish behaviour of a member of a corrupt ruling family. One day he was attacked by one of his enemies who, from the message, had survived the La Tortue massacre and devoted his life to tracking him down.

Where did the body go? Hewitt laughs as he presents Inspector Netting with the murderer and remover of the body of César Rameau – César Rameau himself! Yes, he was never killed but stunned!! He awoke after the maid had gone to fetch the landlord, and made his escape down one of the dumb waiters which served the tall narrow house, hid out in a nearby empty house, then, wrapped in a dark coat, got a cabman to drive him to a safe house.

Hewitt had gone out and chatted to the cabmen waiting outside the house, discovered one who had given a ride the night before to a big man wrapped in a dark coat and nursing his arm, and followed the route to discover Rameau terrified and in hiding.

The police never find the attacker. Rameau is now keen to get out of England. Little Goujon who the police had arrested on his way to the coast sues for wrongful arrest. All is settled.

N.B. Racism This story is a gold mine for researchers investigating the myths and stereotypes surrounding black people in 1890s England, and it would be easy to get worked up by Morrison’s ‘racism’ and use of ‘racist stereotypes’, such as that this black man is loud, aggressive and likes wearing colourful clothing. To be precise:

He got uproariously drunk, and screamed and howled in unknown tongues. He fell asleep on the staircase, and ladies were afraid to pass. He bawled rough chaff down the stairs and along the corridors at butcher-boys and messengers, and played on errand-boys brutal practical jokes that ended in police-court summonses. He once had a way of sliding down the balusters, shouting: ‘Ho! ho! ho! yah!’ as he went, but as he was a big, heavy man, and the balusters had been built for different treatment, he had very soon and very firmly been requested to stop it. He had plenty of money, and spent it freely; but it was generally felt that there was too much of the light-hearted savage about him to fit him to live among quiet people.

Well, there’s a whole world of outrage to be mined from the story, if that’s what you like, and anybody who objects to use of the n-word will have a nervous breakdown and might throw away the book in disgust, especially when the inspector and Hewitt agree that black people have abnormally thick skulls – which explains why Rameau survived a blow to the head with an axe!

But what struck me was that, despite the negative characterisation of Rameau, both the police, inspector Netting, Hewitt and the narrator, Brett, all take it for granted that the case is worth investigating. That Rameau’s life was worth the life of any other person in the UK. In fact, his life is worth more than the lives of the poverty-stricken babies and children of the Jago who Morrison was writing about at the same time. They die like rats and no-one laments them. Rameau is given more importance than them.

And then, as the case unfolds, your initial outrage is tempered as you realise that it isn’t a generic description of black men – it is a description of a very particular type, namely the spoilt, violent, untouchable member of the ruling family of a black dictatorship, used to throwing his weight around and intimidating everyone around him, with no consequences. He is the forebear of Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier who exerted a reign of terror over Haiti enforced by the terrifying Tontons Macoutes from 1957 to 1986.

It isn’t a generic racist stereotype. It is a specific portrait of a particular kind of person.

It’s fascinating to learn that Haiti had enough of a reputation for violence and corruption as far back as 1894 to be thought a suitable location for the backstory to a popular detective story. This is Hewitt explaining Haiti to Inspector Netting (and the reader):

‘The biggest island of the lot on this map, barring Cuba, is Hayti. You know as well as I do that the western part of that island is peopled by the black republic of Hayti, and that the country is in a degenerate state of almost unexampled savagery, with a ridiculous show of civilization. There are revolutions all the time; the South American republics are peaceful and prosperous compared to Hayti. The state of the country is simply awful – read Sir Spenser St. John’s book on it. President after president of the vilest sort forces his way to power and commits the most horrible and bloodthirsty excesses, murdering his opponents by the hundred and seizing their property for himself and his satellites, who are usually as bad, if not worse, than the president himself. Whole families – men, women, and children – are murdered at the instance of these ruffians, and, as a consequence, the most deadly feuds spring up, and the presidents and their followers are always themselves in danger of reprisals from others.

Compare the continuity of the country’s terrible political culture through to nearly a century later.

Thousands of Haitians were killed or tortured, and hundreds of thousands fled the country during [Baby Doc’s] presidency. He maintained a notoriously lavish lifestyle (including a state-sponsored US$ 3 million wedding in 1980) while poverty among his people remained the most widespread of any country in the Western Hemisphere. (Wikipedia article about Jean-Claude Duvalier)


Thoughts about Martin Hewitt

Well, the obvious result of reading these seven stories is to make you appreciate the style and panache of the Sherlock Holmes stories. Morrison has come up with plausible enough crimes and obfuscates and confuses them enough to give his detective (and the reader) pleasurable mazes of puzzles and red herrings to work through in trying to solve the crimes.

From Conan Doyle Morrison has copied:

  • the idea of the dim sidekick and amanuensis
  • the idea that each story begins with a preliminary explanation of this or that other aspect of Hewitt’s character and technique
  • the idea that the ordinary detectives from Scotland Yard (named in the stories as Inspector Netting and Inspector Plummer) are decent chaps who just lack Hewitt’s brilliant insight (‘Well, Mr. Hewitt,’ Nettings said, ‘this case has certainly been a shocking beating for me. I must have been as blind as a bat when I started on it.’)
  • the rhetorical tricks which Conan Doyle’s uses to boost his fictional character, repeating phrases like ‘this case was the most famous of the eminent detectives many successes’ or, in the case of the Stanway Cameo, that it was always held against the great detective that no culprit was ever found (although we, the readers, know the real reason for this)
  • the notion that there is a vast casebook of stories which Brett could be telling, and that he selects this or that case an example of this or that quality in Hewitt’s character or working practice

In other words, he copies Sherlock Holmes to death.

But all this copying tends to highlight the way that the Holmes stories are, in a sense, only the backdrop against which is set the world-straddling character of the detective himself –  lean and aquiline, unexpectedly violent when he needs to be, otherwise playing his out-of-tune violin while a little high on cocaine and complaining that crime these days is so boring, there’s nothing to challenge his great intellect – in every way Holmes is a complex and compelling character.

Compared to this colourful creation, Martin Hewitt (even the name is bland and boring) is made of cardboard, and the narrator of the stories, Brett, is little more than a cipher.


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)

H.G. Wells

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

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

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

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

The Jago

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

This is how Morrison describes his blighted slum.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arthur Morrison

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poverty writing of the 1890s

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

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

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

  • In Darkest England and the Way Out by William Booth (1890)
  • Life in Darkest London by A.O. Jay (1891)
  • Life and Labour of the People of London in Nine Volumes (1892-7)
  • The Social Problem and its Possible Solution (1893)
  • Neighbours of Ours: Slum Stories of London by Henry W Nevinson (1895)
  • A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison (1896)
  • A Story of Shoreditch by A.O. Jay (1896)
  • Liza of Lambeth by William Somerset Maugham (1897)
  • East London by Walter Besant (1899)
  • To London Town by Arthur Morrison (1899)

A Child of the Jago

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Archaic phraseology

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

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

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

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

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

Without, the fight rallied once more.

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

But he was ever indulgent…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

Basically it breaks down into three parts.

Part one 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If anyone is allowed to have children, then the problem of children brought into the world by drunk, addicted or irresponsible adults is eternal. This appears to be Morrison’s own view because it is repeated in several of the letters which Miles includes in the OUP edition. The infection can never be completely cured. Morrison followed his patron, the Reverend Jay, in thinking that only moving the population lock, stock and barrel to penal colonies in completely different environments might break the cycle of illiteracy, drunkenness, violence and crime. Almost nothing could be done if you just left them to breed in London.

Part three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Life before sex and drugs and rock’n’roll

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking back at A Child of the Jago requires a big effort to block all this – the contemporary world of music, drugs and violent crime – out of your imagination. In 1896 there were no mass-produced drugs. Some of the characters – including Dicky’s dad – drink heavily but there are no alcoholics, as such, no people completely incapacitated by booze. They all need to stay sharp in order to thieve.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colourful names

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

By contrast, Morrison’s characters’ names – like his depiction of late Victorian street speech – feel entirely authentic and colourful:

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


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Tales of Mean Streets by Arthur Morrison (1894)

Morrison was born into the skilled working class – his father was an engine fitter – in Poplar on the Isle of Dogs.

His family was a couple of notches above the penniless, unemployed, illiterate class of violent thieves which he portrayed in his most famous book, A Child of The Jago. His parents were responsible enough to secure young Arthur an education, which he used to get a job as a clerk, aged 17. He began writing sketches of East End life, which were picked up by local and then national papers, the first one appearing in 1891.

He expanded the sketches into short stories which he sold to some of the quality magazines which proliferated in the 1880s and 1890s, such as The National ObserverMacmillan’s Magazine, and The Pall Mall Budget. The editor of the The National Observer, W.E. Henley, took Morrison under his wing and provided help and guidance. When Morrison gathered the best of these early stories into this collection, published in 1894, he dedicated the volume to Henley. The stories are:

  • Introduction: A Street
  • Lizerunt –
    1. Lizer’s Wooing
    2. Lizer’s First
    3. A Change of Circumstances
  • Without Visible Means
  • To Bow Bridge
  • That Brute Simmons
  • Behind the Shade
  • Three Rounds
  • In Business
  • The Red Cow Group
  • On the Stairs
  • Squire Napper
  • ‘A Poor Stick’
  • A Conversion
  • ‘All that Messuage’

Lizerunt

Elizabeth Hunt, facetiously referred to as Lizerunt, is 17 and works in a pickle factory. On Wanstead Flats at the Whitsun Fair, she is fought over by Billy Chope and Sam Cardew. For five minutes she feels like Helen of Troy.

17 is a bit late for girls to get wed in her circles, so she hurries up and marries Billy. Since her dad is dead and her mother is serving a month in prison for drunk and disorderly, it is a small wedding party – the groom drinks himself unconscious by noon and his mum gets trolleyed on gin. Billy’s only source of income had been extorting money from his mother, who makes a pittance mangling wet washing. Now he takes all Lizer’s wages, too.

Soon Billy beats Lizer. She gets pregnant. A zealous local vicar gives Billy half a crown on hearing about the baby, but Billy avoids him like the plague after the vicar tries to offer him a job. Not bloomin’ likely, mate. Billy demands more money from Lizer, even after she’s stopped working due to being heavily pregnant. One particular morning he demands money and, when she says she’s saving it for the baby, kicks her, and kicks her again.

He storms out, loiters around a protest by unemployed workers hoping to cadge some money, before going to get drunk at a pub, then returning to demand his dinner at 3pm. Instead he finds Lizer in bed, very weak, having given birth to a feeble baby which is bruised down one side from where Billy kicked her.

When she says dinner isn’t ready, Billy begins dragging her out of bed at which point the medical student who delivered the baby returns from washing his hands in the kitchen, sizes up the scene, drags Billy to the street door and kicks him out. Returning to the bedroom, the student finds… Lizer and Billy’s mum yelling abuse at him. But… but… he just protected Lizer! That means nothing to working class solidarity. The women hound him out of the flat, leaving Billy free to come back home later and take his violent revenge.

You can see very clearly why Morrison thinks there is no helping these people. They literally reject all attempts at help. All values are inverted so that anyone who dresses well, keeps clean, has rooms full of furniture, is considered uppity. Anyone who can read is suspect. Any man not on the scrounge is suspicious, probably a sneak. And all the women rally round their menfolk no matter how much they beat them up.

By age 21 Lizer has had her third child, lost the job at the pickle factory, ekes an uncertain income from charring, and gives all her money to Billy, who still gives her a regular beating. One day Billy comes across the money his mum had been saving for her funeral hidden away in the base of the mangle. He rants and raves and confiscates it. A few days later his mum dies of heart disease. Unable to face the body which, as per working class tradition, is kept in the coffin in the front room for days, Billy avoids the house till the coroner comes to fetch the corpse.

Billy tries to wangle some sympathy money from the coroner’s jury at the inquest, but they’re wise to people like him. The mangling work which local folk had given to the old lady now dries up, redistributed to other older women, thus reducing Billy’s income. So one rainy night he bullies and kicks Lizer into going out on the street to become a prostitute.

This is the most harsh, unforgiving story in the set and the finale – a husband forcing his beaten wife to go on the game – ensured the book achieved notoriety among moralistic Victorian reviewers.

Without visible means

This story describes the tramp north of a handful of men who’ve been thrown out of work by the Great Strikes of 1888. In a vague, uneducated way, without maps or a sense of the distance, they set off for Newcastle. We’re introduced to the accordionist among them, who soon gets work entertaining in pubs, to Skulker Newman who talks about overthrowing the capitalist classes and then, one night, steals the toolbag of poor Joey Clayton, weak and victimised because he didn’t immediately join the strike.

Now Joey’s had his last belongings in the world nicked off him, he slowly gets weaker and weaker, worn down by the long days tramping, eventually coughing blood and well on the way to dying. His sole surviving companion on the march leaves him passed out in a pub with a chalked message on the table asking that he be taken to the workhouse.

To Bow Bridge

More an urban sketch than a story, this an account of the 11 o’clock journey of the tram from Stratford to Bow which is packed with drunks travelling from outer London, where pubs shut at 11, to the County of London (Bow), where pubs shut at 12, to get an extra hour of drinking.

The drunks on the tram jostle and fight, a tired prostitute tries to be friendly to a child travelling with a ‘respectable’ woman, who pulls the child closer, a fat woman sits athwart a number of other passengers, a man throws up in the tram doorway, a loud fight upstairs comes tumbling down the steps as the tram arrives at Bow Bridge and all the drunks and drabs hurriedly exit.

That Brute Simmons

A genuinely funny story in which polite, well-employed carpenter and joiner Tommy Simmons is quietly married to Hannah, widow of a Mr Ford.

Hannah always gets her own way. She has Tommy washing the cutlery and cleaning the stairs every week, as well as bathing and putting to bed the children. Then Hannah has the bright idea of making Tommy’s clothes for him out of shreds and patches found in rag shops, with the result that he becomes a laughing stock at work. Long-suffering is Tommy Simmons.

One day there’s a knock at his door and a very shifty, dirty man introduces himself as her first husband, Bob Ford, presumed drowned in a shipping accident but in fact rescued by a German ship and spent years at sea. Now, he says, he’s returned to claim his marriage rights!

Tommy is gobsmacked. Bob observes the effect, then, in the manner of all good confidence men, says he is prepared to waive his claims for a mere £5. At this point the reader realises he is scamming Tommy. But the joke is on Bob because the crux of the story is that Bob’s return is the straw which cracks Tommy’s morale. Rather than offer to pay Ford to clear off, Tommy says that, No, he will go, he will do the decent thing and let Ford get back together with Hannah!

Ford now panics because this wasn’t his plan at all, so he drops his price to £3. But Tommy’s mind is made up and he says, ‘No, he’s going to do the decent thing and leave. Bob can have her.’ ‘How about £1?’ wheedles Bob. ‘And I’ll buy you a pint into the bargain.’

At that point there’s a knock on the door and it is the egregious Hannah. Tommy goes downstairs to open the door, greets Hannah and tells her there’s someone upstairs to see her. As she turns to go inside, Tommy legs it down the street, planning never to come back. Meanwhile, old Bob, having seen all this from the first floor, swiftly:

flung into the back room, threw open the window, dropped from the wash-house roof into the back-yard, scrambled desperately over the fence, and disappeared into the gloom.

This is described so vividly it made me laugh out loud.

But because no-one saw Bob arrive, or leave, or knew who he was or heard of his offer, all the neighbours – and indeed Hannah – ever understood about the affair was that Tommy Simmons thoughtlessly abandoned his wife. So he goes down in street legend as that brute!

Behind the Shade

A rather grim short couple of scenes in which Mrs and Miss Perkins try to keep up appearances after the death of the respectable Mr Perkins removes their only source of income. But then an ‘accident’ occurs to Mrs Perkins – i.e. she is savagely beaten up by a passing drunk – leaving her bed-bound. Miss Perkins wastes away, and one day their bodies are both found dead from starvation.

Three Rounds

A vivid description of young Neddy Milton, 18 and out of work, wandering the Bethnal Green Road having eaten nothing all day, until the evening brings his involvement in one of the prize fights organised in the back of the Prince Regent pub.

It’s a really vivid, visceral description of a hungry and rather puny young man getting badly beaten by his stronger opponent, Patsy Beard, but trying to respond under the encouragement of the one-eyed pug-sized ‘second’, who gives him pep talks and cold water between each of the three rounds.

It’s short and intense and makes the reader feel like they’ve just been through a three-round fight.

In Business

This is a story about snobbery.

Ted Munsey inherits £100 from his uncle. His wife’s family had always thought she married beneath her, since her dad was a dock timekeeper and Ted was only a moulder at Moffat’s. Mrs Munsey immediately decides they must set up a haberdasher’s shop, solely in order to move up into the shop-keeping class. So they hire a shop with rooms in Bromley, and fit it out with stock, and Ted finds himself told to leave Moffat’s, wear smart clothes, brylcreem his hair and become a ‘shopwalker’.

Inevitably it fails. It not only fails but both the Moffats are taken in by a smooth-talking salesman who persuades them to take a quantity of towels and aprons off him, at a very decent wholesale price, the whole to be repaid, with credit, in three months time. The shop attracts fewer customers than ever, and Mrs M takes out her frustration with relentless criticism of Ted, who her mother warned her against etc etc.

One day she wakes up to find he has tried to write a legal document, taking all legal responsibilities for the debt on himself, and has left. What becomes of him, her or the shop, we never find out.

The Red Cow Group

A satire on the low stupidity, ignorance and selfishness of a so-called ‘political’ grouping.

The blowsy, middle-aged inhabitants of the hidden-away Red Cow bar are happy to spend their evenings drinking their pints, until the frustrated young firebrand Sotcher is introduced into their midst, with his simple message that they are the salt of the earth and deserve more. Who wouldn’t believe such a message?

Slowly the Red Cow group came around. Plainly other people were better off than they; and certainly each man found it hard to believe that anybody else was more deserving than himself.

He then persuades them to blow something up, to strike a blow at the, er, you know, them toffs and the system and everythink.

The whole story is played for a series of laughs. Even once the pub drunks are persuaded that they’re ‘as good as any man’ and ‘why shouldn’t they live in big houses with fancy servants’ and that blowing something up will be ‘the first blow in overthrowing the system’ – they are still upset to learn that they won’t be getting paid to blow up the local gasworks. No, explains the young firebrand Sotcher.

They would get the glory, Sotcher assured them, and the consciousness of striking a mighty blow at this, and that, and the other… There was no committee, and no funds: there was nothing but glory, and victory, and triumph, and the social revolution, and things of that kind.

Sotcher gives a couple of the least stupid among them instructions on how to manufacture nitro-glycerine at home. The group begins to take up Sotcher’s rhetoric, especially his form of revolutionary bullying, namely that anyone who questions his orders or hesitates to carry them out is an enemy of the people and of the revolution who must be treated to ‘revolutionary justice’ i.e. whatever he says.

Which makes it all the funnier when the lads one evening turn up in the little pub with a canister of what they claim is pure nitro-glycerine and tell Sotcher that, in his absence, they’ve held a democratic vote and nominated him to be the man to plant the bomb at the gasworks.

Revealing himself to be a first-class coward, Sotcher squeals that he can’t do it, and pompously declares that he’s from the Education Branch not the Active Branch of the group – at which the other members begin muttering that he’s a backslider, probably a copper’s nark. Maybe they ought to ‘eliminate’ him there and then – and while a couple of strong men hold Sotcher in their grip, the others have an educated discussion about the best way to do it – the most garish being putting a stick in his neckerchief and twisting it till he’s garrotted.

During all this they keep plying Sotcher with beer till he’s insensible – then, in the dead of night, they carry him down to the gasworks, prop his unconscious body against the gasometer, tie the explosive canister to his body, light the fuse and scarper.

A small bang alerts the local constable who goes to the scene, finds Sotcher unconscious and reeking of booze, near a homemade firework. Next morning at the magistrates court, the young firebrand is charged with being drunk and incapable, and is fined five shillings.

Morrison implies that so-called ‘radical’ or ‘anarchist’ politics is a sordid and ridiculous shambles.

On the Stairs

Brief sketch of two old women meeting on the stairs in a dilapidated old house inhabited by eight poor families, and discussing the fact that the son of one of them, Bob, is at death’s door. The mother knows, ‘cos she heard a fateful knocking at the bedhead last night. They discuss funeral arrangements and expenses and Mrs Manders describes (for the umpteenth time) the grand sending-off she gave her husband.

They’re disturbed by the arrival of the doctor’s assistant. He goes in to see the sick young man, emerges and says he really needs medicine. Mrs Curtis says she can’t afford it. The assistant is pricked by his conscience and eventually gives her five shillings to buy some – blissfully ignorant that his superior, the doctor, gave the woman the self-same sum the day before.

He tips his hat and leaves. Now she can give her son a decent sending off, she winks at her wizened friend.

Moral: bourgeois charity is misplaced because it misunderstands the completely different value system of the slum dwellers who will do or say anything in order to screw money, now, out of any willing sap prepared to give it, regardless of long-term consequences.

Squire Napper

A very funny account of Bill Napper who inherits £300 from his brother (who had emigrated to Australia and has just passed away). Bill has a job and so is pretty respectable:

Bill Napper was a heavy man of something between thirty-five and forty. His moleskin trousers were strapped below the knees, and he wore his coat loose on his back, with the sleeves tied across his chest. The casual observer set him down a navvy, but Mrs. Napper punctiliously made it known that he was ‘in the paving’; which meant that he was a pavior.

Nonetheless, Bill has the stupid craftiness of the uneducated and is suspicious of every aspect of the lawyer’s office where he’s called, refuses to sign anything, thinking he’s very crafty and canny. The whole thing is done with a nice ironic, comedic touch.

In a nutshell, Bill drinks his way through the entire inheritance, and then beats his wife in his anger at its disappearance. Along the way there are several very comic scenes, such as the time he persuades his entire gang of pavement layers to chuck in work and spend the afternoon in the pub ‘on the wet’; or the way he hires a Victoria Park orator, the shifty Minns, to come to his house and deliver his speeches pulverising Capital and the Greedy Classes in the comfort of his front room.

‘A Poor Stick’

Mrs Jennings:

was what is called rather a fine woman: a woman of large scale and full development; whose slatternly habit left her coarse black hair to tumble in snake-locks about her face and shoulders half the day; who, clad in half-hooked clothes, bore herself notoriously and unabashed in her fulness.

She lords it over her husband, Robert, who has a regular job but is also expected to wash and dress for bed the filthy children. One day she runs off with the lodger, but poor pathetic Robert, though mocked at work, and gently chided by his brother-in-law, refuses to accept she’s gone and, every night, dresses smart and goes to the stretch of the High Street where they used to promenade up and down when they were courting. Genuinely pathetic.

A Conversion

The criminal career of Scuddy Lond, told with hilarious facetiousness describing his unbending commitment to a life of crime, except when he’s caught and brought up before the beak, when he breaks down into a sincere and tearful repentance. Again.

Scuddy went regularly into business as a lob-crawler: that is to say, he returned to his first love, the till: not narrowly to any individual till, but broad-mindedly to the till as a general institution, to be approached in unattended shops by stealthy grovelling on the belly. This he did until he perceived the greater security and comfort of waiting without while a small boy did the actual work within.

From this, and with this, he ventured on peter-claiming: laying hands nonchalantly on unconsidered parcels and bags at railway stations, until a day when, bearing a fat portmanteau, he ran against its owner by the door of a refreshment bar.

[Brought before the magistrate he claimed…] This time the responsibility lay with Drink. Strong Drink, he declared, with deep emotion, had been his ruin; he dated his downfall from the day when a false friend persuaded him to take a Social Glass; he would still have been an honest, upright, self-respecting young man but for the Cursed Drink. From that moment he would never touch it more. The case was met with three months with hard labour, and for all that Scuddy Lond had so clearly pointed out the culpability of Drink, he had to do the drag himself. But the mission-readers were comforted: for clearly there was hope for one whose eyes were so fully opened to the causes of his degradation.

Note the ‘mission-readers’ here i.e. the self-deluding high-minded members of Christian Missions to the East End who see in Scuddy’s long list of slick repentances the chance that he might, one day, actually mean it.

This turns out to be the point of the story which describes how, one hungry evening, as Scuddy is wandering the streets, smelling food, feeling sorry for himself, he listens to a woman on a street corner singing a sentimental song and then, for once, allows one of the barkers on the door of a Christian Mission to persuade him to go inside the hall.

Here he listens to moving testimony from a big navvy about his conversion to Jesus, and then a long sermon from the vicar who preaches the Love of God. At the end of the service Scuddy is presented to the vicar along with a few other converts of the evening. Born again! A new life!

None of which stops him, upon exiting the church and walking along a dank passage, from nicking the day’s takings of the lame woman selling hot pigs’ trotters, when she momentarily turns her back.

The moral doesn’t need to be made explicit but it is the same in all Morrison’s stories: the slum-dwellers are hard cases, can’t be saved, it is folly to think so.

‘All That Messuage’

A story in eleven sections which tells the decline and fall of Old Jack Randall after he spends all his savings to put down a deposit and take out a mortgage on Number Twenty-seven Mulberry Street, Old Ford. Very ignorant, neither his wife nor Old Jack have factored in the rates and other costs of such a project, and right at the start Morrison shows that they will fail, financially.

But it also has social costs. Word gets round that Old Jack is now a landlord with all the respect that engenders. So everyone thinks it must mean he’s rich. So his son comes round to borrow half a pound and when Old Jack refuses – because he genuinely has used up every penny of his saving on the deposit – his son goes away chagrined and his daughter-in-law starts bad-mouthing him. That’s the start of the family rejecting Old Jack.

In the same way a few blokes from the workshop where he works ask Jack to lend them a quid. When he embarrassedly refuses, they turn against him. A landlord has loads of money. Everyone knows that.

Things get worse when the old tenant quits and a new one, a bold pushing public orator named Joe Parsons, offers to rent the house. As the weeks pass it becomes clear that he is not going to pay. More, he is sub-letting the upper room. When Old Jack protests, Parsons calls him a blood-sucking leech and subjects him to one of his ‘radical’ tirades:

‘Y’ ain’t earnt it. It’s you blasted lan’lords as sucks the blood o’ the workers. You go an’ work for your money.’

When Old Jack points out that he, Parsons, is taking (illegal) rent, Parson ignores him, threatens to punch him and finally pushes him out the front door before slamming it in his face.

Meanwhile, Old Jack hasn’t been able to pay the mortgage to the credit company. He’s going deeper into debt. There’s a strike at another factory which extends to his workshop. Everyone downs tools except Old Jack, who can’t afford to, but is vilified as not only a scab but as a filthy rich landlord of a scab.

In the penultimate scene, Old Jack comes across Parsons orating to a crowd in the park, and is unwise enough to shout out ‘Pay me your rent’. Parsons uses the full force of his radical rhetoric to persuade the crowd that Jack is not only a heartless, rich landlord who wants to throw him – Parsons – and his wife out onto the street, but he is a blackleg and a scab too.

The surly crowd punch and hit Jack, knocking him to the ground. His wife, who had been shopping nearby, comes running and throws herself over his body, but the mob just start kicking her as well.

Old Jack was down. A dozen heavy boots were at work about his head and belly. In from the edge of the crowd a woman tore her way, shedding potatoes as she ran, and screaming; threw herself upon the man on the ground; and shared the kicks. Over the shoulders of the kickers whirled the buckle-end of a belt. ‘One for the old cow,’ said a voice.

Months later, alive but unable to work, the house repossessed by an unconcerned mortgage company, all their possessions pawned to pay for necessities, Old Jack and his wife enter a workhouse.


Tone

The tone is knowing and facetious, in several ways. Morrison describes the habits, mindset, values and behaviours of his slum-dwellers in often elaborate and Biblical language, in order to highlight the discrepancy between discourse and content, to create irony, to be funny.

Here he is ventriloquising the thoughts of Bill Napper after he’s inherited his fortune, putting the thoughts into the cod-Biblical phraseology of pompous Victorian prose.

One of the chief comforts of affluence is that you may have beer in by the barrel; for then Sundays and closing times vex not, and you have but to reach the length of your arm for another pot whenever moved thereunto.

Another Morrison tactic is to state unexpected and dire aspects of the life in the slums as if they were well-known facts and commonly accepted values. For example, that all good young ladies should be married by the age of 16 (Lizerunt) or that a man will live off the labour of his wife and regularly beat her up to keep her in line – these are facetiously treated as universal truths which who could possibly deny?

In the end there was a vehement row, and the missis was severely thumped. (Squire Napper)

From within came a noise of knocks and thuds and curses – sometimes a gurgle. Old Jack asked a small boy, whose position in the passage betokened residence, what was going forward. ‘It’s the man downstairs,’ said the boy, ‘a-givin’ of it to ‘is wife’. (‘All That Messuage‘)

It is the casual way that violence, especially against women, is accepted as a boring everyday occurrence, which makes it all the more shocking.

Violence permeates all aspects of life, and is in fact one of the few forms of entertainment the slum-dwellers have. Here is Squire Napper exuding the superiority of his new-found wealth:

In his own street, observing two small boys in the prelusory stages of a fight, he put up sixpence by way of stakes, and supervised the battle from the seat afforded by a convenient window-sill.

That is broad humour, where the permanent background violence which saturates life in the slums is treated as a joke.

Something more complicated is going on in this description of the small house built at the end of a slum terrace, whose tenants reckon themselves a cut above the neighbours. The comedy is at the expense of the ladies’ pretentions to respectability.

Although the house was smaller than the others, and was built upon a remnant, it was always a house of some consideration. In a street like this mere independence of pattern gives distinction. And a house inhabited by one sole family makes a figure among houses inhabited by two or more, even though it be the smallest of all. And here the seal of respectability was set by the shade of fruit – a sign accepted in those parts.

Now, when people keep a house to themselves, and keep it clean; when they neither stand at the doors nor gossip across back-fences; when, moreover, they have a well-dusted shade of fruit in the front window; and, especially, when they are two women who tell nobody their business: they are known at once for well-to-do, and are regarded with the admixture of spite and respect that is proper to the circumstances. They are also watched.

‘Proper to the circumstances’. Morrison lards the stories with the values of the slum-dwellers taken at face value and simultaneously revealing and funny. But it ain’t all fun and games. Contrast both these examples with a slice of much more savage humour.

Then Mrs. Perkins met with her accident. A dweller in Stidder’s Rents overtook her one night, and, having vigorously punched her in the face and the breast, kicked her and jumped on her for five minutes as she lay on the pavement. (In the dark, it afterwards appeared, he had mistaken her for his mother.)

That last phrase made me burst out laughing for its unexpectedness, but it is at the same time a harsh, horrible description, and is meant to be. Mrs Perkins is permanently bed-bound because of this savage attack. It is an example of the way Morrison often lulls you into a state of acquiescence in the humdrum lives of the poor – and then hits you with a sucker punch describing something really horrible – the bottling of a woman, the death of a baby.

(The use of paradox – if that’s the right word – the technique of saying the most outrageous things in the calmest, most natural way, began to remind me of Oscar Wilde. Not the tone, the tone is completely different. Just the structure. Saying the outrageous with cavalier indifference.)

Politics

None of the characters have any serious politics, and Morrison doesn’t waste time editorialising about the viciousness he describes. Maybe it was this lack of sermons, and the sometimes savage way that he accepts the brutality of life in the slums, which made his stories notorious and controversial.

The Press He is consistently dismissive of anyone or anything which is under the delusion that it can change these people. In a throwaway phrase he conveys the uselessness of the Press’s high-minded editorials, all piss and vinegar which change nothing.

After the inquest the street had an evening’s fame: for the papers printed coarse drawings of the house, and in leaderettes demanded the abolition of something. Then it became its wonted self.

‘The abolition of something’ – so irrelevant he can’t even be bothered to specify what. In Squire Napper Orator Minns and his shifty mate try to persuade Napper to invest money in a new newspaper which, it is clear to all concerned, is regarded as simply a money-making scam.

Radicals The Red Cow Group is supposedly about an ‘anarchist’ group and so ought to contain a tincture of political thought, but is used solely as the opportunity for satire.

Here [in the Red Cow pub] he [Sotcher] had an audience, an audience that did not lecture on its own account, a crude audience that might take him at his own valuation. So he gave it to that crude audience, hot and strong. They (and he) were the salt of the earth, bullied, plundered and abused. Down with everything that wasn’t down already. And so forth and so on.

‘And so forth and so on’ – Morrison dismisses the entire radical rhetoric as meaningless puff. The young firebrand Sotcher is shown to be full of highfalutin’ phrases which mean nothing. And then turns out to be a coward. All he stirs in the drinkers in the Red Cow is their long-standing sense of grievance and injustice that other people are somehow richer than them. ‘T’ain’t fair’. There’s no thought or policy behind their griping.

think the ‘anarchists’ make a bomb not with nitro-glycerine but with sand and castor oil as a joke on Sotcher, though it might be their own incompetence. Either way, the whole ‘anarchist’ movement is shown to be the piss and wind of idiot braggers.

Minns In the story Squire Napper Minns, the public orator who Bill Napper hires to sound off in the comfort of his own front room, is revealed to be not only a windy bullshitter, like Sotcher, but a liar and a thief. With an associate he one night tries to break into Bill’s house. Having opened the casement window, he is just peering his head through the gap when Bill hits him hard with the heel of his boot and Minns tumbles back down into the yard. The real punchline to this is later, at one of his regular public orations to a crowd in the park, Minns claims that the cut and bruise on his head are evidence of police brutality:

the proof and sign of a police bludgeoning at Tower Hill – or Trafalgar Square.

Parsons The shifty-looking man who moves into Old Jack Randall’s house is a well-known orator and agitator and – turns out to be a crook who uses the language of radicalism – all landlords are blood-sucking leeches – purely to justify his own thieving and skiving.

Summary: all socialists and radicals are self-serving hypocrites who use the rhetoric of radicalism solely to express their own personal grievances, who turn out to be liars, bullies and thieves, and who, given half a chance, don’t hesitate to exploit people just as hard as the landlords or owners they execrate.

The fatuousness of political opinions

On Sundays and Saturday afternoons Bill would often take a turn down by the dock gates, or even in Victoria Park, or Mile End Waste, where there were speakers of all sorts. At the dock gates it was mostly Labor and Anarchy, but at the other places there was a fine variety; you could always be sure of a few minutes of Teetotalism, Evangelism, Atheism, Republicanism, Salvationism, Socialism, Anti-Vaccinationism, and Social Purity, with now and again some Mormonism or another curious exotic. Most of the speakers denounced something, and if the denunciations of one speaker were not sufficiently picturesque and lively, you passed on to the next. Indeed, you might always judge afar off where the best denouncing was going on by the size of the crowds, at least until the hat went round.

Bill had always vastly admired the denunciations of one speaker – a little man, shabbier, if anything, than most of the others, and surpassingly tempestuous of antic. He was an unattached orator, not confining himself to any particular creed, but denouncing whatever seemed advisable, considering the audience and circumstances. He was always denouncing something somewhere, and was ever in a crisis that demanded the circulation of a hat. Bill esteemed this speaker for his versatility as well as for the freshness of his abuse.

All these radical oppositional views are seen as interchangeable forms of entertainment, with no higher meaning. This view is taken to extremes when Bill Napper takes a fancy to orator Minns, and pays him a shilling a time to come to his home, stand in the living room and denounce, well, whatever he has handy. When he ran out of steam denouncing one subject, Bill sets him off denouncing another. Like a record player.

Political or social issues are reduced to the level of music hall songs: people make requests for their favourites. All gas and gaiters. Nothing ever changes.

Individual charity such as that of the medical assistant in On the Stairs, is deluded and wasted. He gives the poor old lady five shillings for medicine for her son. 1. Her son dies anyway. 2. She spends it on a smart funeral. 3. His boss, the doctor, had already given her five shillings which disappeared in drink. The only tangible result of his impulse to charity will be that the assistant will now be a prey to every beggar, conman and bleeding heart in the neighbourhood.

He was not a wealthy young man – wealthy young men do not devil for East End doctors – but he was conscious of a certain haul of sixpences at nap the night before; and, being inexperienced, he did not foresee the career of persecution whereon he was entering at his own expense and of his own motion.

Names

The colourful names of Morrison’s proles or near-proles remind me of the lively monikers of Damon Runyon’s characters. They include: Billy Chope, Bella Dawson, Sam Cardew, Joey Clayton, Skulky Newman, Tommy Simmons, Bob Ford, Neddy Milton, Tab Rosser, Beard Patsy, Tab Rosser, Hocko Jones, Tiggy Magson, Ted Munsey, Jerry Shand, Gunno Polson, Snorkey, Bill Napper, and Scuddy Lond.


Related links

Other fiction of the 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

The Sleeper Awakes by H.G. Wells (1910)

Wells was still in his early phase of creating genre-defining science fantasy stories when he wrote When The Sleeper Wakes, which was serialised in the Graphic magazine from January to May 1899.

It is his version of the familiar trope of the man who falls asleep for an unnaturally long period of time and wakes up in a future where everything has changed, where a new civilisation is in place. (If you think about it, falling asleep and waking in the far future is a variation on the theme of time travel – only with no coming back!)

Invariably, the civilisation of the future is shown to have either solved or exacerbated what the author sees as the great social issues of his own day so that the genre offers an author free rein to make prophecies and predictions, as well as working in as much social and political satire, as he or she wants.

Later, Wells became dissatisfied with When The Sleeper Wakes at top speed – he had been under pressure from obligations to complete another novel and write a number of journalistic articles, and he was also ill during the writing of the second half. So, in 1910, for a new edition of his works, Wells rewrote the book and published it with a new title, The Sleeper Awakes. This is the version which is usually republished and which I’m reviewing here.

Wells had joined the left-wing Fabian Society in 1903 and had quickly become one of its most famous publicists and promoters. By 1910 his views on politics and society were well-known and the 1910 version of the book brings these out more clearly, as well as trying to sort out infelicities in the writing. But in the prefaces to the 1921 and 1924 reprintings of the book, Wells continued to express dissatisfaction with the book, and this review will show some of the reasons why.

The plot – part one

Run-up

An artist named Isbister is wandering along the cliffs in Cornwall when he comes across Graham, a man contemplating suicide because he hasn’t been able to sleep for a week and feels like he’s going mad. While Isbister tries to talk sense to him, we are given evidence of Graham’s delirious frame of mind – he complains that he feels his mind spinning in an endless eddy, down, down, down.

Isbister takes Graham up to the cottage he’s renting, where he goes to make a drink, turns, and finds Graham sunk into a profound stupor, a cataleptic trance. His Long Sleep has begun.

In chapter two it is twenty years later and Isbister, older and wiser, discusses Graham’s case with a new character, Warming, a solicitor and Graham’s next of kin. We learn that Graham fell asleep in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (1897). Twenty years later it must be 1917, and Graham has been removed to the special ward of a hospital where he is sleeping on in a trance ‘unprecedented in medical history’.

We learn that Isbister has become a successful designer of adverts and posters, hundreds of which, as Warming points out, are now plastered all across the south coast, and has emigrated to America to pursue his career in advertising.

Meanwhile, Warming has invested in a new kind of road-surfacing. Irrelevant though this small talk appears, it later turns out to be important.

The sleeper wakes

In chapter three (there are 23 chapters) Graham awakes to find himself lying on a strange kind of pressure bed inside a case of green glass. He stumbles out of the bed to discover he is in a large antiseptic room. Attendants come running and then several men of command, notably:

a short, fat, and thickset beardless man, with aquiline nose and heavy neck and chin. Very thick black and slightly sloping eyebrows that almost met over his nose and overhung deep grey eyes, gave his face an oddly formidable expression. (Chapter 4 – The Sound of Tumult)

This is Howard, who appears to be in charge.

The next few chapters are very confusing. Graham hears a roaring from a balcony overlooking a great concourse. When he goes out onto the balcony he sees an immense space dominated by modernist architecture, with some kind of covering over the sky, globes emanating uniform light, and the floor covered with ‘moving ways’, enormous ‘roads’ which are moving at speed carrying people along, and segmented so as to go round corners. There are what appear to be escalators coming up towards the level Graham finds himself on, and a great crowd surging towards him but held back by what look like policemen in red uniforms.

This impression of the immensity and complexity of the city of the future, conveyed in rather gaseous descriptions, will be the keynote of the novel.

Technology and design of the future

Howard tells Graham that he has slept for precisely 203 years. It is the year 2100 AD (Wells thus going a century better than the year 2000, which was the setting for Edward Bellamy’s famous fictional vision of the future, Looking Backward).

The sky is fenced off. Cities appear to exist under vast domes. Light is artificially created. Buildings are immense. The moving ways dominate what used to be called roads. Internally, rooms, halls and corridors are smooth and undecorated (except for occasional examples of an indecipherable script). Doorways open vertically and instantaneously.

Before Graham can do anything his guardians arrange for a ‘capillotomist’ to cut his hair and beard. Then a tailor takes quick measurements and, using a futuristic machine, prints out a perfectly-fitting contemporary outfit for Graham. He is given magic medicines which make him feel stronger, some small vials of liquid to drink and some in spray form.

In other words, it feels to me a lot like a set from the Star Trek series, smooth walls, endless corridors, bright different clothes, mystery medicines.

The Council

After Graham has blundered to the balcony and had a brief powerful glimpse of the scale of the city, the covered sky, the enormous buildings, and a huge crowd milling round the foot of his building, he is quickly hustled away, and down a series of corridors to a ‘safe room’. Along the way he glimpses a big hall with the ‘Council of Eight’ standing far away at a table beneath an immense statue of Atlas holding the world on his shoulder.

Ah yes, the Council. There’s always a Council of spooky older men wearing elaborate futuristic cloaks in this kind of story.

Confusion

The keynote of Graham’s experiences, and of the novel as a whole, is confusion. The people around him are very obviously thrown into confusion and panic by the fact that the Sleeper Has Awoken, but we and Graham don’t understand why for some time.

He is hustled away from the balcony room into the so-called Silent Rooms where he is kept by Howard for three days incommunicado, Howard refusing to answer any of Graham’s questions, resulting in Graham -and the reader – persisting in not having a clue what’s going on. Very confusing.

Then, suddenly and with no warning, there is a heroic ‘rescue’. Some kind of ‘resistance’ warriors drop down the ventilation shaft into Graham’s room and, while some attack the futuristic door to try and block it, others carry Graham back up the shaft.

They emerge onto the surface of the vast dome which covers the city and turns out to be extremely complex and uneven, lined by rows of windmills – presumably generating power – with gullies between the domes, as well as walkways and grilles and abrupt abysses with ledges on them. And it is snowing. Snow flies in his face blinding him, and builds up into drifts, blocking the panic-stricken progress of Graham and his guide who is trying to get him away from the Silent Room to safety before Howard and the Council discover he is missing.

It’s a straightforward chase scene of the kind you find in a thousand Hollywood movies. Still, it’s impressive of Wells to conceive a chase scene across the top of the dome covering a city of the future, in the snow. Vivid and cinematic.

Despite the action nature of the scene, Graham’s liberators find the time to explain that his cousin, Warming, cornered the market in a new way of surfacing roads which eventually put the railways out of business. The artist, Isbister, having moved to America, made a decisive investment in the early forms of cinema and television. Both lacked heirs and left their money in trust to the sleeping Graham, with trustees to administer the fund for charity. Over the past 200 years these trustees have built on the founding investment to buy up everything – everything – and now this London-based Council owns the world!

The entire world is like London, empty countryside surrounding super-cities, all ruled by Councils subservient to the Council. The Council banked on him never waking up and so created a complex cult of the Sleeper, the Master, who watches over society. For over a century they have ruled this highly stratified civilisation in his name!

Now he has woken up, the Council, and Howard their representative, have, unsurprisingly, been thrown into panic and confusion. The awakening came at a time of growing dissatisfaction among ‘the People’. It was an unlucky accident that Graham blundered out onto a public balcony within minutes of waking, and a crowd below saw him. Word is spreading that the sleeper has woken and this could have who knows what cataclysmic consequences.

According to his liberators the Council were discussing whether to drug Graham back into sleep or murder him or to hire an imposter. So that’s why they have ‘liberated’ him, and are hurrying him along to where ‘the People’ await.

The revolution

But barely has all this been explained than a Council airplane (the book was written before airplanes existed, through there was intense speculation and discussion in the press about how to build one) spots the fleeing pair and flies down firing the strange green guns of the future.

The liberator puts Graham on a seat attached to a zip wire running from an opening in the dome down to ground level and pushes him off, just as the plane comes round for another salvo of shots. Graham comes swooping along the high-wire over the heads of a vast crowd. The line is shot down but he is caught by the crowd and then takes part in a heroically confusing scene in which he seems to be taken up by an enormous crowd chanting his name, which is marching through the city of huge buildings and moving ways, marching on the great Council Building to overthrow the Council.

Graham is barely getting any sense of where he is and what’s going on before the crowd is itself ambushed by a large number of red-dressed police, who open fire and there is pandemonium.

Confusing action instead of clear exposition

There’s no denying that the narrative of this book is very confusing. It’s obviously a deliberate, creative decision by Wells, and he makes this perfectly clear in an extended reference to Julian West, the hero of Edward Bellamy’s best-selling science fiction novel, Looking Backward, which had appeared a decade earlier.

In that book, the hero awakes a hundred years hence into the orderly household of a doctor of the future, who calmly and sedately takes him through a long, logical explanation of the economic, political and cultural arrangements of the society of the future. It is more like a political textbook than a novel.

In fact, in most books about people waking up in the far future, the heroes are presented with a nice, clean, logical explanation of how the Future Society works.

Well’s chief aim in When The Sleeper Wakes seems to have been to work on the exact opposite assumption. What happens if you sleep for two hundred years and wake up amid mayhem, with absolutely no idea what’s going on and no-one to explain it to you?

In fact, if you wake up to riots and ambushes and civil war, with all sides claiming your allegiance? How can you possibly know which ‘side’ is right, or why there even are sides, or what you’re supposed to do?

The perversity of his experience came to him vividly. In actual fact he had made such a leap in time as romancers have imagined again and again. And that fact realised, he had been prepared. His mind had, as it were, seated itself for a spectacle. And no spectacle unfolded itself, but a great vague danger, unsympathetic shadows and veils of darkness. Somewhere through the labyrinthine obscurity his death sought him. Would he, after all, be killed before he saw? It might be that even at the next corner his destruction ambushed. A great desire to see, a great longing to know, arose in him.

He became fearful of corners. It seemed to him that there was safety in concealment. Where could he hide to be inconspicuous when the lights returned? At last he sat down upon a seat in a recess on one of the higher ways, conceiving he was alone there.

He squeezed his knuckles into his weary eyes. Suppose when he looked again he found the dark trough of parallel ways and that intolerable altitude of edifice gone. Suppose he were to discover the whole story of these last few days, the awakening, the shouting multitudes, the darkness and the fighting, a phantasmagoria, a new and more vivid sort of dream. It must be a dream; it was so inconsecutive, so reasonless. Why were the people fighting for him? Why should this saner world regard him as Owner and Master? (Chapter 10 – The Battle of the Darkness)

So this sleeper awakes to find there is no polite doctor to talk him logically through the society of the future. Instead he is plunged into a social revolution which he doesn’t understand.

It’s an interesting idea, but it has one drawback. If the protagonist is confused, so too is the reader. Wells gets Howard, on the one hand, and the liberators, on the other, to throw out just enough hints to explain the situation to Graham (sort of, nearly). But the reader is left for three or four long, hectic chapters in a state of profound confusion.

Not only that but, in my opinion, Wells’s prose becomes confused. It sets out to mimic the panic of the unexpected rescue, the flight across the snowbound roof of the city, the panic-stricken glide down the high-wire down into the crowd, the confusion of a vast multitude marching chanting his name, the sudden ambush and red soldiers firing wildly into the crowd — but in doing so results in prose full of phrases describing vague forces, enormous spaces, shocks and detonations, huge crowds.

Now one of the appeals of The Island of Dr Moreau and The Invisible Man was the precision of their descriptions. You got a very accurate feel for what is happening. By contrast, Wells’s description of the vast spaces of this futuristic city, of its rearing architecture and machinery, is portentous but vague. It is hard to get a grasp of. Here is an excerpt describing the confused mob Graham has fallen among, as they march to overthrow the Council.

The hall was a vast and intricate space – galleries, balconies, broad spaces of amphitheatral steps, and great archways. Far away, high up, seemed the mouth of a huge passage full of struggling humanity. The whole multitude was swaying in congested masses. Individual figures sprang out of the tumult, impressed him momentarily, and lost definition again. Close to the platform swayed a beautiful fair woman, carried by three men, her hair across her face and brandishing a green staff. Next this group an old careworn man in blue canvas maintained his place in the crush with difficulty, and behind shouted a hairless face, a great cavity of toothless mouth. A voice called that enigmatical word ‘Ostrog’. All his impressions were vague save the massive emotion of that trampling song. The multitude were beating time with their feet – marking time, tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. The green weapons waved, flashed and slanted. Then he saw those nearest to him on a level space before the stage were marching in front of him, passing towards a great archway, shouting ‘To the Council!’ Tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. He raised his arm, and the roaring was redoubled. He remembered he had to shout ‘March!’ His mouth shaped inaudible heroic words. He waved his arm again and pointed to the archway, shouting ‘Onward! They were no longer marking time, they were marching; tramp, tramp, tramp, tramp. In that host were bearded men, old men, youths, fluttering robed bare-armed women, girls. Men and women of the new age! Rich robes, grey rags fluttered together in the whirl of their movement amidst the dominant blue. A monstrous black banner jerked its way to the right. He perceived a blue-clad negro, a shrivelled woman in yellow, then a group of tall fair-haired, white-faced, blue-clad men pushed theatrically past him. He noted two Chinamen. A tall, sallow, dark-haired, shining-eyed youth, white clad from top to toe, clambered up towards the platform shouting loyally, and sprang down again and receded, looking backward. Heads, shoulders, hands clutching weapons, all were swinging with those marching cadences. (Chapter 9 – The People March)

It’s a judgement call as to whether you think this is wonderfully vivid writing which accurately conveys the feeling of being caught up in a panic-stricken crowd – or whether it is a relentless stream of confused and shapeless prose.

If you’re not focusing very hard it’s easy to get lost in these enormous, long, wordy paragraphs and have to go back to the last place you remember, to reread entire passages and find, yet again, that no very clear picture of the action is conveyed.

Ostrog shows him the storming of the Council

The marching crowd Graham’s with is ambushed by red-uniformed police who open fire. In the mayhem, Graham escapes, running miles away from the scene of what seems to be a massacre. From early on his liberators and then members of the crowd have told him that the revolt is being led by ‘Ostrog’. From other scared citizens he learns that Ostrog is based at a control centre for the city’s weather vanes (a form of wind power). He asks his way there, goes into the lobby, asks to see Ostrog and is eventually is let up to the main room where Ostrog is monitoring the revolution.

Ostrog shows him a futuristic TV screen on which they watch the mob storming the Council Citadel, from which Graham had been liberated only a few hours earlier. They watch the Council fight a last-ditch battle, having detonated the buildings which surround their citadel in order to clear a space. Ostrog and Graham watch all this on a screen. The revolution is being televised.

Part two- a man of leisure

To cut a confusing story short, quite quickly the revolution is over and Ostrog takes control, settling the city back into law and order over the next few weeks. He is courteous and respectful to Graham and gets his number two, Lincoln, to fulfil the Sleeper’s every wish.

Now the revolution has been achieved and Ostrog is in control, Wells shows us that Graham is in fact a shallow dilettante. Having seen the airplane earlier, he tells Ostrog he wants to learn to fly. So he is taken up in a flying machine which circles London. From here he can see how the Wall of London rises sheer from the surrounding countryside like the wall of a medieval city. Beyond lie the ruins of suburbia and scattered empty houses.

It is important for Well’s vision that the entire population has been brought inside mega-cities where they can be completely controlled. Further south, Graham sees towns like Wareham and Eastbourne have been changed into single, vast skyscrapers. Here, as everywhere, all the scattered dwellings of individuals have been abandoned. Everyone lives in a regimented society.

The monoplane cruises across the south of England, then across the Channel and flies around Paris (where Graham sees the Eiffel Tower among the futuristic domes) before arriving back at one of the three vast landing platforms which dot south London.

The Flying Stages of London were collected together in an irregular crescent on the southern side of the river. They formed three groups of two each and retained the names of ancient suburban hills or villages. They were named in order, Roehampton, Wimbledon Park, Streatham, Norwood, Blackheath, and Shooter’s Hill. They were uniform structures rising high above the general roof surfaces. Each was about four thousand yards long and a thousand broad, and constructed of the compound of aluminum and iron that had replaced iron in architecture. Their higher tiers formed an openwork of girders through which lifts and staircases ascended. The upper surface was a uniform expanse, with portions – the starting carriers – that could be raised and were then able to run on very slightly inclined rails to the end of the fabric. (Chapter 16 – The Monoplane)

On the flight back, Graham insists on taking over the controls, and, upon landing, hassles Lincoln into getting him a flying license so he can spend the next few days having special flying lessons, happy as a kid.

In the evenings Graham attends social events and mixes with the upper class of this future world. Here Wells indulges in satire directed at the values of his own times. The upper classes of the future are spoilt and insouciant. Everyone dresses more freely and casually than Graham’s late-Victorian peers. He meets a bishop and the poet laureate. He asks about the art and literature of the day (oil painting has been abandoned). He meets the Master Aeronaut, the Surveyor-General of the Public Schools, the managing director of the Antibilious Pill Department, the Black Labour Master, the daughter of the Manager of the Piggeries, who makes eyes at him – all characters invented so Wells can make a little social comedy at the expense of the pretensions of his own time, 1910.

However, these social scenes also have the function of dropping hints about the true nature of the society Graham has found himself in.

For example, the surveyor of public education has made it his task to prevent the lower classes thinking too much. The black labour master is in charge of black workers and soldiers in the colonies. Graham listens to them lightly discussing the way black colonial soldiers have been brought to Paris to suppress the ongoing rebellion there, with great violence, and it all makes him… uneasy…

Future sex

In the London of 2100 women have been ‘liberated’ in the sense that they all work and don’t spend much time on childcare. The women Graham meets at these parties consistently make eyes at him. In fact, Wells makes it as clear as he could (writing in 1910) that sex is much more casual in the future. We are told there are entire cities known as Pleasure Cities where, well you can guess what happens there.

When Graham had been left alone in the Silent Rooms at the start of the story, he had picked up some cylindrical devices which proceeded to play ‘films’. Some appear to have been dramas, but it is as clear as Wells could make it that others were pornographic. He is shocked. the reader is impressed, as so often, by Wells’s prescience. Similarly, in those early scenes, Howard had appeared to offer him the services of prostitutes which, once he realised what was on offer, Graham quickly refused.

This must have been sailing close to the bounds of what was permissible in 1899.

A slender woman, less gaudily dressed than the others, a certain Helen Wotton, a niece of Ostrog’s, gets through to him at one of these parties and briefly manages to convey that ‘the People’ are still not happy, before Lincoln whisks him off to meet another notable.

Part three – reality hits home

Graham runs into Helen Wotton again, ‘in a little gallery that ran from the Wind-Vane Offices toward his state apartments’. She explains, with the passionate idealism of youth, that all her life she, and millions like her, have prayed for the sleeper to waken and liberate them from the repressive lives they live.

She surprises Graham by referring to the Victorian era as a golden age of liberty and freedom. He begins to put her right but she insists that back then the tyranny of the cities and the grip of Mammon was in its infancy. Now it has been perfected in a string of mega-cities covering the planet and entirely run by the rich, with up to a third of the population living underground, dressed in blue fatigues, and worked till they drop. As Helen explains:

‘This city – is a prison. Every city now is a prison. Mammon grips the key in his hand. Myriads, countless myriads, toil from the cradle to the grave. Is that right? Is that to be – for ever? Yes, far worse than in your time. All about us, beneath us, sorrow and pain. All the shallow delight of such life as you find about you, is separated by just a little from a life of wretchedness beyond any telling. Yes, the poor know it – they know they suffer. These countless multitudes who faced death for you two nights since – ! You owe your life to them.’
‘Yes,’ said Graham, slowly. ‘Yes. I owe my life to them.’ (Chapter 18 – Graham Remembers)

Graham’s conscience is pricked. Who are ‘his people’? What do they expect of him? What is Ostrog actually doing? Now he thinks about it, in between flying planes and partying, whenever he meets Ostrog, the latter tells him the revolution has mostly achieved its goals and peace has been restored around the world (the world that the Council ruled in Graham’s name). But has it? Why does fighting rumble on in Paris?

So Graham goes to confront Ostrog. This is a big scene in which Ostrog delivers his Philosophy of the Overman. He tells Graham that his 19th century sentimentality about equality is out of date. This is the era of the Over-Man. The weak go to the wall. The race is purified.

‘The day of democracy is past,’ he said. ‘Past for ever. That day began with the bowmen of Creçy, it ended when marching infantry, when common men in masses ceased to win the battles of the world, when costly cannon, great ironclads, and strategic railways became the means of power. Today is the day of wealth. Wealth now is power as it never was power before – it commands earth and sea and sky. All power is for those who can handle wealth.’ (Chapter 19 – Ostrog’s point of view)

As to the practical situation, in order to overthrow the Council, Ostrog had to make the people all kinds of promises about restructuring society. He reveals that it was he and his minions who created and taught the People the ‘Song of Revolt’ which they took up so enthusiastically. Now he is in power – now his coup d’etat has succeeded – Ostrog needs to put the people back in their place – hence the ongoing fighting in some cities, general strikes, workers on the street. ‘But don’t worry your pretty little head,’ he tells Graham. ‘I will soon have everything under control.’

They disagree. Ostrog is respectful but firm. Graham is frustrated and angry. They both go away harbouring their doubts. No good will come of this…

Part four – down among the proles

Determined to find out whether Helen is right, Graham dresses ‘in the costume of an inferior wind-vane official keeping holiday’, and, accompanied by the Japanese man-servant, Asano, who Ostrog has assigned to him, goes down among the proles.

This is a peculiar sequence. A combination of the visionary and the very familiar. It will come as no surprise that there are vast underground chambers beneath the city where the poor slave away. More surprising is the sequence about babies, where babies are separated at birth from their mothers and fed by machines which have the torsos and lactating breasts of women but screens for faces and metal pylons for legs.

Graham is appalled to witness a whole part of the underground covered in enormous and blatantly commercial hoardings advertising various Christian sects in unashamedly secular terms.

“Salvation on the First Floor and turn to the Right.” “Put your Money on your Maker.” “The Sharpest Conversion in London, Expert Operators! Look Slippy!” “What Christ would say to the Sleeper;—Join the Up-to-date Saints!” “Be a Christian—without hindrance to your present Occupation.” “All the Brightest Bishops on the Bench to-night and Prices as Usual.” “Brisk Blessings for Busy Business Men.”

He learns how individual living in individual houses has been swept away and the people live in huge dormitories and feed in vast canteens.

He also witnesses the oppressive ubiquity of trumpet-shaped loudspeakers of all sizes, some yards across, which broadcast an unremitting mixture of pro-government, morale-boosting propaganda, all prefaced by weird sound effects. They are called Babble Machines.

Another of these mechanisms screamed deafeningly and gave tongue in a shrill voice. ‘Yahaha, Yahah, Yap! Hear a live paper yelp! Live paper. Yaha! Shocking outrage in Paris. Yahahah! The Parisians exasperated by the black police to the pitch of assassination. Dreadful reprisals. Savage times come again. Blood! Blood! Yaha!’ The nearer Babble Machine hooted stupendously, ‘Galloop, Galloop,’ drowned the end of the sentence, and proceeded in a rather flatter note than before with novel comments on the horrors of disorder. ‘Law and order must be maintained,’ said the nearer Babble Machine. (Chapter 20 – In the City Ways)

There is much more in the same style. Asano guides him through the profoundly confusing and disorientating maze of tunnels, corridors, over bridges, onto balconies overlooking vast halls, up lifts, down escalators, all designed – I suppose – to give the exhausted reader a sense of the sheer stupefying scale of the city-state.

At last they come to the financial sector which is plastered, like the Christian sector, with huge billboards promoting all kinds of phoney get-rich-quick schemes and in whose halls overt, unashamed gambling and betting goes on.

Part five – the second revolution

It is while he is in a sector devoted to jewel working that Graham and Asano hear the Babble Machines announcing that the Black Police are coming from South Africa to put down the remaining protesters in London. There is instant consternation and cries of protest from all around him. Graham had explicitly told Ostrog that, as Master, he did not want black troops brought to London.

The announcement that they are coming prompts another uprising, which Graham gets caught up in much as in the confusing early chapters. Amid proles yelling ‘Ostrog has betrayed us’ Graham and Asano struggle through the throng back to the half-ruined Council House. Here complicated repairs are underway with scaffolding and workmen everywhere fixing up the damage done by the first assault. Despite this, Ostrog has made it his base to run his world empire.

Graham gets admittance, takes lifts and escalators and the usual complicated paraphernalia up to the room with the huge statue of Atlas in it, where he confronts Ostrog, and they reprise their political and philosophical disagreement:

‘I believe in the people.’
‘Because you are an anachronism. You are a man out of the Past – an accident. You are Owner perhaps of the world. Nominally – legally. But you are not Master. You do not know enough to be Master.’ He glanced at Lincoln again. ‘I know now what you think – I can guess something of what you mean to do. Even now it is not too late to warn you. You dream of human equality – of some sort of socialistic order – you have all those worn-out dreams of the nineteenth century fresh and vivid in your mind, and you would rule this age that you do not understand.’ (Chapter 22 – The Struggle in the Council House)

The argument becomes physical and Graham finds himself wrestled to the floor by Lincoln and Ostrog’s other strongmen. Already Ostrog has a small bodyguard of yellow and black suited Africans at his side. However, some of the workmen repairing the Council chamber witness the fight and run to the rescue. Cue a general melée, in which Graham and Ostrog are knocked to the ground, roll around with their hands on each others’ throats and so on.

Finally, they are separated, Graham is hauled up and away by members of ‘the People’, who form a protective bodyguard around him and carry him out of the building, up stairs, down lifts and round the houses in the spatially disorientating way which characterises the whole book.

Then, in a scene which brilliantly anticipates the movies, Graham and the crowd watch from down at ground level a monoplane come swooping out of the sky and land on the half-ruined roof of the Council House. They see tiny figures moving in the half-exposed rooms, and then the monoplane pushes off from the roof and plummets vertically down, down, down in an apparently ruinous dive straight towards the ground – in a scene I’ve witnessed in countless adventure movies – before at the last minute catching enough wind to rise up and fly just over Graham’s head. Ostrog has escaped!

Part six – Graham assumes control

Graham is taken by some of the crowd to a room where there are the gaping voicepieces of the phonograms and Babble Machines (an eerily prescient vision of the countless press conferences given by revolutionary leaders in front of banks of cameras and microphones) and Wells gives a good description of his utter confusion. He knows nothing about this world, nothing about politics, and has no idea what to say.

Then the slip of a girl – Helen Wotton – the one who leaked the news about the black troops being brought to London, comes into the room. She holds his hand. Graham is suffused with confidence and makes his big speech. He is on their side, he tells the microphones and ‘his people’ around the world. He will lay down his life for the People.

‘Charity and mercy,’ he floundered; ‘beauty and the love of beautiful things – effort and devotion! Give yourselves as I would give myself – as Christ gave Himself upon the Cross. It does not matter if you understand. It does not matter if you seem to fail. You know – in the core of your hearts you know. There is no promise, there is no security – nothing to go upon but Faith. There is no faith but faith – faith which is courage….

Things that he had long wished to believe, he found that he believed. He spoke gustily, in broken incomplete sentences, but with all his heart and strength, of this new faith within him. He spoke of the greatness of self-abnegation, of his belief in an immortal life of Humanity in which we live and move and have our being. His voice rose and fell, and the recording appliances hummed as he spoke, dim attendants watched him out of the shadow….

His sense of that silent spectator beside him sustained his sincerity. For a few glorious moments he was carried away; he felt no doubt of his heroic quality, no doubt of his heroic words, he had it all straight and plain. His eloquence limped no longer. And at last he made an end to speaking. ‘Here and now,’ he cried, ‘I make my will. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. All that is mine in the world I give to the people of the world. To all of you. I give it to you, and myself I give to you. And as God wills to-night, I will live for you, or I will die.’ (Chapter 23 – Graham Speaks His Word)

He, and we the reader, then have to wait, locked up in that little room confronted by banks of microphones, with only Helen to hold his hand, while reports trickle through of the fighting around the landing platforms, which is where the fleet of airplanes carrying the Africans is planning to land. They hear of – victory!

‘Victory?’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Graham. ‘Tell me! What?’
‘We have driven them out of the under galleries at Norwood, Streatham is afire and burning wildly, and Roehampton is ours. Ours!‘ (Chapter 24 – While the Aeroplanes Were Coming)

It is difficult to know whether to laugh or to cry. The description of the fighting between Ostrog’s forces and the untrained, badly-equipped militias raised from the poor wards is fierce and intense. And yet the way it is reported back to the confused Graham in his room, holding onto Helen’s hand, seems absurd.

But although the people take one of the landing stages, his advisers explain that there are still too many planes in the enemy fleet, up to 100 of them, and that the other three landing bases are uncaptured, so they’ll be able to land.

It is then that Graham sees his destiny. All those days spent fooling around in an airplane will now bear fruit. He tells the small group of advisers he will go up in the monoplane and attack the enemy fleet, not expecting to defeat it, but to delay the planes long enough for the other landing pads to be taken by the people.

The advisers all point out this has never been done before, planes fighting in the air. Graham insists. Helen runs to him. He clutches her to his heaving breast. He must do it. It will save London. It is his destiny. She bows her head to the inevitable. He kisses the top of her head chastely.

And so the last five pages of the novel are an intensely imagined description of a fight in the air between the monoplane Graham is flying and a fleet of troop planes, a description of a technology which did not exist when Wells wrote about it.

Given this fact, he is amazingly prescient about the joy of flying, the sheer exhilaration of speeding through the high blue air, even if the combat technique Graham adopts – of ramming the enemy planes – wouldn’t have worked with the flimsy wood-and-cloth early planes which flew in the Great War.

Graham takes out two of the big troop carriers by ramming them and several others crash in trying to avoid him. He sees a monoplane taking off from the last platform, at Blackheath, and guesses it must be Ostrog. He sets off in fierce pursuit, dives and misses twice. Ostrog’s pilot is good. Then he sees the landing platforms of Shooter’s Hill and Norwood explode up into the air. They have been taken by the People and disabled for the landing flotilla. The People have won!

And then the shockwaves from the blasts hit his light monoplane, tipping it on its side so that it plummets out of the sky straight for the earth, and his last thought is of Helen. Bang. The end.


Thoughts

Quite a pell-mell farrago, isn’t it? A heady, fast-paced, confusing mish-mash of adventure story, sci-fi tropes, technological predictions, social prophecy, and ham-fisted psychology.

On the technology, Wells makes stunningly accurate predictions about hand-held moving picture devices, about phonograms, about propaganda blaring from loudspeakers, about wheeled vehicles, and, most strikingly, about the airplanes whose battle climaxes the novel.

The political idea of a liberal revolution which overthrows an autocracy but doesn’t change the exploitation of the working classes, and so needs to be supplemented by a second, proletarian, revolution, is straight out of revolutionary history.

The adventure trope describing the man who pitches up in an unknown society and ends up helping the poor and exploited overthrow their wicked rulers has all the power of myth and archetype.

The psychology of the sleeper is conveyed well enough, on the same general level as the rest of the book. It’s only with the sentimental relationship with young Helen, and especially the ‘it’s a far, far better thing I do’ climax where they cling passionately together before he turns and walks unflinchingly towards his certain doom – that you are forced to admit the whole thing is tripe.

These are all impressive, sometimes dazzling elements. But the main conclusion I took from the book was Wells’s ignorance of economics.

I’m really glad I recently read Edward Bellamy’s novel Looking Backward and made the effort to complete it, despite it being at some points oppressively boring. Because, despite this, it is a really thorough and penetrating analysis of how you would arrive at a feasible, enduring, classless and equal society.

Central is the idea of banning private enterprise, and having all production and distribution handled by the state. The two hundred pages it takes for Bellamy to work through all the logical consequences of banning capitalism, private enterprise and money, are long enough to make you really think about the basis of our current society – to force you to admit what capitalism means right down to the trivialest social interactions of human behaviour – and to make you really think through what changing it would actually mean, in practice.

Bellamy’s book has almost no plot but hugely impresses by its logic and thoroughness. I can see why it was a great success and even inspired a short-lived political party.

On the face of it Wells’s novel uses the same plot device – man falls asleep, wakes up in society of the distant future – but Wells couldn’t be more dissimilar in approach, content and impact. The comparison makes clear that Wells is diverted by science and technology from really thinking about the economic base of society. All the technological predictions are so much shiny flim-flam which hide the underlying lack of ideas.

It is all too easy to be bamboozled by Wells’s envisioning of kinematographs and phonograms and Babble Boxes, and hand-held film devices, and airplanes, and multi-wheeled vehicles, and ‘moving ways’ – to write long essays about his uncanny ability to predict technologies of the future — and to neglect the basic fact that his economic understanding is primitive to non-existent.

The People are oppressed, so our hero helps them rise up and overthrow their dictator. And what then? Who knows? Certainly not Wells. He is against oppression of the poor, and in favor of … what? ‘Equality’? ‘The People’? It isn’t enough.

Where Bellamy had acute economic analysis, Wells has men rushing across the domes of future cities being strafed by fighter planes. Where Bellamy worked through the logic of abolishing private enterprise, Wells has ambushes, fist fights, Pleasure Cities and babies brought up by robots. Where Bellamy calculated that abolishing competition between companies and the advertising such competition requires would result in net savings to society which could be redistributed to increase overall prosperity, Wells has rowdy satire about house-high billboards advertising Christianity-on-the-go or finance capitalism as literal casinos.

The thrill of the fast-paced adventure and the vivid action scenes, the steady stream of clever technological predictions, the primal archetypes of innocent good man confronting cynical manipulator, and of betrayed populace rising up against spoilt aristocrats – the combined result of all this garish phantasmagoria can easily overwhelm the reader and persuade her that something important and insightful is being said.

But it isn’t. Comparison with the logical economic and social analysis in Bellamy’s novel makes you realise what a showy huckster Wells was, and why, once the hysteria of the Great European Crisis of the 1930s ended in the ruinous grind of the Second World War, and when the world finally emerged into the cold light of day — the imaginative hold he’d exerted over generations of intellectuals and writers vanished like smoke because it turned out that he had nothing – of any permanent intellectual value – to offer.


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
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…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

Why is this, Wells’s first novella, such a classic? At least in part because it is short, pacy and vivid.

Short 

Barely 90 pages in the Pan paperback version, at 33,000 words The Time Machine is comparable to the first Sherlock Holmes novels or The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (25,000 words). It gets in, makes its sensational statement, and is all over while you’re still reeling. It takes as long to read as the average movie to watch.

Pacy 

Not only is it short, but it moves at a cracking pace, the opening words introducing us to the (anonymous) Time Traveller in conversation with his dinner guests. We are plunged straight into a discussion of the theory of time before, a few pages later, he shows them a small time machine (p.13), before then (p.16) exhibiting the nearly completed full-size machine itself, and then – a mere week, and three pages, later (p.19), his friends, assembled for the usual Thursday evening dinner, gasp as he staggers dramatically through the door, and tells the assembled guests his extraordinary story.

Given that the Pan paperback text starts on page seven, it’s gone from nothing to details of his time travelling adventures in twelve swift pages.

Vivid 

And nobody who’s read it can forget the tremendous scenes he conjures up –

  • the idyllic, sunny world of the Eloi
  • the horror of the underground world inhabited by the filthy, white ape-like Morlocks
  • the Time Traveller wandering, accompanied by the elfin Weena, through the ruins of a vast abandoned Natural History Museum
  • the fire in the forest as the Morlocks attack him and Weena
  • and then the climactic scene as the Morlocks swarm all over him as he struggles to reattach the levers to the time machine which make it work and let him escape

And I have never forgotten being entranced, as a boy, by the coda to the main adventure, his visions of the world millions of years hence, when the dying sun has stopped rising or setting, the moon has disappeared, and the world is a vast beach lapped by a thick oily sea, inhabited only by monstrous crabs.

‘I stopped very gently and sat upon the Time Machine, looking round. The sky was no longer blue. North-eastward it was inky black, and out of the blackness shone brightly and steadily the pale white stars. Overhead it was a deep Indian red and starless, and south-eastward it grew brighter to a glowing scarlet where, cut by the horizon, lay the huge hull of the sun, red and motionless. The rocks about me were of a harsh reddish colour, and all the trace of life that I could see at first was the intensely green vegetation that covered every projecting point on their south-eastern face. It was the same rich green that one sees on forest moss or on the lichen in caves: plants which like these grow in a perpetual twilight.

‘The machine was standing on a sloping beach. The sea stretched away to the south-west, to rise into a sharp bright horizon against the wan sky. There were no breakers and no waves, for not a breath of wind was stirring. Only a slight oily swell rose and fell like a gentle breathing, and showed that the eternal sea was still moving and living. And along the margin where the water sometimes broke was a thick incrustation of salt—pink under the lurid sky. There was a sense of oppression in my head, and I noticed that I was breathing very fast. The sensation reminded me of my only experience of mountaineering, and from that I judged the air to be more rarefied than it is now.

‘Far away up the desolate slope I heard a harsh scream, and saw a thing like a huge white butterfly go slanting and fluttering up into the sky and, circling, disappear over some low hillocks beyond. The sound of its voice was so dismal that I shivered and seated myself more firmly upon the machine. Looking round me again, I saw that, quite near, what I had taken to be a reddish mass of rock was moving slowly towards me. Then I saw the thing was really a monstrous crab-like creature. Can you imagine a crab as large as yonder table, with its many legs moving slowly and uncertainly, its big claws swaying, its long antennæ, like carters’ whips, waving and feeling, and its stalked eyes gleaming at you on either side of its metallic front? Its back was corrugated and ornamented with ungainly bosses, and a greenish incrustation blotched it here and there. I could see the many palps of its complicated mouth flickering and feeling as it moved.’

Wow. Just wow. What a scene! How many teenage imaginations have been inflamed by Well’s vivid vision of a bleak and otherworldly futurity.

The scientific perspective

Underpinning the grip of the narrative is Wells’s aura of scientific knowledgeability. The idea of a world divided into gladsome nymphs cavorting in the sunshine and vile cannibal apes living underground is one thing. What gives it depth is the narrator’s thought-provoking speculations about why this future world has come about. His initial theory is proven wrong, but is interesting nonetheless. He speculates that intelligence is required by creatures that have to cope with changing and dangerous circumstances.

‘It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers.’ (Chapter 13)

In other words he applies a purely Darwinian worldview to the world that he encounters. There is no Victorian sentimentality about God or religion or ‘the spirit’. From the get-go Wells is an adherent of Darwinian materialism and comes up with materialist explanations for everything he sees – lacking big animal predators or external threat, mankind has dwindled to four-foot, happy, brainless elves.

But when presented with new evidence, like a good scientist he abandons theory one and comes up with his theory two, although confessing to his listeners that it might still be wrong. Now he speculates that the two races – the Eloi and the Morlocks – represent the very long-term outcome of the trend already visible in Victorian times – the division of society into two classes, an insouciant, privileged upper class, and a grunting, toiling underclass, increasingly consigned, literally, to a subterranean existence.

This theory itself strikes me as being crude as an explanation for the society he finds in the year eight hundred and two thousand, seven hundred and one. The scientific worldview of the book is created less by this big speculation, than by his understanding of countless little details. For example, the way he speculates that the big, flat eyes and white coloration of the Morlocks are a result of living in underground darkness – and mentions the Victorian naturalists who had found the same qualities in fish which live in the depths of the oceans.

Or his knowledge of the solar system, of the movements of the earth, moon and other planets around the sun, which he brings to bear in his speculations about the way the night sky of earth in the far distant future, millions of years hence, is so radically different from our time.

George Orwell paid tribute to Wells by saying that he showed adolescents and young adults of his generation that the world was not going to be as their stuffy, hidebound, stiflingly Anglican parents thought it would be. It wasn’t going to be all boy scouts and British Empire forever. Wells showed that vastly bigger forces were at work on all humankind. The future was going to be something altogether weirder and more uncanny. It was going to be strange and wonderful. And this, Orwell says, was experienced as a huge imaginative liberation from the restrictions of Edwardian society.

Over and above this, Wells repeatedly hits the note, beloved of adolescents, of the futility of human life, especially of contemporary polite society. The perspectives he opens up, the vast realms of astronomy and evolution, the epochs and distances, dwarf out petty concerns.

I suppose this is one of the key notes and comforts of science fiction as a genre.

‘Looking at these stars suddenly dwarfed my own troubles and all the gravities of terrestrial life. I thought of their unfathomable distance, and the slow inevitable drift of their movements out of the unknown past into the unknown future. I thought of the great precessional cycle that the pole of the earth describes. Only forty times had that silent revolution occurred during all the years that I had traversed. And during these few revolutions all the activity, all the traditions, the complex organisations, the nations, languages, literatures, aspirations, even the mere memory of Man as I knew him, had been swept out of existence. Instead were these frail creatures who had forgotten their high ancestry, and the white Things of which I went in terror.’

Wonder 

And this, I think, accounts for the enduring success and influence of the early Wells science fantasias – their sense of wonder! They capture a profound sense of awe and amazement. They are astonishing and astounding. You can feel your imagination being stretched and extended in previously undreamed-of ways.

It’s that ability to amaze which marks Wells out, and the speed with which he gets to the amazing bits, with the minimum of Victorian etiquette and bombast and narrative machinery. Within minutes of opening the book we are there in the room as the time traveller tests his time machine, and all the early books are like that. Immediate.

The anchor of the mundane

The story was so fantastic and incredible, the telling so credible and sober. (Chapter 16)

I’d forgotten that The Time Machine is set in Richmond-upon-Thames. That’s where the house of the unnamed time traveller is situated, on a hill overlooking the river Thames, where a half dozen or so professional chaps meet up every Thursday for dinner and intelligent conversation.

Since the time machine doesn’t move in space but only in time, that means that the eerie statue of the sphinx, the ruined hall where the Eloi eat and sleep, and the nearby air shafts up which the Morlocks climb to seize their prey – all are, or more accurately, will be situated, in Richmond. Weird thought.

Similarly, the porcelain palace, as he calls it, an immense ruined building which turns out to be a kind of natural history museum, is off in the direction of Banstead, which he has to get to by passing through what was once Wimbledon. From the heights on which the palace is built he can look north-east and see a creek or inlet of the Thames where ‘Battersea must once have been’.

For a Londoner (and most of Wells’s early readers were from London’s literary circles and readerships) these incongruous references to banal and everyday locations add another layer of frisson and excitement – to see places you know and travel through and are thoroughly bored with, described as they will appear in an inconceivably distant future, is strange and marvellous.

The mundaneness of the settings – the glimpses of the traveller’s bustling servants and the dinner guests fussing with their pipes – and the drabness of these suburban place names, perform two functions:

  1. they anchor and root the stories in the real actual everyday world, lending the astonishing stories a patina of plausibility
  2. at the same time, the banality of place names and domestic habits are like velvet backgrounds against which he sets the wonderful jewels of his imagination

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
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…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis (1936)

I’ve just read Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, a classic account of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War One, which is based on the detailed diaries Jünger kept from 1915 to 1918, featuring, among numerous other fights, his part in the Battle of the Somme.

Notoriously, Jünger’s account is so close to the events it describes that it is often difficult to understand quite what’s going on – as it often was for the troops on the ground. Storm of Steel became so well-known precisely because it is an intensely immediate and visceral account, a moment-by-moment description of comrades being shot, blown up, shredded, sniped, burnt by flares or eviscerated by shellfire as they advance, fighting and shooting, chucking grenades and grappling in hand-to-hand combat with the foe. Jünger himself was repeatedly wounded, picking up some 20 wounds in all. The descriptions of fighting are so intense and immediate that the only lyricism which emerges is a kind of visionary hymn to war itself, to the supposedly purifying and transforming experience of danger, injury and pain.

Sagittarius Rising, Cecil Lewis’s account of the three years he spent flying airplanes over the Western Front – exactly contemporary to Jünger, and also taking part in the Battle of the Somme – couldn’t be more different.

The benefit of hindsight

The key difference is that Lewis didn’t come to write his account until nearly 20 after the events he describes, in 1935, the finished book being published in 1936. This has a number of consequences. It means everything he writes is coloured by his knowledge of not only who won the war, but of what the long-term consequences of Allied victory would turn out to be i.e. chaos across Europe and then the rise of Hitler.

But it also means he can’t remember a lot of what happened. Although he kept a flight log as part of his job, and he has it open on his table as he writes, the entries are so clipped and official that he himself admits that he often has no memory of the events they describe. In a couple of places he quotes them verbatim and then laments that he now has no memory at all of so many of the events he recorded.

I am like a man on a rise, looking back over a plain where white ground mists lie, seeing isolated trees and roofs, upthrust haphazard, floating on the sea, without apparent connection with the lanes and fields beneath. I remember only incidents, and lose the vivid landscape of time. (p.80)

Instead of the searing relentlessness of the Jünger, then, what we get is something far more fragmented, and infinitely more mellow and reflective.

The 266-page text is divided into nine chapters (in fact the last three of these describe Lewis’s career after the war ended). But these ‘chapters’ are really just buckets into which he has gathered together impressions, vignettes, memories and reflections from particular periods and postings. The actual text is made up of hundreds of short passages, none of them more than three pages long, many of them less than a page long.

World government

And knowing what he does, how the war ended, who lived and who died, how ‘victory’ was frittered away by the post-war politicians – and writing as he does, in 1935, with Hitler in full flood and the dark clouds of another war looming close – the book is drenched with hindsight about fallen colleagues, poignant laments for his own naivety, and dark forebodings of what is to come.

In fact there’s a surprising number of passages where Lewis completely switches from memoir mode into discussion of contemporary politics, and warnings about the contemporary situation in Europe 1935, passages where he passionately argues that what the world needs to avoid another war is some kind of World Government which will rise above the petty rivalries of nation states driven by fear. In these passages he is clearly echoing thinkers like H.G. Wells, who was one of the leading proponents of a World Government.

The influence of modernism

And there is another, stylistic, difference from Jünger’s book, another indication of the way the book was written twenty years after the fact. This is that Lewis has absorbed the lessons of the Modernist writers who became widely known after the war, suggestions about how to play with form and experiment with voice and style. This impact is visible in at least two ways:

One is the way the text is highly fragmented: not in order to be deliberately disorientating, just that it’s made up of lots and lots of short scenes and vignettes, which create a scrapbook, mosaic effect.

Second is that he’s relaxed about writing the vignettes in different styles. The opening couple of pages describing him and a friend as keen young public schoolboys wanting to join the Royal Flying Corps have the jolly chaps tone of late Victorian boys adventure stories. In sharp contrast, he has several passages describing what he imagines his mother must have felt about him running off to war and these are written in a sensitive style which bends the rules of narrative and goes right inside her head to give us her thoughts and anxieties directly described in a mild stream-of-consciousness style that reminds me of Virginia Woolf.

Other passages describing the terror he felt on his first few flights, and the first few times the planes had problems and he experienced real panic, are done in a full-on stream-of-consciousness way but more disrupted and anxious in feel.

By contrast, in the many sections about the specifications and performance of the planes themselves, Lewis’s prose is as factual and clear as an engineering manual.

In one passage, describing three airmen out on the town in a French village behind the lines, where one of them pairs off with (sleeps with) a pretty 18 year old girl – the whole thing is told in the third person, like a short story plonked down in the middle of an otherwise first-person memoir, although we gather he’s describing something he himself experienced.

To any modern reader none of this presents a challenge. But it’s interesting to observe how fully techniques and approaches which were new and daring in the hands of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce had obviously become accepted and absorbed into mainstream writing by 1935.

Themes and variations

1. His mother

It’s only around page 100 that we meet his father, who appears to have gone off to live by himself in Devon and devote himself to ruminating on philosophy and the meaning of life, happy to sound off about Marx and Socialism on the rare occasions when Lewis goes to visit him (pp. 112-115). The first hundred pages are much more dominated by his mother who – presumably – brought him up alone. There are many deeply evocative descriptions of the landscape of the Surrey Hills where he grew up.

His mother appears in a series of short scenes, dominated by his guilt. As an impetuous, ungrateful 17-year-old all Lewis wanted to do was run off to join the air force. Only now, as he writes in middle age, does he realise how callow and unfeeling he was, and how his mother must have suffered agonies of anxiety. For example, he meets hismother in the Piccadilly Grill after his first training flight.

‘Well, dear, how did you get on?’
‘Pretty well.’
‘Did you go up?’
‘Yes!’
‘Oh!’ there was a faint tremor in her voice. (Not already! This only son, in the air, and a moment ago he played at her feet. Not already! Not to be snatched away already…) (p.20)

See how he almost immediately takes us into her mind and worries.

It is a sign of Lewis’s maturity and character that he includes these scenes, and that he obviously took as much care crafting them as the other, more obvious ones, about flying and the war. They’re touching in themselves and an indication of the benefits of waiting twenty years and really mulling over the whole situation, as it affected those around him. (pp. 34, pp. 72-74)

2. Women

It was the 1930s and so authors could write more openly about sex than in the 1910s. And because the narrative is by way of being a sort of coming-of-age story (as Lewis says, instead of university, he had the Western Front) a silver thread runs through the book recounting his experiences with girls.

Remember he was only seventeen when the story begins, and we find him walking a pretty girl home along quiet Surrey lanes on his last evening before going to training camp (pp. 26-27). He is in agonies of embarrassment and shyness before it is she who invites him to give her one, quick, chaste kiss.

Next, more confidently, he takes ‘Eleanor’ out for a champagne meal and a box at the theatre, but, when she invites him into her place, they simply sit in front of the fire until she lets him kiss her once, and then, yawning, dismisses him. He was bursting with ardour and impatience, but didn’t know how to proceed, what to do or say. Looking back as a middle-aged man he can’t help wondering what might have been. (pp. 34-36).

A year or so later, having got his flying licence and experienced life among men, we see him getting drunk with two comrades in an estaminet behind the lines, where the two filles de joie accompanying his pals find him a girl, the pale, slender mistress of a French officer who, in her master’s absence, grants Cecil her favours (pp. 66-69). It is revealing that this story has to be told in the third person, as if it is a fictional short story.

Later still, our hero comes back to the French cottage he’s billeted on, roaring drunk from an officers’ piss-up, and yells through to the coarse peasant woman he’s been billeted on, and she sleepily shouts ‘oui’ from her bedroom, so that – we understand – he can go in and shag her.

Thus the book charts his progress from timidly innocent virgin to drunken debauchee in less than two years.

In another bravura passage he describes a secret location in Kensington where off-duty officers could go to party, to dance to the music of a jazz band and to pick up girls. He takes a willing slender young thing up to the balcony to stare at the stars, to be intensely in the moment. Having dispensed with Victorian hypocrisy, he has reached the stage of being an utterly unillisioned healthy young animal after animal fun (pp. 157-160).

3. The planes

Lewis loves the planes. He includes as much technical information and descriptions of the designs, layouts, flyability, shortcomings and advantages of all the models he gets to fly as he can, and, he assures us that in his three years of service he flew every plane available on the Western Front. Thus he gives us detailed accounts of the:

  • Maurice Farman Longhorn (p.22)
  • Maurice Farman Shorthorn
  • BE 2B (p.30)
  • BE 2C (pp.42, 116)
  • Avro
  • Morane biplane
  • Sopwith Triplane (p.133) his favourite
  • SE5 (p.136)
  • Higher-powered SE5 (p.150)
  • Spad (p.161)
  • Sopwith Camel (p.165)
  • Handley Page (p.198)
  • DH4 (p.198)

So when Lewis is eventually posted back to Britain, to a squadron tasked with trying out new designs of plane, he is in ‘paradise’ (p.132).

Throughout the book are sprinkled wonderful passages describing the freedom of the skies and the joy of flying, combined with the constant awareness of death looming at any moment in the form of enemy planes, and the awareness of the limitations and foibles of the plane he’s flying.

He really makes you feel the exhilarating freedom of flying those rattly old death-traps high up above the clouds into the clean clear blue of the empyrean.

4. The joy of flying

The upper rim of the circle of fire dipped finally behind the clouds, and a bunch of rays, held as it were in some invisible quiver, shot a beam high into the arc of heaven, where it turned a wraith of cirrus cloud to marvellous gold. The lofty shade had covered the visible earth, and beauty lingered only in the sky. It turned colder… I remembered suddenly the warmth of the mess fire and the faces of friends. It would be good to be down again. I turned towards home and throttled down. The engine roar died. The wind sang gently in the wires. A long steady glide carried me inland. Now that the engine was off and the warm air did not blow through the cockpit, I grew chilly and beat my hands on my thighs. It was cold at ten thousand in March. I opened up the engine again to feel its warmth. Slowly the aerodrome rose up through the gauzy swathes of mist spun by the invisible hands of twilight. Above, the cirrus turned copper, faded to pink and mauve, and at last drifted grey and shroud like in the vast arena of the darkening heaven. I must hurry, It would  be night before I was down. Over the sheds at four thousand I went into a vertical bank and rushed earthwards in a tight spiral. At a thousand I pulled out, feeling a bit sick, burst my engine to make sure of the plugs, and then cautiously felt my way in over the hangars and touched with that gentle easy rumble which means a perfect landing, turned, and taxied in. (p.55)

Aged just 18. What an experience!

5. Landscapes

The book is littered with wonderful descriptions of landscape, beginning with the misty mornings in the Surrey Hills where he grew up, and including a phenomenal description of flying from Kent back to France and being able, mid-Channel, to look down and see the landmarks in both countries, and the little ships like toys sailing across the foam-tipped water.

I was particularly taken by this lyrical description of the country surrounding the River Somme.

Beyond the village, towards the lines, where the poplars started again to flank the dusty road, was the aerodrome. A row of Bessoneau hangars (canvas-covered, wooden-framed sheds holding four machines each) backed onto a small orchard where the squadron officers stood. The sheds faced the lines, fifteen miles away; but they were hidden from our direct view by the rolling undulations of the ground. It was that wide featureless landscape typical of northern France, miles and miles of cultivated fields, some brown from the plough, others green with the springing crops, receding to the horizon in immense vistas of peaceful fertility – the sort of country that makes you understand why the French love their earth. A mile or two south of the road, and running more or less parallel to it, lay the shallow valley of the Somme. the lovely river wandered, doubling heedlessly upon itself, through copses of polar and willow, split into diverse channels where water-weeds streamed in long swathes, lazily curling and uncurling along the placid surface, and flooded out over marshes where sedge and bulrushes hid the nests of the wild-duck, the coot, and the heron. It was always there on our right hand as we left the aerodrome for the lines, an infinitely peaceful companion, basking under a haze at midday, cool and mysterious when mists stole out of the dusk. A sort of contrapuntal theme, it played against our short staccato madness an immortal bass, whose notes, serene and timeless, would ring on when this war was a story of no more moment to the world than Alexander’s, dead in the dust of Babylon. (p.73)

6. Detachment and futility

From up in the sky he can see the beautiful countryside stretching for 20, 30, 40 miles either side of the Front. And then he can look down on the tiny ant-creatures murdering each other and turning the countryside into a hellscape.

His own psychological predisposition to the lyrical and beautiful and the distance which comes from twenty years of hindsight reinforce the simple detachment which must have been been created by flying so high above the scene. They combine to produce a series of passages of heartfelt anger, rage and contempt at the folly of war and the pitifulness of humanity, at ‘human fury and stupidity’ (p.97). There’s no shortage of long passages, or short references, where Lewis lets us know his full opinion of the futility of war.

The war below us was a spectacle. We aided and abetted it, admiring the tenacity of men who fought in verminous filth to take the next trench thirty yards away. But such objectives could not thrill us, who, when we raised our eyes, could see objective after objective receding, fifty, sixty, seventy miles beyond. Indeed, the fearful thing about the war became its horrible futility, the mountainous waste of life and wealth to stake a mile or two of earth. There was so much beyond. Viewed with detachment, it had all the elements of grotesque comedy – a prodigious and complex effort, cunningly contrived, and carried out with deadly seriousness, in order to achieve just nothing at all. It was Heath Robinson raised to the nth power – a fantastic caricature of common sense. But the humour was grim, fit only for the gods to laugh at, since to the participants it was a sickening death-struggle, in which both sides would evidently be exhausted, both defeated, and both eager, when they had licked their wounds, to fly at each other’s throats again. (p.82)

And what did it look like, the war – from up there?

Just above us the heavy cloud-banks looked like the bellies of a school of whales huddled together in the dusk. Beyond, a faintly luminous strip of yellow marked the sunset. Below, the gloomy earth glittered under the continual scintillation of gunfire. Right round the salient down to the Somme, where the mists backed up the ghostly effect, was this sequined veil of greenish flashes, quivering. Thousands of guns were spitting high explosive, and the invisible projectiles were screaming past us on every side. (p.85)

His job

So what did Lewis actually do? For most of his time on the Western Front Lewis was in observation and reconnaissance. In the build-up to the Battle of the Somme he was ordered to fly along the line of trenches taking photographs – an incredibly perilous activity, given the primitiveness of the planes and the even more startling primitiveness of the cameras.

Once the battle started he was charged with flying over the battlefield to observe the advance, or not, of our troops, and activity on the Hun side (in ‘Hunland’, as he puts it), reporting this back to communication trenches behind our lines, who relayed the information back to the artillery barrages, who aimed accordingly. For his work during this period he was awarded the Military Cross.

In between doing his daily tasks he seems to have been fairly free just to go for ‘joy rides’ to spy out the lie of the land, during which he and his spotter sometimes encountered Hun planes and had primitive dogfights. At other times he seems to have been free just to fly for the pure joy of it, watching a cumulus cloud appear out of nothing high in the sky, and then noticing the way the shadow of his plane against the pure white backdrop was ringed by a perfect rainbow (p.126).

His entire chapter two – nearly 100 pages long – describes this work, the tension in the last few days before the Somme offensive began on July 1, and then gives a day by day account of his work in the first few weeks of the battle, conveying his slowly growing sense of disillusion as it became clear that this enormous concentration of men and resources was going to fail, both to meet its immediate objectives, and to do anything like end the war. He describes the mood of disillusionment which sets in among his comrades, and on our side. ‘A complete washout’, ‘bitter disappointment’ (p.90).

Coming back from a week’s leave (where he has, as ever, tried to calm his mother’s terrible anxiety about him) Lewis discovers that a whole bunch of his mates, the liveliest, funniest characters from the Mess – Pip, Rudd, Kidd – have all been killed (p.122).

And towards the end of 1916 he notices that the Brits no longer enjoy quite the air supremacy they had previously had. German anti-aircraft fire (nicknamed Archie) is getting more precise. German fighter planes are better built and engineered and their pilots are becoming more aggressive.

The Hun was everywhere consolidating his positions, and paying much more attention to us than hitherto. (p.118)

Several times he is forced to make emergency landings, described with hair-raising immediacy, although he always manages to walk away (pp. 95-97). And how different things look on the pock-marked, devastated stinking ground from up there in the clean blue air!

The trees by the roadside were riven and splintered, their branches blown hither and thither, and the cracked stumps stuck up uselessly into the air, flanking the road, forlorn, like a byway to hell. The farms were a mass of debris, the garden walls heaps of rubble, the cemeteries had their crosses and their wire wreaths blown horribly askew. Every five yards held a crater. The earth had no longer its smooth familiar face. It was diseases, pocked, rancid, stinking of death in the morning sun. (p.97)

One evening he is flying over the lines and sees ‘a long creeping wraith of yellow mist’ over the trenches north of Thiepval.

Men were dying there, under me, from a whiff of it: not dying quickly, nor even maimed and shattered, but dying whole, retching and vomiting blood and guts; and those who lived would be wrecks with seared, poisoned lungs, rotten for life. (p.103)

This yellow drift of death gas was, for him, ‘the most pregnant memory of the war’, a symbol of the entire twentieth century, a symbol of the way man, in his stupidity, greed and lust for power, perverts whatever science discovers into disgusting methods of slaughter.

In a vision that shows the influence of H.G. Wells and directly echoes the war-visions which haunt George Orwell’s pre-war novels, Lewis foresees the next war in which pilots like himself will drop gas bombs on densely populated cities and poison into reservoirs, slaughtering hecatombs of woman and children. He can see only one solution to the mad rivalry between nations led by demagogues, a power which rises above all of them:

World state, world currency, world language. (p.105)

In 1922 Wells had written that ‘Civilization is in a race between education and catastrophe.’ Lewis echoes this sentiment (which I take to be a truism or cliché of the inter-war years):

It is a fight between intellect and appetite, between the international idea and armaments. (p.105)

We now know this is naive and simplistic. Education, science and technology have made improvements Lewis can never have dreamed of. And yet fighting never ends. It is about resources, the means for populations to live,and deeply embedded ethnic hatreds. And fighting over those will never end.

Posted home

Lewis developed conjunctivitis. All that staring from heights at troop movements on the ground, plus the effects of oil and smoke flying into his face from the plane engine. It kept recurring which impeded his battle fitness, so at the end of 1916 he was posted back to Britain.

As he remarks several times, the average life expectancy of a flier on the Western Front was three weeks. He survived eight months. But, obliquely, he records how such prolonged nervous strain takes its toll.

Nobody could stand the strain indefinitely, ultimately it reduced you to a dithering state, near to imbecility. For you always had to fight it down, you had to go out and do the job, you could never admit it… Cowardice, because, I suppose, it is the most common human emotion, is the most despised. And you did gain victories over yourself. You won and won and won again, and always there was another to be won on the morrow. They sent you home to rest, and you put it in the background of your mind; but it was not like a bodily fatigue from which you could completely recover, it was a sort of damage to the essential tissue of your being. (p.61)

He is posted to a testing squadron and has great fun flying all sorts of new planes for several months, before being recalled for active duty, and leading a squadron back to France in April 1917.

Dogfighting in France

Whereas previously he had been flying reconnaissance missions, now he and his men are fully engaged in fighting enemy planes. There follow some amazing descriptions of dogfights in the sky, the meeting of massed ranks of planes from both sides, and an explanation of what a dogfight actually involved, and how to survive it.

Protecting London

Then some German planes bomb London, the populace and politicians panic, and he and his crack squadron are flown hurriedly back to London to protect the metropolis. Lewis, by now cynical beyond measure, contemplates the stupidity of the authorities for not protecting London before, and the hysteria of the Londoners, with contempt.

No further German bombers appear, but Lewis describes the hard partying he and his squadron pursue. Drunk at dawn with comrades. Dancing with strange girls at riotous parties. The 1920s started here with the complete abandonment of the stupid old morality, the starchy Victorian etiquette and fake politeness which concealed the raw facts of human lust and reproduction.

As crude as the Death which stalks them, is the young pilots’ quest for pleasure in the here and now.

Fighting gets more intense – injury

No German bombers reappearing, Lewis is posted back to France. The descriptions of the dogfights become more intense. More friends and colleagues are killed. Eventually Lewis is caught out. Flying separately from his squadron while he tries to fix his jammed gun, is attacked and it’s only because he was in an unusual posture fiddling with the gun that the bullet which streaked down his back didn’t enter it and penetrate his heart (p.163). Bleeding and in pain he makes it back to the aerodrome and is posted home to recuperate.

Defending and partying in London

Having recovered he is posted to a Home defence squadron in Essex. Lewis describes the air defence system created to protect the south of England from bombers, and his part in it, though he is sceptical. The sky is so big, planes are so small – the bombers will always get through. Then to everyone’s shock the Germans come on a bombing raid at night. He is at a dance at the Savoy Hotel when the music is brought to a screeching halt by the sound of bombs dropping nearby. He gives an almost science fiction description of the impact on the jazz dancing crowds as they panic and flee towards all the exits.

Now his squadron have to learn to fly at night and he gives a brilliant description of his first night flight, afraid it will be like flying into pitch blackness, and then enchanted to discover that there is much more light than he’d expected, and that the countryside beneath – villages, fields, roads, are all picked out in the eerie glow of moonlight (pp.168-170).

Night raids on London

He gets drunk. They party hard in London. There are hi-jinks in the Mess. A new raid alert system is put into place and he describes being scrambled and flying towards London, watching the searchlights and the ack-ack guns but being completely unable to find the enemy bombers.

His experience of trying to halt the German bombing raids leads him to one big conclusion which he is at pains to emphasise: You cannot stop the bombers – they will always get through – which leads him to another of  his urgent contemporary pleas for action.

Today the voice of no one man, or no one country, can save Europe (and after the whole civilised world) from imminent destruction. If we cannot collectively rise above our narrow nationalism, the vast credits of wealth, wisdom and art produced by Western civilisation will be wiped out. (p.154)

Flying, drinking, dying

The final pages feel bitty. The promotions come faster. He is moved from one squadron to another. He retells experiences of landing in fog, of his plane catching fire in mid-air. There’s an extended anecdote about the time he landed in a field to ask someone where the devil he was (that happened a lot), and went back to the plane and turned on the motor, but the plane began to move before he could climb into the cockpit. It then proceeded to run in a small circle just a bit too fast for him – wearing heavy flying gear and boots – to manage to run into the circle while avoiding the propeller. In the end he gave up and watched it move in circles and slowly across a field until it fell into a ditch.

And the last pages are darkened by friends dying. Armstrong was the best pilot he knew but he mistimed a landing, crashed and was killed outright. His friend Bill was killed stupidly – crashing into a small ditch at the airfield, getting out to inspect the damage when his engineer triggered one of the guns by mistake which shot him through the heart – that Lewis balls his fists and rages against the senselessness of the world.

He is proud to be chosen to lead three squadrons across to France to combat the final German offensive in the spring of 1918, one of the few massed flights that made the commute without at least one accident. As the tide turns against the Germans the squadron is posted forward into an aerodrome near Ypres and he can’t believe the utter desolation of the countryside which is revealed to them. What a hell men have made of the earth.

It’s all over

Then it is all over. The Armistice is signed. They celebrate as best they can and all feel let down and deflated. The new young squadron he’s commanding has only just arrived. Trained to fight they never seen any action. And Lewis himself feels bereft. For the four most formative years of his life he has been living under the shadow of war, in the presence of Death, stretching his nerves to breaking point. Now it is all over. He is demobilised.

He was twenty years old. What a beautiful, thoughtful, considerate, sometimes savagely bitter, often rapturously lyrical, intelligent and mature memoir this is.


1964 interview with Cecil Lewis


Credit

Sagittarius Rising by Cecil Lewis was published by Peter Davies Ltd in 1936. All references are to the 1977 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

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