The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells (1896)

‘These creatures you have seen are animals carven and wrought into new shapes. To that, to the study of the plasticity of living forms, my life has been devoted.’ (Dr Moreau, chapter 14)

The main text is a ‘lost narrative’, in this case a written account of the adventures of Edward Prendick, which is found among his papers after his death by his nephew, Charles Edward Prendick, and is now being given to the public ‘for the first time’.

This is a time-honoured old literary convention but it always makes me perk up, as it promises a certain kind of text, an old-fashioned adventure narrative, much as Conan Doyle’s story The Horror of the Heights transcribes the ‘blood-stained notebook’ belonging to a Mr. Joyce-Armstrong, or the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is told through letters and diaries, the kind of textual fragments which also throng the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Shipwrecked

The story is simple enough in outline. Prendick describes how the schooner he’s a passenger on in the South Seas (The Lady Vain) hits a wreck and sinks. He scrambles into a dinghy with two others. After days without food or water, the two sailors he’s with attack each other and fall overboard. It is in this state, alone, half delirious and drifting in an open boat, that he is picked up by another schooner, the Ipecacuanha, and nursed back to health by a passenger on this boat, Montgomery, a former medical student.

The captain of the second boat is a disreputable drunk (John Davis) who argues incessantly with Montgomery and his strange, malformed manservant, not least about Montgomery’s cargo of wild animals – a pack of savage hounds, a caged puma and loads of rabbits.

When they reach their destination, a remote island, the drunken captain unloads Montgomery’s animals into a waiting launch steered by an aloof man who is obviously Montgomery’s boss – but then drunkenly insists that Prendick leave the ship, too. Montgomery refuses to take him, and so the drunk captain gets his men to manhandle Prendick into the boat’s dinghy which he sets adrift. Seeing all this, Montgomery and his boss reluctantly turn around their launch and come back for him.

The captain of the launch now introduces himself as Doctor Moreau. He is a big strong, grey-haired man who makes it quite plain to Prendick that he is an unintended and unwelcome guest, but that they couldn’t leave him to drift and die. Now he accompanies them in the boat which docks at a primitive quayside, where the animals are unloaded by yet more men who are strange and almost animal-like in appearance.

The island

And thus Prendick arrives on the island of Dr Moreau, and slowly realises that the good doctor is practicing vivisection – ‘performing operations on live animals for the purpose of experimentation or scientific research’ – before going on to make the horrific discovery – that he is operating on men, too.

I picked myself up and stood trembling, my mind a chaos of the most horrible misgivings. Could it be possible, I thought, that such a thing as the vivisection of men was carried on here? The question shot like lightning across a tumultuous sky; and suddenly the clouded horror of my mind condensed into a vivid realisation of my own danger. (Chapter 10)

Thus there is a secret at the heart of the island, which involves physical danger, and is potentially horrific – and Wells’s task as storyteller is to share Prendick’s slow unravelling of the secret, and to punctuate the narrative with scenes of jeopardy and horror.

Terror

For example, the day after he’s taken in and given a spare room in the ‘compound’, Prendick finds himself deeply disturbed by the sound of the screams of the puma. Moreau is clearly operating on it, with no anaesthetic, all day long. So Prendick goes for a wander around the island which, of course, is a bad idea, because, once he is in the forest, he becomes alert to strange sounds and snufflings, and realises that any number of horrible, misshapen half-men, are loping around it. In one shocking scene he glimpses one of these half-men go down on all fours to slurp water from a stream – just like an animal!

I read this scene late at night and, as I followed Prendick’s realisation that he is lost at night in a tropical jungle filled with half-human beasts – the hair literally stood up on the back of my neck. I read on in genuine fear as Prendick blunders through the darkness, realising he is being followed by something he can’t see, but whose inhuman gruntings and snufflings he can hear getting closer and closer.

A twig snapped behind me, and there was a rustle. I turned, and stood facing the dark trees. I could see nothing – or else I could see too much. Every dark form in the dimness had its ominous quality, its peculiar suggestion of alert watchfulness. So I stood for perhaps a minute, and then, with an eye to the trees still, turned westward to cross the headland; and as I moved, one among the lurking shadows moved to follow me.

My heart beat quickly. Presently the broad sweep of a bay to the westward became visible, and I halted again. The noiseless shadow halted a dozen yards from me. A little point of light shone on the further bend of the curve, and the grey sweep of the sandy beach lay faint under the starlight. Perhaps two miles away was that little point of light. To get to the beach I should have to go through the trees where the shadows lurked, and down a bushy slope.

I could see the Thing rather more distinctly now. It was no animal, for it stood erect. At that I opened my mouth to speak, and found a hoarse phlegm choked my voice. I tried again, and shouted, ‘Who is there?’ There was no answer. I advanced a step. The Thing did not move, only gathered itself together…

It was some time before I could summon resolution to go down through the trees and bushes upon the flank of the headland to the beach. At last I did it at a run; and as I emerged from the thicket upon the sand, I heard some other body come crashing after me. At that I completely lost my head with fear, and began running along the sand. Forthwith there came the swift patter of soft feet in pursuit. I gave a wild cry, and redoubled my pace. Some dim, black things about three or four times the size of rabbits went running or hopping up from the beach towards the bushes as I passed.

So long as I live, I shall remember the terror of that chase. I ran near the water’s edge, and heard every now and then the splash of the feet that gained upon me. Far away, hopelessly far, was the yellow light. All the night about us was black and still. Splash, splash, came the pursuing feet, nearer and nearer. I felt my breath going, for I was quite out of training; it whooped as I drew it, and I felt a pain like a knife at my side… (Chapter 9)

Exciting, eh? Note the (generally) short sentences. Aspects of Wells’s prose occasionally betray his Victorian background (‘forthwith’ and other such ornate phraseology) but for the most part you can see how the need to convey heightened sensations and terror force the prose into shorter, pithy sentences, like outbursts of panting.

Chapter titles

Even the titles of each chapter are designed – with their insistent use of ‘the’ to start each one – to convey a sense of primitive and elemental experience.

The Man Who Was Going Nowhere
The Strange Face
The Evil-Looking Boatmen
The Locked Door
The Crying Of The Puma
The Thing In The Forest
The Crying Of The Man
The Hunting Of The Man
The Sayers Of The Law

The wrecking outsider

There must be a generic name for the kind of story in which a stranger, an outsider, blunders into a fairly stable situation or society, misunderstands and disrupts it, and sets off a train of events which lead to its destruction. Happens in loads of science fiction and adventure stories.

This is a classic example. In chapter 10 of this 22-chapter text, Prendick, overcome with panic that Moreau and Montgomery might be about to experiment on him, breaks free of the compound, running away from Montgomery, and finds himself being befriended by the strange – the really strange – motley of vivisected half-humans and hybrids which Moreau has let run loose on the island.

Prendick discovers that there are far more of these mutants, these ‘beast men’, than he’d imagined, maybe hundreds (Moreau later tells him there are some 67, plus a fleet of 60 or so smaller half-animals). And is inducted into their strange religion, led by a deranged Beast-Man prophet, and reinforced by rhythmic chanting and swaying:

Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not Men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not Men?

Moreau and Montgomery track him down to the village of the beast-men, in order to rescue him but Prendick, in his ignorance and panic – still convinced that they mean to operate on him – yells out to the Beast Men that Moreau and Montgomery are just men like them, that they can be easily overcome and defeated, that they are not gods.

In other words – he plants the seeds of The Revolt of the Beast-Men.

Moreau’s justification

Moreau and Montgomery finally persuade Prendick they mean him no harm by handing over their revolvers to him and saying he can keep them. Reluctantly, he agrees to go back to the compound with them. It is here that Moreau makes his Big Statement, justifying  his work to Predick, mixing together contemporary knowledge about vivisection and evolution, into a horrifically amoral quest to mould and create new species.

‘I wanted – it was the one thing I wanted – to find out the extreme limit of plasticity in a living shape.’

He explains that none of the things Prendick saw in the village of the Beast-Men was human. All of them were animals who Moreau had extensively experimented on to give new craniums, larger brains and, above all, larynxes with which to utter sounds. His amorality, his unflinching heartless willingness to inflict unspeakable pain are meant to horrify us.

And Wells sense the mythic necessity for the story of describing Moreau’s anger and frustration at continually failing to create a man from a beast. No matter how subtle his knife and his anatomical knowledge, something is always lacking. The creatures always relapse, the bestial part reawakens.

Neither Moreau nor Wells names it, but Wells is gesturing towards the idea of a soul, as somehow separating man from the beasts, and therefore incapable of any surgical intervention.

This notion that the beast in the vivisected animals rises especially at nightfall, when they dare to do things they would never do during the day, reminded me of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, a full-length novel devoted to describing creatures which can only live at night, which was published the year after Moreau, in 1897.

(Interestingly, Wells had already published the factual core of Moreau’s speech as a scientific article about the limits and possibilities of vivisection in the Saturday Review in January, 1895. An example of the close linkage between current scientific debate, and Wells’s scientific ‘fantasies’.)

Blood is spilt

The catastrophe is slow but remorseless in building up. A rabbit-like creature is discovered which has been killed and eaten. Now, eating meat and tasting blood are against ‘the Law’ which Moreau has been at such pains to instil into his monstrous creations.

He, Montgomery and Prendick go armed with revolvers, whip and a big hunting horn to the Valley of the Beast Men, where Moreau blows the horn and assembles the mutants. The Beast-Men listen while Moreau repeats the law about not tasting flesh, and then repeat it like surly retards. But as Moreau pushes his questioning about who has broken the Law and tasted blood, the Leopard-Man betrays his guilt by suddenly bounding at Moreau, pushing him over and fleeing.

This gives rise to a mass hunt, with the howling yowling beast-people chasing alongside the three men, until they corner the Leopard-Man in a thicket. Here Prendick is overcome by the horrible futility and pointlessness of all of it. If Moreau had some noble purpose in mind, was curing some disease, the pain he inflicts might be acceptable. Instead he creates one botched hybrid after another, releasing them onto the island to live lives of pain and fear, plagued by human thoughts, but without human traditions or feelings to contain them.

Prendick shoots the Leopard-Man to put it out of its misery, but this is just the latest in a long line of his mistakes, which are giving the Beast-Men ideas that the men are no the strong gods they have been whipped into believing.

Many had noticed that when Prendick had sought refuge in their camp, he was bleeding, he was hungry, he was weak. Then, when Moreau and Montgomery had him at bay in the sea, he deliberately shouted to the Beast Men that the white men were just men after all, vulnerable and exposed.

All these seeds which the outsider Prendick has sown now finally bear fruit in a Revolt of the Beast-Men.

The crisis

The actual spark is struck when the puma which Moreau has been operating on for six weeks suddenly breaks free. By now it is half-monster enough to be able to tear its fetters out of the wall, fling Prendick aside (breaking his left arm) and rush for the jungle.

Moreau pursues with a revolver. Montgomery and Prendick follow with Montgomery’s loyal servant, M’ling tagging along. They hear shots and crash through the jungle to find the puma shot dead – and Moreau’s dead body next to it!

Devastated, Montgomery lets slip the words, ‘He’s dead’, but the Beast-Men – who have quickly gathered round – ominously begin to repeat this. Prendick, seeing the danger, steps forward and says in his loudest voice that Moreau is not dead, he has merely cast off this body and gone to heaven to watch over them.

Still, the Beast Men fall to muttering among themselves. Only mindless repetition of the Law, combined with terror of ‘the House of Pain’ (Moreau’s laboratory) have kept them in line. With Moreau dead – what next?

Montgomery, Prendick, M’ling and some of the Beasts carry Moreau’s body back to the compound. The beasts leave. The white men burn Moreau’s corpse, and then lock themselves in.

The next thing is that Montgomery gets drunk and tells Prendick the story of his life. Because of some obscure scandal at medical school he was forced to pack in his career and leave London. He drifted around the South Seas. He was taken in by Moreau and has been living on the island for ten years. His only friend is the mutant M’ling.

Montgomery now gets really drunk, pushes Prendick out of the way and staggers across the beach to find M’ling to persuade him to join him in a drink. Prendick watches figures of some Beast-Men emerge from the forest around the stumbling man, apparently joining in with him, and they all go off together, Montgomery singing.

Prendick realises he has to escape the island. He goes back into the compound to search for things he can pack into the launch, planning to set sail the next day. But then he hears shouting. Looking out the windows he sees that someone has built a fire on the beach and the drinking has turned to violence.

Then he hears shots. He runs towards the fire only to discover that a hairy-grey Beast-Man has mortally wounded Montgomery. M’ling has been savaged and killed. Three of the beasts are dead. Montgomery just has time to say ‘Sorry’, before he dies. And, as the sun rises, Prendick looks round the beach and realises that Montgomery and M’ling, in their nihilistic drunkenness, had chopped up the dinghies and set them on fire. The stupid fool must have drunkenly thought that, if he couldn’t go back to ‘civilisation’, then no-one could.

Still dazed by this realisation, Prendick hears bangs and flares. Looking round, he sees the compound alight, flames climbing higher into the dawn sky. All his plans to flee are crushed.

Among the Beast-Men

There follows what is, in a way, the most enthralling part of the story. Prendick decides to take his courage in his hands and marches to the village of the remaining Beast People. With some of their more rebellious members hot dead, the remnant are, initially, cowed by Prendick. But it soon becomes clear that he is hungry, tired and thirsty. By slow degrees, over the course of days and weeks, he loses his rank as Ruling White Man and, step by step, declines until he is little better than one of them.

So in solitude I came round by the ravine of the Beast People, and hiding among the weeds and reeds that separated this crevice from the sea I watched such of them as appeared, trying to judge from their gestures and appearance how the death of Moreau and Montgomery and the destruction of the House of Pain had affected them. I know now the folly of my cowardice. Had I kept my courage up to the level of the dawn, had I not allowed it to ebb away in solitary thought, I might have grasped the vacant sceptre of Moreau and ruled over the Beast People. As it was I lost the opportunity, and sank to the position of a mere leader among my fellows. (Chapter 20)

Prendick is forced to spend the next ten months among the beasts and during this period, something awful and awe-inspiring happens. Slowly, one by one, he watches as they degrade and decay, reverting to their bestial origins. One by one they forget how to speak, forget how to walk upright, forget about fire, and revert to all the behaviour banned by Moreau’s ‘Laws’ – such as going on all fours and slurping water from streams.

None of them threaten him, but Prendick nonetheless lives in mounting terror.

He keeps a lookout on the horizon. A couple of times he sees what he thinks are sails and lights fires to attract their attention but nobody comes. He makes a series of half-cocked attempts to build a raft, but he is no engineer or handiman.

Finally, one day Prendick sees a dinghy drifting slowly towards the reef. When he swims out to inspect it he finds two well-rotten corpses in it. He tips them out and moors it, fills the empty kegs with fresh water, collects sacksful of fruit – and then pushes off, drifting with the waves, eating and drinking sparingly – in such an abandoned state of mind that he doesn’t really care whether he’s rescued or not. Just to be away from the Island of Beasts is enough.


Degeneration theory

To quote Wikipedia:

Towards the close of the 19th century, in the fin-de-siècle period, something of an obsession with decline, descent and degeneration invaded the European creative imagination, partly fuelled by widespread misconceptions of Darwinian evolutionary theory.

Only a few years before Moreau, in 1892, the German physician and social critic Max Nordau had written a book – Degeneration – arguing the case that Western civilisation was in irreversible. It struck a nerve and become a surprise bestseller.

This cultural trend sprang to mind, particularly as I read the penultimate chapter of The Island of Dr Moreau – the description of Prendick’s ten months among the Beast-Men which is, in effect, an extended fantasia describing the decline and degeneration of Moreau’s half-men back into a state of complete bestiality.

It is horrible to read Prendick’s vivid descriptions of their slow loss of all mental powers and reversion to crude animal behaviour. It is Nordau’s notion of degeneration given fictional flesh.

But the point is really rammed home when Prendick finds himself eventually rescued by a passing ship, and then returned, eventually, back to England, and back to London.

Here he experiences a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder for, as he walks the streets, he cannot see the passersby as people, but only as beasts-in-waiting, each on the verge of that horrible degeneration, such as he saw on the island.

When I lived in London the horror was well-nigh insupportable. I could not get away from men: their voices came through windows; locked doors were flimsy safeguards. I would go out into the streets to fight with my delusion, and prowling women would mew after me; furtive, craving men glance jealously at me; weary, pale workers go coughing by me with tired eyes and eager paces, like wounded deer dripping blood; old people, bent and dull, pass murmuring to themselves; and, all unheeding, a ragged tail of gibing children. Then I would turn aside into some chapel – and even there, such was my disturbance, it seemed that the preacher gibbered ‘Big Thinks’, even as the Ape-man had done; or into some library, and there the intent faces over the books seemed but patient creatures waiting for prey. Particularly nauseous were the blank, expressionless faces of people in trains and omnibuses; they seemed no more my fellow-creatures than dead bodies would be, so that I did not dare to travel unless I was assured of being alone. And even it seemed that I too was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain which sent it to wander alone… (Chapter 22)

Politics

Wells was left-wing from the start, joining the Fabian Society in 1903 and going on to write numerous works promoting socialism.

As early as The Time Machine he gave his fable of the future a political slant by speculating that the two races of sylph-like Eloi and underground ape-like Morlocks might be the remote descendants of the increasingly differentiated classes of his day – a terrifying but logical extrapolation of England 1895, when the nation’s cities seemed to be ever-more starkly divided between a luxury-enjoying bourgeoisie and a degraded, half-bestial proletariat.

The same issue winks out at us from Dr Moreau, though not so centrally as in Time Machine. The first time he discovers the Beast Village, a crevice in volcanic rock into which the pitiful results of Moreau’s vivisection experiments have excavated sordid little alcoves, Predick finds himself comparing the skulking creatures who turn from his gaze, to inhabitants of the worst slums of London.

I say I became habituated to the Beast People, that a thousand things which had seemed unnatural and repulsive speedily became natural and ordinary to me. I suppose everything in existence takes its colour from the average hue of our surroundings. Montgomery and Moreau were too peculiar and individual to keep my general impressions of humanity well defined. I would see one of the clumsy bovine-creatures who worked the launch treading heavily through the undergrowth, and find myself asking, trying hard to recall, how he differed from some really human yokel trudging home from his mechanical labours; or I would meet the Fox-bear woman’s vulpine, shifty face, strangely human in its speculative cunning, and even imagine I had met it before in some city byway.

Yet every now and then the beast would flash out upon me beyond doubt or denial. An ugly-looking man, a hunch-backed human savage to all appearance, squatting in the aperture of one of the dens, would stretch his arms and yawn, showing with startling suddenness scissor-edged incisors and sabre-like canines, keen and brilliant as knives. Or in some narrow pathway, glancing with a transitory daring into the eyes of some lithe, white-swathed female figure, I would suddenly see (with a spasmodic revulsion) that she had slit-like pupils… (Chapter 15)

Predominantly The Island of Dr Moreau is a horror story. But it also invokes the great political issue of the day. By the 1890s the appalling state of the working classes was on everyone’s lips, in the form of ‘the labour problem’, ‘the employment problem’ or ‘the population problem’, which dominated the newspapers a bit like Brexit does today.

Either side of The Island of Dr Moreau were published countless novels, newspaper articles and factual studies exposing the poverty and squalor at the heart of Britain’s large cities and especially London. The Sherlock Holmes novels revel in it. An entire new genre of lowlife novels, by authors like George Gissing and Arthur Morrison, described it with bitter anger.

Underlying the political issues, though, is the deeper anxiety about individual and cultural degeneration. What if the wealthy, educated élite will, in time, be swamped by the wretched poor? What if we are all just animals lifted beyond out natural sphere and the entire race will, eventually, revert to bestial incomprehension and violence?

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is all about the moral degeneration of the privileged central character, a narrative which takes the hero to squalid opium dens in the East End and unmentionable depravities. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) is a really obvious expression of the theme, with the cultivated Dr Jeckyll reverting to the ape-like brute, Hyde. Charles Marlow, narrator of The Heart of Darkness, points out that London, too, was once one of the dark places of the world. And, by implication, it could become so, again.

The final chapter of the Island of Dr Moreau, describing Prendick alone among the decaying Beast-Men, really taps into this anxiety with a biting sense of horror and premonition.

Futility

When you’re a teenager, it’s a common temptation to feel that everything is pointless, futile and stupid. Much science fiction gives that feeling point and definition. If you adopt the Wellsian, materialist perspective, then human beings are just one among millions of life forms currently inhabiting the planet, themselves descended from countless billions of ancestor species, and our planet is itself one among unknown billions filling an infinitely large universe which is an inconceivable 15 billion years old.

The incorporation of these vast and thrilling perspectives into his stories gives Wells ample opportunity to have his narrators or protagonists reflect, at some point, on the pitiful triviality of their own – and by extension – all human lives.

Thus, at the height of the chase of the Leopard-Man, Prendick – watching Montgomery and Moreau lead their pack of mutants across the rocks towards the poor victim – is suddenly overwhelmed by the horrible arbitrary futility of it all.

The Beast People manifested a quite human curiosity about the dead body, and followed it in a thick knot, sniffing and growling at it as the Bull-men dragged it down the beach. I went to the headland and watched the bull-men, black against the evening sky as they carried the weighted dead body out to sea; and like a wave across my mind came the realisation of the unspeakable aimlessness of things upon the island. Upon the beach among the rocks beneath me were the Ape-man, the Hyena-swine, and several other of the Beast People, standing about Montgomery and Moreau. They were all still intensely excited, and all overflowing with noisy expressions of their loyalty to the Law; yet I felt an absolute assurance in my own mind that the Hyena-swine was implicated in the rabbit-killing. A strange persuasion came upon me, that, save for the grossness of the line, the grotesqueness of the forms, I had here before me the whole balance of human life in miniature, the whole interplay of instinct, reason, and fate in its simplest form. The Leopard-man had happened to go under: that was all the difference. Poor brute!

Poor brutes! I began to see the viler aspect of Moreau’s cruelty. I had not thought before of the pain and trouble that came to these poor victims after they had passed from Moreau’s hands. I had shivered only at the days of actual torment in the enclosure. But now that seemed to me the lesser part. Before, they had been beasts, their instincts fitly adapted to their surroundings, and happy as living things may be. Now they stumbled in the shackles of humanity, lived in a fear that never died, fretted by a law they could not understand; their mock-human existence, begun in an agony, was one long internal struggle, one long dread of Moreau – and for what? It was the wantonness of it that stirred me.

Had Moreau had any intelligible object, I could have sympathised at least a little with him. I am not so squeamish about pain as that. I could have forgiven him a little even, had his motive been only hate. But he was so irresponsible, so utterly careless! His curiosity, his mad, aimless investigations, drove him on; and the Things were thrown out to live a year or so, to struggle and blunder and suffer, and at last to die painfully. They were wretched in themselves; the old animal hate moved them to trouble one another; the Law held them back from a brief hot struggle and a decisive end to their natural animosities.

In those days my fear of the Beast People went the way of my personal fear for Moreau. I fell indeed into a morbid state, deep and enduring, and alien to fear, which has left permanent scars upon my mind. I must confess that I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island. A blind Fate, a vast pitiless mechanism, seemed to cut and shape the fabric of existence and I, Moreau (by his passion for research), Montgomery (by his passion for drink), the Beast People with their instincts and mental restrictions, were torn and crushed, ruthlessly, inevitably, amid the infinite complexity of its incessant wheels.

‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

To a certain kind of mind, or to the mind in a certain mood, these ideas are really powerful, and Wells’ nihilism takes its place in a long line which stretches from Gulliver, revolted by humans at the very end of  his travels, through to the oppressive misanthropy of Wells’s contemporary, Joseph Conrad.

The way the tale ends with Prendick incapacitated by revulsion on the streets of London, really rams home the horror of what he has witnessed, and imprints his haunted vision of a universal human degeneration into bestial animality.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

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

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

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

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

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

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

Karl Marx on the American Civil War (1861-65)

Marx the journalist

Karl Marx fled the revolutions which rocked Europe in 1848, to the relative calm and safety of London. Although he never intended to, Marx then ended up spending the rest of his life – three quarters of his adult life – in England.

Ironically, he lived here during pretty much the quietest period of 19th century English history. The uproar surrounding the Great Reform Act of 1832 was long over, and the Chartist Movement failed and fizzled out after 1848. There followed 25 years or so of growing wealth, accompanied by, admittedly piecemeal, legislation to try and improve the lot of the working classes toiling in the new industrial cities in their grim seven-days-a-week factories. It was the era of the triumphant bourgeoisie and the unstoppable rise of British Imperialism, in India, China and around the world.

Although Karl wanted to write great masterworks of historical and economic theory, these wouldn’t pay the rent for himself, his wife and growing family. Although he wanted to be at the head of great revolutionary organisations, the Communist League with which he’d been associated during the 1848 revolutions, splintered and fizzled into insignificance.

So Karl turned to journalism, which he had actively pursued in Germany since his student days (it was his editorship of the seditious the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne which was the reason he was kicked out of Germany in 1849).

Incongruously, Mark got a job with the New York Daily Tribune, as its European correspondent, from 1852 to 1862. The Tribune had wide working-class appeal and, at two cents, was inexpensive. It had a circulation of 50,000 copies per issue and its editorial line was progressive and anti-slavery.

The New York paper paid the rent. But when civil war broke out in America, in the spring of 1861, it was for the Liberal Vienna paper Die Presse that Karl wrote 37 articles about it, starting six months into the conflict, on 20 October 1861.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Marx’s articles about the American Civil War

The American Civil War began with the secession of the southern slave states, starting with South Carolina, which declared independence in January 1861.

The eight seceded states went on to declare themselves a new nation, the Confederacy, with its capital at Montgomery, Alabama. On 12 April 1861 Confederate forces shelled Fort Sumter, a fort off the coast of South Carolina which was still held by units of the U.S. or Union army. It was this action which signalled the start of the American Civil War.

Of Karl’s 37 articles just two are translated and published in the Penguin selection of Karl’s Writings From Exile 1848-1863. Shame. I wonder if you can read the lot in a pamphlet somewhere.

Karl begins by lining up the London papers of the day, The Times, The Economist, The Saturday Review and summarising their positions.

Apparently, most of the British press sympathised with the southern states. They thought the war was mostly about the issue of trade tariffs. The North imposed various tariffs on imports and exports, whereas the South didn’t. Moreover, an enormous amount of southern cotton was bought by British factory owners, turned into clothes, and traded back to the South (or sold on to India).

This explains why Britain, being a free trade nation, and economically linked to the region, had strong sympathies with the South.

It was because of this economic self-interest – Karl argued – that Britain’s papers and politicians argued, ‘Why shouldn’t the South declare itself a separate nation?’ And ‘Why should the North bother, or dare, to try and invade and suppress this nation?’

Buried, pushed aside, undiscussed in all the mainstream media articles which Marx quotes, is the issue of slavery. In the two articles published in the Penguin selection, Marx sets out to contradict and refute the British bourgeois position.

Karl’s knowledge

Marx is incredibly knowledgeable. I found reading the nineteen pages which these articles make up in the Penguin edition nearly as illuminating as reading James McPherson’s 860-page history of the war. Karl demonstrates a surprisingly detailed grasp of the geography, the economic facts, the population, and of the political manoeuvring that led up to the war.

Karl gives his unstinting support to the North and says it must conquer the South and overthrow its iniquitous slavery system. Otherwise the South will triumph in its pre-war attempts to impose and spread slavery to all parts of America and with it, to enslave the working classes, too.

Karl says the war is about slavery pure and simple. The Founding Fathers may have been slave-owners (most famously Washington and Jefferson), but they thought slavery was an evil imported from England which would eventually die out. By contrast, apologists for the South treat slavery as a good in itself which deserves to be spread as widely as possible. According to them, slaves love their slavery. The South is fighting, as one apologist put it, for ‘the foundation of a great slave republic.’ (p.336)

Karl details the political build-up to the war, including:

  • the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which established 36º 30′ as the northernmost extent of slavery)
  • the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 (which retracted that ruling)
  • the attempt to spread slavery into New Mexico
  • the 1857 Dred Scott case which established that slave owners had a right to take their slaves anywhere in the country
  • the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which forced northern officials to acquiesce in the hunting, kidnapping and return south of runaway slaves from their territories

He describes the revival of the slave trade in recent years which, he claims, has resulted in 15,000 new Africans being kidnapped and brought to America (making a bigger deal of it than McPherson does in his history).

And repeats the outrageous but widely publicised aims of the southern states to conquer Cuba for America, and extend their rule throughout Central America (specifically in Nicaragua where, for a year, a southern American mercenary did, indeed, manage to become president!).

All of these political events show, to Karl, the wish of the South not just to defend slavery, but to actively extend it throughout the states.

Why?

An economic explanation for the motives of the Confederate states

Karl gives a characteristically economic explanation for political events.

The old slave states are exhausting their soil. Maryland, Virginia, even South Carolina, have become net exporters of slaves. ‘Breed ’em and sell ’em,’ is the slavers’ policy. Therefore, the slave states need a steady supply of new markets, they need to make new territorial conquest, in order to maintain their economies.

Even in South Carolina, where slaves form four sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has remained almost stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil… South Carolina has become partly transformed into a slave-raising state by pressure of circumstances in so far as it already sells slaves to the states of the Deep South and South-West to the tune of four million dollars annually. As soon as this point is reached the acquisition of new territory becomes necessary, so that one section of the slave-holders can introduce slave labour into new fertile estates and thus create a new market for slave-raising and the sale of slaves. (p.341)

There is also politics. Each American state sends two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there is a naked power struggle whenever a new state is admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators will be pro or anti slavery, each new state’s nature threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

Who is doing all this? Karl estimates that there are only some 300,000 significant slave owners in the whole of the country. So an oligarchy of 300,000 has been trying to impose the political, legal and economic system which underpins its wealth onto the other 20 million Americans.

The ‘plantocracy’ was well aware what it was fighting for, that to restrict slavery to its current territories would:

  • reduce slaver representation in the senate i.e. undermine their political power
  • lead, over the long term, to the inevitable extinction of slavery
  • the consequent general impoverishment of the South would lead to class warfare with poor whites who would, finally, realise how they are being exploited by the wealthy 300,000

Thus the war is nothing to do with free trade and tariffs, as the respectable London papers were trying to claim. It was about whether:

  • the 20 million free Americans should submit to a political and economic system imposed by an oligarchy of 300,000
  • the vast new territories of the Republic should be slave or free
  • whether the foreign policy of America should be peaceful – or get dragged into further wars with Cuba and Central America

Punchy and pithy

Karl is at his journalistic, punchy and pithy best. In the second article he makes the rhetorical point that the South – which had declared itself a new nation – isn’t a proper nation at all.

It is not a country at all, it is a battle-cry. (p.344)

In the second article he gives a detailed description of the geography and slave populations of all the ‘border’ states between south and north and describes how the slave states had made political, legal and, finally, armed attempts to infiltrate and capture these states for slavery.

Conventional opinion had it that it was the northern armies who had invaded the south, and indeed most of the fighting was done on the soil of southern or the so-called ‘border’ states. But Karl’s list of, first, the political attempts to suborn the border states, and then his detailed accounts of border incursions and raids by southern forces, makes a powerful case that the war is in fact:

a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery. (p.350)

A glance at the map of America in 1854 shows what was being fought over. The southern slave states (dark green) already controlled significantly more land than the northern free states (pink). The issue was: should slavery be extended into the huge expanse of land to the west (light green), nearly half of the American land mass, which was still only roughly defined as territories such as Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon etc, but which would, in the near future, attain the status of ‘states’ and be admitted to the union. Should they be slave – or free?

American states in 1854

American states in 1854

Marx was wrong about lots of things, but the materialist worldview which predisposed him to see all major events in terms of their economic basis and in terms of the class conflicts which they inevitably give rise to – often gave him a thrillingly incisive vision which cut through the painful bombast and wordy rhetoric of the stuffy, obtuse Victorians he lived among.

Thus in Marx’s view the American Civil War was emphatically not about tariffs or free trade or the right to have a separate culture or any of the other mystifications and obfuscations which filled so many speeches and newspaper columns, no:

The present struggle between South and North is thus nothing less than a struggle between two social systems: the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer peacefully co-exist on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

He thought the North would win and that the full emancipation of the slaves was inevitable.

Given that he was writing in November 1861, with the war only six months old and most Republicans (including President Lincoln) still reluctant to countenance slave emancipation under any circumstances, Karl in these articles was not only typically incisive and insightful, but remarkably prophetic.


Related links

Related blog posts

Karl Marx

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • Warsaw 1920 by Adam Zamoyski (2008) How the Polish army stopped the Red Army from conquering Poland and pushing on to support revolution in Germany.
  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

Communism in England

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

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