Roman Vishniac Rediscovered @ the Photographers’ Gallery

Prepare to be stunned, upset and amazed at this major exhibition from right across the incredibly long and varied career of Russian-born Jewish-American photographer, Roman Vishniac (1897–1990).

The vast archive of his work in New York contains tens of thousands of items and so the exhibition is not only spread across two floors at the Photographers’ Gallery, but is also co-hosted by the Jewish Museum, in north London. It includes recently discovered vintage prints, rare and ‘lost’ film footage from his pre-war period, contact sheets, personal correspondence, original magazine publications, newly created exhibition prints as well as his acclaimed photomicroscopy.

The quickest way to get an overview of Vishniac’s career and importance is via this interview with exhibition curator, Maya Benton.

I’d never heard of him before but the commentary tells us that Vishniac is best known for having created one of the most widely recognised and reproduced photographic records of Jewish life in Eastern Europe between the two World Wars. Maybe I’ve seen his photos in various history books of the period, but never registered his name.

Russia 1897-1920

Born in Pavlovsk, Russia in 1897 to a Jewish family Roman Vishniac was raised in Moscow. On his seventh birthday, he was given a camera and a microscope which began a lifelong fascination with photography and science. He began to conduct early scientific experiments attaching the camera to the microscope and as a teenager became an avid amateur photographer and student of biology, chemistry and zoology.

Berlin 1920-33

In 1920, following the Bolshevik Revolution, Vishniac immigrated to Berlin. Armed with a Rolleiflex and a Leica, Vishniac joined some of the city’s many flourishing camera clubs and took to the streets to record everyday life. He was influenced by the advent of modernist art with its interest in unusual framing, strange geometries, unusual camera angles, and the dramatic use of light and shade. His subject was the people of the streets: streetcar drivers, municipal workers, day labourers, protesting students, children at play.

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof railway terminus near Potsdamer Platz, Berlin, 1929–early 1930s by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Nazis 1933-39

The later 1920s saw the rise of the Nazi Party which finally achieved political power in January 1933. Jews were forbidden to take photographs on the street. German Jews routinely had their businesses boycotted, were banned from many public places and expelled from Aryanised schools. They were also prevented from pursuing professions in law, medicine, teaching, and photography, among many other indignities and curtailments of civil liberties.

Vishniac used his skills to document the growing signs of oppression, the loss of rights for Jews, the rise of Nazism in Germany, the proliferation of swastika flags and military parades, which were taking over both the streets and daily life.

Vishniac's daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads 'The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights', Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Vishniac’s daughter Mara posing in front of an election poster for Hindenburg and Hitler that reads ‘The Marshal and the Corporal: Fight with Us for Peace and Equal Rights’, Wilmersdorf, Berlin (1933) © Mara Vishniac Kohn

The Reichsvertretung der Deutschen Juden

Charities had existed in Germany to channel help to poor Jews in Eastern Europe. From 1933 onwards these helped Jews in the Fatherland. Zionist and other groups flourished which trained would-be emigres in practical agricultural and vocational skills.

In response to restrictions placed on Jewish artists the Jüdischer Kulturbund was established and Vishniac was commissioned to record the work of several large Jewish community and social service organisations in Berlin. His images were used in fundraising campaigns for an American donor audience. This work brought him to the attention of a wide variety of charitable and philanthropic groups, in Europe and America, which were to provide him with further commissions from Jewish relief and community organisations throughout the 1940s and 50s.

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish school children, Mukacevo (1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Jewish life in Eastern Europe 1935-38

In 1935 Vishniac was hired by the European HQ of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee – the world’s largest Jewish relief organisation – to document impoverished Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. The photos were to be used in lectures, magazines, presentations in the wealthier West to drum up donations.

Over the next four years he travelled extensively in the region documenting the impact of anti-Semitic restrictions on populations who were already impoverished, in cities, towns and rural settlements. The technical proficiency and variety and impact of this big body of work ended up turning into something different from what was originally envisaged: it became the last extensive photographic record of an entire way of life that had existed for centuries and was about to be swept away forever.

Here, as in all the aspects of his career, the exhibition doesn’t just display photos but also has display cases housing the outputs of these projects: books, magazine articles, slide shows, with texts by Vishniac himself or other writers.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers’ Gallery

Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp 1938

As the plight of German’s Jews worsened many families got their children to join Zionist organisations or sent them to camps in neutral countries. Among these was the Werkdorp Nieuwesluis Agrarian Training Camp in the Netherlands where young Jews could work at practical crafts while waiting for visas to travel to Palestine.

In 1938 Vishniac was sent by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to document the community. He used the heroic style common to Soviet propaganda photography of the 1920s – fit young men and women working in bright sunshine, shot from low angles to make them look big and powerful – to build a better future. In 1941 the SS ordered the remaining inhabitants of the camp to be sent to transit camps en route to concentration camps, where most of them died.

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Ernst Kaufmann, center, and unidentified Zionist youth, wearing clogs while learning construction techniques in a quarry, Werkdorp Nieuwesluis, Wieringermeer, The Netherlands (1938–39) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

France 1939

From April to September 1939 Vishniac worked as a freelance photographer in France, while he and his wife struggled to get a visa to America. Vishniac was commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee to photograph a vocational training school for Jewish refugees near Marseille.

It so happened that Visniac’s own parents had relocated to Nice in 1937, where he went to visit them and took a series of light-hearted photos of Riviera beach life.

Arrest and escape

In late 1939 Vishniac was arrested by the French authorities and placed in the Camp du Ruchard. His wife lobbied to secure his release and the pair, and their children, took ship from Lisbon to New York, arriving on New Year’s Eve 1940.

Settling into his new home opened up a range of possibilities. On the one hand he was still deeply attached to the Jewish community in Europe. He lobbied on their behalf and the exhibition includes a letter he wrote in 1942 directly to President Roosevelt, including five photographs, asking him to intervene in Europe to save the Jews.

Professionally, he was able to recycle the immense archive of photos from Eastern Europe in a number of exhibitions designed to highlight their plight, including a 1944 show Pictures of Jewish Life in Prewar Poland which has a slot to itself here, featuring images from Warsaw, Lublin and Wilno, presented on their original display boards. In 1945 he was given a second exhibition, Jewish Life in the Carpathians. Both were organised by the Yiddish Scientific Institute of Wilno which had also fled to New York.

In the same spirit his work was included in a 1947 book titled The Vanished World edited by Raphael Abramovitch. These exhibitions, books, magazine articles and reviews established Vishniac’s lasting reputation of the lost world of European Jewry.

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Inside the Jewish quarter, Bratislava (c. 1935–38) by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Immigrants, refugees and emigre life

But many had managed to flee and now found themselves in an alien land. The exhibition devotes a section to ‘immigrants, refugees, and New York Jewish community life 1941 to 47’. Through the network of philanthropical agencies he had developed in Europe, Vishniac got work with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the National Refugee Society who paid for him to photograph new shiploads of refugees, and document their efforts to start a new life, and the inspiring work of Jewish social services and community groups.

Surprisingly, maybe, this section features many shots of children looking remarkably fit and healthy and well-fed. After the abject poverty of Eastern Europe, and then the miserable persecution of the Nazis, Visniac, along with many immigrants, wanted to accentuate the positive and make images of new life, youth, energy and optimism.

America at war 1941-44

Alongside these is a section where Vishniac applied the street photography skills he had honed in Berlin to New York, in a strikingly varied series of shots which include sequences shot in New York’s Chinese community, shoppers queueing for rationed food, women’s entry into the military, off duty soldiers, and so on.

Customers waiting in line at a butcher's counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Customers waiting in line at a butcher’s counter during wartime rationing, Washington Market, New York, 1941-44 by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

New York life

In New York, Vishniac established himself as a freelance photographer and built a successful portrait studio on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. He used his connections with the Jewish disapora to secure portraits of eminent Jewish emigres including Albert Einstein, Marc Chagall and Yiddish theatre star Molly Picon. These helped to attract other dancers,actors, musicians and artists to his studio.

Alongside studio work, he began a new strand made on location in New York’s countless nightclubs, featuring jazz musicians, dancers, singers and performers in a variety of settings, playing or relaxing backstage.

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Albert Einstein by Roman Vishniac © Mara Vishniac Kohn

Back to Europe

In 1947 Vishniac was again commissioned by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, this time to return to Europe and document refugees and relief efforts in Jewish Displaced Persons camps, recording a wide array of relief activities such as distribution of food and clothing, education and so on

He also got the opportunity to return to Berlin, city of his young manhood, now reduced to rubble. The same locations which hummed with life in his Weimar photos are now rubble-strewn ruins and vacancies.

Photomicroscopy

As if this large body of invaluable documentary and street photography wasn’t enough, Vishniac never lost interest in his first love, scientific photography. And once he was financially secure in America he was able to pick it up with renewed enthusiasm, especially in photography of the very small, or photomicroscopy.

This field became the primary focus of his work during the last 45 years of his life, till his death in 1990. By the mid-1950s, he was regarded as a pioneer in the field, developing increasingly sophisticated techniques for photographing and filming microscopic life forms.

Classic examples of Vishniac's photomicrography (all magnifications as noted on originals): A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac's thumb," colorization", x40, 1950s-1962. Mara Vishniac Kohn recalls her father slicing this specimen from his thumb. (Radzyner 2106B) B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10, 1950s-1962. C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100, 1950s-1970s. D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100, early 1950s-1970s © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Examples of Vishniac’s photomicrography: A. Fresh, horizontal, thick-section of skin from Roman Vishniac’s thumb, ‘colorization’, x40 (1950s-1962). B. Central core plant tissue, polarized light and Rheinberg illumination, x10 (1950s-1962) C. Oedogonium (Green Algae), interference contrast, x100 (1950s-1970s) D. Plant mitosis, transillumination, x100 (early 1950s-1970s) © Mara Vishniac Kohn, Courtesy International Center of Photography.

In 1961 Vishniac was appointed Professor of Biology Education at Yale University, and his groundbreaking images and scientific research were published in hundreds of magazines and books.

The exhibition includes a darkened room in which runs a slide show of 90 big blown-up transparencies from the 1950s to the 1970s, of Visniac’s full colour plates of scientific subjects – ranging from the cells of various organs in the body, to close-ups of fungal spores or of inset eyes. Nearby is a case displaying the microscope and lenses he used in this work.

Installation view of Roman Vishniac Rediscovered at the Photographers Gallery

Microscope and lenses used by Roman Vishniac in his photomicroscopy work

What an amazing life! What a breath-taking achievement! This is a wonderful exhibition.


Related links

Reviews of other Photographers’ Gallery exhibitions

Reviews of anti-Semitism and Holocaust literature

The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908)

Slowly, broadly, invincibly, there grew upon Bert’s mind realisation of the immense tragedy of humanity into which his life was flowing; the appalling and universal nature of the epoch that had arrived; the conception of an end to security and order and habit. The whole world was at war and it could not get back to peace, it might never recover peace. (Chapter ten, The War in the Air)

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

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

In fact the fifty pages at the start of the novel which describe the suburban adventures of Bert and his business partner, Grubb, are both interesting and amusing. Interesting because they’re packed with social history. Wells gives a review of how the Kentish village where grandfather Smallways lives (Bun Hill) is slowly engulfed by the spread of London suburbs, roads, railways, telegraph, along with a blight of advertising hoardings, bicycles and then the new-fangled motor car.

Funny because Bert and Grubb’s pitiful attempts to set up and run their bicycle repair and hire shop are played entirely for laughs.

The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles—indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency. (Chapter 2)

I enjoy this kind of gentle Dad’s Army-type humour about the foibles and failings of ordinary English folk.

What makes it a Wells novel, though, is that the review of social and technological changes brings us up to the present and then… goes beyond it. After the bicycle and car, old grandfather Smallways then watches the further developments of aerial monorails which soon criss-cross the country, dangling from vast metal pylons, and soon put the railways out of business, along with motor cars which have only two central wheels and travel and previously unheard-of speeds. I.e. the story naturalises and domesticates what are in fact bold technological speculations.

One of these is the development of a new kind of flying machine which Bert and his mates, in among their other misadventures, read about in the newspapers and even see a little of the displays living, as they do, quite close to the Crystal Palace where some of the new-fangled machines disport themselves. The rambunctuous inventor of this new type of airplane is a certain Mr Butteridge who is treated with characteristic Wellsian facetiousness: he is fiercely secretive about his invention as well as being passionately in love with his mistress.

After several comic mishaps which made me think of The Last of the Summer Wine (Bert and Grubb take two young ladies for a Bank Holiday spree until Bert’s motorbike suddenly catches fire, leading to much mayhem) Grubb and Smallways pack in the bicycle shop and go down to the seaside to try their luck as ‘entertainers’.

They have just set up stall on the beach at Littlestone and begun singing to bored holiday-makers and curious children when everyone sees a strange sight, an air balloon coming drifting not very far above the ground trailing ropes and other stuff. Yelling from it is none other than Mr Butteridge, yelling for help, shouting at the scattered holiday makers to catch the ropes and pull him down. And this is what a smattering of male day trippers do, grabbing ropes and stuff to pull down and stabilise the balloon. Butteridge explains he was taking a pleasant day’s flight when his companion became ill. He then sets about manhandling the unconscious lady in all her Edwardians bustles over the side of the basket between its ropes and stays, a fiddly, difficult business in the middle of which a gust of wind comes along and — tips Butteridge and lady out onto the sand, bumps the basket into Bert so that he tumbles head-first inside and — having thrown all the other hands off the ropes, Bert finds himself whooshing quickly high, high into the sky.

No matter how preposterous the story, Wells has a real gift for fiercely imagining all the details of the scenarios he works up. On almost every page there are vivid touches which take you that much further into the story, and overcome your rational indignation at its silliness. Here’s Bert’s impressions having just fallen into the balloon’s car and half-stunned himself.

He had an impression he must be stunned because of a surging in his ears, and because all the voices of the people about him had become small and remote. They were shouting like elves inside a hill.

‘Like elves inside a hill’. That image has stayed with me for several days since I read it.

Anyway, Bert in the balloon drifts east over the Channel, across France and then across Germany. After a comic sequence in which he tries to land and throws out the iron anchor at the end of a rope which then proceeds to ravage its way across a small German town, smashing windows, ripping off rooftiles and prompting an angry crowd to chase him shouting abuse in German, he is eventually shot down when he drifts over an enormous field of huge man-made dirigibles.

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

It turns out that Germany is on the brink of war with Britain (just as Wells in In the Days of the Comet had also predicted a war between Britain and Germany) and is mobilising this vast secret fleet of airships. Bert is taken before the commander-in-chief, the tall, blonde, merciless Prince Karl Albert.

But there is a complication: up in the balloon Bert had had time to rummage around in the basket’s various cupboards and drawers, finding food, but also finding a load of technical plans for Butteridge’s new airplane design. And he had been planning to sell the designs to the Germans. So the German high command is under the impression that Bert is Butteridge, the famous inventor.

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

And because they think he has brought them important plans, without a bye-your-leave he is ordered to accompany the fleet as they set off on the aerial attacks which will mark the outbreak of the war in the air. So Bert is bundled into the lead airship of the German fleet, the Vaterland, put under guard of the humane, English-speaking Kurt, and up he goes, witnessing the sight of the vast German attackfleet of the future, scores of vast zeppelins, each of which carries a number of new-design fighter planes, or Drachenflieger.

This allows Wells to give soaringly evocative descriptions of what it is like to fly, what it is like to rise above the level of the clouds into pure sunshine, what it is like to look down over the patchwork quilt of farmland, over sunlight reflected on rivers, over cities, and then over the broad Atlantic Ocean.

Then Bert witnesses the Battle of the North Atlantic (chapter 5), when the airships come to the help of the German High Seas fleet as it attacks the American Atlantic fleet of the Eastern seaboard of the USA. Wells gives a really vivid description of watching a sea battle among the huge dreadnought battleships of the day, the shells, the explosions, the sight of men like ants swarming out of the guts of wrecked ships as they sink and then wriggling in the water amid explosions of steam and oil.

Nobody had ever seen sights like these before. Wells’s imagining of them is vivid and often disgusting. Bert is sickened by the sight of so much destruction, pain and death.

Then the fleet flies on to New York whose pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, economics and culture, even in 1907, Wells describes, before going on to intensely imagine the attack on New York (subject of chapter 6). After the airships have flattened Wall Street and the City Hall, the New York authorities surrender. But the population of this great metropolis can’t understand or accept this and spontaneous attacks on the hovering airships break out from all over with the result that the terrible, inflexible Prince Karl Albert orders Broadway to be demolished. Bert watches the incendiary bombs fall, smashing buildings and sending flame waves through the thronged streets, burning countless men, women and children to death.

That night a storm comes up, battering the German airships, and in the middle of it America’s air force attacks, the plucky little fighter planes attacking the airships, all lit by lightning and thunder to Bert’s terror. The Vaterland is hit by bullets, then its steerage hit by American planes, so that it tips nose upwards, some airmen falling down through the galley to their deaths, while Bert fastens himself inside a locker. For days the Vaterland drifts helplessly with the wind northwards, over desolate Canada, till the remaining crew down her in a barren frozen wasteland. Here the Prince takes charge of the survivors, makes the wounded comfortable, distributes rations, builds a camp and orders all the men to erect a vast radio antenna in order to contact the rest of the fleet and call for rescue.

Bert pitches in with the other survivors. After five or six days of this intense bleak existence the radio is got working and they discover that the whole world is at war: they have burned London and Berlin and Hamburg and Paris, Japan has devastated San Francisco, and China has mobilised its fleet of planes and airships.

Hence the title of chapter 8 – A World At War. Wells gives an overview of what happens: turns out all the nations of the world had secret fleets of airships which they now launch at each other. Half Europe attacks the other half. India becomes involved in attacks to the North. A Chinese-Japanese fleet attacks San Francisco and then covers the entire American continent to attack Niagara, which has become the American base of the German fleet. Even the nations of South America launch fleets of their own.

The uniquely new aspect of aerial warfare is that air fleets can bombard enemy territory but can’t really hold it. Rebellions can break out anywhere, and airships are relatively cheap and quick to build so that at some remote location a ‘conquered’ country can quickly build a fleet, which can then sail to the main cities of the attackers, and devastate them.

Wells makes the impassioned case that air warfare will therefore, of necessity, by an unstoppable logic, be relentlessly destructive, each side able to inflict potentially endless devastation on the other’s centres of population, but never being able to securely hold them and quell opposition. The the resulting war will be endless and endlessly devastating.

Meanwhile a German zeppelin has found the crew of the downed Vaterland at its temporary camp in Labrador, picks them up (including Bert) and coveys them all to the town of Niagara, which the Germans have turned into their land base in the United States.

Bert is dragooned into the milling base of German flight crews, heaving and carrying crates of ammunition or tanks of liquid hydrogen and so on to provision the resting airships. All at once the zeppelin he arrived lifts off and Bert, running to watch, witnesses the epic battle between the entire German fleet of 67 airships and the 40 airships of the Southern Wing of the approaching Asiatic fleet. The battles is, as usual with Wells, grippingly and thrillingly described, as little Bert Smallways looks up at the sky turned fiery battlefield, as well as witnessing the landing Asiatic forces storming the American buildings held by shooting German airmen.

Bert watches the lead German airship destroyed by attacking Asians till it crashes into the river above Niagara Falls, gets caught in the bridges and man-made paraphernalia, before finally getting washed over the falls, rolling and turning, collapsing into a mash of metal and silk and machinery, then he runs to the edge of the falls to watch it be washed, half-submerged, down the river. There go Kurt, the only German who was his friend, the fleet that brought him half way round the world, the symbol of Europe.

Now he is alone on Goat Island, at the mercy of the landing Asian armies. From behind trees and bushes he watches the Asiatics seek out the last hiding Germans and chop them to pieces with swords. Then mine and set fire to all the remaining buildings. Then return to their sleek Asiatic planes or climb up rope ladders into the air balloons and so depart.

There follows a day described in some detail when Bert realises he is marooned on Goat Island as the one bridge which connected it across the river to America has been destroyed by the German zeppelin which crashed on it. Bert discovers a locked up tourist cafe, breaks into it and opens tins of corned beef and milk in order to feed. Then sits and watches the amazing falls and the smouldering ruins of the town across the waters. Although Wells couldn’t know it, this long passage reminds me of a later English sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard, the poet laureate of abandoned modern cities, ruined motorways, abandoned high rises and derelict amusement arcades. He finds the corpse of an Asiatic flyer who had fallen onto a tree trunk and been spitted. He discovers another body snagged in bushes at the edge of the island. This one he pokes with a long stick to dislodge and then is heart-broken to see it turn over and reveal the face of Kurt, the English-speaking German who was so kind to him, yet had suffered a foretaste of his own death.

Bert’s eerie solitude is ended with the discovery that two Germans had survived the crash of the airship by the island, notably the great Prince Albert himself and a servant. Thus begins a classic example of the trope of two enemy combatants stuck on a small island. The Germans immediately begin bossing Bert around, order him to repair the broken Asiatic plane, and hide all the food in the refreshment caff. Their imperious manner makes mild-mannered Bert rebel and, claiming the machine gun he had rescued from another Asiatic warplane, he threatens the two men who promptly turn tale and run. Now follows one day of intense anxiety for Bert doesn’t know whether they have weapons of their own. He realises he can’t afford to go to sleep. A literary reference might by Lord of the Flies but it reminded me of the movie Hell in the Pacific where Lee Marvin plays a world war two pilot downed on a remote Pacific island with a Japanese castaway, both of them at each other’s throats.

In the end Bert tracks the pair down, holding the gun out aggressively as the prince starts up from a doze. Foolishly the German reaches for his sword and – as in a thousand movies – Bert pulls the trigger before he knows what he’s done, killing Prince Karl. The other German turns tail and runs, Bert later finding a rope the other tried to fling across the broken stretch of bridge, to escape.

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

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic

When one of the tobacco-chewing old timers laments that some Brit named Butteridge died just after inventing a new kind of flying machine which might have protected the Yanks against the Asiatic hordes (he says an estimated army of a million Asians has landed on the Pacific coast), rumour has it some spy shot him and stole his balloon and all his plans – Bert chokes into his beer, and reveals that he was that man and that he still has Butteridge’s original plans stashed away in his chest-protector, an item of clothing he has managed not to remove in the previous fortnight’s adventures and which is, by now, pretty pongy.

Accepting this all very dryly, the leader of the saloon decides they must take the plans to the president. Where is the president? Well he and his cabinet are constantly on the move to escape the relentless bombing of the Asiatic air fleets.

Bert and the American village leader, Laurier, set off by bicycle (the monorails, which have replaced the trains, have all stopped running because all the power stations have been bombed) and it turns into a six-day-odyssey across a bombed-out, ruined America, through smouldering towns, past gangs of suspicious locals armed with guns, past black men string up from trees by lynch mobs, through a country falling to pieces.

In the final chapter – The Great Collapse – Wells adopts his hieratic prophetic tone. He reveals that ‘we’ – the author and his audience – are now living in the peaceful era of the World Government, ‘orderly, scientific and secured’. He is looking back to what is now distant enough to be a particular historical era: just as Western civilisation reached its peak of productivity, wealth, peace and security – it exploded in this great catastrophic war.

A universal social collapse followed, as it were a logical consequence, upon world-wide war. Wherever there were great populations, great masses of people found themselves without work, without money, and unable to get food. Famine was in every working-class quarter in the world within three weeks of the beginning of the war. Within a month there was not a city anywhere in which the ordinary law and social procedure had not been replaced by some form of emergency control, in which firearms and military executions were not being used to keep order and prevent violence. And still in the poorer quarters, and in the populous districts, and even here and there already among those who had been wealthy, famine spread.

And then the plague

It is eerie how accurate Wells’s prophecy was: four years of war nobody expected or could control or end, which led to the end of four major empires, the utter collapse of Russia into years of anarchy and civil war and something similar in Ukraine and Poland, plus major collapse in Germany.

And then the influenza epidemic which killed more people than all the fighting (it infected 500 million and may have been responsible for as many as 100 million deaths).

Utter devastation

Utter devastation

And Bert Smallways? Having found the president he hands over the blueprints of the Butteridge airplane, which are telegraphed to Britain. Being simple and cheap to make it can be knocked up by communities all over both countries, and is. But the result isn’t to fight off the Asiatics or to win the war. It is to end Western civilisation, which collapses into local warbands, warlords, medieval city states, gangs of prowling vigilantes, stragglers, beggars, bringers of disease, famine and pestilence. It is 14th century Europe at the time of the Black Death.

Job done, Bert cadges a lift from a British ship in Boston which sails across the Atlantic, is stricken with plague halfway, picked up by another ship with a depleted crew, shot at in Madeira, arrives in Wales to discover complete social collapse. The buildings and monorails (and the advertising hoardings Wells hated so much) still stand, but there is no money, no credit, no central authority, half the people are dead, the other half starving, armed bands protect arable land.

Bert makes his way across this devastated landscape, into England, to Birmingham where what’s left of the government is still trying to fight the war, finds there is no place for him and leaves just before the city is incinerated by a mass raid of Asiatic airships, hikes south via Oxford, crosses the Thames at Windsor, arrives at his brother’s house in Bun Hill to find his brother lean and feverish, his wife upstairs dying of plague, and Edna – the Helen of Bert’s great odyssey, the woman whose memory has kept him going through thick and thin – living with her mother at Horsham and terrorised by a local hoodlum, Bill Gore, who wants to marry / rape her.

By this time Bert has been transformed from an innocent abroad, changed out of all recognition from the man who was sick when he saw his first battle. He is now lean, tanned, has been in many fights, and is armed. When local tough Bill comes a-visiting the next day, Bert simply shoots him dead on the spot, then shoots his number two, then wings the number three as he runs off. Bert goes to the local pub, announces he’s just shot the local gang leader, and asks who wants to join the Vigilance Committee he’s setting up? Intimidated, they all do. Bert establishes himself as the community leader.

And he marries Edna and they farm the land, raising crops and livestock, living from year to year, defending their community against marauders, Edna bears 11 children, most of whom live, there are rich years and lean years, occasionally the shadow of an airship floats overhead, whether one of ‘ours’ or one of ‘theirs’ nobody knows or cares any more

I found Well’s description of the complete social collapse of early twentieth century civilisation, and its quick reversion to medieval levels of society, powerfully compelling. And the quick overview of Bert and Edna, converted into tough farmers, who breed and then, in their time, pass away and are buried, really haunting.

Epilogue

Set in the future, thirty years after the Germans started the world war which ended civilisation, these last ten pages depict Tom Smallways, Bert’s brother, now a bentover old man of 63, worn by decades of work in the fields, and one of Bert’s younger children, a son, Teddy, who’s come to stay. They wander through the ruins of Bun Hill while old Tom tells the little boy about ‘the old days’, when there was ample food, when people could read, when there was clean water and sewerage and electric power and motor cars.

All gone now. Now they live aid the ruins of the old civilisation as the Britons lived among the ruins the Romans left behind, marvelling at the giants who made the fabulous buildings. Now there is no knowledge of metalwork or even how to make clothes. People dress in shreds and tatters from the old days.

And Tom scares the little boy with legends about the big ruins to the north know as LONDON. One of the villagers went looking for booze there, got lost and swears that, as soon as the sun went down, the souls of the millions of dead rose again, and walked the streets in all their old finery, dodging between the hansom cabs and the motor cars, until they saw him and all crowded round to abuse him, and he saw their faces were all screeching skulls.

The book is titled The War in The Air, which sounds quite energising and romantic. I had no idea it ended with a powerfully imagined vision of the complete, long-term collapse of Western civilisation back into the obscurity of a new dark age.


Vivid imagination

When Bert and Grubb take two young ladies out for a Bank Holiday spree all goes fine until Bert’s antique motorbike springs a leak which catches fire. He stops, the lady gets off screaming while Bert and Grubb, and then various passersby all get roped in to trying to put out the galloping fire. At one point a motor car stops driven by a posh upper class chap who offers use of his tarpaulin to smother the flames.

Then everybody realised that a new method was to be tried. A number of willing hands seized upon the Oxford gentleman’s tarpaulin. The others stood away with approving noises. The tarpaulin was held over the burning bicycle like a canopy, and then smothered down upon it.

‘We ought to have done this before,’ panted Grubb.

There was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished. Every one who could contrive to do so touched the edge of the tarpaulin. Bert held down a corner with two hands and a foot. The tarpaulin, bulged up in the centre, seemed to be suppressing triumphant exultation. Then its self-approval became too much for it; it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.

I think that’s brilliant. The description of how the flames slowly penetrate the covering is exactly what it looks like, a ‘bright red smile’. And then the reflection of the red flames in the goggles of the Edwardian motor car driver, is like a close-up from a movie. Brilliantly imagined, and described.

Although his plots are often ludicrous, almost every page of a Wells novel contains moments like this, intensely imagined and vividly described.

Political pamphleteering

As they also contain long passages in which Wells gives vent to his personal feelings of outrage at corrupt government and warlike generals. Here he is, among the earliest in long long tradition of liberals and humanists lamenting that governments waste so much money on building ever-more sophisticated and expensive weapons of war, while the children of the countries the arms are meant to be ‘protecting’ starve in the streets.

So it was that Bert Smallways saw the first fight of the airship and the last fight of those strangest things in the whole history of war: the ironclad battleships, which began their career with the floating batteries of the Emperor Napoleon III in the Crimean war and lasted, with an enormous expenditure of human energy and resources, for seventy years. In that space of time the world produced over twelve thousand five hundred of these strange monsters, in schools, in types, in series, each larger and heavier and more deadly than its predecessors. Each in its turn was hailed as the last birth of time, most in their turn were sold for old iron. Only about five per cent of them ever fought in a battle. Some foundered, some went ashore, and broke up, several rammed one another by accident and sank. The lives of countless men were spent in their service, the splendid genius, and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put, stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost—that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.

And though Wells didn’t know it this is more or less what happened to the vast dreadnought battleships, the competition to build which helped fuel rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the Great War.

After all the huffing and puffing, after all the warmongering newspaper editorials and speeches, after the expense of hundreds of millions of pounds and marks, the British and German fleets fought the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 (‘fourteen British and eleven German ships sank, with a total of 9,823 deaths’) and thereafter the enormously expensive German fleet spent the rest of the war bottled up in their harbours.

Interpretations

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

In the 1921 preface printed in the Penguin paperback, he categorises this, as some of his other novels, as a ‘fantasia of possibility’, meaning that he takes one scientific idea and then pursues it to its conclusion.

Some of these ideas (the notion of a time machine or invasion from another planet) are obviously fanciful.

This one is a more realistic working-through of the consequences of unrestricted war in the air.

Interestingly, Wells argues that aerial warfare will reduce the old-fashioned idea of war with defined fronts, locations where armies fought each other and either won or lost. Instead, he predicted that the militarisation of the air would lead not only to vastly greater destruction than mankind had ever known before – but that it would also make wars oddly indecisive. Both sides would be able to reduce each other’s civilisations to smoking rubble before it was really clear who had won.

This didn’t happen in the immediate future, in the First World War when airplane technology wasn’t advanced enough to make any impact on the conflict. But it is very much what happened in the Second World War, when Allied bombing and the Russian advance reduced Germany to rubble, but not before the Germans had devastated towns and cities across the continent, namely in Britain, but also in the devastating Blitz on Poland right at the start.

By contrast, the 1918 preface doesn’t mention any of this. In this one Wells makes a shorter, sharper point, arguing that – in light of the catastrophe of 1914-18 – there could only possibly now be one line in international affairs, which is to call for a World Government.

Our author tells us in this book, as he has told us in others, more especially in The World Set Free, and as he has been telling us this year in his War and the Future, that if mankind goes on with war, the smash-up of civilization is inevitable. It is chaos or the United States of the World for mankind. There is no other choice.

This idea – the necessity of a World Government to prevent the end of civilisation – was to be the central issue Wells plugged away at for the rest of his life.

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

Regardless of its content, I am just struck by the way that Wells’s restless imagination was unable to stay in one place even when he was referring to his own works: this one novel is both a ‘fantasia of possibility’ and ‘a pamphlet story’. And in neither preface does he mention the more obvious fact that it is also a broadly comic novel.

You can see why, to ‘serious’ critics and writers, Wells’s novels became a byword for being a mess, scientific ideas jostling for space with earnest political commentary, whimsical social comedy pressed up against sentimental love stories, jaw-dropping science fiction visions morphing into daring espousals of Free Love. From about 1900 Wells chucked everything and the kitchen sink into his books.

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

Futility

But, as I pointed out in my review of In The Days of The Comet, I can’t help getting the strong feeling that underlying all Well’s bumptious humour and angry politics and technological wizardry is a deep, abiding sense of the futility of all human effort. Sooner or later in all his books, that note is sounded and seems, to me, to be the foundation of all this writing. Here is Lieutenant Kurt admitting to Bert that he will never see his sweetheart again.

‘You’ll see ‘er again all right,’ said Bert.

‘No! I shall never see her again…. I don’t understand why people should meet just to be torn apart. But I know she and I will never meet again. That I know as surely as that the sun will rise, and that cascade come shining over the rocks after I am dead and done…. Oh! It’s all foolishness and haste and violence and cruel folly, stupidity and blundering hate and selfish ambition—all the things that men have done – all the things they will ever do. Gott! Smallways, what a muddle and confusion life has always been – the battles and massacres and disasters, the hates and harsh acts, the murders and sweatings, the lynchings and cheatings. This morning I am tired of it all, as though I’d just found it out for the first time. I HAVE found it out. When a man is tired of life, I suppose it is time for him to die. I’ve lost heart, and death is over me. Death is close to me, and I know I have got to end. But think of all the hopes I had only a little time ago, the sense of fine beginnings!… It was all a sham. There were no beginnings…. We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness. New York – New York doesn’t even strike me as horrible. New York was nothing but an ant-hill kicked to pieces by a fool!

‘Think of it, Smallways: there’s war everywhere! They’re smashing up their civilisation before they have made it. The sort of thing the English did at Alexandria, the Japanese at Port Arthur, the French at Casablanca, is going on everywhere. Everywhere! Down in South America even they are fighting among themselves! No place is safe – no place is at peace. There is no place where a woman and her daughter can hide and be at peace. The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing overhead – dripping death – dripping death!’

Wells felt it all, felt the grim relentlessness of the Darwinian struggle for survival, and how the latest technological discoveries of the Scientific Age meant that these once-small and localised struggles would now spread right around the globe, become unstoppable, spelling a universal war, and a sky dripping with death.

He could see it, literally imagine every detail of it, see the bombs falling and the cities destroyed and the fleeing human ants incinerated by firebombs – way before any of his peers could and he ranted and raved and warned in everything he wrote – but nobody else imagined it as intimately, as terribly, and it drove Wells wild with frustration.

Hence the despairing tone at the end of yet another preface he wrote to this book, this time in 1941.

Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in [the 1921 preface], twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

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

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

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

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

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

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

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

Liberty / Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop @ Autograph ABP

Autograph ABP is a lovely big clear gallery space not far from Old Street tube station, devoted to exhibitions of photography by people of colour. It has just finished a ravishing exhibition by Senegalise photographer Omar Victor Diop, born 1980 in Dakar.

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

Thiaroye 1944 by Omar Victor Diop

The ground floor exhibition space is devoted to thirty beautiful digital photographs which feature Diop himself wearing the historical costumes of black people from defining moments in history. I didn’t realise it when I visited, but the photos are divided into two distinct projects:

Liberty: A Universal Chronology of Black Protest reinterprets defining moments of historical revolt and black struggle in Africa and the diaspora. Diop dresses up as characters from key events such as the Alabama marches on Washington (Selma 1965), lesser-known resistance movements against colonial oppression in southeastern Nigeria (The Women’s War 1929) and the more recent Million Hoodie March in New York.

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Selma 1965 by Omar Victor Diop

Diop appears as the main character throughout the series, but also – thank to digital wizardry – appears multiple times, as African railway workers, French migrants, Second World War soldiers, Jamaican maroons and members of the Black Panther Party.

The Ibo Women's War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

The Ibo Women’s War 1929 by Omar Victor Diop

What is immediately obvious is how stunningly beautiful Diop is. I took my teenage son to the exhibition with me and he agreed. He didn’t read any of the historic stories or references, he just enjoyed them as images in which an absolutely gorgeous young black man gets to dress up in lots of historical costumes.

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

Omar Ibn Said (1770-1864) by Omar Victor Diop

The second series is titled Project Diaspora. Once again Omar dresses up and photographs himself in images riffing off portraits celebrating four centuries of notable Africans in the diaspora, including Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the abolitionist leader who was the most photographed person of his time, Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797) a freed slave, writer and activist in London, St Bénédicte de Palermo (1526-1589), a saint in the Catholic and Lutheran church, Prince Dom Nicolau (c.1830-1860), the Congolose African leader, August Sabac El Cher (c.1836-1885), an early Afro-German soldier, Jean-Baptise Belley (1746-1805), who fought during the French Revolution, and so on.

Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805) by Omar Victor Diop

Each of these characters has an extensive wall label describing who they were and what they did and why they matter. For example,

Jean-Baptiste Belley was a native of Senegal, born on the island of Gorée and former slave of Santo Domingo in the West Indies who bought his freedom with his savings. During the period of the French Revolution, he became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundreds of France. He was also known as Mars. Original painting by Girodet.

I found it a struggle to assimilate so many diverse historical periods and events, and my son didn’t bother but just enjoyed the sheer beauty of Omar himself, captured in enormous photographs, which are all composed with a strange, interplanetary calmness.

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

Installation view of Liberty/Diaspora by Omar Victor Diop

And the footballs? I wondered whether you’d notice that. In many of the historic poses the figure is holding a modern plastic football, often very prominent, brightly coloured and incongruous. In his own words:

‘Football is an interesting global phenomenon that for me often reveals where society is in terms of race. When you look at the way that the African football royalty is perceived in Europe, there is an interesting blend of glory, hero-worship and exclusion. Every so often, you get racist chants or banana skins thrown on the pitch and the whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way. It’s that kind of paradox I am investigating in the work.’

A beautiful young man dressed up in historic alcostumes and carrying a football. What more could you want?


Related links

Reviews of other Autograph shows

Review of photography exhibitions

The Murals of Diego Rivera by Desmond Rochfort (1987)

Diego Rivera:

  • painted murals from 1921 to 1957
  • painted literally hundreds of murals
  • covered more wall space with murals than anyone else in history

Whether you like the murals comes down to a couple of questions:

  1. do you like the rejection of almost all 20th century artistic sophistication in favour of a deliberately figurative, almost cartoon-like style?
  2. do you respond to the composition and layout and design of the murals of specific murals?
  3. do you like the political or ideological message of the murals?

The message

As to 3. – the message – I take it that Rivera’s repeated themes that the Aztecs had a fine civilization until the killer Cortes massacred them all, that Mexican peasants are noble and pure but are tyrannised and brutalised by Hispanic masters, and that unemployed striking workers are being beaten up by the police while the spoilt rich bourgeoisie swigs cocktails in evening dress, so the workers must hand out weapons and man the barricades – I take it none of that comes as news to anyone any more, or that anyone gets very excited about murals with titles like ‘This is how the proletarian revolution will be’.

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

The Arsenal by Diego Rivera (1928)

Given the thousands of paintings, murals and statues of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin which festooned every space across the Soviet Union for 70 years until its collapse in 1990… I take it no-one is excited by the image of Marx et al in a mural any more.

The opposite: all of Diego’s murals evoke nostalgia for the long-lost period of the 1920s and 1930s when artists and poets and playwrights were all solidly left-wing, joined the Communist Party, made plays and poems and paintings and posters extolling the noble proletariat, confident that history was about to topple in their direction.

Thinking about it, Rivera is very like Otto Dix, George Grosz and the other Weimar artists who used cartoons and caricature to express their seething anger at social injustice in the style which became known as The New Sobriety.

The only difference from them is in the twin themes of colonisation and race. George Grosz didn’t have to go back to the era of the Reformation (1517) to explain 1920s Germany, but Rivera did have to go back to the Spanish conquistadors (1519) to explain 1920s Mexico.

The history of Mexico

Grosz didn’t feel compelled to draw a history of Germany; there were already countless histories of Germany. But Rivera did feel compelled to draw a history of Mexico, in fact he drew it again and again, because the meaning of Mexican history was still very fiercely contested in his age. After you get beyond the same kind of nostalgia for a simpler, more polarised and more politically charged artistic world, that you get when you read Brecht or listen to Kurt Weill – after the purely proletarian concerns fade away – it is the multiracial and ethnographic aspects of Rivera’s imagery which sticks out.

The Ancient World by Diego Rivera (1935)

The Aztec World West wall of the National Palace of Mexico by Diego Rivera (1929)

After the initial burst of invention in the 1920s, what this book rather brings home is the repetitiveness of the imagery. Or, if a scholar argued that the actual images and compositions are amazingly diverse – maybe what I mean is the repetitiveness of the problem.

And the problem is – the meaning of Mexico. Where did it come from? Who are the Mexicans? What does it mean to be the joint heir of both the cruel Aztecs and the bloody conquistadors? When both sides very obviously had their shortcomings, which ones do you choose as your ancestors? Where is Justice? Which is the right way to go?

The Ministry of Education murals 1922-28

Rivera’s first project was the biggest, painting the walls of the galleries surrounding the two big courtyards of the Ministry of Education, which he renamed the Court of Labour and the Court of Fiesta. It took from 1923 to 1928 and by the end he’d created 235 panels or 1,585 square metres of murals.

At the same time he began a commission to paint a converted chapel at the new Universidad Autonoma de Chapingo. The earliest Education Ministry ones, like the entire Chapingo set, ones have a really primitive didactic feel. There are relatively few figures, carrying out archetypal actions set against a brown background. The influence of the early Renaissance is really visible: this reminds me of Giotto.

'The Blood of the Martyrs' from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Blood of the Martyrs’ from the Chapel at Chapingo by Diego Rivera (1926)

In both sets you immediately see that his central achievement was to heave the entire concept of mural painting from its religious origins – and even from the heavily ‘symbolic’ imagery used by some secular, monumental muralists at the end of the 19th century –  and to consciously, deliberately, powerfully, turn it into the depiction of an entire nation, Mexico – through portrayals of its geographic regions, of its favourite fiestas and festivals, of its industry and agriculture, using compositions packed with people, characters, caricatures, satire and sentiment.

To me many of them have a medieval interest in crowds. They remind me of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in their enjoyment of the variety and quirkiness of life – not forgetting that Chaucer’s variety also included bitter social satire, sentimental religiosity, and unquestioning praise of the medieval knightly code.

In just the same way Rivera features:

  • crowd scenes, whose pleasure derives from the sheer profusion of humanity, as in the village scenes of Brueghel
  • crudely bitter but still amusing social satire
  • revolutionary sentimentality where a poor whipped peon is wrapped in a shroud or a fallen comrade is buried, and the viewer is meant to choke back a sob of emotion
  • and throughout many of the murals runs unfettered praise for men draped in bandoliers and holding guns, revolutionaries, freedom fighters, guarantors of the Revolution etc.

The joy of crowds

The Day of The Dead - The Minitry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

‘The Day of The Dead’ from The Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1924)

Political satire

The Wall Street Banquet form the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

‘The Wall Street Banquet’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1926)

The rich are sat at table not to eat, but to read off a tickertape telling them the value of their stocks and shares. The bluntness of the idea and the grotesqueness of the faces remind me of George Grosz and other Weimar satirists who had been doing the same thing for eight years or more. Just not on walls.

The noble poor

Compare and contrast the filthy rich with these guys. The noble poor. The liberated peasants. Who live with simplicity and dignity. Eating what they grow themselves. For, as Saint Zapata said: the land belongs to he who tills it… and the fruits thereof. Children. The elderly. All under the governance of the wise man, who is himself beholden to the female principle of the fruit of the soil, as worked by peasants (to the left) under the watchful gaze of a Party commissar to the right).

'Our Bread from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

‘Our Bread’ from the Ministry of Education (Court of the Fiestas) by Diego Rivera (1928)

War is wrong

Unless, of course, it’s your war, fighting for your cause. Fighting in the imperialist was, according to the Bolsheviks, foolishness. Not because there should be peace. But because workers of all lands should unite together to exterminate the bourgeoisie and other class enemies right across Europe, right around the world. A creed which certainly did lead to war across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas, for much of the 20th century.

'In the Trenches' at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

‘In the Trenches’ at the Ministry of Education by Diego Rivera (1924-28)

Off to America

It is ironic that, as soon as Rivera was famous as a biting anti-capitalist communist artist, he was taken up by … super-capitalist, mega-rich Americans, who invited him to do murals at the San Francisco Stock Exchange (1930-31) and Art Institute (1931), at the Ford motor works in Detroit (1932), and then at the Rockefeller Centre in New York (1933), at the same time as he was the subject of the Museum of Modern Art’s second ever one-artist retrospective.

God, how simply fabulous the super-rich and their wives in their diamonds and furs look as they arrived for the opening night party! How simply adorable the fire-breathing Communist Mexican turned out to be! And so witty! And his simply delightful wife!

Just to make this point quite clear, the mural Rivera painted in San Francisco, adorns the stairs leading up from the exchange itself to the exchange’s private luncheon club. The word ‘elitist’ is thrown around a lot by left-wing critics, but could a location be more restricted and elite?

Rivera himself considered the murals he made in Detroit his best. He was intensely professional about preparing the space, researching the engineering and technology of car manufacture, and then creating compositions which are awesome in scale, packed with detail, but so cunningly composed as to create a beautiful sense of rhythm and flow. Crucially, for the patron Edsel Ford, and the Art Institute which hosts them, and for admiring visitors generally, there is next to no political content in them whatsoever. they show men at work in modern factories much as many other American muralists of the time did.

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

North Wall at the Detroit Institute for Arts by Diego Rivera (1933)

The Detroit murals were followed by a falling out with the owners of the Rockefeller Building who cancelled his commission, a reluctant return to Mexico in 1934 where he fell out with the government and devoted the rest of the decade to easel painting and political activism. He only returned to mural painting in 1940 with the immense panorama of ‘Pan-American unity’ painted in America again, for the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco.

I think what this book shows is that far from showing ‘Mexico’ any clear political way ahead (there wasn’t, after all, anything like a Communist revolution in Mexico. In fact precisely the opposite, the bourgeois class consolidated its permanent grip on power by inventing a ‘big tent’ political party during the 1930s – the Institutional Revolutionary Party – designed to incorporate all political factions and classes and thus make elections and political parties unnecessary, and the PRI ruled Mexico continually until the year 2000) Rivera’s work really brings out and dramatises 1. its history to date (along with the more garish aspects of the contemporary situation – rich versus poor – town versus country – peasant versus landowner – Marx versus Henry Ford) 2. puts ordinary Mexicans, the peasants and farmers and soldiers and workers and priests and landowners and urban passersby – all of them – up on the wall to be seen and recognised as Mexican.

Mexico as a maze

Looking at the densely packed and colourful later works, from the 1940s and 50s, makes you realise that Rivera certainly created a strong visual identity for his country and countrymen in the 20s and 30s – but then remained trapped in the maze of that Mexican history, and above all on the horns of that Mexican dilemma: are we European or Indian? Aztec primitivists or scientific rationalists? Workers or bosses? Mestizos or criollos?

To some extent you could argue that the very packed out nature of his great interlocking mural of Mexican history which decorates the stairwells of the National Palace in Mexico City – the way Aztecs and conquistadors, knights and peasants, the contemporary Mexican government and heroes of the 1910 revolution, are all combined in the same image – captures the overwhelming, confusing and directionless nature of Mexican history. As this book admits, Rivera’s history pictures present ‘a history shorn of many of the qualifications and complexities associated with the historical transformation of Mexico’ (p.59). In other words, a historical fantasy.

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

History of Mexico mural in the main stairwell of the National Palace, by Diego Rivera (1929-35)

On one level there’s a great deal of ‘Where’s Wally’-type pleasure to be had from identifying different groups of characters, figuring out who they are and how they fit into the national story.

Rivera and his contemporaries, supported by some critics, often explained his socially conscious murals as replacing Christian iconography. Just as the frescos of the Renaissance depicted key moments in the story of Christ and illuminated key ideas in Christian theology for an illiterate audience so, they argued, Rivera’s murals were designed as visual guides to the illiterate Mexican peasant and prole, explaining key moments of Mexican history, showing Karl Marx with his arm stretched out pointing towards a better future.

But to the casual observer, his vast panorama of Mexican history (excerpt above) just looks like a mess. A confusing and perplexing gallimaufrey of historical events and figures all thrown together into an almost indecipherable crowd.

They become, if you like, charming illustrations for an already-educated bourgeoisie. Hence his wild success with – not just Americans – but the very richest of the richest Americans. He wasn’t feted by John Steinbeck and Dorothea Lange in New York. He was adulated by the Rockefellers and the Guggenheims and the Astors. Maybe it’s a simplistic thought, but it seems to me that the more sophisticated and complex Riviera’s murals became, the more they became popcorn, bubblegum cartoons, full of fascinating detail, but lacking the anger and energy of his earliest works.

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pan American Unity by Diego Rivera (1940)

Pure against impure

To dig a little deeper, comparing the background and enactment of the Mexico City murals against the American ones, and reading up about Rivera’s wild enthusiasm for America, the conclusion I draw is that – he liked America because it was so psychologically untroubled. I know there had been forty years of rocky industrial relations since the 1890s, and a march of unemployed workers ended in shooting only weeks before Rivera arrived in Detroit. But the Americans Rivera met were all full of national self-confidence, self-belief, untroubled by doubts. The exact opposite of the spirit of Mexico.

And – I speculate – the reason is that the white Americans he met had essentially exterminated the native peoples in order to own the land and country. Nothing held them back. They were creating the American Dream free and untrammeled by negative thoughts or anxieties.

Whereas Mexico had been, and was still, held back by massive guilt for its colonial oppression, for the extermination of an obviously highly cultured civilisation, which they could never forget because the majority of the Mexican population was mestizo or mixed race, in your face wherever you went, and almost all condemned to grotesque rural poverty. The central problem of Mexican society – the land question – was an ongoing problem inherited from the Spanish, which afflicted mostly Indians.

America didn’t have that problem, having very effectively exterminated its native peoples and not intermarried with them. Instead, Rivera met nothing but rich, confident, exuberant representatives of a boundlessly confident Master Race, carried along by the knowledge that they led the world in science and technology.

In other words, Rivera was a pioneering example of the Post-Colonial Predicament which trapped and challenged thousands of writers and artists, and tens of millions of subject peoples around the world, for much of the 20th century.

I think it’s this which makes Rivera truly revolutionary: not the slogans and pictures of Marx, but the fact that he struggled all his life to make sense of the mixed heritage of coloniser and colonised, struggling to reconcile two completely different histories, traditions, languages and ethnic identities. And if he didn’t really, in the end, succeed, it was an honourable failure and nonetheless produced a lifetime of wonderful, inspiring and fascinating public art.

The book

This is a large-format art book, containing just 104 pages, of which:

  • seven present a thorough chronology of Mexican history from Independence (1811) to the end of the reforming Cárdenas presidency in 1940, with evocative b&w photos
  • one is a poem by Pablo Neruda
  • two pages of Bibliography
  • four of notes

Leaving 81 pages of text, illustrated with about 30 contemporary black-and-white photos and 120 plates of the murals, of which 37 are in colour.

I found the text heavy going. 1987 is a long time ago and people, especially academics in the humanities, still put a lot of faith in international communism back then. The text completely lacks the dry style, lively humour and interesting psycho-sexual speculation which makes Patrick Marnham’s biography so very enjoyable.

A lot of the photos aren’t that great, and the black and white plates are quite small. The book gives generous quotes from contemporaries, especially the other muralists of the day such as David Alfaro Siqueiros, and especially the vitriolic attack he launched on Rivera in the mid-1930s, accusing Diego of selling out and becoming a bourgeois painter, as well as a lot of small detail, about minor murals, missed by Marnham’s biography, and sidebars contain what are in effect little articles explaining all aspects of Mexican culture and matters going off on a tangent from the main narrative, which are diverting and often very interesting.


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The Hard Way by Lee Child (2006)

‘Very tall, heavily built, like a real brawler. He’s in his late thirties or early forties. Short fair hair, blue eyes.’ (Patti Joseph’s description of Reacher, p.91)

You remember the way episodes of Friends were titled ‘The one with…’ and then specified the core element of that week’s show. You can do the same with the 22 Jack Reacher novels. This is the one where Jack is hired to solve a kidnapping, which turns out to be much more complicated than it seems, and takes him from the streets of New York to a farm in Norfolk.

The café He is sitting in a café in New York when he sees a guy cross the street, get into a Merc and drive off. Nothing special in that. Next morning he’s at the same café when he’s approached by a tough-looking man and persuaded to come with him to meet his boss, Mr Lane. Turns out Mr Lane’s wife has been kidnapped, the kidnappers demanded a million in cash to be left in a car at that location. Lane agreed, had one of his people fill a bag with a million, put it in the boot of the car and drive it to the arranged drop zone. This was the car which Reacher had watched the kidnapper cross the street, get into and drive away. Without knowing it or intending to be, Reacher is a key witness.

The mercenaries Reacher tells them what he knows. ‘Them’? Yes, Lane runs a group of mercenaries (‘a private military corporation’, p.450) tough ex-Army, ex-Marines, U.S. Navy SEALs, British SAS etc. In fact, Reacher analyses their plight so logically and compellingly that Lane hires him on the spot to be a consultant to help manage the situation.

But there is, of course, more to the situation than meets the eye. It takes about 450 pages for Reacher to nail the real story, pages during which he, as usual:

  • acquires a small circle of helpers and supporters
  • who just happen to have privileged access to FBI/Army/Homeland Security sources
  • and manages to wangle financial backing to pay for the endless taxis and trains and planes he needs to take

Not the first time Firstly, it turns out this is the second time a Lane wife has been kidnapped. His first wife, Anne, was kidnapped five years earlier and, although Lane paid the ransom, was found shot dead in New Jersey.

The Dakota Building Reacher quickly discovers that some people suspect the first kidnap was a front, a put-up job. Lane’s base is the famous Dakota Building, next to Central Park, where John Lennon lived and outside which he was shot (Yoko Ono and her bodyguards make a small appearance in the book, walking past Reacher in the lobby).

Patti Joseph Outside the building he is approached by the first wife’s sister, Patti. She is convinced the first kidnap was a sham, and that Lane had her sister murdered. As the book progresses Reacher uncovers the evidence to prove this is true. He discovers that Lane had instructed a member of his inner circle, Knight, who usually drove his wife around, to return to base and tell everyone he’d dropped her off shopping as usual – but in fact to take her out to New Jersey and shoot her. Then paid someone to fake the ransom calls.

Lane had his first wife murdered Why? The first Mrs Lane had come to realise that Lane was a psychopath, and had told him she wanted to leave him. Which hurt his ego so much he had her eliminated. Although Knight – who knew all this – was loyal to his boss, on the mercenaries’ next job – to defend the government of Burkina Faso in Africa, from rebels – Lane contrived a situation whereby he ordered Knight and his best friend among the mercenaries, Hobart, to hold a forward post against the advancing army. Lane then ordered his main force to retreat, abandoning Knight and Hobart to the African rebel soldiers. The aim was to ensure that Knight was killed and along with him the evidence of his wife’s murder. Hobart was just collateral damage.

Detective Brewer The first wife’s sister, Patti Joseph, tells Reacher all this. She has been keeping a close watch on the Dakota Building for years, photographing who goes in and out, keeping a log of the movements of all of Lane’s central circle of mercs, for years. Is that obsessive or is she onto something? She phones in her results to a NYPD detective named Brewer. When Reacher meets Brewer the latter admits that he humours Patti, partly because something might come of her efforts, mostly because she’s a pretty chick.

FBI agent Pauling Turns out that Brewer passes on Patti’s observations to a third party, Lauren Pauling, an ex-FBI agent who was part of the original FBI investigation of the kidnapping of Lane’s first wife and has felt oppressed by guilt for five years that her and her colleagues screwed up the investigation and allowed the first wife to be killed. She is still interested in the case because she hopes evidence will surface to prove that it was Lane who killed the first wife, and not the kidnappers who did it, because that would get the FBI and the cops off the hook for bungling the case.

So who is carrying out the current kidnapping, five years later, of the second Mrs Lane, Kate Lane, a tall, slender, blonde, beautiful model, and her daughter by a previous marriage, Jade (also ‘a truly beautiful child’, p.424)?

Pauling becomes Reacher’s sidekick Reacher develops a close working relationship with Pauling, now a freelance investigator. She has a useful contact in the Homeland Security administration (they always do). Pauling becomes the person Reacher bounces his theories and ideas off, and who accompanies him on his investigations around New York.

Investigations They investigate the house where the kidnapper insisted the keys to each of the cars containing ransom money be dropped through the letterbox. It turns out to be empty. After clever detective work the pair track down the apartment the kidnapper used to oversee the dropping off place for the ransoms. They then manage to locate the apartment where Kate and Jade were kept hostage – though it’s now empty.

The man who doesn’t speak For a long middle stretch of the book, based on eye-witness accounts of neighbours and people who sold the kidnapper bits of furniture, they establish his appearance (non-descript white male) but the standout fact is that he never talks. From several hints they develop the theory that the kidnapper can’t talk and from descriptions of what’s happened to other white mercenaries captures in Africa, they speculate this may be because his tongue was cut out by the rebels.

Africa They think the kidnapper was one of the two men Lane abandoned in Burkina Faso – Hobart or Knight. Using Pauling’s contacts in Homeland Security to identify people who’ve flown back from Africa recently, and then another contact with access to all kinds of security databases, they track down the apartment of Hobart’s sister, which turns out to be conveniently close to the café and to the ransom-money-dropping-off point in Downtown Manhattan.

There’s a very tense moment when they break into the shabby apartment building where Hobart’s sister lives, and climb the squeaking stairs, at pains to be silent in case the kidnapper they’re seeking hears them, and has time to harm or shoot his hostages, Kate and Jade.

Hobart So the reader is surprised and shocked when they kick open the apartment door and find …. a washed-out shabby woman, Hobart’s sister, making soup, and that Hobart himself is a limbless cripple propped up on the sofa.

It is Hobart, he was a member of Lane’s mercenary gang, he was abandoned by Lane, he was captured by the rebel African soldiers. He was held captive for five long years during which he barely survived the starvation and disease and, once a year, they brought him and other prisoners out of their cells into an arena of baying warriors, and asked whether they wanted their left hand, right hand, left foot, or right foot to be hacked off with a machete – and whether they then wanted the stump seared in boiling tar, or left to bleed out.

Which explains why Hobart is in his pitiful state, without feet or hands, a wretched withered stump of a man. Hobart is clearly not the kidnapper, or the man who rented the apartments or who Reacher saw drive away the ransom car right at the start.

But he does confirm that his fellow merc and prisoner, Knight, did carry out the execution of Lane’s first wife, under Lane’s instructions, then helped the fiction that it was a kidnap. So that part of Patti’s story is correct.

Reacher and Pauling have sex Later that night, Pauling expresses to Reacher what a vast relief it is to her, to have confirmed that it was not her professional screw-up which had led to the first wife’s death. The wife was dead before the FBI was even contacted. To celebrate, she and Reacher have his usual athletic, fighting-with-a-bear, championship sex.

She is now his lover, as well as his close associate in the investigation.

The Taylor theory The book sprinkles more dead ends and deliberate false trails for Reacher (and the reader) to work through -, but the main focus of their investigation now shifts to Taylor. This man was in Lane’s inner circle of mercenaries, and was the guy who drove Kate Lane to Bloomingdale’s on the day of the kidnapping. The assumption had been that he was killed almost immediately by someone who got into the stationary car and pointed a gun at the women, forced Taylor to drive wherever they wanted him to go and then killed him.

Child has planted this false version of events in our minds by having Reacher ask not one but two of Lane’s mercs to speculate how they think the kidnapping went down, and both think it happened like that. This version of events had also been confirmed when Pauling’s cop contact, Brewer, told her that the body of a white man had been found floating off a dock in mid-town Manhattan.

Now Pauling and Reacher revisit this story and the first thing they establish is that the ‘floater’ is not Taylor. Wrong height to begin with. Taylor is still alive.

So now Pauling and Reacher develop the theory that Kate and Jade were kidnapped by a disgruntled member of Lane’s inner circle, Taylor, the very driver entrusted with their safety. He pulled out a gun, told her and Jade to shut up, drove them to a safe house, tied them up, made the ransom phone calls and picked up the money. Taylor will have needed an associate, so Reacher and Pauling spend a lot of time thinking through who that could be.

Reacher and Lane In case I haven’t made it clear, all this time – throughout this entire process – Reacher is still nominally under contract to Lane to find the kidnappers. At that first meeting in the Dakota Building, Lane offered Reacher a payment of $25,000 to find Kate and the kidnapper. Reacher is free to go off and roam the city, make his own investigations, contact whoever he likes – but periodically he has to go back to Lane’s apartment, filled with half a dozen surly mercs, and update the boss on progress.

Thus Reacher is sitting with the others when the ransom demand phone calls come through to Len’s apartment. He sits with the others when the second call comes through asking for confirmation that Lane has the cash, and then giving details of the pickup. And then he sits in suspense with the others waiting for a confirmation call that the money has been received, and – hopefully – that Kate is going to be released.

The character of Lane and the mercs Since the kidnapper ends up calling for three separate payments, there are three of these very tense scenes. They also gives Reacher plenty of time to get to know Lane, to witness his psychotic rages, and to see the hold he has over the other mercs. These are strong, well-trained men but each of them, in fact, was a failure in the military, in various ways in need of being led, and prepared to do anything for The Boss.

When there is no call-back after the third and final payment is made, Reacher along with the others begins to fear the worst. That the kidnapper has killed the girls and fled. Child reiterates this idea again and again, having Reacher emphasise that, in his experience, the majority of kidnappings end in the murder of the victims, and that the first 24 hours are key. Every hour after that increases the likelihood of failure.

A bounty on Taylor As the truth sinks in that the girls are probably dead, Lane increases the bounty he will pay Reacher to $1 million. Since he has kept Lane informed of his investigations up to the dismissal of Knight and Hobart as suspects, Lane, Reacher, Pauling and the reader all now think the kidnapping was carried out by Taylor the driver, who faked his own death, held the women hostage in Downtown Manhattan, collected the money three times, killed them, and has now absconded.

Reacher now clicks into Revenge Mode. He knows Lane is a louse, a psychopath who probably had his first wife murdered and abandoned his men to terrible fates in Africa. So he’s not doing it for Lane. He vows to track down Taylor for the sake of the women, for Kate and Jade. In the apartment they have now identified as Taylor’s, which they found empty and abandoned, Reacher noticed one of the speed dial phone numbers was to a number in Britain. He guesses it’s of a close relative.

The novel moves to England

All this has taken about 350 pages. For the last 150 pages of the novel the setting switches to England, for 20 or so pages to London, but then on to rural Norfolk, where Pauling and Reacher track Taylor down to his sister’s farm.

We know that Child – real name James Grant – is himself English. We know that he lives in New York, so we can guess that the extremely detailed descriptions of Reacher and Pauling’s investigative walks around Downtown Manhattan reflect Child’s own detailed knowledge of the area.

It adds a different, not exactly literary but psychological element – maybe a hint of tongue-in-cheek – to the English section of the book, to know that Child is himself English, but pretending to write as an American. So every description in this section is written by an Englishman masquerading as an American writing about a fictional American trying to pretend to fit in with the local Brits.

Thus Child’s description of Reacher walking into a rural pub in Norfolk is layered with ironies, as the Englishman Child imagines what it would be like for an American like Reacher to walk into a pub, and then to try and remember his own (Reacher’s own) days in the U.S. Army when he was stationed in England. All this results in Reacher ordering ‘a pint of best’ while his New York colleague and lover, Pauling, is made to point out all the quaint quirks and oddities of English life.

(The two most notable of these are that a) all the streets are absolutely festooned with signs and painted symbols giving instructions about every element of your driving, ‘the nanny state in action’ and b) London is a vast octopus extending its tendrils into the country for miles and miles, making it impossible to get into or out of at any speed. Both true enough.)

Reacher has been promised $1 million if he can deliver Taylor to Lane. Through British police contacts Reacher and Pauling track down Taylor, confirming he took a flight from New York JFK, arrived at Heathrow and then – using a different line of investigation – establish the whereabouts of his sister.

How? Using the speed dial phone number Reacher had noticed in Taylor’s New York apartment. This locates Taylor’s sister to a farm in Norfolk. Reacher and Pauling hire a car and drive there, locate the village, and the farm, and park in the early morning with binoculars, waiting for Taylor, his sister, her husband and little girl to exit the farmhouse, which they conveniently do a few hours later.

Reacher had already alerted Lane that he has confirmed that Taylor is in England, and so Lane and his crew are en route on a transatlantic flight. Sighting and identity confirmed, Reacher and Pauling drive back to London to meet Lane and his goons in the Park Lane hotel.

Lane doesn’t just want to kill Taylor. He explains how he is going to torture him slowly to death. Reacher is revolted by the psychopath, as ever. A few seats away in the lobby of the hotel, a mother is trying to quiet down her restless squabbling kids. One of them throws an old doll at her brother, which misses and skids across the floor, hitting Reacher’s foot. He looks down at it and has a blinding revelation.

The twist

In a flash Reacher realises what has been wrong with the investigation all along. In a blinding moment he realises he has made a seismic error of judgement and that his entire understanding of the case is not only wrong, but catastrophically wrong.

Why? What vital clues have he and Pauling (and the reader) missed in the last 400 pages? What can it be which totally transforms the situation? Why does he excuse himself from Lane for a moment, walk as if to the toilets, but instead hurtle down into the underground car park, call Pauling to meet him, jump into the hire car, and then drive like a maniac all the way back to Norfolk?

What is the real secret behind the kidnapping of Kate and Jade Lane?

That would be telling. It’s an expertly constructed book with many twists and false trails, tense moments, and sudden surprises. I read it in a day. Take it on your next long train or plane trip or to read by a pool. It is gripping, intelligent and – in much of its factual research (about mercenaries, about the coup in Africa) informative.


Credit

All quotes from the 2011 paperback edition of The Hard Way by Lee Child, first published in 2006 by Bantam Press.

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Beauty and barbarism (a note on Banastre Tarleton)

Beauty…

One of the most striking paintings in the National Gallery in London is a full-length portrait of Sir Banastre Tarleton, 1st Baronet, GCB (21 August 1754 – 15 January 1833), who led a cavalry troop in the American War of Independence, depicted by the leading portrait painter of the day, Sir Joshua Reynolds, then-president of the Royal Academy of Arts, in 1782.

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton in the uniform of the British Legion, wearing a 'Tarleton Helmet' by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

Lieutenant-Colonel Banastre Tarleton in the uniform of the British Legion, wearing a ‘Tarleton Helmet’ by Sir Joshua Reynolds (1782)

See how he is placed centre stage in a graceful pose which dominates the scene, the storm clouds of war to his right (possibly clouds of smoke from some conflagration on the horizon), while an underling manages two panic-stricken horses on the left, making the link that Tarleton led a notorious troop of British cavalry during the war.

The fallen flags – presumably of the defeated enemy – are draped across one cannon to the left, while Tarleton has nonchalantly placed his left book on another fallen cannon while he does.. what? Is he adjusting a strap in his shapely jodhpurs or adjusting his boot? Or is he going for his sword?

The cream colour of his trousers chime with the white choker, set against the billowing white clouds, and echoed by the white patch on the nose of one of the horse’s.

But he himself is gorgeous, an arrestingly beautiful young man, with full lips and a smooth complexion, both emphasised by the way Reynolds gives them catchlights or white gloss or sheen reflected from the imagined light source. And the way the shadow from the helmet with its fur ruff – which Tarleton himself made fashionable – coquettishly casts a shadow over his right eye.

‘What a stunner’, to use Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s phrase.

… and the beast

Tarleton was phenomenally ambitious. After a spell at Oxford he had joined the British Army and sailed to American to help put down the rebels. Tarleton went on to distinguish himself in the British campaigns around New York. Within three years he rose from the lowest commissioned rank in the army to be a lieutenant colonel.

Stocky and powerful, with sandy red hair and a rugged visage that disclosed a hard and unsparing nature, Tarleton had the reputation of one who was ‘anxious of every opportunity of distinguishing himself.’ (The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling, p.423)

The war of independence was stalemated in the North, in New York and Pennsylvania. So in 1780 the British decided to try a new strategy and attack the colonists in the South. Tarleton went south with the commander-in-chief of British forces in America, Sir Henry Clinton, and his second in command, Charles Cornwallis, to besiege Charleston, port city and capital of South Carolina. He was now leading a cavalry group which was named the ‘British Legion’.

Tarleton won two important cavalry engagements.

In the first he led a devastating attack on about 500 rebel cavalry and militia commanded by Brigadier General Isaac Huger at Monck’s Corner, 30 miles from Charleston, which protected its eastern approaches. This small encounter helped seal off the final escape route for the rebel forces trapped in Charleston and contributed to the eventual surrender of the town on 11 May 1780, the greatest single American defeat of the War of Independence.

After accepting the surrender of Charleston, Clinton ordered Cornwallis to set about pacifying the back country. He knew that a force of North Carolina militiamen, and a separate force of American soldiers, had been marching to relieve Charleston. Intelligence suggested the militiamen had returned home, but the American force under Colonel Abraham Buford was still at large. Cornwallis detached the British Legion to attack Buford.

Tarleton, always mad for a fight, force-marched the 270 men under his command, covering 160 miles in just two days in the Carolina heat and humidity. On 29 May the British cavalry caught up with Buford in an area known as the Waxhaws. Buford was without artillery – having sent it ahead – but still outnumbered Tarleton two to one.

Buford hurriedly assembled his men into one straight line but, without stopping to think, Tarleton ordered his entire force to charge straight into the middle of the line, covering the 300 yards or so which separated the forces in a few seconds at full gallop. Buford’s line had time to get off one thunderous volley – which brought down some of Tarleton’s riders – but then the British were on them.

The momentum of those who were unscathed carried them into the enemy’s lair, or like Tarleton, whose horse was killed beneath him, they simply cleared their fallen mount and sprinted the last few final yards toward their foe. Whether on horseback or foot, the attackers swung their sabres, cutting men to pieces, overwhelming their stunned adversaries.

Battlefields are horrid places, but this one was especially ghastly. Here were men with severed hands and limbs, crushed skulls, and breached arteries. Some men were decapitated by the slashing cavalrymen. Others were trampled by maddened horses. The bellies of many were laid open by bayonets. Although resistance ended within seconds, the carnage continued. Tarleton did not order the slaughter that ensued, but he did not stop it either. As the Virginians screamed for ‘quarter’, for mercy, Tarleton’s men waded among the hapless rebels hacking and bayoneting in a saturnalia of bloodshed. It was a massacre. (‘I have cut 170 Off’rs and Men to pieces’, Tarleton said straightforwardly in his report.)

In a war in which rarely more than 6 or 7 percent of combatants fell on a battlefield, nearly 75 percent of the Virginians fell victim on this day of horror at the Waxhaws. As the British Legion was a Loyalist outfit, scholars have sometimes attributed the slaughter to a frenzy of retribution by neighbour against neighbour, but Tarleton’s men consisted entirely of fairly recent Scottish immigrants who had been recruited in Northern provinces.

Other historians have depicted Tarleton as a bloodthirsty ogre. That, too, seems not to have been true, but he was relatively new to command responsibilities and he had previously exhibited a habit, for which Cornwallis had reprimanded him, of not controlling his men in the immediate aftermath of battle, when churning passions, including bloodlust, drove men to act in unspeakable ways

From this day forward, southern rebels called him Bloody Tarleton and spoke of ‘Tarleton’s quarter’ in the same vituperative manner in which they uttered an expletive.  (The American Victory in the War of Independence by John Ferling, p.437)

I will never look at Tarleton’s rosy lips and trim, sexy figure in the same way again.


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Superhero movies

‘Who are you?’
‘Someone like you.’
(Batman Begins)

‘Not all heroes wear masks’ (George Clooney as Batman in Batman and Robin)

Obviously, hundreds of millions of people have seen the superhero movies of the last two decades, bought the related dvds, games, books and merchandise, and many millions of these consumers are also experts and aficionados about every aspect of the films, as well as of the original source superhero comics.

I’ve taken my son to occasional blockbusters at the cinema, but to humour him (and understand half his conversation) I recently watched as many of these superhero films as I could easily get hold of. Originally watching just for pleasure, eventually I found myself making notes and asking questions about the tropes and ideas which recurring in so many of them.

New York

  • All six modern Spiderman movies are set in New York because that’s where the hero, Peter Parker, lives.
  • Matt Murdock /Daredevil is born and bred in New York, the emblematic Chrysler building featuring in many of the film’s set-up shots
  • The Fantastic Four’s headquarters, the Baxter Building, is very obviously in New York
  • Batman’s ‘Gotham City’ is a noir version of New York and is the setting of all 11 Batman movies, including Batman Forever, in which the face of the Statue of Liberty is blown up by Two Face’s helicopter
  • Superman’s ‘Metropolis’ is transparently New York, featuring as backdrop to all eight Superman movies, and getting seriously destroyed in 2013’s Man of Steel
  • The X-Men movies travel adventurously all round the world but almost all of them gravitate back to Professor Xavier’s school for the gifted in Westchester, New York State – indeed the climax of the first X-Men movie is set right at the top of the iconic Statue of Liberty
  • Days of Future Past conveys its vision of the earth in a world desolated by war by opening in… which American city, do you think?
  • Iron Man 2 opens with a grand Stark Expo in Flushing, New York, which then becomes the site for a superbattle between Iron Man and a new breed of flying robot warriors
  • Captain Marvel starts in New York because that’s where the captain – real name Steve Rogers – grew up and, coincidentally, it’s the city the evil baddie, Red Skull, is planning to blow up at the film’s climax
  • Avengers Assemble builds to a spectacular climax in the streets and skies of New York as an army of aliens does battle with the six Avenger superheroes

If you watch any number of the films it’s impossible not to end up asking, Why are so many superhero movies obsessively set in New York City?

1. Because Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Julius Schwartz and many of the early and most influential comic-book editors, writers and artists were born and bred in New York City, loved New York and knew it very well. And since their ethos was to create superhero characters who lived in realistic places and had realistic problems, these writers set them in the place they knew best.

2. Both Marvel and DC, publishers of the leading hero comics, were originally based in New York.

3. In terms of population, New York is head and shoulders above all other American cities, with a population of 8+ million more than double its nearest rival, Los Angeles with 3.9m, and then Chicago 2.7m, Houston 2.2m, Philadelphia 1.5m, Phoenix 1.5m, San Antonio 1.4m, San Diego 1.39m, Dallas 1.3m, San Jose 1m. So a threat to New York City is a threat to the biggest population centre in America. New York means big, it means lots.

4. Also, New York is packed with iconic sights and cinematic opportunities:

  • the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Tower, the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Fifth Avenue, Central Park – New York has lots of iconic locations and sights which we’re all familiar with from countless other movies and TV shows
  • it has a huge bay and rivers running either side of Manhattan, which allows for the creation of spectacular water effects, things to crash into causing tsunami waves, or for monsters to emerge from
  • there’s a number of tunnels for car chases to happen in, or for monsters to run along the ceilings of
  • massive bridges whose cables can be snapped or cars be pushed off
  • and, of course, New York is home to a lot of very tall buildings, good for Spider-man to sweep through or planes or missiles or monsters to fly between, or General Zod to turn into enormous toppling packs of cards

Think of the massive wave sweeping through the jammed streets of New York in The Day After Tomorrow. Film makers love destroying New York. Other American cities simply don’t have the population density, let alone the iconic buildings or the variety of natural features. They’re just not nearly as much fun to blow up.

San Francisco

San Francisco with a population of only 880,000 isn’t even in the top ten American cities population-wise, but it is a popular second choice because of the visual recognition and the mayhem potential afforded by the San Francisco bridge.

The apes rampage across the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It is lifted and bodily transported by Magneto in X-Men: The Last Stand. All those cables to run up and down, to snap and whiplash down onto the roadway, slicing cars and trucks in half!

And a bridge also means things can hang or dangle at their peril over the edge of it. Often these are buses. If you think about it, you need something long to dangle over an edge, like the coach at the end of The Italian Job.

A good choice is a fire engine, which is both long in itself and also has extendable ladders which can unravel right to their limit, with someone hanging off the end, yelling for help, as happens twenty minutes into Fantastic Four (2005).

Maximum points if you use a school bus full of screaming children, as at the climax of Superman: The Movie (1978).

(Screaming schoolkids never go out of fashion. Captain America and the other Avengers have to save a bus full of them at the climax of Avengers Assemble, 2012, and young Clark Kent saves a school bus which goes off the edge of a bridge and is sinking in a river, in 2013’s Man of Steel. Listen to those kids in jeopardy scream!)

Skyscrapers smashed up

In these movies an incredible number of high rise buildings get damaged. They’re blown up, smashed up, hit by spaceships, meteors, flown into by jet planes, punctured by superheroes throwing each other through them, devastated by General Zod’s terraforming machine, and so on.

But there is one particularly stylised way of damaging buildings which recurs again and again. This is where the building is raked along one floor, ripped open along the same storey, as if with a tin opener – by flying debris, girders, missiles, superheroes, silver surfers, giant monsters and so on.

This ‘horizontal rip’ allows the viewer to see into the building and gives a more terrifying sense of the vulnerability and terror of the people one minute working in a humdrum office, the next minute clinging to the walls as shattered glass, office furniture and other people come tumbling out and plunge to the ground hundreds of feet below.

Every time I see these sequences I think of 9/11 – tall buildings hit along one floor, debris and people falling into the streets of New York.

The reference is obvious but still repressed when the two jumbo jets which come close to crashing into each other, but ultimately miss, at the climax of Amazing Spiderman 2 (2014). It is out in the open at the end of 2014’s Man of Steel, and even more so at the start of its sequel, 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, where we are actually with someone inside a skyscraper which is blown up and collapses, spewing that terrible grey cloud of debris over Bruce Wayne running helplessly towards it. It is 9/11 by any other name.

Freud developed the idea of Repetition Compulsion. This is a psychological phenomenon in which a person repeats a traumatic event or its circumstances over and over again, re-enacting the event or putting themselves in situations where the event is likely to happen again, repeating it over and over in an effort to assimilate it.

The obsessiveness with which these superhero movies (as well as the gamut of modern science fiction films) destroy tall buildings, over and over again, and so frequently in New York, seems to me like a compulsive attempt on the part of an entire culture’s collective unconscious to heal the trauma, to repair the wound, of 9/11.

I thought of this all the way through the last half hour of Man of Steel in which the systematic destruction of New York by a Kryptonite ‘world-maker’, and the extraordinarily prolonged fight between Superman and General Zod which destroys countless buildings, vehicles and New York landmarks, has to be seen to be believed.

So many shiny New York skyscrapers, slowly toppling to the ground, so much concrete wreckage and grey ash, so many 9/11s – again and again and again.

Car crashes

In American action movies the narrative expresses its seriousness via car crashes and traffic pile-ups. After the climax of the Blues Brothers back in 1980, with deliberately absurd excess, piled up 100 police cars in the central plaza in Chicago, you’d have thought that car pile-ups would have gotten pretty tired and old, a raddled empty cliché, but no – even though it is a really hoary cliche of these superhero/sci fi movies, they just keep on coming:

  • Superman II (1980) features an extended destruction of cars and buses by the three criminals from Krypton
  • the Penguin-guided Batmobile trashes a load of police cars in the awful Batman Returns (1992)
  • the multi-police car chase in Batman Begins (2005)
  • the Times Square power outage in The Amazing Spiderman 2 (2012) in which scores of police cars, buses and so on crash into each other
  • the multi-car pile-up caused by The Thing in the first Fantastic Four movie
  • the host of police cars which congregate on the White House in X-Men: Days of Future Past only to be shredded and blown up by the superguns of the flying robot Sentinels
  • the impressive slow-mo action car chase at the start of Deadpool with plenty of big black vans (a very popular type of vehicle in blockbuster chases and crashes) cartwheeling and shattering along the freeway
  • the high speed chase after an armoured truck carrying Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight
  • the climax of The Incredible Hulk (2008) in which the Hulk and the Abomination fight it out mainly by throwing cars and buses at each other in the streets of Harlem
  • the spectacular blowing up of a car park full of vehicles by flying assassin robots in Iron Man 2
  • there’s a car pile-up in a tunnel in the first half of Avengers Assemble but that’s nothing compared to the amount of cars, buses and police cars blown up in the climactic battle in New York

And so on.

It’s as if American film-makers just can’t conceive of damage, can’t really take the idea of damage seriously, unless it’s expressed through a multi-vehicle pile-up. It’s as if the movies, lacking scale and power from the actors alone, have to call in energy from other sources – from destroying things – and from destroying the thing which is closest to most Americans’ hearts and imaginations – their cars.

Apparently, there are some 270 million vehicles licensed in the USA (trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes), making it top of the world league table for motor vehicles per capita, with 910 vehicles per 1,000 people.

America is the most carred nation in the world.

Put it this way: although there are plenty of scenes of pedestrians fleeing from carnage and explosions, nothing really says TROUBLE like a whole load of New York cars, taxis and buses all piling into each other, whether because of Godzilla, the Sandman, the Silver Surfer, Electro or General Zod.

The impotence of the police and army

The smashing-up of police cars is closely related to another familiar trope – the notion that the police and/or army are completely ineffective.

How many times have we seen the cops turn up in scores of cop cars, lights flashing, sirens blaring, and some dope with a loudhailer thinks they can stop whichever radioactive mutant superbeing is the star of this particular flic, by a) asking him to and then b) firing off their puny handguns.

Sure enough, they then fire hundreds of bullets from pistols and machine guns against the baddie(s) with no effect at all. For example, when scores of cops armed to the teeth are easily beaten by the teenage X-Men in X-Men First Class, or when a small army of New York cops unleash a storm of bullets at Electro, in The Amazing Spider-Man 2, with zero effect. Or:

  • the 14 police cars and trucks and scores of armed cops which are no use at all against Magneto in the first X-Men film
  • the street full of cop cars and the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the church in Daredevil and – completely fail to capture Daredevil
  • the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the building housing the drug dealers in Batman Begins and completely fail to capture anyone
  • neither the American SWAT team in Chicago nor the Chinese SWAT team in Hong Kong can prevent Batman doing just what he wants in The Dark Knight
  • in The Dark Knight Rises the entire police force and all the SWAT teams of Gotham City are tricked underground and trapped there… for three months!
  • in all three big action sequences in The Incredible Hulk the army – starting with machine guns, then mounted guns, then helicopter gunships, then a secret sonic weapon – completely fail to quell the green beast
  • as soon as you see fighter jets, helicopters and marines going in against the rogue Kryptonians in Man of Steel, you know they are going to be annihilated

SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics team.

In the United States, SWAT teams are equipped with specialized firearms including submachine guns, assault rifles, breaching shotguns, sniper rifles, riot control agents, and stun grenades, plus specialized equipment including heavy body armor, ballistic shields, entry tools, armored vehicles, night vision devices, and motion detectors.

It’s a long way from Dixon of Dock Green, isn’t it? For decades, now, U.S. TV and film makers have been depicting urban America as a war zone.

And yet, in all these superhero movies, whenever you see a whole host of SWAT men in their black uniforms, wearing bullet proof helmets with glaring head-lamps, holding their automatic rifles to their faces, crashing into some building – it is absolutely guaranteed that they are going to be massacred or humiliated by the superhero or supervillain.

In film after film the conventional police, SWAT teams and even the army are shown to be impotent and dumb. They never get their man.

Cumulatively, this begins to have quite an undermining effect on the viewer, and begins to bleed into your perception of the highly armed American police, special forces and SWAT teams you see so often on the news. Are they really this gormless? Really this useless? Nothing we learned about the American presence in Iraq contradicts this impression.

American violence

Which brings us to the whole issue of violence, the central theme of all superhero movies. Fighting.

To the grown-up viewer is liable to notice about these scenes is the extraordinary level of everyday violence in the contemporary American imaginative universe, and how it feeds off the actual violence of everyday American life.

25 years ago I remember then-president Bill Clinton pointing out that America is a far more violent country than most Americans themselves realise. These films depict the way that that everyday violence seems to have fed down into the most basic relationships in society.

Even within the close-knit groups of ‘friends’ or comrades, even within the Fantastic Four or among the X-Men or between Peter Parker and his best friend Harry, there seems to be an endless tendency to argue, arguments which swiftly escalate to bristling standoffs, then fisticuffs, and then the guns.

American rudeness and incivility

Americans, as depicted in these movies, just can’t be civil, polite or restrained to each other.

All the little acts of politeness, the ps and qs, the common courtesies of life, have, in these films, disappeared from American life. Instead, young Americans, in thrall to a debased idea of slangy, ‘cool’, ‘street’ style, seem to operate in a mood of permanent anger, becoming furious at the smallest slight, and then resorting to extreme violence within seconds of being triggered.

Watching the inarticulate violence of many of the young people in these movies, the quickness with which they resort to bullying confrontations – at Peter Parker’s high school, or between the quick-tempered younger generation of mutants in the X-Men films – watching the way the ability to be calm and polite and well-mannered and to turn the other cheek has utterly disappeared from this culture; the way noone is capable of irony and nonchalance but immediately, upon the slightest disagreement, resorts to red-hot anger, to fists or, if they’re available, knives or guns – is terrifying.

Vide the first scene of X-Men: Apocalypse where some high school jock decides to flatten Scott/Cyclops for allegedly winking at his girl. I wonder if American high schools really are this unpleasantly confrontational and violent.

Nobody seems able to say ‘come off it guys, let’s go and play football’, or to make a joke to defuse the confrontation. Instead, square-jawed, buff, young Yanks seem to be constantly squaring up to each other while some skinny model is pulling the bully’s arm, wailing ‘Don’t do it, Brad.’

And rudeness is portrayed as prevalent at every level of American life. When Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises rudely tells the hundreds of upper-crust guests he’s invited to a glamorous ball to shove off, it is, admittedly, for a purpose (to save their lives, since bad guys have infiltrated the party and are threatening to blow it up) – but is done with the core incivility and lack of style which characterises every character in all these movies.

Almost the only person who is genuinely polite or considerate is Clark Kent and he is universally regarded as a harmless bumbling buffoon, whether played by Christoper Reeve in 1978 or  Henry Cavill in 2013.

#everydayrudeness

Screen violence

The scale of the fighting is quite staggering. I started watching these movies with my wife but she gave up along the way because she just couldn’t stomach the non-stop, stomach-churning super-violence.

If you desensitise yourself to the endless physical assaults, then it’s possible to be impressed at the skill and imagination of the fight choreographers for coming up with so any variations on what are, essentially, a small number of tropes.

My favourite is where one character seizes another by the neck and lifts them clean off the ground, generally as an interrogation technique. For example, when one of the Kryptonite baddies lifts Clark Kent’s mom simply with one hand round her throat, in Man of Steel. The camera always pans down the victim’s body to show their feet lifted clear off the ground. Wow! Ain’t he strong!

In the more advanced form, the seizer then throws the seizee right across the room, with the roughneck violence characteristic of all these films. If they’re a superbaddy, they throw the victim clear through the nearest wall.

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent’s hometown of Smallville is more or less obliterated in his epic fight with the bad Kryptonites, and I lost count of the number of walls Superman throws them through or they throw him through, at supersonic speed.

Violence as sick humour

As the past two decades have progressed, the violence of these films has become more cruel and cynical.

When I saw the opening of The Dark Knight in the cinema I was disgusted by the nihilistic cynicism of the opening ‘joke’, namely that the gang of a dozen crooks who break into a bank have instructions to shoot dead each of their colleagues once he’s done his job. Bang bang bang, people are just shot dead at point blank range. In the olden days they’d have been tied up or knocked out. Now American crims just shoot anyone who gets in their way. And the script makes wisecracks about it. Ha ha ha.

Later, the Joker does a magic trick when he’s intimidating a roomful of crime lords. He blu-tacks a pencil to make it sticking upright on a table, and says his magic trick will be to make the pencil disappear. A thuggish goon comes up to threaten him, and the Joker in one swift movement, grabs the man’s head and baps it down into the table, the pencil entering the baddy’s eyeball and into his brain – so that when the Joker lifts the dead goon’s head and pushes his body away to collapse onto the floor, the pencil goes with it. He has made it disapear. Ta-dah! Funny, eh?

The first two Christopher Nolan Batman movies contain, I think, the most sickening violence of all the movies listed below. They don’t just ‘glamorise’ violence, they glamorise a particular type of sick, twisted, black humorous attitude towards violence.

Aware of the climate of sick, amoral, super-violence which these movies promote and revel in, it comes as no surprise to outsiders like us to read about incidents like this:

On July 20, 2012, during a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises at the Century 16 cinema in Aurora, Colorado, a gunman wearing a gas mask opened fire inside the theater, killing 12 people and injuring 58 others. Police responding to the shooting apprehended a suspect later identified as 24-year-old James Eagan Holmes shortly after arriving on the scene. Initial reports stated that Holmes identified himself as ‘the Joker’ at the time of his arrest. (Wikipedia)

Does the continual, full-spectrum broadcasting of sick super-violence influence the epidemic of mass shootings in America which just seems to be getting worse and worse – or does it just accurately reflect a culture awash with guns which has completely lost all moral bearings?

A  few seconds’ searching on the internet quickly tells you that:

  • a 2015 report by The Economist magazine found that gun violence in PG-13 movies had tripled since 1985
  • there’s a Hollywood room at the National Rifle Association museum where guns used by stars like Clint Eastwood and Sly Stallone are on display
  • if you’re in the gun-selling business, the best way to make a gun a best-seller is to pay to have it showcased in a big Hollywood movie

Gun crime, gun murder, gun massacres, are a big and pressing problem (for America) but whether there’s any causality between hyper-violent, super-cynical, mass murder in movies and in ‘real life’, or it’s just a coincidental correlation, as defenders of the films claim – either way, it’s not a healthy culture, is it?

Kill all opposition

Admittedly, a small handful of characters preach what you could call ‘humanistic’ or even Christian values – like listening to each other, talking over problems, jaw-jaw is better than war-war or even, in wild moments, the notion of forgiving each other and moving on.

But these are momentary blips in a great ocean of violence. Instant anger between anyone who disagrees about anything quickly escalates to standoffs, insults, then punches, then knives, guns and – these days – Uzi machine guns. The extended ten-minute Uzi shootout with Yakuza mobsters in The Wolverine can stand as emblematic of a world of super-armed hyper-violence.

But the extraordinary level of armed violence is just a symptom, or surface symbol, of the deep structure of all these films, namely:

There is a good guy. There are one or more bad guys. The good guy can try to talk to the bad guy for a while, or have sarcastic wisecracking dialogue with him. There will be encounters of growing menace and threat. But sooner or later all this chat and phoney politeness can lead to only one thing – an intense fight, which itself can only end with the death and eradication of the antagonist.

Ultimately, you cannot talk to the enemy – all talk proves to be pointless – ultimately, all you can do is exterminate the enemy.

‘There’s only one way this ends, Cal – either you die or I do.’ (General Zod in Man of Steel)

From school corridors to outer space, these multi-million dollar blockbuster movies promote the same lesson again and again and again – that talking is a waste of time, reasoned argument is waste of breath, that the only solution to even a mild conflict of opinion, is obliterating your enemy. Shoot them. Kill them all.

American high school

In these movies American high schools all look the same and appear to be populated by either stunning models or tough-guy bullies.

The rudeness, roughness, the bullying and intimidation, the lateness and sloppiness and disrespect for the teachers which is universal in these films paint a dismal picture of America’s education system.

The bullying of nerdy outsider Peter Parker goes a long way to conveying to the detached viewer a culture of bullying and outsiderness which appears to be the seedbed for all the high school shootings that have become such a regular feature of American schools.

The movies depict a teen culture which is completely homogenous, in which everyone is a jock or a babe, drives cars, hangs out, strives to be ‘cool’ – and strongly convey that not to be part of this stiflingly conformist culture is to be lost.

The films convey such a stiflingly conformist ‘cool’ culture of jocks and babes, it comes as no surprise to learn that the real-life high school shootings are almost always carried out by the loners, the outsiders, the stiffs who are rejected and mocked by the bullying, laughing world of ‘insiders’, the good looking handsome jocks and babes.

They may also just be deranged, with a history of mental problems, like Nikolas Cruz:

But whatever the causation, you’d have thought a culture which produces billion-dollar entertainments glamorising epic violence and psychotic mass killers might pause and reflect on the fact that its products are produced and consumed in a culture characterised – like no other culture in the world – by mass killings by psychotic killers.

Schools

In fact schools feature heavily in many of these films. The X-Men plots rotate around Charles Xavier’s school for the gifted (i.e. mutants). All six Spider-Man movies rotate around the tiresome high school which Peter Parker attends.

As settings, schools have the advantage that:

  1. They relate directly to the films’ target audience – teens or those mentally in their teens
  2. They’re an excuse for lots of characters to live, work and face jeopardy in the same space
  3. There’s no need for the workaday world of jobs, work, parenting or any of the responsibilities that tie down real people and would get in the way of a lot of plot- all accommodation and food is taken care of, there’s no commuting, no babies crying etc, just teenagers running round screaming ‘We have to save him’ or ‘We have to find them’

Scenes of supernatural fighting in these schools inevitably bring to mind the eight Harry Potter movies (2001 to 2011) which take advantage of many of the same features:

  • a teen audience
  • a confined space with lots of dramatic potential
  • no adult responsibilities

Adults pretending to be young and models pretending to be ordinary people

On the subject of depicting school children –

I found the two Amazing Spiderman movies insufferable because of Andrew Garfield’s stuttering, inarticulate portrayal of the central character. When he has dinner at his girlfriend’s house, he picks a fight with the parents; when he argues with his aunt in Amazing Spider-Man 2 I think it’s intended to be funny but his character comes over as inarticulate, rude and ill-mannered. He comes over as a graceless dick.

But I found a more profound problem with the films was the glaring discrepancy between the ages of the actors and the ages of the characters they’re meant to be playing.

In both Amazing Spiderman movies Parker has the same love interest, Gwen Stacy, played by actress Emma Stone. In AS1 both Parker and Stacy are meant to be 17 years old. In fact, the actress who played her, Emma Stone, was 23 and Garfield was 28. In AS2 they are both meant to be graduating from high school aged just 18, but were in fact 25 and 30, respectively.

It’s not just implausible but… a touch creepy, watching grown adults play children.

The same problem afflicts Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017). In this version Peter Parker is meant to be even younger (15) but the actor playing him was 20. Worse, Parker’s love interest, Liz, is played by Laura Harrier, who was 27.

27 playing 15?

Not only that, but Harrier is a model who has done a fair share of ‘glamour’ modeling i.e. wearing only her underwear or less. She has the lean, muscular body of a young woman, not a girl of 15. Maybe I’m being way too serious, too much the middle-aged dad of a teenage daughter myself, but I find it creepy that a woman who’s nearly 30 years old and has modeled half-nude, is cast as a 15-year-old in a wildly popular teen movie.

Do 15 year-old girls need to feel under any more pressure than they already do to conform to soft-porn, adult fantasies of what women should look like – impossibly skinny, half-dressed, thrusting boobs, pouting towards the male viewer? Is this helping or making things worse?

You have to trust me

In almost every movie there comes a moment where one character asks another to trust them. In the audience we’re all screaming ‘Just tell him what goddamm happened,’ but that’s not the point. They never explain. They’re always in too much of a hurry, the cops are coming, the bad guys are only seconds away. ‘You have to trust me.’

As a trope it maximises tension. Instead of non-stop chasing, it creates a kind of crux or tipping point, it creates a mini-climax. And in terms of character ‘development’, often it’s two characters who haven’t got on very well, now being forced to bond.

If movies are designed to serve up thrills and spills, this is a classic moment of tension and suspense. That said, I can’t think of a single occasion when the character didn’t trust the one asking.

  • The Gambler to Wolverine: ‘You need to trust me. We have to go.’ (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, 1:34:20)
  • Quicksilver to Wolverine: ‘How do I know I can trust you?’ (X-Men: The Days of Future Past, 0:38:40)
  • Magneto to his wife: ‘I trusted you then. I need you to trust me now.’ (X-Men: Apocalypse 0:29:50)
  • Tony Stark to James Rhodes: ‘You got to trust me. Contrary to popular belief, I know exactly what I’m doing.’ (Iron Man 2 0:44:00)

‘Trust’ or lack of, is the central issue coming between George Clooney’s Batman and his new sidekick Robin, in 1997’s Batman and Robin, repeated in almost all the dialogue between them.

Rogue government agencies

In how many of these kinds of movies does it turn out that there’s a secret government agency carrying out illegal experiments or a top secret scientific programme, generally to build the ultimate weapon?

The X-Files TV series was based on the idea that the government was concealing its knowledge of alien activity and – and this is the point – was prepared to go to any lengths – which meant murdering anyone – to keep it secret.

The premise of the Jason Bourne movies was that Bourne had volunteered to be turned into the supreme killing machine, a perfect assassination machine, by a top secret government programme, but had then been badly wounded and lost his memory. The entire suite of movies is dominated by the homicidal determination of the agency doing this research (Operation Treadstone) to murder anyone who stands in its way.

The backstory of the X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a classic example of the trope: Wolverine (original name Logan) was experimented on to create a super-human killing machine. In that movie this program progressed to develop an even more violent super-killer, X11, which becomes known as Deadpool.

Rogue corporations

‘Sir, we have a situation.’
(Line used by a flunky to the evil CEO in both Daredevil and Batman Begins)

And if it’s not a rogue government department, it’s a rogue corporation. How many of these are there?

  • Cyberdyne Systems is the private corporation which devises the technology for the Terminator robots
  • Oscorp Industries is the multibillion-dollar multinational corporation which develops the technology responsible for Spider-Man and his enemy the Green Goblin
  • It’s Von Doom Industries headed by the bullish Victor von Doom which transports four scientists to its space station to observe a mysterious power source passing close to earth and which instead gives the Fantastic Four their superpowers, while also mutating von Doom into the imaginatively named Dr Doom.
  • William Stryker appears in several of the X-Men movies running rogue programmes – In X-Men Origins: Wolverine he runs the ‘Weapon X’ project which embeds Wolverine’s body with the indestructible metal, adamantine, before going on to create an even more lethal human weapon, Weapon XI, who will go on to become known as Deadpool.
  • In Deadpool the movie, the plot is changed to that the ‘hero’ acquires his superpowers after being subjected to horrific treatments at a private facility run by ‘Ajax’.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past is centred on a rogue programme being run by scientist Bolivar Trask at his Trask Corporation to create anti-mutant robots, or ‘sentinels’.
  • In Logan the Transigen Corporation has bred a cohort of test tube children made from captured mutant DNA with a view to breeding them as weaponised soldiers, supervised by creepy ‘doctor’ Zander Rice.

Corporate-level science is depicted throughout these movies as hi-tech, evil and sadistic.

This trope is taken to a new level when the rogue corporation in question happens to be owned by the very hero of the story.

  • In Iron Man Stark Industries is taken over behind Tony Stark’s back by evil Jeff Bridges who creates a super-evil robot man.
  • In Batman Begins Bruce Wayne’s own corporation (the imaginatively titled Wayne Enterprises) is not only taken away from him by the scheming CEO but used to fund his enemies

Broadly speaking, anybody functioning above a high-school romance level of existence – whether they be lawyers, doctors, scientists or businessmen – is portrayed as wicked and corrupt. This makes sense when you reflect that the comics were always targeted at nerdy teenagers.

Heterosexual

These movies are crashingly heterosexual, in a number of ways.

1. Romances They involve lots of romances, good, clean, heterosexual romances. Half the narrative of the Spider-Man movies is made up of Peter Parker’s endlessly on-again off-again romance with Mary Jane Watson (in the Toby Maguire trilogy) or Gwen Stacy (in the couple of Amazing Spider-Man films) or Liz (in the MCU reboot). The Wolverine character falls in love with a Canadian teacher in X-Men: Origins but this can’t eclipse the strength of his love for Jean Grey, played by the unreally beautiful Famke Janssen. It is disappointing that Gwyneth Paltrow, playing Tony Stark’s secretary in the Iron Man trilogy, inevitably falls in love with him.

These movies teach that all people are heterosexual and randy, so that any man and woman working closely together will end up ‘falling in love’, or be compelled to notice each other as potential partners / sex objects. Not a good attitude, is it?

2. Marriage The Fantastic Four movies (2004, 2007) are among my favourites because they grasp from the get-go that these films have to be funny to survive (a comedic tone successfully copied in the Iron Man series). Thus the Silver Surfer movie is punctuated by the comedic attempts of the stunningly good-looking Jessica Alba and Ioan Gruffudd to get married, the ceremony continually being interrupted by threats of the end of the world which only they can avert – and we all know how distracting that can be.

3. Models A dismaying number of modern American ‘actors’ – male and female – started their careers as models. I.e. despite all the feminism and political correctness to the contrary, looks looks looks are what count in Hollywood. ‘Acting ability’, second. As a selection from the movies I’ve watched recently.

  • Jennifer Connelly – model then actress (Hulk)
  • Nick Nolte – model then actor (Hulk)
  • Chris O’Donnell – model then actor (Batman Forever)
  • James Marsden – Versace model then actor (The X-Men)
  • Kirsten Dunst – model then actress (Spider-Man)
  • Tom Welling – model then actor (Smallville)

4. Buff The men in these movies are impossibly buff and toned. As the X-Men films progress, Logan – played by Hugh Jackman – goes from being fit and hunky to superhumanly muscular and ripped. Any other male character who gets his top off similarly displays an awesomely defined set of musculature (e.g. Christ Evans who spends half the Fantastic Four films topless in order to showcase his awesome six pack). Even supposedly 15-year-old Peter Parker in Spider-Man: The Homecoming pulls his shirt off to reveal an impressively ripped, toned, hyper-muscled, super-athlete body. Henry Cavill gets to be topless early in Man of Steel, revealing a quite awesomely ripped torso.

And then there’s Chris Hemsworth’s Thor:

Bloody hell.

5. Hot The women in these movies are impossibly ‘glamorous’, meaning – young, thin and buxom. A dismaying number of them started their careers as models and many still do modeling gigs i.e. looks looks looks is what counts – the ability to be able to walk and speak at the same time, a lot less important.

Thin, slender women with model good looks and ample busts

Cat-eyed models

There’s a noticeable sub-type of ‘buff’ or ‘hot’, a distinctive ‘look’ which is unusually common in these films. The actors are slightly cat-looking, with eyes far apart and cat-like.

Possibly, it’s more noticeable in the men:

It’s a look pioneered by David Keith, who came to fame in 1982’s An Officer and A Gentleman – a square face with a strong jawline and wide apart, narrow, slit-like eyes.

Of course, not all the actors in all the movies look like this – but enough of them do for it to be a noticeable trend.

And it’s even more obvious in the TV spin-offs. In the same shops where I bought second-hand superhero movies I kept seeing covers of the TV vampire series Angel (1999-2004) which starred the hunky, square-faced, lynx-eyed David Boreanaz.

Or box sets of the popular show Smallville which features model-turned-actor, moody and magnificent Tom Welling.

You don’t have to have model good looks to be a Hollywood star – but it certainly helps.

Feminism and superheroes

In this respect it’s amazing that feminists appear to support and encourage this preposterously unreal world of skinny, busty, youthful models posing as actors. I genuinely don’t understand why this image on the London Underground sparked such a storm of protest:

for being a degrading, objectifying, sexist and sexualised way of portraying women, which adds to the oppressive culture of body perfection and body shaming which afflicts so many young women (my daughter included)… and yet pretty much the same impossibly thin and airbrushed-to-perfection, sexy body shape as demonstrated by model-turned-actress, former Miss Israel 2004, Gal Gadot playing Wonder Woman in 2017 –

was praised by feminists as ’empowering’.

Slender model in figure-hugging skimpy clothes is a) degrading b) empowering. Which?

And it’s a little mind-boggling that, in 2018, the Wikipedia articles for all of these superhero movies consistently describe the lead women in them as the ‘love interest’ of the men.

In the deep conception of these films, in their stories and characters, the men are always the focus of the narratives, the centres of strength, integrity and endurance, the only ones with characters worth undergoing crises and development.

The ‘love interests’ only exist as bolt-on extras.

It’s almost surprising that the ‘love interests’ even bother to have names, since their role is mostly to pout and be skinny enough to attract the hero – after a bit of resistance, to give in and kiss him – then to get captured and placed in jeopardy by the super-baddie – and then to be rescued by the hero leading up to the cheesy Happy Ending.

I’ve just watched Thor in which the creators probably thought they were ’empowering’ Natalie Portman’s character by making her a clever scientist who understands long words – but her actual behaviour is a rehash of any 1950s brainless dolly bird.

First, she’s portrayed as a comically useless woman driver who keeps running the hapless Thor over in her camper van. She thinks he’s weird until she catches sight of him topless, flexing his awesome musculature, at which point she is abruptly smitten like a hormonal schoolgirl.

Then, when Thor kisses her hand like a perfect gent, she realises she is in lurv with him, like a bimbo out of Clueless.

And then, when this enormous, tall, ripped gentleman turns out to be a superhero capable of battling a giant fire-shooting metal monster – she succumbs to full-on, helpless hero worship.

Thor was released in 2008. Surely, from a feminist point of view, in its characterisation of the breathless man-worship of the central female character, it might as well have been 1958?

The changing American accent

The American accent seems to have changed during my lifetime i.e. the past 50 years, in terms of sound and speed.

1. More gutteral The sound has become more gutteral and strangulated, making it often difficult to understand what characters are saying. Compare and contrast the full articulation of a British actor like James McAvoy, with the strangulated articulation of someone like Jennifer Lawrence, in the second trilogy of X-Men films. Younger Americans seem to create consonant sounds right at the back of the throat as if they’re swallowing them rather than projecting them outwards. It’s related to a speaking style which was identified as ‘Valley Speak’ back in the 1990s and seems to have spread, at least throughout films.

In this clip listen to the way actress Anne Hathaway moves between fully articulated voice and strangled voice at points like 2:20 (‘Don’t condescend Mr Wayne, you don’t know [and here she begins to strangle the words] a thing about me’) and 2:46 (‘Once you’ve done what you had to [switching to strangled] they’ll never let you do what you want to’).

Is it just the way movie actors and young Americans speak now? To my ear it denotes an attitude of cynicism or nihilism. She strangles her words in order to convey a don’t-give-a-damn attitude. Along with a strong, exaggerated emphasis on the ‘r’ sound, this strangulated style of speaking conveys a ‘who gives a shit’ mindset, perfectly in tune with the prevailing violence and wanton destruction of the films.

2. Fast The other element of American English’s ongoing evolution, is the speed with which young Americans speak. I found it difficult to understand much of what Jennifer Lawrence (27) was saying in the X-Men films, but almost impossible to understand what Jacob Batalon (20) was saying in Spiderman The Homecoming, because he just speaks so fast.

Here are three ‘young’ actors from Spider-Man: The Homecoming trying to express themselves. My point is not about them and the interviewer coming over as idiots – which they do – and more about their manner of speaking: the speed and strangulated articulation seem to be turning American English into a new language in front of our ears.

Surely there are academic studies about the ways young American English is mutating away from its British source.

Money

Movies make a lot of money. In 2017 Hollywood’s domestic turnover was $11.1 billion, with global revenues of $39.9 billion – giving a neat total of $51 billion.

Below is a list of the most high profile superhero movies of the past twenty years, along with budget each one cost to make, and each one’s gross revenue.

Maybe fashion, in its widest sense, taking in every element of popular style, as well as hair styles and cosmetics, is the most far-reaching cultural influence on the world.

But arguably nothing has the same high-profile impact on global culture as American films. And, among films in general, these high-profile ‘blockbuster’ movies surely have the biggest reach of any films, in terms of marketing, hype, merchandising and viewers.

And they teach two fundamental lessons:

  • worship of an unattainable Body Perfection, for both men and women
  • worship of the most confrontational hyper-masculinity imaginable, again and again promoting the idea that the only kind of dialogue which men with even slightly differing views can have must consist of hard-ass confrontations swiftly leading to super-violence

Superhero movies mentioned in this review

1978 Superman: The Movie ($300 million gross on a $55 million budget)

1980 Superman II ($190 million gross on a $54 million budget)
1983 Superman III ($80 million gross on a $39 million budget)
1987 Superman IV: The Quest for Peace ($37 million gross / $17 million budget)

1989 Batman ($411 million gross / $35 million budget)
1992 Batman Returns ($267 million / $80 million)

1995 Batman Forever ($336 million / $100 million)
1997 Batman & Robin ($238 / $125 million)
1998 Blade ($131 million / $45 million budget)
1999 The Matrix ($464 million / $63 million)

2000 X-Men ($296 million / $75 million)
2002 Blade II ($155 million / $54 million)
2002 Spider-Man ($821 million / $139 million)
2003 Daredevil ($179 million / $78 million)
2003 X-Men 2 ($407 million / $125 million)
2003 Hulk ($245 million / $147 million)

2003 The Matrix Reloaded ($742 million / $150 million)
2003 The Matrix Revolutions ($427 million / $110 million)

2004 Blade Trinity  ($129 million / $65 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million / $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million / $200 million)
2004 Hellboy ($99 million / $66 million)

2005 Batman Begins ($374 million / $150 million)
2006 Superman Returns ($223 million / $223 million)
2006 X-Men: The Last Stand ($459 million / $210 million)
2007 Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer ($290 million / $130 million)
2007 Spider-Man 3 ($890 million / $258 million)
2008 Batman: The Dark Knight ($1 BILLION / $185 million)
2008 Iron Man 1 ($585 million / $140 million)
2008 The Incredible Hulk ($263 million / $150 million)
2009 Watchmen ($185 million / $138 million)
2009 X-Men Origins: Wolverine ($373 million / $150 million)
2010 Iron Man 2 ($624 million / $200 million)

2011 Thor ($449 million / $150 million)
2011 X-Men: First Class ($353 million / $160 million)
2011 Captain America: The First Avenger ($370 million / $140 million)
2011 Green Lantern ($219 million / $200 million)

2012 The Amazing Spider-Man ($757 million / $230 million)
2012 Batman: The Dark Knight Rises ($1.08 BILLION / $300 million)
2012 Marvel’s The Avengers Assemble ($1.5 BILLION / $220 million)
2013 Iron Man 3 ($1.2 BILLION / $200 million)
2013 Man of Steel ($668 million / $225 million)
2013 Thor: The Dark World ($645 million / $170 million)
2013 The Wolverine ($414 million / $120 million)
2014 The Amazing Spider-Man 2 ($709 million / $293 million)
2014 Captain America: The Winter Soldier ($714 million / $177 million)
2014 Guardians of the Galaxy ($773 million / $232 million)
2014 X-Men: Days of Future Past ($747 million / £205 million)
2015 Ant-Man ($519 million / $142 million)
2015 Avengers: Age of Ultron ($1.4 BILLION / $444 million)
2015 Fantastic Four ($168 million / $155 million)
2016 Captain America: Civil War ($1.15 BILLION / $250 million)

2016 Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice ($874 million / $300 million)
2016 Deadpool ($783 million / $58 million)
2016 Doctor Strange ($678 milllion / $165 million)
2016 X-Men: Apocalypse ($544 million / $178 million)
2017 Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ($864 million / $200 million)
2017 Superman: Justice League ($658 million / $300 million)
2017 Spider-Man: Homecoming ($880 million / $175 million)
2017 Thor: Ragnarok ($854 million / $180 million)
2017 Logan ($619 million / $127 million)
2018 Black Panther ($1.334 BILLION / $210 million)
2018 Avengers: Infinity War

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

Watchmen was initially published as a limited series of 12 comic books in 1986. It was subsequently packaged up into an omnibus paperback volume, which I bought for my son’s birthday a few years ago.

The pictures are by Dave Gibbons, but it is the complex, multi-layered narrative written by Alan Moore which critics instantly realised as something new and epoch-making in comic books. Watchmen won hosts of prizes and has come to be seen as a founding masterpiece of the (then new) genre of graphic novels, and one of the most influential comic stories ever written.

Its importance stems from:

  • the complexity of the narrative with its numerous intertextual elements
  • the cynical, jaded attitude shown by all the characters throughout
  • and the downbeat ending where the ‘goodies’ (if that’s what they are) do not defeat the baddie

The plot

1. Background

The story is set in a parallel universe in the 1980s. It is essentially the real world but with some key changes. (The story is, naturally enough, set in New York, home of most superhero narratives.)

In this alternative universe, back in the 1930s, various guys and women took up the new fad for caped law enforcers, with the result that there was a rash, an outburst, of masked vigilantes.

Some of them genuinely excelled at what they did –

  • Adrian Veidt who named himself ‘Ozymandias’, was the cleverest man in the world, who developed a corporate empire based on merchandising his own character
  • the ‘Night Owl’ was a technical genius who built gadgets and a flying ship to help him fight crime

Others were more run-of-the-mill, ordinary guys and gals, who liked dressing up and a good fight, examples being the self-named ‘Dollar Bill’, ‘the Mothman’, ‘Hooded Justice’ or ‘the Comedian’.

At the end of the decade these self-declared heroes came together to form a crime-busting association called the Minutemen in 1940. The narrative jumps back and forth between this founding meeting, and later meetings, up to and including a decisive one in the 1960s.

So many masked vigilantes came on the scene during these decades that the U.S. government eventually passed a law in 1977, the Keene Act, banning them. At that point – seven or eight years before our narrative begins – most of them hung up their masks and capes, and settled into comfortable, or less comfortable, middle-aged retirement.

2. The story

The ‘now’ of the narrative, is October 1985.

What triggers the story is the murder of one of the old vigilantes, the so-called ‘Comedian’. He is beaten up and thrown out of a window.

A member of the old gang team, Rorschach (so-named because mysterious constantly changing black and white patterns move across his mask), investigates the murder. We are privy to his thoughts which are written in exactly the tough guy style of Raymond Chandler, describing the city as a sewer and its inhabitants as vermin.

Rorschach starts at the scene of the crime, where the Comedian landed – splat – on the pavement. He goes on to visit Dan Dreiberg – once the so-called ‘Night Owl’ – as well as ‘Dr Manhattan’, to ask them what they knew about the Comedian in his retirement.

The narrative then leaves Rorschach to show us the backstory of the Night Owl, but especially of Dr Manhattan, arguably the most interesting character in the book.

Whereas most of the other Minutemen are just strong, athletic men and women with a fondness for dressing up in tight outfits and punching muggers, Dr. Manhattan is a genuinely genetically-altered superhero. Originally he was Dr Jonathan Osterman, a nuclear physicist who, in 1959, got trapped inside an ‘Intrinsic Field Subtractor’, was obliterated down to his constituent sub-atomic particles, before managing – nobody knows how – to reconstruct himself.

This rebuilt, molecularly perfect Osterman is now tall, statuesque, and a vibrating blue colour.

When he went along to meet the other Minutemen he took the moniker ‘Dr Manhattan’. He has a winningly Zen approach to life, the universe and everything, seeing that he can not only manipulate all metal substances, but can also foresees the future. Humans bore him.

The movie makes clearer what, for me, was rather obscure in the book, which is that it was with this apparently random incident – the creation of Dr Manhattan – that the alternative universe of the comic book diverges from history as we know it.

The divergences become quite drastic because, once he was fully reconstituted, Dr Manhattan put himself at the disposal of the U.S. government who immediately drafted him into their war machine and Cold War strategy.

He was sent to Vietnam, where he appears as an indestructible blue giant capable of destroying all the North Vietnamese weaponry (tanks and machine guns). Thus the North surrender within weeks, and Richard Nixon becomes a hero for winning the war. (In a throwaway line, typical of the density of the references and ideas in the text, we learn that the investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein were bumped off in a multi-storey car park and so never got to report the Watergate scandal, with the result that President Nixon – in this universe – was been elected for an unprecedented third term. In fact, Nixon is on his fifth term when the book is set.)

Dr Manhattan lives with the former ‘Silk Spectre II’, real name Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of the original ‘Silk Spectre’ superheroine from the 1940s.

(In a digression which is typical both for its complex filling-in of the back story, and for its brutality, we are shown the scene where, after one of the 1940s meetings, the Comedian badly beats up and begins to rape the Silk Spectre before being interrupted by some of the other superheroes who then beat him up. This incident, disturbing in itself – and obviously quite a jarring ‘subversion’ of the superhero mythos – echoes and re-echoes, like so many other incidents, throughout the text).

But Laurie is getting fed up with Dr Manhattan’s lack of emotion (in a great scene she discovers that while he is ‘making love’ to her, his true self is carrying on conducting experiments in his laboratory – the love-maker is merely a clone: he can clone himself at will, in real time).

After a big row, Laurie leaves him and turns up on the doorstep of Dan Dreiberg, ‘Night Owl II’ who, she wanly confesses, is now more or less her only friend from ‘the old times’. After some chat, they have sex – as Laurie’s full-busted figure all along suggests she will – and then don the old costumes and go out in Night Owl’s impressive flying machine to fight crime.

Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan has been persuaded against his better judgement to do a TV interview – but instead of being praised for being a key element in America’s Cold War protective armoury, he is surprised by an investigative reporter who bombards him with accusations that everyone he’s worked with has got sick from radiation poisoning.

Dr Manhattan is hounded off the set and out of the studio doors by the audience and a baying crowd, crystallising his feeling that he’s had it with puny mortals and their silly concerns. In front of this live audience, Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. Here, in complete peace and quiet, he creates a palace from his thoughts alone.

This very public disappearance of America’s most important military asset badly affects the balance of power in the ongoing Cold War, and is a key moment in the plot – for the Russians decide to test the resolve of the West, now that their key weapon has so publicly and spectacularly resigned.

Multi-leveled text

The text is complex and multi-leveled. Here are some of the other elements:

1. Newsvendor We keep being taken back to a newsvendor on a street corner in New York, who reads out the day’s news headlines, news which is echoed on the TV sets which various characters watch or have on in the background of conversations.

The reappearance of the newsvendor in each of the twelve instalments is a device for showing how, over the 12 days of the narrative, the U.S.S.R. invades Afghanistan and then threatens to push on into Pakistan. They have been emboldened to do this by Dr Manhattan’s disappearance. Thus the papers and TV are full of speculation about whether the West will respond to Russian aggression thus sparking a nuclear war.

2. Countdown clock This sense of mounting tension is emphasised by the way that each of the twelve editions of the magazine opens with a big image of a clock whose hands start at twelve to midnight, and move forward one minute with each episode. As if counting down towards disaster…

3. The Black Freighter Throughout all the instalments, what you could call the Main Narrative is punctuated by an apparently unrelated story about a doomed pirate, set in the 18th century and written in 18th century prose. This is a story which appears in daily instalments in a newspaper which is being read by a black kid who buys it from the newsvendor who I mentioned above.

While the newsvendor chats with his adult customers about the impending war, the kid sits propped against a fire hydrant, his mind totally absorbed by the grim tale of a pirate set adrift in a doomed boat full of corpses, and his various ill-fated attempts to escape.

At regular intervals the pictures and text of this Gothic tale ‘take over’ the main narrative set in 1985; sometimes the monologue of the damned pirate jostle alongside dialogue of the ‘contemporary’ characters; sometimes the entire Watchmen strip disappears for a page or so, replaced by detailed drawings of the pirates’ adventures.

The pictures of the pirate narrative are done in a deliberately different style from the main illustrations, using a pastiche of the highly-visible dots you used to see in really old comic books. Not only does this so-called ‘Black Freighter’ narrative routinely invade the ‘main text’, but its words often cleverly counterpoint the thoughts or dialogue of the main characters. For example the ghoulish pirate survivor might be thinking about death on the high sea, while the newsvendor and his customers are worrying about the risk of thermonuclear war and mass death. It’s all dark stuff.

4. Scrapbook This ‘intertextuality’ is also exemplified in the way that each of the twelve instalments ends with four pages of prose which are kind of scrapbooks of texts relevant to the main narrative. For example, the first couple of instalments end with excerpts from the tell-all book supposedly written by one of the Minutemen, Hollis Mason, an account of the early days of the group which he titled Under the Hood. These lengthy prose extracts expand our understanding of various plotlines referred to in the comic book sections.

Later on, the prose sections become more varied, but always shed new light on aspects of the main story. For example, the end of chapter nine features several ‘texts’ relating to the original Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, namely an interview with her in an old newspaper from 1939, correspondence with a film studio interested in making a movie of her life, a fan letter from a would-be crime fighter, and then a magazine interview with an older, alcoholic Sally Jupiter from 1976.

Critique of Watchmen’s multitextuality

Some readers and critics think these multiple levels give the book greater ‘depth’. I disagree. I think it makes it a lot more complex but complexity and depth are not the same thing.

When I was a kid in the 1970s there were any number of magazines about pop music or teen heart-throbs which used the same approach of coming up with imaginative and diverse visual ideas to vary their appearance and format. These could include letters from the stars, or their horoscopes, or recipes for their favourite meals, or their top fashion tips, or mocked-up pages from their diary, each in the appropriate visual style, using different page layouts, letter heads, maybe notes with mocked-up handwriting of the hearth-throb in question – and so on and so on.

This didn’t make magazines like Jackie any more profound – it just made them more visually imaginative and interesting. Now I really think about it, I remember any number of ‘annuals’ of my favourite TV shows such as Dr Who or Blue Peter, which came up with all kinds of visually inventive ways of presenting tit-bits of information about the stars of the show, or features about keeping a rabbit or the solar system or instructions on how to build your own dalek – and so on and so on.

It never struck me that the proliferation of visually novel ways of presenting all this turned my Dr Who annual into War and Peace. It was just par for the course; they were all like that.

Thus the inclusion of extraneous mocked-up texts onto the end of each instalment of Watchmen didn’t strike me as some radical new innovation, but as an editorial ploy I was used to ever since I started reading comics and annuals.

Thus the clutch of texts tacked onto the end of instalment 10 of Watchmen – in this case all relating to ‘Ozymandias’, the superhero alias of go-getting entrepreneur Adrian Veidt and which include a letter to a toy manufacturer about a new range of Ozymandias merchandise, and the Welcome letter to anyone who’s sent away for a pack of his Veidt Method of Physical Fitness and Self Improvement – these are fun, and they add to the visual and factual complexity a bit – but they don’t add any real depth to the book.

The crime trope

Watchmen mashes up tropes from numerous sources. One of the most obvious is pulp crime novels, the king of which was Raymond Chandler. There are plenty of Chandleresque pictures of Rorschach, in particular, walking down mean streets in the dark with his collar pulled up muttering murderous thoughts about the scum of the streets.

And the fundamental motor of the narrative is a whodunnit – ostensibly to find out who killed the Comedian, whether there really is a conspiracy to kill off the other retired old Minutemen, and why.

Clever and novel many elements of the book may be – such as the idea that superheroes can grow old and vulnerable and themselves be victims of a serial killer. And yet this whodunnit thread of the book is strangely uncompelling – and when the denouement is reached I found it more strange and inexplicable than a dazzling and satisfying revelation.

Maybe it was Moore’s aim to ‘subvert’ the thriller genre – or by mashing up elements from pulp crime thrillers with the superhero genre with quite a bit of pulp science fiction thrown in, to create something bold and new.

Whatever the motivation, this central thread of the plot just didn’t do it for me. I found it a) difficult to wade through the welter of distracting detail to even understand that it was a crime thriller and b) was so thrown by the spectacular side-plot about Dr Manhattan that I stopped caring about the whodunnit element and became intrigued solely by his actions.

As to the denouement, suffice to say that it turns out (as so often) to be one of the gang themselves who is knocking off their own members.

And he’s doing it because (like so many mad fanatics before him) he has become deluded into thinking that the only way to bring true peace to the world is by committing a really awesome atrocity (in this case, wiping out the population of New York – as usual), showing humanity what they are capable of – and thus shaming them into peace.

Sound likely to you?

And so the climax of the book turns out to be nothing to do with the mounting paranoia about a nuclear war between America and Russia which has been steadily promoted by the narrative, and reinforced by the ominous full-page picture of a clock ticking towards midnight! Turns out that that whole threat, much discussed by all the characters from the newsvendor and his customers to all the superheroes, was a red herring.

Instead, the climax of the story is the unleashing of a secret weapon which destroys half of New York (and, in the movie, just to universalise things a bit, also wrecks Los Angeles, Moscow and Hong Kong).

Conclusion

I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. I didn’t really believe in them, and I found it impossible to believe in the idea of ordinary men and women just putting on masks, adopting silly pseudonyms and then magically being able to ‘fight crime’.

Either the idea of masked crime fighters is risible or it isn’t – but it is a difficult balance to make it both sad and silly (as it seems to be in the opening pages depicting the Comedian as a raddled drunk and Rorschach as a maniac) and then in the next few pages ask us to believe that Night Owl and Silk Spectre actually can fly round the city in their cool flying machine, rescuing kids from burning buildings.

Once undermined in the early pages, I found the notion of crime-busting superheroes stayed undermined.

The only character I liked was Dr Manhattan because the purity of his conception and his indifference to the human trivia who surround him lifted him far above the crime-busting silliness of much of the rest of the plot. I immediately sympathised with his wish to get away from silly humans, and found that identifying with this essentially science-fiction character made me more or less indifferent to the Chandleresque whodunnit plot.

Within the world of comic books, Watchmen had a powerful impact because of its complexity: because it created new heroes while at the same time undermining the entire superhero ethos, because of its stylish mix of sci-fi, noir and superhero tropes, because of its downbeat vibe and its very downbeat ending – because this pessimistic mood caught the vibe of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, because of the cleverness of adding in the intertextual elements of letters, quotes from fictional books, magazine articles, added extra complexity and resonance.

But from outside the world of comic books, it still looks as if Watchmen adopts almost all the familiar tropes of the superhero comic book, and subverts few if any of them. And even these ‘subversions’ I found a) difficult to actually understand b) had no impact on me.

Watchmen administered a seismic shock to the comic book genre which influenced a whole generation to write more ‘realistic’ and ‘gritty’ stories. To outsiders like me, it looks like a very clever play on existing tropes which doesn’t, ultimately, change any of them at all.

Art work

I couldn’t understand why the book is meant to mark a great departure in comic book style. The page is still made up of cartoons. All the ‘good’ guys are tall, muscular and handsome.

And all the women are long-legged, slender-waisted and big busted i.e. look like the same idealised, soft porn figures that have been half the point of comic books right back to their origins in the 1930s.

Although there are several women among the original Minutemen, we only really get to know one – Silk Spectre – and her role is to wear a tight outfit and be made love to first my Dr Manhattan then (several times) by the Night owl. But all the women seem to be variations on the same sex goddess trope. I was amused to discover that a number of manufacturers make a ‘Silk Spectre’ costume. Can you see why?

The movie

It took Hollywood  20 years to sort out the rights, the script and to settle on a visual strategy for turning such a complex and multi-layered comic strip text into a movie. The result is that rare thing, an attempt at a really faithful, accurate rendition of the original book.

Watchmen the movie uses all the characters and tells the exact same story, in the same order, as the source book. It even shoots scenes from the same angles shown in the comic strips. With the result that:

1. It is very long – two and a half hours long.

2. This is without the inclusion of the pirate story, the so-called Black Freighter plotline. This was originally going to be included as live-action footage interspersed among the main narrative, as happens in the book, but it turned out that it would have cost too much (some $20 million extra), so someone had the bright idea of making it as an animation. In the event even this animated version of the sub-plot was cut because it would have made the final version of the film well over three hours long. However, the Tale of the Black Freighter is available as a standalone DVD and has been reincorporated into the movie in a Directors’ Cut version.

3. More interestingly, director Zack Snyder’s choice to follow the comic book narrative so closely means that the movie does not follow the familiar three-act movie structure. Instead it follows closely the rather meandering, and sometimes distracted, narrative of the book. Many movie fans complained about this because it didn’t produce the usual feast of fights and fireworks every fifteen minutes – the amount of time a bored teenager can sit through ‘character’ stuff’ before he needs another fix of CGI and explosions.

But I liked the film for precisely that reason. Following ‘book logic’ and not movie screenplay rules, results in a very different feel to the movie. It feels much slower and often rather confusing. I liked that.

The movie was also criticised for the quality of the acting. If we were talking about the real world, I’d agree that the acting was wooden, as was the direction. But I found the Watchmen book itself oddly wooden, opaque, emotionless and flat, and so I thought the movie captured that quality really well.

Since I didn’t believe in any of the characters from the book, finding them all just cyphers drifting through a weird mash-up of science fiction, noir and comic book clichés without any discernible purpose or end, I thought the movie faithfully captured that odd sense of anomie – and that is rare and interesting in a Hollywood film.

Seen from this point of view, i.e. the hope that the film would not follow superhero movie convention, it was disappointing that so much did still fall into superhero cliché – namely the familiar stylised fights, for example where Night Owl and Silk Spectre II defeat a whole gang of muggers with superhuman speed and slow-motion violence; or where flying machines swoop around the New York skyline; or where Night Owl and Silk Spectre have sex in his flying machine, she wearing only her knee-length PVC boots, both of them revealed to have the air-brushed-to-perfection bodies of porn stars.

This didn’t feel like it was subverting very much.

In other words, the film of Watchmen successfully captures the complex storylines and odd mood of the book, and so both audiences and critics – who essentially want the same meal dished up with slight variations – didn’t like it.

The film didn’t make much return on investment with a box office of $185.3 million on a budget of $138 million. After twenty years, a prequel comic was published chronicling the adventures of the Comedian and Rorschach in the earlier days. There’s talk that the Watchmen characters will be adapted for an HBO TV series. Everything is swallowed by the machine. Nothing subverts anything. In time, everything is turned into product.


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Cakes and Ale by Somerset Maugham (1930)

The sky was unclouded and the air hot and bright, but the North Sea gave it a pleasant tang so that it was a delight just to live and breathe. (Chapter 3)

I’ve been accumulating a pile of second-hand Somerset Maugham paperbacks over the past few years, waiting till I felt the impulse to start reading them. I can’t believe how easy to read and enjoyable they are. Even when the short stories (in particular) have unpleasant moments (the missionary’s suicide in Rain, the revelation of incest in The Book-Bag) they don’t really undermine the general tone of leisured ease and peaceful contemplation which his books exude, the warm-bath feel of the narrator’s well-educated, well-off, comfortable observation of life’s foibles and follies. Even when tragic events happen, somehow all Maugham’s stories have a fundamentally comic air.

Cakes and Ale

This is particularly true of Maugham’s satire on the English literary scene, Cakes and Ale which is a charming story of youth and illusions. It’s easy to see why Maugham himself always said it was his favourite book.

The narrator is William ‘Willie’ Ashenden, who we have met in the book-length set of stories about a spy during the Great War which featured the same character, and was published only two years earlier (1928).

The events

The sequence of events is fairly straightforward: young Willie Ashenden grows up in the (fictional) town of Blackstable (transparently based on the actual town of Whitstable) on the Kent coast, in the care of his conventional uncle who is the town vicar.

Willie is brought up as an impeccable Victorian snob with a strong sense of the town’s social hierarchy including who to talk to and who not to talk to. His uncle and aunt particularly disapprove of a local celebrity, Edward Driffield, a middle-aged man who’s risen from very ‘common’ origins to make a living ‘writing books’ and who has married a local barmaid, Rosie Gann, a woman who, in the great phrase of the day, is no better than she ought to be.

But as it happens, young Willie quite literally bumps into the pair as they’re all out experimenting with the newfangled invention, the bicycle on one fine Kentish summer day. They get talking and he becomes friendly with them, often meeting with them. Around these encounters is woven a portrait of Blackstaple society with its snooty middle class, its publicans, sailors and farm workers, and the local roaring boy, ‘Lord’ George Kemp.

One day Willie is flabbergasted to learn that Edward and Rosie have flown the coop, jumped the moon, done a bunk, disappeared, leaving behind a trail of debts and angry shopkeepers.

Five years later Willie is a 21-year-old medical student working at (the fictional) St Luke’s hospital when he bumps into Rosie in the street. She takes him to her and Edward’s modest house in Pimlico and Willie becomes a regular attendant at Edward’s ‘at homes’. Here he meets writers and artists and playwrights and is encouraged to continue the writing which he himself is pursuing in secret.

He notices that Rosie enjoys the company of a number of other young men including a painter, an actor and a writer, and finds himself becoming jealous. He gets a few opportunities to squire her around town himself, and after one of these nights out she kisses him. He invites her to his rented rooms. She slips out of her complicated Victorian dress. Naked, she is as pneumatic and life-affirming as she is in social life.

In a little while she got out of bed. I lit the candle. She turned to the glass and tied up her hair and then she looked for a moment at her naked body. Her waist was naturally small; though so well developed she was very slender; her breasts were straight and firm and they stood out from the chest as though carved in marble. It was a body made for the act of love. In the light of the candle, struggling now with the increasing day, it was all silvery gold; and the only colour was the rosy pink of the hard nipples.

Rosie stays the night. They have become lovers. Inevitably, after the initial shock and amazement at spending time with such a wonderfully sensuous naked young woman, Willie becomes more suspicious of her other ‘young men’. The ups and downs of their relationship over the next few months are described in detail.

And then the situation again undergoes a violent wrench when Rosie abruptly abandons Edward, and runs off – we later discover, to America with ‘Lord’ George the only man she ever loved.

Thirty years later the narrator, now a successful author, visits New York on a lecture tour and out of the blue gets a note from Rosie, now living in Yonkers, who’s read about his visit in the papers. He goes out there to visit her, now a snowy-haired 70 year old, but still with the same sparkling eyes and vivacity. She explains her real feelings for Driffield, for the narrator, for Lord George. Her philosophy is simple: love is good, why not share it?

The plot

So much for the events in the past; this isn’t how they are presented in the novel. Instead the novel concerns The Present in which Edward Driffield has been dead for many years and has gone from being a minor mostly ignored writer of late Victorian working class life to becoming ‘a classic of English letters’. The mature Ashenden is approached by a literary gadfly and careerist, Alroy Kear.

Kear has been approached by Driffield’s second wife, to write the official biography of her dear departed husband. This request creates a tangled web of narrative which overlays the actual events of the past. For after Rosie fled, Driffield was taken up by an ambitious literary lady and patron of the arts, Mrs Barton Trafford (a type which throngs Maugham’s stories about late Victorian London).

Mrs Barton Trafford determines to ‘make’ Driffield’s reputation and it is fascinating to read the sections which describe the way she set about currying favour with newspaper reviewers, magazine critics and proprietors, persuading the great and good of the day to write serious articles about his novels, and then organised lecture tours up and down the country, fed items to gossip columnists, had his photo taken in dignified poses and widely distributed. All the time the real Ted Driffield preferred nipping down to the pub and spending the evening jawing and yarning with local workers and common folk, but all this was smoothed over by Mrs Barton Trafford’s unstoppable campaign.

It was entirely due to her single-handed efforts over 10 years that Driffield eventually found himself widely lauded as a Grand Old Man of English Literature. Which made it all the more galling (and comic) when he falls ill, she packs him off to Cornwall to recuperate, and he promptly marries the nurse he was sent with, Amy. This second Mrs Driffield promptly steps into the role of Guardian and Protector of the now elderly writer, sidelines Mrs Barton Trafford and it is she who, now, decades later, has commissioned the fiercely careerist Kear to write her late husband’s official biography.

And where does Ashenden come into all of this? Kear, in his feline insinuating way, invites him to dinner at his club and down to Blackstable to meet the second Mrs Driffield, because he – Kear – knows that Ashenden grew up in the same town and had contact as a boy and then as a young man with the Driffield household. Nobody else still living has that knowledge. Ashenden is the best and only source for those years of Driffield’s life. Hence Kear’s comically silky manner and obsequiousness to our amused and playful narrator.

Two track narrative

So the novel runs on two time frames: in the present Kear makes his first approach, takes Ashenden to dinner, has follow-up meetings, then invites him down to Blackstaple to meet the widow. And each of these encounters is a trigger for the narrator to reminisce about the key episodes in his acquaintance with Ashenden. Think of the corny technique in old movies where a character reminisces and the screen goes all wavy and shimmery to convey the sense of travelling back decades to a character’s youth. The episodes are quite substantial:

  1. a year or so in Blackstaple when Willie was 16
  2. a good spell in Pimlico, when Willie escorts Rosie around London, then becomes her lover (for over a year), gets jealous of her continuing affairs with other young men, then she absconds
  3. the final meeting in New York 30 years later

The first two episodes are extended exercises in nostalgia and social comedy. In both of them the mature narrator looks back to his earlier self with fondness and indulgence. And it’s not just about him and Mr and Mrs Driffield, arguably the real strength of the book is the complete social context Maugham creates. In Blackstaple we get thorough portraits of his stern uncle and straitlaced aunt, of the verger who helps out in the church, of laughing ‘Lord’ George, and of his uncle’s simple, vivacious housemaid Mary-Anne, who went to school with Rosie, initially disapproves of her until she comes to visit at which point she, like everyone else, is won over by Rosie’s simple happiness.

In fact it’s an oddity, presumably deliberate, that Driffield himself, the central figure around who the entire story and all the other characters rotate, is left peculiarly blank. We hear very little about his works or literary opinions. There is far more, for example, and far more vivid characterisation of Willie’s uncle’s maid Mary-Anne.

Similarly, during the second flashback, in Pimlico, the most vivid character is Willie’s cockney landlady, Mrs Hudson, who is given pages of comic dialogue and no-nonsense common sense.

I wish to goodness I had had the sense (like Amy Driffield with her celebrated husband) to take notes of her conversation, for Mrs. Hudson was a mistress of Cockney humour. She had a gift of repartee that never failed her, she had a racy style and an apt and varied vocabulary, she was never at a loss for the comic metaphor or the vivid phrase. She was a pattern of propriety and she would never have women in her house, you never knew what they were up to (‘It’s men, men, men all the time with them, and afternoon tea and thin bread and butter, and openin’ the door and ringin’ for ’ot water and I don’t know what all’); but in conversation she did not hesitate to use what was called in those days the blue bag. One could have said of her what she said of Marie Lloyd: ‘What I like about ’er is that she gives you a good laugh. She goes pretty near the knuckle sometimes, but she never jumps over the fence.’ Mrs. Hudson enjoyed her own humour and I think she talked more willingly to her lodgers because her husband was a serious man (‘It’s as it should be,’ she said, ‘ ’im bein’ a verger and attendin’ weddings and funerals and what all’) and wasn’t much of a one for a joke. ‘Wot I says to ’Udson is, laugh while you’ve got the chance, you won’t laugh much when you’re dead and buried.’

Mrs. Hudson’s humour was cumulative and the story of her feud with Miss Butcher who let lodgings at number fourteen was a great comic saga that went on year in and year out. ‘She’s a disagreeable old cat, but I give you my word I’d miss ’er if the Lord took ’er one fine day. Though what ’e’d do with ’er when ’e got ’er I can’t think. Many’s the good laugh she’s give me in ’er time.’

A lot of the novel is like this, a loving recreation of the working class diction and humour of the 1890s and 1900s, of a world of slaveys and hansom cabs and music halls and elaborate Victorian dresses which were all long, long gone when Maugham published the book in 1930.

On another level, there is sustained satire of the London literary scene and the machinations required to ‘get ahead’ in it. Mrs Barton Trafford stands out as a magnificent portrait of a social schemer. But all the scenes with Alroy Kear in them are priceless, for Kear isn’t stupid – he is very very clever and his super-polite approaches to Ashenden and Ashenden’s amused prevarications and toying with him, are described in exquisite detail.

Love

But the heart of the novel isn’t the satire of the literary world, still less the career of the fairly innocent old man who is amused to find himself elevated to the pantheon of English Literature. It is Love. The character of Rosie the barmaid-turned-wife of the middle-aged writer is the real star of the book. She is what we still, despite all the efforts to liberalise our attitude to sex, call ‘promiscuous’. While married to Driffield she is also sleeping with the painter, Lionel Hillier, the actor Harry Retford and Ashenden and, as he later finds out, ‘Lord’ George as well.

We watch the narrator’s point of view mature from regarding her with awe when he is a snobbish 16 year old – to experiencing his first storm of sexual bliss with her and then on to his feelings of sexual jealousy with her, when he is in his early 20s – and then, finally, as a much older man, he listens with accepting wisdom to her account of why she abandoned Driffield to run off with ‘Lord’ George.

All the way through she simply believes that Love is a good thing, Love ought to be shared, Love ought to be encouraged, ‘Lord’ George asked her to go with him and she thought, well, why not?

This trajectory in which the narrator becomes more and more open-minded, forgiving and tolerant reaches its apogee when Willie is having tea with Kear and the second Mrs Driffield, who both openly insult Rosie for being a wanton hussy and nymphomaniac. For once the narrator loses his urbane self-possession and becomes quite heated in her defence.

‘She was virginal like the dawn. She was like Hebe. She was like a white rose.’
Mrs. Driffield smiled and exchanged a meaning glance with Roy.
‘Mrs. Barton Trafford told me a great deal about her. I don’t wish to seem spiteful, but I’m afraid I don’t think that she can have been a very nice woman.’
‘That’s where you make a mistake,’ I replied. ‘She was a very nice woman. I never saw her in a bad temper. You only had to say you wanted something for her to give it to you. I never heard her say a disagreeable thing about anyone. She had a heart of gold.’
‘She was a terrible slattern. Her house was always in a mess; you didn’t like to sit down in a chair because it was so dusty and you dared not look in the corners. And it was the same with her person. She could never put a skirt on straight and you’d see about two inches of petticoat hanging down on one side.’
‘She didn’t bother about things like that. They didn’t make her any the less beautiful. And she was as good as she was beautiful.’
Roy burst out laughing and Mrs. Driffield put her hand up to her mouth to hide her smile.
‘Oh, come, Mr. Ashenden, that’s really going too far. After all, let’s face it, she was a nymphomaniac.’
‘I think that’s a very silly word,’ I said.
‘Well, then, let me say that she can hardly have been a very good woman to treat poor Edward as she did. Of course it was a blessing in disguise. If she hadn’t run away from him he might have had to bear that burden for the rest of his life, and with such a handicap he could never have reached the position he did. But the fact remains that she was notoriously unfaithful to him. From what I hear she was absolutely promiscuous.’
‘You don’t understand,’ I said. ‘She was a very simple woman. Her instincts were healthy and ingenuous. She loved to make people happy. She loved love.’
‘Do you call that love?’
‘Well, then, the act of love. She was naturally affectionate. When she liked anyone it was quite natural for her to go to bed with him. She never thought twice about it. It was not vice; it wasn’t lasciviousness; it was her nature. She gave herself as naturally as the sun gives heat or the flowers their perfume. It was a pleasure to her and she liked to give pleasure to others. It had no effect on her character; she remained sincere, unspoiled, and artless.’
Mrs. Driffield looked as though she had taken a dose of castor oil and had just been trying to get the taste of it out of her mouth by sucking a lemon.

She loved love. And what is wrong with that? But lots of people from that day to this think that love should only exist in pre-set, socially acceptable formulations, should be rationed to ‘loving’, ‘committed’ relationships. Why?

In 1978 I joined the Campaign for Homosexual Equality although I am not myself gay. It seemed to me outrageous that gays and lesbians should be subject to different laws than straight people. Why shouldn’t people be free to do whatever they want with their bodies and their private parts, so long as they don’t actively harm others?

Maugham was himself bisexual, with a prevalence for homosexuality. He certainly chose to live the last forty years of his life with a male partner. Who cares? As he himself put it:

My own belief is that there is hardly anyone whose sexual life, if it were broadcast, would not fill the world at large with surprise and horror.

Exactly. So, mixed in with all Cakes and Ale’s social comedy and satire on London literary world, is a fairly straightforward plea for sexual tolerance and compassion, all conveyed through the wonderful character of Rosie the barmaid. As one critic writes it is ‘Her character, charm, beauty and humour draw everyone around her like moths to a flame.’

Happy

It’s a wonderfully life-affirming book. Maugham wrote it in the Villa Mauresque on the Riviera, which he had recently bought (in 1927) and where made his home along with his partner Gerald Haxton for the rest of their lives. Just turning 50, Maugham was a success, both in terms of having made a name for himself in the literary world, but also in simple cash terms, having made pots of money from his plays, short stories and from the movie adaptations which were beginning to be made of them.

He lived in a big house in the sunshine by the sea with his lover and wrote this book.

Which helps explain why Cakes and Ale radiates happiness. The wonderfully life-affirming characterisation of Rosie is embedded in a beautifully evocative portrait of rural Kentish life, and studded with wickedly satirical portraits of London bookland.

And it is cunningly and artfully constructed, with the flashbacks from the various situations in the present giving a pleasing complexity to its structure and to the canny, well-paced unfolding of the narrative.

On all levels it is a book to treasure and reread.


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Somerset Maugham’s books

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

The Private Lives of the Impressionists by Sue Roe (2006)

‘What a fate! To be handed over to writers’ –
Edgar Degas on reading a biography of his friend Édouard Manet

Well, they’re not very private now – the ‘private lives of the Impressionists’, their friends, relatives, spouses and lovers, are nowadays the stuff of a multi-million dollar industry in books, biographies, catalogues and conferences.

Roe’s group biography of the Impressionists is an easy-going, highly enjoyable tour through the lives of the group of “artistic rebels who changed the face of western art” etc etc.

History Some of her historical background is a bit shaky (she says France beat Russia in 1854 whereas the Crimean War to which she’s presumably referring, ended only in 1856; she claims Napoleon Bonaparte ‘threw out the republicans and restored the empire’ in 1830, whereas Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821; it was his nephew, Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte, who restored the Empire, and not until 1852; she scoots through the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune of 1870-71, strewing shaky generalisations along the way).

Gossip Disconcerting though these errors are, they needn’t worry us too much. The heart of the book is a really absorbing, gossipy account of how much in each others’ pockets Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas and the rest lived and worked. The Salon system of the 1860s, the developing art market of the 1870s, the role of Durand-Ruel in sponsoring and buying up their works, the art schools they attended, the apartments they rented, their wives and children, the affairs and lovers – it’s all here in fascinating detail.

Roe gives a good account of the organisation and build-up to the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874. I had no idea that they set up a joint stock company, signed legally binding contracts, agreeing to share the profits and so on, naming themselves ‘the Anonymous Society of Painters, Sculptors, Engravers, etc’. At this first exhibition, thirty artists displayed 165 works at the photographer Nadar’s former studio, at 35 Boulevard des Capucines.

Roe gives an entertaining summary of the contemptuous reviews the show received, helping you to understand the objections of contemporaries who genuinely didn’t understand what these impudent daubers were trying to do. It was the scathing review by Louis Leroy in the satirical magazine Le Charivari that first mentioned the word ‘impressionist’, a term they themselves didn’t use in the early years.

Roe’s brisk journalistic approach to how and why the scandal was caused is, like the rest of the book, hugely enjoyable to read.

After retiring to lick their wounds after the generally harsh reviews, the group came back in March the next year (1875) with the idea of holding an auction at the Hôtel Drouot auction rooms, but this turned out even worse. Primed by the press to ridicule, the crowd mostly jeered and catcalled as the paintings were displayed, some deliberately upside down.

When the first of Berthe Morisot’s paintings was held up someone yelled out ‘Whore’, and Pissarro strode through the crowd and punched the man in the face. Worse was the ferocious review of the show written by the hottest art critic in town, the Albert Wolff (himself an odd figure, with the habit of wearing a corset and make-up and mincing through Paris’s fashionable hotels). Roe quotes it at magnificently malicious length:

The impression the impressionists create is that of a cat walking across the keys of a piano, or a monkey with a box of paints. (Critic Albert Wolff, writing in Figaro, quoted page 141)

Artists and issues

Monet tried to kill himself by jumping in the Seine in 1868. This was a rare moment of weakness in a man who was the most successful of the Impressionists partly because he was the most determined and money-minded. That said, I was genuinely shocked by the poverty Monet endured in the later 1870s, living in misery with his long-suffering wife Camille and a brood of demanding children, making repeated trips to Paris where nobody would buy his work and firing off hundreds of begging letters to friends, possible patrons or collectors. A big section late in the book is devoted to Monet’s extreme suffering which climaxed with the lingering illness and death of his poor wife, Camille (1879).

One of his most promising patrons was the millionaire department store magnate, Ernest Hoschedé, and a major strand in the book describes how Hoschedé managed to fritter away the vast fortune he inherited, eventually going bankrupt and moving, along with his wife and children, into Monet’s own troubled household in 1877. What a household it must have been!

And no one expected that, after Camille passed away, Hoschedé’s wife, Alice, would end up falling in love with Monet. It appears to have taken all parties several years to realise what was happening, and caused Hoschedé much heartbreak when his wife finally chose to leave Ernest and live with Monet. Ernest died in 1891, whereupon Alice finally married Monet (in 1892).

Manet was a natural aristocrat, charming everyone who met him, happy to socialise and support the gang but reluctant to exhibit with them because he never gave up his ambition of Salon success and official recognition. Roe brings out his obsession with the tall, ravishing Berthe Morisot who he painted numerous times, despite the objections of his wife, Suzanne; and of Berthe’s willingness to be painted, sometimes in seductive poses, even after she was married to Manet’s brother, Eugène. Older than the others and although he never exhibited in any of the eight Impressionist exhibitions, he was in an important sense, the central figure against which they all compared themselves with, who held together the complex and changing matrix of friendships, quarrels and debts. When he died after an agonising illness, in 1883, it signalled the beginning of the end of the group.

Berthe Morisot’s life is thoroughly covered, her relationships with her demanding mother and two happy sisters. In this account she is permanently depressed by her lack of success and failure to find a husband (until 1874).

Everyone was wary of surly unsociable Paul Cézanne (he of ‘the blunt manner and old, blue, paint-smattered smock’, p.144) and most of the gang didn’t want to include him in the first show. He was a problematic figure (‘a thorn in their side’)- something which certainly comes over from the big exhibition of Cézanne Portraits which I’ve just visited.

Degas I was continually surprised by the energy and commitment of Degas to the cause. He made most of the exhibitions happen, even when he violently disagreed with some of his colleagues about thier content or timing. It was news to me that he took a five-month-long trip to New Orleans in 1872, to visit wealthy members of the de Gas family who had emigrated and now ran very successful cotton and banking businesses over there. He was overwhelmed by the quality of the light, the brightness of all the colours, and especially the wonderful outlines and movements of the black people he saw.

Feminism In the light of reading Whitney Chadwick’s fiercely feminist book Women, Art and Society, I read Private Lives of the Impressionists alert to the exploitation of women a) in the paintings as passive subjects of the male gaze and b) as artists whose ambitions were blocked or stymied by an all-male establishment.

In relation to point a) it’s hard not to think that, although they were men very frequently painting women, it is not done with an exploitative eye: a lot of the women painted come over as strong and independent, and the Impressionist world, taken as a whole, is one of sensitive ‘feminine’ values, from Degas’ ballerinas to the working girls dancing in Renoir to Monet’s countless depictions of his female menageries in beautiful gardens. You only have to compare it with the sternly aristocratic or history or classical subjects of contemporary Salon art which tends to foreground heroic men, to see the huge difference.

Anyway, apart from a handful of nudes (mostly by Manet, a few by Renoir) the Impressionists aren’t really about naked people, male or female (all Degas’ women bathing and washing are really about composition, design and colour: there’s nothing remotely titillating about them). Roe spends a couple of pages detailing the series of portraits Manet did of Morisot, with whom he was obsessed, but they all show her as fully clothed, deploying a very imperious, commanding gaze of her own. She is nobody’s victim. (That said, these works tend to confirm my impression that Manet is quite a poor painter – of faces, anyway.)

Or:

As to point b), it’s a relief to read how generally pro-women artists the Impressionists were. Degas went out of his way to make sure that Berthe Morisot, and later on Mary Cassatt, were included in the group shows and gave them the opportunity to hang their own works. Indeed, Cassatt and Morisot (both independently well-off women) played an important role in funding the later group exhibitions. In other words, the key Impressionists actively encouraged the women painters among them, and leaped to their defence when they were criticised in person or in print.

Bosoms In a strikingly unfeminist way, Roe shows a persistent interest in bare bosoms and uncovered female flesh. She is good at spotting the frissons of titillation in Belle Époque France, for example the way crowds flocked to the seaside not only to try the new-fangled idea of taking a dip in the sea, but in the hope of seeing the bare ankles and calves (!) of the brave women wearing the risqué bathing suits (p.134). I noticed the boobs thing on pages 142-3.

Marguerite [Charpentier] was young, accomplished and clever; wealthy and popular she was the envy of many. She was physically striking with dark, heavy looks and a buxom figure…. (p.142)

[The socialist politician] Gambetta [was] now the idol of Parisian society, for whom every lady in the place lowered her décolleté… (p.142)

[Renoir] enjoyed the Charpentiers’ fine apartments, with their lavish interiors, elaborate refreshments and luxuriously dressed women… (p.142)

The eighteen-year-old actress Jeanne Samaray… was a vivacious redhead, very actressy, with huge dark eyes, a small, retroussé nose, pale, luminous skin, a wide mouth and perfect pearly teeth. She wore tailored outfits that showed off her tiny waist and ample bust… (p.143)

This focus on boobs is pleasant enough to a heterosexual man but I’m not sure what the sisterhood would say.

Fashion and clothes But then the whole book is like this, chattily interested in clothes and hats and crinolines and bathing costumes and flashing eyes and exposed flesh, giving a good sense of the visual and social world the artists lived in, along with plenty of gossip about who they fancied and why.

There’s lots of fascinating social history – the building of the new Paris designed around Baron Hausmann’s broad boulevards and imposing apartment blocks (which seemed to drag on for decades) sharply contrasted with the bohemian atmosphere around the hill of Montmartre, still semi-rural and inhabited by poor workers whose dances and entertainments Renoir loved to paint, especially the young women workers or grisettes, its slum shacks packed with vagrants, poor workers, circus performers and impecunious artists.

Poverty Throughout the text runs the persistent thread of the artists’ money troubles, troubles with their traditional parents, more money troubles, worries about professional success, and all the ways they tried to curry favour with the powers-that-were, repeated rejections by the Salon, ridicule from the critics.

Probably the grimmest account of poverty is the long-running struggle of poor Monet (mentioned above), although Pissarro’s woes are also chronicled. He managed to father seven children by his miserably long-suffering wife, Julie Vellay, a vineyard grower’s daughter and his mother’s maid, who he had married in 1871. Roe quotes from her pitiful letters complaining about struggling to feed all the mouths on the next to nothing Pissarro provided with his pitifully low sales.

And Sisley (who we don’t hear so much about) was in a similar plight. (Sisley seems to be the great loser of the gang, dying in abject poverty in 1899, yet reading these last books has made me come to appreciate his quiet persistence with the core Impressionist vision, especially his wonderful snowscapes – Snow Effect at Argenteuil, 1874.)

Through all these woes, it really helped that they were a gang, supporting and encouraging each other when they were down. Cézanne in particular needed lots of bucking up and there’s a fascinating little section recounting the advice the older man, Pissarro, gave him about painting the forms he sees, and creating them through colour alone, rather than trying to draw a realistic document of the world (p.124).

There are quite a few places where Roe briefly but effectively details the discussions about painting technique which the gang swapped and developed, and the book is littered with quick thumbnail portraits of their differing styles and visions.

In relationship terms, Cézanne was another who bucked society’s supposedly strict bourgeois norms, when he took the artist’s model, Marie-Hortense Fiquet, as his mistress in 1869. Because Cézanne’s father was a very well-off banker, Cézanne felt obliged to conceal his relationship with Hortense from his parents, for nearly 15 years, even after she had borne his son, Paul. The book chronicles the many (often ludicrous) subterfuges Cézanne resorted to, the lies and deceptions which blighted all their lives, until he finally married her in 1886 although, by that stage, he (with characteristic blunt honesty) announced that he no longer had feelings for her, and they lived the remainder of their married lives apart.

Patrons and collectors It’s fascinating to read in detail about the lives and personalities, the backgrounds, marriages and fortunes of the earliest collectors. Some of them were very rich indeed, and ‘got’ the new vision the gang were trying to create, embody and promote. Central was the gallery owner, exhibition organiser, funder and patron Paul Durand-Ruel, important enough to have an entire National Gallery exhibition devoted to him a few years ago – Inventing Impressionism.

But there were also Georges Charpentier, whose wife Renoir painted, Victor Chocquet, who also commissioned portraits from Renoir, and the ill-fated Ernest Hoschedé, mentioned above. Cézanne’s friend, Père Tanguy, supplied paints and canvasses on credit, accepting paintings in return.

It’s a surprise to learn that one of the most reliable providers of cash to the perpetually strapped Monet, Pissarro and Sisley was Gustave Caillebotte, himself a painter of admirably realistic works done with a distinctively narrow perspective, but who also had the money to make endless loans to his colleagues, and to fund and organise the exhibitions. At one stage he was paying Monet’s rent, paying for his trips up to Paris, subsidising Pissarro, and organising and funding the fifth Impressionist exhibition, alongside helping to set up the (short-lived) art magazine Le jour et la nuit. Wow.

Stories

So it’s a hugely enjoyable romp through the social history, the art history and the personal histories of these great painters, their families and patrons, studded with good anecdotes. Here are a few sample:

Renoir approved of Degas’ pastels of ballet dancers and himself loved going to the Paris Opera, but mainly to stare at the audience, drinking in all the human types and faces and clothes. He was extremely put out when the new fashion came in of dimming the houselights to force people to look at the stage (p.122).

When Wolff savaged the second Impressionist exhibition even more fiercely than the Hotel Drouot auction, he wrote some extra hard words about Morisot, with the result that her new husband, Eugène, challenged Wolff to a duel (p.155).

One afternoon Manet came to visit Monet in the house he rented for several years in Argenteuil, set up his easel and painted the family at ease, Monet pottering round with a watering can while his wife, Camille, lay on the lawn.

During the afternoon Renoir turned up – having walked along the river from his family’s house at nearby Louveciennes – set up his easel, and began painting the same scene.

Manet leaned over to Monet. ‘Who’s your friend?’ he joked; ‘Tell him to give it up, he’s got no talent.’ (p.132)

Maps I particularly liked the map of the territory just to the west of Paris where the River Seine performs some extreme loops, along which lie the villages where the Impressionists rented houses and painted their wives, each other, river life and boats and scenery. This book converted the names which crop up in the titles of so many paintings – Chatou, Bougival, Argenteuil, Louveciennes, Marly, Gennevilliers, Pointoise – into real locations, roads and houses and gardens and views, where Manet and Monet and Renoir and Sisley and Pissarro lived and worked. Finding them on the map whetted my appetite to go and visit them – except I imagine you wouldn’t be able to move for coachloads of tourists all having lunch at the Restaurant Renoir and staying the night at the Hotel Monet.

The same goes for addresses in Paris. Roe religiously records the addresses of all the artists’ many apartments and studios, as well as the exhibition rooms, auction houses, and grand homes of their sponsors, locating them not only geographically, but giving evocative descriptions of their layout, size and atmosphere, and their relationship with the ever-changing street map of Hausmann’s Paris.

I dug out an old map of Paris and began recording all the locations with little green decals my daughter has, but the area around Montmartre quickly became so infested it was impossible to make out individual locations. This book would be a handy resource if you ever wanted to go on a really thorough voyage of discovery of ‘the Paris of the Impressionists’.

Roe rounds off her account with the 1886 exhibition of Impressionists put on in New York by the ever-enterprising Durand-Ruel and his son, at which 300 or so paintings by almost the entire group (with the notable exception of Cézanne) drew a very different response from the jeers and catcalls of the Paris crowds and critics of 12 years earlier. They were greeted with respect and even excitement.

American collectors began buying them up and the show marks the start of the increasing involvement of American money in funding and buying up European art which was to dominate the 20th century (and arguably continues to this day). Durand-Ruel sold $18,000 of pictures. In 1888 he set up a permanent gallery and salesroom in New York.

It marks the commercial success of the group but also the point where, with Manet dead and the eighth and final group exhibition held, the unity of the gang dissolved and the survivors began going their very different ways, Monet continuing to become a god among painters of light and colour, Renoir never recapturing the dappled happiness of the Montmartre years, Degas perfecting his technique of pastel drawing, Cézanne and Gauguin going on to develop entirely new, post-impressionistic styles.

Roe gives a thorough description of the New York exhibition, naming half a dozen paintings by each of the main painters. Looking these up on Google images provides a really useful overview of the diversity, range and achievement of this astonishing group of artists. And includes one of my favourite Impressionist works, Pissarro’s early, wonderful depiction of Hoar frost.

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Hoarfrost (1873) by Camille Pissarro

Conclusion

In many ways, books are the best kind of tourism. This book is a great piece of travel writing, taking you not only to the streets and suburbs of 19th century Paris, but back in time to a simpler, far more relaxed and easy-going age, and surely that is the key to the Impressionists’ success. They thought of themselves (and many of their critics agreed) as painting the (often pretty rough and lowlife) reality of contemporary France.

But to everyone who came afterwards, their images – contrary to the sometimes harrowing personal circumstances they were created in – amount to a glorious evocation of a bright, light, lost age of innocence.


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