People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, the Fabians of H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.) In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on. One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers. There’s a copy of the letter of protest he wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. The exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000. The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011). There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

The question is addressed in the final room, or more accurately alcove or bay, where a large TV screen runs a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War) From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade a foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what? And then again, they didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

3. Community So none of the interviewees gave any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any protest.

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause. For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon. But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled on the domestic front i.e very carefully. Wars in future

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result has been that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

Thus from the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they have always been.

The video

Related links

Review of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

The Care of Time by Eric Ambler (1981)

Even the little I knew of his history made him, by any standards that had more to them than simple endurance, a considerable survivor. He had had physical strength and plenty of courage, of course, but it had been his wits that had really counted, his wits and his ability to adapt to cultures utterly foreign to those of his youth and early manhood. It had been a remarkable performance. What I suspected, though, was that he was now a survivor for whom the care of time was becoming hard to ignore. He had started to falter. (p.137)

This was Ambler’s final novel, though he lived for another 17 years (1909-98). A fairly long (299 pages) first-person narrative told by American ghost writer Robert Halliday, who’s got wide experience co-writing books with sports stars, movie stars, politicians and so on. A postcard pops through his letterbox saying a bomb will arrive in a few days. It duly does and Halliday takes it to his local cops who bring in the FBI who confirm its provenance. The postcard was signed Karlis Zander (German for ‘pike’).

Then he gets a call from his agent in New York saying she’s been approached by an Italian publishing house who want him to fly to Italy to co-write (ie pull into shape) a book about terrorism. Meeting a representative of the publisher – McGuire – in NY, Halliday learns that there is a manuscript by noted 19th century theorist of terrorism, Sergey Nechayev. A modern-day expert wants Halliday to a) help edit the manuscript b) help write a long commentary which will link it to contemporary terrorist networks. Name of the expert – Dr Luccio – Italian for ‘pike’. Aha. A joke, of sorts.

Barely has he arrived in his hotel in Milan before he is kidnapped and driven blindfolded to the safe house containing Dr Luccio/Karlis Zander. Zander is all James-Bond-baddy suaveness, offering drinks and apologising for the roughness of his abduction. Yes, he wishes Halliday to help him write a book which will blow open the connections between various states in the Middle East and contemporary terrorism. His sidekicks, led by the lissom Simone Chihanel, escort Halliday back to his hotel.

Here he finds three men waiting, his Italian publisher, an American and a German. It emerges – to the reader’s complete surprise – that Halliday once worked for the CIA and the American was his controller. Something went wrong on a mission in Iraq where he was captured and held prisoner for eight long months. To this day he blames the controller, whom he loathes. Having vouched for his identity, the American and Italian publisher leave him with the German, Dieter Schelm, ‘a senior official in West German intelligence’ – who brings him further up to speed.

Halliday reveals he had another career, a spin-off from the writing, a short-lived career as a TV presenter, paid to use his forthright manner to harass smug politicians, but in fact he was no good at it. Somehow Zander has seen him on the box, and knows of it as well as his book writing skills.

Thus: Zander isn’t interested in having a book published, that is all a front, a fig leaf, a pretext to get Halliday to him. He sent the bomb because he knew Halliday would report it to the authorities and it would reactivate his CIA contacts -which it has certainly done: the book is a cover to get Halliday into contact with him. What he wants to do is transmit a long complex message to the CIA using Halliday as a middleman.

Zander is doing all this in such a roundabout way because a contract has been put out for his assassination, to the tune of 20 million Swiss francs. The contract has been taken up by Mukhabarat Zentrum, an Arab organisation dedicated to murder, extortion, terrorism etc, itself the rejuvenated rump of an originally PLO revenge service called Rasd, reorganised by two mafiosi from Croatia. NATO has a different name for it, Rasmuk. All this is in Schelm’s briefing.

By now we realise the narrator has a habit of keeping secrets from the reader. Only on page 95 are we told that the picture on the postcard Zander sent Halliday, warning of the advent of the bomb, was of the Hotel Mansour in Iraq, which just happens to be where Halliday was arrested by Iraqi police all those years ago.

On page 99 he tells us what Zander has to offer the West and the CIA in exchange for help escaping from the contract and getting to live happily ever after with his wife and children by previous marriages – but Halliday doesn’t tell us. It’s something to do with a ‘defence development programme’ Zander is ‘touting’ on behalf of ‘his patron’, the person they agree to call The Ruler, one of the hereditary sheikhs who rule the United Arab Emirates. Schelm and Halliday speculate that the personage paying Rasmuk to assassinate Zander probably comes from among The Ruler’s fellow sheikhs, who are embarrassed at his defence plan or his approaches to Nato.

By the end of the meeting it is agreed that the German Schelm is going to become Halliday’s new ‘control’, for an operation which will last only as long as it takes for negotiations to take place between Zander and the CIA, via Schelm. Why the proxies? Because the CIA wants to benefit from what Zander has to sell – but be able to reassure all their Gulf Arab allies they haven’t had any contact with him, no of course not, not direct contact.

That’s the first hundred pages. Tortuous enough for you?

Second hundred pages

After the long conference with Schelm, Halliday sleeps, wakes and attends a pre-arranged rendezvous with Zander’s people at Malpensa airport, where he is contacted by a fake air stewardess, taken down to a car park and whisked out to the airport boundary, where they quickly change number plates and drive to a small town on Lake Gardo, down sidestreets to a dilapidated hotel. All these precautions are to escape the pursuing team of Rasmuk assassins.

Halliday realises this is the place he was brought the night before blindfolded. Here, now considerably better informed than previously, he has a long second interview with Zander who is joined by one Jean-Pierre Vielle. A great deal more plot is revealed: one of the seven Rulers of the United Arab Emirates wants to send a message to the American government that he is ready to enter into a defensive pact, specifically to allow the building of a Nato air and military base at Abra Bay in his territory. Only a few years ago the UAE as a whole vetoed such a proposal but since then the USSR, its East German and Cuban allies have secured bases in Yemen and the Russians have invaded Afghanistan. They are feeling less secure.

The Ruler has hired Zander to be his go-between because he wants to sound the waters before making a move. Zander very cleverly selected Halliday, concocting the co-writing of a book cover story – appropiate because Halliday is now an author – but sending the bomb to activate Halliday’s old CIA contacts. Now they move to the next step, which is to arrange a meeting between NATO officials and the Ruler at the latter’s place in south Austria, a new clinic for people with lung conditions, which he is building. Again there will be an elaborate cover story picking up on one of Halliday’s former careers, namely that The Ruler is paying a pre-arranged visit there ie nothing special  and a camera crew led by former TV presenter Bob Halliday just happens to be around to interview him about his charitable work. The TV crew will be NATO and intelligence representatives. Ie the TV interview will be a front for all and anyone observing, purely to smuggle in the Nato representatives and secure a face-to-face meeting between them and the Ruler.

For the rest of the novel there is a vast amount of time and energy put into making the TV interview cover story secure. Halliday borrows some vans from a local TV company and briefs Zander’s team on how to look and behave like TV technicians. But Halliday realises that it will go better if they have a real crew with them and so gets  his German ‘control’ to find one: the only one available at very short notice is a genuine Dutch crew who are on their way back from making a documentary in Yugoslavia, led by a director named Kluvers.

Zander, Halliday, Simone and Jean-Pierre set off in several vehicles, one of them a camera van, for the long drive from Lake Garda to a village in Austria, with minor adventures and inconveniences along the way. Simone and Jean-Pierre bicker while Zander looks on amused. Halliday proves his good intentions by overcoming obstacles and planning ahead, growing in stature as the plan becomes more complicated. For supporting her in an argument with Jean-Pierre, later that night Simone slips into his darkened bedroom and into his bed. Halliday is not complaining.

Only when they arrive at a hotel near The Ruler’s planned health spa do they learn that this Arab’s plan to build a luxury compound in a pretty Alpine village has caused outrage among local press and politicians, exacerbated by his refusal to talk to the Press, thus making everything seem sinister. So when Halliday and his fake TV crew arrive and confidently announce that they’re about to interview the reclusive sheikh, instead of being a perfectly bland cover story, it prompts a news frenzy in its own right. The hotel keeper phones the local press who contact the national press and TV, prompting an influx of radio and journalists eager for the story. Oops.

While Zander and Simone go stay at the Ruler’s place, Halliday is called to a meeting with Schelm at which he is introduced to the NATO negotiator, Lieutenant-General Sir Patrick Newell, Military Deputy to Commander Nato Strike Force South. They have a long conversation over whisky during which they puzzle out the Ruler and Zander’s motives, as in a chess game, working through the various deceits, gambits and strategems each player could be playing. The analysis is provisional because we are told The Ruler is unbalanced, like his father, in fact has been diagnosed by western doctors as a paranoid schizophrenic. Great.

Back at Halliday’s Gasthaus Simone slips into his room and into his bed again. He confronts her with his theory that a) it is The Ruler himself who has put out the contract on Zander – yes, she says, they have reluctantly realised this is true b) the men who followed them on various occasions back in Italy did so half-heartedly because they were under orders to appear threatening but not do any harm, because c) The Ruler will arrange to have Zander killed immediately after the conclusion of business. This is so The Ruler can persuade his brother sheikhs that the approach came from Nato, he is humbly replying to a western initiative, he had nothing to do with arranging it. If Zander lived he would threaten that story.

Simone also admits she is Zander’s daughter and that the two younger assistants (barely named and who don’t get to speak) are Zander’s other children by a more recent marriage. Aha. Halliday’s support of Team Zander just got more personal.

Meanwhile, what is getting almost out of control complicated is this TV cover story. As well as meeting with a genuine film crew, Halliday now finds himself buttonholed by Austrian TV, ORF. Their producer, Rainer corners Halliday at the hotel, asking awkward questions, first about the obvious amateurishness of the interview arrangements, then warning him about The Ruler and his unpopularity in Austria.

With the knowledge that The Ruler intends to murder Zander as soon as the interview has taken place, and that he is now involved with Zander and probably included in the hit, Halliday begins to concoct complicated plans to exploit the presence of the ‘innocent’ TV companies:

He will use the Dutch crew to shoot a genuine interview with The Ruler. He will make two copies of the tapes in case The Ruler’s people demand the rushes. He will make sure the Dutch crew’s two bulky vans accompany him and Zander’s vans to the German border. Where he will hand over the rushes to Rainer. This latter involves assuring Rainer he has a genuine US sponsor for the interview (which requires him to phone his agent in New York and get her to phone a PBS producer friend, and ask him to pretend to be the exec producer of the project, before giving his number to Rainer to phone and check.)

Complicated.

Third hundred pages

Next day everyone drives out to the old silver mine which The Ruler is allegedly converting into a health spa/sanatorium, at present surrounded by wire fences and security guards with barking dogs. They are let in and at the museum created by a dotty antiquarian who bought the place generations ago, Halliday is reunited with Zander who prepares him for the vaunted interview.

Here Zander casually confirms something the Austrian TV producer said was common gossip: that The Ruler doesn’t want the silver mine as an unorthodox cure for his sinusitis or asthma – in fact he is planning to build an airtight bunker to sit out World War Three. Zander even explains how the mine’s natural hydraulics will keep it supplied with fresh air for up to eight months, until it is safe for The Ruler and his loved ones to re-emerge.

The TV interview Slightly dazed by this revelation, Halliday is then introduced to The Ruler’s Secretary and then on into the company of the Great Man himself. They agree to carry out the interview a hundred steps down into the bowels of the silver mine, at ‘the first level’. Why? Why is Halliday going to this much trouble? Why is The Ruler agreeing to it at all, since the whole TV interview is purely a cover for introducing the General and Schelm to The Ruler. This has already been achieved: they arrived from their hotel soon after the film crews and, immediately after Halliday’s brief introduction to the Ruler, went into conclave with him. Why not just drop the whole TV fiction, hang around till the VIPs have had their meeting, and leave?

Ambler’s later fictions often have this odd or freakish aspect, a compelling unnecessariness.

Here a lot of pages are spent describing the second crew arriving dirty from Yugoslavia and the technical difficulties of lighting and prepping a room deep underground and surrounded by water dripping off the walls, for a major interview. To add to the sense of the bizarre, when he arrives The Ruler is obviously high on something, cackling manically. More oddly still, after the scores of pages in which his assistants, Zander and Simone have all emphasised how he must treat the Ruler with vast respect, Halliday’s interview is almost rude, certainly impertinent, implying the Ruler knows nothing about the medical conditions he’s supposedly creating the clinic for.

And then, with wild improbability, Halliday takes the interview into bizarre territory by directly accusing The Ruler of planning to build a nuclear bunker. The Ruler airily dismisses this, but Halliday picks up on some of his denial to lead him into revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of germ warfare! Turns out The Ruler knows the latest research about nerve agents and antidotes, that he has personally attended experiments of nerve agents on apes, that he is more than an expert, he is an obsessive on the subject.

Finally it is over and the Ruler gets rather shakily to his feet and walks out. His Secretary, realising what a PR disaster it could be, reiterates that the whole interview is just a cover, right, and will never be used? The Dutch crew who Halliday has employed are stunned by what they’ve heard but the director, Kluver, agrees to switch the tapes – Halliday gets them to number unused film with the date and titles etc as if they were the rushes, and slips the actual rushes to his team to hide. Sure enough, at the barbed wire fence, the crew are held up by the guards while the Secretary comes running after them demanding the rushes. There is an angry standoff but, after some playacting, Halliday gives them the film – the blank film. Hah, he is smuggling out the incriminating interview which, if broadcast, will ruin The Ruler’s reputation and scupper his building plans.

Final scenes

As arranged Zander and Halliday’s vehicles drive in tight convoy formation surrounded by the Dutch crew’s bigger vehicles. And as expected the Rasmuk assassins make their appearance almost immediately, four of them in an old Citroen.

While they drive north to the German border to meet Rainer, Halliday confronts Simone: ‘How long have you and your father realised the Ruler’s price for allowing Nato to build an air base in the UAE is access to US nerve gas and permission to build facilities where it can be tested on human beings, the inmates of his many prisons?’ Now it makes sense that, before they were called in to start the interview, Halliday and crew had seen the General and the German spy emerge from their face-to-face with the Ruler looking dazed. That is why. Being able to test nerve gas and its antidotes was The Ruler’s quid pro quo for letting Nato build a base in his emirate.

Throughout, the novel has proceeded by Halliday either knowing things about himself (his CIA career) or realising things about the plan (the book is a cover, the contractor for the hit is The Ruler himself, and now, that The Ruler demands nerve gas facilities) which are deliberately concealed from the reader. It gives you a constant sense of playing catch-up with a world, with a reality, that is constantly beyond your grasp.

Just before the border they rendezvous with Rainer from Austrian TV and give him tape one of two, the one with the main body of the interview, including The Ruler’s mad cackle and his crazed fantasies about experimenting on human beings. Halliday will hang on to the second tape which contains a bit more of the same and then the ‘reverse shots’ and other shots of the location. While the cars are parked – in a typical piece of Ambler oddity – one of the Rasmuk assassins strolls over to the parked cars and introduces himself to Zander. He is Bourger, now a paid assassin but they knew him as a boy back in Algeria where they lived for a while and where Simone grew up. Bourger is embarrassed about having to do this job, but he will do no killing. He explains he is merely here to confirm the identification of Zander and Simone which, sadly, he has done.

The tape handed over to Rainer, the Dutch crew now free to go their way north, our guys are alone in their van and Zander reveals he’s made a change to the plans. They drive off south but at a junction don’t take the expected route to Italy, but turn left towards Yugoslavia. Bourger and the hitmen pursue them and, contrary to promises, machine gun the van behind them, badly wounding one of Zanders assistants, Guido.

Seeing this from the van in front, our guys accelerate ahead (Simone is feministically driving) and head off down a side track, past abandoned buildings to where the track ends in footpaths up into the hills. Here they grab the machine guns and ammunition Zander had thoughtfully packed and scramble into hiding positions. When Bourger and his men begin to tentatively fan out across the hillside, our team massacres them, in a few seconds killing all four goons.

Having anticipated this turn of events, Zander had readied Jean-Pierre, who now arrives in a hire car. He’ll drive back to the scene of the Guido shooting with a cock and bull story for the police about Zander, Simone and Halliday having caught a train north. Quickly Zander, Simon, Halliday jump into the station wagon and head off in another direction.

After hard driving they turn in the rental car at Salzberg airport and take a taxi to the German border, walking across it with hand luggage then going into an all-night cafe for food. Here Schelm and his forces meet them and spirit them away. It is goodbye, goodbye to Zander, goodbye to Simone. Schelm tells Halliday he’s arranged a flight for him from Frankfurt to New York. It’s goodbye to Schelm.

But Halliday showers and shaves, catches a cab to the airport and onto an earlier plane than Schelm had arranged. He figures Schelm will have organised a reception committee at New York and intends to evade it. In fact, he still walks into it and is stopped and searched at US Customs. However, he had taken the precaution of posting the can of film separately from Frankfurt direct to his agent, who forwards it to the producer at PBS. So all can still be broadcast, right?

Wrong. In the final reversal of the novel, the PBS producer phones him to explain a) the big publishing company that started the whole thing rolling is a major sponsor of PBS and broadcasting the remaining content would antagonise them. Worse, b) after Austrian TV aired the majority of the interview, The Ruler was checked into a sanatorium for people with mental problems by his caring family. Ie broadcasting the interview now would be victimising a poor, helpless, unwell man.

Oh well. He tried to do the right thing. He feels pretty safe from Rasmuk as Zander and co had speculated that, if Rasmuk didn’t get its targets on the first day, it would probably hush the whole thing up. Plus the person who put out the contract, The Ruler, has become incapable of free action so, presumably, the contract has expired.

A few months later Halliday sees a newspaper reports that rumours of discussions between Nato and the UAE about the setting up of a military base in Abra Bay are all false. Ie they’re all true.

And, finally, he gets a postcard from Simone saying the Zander family is being given a new identity and safe place to live, courtesy of the US authorities. Will Halliday want to be in touch once they’re settled?

Time is taking care of Zander, as it is taking care of me, steadily and, presumably, without much more fuss. His family, however, still has a long way to go. I am really not sure how I will reply. (Last words, p.299)

Thoughts

The Care of Time is a long, convoluted story, at every stage involving lengthy conversations in which the characters tease out all the logical alternative plans of action they and their various opponents may or may not embark on. Reminds me slightly of the kinds of process flow diagrams I see at work. Sometimes hard to follow – or you wonder why you are bothering to follow the intricate possibilities when you could skip ten pages and find out what actually happens. 

It is about nominally serious subjects – Nato involvement with the Arab world, fear of chemical warfare – which somehow, through the lens of Ambler’s peculiarly detached and clinical style and his dry sense of irony, become almost empty tokens in an ornate and baroque perplexity of text. It is like a very very very dry martini.

I wouldn’t recommend it as a traditional thriller because, despite containing many of the classic components, it isn’t one. It is something odder and stranger than that. A genuine puzzle. A puzzle which enjoys puzzling over its own puzzlement.

The TV movie

The book was turned into ‘a major television film’, directed by John Davies, starring Michael Brandon as Robert Halliday and Christopher Lee as Karlis Zander, and broadcast in 1990.

Related links

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 own boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which 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.
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