The Voices of Time and Other Stories by J.G. Ballard (1962)

‘These are the voices of time, and they’re all saying goodbye to you…’

The Voices of Time (1960)

In an interview Ballard said The Voices of Time is his most characteristic short story, not necessarily the best, but the one which ticks off most of his obsessions. It is about entropy, decline and fall, on several levels.

It is set in a dystopian near future. Society is falling to pieces because of a sleeping sickness (‘narcoma syndrome’). One by one people are unavoidably sleeping longer and longer, giving them fewer and fewer hours of consciousness. Some humans have already reached a state of total sleep, never to wake again. These are called ‘the terminals’, and the reader wishes he got a pound for every time Ballard uses the word ‘terminal’. Thus the whole world is lapsing into a state of ‘detached fatalism’.

Some of these terminals (500 or so) are ‘housed’ in sleeping rooms in a research clinic out in a flat desert place like the desert areas of California. (It’s worth noting how many of these short stories take place in American settings. Is this because Ballard realised, in the late-1950s, that America was the society of the future? Or because the readers of the science fiction magazines he sold the stories to expected them to be set in America?)

The lead protagonist is the neurosurgeon, Powers (if I had a pound for every one of Ballard’s protagonists who is a doctor…). Powers was working at the clinic but realises he, also, is declining towards terminal sleep. He keeps a diary direct quotes from which punctuate the text, recording his slowly decreasing hours of consciousness, his mounting fear, and his attempts to make sense of what is happening. Part of this involves listening to tape recordings of interviews with sleepers, and also an interview he made with a biologist colleague, Whitby.

Whitby committed suicide. He had been conducting experiments on plants and animals in the clinic’s laboratory. He claimed to have identified a ‘silent pair’ of genes in plants and animals which, if activated, prompted weird mutations. Whitby had subjected all the animals and plants in the lab to X-rays and triggered their silent pairs of genes, with grotesque results. There are hints in the text that widespread atomic bomb testing might have created the background radiation which is sending humanity to sleep. Certainly animals outside the lab are also mutating, as Powers discovers when he’s out driving and runs over a frog which appears to have developed an inch-thick lead carapace, presumably to protect it from the background radiation.

Before he killed himself, Whitby had carved an elaborate mandala into the bottom of an empty swimming pool and Powers finds himself drawn back to it, as if it contains some hint of the truth, of what is happening. Whitby thought evolution had peaked and now life was rewinding, or winding down.

Powers had carried out experimental surgery on some patients to see if the sleeping sickness could be reversed. One of these patients is a disturbing young man, Kaldren, who lives in a modern house out in the desert which has been cunningly designed to form a labyrinth inside, so that Powers gets hopelessly lost every time he visits it.

Kaldren shows him several sequences of numbers, posts them to Powers, leaves them on his desk. When Powers confronts him about them, Kaldren explains they are numbers arriving from different stars in different quadrants of the sky. All of them are countdowns. To what? asks Powers. To the end of the universe, replies Kaldren.

Kaldren’s girlfriend, who he’s jokingly nicknamed Coma, visits Powers, who shows her round Whitby’s lab and explains the whole theory of the silent pair of genes and the plants and animals’ strange mutations. It’s in this scene that there’s a lot of exposition and we learn about Whitby’s research, Powers’s own theories, and Coma tells Powers that Kaldren is making a collection of ‘terminal documents, a random collection of art and artifacts which somehow symbolise the last days of mankind, an EEG recording of Albert Einstein, psychological tests of the condemned at the Nuremberg trials.

At the climax of the book it seems (it is told in an impressionistic stream-of-consciousness point of view of the lab animals) as if Powers comes to the decision to administer X-ray treatment to himself, thus activating his silent pair of genes. As a result he drives out to an abandoned firing range where he has for some weeks been constructing a vast recreation of Whitby’s mandala. He lies down in the centre of it and feels great waves pouring through his mind, messages from the ancient rocks around him and the distant stars. It seems as if he is actually listening to ‘the voices of time’. The paragraph which describes this is of surpassing beauty.

Coma and Kaldren find Powers’ dead body at the centre of the concrete mandala. Back at Whitby’s lab all the mutated life forms have run riot and died, maybe because in administering the X-rays to himself, Powers gave them all lethal doses.

The Sound-Sweep (1960)

Madame Gioconda is a retired opera singer whose best days are behind her. She has retired in a huff and lives in the ruined sound stage of a radio station which has – high symbol of urban alienation – had an eight-lane highway built over it, while she lives in increasing squalor, dosing herself on cocaine tabs and whiskey.

All day the derelict walls and ceiling of the sound stage had reverberated with the endless din of traffic accelerating across the mid-town flyover which arched fifty feet above the studio’s roof, a frenzied hyper-manic babel of jostling horns, shrilling tyres, plunging brakes and engines that hammered down the empty corridors and stairways to the sound stage on the second floor, making the faded air feel leaden and angry. (p.41)

(In these early stories Ballard is just a wonderfully vivid and sensuous writer.)

What makes it science fiction is that this is all happening in a future where an entire new area of audio technology has been discovered, ultrasonic music. Ultrasonic music is recorded at frequencies too high for human ears to actually hear but has been shown to have a definite impact on the human psyche. Not only this, but research has shown that it can be compressed i.e. an ultrasonic recording of a Beethoven symphony can be experienced in just a few minutes. Thus Madame Gioconda’s profession’s gone, hence her retreat to the shabby sound stage and her immersion in drugs and self pity. (All this is explained on pages 48-49)

Madame Gioconda is attended to every day by a devoted fan, a mute named Mangon. Mangon was an orphan, muted when his mother punched him in the throat as a toddler, who went on to develop extraordinary powers of hearing. This has enabled him to develop a career as a leading sound sweep in the Metropolitan Sonic Disposal Service (p.46).

As the ultrasonic equipment has got more sophisticated, it has been discovered that solid objects retain sound vibrations. As people have become more sensitive, more attuned, to ultra-high frequencies, many have noticed ongoing reverberations from traffic, parties, loud conversations and so on cluttering up their homes and offices. So they call a sound sweep like Mangon who comes along with his sonovac machine and hoovers out the upsetting sonic residues. It’s all hoovered up into storage tanks, then he drives his van out to the dunes to the north of the city, where there are miles and miles of concrete baffles which contain all the discarded babble of the city.

Marvellously weird and surreal idea, isn’t it? The plot, as such, is that Madame Gioconda uses Mangon to get blackmail material on an impresario of the new ultrasound industry, who had an affair with her years ago to further his career, then cruelly dumped her, one Henry LeGrande, and this involves two other characters, Ray Alto, a composer for the new ultrasound music industry, and his arranger-cum-gofer, Paul Merrill.

Briefly, Madame uses Mangon to identify sounds swept from LeGrande’s suite at Video City, and jot down compromising conversations with his PA. She uses these to blackmail LeGrande into letting her sing one evening at 8.30 on the radio, although it is ten years since any radio broadcast has included a human voice.

(In a side plot she has insisted she take this slot because it is when Ray Alto was scheduled to premiere his one and only piece of serious music, an hour long symphony titled Opus Zero.)

To cut a long story short, when she thinks she has triumphed, la Gioconda cruelly snubs and drops Mangon. He in turn decides to get his revenge and sneaks into the prompts box at the front of the orchestra pit of the big live radio broadcast with a sonovac machine, planning to hoover up i.e. mute her voice.

However, the ironic climax of the story is that the orchestra plays the overture and La Gioconda steps up to the stage to reclaim her place in musical history and… all that comes out is a pitiful tuneless squawking. Fifteen years of booze and drugs have ruined her voice. But she doesn’t know it. She squawks and screeches on, blithely unaware, while the audience grows restive then starts booing, while members of the orchestra pack their things and leave.

Mangon didn’t need his sonovac after all, in fact in a final act of revenge he breaks it so no-one else can use it to blot out her voice and spare her humiliation, before Paul Merrill can burst into the prompter’s box desperate to use it to silence the howling banshee. Mangon slips out the building, climbs into his sound truck, and drives away.

As often with a Ballard story, the details of the vision, the way he’s worked out so many aspects and ramifications of his weird dystopia, are a lot more compelling than the human drama he then concocts to fill it which, in this case, feels like one of those 1950s movies about middle-aged, drunk Hollywood movie stars. Compared with which the idea of sound residues which the sensitive can still hear, and which can be hoovered out of inanimate objects, is weird and compelling.

The Overloaded Man (1961)

First sentence: ‘Faulkner was slowly going insane’.

He lives in the new, utterly designed modernist settlement of Menninger Village, built to support a local mental home. Faulkner is a lecturer at the local business school, at least he was till he resigned a couple of weeks ago. He has been experiencing strange dissociative states. He has developed the ability to completely detach himself from what he sees so that the chair and table and room, the TV and sideboard, the french windows out onto the veranda and the swimming pool, all these become simply shapes with no meaning or connotations, ‘disembodied forms’ whose ‘outlines merge and fade’. He can’t wait till his shrill wife goes off to work so he can spend the day in these states.

At one point the narrator makes a comparison with a mescalin trip, under whose influence the folds in a sofa cushion might become the mountains of the moon or contain the secrets of the universe. Having taken LSD as a teenager and student, I know just what Ballard is describing here.

The story is well done but has a rather trite and predictable arc, which is that – despite a wristwatch he’s rigged up and sets in advance to give him electric shocks – so that he pulls himself out of his fugue state – nonetheless he is addicted, and longing to enter the state takes over his life. To the extent that even watching TV with his wife, he puts his fingers in his ears to enter the otherworld – until his shrill wife pokes him and asks him what he’s doing.

The predictability comes from the way that, at the story’s climax, he is an advanced state of dissociation when he becomes aware of something tugging at the pale extension of his consciousness (his arm), is vexed and irritated, and so he rearranges the looming buzzing interruption into a shape which is more reassuring and comforting, despite the sound of high-pitched screaming he can just about detect some way off.

The alert reader realises he has just murdered his wife. Then Faulkner steps down into the pool in the garden, lets himself sink below the surface of the water, and looks up into the shimmering blue above him, waiting to enter the ultimate dissociative state.

So: 1. It is a powerful and convincing description of an acid trip – I’d love to know a bit more of Ballard’s biography and if and when he started experimenting with drugs. 2. The setting of an ultra-modern, experimentally avant-garde housing estate of ‘corporate living units’ for the alienated narrator gives it a lovely dated feeling from the early 1960s which was just beginning to recoil from the impact of brutalist concrete architecture being erected all over Britain (inspiring, for example, Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange).

3. Once he’s done all this he doesn’t know what to do with the characters, so he has the deranged husband murder his wife then commit suicide. Hard not to feel this is only one step up from ‘then I woke up and it was all a dream’.

Thirteen to Centaurus

A powerful and eerie story about a space ship which is in flight to distant Alpha Centauri. It centres on young Abel, coming up to 16, and slowly let into the secret of what is going on by flight medical officer, Dr Francis (if I had a pound for every Ballard story led by a doctor) which is that the journey will take so very long that entire generations of families are going to be born, live out their entire lives, have children, and die before the descendants finally arrive at the distant star system. The 14 passengers on the ship (‘the Station’) are divided into three families or clans which pass on specialised tasks to their heirs and all this has been going on for fifty years.

That’s shock enough, which takes a fair few pages to explain and for the reader to process.

But there’s another twist which we may have started to suspect – which is that the entire project is a fake. After a man-to-adolescent chat with smart young Abel, Francis retreats to his private office, sets the locks and… exists the space ship, stepping out onto a gantry to reveal the whole thing is a mock-up inside a chilly air hanger somewhere in America, maintained by a grumpy crew of technicians and soldiers.

The project was begun in good faith 50 years earlier, and was funded to do genuine research into the psychological effect of very long-distance space travel. It is only by the application of continuous condition and sub-sonic sleeping drills that the ship’s crew have their normal human reactions (like for space and freedom) utterly suppressed.

Anyway, Dr Francis now attends a meeting with Colonel Chalmers and psychologists monitoring the project, where he learns that the authorities have decided to scrap the project. Society as a whole, and their political masters, have lost interest in space travel ‘since the Mars and Moon colonies failed’ (p.102).

So far, so Tales of the Unexpected. What gives the story its Ballard touch is that Francis argues for the project to be seen through to the bitter end i.e. for another fifty years, during which he himself will grow old and die inside the ship. Francis sneaks back onto the ship against orders, announcing he’s going to leave his private office (where he had the option of popping out, like he’s just done) and going down to C deck to live with the rest of the crew.

In other words, entombing himself in their fate.

There’s a final twist in the tale. For after weeks of spending full time with the crew, and taking part in the increasingly smart and savvy Abel’s projects and tests, Dr Francis is one day doing some basic ‘repairs’, when he hears secretive footsteps. He hides in an alcove and watches clever young Abel pad past, then retraces the young man’s steps and discovers…

That there is a loose plate in the ship’s corridor, which gives on to a loose plate in the outside skin of the station which can be opened and clearly gives onto… the aircraft hanger! It is old and rusty and well-used, going back decades, so chances are that old Peters, Abel’s father, knew, knew the whole space project was an elaborate fake and yet… chose to remain inside the ship, chose not to tell anyone, maybe preferring to be captain of a fake spaceship rather than a nobody outside. The conditioning and hypno-drills so thorough and deep that grown men preferred to stay within their fake but reassuring delusion rather than risk life out in the unknown real world.

Although this psychologically disturbed element has the Ballard feel, it is not ‘classic’ Ballard, it is too plot-driven. The Voices of Time and The Cage of Sand (see below) are canonical Ballard because they are about mood, that mood of decay and entropy and psychic disconnection amid a world gone to ruin.

The Garden of Time (1962)

Count Axel lives in a Palladian villa with his beautiful slender wife. It is not set in the future or another planet, it is not set anywhere. Like an 1890s aesthete he wanders the portico and garden of the villa, sauntering past the exquisite pond, while the enchanting strains of Mozart played on the harpsichord drift among the beautiful flowers.

But on the distant horizon he can see a vast, unstoppable horde of barbarians approaching, huge numbers of them, dressed in rags, heads down, some riding in ramshackle carts, a tide of filthy philistine humanity. And so every evening Count Axel picks one of the rare and previous ‘time flowers’ and, as the petals dissolve and melt, sending out strange shards of light, time is reversed and the horde pushed back over the horizon. But each flower works is less and less effective. The horde is coming relentlessly close. And there are only half a dozen or so time plants left in the garden.

As the horde arrives at the high walls of the villa, Count Axel and his wife forlornly pluck the last and smallest of the buds, delaying events for only a few minutes.

And then in the genuinely beautiful, fairy-tale climax of the story, we watch the horde storm the walls and pour through the garden except that…the entire villa is now ruined and, the wall collapsed, the building tumbled-down, the lake bone dry, the trees fallen across it, and the villa long abandoned. The horde crash through it, unstoppable, smashing and breaking the ruins that remain.

All except for a bower of densely-packed rose briars whose thorns deter the barbarians and in the middle of which stand the silent statues of a tall, noble man and his slender graceful wife.

This is a really beautiful and haunting story. Seems to me there’s a lot of Oscar Wilde’s fairy stories in Ballard’s imaginarium, and a lot of Wilde’s gilded prose in Ballard’s similarly exquisite and purple descriptions. In its haunting echo of parable or fairy story, this story is very like another early story, The Drowned Giant.

The Cage of Sand (1962)

1. We are in Cocoa Beach thirty miles south of Cape Canaveral some fifty years in the future. This resort, like all the others along the Atlantic coast, has been abandoned by humans. Fifty years earlier so many space ships were leaving for Mars carrying equipment and material that it began to be worried that the loss of weight might, everso slightly, affect the earth’s gravity and rotation, possibly eroding the stratosphere. And so over a twenty-year period millions of tons of Mars sand were brought back by the Americans and dumped along the Atlantic shore of Florida and by the Russians and dumped along the Caspian Sea. Unfortunately, the apparently inert sand turned out to contain viruses which proceeded to exterminate pretty much the entire plant life of Florida, turning the once swampy state into a desert. Inhabitants of the coastal resorts were told to abandon their towns in short order and never returned. Meanwhile, the fine Mars sand was whipped by sun and wind into ever deeper drifts and dunes which buried the abandoned resorts and climbed up the sides of the derelict hotels. (pp.138-9)

2. This characteristically Ballardian terminal zone attracted the usual type of damaged loners – the central protagonist Paul Bridgman, was an architect who drew up plans for the first city to be built on Mars but the contract was awarded to a rival company and he’s never recovered. Now he holes out in the shabby rooms of the abandoned hotels, covering the walls with his architect designs and plans, and endlessly listening to memory-tapes of the long-vanished residents, obscurely seeking out ‘complete psychic zero’.

The other two characters are short, stocky Travis who Bridgman has discovered was a trainee astronaut who had a panic attack as he lay in the launch rocket, causing the cancellation of his particular flight at the cost of five million. And Louise Davidson, widow of an astronaut who died in an accident in a space station some fifteen years earlier.

3. A number of space stations or rocket capsules carrying a gruesome cargo of dead astronauts circles the earth, seven in all. Their orbits are separate but twice a month they come into conjunction and fly overhead. On these nights Travis and Louise go up on the roof of the tallest abandoned hotel to pay their silent respects, each in personal grieving for a lost self, a lost identity.

4. What adds dynamism to the setting is that The Wardens are out to get them. For some years the wardens have been trying to lay roads out of prefabricated sections across the sand, which Bridgman and Travis have taken pleasure in sabotaging. The story starts as the wardens have brought in a new breed of wide-wheeled sand trucks. The narrative energy comes from several attempts by the wardens to capture our heroes, which they manage to dodge, escaping out into the remoteness of the pure dunes until the wardens have given up and driven off.

5. The climax of the story comes on the night of the next ‘conjunction’, when all seven capsules carrying dead astronauts fly overhead in a momentarily joined pattern. To the watchers’ surprise one is missing. Bridgman thinks it is the capsule of a defunct astronaut named Merrill and the story comes to a head as the capsule crashes to earth, creating a huge scythe of light across the sky and then a fireball which scorches over the Mars beach, over the tops of the abandoned hotels, crashing with a huge detonation among the red dunes.

Bridgman joins Travis and Louise as they run towards the blast crater, where Travis irrationally picks up a glowing fragment which burns his hands, Louise runs hysterically amid the wreckage, convinced it contains the vaporised body of her dead husband, while Bridgman watches them, stunned and, as the wardens close in with their nets and lassos, finally realises why he came to the infected beach and has never been able to leave – because this is as close to Mars as he will ever get. Because these great shifting dunes of red dust are his Mars. He’s made it, after all.

An abandoned beach resort. Abandoned hotels. Sand piling up everywhere. A handful of deranged or psychologically troubled characters. And space capsules carrying dead astronauts orbiting overhead… Classic Ballard territory.

The Watch Towers (1962)

At some point in the near future people are living in a city much like London, above which countless hundreds of ‘watch towers’ are suspended from the sky!

Behind the glass windows of the towers, shapes come and go and the inhabitants of the city have become convinced they are being spied on day and night by ‘the watchers’ and live in a state of permanent paranoia. The city’s affairs are run by a ‘Council’ which lays down the law, banning public assemblies and taking a strict view of personal morality.

Thus they disapprove of Charles Renthall who lives in an abandoned hotel (I wish I had a pound for every abandoned hotel there is in Ballardland) and is having a half-hearted ‘affair’ with a woman living in a house in a terrace road, Mrs Julia Osmond.

Basically, in the first half Renthall potters round, visiting a small circle of acquaintances (including, of course a doctor, Dr Clifton) fretting about the way everyone is wasting away their lives, passively acquiescing in surveillance from the towers. He decides to rebel against the general passivity and organise a fete! Yes, on the car park of the abandoned cinema owned by a local businessman.

This prompts visits from representatives of the Council asking him – in a very polite English sort of way – to calm down. And yet…

In the last few pages, Renthall has encounters with three or four of the same individuals (including Dr Clifton and Mrs Ormond) and all of them, to his great distress, refuse to acknowledge that the watch towers are there!

Disheartened, worried about his own sanity, Renthall wanders off into a derelict, bombed-out, abandoned part of the city as the sky clears and he sees the watchtowers in their serried ranks stretching off in every direction.

Is he mad? Or are they really there and everyone else is colluding to ignore them?

Chronopolis (1960)

Conrad Newman is a schoolboy in a future dystopia where all timepieces have been banned. His mother tells him not to ask about the public clockfaces which have had their hands removed. His father tells him not to ask silly questions about clocks because of the Time Police.

But his teacher, a Mr Stacey, is more relaxed and when he discovers Conrad is using a watch he took off the wrist of a man who had a heart attack next to him in a cinema, he isn’t cross. He gives it back to him. This isn’t a totalitarian society, just one which has agreed to live without time.

To show him why Stacy takes him for a drive into the abandoned centre of the city where they live, a city which was once inhabited by thirty million people, and now houses two million and still declining. As they mount onto a motorway flyover and drive past taller and taller buildings Conrad sees more and more huge clocks hanging from the skyscrapers.

Stacey tells him they were all turned off 37 years ago. He explains in great detail how the city of thirty million divided the citizens into classes and groups and then micro-managed their timetables. Eventually there was a revolt against a totally scheduled existence, a revolution which overthrew the tyranny of time.

The story takes a turn when Conrad notices a clock whose hand moves. He breaks away from Stacey who turns nasty, driving after him in the car, nearly running him over an then taking pot shots with a gun as Conrad legs up a fire escape and through upper floors of ruined buildings. Eventually Stacey gives up and drives off. Conrad falls asleep.

Next day the old man of the clocks is standing over him, his pockets full of keys, a shotgun under his arm. When Conrad shows him his wristwatch, the old man softens and shows him around. His name is Marshall. He used to work in Central Time Control, had survived the revolution and the Time Police. Now lives in a hidden den, cycles out to the suburbs to collect his pension and food, then quietly returns to the city.

Marshall shows Conrad his workshop, a former typing pool which is utterly covered with dismantled clocks and their workings. He’s got some 278 up and working again. For the next three months Conrad helps him with his work, but grows more and more fascinated by the one, huge master-clock which used to dominate the central plaza of the city. For months he works creating a new action, rewiring it and fixing the chimes. Finally he makes it work again and its huge chimes carry the tens of miles out to the distant suburbs where old-timers hear and remember their childhoods, some of them going to the police stations and asking for their watches back…

The story ends abruptly with Newman being taken into court. He has been tracked down by the Time Police and is sentenced to five years for his crimes against time, but for a further twenty for the murder of Stacey. He didn’t kill him. Stacey’s body was found in his car with a crushed skull, as if he’d fallen from a height. Newman thinks Marshall probably did it but takes the fall for him.

And in his cell he is delighted to discover… a working clock. Until after a few short weeks into his 20 year sentence, he begins to realise it has an infuriatingly loud tick!

— Like Billennium this is in a way a surprisingly conventional science fiction story, in which people act and talk pretty normally – albeit in a weird future – and it has a rather mundane conclusion – unlike the ‘classic’ Ballard story where characters are weirdly disconnected and the story doesn’t really end.


Thoughts

Taken together, this is a brilliant collection of pleasingly dated and reassuring science fiction. Reassuring in the sense that, although most of them are meant to be about mental illness, mental collapse, alienation and psychosis, it’s all done in a gentlemanly, sometimes a rather Dad’s Army-style of English decency.

None of the characters are savage and brutal as they are in modern science fiction movies. When a member of the Council remonstrates with Renthall he says: ‘Look, my dear fellow’ (p.160).

Five of the eight stories are clearly set in America, but the two final ones buck the trend by having a very strong English vibe about them. More than that, there was something about the scruffiness of the settings which reminded me of Nineteen-Eighty-Four with its shabby London and even shabbier prole district.

He had entered a poorer quarter of the town, where the narrow empty streets were separated by large waste dumps, and tilting wooden fences sagged between ruined houses. (The Watch Towers p.172)

They crossed the main street, cut down into a long tree-lined avenue of semi-detached houses. Half of them were empty, windows wrecked and roofs sagging. Even the inhabited houses had a makeshift appearance, crude water towers on home-made scaffolding lashed to their chimneys, piles of logs dumped in over-grown gardens. (Chronopolis p.182)

Mind you, they also remind me of the final passages of H.G. Wells’s War In the Air, whose second half describes the wasteland of an utterly ruined London, too.

It feeds a very deep psychological appetite, doesn’t it, science fiction’s obsession with portraying our civilisation as smashed and abandoned. The plots may vary, but the underlying appetite remains the same.

Here the streets had died twenty or thirty years earlier; plate-glass shopfronts had slipped and smashed into the roadway, old neon signs, window frames and overhead wires hung down from every cornice, trailing a ragged webwork of disintegrating metal across the pavements. (p.182)


Related links

Other Ballard reviews

Novels

Short story collections

  • The Voices of Time and Other Stories (1962)
  • The Terminal Beach (1964)
  • The Disaster Area (1967)
  • Vermilion Sands (1971)
  • Low-Flying Aircraft and Other Stories (1976)
  • The Venus Hunters (1980)
  • Myths of the Near Future (1982)

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is the year 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’, until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

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

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents.
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actua life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret pol

The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard (1962)

‘This is our zone of transit, here we are assimilating our own biological pasts….’ (Dr Bodkin, page 91)

This was Ballard’s second novel and the one which really launched his career, because it is the first one to give readers a true flavour of the strange and eerie, dystopian psychodramas which Ballard was to become famous for.

Mise en scène

It’s a short novel (170 pages) set in the near future. About seventy years before it opens – i.e. in our ‘present’ – the sun began erupting in solar flares. These solar flares:

  • blasted away the layers of atmosphere, including the ozone layer, which protect the world from radiation
  • massively raised global temperatures, so that at the equator it’s now 150 degrees Fahrenheit or more
  • melted the icecaps and all the world’s glaciers, and so
  • raised the world’s sea levels by well over a hundred feet – six storeys of high-rise buildings are now under water

When it comes to the melting ice and rising sea this is something we’ve all become imaginatively familiar with thanks to the widespread publicity surrounding global warming – the one unexpected detail in this scenario is that Ballard says that the melting glaciers and calving ice caps have carried with them into the oceans and across the continents huge swathes of silt, mud and sludge (p.22).

All these factors explain why, 70 years later, the cities of Europe are entirely underwater, but swirled around their submerged cinemas and skyscrapers and town halls are sandbanks of silt out of which huge tropical foliage – rainforest trees and bushes and giant ferns – luxuriously sprout.

What is left of humanity has been forced to retreat to the very tips of the planet at the Arctic and Antarctic as the rest of the world not only heats up beyond human habitability, but is swept by devastatingly violent typhoons and hurricanes.

And an even bigger problem than the heat is the radiation – the loss of the ozone layer has exposed the middle parts of the world to life-threatening levels of radiation. This has accelerated the rate of mutation in the natural world, quickly giving rise to modern-day copies of prehistoric fauna and flora, but it has also, of course, decimated the human population. The birth rate has plummeted. Barely one in ten couples are able to have children (p.23). There are maybe five million humans left alive.

The mapping mission

The novel’s first part describes the work of a UN mapping team which is on a three-year mission to map the abandoned and overgrown lagoons and creeks which is what most of Europe’s cities have been reduced to. The mission has been sent from the home base, Camp Byrd in Northern Greenland (population 10,000, p.23). We quickly meet the key personnel:

  • Dr Robert Kerans – 40, tanned, white-haired, the main protagonist
  • Dr Bodkin – much older, number 2 to Kerans
  • Colonel Riggs – brisk and businesslike head of the military team, which numbers about a dozen
  • Sergeant Macready – reliable
  • Lieutenant Hardman – tough and intelligent
  • Beatrice Dahl – beautiful, langorous rich girl’s daughter who the mission discover living in a luxury apartment in one of London’s drowned hotels – much given to sunbathing in the dawn and evening light beside a drained swimming pool on the roof, painting her toenails, and drinking too much. Kerans is having a sort of affair with her which doesn’t appear to involve any physical element.

To begin with we are introduced to the rather boring routine of the scientists as they go about their mapping work. They have a floating ‘testing station’ (a two-storey drum some 50 yards in diameter, p.40) which is towed along behind the bigger military ship, as well as a flotilla of scows, a catamaran and a helicopter.

This begged the question for me, right from the start, of where they got all the fuel and power this would require. Or food. Or fresh water. Although Ballard fills in loads of other military and logistical details, on the big practical questions he is oddly quiet. But this is because his interest is in setting the stage for a different kind of story.

The double meaning of the phrase ‘the drowned world’

So it is that about 50 pages into the novel we learn the title has a double meaning. We learn that some of the ostensibly sensible, military-type characters have begun to have bad dreams. And they’re not just dreams. Dr Bodkin explains to Kerans that what they’re experiencing is the revival of prehistoric memories.

The world has reverted to the climate, flora and fauna of the Triassic age. And now humanity’s unconscious and preconscious minds are reverting, too. Bodkin tells him that Camp Byrd has received radio messages that something similar is happening to the other scouting mission.

Kerans comes across Bodkin giving some basic anti-reversion treatment to one of the most stolid and phlegmatic of the team, Lieutenant Hardman, who, apparently, has the most advanced dreams. In fact they’re not really dreams. The protagonists are slipping away into a prehistoric dreamworld which makes this one seem less and less real or urgent. They are in the TRANSIT ZONE between modern consciousness and reverting to something ancient and strange.

‘The innate releasing mechanisms laid down in your cytoplasm millions of years ago have been awakened, the expanding sun and the rising temperature are driving you back down the spinal levels into the drowned seas submerged beneath the lowest layers of your unconscious, into the entirely new zone of the neuronal psyche.’ (Dr Bodkin explains what is happening to them, p.74)

What is rising up and taking over their minds is the drowned world of their ancient primeval memories.

Tracking Hardman

Next day Hardman has disappeared. Colonel Riggs can’t let this pass and so they go up in the helicopter to find him, tracking back and forth across the routes through the lagoons and creeks and covering tropical jungle which head north.

Until Kerans has a sudden and utterly plausible insight: Hardman is not heading north back to their base camp and ‘safety’; he is heading south, into the heart of the mystery, into the truth of their condition.

So the team change their area of search and eventually discover a set of fresh tracks in mud leading up to abandoned buildings south of their base camp. They land the helicopter and track Hardman, eventually finding the fugitive, who eerily and wordlessly runs from them, leading them a merry chase through abandoned apartment blocks and then into some kind of town square, higher than the waterlevel, across a ruined piazza and up the steps of a law court or some such institution – in scenes which seem very like a de Chirico surrealist painting come to life.

Hardian ultimately gets away, though not before their helicopter pilot has crashed the helicopter into the facade of one of the buildings – an accident I would have thought would be fatal to the mission’s survival, but which everyone takes in their stride.

Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice stay behind

Through the first 70 or 80 pages we have watched the prehistoric dreams take over Kerans’ mind as he slowly realises that he will, he must stay behind when the rest of the mission returns to base. In fact Colonel Riggs has been ordered to cancel the mission and head back north immediately, apparently in response to the outbreak of dreams among his crew.

The night before the scheduled departure Dr Kerans and Dr Bodkin reach a kind of wordless understanding. Both are far out, now, in the ‘archaeopsychic zone’, half their minds buried in Deep Time. In the depths of the night they scuttle the floating research station and make off in their own boats.

Next morning Kerans is with Beatrice in her luxury hideout as they watch the UN helicopter hovering overhead and Colonel Riggs shouting through a loudhailer at them to join him. The couple keep out of sight and have covered any possible landing site with old oil barrels. Eventually Riggs gives up, and Kerans and Beatrice watch the military team finish packing up and their little flotilla of ships head out of the lagoon, along a creek and out of sight beyond the drowned city’s ruined buildings, heading north back to Camp Byrd.

Now Kerans and Beatrice are alone and obviously facing a dread future. Bodkin has left them under no illusions. The world is still heating up, the temperature where they are will eventually become impossible for human life, not to mention the increased radiation exposure, or the storm belt which is on its way north.

But – and this is the point of a Ballard book, the special atmosphere he and only he can create – they don’t care. They don’t care that they don’t care. They are operating in a different type of mentality or consciousness altogether.

Strangman arrives

I expected them to continue dreaming and sleeping and watching the rooms they’ve rigged up in various abandoned hotels slowly fall to pieces around them in a trippy entropic kind of way.

But no – there is an abrupt change of mood when a massive hydroplane arrives in the lagoon with a trio of supply boats, accompanied by a surreal eruption of thousands and thousands of crocodiles. It is the arrival of Strangman, tall, white, ghostly leader of a crew of blacks under their foreman Big Caesar – who is systematically looting and stripping cities of all their treasure as he heads north.

I thought this might be a brief episode but it turns into the main subject of the last 100 or so pages of the book. Kerans, Bodkin and Beatrice realise they have to admit their presence to Strangman and his marauding crew and from that point onwards get caught up in his surreal and bizarre psychodramas.

Strangman has brought luxuries on his refrigerated ship. He holds elaborate dinner parties with chilled champagne. He is a bit like Captain Nemo in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, an entrepreneur and impresario, who loves showing off his treasures and his loyal pack of devoted Negroes, but whose mood changes in a second to anger and threat.

Strangman’s team have diving suits and Kerans is coerced into putting one on and going down down down to the depths of the sunken world. Strangman wants him to locate the buried treasures he is sure must be down there but Kerans goes completely off-mission, wandering into a sunken planetarium, looking up at the light glimmering through the cracks in the roof and having a typically trippy Ballard prehistoric vision of it as a new set of constellations:

He walked back down the steps and stopped half-way down the aisle, head held back, determined to engrave the image of the constellations on his retina. Already their patterns seemed more familiar than those of the classical constellations. In a vast, convulsive recession of the equinoxes, a billion sidereal days had reborn themselves, re-aligned the nebulae and island universes in their original perspective. (p.109)

Then Kerans passes out from lack of air being pumped to his suit and has to be rescued by some of Strangman’s skin divers.

There is a growing mood of eeriness and wariness and uncertainty and psychic nerviness all round. Then Strangman invites the three survivors to a grand dinner party at the high point of which he performs a magic trick – he drains the lagoon! He has discovered that most of it is blocked by accumulated junk, mud, silt and seaweed, with only a small ingress of water. This he has blocked and now uses powerful pumps to evacuate the trapped water.

In a scene which piles surrealism on surrealism, our protagonists watch the water level slowly drop drop drop, revealing the six or so storeys of long-sunken buildings all the way down to the dripping, seaweed infested pavements, with long-underwater cars and buses alive with expiring fish and jellyfish and starfish, swathed in seaweed and ooze.

And it isn’t just a party trick. For the next few weeks Strangman and his team systematically scour the huge area they have unearthed (or unoceaned) and which turns out to be centred on Leicester Square (the city is London!) by day, and by night get drunk, wandering the deserted stinky streets like medieval carousers, carrying flaming torches and drinking heavily from looted wine cellars.

In these scenes Strangman feels more like Colonel Kurtz from Heart of Darkness, a resemblance emphasised by the way his drunken, only barely restrained crews are entirely made up of blacks, portrayed as jungle savages ready at a moment’s notice to revert to brutal beatings.

And this is indeed what happens. One evening, pressed into yet another tedious meal with his scary host, Kerans and Strangman notice a silhouette running along the top of one of the mud barrages which keeps the vast pressure of the ocean out of their island of dryness, and realise it is Bodkin carrying a bomb and evidently intending to blow up the barrage.

Strangman’s team start firing at the silhouette but it is Strangman himself who springs into action, runs to the nearest building and up a series of fire escapes, onto the mud barrage and along to the place where Bodkin had deposited his bomb, and gives it a hearty kick into the deep ocean the other side of the dam.

For a moment the reader had had a vivid imagining of what it would be like if the bomb had gone off, destroyed the dam and unleashed a flood of water six storeys high down onto the partying humans sitting at the bottom of the well. Strangman goes off in pursuit of Bodkin and Kerans barely registers or cares when he hears a number of shots out of sight, beyond the ruined buildings.

Kerans the god

But having killed Bodkin damages Kerans’ reputation with the only barely controlled blacks and with Strangman their master. Returning to the ‘party’ they set upon Kerans, beating him unconscious. When he comes to he discovers he has been tied to an elaborate chair and for the next few days he is left there to endure the blazing heat of the days, bleeding, semi-conscious.

At first he discovers he is the votive god at a Feast of Skulls. Piling surrealism on surrealism, Ballard says the marauding parties have discovered a cemetery where bodies long ago came adrift from their burials and, in a scene which must be deliberately echoing Heart of Darkness they set tied and bound Kerans up on a throne before a pile of bones and use other bones to beat out a primitive jungle rhythm which they dance around him to. Kerans has become their god, god of their weird cargo cult.

But this has unintended consequences. The men slowly become afraid of the dehydrated and increasingly delirious Kerans, and Strangman, who had obviously expected him to be beaten to death or die of exposure, also becomes superstitiously wary of him.

At the end of the second day they lash the throne Keran is tied to up onto a cart, force the hollowed out head of a dead crocodile onto his head to turn him into a real fetish god, then the drunk men get between the traces and pull the cart through the high and dry city streets, singing Haitian voodoo chants, until the cart goes out of control down a sloping alley and crashes into a sump of stinking mud, throwing Kerans and his throne head first into it. Still singing and chanting, the drunken blacks stagger off into the night leaving him there.

Slowly the semi-conscious and dazed Kerans realises that one of the arm rests of the throne has broken and so he can slip his bound wrist over the broken end, releasing it to untie his other wrist and slowly free himself.

Not a moment too soon does he stagger off into the darkness, as he sees Strangman and Big Caesar return down the alley towards the mud. Big Caesar is carrying a gleaming machete. Obviously they intended to finish Kerans off.

Kerans rescues Beatrice

Kerans hides out in a fifteenth floor apartment, drinking trapped rainwater and cooking small lizards to get his strength back before making a cautious return to his penthouse apartment at the abandoned Ritz. He discovers Strangman’s men have comprehensively and vengefully trashed it. However, they did not find the hiding place where he had secreted his Colt .45 pistol.

Now, in a passage which suddenly drops into effective thriller prose not unlike one of the James Bond novels which were being published at this time (late 50s, early 60s), Kerans makes his way at midnight silently across the empty lagoon floor to where Strangman’s hydroplane rests on the dry flagstones, and slowly climbs up the propeller and rudder, hoists himself over the stern rail, and tiptoes into the superstructure looking for the stateroom. He is going to rescue Beatrice.

And he finds her sitting at a table alone, in a turquoise dress and covered with fake jewellery spilling out of chests at her feet and idling with a glass of wine. She starts as Kerans moves silently forward through the bead curtains then runs to him. She might almost say, ‘James! You came to rescue me! But it is dangerous, James – Dr No / Blofeld / Goldfinger is after you!’

Instead, there is a flicker of movement out the corner of his eye and Kerans just has time to duck as a machete goes whirling across the room, burying itself in the wooden cabin wall behind him, closely followed by the enormous mishapen Negro, Big Caesar, who hurls himself at Kerans who just has time to lift the revolver and fire. Big Caesar falls to the floor gurgling his last.

Strangman closes in

Kerans hustles Beatrice to the ship’s gangway, and they run down it as the alerted crew take pot shots at them from above, make it in one piece to the ground and are heading across the seaweedy flagstones when out of the darkness looms Strangman and a cohort of his black crew, fanning out to block their way. Turning, Kerans and Beatrice realise another group of crew members are coming up behind and fanning out. They are surrounded.

Stepping forward like the baddie in a James Bond movie, Strangman twirls his thin black moustachios (well OK, he doesn’t, but he might as well do) and tells Kerans to surrender or else he’ll kill the girl as well as him. For good measure he lightly, suavely comments on what a good mask her face would make once separated from her skull. Oooh, gruesome!

Kerans gives up, hands the gun to Beatrice and steps forward as the voodoo crew close in on him, raising their machetes and pangas to strike, when –

The return of Colonel Riggs

Someone catches his elbow and pulls him back and the amazed Kerans watches Colonel Riggs emerge from the darkness accompanied by soldiers with rifles set with bayonets, along with a squad of soldiers who quickly erect a machine gun on a tripod, and another one which turns a searchlight from up on the hydroplane onto Strangman and his crew, who freeze in astonishment.

Riggs has returned and forces Strangman and his crew to drop their weapons. Cut to a few hours later in the stateroom, after Kerans has been tidied up and the situation stabilised. Turns out Riggs got permission from his superiors at Camp Byrd to return to search for Hardman and also to reclaim the biology ship (the one Kerans and Bodkin sank).

Hooray, saved! But Riggs now explains to Kerans that Strangman will not, however, be prosecuted or charged. In fact by draining the lagoon he will more than likely win a reward from the government in Greenland, which has offered rewards for anyone who can reclaim any part of the earth’s surface.

There is more chatter and planning to leave the next day. But Kerans, now in an advanced state of schizophrenia or psychosis, has other plans. He goes searching and eventually finds the secret stash of dynamite he guesses Bodkin must have made all those weeks ago. Now he, too, rigs up a simple bomb with a 30-second fuse, clambers up to 6th floor of a building, over a balcony and onto the thick sludge dyke which holds back the water.

Like Bodkin he is spotted, this time by Sergeant Macready, who fires a burst of machine gun at him, one bullet winging him in the ankle, but Kerans still has time to place the bomb in the middle of the barrage and set the timer. Sergeant Macready makes his way out to the bomb just in time to be blown to smithereens when it explodes, while Kerans throws himself to the floor of the nearest hotel balcony he’s clambered onto.

The dyke is breached and Ballard gives a vivid description of a six-story-high tsunami of water and logs bursting down into the streets below, smashing Strangman’s hydroplane and drowning his crew. Riggs and some other troops are quicker to react, climb up fire escapes, then angrily pursue Kerans through ruined apartment blocks, firing every opportunity they have.

Kerans just manages to keep a few hundred yards ahead of them, limping along on his damaged ankle, before dropping off a balcony onto a raft which it had taken him all his strength to rig up overnight. Now Kerans kicks in the little outboard motor and is 200 yards away by the time Riggs and another soldier emerge into his docking space and fire at him across the water and through the tropical foliage, holing Kerans’ sail in several places, before he turns a corner of the jungle and is out of sight.

Towards the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun

The final ten pages describe Kerans’ weird compelled odyssey south, which finds him extracting the bullet from his leg, patching himself up with a stolen medical kit, and eating bars of chocolate filched from Riggs’s army supplies, as his boat chugs south through the steaming tropical mangrove swamps.

It is a prolonged purple passage-cum-psychodrama of extraordinary, visionary power, utterly persuasive and compelling in taking you into Ballard’s imagining of a sunken London turned into a Triassic swampscape.

Eventually the outboard motor runs out of fuel and Kerans chucks it into the sea, watching it disappear downwards in a wreath of bubbles. He sails on south through archipelagos of tropical islands and sandbanks, finally beaching the raft on a particularly extended bank which stretches off in both directions.

At first Kerans breaks up the raft into drums and planks and tries to lug them over the dunes but eventually gives up, watching an oil barrel disappear into some quicksand. Everything collapses. Everything falls apart.

He comes to a rise with a ruined church at the top and here, in the downpour of one of the approaching tropical storms, by the ruined altar, comes across the shrivelled, sun-blackened body of Hardman who is barely alive, who is all but blinded by cataract cancers, but is staring point blank at the big red sun, far gone in deep time, in ‘chrono-psychosis’.

Kerans builds a shelter and tries to nurture Hardman to health, feeding him with wild berries, but isn’t surprised when he wakes one day to find Hardman gone. With what remains of his strength he has obviously set off staggering south, always south, towards ‘the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun’.

Kerans waits a few days more and then resumes his own ‘neuronic odyssey’, after many days blundering though mangrove swamps and tropical jungle coming to a vast lagoon, dotted here and there with the top storeys of buried high-rises emerging like gleaming holiday chalets beside the calm black water.

Exhausted, Kerans breaks into one of the abandoned apartments and rests, pondering the strange series of events which have brought him to this pass. Tying a strip of bamboo as a splint for his leg, which is now black and seriously infected, Kerans scratches a last message on the wall, words no-one will ever read:

27th day. Have rested and am moving south. All is well. Kerans


The Ballard effect

Any reader of Ballard quickly realises that his interest is not in a ‘plot’ or storyline. In fact it’s barely even about the characters, who interact like zombies or robots.

Ballard’s interest is in the schizoid dissociation of characters from their surroundings, their descent into alternative modes of consciousness – what he at one point calls ‘torpor and self-immersion’ – even as they are fully aware of the changes coming over themselves and retain the capacity to analyse what is happening to them.

But I think another crucial ingredient in the Ballard style is the immensely straight-faced, stiff-upper-lip attitude of the punctilious and correct Brits who all this happens to, who watch it happen to themselves with highly educated bemusement.

It is no accident that so many of Ballard’s protagonists are doctors, who are trained to observe and interpret symptoms and have the correct psychological jargon to hand to describe their descent into the various psychoses and alternative mental states which his books describe.

Ballard’s protagonists don’t fall to pieces like a bunch of shouty American teenagers in a cheap sci-fi shocker. They retain their middle-class manners and politenesses. It is entirely fitting that Kerans has rigged up an air-conditioned room in the wreckage of the former Ritz hotel, that Beatrice has survived with generator-powered air conditioning in her apartments in a building across the lagoon, that Strangman isn’t a hoodlum but a well-mannered psychopath who hands round chilled champagne, that Colonel Riggs observes all the niceties, even when telling Strangman and his men to put down their weapons.

I.e. one of the unsettling aspects of Ballard’s fiction is not only a) the dystopian scenarios or b) the psychological reversals and dissociative states the characters enter but c) the way they do it all in such unnervingly prim and correct Englishness.

Ballard’s purple prose

Novels almost certainly need plots and characters, and maybe themes and symbols.

But at the end of the day, they are unavoidably made of words and sentences – and the easy thing to overlook if you focus solely on Ballard’s themes and weird psychology, is the more straightforward fact that he loves writing fantastically lush, hallucinatory, purple prose.

This novel made an impact back in 1962 not only for its weirdness, but for its luxurious and deeply persuasive descriptions of the strange new world Ballard had imagined so completely into existence:

The last sunlight was fading over the water as Kerans paddled his raft below the fronds of the fern trees dipping into the water around the lagoon, the blood and copper bronzes of the afternoon sun giving way to deep violets and indigo. Overhead the sky was an immense funnel of sapphire and purple, fantasticated whorls of coral cloud marking the descent of the sun like baroque vapour trails. A slack oily swell disturbed the surface of the lagoon, the water clinging to the leaves of the ferns like translucent wax. A hundred yards away it slapped lazily against the shattered remains of the jetty below the Ritz… (p.144)

There are scores and scores of long descriptive passages like this which make the novel more than an experience of science fiction, or experimental psychology, but a prolonged and deeply sensual pleasure to read.


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

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

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1960s
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shapeshifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actua life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

Shot in Soho @ the Photographers’ Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soho Observed (1968) by Kelvin Brodie BLACK AND WHITE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Soho 2011 by Anders Petersen BLACK AND WHITE

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

Soho 2011 by Anders Petersen © Anders Petersen

Looking for Love (2018) by Daragh Soden

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

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

Soho Then (2018/19) by Clare Lynch

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curators

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

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

William Blake @ Tate Britain

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

Engraving

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

Distinctive style

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death of Socrates by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

Drawings not paintings

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

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

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

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

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

Illustrations

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

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

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

Bad pictures

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

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

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

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

Illustration four for the Pilgrim’s Progress by William Blake

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

Good pictures

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

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

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

Newton by William Blake (1795-1805) Tate

The illustrated books

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

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

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

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

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

The shorter works

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extremely hit and miss

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

The Ancient of Days

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

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

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

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

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

Two gaps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Identity by Milan Kundera (1998)

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

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

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


Chantal at the hotel

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

Jean-Marc visits an old friend

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

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

Chantal and the daddies on the beach

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

Types of boredom

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

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

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

Chantal is menaced in the café

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

Men no longer turn to look at Chantal

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

Chantal’s work in advertising

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

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

Chantal’s dead son

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

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

Existence and identity

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

Chantal in the bathroom, in the boardroom

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

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

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

Chantal’s fantasy about being a rose

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

The anonymous letter

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

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

Leroy, head of the advertising agency

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

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

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

The self-fellating foetus

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

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

Modern society spies on everyone

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

At the grave of her son

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

The second anonymous letter

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

Jean-Marc remembers giving up medicine

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

The letter suggests she wears cardinal red

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

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

Is the letter writer the young man in the café?

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

Is the letter writer the beggar in the square?

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

Or is the letter writer Jean-Marc?

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

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

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

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

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

The flush

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

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

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

Back to the narrative

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

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

The fantasy

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

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

The sister-in-law’s unruly children

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

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

Chantal and Jean-Marc argue

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

Chantal packs her bags and leaves for London

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

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

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

On the Eurostar

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

Chantal fantasises about forcing the prim woman into an orgy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jean-Marc wanders the streets of London

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

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

Jean-Marc enters the house where the orgy is happening

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

Chantal at the (largely invisible) orgy

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

Chantal and the septuagenarian orgy impresario

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that’s it. Finis.

Conclusions

This is a very strange book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Kundera flirting with the reader?

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

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

‘A promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee.’

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

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

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

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

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Cutting Edge: Modernist British Printmaking @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Three

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More peripheral figures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work and sport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sledgehammers (1933) by Sybil Andrews

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

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

Fixing the Wires by Lill Tschudi (1932)

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

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

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

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds (2018)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Cassandra ponders different ways to kill herself © Posy Simmonds

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

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

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

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

The events of 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway. Cassandra gives her till Saturday to clear out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 2017

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

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

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

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

Illustration from Cassandra Darke by Posy Simmonds © Posy Simmonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cassandra on the tube © Posy Simmonds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts

Issues

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

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

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

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

White collar versus gangland crime

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

Cassandra’s redemption

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

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

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

Loose ends and problems

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

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

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

Art

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

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

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

Cassandra in Fortnum and Masons © Posy Simmonds

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

Cassandra and her gallery assistant © Posy Simmonds

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

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


Credit

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

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Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

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

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

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

Gustave Doré

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

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

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

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

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

Social realism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The example of old masters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The triumph of distortion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The impact of sunflowers

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

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

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

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

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

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

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

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

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

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

Phantom of the road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Approach

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

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

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

Some of the voices

The Famous

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Obscure

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

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

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

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

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

Post-war issues

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

Domestic affairs

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

International affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The intellectuals and the masses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ronald

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

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

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

General impoverishment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S. Obscure novelists

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

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

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

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

Related links

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

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

Chesterton’s paper-thin characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The man who was Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syme is pursued

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double identities and ironies!

Revealing the other police spies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chased by anarchists

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

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

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

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

The earth in anarchy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

!!!!!!

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

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

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

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

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

Who is Sunday?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dream

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Metaphysical landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

London landscapes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The seven days of the week

Monday

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

Tuesday

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

Wednesday

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

Friday

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

Saturday

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

Sunday

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


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