Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

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

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

Its importance stems from:

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

The plot

1. Background

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

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

Some of them genuinely excelled at what they did –

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

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

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

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

2. The story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multi-leveled text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Critique of Watchmen’s multitextuality

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

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

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

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

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

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

The crime trope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sound likely to you?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Art work

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

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

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

The movie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Every room in the Victoria and Albert Museum (part one)

Cousin Carlos was over from Spain and asked if we could have a go at visiting every room in the (vast) Victoria and Albert Museum. In one full day, from opening time at 10am to chucking out time at 5.30pm, we managed to visit the first 50 rooms, i.e the whole of the ground floor.

The highest-numbered room in the V&A, up on the sixth floor, is 146 – but it quickly becomes obvious that not all the rooms exist, or are accessible, and that entire sets of rooms seem to have gone missing. So maybe there are more like 120 accessible rooms.

The advantage of the ‘every room in XXX’ approach is it makes you visit parts of museums you’ve never visited before, didn’t even know existed, or usually walk past in a hurry to get to the latest exhibition.

Cosimo III de' Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Cosimo III de’ Medici by Giovanni Battista Foggini (1718)

Rooms 1 to 7 Europe 1600 – 1815

These are next to the tunnel entrance and are relatively new. They show objects from Europe – mainly France – between 1600 and 1815. A gallery attendant was keen to show us the latest digital innovation, which is you can look up some of the objects on a smartphone app and listen to commentary about them.

But the most striking thing about these seven big rooms is the question – Why are they in reverse chronological order? Why don’t the rooms start in 1600 and proceed through to 1815, showing you the development of various styles of furniture, metalwork, silverware and cutlery etc?

Instead, you begin with busts of Napoleon and Josephine and some striking ‘First Empire’ furniture from 1805 or so, and then move slowly back in time through the neo-classicism of the late 18th century with elaborate clothes and enormous dinner services (1770), past attractive rococo paintings (1750) and on into the heavy, elaborate and melodramatic statuary, painting and metalwork of the Baroque (1600-1700).

Of the wealth of impressive objects on display I most liked the rococo paintings. I liked their delicacy and humour, especially so close to the heavy, grinding Baroque mirrors and furniture and the architect’s plans and paintings of the vast palaces designed to squash the viewer with their power and wealth.

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 - 1752)

The Alarm (La Gouvernante Fidèle) by Jean Francois de Troy (1679 – 1752)

The galleries include several spaces entirely recreating the inside of a rococo or Baroque room of the time. There’s also a fancy interactive video built around the characters of the commedia dell’arte, popular across Europe in the 18th century.

Towards the end was a space devoted to 17th century guns with an informative video showing how they were loaded and fired. Beautifully made with plenty of fancy scrollwork and decorative metal work, these are, nonetheless, instruments designed to blind, eviscerate and kill people. As I get older I find it harder to ‘enjoy’ the sight of such things.

Case of 17th century muskets

Case of 17th century muskets

Rooms 8 – 10 Medieval and Renaissance 300 – 1500

I’ve reviewed these rooms elsewhere.

Not enough late antique/Dark Age/early medieval stuff, for my taste. More Vikings, please! In line with the confusing room number policy, although the numbers indicate three rooms there are in fact six, numbers 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c. I like the pagan motifs, the Dark Age animals, the hieratic postures of these pre-Conquest figures, and the strange forest animals and foliage woven into the capitals of the wooden columns on display.

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

11th century carved wooden columns and capitals

I liked this 12th century Madonna and child because it is so modern. It looks like an Eric Gill.

12th century Madonna and child

12th century Madonna and child

I love the enormously solid but beautifully carved wellhead from 900. Although a Christian artefact it is decorated with classic ‘Celtic’ interwoven knots and is redolent of a strange dark time, full of pagan secrets and mysteries.

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy

Carved stone wellhead from Murano, north Italy (c.900)

Room 10c is dominated by an enormous work – the Devonshire Hunting Tapestry: Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-1430). The tapestry is impressive in itself but benefits enormously from a stylish touch-screen guide. This lets you select particular themes or parts of the image and then zooms in to give extra information about them, giving you time to really absorb the details and let the impression of this huge work really sink in.

On the whole, I prefer medieval art because I find it full of touching and humorous details, to Renaissance art which I find too austere and coldly perfect. Hence I liked the three wooden statues in this room, depicting a knight and squire and man at arms, quirkily thin and cartoon-like, missing bits of their arms and equipment.

Three standing English wooden figures (1450)

Three standing English wooden figures (around 1450)

Rooms 11 to 15

Missing, as far as I can tell.

Room 16a

A corner room between 27 and the café which contains one statue, probably by Tilman Riemenschneider of Wurzburg, Germany, made around 1510.

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Carved limewood statue by Tilman Riemenschneider from Wurzburg, Germany (1510)

Along with the north European statuary in rooms 26 and 27, this makes me wonder if there is a distinctive northern Renaissance ‘look’ i.e. the faces seem longer and narrower, the figures slightly gaunter, than the smooth perfections of the Italy Renaissance. I find them more characterful, in their strange remote medieval way.

Rooms 17 to 19

Don’t appear to exist.

Rooms 20 to 24 The sculpture gallery

Room 20 appears to be closed off. You could be mistaken for not realising numbers 21 to 24 were rooms at all since they in fact constitute the long narrow corridor you cross when you step down from the shop and walk across a narrow space to get to the swing doors into the John Madejski garden in the centre of the museum.

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

Joshua Ward by Carlini, Agostino (1764)

The corridor is lined with, and has a long central row of, a great array of statues of all shapes and sizes. This is the first time I’ve ever stopped and read the wall panels here and so I realised for the first time that this is the V&A’s European statue collection. As I’ve sauntered through it towards the exhibition rooms, I never suspected that it was divided into categories – funerary statuary, portrait statuary, garden statuary. Nor that it is arranged chronologically.

In the usual V&A manner, the rooms are in reverse chronological order i.e. the oldest statues – Jacobean funeral images and wall monuments from churches – are in ‘room’ 24, while ‘room 21’ contains a surprising array of 20th century sculpture. So, as so often, if you start at the lowest number and go through them in order, you are travelling back in time.

I had no idea that the far left of the corridor, room 21, contained such brilliant highlights of 20th century Modernist sculpture.

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

Mankind by Eric Gill (1928)

By taking the time to stop and read the many wall panels, I learned that most of the statuary belongs to the neo-classical i.e. hyper-real style which dominated from 1700 to around the 1850s. Master of this style appears to be have been Antonio Canova, who was one of several European sculptors who immigrated here and made a living supplying tasteful classical statuary for the homes and gardens of members of the aristocracy who had learned about this sort of thing on their Grand Tours of the Continent.

The cut-off date of 1850 coincides with the rise of ‘Romantic’ sculpture, which for practical purposes is dominated by the French artist Auguste Rodin. Apparently, eighteen or so of his works were being shown in a London exhibition of modern art in the summer of 1914 just as the Great War broke out. As the British found themselves fighting the Hun alongside the French, Rodin made the magnanimous gesture of donating all the works to the British nation. And so here they are, the Rodin Bequest, on permanent display in room 21a.

Rooms 26 to 27

These form the corridor running between the exhibition shop with windows to the left onto the Garden, which you walk down to get to the café. They are statues, so sort of related to the earlier preceding rooms, but statues of the north European (German, Dutch) Renaissance, almost all figures of Christ, the Crucifixion, Mary, saints, from around 1500, so in fact more closely related to the medieval and Renaissance galleries. And mostly in wood, often cracked perished wood, compared with the impossibly smooth white marble of Canova’s 18th century creations.

Rooms 28, 29, 30, 31

Missing.

Rooms 32 and 33

These are the numbers of the corridor outside the main exhibition rooms. They have half a dozen huge mosaics commissioned by an early director of the museum from contemporary artists. The one that stood out for me was the figure of Pisano as created by Frederick Lord Leighton.

Rooms 34, 35, 36, 37

Missing.

Rooms 38a, 38b, 38c

The main exhibition rooms. 38b and 38c are closed while the curators take down the big Botticelli exhibition and prepare the 1960s Revolution show, which is due to open in September.

38a is hosting a temporary exhibition of photographs from the past century, which take the camera itself as their subject. Oooh, the self-referentiality! From kids in New York slums taking pics of themselves holding Kodak brownies to paparazzi shots of glamour models or Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor being hounded by press photographers, none of these really interested me.

Earlier this year it was announced that ‘The world’s largest and finest collection on the art of photography is to be created in London when more than 400,000 objects transfer from the National Media Museum (NMM) in Bradford to the Victoria and Albert Museum.’

Just from a few hours’ exploration I’d realised that the V&A is really pressed for space. Its collection is vast and the rooms and corridors and galleries which currently exist can only show a fraction of its artefacts.

So where on earth is it going to display an additional 400,000 photographs? A purpose-built photography museum would be a much better idea.

Room 40

This is a big stand-alone room in the west wing, just up the stairs from room 21 of the statue gallery. In the centre of the room is a big circular construction which you need a ticket to enter and which hosts clothes-related exhibitions. This is where they had the stimulating show of fashion shoes earlier in the year. Now it’s hosting the exhibition of underwear through the ages, which I whistled through a few weeks ago and found surprisingly boring.

Lining the walls of the room which surrounds it are big cases displaying historic European clothes.

Rooms 41 to 45 – The Asian galleries

These four rooms are each a world unto themselves, focusing on, respectively the art and culture of:

Room 43 is the central main V&A shop

  • China (44)
  • Japan (45) ‘The V&A has been collecting Japanese art and design since it was founded in 1852 and now holds one of the world’s most comprehensive collections, including ceramics, lacquer, arms and armour, woodwork, metalwork, textiles and dress, prints, paintings, sculpture and modern & contemporary studio crafts.’

These rooms are so large and so packed with stuff that they have their own diagrams showing how the displays are organised into themes and subjects. Whole worlds, thousands of years of tradition, can be sampled and enjoyed in each one and they are related to specialist rooms tucked away elsewhere in the Museum. From these rooms I liked the geometric woodwork of the Islamic galleries, like this 19th century window panel.

Islamic wooden carved screen

Islamic wooden carved screen

  • the numerous small 18th century watercolours from India, such as this depiction of Nawab Sikander Jah (1810) artist unknown
  • almost any of the lovely Japanese prints:
19th century Japanese print

19th century Japanese print

Rooms 47a to 47g – The Asian corridor

As with the sculpture galleries, I’d always thought of this as a corridor – architecturally it is the long corridor which runs to either side of the main entrance (47d). I’d never really realised that each division of the corridor counts as a ‘room’ and that these are arranged to showcase artefacts from South-East Asian countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and so on. There were no end of golden Buddhas from all these countries and a space dedicated solely to Buddhas. Among all these the delicate puppet figures from Indonesia stood out, for me.

Rooms 46a and 46b – The cast courts

At the east end of this long corridor is an entrance into the famous Cast Courts. There are usually two of these but room 46a is closed for refurbishment.

46b is an enormous room, well-lit by a glass roof, which contains monstrously enormous plaster casts of some of the great classics of the Italian Renaissance. The casts were created for the 1851 Great Exhibition and were an education for the great majority of the population, and the many artists, who couldn’t afford to go on the Grand Tour to Italy themselves. Obvious highlights include:

although many of the best things are the tiny details to be found among the vast friezes and reliefs copied from towns and cities across Renaissance Italy.

Room 48a The Raphael Cartoons

This is entered from the South-East Asia corridor – from room 47a to be precise – and is a vast darkened room containing half a dozen enormous ‘cartoons’ by the famous Italian Renaissance painter Raphael. These are ‘full-scale designs for tapestries that were made to cover the lower walls of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. The tapestries depict the Acts of St Peter and St Paul, the founders of the early Christian Church.’

Subsequently, they were bought by King Charles I and transported to Britain, to the royal tapestry manufactory at Mortlake, where they were used as templates to make tapestries, before eventually passing onto the V&A.

In this shrouded room we are intended to reverence the genius of the Renaissance in hushed tones. You can see the characteristic soft-focus outline of the angelic faces, and the bold physical gestures of the figures in a totally achieved three-dimensional space. All of this must have seemed like magic to its earliest viewers.

Room 49 Exhibition space

I’m guessing room 49 is the exhibition room to the left of the main entrance hall. This is currently displaying an exhibition of the life and work of Ove Arup, the engineering company.

Rooms 50a to 50d

50a and 50b are enormous rooms, big wide and very tall, containing original Renaissance statuary and entire stone pulpits and the entire facade of an enormous Italian church.

Room 50a: The Renaissance City 1350–1600

I disliked most of the things in room 50a, the bigger of the two spaces – the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast looming choir screen from the Cathedral of St John at Hertogenbosch which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection. It is a spectacular space, no doubt about it, and individual items are beautifully carved and created – but I recoiled from its overbearing scale.

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the renaissance Gallery

Vast Renaissance sculpture in the Renaissance City Gallery

What I love in Dark Age and Medieval art is the sense of delicacy and mystery, not vague sentimental hints, but the real, solid, dark impenetrable mystery of the northern forests. What I dislike about a lot of Renaissance, especially public Renaissance art, is its oppressive projection of power and control, typified by the equestrian statue above.

50b: The Northern Renaissance

The smaller of the two rooms is still enormous. Its artefacts appear to come more from the Northern Renaissance and feature more painted altars and crucifixes than 50a. Overall, I prefer statuary from the Medieval or Northern Renaissance, as being less superhumanly perfect. It tends to portray the imperfections of the human form, and therefore be more capable of humour. Very roughly speaking, repeat visits to the V&A make it clear to me that I prefer ‘Gothic’ to ‘Classical’.

Gothic North European altar

Gothic North European altar

But also, strolling through these rooms, the 50s, the goal of our challenge to see all the rooms on the ground floor of the V&A – another reservation emerges. Compared to the timeless simplicity of much of the Japanese art, the heavenly serenity of Chinese jade sculptures, the geometric mazes of Islamic design – all these bloody crucified Christs and saints and martyrs being beheaded, crucified, burned, drowned and eviscerated seemed like the quintessence of barbarism. Compare:

with any of the hundreds of serene, unviolent Buddhas from China, India, Thailand and across Asia:

with the dainty paintings of graceful Japanese women, with characterful Chinese jade statues of horses, with the geometric beauty of Islamic design, with the watercolour depictions of life at the Mughal court in India.

It’s difficult not to be appalled at the bloodthirsty images which lie at the core of the Western Christian tradition. But maybe this guy should have the last word…

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)

English carved sandstone corbel (12th century)


Related links

Other museums

Imran Qureshi Where the Shadows are so Deep @ The Curve

The Curve

The Curve is an exhibition space at the Barbican, just inside the Silk Street entrance. It is a 90-metres-long, narrow but very high and gently curving room, which follows the contour of the main auditorium above it.

Imran Qureshi

The Barbican commissions contemporary artists to create works or installations to fill the Curve and it is currently showing an installation by Pakistani artist, Imran Qureshi, titled Where the Shadows are so Deep. Qureshi is an award-winning painter of miniatures – ornate, exquisite, delicately-coloured, small (18 inches tall?) paintings in a tradition which goes back to the Mughal emperors of India.

He has created 34 exquisitely detailed miniatures for this, his first exhibition in London.

Threatened by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Threatened by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Blood stains

But the small paintings are not the first thing you see. The first thing you see is a spotlight highlighting a big spattery bloodstain on the floor. Looking up you realise there are similar large splats of blood spaced across the floor and disappearing around the Curve. And on the wall too, lots of bloody shellbursts with one particular example of something horrible daubed onto the wall maybe 20 feet up, and then long strands of dried blood trickling down to the floor.

Early part of the installation showing bloodstains on floor and wall

Early part of the installation showing bloodstains on floor and wall

Looking closer you can see that what at first looks like chaotic splatters of blood (presumably paint) has been graced with white flecks and swirls to introduce shape and pattern. In fact some of the blood stains, on closer examination, are turned by this white flecking into the petals and whorls of large flowers, like enormous, blood-red roses. The twenty-foot cascade of blood is turned by its white curlicues into plaits of blood-red rope or hair. Rapunzel in the abattoir.

Blood spatter turning in to a flower (?)

Blood spatter turning into a flower (?)

Even some of the frames of the miniatures are blood sprinkled or contain what look like blood stains across their surfaces (see the fourth image, below).

The effect is of a slaughterhouse – as if big mammals have been eviscerated here and their blood spurted across the floor, walls and exhibits. The echoes of their dying screams reverberate silently around the curving space…

And Will There Be A Spring When The Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014)Private Collection (Hong Kong)

And Will There Be A Spring When The Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014)Private Collection (Hong Kong)

The miniatures

Only after you’ve taken in this, the gloomy blood-soaked environment, do you lean in to see the individual paintings. They are portrait shaped, and almost all depict stylised trees or bushes, described with incredibly fine and precise brush or pen strokes, against a variety of idealised backgrounds in solid washes of subdued colour – scarlet or orange or olive.

All the works are painted on wasli, ‘also referred to as wasli paper, a type of handmade paper used specifically for painting miniatures’ (Wikipedia). Some are covered in shining gold leaf, some leave the paper bare and exposed, there is an understated ringing of themes and variations.

The images are hung at various heights – a few by the floor, one or two too high up to be examined in detail. Quite often, superimposed onto the image are vertical cascades of tiny silver droplets, like beaded curtains. Rain? Snow? Tears?

Rise and Fall by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection Claire Hsu and Benjamin Vochot, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Rise and Fall by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection Claire Hsu and Benjamin Vochot, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Only in one painting that I could see does a human figure, rather reluctantly, appear. These are strange and mysterious landscapes, untroubled by human presence… Many of the paintings have small passages of Arabic script written in blue ink – The title of the work? A quote? It remains mysterious.

But even the pictures themselves are not exempt from the surrounding carnage. Right from the start blood red tendrils have woven in and out of the trees or bushes. In some images red blood cascades down over the fictional landscape, blood red capillaries climb up bushes and blood red blotches even stain the parchment itself.

And Will There be A Spring When the Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

And Will There be A Spring When the Garden is Unblighted by Imran Qureshi (2014) Gouache on wasli. Collection of Amna and Ali Naqvi, Hong Kong. Courtesy the artist and Corvi-Mora, London

Into the darkness

As you saunter further along the Curve it gets darker. Blood spatters continue to mark floor and wall right until the end but are harder to make out as you walk into almost total darkness, the lighting progressively diminishing. By the end only tiny, focused spotlights point out the rectangles of art and beauty, the miniature paintings creating light in the darkness, beauty balancing blood.

Into the darkness

Into the darkness

Not only does the gallery darken, so do the pictures. In three of the final four the landscape has ceased to be green or orange or gold but has become blasted black. Low thorn bushes appear on the rim of this terrain and, along with the darkness you are now standing in, it is impossible to avoid a premonition of complete disaster. The desolation of a nuclear blast.

Over the blackened waste land hover fleets of white-winged dragonflies, which have flitted in and out of the miniatures from the start. You can see them clearly in the first three paintings, above.

Maybe all that will survive of us is darting insects.


The video

Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Barbican

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes (1996)

It was getting hard to recognise myself. There was Kasim, too, the sudden impulse to seize his legs and throw him over the pulpit into the sea. And I was just a very ordinary young man, a mineralogist with a degree in economics…It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. For God’s sake, I wasn’t a killer. (p.276)

Innes’ final novel and, at 426 pages, the longest and strangest of the lot. It has all the strengths which make him compelling and intriguing, along with many of the weaknesses which make him frustrating and perplexing and have probably helped him go so very out of fashion:

  • Exotic foreign locations First half set in Romania just as Nicolae Ceaușescu’s communist dictatorship was collapsing (December 1989); second half set in lawless Aghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal (February 1989).
  • Everybloke narrator Paul Cartwright, who works for a mineral and metals company, the oddly-named Resource Potentials, reclaiming scrap in developing or ex-communist countries.
  • Everybloke narrator’s personal problems His mum & dad moved to Australia, where his dad died and his mum took up with a wife-beating b*stard, Kasim, while young Paul was packed off to boarding school. The Traumatic Moment in the past (which dogs so many Innes’ protagonists) is when Paul goes sailing with Kasim; the boat gets caught in a storm and is rolling madly and suddenly Paul has the urge to throw Kasim overboard, and then there’s a moment when he could have reached out and helped pull Kasim back onboard – but he doesn’t – he watches the waves break over him, he watches Kasim drown. Nightmares wake him in various foreign hotels. [The thriller protagonist must be psychologically scarred.]
  • Gothic family secrets The novel starts with Paul meeting an ageing dissident Romanian writer – Mihai Kikinda, and there is a lot of tortured, evasive non-communication about Mihai and his wife, Ana, and about their, ‘daughter’ Vikki, who Paul fell in love with years ago, on his previous trips to Romania when he was a teenager. Through the fog of evasions it seems as if Vikki isn’t Mihai and Ana’s daughter at all but was adopted: Paul is stunned: Who from? Why? Nobody will tell us.
  • Sex What the narrator does tell us about the mysterious Vikki is:
    • that since childhood she’s been obsessed with dancing, solitary dancing, going through steps and motions in the privacy of her bedroom or the house’s living room
    • that her need for solitariness feeds into a gift she has for computers: she recently told her adoptive father she has begun to hack into government computers (p.38)
    • that she took the narrator’s virginity. She ‘raped him’. They were both about 17, they were dancing together and, at the end of the dance, hot and sweaty she forced him to the floor, unbuttoned his flies etc. Innes has always had a robust, straightforward heterosexual eye for the ladies and over the years has described male desire in all its glory and humiliation: for every game-hunter’s daughter ripping open her blouse and pulling the narrator’s head to her breasts (The Big Footprints), there’ve been episodes like his going to bed with Barbara Ward but being unable to get an erection (Target Antarctica) or being interrupted just as things were getting steamy (Medusa). Innes isn’t salacious or pornographic; he just notices, as most men do, when a woman’s top highlights her breasts or when her nipples show through her blouse – notices it, notes it, before moving on to think about the weather, or reefing in the sails, or estimating the flight time to the destination. It’s part of his narrator’s life, but not an all-consuming part.

Anti-suspense The most characteristic feature of Innes’ novels is the pathological inability of anyone to tell anyone else what is going on. There’s lots of dialogue in which people seem go out of their way to be evasive and non-committal and the text refers again and again to the same four or five physical gestures: pause, hesitate, shrug, shake the head, go silent.

He paused… I shook my head… A pause.. He fell silent… He hesitated.. He didn’t answer that for a moment… Silence then… He was silent for a time… He shook his head… He didn’t say anything for a long time… He hesitated… He shrugged.. Mihai shrugged… He shook his head… He shrugged…

On page after page after page. With these kinds of evasions Iain Ward spent the two preceding novels completely failing to explain to the different narrators why the devil they were sailing to the Antarctic, and Iris Sunderby systematically refused to clarify her relationship with Angel Gomez or Eduardo and then Pete Kettil refused to tell anyone what he’d seen out on the ice. Innes characters shrug so much I’m amazed their heads don’t fall off and go rolling across the floor.

The plot

The dissident writer

Paul Cartwright is in Constantza, a port town in south Romania, on a job to assess the scrap value of the port workings and rusty old ships. But he has taken advantage of the trip to visit the old dissident writer, Mihai Kikinda, who he used to visit when he was first brought to the country by his uncle Jamie. During the visit there’s a knock at the door and Mihai hussles Paul behind a curtain, then opens the door to a brutal Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who asks him where’ he’s sent his latest dissident pamphlet to be published, then starts to strangle him. Paul comes out of hiding to attack the policeman but in the midst of the struggle Mihai stabs the cop, killing him.

Paul and Mihai throw the body off their balcony onto a passing lorry, then Paul drives in a state of high anxiety towards the capital, Bucharest. Mihai has given him instructions to drop off the text of his latest pamphlet at a printer, then make contact with one Luca, a Jewish dissident, who will help him.

Before and after the killing we learn in Innes’ roundabout fashion about Mihai’s wife, Ana, who, at a grand assembly of artists and poets in front of Ceaușescu, was foolhardy enough to protest the regime’s brutality, and especially its treatment of her husband and got as far as slapping the dictator in the face before being dragged off to be tortured. Mihai eventually shamefacedly admits that Ana was operated on to make her infertile, allowed back to her sorrowing husband, before being arrested, disappearing again and is probably now dead. We also hear about Mihai’s numerous arrests, tortures and beatings, painting a grim enough portrait of Ceaușescu’s Romania.

But it isn’t all communist brutality, as Paul finds himself describing his unhappy childhood and his recurring nightmare of watching his bully step-father drown. We learn that Paul, on his frequent trips to Romania, watched little Vikki grow into a young woman and then was astonished when she took his virginity in this very house (p.68). She is now, apparently, a computer hacker and was smuggled out of the country towards the East, into Asia, by some ‘sponsor’.

This is a lot of information to process in just 40 or so pages. Paul drives the dead Securitate man’s car to his hotel where he receives a telegram from the boss of Resource Potentials, Alex Goodbody, instructing him that his next trip will be to central Asia to assess scrap opportunities in the former Soviet Republics, and to replace Zelinsky, an RP employee, whose dead body is being ‘brought down’ from the interior. Paul broods. What did Zelinsky die of? What is the assignment, exactly?

The overthrow of Ceaușescu

Still in a sweat of fear, Paul drives to Bucharest where he checks in to a high-class hotel for foreigners, and gets chatting to a French freelance news photographer, Antoine Caminade, who fills him in on the political situation ie Ceaușescu’s rule is collapsing. In fact it collapses the next day, a few days before Christmas 1989, when Ceaușescu calls a mass rally in Bucharest’s main square to rail against the dissidents who have been fomenting revolt in the provincial town of Timișoara, only to be horrified when the vast crowd in front of him starts chanting insults and abuse. He and his wife flee the building and are helicoptered away, while disorder takes over the streets.

Meeting Anamaria

It is against this backdrop that Cartwright gets a coded message from Luca, Mihai’s contact, telling him to be outside the house with the tame boar in the garden (!) at 10pm. Once there, a shambling figure walks over to his car, gives him the password and gets in. It turns out to be a very bossy, very capable young woman who Luca has assigned to help Cartwright escape because she herself must flee the country. He notices she has a badly disfiguring hairlip and a limp from a damaged leg, but this makes her take no crap from anyone. She demonstrates her toughness by the unflinching way she attacks guards at an Army checkpoint then looses off a Kalashnikov at them as a thoroughly rattled Cartwright screeches the car off into the night.

But there is no high-speed car chase; this is Romania, where even the police can’t afford petrol. Paul discovers the young firebrand’s name is Anamaria, and she navigates him to the town of Tulcea, on the edge of the Danube marshes, where it is arranged for them to be smuggled aboard a Greek merchant ship. Here they rendezvous with a young fisherman, Rudi, son of a contact of Luca’s. He ferries them out to an island in one of the many channels through the marshes, and there follows a scene which is very Innes in being wildly improbable and somehow very powerful.

Rudi leaves Paul and Anamaria in the depths of winter on a reed island with a foodbag cobbled together by his mother, matches and some plastic sheets, and that’s it! For 36 hours, two nights and a day, they are thrown into an extreme survivalist situation, trying to light a fire, trying to cook fish they catch, and then huddling together for warmth under a plastic sheet while snow falls on them. It’s a great opportunity for some powerful writing about raw winter nature and human endurance. Why are they there? The only safe place to hide out from the police while they wait for the ship which will take them to freedom.

Anamaria’s story

But also, and typically Innes, the narrator relentlessly badgers the girl about her background, and she for her part squirms and evades for page after page. Eventually, after lots of shrugging and hesitating and long silences, he extracts the full story: Anamaria is in fact Mihai and Ana’s natural child, who was taken away from them at an early age and dumped in a state orphanage. (That is the reason Mihai and Ana adopted Vikki.)

Anamaria had a hard upbringing, running away at various times and living on the streets, which meant prostituting herself from an early age. She was passed on to a gang of pimps and then into the control of one Gregor, a real monster, who pimped her out and raped her continually. But it was only when he took the baby which resulted from all this sex, stole her baby away while she was still breast-feeding it, never to be seen again that he snapped. The next time Gregor was raping her, Anamaria killed him with a long hairpin inserted into his coccyx. Ugh. (It is typical of Innes’s narrative strategy that the rapist is made to be Gregor Dinca, brother of the Securitate man, Miron Dinca, who we saw being killed in the opening chapter. Always the characters come in family sets in Innes.)

Anamaria made her way back to her natural parents who didn’t want her, her ugly hairlip, her limp, her shattered body, preferring the beautiful, nimble, clever dancer, Vikki. And so she was out on the streets again, homeless and hussling – more or less her condition when she approaches Cartwright.

Suffering women

Once again, as at the core of Target Antarctica, Innes has embedded a terrible story about the appalling lives, the terrible suffering and abuse, which women can be subjected to in our day and age. It is put down, along with the sterilisation of Ana, as a documentary fact, an incident in the narrative, like many others; it is up to us what we make of it, what value we give it, whether to be disgusted or outraged or whatever – but it is noticeable, this awareness or concern and the urge to record, the plight of women in so much of the modern world.

On board the Baba Tonka

Rudi turns up and ferries them back from the island to a derelict quay while they wait for the ship to arrive. When it does he rows them out to it, they climb a rope ladder up the side, Cartwright finds himself agreeing to pay Anamaria’s passage as well as his ($50 for him, $25 for her) and collapses asleep in the mercifully warm clean cabin he’s been given. There’s a small interlude when she appears at his bedside worrying that Customs will search the ship and what to do about the Kalashnikov we know she has rolled up in her bedclothes. ‘Throw it over the side,’ Paul says and turns over and back to sleep.

Istanbul

They bid the captain farewell and walk out into the bustling streets of Istanbul. Earlier, the captain of the merchant ship had let him use the ship-to-shore radio, over which his boss, Alex, in London, had given him instructions on who to meet and where to pick up the plane ticket for his flight on to Pakistan. Cartwright picks them up then checks into one of the swankiest hotels in town, with a breath-taking view over the Hagia Sofia mosque and the Golden Horn. He walks the streets and, returning to the hotel, recognises Anamaria amid the crowd. She is on the streets again, nursing her cash for a flight East, to Alma-Ata (characteristically, it’s not completely explained why).

Generously, Cartwright invites her for a meal – but she hasn’t got anything to wear – she can borrow something – but she needs a bath – she can have a bath in his room etc — and it leads to her walking, amazed, into his luxury hotel room – this harelipped, limping, used and abused street urchin – Cartwright running a massive bubble bath for her, giving her chilled champagne in the bath, then giving her lovely pyjamas and a nightgown to wear to sit on the balcony eating caviar then steak as the sun sets. At one point he’s chatting on about something, looks round and realises she’s fast asleep. Tenderly, he lifts and carries her to the other of the twin beds, tucks her up then goes back to the balcony to enjoy the sunset. In the middle of the night he’s awoken by her kissing his hand then pressing something into it, he begins to murmur something but the door has shut and she has disappeared out of his life. (Forever?) Next morning he wakes to discover he is grasping a small gilt crucifix.


Briefing on Central Asia

Cartwright checks out of the hotel and takes a cab to the airport. In the departure lounge he is surprised to recognise Antoine Caminade from Bucharest. He walks right up to Cartwright and makes no bones about it – he’s following him. For the length of the flight from Istanbul to Karachi (pages 206 to 224) Caminade engages in a long rambling stream-of-consciousness monologue: this includes the fact that his grandfather, Pierre Caminade, died while exploring up in the Pamir mountains, north of Afghanistan, following in the alleged footsteps of two hardy Victorian women explorers, until he was lost in a snowstorm, dug out a snow-hole near the Khunjerab Pass, wrote up a diary of his adventures, before dying of exposure, the diary found by rescuing Gurkhas and eventually mailed home to his wife and for young Antoine to stumble upon and read.

But Caminade’s monologue also extends over lots of other issues affecting Central Asia – from the folly of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, to the warlike mentality of the Mujahideen, with repeated emphases on the wickedness of Stalin’s policy of relocating entire populations throughout the region, and the horror of Soviet policy in Chechnya. Between him and Cartwright the text makes lots of references to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, as well as to the various mountain ranges – the Hindu Kush, the Pamirs, the Karakorams and so on.

In short the flight serves to indicate that Caminade is up to something (typically, we aren’t told what) and has a typically Innesesque family story (his dead grandfather leaving a ‘secret diary’ which contains hints or suggestions of… what?) along with a great deal of background information on the part of the world Cartwright is flying into. All useful preparation for part two of this long story.

Cartwright lands in Karachi and goes to a good hotel. He meets the contact Alex Goodbody had told him about, who gives him tickets and preparation for the internal flight north to Peshawar, capital of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province of Pakistan. Here these is more local description, before he is being shaken awake in his hotel bedroom by his local contact, Abdullah, telling him he has to run to meet the man he’s come this far to locate, one Laun Said.

The train chase

Laun Said is the native name adopted by a Welsh Army officer, at one time (apparently) a Brigadier. He mentions (and brings to mind) the ‘Great Game’, the term every public schoolboy uses to refer to the competition between Imperial Britain and Imperial Russia to control Afghanistan and the Khyber Pass, gateway to the great northern plain of India.

Laun’s native fixer wakes Cartwright from a deep sleep in his hotel, hussles him into his clothes and drives him quickly to a crowded market place in Peshawar. Here Laun Said turns up and plunges the text into a panic as he says, ‘Get in the bloody Land Rover,’ and off they drive at top speed to intercept the puffing old steam engine which has just set off to climb up through the Khyber Pass. Throughout this breakneck, harepin-bend, terrifying high-speed drive up into the mountains, Laun, in typical Innes fashion, refuses to say what Cartwright’s mission is or why they’ve been appointed to meet, nor does he tell us why they’re driving after the train in such mad fashion.

A long silence… Another shrug… The answer was another shrug… (page 236)

Eventually they park on the road near a siding ahead of the train and, just as it passes them, a man in native costume jumps off, comes running towards Cartwright followed by shots. The man nearly makes it before being hit and skidding forwards over the rubble of the siding, while Laun calmly takes sight and shoots two of the shooters on the train. One of them falls off and under the wheels of the following carriage, being immediately sliced in half in a squelch of blood and guts.

Then the train has passed a corner and is gone. Laun comes ambling back across the rubble to confirm what he feared. His man is dead. He was Ginger McCrae, his best friend, the two of them had been on many dangerous missions together. Laun thinks the assassins were from the Chechen mafia, revenge for some former operation. They drive up the trail a bit more to an old British graveyard and here Laun gets Cartwright to help him bury McCrae in a shallow grave. Before doing so Laun closes the corpse’s eyes and kisses him on the cheeks and lips. A little later, when they’ve got to a town, Laun jokingly says their host offers everything, food, drink, girls, boys, to which Cartwright emphatically replies that he is not interested and he is not homosexual. There is one other fleeting reference to the fact Cartwright has realised that Ginger and Laun had been lovers.

— Like lots of other sexual references in Innes this is mentioned, noted, and then the plot continues. I admire his acceptance of the sexual side of human nature. These may be preposterously Gothic adventure yarns, but the author is neither salacious or moralistic about sexuality. This is human nature; OK; now, what’s next?

Laun Said

Laun and Cartwright drive on up the mountain into the Khyber Pass, while Cartwright continues his luckless attempts to find out what the hell is going on. ‘How did Zelinsky die?’ he asks. ‘Exposure in the snow,’ Laun replies. ‘What is my assignment?’ ‘Haven’t a clue, old boy,’ say Laun. ‘Got to find out what Ginger was trying to tell me. Here, see this scrap of paper; it has something scratched on it before Ginger jumped off the train: What do you think he was trying to tell us?’

And thus, not too subtly, we feel Innes shifting the narrative from being (at least a bit) rooted in a sort of mundane reality (scrap metal dealing), onto pure John Buchan adventure yarn territory – our hero the passenger of a battered Land Rover driving up the main Khyber Pass road towards the Afghan border with a heavily disguised British Army officer, in pursuit of some undefined mystery. Come on, chaps.

Ahmed Khan

They stop at a walled citadel – an opportunity for Innes to tell us about the design and purpose of these buildings, as strongholds for the numerous competing warlords who are the region’s natural rulers – for Laun to ask the whereabouts of the master. He is further along the road at Landi Khotal, and here they meet Ahmed Khan at his well-defended warehouse. There is a typically evasive Q&A about Zelinsky’s mission: Khan thinks he was heading north-east and it was something to do with jewels. Thinks.

Laun parks the car at a spot along the highway with a stunning view of the mountains. He thinks Ginger had come down from another mountain range, further to the east. Is Cartwright willing to chance it? Chance what, Cartwright asks. Obviously Laun doesn’t tell us: ‘He shook his head, sitting silent and very still.’ But Cartwright agrees to follow Laun’s hunch.

Laun drives them back down to the plain, through Jamrud, through Peshawar and into Islamabad. There Cartwright spends a bad-tempered week wondering what the hell’s going on. All he knows is that Laun is buying snow equipment, thermals, masks, skis, the lot. And somehow that perishing Frenchman, Antoine, manages to track him down.

In an intense 1-on-1 interview, Antoine discloses that he’s found the final pages of his grandfather’s diary in the hands of a storyteller in the souk. He knows Cartwright has been making enquiries about jewels, about lapis lazuli, rubies and sapphires. Does he know why Zelinsky was murdered? No. Does he know why McCrae was murdered? No. Does he know why his company wants the jewels? No. Caminade offers him the final pages of the diary for $20 million.

(All the way through, the evidence has been that Cartwright is more than a humble mineralogist and now he phones Goodbody in London and conveys Caminade’s message in code. He seems to be morphing, in front of our eyes, into a special agent of some kind.)

Into the mountains

Cartwright is shaken awake by Laun. Russians are making enquiries about them, maybe the KGB, maybe the mafia, who knows. Hurry. They bundle downstairs, into the Land Rover to find a new character, Kuki, an Urdu taxi driver, and they’re off on another long distance drive, through Peshawar and right up the road towards the Malakand Pass. They rough it as the cold becomes more intense, snow almost blocking the pass. Once over they stop for hot coffee and Laun has a pee. Cartwright notices with shock that his penis is mutilated. Bunch of Tibetan guards on the China-Tibet pass, apparently; began hacking at him thinking he was a Russian till the Chinese guards arrived and saved his life. Atrocity. Danger. Fear.

The story of the old Buddhist

They are marooned in the next settlement, below the Shandur Pass, while the snow is cleared further up and here Camanide catches up with them. This time he tells them a long story which gets to the heart of the plot: His grandfather was travelling through the mountains in the footsteps of two lady explorers when he stumbled across a Buddhist stupa almost buried in the sand. As he excavated it he came across the mummified body of a Chinese man with a leather satchel. Inside the satchel was an account by the man, a Buddhist monk, who had travelled far and wide. It contained a description of a mysterious lost valley, which he nicknames Nirvana, long and narrow with an emerald-coloured lake at the end. If you stand at the right place at the right hour a tall mountain in the north-west appears completely black. In a crack in that mountain is the gateway to the home of the troglodytes. These are tall, fair-haired strangers who carry double-edged axes and speak an unknown tongue. In the depths of the mountain is the shrine to their fearsome thunder god with a huge hammer.

a) The text has prepared us for this rather amazing revelation on a several occasions, having the narrator remember stories about ancient Russia and the tradition that it was founded by blonde Vikings from Sweden and that these wanderers roamed far and near, founding Rus and the city of Kiev, penetrating as far as Constantinople.
b) There had been hints scattered throughout the text of a lost kingdom or scattered references to hobgoblins and troglodytes. Now the whole narrative has exploded into an unashamed homage to the lost world genre, as pioneered by Henry Rider Haggard in the 1880s.

Just to push it way over the bounds of plausibility, Caminade’s parting shot is that the ruler of this lost world is said to have a sultana who dances for him, a beautiful slender girl who dances night and day. Of course – it must be Vikki, from part one of the story when it still inhabited the real world. Now she has morphed along with the rest of the narrative, to become part of a fairy story!

The lost river

Did I mention the lost river? At several points in their earlier conversations, Laun had mentioned that the Russians began two road tunnels under the Pamirs to provide access to Afghanistan. Tunnel two was completed and used extensively. Tunnel one is less well-known because the Russians abandoned it half built. This is because they discovered an underground river running across the intended route. A hot underground river, as if fed by hot springs. Does this recall Rider Haggard or Jules Verne? Up in the mountains Laun and Cartwright blunder on through snowstorms, abandoning the Land Rover and proceeding on skis with Everest-style one-man tents. Conditions get really rough until they can’t see any way forward, with only the GPS and the co-ordinates Caminade gave them to guide them.

(Caminade had wanted to make a deal with our guys: his translation of his grandfather’s notes, descriptions of the magic valley and the Black Mountain, in return for letting him come along. After he’s left, Laun and Cartwright debate it. But amid all the detail of his story, Caminade had mentioned that he’d got a professor in Peshawar to translate the dead monk’s text. Laun and Cartwright both realise this academic must have circulated or at least mentioned the text and the secret valley, along with its rumoured treasure; somehow word had got to the KGB or Chechens, resulting in Ginger’s death and Laun being followed. On this basis (and for the simple reason that he’s French) Laun refuses to take Caminade with them. He and Cartwright set off in the middle of the night to elude him.)

Now, days later, snuggled up close to each other for body warmth in the tent high in the snowed-in mountains:

a) Cartwright parallels the situation with the night he spent bundled together with Anamaria in the freezing cold island of reeds in the Danube delta
b) Cartwright nervously worries about Laun’s homosexuality, mentioned a few times earlier – but Laun doesn’t try anything
c) Instead, Laun tells him another tall tale. This time Laun was a young man travelling through the area and manages to hitch a lift from a metal contractor up to the tunnel diggings, where he helps the contractor unload and then – ta-da! – changes into the Soviet officer’s uniform he just happens to have smuggled in the lorry – bluffs his way past the guard at the entrance, and gets himself given a guided tour of the long well-engineered tunnel that goes thousands of metres into the mountain, until, sure enough, they come to the river bed, open and revealed with a walkway across it. It is at this moment that Laun sees a stocky blonde-haired, blue-eyed underground Viking people. He shouts across the river in an unknown language. The Russian engineer shouts back that they’re closing the tunnel off. The Viking nods in approval and disappears into a crack in the wall.

If I was Cartwright I might have shouted, ‘Well, why the devil didn’t you tell me any of this before?’ But Laun has fallen asleep. As usual in Innes, the characters know almost all the story beforehand, they just refuse to tell anyone else about it. Next day they stagger on through a permanent blizzard, several times barely escaping falling over cliff edges or into crevasses, all very filmic, until the snow lightens for a moment and they can see the suggestion of Nirvana Valley beneath them and a tall dark mountain looming out of the gloom. They press on and camp for another 48 hours in a howling blizzard. When it stops – they are woken by voices outside their tent. Laun tries Pathan and Urdu, no response, Cartwright tries some simple Swedish he picked up working with Swedish navvies in Canada – and the voices respond, telling them to stay there till they return. They have met the Lost Viking Tribe!

In the underground kingdom

They are led down into the mysterious underground kingdom in scenes reminiscent of HG Wells, Jules Verne and Rider Haggard – are given the kind of tour of the facilities all characters are given in pulp sci-fi stories, having it all explained to them, how the thermal energy is converted to the electricity that powers the fluorescent lighting everywhere, and the lifts and the computer terminals (!) and the radio aerial. And there to greet them – in a scene beyond parody – is that damn Frenchman Antoine again. Turns out he had been there once before and knew the way into the front entrance (Why didn’t he tell them? Why doesn’t anyone tell anyone anything in an Innes novel?)

But what Laun and Cartwright quickly discover is there is trouble in Paradise. As so often in the lost world genre, outsiders arrive in an idyllic secret kingdom to find it isn’t so idyllic after all, and their arrival brings a smouldering situation to a head.

Turns out the current king, Ali Khan, is an outsider who made himself powerful as Chief Secretary before almost certainly murdering the old king and marrying Vikki. For – beyond the bounds of the wildest fantasy – it is indeed Vikki, Paul’s old friend from Romania, who is the now the aloof and powerful Sultana of Nirvana. And Vikki has secured the rescue of Anamaria, the street urchin he shared those nights with on the reed island, finding her and having her flown to join her in her underground kingdom. (Did Anamaria know this was in the offing when she made her hasty escape from Romania? Why was she set on getting to Alma-Ata, had she had word from Vikki? And I thought she was meant to bitterly resent the way Vikki usurped her in her parents’ affections?)

Vikki has just given birth to a baby. However, the baby is a girl, not the boy child required by the psychotic Khan. And at that moment, as all of this is being breathlessly explained to Paul and Laun, the king returns from a foreign visit and sweeps into the chamber demanding to know whether it is true that the child is a girl, well Is she, is she?,He rips open its swaddling clothes to confirm it, and in an excess of fury, dashes its brains out against the rock walls. Vikki shrieks, Anamaria sneaks round behind the king and slips one of her fatal hat-pins into his belly just as Cartwright, reacting on instinct, draws his gun and fills Khan full of bullets. He’s only been there a few hours and now he’s shot the king of the place. Terrific.

There is a moment of silence before all hell breaks loose. Fortunately, Erik Bigblad arrives, the figurehead of the traditional Swedish faction against the Asiatics represented by Khan, and he quickly takes control. He and his men disarm the Asiatic men, and the coup is complete.

(Note, even in this adventure fantasy setting, the odd parallelism with the earlier narrative, for this is the second time Anamaria has murdered a man for killing a baby – the first time it was Gregor, her pimp, who took away her own baby. And note also the heedless, almost unstoppable, brutality of men towards the most innocent and vulnerable in society.)

Back in London

Surreally, the last chapter is set in London three weeks later, where Cartwright is making his report to his nominal boss, Alex Goodbody, all the while trying to decide whether to strike out and set up his own company. That damn Frenchman turns up again and describes some of the scenes Cartwright missed back in the valley, namely the swearing-in ceremony of his Vikki as new ruler of Nirvana. Antoine reveals that he wants to leave the French mineralogy firm that employs him – why don’t they pool their resources and set up a company to work with the Vikings to exploit their mineral discoveries? Cartwright decides: Yes! He will!


Thoughts

Quite obviously the text is a farrago, a dog’s dinner of a text mashing up half a dozen different stories into one overcharged fantasia. The first two settings are reasonably realistic – communist Romania and Pakistan at the end of the Russo-Afghan War… and the plot up to that point had made use of Innes’ traditional technique of basing far-fetched coincidences around families with dark secrets – Cartwright’s recurrent nightmare memories of killing his step-dad prepares us for the voodoo theme of the two sisters, offspring of the ill-fated Kikinda marriage, deformed by communism’s brutalisation of women, whose story plays out against two continents.

Innes’ last three novels – IsvikTarget Antarctica and Delta Connection – contain particularly harrowing episodes, scenes which are so intense as to be almost visions, barely related to the mundane world which surround them or the workaday plots which frame them: the poor wretches in the ship’s hold being sprayed with anthrax toxin in Isvik; the devastating story of La Belle Phuket’s capture, torture and rape in Antarctica; Anamaria’s brutalisation in the orphanages and streets of Romania.

There aren’t many articles about Innes on the web, but the half-dozen I’ve read all say that he became more concerned about environmental issues in his later years – and he certainly wrote novels which feature oil pollution, deforestation and us hunting Africa’s mammals to extinction. But I think this final batch of novels go deeper than that; their far-fetched plots and dizzy coincidences are merely the framework he uses to deliver his deeper message:- it is not just that we can’t get on with the natural world without destroying it; we can’t even get on with each other.

This novel abounds in many throwaway visions of horror: Cartwright recounts flying over a bush fire in Western Australia and watching it catch and overtake a herd of kangaroos, turning them to twisting chunks of burned flesh. Laun spends a page remembering a doctor who accompanied a detachment of troops and civilians through the Khyber Pass until ambushed by Pathans, who shot all the soldiers before running down to cut the women and children to pieces. At several places (to prepare us for the Secret Valley ending) Cartwright thinks about the Rus, the legendary Viking travellers who sailed up the inland rivers of Russia, who launched their ships over the bodies of women sacrificed to their gods, the sound of their screaming as their bones were pulverised… and so on.

I think these last novels are about man’s inhumanity to man – and the central part played by the terrible stories of la Belle Phuket and Anamaria are intended as a searing indictment of how, for all the wonders of the internet and the gee-whizz gadgetry of space travel, we are unable to protect even the most vulnerable and innocent on this, our own, terrible planet.

What is harder to reconcile, or process, is the way this, Innes’ final story, turns away from these earlier levels of meaning to mutate into a late-Victorian romance of almost fairy-tale simplicity. It is so weird it is almost avant-garde. The inhumanity which I thought it was about until the last 70 or so pages, is completely trumped by the strange fantasy ending. The gripping chase in a car across night-time Romania, the survivalist episode on the reed island, the high-tension pursuit of the old steam locomotive up into the mountains – these are traditional thriller episodes.

But the fairy-tale ending – did Innes know this would be his last book? Did he write brutal, brutal, brutal episodes and then – sick of his depiction of such a violent world, decide to turn his grim tale at last into a kind of melodramatic pantomime? Or did he just run out of puff?

What a long, strange, compelling and mysterious book.


Credit

Delta Connection by Hammond Innes was published by Macmillans in 1996. All references are to the 1997 Pan paperback edition.

Ceaușescu’s death

As a corollary to the 200 pages set amid the confusion of Ceaușescu’s overthrow in Romania – and a grim testimony to man’s inhumanity to man – there’s footage on YouTube of him and his formidable wife, Elena, being tried by a kangaroo court and then executed by a shambolic firing squad.

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines reveals an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land; features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute battle on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a lady journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm –


1946 Dead and Alive –
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complicated enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig leads his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose cause he champions.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this time one convinced he can prove his eccentric theories about the origin of Man, Ice Age sea levels, the origin of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up the invitation to visit from a rancher’s daughter he’d met. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the persistent rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his complex past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle, all tied up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two old albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, the last surviving son of which is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational, business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has gone aground near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyd’s of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe in time?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cartwright is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to rescue a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. It takes a lot of shenanigans, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is a scam to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, diamonds like the ones the survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a story which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania during the chaotic days leading up to the overthrow of the communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller with car chases and shoot-outs – before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s boys adventure stories as Cartwright and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started.

The Black Tide by Hammond Innes (1982)

I was alone now, intensely, intolerably alone, with only anger and hatred for company. (p.76)

This novel opens with an interesting ‘prelude’ which describes a vast modern oil tanker (a VLCC – very large crude carrier) the Petros Jupiter, losing power in its engines and drifting onto the rocks near Land’s End. What’s interesting is it is done in prose completely unlike Innes’, in a style which is clinical and factual, much closer to the journalistic style of a Frederick Forsyth.

The plot

But turn the page to the next chapter and Innes’ usual ‘adventure’ style begins. Trevor Rodin is a former merchant seaman who has quit the sea to settle down with the woman he’s known and loved for three years, Karen, at a cottage – named Balkaer – on the Cornish coast. The oil slick from the Petros Jupiter washes up right at the foot of their cottage, covering the rocks in thick black ooze, killing countless birds. Keen nature-lover and conservationist Karen collects some, trying to wash and save them, but it’s hopeless. In her rage and frustration, she turns on Trevor and they have a stand-up row, her shouting, ‘What are you going to do about it?’ Trevor says he’s off to a town hall meeting attended by the local MP and the man from the Ministry who, in the event, spout the usual platitudes about doing everything they can to contain and control the spill.

Karen’s self-immolation

Meanwhile, Karen, angry and upset at the ruining of the country hideaway they’ve worked so hard to build, visita neighbours to borrow a flame-based weedkiller machine, then takes Trevor’s powered dinghy out toward the tanker. When Trevor returns from the meeting the neighbour tells him this so he gets the local lifeguard to saddle up and take him out towards the ship. As they approach, through the Cornish mist, they see a light moving about the infrastructure of the tanker, and towards the (fume and oxygen-filled) tanks. They are just saying how suicidally dangerous that is when BOOM! the tanker explodes in a vast sheet of flame.

Quest for revenge

In the aftermath there’s an enquiry, the press and media descend wanting interviews, sight-seers come intruding on his land, and Trevor moves through it all in a daze, devastated by the loss of his beloved and all their plans for a quiet life. Among the other confused incidents of this period, a dubious character, Len Baldwick, comes knocking asking if he’ll need a berth on a ship again, leaving his contact details. Out of the emotional mayhem emerges a plan to track down the crew of the Petros Jupiter and discover whether it was wilfully and maliciously driven onto the rocks, to find who’s responsible for Karen’s death.

Lloyds of London

His quest takes him to Lloyds – described in some detail, presumably after thorough research and visits by Innes – where he learns several of the Petros Jupiter crew had dubious pasts, and might be connected with two other tankers which have recently disappeared, the Aurora B and Howdo Stranger. Rodin is struck to see photos of Len Baldwick mixed in with others of the ships’ crews. He conceives a plan to contact Baldwick and see what his offer of a berth involves and if it leads to the men he’s after. Via Lloyds Rodin is introduced to the firm of lawyers following up the missing ships and to one partner, Saltley, who will become a central character in the story.

We knew from various references that Rodin was not only a sailor, but grew up in the Gulf, raised by his hard-working mother, a nurse and single mum. So the solicitors, realising they have a man who is himself a sailor familiar with the Gulf, and who has a personal interest in the ship disappearances, hire him to investigate. Saltley introduces him to one of the underwriters of the syndicate which has taken heavy losses on the vanished ships, Michael Stewart. Rodin goes for dinner with him and meets his pretty daughter, Pamela, who – in a surprising sub-plot – later writes him a letter telling him how much she admires and, er, fancies him.

Nantes and Parnay

Armed with names and information Trevor sets off to track the suspect crew down. His quest takes him first to Nantes, where he rendezvous with Lloyd’s agent and then drives to the address of the crew member named Choffel. He is, disappointingly, not there but Rodin confronts Choffel’s daughter (oddly named Guinevere), who insists her father is a good man, doing his best for his family. She takes photos of Rodin and threatens him with reprisals if any harm comes to her father. But Rodin hardens his heart and flies on to the Gulf.

Dubai

Here he rendezvous with Len Baldwick and the rest of the crew, all vivid depictions of crooks and scoundrels, before they are shipped on a dhow out to a tanker anchored in a hidden bay, one of the khawrs of the Musandam Peninsula. Once aboard ship they are shepherded into their quarters and, even though nominally the boat’s officers, are forbidden from leaving their quarters by the captain backed up by surly Arabs with machine guns.

But Rodin is more disconcerted to be shoved into the presence of ‘Choffel’ who turns out to be a nervous slender man, not at all the pantomime villain he’d imagined. Morever, Choffel turns out to be Welsh and going by his actual name, David Price. In several encounters, he tells Rodin some his story, about his own wretched upbringing in Welsh poverty, his father the miner dying of silicosis, then his mother getting ill when he was only a 21 year old sailor on his first ship. He has also, Rodin realises, received a letter from his daughter warning him that Rodin is after him. Price is scared of him, trying to exonerate himself, leaving Rodin baffled about what to do next.

In among these scenes Rodin meets the captain, Pieter Hals. This bluff Dutchman reveals that the ship is the Aurora B, a 120,000 ton tanker, one of the tankers that went ‘missing’ in the past few months (causing Lloyds the concern we investigated so thoroughly earlier in the novel) and that he – Hals – is a fanatical environmentalist.

Hals gives a long speech about his lifelong hatred of the oil tankers which void, spill, wash and decant oil into the sea all around the world, destroying habitats at will. Well, now they’re going to do something which will make the governments of the world sit up and seriously address the issue! Hence getting shifty Len Baldwick to do the hiring; hence the men with guns; and hence the appearance of a very hard Arab named Sadeq who looks to be the leader.

Rodin jumps ship

Shaken by the captain’s fanaticism, Rodin is taken under guard back to his cabin where, peering out of his porthole later that night, he sees the crew, who look like Pakistanis and who have presumably been held captive in the hold, brought up on deck by armed guards for some fresh air. But when one of them makes a bid for the side of the ship, he is machine-gunned down. Stunned, Rodin is unable to sleep and, a few hours later, sneaks out of his cabin, down on to the deck, and goes exploring.

This is a very powerful account of him clambering over all the obstacles on an unlit oil tanker at the dead of night. By accident he comes across no other than Choffal/Price, the man he is after, climbing down the gangplank towards the dhow and begins to follow him: what the devil is he up to? Suddenly lights go on, there are shots, he sees the Arabs abandoning the dhow for their escape dinghy just as Price makes a jump for the dhow and Rodin, on the spur of the moment, follows him.

There is a brief view of Sadeq the terrorist firing down at them with a machine gun and then – the engine started up – the dhow reels away from the tanker, and then they are out of range, the shots cease, and Rodin is taken up with the task of navigating clear of the tanker but also avoiding the cliffs at the side of the creek.

On the dhow – backgrounds

As day dawns Rodin finds himself alone, hungry, dirty, in charge of an Arab dhow in the Persian Gulf, and the man he came all this way to confront, now lying bleeding and badly wounded in the scuppers – Sadeq’s burst of machine gun fire hit Price. Now, ironically, Rodin finds himself having to minister to his ‘enemy’, bringing water and listening to him sob out his hard-luck story: his Welsh childhood, the father whose trade of miner led to his early death from silicosis, his impoverished mother struggling to make ends meet and then falling ill; and Price, on his first voyage, presented with the opportunity of big money if he will help scuttle the ship…

All this chimes uncomfortably with Rodin’s own background. Throughout the text he has had flashbacks of his own unusual upbringing, the son of a sailor who married a Pakistani woman and was raised around the ports of Pakistan and who, when his mother, a trained nurse, died from overwork, went on an epic hike up along the coast of Pakistan and then northwards up to the Khyber Pass and into the Hindu Kush. He certainly has been about a bit…

In fact Innes goes to great trouble to present all his characters with full and persuasive back stories. We learn of Michael Stewart, the lead underwriter for the Petros Jupiter cover, that he inherited the role from his father, that the loss of Petros and Aurora B and the third ship, Howdo Stranger, is likely to bankrupt him. Hence his daughter’s perhaps excessive gratitude to Rodin. Of the baddy fixer, the man who goes round recruiting crooked crew for the wreckers, Len Baldwick, we learn that he was a communist shop steward and organiser in Sheffield. Most of the characters have these back stories, just as most of the organisational setups are thoroughly documented.

There is a powerful description of Rodin desperately trying to stay awake as he steers the dhow without compass or chart out of the Gulf, periodically checking on the mortally wounded Choffal, sometimes forced to listen to his meandering, self-pitying stories, until the inevitable happens – Rodin falls asleep at the rudder and the boat crashes into rocks near the coast. There is a nightmareish description of the boat breaking up, water rushing in, the helpless Choffal disappearing beneath the waves, his mouth open in a scream and then – oblivion…

Karachi

Rodin awakes on the shore of Baluchistan, discovered by two children who fetch an elder, who fetches the local policemen, who take him to the nearest station, who take him to their offices at the Gwadar Peninsula. The army officers here evidently don’t believe his story; of a shipwrecked dhow, yes, but the other man – there is no body – and the hidden tankers – well, they institute a search and nothing is found. Rodin had been on the dhow for two days, he realises, long enough for the Aurora B to have steamed out into the Indian Ocean.

The army fly him down to Karachi where the officials – even the man from Lloyds – are just as sceptical. Armed terrorists seizing a 120,000 ton tanker on the high seas? And hiding it? The Lloyds man points out that Rodin better hope Choffal/Price’s body doesn’t wash up because, by his own admission, Rodin had the motive and the opportunity to murder him. He is booked into a good hotel, gets sleep and a shower and new clothes and awakes to find he is being deported back to England. The officials accompany him onto the flight, right into his actual seat. 11 hours later he is at Heathrow.

Back in England

Where no-one believes him. The Lloyds people, Michael Stewart and his daughter, the Forthright lawyers and Saltley, nor the hard-faced man from Special Branch who comes to interview him. In fact the police tell him there’s every risk he’ll be tried for murder if Choffal’s corpse turns up. After holing up at his digs in Stepney, he realises he’s sick of London and catches an early morning train back to Penzance and travels back to the cottage where it all started. He sleeps on the sofa. He stares out to sea, at the mast which is all left showing above water of the Petros Jupiter. He remembers his wife’s flashing eyes and loud laugh and soft touch.

A few days in he receives a message from Saltley, who now believes him. He wants Rodin to take the ferry to France, catch a flight to Tangiers and then the ferry across to Gibraltar. Here he will be met and brought to the yacht – the Prospero – belonging to Michael Stewart’s son, Mark. And so, puzzled, Rodin obeys. He finds that Stewart and Saltley believe him; believe the two tankers are still out there. But where would they be headed and why? Rodin remembers that in one of Choffal’s delirious rants he had kept mentioning ‘the savages’. Saltley points out this could refer to the Selvagem Islands north of Tenerife, off the African coast. Aha.

There now follows a whole section devoted to life on board the Prospero, with the older lawyer Saltley, another sailor, Tony, young Mark and his sister Pamela, who Rodin finds himself rather yearningly alone with on several occasions. The descriptions of sailing in this small-ish yacht the large distance to the islands, the changing weather in the Atlantic and their eventual sighting of the missing ships close to the islands, are all masterly, evocative sea writing.

Thus they confirm the two tankers are indeed the missing ones, though now repainted and renamed and hung with the Iraqi flag. In fact they make themselves a bit too conspicuous, sailing close by to get photographs and – in a thrilling scene – find themselves being chased and nearly run down by the vast tankers.

Having survived these near misses, they sail fast for Madeira, where Saltley and Rodin ring Lloyds, then take flights to Lisbon. They say goodbye to the other three (Tony, Mark, Pamela) who are going to sail back to Blighty. At the last minute there is an excruciating scene between Pamela and Rodin, Shamefacedly she says she was inspired by his bravery and meant it when she wrote him her letter but now, well, she sort of… Rodin tactfully interrupts her, thanks her, says No need to go on. He has had lots of experience being dumped by a woman. She leaves him heart-broken, empty all over again.

The Black Tide

Back in England he finds himself back in hot water. This last section of the novel is packed with various officials whose hands Rodin passes through, from the police who meet him at Heathrow, through the hard-faced Special Branch man (again) and officials from various ministries. He is placed under surveillance in a hotel in Charing Cross, before being urgently summoned to Langdon Battery at Dover, base of HM Coastguards Channel Navigation Information Service. Here, as at the Lloyds centre at Colchester, the writing feels like an eye witness account of a visit Innes must have made, with precise descriptions of corridors and offices and viewing platforms, of map rooms and computer rooms, all of which read as if taken from a magazine article.

Here they are joined by the Secretary of State, to monitor the progress of the two rogue tankers which are now advancing up the English Channel. This whole scene has documentary accuracy, with emphasis on the different maritime law regimes affecting the French and the English halves of the channel, we being the more liberal, and so the rogue tankers steaming up the Channel the wrong way, to remain on our side.

The coastguard chopper Rodin out to the bridge of a frigate which is shadowing the tankers so he can go out on the bridge wing with a loud hailer to try and talk to captain Hals. Once there Rodin sees Hals although, as soon as he starts to parley, he sees the Dutchman being pulled away by dark men with guns. And then just when everyone is wondering where they’re headed and what their plan is, Aurora B turns and rams full steam into Howdo Stranger, ripping it open along its full length, and tens of thousands of tons of crude oil pour out into the English Channel.

So, er, the convoluted attempts of everyone over the previous 200 pages have been completely pointless. Tons of crude oil will blow onto the Kent coastline, devastating its wildlife, the same old same old that Rodin’s wife died trying to campaign against, is happening again.

Epilogue

Rodin returns, an exhausted, lonely, disillusioned man, to the empty cottage in Cornwall. As he opens the door he sees a woman sitting by the fire and for a second he thinks it’s Karen come back from the dead – and this reader thought it might by sexy young Pamela regretting her decision to dump him on the Prospero. But it is neither: it is Guinevere, Choffel/Price’s daughter, come to apologise and seek closure. The crew, freed from the tankers, confirmed Rodin’s report ie that Choffal was shot by Sadeq. Therefore she withdraws all threats against Rodin and apologises; now, will he please tell her about her father’s last days and hours aboard the dhow before it crashed.

And so the novel ends with sad lonely Rodin telling the sorry story of her father’s wretched, delirious, pain-filled, bleeding final hours to the distraught daughter. It is a bleak, comfortless end. What happens to Hals or Sadeq, to the other crew members we’d been (briefly) introduced to? Are they captured, does the SAS storm the ships (as they would in a Frederick Forsyth novel)? We don’t know. Rodin doesn’t care. The story is ended.


Knowledge and expertise

At numerous places the text evidences the research and in-depth knowledge Innes brings to his novels. The first hundred pages are dominated by a very thorough explanation of how Lloyds Insurance of London actually works, with visits to its various offices in London and Colchester (Lloyd’s Intelligence Services), lunch and dinner with underwriters who explain its procedures in detail, and then meeting the lawyers who investigate dodgy claims, descriptions of offices, desks, ledgers, microfiche and visual display unit equipment, all very modern in 1982.

Similarly, once we are in the Gulf, we are in the hands of a master sailor and the text is a supremely confident description of all aspects of sailing and shipping, from a powerful sense of being trapped aboard the Aurora B to a full description of sailing the rickety old dhow, along with precise information about the shipping lanes, the tides, the wind, the lighthouses and navigational aids.

The best bit of the novel is the voyage of the yacht Prospero, the tang of the sea, the changing weather of the Atlantic, the reefing of sails and taking turns clutching a mug of coffee in the dark watches of the night with only the stars for company.

And then the final sequence in HM Coastguard Dover Castle has the feel of a guided tour, complete with a map of the layout of the modern (Innes refers to Star Wars!) building full of computerised maps and charts and information and chaps in white shorts saluting each other. What fun it must have been researching these novels.

Place and atmosphere

The Cornish coast. London at Christmas. Suffolk (location of some Lloyds offices) in the snow. Rural France in winter. And then the bustling cities and the searingly hot open sea of the Persian Gulf. Gibraltar. Madeira. Lisbon. The Atlantic Ocean at dawn. Innes describes them all powerfully and persuasively. One of the great pleasures and strengths of his novels is his sense of place, his ability to create an atmosphere. Nowhere is this truer than of the scores of descriptions of the sea which lace the text. The Cornish sea with its fogs, the metallic flat Persian Gulf, a gale force storm in the Atlantic. The sounds and smells of boats and the sea, this is Innes’ inextinguishable forte.

We were making towards Selvagem Grande then and by the time breakfast was over and everything washed up and stowed, the sun was beginning to burn up the mist and just visible as a golden disc hung in a golden glow. Water dripped in rainbow drops from the gold-painted metal of the main boom and the only sound on deck was the tinkling gurgle of water slipping past the hull. (p.293)

Environmentalism

In one of Innes’ mysterious, almost magical, transformations, Rodin, stricken at his wife’s death, feels himself assuming her mantle, adopting her own passionate concern for the wildlife mankind is endlessly butchering and exterminating. It allows Innes, at a number of places throughout the book, to let rip at humanity’s gruesome behaviour, and at the anger at the destruction of the natural world which fuels the novel.

Greed! Stupid, senseless greed!.. It was a curse affecting us all, the whole human race, harvesting the sea till there was nothing left but oceans and oceans of dead water, drilling for energy, tanking it round the world, feeding factories that poured toxic waste into the rivers, supplying farms with pesticides that poisoned the land, pumping heat and fumes into the life-giving atmosphere until it was a lethal hothouse. (p.117)

Has anything changed in the 33 years since this novel was published?

Related links

Hammond Innes’ novels

1937 The Doppelganger
1937 Air Disaster
1938 Sabotage Broadcast
1939 All Roads Lead to Friday
1940 The Trojan Horse – Barrister Andrew Kilmartin gets involved with an Austrian Jewish refugee engineer whose discovery of a new lightweight alloy which will make lighter, more powerful aircraft engines leads to him being hunted by an extensive and sinister Nazi network which reaches to the highest places in the land. The book features a nailbiting chase through the sewers of London and a last-minute shootout on the Nazi ship.
1940 Wreckers Must Breathe – Journalist Walter Craig stumbles across a secret Nazi submarine base built into a ruined tin mine on the Cornwall coast and, along with local miners and a tough woman journalist, fights his way out of captivity and defeats the Nazis.
1941 Attack Alarm – Gripping thriller based on Innes’ own experience as a Battle of Britain anti-aircraft gunner. Ex-journalist Barry Hanson uncovers a dastardly plan by Nazi fifth columnists to take over his airfield ahead of the big German invasion.


1946 Dead and Alive – David Cunningham, ex-Navy captain, hooks up with another demobbed naval officer to revamp a ship-wrecked landing craft. But their very first commercial trip to Italy goes disastrously wrong when his colleague, McCrae, offends the local mafia while Cunningham is off tracking down a girl who went missing during the war. A short but atmospheric and compelling thriller.
1947 The Killer Mine Army deserter Jim Pryce discovers dark family secrets at a ruined Cornish mine which is being used as a base by a father-and-son team of smugglers who blackmail him into doing some submarine rock blasting, with catastrophic results.
1947 The Lonely Skier Writer Neil Blair is hired to visit the Dolomite mountains in Italy, supposedly to write a script for film producer Derek Engles, in reality to tip him off when key players in a hunt for Nazi gold arrive at the ski hut in the mountains where – they all think – the missing treasure is buried.
1947 Maddon’s Rock Corporal Jim Vardin, convicted of mutiny at sea and imprisoned in Dartmoor, breaks out to clear his name and seek revenge on the captain and crew who pretended to sink their ship, the Trikkala, but in fact hid it at a remote island in the Arctic circle in order to steal its cargo of silver bullion.
1948 The Blue Ice Mineralogist and industrialist Bill Gansert sails to Norway to discover the truth about the disappearance of George Farnell, a friend of his who knew something about the discovery of a rare metal ore – an investigation which revives complex enmities forged in Norway’s war-time Nazi occupation.
1949 The White South Narrator Duncan Craig becomes mixed up in the disaster of the whaling ship Southern Star, witnessing at first hand the poisonous feuds and disagreements which lead a couple of its small whalecatcher boats to get caught in pack ice, fatally luring the vast factory ship to come to their rescue and also becoming trapped. It then has to evacuate over 400 men, women and children onto the pitiless Antarctic ice where Craig has to lead his strife-torn crew to safety.
1950 The Angry Mountain – Engineering salesman Dick Farrell’s wartime experiences come back to haunt him as he is caught up in a melodramatic yarn about a Czech spy smuggling industrial secrets to the West, with various people from his past pursuing him across Italy towards Naples and Mount Vesuvius, which erupts to form the dramatic climax to the story.
1951 Air Bridge – Bomber pilot fallen on hard times, Neil Fraser, gets mixed up with Bill Saeton and his obsession with building a new type of diesel aero-engine based on a prototype looted from wartime Germany. Saeton is helped by partner Tubby Carter, hindered by Tubby’s sex-mad wife Diana, and spied on by Else, the embittered daughter of the German who originated the designs. The story moves to Germany and the Berlin airlift where Saeton’s obsession crosses the line into betrayal and murder.
1952 Campbell’s Kingdom – Bruce Campbell, given only months to live by his doctors, packs in his boring job in London and emigrates to Canada to fulfil the dream of his eccentric grandfather, to find oil in the barren patch of the Canadian Rockies known as ‘Campbell’s Kingdom’.
1954 The Strange Land – Missionary Philip Latham is forced to conceal the identity of the man who replies to an advert to come and be doctor to a poor community in the south of Morocco. Instead of curing the sick, he finds himself caught up in a quest for an ancient silver mine, a quest which brings disaster to the impoverished community where it is set.
1956 The Wreck of the Mary Deare – Yacht skipper John Sands stumbles across the wreck of the decrepit steamer Mary Deare and into the life of its haggard, obsessive captain, Patch, who is determined to clear his reputation by revealing the owners’ conspiracy to sink his ship and claim the insurance.
1958 The Land God Gave To Cain – Engineer Ian Ferguson responds to a radio plea for help received by his amateur radio enthusiast father, and sets off to the wilds of Labrador, north-east Canada, to see if the survivors of a plane crash in this barren country are still alive – and what lies behind the conspiracy to try and hush the incident up.
1960 The Doomed Oasis – Solicitor George Grant helps young tearaway David Thomas travel to Arabia to find his biological father, the legendary adventurer and oilman Colonel Charles Whitaker, and becomes embroiled in a small Arab war which leads to a siege in an ancient fortress where the rivalry between father and son reaches a tragic conclusion.
1962 Atlantic Fury – Painter Duncan Ross is eyewitness to an appalling naval disaster on an island of the Outer Hebrides. But intertwined with this tragedy is the fraught story of his long-lost brother who has stolen another man’s identity. Both plotlines lead inexorably to the bleak windswept island of Laerg.
1965 The Strode Venturer – Ex-Merchant Navy captain Geoffrey Bailey finds himself drawn into the affairs of the Strode shipping company which aggressively took over his father’s shipping line, thereby ruining his family and driving his father to suicide. Now, 30 years later, he is hired to track down the rogue son of the family, Peter Strode, who has developed an obsession with a new volcanic atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean, whose mineral wealth might be able to help the Maldive Islanders whose quest for independence he is championing.
1971 Levkas Man – Merchant seaman Paul goes to find his father, eccentric archaeologist Pieter Van der Voort, another typical Innes obsessive, this one convinced he can prove his eccentric and garbled theories about the origin of Man, changing Ice Age sea levels, the destruction of Atlantis and so on. Much sailing around the Aegean, feelingly described by Innes, before the climax in a vast subterranean cavern covered in prehistoric rock paintings, in an atmosphere heavy with timeless evil, where his father admits to being a murderer.
1973 Golden Soak – Alec Falls’ mining business in Cornwall goes bust so he fakes his own death and smuggles himself out to Australia to take up an invitation to visit a rancher’s daughter he’d met in England. He finds himself plunged into the mystery and intrigue which surrounds the struggling Jarra Jarra ranch and its failed mine, Golden Soak, a mystery which leads him on a wild chase out into the desolate hell of the Gibson desert where Alec discovers the truth about the mine and the rumours of a vast hill of copper, and witnesses archetypal tragedies of guilt and expiation, of revenge and parricide.
1974 North Star – One-time political agitator and seaman Michael Randall tries and fails to escape his treacherous past as he finds himself embroiled in a plot to blow up a North Sea oil rig, a plot which is led by the father he thought had died decades earlier.
1977 The Big Footprints – TV director Colin Tait finds himself caught up in the one-man war of grizzled African hunter and legendary bushman Cornelius van Delden against his old friend, Alex Kirby-Smith, who is now leading the Kenyan government’s drive to cull the country’s wildlife, especially its elephants, to feed a starving population and clear the way for farmers and their cattle. It’s all mixed up with Tait’s obsessive quest to find a remote mountain where neolithic man was said to have built the first city in the world.
1980 Solomon’s Seal – Property valuer Roy Slingsby prices the contents of an old farmhouse in the Essex countryside and is intrigued by two albums of stamps from the Solomon Islands. He takes up the offer of a valuing job in Australia and finds himself drawn into the tragic history of the colonial Holland family, whose last surviving son is running machine guns to be used in the coup and bid for independence of Bougainville Island. Though so much of the detail is calm, rational and business-like, the final impression is of an accursed family and a fated ancestral house which burns down at the novel’s climax.
1982 The Black Tide – When his wife dies blowing up an oil tanker which has hit the rocks near their Cornwall home, ex-merchant seaman Trevor Rodin goes searching for the crew he thinks deliberately ran her aground. His search takes him to Lloyds of London, to the Nantes home of the lead suspect and then on to the Persian Gulf, where he discovers several ‘missing’ tankers are in fact being repurposed by terrorists planning to create a devastating environmental disaster somewhere on the coast of Europe. With no money or resources behind him, and nobody believing his far-fetched tale, can Rodin prevent the catastrophe?
1985 The High Stand – When gold millionaire Tom Halliday and his wife Miriam go missing, their staid Sussex solicitor Philip Redfern finds himself drawn to the old gold mine in the Canadian Rockies which is the basis of the Halliday fortune, and discovers that the illegal felling of the timber planted around the mine is being used as a front for a gang of international drug smugglers, with violent consequences.
1988 Medusa – Former smuggler turned respectable ex-pat businessman, Mike Steele, finds his idyllic life on the pretty Mediterranean island of Minorca turning very nasty when he gets mixed up with mercenaries running guns onto the island to support a violent separatist movement and military coup.
1991 Isvik – Wood restorer Peter Kettil gets caught up in a crazy scheme to find an old Victorian frigate allegedly spotted locked in the Antarctic ice by a glaciologist before his death in a flying accident. His partners are the nymphomaniac Latino wife of the dead glaciologist, Iris Sunderby, a bizarre Scottish cripple, Iain Ward, and a mysterious Argentine who may or may not have been involved in atrocities under the military junta.
1993 Target Antarctica Sequel to Isvik. Booted out of the RAF for his maverick behaviour, pilot Michael ‘Ed’ Cruse is hired by Iain Ward, the larger-than-life character at the heart of the previous novel, Isvik, to fly a C-130 Hercules plane off a damaged runway on the Antarctic ice shelf. There are many twists, not least with a beautiful Thai woman who is pursued by the Khmer Rouge (!), before in the last few pages we realise the whole thing is Ward’s scheme to extract diamonds from the shallow seabed, whose existence was discovered by the sole survivor of the frigate found in the previous novel.
1996 Delta Connection An astonishing dog’s dinner of a novel, which starts out reasonably realistically following the adventures of Paul Cartwright, scrap metal consultant, in Romania on the very days that communist ruler Nicolae Ceaușescu is overthrown, before moving on to Pakistan and the Khyber Pass where things develop into a violent thriller, before jettisoning any attempt at realism and turning into a sort of homage to Rider Haggard’s adventure stories for boys as Cruse and his gay, ex-Army mentor, battle their way through blizzards into the idyllic valley of Nirvana, where they meet the secret underground descendants of Vikings who long ago settled this land, before almost immediately participating in the palace coup which overthrows the brutal ruler and puts on the throne the young woman who Paul fell in love with as a boy back in Romania, where the narrative started. A convoluted, compelling and bizarre finale to Innes’ long career.

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010)

This is a popular history of an unpopular decade. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive overview but instead looks at the years from 1970 to 1979 through 50 representative stories, told in short sections – hence the sub-title ‘A kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade‘.

It’s a light, easy read, like a sequence of interesting magazine articles. DeGroot has an appealingly open, lucid style. He tells his stories quickly and effectively and doesn’t hold back on frequently pungent comments.

The three opening stories each in their way epitomise the end of the utopian dreams of pop culture of the 1960s:

  • the Charlie Manson killings (overnight hippies became scary)
  • the death of Jimi Hendrix (after four short years of amazing success and innovation, Hendrix admitted to feeling played out, with nowhere new to take his music)
  • the marriage of Mick Jagger to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias (the street-fighting man turns into a leading member of the jet set, hobnobbing with Princess Margaret in Antibes etc)

These eye-catching and rather tired items are obviously aimed at a baby boomer, pop and rock audience and I wondered whether it would all be at this level…

70s terrorism

But it gets more meaty as soon as DeGroot begins an analysis of what he considers the 1970s’ distinguishing feature: political violence. In almost every industrialised country small groups of Marxists, visionaries or misfits coalesced around the idea that the ‘system’ was in crisis, and all it needed was a nudge, just one or two violent events, to push it over into complete collapse and to provoke the Glorious Revolution. They included:

  • The Angry Brigade (UK) – bombed the fashionable boutique BIBA on May Day 1971 and went on to carry out 25 bombings between 1970 and 1972.
  • The Weather Underground (US) 1969-77, carry out various violent attacks, while living on the run.
  • The Baader-Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction carried out a series of violent bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany, peaking in its May Offensive of 1972.
  • ETA – between 1973 and 1982 responsible for 371 deaths, 542 injuries, 50 kidnappings and hundreds of other explosions in their quest for independence for Spain’s Basque country.
  • The dire events of Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, a decisive recruiting sergeant for the IRA, which embarked on a 20-year campaign of bombings and shootings, euphemistically referred to as The Troubles leavnig some 3,500 dead and nearly 50,000 injured.
  • Palestinian terrorists (the Black September Organisation) kidnapped then murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
  • The May 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades. During the 1970s Italy suffered over 8,000 terrorist incidents, kidnappings, bombings and shootings.

These Marxist groups:

  • concluded that, after the failure of the student movements and the May 1968 events in France, non-violent revolution was doomed to failure; therefore, only violence could overthrow the system
  • modelled themselves on Third World liberation movements, on Mao’s peasant philosophy or Che Guevara’s jungle notes – neither remotely relevant to advanced industrialised nations
  • were disgusted with the shallowness of Western consumerist society, they thought violent spectacles would ‘awaken’ a proletariat drugged with fashion and pop music, awaken them to the true reality of their servitude and exploitation and prompt the Revolution:
    • partly because it would make the people realise the system is not all-encompassing, does not have all the answers, is not monolithic, is in fact very vulnerable
    • partly because violent acts would goad the authorities to violent counter-measures which would radicalise the population, forcing them to choose – Reaction or Revolution
  • also thought that violent action would purify its protagonists, liberating them from their petit bourgeois hang-ups, transforming them into ‘new men and women’ ie lots of the terrorists were seeking escape from very personal problems

BUT, as DeGroot so cogently puts it – after detailed analyses of these movements – they all discovered the same bitter truth: that political violence only works in the context of a general social revolt (p.29). Terrorist violence can catalyse and focus a broad movement of unrest, but it cannot bring that movement into being. A few bombings are no replacement for the hard work of creating large-scale political movements.

The terrorists thought a few bombs and assassinations would provide the vital catalyst needed to ‘smash the system’, the dashing example of a few leather-jacketed desperadoes with machine guns would be all that the deluded proletariat required to wake them from their consumerist slumber, rise up and throw off their chains.

But the great mass of the people didn’t share the terrorists’ millenarian delusions and so these gangs ended up simply creating fear, killing and maiming people, in Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain, for no gain at all.

  • The terrorists were not personally transformed; more often than not they felt guilt – it is quite moving to read the clips from the interviews and memoirs of surviving gang members which DeGroot liberally quotes – some obstinate millenarians to the end, but quite a few overcome with regret and remorse for their actions.
  • The proletariat did NOT suddenly wake from their slumber and realise the police state was its oppressor, quite the reverse: the people turned to the police state to protect them from what seemed (and often was) arbitrary and pointless acts of violence.
  • Worst of all, the gangs found themselves trapped on a treadmill of violence, for a terrorist organisation cannot go ‘soft’ or it loses its raison d’etre: ‘an organisation defined by terror needs to kill in order to keep mediocrity at bay.’ (p.155) Often they kept on killing long after realising it was pointless.

It’s 40 years later and none of the terrorist groups listed above achieved their goals. The opposite. They wanted to provoke a reaction from the Right and they did. Along with the broader political and cultural movements of the Left, they did provoke a profound counter-response from the Right, epitomised (in the Anglo-Saxon countries) by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leading to and/or reflecting a profound and permanent shift to the right in all the economically advanced countries.


State terror

All that said, terrorist violence was dwarfed by state violence during the period.

  • I had never read an account of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: ie West Pakistan sending its army into East Pakistan/Bangladesh with the explicit purpose of slaughtering as many civilians as it could. It beggars belief that the head of the Pakistan Army said, If we kill three million the rest will do whatever we want. In the event, well over a million Bangladeshis were murdered. 10 million fled to India, before Mrs Gandhi was forced to intervene to put an end to the massacres, and out of this abattoir emerged the new nation of Bangladesh.
  • On 11 September 1973 in Chile General Pinochet overthrew the communist government of Salvador Allende, who was strafed by planes from his own air force inside the presidential palace, before committing suicide. Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-90) was characterised by suspension of human rights with thousands being murdered, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
  • The Vietnam War dragged on and on, the Americans incapable of ‘winning’ but the North Vietnamese not strong enough to ‘win’. Anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million died, hundreds of thousands in America’s savage bombing campaigns. Nixon finally withdrew all US forces in 1974, leaving the South to collapse into chaos and corruption before being overrun and conquered by the communist North in 1975, leaving scars which haunt America to this day. And Vietnam.
  • Up to 500,000 people were murdered during the brutal eight-year rule of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79).
  • The brutal military dictatorship of the Colonels in Greece lasted from 1967 to 1974, supported by America while it suppressed democracy, human rights and a free press. The dictatorship only ended when it supported the military coup of Nikos Sampson on Cyprus, designed to unite the island with mainland Greece but which prompted the disastrous invasion of the north of the island by the Turkish Army, leading to the partition of Cyprus which continues to this day.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (which the Khmers renamed Kampuchea) murdered some 2 million of its own citizens, a quarter of the country’s population, in its demented drive to return the country to pre-industrial, pre-western peasant purity.
  • The June 16 Soweto uprising in 1976 saw tens of thousands of black South African schoolchildren protesting against Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, being made the compulsory language of education. The apartheid authorities responded by unleashing their dogs and shooting into the crowds, killing 176 and wounding around 1,000. When anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko was murdered in the custody of the SA police, a crime which galvanised opinion in South Africa and abroad, leading to the book and film about his life, and an intensification of sanctions against South Africa.

Social issues

Racism Vast subject. DeGroot concentrates on the UK and mentions Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in April 1968. I hadn’t realised Powell remained quite so popular for quite so long afterwards, well into the 1970s he polled as the most popular British politician, and DeGroot points out the regrettable rise of racism in the 1970s, from David Bowie and Eric Clapton to the founding of the National Front (est. 1967), which prompted the response of Rock Against Racism (est. 1976) and the Anti-Nazi League (est. 1977). A lot of marching, chanting and street fighting.

Drugs Year on year, heroin killed more young Americans than the war in Vietnam. Marijuana use had become widespread by the mid-1970s, with one estimate that 40% of teens smoked it at least once a month. DeGroot’s article describes the way all the government agencies overlooked the fact that cocaine was becoming the big issue: because it was predominantly a white middle-class drug, it was neglected until it was too late, until the later 1970s when they woke up to the fact that Colombian cartels had set up a massive production and supply infrastructure and were dealing in billions of dollars. ‘While Reagan strutted, Americans snorted’ (p.271)

Feminism Another vast subject, which DeGroot illuminates with snapshots, generating oblique insights from some of the peripheral stories in this huge social movement:

  • The high profile ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between the 55-year-old former world number one and male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, and 29-year-old women’s number one Billie Jean King. King won and to this day meets women who were young at the time, and who tell her that her example made them determined not to be put off by men, but to go for their dreams.
  • I had never heard of Marabel Morgan and her hugely bestselling book, Total Woman, which takes a devoutly Christian basis for arguing that the path to married bliss is for a woman to completely submit herself to her husband’s wishes. DeGroot makes the far-reaching point that the weak spot in feminism is that a lot of women don’t want to be high-powered executives or politicians, but are reasonably happy becoming mothers and housewives. Moreover, feminists who routinely describe being a mother as some kind of slavery, seriously undervalue the importance, and creativity, and fulfilment to be gained from motherhood.

The silent majority

This leads nicely into his consideration of the rise of the ‘silent majority’ and then the Moral Majority. The phrase ‘the silent majority’ had been around since the 19th century (when it referred to the legions of the dead). It was Richard Nixon’s use of it in a speech in 1969 that prompted newspaper and magazine articles and its widespread popularisation. Nixon was trying to rally support from everyone fed up with student protests, campus unrest, long-haired layabouts, the spread of drugs, revolutionary violence and the rest of it.

The Moral Majority was founded as a movement as late as 1979, from various right-wing Christian fundamentalist organisations. If you’re young or left-wing it’s easy to assume your beliefs will triumph because they’re self-evidently right. I found this section of DeGroot’s book particularly interesting as a reminder (it is after all only a few short, but thought-provoking articles, not a book-length analysis) of the power and numerical supremacy of the people who didn’t want a violent revolution, didn’t want the overthrow of existing gender roles, didn’t want the destruction of business in the name of some dope-smoking utopia, who largely enjoyed and benefited from capitalism, from a stable society, an effective police force, the rule of law and notions of property which allowed them to save up to own their own home, a large fridge-freezer and two cars.


Science and technology

Space race I was galvanised when I read JG Ballard’s remark, decades ago, that the Space Age only lasted a few years, from the moon landing (Apollo 11, July 20 1969) to the final Apollo mission (Apollo 17, December 1972). As a teenager besotted with science fiction, I assumed space exploration would go on forever, the Moon, Mars, and then other solar systems! DeGroot’s account rams home the notion that it was all a delusion. He is critical of NASA’s insistence on manned space flights which cost hugely more than unmanned missions. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 was another nail in the coffin into which fantasies of interplanetary flight have been laid.

Environment Through the prisms of the dioxin disaster at Seveso and the major nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, DeGroot makes the point that environmentalism (along with feminism, anti-racism and gay rights) was one of the big causes of the 1970s, virtually non-existent at the start of the decade, enshrined in law across most industrialised countries by the end.


The economy and industry

This is the big, big gap in this book: it’s entertaining enough to read articles about Mohammed Ali or Billie Jean King or the early computer game, Pong – but it’s a major omission in a history of the 1970s not to have sections about the 1973 oil crisis, the resulting three-day week, the extraordinarily high level of strikes throughout the decade, leading up to what many people thought was the actual collapse of society in the Winter of Discontent (1978/79) and, beneath it all, the slow relentless shift in western nations from being heavily-industrialised, heavily-unionised economies to becoming post-industrial, service economies.

Big shame that DeGroot didn’t bring to these heavyweight topics the combination of deftly-chosen anecdote with pithy analysis which he applies to other, far less important, subjects.


The end of the world

I grew up in the 1970s, into awareness that the world could be destroyed at any moment, the world and all life forms on it, destroyed many times over if the old men with their fingers on the button made a mistake. DeGroot goes into detail about the effectiveness of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the sequence of meetings and agreements between America and the USSR – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties – which were reported with breathless excitement throughout the decade.

What he doesn’t convey is the moral climate this created, or rather the immoral climate, of living in a world where you, all your loved ones, and everything you held dear could, potentially, at any moment, be turned to glowing dust.

The threat of complete global destruction provided the grim backdrop against which a steady stream of horrific news about dictators and tyrants, about massacres and holocausts, was garishly lit by the smaller-scale murders and bombings of the IRA or ETA, all creating a climate of violence and futility. Mix in the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the widespread and endless strikes, the high unemployment and the fundamental economic crises which afflicted all Western countries throughout the 70s, and you have a decade of despair.


Music of anger

My biggest disagreement with DeGroot is about the significance of punk rock (1976-78). For a start, he mixes up the American and British versions, which reflect completely different societies, mentioning Blondie and the Clash in the same breath. The British version was genuinely nihilistic and despairing. Television or the Ramones always had the redemptive glamour of coming from New York; the English bands always knew they came from Bolton or Bromley, but turned their origins in dead-end, derelict post-industrial shitholes into something to be angry or depressed, but always honest about.

Like so many wise elders at the time, DeGroot loftily points out how musically inept most of the self-taught punk bands were – as if rock music should only be produced by classically-trained musicians. He completely fails to see that the music, the look and the attitude were the angry and entirely logical result of growing up into the violently hopeless society which our parents had created and which, ironically, he has done such a good job of portraying in his long, readable, and often desperately depressing book.

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