Superhero movies

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

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 them are experts and aficionados of every aspect of them 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 them as I could easily get hold of. Originally watching just for pleasure, eventually I found myself making notes and asking questions about recurring tropes and themes.

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
  • Superman’s ‘Metropolis’ is obviously New York, featuring as backdrop to the 8 Superman movies
  • 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
  • The Hulk starts, atmospherically and interestingly in Brazil, but then gets steadily more American in setting, before dwindling down to a run-of-the-mill smash-up-the-streets fight between Hulk and the Abomination
  • 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 heroes

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 comics, were originally based in New York.

3. New York is a major population centre (some 8.5 million compared to its nearest rival, Los Angeles with 4 million) so a threat to New York City is a threat to a lot of people. It means big, it means lots. Thus in Batman Begins New York has to be rescued from a madcap scheme by the League of Shadows to destroy it with a vast cloud of hallucinogens which will drive the population insane.

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

  • with a huge bay and several rivers to create water effects across or for monsters to emerge from
  • tunnels for car chases or for monsters to run along the ceilings of
  • massive bridges whose cables can be snapped or cars be pushed off
  • and, of course, a lot of very tall buildings, good for Spider-man to sweep through or planes or missiles or monsters to fly between and smash into

In terms of population, New York is head and shoulders above all other American cities, with its 8+ million compared to Los Angeles 3.9m, Chicago 2.7m, Houston 2.2m, Philadelphia 1.5m, Phoenix 1.5m, San Antonio 1.4m, San Diego 1.39m, Dallas 1.30m, San Jose 1m.

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.

Only occasionally do American movies acknowledge the existence of any other country and its capital – Paris is nearly blown up at the start of Superman II.

San Francisco

San Francisco is a popular second choice because of the visual recognition and the mayhem potential of the San Francisco bridge. The apes rampage across the bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and 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 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. 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 schoolbus 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.)

Skyscrapers smashed up

In these movies an incredible number of high rise buildings get damaged. They’re blown up, smashed, collapsed 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 the same 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 ‘parallel 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 becomes particularly overt with the two jumbo jets which come close to crashing into each other at the climax of Amazing Spiderman 2.)

Since I had a job analysing Middle Eastern politics in the early 1990s, I wasn’t as surprised as most people when the planes hit the Twin Towers in September 2001. But in a completely different way, I also felt as if hundreds of comics, novels and movies had been preparing me for the tragedy for decades.

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 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, 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 piled up 100 police cars in the central plaza in Chicago back in 1980, you’d have thought car pile-ups would have gotten pretty tired and old, but they keep on coming:

  • Superman II features an extended destruction of cars and buses by the three criminals from Krypton
  • the Times Square power outage in The Amazing Spiderman 2 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 black vans cartwheeling and shattering
  • the multi-police car chase in Batman Begins
  • the high speed chase after an armoured truck carrying Commissioner Gordon in The Dark Knight
  • the climax of The Hulk 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

It’s as if Americans can’t conceive of damage 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 of 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, 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 related to the familiar trope that the police and/or army are ineffective and stupid.

They are stupid because they think they can stop a radioactive mutant superhero with loud hailers and guns. They are ineffective because they fire hundreds of bullets from pistols and machine guns against the baddie(s) with no effect at all e.g. 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 street full of cop cars and the swarm of SWAT men who rampage into the building housing the drug dealers in Batman Begins and completely fail to capture them
  • 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 (i.e. New York) 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 Hulk
  • 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 States, they 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, US TV and film makers have been depicting urban America as a war zone.

And yet, in these superhero movies, whenever you see a whole host of SWAT men in their black uniforms, wearing bullet proof helmets with white head-lamps, holding their automatic rifles to their faces, crashing into some building – it’s 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. Cumulatively, this begins to have an effect 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. You really begin to believe they are useless. Nothing we learned about the American presence in Iraq contradicts this impression.

American violence

To the grown-up viewer what is really noticeable about all 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 everyday violence has fed down to 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

It seems as if Americans just can’t be civil, polite or restrained to each other. All the little acts of politeness, the ps and qs, the little 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 get operate in a mood of permanent anger, becoming furious at the smallest slight, and then resorting to extreme violence within seconds of being blocked.

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 everyone is incapable 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.’

When Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises rudely tells his guests to shove off from the high society party he’s hosting, it is for a purpose (to save their lives, since bad guys have infiltrated the party), but is done with the core incivility and lack of style which characterises every character in all these movies. No-one is genuinely polite or considerate. #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.

But, 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 if asking them questions. 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 their body to show the feet lifted clear off the ground. Look! A super-baddy!

In the more advanced form, the seizer then throws the seizee right across the room, with the roughneck violence characteristic of all these films. Or, if they’re a superhero, 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 ‘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-taks a pencil sticking upright on a table and says his magic trick will be to make it disappear. A thuggish goon comes up to threaten him, and the Joker in one swift movement grabs his 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 on the floor, the pencil has gone. 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.

Bearing all this in mind, should the following event have come as any surprise to anyone?

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, or does it just accurately reflect a culture awash with guns which has completely lost all moral bearings?

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 – either way, it’s not a healthy culture, is it?

Fighting and killing

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.

Fortunately, 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 huge extended 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. There is a good guy (with sidekicks). There are one or more bad guys. You can talk to the bad guy for a while, or have sarcastic wisecracking dialogue with him; probably he’ll capture the good guy for a stock interrogation scene (such an old, old trope — ‘So, Mr Bond, we meet at last’) – but sooner or later all this chat and phoney politeness can only lead to an intense fight, which itself can only end with the death and eradication of the antagonist.

Ultimately, you cannot talk to the enemy – or 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.

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 paint a dismal picture of America’s education system. The bullying of nerdy outsider Peter Parker helps the detached viewer to understand the culture of bullying and outsiderness which go to create the seedbed for all the high school shootings that seem to be 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.

You can see why lots of people wouldn’t fit into this identikit mould (I wouldn’t have when I was a schoolboy). 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 carried out by loners, outsiders, the stiffs who are rejected and mocked by the bullying, laughing world of 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 – all accommodation and food is taken care of, there’s no commuting, no babies crying etc

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

I found the two Amazing Spiderman 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, argumentative, rude and ill-mannered. He is 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?

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.

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 together. 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)

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, and so 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 keeps getting interrupted by threats of the end of the world – you know how distracting that can be.

3. Buff The men are impossibly buff and toned. As the X-Men films progress, Logan – played by Hugh Jackman – goes from being fit and hunky to looking 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 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 extraordinarily buff, 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:

4. Hot The women are impossibly ‘glamorous’, meaning – young, thin and buxom. A dismaying number of them are models. Being able to walk and talk at the same time is presumably a helpful qualification for appearing in a movie like this and the lead characters are proper actors (Patrick Steward, Ian McKellen, Hugh Jackman) but the core skills for most of the women and secondary characters seem to be that you are young, very thin, with a nice rack, thin, with limber long legs, thin and with that identikit hip young ‘look’ which is required of models.

Thin, slender women with model good looks and ample busts

Cat-eyed models

There’s also 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:

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.

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 only 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 which undergo crises and development. The ‘love interests’ only exist as bolt-on extras.

It’s almost surprising that the ‘love interests’ even 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 the wooing hero – then to get captured and placed in jeopardy by the super-baddie – and then aaaaah to be amazingly rescued leading 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 high school airhead. And she then converts to full-on helpless hero worship when this enormous, tall, ripped guy turns out to be a superhero capable of battling a giant fire-shooting metal monster.

Thor was released in 2008. Surely, from a feminist point of view, 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, even 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 U.S. 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 simplistically 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:

  • unattainable Body Perfection, for both men and women
  • worship of the most confrontational hyper-masculinity imaginable, again and again depicting the only kind of dialogue even slightly opposed men can have being 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)
1984 Supergirl ($35 million gross / $14 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)

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)
2004 Blade Trinity  ($129 million / $65 million)
2004 Fantastic Four ($330 million / $100 million)
2004 Spider-Man 2 ($783 million / $200 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)
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. Then it was packaged up into the paperback omnibus 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 intertextual elements, and the cynical, jaded attitude, and the downbeat ending where the ‘goodies’ (if that’s what they are) do not defeat the baddie.

A sketch of the plot

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

In this universe, back in the 1930s various guys and women took up the fad for caped law enforcers with the result that there was a rash, an outburst, masked vigilantes. Some of them genuinely excelled – 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 who liked dressing up and a good fight, like Dollar Bill, the Mothman, Hooded Justice or the Comedian.

The narrative flips between the early years when they came together to form a crime-busting association called the Minutemen in 1940 – then a meeting of them all again in the 1960s. We are told that the U.S. government passed a law in 1977, the Keene Act, banning masked vigilantes, at which point most of them hung up their masks and capes, and settled into comfortable, or less comfortable middle age. And the main setting of the text, 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. An old member of the team, Rorschach, investigates the murder, with a kind of voiceover style straight out of Raymond Chandler, describing the city as a sewer and its inhabitants as vermin. He goes 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. We then are shown 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, Dr. Jonathan Osterman is a genuinely genetically altered superhero. He was a nuclear physicist who in 1959 who got trapped inside an ‘Intrinsic Field Subtractor’, was obliterated to his constituent sub-atomic particles, before reconstructing himself. He is now tall, statuesque, and a vibrating blue colour. When he joined the Minutemen he took the moniker Dr Manhattan. He has a winningly Zen approach to life, the universe and everything, seeing that he knows not only the past, and can manipulate all metal substances in the present, but 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.

Once he is fully reconstituted, Dr Manhattan puts himself at the disposal of the U.S. government and is sent to Vietnam, where he appears as an indestructible blue giant capable of destroying all the North Vietnamese weapons. 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 elected for an unprecedented third term, and is in fact on his fifth term when the book is set.)

Dr Manhattan lives with the former Silk Spectre II, Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of one of the original Silk Spectre 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, like so many other incidents, throughout the text).

Laurie gets 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). She 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, 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 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. His hounding by the studio audience crystallises for Dr M his feeling that he’s had it with puny mortals and their silly concerns. In front of a live audience, he teleports himself to Mars, where he creates a palace from his thoughts alone.

This very public disappearance badly affects the balance of power in the Cold War, and is a key moment in the plot for the Russians decide to test the resolve of the West, now 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. We keep being taken back to a newsvendor on a street corner in New York, who reads out the day’s news, 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 because Dr Manhattan was a core part of NATO’s defence strategy. Thus the papers and TV are full of speculation about whether the West will respond to Russian aggression thus sparking a nuclear war.

2. This sense of mounting tension is emphasised by the way that each of the twelve editions of the magazine open 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. 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 gets it daily from the newsvendor 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’ from the main narrative set in 1985. 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 cleverly counterpoints 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. This ‘intertextuality’ is also exemplified in the way that each of the twelve instalments ends with four pages of prose designed to amplify elements of the text, but which directly progress the 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, which expands 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 the appearance of the comic strip-sized book. They would 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 an appropriate visual style, mock-up diary pages, 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 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

The book 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 old Minutemen, and why.

Clever and novel many elements of the book may be – 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; 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 very much.

Suffice to say that it turns out (as so often) to be one of the gang themselves who is knocking off their own members i.e. it is not an outsider. 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).

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! Instead it 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 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 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 ants 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 eclipsed the Chandleresque whodunnit plot and the crime-fighting element.

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 the mix of sci-fi, noir and superhero elements, because of its downbeat vibe and very downbeat ending – which caught the mood 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 and so on.

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

To comic book fans it administered a seismic shock to the 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 and muscular.

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 their origins in the 1930s.

We see the most of the Silk Spectre character, but all the women are 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 them 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 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 turned out that it would have cost too much (some $20 million), 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 taken 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 distracting, 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.

But I liked it 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 in the real world, I’d say 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 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; 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 perfect air-brushed bodies of porn stars. This didn’t feel like it was subverting very much.

The film 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, 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. 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.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

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

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

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

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 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.


Related links

Related reviews

Basquiat: Boom for Real @ the Barbican

This exhibition is great!

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-88) was cool and street in a way hardly any artists are, even today. He did graffiti, made goofy postcards, he was in bands, he DJed at clubs, he liked bebop, hung out with early rappers, painted, drew and created art constantly out of the bombardment of signs, images, words and phrases which surrounded him in the grimy, vibrant New York of the early 1980s.

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

King of the Zulus (1984-85) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Born in 1960, the son of a Haitian father and a Puerto Rican mother, Basquiat grew up in the post-punk scene in Lower Manhattan. New Wave/No Wave they called it. He attended the alternative school, City-As-School High School, where he came to attention after he developed the moniker SAMO©, along with Al Diaz and other friends, to use in graffiti all across the city. They covered buildings all over the Lower East Side with witty, snappy, poetic or satirical slogans.

SAMO originated in the stoned 17-year-olds talking about smoking the ‘same old shit’ but quickly became a cult movement, with claims and counter-claims about ‘original’ SAMOs, with other artists on the scene photographing the graffitos, exhibiting them and so on. Examples include:

SAMO© AS A CONGLOMERATE OF DORMANT GENIOUS

MY MOUTH / THEREFORE AN ERROR

Not your usual graffiti – it was puzzling, elliptical, intriguing. From really early on everything Basquiat touched had a kind of magic about it. And right from the start he was ambitious, concentrating the graffiti around the SoHo art galleries, currying attention with curators. When the Village Voice magazine finally revealed the identities of the hitherto anonymous authors, Basquiat and Diaz declared SAM dead, fellow artist Keith Haring delivered a mock eulogy at the bohemian Club 57, and Basquiat painted SAMO© IS DEAD over the old graffitos. But he continued to use the identity and the celebrity it had brought. At an arty party in 1979 Basquiat agreed to be captured on film creating a one-off SAMO© graffito on the wall of the art space where the party was happening.

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

A wall of photos of SAMO© graffiti by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

With Jennifer Stein Basquiat started producing hand-made postcards – again from the detritus of the street – newspaper headlines, polaroid selfies, cigarette butts, posters, ads, random texts. Hard to imagine, but photocopying was a new technology, and their use of a rare colour photocopier showed an innovative approach to using mundane, workaday technology. On a now famous occasion Basquiat plucked up the courage to approach his hero Andy Warhol in a bar and sold him a card for one dollar.

By the turn of the decade Basquiat scraped together the resources to make paintings in an extremely rough, crude style, incorporating lots of text, phrases, slogans, street poetry, misspelled or misspelt, scrubbed out, as well as countless faces, graffiti with ambition, the street experience on canvas.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Hollywood Africans (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ ADAGP, Paris. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

The graffiti is always there as a kind of substratum in the work, but after he exhibited in the scene-defining 1981 exhibition New York/New Wave, Basquiat began to sell pieces and get access to more resources, bigger canvases to mark with acrylics, oil, crayon, pen, using not just paint but wood, scrap metal, foam rubber, all sorts.

The results are scrappy, patchy, quick and dirty, but many are also stunning, stunningly alive, colourful, vibrant, spontaneous, magnificent, in your face, spooky. Of the 1,600 works on show from artists like Warhol, Mapplethorpe, David Byrne and so on, Basquiat was singled out by nearly all the critics. Galleries approached him with contracts, magazines wanted interviews.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Untitled (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork Courtesy Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Numerous urban legends quickly gathered round him: a particularly entertaining one is that after his first formal introduction to Warhol at his Factory studio in October 1982, Basquiat rushed back to his gallery and knocked off a painting of himself and Warhol in just two hours and had his assistant take it round to Warhol’s studio still wet. The godfather of Pop was delighted and the two became firm friends. In fact, they went on to collaborate on some 100 works together.

Dos Cabezas (1982) by ean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Dos Cabezas (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

The exhibition includes out-takes from the episode of Warhol’s TV show in the 80s where the Bewigged One interviews Basquiat with his arm familiarly round his shoulders, joking and riffing. I see modern bloggers refer to it as a classic ‘bromance’. They collaborated, Warhol creating pop images which Basquiat defaced, rewrote, reinterpreted, remodelled. They did stylish photoshoots.

Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat July 10, 1985, by Michael Halsband

Later on in the show, there’s a viewing room where you can see one of the few extended interviews Basquiat did, an amateur effort by some art world friends. Here and in almost all the images – photos, film clips, interviews, TV stuff and some rare footage of him dancing in the studio – he comes over as full of life. You rarely see artists in any medium smile so much – he has a hugely infectious boyish smile. In the scrappy New Wave vibe of Downtown New York, glamour was as important as talent and Basquiat has charisma in buckets.

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

Jean-Michel Basquiat dancing at the Mudd Club (1979) © Nicholas Taylor © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images

But it’s not empty or baseless fame – this astonishingly young man was a fountain of creativity, graffiti turning into postcards and then overflowing into myriads of paintings, drawings, graffitied objects and readymades large and small, scrap-book montages, tell-tale silhouettes, endless self-portraits, notebooks packed full of poetry, film scripts and the bands he was in writing experimental music and lyrics, the DJing, hanging with early rap pioneers, a vortex of energy and exuberance.

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Glenn (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artworks © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

I returned to this particular pair of works again and again. In the century of Picasso, Klee, Kokoschka and hundreds of other semi-figurative modernists, I hadn’t seen anything quite like these, the intuitive use of completely different palettes of colours, the confidence, the lack of fear, the forcefulness of the images blew me away.

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (1983) and Self Portrait (1984) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings / Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

This is a major exhibition, with both floors of the Barbican’s gallery packed with over 100 works – 14 rooms in all. The eight rooms on the top floor describe a chronological survey of Basquiat’s short life and prodigious output, while the six rooms on the ground floor investigate his influences, a dazzling kaleidoscope of material, from junk TV to the old textbook Gray’s Anatomy, from Picasso and Matisse (paid homage to with Basquiatesque portraits).

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Untitled (Pablo Picasso), 1984 by Jean-Michel Basquiat © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Basquiat had an intense involvement with the bebop jazz of Charlie Parker and the other lead boppers (he had a collection of some 3,000 jazz records), but this was just one source of references in a kaleidoscope of ideas and motifs which included anything from Western art which caught his fancy, a dizzying range of African and tribal art, fashion magazines, ad slogans, TV programmes, black sports stars, Hollywood movies, anything he saw, processed and incorporated into his quick vivid works.

Leonardo da Vinci's Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

Leonardo da Vinci’s Greatest Hits (1982) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images Artwork. Collection of Jonathan Schorr © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York

In the endless vortex of the self-referential New York art world, countless hundreds of thousands of words have been written about Basquiat, raving, promoting, analysing, knocking and dismissing him – but the best summary I’ve read was from his friend, Glenn O’Brien, music columnist in Warhol’s Interview magazine. This quote from him brings out the way Basquiat’s work lets everything in. I think this is much easier for us to understand now, in the age of solid, wall-to-wall social media saturation with images and junk text, than back in the pre-digital 1980s.

He ate up every image, every word, every bit of data that appeared in front of him and he processed it all into a bebop cubist pop art cartoon gospel that synthesised the whole overload we lived under into something that made an astonishing new sense.

‘The whole overload’. Exactly.

In 1980 some of the crowd Basquiat had met at the Mudd Club decided to make a movie about a day in the life of a Boho artist, with Basquiat playing the lead role. When shooting began in December 1980 he was 19 years old! Here’s a clip. God, isn’t he beautiful!

A room is devoted to Basquiat’s involvement with the relatively new music genre of hip-hop. In the late 70s Basquiat was introduced to early cassettes of the new music and found he had much in common with experimental musician-musicians like Rammellzee and graffiti artist Toxic. The painting above (Hollywood Africans) is a portrait of the trio on a trip to California for Basquiat’s exhibition at the Gagosian Gallery, Los Angeles. Back in New York Basquiat and Rammellzee produced a single, ‘Beat Bop’, with J-M doing the cover art. Only 500 copies were pressed. If you own a copy with the original sleeve art, that’s your retirement sorted.

The ‘bop’ in Beat Bop indicates Basquiat’s unexpected devotion to the bebop of the 1940s, and to its tragic genius Charlie Parker (died in 1955, aged just 35, after years of intense drug abuse). Alas, Basquiat also died young, from a heroin overdose in 1988, aged just 27.

Themes

Race Some parts of the exhibition dwell on Basquiat’s colour. In 1985 he was the first black artist ever to appear on the cover of The New York Times Magazine. In the international art world a black face was a tremendous rarity. There are sections in the show about his references to black sporting heroes, to black jazz heroes, and to the new forms of expression developed by black rap music and hip hop.

This is a massive subject, especially in the fraught context of America’s ongoing problems with its black population (I mean by this the relative poverty of Afro-Americans, the disproportionate number of African-American males in prison, and the seemingly unstoppable cases of American cops beating up and shooting dead black men). I note its presence but I’m not expert enough to comment, apart from to notice the presence in many of the works of the recurrent image of a jet black silhouette, presumably a self-portrait, really powerful in its intensity, a mask, a memento, a magus.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Self-Portrait (1983) by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Photo © Tristan Fewings/Getty Images. Artwork © The Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Licensed by Artestar, New York.

Sex There’s less about gender and sexuality than you might expect. In fact there’s a striking absence of sexual imagery or anxiety in his paintings. I wasn’t absolutely clear whether he was gay or straight, until I read references to girlfriends in online articles. Given his punk attitude it’s surprising there isn’t more stuff, even about ‘love’, let alone the vast world of sexual imagery.

Signs Much more evident are the unstoppable flood of signs and symbols. For once a ‘semiotic’ interpretation of an artist would be justified, because Basquiat himself was quite clearly fascinated and obsessed with the strange power of signs and symbols, and the literally infinite combinations which can be made of them. In the rooms on his source materials there’s his copy of Henry Dreyfuss’s book Symbol Sourcebook.

His works are plastered with words and phrases which don’t necessarily mean anything or mean as much as they appear to, starting with SAMO’s deliberately opaque messages. For example, quite a lot of ink has been spilt trying to tease the meaning out of this phrase:

JIMMY BEST ON HIS BACK TO THE SUCKERPUNCH OF HIS CHILDHOOD FILES

which appears in graffitos and in a number of paintings and drawings. He wrote literally thousands of phrases and fragments of phrases across his works. Piecing together the puzzles, themes, meanings or avoidances of meanings strewn across this vast terrain will keep Basquiat scholars in conference invitations for the rest of their lives.

Identity Identity is one of those themes curators and art critics love to invoke but, again, it is for once justified by Basquiat’s work. From SAMO onwards he played with identities and names for himself and his work. For example, the exhibition devotes some space to his mysterious use of the name ‘Aaron’ written across numerous works – including on the redecorated American football helmet, the image which provides the iconic poster for the whole exhibition. Probably it refers to the Afro-American baseball player and all-time home run king, Hank Aaron.

Basquiat wearing his Aaron football helmet

Music Another major theme in Basquiat’s output is music – evidenced by the band he was in, Gray, whose album you can still buy, the hip hop single embedded in this review, and all the theme nights he organised at the trendy Area Club, to name just some output. Music appears in his art as reference to his hip hop friends but also as a major thread of works circling around bebop and the great jazz musicians who he worshipped.

Post-modernism I remember how back in the 1980s we all spent a lot of time discussing what post-modernism meant. I am aware of its derivation from a specific movement in architecture and then its application to literature. But another, popular, interpretation was that it meant the end of High Art as a specially privileged realm. High and low art could be combined and juxtaposed for the sheer hell of it. On this interpretation Basquiat seems a textbook case of an artist who naturally inhabited this new realm, maybe helped to create it. Warhol may have taken commercial products and po-facedly turned them into art objects – Campbell’s soup, the brillo pad box, various iconic movie posters – but these artefacts were themselves highly designed – Warhol’s genius was in recognising beautiful design in the mundane.

Basquiat takes that to the next level, finding – and creating – weird, hypnotically compelling art out of street trash, a graffiti style, spray-can spontaneity, the deliberately undesigned. The Canadian art curator Marc Mayer seems to me to put his finger on it when he notes in Basquiat’s work

a calculated incoherence

teasing, puzzling, refracting, resisting meanings, resisting a simplistic definition of him as a black artist or a musician or a provocateur or a street artist or a naive artist. It seems to me precisely Basquiat’s genius that he was all those things, plus more, much more than the critics can still really get their heads around.

Beautiful And he was beautiful. You’re just having serious sensible thoughts about his references to the Western Tradition when you turn a corner and there’s some film of him dancing in his studio with a massive smile on his face. I took my 16 year-old daughter and she fell in love with Basquiat. I’ve dragged her along to numerous art shows but she told me this is the only one which has ever made her feel that art can be exciting, fun and cool.

Video

There are quite a few video relics of Basquiat, interviews, documentaries, the full-length indie movie he appears in – Downtown 81 – and the more recent full-length biopic, Basquiat directed by Julian Schnabel.

Here’s a documentary about his life & times in which you can hear the man speak for himself.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Iron In The Soul by Jean-Paul Sartre (1949)

He felt himself filled with a sense of vast and pointless freedom. (p.92)

349 pages long in the Penguin paperback edition, Iron in The Soul repeats the format of the previous two novels in The Roads To Freedom trilogy by following a set of French characters over a very specific, and short, timeframe connected with the Second World War, in this case right at the end of the Battle of France.

Part one

Part one is 200 pages long, its first chapter has the dateline ‘New York: Saturday 15 June 1940 9am’ and the final chapter is dated ‘Tuesday 18 June 5.45am’. So it covers four days towards the end of the Battle of France.

In part one there is not much of the ‘experimental’ technique Sartre used to such effect in The Reprieve. In that novel I counted some 130 named characters, and the text made a point of cross-cutting unpredictably from one character’s actions and thoughts to another’s, from one scene to another, continually introducing new characters, sometimes just for brief cameos. This made it quite a challenging read but the reward was in the quite wonderful, almost musical, sense of rhythm in the interleaving of episodes, people and their deepest thoughts.

Part one of Iron in the Soul is more traditional, establishing fixed and static scenes and then following characters within them for substantial lengths of text, before starting new chapters or chapter sections to reflect new scenes and characters. Much more clear and comprehensible.

Timeline

Maybe a recap of the historical background would be useful. In spring 1940:

May 10 Germany invades France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands
May 11 British and French forces begin a long line of strategic defenses to defend Belgium
May 12 German General Guderian with his three divisions reaches the Meuse River
May 13 the first German forces emerge from Ardennes onto the Meuse
May 14 German Panzer Corps fifteen and nineteen break through Allied defenses at Sedan allowing German forces to bypass the Maginot line
May 15 German forces push on toward Paris and the English Channel
May 20 General Weygand replaces General Gamelin as Allied commander
May 17-18 Antwerp and Brussels fall to Germany
May 21 Allied forces try to counter attack German forces but are repulsed
May 24 The Luftwaffe bombs Allied defensive positions around Dunkirk
May 25 German forces take Boulogne as more retreating Allied forces reach Dunkirk
May 26 850 British civilian ships and vessels help Allied forces evacuate Dunkirk in the largest military evacuation in history
May 28 King Leopold of Belgium orders his army to surrender to German forces
May 29 around 47,000 British forces are evacuated from Dunkirk
May 30 around 120,000 Allied forces evacuated from Dunkirk
May 31 around 150,000 Allied soldiers arrive in Britain

June 3 The German Luftwaffe bombs Paris
June 4 Allied forces continue evacuation of the coast. In all some 338,326 British and 113,000 French forces are evacuated from Dunkirk to Britain
June 5th Second part of the Battle of France begins with the German striking south from the River Somme
June 9 German forces launch an offensive on Paris
June 10 Norway surrenders to Germany and Italy joins the war by declaring war on France and Great Britain
June 13 Paris is declared an open city by the French government which flees to Bordeaux
June 14 German troops enter Paris
June 16 Marshal Petain becomes Prime Minister of France
June 17 French government asks Germany for armistice terms. Germans cross the river Loire in the west and reach the Swiss frontier in the south-east
June 18 General de Gaulle broadcasts on the BBC telling the people of France to resist
June 22 France signs an armistice with Germany
June 23 Adolf Hitler begins a tour of the captured city of Paris
June 24 The French officially surrender at Compiegne, site of the German surrender in 1918
25 June All hostilities cease. France has fallen

Part one of Iron In the Soul tracks its characters over the four days during which Parisians flee their city before it is taken by the Germans and when retreating Second Tier armed forces are abandoned by their officers and find themselves at a loss what to do. the key characters from the first novel recur:

  • Gomez is in New York scrabbling for a job in the art world.
  • His wife, Sarah, and son Pablo are caught in the huge stream of refugees fleeing Paris.
  • Daniel, the gay banker who married Mathieu’s mistress, Marcelle, has packed her off and roams the streets of an empty Paris like the last man in the world – until he encounters Philippe, the spoilt youth we met in The Reprieve, and sets about seducing him.
  • Boris Serguine, who we saw join the Army in The Reprieve, was wounded in the fighting but is well enough to go to the apartment of his mistress, the nightclub singer Lola Montero who, however, has been diagnosed with a stomach tumour but can’t bring herself to tell him.
  • We saw Boris’s sister, the prickly Ivich, give herself to a unnamed man in The Reprieve partly as rebellion against her bourgeois parents, partly because she thought war was about to break out and the world end. Nearly two years later, we discover she got pregnant, the man married her, she had a miscarriage, he’s off at the front fighting where, characteristically, she hopes he gets killed.
  • Mathieu’s intolerably pompous self-serving brother, Jacques, a lawyer, forces his wife to pack in a hurry and flee from Paris only to get half way across France and realise he wants to go back, and blames the whole thing on her. She is livid. She goes to sleep in the car dreaming of Mathieu.
  • And the ‘hero’ of the first book – over-sensitive, over-thinking, angst-ridden but ineffectual philosophy tutor Mathieu Delarue?We find him with a platoon of Second string infantry who never saw any fighting. For 200 pages they laze around wondering what to do after their officers have treacherously abandoned them, smoking and getting drunk – until a platoon of Chasseurs arrive who are battle-hardened and disciplined. On a whim – or more accurately, as a result of the incredibly complicated and tortuous meditations about the nature of ‘freedom’ which have filled the previous 800 pages, Mathieu decides to join them, is given a rifle, sent with a squad to be sharp-shooters up a church belfry and when the Germans finally arrive, is involved in a fierce firefight which ends with the belfry being blown up by artillery and Mathieu blazing away till the last minute like a Hollywood hero.

Part two

is significantly different. It took me a few pages to realise that the entire part – all 120 pages – consists of just three paragraphs. With the exception of just two small breaks, these 120 pages make up a solid block of print, with no incidental breaks or indentations. Possibly this is to reflect the subject matter. (Craig Vasey’s introduction to The Last Chance: Roads of Freedom IV tells me that in the original French there weren’t even the two small breaks: the entire 120 pages consisted of one paragraph; and that all the verbs were in the present tense, something the English translation here rejects.)

The ‘plot’ picks up (with savage irony / comedy  / bleak farce) at exactly the point where Mathieu is killed – for taking refuge in a cellar of a house off the square is his friend and contemporary, the strong, manly Communist Brunet. In The Age of Reason, there’s a passage where Brunet tries to persuade Mathieu to become a communist, but the timid philosopher, as with everything else in his life, hesitates and puts the decision off.

Anyway, Brunet has no idea Mathieu is up in the church tower about to be blown to smithereens. He has his own concerns. he fought bravely, most of his platoon were killed. Now he surrenders to the Germans as they finally take the village. He falls in with a trail of French POWs which grows and grows till it is maybe 10,000 strong, a vast concourse of knackered, defeated, demoralised men stumbling along dusty roads in blinding heat. Finally, they arrive at a disused barracks which has become converted into a POW camp.

Here the French are easily shepherded inside and locked up. The next hundred pages give in great detail the dialogue between a cast of about a dozen peasant and proletarian infantrymen, while Brunet makes his plans to create a Communist cell among them. While they fuss about food and the weather and gossip, Brunet is planning for the future.

In this he is sort of helped by Schneider, a tough, surly man who is not exactly a Communist, but agrees to help him. The spine of the section is the wary dialogue between these two men, with Schneider proving himself both more of a man of the people, and smarter than Brunet in various situations. It is difficult to know what this section is ‘about’. Possibly it is a prolonged examination of the nature of a ‘Communist Activist’, with Brunet given Schneider as a foil to dramatise different approaches to handling men, creating a cell, combating cynicism and fatigue, and so on.

Whatever the precise intention, the overt or political purpose of the section now feels completely redundant, part of a long-lost history. It doesn’t even – as with so much Sartre – lead to any real action, for next to nothing happens to this vast concourse of freed men. After five or six days without food, trucks eventually arrive with soup and bread. One madmen runs amok screaming and the Germans shoot him. For the rest the defeated Frenchmen adopt a holiday mood, sunbathing, playing cards, establishing billets in every available building, nicking stuff, squabbling. Both Brunet and Schneider find it almost impossible to motivate anyone. No Germans of any authority appear. They don’t confront the camp commandant or organise a strike or anything really decisive or dramatic. Instead Brunet and Schneider squabble with each other, and with the dozen or so named characters around them.

In the last of the three sections, the setting jumps a bit to aboard the massive train of cattle trucks in which thousands of POWs have been packed as it rattles north through France. A teeny tiny bit of suspense is given to this passage because the more intelligent among them (i.e. Brunet, Schneider, a few others) are pretty sure they’re being taken to Germany to become slave labour. The section shows the various forms of denial, fear, and panic among the POWs as they wonder which way the train will turn at the fatal set of points which will steer them either further north into France or East across the border. One character, a young printer who Brunet had recruited for his Communist cell, panics, jumps from the train when it slows at a cutting, runs away a little, then panics more and tries to return and catch up – only to be picked off by the German guards and fall dead beside the rails. That’s as dramatic as it gets.

When the train reaches the points they are set East, confirming Brunet and Schneider’s gloomy assumptions. They are heading East to a dark future. The final words are:

Above the dead body, above the inert freight-van, the darkness wheeled. It alone was living. Tomorrow’s dawn would cover all of them with the same dew. Dead flesh and rusted steel would run with the same sweat. Tomorrow the black birds would come. (p.349)


Themes

The futility of life

As to the mood and feel of the text, we are back in bleak Sartre-land where the sunshine is futile, life is pointless, breathing is an effort, and the hyper-sensitive characters are oppressed by life, by other people, by other people looking at them, dammit – and everyone agonises about their ‘freedom’, panting after this mystical chimera without ever quite grasping what this much-abused term actually means.

Gomez, the artist has escaped to New York, where he walks around hating the heat, the sunshine, the big buildings, the streamlined cars, the adverts, the magazines and, everywhere, pictures of happy smiling people – Not to grin is a sin, he thinks bitterly – while ‘over there’ i.e. back in Europe, people are suffering, suffering I tell you! This is intercut with the plight of his wife, Sarah, a Jewess, and small son Pablo, who are caught in a vast traffic jam of refugees fleeing Paris. These are Gomez’s thoughts:

He looked at the street, at the meaningless sun, at the whole meaningless day. There would be nothing now, any more, but meaningless days. (p.9)

These are Sarah’s thoughts:

We are no more than the feet of an interminable insect. Why walk when hope is dead? Why live? (p.25)

Sartre’s novels could almost be designed to validate teenage depressives’ most suicidal thoughts and, above all, to make the depressive feel special, superior to what Gomez calls the ‘human tide’ of people in New York with their ‘bright dead eyes’, and Sarah’s description of the refugees as ‘insects’ (a favourite insult term of Sartre’s; he memorably describes Hitler as having an insect face; Mathieu looks down from the church tower on the villagers like ‘frightened ants’; Lola feels that Boris while screwing her is like an insect, when the Germans arrive in the village Mathieu feels they have ‘the eyes of supermen and insects’, p.212).

Everyone else is an insect, or an inane grinning American with dead eyes, part of the machine, part of the bourgeoisie – I, I alone, suffer – look how I suffer – look how special I am!

Suicide

Both The Age of Reason and The Reprieve contain extended sequences describing the thoughts and sensations, the hyper self-awareness, of two men on the brink of committing suicide – Daniel with a razor and Mathieu jumping into the Seine, respectively. Having tried to kill myself, I can vouch for the exquisite sense of self-pity you feel at such a moment, looking at your doomed hands, your tragic face in the mirror, afflicted by sentimental thoughts that this is the last time you’ll look at your face, the last time you’ll turn out the bedroom light (or whatever), after you slash your wrists, take an overdose etc.

So, Ivich invites her brother, Boris, to join her in a suicide pact (p.72) though she isn’t really a serious character, just a spoilt wilful girl. Daniel comes across Philippe, the spoilt son of bourgeois parents, hesitating on the brink of the Seine, trying to nerve himself to throw himself in. Various other characters – for example Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, who is secretly in love with him – think they can’t go on, life is so damn pointless. What’s the point?

In Sartre’s novels, death, and suicide, are all around us. Describing the plot to my son he said, ‘sounds like teenage angst on steroids’.

Rootless, directionless, abandoned

What these people need is a sound spanking (as Mathieu’s sister-in-law, Odette, memorably puts it). Or maybe just the support of a loving family, a job, some stability, something to focus their energy on. But their characters are all carefully chosen to be bohemian types, drifters, people without settled jobs or any real family commitments. Sartre selects a group of people with very few responsibilities and who we never see doing a single day’s work in their lives – thus allowing them all to give vent to maximum feelings of alienation and anomie, thus permitting them all to have lengthy and repetitive soliloquies about the pointlessness of life, about their feelings of abandonment.

As a married father of two, I see both marriage and especially fatherhood, as extremely demanding, responsible roles. Significantly, none of Sartre’s characters are married or have children in the traditional manner –

  • Gomez is married but has dumped Sarah and his son to run away and fight in Spain, then flee to America.
  • Daniel only married Marcelle as an existential dare, in reality he hates her and can’t wait to get away from her.
  • Boris is going out with Lola the singer, but routinely hates her, and in fact dumps her for the army.
  • Ivich got married to Georges after he got her pregnant but, inevitably, hates him, and hopes he’s killed in the fighting (p.66). Ivich loathes her in-laws, and she ‘detests’ the French (p.68), but then she hates more or less everyone.
  • Sarah looks at her crying son and realises she hates him (p.25).
  • The villagers hate the French soldiers who’ve been billeted on them (p.97).
  • Mathieu realises he hates his drunken comrades (p.132).
  • Philippe tells Daniel that he hates his step-father, the general (p.149).
  • Pinette’s girlfriend hates Mathieu (p.157)

In fact, most of the characters hate most of the other characters most of the time. Do all French people hate all other French people? Would explain their surliness.

So if you’re a drifter without a proper job, without any family ties or support, who hates everyone and despises bourgeois society, this is how you will end up feeling: full of despair and anomie. It’s hardly rocket science.

Alone

It is a key axiom of existentialism that every individual is alone, completely alone, and condemned to complete freedom. We are not hemmed in or supported by social structures or traditions or morality, for we choose whether or not to accept those: to blame society or others in any way for any of our acts is bad faith, is a denial of our utter freedom.

But Sartre’s philosophy of life – or his melodramatic poetry about the horror of existence – all begins in this primal, fundamental sense of your complete solitude, the basic feeling of alienation from others, from your fellow soldiers, or your family, from everyone else in the bar or cafe or nightclub, some sudden feeling of your complete aloneness in the face of an utterly indifferent universe.

This is the moment in the characters’ lives which the text keeps returning to like a moth to a flame.

  • He shivered. He felt suddenly naked and alone, a man, I. (p.102)
  • No one needs me. he sat down on the edge of the road because there was nowhere for him to go. Night entered into him through mouth and eyes, through nose and ears. He was no one now; he was nothing – nothing any longer but misery and darkness. (p.162)
  • Mathieu saw the smile and felt utterly alone. (p178)
  • She felt lost in a world of which she could make no use. (p.191) [Odette]
  • She thought: ‘I am alone.’.. He speaks to me and kisses me, but when I come to die I shall be alone… (pp.205-6) [Lola]
  • Where are the Comrades? Brunet felt lonely. Never, in all the past ten years, had he felt so utterly alone. (p.239)
  • [When the French prisoners of war arrive in a huge fences barracks] They were going to bury their filthy old war among these high buildings, were going to stew in their own juice, unseen of the outer world, isolated and alone. (p.241)

Even sex doesn’t unify people, it merely emphasises their inescapable isolation. There are two memorable acts of sex in the book and both of them emphasise the essential loneliness of the male protagonist: first the peasant Pinette screwing the post office girl he’s picked up in a field outside the village where Mathieu and the other soldiers are mooching about; then handsome young Boris making love to Lola the ageing singer. Lola has discovered she has a tumour of the belly and/or the menopause, both of which conspire to make sex very painful, but not as painful as the self-image she has, loathing her dry husk of a body and thinking of Boris as a repellent insect squirting her with sticky fluid. Lots of disgusting, viscous fluids in Sartre.

It is through a wound that you will enter me. When he used to touch me in the old days, I became like velvet: now, my body is like dried earth: I crack and crumble under his fingers… He rent her to the roots of her belly, he was moving in her belly like a knife. On his face was a look of loneliness, of morbid concentration. She saw him as an insect, as a fly climbing up a window-pane climbing, falling, climbing again. She was conscious only of the pain he was causing her… (p.204)

No, not even sex is an escape from the ubiquitous sense of aloneness, of abandonment, which Sartre sees as the permanent basis of the human condition.

In the climaxes of the two parts, the male protagonist is invincibly alone. Mathieu, wounded, and the only survivor of an artillery shell which has brought the roof of the church tower down on all his comrades, struggles to continue shooting for just a few seconds more before being obliterated. In those moments:

He fired. He was cleansed. He was all-powerful. He was free. (p.225)

On the last page of part two, after the little printer has been shot dead and the train moves mechanically onwards.

Brunet was alone, rigid and uncomfortable. (p.349)

It is an oddity than a man so obsessed with the fundamental and irreducible aloneness of each human being became a Marxist, devoted to the idea of international solidarity. And that a man so obsessed with man’s terrifyingly absolute freedom, adopted the Marxist worldview which is characterised by the inevitability of History, that Marx had uncovered scientific laws of History which dictated that a Communist revolution was inevitable i.e that at some deep level human beings are not free. I leave this to the scholars to disentangle: it would certainly be good to reach a better understanding.

Science fiction states of mind

Not much happens in a Sartre novel. Page after page is filled either with lengthy dialogue between its ineffectual characters, or with even lengthier descriptions of their feelings of abandonment and futility. The firefight at the climax of part one, and the death of the printer at the climax of part two, are very much the exceptions which prove the rule. They are more or less the only bits of ‘action’ in the entire trilogy.

Every page features descriptions of the characters’ inner thoughts, lengthy internal monologues but these are not as they would be in a comparable English novel. The distinctive and unnerving feature of them is the extent to which they develop into often almost delirious hallucinations of the world around them, with objects coming alive, with great abstract ideas entering the sky or room or drowning them, with parts of their bodies becoming external objects (arms and particularly hands often seem to their owners to have become alien objects). Here is Mathieu in the bell tower of the village church.

Under their feet was the fragrance of spices and incense, coolness, and the stained-glass windows feebly shining in the shadows of the Faith. Under their feet was confidence and hope. He felt cold. He looked at the sky, breathed the sky, thought with the sky. He was naked on a glacier at a great height. Far below him lay his childhood. (p.200)

In a proliferating multitude of ways, the world around Sartre’s characters, including their own bodies, including their own ideas and sensations, come alive, infuse their thoughts, colour the sky, invade the world.

The effect is often bizarre, surreal or even druggy. ‘He thought with the sky.’

And very often these hallucinations go one step further by infusing these trippy states of consciousness with poetic renderings of grand abstract concepts like Death or Defeat or Despair. Characters frequently become dead men, anticipating their death (by suicide or in battle), realise that they are a dead man walking or thinking. Or death invades whole scenes, the huge vista of prisoners of war becomes a sea of the dead (to Brunet’s eye) or Paris becomes a vast tomb (in Daniel’s imagination), and so on.

Thus Daniel wandering the empty streets of Paris experiences what amount to such intense imaginative transports that they are effectively hallucinations. n a memorable simile the Boulevard St Michel becomes a vast beached whale. In fact, it was while reading the Daniel-wanders-round-empty-Paris section that it suddenly struck me that a lot of Sartre’s scenes have the feel of science fiction.

Everywhere, as far as the eye could reach, was silence and emptiness, an abyss stretching horizontally away from him… The streets led nowhere. Without human life, they all looked alike. The Boulevard Saint-Michel, but yesterday a long southward spread of gold, seemed now like a stranded whale, belly upwards. He made his feet ring out upon the great, sodden, hollow carcass. (p.93)

This scene suddenly reminded me of all those science fiction novels in which a man finds himself more or less the only survivor of a disaster, a great plague or nuclear apocalypse.

Anyway, the passage quoted above could be categorised as a Level One hallucination, one which is still a metaphor of a recognisable state. But (as noted above) routinely Sartre’s characters progress to Level Two hallucinations in which the ‘reality’ around them becomes infused with great Abstract Concepts.

He looked at the empty bridge, at the padlocked bookboxes on the quay, at the clock-face that had no hands… A shadow slipped past the Prefecture of Police…Paris was not, strictly speaking, empty. It was peopled by little broken scraps of time that sprang here and there to life, to be almost immediately reabsorbed again into this radiance of eternity. (p.91)

‘Scraps of time reabsorbed into this radiance of eternity.’ This is a kind of philosophical prose poetry, in that it invokes ‘deep’ ideas, but without any systematic application, merely for effect. It is a kind of pseudo-philosophical lyricism for its own sake.

I am here. Time, with its great fanning future, collapsed. All that was left was a tiny flickering patch of local moments. (p.108)

Suddenly this visionary quality reminded me of the prose of the great psychological sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard. In the 1960s Ballard famously rejected ‘space opera’, the whole sci-fi tradition of rockets going to outer space, aliens and death rays – in order to concentrate on weird mental states achieved here on decaying planet earth. His characters wander landscapes of entropy and decay littered with empty swimming pools, abandoned motels, are attracted to car crashes or go schizo in high-rise buildings. They explore the altered states of inner space. Like Sartre’s.

All about him was once more swallowed in a planetary silence. He must walk, walk unceasingly, over the surface of a cooling planet. (p.134)

Reading Daniel’s visions of abandoned Paris I suddenly saw the surprising similarity between Ballard’s psychological explorations and the many many passages in Jean-Paul Sartre’s novels which obsessively depict mental states of hallucinatory intensity – not for any philosophic or propagandistic purpose, well, OK, partly to promote the feel of his existentialist world-view — but much more for their weirdness, to bring out the strangeness of what it’s like to be the animal who thinks, the animal with self-consciousness, the animal lost in the fever of its own compulsive hallucinations. Here’s Mathieu among his soldiers hanging round the village waiting for something to happen.

We are a vermin’s dream: our thoughts are becoming muddied, are becoming less and less human: thoughts, hairy and clawed, were scurrying around, jumping from head to head; the vermin was on the point of waking up. (p.102)

At which point it dawned on me that Sartre’s philosophy of freedom, the so-called existentialist philosophy, is maybe a rationalisation, an attempt to give a structure and a meaning to what in fact, in the fiction, on the page, comes over as an unstoppable torrent of weird hallucinations.

His mind felt completely empty. He was dead: the afternoon was bleached and dead. It was a tomb. (p.76)

Mathieu is not at all dead as he thinks this, just like none of the other characters who let thoughts of death and the dead ceaselessly invade their thoughts are actually dead. But then maybe ‘think’ is the wrong word. Maybe it would be better to say that this is a poetic description of an intense feeling which is passing through Mathieu’ consciousness. Mathieu is merely the vessel for these delirious psychological states.

All Sartre’s characters are. They are channels for Sartre’s uncontrollable gush of weird mental states. One of the soldiers hanging round with Mathieu begins to tell the others the armistice with Germany has been signed, but hesitates… and suddenly they all grasp the dreadful truth without having to be told.

A dazzle off steel, then silence. The blue, flabby flesh of the afternoon had taken eternity like the sweep of a scythe. Not a sound, not a breath of air. Time had become frozen; the war had withdrawn… (p76)

Is hallucination the right word for this kind of writing? Sometimes. Other times it’s just a peculiar, a very distinctive, way of conceiving human beings and human consciousness, in which ‘thought’ is perceived as an almost organic process and – this being Sartre – generally a revoltingly nauseating one involving slime.

At one moment he was just an emptiness filled with vague forebodings, at another, he became just like everyone else. His forebodings faded; the general mood welled sluggishly up in his mind and oozed from his mouth… (p.97)

The vermin eyes had ostracised him, were looking up at him with an air of astonished solemnity, as though they were seeing him for the first time, as though they were looking up at him through layers of slime. (p.102)

The fact that the French prisoners of war are made to trudge through the heat for hours before reaching the camp, and then aren’t fed for five days gives Sartre the opportunity to let rip with the altered states caused by starvation and dehydration. For an extended sequence Brunet passes into a delirium somewhere between dreams and hallucinations. For example, he imagines all the soldiers are chimpanzees.

There were chimpanzees in the next cage, pressing inquisitive faces to the bars. They had sad and wrinkled eyes. Monkeys have sadder eyes than any animals except man. Something had happened, he wondered what. A catastrophe. What catastrophe? Perhaps the sun had gone cold? (p.274)

Note, again, the tinge of apocalyptic science fiction.

In fact this long second part is a strange mixture of very realistic slangy chat between rough Frenchmen, arguing, crying, going mad, blaming their officers, squabbling, cadging fags etc – and passages of quite stunning prose poetry. Sartre’s philosophy I leave to the experts on Husserl and Heidegger to nail down; it belongs to the European tradition which is difficult for us Anglo-Saxons to really understand.

But for me the revelation of these books is the surprising amount of purple prose and lyricism they contain, the extent to which they are truly writerly. As a last example, imagine a huge prisoner of war camp with thousands of dusty, downcast men lying, squatting, standing, leaning about everywhere, as far as the eye can see. And then:

The airplane passed overhead with a shattering din. The crowded faces lowered, then upturned, passed from black to white, like a field suddenly bursting into flower: in place of hard, black heads, thousands of camelias broke into blossom. Spectacles glittered like scraps of glass in a garden bed. (p.243)

There are lots of passages like this. Whereas his analyses of the political situation have passed into dusty history and his existentialist philosophy may or may not still have adherents – the vibrancy, the unexpected imaginativeness and continual weirdness of Sartre’s continues to haunts with its strange power.


Credit

La mort dans l’âme by Jean-Paul Sartre was published by Editions Gallimard in 1949. This translation is not by the translator of the first two in the trilogy, Eric Sutton, but by Gerard Hopkins. It was published as Iron In The Soul by Hamish Hamilton in 1950. Iron In The Soul was issued as a Penguin paperback in 1963. All references are to the 1967 Penguin paperback reprint, which cost the princely sum of five shillings (25p).

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Painted Word by Tom Wolfe (1975)

I bought this as a Bantam paperback back in 1976 when it cost 65p. Now it costs nearly £11.

Tom Wolfe and the New Journalism

Tom Wolfe was one of the founding fathers of the New Journalism, a style of reporting which became fashionable in the 1960s, in which the ‘reporter’ a) was increasingly central to the story itself b) reported in the loose, slangy street style of the day. I recently read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, whose phantasmagorical prose style tried to capture the deranged, trippy experience of the Vietnam War. In fact,  it was only a few years earlier, in 1973, that Wolfe had edited and published the collection, The New Journalism, which crystallised the movement’s reputation.

Wolfe’s version was always urban and urbane. He used literary devices – sarcasm, irony, outrageously subjective opinions, and a dandy style incorporating onomatopoeia, multiple ornate phrases piled up between ellipses or dashes – to cover his subjects. His breakthrough piece in 1963 was a magazine piece about Californian hot rod and custom car culture titled The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby. He followed this with 1968’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, a highly experimental account of the counter-culture author Ken Kesey and his hippy Merry Pranksters.

In 1970 he published Radical Chic, a scathing description of a party given by Leonard Bernstein to raise money for the radical Black Panther Party, in which classy, upper class New York intellectuals bathed in the glory of consorting with radical revolutionaries and – my dear! – such charming young black men!!

The Painted Word

The Painted Word continues the theme of skewering the pretentions of New York’s glitzy upper-class liberal elite. In this short book (actually just a long article printed in Harper’s Magazine in April 1975) Wolfe rips into the pretentiousness of the New York art scene, its struggling artists and its oh-so-precious upper-class devotees.

Wolfe identifies several trends in the art world.

The Boho Dance Since the end of the 19th century the myth had grown up about struggling artists making do with bread and candles in unheated attics while they grind their brains to portray the Truth. Above all the Bohemian (shortened to ‘boho’) artist knows that a key part of the character is scorning the despised bourgeois values, being anti-respectability, dressing scruffy, identifying with the people and so on.

The Consummation But in fact, without exception, all these struggling artists yearn for one thing and one thing only which is to be recognised and acknowledged. How does that happen? You are taken up by the rich elite, particularly the elite of gallery owners and their very rich sponsors.

Schizophrenia But having spent a lifetime cultivating the personality of the struggling artist, many find it difficult to cope with suddenly being showered with prizes, grants, exhibitions, books and magazine articles. Especially since a lot of the showering comes from the very people you’ve spent tour adult life despising and denigrating.

Picasso is the prime example of an artist who made the transition with style, buying suits at the finest London tailors, living in style with his numerous mistresses, and still managing to convey a raffish bohemian air. Jackson Pollock is a tragic example of the Boho artist who couldn’t cope with this sudden clash of identities. Wolfe describes the time Pollock arrived at the uptown apartment of his mega-rich sponsor Peggy Guggenheim to find a dinner party full of Top People. Pollock promptly stripped naked and pissed in the fireplace – but the Top People were delighted: this was precisely the outrageous artistic antics that, by the 1950s, the haute bourgeoisie expected from its pet artists. Spiralling into alcoholism, Pollock died by crashing a car which he was driving when drunk, in 1956.

No modern artist can escape his fate – which is to a) adopt the Bohemian pose until b) he or she is taken up by the art-loving elite, and finds their anti-bourgeois snarling is rewarded by dinner party invitations and cocktails. Neutered. Caged.

Cultureberg because the art world is run by a tiny clique of super-rich patrons and sponsors, who pay for the little galleries, commission grand works, fund little magazines, hold lavish opening night parties, and support the big museums. In a spirit of mockery Wolfe calculates that the entire global art elite – the culturati, the denizens of Cultureberg – number 750 in Rome, 500 in Milan, 1,750 in Paris, 1,250 in  London, 2,000 in Berlin, Munich and Dusseldorf, 3,000 in New York and maybe 1,000 scattered round the rest of the world. Say, 10,000 in all. A large village-sized population of artistic elite which decide who and what is the New Thing.

Wolfe makes the telling point that their decisions are generally announced in the pages of various magazines, as profiles and features, and in galleries as major shows or retrospectives. The public – which votes with its wallet when it comes to music, theatre, books or movies – has no such choice when it comes to art. The decisions are all made by the tiny art elite and only then do we, the public, get presented with a fait accompli.

Big money and high art

Thus, as he puts it, Modern Art – which was largely begun before the Great War – only became widely known after the Great War, not because anyone understood it better – but because the global elite found a use for it. It was only in the 1920s that the word ‘modern’ became so tremendously fashionable (as, Wolfe points out, ‘now’ was a buzz word of the 1960s – the ‘Now Generation’, and possibly ‘digital’ is the word of our era).

New York’s Museum of Modern Art was founded in 1929 having been developed by three rich women,  Abby Aldrich Rockefeller (wife of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., son of the founder of Standard Oil), Lillie P. Bliss (daughter of a U.S. Secretary of the Interior) and Mary Quinn Sullivan (wife of a lawyer specialising in large wealth trusts). Its first president was Anson Conger Goodyear, Director and Vice-President of various railroad companies and he recruited Paul Sachs, son of the founder of Goldman Sachs, and Frank Crowninshield, editor from 1914 to 1935 of Vanity Fair.

Art has always gone hand in hand with money, back through Renaissance princes to medieval kings, through the monuments built to commemorate Caesars and pharaohs. What is distinctive about modern art – and especially in America – is the hilarious contradiction between the aggressively anti-bourgeois stance of so many Boho artists, and the staggering wealth of their patrons and sponsors.

A cartoon history of modern art

Barely had this trend got going, claims Wolfe, than it stalled with the regrettable interruption of the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. During the 1930s a lot of artists were put on the spot about their actual anti-bourgeois sentiments and found themselves churning out scores of images of brawny workers and downtrodden blacks. Fortunately (says Wolfe, in his breezily ironic tone) the Second World War came to America’s rescue, destroying Europe and making God’s own country the world’s first superpower but also – from the modern artists point of view – sweeping away the social realism of the 1930s which was now – in the cold light of the Cold War – looked suspiciously like commie art.

And so it was, with a loud whooshing sound, that the forward march of Modern Art resumed its stomp with the advent of Abstract Expressionism, a dazzlingly new style which foxed the general public (as all good new art should) but drove Cultureburg wild with excitement. Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Philip Guston, Hans Hofmann, Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman – in their significantly different ways – produced a complete revolution in thinking about art which was a) God’s gift to intellectual theorists b) a specifically American look which Peggy Guggenheim and indeed the Federal Government could back and support c) and whose repercussions are still with us.

The battle of the bergs

The central and longest section of the essay is a deliberately distorted lampoon on the work of the two fashionable critics who promoted Abstract Expressionism – Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg. First Wolfe caricatures the way the two men supported different artists in the movement by writing analyses of every-more dizzying intellectual abstruseness. For Greenberg the Cubists et al had correctly rejected Victorian realism and the absurd notion that a painting is a doorway into life, into a scene; but they had not gone far enough – you can still make out sort-of realistic objects in Cubism and related movements.

The Abstract Expressionists had gone one decisive step further and acknowledged that the painting is just a flat surface on which shapes and colours are arranged. In fact the flatter, the better, and Wolfe satirises Greenberg’s writings as increasingly shrill demands for evermore flatness, while at the same time decrying the great American public for not understanding the heroic work being done by this handful of tortured geniuses in Downtown New York.

Rosenberg entered the scene early in the 1950s and is responsible for a crucial extra element – he reintroduced psychology into what was in danger of appearing a very stale formal pursuit by coining the term ‘action painting’ (p.51). The painting isn’t a thing (no matter how flat). It is the record of an event and that event is the heroic manly painter wrestling with the inchoate materials of the universe to express his own deep existential angst.

Wow. So puzzled millionaires could now feel liberated to buy these splats of paint across huge canvasses (Pollock), these shimmering blocks of colour (Rothko), these disturbing lightning flashes against washes of plain colour (Newman), these blown-up black gestures which defied the universe (Franz Kline) because a) this showed how clever and up to the minute they were b) this showed how much soul and feeling and emotion they had and c) it showed how goddam American they were, and proud of it!

As early as 1949 poor Pollock was being hailed as the greatest American painter ever, not only in the art press, but to the wider world in a four-page spread in Life magazine. His famous drip paintings were made in the relatively short period 1947-50 and his later experiments, first with totally black works, then a return to more figurative, were not welcomed by critics or the art coteries who expected him to keep delivering the good. In a way it’s surprising he soldiered on till 1956.

And he died just as the new kids arrived on the block. Apparently Pop Art is dated to Jasper Johns’ one man show at the Castelli Gallery in 1958. American flags, numbers, letters, targets. He was quickly taken up by another berg, this time Leo Steinberg who, in Wolfe’s jokey narrative, manages to trounce both Greenberg and Rosenberg by declaring Abstract Expressionism not flat enough! This was because, despite the fact that it was all about the action on the surface of the canvas, in fact the Abstract Expressionist paintings still – if looked at a certain way – still had a sort of depth. You can be drawn into a Pollock or a Rothko.

However, the new young guys – led by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg – painted things which were already flat – the flag, numbers, target, letters or the photographs which Rauschenberg liberally sprinkled in his works. It was flat on flat. Flat squared. Ha! Gotcha!

But while Steinberg developed an arcane theory around Pop – claiming that it didn’t depict household objects in a realistic way, no, no no, no no, that would be a retreat back to figurativism, no no, Pop caught the interplay of signs which were such a feature of American life – a nod to the semiotics and structuralism becoming fashionable over in France – while Steinberg laboured to give Pop a sophisticated intellectual rationale, Wolfe sniggers that in fact rich collectors liked Pop Art because it was about super-recognisable and, ultimately, very reassuring things. It was American, it was fun, it was cool and above all, it was great to look at. Marilyn Monroe’s face blown up big and coloured in. What’s not to love?

Wolfe satirises Steinberg’s own confession that he resisted at first; he clung, like a virgin, onto his old beliefs, his devotion to action painting as revelation of the agonising struggle of the Great Artist. The shallowness of the new work upset him, but then – bang! – he got it. This was the next thing. Abstract Expressionism died overnight and all the galleries filled up with earnest Pops. Who also sold like hot cakes, much to the disgruntlement of the AEs who a) had never in fact sold that much and b) suddenly found themselves in the embarrassing position of being the old fuddy-duddies.

The Turbulence Theorem

Wolfe lampoons Steinberg’s resistance-then-submission story, saying it embodies what could be called the Turbulence Theorem of modern art:

If a work of art or a new style disturbed you, it was probably good work. If you hated it – it was probably great. (p.88)

The ever-increasing pace of art theory

Wolfe remembers attending the 1965 Museum of Modern Art show which launched Op Art, short for Optical Art, but which its practitioners preferred to call Perceptual Abstraction. The catalogue recapitulated the history of modernism – the cubists rejected the window-on-the-world idea, Abstract Expressionists had established the art work as an object as real as a table or chair – now Perceptual Abstraction reduced art to an experiment in the science of perception – to the response of cones and rods within the eye and to synapses of the retinal nerves as they processed the deliberately mesmerising geometric patterns of Perceptual Abstraction. Hence the name.

But Greenberg and Rosenberg fought back with their own post-Pop style, which they christened Post-Painterly Abstraction, also known as Colour Field Abstract or Hard Edge Abstract which was painting with the brushstrokes and everything expressive taken out. Not quick enough, though, because in the mid to late 60s another big school emerged which came to be called Minimalism. In his cartoon way of telling the story, Wolfe invokes the Turbulence Theory i.e. it can’t be any good unless you hate it. Thus the critic Robert Scull was walking down Madison Avenue and saw a wall of pictures which were apparently completely white. They were in fact white paper with a few super-faint words ghostly written in a corner, by someone called Walter de Maria. Scull disliked them so much he realised they must be genius, bought them all, phoned the artist and became his sponsor on the spot!

But even as Op Art got publicity Minimalism was stirring. Colour? Pattern? Canvases? How derriere-garde, how bourgeois! Paint direct on the gallery wall (Sol Lewitt). Put a pile of bricks on the floor (Carl Andre). A stack of metal shelves up the wall (Donald Judd). Neon tubes in a corner (Dan Flavin).

But these can still be bought and sold like any other commodity and displayed in art galleries, yuk, to be silently revered by the hypocritical bourgeoisie! Reject the art gallery, comrades! And so began Earth Art – a circle of rocks in the desert (Richard Long).  A spiral made of mud and salt into the Great Salt Lake (Robert Smithson). Photographs of the work would have to be enough for the smug uptown liberal elite.

But then, why have an actual object at all? How very bourgeois! Why not just have the idea for a work? Conceptual art.

And each successive wave prompted shrieks of outrage from the middle-brow press? Excellent! We must be doing something right. Classic conceptual art reduced the whole enterprise to words – documentation – describing and explaining what the art work would or could be. There was fierce competition to be the most conceptual of the conceptualists, which Wolfe thinks was won by Lawrence Weiner with his Declaration of Intent (1968).

1. The artist may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership.

No paint. No canvas. No gallery. Nothing but words. And with this – Wolfe jokes – Art disappeared up its own fundament and re-emerged as pure theory, as words shorn of anything representational at all.

Epilogue

Where do you go after you’ve completely abolished your form? Well, post-modernism turns out to be the answer. The best explanation I heard of this troubled idea is that the core idea of MODERNISM is that there is ONE NARRATIVE – from Cezanne through Cubism, Fauvism, Futurism, Dada, Suprematism, De Stijl, Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and Conceptual Art, you can argue the case that there has been a steady series of waves, all operating under broadly the same parameters, each one represented by an avant-garde of pioneers who critics, collectors and public perceived as a kind of unified set of experiments on a single journey forwards, towards…

And post-modernism just stepped away from this whole story. Turns out there are hundreds of stories, thousands of stories, why get hung up about this particular one? You can have all or any of them, like flavours in an ice cream parlour. The very idea of ONE avant-garde which everyone had to look out for, keep up with, and which represented the latest step in an exciting voyage of discovery… over. Finished. Kaput!

Maybe the most interesting aspect of Wolfe’s hilarious romp through (then) recent art history is that he shows you how quickly it happened and how long ago all this is – and that by the time he wrote it in 1975, something like post-Modernism had set in. Meaning, a return to guilt-free figurative realism. He singles out the Photo-realism of Richard Estes, who takes colour photos of banal street scenes (generally shop facades) blows them up very big, projects them on a screen and then carefully paints them.

In the recent exhibition of American prints at the British Museum, some prints of Estes’ Photo-realist works follow the black and white lines of the Minimalist room and are accompanied by artists who returned to the deeply unfashionable genre of portrait painting, namely Alex Katz and Chuck Close. Their work just seems very, well, relaxed, after the existential agonies of the Abstract Expressionists. You look back at the tortured artists of the 1950s and think – to use the American expression – ‘Oh, just get over yourselves.’

The return of the repressed Boho

So what happened next? In the British Museum exhibition post-modernism is represented by a return to Estes’ street scenes, a load of portraits and various realistic depictions of the human form. What interested me was that around 1980 the show stopped being chronological and became thematic, collapsing into three isshoos – gay art around AIDS, feminism and gender, and African American art.

The casual viewer can’t help feeling that these represent a return of the wish to épater le bourgeoisie – the rallying cry of the late-19th century French avant-garde – i.e. to shock the middle classes. Reading the captions here and at the numerous other art exhibitions I go to, you get the sense that artists, and especially critics and curators, wish they were back in the age of modernism, when art genuinely did shock and stun and amaze, when it genuinely ‘transgressed’ and ‘subverted’ something, when it counted for something, goddammit, when it did shock and change wider society a little – and weren’t living now, in the age of finance capitalism, the age of Trump and post-factual politics, the age of Instagram and Facebook and instant liking and friending, when nothing much has any meaning or depth.

I looked around at my fellow ageing, white middle-class visitors to the American prints exhibition at the British Museum: were any of them shocked and outraged by graphic depictions of AIDS or slave ships or a feminist from the 1970s subverting gender stereotypes? Nope. To coin a typically powerful American phrase, I think the curators are confusing us with someone who gives a shit.

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Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

American Colonies by Alan Taylor (2001)

Alan Taylor’s American Colonies is the first volume in the multi-volume Penguin History of the United States, edited by Eric Foner. It is a big-format book, with 470 densely packed pages covering the colonisation of America from the arrival of the first humans 15,000 years ago up to AD 1800. It is an extraordinarily thorough, wide-ranging, thought-provoking and exhilirating read, but which dealswith some extremely grim and depressing subject matter.

Broad canvas

Most of the histories of America I’ve read start with Sir Walter Raleigh and the early English settlements of the 1580s and 90s, and then briskly run through the Anglo-Saxon settlement of the Atlantic coast in the 1600s, in a hurry to get to the War of Independence (in the 1770s) when the ‘true’ story of America begins.

Taylor’s approach couldn’t be more different. His canvas is longer and broader and much, much bigger. Longer, in that he starts with the arrival of the first humans in America some 13,000 BC. Echoing the picture painted by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel, he describes how a probably small group of hunter-gatherers in Siberia moved across what we now think of as the land bridge between Siberia and Alaska and then, as the climate improved, a) the land bridge flooded, separating America and Asia and b) the early settlers were able to move south into the huge empty continent.

Domesticable mammals

As we know from Guns, Germs and Steel, their arrival coincided with the mass extinction of all the large mammals in America – presumably through human overhunting – leaving no mammals on the continent capable of being domesticated. According to Jared Diamond this is perhaps the decisive difference between the inhabitants of Eurasia – which domesticated pigs, goats, cows and sheep and, crucially, the horse – and the inhabitants of all the other continents, which had hardly any or simply no domesticable mammals.

Animal diseases

The domesticated animals of Eurasia were important not only for their use as food, in providing skins and hides, manure to fertilise crops and the pulling power of horses and oxen – large numbers of farm animals allowed the fomenting of terrible epidemic diseases, which jumped the species barrier into humans and then spread through our densely populated towns and cities. We are the descendants of the survivors of repeated epidemics of plague, smallpox, tuberculosis and so on which devastated Asia and Europe.

Thus when the first Europeans arrived in the New World (on Columbus’s First Voyage of 1492), it wasn’t the gunpowder or steel swords or even the warriors on horseback which did for the natives – it was the diseases we brought. Again and again and again, Taylor tells harrowing stories of how our diseases – especially smallpox- devastated the populations of the West Indies, of the Aztec and Inca empires, then of the Mississippian civilisation, and then all up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s only recently that historians have taken the measure of this devastating biological warfare: for a long time it was thought that the Native American population was about 1 million when the English started colonising the Atlantic coast; but now it is thought the original population, before the Spanish arrived in 1492, may have been as high as 20 million. I.e. in about a century (1490-1590) 95% of the Indian population was wiped out by European diseases.

Thus, Taylor emphasises, until recently historians thought that the Indian tribes which the European settlers encountered had inhabited their territories from time immemorial. The new ‘disease-aware’ theories suggest the exact opposite: that Europeans encountered survivors who were still reeling from the devastation of their populations by disease, which in turn had led to internecine warfare and the seizing of territory, to regrouping and realliancing (p.74). Often this occurred before the main body of European explorers arrived – after all it only took a few sailors going ashore from a Spanish ship to fill water barrels on the south coast to infect an Indian, who then took the disease back to his tribe, which passed it up along the Mississippi and to decimate the entire population.

Thus Taylor shows again and again that the social and ecological and political arrangements of the Indians which Europeans encountered, and took to be timeless, had in fact only come about because of the disruptive activities of the Europeans themselves.

The Spanish

So – number one – Taylor’s vastly broader canvas starts thousands of years before the conventional histories, in order to place the Native Americans within the fullest possible context.

It then – number two – very sensibly takes the time to give a thorough account of the Spanish conquests starting with Columbus’s first voyage of 1492. In fact, Taylor goes back before Columbus to give us enough European history to place the entire ‘Navigation Revolution’ in its full global context. The biggest single element of this was the continuing success of imperial Islam. The Turkish or Ottoman Empire finally captured Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, in 1453, and spread up into the Balkans (thus creating the hodge-podge of ethnicities and religions which has caused instability and conflict right up to the present day).

These Ottoman conquests closed off overland trade routes from Europe to India and the Spice Islands far to the East. And it was this closure of the Eastern route which gave a big financial incentive to adventurers and explorers to try and find a route west, across the seas, to the Spice Islands. As countless commentators have pointed out, it is one of the greatest ironies in history that the discovery of America was a terrible disappointment to the explorers and their royal patrons back in the capitals of Spain and Portugal and France and England. (And Taylor’s book is brutal about the terrible consequences for the native peoples everywhere the Europeans went.)

Taylor explains the economic and technological background to the Spanish conquests of Central and South America not just for their own sake, but because the Spanish also expanded up into what was later to become the USA. The Spanish colonised Florida and sent expeditions deep into what would later become California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas. In doing so they established a particular pattern of landholding – vast haciendas farmed by natives turned into serfs – which would remain influential in the south-west USA for centuries, as well as bringing disease and disruption to the native peoples.

The West Indies

Taylor devotes a lot of space to the settlement of the numerous islands of the West Indies, firstly by Spain in the early 1500s. He describes how French and English pirates took to preying on the regular Spanish shipments of silver and gold from central America back to Europe via the Indies. Then how France and England set about establishing colonies of their own in this scattered archipelago of islands.

Taylor describes tells in great detail the settlement of Barbados and then of Jamaica. Several points emerge.

  1. The original settlers dropped like flies. The climate was inimical to white men, who also didn’t know – for a long time – what to farm in these places. It took some time before the invaders worked out that sugar cane was the perfect crop for the climate. Unfortunately, working cane is – as Taylor explains in detail – extremely labour-intensive.
  2. So the Europeans then proceeded to enslave and work to death as many of the native population as they could capture, waging genocidal wars with the rest, all the while spreading their fatal germs.
  3. It was when they’d worked the natives to annihilation, that the settlers began buying African slaves. The trade had existed for over a hundred years, but the Spanish and Portuguese had mainly made do with enslaving the local Indians. It was the sugar economy of the West Indies which converted the Slave Trade into an industrial concern.

The British colonies

There then follow a sequence of chapters which describe the English settlement of the Chesapeake Bay area. I learned that originally, the entire coast from the Spanish colony of Florida up to the French territories in Canada, was all known as ‘Virginia’, after the supposedly virgin queen, Elizabeth I. A familiar pattern is established. The original settlers drop like flies (mostly from water-borne diseases caused by the low tidal movement of the bay – for decades they were drinking water polluted by their own faeces). So it takes a long time for settler deaths to be outweighed by new arrivals and the colony to really take hold. The ‘indenture system’ is widespread i.e. poor whites from England sell themselves into 4 or 5 years servitude, to pay for the transatlantic crossing. After 4 or 5 years they are released, having paid their debt, and given a basic amount of land and tools to make it themselves. Initially weak in numbers and understanding of the environment, the colonists rely on trade with the Indians to get by. But as soon as they are strong and numerous enough, they start expanding their settlements, inevitably coming into conflict with the Indians who, in any case, are regularly devastated by the diseases the colonists have brought, especially smallpox.

Eventually, in Virginia the settlers discovered that tobacco is the crop of choice, hugely profitable when shipped back to Europe. But Indians refused to work in the kind of prison-camp labour the crop requires, and the flow of indentured servants dried up in the 1650s as economic conditions in England – the bad economy, overcrowding and unsettled social conditions of the British Civil Wars (1637-60) – improved. Solution: African slaves.

Slaves to the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves to the tobacco plantations of Virginia. Taylor describes how large planters flourished, picking off smaller planters who tended to go under in bad periods of trade fluctuation. This set the pattern for what would later be seen as the ‘Old South’ of vast plantations worked by slaves and overseen by fine white lords and ladies living in grand style, in big mansions, with countless servants to organise their lavish feasts etc. The lifestyle of Gone With The Wind. Very hard for a modern white liberal not to despise.

Taylor then goes on to describe the settlement of New England, the northern colonies settled by English Puritans – religious exiles from the old country – arriving in the 1620s. A key distinction which sticks in my mind is that, whereas the Virginia settlers were mostly single men, the Puritans came in well-organised groups of families. Those Virginian men were aggressive competitors who broadcast their success once they’d ‘made it’. The Puritans, by contrast, set up tightly organised and disciplined townships, each with local administrators based on their numerous churches and congregations, and closely monitored each others every word and action to make sure they conformed with ‘godly’ practice. In time the New England Puritans were to get a reputation for republicanism and democracy, both dirty words in the 17th century.

I knew some of this already, but it is all given in more detail, more intelligently and with more insight than I’ve ever read before. Also I hadn’t appreciated just how thoroughly New England fed into the Atlantic Economy. Put simply, New England farmers produced the staple food crops which were traded down to the West Indies sugar plantations. Ships from the West Indies and Virginia brought sugar and tobacco to Boston, where it was transferred into ships to carry it across to Bristol and Liverpool. The empty ships carried back food to the sugar and tobacco colonies. The ships which sailed east across the Atlantic emptied their goods in England, then sailed down the coast of Africa to buy slaves, before catching the Trade Winds which carried them west across the Atlantic to the West Indies and up to Virginia where they sold the slaves, and loaded up with sugar and tobacco.

I knew about the Atlantic Economy and the Slave Trade but Taylor’s book is the first I’ve ever read which explains lucidly and thoroughly the background, the climatological, environmental, social and economic forces behind the growth of this immense money-making machine.

New York and Pennsylvania

Different again was the settlement of New York, which was originally carried out by the Dutch. I knew that the Dutch had created a surprisingly far-flung empire, given the smallness of their country and population (1.5 million to England’s 5 million). And I knew that the British fought three wars (1652-4, 1665-7 and 1672-4) with the Dutch, because they loom large in the history and literature of the British Civil Wars (1637-60).

Taylor explains the fundamental reason the British were able to seize the few Dutch territories on the Atlantic coast (famously New Amsterdam, which we renamed New York after the Duke of York, Charles II’s brother and future King James II). Because a) the Dutch lacked the manpower to defend it b) it wasn’t making much money, unlike their colonies in South America, at the Cape in South Africa, and especially in the Far East.

Taylor gives a characteristically thorough account of the creation of Pennsylvania, a huge tract of land simply given to the aristocrat William Penn by Charles II in 1681 to pay off a gambling debt, and which Penn then settled in a systematic and well-organised way with members of his own non-conformist sect, the Quakers, naming its first main town Philadelphia, the city of Brotherly Love.

New France

Meanwhile, up in what would become Canada, the French had been exploring and settling the St Lawrence Waterway, the long river which penetrates at an angle deep into North America, ultimately linking up with the Great Lakes. They founded settlements at its mouth, Louisbourg, and along its length at Quebec and Montreal. In the cold north, the French could barely grow wheat let alone the hot-climate crops of tobacco or sugar. Therefore they pioneered trading with the Native Americans for furs and pelts: because of the climate and this economic model ‘New France’ was always thinly populated, mainly by hunters who worked closely with their Indian allies and often went native, marrying Indian women and adopting their ways. All the chapters about the French echo with the lamentations of the French governor or military commander, that they barely have the men or resources to hold the territory.

This is all the more puzzling since France was the largest, most powerful nation in Europe, population 20 million, compared to England’s 5 million, and the Dutch 1 million. In chapter 16 Taylor gives some reasons:

  • In France the peasantry was more rooted to the land. In England the 17th century saw a movement of ‘enclosure’ acts in which the gentry seized common land and drove the rural poor off it, creating a pool of unemployed keen to travel to find work.
  • If French peasants did want work all they had to do was walk south into Spain where there were labour shortages.
  • The English encouraged their religious dissidents (the Puritans) to emigrate to the colonies, where they turned out to be hard working and disciplined pioneers. The French banned it. French protestants – known as Huguenots – were forbidden by law from going to new France. Instead some 130,000 artisans, craftsmen and merchants fled to Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England, especially after the fool King Louis XIV in 1685 revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had previously granted them religious freedom.
  • Word came back that New France was freezing cold, with poor agricultural prospects – all true enough.
  • Finally, the ‘Sun King’ Louis XIV was determined to make France the greatest power on the Continent and so built up a massive war machine, inheriting an army of 20,000 in 1661 and growing it to 300,000 by 1710. England’s surplus population created America; France’s created an army.

The furs and pelts never covered the cost of the colony. This is the single most important fact about New France: it always needed to be subsidised by the Crown, and was a constant drain on French finances. This was even more true of ‘Louisiana’, the vast area either side of the Mississippi which the French optimistically claimed for themselves in the 17th century. In reality this boiled down to a poverty-stricken settlement at New Orleans, which suffered from disease, lack of crops, periodic flooding, hurricanes and constant harassment by local Indians (pp. 384-385).

The sole reason the French crown continued to subsidise both wretched settlements was geopolitical – to hem in and contain England’s settlements along the Atlantic coastline. As I know from reading about The Seven Years War (1756-63) the simple geography of the situation made conflict between the two empires inevitable, indeed French and Indian raids were a menace to settlers in New York state and Pennsylvania from as early as the 1690s. The surprising thing is that it took until the 1760s for the British to defeat the French, but this is the benefit of hindsight. During the later 1600s and early 1700s both sides were too weak and geographically separated to engage in proper conflict.

Indian torture and European brutality

At several places Taylor goes into detail about Indian beliefs and religion (granting, of course, that different nations and tribes often had different practices). Broadly speaking:

  • men were warriors, seeking opportunities to display their prowess, which they proved through the number of scalps i.e. the skin and hair from the top of an enemy’s head
  • in wars among themselves, the Indians sought plunder and increased hunting territory
  • the loss of warriors prompted grief but also fear of the dead which was assuaged by loud mourning and ritual feasts
  • deaths in battle prompted further ‘mourning wars’, in which they raided enemy tribes and seized prisoners
  • these prisoners were then incorporated into the tribe, replenishing its numerical and spiritual power
  • most tribes were matrilinear i.e. power descended through the female line and so the older women of the tribe decided the fate of captives: women and children were invariably adopted into the tribe and given new names; young male captives were generally tortured to death
  • death was inflicted as slowly and painfully as possible: the Iroquois tied the captive to a stake and villagers of both sexes took turns to wield knives, torches and red hot pokers to torment and burn the captive to death
  • ‘the ceremony was a contest between the skills of the torturers and the stoic endurance of the victim, who manifested his own power, and that of his people, by insulting his captors and boasting of his accomplishments in war’ (p.103)
  • once dead, the victim was dismembered, his parts put in a cooking kettle and the resulting stew served to the entire tribe to bind them together in absorbing the captive’s power
  • torture and cannibalism bound the tribe together, gave them spiritual power, hardened adolescent boys for the cruelties of war and dramatised the tribe’s contempt for outsiders

It goes without saying that the Europeans had their own grisly punishments. Accounts of the conquistadores’ behaviour to captured Aztecs and Incas are stomach-turning, and the slave-owning British invented all kinds of brutal punishments for rebellious or insubordinate slaves. What surprised me was the brutality of the French in Louisiana to their own men. I’m disgusted but not really surprised to learn that the French turned over rebel or runaway slaves to their Indian allies to be tortured or burned to death as only the Indians knew how – to deliberately inspire terror of rebellion or flight in their slaves. But the French paid their own soldiers so badly that they lived in conditions little better than the slaves – a visitor reported them lacking shirts or boots and on starvation rations – leading to repeated desertion and runaways. And if these runaway soldiers were caught, ‘the lucky died on the gallows; others died as their backs were broken on the wheel or severed by saws’ (p.387). Severed by saws!

This is why I described the book as depressing at the top. Maybe grim and hateful would be better words. The breadth of Taylor’s view, the grasp of detail, the clarity of the narrative and the incisiveness of his insights all make this a brilliant read. But the subject matter is appalling: the catalogue of suffering and violence and epidemic disease and starvation and torture and more violence call for a very strong stomach.

Summary

All of this is covered in just the first half of this long and fascinating account.

You can see how Taylor’s account restores to ‘the colonisation of America’ its full historical scope (stretching back to the very first human arrivals) and fullest geographical scope (making it abundantly clear that any telling of the story must include the economic and social colonisation by the Spanish and explain the colonisation of the West Indies a) because the Caribbean economy established the pattern of slave-worked ‘plantations’ which was to be copied on the mainland, and b) because the West Indies sugar colonies formed the lynchpin of the entire Atlantic Economy which allowed the North American colonies to flourish).

His account explains the surprising variety of types of European settlement made in American – in terms of their economies and cultures, their crops and religions – and how this variety left a legacy of diverse and conflicting social ideals to later Americans.

It explains in great detail the tragic encounter between Europeans and native peoples, with scores of examples of how initial co-operation turned sour as both sides failed to understand each other’s notions of law and rights and property, leading to violence and counter-violence, to wars large and small – and how the Indians always ended up on the losing side, partly because the whites controlled their access to guns and ammunition, but mostly because the Indians everywhere fell victim to the terrible diseases the whites didn’t even realise they’d brought with them from the Old World.

And it explains in thorough and appalling detail the scale and brutality of the transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining why it became ‘necessary’ to the one-crop economies of sugar in the West Indies and tobacco in Virginia, why the nature of these crops demanded exhausting and back-breaking labour which couldn’t be supplied by either local Indians or indentured labourers from England, but why – as a result – the white owners lived in constant fear of rebellion by blacks who came to outnumber them by as much as 9 to one and so were forced, by a bitter logic of fear, into more and more brutal discipline and punishments of slaves who ran away or organised any kind of rebellion.

His book paints an enormous canvas, full of startling and terrible revelations, which for the first time fits together every element in the story into what must become a definitive account for our times of the very troubled origins of the ‘United States’ of America.

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris

The landing of William Penn in 1682 by J.L.G. Ferris (1932)

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Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming (1956)

Opens with a kind of pre-titles chapter in which we meet a dentist who is smuggling diamonds out of a British diamond mine in Sierra Leone by paying the black workers to smuggle uncut stones out of the mines in their teeth. He pays the miners cash, takes the stones, assembles them into a package and every month drives out to remote part of the desert to rendezvous with a helicopter. He flashes a code phrases (A, B, C) before the chopper lands, hands over the pack of diamonds to the pilot, and is assured payment has gone through to his bank account in London.

London

Cut to the Secret Service building overlooking Regents Park (p.55), where M briefs Bond about the significant losses to British diamonds caused by smuggling. The FBI have helped identify a ‘pipeline’ which goes from the mines in Africa, to London, and on to America. Has he heard of the ‘House of Diamonds’, an up-market retailer in Hatton Garden, run by a man named Rufus B. Saye? (p.20) Might be something to do with it. His mission is to track down the gang responsible. As part of this:

1. Bond goes for a briefing with Assistant Commissioner Vallance of Scotland Yard, who we first met in Moonraker (p.25). Vallance gives Bond further details about the scale of the smuggling and the seriousness of the American gangs. Despatches him with a plain clothes man to interview Saye, at the ‘House of Diamonds’ office. Saye turns out to be a big, very hard American who listens to their ‘enquiries’, then rudely turfs them out (p.37).

2. The plan is to drop Bond into the pipeline as the courier of a package they know is waiting in London to be carried to America. Each month it’s a different courier, but Scotland Yard have their eye on the ‘escort’ who often accompanies them, an attractive woman named Tiffany Case. This month she’s expecting a certain Peter Franks to be the courier (p.25) and be paid $5,000. The Yard will pick up Franks and Bond will impersonate him, courier the diamonds into New York, then try to inveigle his way into the gang, and get evidence against the top people.

So Bond goes to the Hotel and meets Tiffany, the hotel room door opening to reveal her at her dressing table wearing only bra and panties (p.40). Despite this promising beginning, she insists their relationship is purely professional. She suggests Bond pose as a tourist going on a golfing holiday, with a bag of clubs etc, and her people will get the diamonds inserted into golf balls, easy to smuggle. He’ll be collected from the airport and taken to meet Michael ‘Shady’ Tree, who’ll take the stones and pay him. Later, Tiffany makes a call to someone she only knows as ABC, who confirms the golf balls plan, though she herself doesn’t know who she’s speaking to or where the call is taken.

Back at the hotel which he’s checked into as a cover (the Ritz!) Bond receives a hand-delivered letter from M with more information (p.52). Further research has shown that Rufus Saye is none other than Jack Spang, twin brother of Seraffimo Spang, joint controller of ‘the Spangled Mob’, a well-known American crime gang. They bought ‘the House of Diamonds’ five years earlier and there’s every suspicion that it’s a front for the smuggled stones.

Next day a driver turns up to collect Bond, tips the contraband golf balls in amongst all his other balls, then drives him to the airport for his flight to New York. (There’s a long description of checking in and the joys of international jet travel – Fleming is very aware of flying; cf the description of Bond’s momentary panic on the flight to Jamaica in Live and Let Die – maybe it was still a rarity in 1956 and therefore had exotic interest for his readership. He certainly describes the flight to New York in great detail, and then again the flight from New York to Las Vegas, p.160).

New York

Bond gets through Customs and is met by a New York gang member who drives him into the City and to meet Michael ‘Shady’ Tree, who turns out to be a fierce, red-haired hunchback (p.68). Bond carries on playing the part of a mercenary courier and asks for his money. Tree says they’ll pay him some in cash but then arrange for the rest to be paid tax-free and innocently with a scam. Tree gives him the name of a horse to bet on in an upcoming race at Saratoga, the famous racing track in upstate New York. It’s a dead cert; he’ll get his money. Bond has to agree.

Out on the street, Bond becomes aware he’s being tailed and then is gripped by the neck and a hard object shoved in his back. After a tussle there’s a burst of laughter, and his assailant is revealed as Felix Leiter, his buddy from the CIA, who we last saw having been half eaten by a shark in Live and Let Die, swathed in bandages and barely alive. Here he is on the streets of New York, now working for the Pinkerton Agency, limping heavily from his artificial leg and using an artificial arm with a metal hook (p.82).

They banter a lot in a free and easy way which is still appealing 60 years later – ‘you old Limey bastard’ etc, while Leiter explains that he’s been tasked by the Pinkertons to cover corruption up at Saratoga. Ie he’s going to the same race meeting Bond was told to attend by the red-haired hunchback. As M did, Leiter warns Bond that these gangs may have garish silly nicknames – Shady Tree, the Spangled Mob – but they are seriously hard men.

Saratoga

Bond has a day to himself to groom, eat and sleep – cold showers, padding his room naked, ordering steak and champagne. Next day Leiter picks him up and they banter about cars, women and criminal gangs as he drives them 200 miles north to Saratoga. Fleming has done his research: he captures the atmosphere of this horse town, both by quoting a long passage by sports writer Jimmy Cannon (as he previously quoted long passages by Leigh Fermor to describe Haitian Voodoo in Live and Let Die) and by his own sections of bravura description (p.109). Bond and Leiter check into a motel then stroll around soaking up the vibes, watching the horses and owners and jockeys, listening to the accents.

Now, the diamond smugglers had told Bond to bet on an outside horse named ‘Shy Smile’ to win one of the races. They’ve fixed for him to win by the simple expedient of killing the real ‘Shy Smile’ and replacing him with another much faster horse, made up to look like him. But it turns out that Leiter (in an everso slightly enormous coincidence) has been briefed by the Pinkertons to stop ‘Shy Smile’ winning. He’s been told to bribe the jockey – ‘Tingaling’ Bell – to throw the race by committing a brief but decisive foul in the final stretches. Fleming well conveys the noise and excitement of the big track and of the race and, sure enough, Tingaling throws it, resulting in an official foul and ‘Shy Smile’ being disqualified.

In another improbable twist, Leiter asks Bond to deliver Tingaling’s bribe to him, at the Acme sulphur spring and mudbath outside town. In a sequence which reeks of being a documentary description of a place Fleming had really visited, Bond describes every detail of the hot spring/mud bath establishment in Saratoga, the half-hearted attendants, the concrete walkway into the big mud room itself, the disgusting smells, the ominous tall smokestack louring over it all. Here, yet again, he must strip naked before being encased in a coffin-shaped box filled with ‘healing’ hot mud. It is while trapped in this device that he witnesses two hooded hit-men enter the mud room, locate the bribed jockey Tingaling, slap him about a bit with the usual sadistic banter and then – with typical Fleming cruelty – pour a tub of super-boiling mud over his face, thus burning and melting his flesh. Then they go.

After the cops have arrived and sorted everything out, and after Bond has given his testimony as an innocent bystander, showered and returned to his hotel – he describes it all to Leiter who immediately identifies the two men, Wint and Kidd as well-known hoodlums working for the Spangled Mob. Bond phones the hunchback in New York, still playing the part of an aggrieved small-time crooked courier, saying, ‘Hey that horse didn’t win, I lost all my money’. So the voice tells him to go to Las Vegas, check into a specific hotel (the Tiara) and be at a specific blackjack table at a specific time and make a specific bet and he’ll get his money.

Continuing the stream of coincidences, Leiter tells Bond that he has also been ordered to Las Vegas – he’ll arrange for Bond to be collected by a cabby he knows and trusts – and so there’ll be more buddy-buddy hanging out together. Why bother too much about plausibility…

Las Vegas

Another plane journey – New York to Las Vegas – and Fleming giving us a detailed description of the view out the window as the plane turns over the Pacific and heads through a pass in the Sierras into the Martian landscape of the desert before coming in to the unexpected green urban island of Las Vegas.

The heat hits him like a punch, and he’s collected by the friendly cabby Leiter’s assigned him – Ernie Cureo (p.152) – who gives Bond (and the reader) a useful update on Vegas’s recent history ie organised crime has moved in and taken over everything. Ernie indicates the extent of the control – for example, Bond will have been photographed at the airport with a secret camera and the photos will be being scanned against the mob’s databases as they speak. If he’s carrying a gun, Bond will be shadowed by an unseen armed escort. His every move will be followed, especially at the gambling tables. Note the use of modern overhead lighting in all the gambling halls. But note also, how half the light sockets are empty. They’re the one with the cameras recording everything everyone does. Nothing is left to chance. Bond is impressed by the total efficiency of the gangs.

Bond has another day in hand in a luxury hotel to swim, eat well, sleep. Finally he dresses for his appointment at the blackjack table, as arranged by the hunchback in New York. Once again there is a very good, very atmospheric account of Vegas, of the hotel and of the coercive design, sound and behaviour in the massive gambling hall packed with slot machines and ringing to the continual shouts from the crap game tables. Bond is at the appointed table at the appointed time to find the croupier is none other than Tiffany Case! They play it dead straight – she deals him five sets of winning cards and he collects the $5,000 owed him and walks away.

But Bond is irked at having to play this dumb role. He was warned to leave the gambling hall and leave town so instead he walks straight over to a roulette table where he makes four risky bets in a row, winning and raising his takings to $20,000. He notes the hard men standing around with guns barely concealed. As his stakes go up a hard man appears at the dealer’s side with the same cold eyes and black hair styled en brousse; must be Seraffimo Spang, brother of Jack. His cigar points at Bond like a gun, while Bond wins the last turn of the wheel and quits while he’s ahead. But he’s made his mark.

Spectreville

Next evening Ernie picks Bond up in his cab for a cruise round town and this turns out to be the beginning of the climax of the book. While Bond is reminiscing about unnerving Jack Spang in person with his unscripted gambling win the night before, Ernie gives Bond (and the reader) some background about Jack Spang’s hobby. He has bought an abandoned mining town some way from Vegas, fully restored it and the one-track railway line that used to service the mine, along with a vintage locomotive. It is Spang’s (eccentric and garish) hobby to take his gang, associates and girls on champagne trips to this fake Wild West town and make everyone dress up for the weekend.

Ernie notices they’re being followed and Bond, itching for some action, encourages him to try to give the tail the slip. Cue a high-speed chase, in which Ernie shunts the following car, then swerves into a side alley so Bond can get some shots off at the other following car, crash bang! Then they go hide out in a drive-in movie but a) Bond discovers Ernie was injured in the shooting b) the tail follows them, arriving with guns poking through the cab’s doors. Bond is pushed at gunpoint into the baddies’ car and driven out to Spectreville.

Here, as he’s pushing open the swing doors of a fake saloon, he takes the opportunity to jump his two gunmen (McGonigle and Frasso, p.200), badly hurting both of them, before a voice says, ‘Put the gun down’ and – in a stock scene – he realises Jack Spang and some associates in ominous black hoods, and Tiffany Case (!) have been watching all along. The new tough guys manhandle Bond out into the station platform, to view the astonishingly beautiful vintage locomotive, The Cannonball (p.207), then up the stairs and into the luxuriously-appointed Pullman carriage. The characters sit. Bond is fixed a drink. Then his blood runs cold as Spang reveals he’s received a telegram from London saying the real Peter Franks is in police custody. Bond plays the aggrieved innocent so Spang casually tells his associates to put on football boots and kick the crap out of Bond.

In the next chapter Fleming brilliantly describes Bond’s sensations as he slowly, painfully recovers consciousness. The boys kicked him unconscious, left him in a side room, ate dinner and went to bed. Tiffany tiptoed downstairs in the early hours and is now trying to revive him. They are near the railhead and she points out a railroad handcar ie one of the small open machines engineers use to putter up and down lines. Tiffany has planned their escape. But first Bond just about manages to empty petrol cans all over the wooden building and lights it Whoosh! Then onto the handcar and off they go.

Out into the cold desert as Bond’s senses slowly return, he checks that no bones are broken and realises his passport and money are still in his jacket pocket. Phew. But then they sense a rumbling on the line, which gets louder: The Cannonball is after them, and it’s going to catch them.

At just that moment the handcar engine goes put-put and runs out of gas. Great. But Tiffany thinks they’re not far from a railroad junction where a spur of track headed off towards the old mine, they could switch the points, push the handcar down it, then switch the points back. Better still, suggests Bond, go beyond the junction and switch the points so the Cannonball itself is sent hurtling down the sidetrack towards the old mine.

Which is what they do after much straining with the rusty old points. And, moments later, the Cannonball comes hurtling towards them, then hits the points with a judder and is violently switched to the spur line. Not before there are shots from the engine house and – just as it flashes by – Bond carefully looses off the four bullets remaining in his gun and has a split-second impression of Jack Spang’s body lifted and spread-eagled against the side of the cab, then it’s flashed by. Moments later it is out of sight behind the start of the low hills and moments after that – Bang, Crash, BOOM! as the huge locomotive hits the mine railhead at 60 miles an hour, derails, crashes and explodes with a melodramatic fireball. So much for Seraffimo Spang.

Exhausted, Bond collapses, and he would have died then and there in the desert if Tiffany hadn’t guided him and supported him the couple of miles to the nearest desert highway. Here she flags down the only car passing at that time of the morning to discover – and here the coincidence-ometer explodes – the mop of sandy hair and hawk-like features of Felix Leiter! (p.226) who had heard about his pal Ernie being taken into hospital, got the story of Bond’s abduction, driven out to Spectreville to find it going up in flames, got the story from a surviving hoodlum of Bond’s escape on the handcar, and driven out into the desert looking for his old buddy.

All very convenient. Leiter drives Bond to California where they get him patched up by a doctor, checked into a hotel and cleaned up with new clothes. – It is notable how throughout the process Tiffany cradles his wounded head, looks after him but then how, as he slowly revives, she returns to being distant and cold. Much earlier, Leiter had told Bond her life story. Daughter of a single woman who ran a brothel, Tiffany grew up in a harsh environment and then one fateful night was gang-raped by her mother’s customers. Since when she has been a hard and professional survivor. And yet Bond finds himself falling in love with her (p.232).

Leiter books them on a flight to New York, and then onto none other than the luxury cruise ship, the Queen Elizabeth, which is steaming back to England. – Note the chasteness and prudery of the 1950s – Leiter books them into separate cabins, a distinction they themselves maintain throughout the voyage.

The Queen Elizabeth

Here there is a lot of low key relationship stuff between Case and Bond. Dinner, conversation, getting to know each other as Bond falls deeper in love with her but has to overcome the reluctance caused by her brutal past. They discuss marriage and even having children (pp.240-246). Bond says that once in London she can put up in the spare room of his little flat and be looked after by his adorable housekeeper, May. It is a love affair. They are falling in love. They attend an auction for charity where guests in the big ship dining room bet on how long it will take the ship to reach the UK. An odd couple of men take the bidding unusually high and bet it will take much longer than anyone else is predicting.

Bond looks at them, an uncomfortable fat man and a good-looking blond man, and something nags in his memory but at that moment he is distracted by Tiffany’s hand on his. They go walk along the deck, admiring the sea and the moon and the reflections etc and then back to his cabin where they, finally, make sincere and deep love, after which Tiffany kisses him goodnight before tiptoeing back to her cabin and Bond falls into a deep sleep.

He’s awoken by room service with a telegram. It’s a coded message from M in London that they raided the ‘House of Diamonds’ – Jack Spang having fled the country, probably into Africa – and discovered telegram exchanges with a Mr Winter aboard the Queen Elizabeth and Saye/Spang sending orders to ‘despatch’ Case. Jumping into the shower then pulling his clothes on Bond races along to Tiffany’s room to find it empty and ransacked. Christ. Christ, the reader is on tenterhooks because Fleming has led us right into a gentle, loving, tender place only to yank us back into the brutal world of sudden death. Remember how Bond fell in love with Vesper but she died, in Casino Royale.

Bond quickly goes through the ship’s manifest that is given to every passenger and discovers Wint and Kidd are in the cabin directly below Tiffany’s. If he tried to break down the door chances are they’d kill her before he got in. In a desperate expedient, he ties together sheets from her bed and attaches one end to a bulkhead, then swings out the porthole and lets himself slowly, painfully down the ship’s side, trying to forget the immense size of the ship, the fact it is steaming at speed, the way he could probably die from the impact if he fell into the sea, or by sliced to pieces by the ship’s four massive screws.

Now he’s at the porthole of the cabin below, and hears a slap and a girl cry out and with no more prompting swings through the porthole and rolls into the middle of the room, to his feet with his gun in his hand. Tiffany is naked, pinioned by Kidd who is slapping her. Both men turn to face him, ready to draw. Bond tells Tiffany to get up and go into the bathroom and lock the door. Nobody moves while she goes. There is a very intense moment of delay, released when Wint shouts American football numbers for a ‘play’ and both men move in different directions and pull their guns. Bang! Bond shoots one in the head then turns to the other just as his hand reaches for his ankle and twists up. Bang! Bond shoots the other dead, but not before he gets off a cunning throw and Bond looks down to see a knife sticking out of his ribs (p.290).

Complete silence. Bond extracts the knife then moves carefully, staggering, arranging everything so it looks like the two fell out over a card game, he throws Kidd out the porthole and arranges the gun to look like Wint killed himself. It’s not much, but it should delay or puzzle the ship’s authorities. Then he gets Tiffany from the bathroom, they return to her room and tidy up, then she takes him back to his room and tends his wounds.

Epilogue

Bond is in the desert with troops from the nearest British Army garrison and a Bofors gun. They have followed the smuggling dentist out from the mine and are now camped silently half a mile away. Bond remembers the phone call he had with M once the Queen Elizabeth docked at Southampton. a) He put Tiffany into a Daimler taxi to London, to drop her at his flat and into the care of May. b) The police are enquiring into a double murder aboard the ship, does Bond want M to cover it up? Yes. c) Vallance has raised the possibility of prosecuting the girl. Should they? No. d) Will Bond catch an RAF jet to the desert to track down the last link in the pipeline, the missing Spang? Yes.

The helicopter arrives but instead of the German pilot it is – as expected – Jack Spang himself. He takes the dentist’s pack of diamonds, listens to his feeble whining, then shoots him dead. At that moment the loudspeaker from Bond and the army’s truck tells him to freeze. But he jumps back into the helicopter and takes off. Bond in person tracks him with the Bofors gun and lets off a series of shots, one of which hits bull’s eye and the chopper collapses and crashes back to earth with a big explosion. The pipeline is closed. Thank God he can go back to London and the warm arms of his beloved.

Death is forever. But so are diamonds. (p.289)


Themes

Organised crime

The text goes to great lengths to emphasise the breadth, the scale and the ruthlessness of American organised crime. You’d have thought readers were aware of this from the well-publicised lawlessness of the 1930s, featuring Al Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd among many others, and all those Jimmy Cagney, George Raft film noirs.

But apparently it needs to be explained all over again, so Fleming has M explain in person and then in a hand-written note, and Leiter telling him several times, and then the cabby in Las Vegas explaining once again, that the Organised Crime gangs of America are well organised and ruthless. At least twice, characters refer to the Kefauver Report (p.159) for a full understanding of the breadth and depth of organised crime’s grip on American society, and this turns out to be a very contemporary reference.

Fascinating to learn that these Senate Committee hearings into organised crime feature in fictionalised form in The Godfather part II. My understanding was that the Godfather books and movies trace the transition of Mafia operations from explicitly criminal activities like bootlegging, blackmail, extortion etc, into ‘legit’ businesses, specifically on the move from New York-based crime into the gambling operations in Las Vegas – precisely the setting of the second half of Diamonds.

Enjoyment

Bond enjoys life and his enjoyment is infectious.

It was a beautiful day and Bond enjoyed absorbing the Saratoga idiom, the mixture of Brooklyn and Kentucky in the milling crowds, the elegance of the owners and their friends in the tree-shaded paddock, the efficient mechanics of the parimutuel and the big board with its flashing lights recording the odds and the money invested, the trouble-free starts through the tractor-drawn starting-gate, the toy lake with its six swans and the anchored canoe and, everywhere, that extra exotic touch of the negroes who, except as jockeys, are so much a part of American racing. (p.125)

The cold showers, the luxurious hotels, the very good food, the cocktails prepared just so, his own superb physique – Bond is an instrument through whom we feel the vicarious enjoyment of being alive in such a diverse and interesting world.

Naked

It’s a little detail, in a way, but it’s very symptomatic of the sensuality of the books and their continual physical hyper-awareness, that Bond is frequently naked. He is visiting America in high summer of August, so that New York, Saratoga and – especially – Las Vegas are blisteringly hot. And so it is that Fleming describes Bond’s routine of (generally ice-cold) showers – one day he has four – and then moving around his luxury hotel suites naked. At the mud bath he strips naked and stands like one of the thoroughbred horses, on display to all the other customers in his physical prowess.

Bond stood naked in front of him (p.137)

Bond himself, Fleming, and the reader, are all invited to savour the sight of Bond’s hard, suntanned body – not all the time, but at regular intervals, just often enough to keep us alert to his persistent sensual self-awareness. At the Tiara hotel after his long flight, Bond

took off his clothes and threw himself naked on the bed. (p.169)

Self consciousness

In my reviews of other thrillers from the period, I point out the almost compulsory reference that authors make to the hamminess of their own plots, the often cartoon nature of their own characters, and the way so many of the baddies are acting a tough guy part they’ve learned from the movies.

Typical, thought Bond. Mike Hammer routine. These American gangsters were too obvious. They had read too many horror comics and seen too many films (p.65)

Pissaro looked like a gangster in a horror-comic. (p.121)

Bond is struck throughout by the wacky names and cartoon behaviour of the thugs. His most penetrating comment is that they are overgrown teenagers, kids with guns.

Bond remembered cold, dedicated, chess-playing Russians; brilliant, neurotic Germans; silent, deadly, anonymous men from Central Europe; the people in his own Service – the double-firsts, the gay soldiers of fortune, the men who counted life well lost for a thousand year. Compared with such men, Bond decided, these people were just teenage pillow-fantasies. (p.122)

… he] might then, if he found favour in the eyes of Mr Spang, be given regular work with the rest of the teenage adults who made up the gang. (p.175)

So that was the end of one of the Spangs, one of the brutal, theatrical, overblown dead-end adults who made up the Spangled Mob. He had been a stage-gangster, surrounded by stage properties, but that didn’t alter the fact that he had intended to kill Bond. (p.225)

Attitudes to homosexuals and women

In this novel homosexuality is mentioned for the first time in the series and when it is, it’s a description of the killers Kidd and Wint. Leiter reckons they shack up together, are what we today would call an item, and comments:

‘Some of these homos make the worst killers.’ (p.147)

Later the good-hearted cabbie, Ernie, is given some lines about gay gangsters.

‘I know them guys. Detroit Purple Mob. Couple lavender guys. You know, pansies. Golf ain’t there game. The only irons they can handle are in their pockets.’ (p.190)

In his 1966 essay on the Bond novels, the structuralist literary critic Umberto Eco patronisingly comments from his lofty left-wing point of view that Bond is not a fascist or a racist (interesting to learn that these insult weasel words were being thrown around as long as 50 years ago). He is obviously conservative, but with ‘a cautious middle-class chauvinism’. Race Mr Big is obviously a black criminal mastermind but Live and Let Die is full of characters bending over backwards to say how much they like and admire black people (or ‘negroes’, as Fleming writes, in the terminology of the day). In this book Fleming comments ‘Bond had a natural affection for coloured people’ (p.134). Anti-Semitism I can only remember one Jewish character in these first four novels, and he is a diamond merchant in Hatton Gardens where, I imagine, lots of merchants in the 1950s were Jewish. Sexism His women are in fact more feisty and resistant to his charms than I remembered, and if he has patronising attitudes towards them, then they were the attitudes of his day.

As Eco sums it up, neither Fleming nor Bond display the obsessive hatred of blacks or Jews or women which should really be what we mean by racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and so on. Instead he displays:

‘an art of persuasion that relies on endoxa, that is, on the common opinions shared by the majority of readers’.

For me it seems pointless sticking the same old labels on the Bond books (reactionary, racist, sexist, misogynist and all the rest) and thinking you’ve achieved something. You are merely echoing the stock beliefs of today, as Fleming was echoing the stock beliefs of his day; you are as much in thrall to contemporary values as Fleming was to his.

I think it’s more thought-provoking to take Fleming as a popular writer who wanted to make money from his work and so simply echoed the accepted beliefs of the time. Seen from this perspective, his views actually seem a little progressive. Rereading the novels, I am particularly struck by how independent and feisty his women are. There is actually very little sex in the Bond novels but a great deal of thinking about emotions and feelings and respect. It takes the whole novel for Bond to fall in love with Tiffany Case and to win her over, by which stage he really respects her body and soul. When they finally sleep together (just once in the whole story) it is the climax of a very slow process of learning about each other, rescuing each other from peril, getting to know and respect each other as people. They discuss the possibility of Bond leaving the Service to marry her. They even discuss the possibility of having children (Bond says, Yes, he’d love to have children, but not before he’s retired).

Most people who think about Bond think about the crass, vulgar movies. When my teenage daughter has watched any of the old ones, she is repelled by Bond who she finds ‘rapey’, with his casual expectation that he will have sex with every pretty girl he meets. And the movies are creepy, chauvinist and sexist. This makes it all the more surprising to go back to the source novels from the early and mid-1950s and realise that society’s attitudes were actually more respectful of women, as real people with agency and the ability to rebuff men, as decision-makers and owners of their destinies, before the Swinging Sixties turned them into Playboy dolly birds.

As to homosexuality, we know that Fleming mixed on friendly terms with the gays of his day, for example Noel Coward, who owned a seaside villa just down the coast in Jamaica from him. If Fleming has Leiter comment on the particular creepiness of the two gay killers a) this is a character talking; characters have views different from authors b) Leiter is expressing some of the anti-gay prejudice of his day, no more no less. To us his opinion seems nonsensical: he spends most of the novel warning Bond how psychopathic the American gangs are, and Bond meets plenty of brutal heterosexuals. Why either of them should single out gay killers as being particularly more or less brutal is, to us nowadays, hard to fathom. But it was obviously significant then. It obviously added an extra frisson to think that a pair of killers not only killed, but ‘shacked up’ together – made their criminality more creepy, somehow. And these kind of vanished opinions add to the social historical interest of the books, as windows into a vanished world, with its vanished technologies, attitudes, simplicities and reassurances.

Bond’s breakfasts…

… and lunches and dinners. Bond’s meals are a continual punctuation mark in the texts, far more so than car chases, shootouts or sex (of which there is actually precious little). We are treated to descriptions of:

  • Lunch with Leiter: smoked salmon and Brizzola (beef, straight-cut across the bone, roast and broiled), then half an avocado with French dressing and an Espresso (p.80-84)
  • Dinner with Tiffany: caviar, cutlets, pink champagne (p.88) the cutlets accompanied by asparagus with mousseline sauce (p.94). As apéritif Bond orders Martinis, shaken but not stirred (p.89), the first time that phrase has appeared. As liqueurs to follow the meal, they have Stingers made with crème de menthe (p.94).
  • Lunch by himself at Voisin’s: two vodka Martinis, oeufs Benedict and strawberries (p.99)
  • Lunch with Leiter: at a roadside diner they have scrambled eggs, sausages and Miller Highlife beers (p.102).
  • At the race track: bourbon old-fashioneds and a cheap chicken dinner (p.110).
  • With Leiter: broiled Maine lobster with melted butter and a very dry Martini made with Cresta Blanca Vermouth (p.151).
  • Waiting to go gamble, Bond has a dozen cherrystone clams and a steak, washed down with a Vodka dry Martini (p.175).
  • On the Queen Elizabeth Tiffany sends Bond a room service meal of four small slivers of steak on toast canapés, and a small bowl of sauce Béarnaise (p.248)

Credit

Diamonds Are Forever by Ian Fleming was published in 1956 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 2006 Penguin paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers from 1956

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming (1954)

‘So it is convenient that you should die together. That will happen, in an appropriate fashion,’ the Big Man looked at his watch, ‘in two and a half hours’ time. At six o’clock,’ he added, ‘give or take a few minutes.’
‘Let’s give those minutes,’ said Bond. ‘I enjoy my life.’ (p.225)

Luxury

He certainly does. The first hundred pages or so introduce the powerful themes of America, and of black culture in America, but what struck me all over again is the importance of sensual living and luxury in the Bond persona. In fact the opening sentence is ‘There are moments of great luxury in the life of a secret agent’ (p.1). This is the kind of classy sensualism a whole generation of spy writers reacted against, but it is terrifically enjoyable to be in Bond’s skin. He arrives at New York airport, is whisked through Customs to ‘the best hotel in New York, the St Regis’. Here he enjoys the spaciousness of the rooms, has his characteristic sense-heightening cold shower, meets Felix Leiter his friend from CIA, and, along with their FBI contact, Dexter, eat a hearty American dinner – soft-shell crabs with tartare sauce, flat beef Hamburgers, medium-rare, french-fried potatoes, broccoli, mixed salad with thousand-island dressing, ice-cream with melted butterscotch.

(This was still the age of rationing in Britain, which got worse after the end of the Second World War and didn’t actually end until July 1954, ie after this book was published. Therefore, Bond’s luxury meals, whether in France (in Casino Royale) or New York hamburgers, as here, were objects of the wildest fantasy to all his British readers.)

Given half a chance he is always naked. In the final, holiday, section of Casino Royale there is nothing he likes better than walking down to the beach, stripping off and piling into the cold bracing water. In his luxury hotels, after a trademark cold shower, he pads around the rooms collecting stuff, opening letters, assembling his thoughts. Continually we are in the mind of a tremendously alert, alive, clever but above all sensual personality.

Sensual enjoyment

He enjoys his bracing morning cold shower – he enjoys breakfast the next morning – his usual half a pint of freshly squeezed orange juice, three scrambled eggs and strong coffee. He enjoys tapping out the first cigarette of the day and staring out the window of his luxury hotel. On page 39 there’s a fine description of Bond watching sun set over New York and the lights on the skyscrapers coming on till it looks like a ‘golden honeycomb’. The cold wind blowing outside lends his snug room ‘still more warmth and security and luxury‘. For a moment he remembers the bitter weather of London in February, the hissing gas fire at MI6 headquarters, and the crappy food advertised on boards outside his local pub. Then climbs into the fine clean sheets of his hotel and stretches ‘luxuriously‘.

Bond has escaped the narrow confines, horrible weather, the poverty and privations of Britain, and through these texts we escape with him. And sometimes, for all the supposed maturity and sophistication of his persona, Bond lets slip the enthusiasm of an overgrown schoolboy.

He loved trains and he looked forward with excitement to the rest of the journey. (p.100)

There’s a similar Brit-Yank comparison as Bond reads the romantic names on freight cars in sidings – Lacawanna, Chesapeake, Seaboard Fruit Express – and compares them with the names of home: British Railways 😦

Bond liked fast cars and he liked driving them. (p.134)

For all the bombs and shooting and torture and intimidation, these are books about a man who enjoys life.

The set-up

Valuable historic gold coins are being fenced on the New York market and FBI investigations have traced them back to a suspected hoard of treasure, which is now being distributed by an extensive network embedded in America’s black community. At the centre sits Mr Big, an extraordinarily clever, powerful, ruthless black man, who runs most of the organised crime in the black community. (Big is an acronym for Buonapart Ignace Gallia.) But this isn’t all: Big was recruited by the Soviets while on US army service in the south of France during the war. At his briefing (pp.13-18), M tells Bond that Mr Big is not just a Soviet agent, but an agent of SMERSH (a conjunction of the Russian words SMERt SHpionam, meaning Death to Spies) the very organisation we saw Bond vowing to dedicate his life to attacking and destroying at the end of Casino Royale.

Black culture

Since the book was written by an upper-class Englishman over 60 years ago, it would be amazing if it escaped accusations of racism, which probably occur on every page, starting with the way he writes ‘negro’ instead of ‘black’ or ‘African American’, or whatever is the current appropriate term. If we accept that Fleming’s text is a million miles away from our modern enlightened attitudes, the interesting thing is actually how far out of his way he goes to sympathise with black people and praise them. He has M say ‘the negro races’ are beginning to produce ‘geniuses in all the professions’ (p.18) and when Felix Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem nightspots, Leiter goes out of his way to praise black creativity, and is himself a passionate devotee of jazz music.

Bond at no point despises blacks for being blacks: the opposite; he is impressed, even awed, at the cleverness and efficiency of the network of fear and control Mr Big has created (p.22) and, once he is in their clutches, at its efficiency and thoroughness. And he respects the knowledge and expertise of Quarrel, the fisherman who briefs him before his final perilous underwater swim.

The ten pages or so where Leiter takes Bond on a tour of Harlem read very much like actual research notes. It would be interesting to know how close it is to any actual visit Fleming made. Certainly the prose conveys a tremendous sense of the energy and excitement of the bars and clubs of Harlem, and the tension for a white man entering a community which is mostly polite and respectful, but not very pleased to see him.

Voodoo

But not only is Mr Big a) head of America’s black organised crime b) which he is running to aid the Russians and c) an agent of the special execution branch, SMERSH – he is also d) the head of the organised voodoo cult in the States. On pages 25 to 29 Fleming quotes liberally from the intense and vivid descriptions of voodoo rituals given in The Travellers Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor, based on the latter’s trip round the Caribbean at the end of the 1940s. Mr Big cultivates the rumour of being ‘the Zombie or living corpse of Baron Samedi himself, the dreaded Prince of Darkness’ (p.21 and p.110).

In the 1973 movie the Voodoo is much more prominent and Bond actually witnesses Voodoo ceremonies. In the book it is mostly in the background, explained as a tool Mr Big uses to keep his underlings in thrall. There is a powerful sequence as Bond gets to know Solitaire (chapter 11) where we see into her thoughts and she despairs of ever getting this calm, confident, sensible, civilised white man to understand what it was like to be brought up in poverty, in illiterate, superstition-riddled Haiti, to be inducted into the all-pervasive cults so that no matter where you go or how adult you think you are, you can never escape your childhood terrors.

The plot

1. New York

Bond arrives in New York with a mission to track down Mr Big and shut down the gold treasure-funded Soviet operation he’s running. He liaises with Felix Leiter from the CIA and FBI man Hampton. Leiter takes him up to Harlem for a tour of bars and clubs and to soak up black culture. The pair are tracked by Mr Big’s sophisticated network of street-level informants as soon as they enter his territory, and at the final nightclub of the tour are kidnapped (by the admittedly gimmicky trick of having the table they’re sitting in disappear down through a trapdoor during a blackout in the stage act – a very sensual voodoo strip-tease).

Bond is escorted into the company of Mr Big who is an outsize, misshapen giant of a man, and a cold calculating intellect. He introduces Solitaire, ‘one of the most beautiful women Bond had ever seen’ (p.69) although, in keeping with Bond’s S&M vibe, she has ‘high cheekbones and a wide, sensual mouth which held a hint of cruelty’ (p.70).

Mr Big keeps Solitaire as a sort of slave because she has special telepathic powers and can read the Tarot cards. One day he will marry her but not yet, as sex ruins her powers – hence the name ‘Solitaire’ (her actual name is Simone Latrelle p.102). Improbably, Bond and Solitaire are instantly attracted and she a) leans forward to show him her cleavage (earning the rebuke of a flick of his whip over her shoulders from Mr Big) b) shows him the Tarot cards of the Prince and Princess kissing. A pretty blatant come-on.

As in Casino Royale, Bond is tied to a chair and tortured, in this case having the little finger of his left hand deliberately broken by a henchman named Tee-Hee. Mr Big says he is going to let him live for the simple reason that killing him would just cause tiresome botherment from the authorities. So Big tells his henchman to rough Bond up and dump him in Central Park. He is dismissed. In the corridor to the garage Bond jumps TeeHee, punching him to the ground, then kicking him in the groin before pushing him down a flight of stairs to his death. Taking TeeHee’s gun, he bursts into the garage, shooting dead the driver of the waiting car and another henchman, then makes a tyre-screeching escape.

Back at the hotel, Bond discovers that Leiter also escaped relatively unharmed by forming a bond with the black henchman instructed to seriously hurt him over a shared passion for jazz, resulting in a few punches and being dumped outside his hotel. But Mr Big is kicking up a fuss with the authorities, claiming his men have been attacked and murdered by a white intruder. Leiter will try and calm down the FBI and the cops, but it’s time to leave town.

2. On the train

So Bond catches the long distance train south to St Petersburg in Florida, as this is where FBI information says Mr Big’s cruiser – the Secatur – regularly docks on its trips over from the Caribbean. 1. Improbably, Bond gets a phone call at his hotel from Solitaire, in fear of her life and wanting to run away with him. Bond weighs the odds, decides to trust her, and gives him details of the train. She meets him there and they travel down masquerading as a married couple. 2. But Mr Big’s men have spotted them and are on their trail. The kindly black steward, Baldwin, warns Bond, who slips off the train with Solitaire at a midnight stop at a junction in the middle of nowhere. Not before time, because a few hours later the train is hijacked on a bit of deserted track, and some of Mr Big’s men a) riddle Bond’s sleeping compartment with bullets before b) throwing a hand grenade in it (killing the unfortunate Baldwin thus creating a) a sense of pathos b) emphasising that Mr B kills his own race, too.)

3. St Petersburg, Florida

When Bond and Solitaire arrive on the following train, four hours later, and rendezvous with Leiter at the hotel out on Treasure Island’, a resort outside Petersburg, Leiter is amazed and relieved to see Bond; surprised he has Solitaire with him; and fills him in on the assassination attempt and all the hysteria it’s caused with the authorities.

Leiter and Bond decide to go out to the dock where the Secatur generally puts in, owned by the Ourobouros Worm and Bait company, and encounter its harsh owner, ‘the Robber’, who shoots a pelican dead with a rifle he casually swings past Bond and Leiter’s bellies, before warning them off trespassing.

When they get back to the hotel it is to find that Solitaire has been kidnapped by Mr Big’s men. Leiter jumps into action, getting the authorities to put out an all-points bulletin etc. They go to a diner, eat rotten food and go to bed feeling bitter at having left her defenceless. When Bond wakes he has overslept and finds a hand written message from Leiter saying he’s gotten up early to go back to the Worm Company. Barely has he read it before there’s a call from a local hospital: a Mr Leiter is asking for him. Bond hurries off in a taxi only to find no record of the doctor or Leiter at the hospital. Feeling sick, he hurries back to the hotel to discover from the landlady that an ambulance has been and delivered Mr Leiter on a stretcher to his room.

Here Bond discovers Leiter’s body swathed in bloody bandages. He calls police and doctors and the CIA and then London. The doctor says Leiter has been very badly mauled, probably by a big fish, probably a shark. He’s lost one arm altogether and his left leg below the knee, and might not survive. The ambulance departs. The investigating police depart. A call comes from Leiter’s superior in the CIA saying maybe it’s time for Bond to move on to the Caribbean arm of the investigation. Bond agrees and books tickets, but…

That night Bond breaks into the Oourobouros Worm Company warehouse and confirms his suspicions. Concealed in the sand at the bottom of the aquaria holding the various exotic fishes, are the gold coins. This is how they’re smuggled into the country. No sooner has he made the discovery than the floodlights go on and shots are fired at him. There follows a spectacular shootout among the precious water tanks, which involves most of them being smashed or knocked over. Eventually, having run out of bullets, Bond feigns an injury, limps up to The Robber and, distracting him for a fraction of a second by dropping the gold coin he’d found, manages to punch and kick him to the floor. He then pushes him back towards the concealed trap door, the same one The Robber lured Felix over, which swings open and drops The Robber with a blood-curdling scream into the open water tank below, where a big bad shark is waiting to eat him alive.

Bond brushes himself down, and departs, drives down to the highway towards the airport, checks into a cheap motel, showers, cleans his teeth and gargles with mouthwash and passes out in the bed. Next day he catches a flight to Jamaica (a fascinating couple of pages of travelogue from Fleming, describing flying over the jungle of central Florida, stopping over at Nassau, the modest lights of Havana; his attitude to America is mixed, the scenes in New York had opened with much admiration for its beauty and energy, but by the end he is glad to see the back of Eldollarado, ‘a land where litter and junk are so much a part of the landscape’ (p.154), where most of the food served in most of the towns and diners, is junk).

It is also striking that, when the plane hits turbulence, Bond is afraid. There is an intense account (pp.170-172) of his thoughts as he works through what would happen to him and his fellow passengers if the engines failed or the fuselage was split open. Not all the pretty handwashes or luxury duty free would save them from plummeting 15,000 feet to create messy holes in the ground or simply disappear beneath the waves. He has to think of his destiny in the hands of imponderable stars. All of life is a risk. He’s made it this far. You must enjoy every possible minute.

You start to die the moment you are born. The whole of life is cutting through the pack with death. So take it easy. Light a cigarette and be grateful you are still alive as you suck the smoke deep into your lungs. Your stars have already let you come quite a long way since you left your mother’s womb and whimpered at the cold air of the world. (p.171)

As the flight lands he unclenches his hands and wipes the sweat from his brow…

4. Jamaica

He’s met by Strangways, head of the Service in the Caribbean. (35, ex Lieutenant-Commander in the RNVR, black patch over one eye – p.173). Strangways fills him in on the background: rumour always had it that Captain Morgan the British pirate used the Isle of Surprise, on the south coast of Jamaica as his base. When Morgan was finally hauled off to London for trial in the 1680s he must have left a vast treasure trove but no-one ever found it. Then a few months ago a local fisherman went missing out in Shark Bay (where Surprise lies) and shortly afterwards a smart yacht appeared full of American blacks. The supposition is that the fisherman found the treasure somewhere, went to Mr Big in New York with the news, was dumped in the Hudson River in a concrete overcoat, then Mr Big used his money and international lawyer contacts to buy the island. Shortly afterwards the yacht Secatur arrived, his men created a jetty and cut steps up the side of the rock to the plateau at the top, and began carrying in glass vitrines for aquariums. They then began buying rare, exotic or poisonous fish from local fishermen and settled down into a routine of loading sand-bottomed, fish-filled vitrines into the Secatur on its regular visits, which it ferried back to the Ourbouros warehouse in Florida (the one we saw Bond shooting up a few chapters previously). Smuggling – as Bond now knows – the gold coins in the sand at the bottom of the cases.

Bond is introduced to Quarrel a Cayman Islander fisherman who is going to be his instructor and trainer. They bond instantly, forming a relationship of complete trust as between a Scottish laird and his retainer (p.181). Surprise is within sight of the mainland, but Quarrel and Bond head off to a settlement way up the coast, in Manatee Bay, where Bond can train and learn about underwater wildlife and hazards in the Caribbean. Every morning he swims a mile up the beach and runs back, then settles down to Quarrel’s instruction about local fish, especially the fearsome sharks and barracudas. Strangways tells Bond he’s sent several locals across to investigate the island but their bodies always washed up back on the mainland half-eaten by barracuda. Scary.

Bond is lean and fit when Strangways calls by to tell them Mr Big’s yacht is due in any day. They move operations back to a rented colonial house – Beau Regard – in the settlement overlooking the Isle. Bond takes delivery of a frogman’s wetsuit crafted by ‘Q’ division (p.195), a heavy limpet mine with a selection of timed fuses, a commando dagger and a harpoon gun.

Suddenly he loathed and feared the sea and everything in it. (p.199)

Bond had shown genuine fear when his plane was caught in turbulence. Now, just as vividly, he imagines the million lives of the slimy things which he will be passing among as he sets out to swim to the island. Not just the obvious sharks and barracudas, but a million tiny prickly poisonous creatures who don’t want him there, who are waiting to tear, poison, rip, sting and eat him. Strangways, Quarrel and Bond watch through binoculars as the Secatur docks and various black gang members go about their tasks before Mr Big himself appears and goes ashore.

That evening he takes a Benzedrine tablet, climbs into his wetsuit, checks the air tanks, takes harpoon and dagger and disappears into the water. The fairly short underwater journey is vividly described. The main event is his feet are suddenly gripped by an octopus hidden under a rock which starts immediately dragging him beneath it. The limpet mine attached to his chest makes it impossible to get a clear aim, till he is being pulled right into the darkness and another tentacle is gripping the harpoon gun when he fires. Immediately there is a squirt of black ink into the seawater and he is released. He presses on through the reef surrounding the island, and then into clear underwater sand where suddenly he is punched in the shoulder and horrified to see red blood in the water around him. A barracuda has bitten a chunk out of his shoulder, taking wetsuit, flesh and muscle. Panicking at the thought of the other predator fish which will be here in seconds, and of being savaged to death, Bond hurtles towards a large rock and realises there is some kind of entrance behind it.

Padding along the sloping sand he emerges into an underwater chamber to find himself surrounded by men with knives and guns, and Mr Big sitting at an accounting table in a huge cave, awaiting him. They saw the black ink from the octopus and then his trail of bubbles.

Big takes him upstairs and into a narrow corridor lined with shackles. God knows how many poor victims of Captain Morgan’s rule wasted and died here. And here he is reunited with Solitaire, dark-eyed, tearful, she’s lost weight but appears otherwise unharmed. Mr Big has his men tie Solitaire and Bond to the shackles and then explains passionlessly and scientifically how he is going to kill them in a cunning and appropriate manner: they will be tied together and then attached by rope to the paravane the yacht tows behind it: the yacht will sail through the gap in the reef by which it enters and exits the lagoon, then turn to one side so the rope pulling them is dragged across the top of the razor-sharp coral. The yacht will pick up speed and Bond and Solitaire will be hauled for yards and yards over the reef until their bodies are cut to ribbons. Once out in the open sea, their bodies will become bait for sharks and barracuda, eaten alive, then dead, till there is no evidence left, and he will sail calmly back to Florida.

He locks the door and leaves Bond to work through the terrifying scenarios and reassure Solitaire as best he can. Fleming leaves no stone unturned in his lingering on the gruesome details. Bond can only hope the limpet mine will go off after they’ve set sail – so it kills the bad guys – but before their bodies hit the coral. Otherwise, he determines to use his strength to drown Solitaire then try to drown himself. These are the kind of desperate, deadly thoughts going through his mind, when – hours later – Big’s men come to fetch him.

Bond and Solitaire are tied together and by a strong rope to the paravane, as promised and slowly lazily the yacht sets off for the gap in the reef, with the couple towed behind them. Fleming ratchets up the tension as high as possible, writing so intensely as to overcome your knowledge that Bond (obviously) survives, and instead placing you in a vividly described, intensely physical moment.

Fortunately, the limpet mine does blow up at exactly the right moment, Bond and Solitaire are lifted by the blast into the air before hitting the water again and beginning to sink. It takes all Bond’s strength to get onto his back (to keep the unconscious Solitaire out of the water) and paddle with the little movement in his hands and feet, backwards towards the reef where his feet scrabble about – lacerating feet, calves and thighs – before he finds a relatively secure position to slowly, painfully lie back, so they are both out of the water.

From this vantage point he surveys the wreck of the Secatur, which has in fact mostly disappeared, except for hunks of flesh and a carpet of dead fish floating on the surface. And then he notices Mr Big, who has somehow survived the blast, desperately swimming towards the safety of the reef, and nearly making it when – crunch! – he is bitten by a barracuda, then another, thrashing and screaming bloodily in the water until he is  finished off by a shark.

And now Quarrel is racing towards him in a canoe followed by other fishermen. In the brief last pages, Bond bathes the girl then puts her to bed, then is himself bathed in antiseptic by Strangways, before being sent off to hospital. Bandages and recovery. A telegram of congratulations from M, pragmatically ordering Strangways and Bond to claim the treasure for HM Government (and his cash-strapped department). And giving him two weeks leave in the idyllic house by the sea, for him and Solitaire to recover and then consummate their passion. Which, presumably, they do.


Bond’s biography

Bond still lives in a flat in Chelsea (as we know Fleming did from 1934 to 1945). He still works for the British Secret Service (based in ‘the big, grey building near Regents Park’ p.87), whose boss is ‘M’, whose personal secretary is ‘the desirable Miss Moneypenny’ (p.13). For the first time we hear Bond use the cover name the Service uses for agents abroad, Universal Exports (p.87).

Bond is still a Double O, meaning ‘you have had to kill a man during the course of some assignment’ (p.68). In a revealing phrase, Fleming lets Bond’s S&M mentality transfer over to his boss when he calls M from New York.

‘Yes?’ said the cold voice that Bond loved and obeyed. (p.87)

He still cherishes his 1933 4.5 litre grey Bentley convertible with the Amherst-Villiers supercharger (p.11). He has the comma of black hair hanging above his right eyebrow, the thin vertical scar down his right cheek, and grey-blue eyes with their coldness and hint of anger (p.25). Q branch has grafted skin from his forearm over the Russian letter carved into his right hand by the SMERSH operative who unintentionally saved his life towards the end of Casino Royale. (No mention is made of the intense damage to his body, especially his private parts, during that novel; all is magically healed.) Felix Leiter is still tall and thin with a ‘mop of straw-coloured hair’ (p.41), though less so after he is half-eaten by a shark. Will he reappear mauled and crippled, in later adventures?

The title is given in dialogue with the FBI agent Dexter in chapter 4:

‘And don’t go stirring up any trouble for us. This case isn’t ripe yet. Until it is, our policy with Mr Big is “live and let live”‘.
Bond looked quizzically at Captain Dexter.
‘In my job,’ he said, ‘when I come up against a man like this one, I have another motto. It’s “live and let die”.’


Credit

Live and Let Die was published in 1954 by Jonathan Cape. All quotes and references are to the 1978 Triad Grafton paperback edition.

Related links

Other thrillers of 1954

The Bond novels

1953 Casino Royale Bond takes on Russian spy Le Chiffre at baccarat then is gutted to find the beautiful assistant sent by London to help him and who he falls in love with – Vesper Lynd – is herself a Russian double agent.
1954 Live and Let Die Bond is dispatched to find and defeat Mr Big, legendary king of America’s black underworld, who uses Voodoo beliefs to terrify his subordinates, and who is smuggling 17th century pirate treasure from an island off Jamaica to Florida and then on to New York, in fact to finance Soviet spying, for Mr Big is a SMERSH agent. Along the way Bond meets, falls in love with, and saves, the beautiful clairvoyant, Solitaire.
1955 Moonraker An innocent invitation to join M at his club and see whether the famous Sir Hugo Drax really is cheating at cards leads Bond to discover that Drax is in fact a fanatical Nazi determined on taking revenge for the Fatherland by targeting an atom-bomb-tipped missile – the Moonraker – at London.
1956 Diamonds Are Forever Bond’s mission is to trace the route of a diamond smuggling ‘pipeline’, which starts in Africa, comes to London and then to follow it on to New York, and further to the mob-controlled gambling town of Las Vegas, where he wipes out the gang, all the while falling in love with the delectable Tiffany Case.
1957 From Russia, with Love Bond is lured to Istanbul by the promise of a beautiful Russian agent who says she’ll defect and bring along one of the Soviets’ precious Spektor coding machines, but only for Bond in person. The whole thing is an improbable trap concocted by head of SMERSH’S execution department, Rosa Klebb, to not only kill Bond but humiliate him and the Service in a sex-and-murder scandal.
1958 Dr. No Bond is dispatched to Jamaica (again) to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the station head, which leads him to meet up with the fisherman Quarrel (again), do a week’s rigorous training (again) and set off for a mysterious island (Crab Key this time) where he meets the ravishing Honeychile Rider and the villainous Chinaman, Dr No, who sends him through a gruelling tunnel of pain which Bond barely survives, before killing No and triumphantly rescuing the girl.
1959 Goldfinger M tasks Bond with finding out more about Auric Goldfinger, the richest man in England. Bond confirms the Goldfinger is smuggling large amounts of gold out of the UK in his vintage Rolls Royce, to his factory in Switzerland, but then stumbles on a much larger conspiracy to steal the gold from the US Reserve at Fort Knox. Which, of course, Bond foils.
1960 For Your Eyes Only (short stories) Four stories which started life as treatments for a projected US TV series of Bond adventures and so feature exotic settings (Paris, Vermont, the Seychelles, Venice), ogre-ish villains, shootouts and assassinations and scantily-clad women – but the standout story is Quantum of Solace, a conscious homage to the older storytelling style of Somerset Maugham, in which there are none of the above, and which shows what Fleming could do if he gave himself the chance.
1961 Thunderball Introducing Ernst Blofeld and his SPECTRE organisation who have dreamed up a scheme to hijack an RAF plane carrying two atomic bombs, scuttle it in the Caribbean, then blackmail Western governments into coughing up $100,000,000 or get blown up. The full force of every Western security service is thrown into the hunt, but M has a hunch the missing plane headed south towards the Bahamas, so it’s there that he sends his best man, Bond, to hook up with his old pal Felix Leiter, and they are soon on the trail of SPECTRE operative Emilio Largo and his beautiful mistress, Domino.
1962 The Spy Who Loved Me An extraordinary experiment: an account of a Bond adventure told from the point of view of the Bond girl in it, Vivienne ‘Viv’ Michel, which opens with a long sequence devoted entirely to her childhood in Canada and young womanhood in London, before armed hoodlums burst into the motel where she’s working on her own, and then she is rescued by her knight in shining armour, Mr B himself.
1963 On Her Majesty’s Secret Service Back to third-person narrative, and Bond poses as a heraldry expert to penetrate Blofeld’s headquarters on a remote Alpine mountain top, where the swine is carrying out a fiendish plan to use germ warfare to decimate Britain’s agriculture sector. Bond smashes Blofeld’s set-up with the help of the head of the Corsican mafia, Marc-Ange Draco, whose wayward daughter, Tracy, he has fallen in love with, and in fact goes on to marry – making her the one great love of his life – before she is cruelly shot dead by Blofeld, who along with the vile Irma Bunt had managed to escape the destruction of his base.
1964 You Only Live Twice Shattered by the murder of his one-day wife, Bond goes to pieces with heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. After 8 months or so M sends him on a diplomatic mission to persuade the head of the Japanese Secret Service, ‘Tiger’ Tanaka to share top Jap secret info with us Brits. Tiger agrees on condition that Bond undertakes a freelance job for him, and eliminates a troublesome ‘Dr Shatterhand’ who has created a gruesome ‘Garden of Death’ at a remote spot on the Japanese coast. When Bond realises that ‘Shatterhand’ is none other than Blofeld, murderer of his wife, he accepts the mission with gusto.
1965 The Man With The Golden Gun Brainwashed by the KGB, Bond returns from Japan to make an attempt on M’s life. When it fails he is subjected to intense shock therapy at ‘The Park’ before returning fit for duty and being dispatched to the Caribbean to ‘eliminate’ a professional assassin, Scaramanga, who has killed half a dozen of our agents as well as being at the centre of a network of criminal and political subversion. The novel is set in Bond and Fleming’s old stomping ground, Jamaica, where he is helped by his old buddy, Felix Leiter, and his old secretary, Mary Goodnight, and the story hurtles to the old conclusion – Bond is bettered and bruised within inches of his life – but defeats the baddie and ends the book with a merry quip on his lips.
1966 Octopussy Three short stories in which Bond uses the auction of a valuable Fabergé egg to reveal the identity of the Russians’ spy master in London; shoots a Russian sniper before she can kill one of our agents escaping from East Berlin; and confronts a former Security Service officer who has been eaten up with guilt for a wartime murder of what turns out to be Bond’s pre-war ski instructor. This last short story, Octopussy, may be his best.

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