A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

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Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953)

‘Silly words, silly words, silly awful hurting words,’ said Mrs. Bowles. ‘Why do people want to hurt people? Not enough hurt in the world, you’ve got to tease people with stuff like that!’

It is 1999 and books are banned. Why? Because they make people think, ponder, reflect – and that ends up making them unhappy. And society in 1999 is dedicated to making people happy.

How? By offering them the all-day-long totally immersive experience of room-sized TVs playing endless soap operas in which you, the viewer, are included through computer-controlled scripts designed to tailor the storylines to suit your age and gender. By ensuring that even if people go out walking they have seashell-type little earpieces pumping raucous meaningless music into their brains all the time. By providing a world of physical activities, sports and gymnastics for the disciplined and, for the not-so sporty, building highways where you’re not allowed to drive slower than 55mph, and are encouraged to hit anything which trespasses onto them, cats, dogs, even people.

Or you can:

head for a Fun Park to bully people around, break windowpanes in the Window Smasher place or wreck cars in the Car Wrecker place with the big steel ball.

Anything, anything at all, to stop people reading or thinking. Books are banned, religion is banned, festivals are banned, all art is abstract, and politics has died out due to lack of information or interest. People are just ruled.

In this world firemen protect citizens from the risk of being infected by ‘ideas’ by burning books wherever they are found. Enemies, snitches and gossips can anonymously report work colleagues or neighbours as suspected to be hiding books, and then the firemen turn up in their salamander-shaped fire engine, beat up the suspects to find the stash of forbidden books, throw them all in a pile and torch them with their kerosene flamethrowers.

The books leapt and danced like roasted birds, their wings ablaze with red and yellow feathers.

Part one – The Hearth and the Salamander

Guy Montag is one of these firemen and his story opens with this poetic invocation of the joys of incineration:

It was a pleasure to burn.

It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history.

With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.

Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame.

Wow. Bradbury is nothing if not vivid!

Guy’s story is simple in outline. He becomes disillusioned with being a fireman, rebels against the powers that be, and escapes.

More specifically, after one particularly brutal burning, where the old lady who owned the house where books were hidden, not only refused to leave the building but herself lit the match which sent it up like a bonfire, thus turning herself into a human torch, Montag finds he has, almost without realising it, secreted a book in his jacket, which he then brings home.

Next day he takes off sick with a temperature. His wife, Mildred, is an extreme case of the bored suburban housewife. She has nagged Guy into paying a fortune to have three of the four walls in their living room converted into wall-sized TV screens, the ones which run the endless soap which the computer tailors to include her in the plots and scenes and conversations. Even when Guy is sick in bed, she won’t turn the deafening volume of the TV soap down, and listens to his complaints for the bare minimum before running back to her ‘real’ life, her ‘real’ family.

For Guy is having a crisis of conscience. Watching the woman prepared to incinerate herself rather than live in a world without books has shaken him. And, over the past few weeks, he’s found himself bumping into the idealistic young woman who’s moved in next door, Clarisse McClellan.

‘She was the first person in a good many years I’ve really liked. She was the first person I can remember who looked straight at me as if I counted.’

Clarisse is mercifully uninfected by the repressive culture. She likes flowers and nursery rhymes. She despises the people who go car-racing or window smashing. She yearns for a simpler time.

To his dismay Guy finds himself agreeing with Clarisse, beguiled by her honesty and openness. It makes returning to the gloomy house where his wife is either a) totally immersed in her wall-to-wall TV soap or b) even in her bed (they have separate beds) has the seashells plugged in, hissing stories and music, so that even in the darkest midnight hour, when he tries to tell he his secrets, his worries, his fears… she’s not listening, she can’t and won’t hear him. He is alone.

The hollowness of Mildred’s drugged, media-addicted life is emphasised by an earlier scene, when Guy returns home dirty and sweaty from a hard day burning books, and in the darkness of their bedroom his foot hits an object. When he stoops, it is an empty bottle of painkillers. Mildred has taken an overdose.

Guy calls emergency but instead of an ambulance, or concerned medics and nurses, the two guys who turn up are bored technicians who poke a tube with a digital camera lens down her throat guts and pump her stomach empty, at the same time administering a complete blood transfusion. They stand around yacking and one smokes a cigarette as the machines pump. It’s just another job. They tell Guy they get about ten of these a week. Once finished, they pack up and tell him she’ll probably feel hungry in the morning, bye, and he is left feeling bereft and uncomforted.

Indeed Mildred does feel hungry in the morning and has no memory whatever of her suicide attempt. When Guy describes the whole thing she laughs and says what a vivid imagination he’s got. He’s left wondering whether it was a suicide attempt, or whether she just took a few pills before going to sleep, woke up and took some more, woke up and took some more, and so on.

And worse, he wonders if it makes any difference. To her or to him. Her life is such a matter of indifference to her and, he realises with a start, to him, too.

While Guy is still in bed feeling feverish, his boss at the firestation, Captain Beatty pays a call. There is something uncanny and wise about old Beatty. At the knock at the front door Guy hastily stuffs the book he took from the old lady’s house under his pillow and remains in his sick-bed. When Beatty comes into his bedroom, takes a seat, lights his pipe and makes himself at home, Guy is paranoidly certain, certain… that Beatty knows he is hiding a book.

The scene is handled as powerfully as a fairy tale, as a fable: old man Beatty wisely and tolerantly explains that all firemen, sooner or later, experience a moment of doubt about their work, may even take a book home to read in secret. The authorities don’t hold it against them. Everyone has to find out for themselves how empty and pointless books are. So long as the fireman in question hands it in within, say, 24 hours, no more will be said about it. He looks at Guy. Guy, lying in his sickbed, sweats and turns red. Surely he knows!

Beatty takes his time. He leisurely explains how the firemen came about, how society willingly turned its back on books and learning. Why their job is so important.

Eventually the captain leaves. Guy gets up, shaking. Now is the time. He makes Mildred turn the bloody TV off and listen to him and watch him as he gets a chair, stands on it and reaches up to the ventilator grille in the hall. Guy stretches out and pulls over and down a sack which he lowers to the floor, gets down and opens up. The sack is full of books. Mildred is horrified and squirms away from these infectious objects. Guy himself sits there stunned. What has he done?

At that moment there is another ring on the front door bell and Guy and Mildred freeze in terror. Is it the captain back again? Panic sweat silence. After a few more rings, whoever it was goes away. The reader’s heart has stopped alongside Guy’s and Mildred’s. We are caught in Guy’s terror and guilt.

Part two – The Sieve and the Sand

For the rest of that cold November afternoon, Guy reads at random passages from his forbidden stash of books out loud to his bewildered wife, who keeps complaining that they don’t make sense. He mentions how the books remind him of Clarisse. Who? asks the wife. The young woman who moved in next door. Oh, says Mildred, I forgot to tell you. She was killed by joyriders. The rest of the family have moved away. Guy is devastated. How can all that young beauty and innocence just be snuffed out like that?

Then there comes a snuffling at the door.

The Hound? Is it the Hound? At the firestation there is an eight-legged machine nicknamed the Hound. Every human has a distinctive combination of hormones and secretions which gives them a unique chemical ‘small’. The Hound’s sensors can be set to this combination, then it is set loose to hunt them down. Being mechanical it tracks down its prey unrelentingly, unceasingly, until it finds and brings him down, holds him splayed with his mechanical legs and then the target is:

gripped in gentling paws while a four-inch hollow steel needle plunged down from the proboscis of the Hound to inject massive jolts of morphine or procaine.

Lying there now, with his wife huddled in a weeping neurotic ball, with the pile of incriminating books sprawled across his hallway, Guy is certain, sure that he can hear… a mechanical sniffling and snorting at his door. It is the Hound! The Hound has come to trap and kill him with its merciless shining needle!

They wait and wait. the snuffling ends. Guy opens the door. Nothing there. Guy takes one of the books, an old Bible, and goes to visit an old man he met once on a park bench, months ago, years ago. The old man was convinced Guy was going to turn him in, but they got talking and Guy was sympathetic to his stories of books and literature. The man gave Guy his card. He’s named Faber. He was a literature professor until one term, forty years ago, nobody turned up for his class. Society had lost interest.

Now Guy turns up on his doorstep, initially terrifying Faber who thinks he’s going to be arrested. But Guy shows him the Bible and they talk. Faber fills in some of the history which he lived through, how the government slowly got rid of books as part of its campaign to make everyone equal and happy.

Together they stumble towards an idea that maybe the books can be saved somehow. Maybe they can get back to the literate society which Faber remembers from his youth. Maybe – here’s a plan – they could plant books on every firemen in the land and so get the firemen abolished – by themselves! Obviously not just the two of them, it would need a network. Hmmm.

Faber gives Guy a device he’s built, an emerald-green earpiece. Via it Faber can hear Guy talking and Guy receives Faber’s messages. They are two-become-one.

Guy goes home. His wife’s two ghastly suburban wife friends come round for a party with the immersive TV show. Montag appals them by turning the TV walls off and then insisting on reading poetry to them, Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold, to be precise, which is indeed a bleak and nihilistic poem.

Not surprising that the women are all upset and one bursts into tears. Mildred forces Guy to put the book in an incinerator, and tries to cover up by saying it is part of a fireman’s training to occasionally dip into these nonsensical books in order to ridicule them – but the two women don’t really believe it and anyway Guy runs them out of the house.

Faber hears all this via the earpiece and is appalled at Guy’s rashness. What Faber thought they’d agreed should be the next step was for Guy to return to the station and confront Beatty.

Captain Beatty is waiting for him, with his hand open. Without a word Guy hands over the book to him. Beatty greets him like the prodigal son returned to the fold, reinforces the idea that books are pointless, silly, contradictory, only make people unhappy.

(His role – as wise father confessor who has himself experienced all the urge to rebel, has had all the illegal thoughts, and has overcome them in order to obey the system – reminds me very much of O’Brien in Nineteen Eighty-Four.)

Captain Beatty invites Guy to sit down and play cards with the rest of the men. Then the alarm goes off, they jump down the pole to the garage, suit up and race off to fire someone else’s house.

Part three – Burning Bright

Except that the fire engine stops in front of Guy’s house. Beatty teases Guy: is he really surprised, after his performance with the poetry? First the two housewives turned him in, then his own wife, Mildred. And Mildred blunders past him carrying a suitcase, weeping, without makeup, stumbles into a taxi and is gone.

And Guy is so conflicted, transported, bewildered by the contradictions of his situation, that he has no hesitation at all about burning his entire house down, burning the house of lies and alienation and unhappiness to the ground, and burning the books which fly along the hallway.

Then Beatty arrests him, smacking him in the face. Unfortunately, this has the effect of making the emerald earpiece link to Faber fall out of Guy’s ear (Faber has been listening in to everything that’s happened). ‘Hello, hello,’ says Captain Beatty, picking it up. ‘I thought you were doing more than just muttering to yourself. So you have an accomplice. Well, we will track him down and arrest him, too.’

And Guy snaps. He is still holding the flamethrower. ‘No,’ he says, and before he knows it, his hands have flicked the switch and turned Beatty into a flaming torch. Stunned, dazed, Guy makes the other two fireman turn their backs and coshes them unconscious.

Then in a nightmare of terror, just as he thought he could relax, the Hound appears out of nowhere and leaps at him, jabbing its steel needle into his leg, but Guy still has self-possession enough to turn the flamethrower on the Hound and burn out its innards, making it spring backwards, having administered a fraction of the fatal dose.

Rummaging in the garden where he had stashed a few remaining books, Guy turns and hobbles, one leg completely anaesthetised and numb from the Hound’s partial injection, down the alleyway.

Then there is the terrific scene I remember from reading the book as a boy, where Guy has to run across one of the ten-lane highways that ring the city. It is completely empty and floodlit like a gladiator’s arena. He sets off limping and is half-way across, when he hears the roar of a carful of joyriders revving up and aiming straight at him. At the last minute Guy trips and falls headlong and the car swerves a fraction to avoid him, the driver knowing that going over a bump at 150 mph would fling the car into the air and crash it. That’s all that saves him. No morality or sympathy. And while the car decelerates a few hundred yards further on down the highway, and spins to a turn in order to come back and try to hit him again, Guy limps to the other side of the highway and melts into the dark alleyways.

He gets to Faber’s house and tells him what’s happened. Faber turns on the TV. There is a massive manhunt out for Guy and they have brought in another Hound from another precinct. They watch as a police helicopter equipped with a camera sets off following the new Hound as it lollops through the city on its eight mechanical legs.

Quickly, Guy tells Faber to disinfect the entire house, burn the bedspread they’re sitting on, the rug he walked across, the chair he sat in, dowse everything in disinfectant, turn on the garden sprinklers. He asks Faber for a suitcase of the old man’s clothes to change into later. They take a swig of scotch, shake hands, then Guy runs off.

He makes a detour to the house of fireman Black, one of his colleagues, creeps in through the porch, hides some of his books in the kitchen and sneaks out again. Black will be betrayed. The fireman’s house will be torched. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

Through the city’s darkened back alleys Guy runs, glimpsing through people’s windows, on their giant TV screens, live footage of the police helicopter following the Hound as it beetles towards Faber’s house, encounters the wall of sprinklers, hesitates, then picks up Guy’s scent.

Faster faster Guy runs in a breathless, terrifically intense chase, until he makes it to the river, the river on the edge of the city, just a minute or two before the Hound, strips off his clothes, wades far out, clutches the suitcase and lets himself be carried fast fast fast by the current away from the Hound, the city, the helicopters, the police, the fire service, his burned house, his murdered captain, far away into the cleansing healing countryside.

Saved and lost

Faber had told him to look for the old disused railway lines. When Guy has drifted down the river, moiled in the water, until he breathes country air, trees, hay – he clambers out naked and reborn, dresses in Faber’s old clothes, smells the countryside, looks up at the stars. Free!

His foot clinks against something. It’s a disused rail. He sets off stumbling along it wondering what he’ll find. What he finds is a small fire with four or five old geezers crouching round it for warmth. They welcome him to the circle, make a simple meal of bacon fried in a pan. the leader is Granger. He explains there is a very loose network of them all across the country, rebels, outcasts, who have memorised entire books. A community of memorisers, ‘bums on the outside, libraries inside’.

They hear the jets screech overhead. All through the book conversations have been interrupted by the roar of jet engines, and the narrative has been punctuated by radio announcements of looming war, of enlistment and call-ups. Now Bradbury goes into full-on hallucinatory, poetic prose mode to describe the nuclear war which ends the book.

‘Look!’ cried Montag.
And the war began and ended in that instant.

He gives a slow-motion nightmare description of the bombs falling, the last hundred feet, the last yard, the last inch. And then – Whoomf – the entire city jumps into the air, cartwheels, and falls as ashes.

The bums are knocked flat, and then slowly clamber up again, covered in dust and spume from the river. That’s it. The war is over. The city is gone, as hundreds of other cities all round the world are gone. Granger makes a speech about how people back there will be needing them, about how they’ll try to rebuild, about how they won’t flaunt their book knowledge but how, just maybe, the wisdom they carry might just about maybe prevent there being any more future wars. Guy joins the scruffy old men as they set off back towards the ruins, wondering what they’ll find.


Themes

Rereading Fahrenheit 451 after all these years, I see it through the prism of the two books of short stories I’ve just read as:

  1. less a novel with a plot than as a series of linked set-piece descriptions, often very brilliant and evocative
  2. less a novel than one of Bradbury’s many fables – that’s to say, a simplified story with a strong moral message
  3. an expansion of the theme which occurs in at least three of his short stories, that the future will burn books

Political correctness

I was astonished to see that the book contains an attack on political correctness. It attributes the death of books and literacy to a politically correct wish not to offend. When Captain Beatty calls on Guy, he explains how the books came to be banned, how the entire present state of civilisation came about. It was a question of not wanting to upset anyone’s sensibilities, particularly the sensibilities of minorities.

‘You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can’t have our minorities upset and stirred. Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of this.’

And:

‘The bigger the population, the more minorities. Don’t step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat -lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean.

‘Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. They did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damned snobbish critics said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick, thank God!’

The population did it to themselves. Not wishing to offend any of the thousand and one minorities, authors censored themselves till their books, plays and movies were so bland no-one wanted to read them. Meanwhile, comics, sex and soap operas proliferated because they a) made people happy b) didn’t upset any particular minorities, in fact c) didn’t upset anyone. They were, in a sense, content free.

‘The public itself stopped reading of its own accord… I remember the newspapers dying like huge moths. No one wanted them back. No one missed them…’

America’s once and future wars

I had forgotten that the whole story is set against the looming prospect of war. According to the novel, America has started and won two atomic wars between 1960 and 1999. Now another one is in the offing. The characters’ conversations are continually interrupted by the deafening roar of jet bombers flying overhead.

Faber, for example, tells Guy not to even bother trying to overthrow the system; just let there be another war and society tear itself to pieces.

Guy hears the official radio announcing the mobilisation of a million men (in reality, ten million, Faber tells him.) When Mildred’s ghastly housewife friends come visiting they all empty-headedly declare the war will be over in 48 hours, just like the government promises.

A radio hummed somewhere. ‘. . . war may be declared any hour. This country stands ready to defend its –‘ The firehouse trembled as a great flight of jet planes whistled a single note across the black morning sky.

And as he walked he was listening to the Seashell radio in one ear… ‘We have mobilized a million men. Quick victory is ours if the war comes…’

‘Patience, Montag. Let the war turn off the TV `families.’ Our civilization is flinging itself to pieces. Stand back from the centrifuge.’

‘The Army called Pete yesterday. He’ll be back next week. The Army said so. Quick war. Forty-eight hours they said, and everyone home. That’s what the Army said. Quick war. Pete was called yesterday and they said he’d be, back next week. Quick…’ [said Mrs Phelps]

You could feel the war getting ready in the sky that night. The way the clouds moved aside and came back, and the way the stars looked, a million of them swimming between the clouds, like the enemy discs, and the feeling that the sky might fall upon the city and turn it to chalk dust, and the moon go up in red fire; that was how the night felt.

Thus ever-present threat of war is as much a part of the fabric of the story as it is of George Orwell’s contemporary dystopia, Nineteen Eight-Four. Contributes as much to the sense of dread and menace, as if Guy’s personal tragedy is reflected by the whole world coming to grief.

And then of course the entire world does blow up. Guy’s story turns out to be an invisible footnote to the end of civilisation as we know it.

Anti-Americanism

It is also striking that Bradbury was aware, in 1953, of America’s unpopularity.

‘Is it because we’re having so much fun at home we’ve forgotten the world? Is it because we’re so rich and the rest of the world’s so poor and we just don’t care if they are? I’ve heard rumours; the world is starving, but we’re well-fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we’re hated so much?’

Was he aware of this in 1953, or was he predicting it for his dystopian future? Either way it was remarkably prescient to anticipate the anti-American feeling which certainly dominated the world I grew up in in the 1970s, the left united against American commercial and military imperialism, against its support for dictators all round the globe and, right at the heart of the inferno, the epic mess of the Vietnam War.

The future will be stupid / TV / the internet

Beatty/Bradbury makes it quite clear – there will be no need for government intervention or oppression – ‘technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure’ will manoeuvre the whole population into willingly abolishing books, literature and thinking.

The thrust of the book is that American society is dumbing down into a brainless landscape of immersive video experiences and cheap thrills (wrecking balls, fast cars).

It would be easy to extract from the book all the moments when people’s experiences are mediated through the media: the centrepiece is Mildred’s addiction to her TV soaps, supported by the little TV party she has with her friends who are also fully paid up members of the TV ‘family’.

But, more subtly, the radio is present in the background, at his house, at the firestation, whispering rumours of war.

And then, during his terrified flight, Guy watches his own running relayed, first on Faber’s TV, and then through the lounge windows of the houses he runs past, Guy can see the live helicopter footage of the police chasing him. Like O.J. Simpson’s famous car chase.

On one level the entire book is a sermon against the dumbing down of America. 65 years later how does that message, that fear, hold up?

Personally, despite all temptations to the contrary, to throw your hands in the air and bewail the dumbing down of the social media age, I wonder, I’m more inclined – like Nietzsche – to confront all the woes of the age but, by an effort of will, to overcome them and assert that I don’t think it is.

More books are being sold and read than at any time in human history. Despite its visual content and the streaming of TV and video over laptops and smartphones, in reality the internet is still largely a reading experience. People read texts and tweets and emails. And argue and discuss them, all the time, in epic, unprecedented numbers.

Sure, most of the twitter storms and media frenzies which make the headlines are pitiful and stupid: but so was most of the arguing in pubs and front rooms and beauty salons for the last hundred years; the only difference now is that anyone can read the outpourings of everyone else.

We may be appalled at the stupidity of much of what appears on the internet, but a moment’s reflection suggests there is also an unprecedented wealth of highly intelligent, thoughtful and stimulating material out there – TED talks, millions of interesting blogs, countless new sources of detailed statistics, data and information.

In fact probably more people are taking part in written-down debates and arguments than at any point in human history. You may not like a lot of what is being written and debated and discussed, but books are not being burnt. There is no tampering with free speech in the free West. Quite the opposite: there has been an unprecedented explosion of quite literally, free speech.

If you give in, if you submit to the headlines about Trump and Brexit it is easy to despair. But then there was much more to despair about when Europe went to war in 1914, about the chaos of the 1920s, about the rise of fascism in the 1930s, about the world war of the 1940s, about the Cold War and the real threat of nuclear armageddon in the 1950s, about the widespread economic collapse of the 1970s, about the renewed Cold War confrontation of the 1980s. Relative to all those periods of global chaos and holocaust, the present seems amazingly peaceful and free.

The affluent society

In the 1950s and 60s American intellectuals worried that people were becoming so affluent, so comfortable and easy, that their lives were becoming hollow and meaningless. Mildred is the symbol of that feared, valium future, with her addiction to immersive TV soaps and her seashell headphones and the telltale suicide attempt in the opening pages which reveals for all to see how hollow and empty that life really is.

It was only reading some of the critiques of the book by young contemporary bloggers that I realised how this is an overlooked aspect or theme of the book, because that sense of American wellbeing has disappeared.

In the book everyone is middle class and has pretty much all they want. Money and jobs aren’t an issue. The problem is that everyone is entertaining themselves to death. The fundamental basis of the book is that America is too wealthy and how corrupting that affluent complacency became.

Whereas the last ten to twenty years have seen the reverse. For the first time American living standards have fallen. For the first time children can expect to be worse off than their parents. For the first time the ‘squeezed’ middle class is experiencing declining wages and standards of living. This – from everything I read – is the background to the revolt against the political establishment which gave rise to Trump, the unhappiness of huge parts of America which have experienced long-term economic decline.

Behind the louder themes of dumbing down, and nuclear war, and burning books, and a repressive society – possibly this quiet subtler thread is now the most telling part of the narrative. It foresaw an America which got steadily richer and richer and more and more hollow. For some decades, into the Me Generation 1970s, this seemed to be the case. But now, from the vantage point of rust belt, opioid-addicted America, Bradbury’s concern about the country becoming too wealthy, affluent and complacent seems like a period piece.

Although, on the face of it, a nightmare dystopia, Fahrenheit 451 is in fact a message in a bottle from a much happier, much more optimistic era in history.

Movie adaptation

Fahrenheit 451 was adapted into a movie by French director François Truffault. He was hot property in the 1960s. His adaptation looks incredibly clunky to us, now,


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451 – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria

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

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Captain James Cook: A Biography by Richard Hough (1994)

A grave, steady man (Boswell, quoted page 342)

I’ve covered a lot of the detail of the three epic voyages of discovery carried out by Captain James Cook in my review of the current exhibition about them being held at the British Library in London.

That review includes detail of the routes, the places ‘discovered’ and first mapped by Europeans (Tahiti, New Zealand, Hawaii, among many others) and the baleful impact which First Contact with white men had on the native peoples of those places.

Having put all that factual information, and discussion of the attendant cultural controversy, down in another place, this in a sense frees me up to enjoy Hough’s rather old-fashioned biography as a straightforward narrative of derring-do and adventure.

Space and detail

Hough (pronounced How) takes us deep into the day-to-day experience of being an officer or ordinary sailor or one of the scientific passengers, on these extraordinarily bold and dangerous voyages – cooped up in a ship 100 foot long by 28 feet wide for months on end in often terrible weather, with food and water which, after about a month, had become inedible and foul. It is no surprise to learn that drunkenness and fighting among the crew were a permanent problem, with some of the crew being drunk from morning to night, and one man on the first voyage drinking himself to death.

During his career Hough wrote a variety of historical books, but was mostly a specialist in maritime history. He was born in 1922, which means this biography of Cook was published when he was 72 years old. No surprise, then, that it is rather old-fashioned in tone and approach.

Hough gives space at the appropriate points to the scientific motives of the voyages, to the behind-the-scenes politicking at the Royal Society and the Royal Navy which provide the context for the voyages, to the way Cook’s discoveries were appropriated by others (the self-promoting naturalist Joseph Banks being the glaring example), were frequently sensationalised and misreported in the press, and so on.

He deals extensively with Cook’s encounters with the native peoples of the places he ‘discovered’, and gives a better sense of their interactions than the exhibition does. The exhibition is at pains to emphasise the baleful consequences of Cook opening up these places and peoples to colonial exploitation, whereas Hough has the space in his 450-page-long book to go into great detail about the complex mutuality of many of these encounters and their diversity: some natives were friendly and welcoming, some were fierce and antagonistic; some lived in sophisticated cultures with complex religions, others lived stark naked to the elements, with no clothes, or homes or tools of any kind; some, like Queen Obadia and King Tiarreboo of Tahiti, become good friends of Cook and his officers through repeated visits.

But at its core – and what makes his book, I think, so enjoyable – is Hough’s own deep feeling for the perils and pleasures of sailing the seven seas. Although he nowhere explicitly states it, it is quite clear that Hough was an experienced sailor himself, and had visited at least some of the exotic and distant locations he is writing about, by boat.

Anyone who has sailed these waters off present-day Christchurch will appreciate how easy it was for Cook to misidentify Banks Peninsula for an island. (p.158)

This writer, arriving at Easter Island by sea and at early dawn, can attest to the discouragement to landing the fierce visages and giant size of these statues engender. (p.289)

Thus his book contains numerous moments of insight into the precise mechanical workings of an 18th century sailing ship, of the weather and sea conditions to be found on the seas which Cook sailed, and goes into fascinating detail about the great range of jobs and tasks required to keep a ship afloat and sailing.

Hough places you right there, hearing the creak of the rigging, feeling the salt spray in your face, sharing the excitement of the crew when land is sighted after weeks of being cooped up in the stinking, bickering environment of the ship.

It is, for example, typical that before each of the three voyages, Hough not only takes you through the extensive repairs and refurbishments made to each of the ships Cook sailed in, but goes to great pains to name and describe every member of the crew – their names, where they were from, their sailing experience and personalities, with indications of how they bore up during their three-year-long ordeals, right down to the 12-year-old cabin boy.

Map of James Cook's three voyages

Map of James Cook’s three voyages

Mingled in among the narrative events are moments of pure lyricism with which Hough explains the lure of the sea, and the excitement of discovery.

On the ill-fated third voyage Cook took along two junior officers, William Bligh, a young arrogant but competent map-maker whose harshness, 12 years later, was to cause the infamous ‘Mutiny on the Bounty‘ – and young George Vancouver, who joined Cook’s second expedition at the age of 15.  At the moments when they hove into view of new islands, or set out to explore new coastlines, discovering new sounds, bays and inlets, we share with them the raw thrill of discovery which drove Europeans all around the world, on the most cockamamie expeditions.

The audience of political correctness

I’ve watched and read over the past 40 or so years as history writing has become more ‘diverse’ and ‘inclusive’. In practice this hasn’t meant many more black or non-white people writing history, it has meant that the same type of white, upper middle class, private-school-educated academics, writing on the pretty much the same old subjects, but now going out of their way to comment on 1. the presence or absence of women, and 2. the oppression of non-white peoples.

Fine. Some of this approach sheds drastically new light on old subjects, like Alan Taylor’s mind-expanding history of the colonisation of America, American Colonies, which begins 30,000 years ago with the arrival of the first humans in Alaska, and goes on to explain the staggeringly diverse range of ‘races’, nations and cultures which, right from the beginning, made up America’s multi-racial societies. A book like that completely changes your view of the subject.

But in other writers’ hands – and especially in (by necessity) the restricted space of exhibition guides and wall labels – it can sound like tokenism and box-ticking.

An aspect of the rise of identity politics and political correctness in history writing is that it can result in text which is surprisingly simple-minded, almost childish. In the several exhibitions about queer art which I’ve visited over the past few years, the curators take it upon themselves to explain that ‘same sex desire’ was once forbidden and even punished by western societies. Golly.

Reading something like this makes me wonder what age group the curators are targeting. Most of the people I see at art galleries and exhibitions are quite clearly retired, educated middle-class people in their 60s and 70s. Do you really need to explain to the average, educated, middle-class exhibition-goer that homosexuality used to be illegal? Do you think they didn’t know that?

Similarly, at the British Library exhibition about Cook’s voyages, I was struck by the naivety of some of the wall labels, like the one which pointed out that:

Violence is part of the story of James Cook’s voyages, as it is of other European expeditions of this era.

What age group would you say that is aimed at? 11 year-olds? 8 year-olds? Surely not the grey-haired old retirees I was surrounded by.

And in case you didn’t know what ‘violence’ means, the display the label refers to contains a musket which, it explains, is a kind of old-fashioned gun. And a ‘gun’ is a ‘weapon’. And ‘weapons’ are often used in ‘violence’. Get it now?

Next to a map which Cook created of Tahiti is another wall label:

Claiming of already populated lands was a common feature of European exploration.

How old do the curators think we are? 11?

This is what I mean when I say that modern, politically correct identity politics/feminism/post-colonial theory can sometimes end up treating its audience like small children, as if they have to explain every aspect of human nature from scratch, as if we’d never heard of same-sex desire, or violence, or colonialism, or slavery before.

Hough assumes we are adults

This is what makes Hough so enjoyable: he treats his readers as adults who know about the world. Thus he takes it for granted that the main entertainment of the tough, illiterate ship’s crew was getting drunk and fighting – which we know about because of the litany of disciplinary measures Cook recorded in his logs.

Prostitutes And Hough expects you to understand that it was standard practice for the 80 or so crew members, whenever they hit land, to go looking women. In Westernised ports like Cape Town or Batavia, this meant prostitutes. In the islands of the Pacific, it meant native women. But this is where the voyages were so memorable for the men because there were well-established traditions of native women happily giving themselves to visiting men – with the full approval of their own menfolk. Which obviously made a big impression on British sailors brought up in our sexually repressed culture.

Tahitian women Thus every landfall in most of the Pacific islands was accompanied by an impressive amount of sexual activity, sometimes in the open, in full view of passersby. Hough, it seems to me, treats us adults who expect rough sailors to behave this way, and so are not as shocked as feminist art curators. Taking the human nature of humans for granted allows Hough to move on to the more interesting aspects and consequences of these cultural encounters, for example the way that many of the English men and native women formed real attachments, which led the women, for example, to follow the ships in canoes when they set sail, and to greet some of the same sailors when they returned three years later, with genuine joy.

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

A Young Woman of Otaheite bringing a Present. Print of a drawing by expedition artist John Webber (1777)

STDs But it also led to the spread of venereal disease and Hough shows how Cook repeatedly tried to establish the origin of these diseases and tried to enforce bans on his own crew when they arrived at new tropical island (like Hawaii, discovered only on the third voyage) to prevent the natives being infected. The failure of Cook’s strict bans, despite being enforced with flogging the sailors, tells us more about the indefatigableness of human nature than all the exhibition wall labels in the world.

Buggery Hough makes only a passing mention of the fact that ‘buggery’ was rife below decks. He takes it for granted that 70 or 80 rough, physically fit men, cooped up in a very small space for long periods, will indulge in sodomy, even though it was forbidden and punishable by lashes of the whip. A very different world from the ‘same sex desires’ of the kind of Bloomsbury ladies depicted in Tate’s Queer British Art but one any man who went to a boys’ school will know about.

The lash Hough assumes that we understand that maintaining discipline among drunk, potentially violent men, required severe physical punishment, namely tying wrong-doers to a wooden frame and whipping their bare backs till they bled. If the member of crew tasked with doing the whipping refused, he too was whipped. Unbelievably harsh to modern thinking, but Hough expects us to have an adult appreciation that most lives, for most of the past, have been bloody and brutal.

Crossing the line I’d forgotten the tradition that when the ship crossed the equator, every crewman and passenger who hadn’t done it before, was locked inside a kind of wooden cage, suspended by rope from a yardarm, and then dropped several times its own height into the speeding waves, so that the man trapped inside was totally submerged, three times. One of the several officers who kept diaries of the voyage remarks how some of the men revelled in demonstrating their toughness, while others were visibly distressed after just the first drop and wept after the second. The tradition continues to this day, though nowadays is an excuse for a party. bring back the dunking cage, I say 🙂

The purpose of history

For me history has at least three purposes.

1. One is as pure entertainment. I bet most people read history books as they read thrillers or rom-coms, for the entertainment, for the characters, for the amazing things people got up to / endured / achieved and so on. There’s as much sex, intrigue and violence in the Tudors as in a Hollywood blockbuster, which is why books and TV shows about Henry VIII never go out of fashion.

2. A second, more straitlaced motive is to understand how we got here today by reading about our forebears in Britain, Europe, America or wherever, to better understand what happened and why it’s led us to the current situation. The ‘those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it’ school of thought. Winston Churchill said that, by the way.

3. But for me there’s also a psychological-cum-moral purpose — which is to expand the reader’s mind and broaden his or her sympathies.

Reading about the past not only often amazes us at how people lived then, what they had to endure, what they achieved despite it all – but also transports us into the minds of people with completely different expectations and values from us. The more effort we make to think ourselves into others’ places, hundreds of years ago, thousands of miles away, the more we exercise our minds and extend our sympathies.

Instead of rushing to judge people of the past according to the values of today, I think it is more profitable to make the imaginative effort of really immersing ourselves in their world and values, the better to understand:

  1. what they believed and why they did what they did
  2. the vastly different technological, economic, social and cultural conditions they lived under
  3. and so to better understand at least part of the tortuous, labyrinthine, and often unexpected ways in which the past has led up to the present

This, in a nutshell, is behind all the different ways I’m opposed to what I’ve, rather simplistically, called political correctness, in history and historical exhibitions. Political correctness rushes to judge people in the past. I think we should be patient and try to understand them on their own terms.

The livestock

I didn’t realise 18th century sailors took so much livestock with them. Many of the sailors had dogs, and Joseph Banks was notorious for his attachment to his two prize greyhounds. But they also took sheep and pigs and goats, partly to butcher and eat, partly to be gifts to native peoples on the other side of the planet, as well as coops of hens to provide fresh eggs. This meant that wherever they stopped to gather wood and water, they also had to cut grass, a lot of grass, solely as provender for the livestock. And imagine clearing up the piles of poo every day!

By the time of the third voyage, King George III, the official sponsor of all of the voyages, had seen and learned about conditions among the native peoples which his expeditions had claimed for the British Crown. Not least because the second voyage brought home Omai, a Pacific Islander Cook had met in Tahiti, and who became the sensation of fashionable London during his two-year stay in Britain (1774-76).

As a result ‘farmer’ George, as he was nicknamed for his interest in improving agriculture in Britain, decided to send the poor benighted Pacific Islanders a suite of farm animals which they could breed up, encouraging them to convert their primitive agriculture into modern, mixed British farming best practice.

Thus Cook found himself lumbered with direct orders from the king to transport a number of sheep, rabbits, a mare, a stallion, a large number of sows and several hogs, two cows with their calves and a bull, to the other side of the world and given as gifts to the king of Tahiti. Plus a peacock and a peahen, special gifts of Baron Ponsonby of Sysonby.

All on a boat little more than 100 foot long!

For the entire three-year duration of the first voyage, the officers’ tea was provided with milk by a goat, who never failed to deliver, day after day, for a thousand days. It survived all the way back to Britain where Joseph Banks bought her a collar to celebrate her achievement, and commissioned a Latin tag to go on the collar from no less a luminary than Dr Johnson, who obliged with:

Perpetua ambita bis terra preamia lactis
Haec habet altrici Capra secunda Jovis

Which roughly translates as:

In fame scarce second to the nurse of Jove
This goat, who twice the world had traversed round,
Deserving both her master’s care and love,
Ease and perpetual pasture now has found.

Death and Captain Cook

Most accounts of Cook’s voyages focus on their scientific achievement, their mapping and charting, their discoveries of ‘new’ lands (new to Europeans), and the first interactions of Westerners with native peoples in a variety of locations, some peaceful, some violent, all of which – in the long run – would disrupt and decimate their societies.

But one way in which a past as remote as 250 years ago is distant from us is in its attitude towards death. The politically correct tend to think that any deaths, indeed any violence carried out by people and regimes from the past, should be judged against the highest standards of modern, peaceable Western society and held to account as in a courtroom.

But it’s not defending the behaviour of anyone in the past to point out that, 250 years ago, death from all sorts of causes was much more common than it is now. The ubiquity of death – the deaths of his own family, of soldiers and sailors he served with, of crewmates and colleagues – all help to explain the sometimes apparently ‘casual’ way Cook and colleagues responded to the deaths of the native peoples they encountered.

So in among the amazing stories, the colourful characters and the breath-taking scenery, I became interested in Hough’s relating of the many deaths which surrounded Cook all his life, and therefore the presence of death as a theme in Captain Cook’s biography.

In fact there are so many deaths sprinkled throughout the book, that I’ve restricted this selection of examples to just the First Voyage.

Death in Cook’s family

  • Cook’s parents, James senior and Grace, had eight children. Four died in childhood, one as he turned 20, leaving only James and two sisters to survive into adult life.
  • Cook had six children with his wife, Elizabeth who lived to the following ages: James 31 (drowned at sea), Nathaniel 16 (lost at sea), Elizabeth 4, Joseph died at 2 weeks, George died at 3 months, Hugh died at 16 of scarlet fever. None of his children lived long enough to have children of their own.

Death in war with France

  • Off Plymouth in 1757 Cook was crew aboard the Eagle which was in a fight with the 50-gun French ship Duc d’Aquitaine, the Eagle‘s cannon killing 50 Frenchmen, their cannon killing 10 of Cook’s shipmates, wounding 80! Imagine the sound and the sights and all the blood and body parts.
  • As warrant officer on the HMS Pembroke Cook observed no fewer than 26 of the crew dying of scurvy with many more ill or permanently incapacitated – as on more or less every European ship sailing any distance during this era.
  • Cook’s ship took part in the siege of Louisbourg, the French fort at the mouth of the St Laurence Waterway in Canada.
  • Cook took part in General Wolfe’s campaign to capture Quebec and therefore Canada and therefore for the British Empire. During the campaign the Pembroke‘s captain died of an unspecified illness, Cook was involved in trying to repel fireships from the British fleet and, in another incident, was laying buoys from a small boat which was ambushed by canoes manned by French soldiers and native Americans fierce for scalps. Cook’s boat only just made it to land ahead of the canoes, where British soldiers scared the French off. During an abortive amphibian landing Cook’s ship was one of several laying down suppressing fire, but when the landing failed had to receive back on board many wounded and dying soldiers.

Death voyage one (1768-71)

  • ‘Peter Flower seaman fell overboard and before any assistance could be given him was drowned’ in Rio da Janeiro harbour (p.84)
  • 16 January 1769 Banks leads a disastrous expedition into the interior of Tierra del Fuego, setting off in fine weather, but getting lost in a maze of small trees as the temperature plummeted, it started to snow, and the beleaguered troop of ten men struggled to stay alive through the night. Artist Alex Buchan had an epileptic fit, but it was Banks’s two black servants, Richmond and Dorlton, who had filched a bottle of brandy, drunk it all and died of exposure. (p.95)
  • After being caught stealing some sealskin his comrades were going to divide up and make into tobacco pouches, quiet 21-year-old marine, William Greenslade killed himself by throwing himself overboard. (p.102)
  • On 15 April 1769 in Matavai Bay on Tahiti, after a couple of days of happy interaction with the local inhabitants, one of them makes a lunge for one of the marine’s muskets and, as he runs off, is hit and killed by a fusillade from the other soldiers. (p.114)
  • In the same day, back on the Endeavour, the artist Alex Buchan has a severe epileptic fit and dies. (p.114 )
  • On 26 June 1769 Cook and senior officers were welcomed by King Tiarreboo who proudly displayed his collection of human jawbones, and they learned that the previous year the King’s army had invaded  the territory of neighbouring Queen Obadia, killing a large number of her subjects, burning down their huts and stealing their livestock. This explained the desolate landscape and piles of bones which Cook and Banks had observed. (p.130)
  • Back at sea, on 27 August, the boatswain’s mate, John Reading of Kinsale, County Cork, drank three half pints of raw rum and died as a result.
  • On 9 October 1769 they landed at a wide bay of what they came to realise was New Zealand. When three Maori warriors approached the landing party and one came forward threatening with his spear, the cox in charge of the boat ordered soldiers to fire over their heads and, when he came very close, at him. Te Maro was the first Maori killed by the British.
  • Next day a Maori whipped the curved sword from the waist of astronomer Green, and the Brits initially fired birdshot which peppered him but, as he ran off, Surgeon Monkhouse fired his musket and killed him.
  • Later the same day, on the way back to the ship, they encountered two rafts paddled by Maoris and tried to corner one in order to take the natives aboard the Endeavour, show them trinkets and prove how friendly we are. But the Maoris put up a stiff resistance, throwing rocks and anything they could reach so that the Brits eventually fired muskets into the canoe, killing four Maoris.
  • 9 November 1769,  in a different bay, while Cook was exploring the man in charge of the landing party, John Gore was trading with natives. When one of them stole a roll of cloth and ran away, Gore levelled his musket and shot him dead. (p.147)
  • 30 April 1770, in Botany Bay Australia, seaman Forby Sutherland died of pneumonia contracted on Tierra del Fuego, the first Briton to die in Australia.

Death in Batavia

In November 1770 the Endeavour reached Batavia, main city of the Dutch East Indies (now Jakarta). They were relieved to see white men and have access to all the joys of civilisation again, after more than a year either at sea or among native peoples, and also relieved to be able to make repairs to the Endeavour which was in poor shape after enduring such a long voyage, and a number of fierce storms.

But it proved to be a fatal stay. Batavia had been laid out in a grid of canals by the Dutch East India Company but these had silted up and become reservoirs for mosquitoes as well as a host of other tropical diseases.

  • ship’s surgeon Bill Monkhouse 5 November died of malaria
  • 11 November the Tahitian native they’d brought along to act as interpreter, Tupia, died, as did his servant, Taita
  • seamen John Reynolds, Irishman Tim Rearden, John Woodman, marines corporal John Truslove, Sydney Parkinson the wonderful artist and illustrator, the Finnish naturalist and artist Spöring, who had been recommended by Linnaeus, John Ravenshill the ship drunk
  • 31 January 1771 ship’s cook John Thompson, carpenter’s mate Benjamin Jordan, and seamen James Nicholson and Archibald Wolfe
  • February 1771 – midshipman John Bootie, gunner’s servant Daniel Roberts, the surgeon’s brother Jonathan Monkhouse, boatswain John Gathrey, marine John Preston, carpenter John Satterly

In all some 34 of the crew died soon, or from lingering effects of disease caught in Batavia on the journey back across the Indian Ocean and up the Atlantic coast of Africa. Both Cook and Banks were laid low for a while with fevers, but recovered. For a man as proud of caring for his men’s health as Cook, it was a devastating blow.

Death and cannibalism

  • 16 January 1770, in a cove on the New Zealand coast, Cook and his translator Tupia are invited to dinner by a Maori family who explain that they are cannibals. A group of enemies had attacked this tribe, seven had been killed and then – eaten. Some of the sailors saw a native eating the meat off a human arm bone. 20 January some Maori canoes come alongside, sporting dried human heads as decoration.

On the second voyage there were two ships, Resolution captained by Cook, and Adventure, captained by Tobias Furneaux. On 17 December 1773 Furneaux sent a cutter with ten men, commanded by midshipman Rowe, to collect wild greens for the crew. It never returned and next day another cutter went in search and, at a beach they’d named Grass Cove, found hundreds of Maoris and the body parts of their colleagues.

Dogs were chewing at the discarded entrails of four or five men, and they found the eyes, hearts, lungs, livers and heads of their comrades … various feet and Rowe’s left hand (identified by its scarred forefinger) roasting on fires or scattered on the ground.

Over the next few years all visits to New Zealand confirmed that the Maori were cannibals who cooked and ate the bodies of the enemies they defeated in battle. Possibly the white men had got angry, maybe fired a few shots, then were lynched. Possibly they interrupted a native religious ceremony, and sparked the wrath of the celebrants. No one will ever know for sure.

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

The head of a New Zealander by Sydney Parkinson (1773)

But one of the notable aspects of this clash of cultures was the relative restraint the white commanders showed: his men wanted Furneaux to launch a massive bombardment with all the ships canon to devastate the area, but he resisted. Three years later, when Cook returned to the same area on his third expedition, the men again urged their captain to take devastating retaliation but Cook resisted. He even hosted the king of the tribe associated with the murders, Kahura, in his cabin.

Cook’s sense of guilt

This brings out a central thread of the book, which is Cook’s consistent concern to be fair to the natives, to be considerate and courteous, to pay for everything the crews bought, and to submit to quite a few (to him) incomprehensible religious and civic ceremonies. When he discovered crew members ill-treating natives, or when his subordinates were found guilty of shooting natives, Cook was always incensed, and quite a few were punished with floggings.

And yet the book also lists a steady litany of misunderstandings on both sides, and a steady pile of native corpses which builds up. The white men had cannon and muskets. With every misunderstanding which degenerated into violence, the white men (usually) triumphed. And every incident was a nail hammered into Cook’s agonised awareness that although he was carrying out his Majesty’s instructions to the letter, although he conducted his scientific enquiries, collected biological specimens and made endless maps as ordered – that despite all his good intentions, Western contact with First Peoples was fated to be disastrous.

At Ship Cove in New Zealand, in June 1773, Cook wrote in his Journal of the native Maori:

To our shame as civilized Christians, we debauch their morals already too prone to vice, and we introduce among them wants and perhaps disease which they never before knew and which serve only to disturb that happy tranquility which they and their forefathers enjoyed. If anyone denies the truth of this assertion, let him tell me what the natives of the whole extent of America have gained by the commerce they have had with Europeans. (quoted p.264)

And it was, of course, disastrous for Cook himself, who was cut down in Kealakekua Bay, on Hawai’i island, as a result of a series of cultural misunderstandings with the islanders, which escalated into a bloodbath, described in harrowing detail by Hough on pages 412 to 427.

Cook’s brutal murder stands to this day as a symbol of the tragic ease with which minor cultural confusions can escalate into mass murder, and a gory prophecy of all the massacres which were to follow.

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

The death of Captain James Cook, 14 February 1779 by Johann Zoffany

Cook is cooked

After the fight ashore in which Cook and four marines were stabbed and hacked to death, one of the two boats bombarded the shore while Captain Clerke, taking command, evacuated the remaining men ashore. Some of the chiefs, forlorn at Cook’s murder, promised to reclaim his body for the white men. But next day all they were able to offer was some cooked flesh from Cook’s body and some bones.

This gave rise to the enduring myth that Cook was eaten by cannibals.

No – the Hawaiian Islanders who killed Captain Cook were not cannibals. They believed that the power of a man was in his bones, so they cooked part of Cook’s body to enable the bones to be easily removed. It was the cooking of his body which gave rise to the rumour of cannibalism.

A week after his death, what remains of Cook had been recovered (being the captain’s hands, the scalp, the skull, the leg bones, lower jaw and feet, p.433) were buried at sea in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, Captain Clerke assumed command but soon died of tuberculosis and the expedition was commanded for another fourteen months by the American John Gore, and navigated by 28-year-old martinet and expert chart-maker, William Bligh. They sailed north to chart the Sandwich Islands in greater detail, and then all the way north to Alaska to have another – futile – attempt to find the mythical North-West passage.

Elizabeth Cook

His wife, Elizabeth Cook, survived not only her husband by 56 years (he died in 1779, she died in 1835) but all of their children who died young, the three eldest sons aged 31, 16 and 16. On four days a year, the deathdays of her husband and three boys, she fasted and spent the day reading the Bible, and, according to the memoirs of her second cousin:

like many widows of sailors, she could never sleep in high wind for thinking of the men at sea. (p.444)

This may be an old-fashioned book, but partly for that reason, it is sympathetic and moving.


Related links

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter (2013)

People were encouraged to transform themselves into what the communists called ‘New People’. Everywhere, in government offices, factories, workshops, schools and universities, they were ‘re-educated’ and made to study newspapers and textbooks, learning the right answers, the right ideas and the right slogans. While the violence abated after a few years, thought reform never ended, as people were compelled to scrutinise their every belief, suppressing the transitory impressions that might reveal hidden bourgeois thoughts behind a mask of social conformity. Again and again, in front of assembled crowds or in study sessions under strict supervision, they had to write confessions, denounce their friends, justify their past activities and answer questions about their political reliability. (p.xiii)

For three-quarters of the twentieth century China was the site of enormous turmoil, war, famine, tyranny and suffering. Frank Dikötter is a Dutch historian, professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong, formerly of the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. In the last twenty years China has become easier to visit and has opened many of its historical archives to academics for the first time. Dikötter has taken advantage of this to spend years researching provincial records and archives hitherto unseen by western historians. This research has resulted in a trilogy of books detailing the first three decades of communist party rule in China:

  1. The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Communist Revolution, 1945–1957 (2013)
  2. Mao’s Great Famine: The History of China’s Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958–62 (2010)
  3. The Cultural Revolution: A People’s History, 1962-1976 (2016)

The general drift of all three books is that communist rule in China was much, much more repressive, bungling and catastrophic for the people of China than previously thought. The centrepiece is the book about the great famine of 1958-62, which charges that it was much more consciously and deliberately engineered by the communist leadership (i.e. Mao) lasted longer (1958-62), and resulted in more deaths from starvation, than previously estimated. Dikötter gives the figure of 45 million premature deaths, of which between two and three million were victims of political repression, beaten or tortured to death or executed for political reasons.

The famine book won the Samuel Johnson Prize in 2011 and was widely praised for the originality of its research, though it is not without its critics who considered the numbers inflated. No-one doubts, however, that Mao’s communist party oversaw the greatest mass death event in human history.

The Tragedy of Liberation is the second to be published in the trilogy, but covers the earlier period, setting the scene for the famine story by recounting the end of the War in the Pacific (1945), the eruption of civil war between China’s Nationalists and Communists (1946), and the eventual victory of the latter, announced in 1949.

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Chinese communist party poster depicting Chairman Mao Zedong

Timeline of the Chinese civil war

  • 6 and 9 August 1945 – the United States drops atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
  • 8 August – Stalin declares war on Japan and Soviet troops invade Manchuria. America sends hundreds of shiploads of lend-lease material and food to Siberia to support the Russians, including 500 Sherman tanks.
  • 21 August 1945 – A formal surrender between China and Japan ends the Second World War in the Pacific. Japan’s 1 million soldiers in China lay down their arms. The American army undertakes a massive airlift of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist troops to all China’s main cities to take over from them, before the communists get there.
  • April 1946 – Soviet troops withdraw from Manchuria, having stripped it bare down to the last lightbulb and bath plug (p.15), and having helped Mao’s communist army take control of most of Manchuria.
  • June 1946 – Nationalists undertake a massive military campaign against the communists in Manchuria. The communists are saved by George Marshall, President Truman’s envoy, who insists on a ceasefire, allowing the communists to regroup and get more training and supplies from the Soviets (p.16).
  • September 1946 – July 1947 – US President Harry Truman, disillusioned with the corruption and maladministration of Chiang’s nationalists, imposes an arms embargo which – since the communists are receiving ample supplies and training from Russia – has the effect of boosting the communist army.
  • December 1946 to December 1947 – Nationalists pump their forces into Manchuria in a bid to crush the communists who, better armed and trained than before, turn Manchuria into a killing field wiping out repeated waves of Nationalist forces.
  • November 1948 – The communists succeed in capturing all of Manchuria after blockading and starving several major cities. Civilian deaths due to starvation run into the hundreds of thousands.
  • January 1949 – The communist army, now known as the People’s Liberation Army, much reinforced and battle-hardened, heads south out of Manchuria. On 22 January Beijing surrenders to the PLA. In the same month the nationalists lose the battle of Xizhou in central China, exposing the huge Yangtse valley to communist takeover.
  • May 1949 – Nanjing, the nationalist capital of the south bank of the Yangzi, falls to the PLA. After a lengthy siege Shanghai, financial capital of China, falls to the communists.
  • October 1 1949 – Mao declares the People’s Republic of China in Tiananmen Square.
  • December 1949 – Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and the remnants of his forces flee to the island of Taiwan, to this day an independent nation which China refuses to recognise. Realising their man had failed, the Americans were resigned to the eventual fall of Taiwan as well, but the situation was transformed with the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, when Chinese-backed North Korean forces invaded American-backed South Korea. America rallied the United Nations in a bid to create a coalition to repel the North Koreans and this spilled over into supporting Chiang, so that Taiwan’s nationalists were ensured of survival.

Mass deaths

The civil war involved a number of sieges of nationalist cities during which large number of civilians were deliberately starved to death. The six-month siege of Changchun resulted in between 150,000 and 300,000 civilian deaths. The massive Huaihai campaign resulted in at least 500,000 deaths on the nationalist side.

Dikötter’s text is larded (rather like Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis) with eyewitness and first-hand accounts from all sources, civilians, peasants, students, soldiers on both sides and politicians. The overall impression is of death and destruction on a grand scale.

The communists in power

Dikötter’s book is a remorseless catalogue of the horrors of the civil war interspersed with the tyrannical policies of the narrow-minded, economically illiterate dictatorship. One of the clearest themes is that the communists achieved and maintained power through HATE at all levels. Categories of enemies were invented and then ‘discovered’ lurking at all levels of society.

An example he explains in detail is persecution of landlords. In Chinese the word landlord itself is an import from the Japanese language, because the thing itself was relatively rare. Dikötter shows that land in China was alienable i.e sellable, and was held by peasants and families under complex and highly detailed traditional contracts which also varied across the regions of China. But landlords, who owned land and raked off a profit by renting it to peasants, were relatively rare. Serfdom, on the Russian model, didn’t exist at all. But this didn’t stop Mao’s campaign to eradicate ‘landlords’ and so each province, region and local area was given quotas of landlords to identify and eradicate. With a gun in their hand and the ability to do whatever they liked, communist cadres across the country listened to the venomous vendettas which infest all rural communities, dragging unpopular villagers and their families in front of hurried kangaroo courts, where victims were abused and insulted before being showered in filth and, variously, shot immediately, beheaded, or flayed with knives, buried alive in sand or mud, hanged upside down or burned to death. Hundreds of thousands of peasants died this way and their – generally pitifully small – stocks of goods redistributed among the villagers. Obviously this didn’t lead to any particular improvement in agricultural production, in fact the disorder across the country disrupted resources, plans and distribution, so led to a drop in agricultural production.

But this is only one thread in the great tapestry of destruction. Another was the campaign against the ‘bourgeoisie’ in the cities, namely Nanjing and Shanghai. Once secure in the hands of the communists a curfew was imposed. Bars and nightclubs closed down. Decadent shops were closed down. Banks were nationalised. Capital could only be allotted by communist party cadres who were economically illiterate. Stocks and supplies ran short and so factories switched to part time work before closing down. Thousands of workers saw pay cuts and then were made unemployed. Convinced this was a conspiracy of reactionaries to discredit the party, the communist authorities took tighter control of the population, issuing identity cards and other papers, classifying every citizen into a series of categories e.g. student, professional, worker, peasant, with the workers and peasants in theory being the most advantaged. As the economic situation worsened, the communist authorities reacted with the only tool at their disposal, fear and terror, with increasing sweeps rounding up members of suspect professions and taking them for interrogation and torture and often execution.

In this and numerous other ways Dikötter’s book relentlessly catalogues the way the economically illiterate communists, blinded by the purity of their utopian doctrine, were forced to use the only strategy and language they understood, fear which was achieved by whipping up hysterical hatred of traitors, saboteurs, counter-revolutionaries, reactionaries, landlords, the bourgeoisie, intellectuals, and so on. These categories covered just about everyone, thus allowing the authorities to arrest and torture anyone into making confessions implicating strings of other people who were themselves tortured to confess, and so on.

‘You dare not speak with others about what was on your mind, even with those close to you, because it was very likely that they would denounce you. Everybody was denouncing others and was denounced by others. Everybody was living in fear.’ (Liu Xiayou, quoted on page 183)

Dikötter presents the evidence and estimates that the number of people killed in the first Great Terror, from 1950 to 1952, might be around 2 million. There were to be more waves of terror, many more. Two striking features of them are that:

  1. Mao’s orders which triggered these waves were always deliberately vague – this meant that cadres trying to carry them out tended to give them the broadest interpretation and arrest everyone, just in case.
  2. This was exacerbated by the use of quotas. Mao casually estimated that 1 in a 1,000 of each populated area should probably be executed. Once these orders were distributed to the cadres, they vied to gain the Chairman’s favour by exceeding the quota. Like quotas for steel or wheat production these were just more statistics to be reached and exceeded, the quicker the better. Authorities in different regions interpreted the lax definitions to suit themselves, and executed whichever groups were easily available and/or disliked, including ethnic minorities, petty criminals, anyone with any mark of suspicion against them.

Max Hasting’s history of the Pacific War, Nemesis, is made bearable because, amid all the unspeakable Japanese atrocities, we meet Americans and English who are, basically, humane and kindly. There are moments of light, reason and humanity. Dikötter’s book is almost impossible to read because of the stifling sense that the reader is trapped in a totally repressed society, where absolutely everyone lives in fear all the time that the slightest remark, look, or even thought could lead to their arbitrary arrest, torture and execution – where brutality is ubiquitous. There are no reports of anyone being forgiving, kind or generous. It is a landscape of unrelenting tyranny, fear and violence.

In the campaign against ‘corruption’ in the early 1950s, suspects had their hair pulled, heads forced into toilets, forced to squat with kettles of boiling water on their head, forced to strip, were beaten and whipped, were made to stand naked in snow, were paraded through the streets to be jeered and spat at, forced to kneel in hot ashes, beaten with ropes (p.162), forced to kneel on benches or to remain bent over for hours, stripped and forced into vats of freezing water, bound with leg irons, beaten with bamboo sticks, tied hand and foot and forced to make confessions in front of mass rallies,

‘Denunciation boxes’ were placed in every office so citizens could denounce each other. Lorries patrolled the streets with loudspeakers insulting the corrupt bourgeoisie and enemies of the workers.

During this period up to 4 million government employees were hounded like this, many committing suicide. Dikötter devotes some pages to describing the suicide techniques of those hounded beyond endurance. Again, Mao came up with a scientific quota: 1% of suspects should be shot, 1% sent to labour camps for life, 2-3% sentenced to ten years hard labour.

Speak Bitterness Meetings

Timeline of communist repression

‘Socialism must have a dictatorship, it will not work without it.’
(Mao Zedong, quoted page 237)

  • 1942 – With the war far from won, and the communists facing a far stronger nationalist enemy, behind the lines Mao institutes a purge of his own communist party, named the ‘Rectification campaign’. Every member of the communist party, including the highest leadership, had to write an autobiography, produce self-criticisms, confess to past errors and ask the party’s forgiveness. By 1944 15,000 spies and traitors had been unmasked, tortured and executed.
  • 1950-52 – The communists implement land reform in the south.
  • October 1950 – October 1951 – The Great Terror, known as the ‘Campaign to Suppress Counter-Revolutionaries’ leads, apart from the murder and intimidation of millions, to an explosion in the prison population and the creation of a chain of forced labour camps (pp.243-254).
  • 1951-53 – Land having been redistributed, peasants are organised into ‘mutual aid teams’.
  • October 1951 – the campaign to purge the civil service begins, alongside a thought-reform campaign to indoctrinate the educated elite into communist ideology.
  • 1952 – Mao declares war on the private sector in the ‘Five Anti Campaign’.
  • 5 March 1953 – Josef Stalin dies.
  • Spring 1953 – As a result of state-imposed communalisation of agriculture, productivity plummets and large swathes of the country experience famine, people resort to eating grass, leaves and bark, with case of children being sold for food.
  • 27 July 1953 – Ceasefire halts the Korean War.
  • November 1953 – The communist state imposes a state monopoly on grain. The state set the amount to be grown in each region (often wildly optimistic), confiscated it all, returned a fraction (a starvation rations) to the farmers, while confiscating the rest to a) feed the cities b) export to Russia in exchange for industrial goods and weapons. The result was starvation across the country, mixed with open rebellion which was put down with maximum violence.
  • 1953-55 – Peasant mutual aid teams are transformed into fully fledged communes which share all tool, animals and labour. In effect, country workers become serfs in bondage to local communist leaders.
  • 1954 – Senior communist leaders are purged for treachery and splittism. More than 770,000 people are arrested in a campaign against counter-revolutionaries.
  • June 1955 – For the third spring in a row famine struck the collectivised countryside and millions of starving peasants flocked to the cities as beggars. So Premier Zhou Enlai announced the extension of the urban system of ‘household registration’ to the countryside, to tie rural workers to their villages.
  • 1955-56 – The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign accelerates collectivisation in the countryside and nationalisation of industry in towns. In July 1955 about 14% of China’s 120 million rural families were members of a co-operative; by May 1956, more than 90% were members. Dikötter sees this as the final step in the systematic reduction of China’s rural population to landless serfs tied to the state. It is accompanied by widespread violence, terror and intimidation. In the cities 800,000 owners of businesses, large or small, were deprived of their property and overnight became dependent on the whim of local party officials.
  • February 1956 – Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gives his famous speech denouncing Stalin and the ‘cult of the leader’. This bolsters Mao’s critics in the Chinese communist leadership. The ‘Socialist High Tide’ campaign is abandoned.
  • October 1956 – Encouraged by Kruschev’s speech and resulting deStalinisation, the people of Hungary revolt against the communist government. After some hesitation, the Soviets invade, crush all opposition, and impose a new, tougher regime, sending hundreds of thousands of Hungarians to labour camps.
  • Winter 1956-spring 1957 – In a response to Kruschev’s speech and deStalinisation, Mao institutes the ‘Hundred Flowers’ campaign, a more open political climate designed to avoid the overflow of protest seen in Hungary. But it goes too far, leading to a wave of student protest and strikes across the country, at which point, in the summer of 1957, Mao reverses the policy and puts Deng Xiaoping in charge of an anti-rightist campaign. This reaction persecutes up to half a million students and intellectuals, many of them packed off to gulags in the countryside to do hard labour for the rest of their lives.
  • 1957 – The communist party re-establishes its authority and rallies around the Great Leader. He prepares to declare the ‘Great Leap Forward’, which will lead to four years of famine and the greatest man-made disaster in human history, and which is the subject of the second book in the trilogy.
A peasant 'landlord' confesses all before a People's Tribunal moments before being shot (July 1952)

A peasant ‘landlord’ confesses before a People’s Tribunal moments before being executed (July 1952)

How to run a Maoist hate campaign

The first step is to declare that there is a ‘struggle’ or ‘war’ in society between the virtuous and the wicked. We must all be vigilant and watch each other and report anti-social actions or words, or even funny looks. Children must report their parents. Culprits must be ‘called out’ on their anti-social activity and brought before a mass meeting where they must confess their crimes and beg for mercy. They must reflect on their past behaviour and pledge to become a ‘New Person’, promising to dress, think and talk like everyone else, and be unstinting in their praise of the New World and the Wise Leader. The correct climate of fear has been established when everyone is nervous of being ‘named and shamed’ for the slightest slip or error. And anyone speaking up for a bourgeois deviant and enemy of the people will, of course, themselves immediately be proved guilty by association: why else would they defend the guilty?

Thus is a society atomised, making everyone fearful of everyone else, restricting conversation to the blandest generalities. It is important to have a large vocabulary of hate but to be vague about definitions, so that the maximum number of people can be caught by one term of abuse or another. Thus the Chinese communists castigated ‘the enemy’ as, among other terms, a:

  • backward element, bourgeois, bourgeois idealist, bourgeois sentimentalist, capitalist, Chiang Kai-shek roader, counter-revolutionary, degenerate, decadent, deviant element, exploiter, go-it-aloner, hoarder, hooligan, humanist, hypocrite, individualist, kulak, lackey, landlord, middle-of-the-roader, reactionary, rightist, right deviationist, running dog of imperialism, saboteur, schemer, servant of imperialism, speculator, spy and swindler.

Dikötter’s conclusion

‘The first decade of Maoism was one of the worst tyrannies in the history of the twentieth century, sending to an early grave at least 5 million civilians and bringing misery to countless more.’ (p.xv)


Credit

The Tragedy of Liberation by Frank Dikötter was published by Bloomsbury Books in 2013. All quotes and references are to the 2014 paperback edition.

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