The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945-50 by Correlli Barnett (1995)

What a devastating indictment of British character, government and industry! What an unforgiving expose of our failings as a nation, an economy, a political class and a culture!

Nine years separated publication of Barnett’s ferocious assault on Britain’s self-satisfied myth about its glorious efforts in the Second World War, The Audit of War (1986) and this sequel describing how the Attlee government threw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernise Britain’s creaking infrastructure and industry – The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities, 1945-50.

I imagine Barnett and the publishers assumed most readers would have forgotten the detail of the earlier book and that this explains why some sections of this volume repeat The Audit of War’s argument pretty much word for word, down to the same phrases and jokes.

And these set the tone and aim which is to extend the brutal dissection of Britain’s wartime industrial failings on beyond victory in the Second World War, and to show how the same old industrial and economic mistakes were made at every level of British government and industry – but now how the ruling class not only ignored Britain’s bankruptcy and ruin during the war but consciously chose not to take the opportunity to consolidate and invest in Britain’s scattered industries, her creaking infrastructure, and draw up plans for long-term industrial rejuvenation (unlike the defeated nations Japan and Germany) but instead piled onto the smoking rubble of the British economy all the costs of the grandiose ‘New Jerusalem’ i.e. setting up a national health service and welfare state that a war-ruined Britain (in Barnett’s view) quite simply could not afford.

The unaffordable British Empire

One big new element in the story is consideration of the British Empire. The British Empire was conspicuous by its absence from The Audit of War, partly, it seems, because Barnett had dealt with it at length in the first book of this series, The Collapse of British Power which addressed the geopolitical failings of greater Britain during the interwar period, partly because Audit was focused solely on assessing Britain’s wartime economic and industrial performance.

Anyone familiar with Barnett’s withering scorn for the British ruling class, the British working class and British industry will not be surprised to learn that Barnett also considers the empire an expensive, bombastic waste of space.

It was the most beguiling, persistent and dangerous of British dreams that the Empire constituted a buttress of United Kingdom strength, when it actually represented a net drain on United Kingdom military resources and a potentially perilous strategic entanglement. (p.7)

It was, in sum:

one of the most remarkable examples of strategic over-extension in history (p.8)

The empire a liability Barnett makes the simple but stunningly obvious point that the British Empire was not a strategically coherent entity nor an economically rational organisation (it possessed ‘no economic coherence at all’, p.113). Instead he gives the far more persuasive opinion that the empire amounted to a ragbag of territories accumulated during the course of a succession of wars and colonising competitions (climaxing with the notorious Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century) whose rationale was often now long forgotten. It was, as he puts it, ‘the detritus of successive episodes of history, p.106.

For example, why, in 1945, was Britain spending money it could barely afford, administering the Bahamas, Barbados, Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands, and the Leeward Islands? They didn’t bring in any money. They were a drain, pure and simple, on the British Treasury i.e. the British taxpayer.

India too expensive Everyone knows that India was ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Empire, but Britain had ceased making a trading surplus with India by the end of the 19th century. Now it was a drain on resources which required the stationing and payment of a garrison of some 50,000 British soldiers. It was having to ‘defend’ India by fighting the Japanese in Burma and beyond which had helped bankrupt Britain during the war. Barnett is scathing of the British ruling class which, he thinks, we should have ‘dumped’ India on its own politicians to govern and defend back in the mid-1930s when the Congress Party and the Muslim League had started to make really vehement requests for independence. Would have saved a lot of British money and lives.

Ditto the long string of entanglements and ‘mandates’ and ‘protectorates’ which we’d acquired along the extended sea route to India i.e. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt with its Suez Canal. None of these generated any income. All were a drain on the public purse, all required the building of expensive military bases and the indefinite prolongation of National Service to fill them up with discontented squaddies who, as the 40s turned into the 50s, found themselves fighting with increasingly discontented locals demanding independence.

So why carry on paying for this expensive empire?

For psychological reasons. Politicians and public alike though the Empire (morphing into the Commonwealth) was what made Britain Great.

Pomp and circumstance Barnett explains how the trappings of Empire were mostly created in the late Victorian period in order to unite public opinion across the dominions and colonies but also to impress the home audience. These gaudy ceremonies and medals and regalia and titles were then carried on via elaborate coronation ceremonies (George V 1910, George VI 1936, Elizabeth II 1952), via pomp and circumstance music, the Last Night of the Proms, the annual honours list and all the rest of it, the grandiose 1924 Empire exhibition – all conveying a lofty, high-minded sense that we, the British public, had some kind of ‘duty’ to protect, to raise these dusky peoples to a higher level of civilisation and now, in some mystical way, Kikuyu tribesmen and Australian miners and Canadian businessmen all made up some kind of happy family.

In every way he can, Barnett shows this to be untrue. A lot of these peoples didn’t want to be protected by us any more (India, granted independence 15 August 1947; Israel declared independence 14 May 1948) and we would soon find ourselves involved in bitter little wars against independence and guerrilla fighters in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya to name just the obvious ones.

Empire fantasists But the central point Barnett reverts to again and again is the way what he calls the ’empire-fantasists’ insisted that the British Empire (morphing into the British Commonwealth as it was in these years) somehow, magically, mystically:

  • made Britain stronger
  • gave Britain ‘prestige’
  • made Britain a Great Power
  • thus entitling Britain to sit at the Big Boys table with America and Russia

He shows how all these claims were untrue. Successive governments had fooled themselves that it was somehow an asset when in fact it was a disastrous liability in three ways:

  1. Britain made no economic advantage out of any part of the empire (with the one exception of Malaya which brought in profits in rubber and tin). Even in the 1930s Britain did more trade with South America than with any of the colonies.
  2. Most of the Empire cost a fortune to police and maintain e.g. India. We not only had to pay for the nominal defence of these colonies, but also had to pay the cost of their internal police and justice systems.
  3. The Empire was absurdly widely spaced. There was no way the British Navy could police the North Sea, the Mediterranean and protect Australia and New Zealand from Japanese aggression.

The end of naval dominance Barnett shows that, as early as 1904, the British Navy had decided to concentrate its forces in home waters to counter the growing German threat, with the result that even before the Great War Britain was in the paradoxical position of not being able to defend the Empire which was supposed to be the prop of its status as a World Power.

In fact, he makes the blinding point that the entire layout of the Empire was based on the idea of the sea: of a merchant navy carrying goods and services from farflung colonies protected, if necessary, by a powerful navy. But during the 1930s, and then during the war, it became obvious that the key new technology was air power. For centuries up to 1945 if you wanted to threaten some small developing country, you sent a gunboat, as Britain so often did. But from 1945 onwards this entire model was archaic. Now you threatened to send your airforce to bomb it flat or, after the dropping of the atom bombs, to drop just one bomb. No navy required.

An Empire based on naval domination of the globe became redundant once the very idea of naval domination became outdated, superseded. Instead of an economic or military asset, by the end of the Second World War it had clearly become an expensive liability.

The hold of empire fantasy And yet… not just Churchill, but the vehement socialists who replaced him after their landslide general election victory in August 1945, just could not psychologically break the chain. Their duty to the Queen-Empress, all their upbringings, whether on a council estate or at Harrow, all the trappings of the British state, rested on the myth of the empire.

The delusion of being a Great Power Added to this was the delusion that the existence of a British Empire somehow entitled them to a place at the top table next to Russia and America. Churchill had, of course, taken part in the Great Alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin which made enormous sweeping decisions about the future of the whole world at Yalta and Potsdam and so on.

Looking back across 70 years it is difficult to recapture how all the participants thought, but there was clear unanimity on the British side that they genuinely represented a quarter of the world’s land surface and a quarter of its population.

Ernest Bevin What surprises is that it was a Labour politician, Ernest Bevin, who became Foreign Secretary in 1945, who felt most strongly about this. Barnett, in his typically brusque way, calls Bevin the worst Foreign Secretary of the 20th century because of his unflinching commitment to maintaining military defence of the British Empire at its widest and most expensive extent. He repeatedly quotes Bevin and others like him invoking another defence of this hodge-podge of expensive liabilities, namely that the British Empire provided some kind of ‘moral’ leadership to the world. They thought of it as an enormous stretch of land and peoples who would benefit from British justice and fair play, a kind of safe space between gung-ho American commercialism on the one hand, and the menace of Stalinist communism on the other.

And yet Barnett quotes the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson as getting fed up with Britain’s clamorous calls to be involved in all the high level discussions between America and Russia, calls which would increasingly be ignored as the years went by and which were brutally snapped down during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when America refused to back Britain’s invasion of Egypt and Britain had to back down and walk away with its tail between its legs.

Salami slicing On the specific issue of imperial defence Barnett shows in considerable detail – using minutes and memoranda from the relevant cabinet meetings – that the Attlee government’s inability to decide what to do about defending the farflung Commonwealth set the pattern for all future British administrations by trying to maintain an army and navy presence in all sectors of the Empire (Caribbean, Far East, Middle East) but ‘salami slicing’ away at the individual forces, paring them back to the bone until… they became in fact too small to maintain serious defence in any one place. For the first few decades we had an impressive military and naval force but a) to diffused in scores of locations around the globe to be effective in any one place b) always a fraction of the forces the Americans and the Soviets could afford to maintain.

Empire instead of investment

Stepping back from the endless agonising discussions about the future of the Empire, Barnett emphasises two deeper truths:

1. The 1946 loan The British were only able to hand on to their empire because the Americans were paying for it – first with Lend-Lease during the war, which kept a bankrupt Britain economically afloat, then with the enormous post-war loan of $3.5 billion (the Anglo-American Loan Agreement signed on 15 July 1946). This was negotiated by the great economist John Maynard Keynes:

Keynes had noted that a failure to pass the loan agreement would cause Britain to abandon its military outposts in the Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean regions, as the alternative of reducing British standards of living was politically unfeasible.

A debt that was only paid off in 2006.

2. Marshall Aid While Barnett shows us (in numbing detail) successive British governments squabbling about whether to spend 8% or 7% or 6% of GDP on the military budget required to ‘defend’ Malaya and Borneo and Bermuda and Kenya and Tanganyika – their most direct commercial rivals, Germany and Japan, were spending precisely 0% on defence.

I was surprised to learn that (on top of the special loan) Britain received more Marshall Aid money than either France or Germany but – and here is the core of Barnett’s beef – while both those countries presented the American lenders with comprehensive plans explaining their intentions to undertake comprehensive and sweeping investment in industry, retooling and rebuilding their economies to conquer the postwar world, Britain didn’t.

This was the once-in-a-generation opportunity which Britain also had to sweep away the detritus of ruined British industry, and invest in new technical schools, better training for workers and management, new plant and equipment built in more appropriate locations and linked by a modern road and rail infrastructure.

Instead Britain, in Barnett’s view, squandered the money it borrowed from America (the only thing keeping it afloat during the entire period of the Attlee government) on 1. the grandiose welfare state with its free care from cradle to grave and 2. propping up an ‘Empire’ which had become a grotesque liability and should have been cut loose to make its own way in the world.

Empire instead of Europe

Britain’s enthralment to delusions of empire is highlighted towards the end of the period (1945-50) when Barnett describes its sniffy attitude towards the first moves by West European nations to join economic forces. The first glimmers of European Union were signalled by the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 which proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the basis of the EU as we know it today.

Typically, the British government commissioned several committees of mandarins to ponder our response, which turned out to be one of interest but reluctance to actually join – with the result that a pan-European coal and steel market was forged and we were left out of it.

The episode starkly demonstrated that five years after Victory-in-Europe Day Britain still remained lost in the illusion of a continuing destiny as a world and imperial power – an illusion which was costing her so dear in terms of economic and military overstretch. (p.120)

The following month (June 1950) North Korea invaded South Korea and Britain immediately pledged its support to America in repelling the invasion. The Korean War ended up lasting three years (until an armistice on 27 July 1953). Britain committed over 100,000 troops to what those who served bitterly called ‘the forgotten war’, of whom 1,078 were killed in action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 missing, in defence of a nation 5,500 miles away – a military deployment which cost a fortune.

New Jerusalem

This prolonged demolition of the whole idea of the British Empire comes before Barnett even turns his guns on the main target of the book – the British government’s misguided decision not to invest in a comprehensive renovation of the British economy, and instead to devote its best minds, energies and money to the creation of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

Here Barnett deploys all the tactics he used in The Audit of War:

  • he lumps together these two projects, along with the broader aims of the Beveridge Report (massive rehousing, full employment) under the pejorative heading ‘New Jerusalem’ and deliberately mocks all its proponents as ‘New Jerusalemers’ (Beveridge himself described as ‘the very personification of the liberal Establishment’, possessing the righteousness and ‘authoritartian arrogance and skill in manipulating the press which made him the Field Marshall Montgomery of social welfare’, p.129)
  • he goes to great lengths to show how the entire New Jerusalem project was the misguidedly high-minded result of the culture of Victorian idealism, the earnest religious revival of the early and mid-Victorian period as brought to perfection in the public service ethos of the public schools and which he scornfully calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ – meeting and marrying the ‘respectable’ working class tradition of non-conformism and moral improvement, particularly strong in Wales which produced, among many other Labour politicians, the father of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan
  • and how this enormous tide of high-minded paternalistic concern for the squalor and ill health of Britain’s industrial proletariat led throughout the war to a co-ordinated campaign across the media, in magazines and newspapers – led by public school and Oxbridge-educated members ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’, editors, writers, broadcasters – which used all means at its disposal to seize the public imagination

The result of this great tidal wave of high minded altruism was that by 1945 both Tories and Labour were committed to its implementation, the implementing the Beveridge Report of 1942 which called for the creation of a welfare state, for the creation of a national health service free at the point of delivery, and for Beveridge’s other two recommendations – for a vast building plan to erect over 4 million new houses in the next decade, as well as a manifesto pledge to maintain ‘full employment’.

Barnett quotes at length from the great torrent of public and elite opinion which made these policy decisions almost unavoidable – but also emphasises how none of these great projects was ever properly costed (the actual cost of the NHS tripled within two years, far exceeding expectations); and how the warnings of financial ‘realists’ like the successive Chancellors of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood, Sir John Anderson, Hugh Dalton, Sir Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell) that Britain simply couldn’t afford them, were rejected by the barnstorming rhetoric of the impetuous and passionate Bevan, who established a pattern of making grandstanding speeches about the poor and needy to his cabinet colleagues, before threatening to resign (page. 150) (Bevan did eventually resign, in 1951, in protest at Chancellor Gaitskell introducing prescription charges for false teeth and glasses).

Case studies and proof

As in The Audit of War these general chapters about the New Jerusalemites, the pointlessness of the empire, the arts and humanities education of both politicians and civil servants, and the lamentable anti-efficiency practices of the trade unions, are all just preliminaries for a long sequence of chapters and sections in which Barnett examines in mind-boggling detail how the Attlee government’s wrong-headed priorities and policies hampered and blocked any kind of industrial recovery across a wide range of industries which had already been struggling even before the war started, and now became fossilised in postures of bureaucracy and incompetence.

It is an absolutely devastating indictment of how restrictive government policies, short-sighted and stupid management, and the incredibly restrictive practices of an embittered and alienated working class all combined to create the ‘British disease’ which had brought Britain to its knees by the 1970s. Some quotes give a feel:

The catastrophically cold winter of 1946-47 forced the shutdown of large swathes of industry.

In 1947 the price of food imports, many of them from the dollar area, rose to nearly a third higher than in 1945. As a consequence of this double misfortune [loss of exports due to shutdown factories, huge rise in cost of food imports] plus the continued £140 million direct dead-weight cost of the world role, Britain was no longer gaining ground in the struggle to close the balance of payments gap, but losing it. In the first six months of 1947 more than half the original 1945 loan of $3.75 billion was poured away to buy the dollar goods and foodstuffs that Britain could not itself afford. (p.199)

In fact, there is evidence that it was the failure of the ‘centrally planned’ economy under Labour to supply enough coal to keep the power stations running, and the general collapse of the economy, which did a lot to undermine faith in their competence.

It is striking that in this great age of plans and planners, it turned out that Labour did not, in fact, have a fully costed and worked out plan for either the costs of the welfare state and NHS, and even less so for what it wanted to do with the country’s economy and industry. The only plan was to nationalise key industries in the vague hope that bringing them into public ownership would make management and workers work harder, with a greater spirit of public unity. But nationalisation did the opposite. Because no new money was poured in to modernise plant and equipment, men kept working in crappy workplaces at hard jobs and insisted on their pay differentials. Instead of directing resources to the most profitable coalmines or steel plants, the Labour government nationalised these industries in such a way that the most inefficient were subsidised by the most efficient, and workers across all factories and mines were paid the same wages – thus at a stroke, killing any incentive for management to be more efficient or workers to work harder. The effect was to fossilise the generally poor level of management and incredibly inefficient working practices, at the lowest possible level.

From the start the various Boards and committees and regional Executives set up to run these ramshackle congeries of exhausted industry regarded their job as to tend and succour, not to inspire and modernise, dominated

by a model of a ‘steady-state’ public utility to be ‘administered’ rather than dynamically managed.

But it’s the fact that, after all these years of articles and speeches and radio broadcasts and meetings and papers and research and books, there were no worked-out plans which takes my breath away.

The Labour government renounced the one advantage of a command economy – direct intervention in the cause of remaking Britain as an industrial society. Except in the fields of defence, nuclear power and civil aircraft manufacture, there were still to be no imposed plans of development – even in regard to industries where the need had long been apparent, such as shipbuilding, steel and textiles. (p.204)

As to these knackered old industries:

It was a mark of how profoundly twentieth century industrial Britain had remained stuck in an early-nineteenth century rut that even in 1937 exports of cotton (despite having collapsed by three-quarters since 1913) still remained a third more valuable than exports of machinery and two-and-a-half times more than exports of chemicals. (p.209)

A Board of Trade report stated that between 60 and 70% of its buildings had been put up before 1900. Whereas 95% of looms in America were automatic, only 5% of looms in Britain were. Most of the machinery was 40 years old, some as much as 80 years old. Barnett then describes the various make-do-and-mend policies of the government which had spent its money on defence and the welfare state and so had none left to undertake the sweeping modernisation of the industry which it required.

Same goes for coal, steel, shipbuilding, aircraft and car manufacturing, each of them suffering from creaking equipment, cautious management, mind-bogglingly restrictive trade union practices, poor design, absurd fragmentation –

The chapter on Britain’s pathetic attempts to design and build commercial airliners is one of humiliation, bad design, government interference, delay and failure (the Tudor I and II, the enormous Brabazon). While politicians interfered and designers blundered and parts arrived late because of lack of capacity in steel works themselves working at sub-optimal capacity because of failures in coal supply (due, more often than not, to strikes and go-slows) the Americans designed and built the Boeing and Lockheed models which went on to dominate commercial air flight.

While the French committed themselves to an ambitious plan to build the most modern railway network in the world, high speed trains running along electrified track, the British government – having spent the money on propping up the empire, building useless airplanes and paying for cradle to grave healthcare, was left to prop up the Victorian network of

slow, late, dirty and overcrowded passenger trains, freight trains still made up of individually hand-braked four-wheeled wagons, and of antique local good-yards and crumbling engine sheds and stations. (p.262)

The Germans had already built their motorways in the 1930s. Now they rebuilt them wider and better to connect their regions of industrial production, as did the French. The British bumbled along with roads often only 60 feet wide, many reflecting pre-industrial tracks and paths. The first 8 mile stretch of British motorway wasn’t opened until 1958.

When it came to telecommunications, there was a vast backlog of telephones because no British factories could produce vital components which had to be (expensively) imported from America or Germany. Result: in 1948 Britain was a backwards country, with 8.5 phones per 100 of the population, compared to 22 in the US, 19 in Sweden, 15.5 in New Zealand and 14 in Denmark (p.265). Some 450,000 people were on a waiting list of up to eighteen months meaning that for most of the 100,000 business waiting for a phone to be installed, making any kind of communication involved popping out to the nearest call box with a handful of shillings and pence and an umbrella (p.267).

Barnett

details the same kind of failings as applied to the entire system of British ports: too small, built in the wrong places without space to expand, harbour entrances too narrow, docks too shallow, cranes and other equipment too small and out of date – then throw in the immensely obstructive attitude of British dockers who were divided into a colourful miscellany of crafts and specialism, any of whom could at any moment decide to strike and so starve the country of supplies.

I was particularly struck by the section about the British car industry. it contained far too companies – some 60 in all- each of whom produced too many models which were badly designed and unroadworthy, made with inferior steel from knackered British steelworks and required a mind-boggling array of unstandardised parts. Barnett tells the story of Lucas the spark plug manufacturers who put on a display of the 68 different types of distributor, 133 types of headlamp and 98 different types of windscreen wiper demanded of them by the absurd over-variety of British cars e.g. Austin producing the A40, the Sheerline and the princess, Rootes brothers making the Sunbeam-Talbot, the Hillman Minx, and three types of Humber, and many more manufacturers churning out unreliable and badly designed cars with small chassis and weak engines.

Barnett contrasts this chaos with the picture across the Channel where governments helped a handful of firms invest in new plant designed to turn out a small number of models clearly focused on particular markets: Renault, Citroen and Peugeot in France, Mercedes and Volkswagen in Germany, Fiat in Italy. It wasn’t just the superiority of design, it was subtler elements like the continentals’ willingness to tailor models to the requirements and tastes of foreign markets, and to develop well-organised foreign sales teams. The British refused to do either (actually refused; Barnett quotes the correspondence).

On and on it goes, a litany of incompetence, bad management and appalling industrial relations, all covered over with smug superiority derived from the fact that we won the war and we had an empire.

It makes you want to weep tears of embarrassment and humiliation. More important – it explains what came next. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Barnett explains why the Britain I was born into in the 1960s and grew up in during the 1970s was the way it was, i.e. exhausted, crap ad rundown on so many levels.


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Collected short stories of Somerset Maugham volume four

Consisting of a preface and 30 tales, this is the longest of the four volumes of Somerset Maugham’s collected short stories, made up of 461 densely-printed pages.

Preface Maugham says these stories were set early in the twenties, long before aviation became common. The British people who staffed remote outposts in Malaysia were very isolated and a long way from home. They served five years with hardly any contact with other white people, rarely saw newspapers, and dreamed of a Britain which slowly changed and left them behind.

Now, as he is writing the preface in the early 1950s, the experience of colonial administrators has changed out of all recognition. Radio, TV, jet airplanes, have all reduced the distance and abolished the sense of psychological isolation, which was so often his subject in the stores from the 20s and 30s.

In this preface Maugham is also at pains to emphasise how much he respected the people who did these thankless jobs so far from their homeland. I know from his biography that Maugham received a lot of criticism for enjoying the hospitality of Brits in faraway places and then betraying their confidences and telling stories about real people which, in these small colonial societies, could be very damaging to the individuals described.

In this preface he goes out of his way to emphasise that his often lurid stories are about rare and exceptional people or incidents, and that in reality almost all the Brits he met administering the empire were honest and good.

The short stories

The Book-Bag (1932 – Malaya – 1st person narrator) This is an eerie, powerful and disturbing story, up there with Rain as one of his best. In Penang Maugham stays with the British Resident who tells him a story about a chap they bumped into at the club earlier in the evening, Tim Hardy. His parents had been divorced and Tim and his sister Olive were brought up apart, she in Italy, he in Britain. Then the parents died and the adult siblings hooked up and came to stay in Malaysia, keeping themselves to themselves. Over a period of time Maugham’s host, Featherstone (the man telling us the story) falls in love with Olivia but she is playfully stand-offish. Then Tim, her brother, is called back to England. After a few months he telegraphs from there to say he’s met someone and fallen in love. Then another telegram to say he’s got married. Featherstone notices Olivia taking this nervously, but continues to woo her right up till the moment when Tim Hardy arrives back at Penang with his new blushing bride. Everyone welcomes them and Featherstone accompanies them all the way to the bungalow Tim had shared with his sister. He is outside when he hears a gunshot. Featherstone rushes in to find that the beautful Olivia has shot herself, blowing half her face off. In shock Featherstone staggers back to his house and sits stunned, as darkness falls. He is startled by a knock at the door. It is Tim Hardy’s new wife, in hysterics. She needs to leave, now, right away, she never wants to see Tim again, she is weeping, hysterical. Suddenly Featherstone realises the truth. Hardy and his sister were lovers. Olivia shot herself in rage and jealousy at Tim abandoning her for another woman. And this is the story Featherstone calmly tells the narrator, over gin at the club.

French Joe (1926 – Thursday Island, the Torres Straits – 1st person) The hermit they call French Joe fled to a remote South Sea island after the suppression of the Paris Commune of 1871, having been a commune-ist. This is a brief but intense, three-page description of French Joe’s character and oddities.

German Harry (1924 – Trebucket, near Thursday Island, Torres Straits – 1st person) Another brief thumbnail sketch, this time of a grumpy old German who lives on a desert island, the conclusion being that isolation brings no enlightenment, but a return to savagery.

The Four Dutchmen (1928 – Singapore – 1st) The four fat, friendly Dutchmen who crew a lugger, are legendary throughout the South Seas for their bonhomie. Until the captain takes a native mistress and his insistence that she accompanies them on their voyages drives a wedge between him and the others. The captain finds the girl in bed with the chief engineer, shoots the latter dead, then goes up on the bridge and shoots himself.

The Back Of Beyond (1931 – Timbang Belud, Malaysia – 3rd person narrator) George Moon is the Resident in Timbang Belud, a fictitious town in the Federated Malay States (a British colony). He is on the verge of retiring. One morning he is surprised to get a visit from Tom Saffary, with whom he has argued in the past. Both have heard of the death of the popular member of their ex-pat community, ‘Knobby’ Clarke, on board ship back to Britain. Now Saffary tells Moon the story behind it. In a sequence of very believable scenes and dialogues, Saffary describes how he realised that his wife, Violet, was having an affair with Clarke. The guilty couple had got as far as deciding to run away together, when suddenly Clarke’s wife announced that she was pregnant. Unable to leave her, Knobby decides to do the decent thing and leave the scene of his affair, taking his wife back to Blighty for the birth. But overcome by misery at leaving his true love (Violet) he killed himself on the ship home. Which plunges Violet into such unhappiness that she reveals all to Saffary. Which explains why Saffary is now in Moon’s office, helplessly crying his eyes out. Moon gives him what succour he can and the crying man eventually leaves.

Then, adding a further level to the narrative, Moon reflects on his own marriage, and the wife he divorced years ago when he discovered that she was having an affair. Meeting her years later, he realized his mistake in giving up years of happiness, comfort and companionship for the momentary satisfaction of his pride disguised as honour.

So this tale is a complex interplay of timelines, and of two highly emotional stories, handled with immaculate skill.

P. & O. (1923 – P&O liner from the East back to England – 3rd) Another longish story, given depth and resonance by the complete verisimilitude with which Maugham creates his characters. Mrs Hamlyn is a middle-aged, pukka lady on the long sea journey from the East back to Britain. There is a lot of social observation of the other passengers and a distracting side story about whether or not the second class passengers should be allowed to attend the Christmas party being arranged by the first class passengers – but all this is really just to create more ‘reality’ as background to the principle story. The story consists in the fact that Mrs Hamlyn casually meets a big Irish man named Gallagher, they chat, they flirt. She is surprised to hear, a few days later, that he’s become confined to his bed with, of all things, hiccups. Mrs Hamlyn encounters the short cockney man, Pryce, who was Gallagher’s assistant on his rubber plantation out East and is accompanying him home. Pryce explains that before Gallagher left, he had offended a fat old native woman who put a hex on him, vowing he would die before they next sighted land. Initially laughing this off, Mrs Hamlyn comes to almost believe it as she watches Gallagher become progressively more ill. One night, on deck, she sees a crowd around a small fire and observes from a distance the magic ceremony which Pryce has organised, led by one of the ship’s Malay sailors, and which involves sacrificing a cockerel in a bid to counter the old woman’s curse. But it doesn’t work, and Gallagher eventually dies and is buried at sea. The Christmas party, which had been rumbling along in the background, goes ahead, with the second class passengers now invited. But the oddest thing about the story is the impact of all this on Mrs Hamlyn: she had previously been tired and depressed. Somehow, now, she feels rejuvenated and energised. Gallagher’s death makes her realise how important life is. She faces the future radiant with hope.

This is another complex, absorbing and completely compelling story, rich in layers and meanings.

Episode (1946 -Brixton – 3rd) A story told to the narrator by his friend Ned Preston, a semi-invalid who has become an unpaid ‘prison visitor’. At a typically Maughamesque upper-class party Ned tells the guests the story of a convict he’s met in prison, Fred Manson. Fred was a postman in Brixton where he chatted up the ladies and, one day, a young woman called Gracie Carter. They walk out together. Her family are appalled because they have invested a lot of time and money getting her into teacher training school and don’t want her consorting with a rough postman. But Gracie rejects them in favour of Fred who, alas, is shortly afterwards arrested and convicted for stealing money out of the letters he handles and sent to Wormwood Scrubs. It is here that Ned meets him, hears his story, and gets into the habit of visiting the Carter family to pass on Fred’s messages. From this vantage point that Ned is able to paint such a convincing picture, giving not only Gracie’s side of events but the opinions of her respectable working class parents, especially the mother. So for some months Fred and Gracie correspond and have occasional prison visits. She is devoted to him, waiting only for his release. Then only a month before the big date, Fred has quite a bad illness and takes a few weeks to recover. And when he does Ned is astonished to discover that he doesn’t want to marry Gracie any more, he doesn’t even want to see her. He is sick of her cloying possessiveness. He’s had enough of her. When Ned passes this shocking news on to Gracie the latter says, ‘Well, there’s nothing for me to do but go and stick my head in a gas-oven.’ Which is what she does. The end. A grippingly detailed account of working class life with a stunningly abrupt ending.

The Kite (1946 – London – 1st) A second story sourced from the narrator’s friend Ned, the prison visitor. Herbert Sunbury is brought up in a close-knit, if not cloying lower-class suburban family. He enjoys flying kites with his dad, really enjoys it, it is a passion and hobby every Saturday to go to the nearby park and fly one. He becomes attached to the rougher, more ambitious Betty Bevan, disapproved of by Herbert’s parents, who seduces him into marrying her. But they are forced by poverty to live in a tiny apartment and soon her clinging possessiveness drives Herbert to distraction. All he wants is to spend Saturday afternoon with his dad flying their kite, but Betty tries to stop him and, in a climactic argument, makes it a point of honour: me or the kite. Herbert pushes her out of the way, and goes and spends a happy afternoon with his dad flying the kite. That night there’s a bit of rummaging around in the bins and sheds at the back of the Sunburys’ terraced house. In the morning Herbert discovers that Betty had been round and has smashed to pieces the new superkite which was his dad’s new prize possession. At which point Herbert refuses to give Betty her support money or, when the furniture rental falls due, to pay it. With the result that he is summonsed before a magistrate who orders him to pay his wife her support. Still refusing, Herbert is sentenced to imprisonment. Which is where Ned meets the Man Who Is In Prison Because His Wife Smashed Up His Kite.

A Woman Of Fifty (1946 – Mid-West America – 1st) This story has the tone of a very senior author, a man of the world (Maugham was 72 when it was published).

In the placid surroundings of a mid-Western university, at a faculty party, Maugham meets a middle-aged woman named Laura and it sparks a distant memory, taking several days for him to remember her part in a scandal which took place a generation earlier. Against her family’s advice, as a beautiful young woman, Laura had married a handsome, young hot-headed Italian man, Tito, son of an elegant if penniless count. Tito turns out to be an addicted gambler, and becomes increasingly harsh to his wife. To save him from his addiction, Laura closes their apartment and moves them into the count’s dilapidated palazzio outside town. Slowly Tito begins to suspect there is something between Laura and his father, an old but elegant and courtly man. Eventually, in a passion of jealousy, Tito shoots his father dead and is arrested. A distraught Laura is persuaded that the only way to save Tito from a life in solitary confinement is to ‘confess’ that she was having an affair with the father and so Tito’s act was defensible as a crime passionel: which she does. The kick in the story is that, some time later, when the narrator is talking the story over with some American ex-pats who knew her, one of the ex-pats says that Laura confessed to her that she was in fact having an affair with the father!

And now, 25 years later, here is Maugham meeting the heroine of this wild, garish, violent melodrama, transformed into a plump respectable matron, in the respectable surroundings of a cocktail party at a nice American university.

Mayhew (1923 – Capri – 1st) Mayhew was a big, brawny lawyer in Detroit when he heard of an old house for sale on Capri and, on a whim, decided to buy it. He realises he wants to escape the rat race, sells all his worldly possessions, buys an annuity i.e. an annual pension with the money, and retires to the house with its great view over the Bay of Naples. Here Mayhew becomes obsessed with the Roman emperor Tiberius (14-37) and decides to devote his life to researching and writing a history of the Second Century of the Roman Empire. He spends 15 years acquiring books, making vast volumes of notes, employing all his forensic skills. His once big, tough body wastes away. He becomes a shadow of himself. Finally he sits down to write this great magnum opus and drops dead.

The Lotus Eater (1935 – Capri – 1st) Maugham dates the first part of this story to 1913. On Capri he meets a charming Englishman named Wilson. After the usual drinks and dinner they get to chatting and Wilson tells him that he used to be a respectable bank manager in London but one day realised that he just wanted to escape the rat race. Wilson calculated to perfection the money he had and bought an annuity which would last him till age 60, he being 35 when he made the decision. When that day comes and his money dries up, Wilson has cheerfully vowed to kill himself. He has lived on Capri in a simple house and meagre rations but in perfect happiness ever since.

Then the Great War breaks out and Maugham doesn’t return to Capri for many years. It is then that he hears the grim second part of the story. As the deadline for the end of his pension – and his act of suicide – approached, Wilson found he couldn’t do it. He began borrowing money from the shopkeepers, putting off paying his landlord, kept this up for a year or so, and then went completely bust. On the day before the landlord was due to evict him, Wilson barricaded the doors and windows and lit a brazier, planning to asphyxiate himself to death. But it was a leaky old house and enough air got in so that he lost consciousness but didn’t quite die. The landlord’s wife found him, he was sent to hospital, it was touch and go whether he’d survive but, although he was eventually cured in body, it became apparent that Wilson had gone a bit mad. After some consideration the landlord – a simple peasant himself – put Wilson up in a lean-to next to his barn and the wizened, mad old Englishman became a regular sight on the island, hiding behind trees, dodging behind rocks, avoiding all human contact. Finally he was found dead having spent the night at a famous beauty spot.

Salvatore (1924 – Capri – 1st) Maugham starts the story by teasingly asking the reader whether he can do it – leaving us a bit mystified at what he means by ‘it’. He then proceeds to tell the story of a beautiful Italian youth on Capri, Salvatore, who falls in love with a local girl, has to do national service, catches an illness in distant China, is invalided out of the Navy and returns to his native village where he discovers that his beloved (and her family) have all heard about his illness, learning that he will never be fully well again, and so she has married another man. After his initial disappointment, Salvatore’s family fix him up with another woman, not so good-looking, older than him, but sturdy and loyal. They have children. Watching big strong Salvatore bathe the babies in the sea is a pleasure to visitors to the island like the narrator.

And now Maugham reveals what the challenge is that he mentioned right at the start of the story: it was to see whether he could hold the reader’s attention with a description of human goodness. Nothing bad happens. there are no murders or suicide. the story is a portrait of simple goodness.

The Wash-Tub (1929 – Positano – 1st) The narrator is in Capri, gets bored and rows over to Positano. It’s out of season so he’s surprised to find another guest at the hotel, is introduced and gets to know him, a charming American professor who says his name is Barnaby. That’s funny, says the narrator: this summer London was taken by storm by an American millionairess. She said she was a rough daughter of the West, married to One-Bullet Mike (who got  his name because he shot two bandits with one bullet), that she had cooked and kept camp for a gang of miners out West, till One-Bullet Mike struck oil and paid for her to fulfil her ambition of visiting Europe.

By accident the narrator sees the photo of this same Mrs Barnaby in his new friend’s hotel bedroom, whereupon the full story comes out. This sophisticated university professor is in fact Mrs Barnaby’s husband. On the liner from the States to Britain, Mr Barnaby was taken ill and cabin-bound for a few days. One morning Mrs Barnaby got nattering to the Duke and Duchess of Richmond and experimentally told a tall tale about the West, which went down well, then another, and another – and soon found herself being introduced to other aristocratic Brits as a ‘Daughter of the American West’. She came back to their cabin and told her husband all about it and they treated it as a big joke, her husband telling her old Bret Harte tales of the Wild West which Mrs Barnaby then retold to the posh British passengers as her own experiences.

But Mrs Barnaby became such a celebrity aboard ship that she eventually asked her husband to remain in the cabin, even when he was better. Her cover story had been that One-Bullet Mike had struck oil back West while he sent his good lady wife for the trip of a lifetime, and she couldn’t afford to change it now.

Things eventually went so far that she asked him not to get off at Southampton and show up all her stories as lies; she asked him to go on to France and, since the professor fancied doing some research at the Sorbonne, he agreed. But as Mrs Barnaby established a base in a swanky London hotel and set about taking ‘the season’ by storm, she realised he must never come to England and burst her bubble. So she sent word to him in Paris to go somewhere out of the way and obscure for the whole summer – and that’s why he is whiling away the summer in remote Positano, reading books and bored to death!

A Man With A Conscience (1939 – French Guiana – 1st) Maugham gives us a detailed factual introduction to St Laurent de Manoni, capital of the French penal colony on Guiana, a prison for murderers, which he had himself visited and been shown round.

The narrator meets the governor and has the rules and regulations of the prison explained to him. Then he tells the story of a convict he names Jean Charvin. Charvin grows up with a best friend, Henri. They both fall in love with the same small-town beauty, Marie-Louise. Jean works in a boring job in Le Havre. Henri is offered a job with a trading company in faraway Cambodia, but it is so far away that Marie-Louise refuses to go, so – victory for Jean.

But then, before the Cambodia job falls due, Henri is offered a job at the very firm where Jean works in Le Havre, threatening to stay and win Marie-Louise’s hand. To avoid his friend getting the job and – therefore, probably winning the hand of the town beauty in marriage – Jean tells the boss that his best friend Henri is unreliable and shouldn’t be given the job. And so Henri doesn’t get the Le Havre job and is forced to accept the post in faraway Cambodia, leaving the ground clear for Jean to woo and marry Marie-Louise. But – slowly he comes to realise that she is dull and superficial. Slowly he comes to resent her.

Then, disaster – they all hear that Henri got an illness and died out in Cambodia. Now Jean feels mortally guilty at having sent his best friend out to his death. He begins to have bad dreams and then nightmares in which his dead friend reproaches him. And he projects that guilt and resentment onto empty-headed Marie-Louise. One morning Jean is exercising with his dumb bells when she a particularly idiotic remark about Jean’s mother, and with all his strength Jean cracks her round the head, smashing her skull. Jean’s guilty dreams about poor Henri disappear. From that day to this, he has slept perfectly.

Jean is arrested, tried and sentenced, but no-one can adduce a motive, and so he only gets six years. He has been a model prisoner and hopes, upon release, to be able to go back to France and get a job. And here Maugham adds his characteristic touch, the sliver of ice in the heart, the glint of cold cynicism. Jeans tells Maugham that he’d even like to get married again – but next time he’ll marry for money, not for love!

An Official Position (1937 – French Guiana – 3rd) Still in the penal colony in French Guiana, the third person narrator describes the life and character of Louis Remire, convicted for murdering his wife but who, through good behaviour, has been allowed to become the penal colony’s official executioner. His predecessor was assassinated by freed convicts (after serving their time in the prison, convicts are freed, but not allowed to leave the colony, and so roam far and wide, begging and often reverting to crime in order to survive). Remire goes fishing on a rock near his hut and realises that for the first time in his life he is happy, genuinely happy. He naps a while, then wakes to go back to prison to perform a midnight execution. On the way he is ambushed and, like his predecessor, horribly murdered.

The main drive in this story is in the contrast between Louis’ happy carefree moments fishing by the sea and, later that night, his terror-stricken walk through the dark jungle, which is terrifying enough to make your hair stand on end.

Winter Cruise (1943 – Transatlantic steamer – 3rd) Miss Reid runs a tea rooms in Plymouth. She has saved up and bought herself a return ticket on a tramp steamer which goes from Germany, via England, to the Caribbean. It is crewed by six German sailors. The other passengers alight in the Caribbean and then Miss Reid is the only passenger. The trouble is that she won’t stop talking and is an intolerable bore. She is driving the ship’s crew to distraction with her ceaseless nattering. One night, the ship’s doctor, over a beer with the rest of the crew, suggests that maybe Miss Reid is a virgin and needs to be… needs a… you know. The captain blushes red, considers his options, and then orders the tall, handsome, blonde young radio engineer to do his duty. He reports at Miss Reid’s door late that night and – it happening to be New Year’s Eve – helps her start the new year with a bang.

Mabel (1924 – Burma – 1st) In 1923 Maugham travelled through Burma, Siam and into French Indo-China. He took his time composing his impressions into a travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour, which was published in 1930. This ‘story’ and the next four ‘stories’ are included in that book as factual encounters, which just goes to show the very thin wall between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ in Maugham’s short stories.

This is a short, comic story of a chap named George who gets engaged to a girl in Britain before going out to Burma, but years pass and when she finally sails out to join him, he gets cold feet, panics, and flees to Singapore. Here, however, he finds a loving telegram from his fiancee awaiting him. So he flees to Bangkok. And to Saigon. And to Hong Kong. Each time followed – uncannily – by a telegram from his beloved promising to catch him up. So he flees into China, deep into remote rural China, where he hides out in a place called Cheng-tu. And a few weeks later is enjoying a drink with the local British Consul, when there’s a knock at the door and Mabel waltzes in, fresh as a daisy, and asks if he’s ready to marry her now.

Masterson (1929 – Burma – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. At a village in Burma, Maugham dines with Masterson, who is twitchy and unhappy. It emerges that he has been there for years, taken a beautiful Burmese girl as a mistress, and had three children with her. But eventually she became insistent that he marry her. She wasn’t getting any younger and soon no Burmese man would look at her. But Masterson can’t bring himself to; it would mean the end of his dream, which is to eventually quit the East and retire back to Cheltenham, to become a kindly old buffer pottering about second-hand bookshops, quite impossible with a ‘native’ wife. . So as quietly and politely as she came, the Burmese wife packs her bags, takes the children and leaves. And now Masterson is lonely and miserable.

Princess September A number of prominent authors were invited to donate volumes to a doll’s house which was being created for the young Princess Elizabeth in the early 1920s. Maugham wrote this fairy story. It has an Oriental setting, probably inspired by Maugham’s 1921 trip to Siam, and he later included it as a chapter in his travel book The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The King of Siam had nine daughters named after the months of the year. The youngest daughter named September had a very pleasing personality. Her other sisters were all of sullen nature. One year on his birthday the King gave each of his daughters a beautiful green parrot in a golden cage. The parrots shortly learnt to speak.

Unfortunately, the parrot of Princess September died. She was heartbroken. Presently a little bird bounded into her room and sang a lovely song about the king’s garden, the willow tree and the goldfish. The princess was thrilled. The bird decided to stay with her and sing her beautiful songs. When the princesses’ sisters became jealous when they came top know of the sweet bird that sang better than their parrots.

The malicious sisters urged Princess September to put the bird in a cage. The innocent princess put the bird into a cage. The bird was bewildered but the princess justified caging the bird as she was afraid of the lurking cats. When the bird tried to sing, it had to stop midway as it felt wretched in the cage.

The next morning the bird asked Princess September to release her from the cage, she did not listen to it. Instead she assured the bird that it would have three meals a day and nothing to worry all day. The bird was not happy with it and pleaded to let it out from the cage. September try to console the bird saying that she had caged the bird because of her love for it. The distraught bird did not sing the whole day and stopped eating its food.

The next morning the princess noticed the bird lying in the cage still. Thinking that the bird was dead, she started weeping. Then the bird rose and told the princess that it could not sing unless it was free and if it could not sing it would die. Taking pity on the bird, the kind princess released the bird. The bird flew away. Yet, it returned to enchant the princess with its sweet songs. The princess kept her windows open day and night for the bird to come and go whenever it wanted.

A Marriage Of Convenience (1929 – Aboard ship off Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour. Maugham is on a small steamer running up the Indo-China coast carrying a rum collection of passengers, including an American husband and wife who run a miniature circus. Another passenger is a French Governor, a small man married to an enormous, stout woman.

She was a large woman, tall and of a robust build, of fifty–five perhaps, and she was dressed somewhat severely in black silk. On her head she wore a huge round topee. Her features were so
large and regular, her form so statuesque, that you were reminded of the massive females who take part in processions. She would have admirably suited the role of Columbia or Britannia in a patriotic demonstration. She towered over her diminutive husband like a skyscraper over a shack.

The Governor candidly tells his back story. When he first applied for the post he was rejected because he wasn’t married. The interviewer said the post would be his if he could find a wife within a month, and recommended advertising for a wife in Le Figaro. The Governor did so and was amazed to be overwhelmed by offers of marriage, so many (over a thousand) that he didn’t know where to begin. Then he took the advice of a friend who said he had a nice cousin holidaying in Geneva who might be suitable. So he travelled straight to Geneva, found the (large, imposing) cousin and proposed. Laughing, she accepted. And here they are, both completely happy!

Mirage (1929 – Haiphong, Vietnam – 1st) Another excerpt from the 1930 travel book, The Gentleman in the Parlour.

The ship Maugham’s on which is still steaming up the coast of Indo-China, docks at Haiphong, which Maugham goes to explore. Sitting at the bar of his hotel he is approached by a big, shabby, red-faced, fat old boy who announces that his name is Grosely and that he was in the same class as Maugham back at St Thomas’s Hospital, must have been in back in 1892.

It takes Maugham a while to remember that this Grosely was once a slender, attractive 19-year-old boy who lived a surprisingly luxury life for a student – until, that is, he was arrested for defrauding pawn shops on an industrial scale. Grosely takes him back to his house which turns out to be a dingy room in the roughest part of the native quarter, where he lives with a local woman. She makes him several opium pipes while he tells Maugham his story.

After getting arrested and briefly imprisoned, thus ending his medical school career, Grosely headed out East to make his fortune and became a ‘tide-waiter’ i.e. liaised between trading ships coming into Shanghai and H.M. Customs. Obviously crooked, he spent decades raking off bribes and kickbacks, but always harboured the fond ambition of going back to London to show everyone he’d done good. Finally he did make the trip ‘home’ and spent a miserable month realising he knew no-one and that the entire place had changed. Even the tarts in Piccadilly didn’t want to be propositioned by a fat, red-faced old buffer. (Maugham describes his unhappiness and alienation brilliantly.)

Eventually Grosely takes ship back out East, stopping at various places on the way, until the ship puts in at Haiphong and… and… Maugham realises what happened next. Grosely had lived for years for one mirage – Old London Town – and it had let him down badly. Now, in his retirement, he was worried that returning to China would be no good either; that he would see his life for what it really was. So, instead, he parked himself with a retired prostitute in seedy Haiphong and spent every evening dreaming of the happy China he’d once known, continually promising himself to finish the journey and return to China, knowing deep down he never will, happy to live with his mirage.

The Letter (1924 – Singapore – 3rd) An absolutely riveting story, told from the point of view of the family lawyer – Mr Joyce – defending a white woman – Lesley Crosbie- accused of murder. She claims that tall, good-looking Geoff Robinson came to her bungalow late at night and tried to rape her so she defended herself in a blind panic, grabbing a gun which went off in her hand. Now she is in gaol awaiting the trial which should be a formality leading her to release when – the lawyer’s Chinese assistant mentions to him the existence of ‘a letter’.

The Chinaman explains that only days before his death, Robinson had received a letter from Lesley begging him to come and see her. The lawyer realises that the existence of such a letter implies a relationship between the defendant and the murdered man and would completely change the complexion of the case. The sleek, inscrutable Chinese assistant goes on to say that he has a friend who possesses the letter, and will sell it for $10,000.

This is a huge amount but when Joyce goes to meet Lesley’s husband, Crosbie, at the club, the latter in his simple-mindedness, immediately vows to raise the cash. And so, late that night, Joyce and Crosbie are taken by the Chinese to a creepy room above a native store where a fat Chinese with a gold necklace (gangster bling even in those days) takes the cash and hands over the letter.

The trial goes ahead and, in the absence of the letter, Lesley is indeed released. Only when the couple get back to Joyce’s house does Crosbie confront his wife with the truth and storm out. And then the apparently mild, frail and posh Lesley confesses everything to the horrified lawyer. She and Robinson had been having an affair for years. It was her passion, her whole life. Then she learned that he was seeing a Chinese woman and sent the letter demanding a meeting to confront him. At this midnight meeting Lesley goaded Robinson so much that finally he snapped and said he no longer loved her, and had been living with the Chinese woman all along. At which point Lesley cold-bloodedly shot him six times at point blank range.

Lesley finishes telling all this to the stunned lawyer, gets up and walks out leaving him, as so many of Maugham’s storytellers, stunned with horror at the depths of human passion.

The Outstation (1924 – Malaysia – I) A new assistant, Cooper, arrives to help British resident Warburton at an isolated outstation in Malaya. They do not get on. Warburton is an upper-class snob who blew a fortune hanging out with England’s finest aristocrats – a natural gentleman – whereas new boy Cooper was born and educated in Barbados and has a chip on his shoulder about being an outsider. But, counter-intuitively, it is Warburton, the snob, the one who dresses impeccably for dinner every day in that ridiculous imperial way, who in fact understands and likes the Malays, who speaks fluent Malay and rules them wisely, loves the people so much that he wants to be buried there when he dies. And it is Cooper, fiercely anti-snob who is, paradoxically, harsh and bullying to his Malay servants.

Warburton, seeing Cooper alienate and enrage the Malays, writes an official request for Cooper to be transferred but this is rejected. So Warburton lets Cooper bully his houseboy and all the other servants and Malays he come sin contact with, so severely that, with complete inevitability, Cooper is one night murdered in his sleep. Warburton goes about the formalities with scrupulous efficiency, but in his heart rejoices.

The Portrait Of A Gentleman (1925 – Korea – 1st) At a loose end in Seoul, Maugham comes across an old copy of The Complete Poker Player by one Mr John Blackbridge, published in 1879. This is barely a story, just a series of quotes to back up Maugham’s claim that the book is the most perfect example of an author unconsciously painting a self-portrait that he knows of. In fact, neither the book nor the quotes Maugham chooses are particularly impressive. Maugham was conventional in  his tastes and opinions.

Raw Material (1923 – Shanghai – 1st) Maugham tells us he had always wanted to write a novel about card sharps. In Shanghai, and then in Peking, he meets two Americans who like playing cards in the clubs and bars he frequents – elegant little Campbell and big, bearish Peterson. Maugham becomes convinced they are professional card sharps and that their claims of being a banker and mining engineer, respectively, are just ‘cover’ stories. Maugham takes careful notes of their conversation and method of play, so as to use them in future stories. Imagine his chagrin when, back in New York, at a smart salon, he is introduced to… none other than Campbell and Peterson, who really are a banker and a mining engineer. How disappointing. How silly an author’s whims and fancies.

Straight Flush (1929 -Aboard ship – 1st) Aboard ship on a very rough passage in the North Pacific, Maugham encounters two old millionaires, Mr Rosenbaum and Mr Donaldson who tell him the stories of why they, separately, gave up poker: Donaldson because he took part in a game out West where two brothers fell out and one shot the other dead right in front of him; and Rosenbaum because during a fateful game he realised he was going so blind he could no longer see a straight flush when he had one.

The End Of The Flight (1926 – Borneo – 1st) Maugham stays with the District Officer in a remote town on the north coast of Borneo, who proceeds to tell him a story about the last man to sleep in the spare bedroom, an extremely nervy Dutchman who was fleeing from a native, an Achinese, who he had offended and who was convinced that this man had followed him to towns all across the East.

Here, in this out of the way spot, he thought he would finally be safe, but nonetheless locked the door and windows and got into bed with a gun by his side. But in the morning the District Officer had to break the locked door down and found the man dead in his bed, with a kris (the Malay dagger) placed carefully on his neck.

Maugham and the officer both look at the bed where all this happened and in which Maugham is set to sleep that night. Sweet dreams, says the Officer.

A Casual Affair (1934 – Borneo – 1st) As so often Maugham is staying with a District Officer in an out-of-the-way part of the British Empire, this time in Borneo, an amiable little man named Low and his wife, Bee.

As usual there’s a fair bit of circumlocution before we come to the ‘story’. This is that Low is called to attend the corpse of a white man found in a scrappy Chinese slum, his only belongings a suitcase containing a package with a written message requesting it be hand-delivered to the extremely posh Lady Kastellan in London. When Low opens the package it turns out to contain forty or so love letters written by the man, signed only as J., to this Lady Kastellan, detailing the course of a passionate love affair. Low’s wife insists on reading all the letters and drawing her own conclusions. Low then tells Maugham that on his next trip back to England he took the package to Lady Kastellan’s and she accepted it without a tremor, their interview being interrupted by the entrance of Lord Kastellan. During their brief conversation Lady K confirmed the man’s identity as dashing Jack Almond.

Now, the point of the story is that it allows Maugham to show his skill in delineating character: for a start the contrasting characters of Mr and Mrs Low back in Borneo, both essentially comic creations.

It goes on to give a terrifically acute description of Mr Low’s resentment at being treated as a common tradesman by the immensely self-possessed and superior Lady Kastellan. We now understand how the entire anecdote started – with the fact that the Lows happened to glimpse Maugham at a fantastically posh party given by Lady Kastellan, on the occasion of Low’s trip back to England when he delivered the package. They didn’t know her at all but she obviously thought it shrewd, after Mr Low had given her the letters, to invite them. The story is enlivened by Mrs Low’s chagrin at buying a dress specially for this party which turned out to make no impression at all among the millionaire ball gowns.

And this in turn adds spice to Mrs Low’s malicious dislike of Lady Kastellan for leading Jack Almond such a merry dance.

But there’s more: because it’s only when Lady Kastellan mentions Jack’s name that Low realises that he himself knew young Jack as a dashing handsome chap out East, a nice chap who played tennis, drank at the club etc, and was the life and soul for five years, until he went back to England.

From that trip he returned a broken man, fell into dissipation, and disappeared off the social scene. And it turns out that Maugham himself knew Jack during his own brief involvement with the Foreign Office where Jack had been a junior official.

With all the evidence to hand, Maugham now speculates that Jack and Lady Kastellan had a passionate affair but that Lord Kastellan found out. To avoid the threat of scandal it was agreed that Jack would quit his Foreign Office job and be packed off to the colonies, but for five long years he had continued to carry a torch, convinced that Lady Kastellan secretly loved him and would eventually leave her husband for him. Obviously, on that trip back to England, she had calmly disabused him of this notion, and Jack had realised that all his dreams were ashes. He came back to the East a broken man and let himself go to pot.

The story of a disappointed love affair is relatively straightforward. But Maugham manages a) to tell it in an extremely complex and sophisticated way, combining fragments and different points of view of a number of characters, a technique which b) sheds a tremendous light on the psychology of the characters he’s created – on Mr Low, on Bee his wife, on Lady Kastellan and even on the briefly glimpsed Lord Kastellan.

It is a work of tremendous sophistication in every sense – in the airy confidence with which it describes life and manners at the top of the aristocratic tree, as well as its completely convincing description of colonial life – and in the high artfulness of its construction and telling.

Red (1921 – An island near Samoa – 3rd) This is a wonderful story. The fat, raddled old Yankee captain of a schooner puts into a remote island and makes his way to the hut of an isolated European. He’s come to bring supplies to a trader down the coast but could do with a guide to take him there. In the hut is a fat old Swede gone to seed named Neilson, surrounded by books and a piano. Neilson (as usually happens in  Maugham tale) proceeds to tell his life story.

He was 25, a philosophy lecturer, diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one year to live so he decided to travel. He fell in love with the South Seas. He came to this island, stumbled across this particularly beautiful spot and heard about the Love Story connected to it. The story was this:

Years earlier, an American sailor with long pre-Raphaelite red hair – and so nicknamed ‘Red’ – had deserted his ship and fetched up here, falling in love with a beautiful native girl, who he called Sally. He was 20, she was 16, their love was pure and true. He built the hut and they lived together in perfect bliss. After a year he heard that an American ship had anchored outside the reef and paddled out with a native friend to see if he could swap coconuts for real tobacco, which was the one thing which was hard to get in his idyllic life. But the crew slipped Red a mickey fin and, while unconscious, shanghaied i.e. kidnapped him – the native being thrown back over the side, to regain his canoe and return to tell Sally what had happened. Sally was distraught but never gave up hoping that Red would one day return.

A few years later Neilson pitched up looking for somewhere to live out his last year of life, fell in love with the island, with this spot and with the grieving native girl, still young and beautiful. He listened to Sally’s story, became friends with her family, realised he was falling in love with her, and launched a campaign to marry her. Eventually, she acquiesced and married him, but Neilson was never happy because he realised that he never truly possessed her. Always Sally remained faithful to her memory of Red.

25 years have passed. The healthy climate and modest diet ended up curing Neilson’s TB and he lived on here while the native girl got fat and blowsy (as did he).

Neilson had gone off into a storyteller’s trance as he told all this. Now he comes out of it to realise that the jolly fat sea captain opposite him is chuckling in a crude, horrible way. Suddenly he has a flash of insight and asks the captain… can it be… could he be… Yes, the captain confirms. He’s an old seadog known around the islands as Red – though it’s a long time since he had that full head of hair.

So this is the man who kept Sally’s heart from him, who stymied Neilson’s happiness, who ruined both of their lives. He feels a flash of anger, a wish to smash up everything. But the captain is looking at him, chuckling. At that point fat old Sally comes in to serve tea and for a moment Neilson has the opportunity to explain to her that this is the slim young hero she has cleaved to all her long life.

But the moment passes: what would be the point? She goes out and Neilson calls a local to guide the captain to the trader down the coast.

Neil Macadam (1932 – Singapore – 3rd) One of Maugham’s longest stories, at 40 pages, this one describes the arrival of young, earnest, virginal Scot, Neil Macadam, to be assistant curator at the museum at Kuala Solor curated by the kindly, older Scot Angus Munro. Munro’s wife Darya is the daughter of a Russian general and princess, who Munro saved from a life of poverty in Japan. While the old man is a passionate and honest naturalist, his wife is a crazy, impulsive, passionate Russian, mad about Turgenev and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, unconventionally taking the cigarettes out of shy Macadam’s lips to smoke them herself, or talking with grating candour about sexual and other bodily functions.

At the club in town, when Macadam innocently announces that the Munros have invited him to stay on with them, some of the young bloods snigger and say he isn’t the first one to be seduced by Mrs Munro. At which puritanical Macadam punches the man who said this.

Then Munro announces that he and Macadam are going on a month-long expedition upriver into the jungle to catch specimens and that, unusually, Darya has volunteered to come with. And it’s on this trip that Darya makes her intentions increasingly plain, whenever Munro’s back is turned: she loves Macadam, she can’t do without him, he is so young and virile etc. She surprises him bathing in a pool naked and strips and gets in herself before he can stop her. She tries to sneak into his tent to seduce him but Macadam makes a great fuss to wake up Munro. And so on. She tries everything to have sex with him; Madadam keeps nobly putting her off.

Finally Munro goes off on a lengthy solo exploration from the main camp which they’ve established, and Darya spends the whole afternoon trying to wear down Macadam’s resistance to her. Up till now he’s taken the moral high ground that he can’t possibly betray the trust of a man he respects so much, but when quite literally push comes to shove he admits, at least to himself (and the reader) that he dislikes sex, finds it messy and disgusting, and that is why he is still a virgin.

Darya physically assaults him, trying to kiss him, then biting the hand Macadam puts up between their mouths, provoking him so much that he punches her quite hard, and takes to his feet, fleeing into the jungle. Darya staggers to her feet and hurries after him. On and on they run. Finally in a clearing somewhere he stops exhausted and she unveils her final weapon: if he won’t love her, she will tell Munro that he tried to rape her. The bruise on her face, the bitemark in his hand, everything will incriminate him. Her eyes glow red with triumph. She walks slowly towards her prey: and Macadam turns and flees again, running, running, running he knows not where.

Eventually, exhausted, he stops, completely lost. But he has a compass and he knows the direction of the camp. It takes over an hour but by careful navigation he arrives back at parts of jungle which he recognises, then, finally, at the camp.

At the end of the day Munro arrives back from  his trip and asks where Darya is. ‘Oh, isn’t she in her room?’ asks Macadam, all innocently. Munro rummages round the camp, then asks the Chinese servants. No-one knows where she is. Panic-stricken, Munro organises the Dyak bearers into search parties, one led by young Macadam, one by himself, and they set off to triangulate the jungle. But Macadam knows they won’t find her, he knows they ran for ages into the jungle, he has no idea where. He had a compass, but she didn’t.

Clouds gather over the mountains. Then a tremendous tropical storm comes howling down, splitting the night with lightning, deafening them with thunder.

Macadam knows he has done his duty by his host and his own morality. His heart is pure.

Brief thoughts

Love The stories are all about love. War and peace, diplomacy and politics, all social issues and any interesting ideas about art and culture, are all banished from his stories. Love, passion, marriage, infidelity, murder and suicide are his subject.

Artfulness A large part of the enjoyment is the ornate elaborateness of the initial settings within which the stories eventually come to be told. Sometimes the frame narrative about a planter or resident or a dinner party or a shipboard encounter is as subtle and enjoyable as the central tale.

Travel What a lucky man Maugham was, to have travelled so widely and seen so much. Nowadays travel is a) expensive b) ruined by overpopulation and airplanes, package holidays and cars c) made difficult by dangerous political regimes or wars. But Maugham wandered at will through Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia and China with perfect ease and security, and his stories transport you back to that simpler, less violent age.

Social history Having now read all his short stories, I see how they provide a wealth of social history of two broad types:

  1. the culture, lives, expectations and behaviour of white men in the colonies of the Far East and the Pacific
  2. the culture, language and behaviour of the English upper classes in England, from the Edwardian decade through into the 1920s and little into the 1930s

On both counts, Mauagham’s stories are a treasure trove of fascinating linguistic, cultural, behavioural and fashion history.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

This is nowhere near a complete bibliography. Maugham also wrote countless articles and reviews, quite a few travel books, two books of reminiscence, as well as some 25 successful stage plays and editing numerous anthologies. This is a list of the novels, short story collections, and the five plays in the Pan Selected Plays volume.

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1898 The Making of a Saint (historical novel)
1899 Orientations (short story collection)
1901 The Hero
1902 Mrs Craddock
1904 The Merry-go-round
1906 The Bishop’s Apron
1908 The Explorer
1908 The Magician (horror novel)
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

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

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

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before the Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1948 Quartet (portmanteau film using four short stories –The Facts of Life, The Alien Corn, The Kite and The Colonel’s Lady)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1950 Trio (film follow-up to Quartet, featuring The Verger, Mr. Know-All and Sanatorium)
1951 The Complete Short Stories in three volumes
1952 Encore (film follow-up to Quartet and Trio featuring The Ant and the GrasshopperWinter Cruise and Gigolo and Gigolette)

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

Related links

Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.

Summary

Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.

***

When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Credit

Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

Related links

The Life of Graham Greene volume II 1939-1955 by Norman Sherry (1994)

It’s lucky I have a masochistic trend and a feeling for squalor. (p.114)
I do seem to muck up everyone I love. (p.406)

The three volumes of Professor Norman Sherry’s epic life of Graham Greene were published in 1989, 1994, and 2004. This volume, number two, covers the period 1939 to 1955, which saw the publication of the three novels which constitute Greene’s claim to greatness: The Power and The Glory (1940), The Heart of The Matter (1948), The End of The Affair (1951).

Sherry spent 28 years on his biography, travelling to all the places Greene visited, interviewing everyone who’d ever known him, and the man himself. Critics have mentioned Sherry’s occasional odd phrasing or uneven attitude towards his subject, but any faults pale into insignificance beside the scale of the achievement and thoroughness of his detective work. This volume is a fascinating and detailed insight into Graham Greene, a wretched, miserable man who had the gift of making everyone close to him wretched and miserable while becoming widely revered by the world of letters for producing a stream of novels about wretched, miserable men.

Greene’s character

Suicidal Surely Greene was the most suicidally depressed of all significant British authors. A shy, sensitive boy, he was bullied at school and made a series of suicide attempts before his parents sent him to a psychoanalyst. But thoughts of suicide stayed with him all his life and much of his behaviour can be interpreted as (to quote the title of his autobiography) ‘ways of escape’ from an existence he routinely found unbearable. (I am struck by the fact the one way of escape Greene didn’t consider was physical exercise: walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, jogging, tennis or team sports? Nope, not a glimpse, not a mention. Drinking, feeling sorry for himself and writing about misery were his main occupations. And sex with prostitutes and adultery.)

Part Five of the biography, covering his travels to the Far East during the period of the Malaya Emergency and the Vietnam Insurgency, is titled The Death Seeker. Again and again he hopes his plane will crash or he will be kidnapped, shot or blown up by the rebels in the countries he visited. Libby Getz is quoted as saying Greene’s deepest wish was to be ‘crucified on an anthill in a third world country.’ (p.385)

Longed for death to come here with an ambush, on this coloured evening. (p.386)

Selfish He was a monster of selfishness and egotism whose biography can be reduced to a fairly simple, and familiar, formula. 1. He was profoundly depressive and suicidal since adolescence. 2. He could only escape these moods by writing, drinking or being ‘in love’ – in a small way, going with prostitutes, in a bigger way, having love affairs. Thus: He was unfaithful to his wife Vivien, with Dorothy Glover, for some 8 years; then he dumped her when he ‘fell in love with’ the married American woman, Catherine Walston. These tangled relationships, and the permanent sense of self-pitying guilt he felt about them, gave Greene the material for Heart of The Matter and End of The Affair.

Now, millions of people have had affairs, got divorced, got on with their lives (for example most of the classic American male novelists). They have a tough-minded practical approach. But not Greene. On page 288 Sherry says Greene confessed, while discussing his affairs, to his own moral cowardice. This is the key to the man and the works. He was psychologically sensitive and weak enough to fully imagine the pain and hurt he was causing his loved ones by betraying them; but he lacked the character, the morality, the backbone, simply not to do it: not to have affairs; not to hurt the ones he loved. The trap in which Scobie and to some extent Bendrix find themselves isn’t a sophisticated moral and theological predicament – as it is blown up to be in the books. It is a trap entirely of their own making and caused entirely by their own feebleness.

A few priests and Catholic friends modestly suggested he not have affairs but stay true to his marriage vows, faithful to his wife and religion. On page 278 he goes to confession with an unfamilair priest. The priest listens to the whole sorry saga and suggests he return to his wife, give up his adultery, and stop seeing his lover. Quite rational practical advice. It is entertaining to read how outraged Greene was. ‘You’ve never heard anything so fantastic,’ he writes to Catherine about the experience, and he storms out of the confessional, saying, ‘Father, I have to find another confessor’. Ie one who will acquiesce in his immorality, unfaithfulness and sinning. That is the picture of Roman Catholicism that emerges from this book: you can pick and choose the rules you want to obey, and shop around for a priest who will indulge your sins, all the time feeling smugly superior to those ignorant atheists who know nothing of the majesty of your suffering.

There’s no doubt Greene was miserable as sin a lot of the time; but also that he kind of reveled and glories in this specialness this gave him.

When his long-suffering wife confronts him with his adultery and reminds him of his marriage vows and a father’s responsibility to his children, Greene resorts to emotional blackmail and threatens to kill himself (p.286). It beggars belief that his fans hold up this selfish, hypocritical weakling as a moral or spiritual guide to the times.

Love of destruction When War came and Greene was in London during the Blitz, he revelled in it. He wasn’t the only man to see war as a potential solution to his intractable personal problems, not least the dilemma of choosing between wife or mistress. The Wikipedia article on the Blitz states: ‘Starting on 7 September 1940, London was bombed by the Luftwaffe for 57 consecutive nights. More than one million London houses were destroyed or damaged, and more than 40,000 civilians were killed.’ Though horrified on a human level at the suffering he witnessed, on an imaginative level, Greene loved it.

Greene appeared to relish destruction and death: indeed, he seemed to believe that the world deserved it. (p.52)

This is one version of the ‘trahison des clercs‘: wanting to see the whole world punished for what, in the end, were his own very personal misery (suicidal depression), intellectual confusion (twisted Catholicism) and squalid deception (affair with Dorothy Glover). Malcolm Muggeridge knew Greene well throughout this period ‘and I remember the longing he had for a bomb to fall on him.’ (p.53) an attitude repeated in the fiction.

Death never mattered at those times – in the early years I even used to pray for it. (The End of The Affair, p.70)

Just possibly plenty of other Londoners didn’t relish the Blitz, being blown to pieces, killed and maimed and seeing their City destroyed. But wherever he went, the world and all the people in it were, for Greene, just an incidental backdrop and bit part players in the melodrama of his personal anguish.

Writing machine

Greene was a writing machine. Fear of returning to the absolute poverty he and his wife had experienced in the early 1930s drove him on to accept all the work he was offered, and he was continually pitching ideas for articles, reviews, series, features, short stories, pamphlets and so on, to his agent, newspapers, magazines and publishers. His output is formidable.

From life

Everything was grist to the mill. He recycled huge amounts of his own life into (often thinly-veiled) fiction. His big foreign trips to West Africa (1935) and Mexico (1938) were turned into travel books, but also formed the bases of the big novels, The Heart of The Matter and The Power and The Glory. His wartime experiences of the Blitz were recycled into The Ministry of Fear; his passionate affair with Catherine Walston provides the basis for The End of The Affair. His post-War visits to Vietnam provided the atmosphere and many of the characters of The Quiet American.

Libel worries In the latter book he admits in the Dedication giving a lead character (a call girl) the same name as one of his hosts, Phuong. Presumably she didn’t mind. However, copying real people directly into his fiction caused problems more than once:

  • Journey Without Maps was withdrawn soon after publication because the publishers, Heinemann, feared a libel case.
  • Greene was forced by his publishers to pay the costs of reprinting pages in his breakthrough novel, Stamboul Train, because JB Priestly thought the satirical figure of a contemporary Northern popular novelist was based on him.
  • The Power and the Glory had to be tweaked because the dentist figure, Mr Trench, who, rather incongruously, appears at the opening and end of the novel, was rather too obviously based on a dentist who Greene met in Mexico, one Mr Carter.
  • The End of The Affair is based on his own all-consuming affair with Catherine Walston, and while he manages to change her name to Sarah in the novel, Catherine’s husband’s name was Harry and the fictional Sarah’s husband’s name is Henry. Some of Henry Walston’s friends encouraged him to sue, not only about the name but the resemblance of aspects of his private life to the ficitonal Henry.

On the other hand, non-white people could be used at will. Scobie’s ‘boy’ in Heart of the Matter is named Ali, the name of Greene’s ‘boy’ in Freetown. He was unlikely to sue.

Spy

Greene’s uncle, Sir Graham Greene, was one of the founders of Naval Intelligence in the First War. His sister, Elizabeth, worked as secretary to the head of SIS in the Middle East, Cuthbert Bowley. She later married the head of SIS Cairo section, later in charge of Turkey. Working for the intelligence services was in the family.

  • Throughout 1941 he is canvassed by the Secret Information Service (SIS), precursor to MI6 and eventually recruited. October & November training at Oriel College, Oxford. December 1941 sails for West Africa. 3 January 1942 docked at Freetown, Sierra Leone. 13 January flies to Lagos. 8 March transfers back to Freetown. He is agent 59200, attached to Freetown CID. During his training Greene was managed by Kim Philby.
  • From Freetown he hired and paid agents to spy on the neighbouring colonies run by Vichy France, searching ships coming through Freetown for industrial diamonds vital for the German war effort, trying to identify and, if possible, ‘turn’ German agents in Sierra Leone.
  • By March 1943 he was back in Britain having argued with his immediate boss, been offered another position but resigned. He reported to SIS headquarters in St Albans where for a year he ran espionage operations in Portugal, a nest of intrigue, under the direction of Kim Philby. They regularly had lunch at the local pub in St James’s.
  • June 1944 resigns SIS and goes to work at the Politicial Intelligence Department, developing a propaganda pamphlet to be dropped on Vichy France. Greene later doubted it was ever dropped.

Sherry’s account of Greene’s spying career is absolutely fascinating and includes excerpts from contemporary training manuals and memos which explain the trade.

Though Greene’s formal and recorded work for SIS ceases there, towards the end of this volume spying returns in several forms.

  1. Greene makes two extensive visits to Vietnam in the early 1950s, travelling widely, including to the frontline, speaking to a number of the key players. Ostensibly he was being paid a tidy sum by Life magazine but Sherry speculates that he may have been passing information back to the ‘old firm’. The French authorities certainly thought so.
  2. On a side note it is interesting to learn that the British film producer Alexander Korda, who produced The Fallen Idol and The Third Man, was an MI6 spy. He was asked to leave Britain at the start of the War (for which he was heavily criticised in the Press) and set up film production offices in New York and Los Angeles to provide cover for British agents working in still-neutral America. He received a knighthood for his services.
  3. Greene became strikingly anti-American during these years: his light-hearted membeship of the Communist Party came back to haunt him in adult life when, under McCarthyism, the American authorities became very difficult about issuing him a visa and he experienced hassle at customs and was expelled from Puerto Rico. It is well-known that this anti-Americanism suffuses The Quiet American, which is an indictment of the naivete of US policy in Vietnam. Sherry speculates that Greene’s anti-American stance may have been an elaborate ‘cover’ which gave him closer access to anti-American movements aroud the world – information which could be fed back to ‘the old firm’.
  4. Lastly, there is Greene’s notorious loyalty to his friend Kim Philby, the charismatic and effective spymaster who nearly made it to head of MI6, and was revealed as a KGB double agent in 1963 when he fled to Moscow. He wrote articles defending Philby’s ‘loyalty’ to an idea, and wrote an introduction to Philby’s self-justifying autobiography, My Silent War. This caused a storm of criticism to fall on his head. Sherry makes the interesting speculation that this, also, was a ‘cover’; that Greene very clearly positioned himself as almost Philby’s only friend in the West- and thus kept a lifeline open to him if he had wanted, in any way, to feed information back to ‘the old firm’. Sounds unlikely. But once you’ve read enough true-life stories about espionage – about agents, double agents and triple agents – you realise stranger things have in fact happened.

To the extent that he established contact with Philby after his defection, Greene was helping his country’s intelligence services, and, in a larger sense, was patriotically defending its security. (p.496)

Films

Greene was spectacularly successful in getting his fictions turned into movies, generally very good ones. Sherry’s book contains fascinating insights into the amounts involved, the negotiations, and the process of turning novels into screenplays.

  • In May 1942 the Hollywood movie version of A Gun For Hire was released as This Gun For Hire, directed by Frank Tuttle and starring Veronica Lake and Alan Ladd.
  • In December 1942 his short story The Lieutenant Died Last is converted into an impressive film, Went The Day Well, directed by Alberto Cavalcanti and produced by Michael Balcon of Ealing Studios.
  • Towards the end of 1942 he completed The Ministry of Fear in Sierra Leone (published in 1943) and his agents sold it to Parmount Studios for £3,250, leading to the movie version, directed by Fritz Lang and starring Ray Milland and Marjorie Reynolds, released in October 1944.
  • In June 1947 producer Alexander Korda and director Carol Reed contacted Greene about filming his short story, The Basement Room. Greene adapted his own story into a screenplay which was then shot the next year and the film released in September 1948 under the title The Fallen Idol.
  • Korda wanted to capture the strange atmosphere of post-War Vienna on film. He asked Greene if he had anything and Greene produced the famous sentence about having been present at a funeral and then months later seeing the buried man walk by him in the Strand. From this seed was born The Third Man, released to much acclaim in August 1949.
  • Greene did some work on the Hollywood version of his novel The End of The Affair, released in 1955, directed by Edward Dmytryk and starring Deborah Kerr, Van Johnson, Peter Cushing and John Mills.

Key events

  • 1940 – The Power and The Glory is published just as the War enters a new and more serious phase, thus ensuring bad sales.
  • 1940 – Greene packs his wife Vivien and children off to the country and promptly takes a mistresss, Dorothy Glover, a short, stocky, unprepossessing woman of strong character. As the War progresses Greene keeps putting Vivien off, cancelling visits to her and the kids. But it takes years and years of painful correspondence, arguments and tears before they confront the situation and arrange a separation in 1948. Despite Greene’s repeated threats to commit suicide, Vivien refuses to divorce him.
  • 1940-41 – Greene serves as an air raid warden during the Blitz, seeing terrible things and running great personal risks. The experience cements his relationship with Dorothy, who is with him throughout the dangerous times.
  • Works at the Ministry of Information from April to September 1940. Farcical bureaucracy, satirised in the short story, Men At Work.
  • By Spring 1941 he is running the arts section of The Spectator single-handed.
  • 1941 October & November SIS training at Oriel College, Oxford. December sails for West Africa.
  • March 1943 – June 1944 works for SIS in St Albans, then St James’s, London.
  • July 1944 leaves government service to work for publishers Eyre and Spottiswoode.
  • June-October 1945 weekly Book review slot for the Evening Standard.
  • 1947 and 48 collaborates with Carol Reed on the Fallen Idol and The Third Man.
  • October 1948 resigns as director of Eyre & Spottiswoode.
  • 1948 – climax of his emotional life as he separates from his wife, splits from his lover of eight years, Dorothy, and commits to his American lover, Catherine Walston, who, however, torments him by her absences and by continuing to take other lovers, while all the time living with her husband (who himself has affairs). As you can tell from her behaviour she is, of course, a devout Roman Catholic.
  • 1948 – September: Publication of The Heart of The Matter, which becomes a bestseller and makes him world-famous.
  • 1949 – the movie The Third Man reinforces Greene’s celebrity. Now he is photographed and mobbed wherever he goes, has to give readings and signings and is bombarded with requests for interviews.
  • 1950-51 – travels to Malaya to observe the Emergency, then on to Vietnam to observe the communist insurgency against the French. All the time he is fleeing the unhappiness of his relationship with Catherine Walston who refuses to leave her husband to marry him. In Vietnam he smokes his first pipe of opium.
  • 1952 – back to Vietnam and witnesses real military action and the decay of the military-political situation.
  • 1952-3 – Greene writes and is heavily involved in the production of his first play, The Living Room – young Rose offers herself to Michael, her mother’s executor, they have a brief affair, but he can’t commit to her as his Catholic wife refuses a divorce. Sound familiar? The anguished Rose kills herself. The play was a success, but critics were getting used to Greene’s Catholic schtick. One wrote: the real protagonist was ‘the conscience of Mr Greene tying itself in knots and taking heavy punishment in the process’. Another described the play as: ‘An orgy of sin, suffering and tragedy in the true Graham Greene manner.’
  • Nobel Prize: the play was premiered in Stockholm in 1952 and was violently criticised by Artur Lindkvist, who hated Greene and hated Catholicism. Unfortunately for Greene, Lindkvist was chair of the body which decides Nobel Prizes and he went on record as saying Greene would get the Nobel Prize for literature over his dead body. And he never did.
  • Autumn 1953 – tours Kenya to observe the Mau Mau insurgency (all the while hoping to be killed).
  • August 1954 – first trip to Haiti, later to be the setting of his novel The Comedians.
  • October 1954 – the French officially withdraw their forces from Vietnam. Greene continues writing The Quiet American which is published December 1955, and whose anti-Americanism provokes a storm of anti-Greene criticism in the American press.

Main publications during this period

  • 1940 The Power and The Glory
  • 1943 The Ministry of Fear
  • 1948 The Heart of The Matter
  • 1951 The End of The Affair
  • 1953 The Living Room (play)
  • 1955 The Quiet American

Related links

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Passage of Arms by Eric Ambler (1959)

The title is literal. This longer-than-usual novel is a very detailed account of the passage of a small arms cache as it moves from the communist Malay bandits it originally belonged to, via a succession of intermediaries, on to Indonesian anti-communist insurgents. There is little or no violence for the first 160 pages. Instead, there are:

  • slow, patient, thorough and convincing portraits of each of the players in the game and of their various nationalities, British, Indian, Chinese, American and Indonesian
  • and lots of detail about the complicated import-export regulations of the region which, surprisingly, make for an interesting and satisfying story and a vivid insight into the people, mores, fragile political situations and murky business practices of the Far East of the 1950s.

The beginning and, especially, the ending, have the light feel of an Ealing Comedy rather than a gripping thriller.

The story

Girija Krishnan, the Indian manager of a white rubber plantation, has had a lifelong interest in British buses ever since his father went to England and visited a bus factory in Acton (!). He has treasured the brochure of buses since he was a boy, knows all the specs and descriptions, and harbours a fantasy about setting up a proper British-style bus service in the Malay jungle. It is the mid-1950s, and the Malay Emergency is at its height, ie westerners and their workers are threatened by jungle-based communist guerillas.

One day Krishnan is asked by the manager of the rubber plantation he works on to go and help in clearing up after some communist guerillas who have been ambushed and killed by British forces. Because he knows the area better than the British officer in charge of the ambush he deduces the guerillas must have been based nearby. And when he notices some of the rubber plantation workers who are digging the graves not being surprised at the bodies, he further deduces the guerillas have been hiding out near their village.

Krishnan sets out to investigate and his patient investigations eventually uncover the cache of brand new rifles, ammunition, grenades etc which is the McGuffin at the centre of the narrative.

As the ‘Emergency’ draws to a close, Girija Krishnan contacts a Chinese middle-man, Mr Tan Siow Mong. Their courteous and roundabout conversations wonderfully capture eastern delicacy and tact. Mr Tan himslf contacts his brother, Mr Tan Tack Chee.

The Chinese dealers know that they can sell on the arms but only if they have first been ‘authenticated’ by a white man, preferably an American. Coming out of nowhere they would be confiscated. Officially owned by a westerner they can be transported anywhere.

So Mr Tan tasks his niece’s husband, Khoo Ah Au, who chauffeurs tourists round Hong Kong, with finding a suitable American. After a few false starts, Khoo chances upon Greg Nilsen, the mid-western engineer on a cruising holiday with his wife which is going to take in Hong Kong, Manila, Saigon, Singapore. Perfect!

Hong Kong: The stealth with which Khoo slowly manoeuvres Greg Nilsen into becoming interested in the proposition is admirable and once he’s agreed, all sorts of wheels click into motion. Mr Tan comes to see Mr Nilsen in person and explains the deal. Simply for agreeing to be the legal owner of the shipment for however long it takes to find a buyer, Nilsen will be paid $1,000. He tells his wife. They both think it’s an adventure.

Singapore: Meanwhile, Mr Tan’s rather thuggish brother has been looking for a buyer and finds one in the blustering ex-British Army Captain Lukey. He claims to be the front man for muslim anti-communist insurgents in Sumatra. There is some fencing because although they are brought together by the unpleasant Tan Yam Heng, neither of them like him. Lukey takes the Nilsens out for an evening of curry and drinking over which he slowly persuades Nilsen that they can dispense with the services of the regrettable brother, Tan Yam Heng. Nilsen phones Mr Tan Siow Mong who reluctantly gives his permission (he will still make most of the profit on the sale).

Intelligence services: Nilsen has the unpleasant experience of being approached by a newspaperman for an interview about American tourists who invites him and Dorothy for lunch, introduces a friend of his and discreetly leaves. The friend turns out to be the middle-aged Colonel Soames, who has a position with British Intelligence in Singapore and knows all about this gun running exploit. He drops various hints and threats to Nilsen, who is not deterred…

Until Lukey tells him the cheque he will give him needs to be counter-signed in person by a representative of the Independent Party of the Faithful, an anti-communist Islamic insurgency in northern Sumatra, in the town of Labuanga – which is a plane journey away.

Nilsen hesitates big time: this is the first time he and  his wife have detoured from their holiday schedule for this business. But Dorothy thinks it will be an adventure to go off the beaten track, and so they agree to have their tickets bought for them and to go to Labuanga accompanied by Mrs Lukey.

Things turn nasty

It is here, about two-thirds into the novel, that it finally stops being a pleasant travelogue with interesting characters talking about import-export arrangements, and becomes increasingly tense. Labuanga is not an easy thirty-minute hop across the sea, it is a serious 2-hour flight to a monsoon-swept, muddy, filthy oil port. Here Greg and Dorothy are guided by Mrs Lukey to an isolated bungalow where they meet officials from the Independent Party of the Faithful, who are deeply suspicious of this fresh-faced American. Then, as they leave, the trap is sprung. They are surrounded by soldiers. Greg has the sense to put up his hands, but some of the others aren’t quick enough and are machine-gunned.

Greg is thrown into a filthy gaol cell with the Pole who, it quickly becomes clear, is a fascist who served with Nazi forces during the War. The American Consul, Hallett, visits and makes the situation clear: Nilsen has been caught illegally running guns to a banned insurgency; he may never see America again.

Gaol break

But the novel now moves through Drama into Melodrama as the rebels stage an attack on the gaol to free their Major Sutan before he is tortured to death by the Sumatran Army. The attack is successful but, rather improbably, the British and American consuls ring each other and decide they need to be at the gaol to protect their nationals: all of which leads to a complex situation where, amid the smoke from the bombs and slipping in the blood of the dead guards, the American Consul makes a Machiavellian suggestion to the leader of the rebels, Colonel Oda:

  • as and when they come to power, the muslim rebels will need American and British support – helping free these three prisoners will secure their governments’ friendship
  • General Iskaq will probably make out a safe passage for them, in exchange for the return of his deputy, Major Gani, in one piece

There’s more to it, involving the exchange of other hostages so neither side double crosses the other. The whole thing stretches credulity to snapping point.

Final act

And it’s as simple as that: Greg and Dorothy and Mrs Lukey are freed to be driven to the airport by the Consul, there guarded by the Army till a Malay Airlines cargo plane ships them back to Singapore, they make it back to their hotel, shower and sleep.

Nilsen is a lucky man: he now has a better grasp of what he got himself into. He asks British Intelligence officer Colonel Soames for a meeting, and thrashes out what he should do. They arrive at a plan which is to get Lukey’s counter-signature to the famous cheque, cash it at the bank but, instead of paying it into an account where Mr Tan can control it, cash the cheque and hand the money – all innocence – over to the diresputable gambling addict, Tan Yam Heng. Which is what they do.

When the news gets back to the respectable Tan brothers -Mr Tan Siow Mong and Mr Tan Tack Chee – they go very gratifyingly mental. They travel to Singapore for a tense family discussion with the errant brother who has, of course, gambled away over half the money.

Mr Tan returns to Kuala Pangkalan with not enough money to honour his cheque to Krishnan but is amazed when the Indian brushes it aside to reveal his fully worked-out plan to buy some reconditioned English buses, set up a service, on condition he has 50% of the shares and is general manager. The Chinaman is impressed by the Indian’s astuteness. Maybe they can have a beautiful future together…

Conclusions

  • Ambler is wonderfully cosmopolitan: once again the hero is American, not British, and almost all the other characters are non-British. The earlier novels gave a powerful sense of the politics and character of Eastern Europe. This and its predecessor do the same for the Far East.
  • Like the other post-War novels, particularly The Schirmer Inheritance, the book is patient and slow-moving, with a strong emphasis on legal and official procedures, the processes which allow the scam or plot to exist in the first place. This conveys a tremendous sense of verisimilitude and plausibility…
  • … up until the last 30 or 40 pages where the suddenly violent ‘thriller’ element comes in. Shame. Shame he couldn’t have devised a subtler climax with less bombs and bullets and bloodshed.

Dramatis personae

  • Mr Wright: rubber estate manager
  • Girija Krishnan: his Indian clerk, who discovers the dead guerrillas’ arms cache.
  • Mr Tan Siow Mong: manager of the Anglo-Malay Transport Company which receives and ships Mr Wright’s rubber: Girija turns to him for advice on how to dispose of the cache.
  • Mr Tan Tack Chee: Mr Tan’s brother
  • Tan Yam Heng: Mr Tan’s other brother, in Singapore, a disreputable gambler: uses the pseudonym Mr Lee when he meets Krishnan, then later takes delivery of the arms one dark, tense night.
  • Greg Nilsen: American engineer and manager of a die-casting factory. An innocent abroad.
  • Dorothy: his wife.
  • Arlene: irritating, clumsy and rude American they get lumbered with on their cruise.
  • Khoo Ah Au: Mr Tan’s niece’s husband, who works as a taxi driver and guide for foreign tourists to Hong Kong and is tasked with finding a suitable American to act as legal ‘owner’ of the arms cache to make it legally shippable.
  • Colonel Soames: British police intelligence, Singapore: ‘discouraging the bad boys’. Tipped off about Nilsen’s activities, tries to warn him off.
  • Captain Lukey: disreputable ex-British Army, front man for the rebels in Sumatra ie potential purchasers of the cache. Persuades Nilsen to dump Tan Yam Heng and deal with him direct.
  • Betty: his stunning Eurasian wife: chaperones Greg and Dorothy to meeting with rebel representatives in a remote bungalow in the Sumatran port of Labuanga.
  • Major Sutan: official in the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • Captain Voychinski: Polish trainer to the Independent Party of the Faithful.
  • General Iskaq: military governor of the Labuanga District; violently dislikes all white people after watching, as a child, his father be beaten and humiliated by the Dutch colonists.
  • Major Gani: General Iskaq’s cocky deputy, secretly a communist conspiring to arm his party.

British

Everyone behaves sensibly and maturely and intelligently until we arrive at Singapore and meet the British characters, who are public school stereotypes, all ‘old boy’ and ‘dear chap’ and drink too much, are shifty and permanently compared to naughty schoolboys. Maybe our men in the colonies really were all like that. No wonder the Chinese and Indians despised them.

The Quiet American

One page 104 their Vietnamese guide insists on taking them to locations which feature in Graham Greene’s novel, The Quiet American the Continental hotel where the big bomb goes off, the bridge where the body of the American himself, Alden Pyle, is found. Greg is outraged that his country is giving aid to Vietnam whose tourist guides are promoting a vehemently anti-American novel. It is striking that Greene’s novel, published in 1955, had made sufficient impact to be referenced in a novel of 1959. Or is it some kind of joke between Ambler and Greene?

Related links

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Cover of the 1961 Fontana paperback edition of Passage of Arms

Eric Ambler’s novels

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

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

An Outcast of The Islands by Joseph Conrad (1896)

Joseph Conrad followed his 1895 debut, Almayer’s Folly, with a prequel, An Outcast of the Islands.

This longer, more substantial novel (295 pages to Almayer’s slender 167) is also set in an isolated backwater of the Malayan archipelago, and features largely the same characters, filling in a lot of Almayer’s backstory, but from a different perspective.

What is odd about the novel is the extent to which it almost replays the narrative arc of the previous one, with the central character another feeble white man abandoned up a distant tropical river among, outwitted by crafty Malays and Arabs, and slave to a mad passion for a native girl which brings him to ruin.

It’s the first novel all over again, but on twice the scale and much more obsessively despairing and nihilistic:

On Lingard’s departure solitude and silence closed round Willems; the cruel solitude of one abandoned by men; the reproachful silence which surrounds an outcast ejected by his kind, the silence unbroken by the slightest whisper of hope; an immense and impenetrable silence that swallows up without echo the murmur of regret and the cry of revolt.

Plot 

About 15 years before the climactic events of Almayer’s Folly, another Dutchman works in Hudig’s warehouse in Macassar, Peter Willems. He thinks he is a great successful man and has earned a big house and the hand of a beautiful Portuguese woman in marriage through his own abilities. But he steals and embezzles from his employer and his jealous rivals expose him. One fine morning he is sacked, ruined, and thrown out of his house.

He goes down to the jetty, distraught, contemplating suicide, but encounters the English buccaneer Tom Lingard who shatters his illusions by telling him old Hudig only set him up with the house because the Portuguese girl he’s married is in fact old Hudig’s illegitimate daughter. Far from being the swanky demigod he thought he was, Willems is only the patsy and tool of Hudig’s wishes.

Lingard offers to take him on, to take him to the new trading post in a new river on the east coast of Borneo where a colleague of his from Hudig’s, Kaspar Almayer, is setting up a trading station and expecting great things…. Weakly, Willems accepts and finds himself in Sambir, the same raddled trading post on the Panteir river as the disillusioned Almayer. Almayer’s daughter, Nina, is still small which helps us date it to 15 or so years prior to the first novel.

And now Willems is once again out of his depth in the small communities dotted along the river and run by a local ‘rajah’ and his wily, one-eyed Malay ex-pirate and fixer, Babalatchi. These conspire to make Willems fall ‘helplessly’ in love with the fetching daughter – Aissa – of another local potentate who has been brought there dying after a bloody fight with the Dutch authorities. Willems is meant to fall so totally under her spell that he is persuaded to help a mighty Muslim trader of the area, Syed Abdulla, navigate to Sambir, to land and establish his own trading post, in direct rivalry to Almayer and against the interests of his protector, Lingard. In his foolish exuberance Willems goes so far as to tie Almayer up and taunt him, waving a gun in his face.

Captain Lingard returns and there is a sequence of set-piece scenes: Almayer updates Lingard, Lingard canoes across the river to the native campong, Lingard is tempted by the wily Babalatchi who hands him a loaded rifle at dawn as Willems is set to appear at the door of his hut, hoping the white men will kill each other. Lingard does indeed confront Willems and punches him to the ground, but resists the temptation to do more, insisting that Willems will remain here, effectively a prisoner, as his punishment.

The Arabs and Malays have left the settlement, having gone to a new one upriver. Lingard also leaves. Willems is completely abandoned apart from the Malay girl, Aissa, who is genuinely but puzzledly in love with him.

But Almayer, goaded by Lingard’s failure to take revenge against Willems, takes his own: for unexplained reasons Lingard has brought and dumped at Almayer’s station the Portuguese wife Willems had abandoned in the opening chapters. Almayer now arranges for her to be paddled over to Willems’ isolated campong hoping that she will encourage Willems to get in the canoe and be paddled downstream to find ships at the sea some 15 miles away.

However, things don’t go to plan as Aissa confronts the newly reunited husband and wife, becomes hysterical with jealousy and, after Willems has hustled his wife back to the canoe and is returning, Aissa shoots Willems through the lung and kills him.

In the final few pages Conrad does what will become a habit with him and abruptly switches the point of view to some years later as the complacent Almayer retells the last few actions of the plot (burying Willems ‘body etc) to a passing explorer who has casually stopped at the station. Having the effect of distancing the action, and also making it seem trivial, just another yarn…

(In fact this mannerism will become standard operating procedure for the other great suicidal depressive of English literature, Graham Greene.)

Good

When he is good, Conrad is brilliant. I think he is best in:

Descriptions of the jungle, particularly the changing light of dawn or dusk.

Instinctively he glanced upwards with a seaman’s impulse. Above him, under the grey motionless waste of a stormy sky, drifted low black vapours, in stretching bars, in shapeless patches, in sinuous wisps and tormented spirals. Over the courtyard and the house floated a round, sombre, and lingering cloud, dragging behind a tail of tangled and filmy streamers—like the dishevelled hair of a mourning woman.

Non-white characters In painting the characters of the non-white characters: the esteemed Muslim trader Syed Abdulla, the local rajah Lakamba, his tricksy sidekick Babalatchi – they are painted with a foreignness or otherness which seems utterly plausible – the scenes in which they meet and conspire against the stupid white men are vivid and intricate.

Style In his not-quite-English style, his uneven way with English idioms regularly leads to odd but expressive forms, the askew angle of his prose adding to the exoticism of the subject matter.

In his unnervingly precise physical details, the way a man stumbles or hesitates or is distracted mid-sentence by a cloud or a fly, the way raindrops fall from wet hair or puddles form in mud, or cutlery clatters in a bowl:

The nose bled too. The blood ran down, made one moustache look like a dark rag stuck over the lip, and went on in a wet streak down the clipped beard on one side of the chin. A drop of blood hung on the end of some hairs that were glued together; it hung for a while and took a leap down on the ground. Many more followed, leaping one after another in close file. One alighted on the breast and glided down instantly with devious vivacity, like a small insect running away; it left a narrow dark track on the white skin.

Bad

But – twice the length of the first novel turns out to be just long enough for Conrad to reveal his weaknesses and for them to begin to really grate. These are:

Obscure plotting It is sometimes hard to understand what’s going on, since the events are often told from different people’s perspectives and new chapters leap back and forward in time. And when you do finally understand, it’s often disappointing. Weak white man is duped into falling for exotic siren who leads him to ruin. Hmmm.

Style Conrad’s rhetorical habits begin to grate. There’s a lot of repetition, a lot of drama and melodrama, a lot of passages which tip over from lush into overripe, into the frankly hysterical.

Psychology 300 pages is long enough to become a bit sick with Conrad’s worldview, which is one of overwhelming negativity, depression and despair. It would be one thing is one of the characters was rather depressive, but ALL the characters experience the same overwrought levels of fear, dread, despair, terror and existentialist angst, and all the time.

And the narrating voice, Conrad, is as depressed, disillusioned and defeated as the characters he describes:

They moved, patient, upright, slow and dark, in the gleam clear or fiery of the falling drops, under the roll of unceasing thunder, like two wandering ghosts of the drowned that, condemned to haunt the water for ever, had come up from the river to look at the world under a deluge.

How dark it was! It seemed to him that the light was dying prematurely out of the world and that the air was already dead.

He laughed. His laugh seemed to be torn out from him against his will, seemed to be brought violently on the surface from under his bitterness, his self-contempt, from under his despairing wonder at his own nature.

He felt a great emptiness in his heart. It seemed to him that there was within his breast a great space without any light, where his thoughts wandered forlornly, unable to escape, unable to rest, unable to die, to vanish—and to relieve him from the fearful oppression of their existence. Speech, action, anger, forgiveness, all appeared to him alike useless and vain, appeared to him unsatisfactory, not worth the effort of hand or brain that was needed to give them effect.

The anger of his outraged pride, the anger of his outraged heart, had gone out in the blow; and there remained nothing but the sense of some immense infamy—of something vague, disgusting and terrible, which seemed to surround him on all sides, hover about him with shadowy and stealthy movements, like a band of assassins in the darkness of vast and unsafe places.

It’s too much. Eventually a healthy reader reacts badly to being so continuously hectored by what are clearly Conrad’s own personal demons. He doesn’t just intrude his angsty worldview into the story, he soaks every sentence in negativity and slaps you in the face with it.

Is Conrad the most miserable novelist in English?

As he wrote in a letter to R. B. Cunninghame Graham in January 1898:

There is no morality, no knowledge and no hope; there is only the consciousness of ourselves which drives us about a world that whether seen in a convex or a concave mirror is always but a vain and floating appearance.

The epigraph of the book is a cheery quote from the Spanish playwright Calderon: Pues el delito mayor Del hombre es haber nacito, meaning: ‘Man’s greatest crime is to have been born’. Google tells me this quote is also referenced by Samuel Beckett, patron saint of depressives.

Maybe when I read this when I was 18 or 21 it had a powerful impact on me. Now it sounds silly and immature. Now that we are born, it makes sense to try and live with as much dignity and self respect as we can. In fact, you could try enjoying yourself, from time to time. Do some exercise. Go for a swim!

The relentlessness of Conrad’s despair also overloads his next novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus‘. That short tale was meant to be the story into which Conrad poured all his knowledge of the sea. If so, it is deeply disappointing since the barely detectable plot is overwhelmed by thousands of passages of Conradian despair and misery at the wretched fate of forlorn men abandoned in a heartless universe etc.

On the other hand, all the above helps explains the enduring appeal of Heart of Darkness which, in contrast to Outcast:

  1. Is short – so you don’t have a chance to get sick of Conrad’s ornate style and relentless negativity.
  2. Has a subject, the Belgians’ evil management of their Congo colony, which actually justifies the most extreme and witheringly misanthropist sentiments anybody could express. The subject, for once, matches the constant near-hysteria of his style.
  3. Conrad shapes a narrative arc, helped by the frame narrative of Marlow on the director’s yacht moored in the Thames, which gives an element of detachment and control to the horror. It makes the central narrative all the more aesthetically impactful, unlike the raw, unmediated emotions of the overwrought protagonists of Almayer and Outcast.

Movie 

The book was made into a movie in 1952, directed by Carol Reed, starring Trevor Howard, Ralph Richardson and Robert Morley. Sadly, the reviews on Amazon say it’s rubbish. The posters are great, though. They appear to have dropped the interminable moralising and gone for ‘the soft beautiful body of a woman’.


Related link

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

George du Maurier

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Rudyard Kipling

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

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