Relating to Ancestors @ the British Museum

Walk in the main entrance of the British Museum, go through the central courtyard past the great round building in the middle and walk on through the archway into room 24. This room is titled ‘Living and Dying’ and contains cases exploring ‘how people everywhere deal with the tough realities of life and death’. There’s a number of display cases looking at particular aspects of this (big) subject via the customs and artefacts of First Peoples from around the world, a lot of them from around the Pacific, although some are from Africa. But four or so big display cases are devoted to artefacts and explanations about the culture of indigenous Australians, or Aborigines as we used to call them.

Indigenous Australian beliefs

Indigenous Australians understand that ancestral beings created the land, the oceans and all living things, passing on knowledge of how to live from, and care for, the land. People burn bush-land to maintain the fertility of species and perform ceremonies to mark important life stages.

Ancestral knowledge is passed from one generation to the next through painting, dancing and telling stories about the great ancestral beings. It is embodied in the designs and materials of both art works and functional, everyday objects, and these vary greatly across the continent, reflecting the great environmental and cultural diversity of Australia.

The AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia which attempts to represent the language, social or nation groups of indigenous Australia


Australia has been inhabited for at least 60,000 years, predating the modern human settlement of  both Europe and the Americas. Although William Dampier visited the north-west coast of Australia in the late 1600s, and Captain Cook mapped the east coast in 1770, the permanent British occupation of the continent only began in 1788 with the arrival of the First Fleet of convicts, which established a penal colony at modern-day Sydney.

The first whites came into contact with the native peoples from the first day and relations between the white interlopers and black natives were troubled and sometimes violent from the start. However, some native peoples managed to stay out of contact with whites until as late as the 1980s, 200 years after the first settlement.

Weaving ancestral knowledge

Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders believed that ancestral beings were transformed into animals and plants, and that the properties of plants embody ancestral knowledge. Maintaining land and sea resources, knowing how to use the different parts of plants, and creating objects from them, thus had a spiritual as well as practical side.

One case contains nine baskets demonstrating the wide variety of styles and materials used by the hundreds of different clans or peoples ranged right across Australia’s diverse environment.

Aboriginal dilly-bag (1925) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Dealing with death

Purukapali is a major ancestral being for the Tiwi people of Bathurst and Melville Islands. In accordance with ancestral law laid down by Purukapali, Islanders mark death with public funeral ceremonies called Pukamani, in which men and women sing and dance, and erect posts on the graves of the deceased.

Baskets called tunga are woven to hold the dead person’s possessions and payment for those taking part in the ceremony. Men and women adorn themselves with elaborate body decoration and wear specially designed armlets and other ornaments. The men dance holding carved and painted hardwood spears. The distinctive baskets are placed upside down on the grave poles.

This case displays some tunga baskets, a selection of ceremonial armlets for men and women, and some impressive multi-barbed spears.

Aboriginal barbed spears from the Tiwi Islands

Painting ancestral stories

Indigenous Australians often depict the great travelling paths of ancestral beings in their paintings. In the guise of humans, plants or animals, spiritual beings crossed the land, creating features such as hills and waterholes. Some of these ancestral journeys (or ‘Dreamings’) cover thousands of miles.

The places where the ancestors stopped or performed important deeds have great spiritual influence. Many of these sites and their associated stories are known only to men or only to women.  This picture, Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters), depicts an important woman’s place near salt lakes in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) painted by Anne Ngantiri Hogan, Tjaruwa Angelina Woods, Yarangka Elaine Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms, Myrtle Pennington of the Tjuntjuntjara Community of Western Australia (2013) © The Trustees of the British Museum

The artists, all senior women of the Spinifex people, depict a story about ancestral beings that took place there. Seven sisters who are singing and dancing across the land are being pursued by a lustful man, Wati Nyiru. The women escape his unwanted attentions by launching themselves from a hill into the sky, where they become the Seven Sisters constellation. Here’s a schematic version of the painting explaining its various aspects.

Schematic explanation of Kungkarangkalpa © The Trustees of the British Museum

The Spinifex people

A number of objects on display in the museum were made by the Spinifex people. Many of the Spinifex people were moved off their land when the British carried out atom bomb tests in the 1950s and 1960s. After a long struggle their claim for native title to the land was recognised by the Australian courts in 2000.

Typical of their art is this painting made by senior men of the Spinifex people: Roy Underwood, Lennard Walker, Simon Hogan and Ian Rictor. It depicts an important songline (or ‘Dreaming’) relating to a place called Pukara and the travels of two ancestral men (Wati Kutjara) who travelled across the land, creating its features and customary law.

Pukara, collaborative painting by artists of Spinifex people (2013) from Tjuntjuntjara, Spinifex region of Western Australia © The Trustees of the British Museum

The museum provides another schematic explaining key elements in the painting.

Schematic view of Pukara © The Trustees of the British Museum

Interestingly, artists from the Spinifex people, in the last 30 years, have taken to painting their stories and country in a for suitable for sale to outsiders i.e. they have engaged with the white art market, not only at home but abroad. The result is that you can now buy Spinifex art at galleries around the world. This particular painting was created by the community-based Spinifex Arts Project and bought by the British Museum in 2013.

Artistic innovation

Inspired by ancestral land and traditions, Indigenous Australians are bringing artistic innovation to ancestral traditions.

Sculptural objects made from plant fibres have long been part of Indigenous Australian culture. Historically, woven fibre baskets and sculptural forms were made for practical or ceremonial use but since the 1970s an increasing number of fibre works have been produced for the fine art market. In Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, women create woven sculptures of ancestral beings and animals.

In Pukatja (formerly Ernabella) in South Australia, Aboriginal artists use a wide range of materials and techniques. These include batik, a method of producing coloured designs on cloth, by brushing or stamping hot wax on the parts not to be dyed. The textile designs are inspired by ancestral landscapes, local plants and animals. The display case shows three sculptures of camp dogs and three batik textiles.

Batik on silk textile by Nyuwara Tapaya (2000) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Women at Ernabella Arts in Pukatja, South Australia, began producing batik work after visiting Indonesia and seeing the technique being used there. The artists are inspired by the colours and forms of the ancestral landscape of the desert region where they live. Unlike some of the other paintings we’ve looked at, they don’t attach specific meanings to their designs i.e. they are purely decorative.

Torres Strait Islanders

The Torres Strait is the body of water which separates northern Australia from Papua New Guinea to the north. It is littered with a large number of medium-sized and small islands. Each of these was populated by Indigenous peoples, known collectively as the Torres Straits Islanders.

A map of the Torres Strait Islands showing the large number of tiny islands, by Kelisi (source: Wikipedia)

Although many islanders now live on the mainland they retain strong connections with their island homes. The sea, the sky and the land remain central to their identity and spirituality.

Before Christianity was introduced to the Torres Straits in 1871 the islanders held elaborate funerals involving masks and ceremonial dances. Often wearing turtle-shell masks, feathered head-dresses called dhari and pearl-shell chest pendants. Contemporary masks and head-dresses often incorporate new materials and forms but they are still inspired by ancestral beings and stories.

Thus the case displays a couple of traditional masks, a warup drum, dhari head-dress, stone-headed club and pearl-shell pendants. The Torres Strait drum known as the warup drum is shaped like an hourglass.  This one is carved from solid dark wood. The larger end represents a fish’s head with open jaws. On the top is carved a lizard and along each side run two projecting bands ornamented with cassowary feathers and seeds. Feathers and goa nuts are attached to each side and incised decoration is infilled with white.

But it’s not just about old and traditional artefacts. The British Museum has bought, and displays, plenty of works by contemporary Indigenous Australian artists. This head-dress was made by contemporary artist Alick Tipoti.

Kaygasiw Usul by Alick Tipoti (2014) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Tipoti is from Badu Island in the Torres Strait. The name of this mask, Kaygasiw Usul, means ‘shovel-nose dust trail reflected in the heavens as the milky way’. It’s made from fibre-glass stained with polyester resin to create the transparent effect of turtle shell, along with plastic, nylon and superglue fastening more traditional materials.

The mask represents an ancestral shark, the Kaygasiw Usul, whose tail fin stirs up an underwater sand trail that forms the Milky Way. The small mask on top represent ancient dancers and the mask inside the mouth symbolises the main dancer.


As may be obvious, I have lifted most of the text of this post directly from the British Museum wall labels and captions.

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Nemesis by Max Hastings (2007)

This massive slab of a book (674 pages) is a long and thorough account of the final year of the war against Japan. The book contains thousands of facts, quotes, interviews, interpretations and assessments. Some of the ones which stood out for me were:

  • Hastings points out that Russia, China and Japan simply do not have the same tradition of scholarly, objective history as we in the Anglosphere (p.xxiv). Even quite famous historians from those countries tend to parrot party lines and patriotic rhetoric. Hastings says Japanese historians are rarely quoted in Western accounts because of ‘the lack of intellectual rigour which characterises even most modern Japanese accounts’ (p.xxiii).
  • Western liberals often berate European empires for their racism – but all that pales into significance compared to the inflexible Japanese belief in their innate racial superiority, which led them to treat their ‘fellow Asians’ appallingly, particularly after the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931 (p.4). As many as 15 million Asians died in Japan’s so-called ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’, including up to ten million Chinese (Hastings says 15 million in the period 1931-45, p.12, and Chinese historians claim up to 50 million), as well as 2 million Koreans (several times Hastings makes the chastening point that all large numbers to do with the Second World War are to be treated with caution).
  • At least a million Vietnamese died in the great famine of 1944-45 caused by the Japanese overlords’ insistence that rice paddies be switched to fibre crops (p.13). Over 2 million Filipinos died in the appalling massacres during the battles to liberate the Philippines. And so on.
  • Wherever the Japanese went they enslaved large numbers of local women as sex slaves.
    • Wikipedia quotes a typical Japanese soldier saying the women ‘cried out, but it didn’t matter to us whether the women lived or died. We were the emperor’s soldiers. Whether in military brothels or in the villages, we raped without reluctance.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Marriage with inhabitants of any of the colonised countries – China, Korea, Burma – was forbidden, to prevent dilution of the superior Yamato race (p.38).
  • 103,000 Americans died in the war against Japan out of a total one and a quarter million who served there (p.9). The US pro rata casualty rate in the Pacific was three and a half times that in Europe, not least because of Japan’s rejection of the Geneva Convention whereby a beleaguered force could surrender. The Japanese fought to the last man again and again, forcing the Allies to suffer disproportionately large casualties.
    • ‘Until morale cracks it must be accepted that the capture of a Japanese position is not ended until the last Jap in it (generally several feet underground) is killed. Even in the most desperate circumstances, 99 per cent of the Japs prefer death or suicide to capture.’ (Major-General Douglas Gracey, quoted on page 11.)
  • Hastings says the idea that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering when America dropped the atom bombs in August 1945 is a ‘myth’ which has been ‘comprehensively discredited’. If the war had continued for even a few weeks longer more people would have died in the intense aerial bombing and fighting, than died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • The great missed opportunity of the war was that Japan could/should have invaded Russia from the East to co-ordinate with Hitler’s invasion from the West in June 1941. There was a real chance that by dividing Stalin’s armies the two fascist countries could have brought Russia to its knees, forced a change of government, and begun exploiting Russia’s raw materials to fuel their war machines. But Stalin’s certainty that Japan would not invade at this crucial juncture (provided by the spy Richard Sorge), allowed him to move his Eastern divisions back to the heartland where they were crucial in stopping the German advance at Moscow, and then slowly throwing the Germans back.
  • The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941 was a catastrophic mistake. If the Japanese had restricted themselves to invading the European colonies in Asia largely abandoned by embattled France, Holland and Britain i.e. Burma, Malaysia etc, then President Roosevelt would have found it difficult if not impossible to persuade Congress and the American people to go to war, to sacrifice American boys, to save old European empires. Some kind of modus vivendi between Japan and America could have been possible. But the attack on Pearl Harbour, the ‘Day of Infamy’, handed the case for war to Roosevelt on a plate, effectively dooming Japan’s military government and empire. ‘By choosing to participate in a total war, [Japan] exposed itself to total defeat’. (p.5)

The ineffectiveness of militarism

History is a playground of ironies. It is difficult to know where to start in this particular theatre of ironic reversals.

Both of these two militaristic states – Japan and Germany – fetishised war and the soldier, seeing the highest role the individual could play to be a latter-day Aryan ubermensch or samurai and the state as the embodiment of the militarised will of the people. In their speeches and propaganda, Japan’s leaders dripped contempt for the liberal capitalist democracies of the degenerate West. And yet it turned out to be those degenerate democracies which mobilised most effectively for war, and indeed won.

And Hastings points out that this was due to identifiable shortcomings not only in Japan’s economy, state organisation and military infrastructure – of which there were ample – but in its culture, traditions and even language.

  • Respect for superiors meant Japanese officers never questioned orders. Never. Whereas pluralistic meritocratic free-speech democracies discovered that a certain amount of critical thought and questioning helps an army or navy function better.
  • Rather than criticise or even question orders, Japanese prefer silence. ‘Faced with embarrassment, Japanese often resort to silence – mokusatsu‘ (p.42). The opposite of freedom of thought and enquiry.
  • Because the Japanese were convinced of their racial, moral and spiritual superiority to all other nations and races, they made no attempt to understand other cultures. A contributory factor was the self-imposed isolation of the country for centuries. The Japanese had little or none of the ‘intelligence’ operations which were so important in the West, which helped us to plan logistics and strategy, and this absence severely undermined planning and strategy. All they had was the samurai will to fight which turned out not to be enough.
  • The Western democracies, being less hamstrung by traditions of obedience and respect and the military spirit and Emperor-worship, were more flexible. Concrete examples the way that in the West civilian experts were pressed into work on a) building the atom bomb and b) decrypting German and Japanese signal codes. Both these stunning successes were achieved by eccentric civilians, tweed-jacketed, pipe-smoking academics. Compare & contrast the Japanese army and navy which had absolutely no place for anyone who hadn’t been through their rigorous military training or shared their glorious samurai code. ‘It is hard to overstate the extent to which Anglo-American wartime achievements were made possible by the talents of amateurs in uniform’ (p.50).

Thus the Japanese mindset militated against inquiry, analysis, adaptability and free expression.

Japanese atrocities

While the Japanese army and navy bickered, while the government failed to create a coherent industrial strategy for war, while their planners completely underestimated American resources and resilience, the one thing the Japanese, like all weak and inferior armies, excelled at was brutality and atrocity, especially against unarmed civilians, especially against unarmed women.

  • The book includes quite a few personal stories from some of the 200,000 plus sex slaves abducted into ‘comfort centres’ everywhere the Japanese army went, China, Korea, the Philippines, Burma etc. Organised and state-sanctioned gang rape.
  • ‘During Japan’s war in China, the practices of conducting bayonet training on live prisoners, and of beheading them, became institutionalised.’ (p.53) The book has quite a few photos including one of a Japanese officer swinging his sword to behead a blindfolded Australian prisoner. Nowadays we are appalled to watch videos of Western hostages being beheaded by Islamic fanatics. The Japanese did the same on an industrial scale.
  • Discipline in army and navy were severe, with routine heavy beatings of new recruits and officers allowed to kick, punch and abuse any men under their command. The culture of brutality went all down the line. When a destroyer’s cutter, rescuing survivors from a sunk battleship, threatened to be overwhelmed, those in the boat drew their swords and hacked off the hands of their fellow Japanese (p.54).
  • Colonel Masanobu Tsuji was responsible for brutalities and atrocities wherever he served. The most notorious anecdote is when, in northern Burma, he dined off the liver of a captured Allied airman (p.56).
  • The Japanese launched the ‘Three Alls’ policy in China, in 1941, a scorched earth strategy designed to break the spirit of the native inhabitants and bring the occupied country under complete control. The three alls were ‘kill all, burn all, loot all’. The operation targeted for destruction ‘all males between the ages of fifteen and sixty whom we suspect to be enemies’ and led to the deaths of over 2.7 million Chinese civilians.
  • Unit 731 was an experimental biological and chemical warfare research division, set up in occupied Manchuria which conducted experiments of unspeakable bestiality on Chinese victims. To quote Wikipedia,
    • ‘Thousands of men, women and children interred at prisoner of war camps were subjected to vivisection, often without anaesthesia and usually ending with the death of the victim. Vivisections were performed on prisoners after infecting them with various diseases. Researchers performed invasive surgery on prisoners, removing organs to study the effects of disease on the human body. These were conducted while the patients were alive because it was feared that the decomposition process would affect the results. The infected and vivisected prisoners included men, women, children, and infants.’ (Wikipedia)
  • Allied Prisoners of War. Large numbers of memoirs, histories and movies have familiarised us with the Japanese’ merciless treatment of Allied prisoners of war.
    • a) Appalling though they obviously were, they pale in contrast to the appalling treatment Japanese meted out to their fellow Asian civilians.
    • b) Not having to prove so much on this well-discussed issue, Hastings is freed up to include stories of the small minority of Japanese who actually treated prisoners decently – though it’s noticeable that these were mostly civilians or unwilling recruits.
  • Cannibalism. On page 464 Hastings gives specific instances of Japanese cannibalism, including soldiers eating downed Allied air crew and murdered civilians. They preferred thigh meat.
    • ‘Portions of beheaded US carrier flier Marve Mershon were served to senior Japanese officers on Chichi Jima in February 1945, not because they needed the food, but to promote their own honour.’ (p.464)

The war in China

Eventually it becomes physically hard to read any more about the war in China. Japan invaded the north-east province of Manchuria in 1931, establishing their custom of mass murder and rape, associated most with the so-called ‘rape’ of Nanjing, where up to 300,000 Chinese were massacred in six weeks of mayhem.

In 1937 the Japanese launched a further invasion of the entire coast of China. Mass murder, gang rape, forced labour, mass executions and germ warfare experiments on prisoners followed in their wake. Wherever they went, villages were looted, burned down, all the women gang raped, then cut open with bayonets or burned to death. Again and again and again. As throughout the book, Hastings quotes from eyewitness accounts and the stories of numerous survivors, who watched their families be bayoneted to death, heads cut off, forced into rooms into which the Japanese threw hand grenades, everywhere all the women were taken off to be gang raped, again and again, before being themselves executed.

The horror is difficult to imagine and becomes hard to read about.

More bearable, less drenched in blood, is Hasting’s fascinating high-level account of the political situation in China. After the overthrow of the last Qing emperor in 1911, China fell apart into regions controlled by warlords. The most effective of these was Chiang Kai-shek who emerged as the leader of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Chinese Nationalist Party, in the late 1920s, just before the Japanese took advantage of the chaos to invade Manchuria.

Chiang and his people were overt fascists, who despised the softness of liberal capitalist countries like the US and Britain. I didn’t know that the Americans poured an amazing amount of material aid, food and ammunition into Nationalist areas, hoping Chiang would create a force capable of stopping and then throwing the Japanese out. But Hastings shows how it was a stupendous waste of money due to the chronic corruption and ineffectiveness of the Chinese. It took American leaders at all levels four years to realise that the Nationalists were useless, their armed forces badly organised, barely trained, barely equipped and consistently refusing to fight the Japanese. Only slowly did fears begin to grow that the Kuomintang’s bottomless corruption and brutality were in fact paving the way for a Communist victory (which was to come in 1949).

The Philippines

More horror, compounded by American stupidity. US Generalissimo in the South West Pacific, General Douglas MacArthur, had lived in the Philippines before the war. US forces were driven out in 1942, after holding out in the Bataan Peninsula opposite Manila. Hence, once the tide of war turned and his forces had recaptured Papua New Guinea, MacArthur had a very personal ambition to recapture the archipelago.

Hastings is extremely critical of MacArthur’s publicity-seeking egotism, his refusal to listen to intelligence which contradicted his opinion, and above all his insistence on recapturing every single island in the Philippines, which led to thousands of unnecessary American deaths, when he could have bypassed, surrounded and starved them out with far fewer casualties.

Above all this obsession led him to fight for the capital Manila, instead of surrounding it and starving the occupying Japanese out. His predictions that it would be a pushover were proved disastrously wrong as the Japanese converted the battle for Manila into bitter, brutal street fighting comparable to Stalingrad or Berlin – with the extra twist that Japanese officers promised their troops they could enjoy their last days on earth by systematically gang raping as many Filipino women as they could get their hands on, and ordering them to massacre all civilians.

Hastings gives pages and pages of first-hand accounts of Japanese rape, butchery, beheadings, bayonetings, executions, murders and more rapes. It is quite sickening. Thus the ‘liberation’ of Manila (3 February to 3 March) resulted in the deaths of some 100,000 Filipino civilians and the almost complete destruction of the historic city.


Having struggled through the descriptions of the war in China (pp.207-240) and the Battle of Manila (pp.241-266) the reader turns to the next chapter — to find it is an unforgivingly detailed account of the brutal battle for the tiny Pacific island of Iwo Jima…. This book really is a relentlessly grim and depressing chronicle of man’s most bestial, inhuman, grotesquely violent savage behaviour to his fellow man, and especially to vulnerable women.

Nemesis is a comprehensive, unblinking overview of the war in the Pacific, and includes revelatory chapters on often-neglected areas like Burma and the Chinese mainland. It is so long because at every point Hastings includes lots of eyewitness accounts, recorded in letters, diaries, autobiographies, official reports and so on, to give a strong feeling all the way through of individual experiences and how it seemed and felt to people at the time.

And he goes out of his way to include all nations, so there are plenty of accounts by Japanese and Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as the expected Allies. It is the civilians’ memoirs which are most harrowing, the Chinese and Filipino women’s accounts of the mass rapes of their families, villages and communities being particularly hard to read.

And the battle chapters chronicle the relentless Allied casualties which the well dug-in Japanese caused on every single island and hill and redoubt, on Guam, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and all the poxy little Pacific islands the Americans had to capture on their long odyssey towards the Japanese mainland. These chapters, with their grinding destruction of human beings, builds up the sense of tension, stress and horror experienced by all the soldiers. It is a nerve-wracking book to read.

Subsequent chapters describe in harrowing detail:

  • The bloody campaign to retake Burma.
  • The genesis of the horrific American firebombing of Japanese cities. (The 9 March firebombing of Tokyo killed around 100,000 people, destroyed over 10,000 acres of buildings – a quarter of the city was razed – rendering a million people homeless amid the smoking ruins. It is difficult to read the eyewitness accounts without weeping or throwing up.)
  • The battle of Okinawa – which involved the largest amphibious landing in history, after D-Day – and where the Americans encountered Japanese dug into another almost indestructible network of caves and bunkers.
  • The genesis, rise, effectiveness and then falling-off of the kamikaze suicide-pilot movement (with its less well-known cousin, the suicide boat and torpedo squads).
  • The rise of Mao’s communists. Hastings fleshes out the idea that, although they both received massive amounts of aid from the Americans, flown in from India and Burma, neither Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist army nor Mao’s Communist army was much interested in actually fighting the Japanese: neither of them had many guns, much ammunition, little or no military discipline or strategy. Both were focused on positioning themselves for the Chinese civil war they could see coming once the Americans had won. Everywhere the corruption and incompetence of the Nationalists alienated the population, whereas the communists were very careful to recruit and train the best peasants, and leave a good impression on villages they passed through. It took a long time for their American sponsors to realise that the Kuomintang was going to lose. Amusingly, American officials at the time and ever since have played down their support for Mao’s communists.
  • The Americans were really vehemently anti the European empires. Churchill fondly imagined he’d be able to restore the British Empire to the status quo ante the war, but the Americans did everything they could to spurn and undermine British efforts. Apparently, in the later part of the Pacific war a poisonous atmosphere existed between the American and British administrations in the region, as the British tried to squeeze in a contribution to the war, in order to justify their return to colonial mastery of Burma, Malaysia, Singapore etc, while the Americans did everything they could to keep them out. And not just the British. A short but riveting section explains how the Americans systematically undermined the French government’s attempts to retake control of Indochina i.e. Vietnam. The Americans supported the leader of the Vietnamese nationalists, Ho Chi Minh, giving him time to establish his Viet Minh organisation and recruit widespread support for anti-colonial forces. This set off a train of events which would come back to bite America hard twenty years later, as it found itself dragged into the effort to stop Vietnam falling to communism during the 1960s – the Vietnam War – which did so much to fracture and polarise American society (and whose repercussions are still felt to this day).

One of Hasting’s most interesting points is the idea that the single most effective weapon against Japan was the naval blockade and in particular the heroic efforts of American submarines in smashing the Japanese merchant marine. Japan is made up of islands which have few natural resources; everything has to be imported; American submarines were bringing Japan to its knees, bringing war production to a grinding halt and starving its population well before the firebombing campaign began.

But wartime leaders need dramatic results, and also the air force was jockeying for position and influence against its rivals, the army and navy, and so the firebombing continued – with an undoubtedly devastating effect on the civilian population but a less decisive impact on Japan’s commitment to the war.

The atom bomb

And this accumulated sense of endless nightmare provides the full depth and horror, the correct historical context, for the American decision to drop the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which I read about recently in Jim Baggott’s excellent history of the atom bomb, Atomic.

You and I may reel with horror at the effect of the atom bombs but both these books make clear that millions of American soldiers, their families, the wider nation, the Allies generally, not to mention the scores of thousands of Allied and Asian prisoners of war, and all the peoples in the occupied zones of China – all felt nothing but relief and gratitude that the seemingly unending slaughter and raping and burning and torture had finally come to an end.

Hastings goes into considerable detail on the military, strategic, political and diplomatic background to the dropping of the bombs.

  • In his account, the idea that the bombs prevented the need to invade Japan in which scores of thousands of American troops would have died, is downplayed. In Hasting’s opinion, Japan was already on its knees and had been brought there by the effectiveness of the naval blockade. Its people were starving, its war industries grinding to a halt.
  • For the American military leadership the bomb didn’t (at first) represent a significantly new departure, but just a continuation of the firebombing of Japanese cities which had killed at least 200,000 people by this stage, and which was set to continue indefinitely. (It is grimly, darkly humorous to learn that Hiroshima was chosen as the first bomb site precisely because it had been left untouched by the firebombing campaign, and so would provide perfect experimental conditions to assess the impact of the new weapon. Similarly, it is all-too-human to learn that the general in charge of the firebombing, Curtis LeMay, was angered that the atom bombs robbed him of being able to claim that his firebombing campaign alone had won the war against Japan. Such is human nature.)
  • The second bomb was dropped because the Japanese hesitated and prevaricated even after Hiroshima, and this was due to at least two fundamental flaws in its leadership and culture:
    • Everyone was scared of the military. By now the Prime Minister and other ministers, backed up by information from the Japanese ambassador in Moscow, realised they had to surrender. But the cabinet of the ‘Big Six’ included the heads of the army and navy who refused. They insisted that Japan would rise up as one man and fight to the death. In their vision, all Japanese, the entire nation, should be ready to die honourably instead of surrender. And Japan had existed in a climate of fascist fear for over a decade. Anybody who spoke out against the military leadership tended to be assassinated. They all claimed to worship Emperor Hirohito as a living god but Hirohito was incapable, partly from temperament, partly from his position, to make a decision. He, like his civilian politicians and a lot of the population, obviously realised the game was up and wanted to end the war – they just didn’t want to end it by giving up their army or navy or colonies in Asia or existing political system or bringing war criminals to trial. They wanted to surrender without actually having to surrender. Thus hopelessly conflicted, Japan’s leadership was effectively paralysed. Instead of making a swift appeal to surrender to the Americans, they carried on pettifogging about the use of the phrase ‘unconditional surrender’, and so the second bomb was dropped, on Nagasaki. These sections are peppered with phrases like ‘delusional’, ‘in denial’, ‘gross miscalculation’
    • (As in the Jim Baggott book, Hastings reports the simple and devastating fact that the intended target, Kokura, happened to be covered in cloud when the B-29 carrying the bomb approached, so the flight crew switched to the secondary target, Nagasaki, where conditions were clear. Lucky weather for Kokura. Unlucky weather for Nagasaki. Thus the autterly random contingencies which determined life and death in the terrible twentieth century.)
  • The biggest revelation for me was the role of Russia. Russia remained neutral in the war against Japan until the last day. This allowed Japanese diplomats and politicians to pin their hopes on the Russians somehow being able to negotiate a peace with their American allies, whereby Japan could surrender and not surrender. Right up to the last minute they thought this was an option, not knowing that Stalin had asked Roosevelt if he could join the war against Japan once the war in Europe was finished and that Roosevelt had agreed (before dying in April 1945 and being succeeded by Harry Truman). Hastings chronicles the intense diplomatic manoeuvring which took place in July and early August, the Japanese with their futilely wishful thinking, Stalin calculating how much of Asia he could grab from the obviously defeated Japs, and the Americans becoming increasingly concerned that Stalin would award himself huge areas after having made next to no contribution to the war.
  • So, if you remove the motivation that dropping the bombs would save the lives of potentially 100,000 young American men who could be expected to be lost in a fiercely contested invasion of Japan’s home islands – then you are led to the conclusion that at least as important was the message they sent to the USSR: ‘America decisively won this war. To the victor the spoils. Don’t mess with us.’ The dropping of the A-bombs becomes the last act of the Second World War and simultaneously the first act of the Cold War which gripped the world for the next 44 years.

Soviet invasion of Manchuria

I didn’t realise that on the same day that America dropped the Nagasaki bomb, the Russian army attacked the Japanese across a massive front into Manchuria and the Sakhalin peninsula, with over a million men. Although the Japanese had feared a Russian invasion for years and knew about the massed build-up on the borders, once again ‘evasion of unpalatable reality prevailed over rational analysis of probabilities’ (p.534). And so, on 9 August 1945, the Red Army invaded Manchuria along a massive front, taking just seven days to shatter Japan’s Kwantung Army, achieving total victory in the Far East in less than 3 weeks. They killed or wounded 674,000 Japanese troops, losing 12,031 killed and 24,425 wounded themselves (p.582).

During the defeat Japanese colonists were ordered to resist and die. This especially applied to mothers, who were expected to kill their children and then themselves. They were often helped out by obliging Japanese soldiers. The Russians were held up in some spots by the same fanatical resistance and suicide squads which made Iwo Jima and Okinawa such bloodbaths, except this was a huge area of open territory, rather than a tiny island, and the Japs had run out of arms and ammunition – and so could be easily outflanked and outgunned.

As usual with Russian soldiers, there soon emerged widespread rumours of indiscriminate rape of all surviving Japanese women and random Chinese women – ‘wholesale rape’ as Hastings puts it (p.571) – though this has been fiercely contested by Russian historians. The very last battle of the Second World War was the Russian storming of a vast network of bunkers and artillery placements at Houtou. The Japanese resisted to the last until around 2,000 defenders were dead, including women and scores of Japanese children. The Soviet soldiers addressed the local Chinese peasants telling them they had been liberated by the Red Army and then set about looting everything which could be moved, including the entire local railway line, and ‘women were raped in the usual fashion’ (p.578).

This storming campaign showed that Russia’s victories in Europe were no fluke. The Russians now had an enormous and effective war machine, the most experienced in the world, given that it had been fighting vast land battles for three years, unlike the other Allies.

Up until this moment the Japanese had been hoping against hope that Russia would somehow intervene with America to manage a conditional surrender. Now they finally lost that hope and Japan’s leaders were forced towards the unconditional surrender, which they finally signed on 2 September 1945.

The Soviet occupation of Manchuria, along with the northern portions of the Korean peninsula, allowed them to transfer these areas to communist-backed regimes. This helped the rise of communist China and communist North Korea, laying the seeds for the Korean War (1950-53) and the ongoing nuclear threat from contemporary North Korea. Thus do geopolitical acts live on long, long past the lifetimes of their protagonists.


When I bought the book I thought the title, Nemesis, was a bit melodramatic. Having read it, I realise now that no words can convey the intensity, the duration and the bestiality of such horror. I am ashamed to have lived in the 20th century. At times, reading this book, I was ashamed to be a human being.

Nagasaki, after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945

Nagasaki after the Fat Boy atom bomb was dropped on 9 August 1945


Nemesis: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings was published in 2007 by HarperPress. All quotes and references are to the 2016 William Collins paperback edition.

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Solomon’s Seal by Hammond Innes (1980)

He turned then, facing me reluctantly, his features crumpled by the intensity of the emotions that gripped him. He mumbled something, gripping hold of my arm, but the sound of his voice was lost in the crash of a wave. (p.140)

Roy Slingsby is a typical Innes protagonist, a decent, averagely honest man plunged into a bizarre adventure in a colourful foreign land. The book is carefully divided into five parts, but the following are my own divisions, based on the imaginative settings or backdrops which dominate.

Part one – East Anglia

Roy is 40, he’s knocked about a bit, skippered landing craft as part of his National Service, keeps a run-down sailing boat on the Suffolk coast and makes a so-so living as a contents valuer for an estate agent. A chance call leads him to a routine valuation of the now-empty home in Aldeburgh of one Tim Holland, a man about his own age who became seriously ill while working in the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, came home to recuperate but is so poorly he’s been placed in a nursing home.

Roy is shown round by his sister, Perenna Holland, who had been looking after Tim. She is not only attractive but peculiar, showing an unusual interest in the grotesque and frightening native artifacts around the house and then revealing that her brother is suffering from a curse cast by a witch doctor among the islands. If only she could find the man who did it, she would… she would… Roy is startled by her belief in primitive magic and by her anger. Turns out there is one other sibling, Jona, who owns and runs an ex-army landing craft which he uses to trade around the islands.

Roy drives away from this innocuous-looking farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside, his mind fired by images of foreign lands, savage customs, the hot sun, the tang of the ocean.

In another plot strand Roy had been advising one of the firm’s clients about a farm in far away Australia. The client now wants to sell up, would Roy – a trusted agent for the firm in their English business – fly out and handle the sale, all expenses paid? In almost the same breath Roy’s employers make it plain he will never be made a partner of their firm and he has a stand-up row with the boss before walking out. Yes, he rings the client to say, yes, he’ll take the Australia job: please arrange the flights, tickets, hotels, tell the agent, the man on the ground who’s been running the farm, that he’ll be coming.

This first section is dominated by the mystery of a pair of old stamp albums Roy noted among the Suffolk house’s contents and which, being a bit of a collector himself, he knew who to pass onto for an assessment. To his surprise the expert says it contains the die for some rare stamps and the whole thing looks like a collection assembled by someone designing new stamps for a colony in the south seas. (The expert is himself a sailor; the scene where they meet aboard the expert’s boat are described with typical Innes gusto for the drift and smell and bob of the water.) The expert arranges a provisional sale and forwards the money to Perenna.

But here there is more complication, for it appears she has left the house – Roy drives there to find it stripped bare and a bonfire of most of its contents, old letters and photos – and some worryingly bizarre artifacts, arrows and barbed knives, carved from wood and painted blood colour – in the garden. Perenna left a message with her solicitor that she has taken a job on a cruise liner, all monies to be sent to the address of her Southampton bank. (Innes’ novels are always studded with the precise details of work, the practical details of everyday life.)

Part two – Australia

Roy flies to Australia, familiarises himself with Sydney before flying to Brisbane and then is driven by the agent out to the farm he’s charged with selling, with the absurd name of Munnobungle (p.85), a dried-up wreck of a place. This only happens for a few pages but Innes packs into it the familiarity with the Australian terrain, and with no-nonsense outback Aussies, which characterised his great book set there, Golden Soak. Just reading about the red soil and the dusty shack and the flaking eucalyptus trees, was pure pleasure.

Roy concludes the deal quickly and returns to Sydney where he spends time tracking down the landing craft of Perenna’s brother, among the huge throng of ships in the harbour. Eventually he finds it, goes aboard to discover the brother, the captain, Jona, pretty drunk, the first mate unconscious in his cabin, the boat crewed by various surly blacks, natives of the Solomon Islands, a typically fraught, tense, male environment.

On the spot Jona offers him a job as crew member who will, when they get out to sea, be promoted to first officer, and Roy, having come all this way, accepts it. What is he doing? Well, he has no ties back in England, his return flight is open-ended, ever since meeting that lonely woman in an empty farmhouse in the flat Suffolk countryside he has been fired by her stories of strange seas and exotic lands. Why not? The next journey is to take some Haulpaks to Bougainville island, 500 miles north-east of Australia, sandwiched between the Solomon islands to the south and Papua New Guinea, of which it is formally part, to the north-west.

Part three – At sea

Once they set sail from Sydney, Roy is a new man, confidently taking his place at the helm and his watch among those of Jona and the first mate, Luke, confidently ordering the sullen black crew about their tasks, worried by the neglect and dirt he finds everywhere, standing up to the alcoholic first officer, Mac. Innes is at sea and his prose shows his total familiarity and spirited enjoyment of the situation.

Roy learns that the ship is scheduled to land at a beach along the coastline, to lower its ramp and let a couple of vehicles drive on board. He is suspicious of this little detour, of the crew’s behaviour, of Jona’s evasiveness. Something crooked is obviously going on, but how crooked? He bullies the Indian radio officer into sending a message to Perenna’s ship, for her attention, due to be docking about now. The rendezvous on the beach isn’t for a few days: can Perenna fly to Australia, then on to this location and join the boat? It will infuriate Jona; but it will fulfil Perenna’s dream of being reunited with her brother and of going back to the islands to find the man who cursed her brother and getting him to repeal the curse.

They reach the rendezvous on the coast of Queensland, beach the landing craft, lower the ramp and the two lorries are driven on board by their surly drivers, who go back down the ramp and into a waiting car and are driven off, the ramp is raised and the landing craft steams backwards and out to sea. When, at the end of his shift, Roy stumbles down the steep metal steps to his cramped cabin, he is amazed to find Perenna in his bed: she got his message, took the first flights and a car out to the meeting place, and paid the first driver to smuggle her aboard in one of the trucks.

She stays in Roy’s cabin for the first day and they find themselves having sex, but it is an uneasy relationship. Eventually she presents herself to Jona who is angry but can live with the situation. Roy and Perenna grow more suspicious about the contents of the crates which came aboard in the trucks. In a tense scene, in the middle of the night, eluding the watchful Buka native sailors, they break one open and discover it is full of guns and ammunition.

Somewhere along the line it is revealed that, when they were living in the islands, there was an outbreak of Cargo fever (related to the religion of Cargoism) and a force of Buka men, worked up into a frenzy, broke into Perenna’s house, hacked her mother to death in front of her and began to attack her, but she fought back with a kitchen cleaver, herself killing one native and driving the others off. Not without suffering a severe cut to the neck. a) Whenever Roy sees the scar he is reminded of this terrible incident b) it explains Perenna’s obsession with native beliefs and fear of violence.

I barely caught Perenna’s words as she said, ‘Are we all going to die – violently?’ Her eyes were wide and staring, full of fear – a fear that was inside her, part of her being. ‘Did he say anything about the curse?’ she said. (p.278)

Part four – the coup

They dock at Anewa Bay to unload the Haulpaks and trucks, and there is some classic Innes research as they are met by an engineer who shows them the extraordinary amount of development which has taken place in the past decade, with the construction of a power station by the Japanese which fuels a vast copper and silver mine up in the mountain as well as power for the new towns which have grown up around it.

Driving round that night, Roy and Perenna see a lorryful of Baku natives go into the District Governor’s office with machine guns. They drive to the nearest houses to call the police but all the phone lines are down. They drive to the huge mine to find the manager is on leave, but are witnesses as the rebels blow a key bridge in the road. Ditching the car, Perenna and Roy make it by foot down the mountainside to the port and to the landing craft, seeking safety from the coup, only to be captured at the last minute.

The coup president is a native named Sapuru but most of the practical details are being organised by Hans Holland, the red-haired cousin of Jona and Perenna, one of the tangled Holland clan. Apparently his father was killed, in his own house, by being surrounded by Colonel Holland, Perenna’s father, and a band of natives who fired flaming arrows into it, causing it to burn to the ground. This was during the war when all elements of Bougainville society were caught in the fighting between Japanese and the Allies: Hans’s father sided with the Japs and that was the reason given out for years why Colonel Holland killed him.

But throughout the book Roy has been learning there may be other reasons, that the twisted history of the Holland clan lies behind many mysteries.

Part five – the haunted house

Hans shows Roy that the landing craft is now full of captured police and local officials under armed guard of the gloating Baku natives, armed with the machine guns Jona smuggled in. Jona has drunk himself incoherent, therefore can Roy captain the ship up the coast of Bougainville to the smaller island of Buka, to drop them with the Buka Co-operative, the organisation of natives which is behind the coup. There they will be safe and can be held as hostages while Suparu negotiates independence with the Papua New Guinea authorities.

So there is some fine Innes writing describing sailing by night around a south Pacific island, marred for Roy, of course, by the extreme anxiety of the situation. Ever since he joined the landing craft relations have been rocky with its 60-year-old first officer, the alcoholic McAvoy, who is kept on by Jona because he served under Jona and Perenna’s father. Now Mac comes into his own as he hexes the Buka insurgent stationed on the bridge with a machine gun to guard Roy. Mac starts using the Buka language, babbling and gesticulating, hypnotising the guard just long enough to step forward and stab him in the guts with a long knife. Taking his machine gun he gets the horrified Roy to call the leader of the Buka men, the swaggering cocky Tualeg, up to the bridge where, with no preamble, Mac riddles his body with bullets.

Invoking the native beliefs in power and magic, Mac tells Roy to display Tualeg’s dead body on the bridge wing to the armed insurgents below. This he does with the result that the four or so insurgents simply drop their weapons, seeing their omnipowerful leader dead, and the hundred or so police and officials swarm up out of the hold and commandeer the ship. They tell Roy to continue steering it up towards the north coast, near to the airport. This they successfully storm and call for planes carrying troops from Papua New Guinea. This is the beginning of the end of the coup.

Meanwhile, Perenna, Mac and Roy, with a newly sober Jona, are recovering for this stressful adventure in the channel between Bougainville and Baku, close to the tiny island Madehas, home of the old Holland clan, location of the house built by Perenna’s grandfather and where her mother was slaughtered before her eyes. Old Mac takes Roy up there in the pouring rain, to enter the big, Gothic house, with its baronial fireplace and grand staircases, all fallen into rack and ruin now, old Mac speculating about the motives and purposes of the legendary figures, Red Holland, Black Holland, Colonel Holland, muddling them up with his adventures during the war, fighting against the Japs.

Mac shows him the house safe under the stairs, opens it and reveals whole sheets of Solomon seal stamps – the stamps whose die Roy discovered in the Suffolk house so long ago, as well as ‘the letter’, the one which drove the old Colonel into such a fury. He repeats the story that the Colonel was so fired up by it that he took his native troops and surrounded the log cabin of Red Holland, setting it aflame. He adds the detail that as the other natives fled, there was a single shot from the flaming house. Red shooting himself.

After returning to the landing craft, chewing things over with Perenna and Jona, and falling asleep, Roy is rudely awoken by the surprise appearance of Hans Holland. He is angry that old Mac stabbed his troops and released the police, but he thinks he can still make the coup work by driving trucks across the nearby airport, keeping the main plotters down in Anewa safe. But while they’re discussing it they hear the drone of planes flying overhead to land government (ie Papua New Guinea government) troops there. The cynical Australian who had been acting as Hans’s help and fixer says, ‘Well that’s that, then’. The coup will fail, Hans’s dreams of running a big shipping empire on behalf of the independent Bougainville organisation are in tatters.

Hans pulls a gun on Roy and insists he accompany him in a dinghy to the shore and then up the familiar path to the haunted house. Here – like many a doomed Innes character – Hans slumps in a chair and mutters fragments of the past, fragments the narrator (and the reader) struggles to put together. He is insistent on the letter, where is the letter? Has Roy shown the letter to Perenna? Again they discuss the complex fates of the Holland family but this time Roy tells him what Mac told him, about old Red shooting himself in the on-fire house.

Hans’ passion subsides and he tells Roy to get out, get out I tell you! Roy goes back down the path, catches the dinghy back to the landing craft and is wondering with Perenna what Hans will do now, how soon before police arrive to arrest him, whether he’ll get a life sentence etc, when one of the crew yells and points up the hill. The house is on fire, yes, flames are leaping up. And then they hear a single shot! History has repeated itself: Hans Holland has killed himself amid his own funeral pyre, just as his father did.

Jona, Perenna, Mac and Roy go up to the now burnt out house to find nothing but a pile of ashes and embers. Jona takes some, puts them in a tin and later carries out a formal burial at sea. Perenna and Roy wonder if Hans really was that depressed, or was it a ruse: has he faked his death and slipped away…?

Part six – savage customs

Jona receives radio orders from the police to sail back south to Anewa bay. Here there is an extraordinary scene, for Sapuru and the other failed coup men have barricaded themselves into one of the offices near the power station. They are surrounded by the armed police and NPG troops but themselves holding a number of white hostages. Standoff. They had been asking, demanding, the presence of Perenna, something to do with her father’s memory, with her influence.

And indeed Perenna consults with the leader of the Chimbu people who are surrounding the office. These native people are local to this place, the south of the island, unrelated to the Buka men from across the strait, and unhappy that their new-found prosperity, working up at the mine, is threatened.

Now they have stripped off their western clothes and painted their bodies with paint, lipstick, cosmetics, oil, whatever they can find, and similarly armed themselves with any weapons to hand, some have even made bows and arrows out of saplings.

Perenna counsels them to make a traditional show of strength outside the blockhouse and this is what they do, advancing and retreating and shouting their haka-like warrior chants. Finally the leader, Tagup, advances forward of his men and shouts for the coup leader, Sapuru, to come out and face him. And he does. Watched by police, army and the painted warriors the two men confer. And then Sapuru gives in and orders his men out, to lay down their arms, to release the hostages. The spirit has left him; he has no power. The coup is over. And later that evening Sapuru lays down and dies, all his strength, power and sorcery gone. It is at this moment, Perenna later finds out, that her brother Tim, back in England, long languishing under the curse of the sorcerer, at a stroke begins to show energy and life again.

Now, the whole coup, all the sailing about and adventures, gun running, shooting and midnight escapes are definitively, finally over, and Roy has a long shower and then sleeps for 12 hours in the lovely clean bed of a motel which the authorities find for him.

Part six – epilogue

Even the epilogue is complex.

The Holland shipping line Jona is arrested by the authorities but let off a gaol sentence for gun running because he pleaded ignorance, but more because of the key role played by his sister, Perenna, in the peaceful end of the coup. Nonetheless, his company turns out to be technically bankrupt. Roy flies to Australia and a) settles the sale of the Munnobungle ranch b) puts in time in Sydney drumming up custom for the last ship in the Holland line.

The Holland curse All the way through the book, on almost every page, running in parallel with the story of the gun running and the coup, has been the much deeper narrative concerning the Holland family and all the stories and rumours involving murder, incest, miscegenation and so on. While in the outback Roy travels to Cooktown to find the aborigine he’d heard about who is famous for killing one of the Hollands. He buys him a few drinks and wangles the story out of him, sort of, it’s still not totally clear.

In the late 1800s two adventurers tramping through the Australian outback came across a gold mine, which they named, because of their exhaustion, Dog Weary mine. One of them, Holland, took all the food and water and slipped away in the night to register the claim, leaving the other, Lewis, to die in the desert but Lewis didn’t die, he was found by aborigines who took him walkabout eventually returning him to ‘civilisation’. Here he discovered that Holland had used the money from the mine to set up a successful shipping line, the Holland line, with fine schooners and black and white photos of men in panama hats which were to find their way into Perenna’s house and the Madehas safe. Lewis, consumed with revenge, concocted a bomb and installed it on one of the line’s biggest ships but old man Holland discovered the plan, had Lewis killed and his body put in the captain’s cabin, then paddled away from the ship, clutching, among other things, his albums of stamps, until the ship exploded and went down with all hands. This man – Red Holland – was one and the same as the Carlos Holland who we’ve heard about throughout the novel, and he fled to Madehas island. And Hans Holland was his son. And the letter which obsessed Hans so much, reveals Carlos/Red’s identity and confirms that he is a callous mass murderer. It was this letter and this revelation which made Mac’s friend, Colonel Lawrence Holland, shake with anger and sent him along with a gang of natives to besiege and burn Carlos’s house. It was the knowledge that he’d murdered his own brother, which, years later, prompted the Colonel to get in his canoe and paddle off into the sea to die, seen by only a few servants whose garbled accounts have added to the legends. And it has been living with the knowledge that his father was a murderer which led to Hans becoming a wrong ‘un.

He was suddenly leaning forward, the red hair blazing in the slanting sunlight, his eyes staring into mine. ‘You marry Perenna, you marry the Holland Line.’ He came towards me, smiling. ‘You do that and you marry a curse. It was built on hate and fear and disaster and it’s done for every one of us – every man that has tried to make his fortune out of it. My father started it and he died an unnatural death. So did the old Colonel and Perenna’s mother, now Tim’s dying, he’s given up and he’ll die hating me, hating his sister, hating everyone, the whole world.’ He pointed his finger at me. ‘You too. You try and succeed where I failed and you’ll never know a minute’s peace. I’ll haunt you, Slingsby. Even as my father has haunted me. I’ll haunt you.’ (p.274)

The Solomon seal Here my understanding gave out and I admit I couldn’t follow why the old seal and the sheet of stamps Roy took from the safe in Madehas house were so important. The last ten pages are filled with astonishing detail around the history and manufacture of stamps and appear – from the author’s note at the end of the book – to be a complex fictional explanation of a historical fact which is that the reputable firm of note and stamp printers, Perkins Bacon, admitted in the mid 1850s to having a thief in their midst.

Precisely how this is related to the Solomon dies I didn’t understand: maybe they are a rare example of the thief in action, the die was stolen, and so the stamps are a very rare example of illegally printed stamps fro the Perkins Bacon stable.

The practical upshot is that Roy and Perenna fly back to England to oversee the sale at auction of the stamps and albums and, because of this unique (but to me incomprehensible) history, they fetch an astonishing £30,000. This is enough to get Jona’s ship out of hock and with some left over to invest in the business. The Holland line is reborn. And brother Tim is well on the way to recovery.

Roy asks Perenna to marry him and she laughingly says yes. After all the byzantine complexity of the plot, and the bewildering detail of much of the background information, it all ends, as do so many Innes’ novels, on what you feel is a psychologically balanced and happy ending.

Maybe this happiness, this joy in life and physical activities like sailing, swimming or skiiing, combined with the baroque complexities of his plots (which generally boil down to ancestral curses and Gothic family tragedies) prevent Innes being given much due or scholarly attention. But it is a gift to entertain, thrill and then leave your readers uplifted and inspired.

The night after the stamp auction, knowing their futures are assured, Perenna and Roy walk around his old farmhouse in Suffolk, and then start fooling.

I was kissing her as I carried her over the threshold. ‘Tomorrow I’ll think about making an honest woman of you.’ We were both of us laughing as we went up to bed. The moon was very bright that night and there were owls hooting – Bougainville and the Pacific seemed a million miles away, and so did reality. What fun life is! What a glorious everlasting struggle to survive and to build something worthwhile! And as I fell asleep I was thinking of that indomitable old man, her grandfather, sailing out in his canoe towards the horizon and infinity. (p.318)

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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.

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