The I without a self by W.H. Auden

In January 1939 the English poet W.H. Auden sailed to America where he intended to make a new life for himself. He wanted to escape the fame and notoriety he had garnered in England, and the association his work had with left-wing politics, as well as the more basic consideration that there was more work for a freelance poet, dramatist, essayist and commentator in America than in Britain.

He set about the process of shedding his politically committed 1930s persona, and embarked on an earnest attempt to understand himself and the times he lived in. This was eventually to lead him back to the Anglican beliefs of his childhood, but recast in the forms of 1940s and 50s existentialist theologians.

His poetry stopped being about gangs of schoolboys behaving like soldiers or vivid descriptions of England’s derelict depression-era industry or calls for action in civil war Spain, a fabulously thrilling mix of vivid detail and urgent mood, which makes the reader feel part of some insider gang:

Consider this and in our time
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year.
Pass on, admire the view of the massif
Through plate-glass windows of the Sport hotel;
Join there the insufficient units
Dangerous, easy, in furs, in uniform
And constellated at reserved tables
Supplied with feelings by an efficient band
Relayed elsewhere to farmers and their dogs
Sitting in kitchens in the stormy fens.

and became more consciously detached and urbane. In the worst of it, his characters carry out long monologues full of knowing references to Character Types and Schools of Thought. In the best of it he invokes or addresses the Greats of European Culture such as Horace or Goethe or Homer and writes poems of tremendous authority such as The Shield of Achilles. As the terrible war dragged on, Auden came to see it as the poet’s role to define and preserve the values of civilisation.

Meanwhile, to earn a living, he needed to deliver lectures and write reviews. He was always a highly cerebral person, from early youth given to sorting and ordering friends, poems and experiences into categories. Thus his essays and lectures have a kind of brisk, no-nonsense clarity about them, much given to invoking types and archetypes and categories, and to then explaining how they apply to this or that writer.

Thus, when he came to write about Kafka, Auden takes as his premise the notion that Kafka was the century’s greatest writer of parables and then goes on to work through the consequences of that idea. It is characteristic of Auden that his explanation requires reference to Dickens, Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, and an explanation of the archetype of The Quest and the Princess and the Hero, as well as references to Gnostics and manicheism. It is characteristic that Auden uses quite a lot of Christian theological language, while making no reference to Kafka’s well-known Jewish context.

The essay is already available online in its entirety and since it is so lucid I can’t see any point in garbling it through my own interpretation but quote it in full.

The I without a self by W.H. Auden

Kafka is a great, maybe the greatest, master of the pure parable, a literary genre about which a critic can say very little worth saying. The reader of a novel, or the spectator at a drama, though novel and drama may also have a parabolic significance, is confronted by a feigned history, by characters, situations, actions which, though they may be analogous to his own, are not identical. Watching a performance of Macbeth, for example, I see particular historical persons involved in a tragedy of their own making: I may compare Macbeth with myself and wonder what I should have done and felt had I been in his situation, but I remain a spectator, firmly fixed in my own time and place. But I cannot read a pure parable in this way.

Though the hero of a parable may be given a proper name (often, though, he may just be called ‘a certain man’ or ‘K’) and a definite historical and geographical setting, these particulars are irrelevant to the meaning of parable. To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read. The ‘meaning’ of a parable, in fact, is different for every reader. In consequence there is nothing a critic can do to ‘explain’ it to others. Thanks to his superior knowledge of artistic and social history, of language, of human nature even, a good critic can make others see things in a novel or a play which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves. But if he tries to interpret a parable, he will only reveal himself. What he writes will be a description of what the parable has done to him; of what it may do to others he does not and cannot have any idea.

Sometimes in real life one meets a character and thinks, ‘This man comes straight out of Shakespeare or Dickens’, but nobody ever met a Kafka character. On the other hand, one can have experiences which one recognizes as Kafkaesque, while one would never call an experience of one’s own Dickensian or Shakespearian. During the war, I had spent a long and tiring day in the Pentagon. My errand done, I hurried down long corridors eager to get home, and came to a turnstile with a guard standing beside it. ‘Where are you going?’ said the guard. ‘I’m trying to get out,’ I replied. ‘You are out,’ he said. For the moment I felt I was K.

In the case of the ordinary novelist or playwright, a knowledge of his personal life and character contributes almost nothing to one’s understanding of his work, but in the case of a writer of parables like Kafka, biographical information is, I believe, a great help, at least in a negative way, by preventing one from making false readings. (The ‘true’ readings are always many.)

In the new edition of Max Brod’s biography, he describes a novel by a Czech writer, Bozena Nemcova (1820-1862), called The Grandmother. The setting is a village in the Riesengebirge which is dominated by a castle. The villagers speak Czech, the inhabitants of the castle German. The Duchess who owns the castle is kind and good but she is often absent on her travels and between her and the peasants are interposed a horde of insolent household servants and selfish, dishonest officials, so that the Duchess has no idea of what is really going on in the village. At last the heroine of the story succeeds in getting past the various barriers to gain a personal audience with the Duchess, to whom she tells the truth, and all ends happily.

What is illuminating about this information is that the castle officials in Nemcovi are openly presented as being evil, which suggests that those critics who have thought of the inhabitants of Kafka’s castle as agents of Divine Grace were mistaken, and that Erich Heller’s reading is substantially correct.

The castle of Kafka’s novel is, as it were, the heavily fortified garrison of a company of Gnostic demons, successfully holding an advanced position against the manoeuvres of an impatient soul. I do not know of any conceivable idea of divinity which could justify those interpreters who see in the castle the residence of ‘divine law and divine grace’. Its officers are totally indifferent to good if they are not positively wicked. Neither in their decrees nor in their activities is there discernible any trace of love, mercy, charity or majesty. In their icy detachment they inspire no awe, but fear and revulsion.

Dr. Brod also publishes for the first time a rumor which, if true, might have occurred in a Kafka story rather than in his life, namely, that, without his knowledge, Kafka was the father of a son who died in 1921 at the age of seven. The story cannot be verified since the mother was arrested by the Germans in 1944 and never heard of again.

Remarkable as The Trial and The Castle are, Kafka’s finest work, I think, is to be found in the volume The Great Wall of China, all of it written during the last six years of his life. The wall it portrays is still the world of his earlier books and one cannot call it euphoric, but the tone is lighter. The sense of appalling anguish and despair which make stories like The Penal Colony almost unbearable, has gone. Existence may be as difficult and frustrating as ever, but the characters are more humorously resigned to it.

Of a typical story one might say that it takes the formula of the heroic Quest and turns it upside down. In the traditional Quest, the goal – a Princess, the Fountain of Life, etc. – is known to the hero before he starts. This goal is far distant and he usually does not know in advance the way thither nor the dangers which beset it, but there are other beings who know both and give him accurate directions and warnings.

Moreover the goal is publicly recognizable as desirable. Everybody would like to achieve it, but it can only be reached by the Predestined Hero. When three brothers attempt the Quest in turn, the first two are found wanting and fail because of their arrogance and self-conceit, while the youngest succeeds, thanks to his humility and kindness of heart. But the youngest, like his two elders, is always perfectly confident that he
will succeed.

In a typical Kafka story, on the other hand, the goal is peculiar to the hero himself: he has no competitors. Some beings whom he encounters try to help him, more are obstructive, most are indifferent, and none has the faintest notion of the way. As one of the aphorisms puts it: ‘There is a goal but no way; what we call the way is mere wavering’. Far from being confident of success, the Kafka hero is convinced from the start that he is doomed to fail, as he is also doomed, being who he is, to make prodigious and unending efforts to reach it. Indeed, the mere desire to reach the goal is itself a proof, not that he is one of the Elect, but that he is under a special curse.

Perhaps there is only one cardinal sin: impatience. Because of impatience we were driven out of Paradise, because of impatience we cannot return.

Theoretically, there exists a perfect possibility of happiness: to believe in the indestructible element in oneself and not strive after it.

In all previous versions of the Quest, the hero knows what he ought to do and his one problem is ‘Can I do it?’ Odysseus knows he must not listen to the song of the sirens, a knight in quest of the Sangreal knows he must remain chaste, a detective knows he must distinguish between truth and falsehood. But for K the problem is ‘What ought I to do?’ He is neither tempted, confronted with a choice between good and evil, nor carefree, content with the sheer exhilaration of motion. He is certain that it matters enormously what he does now, without knowing at all what that ought to be. If he guesses wrong, he must not only suffer the same consequences as if he had chosen wrong, but also feel the same responsibility. If the instructions and advice he receives seem to him absurd or contradictory, he cannot interpret this as evidence of malice or guilt in others; it may well be proof of his own.

The traditional Quest Hero has arete, either manifest, like Odysseus, or concealed, like the fairy tale hero; in the first case, successful achievement of the Quest adds to his glory, in the second it reveals that the apparent nobody is a glorious hero: to become a hero, in the traditional sense, means acquiring the right, thanks to one’s exceptional gifts and deeds, to say I. But K is an I from the start, and in this fact alone, that he exists, irrespective of any gifts or deeds, lies his guilt.

If the K of The Trial were innocent, he would cease to be K and become nameless like the fawn in the wood in Through the Looking-Glass. In The Castle, K, the letter, wants to become a word, land-surveyor, that is to say, to acquire a self like everybody else but this is precisely what he is not allowed to acquire.

The world of the traditional Quest may be dangerous, but it is open : the hero can set off in any direction he fancies. But the Kafka world is closed; though it is almost devoid of sensory properties, it is an intensely physical world. The objects and faces in it may be vague, but the reader feels himself hemmed in by their suffocating presence: in no other imaginary world, I think, is everything so heavy. To take a single step exhausts the strength. The hero feels himself to be a prisoner and tries to escape but perhaps imprisonment is the proper state for which he was created, and freedom would destroy him.

The more horse you yoke, the quicker everything will go – not the rending or the block from its foundation, which is impossible, but the snapping of the traces and with that the gay and empty journey.

The narrator hero of The Burrow for example, is a beast of unspecified genus, but, presumably, some sort of badger-like animal, except that he is carnivorous. He lives by himself without a mate and never encounters any other member of his own species. He also lives in a perpetual state of fear lest he be pursued and attacked by other animals – ‘My enemies are countless,’ he says – but we never learn what they may be like and we never actually encounter one. His preoccupation is with the burrow which has been his lifework. Perhaps, when he first began excavating this, the idea of a burrow-fortress was more playful than serious, but the bigger and better the burrow becomes, the more he is tormented by the question: ‘Is it possible to construct the absolutely impregnable burrow?’ This is a torment because he can never be certain that there is not some further precaution of which he has not thought. Also the burrow he has spent his life constructing has become a precious thing which he must defend as much as he would defend himself.

One of my favourite plans was to isolate the Castle Keep from its surroundings, that is to say to restrict the thickness of the walls to about my own height, and leave a free space of about the same width all around the Castle Keep … I had always pictured this free space, and not without reason as the loveliest imaginable haunt. What a joy to he pressed against the rounded outer wall, pull oneself up, let oneself slide down again, miss one’s footing and find oneself on firm earth, and play all these games literally upon the Castle Keep and not inside it; to avoid the Castle Keep, to rest one’s eyes from it whenever one wanted, to postpone the joy of seeing it until later and yet not have to do without it, but literally hold it safe between one’s claws . . .

He begins to wonder if, in order to defend it, it would not be better to hide in the bushes outside near its hidden entrance and keep watch. He considers the possibility of enlisting the help of a confederate to share the task of watching, but decides against it.

. . . would he not demand some counter-service from me; would he not at least want to see the burrow? That in itself, to let anyone freely into my burrow, would be exquisitely painful to me. I built it for myself, not for visitors, and I think I would refuse to admit him … I simply could not admit him, for either I must let him go in first by himself, which is simply unimaginable, or we must both descend at the same time, in which case the advantage I am supposed to derive from him, that of being kept watch over, would be lost. And what trust can I really put in him? … It is comparatively easy to trust any one if you are supervising him or at least supervise him; perhaps it is possible to trust some one at a distance; but completely to trust someone outside the burrow when you are inside the burrow, that is, in a different world, that, it seems to me, is impossible.

One morning he is awakened by a faint whistling noise which he cannot identify or locate. It might be merely the wind, but it might be some enemy. From now on, he is in the grip of a hysterical anxiety. Does this strange beast, if it is a beast, know of his existence and, if so, what does it know. The story breaks off without a solution.

Edwin Muir has suggested that the story would have ended with the appearance of the invisible enemy to whom the hero would succumb. I am doubtful about this. The whole point of the parable seems to be that the reader is never to know if the narrator’s subjective fears have any objective justification.

The more we admire Kafka’s writings, the more seriously we must reflect upon his final instructions that they should be destroyed. At first one is tempted to see in this request a fantastic spiritual pride, as if he had said to himself: ‘To be worthy of me, anything I write must be absolutely perfect. But no piece of writing, however excellent, can be perfect. Therefore, let what I have written be destroyed as unworthy of me.’

But everything which Dr. Brod and other friends tell us about Kafka as a person makes nonsense of this explanation. It seems clear that Kafka did not think of himself as an artist in the traditional sense, that is to say, as a being dedicated to a particular function, whose personal existence is accidental to his artistic productions. If there ever was a man of whom it could be said that he ‘hungered and thirsted after righteousness’, it was Kafka.

Perhaps he came to regard what he had written as a personal device he had employed in his search for God. ‘Writing,’ he once wrote, ‘is a form of prayer,’ and no person whose prayers are genuine, desires them to be overheard by a third party. In another passage, he describes his aim in writing thus:

Somewhat as if one were to hammer together a table with painful and methodical technical efficiency, and simultaneously do nothing at all, and not in such a way that people could say: ‘Hammering a table together is nothing to him,’ but rather ‘Hammering a table together is really hammering a table together to him, but at the same time it is nothing,’ whereby certainly the hammering would have become still bolder, still surer, still more real, and if you will, still more senseless.

But whatever the reasons, Kafka’s reluctance to have his work published should at least make a reader wary of the way in which he himself reads it. Kafka may be one of those writers who are doomed to be read by the wrong public. Those on whom their effect would be most beneficial are repelled and on those whom they most fascinate their effect may be dangerous, even harmful.

I am inclined to believe that one should only read Kafka when one is in a eupeptic state of physical and mental health and, in consequence, tempted to dismiss any scrupulous heart-searching as a morbid fuss. When one is in low spirits, one should probably keep away from him, for, unless introspection is accompanied, as it always was in Kafka, by an equal passion for the good life, it all too easily degenerates into a spineless narcissistic fascination with one’s own sin and weakness.

No one who thinks seriously about evil and suffering can avoid entertaining as a possibility the gnostic-manichean notion of the physical world as intrinsically evil, and some of Kafka’s sayings come perilously close to accepting it.

There is only a spiritual world; what we call the physical world is the evil in the spiritual one.

The physical world is not an illusion, but only its evil which, however, admittedly constitutes our picture of the physical world.

Kafka’s own life and his writings as a whole are proof that he was not a gnostic at heart, for the true gnostic can alwaysbe recognized by certain characteristics. He regards himself as a member of a spiritual elite and despises all earthly affections and social obligations. Quite often, he also allows himself an anarchic immorality in his sexual life, on the grounds that, since the body is irredeemable, a moral judgment cannot be applied to its actions.

Neither Kafka, as Dr. Brod knew him, nor any of his heroes show a trace of spiritual snobbery nor do they think of the higher life they search for as existing in some otherworld sphere: the distinction they draw between this world and the world does not imply that there are two different worlds, only that our habitual conceptions of reality are not the true conception.

Perhaps, when he wished his writings to be destroyed, Kafka foresaw the nature of too many of his admirers.


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Immortality by Milan Kundera (1990)

Kundera’s first novel fully in, and of, the West

Immortality was published in 1990 and it’s by far Milan Kundera’s longest novel, at a hefty 386 pages in the Faber edition. Both these facts are significant.

By 1990, 42 years had passed since the Communist seizure of power in 1948 which is the backdrop to his first two novels, and 22 years had passed since 1968, when the Russians invaded and crushed the Prague Spring, a trauma which formed the backdrop to The Book of Laughter and Forgetting and The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 15 years earlier, in 1975, Kundera had finally abandoned all hope Czech communism could be ‘reformed’, and left his homeland to go into exile in France. A lot of time had passed since all of these traumatic events.

And it shows. Immortality feels like the first of Kundera’s novels which is fully set in the West and which isn’t dominated by theories of History, the Communist Party, and the awful political events of his homeland.

The results, though, are not necessarily beneficial, and represent a definite falling-off in imaginative power and charge. I can identify three:

1. Instead of political insight, moaning

This long novel is full of all-too-familiar Western griping. The first-person narrator, who makes his first in-person appearance on page five:

  • dislikes the phrase ‘consumers’ (p.6)
  • dislikes the rock music pounding at him from every direction
  • dislikes the way everything is photographed (‘the lens is everywhere’, p.32. ‘God’s eye has been replaced by a camera,’ p.33)
  • he hates ‘what is sadly called fast food‘ (p.21)
  • he loathes the way the pavements of Paris are crowded to overflowing with people prepared to just walk right over you, forcing you to step onto the road (‘The cars that have filled the streets have narrowed the pavements…Their omnipresent noise corrodes every moment of contemplation like acid. Cars have made the former beauty of cities invisible.’ (p.271)
  • he has learned of something called a “soundbite” which he spends a page or so satirising (p.60)
  • even the border between the unimportant and the important has been erased by the universal unending BLAH of the media (p.372)

In other words, Kundera has gone from sounding like a cool and sexy lecturer to sounding like your moany old grandad.

2. The narrator suddenly sounds old

Listening to the plaints of this grumpy old man prompts you to reflect on what made his Czech-era fiction so great. Obviously there was the seriousness and intensity of the political backdrop and the fear and edge it gave to everyone’s lives.

But I wonder if it’s also because the protagonists of his earlier novels are young. Reading Immortality made me realise that part of the reason I like The Joke so much, maybe more than the famous later novels, is because its main protagonist, Ludvik, is young and tough. Although terrible things happen to him, he is a survivor, and although it turns out that he has misunderstood just about every important thing that ever happened to him, nonetheless it is in a proactive, uncomplaining way, which is inspiring and invigorating to read. His plan to humiliate Helena Zemanek may be immoral in all kinds of ways, but it is lively and funny.

The narrator of Immortality (pretty much the same meandering, opinionated narrator as in the previous two or three novels – basically, Kundera – or Kundera-as-he-presents-himself-in-his-novels), by contrast, sounds tired and and pissed off. Bloody lifts. Bloody muzak. Bloody paparazzi everywhere. Bloody packed pavements.

The essence of the ‘grumpy old man’ is that he’s given up. He just can’t be doing any more with muzak and the endless traffic and the crowds on the pavement. He put up with it for a certain amount of time but now…

And so an air of defeat sits over the book. It makes you realise that one of the inspiring things about the earlier books was their air of defiance – defying the communist authorities, defying conventional wisdom, defying the scorn of women, his heroes may well be wrong in their interpretation of their lives, but they are cocky and confident (Ludvik and Tomas) which is life-affirming – whereas the tone of Immortality is defeated and sad.

3. All too familiar

Another aspect of Kundera’s settled dislike of numerous aspects of the ‘free world’, is that we already know about it. When Kundera was writing about the kind of tyranny, fear and power plays which took place at all levels of society in a communist society, it was news, it was like reports from another planet, he was presenting fascinating and deep insights into situations which had a weird compelling logic all of their own and which we, in the West, had never experienced.

But when he moans about the busy traffic and packed sidewalks of Paris, or about the intrusiveness of the paparazzi, or how modern politicians don’t even bother to make coherent arguments in their speeches but just repeat sound bites worked out by their PR teams… that’s the kind of moaning about the modern world which we in the West grew up in. He sounds like lamenting editorials in the Daily Telegraph or Spectator.

4. Prolix

The stereotype of old men is that they go on and on, they are prolix, which Google defines for me as ‘tediously lengthy’. Well, as you read into it you realise part of the reason this book is his longest one is because many of the digressions and historical or cultural references which he’d have made into a snappy half-page in the earlier books, in this one go on for pages and pages.

I wonder if it was something to do with his editors or publishers. I wonder if there was some external constraint requiring the earlier books to be pithy and concentrated. Whatever the reason, it feels like someone has said you him, ‘Right you’re in the Free West now, you can write as much as you want.’ It feels like Kundera has undone his belt… and it’s all come flooding out, fifteen years-worth of everything he hates about the decadent West, its pampered narcissistic populations, and their horrifying shallowness, flowing and flooding into this great grumpy purge of a book.

Part One – The Face (44 pages)

Kundera tries to get us interested in a middle-aged woman he names Agnes. He explains how the idea for her character came to him after watching the wave of an older woman at a swimming pool to her young instructor. (This is not new. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being he candidly explains how the seed of Tereza’s character was sown when he heard a woman’s tummy rumbling inappropriately and trying to cover it up. The entire idea for the character of a woman ashamed of her body came to him in one flash.)

Agnes is married, she has a husband Paul, they discuss big ideas in dialogues of concentrated, pointed wit which could only exist in a novel or play.

Agnes drives to her sauna and health club. She has memories of her Father who everyone thought would die, but it was her Mother who suddenly died, her Father lingered on, when her sister came upon her Father having apparently torn up the photos of his marriage, the sisters had a furious argument and falling out.

Kundera projects his own ageing disillusionment onto her. God, the traffic! And the noise! And the endless yapping of the women at her health club! No surprise that she feels completely alienated, that she has

‘the feeling that she had nothing in common with those two-legged creatures with a head on their shoulders and a mouth on their face’. (p.43)

No wonder she compares human beings to Renault cars, mass produced variations on the same basic design, who can only just about be told apart by their faces, a unique combination of familiar elements (much the same as a machine’s serial number is a unique number though made up of familiar digits, p.13)

The close association of Agnes’ gripes with Kundera’s makes the reader feel that she is pissed off because her creator is.

Part Two – Immortality (45 pages)

Then suddenly we are whisked off into History.

In a sudden jump, we are shown the scene where Goethe, the great German poet, met Napoleon, in 1811. Briefly, though, as the great general is mostly distracted with aides and assistants running in and out. Having dwelt at length on the evils of the paparazzi and the ubiquity of cameras, Kundera wittily imagines their meeting being snapped by (invisible) cameras, and scripted by PR people. So much attention is paid because both sides realise this meeting might go down in Posterity. It might become immortal.

Having broached the idea of the immortality of the famous, this section settles into a long and – for Kundera – unusually uninterrupted sequence describing the dogged devotion of Bettina von Arnim for the ageing Goethe. We get her full biography, an explanation of how she is the daughter of a woman Goethe had a passion for when he was a young man. The point of the thirty or so pages detailing her story is that her obsessed fan worship came close to stalking. She bombarded the older man with letters and guarded his replies. Kundera subtly takes us into the mind of the old poet, presenting his awareness that she is more of a threat than a love interest, and explaining the changes in their relationship over the decades as he tries to ward her off.

Where all this is heading is the way, after the poet died in 1832, Bettina got her letters back and then proceeded to doctor all of them, and all Goethe’s replies, to make him sound much more in love with her than he ever was, and then published them in a volume titled A Child’s Correspondence with Goethe. The von Arnim version became part of the Goethe legend for a century, profoundly affecting biographers’ views of the great man until, by chance, in the 1920s the original letters were discovered, published and the record was set straight.

Fascinating though all this is as a chunk of biographical speculation about an interesting historical figure, its real impact is that it operates at a higher level.

For it can’t help making you reflect that, while Kundera was in Czechoslovakia – or imaginatively dominated by its political history – his fiction had an urgency about its subject matter. It was telling important truths about the plight of oppressed Europe. But by the time he was writing Immortality he had been living and writing in the West for nearly 15 years, and had been fully subjected to the capitalist West’s celebrity machine, with its never-ending round of press and PR stunts and book festivals and interviews and TV documentaries. And reading this long, long section about a woman obsessed with writing a book about a great German poet, and about the later writers who wrote books about the book the woman wrote about the great German writer – you can’t help feeling Kundera has become just another Famous Writer writing books about what a pain it is to be a Famous Writer.

Which just feels like a really over-familiar, tired and boring subject, the subject of far too many already-existing novels and novellas and short stories and plays and films about famous writers obsessed with other famous writers. It feels like Kundera was once out there, reporting on the world. But now he has entered The Literary Bubble, and is talking about himself and other people like him.

In a surreal twist, in the last three short sections of this part, Kundera imagines Goethe in heaven, strolling along and chatting to, of all people, Ernest Hemingway. Why? Because among 20th century authors Hemingway has probably come in for more criticism of his personal life and attitudes – show-off, womaniser, misogynist etc – than any other. So he makes a fitting companion to discuss the perils of immortality. For, as Goethe sadly comments: ‘That’s immortality. Immortality means eternal trial.’ (p.91)

Again, I couldn’t help thinking that Kundera was also discussing his own plight. While in the East he was a persecuted dissident speaking truth to power, and the supposed ‘bravery’ of his writings – the fact that they were suppressed in his home country, gave him tremendous cachet and glamour in Western literary circles.

But now he’s happily ensconced in the West, he is as free as the rest of us to write what he pleases and… just as likely to be criticised and pawed over by the enormous army of critics looking to make a reputation by slamming the famous, as well as dissected to pieces in a hundred thousand university seminar rooms and, of course, comprehensively vilified by feminists, who find his depiction of predatory men, the male gaze and his sexualisation of pretty much every female character in his oeuvre, a symptom of his gross misogyny.

So the conversation between Goethe and Hemingway doesn’t come across as inventively as intended; it sounds like more Kundera complaining about his own situation. Moaning about it.

Part Three – Fighting (110 -ages)

This is the longest section, made up of lots of sub-sections, which overflow with characteristic Kundera ideas.

First and foremost it returns us to 20th century France and to the female characters, Agnes and her sister Laura. (Back from early 19th century Germany – by the way, it’s odd how attracted Kundera is to Germany and German culture, the way Beethoven crops up in several of the stories and not, for example, the Czech composers Dvořák or Janáček. Maybe it is symptomatic of the way that, not only does he not want to be pigeonholed as a political novelist, he doesn’t even want to be labelled a Czech novelist: he is aspiring to be a European novelist.)

Agnes and Laura are a dyad and, since Kundera’s ideas generally come in very neat binary opposites, no-one is surprised that he sets up Laura and Agnes as opposites in a whole range of ways: they wear sunglasses for different reasons; have opposite attitudes towards their bodies, and towards sex (Laura’s profound at-homeness, her permanent eroticism – p.178 – versus Agnes’s preference for only occasional excitement). And so on. Maybe it’s me, but I found all this profoundly unengaging.

At a higher level than the actual story, what interested me more were the signs and symptoms in the text of the issue I’ve identified above – namely, all the ways in which this is Kundera’s first Western novel.

I kept finding signs of one big symptom, which is the way he feels overwhelmed by life in the West. There is just too much of everything. This sense of overmuchness comes out in all kinds of remarks and ‘insights’.

In our world, where there are more and more faces, more and more alike, it is difficult for an individual to reinforce the originality of the self and to become convinced of its inimitable uniqueness. (p.111)

Brought up in a small, sparsely populated country, under the pitifully austere conditions first of the war, then of communist tyranny, he is completely unprepared for the monstrous affluence, scale and bombardment of the free world, and this is revealed in lots of touches and ideas.

  • the notion that people are like Renault cars, variations on the same mass-produced model
  • the way there are hundreds of radio channels, but they all sounds the same, and the latest ad jingle is indistinguishable from the latest pop hit (p.90)
  • you just can’t find anywhere to park in Paris, these days (p.151)

And the notion that, although there are so many people, there is only a finite set of ideas. So many people, so few ideas (p.113), with the result that you end up hearing people repeating the same clichés as if they’ve just invented them themselves.

He moans about modern journalists who don’t report events but, more and more, just interview people, and like gladiators paid to goad and humiliate their interviewees. Again this sounds like sour grapes. You can’t help feeling Kundera has been ‘monstered’ by French journalists and is now getting his revenge (pp.121-124). The protagonist listens to a radio programme where an interviewer has got a film actor on but only wants to talk about his private life. Can’t we talk about my films, the actor asks. What are you trying to hide? the interviewer asks, insidiously. No escape from the ghastly insinuations of the all-powerful media (p.138)

He complains that political discourse has been taken over by Imagology which is run by imagologues (p.127) meaning the people who advise politicians on how to advertise and promote themselves, who run opinion polls which determine what everyone thinks is going on, who determine advertising campaigns and fashion, who determine what appears in newspapers, on TV and the radio, and how it is presented.

He laments that his grandmother in Moravia knew everyone in her village and what everything was made of, from her quilt to her house, to her meals, and knew all the neighbours – whereas his neighbour in his Paris flat drives to work, sits silently across from a colleague all day, then drives home and turns on the TV and believes everything it tells him (p.128). Tut tut, modern life, eh?

This grumbling is half-heartedly turned into ‘fiction’ by having the ‘imagologues’ in charge of the advertisers who fund the radio station Paul (Agnes’ husband) works for, tell its director, nicknamed the Bear, to sack him from his weekly radio talk. Although he carries on his main job as a lawyer, the sacking has a subtle effect, making him realise he is not as young and amusing as he likes to think he is.

Paul has a young friend at the radio station, an interviewer named Bernard, who has started to date Laura, Agnes’s older sister. Both are thrilled because they are being oh-so-naughty (him dating an older woman, she going out with a toyboy).

Paul and Agnes have a grown-up daughter, Brigitte. She is spoilt. Paul manned the barricades in Paris in 1968 (well, for a few days), and for him the boy poet Rimbaud was part of a gestalt which included Che Guevara, Mao and Jean-Paul Sartre. He was against comfortable bourgeois lives. Now he is bewildered by the way his daughter is all in favour of comfortable bourgeois lives, and enjoys living one at her parents’ expense.

One day, out of the blue, a stranger walks into Bernard’s office and hands him a scroll of paper, a certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass, then walks out. Bernard is astonished. It’s one of the few blocks or negatives he’s encountered in a lifetime of easy success. He is so preoccupied with this fate that he begins to neglect Laura, who begins to suspect he has taken a mistress. (There are a few pages detailing how Laura thinks she ‘knows’ Bernard because she has given herself so completely to him; but in fact she doesn’t know him at all: Kundera’s, by now, stock take on human relationships.)

He begins to distance himself from Laura (they don’t actually live together). She notices and becomes querulous. He begins to think of her as a nuisance. She follows him on one of his weekends away to write. He is angry. She is angry. She throws herself on him and they have one of those joyless Kundera couplings, both trying to outdo each other in their fury as they put each other through a humiliating roster of punishing positions.

Bernard announces he is going to Martinique for his annual getaway (nice lives these characters lead, don’t they? They are members of the privileged haute bourgeoisie, another reason not to like this book.) And Laura agonises about whether to go, whether to precede him, whether to commit suicide so he finds her body in his holiday home. She drags Paul and Agnes into her agonising, and then phones them from Martinique, claiming to have found a gun and to be about to shoot herself, and generally exhausting everyone by her histrionics. Days later she returns to Paris and turns up in Paul and Agnes’s apartment, leading to a furious argument between the sisters.

Hard to care.

Part Four – Homo sentimentalis (32 pages)

Kundera mixes up a great meringue of a disquisition about love and the soul and sentiment. He

  • invokes the story of Bettina’s love for Goethe
  • how it was interpreted by three 20th century authors (Rilke, Romain Rolland and Eluard – each in favour of Bettina and against Goethe’s apparent coolness [and each contemptuous of his fat peasant wife])
  • swoops from the troubadours of 12th century Provence to an analysis of the love affair at the heart of Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, to interpretations of love scenes from Don Quixote

He splits hairs, and refines definitions, and makes learnèd references in a mighty impressive way, but this is the first sustained passage in all Kundera which I found boring and pointless.

He discusses the nature of sentimentality at length without, I felt, really clarifying it very much. He then reverts to the relationship with Bettina von Arnem and, in particular, to Romain Rolland’s interpretation of a famous anecdote which Bettina recounted in her memoirs, but many scholars now think she made up.

One day Beethoven was visiting Goethe in Weimar and the two great men took a walk and they saw the Empress i.e. wife of the ruler of Weimar coming towards them with her entourage. Goethe stopped and ceremoniously swept off his hat and bowed. But Beethoven pulled his hat down harder over his head and continued walking, hands firmly behind his back.

This became a commonly repeated anecdote even though Bettina probably made it up. Kundera repeats it a number of times, and lays out various possible interpretations of its meaning.

I began to be irritated by the way Kundera repeatedly talks about European History as if it is a history of ideas and Great Art, as if the motor of history was Ideas like Romanticism or Sentiment. This just seems to me stupid. For me the important things about European history are its incessant wars which themselves derived from endless competition, and it was this ceaseless competition for power and one-up-manship which drove an unprecedented inventiveness in a) technology and engineering b) trade and economics, and which led directly to c) the conquest of foreign colonies and centuries of imperialism.

Kundera mentions none of this. Instead a made-up anecdote about two Great Men is meant to tell us about the nature of the European Soul.

I know this kind of focus, angle, approach appeals to a cohort of other writers, critics and readers, who think reality should be approached via stories and anecdotes about Great Writers and Artists. Maybe I thought so too, when I was young. But now I believe that it’s not only not an adequate approach to the complexity of life and history, but – worse – that it runs the risk of obscuring truths about the world, deeper understanding about the world, rather than enlightening its readers. It helps to create and sustain the Happy Bubble of Literary Consensus, while the real world crashes and bangs around us, inexplicably.

Once again the section ends with a jokey chat between Goethe and Ernest Hemingway in heaven. Goethe says he’s moved on now. He went to watch his Eternal trial and realises he doesn’t care. He realises now that as soon as he died not only did he, as a person, cease to exist, but his personhood fled from his books. They just became books like all the other books, which don’t contain his essence or anything like it.

Part Five – Chance (55 pages)

A chapter about the meaning of coincidences. In his Frenchified, endlessly theorising manner, Kundera suggests that there are five types of coincidence:

  • the mute coincidence
  • the poetic coincidence
  • the contrapuntal coincidence
  • the story-generating coincidence
  • the morbid coincidence

He discusses this with his companion, Professor Avenarius, an entirely fictional creation with whom he can have these kinds of mock-intellectual conversations. Now we learn that it was this Avenarius who marched into the office of Bernard the radio broadcaster and handed him the certificate declaring him a Compleat Ass.

Cut to Agnes: she wants to leave Paul and Paris and move back to Switzerland where she grew up. When her company open an office in Bern they offer her a job there and she leaps at the chance. In several passages scattered through this part, we see her thinking as she lies in bed in a Swiss hotel, reminiscing about her childhood, and about her last days with her dying Father – all taking place on this trip to Switzerland, before she gets into her car to drive back to Paris.

Meanwhile Kundera is enjoying a hearty meal (of roast duck) with the professor, at which he elaborates on his notion of the novel, namely that it should resist being able to be translated into other media – film, TV, cartoons. It should resist being reduced to one single line of events. That kind of novel is like whipping your characters down a narrow street towards one dramatic climax where the entire preceding text goes up in the flames of a ‘resolution’. No, a novel should be more fragmented and digressive.

A novel shouldn’t be like a bicycle race but a feast of many courses. (p.266)

Professor Avenarius shares with the narrator his night-time hobby. He goes jogging with a big carving knife and slices up the tyres of all the cars in his neighbourhood, doing so in a structured geometric way. He tried to interest an environmental group into organising a tyre-slashing commando but they booed him and drove off to protest the building of some nuclear power plant.

Then they discuss a troubling news item the narrator had heard on the radio. It concerned a teenage girl who attempted suicide by walking out of town and into the middle of a busy road and sitting down waiting to be squashed. Unfortunately, the radio explains, a number of cars swerved to avoid killing her and so crashed into the verge or ditch, killing and injuring numerous motorists.

Kundera enters sympathetically into the mind – or at least makes a systematic attempt to imagine the weak character, and the snubs and humiliations she’s received, which lead the girl not to proactively jump off a high building or poison herself, but to want something else to make it all stop.

Anyway, having heard the radio account, now Kundera treats us to a vivid description of three cars screeching off the road to avoid hitting her, all crashing at speed, bursting into flames and filling with the screams of people burning to death.

Meanwhile back in Paris, Professor Avenarius tries to persuade Kundera to come tyre stabbing with him, but the author is tired (after their big, boozy dinner) and walks home. Avenarius is just about to attack yet another tyre when a woman walks round the corner, almost bumps into him, and starts screaming. A crowd gathers. Avenarius is arrested.

As he is taken away a dazed man emerges from an apartment block and, seeing the arrest, hands Avenarius his business card saying he’s a lawyer, then goes over to the most recent car Avenarius has slashed and, seeing the shredded tyre, bursts into tears.

It is Paul. He’s just had a phone call from a provincial hospital saying his wife is there, seriously injured. When he staggers downstairs to get into his car he is appalled to discover its tyres have been slashed (unbeknown to him, by the big paunchy man who’s just been arrested and whose card he’s just given him). He calls Bernard to beg for a lift, but in the event his grown-up daughter Brigitte turns up, and as soon as he’s told her the news, they get back in her car and head off at top speed.

Agnes dies fifteen minutes before they get to the hospital.

Part Six – The Dial (64 pages)

After an unpromising start, this turns into the best thing in the book, worth reading almost by itself, as a short story or – given that this is Kundera – almost a parable in its smooth neatness.

It concerns the erotic life of a man who acquired the nickname ‘Rubens’ at school for his precocious ability at art.

The dial in question is the zodiac, for astrology, although not literally indicative of your life, is a metaphor for the way your life has a pattern, certain set themes, and you can’t escape them. The theme is elaborated via the early erotic career of this young man, Rubens. After a promising start, his artistic career sputters out and so he decides to devote his life to the pursuit of women.

There follow pages of subtle distinctions, categorisations and paradoxes to do with sex, and the different phases of the erotic life:

  • the period of athletic muteness
  • the period of metaphors
  • the period of obscene truth
  • the period of Chinese whispers

And a lot of chatter about different types of love – true love, fake love, high love, low love, love itself, devotional love – which initially repelled me.

But these early passages are worth reading through, because Rubens, as he pursues his erotic career, devoting his life to what seems like a highly improbable sequence of sexual adventures with an endless sequence of willing women, begins to discover strange and troubling things about human nature.

As he grows older he realises he can’t remember most of the hundreds and hundreds of couplings he has taken part in. Or remembers odd quirky details. He can’t remember the most sensational of the escapades, but, for some reason, it’s often the most plain with the most plain partners which haunt him. Why? It puzzles him.

Then, in Italy, visiting art galleries, he bumps into a woman he’d met way back, when she was just 17. He nicknames her the lute player on the spot, and, for years to come, whenever he’s in Paris (her home city) they meet up, two or three times a year, and make love.

Once, they nearly have a ménage à trois but, at the last minute, he sends the other man, his best friend, away. But not before they have stood all three, before the cracked old wardrobe mirror, and he noticed the lute player’s distant gaze, not seeing the scene in front of her, gazing into some remote infinity.

It is moments like that that haunt him, even as he notices his powers failing with other women. Ad as his powers decline, so does his interest. It becomes harder and harder, not to make love as such, but to care.

I thought it was a vivid insight when Rubens realises, after one particular failed encounter, that he has crossed a Rubicon and that, from now on, he will find his erotic fantasies only in the past.

When he was young he thought he had the whole world ahead of him, in chagrin at failing to make a career in art, he decided instead to ‘live life to the full’. But now, as he ages, he realises, when he looks back over his sexual career, that he can hardly remember any of it. The ‘fullness’ to which he has devoted his life, turns out to be empty. Or, not quite empty, but a series of random snapshots and moments. It is not the fullness he expected.

He had become used to phoning the lute player every time he was visiting Paris, to make an illicit rendezvous. He knows she’s married, it doesn’t bother her or him (it never does in Kundera novels). One day she says she can’t see him. She can’t see him ever again. His puzzlement feels genuine because it’s one of the first things in the book which isn’t explained. She just says no. He tries to talk her round, he gets a little cross, she just says ‘No’ to meeting.

He finally accepts it and gets on with his life and with his several other women, and we are told about his increasingly problematic relations with them – especially a young lover who he just can’t satisfy, no matter what he does. He can’t read her. He has no idea whether she’s satisfied or not by their sessions. He has no idea whether he’s satisfied, he’s just doing it because… because… well, why?

On a whim he phones the lute player, after years of silence. An unknown woman’s voice replies. He asks where she is. Where is Agnes? And the woman replies that Agnes is dead. Rubens rings off in shock, but we are moved, as well. All this time the lute player was the Agnes who has been the lead protagonist through all the modern part of the story.

In the final pages Rubens rifles through all the memories he has of his time with her, from their meeting and dancing at some disco when they were 17, through to their chance re-encounter in Rome, and then their settled routine of adulterous afternoons in Paris hotels. And now he envisions her body being cremated, going up in flames except that in his dream of it, Agnes sits up amid the flames, and her look is the same one she had in the mirror of the hotel with him and his friend, staring off into the distance, penetrating some private infinity.

The story ends there, and is the best part of the novel, because, although still packed with rather tiresome ratiocination, it seemed to me to contain more of humanity, of ‘the crooked timber of humanity’, of the strange depths and unexpected shallownesses and unpredictability and puzzling obstinate difficulties, of life as most of us experience it. It still has many of the qualities of the fairy tale or fable, which most Kundera fiction has about it, a too-pat and just-so quality. But, for me at any rate, it also had real emotional and psychological depth.

Part Seven – The Celebration

A sort of epilogue. The narrator is sitting in his health club, high in some building, with a view over Paris, chatting to Dr Avenarius over a bottle of wine, when in walks Paul. It appears to be years later for Paul is now married to Laura, Agnes’s sister. He is drunk. Kundera gives him a drunken philistine speech in which he says he never reads novels, he only reads biographies, and this is part of a conscious effort to overthrow the enormous aesthetic efforts of the Great Artists and break the symphonies down into bite-sized chunks which can be used in toilet paper ads, and the novels become merely replicas of their author’s lives, which are far more interesting and gossipy to read about.

The narrator / Kundera is appalled. All this is probably displacement of the frustration he’s feeling with his situation. His daughter, Brigitte, ran away when he married his dead wife’s sister, Laura. But has recently returned, with a baby. Once again they are at permanent daggers drawn and Paul is caught in the middle. Avenarius and the narrator sympathise.

Paul eventually goes off, following his wife into the changing rooms. We are told that Avenarius, big fat Avenarius, is having an affair with Laura behind Paul’s back. We learn that, on the night when he was arrested for apparently threatening a woman with a knife (when he was in fact slashing car tyres), Avenarius took Paul up on his offer to act as his lawyer, and that Paul got Avenarius acquitted.

It is typical of him that he was prepared to go to gaol as a rapist rather than to tell the truth about how he was really slashing people’s car tyres that evening. (And we, the reader, get the irony, that, if he had told Paul he was the tyre slasher i.e. that it was on account of Avenarius slashing Paul’s tyres that Paul missed his wife’s death by fifteen minutes, that Paul might well have strangled him to death.)

Before he leaves, Paul demonstrates the arm gesture which first attracted him to Laura. It is the same gesture with which Kundera created the character of Agnes at the start of the book. The narrator tells us it is two years to the day since he saw the middle-aged woman swimmer make that gesture and began writing the novel and now it is finished.


Conclusion

I found it difficult to review the Unbearable Lightness of Being because it felt so overflowing with ideas that it was impossible to capture them all, to pin them all down – and it combined this fizzing emporium of ideas with a highly charged and emotional narrative, and with plausible and, by the end, highly sympathetic characters.

I felt the exact opposite with Immortality.

There are two strands, one set in the present concerning the trivial characters of Laura and Bernard, Paul and Agnes, and their daughter Brigitte, and I found it impossible to care very much about these spoilt French bourgeois.

The other strand concerns Goethe and the misleading image of him created for posterity by his stalker-admirer, Bettina von Arnem. I found the biographical facts about Goethe mildly interesting, but the level of attention paid to the precise ways in which Bettina distorted the record, and then how her later admirers defended her at the great man’s expense, increasingly difficult to care about.

Part of the problem is the choice of Goethe as centrepiece. Generations of critics have pointed out that Goethe represents a great blind spot in English culture; he is a vast influence on the continent and yet he has never made much impression over here. His poetry doesn’t translate very well, if at all, and all the scientific explorations he made – into early chemistry, astronomy, the theory of light – were carried out much more definitively by British scientists. So at the centre of the novel is a detailed study of a key memoir which shaped the image of a great European cultural reference point about whom we in England know little and care less.

A novel about a gaggle of spoilt, upper-middle-class French, and a German poet no-one reads. Put like this, you can see why Immortality is a disappointment compared to its predecessors.

Another way of putting it is that the political and psychological intensity of Laughter & Forgetting and Unbearable Lightness made those books feel compelling and important. Somehow, this book, although it uses all the same techniques – the lecturing narrator, with his stylish insights and digressions – the invocation of Great Names from European Culture – its thoughts about the Contemporary World – somehow this novel never manages to get much beyond the merely interesting.

Put yet another way, it boils down to its final scene: Rarefied, very clever, highly literate, obsessed with sex, and high above the crowds whose mass culture they hate and despise, two old men ramble on about Goethe and literary reputations and adultery, making huge and sweeping generalisations about European History and European Society and the Romantic Era and a thousand other subjects, while being completely ignored by the world around them. When push comes to shove, I find the multifarious ever-changing world round them much more interesting than the rarefied and self-satisfied characters in this novel.

Credit

Immortality by Milan Kundera was first published in the English translation by Peter Kussi by Faber and Faber in 1991. All references are to the 1992 Faber paperback edition.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Life Is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera (1969)

And all the secrets we discovered were
Extraordinary and false
(from August for the people by W.H. Auden)

Kundera’s second novel, Life is Elsewhere, is – at least to begin with – a bit of a disappointment after the pyrotechnics of his first, The Joke. The former book was packed with sophisticated ironic effects by virtue of being told by half a dozen narrators who all had different perspectives on the central event. If nothing else, this made for a dynamic reading experience, as the reader was often ahead of various characters in understanding what was going on, or was enabled to assemble the ‘meanings’ of various events from multiple points of view – the cumulative effect being to produce a narrative not only of events, but of what those events ‘meant’, how the meaning of the events was continually changing and, by implication, a sustained meditation on the meaning of ‘meaning’.

Life is Elsewhere is much more traditional and boring in this respect, being told by one, omniscient narrator who has a rather smothering claustrophobic presence. And the story itself takes the time-honoured shape of the Bildungsroman, a straightforward, linear description of the ‘psychological and moral growth’ of a central character.

So there’s only one central character. And we are told his story in chronological order.

The character in question is a fictional poet, who Kundera names Jaromil. We are told how his parents met and married, how he was conceived, and his precocious way with words when still a toddler. This is all set in the early 1930s, not very distant from Kundera’s own birth year of 1929. Jaromil is the apple of his mother’s eye. She makes posters of his childish sayings and hangs them on the wall of the room he is given when still a boy. And he himself shows a precocious ability at drawing although, for some reason, he gives all his human figures dogs heads – a childish eccentricity.

Then, suddenly, it is 1938 and France and Britain hand over the Sudetenland to Germany without a fight. A year later German troops are in Prague, and then the Nazis start rounding up students, communists, socialists and shipping them off to concentration camps. We are told about the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia, in June 1942 and the ferocious reprisals the Nazis carried out.

But Jaromil and his Mother are too young to be caught up in all this and go to a spa, where they meet an artist who gives a professional opinion on the young boy’s youthful drawings.

The novel is 300 pages long and feels long. But what struck me is its fairy tale quality, the feel of a fable. In the real world, work and the hassles of parenthood fill up time with a never-ending sequence of harassing demands. Whereas a fiction like this is able to alight on certain key moments – the moment of Jaromil’s conception, the moment his mother begged his father to inseminate her once again so she could have a baby girl, but the father withdrew and curtly announced he wanted no more children.

These are talismanic moments, selected like the ones in a fairy tale because they are key to the overall fable, while all else is rejected.

We selected this episode out of dozens in order to show that the pinnacle of happiness Jaromil had experienced up to this point in his life was having a girl’s head on his shoulder. (p.110)

It comes as no surprise, when Jaromil and Maman arrive at the spa that they find it in a beautiful rural setting, so much so that it appears to young Jaromil to be ‘a fairy-tale world’ (p.29), in fact, once I’d noticed it, I realised that a succession of milieu through which Jaromil moves are described as magical or fairy tale.

  • Through the magic of poetry (which is the magic of inexperience)… (p.111)
  • A poem is a magical land where rivers change their course. (p.194)
  • ‘The magical thing about it is, ‘continued Jaromil… (p.196)
  • Tears signified to him a magic elixir… (p.257)
  • Through the magic of poetry all things become the truth… (p.271)
  • It seemed to him that the magic moment was returning, the magic evening when he had sat in her room and they had had eyes only for each other… (p.293)

His nursery. His infant school playground. The spa. The artist’s studio. All these settings are just so, just exactly the ones required to tell a story like this, of the psychological and spiritual evolution of a sensitive soul. Moments are selected like jewels, spangling against the grey cloth of the everyday, and presented for the reader’s delectation, along with authorial commentary.

Maman ends up having an affair with the artist – that’s to say he successfully seduces her, and then submits her to an interesting, amusing and erotic series of transformations. He doesn’t just paint or draw her, he paints on her, stripping her and decorating her body with modernist lines, and then taking photographs of her. Then making passionate love to her. Pages are taken up with Maman’s bewildered reflections on these events.

Meanwhile, Jaromil hits an early puberty and begins to fantasise about the body of the family’s maid, Magda. There is an extended, mildly comical account of one night at home, when his parents have gone out, and he knows Magda is taking her evening bath, and Kundera describes the more and more contorted pretexts Jaromil tries to contrive to enable him to walk breezily into the bathroom, see the maid’s naked body, and walk out again. But he fails to carry them through. He is too shy.

Xavier

Part two of the book, commencing on page 65, is titled Xavier and is deeply confusing. A young man bursts through a woman’s window and reassures her that he means no harm, but at that moment her husband lumbers upstairs towards the bedroom, so the young man hides under the bed, the big husband carries the woman to the bed, the young man sneezes, the big husband hears and goes to the wardrobe to see if a man is hiding there, the young man bursts out from under the bed and pushes the husband into the wardrobe and locks it, and grabs the young woman and takes her on an adventure, he wakes up in another room and…

And so, slowly and confusedly, we realise the entire section is made up of the never-ending adventure of this character, Xavier, who goes from one half-fulfilled dream to another, repeating the same general contours of adventure and excitement and rescuing young damsels against an ever-changing backdrop.

It’s only well after the section has concluded, back in a section about Jaromil, that we discover the by-now teenage poet invented a character named Xavier and wrote down his poetic adventures. So what we have just read is a version of Jaromil’s journal. OK. It was bewildering and left-field when it first appeared…

Other lyric poets

When we return to Jaromil’s story it is to discover that his father is arrested and executed by the Nazis just before the end of the war. But the real innovation in this section, something which dogs the rest of the story is the appearance alongside Jaromil, of a shopping list of the greatest lyric poets from the entire European tradition.

The narrator makes explicit comparisons between Jaromil’s background, upbringing, family situation, early life experiences and shows how closely they mirror those of the great lyric poets such as the Czechs Frantisak Halas and Jiri Wolker, the Germans Rilke and Hölderlin, the Russians Esenin, Mayakovsky, Blok and Pushkin, the Englishman Shelley, the Frenchmen Baudelaire and de Nerval, but most of all  the French boy wonder poet, Rimbaud, and the short and easily offended Russian poet, Lermontov.

(It is Rimbaud who gives the book its title, a quote from one of the prose poems he wrote in a storm of creativity when he was just 17: La vrai vie est absente – the real life or just ‘real life’ is absent. I wonder why Kundera shortened this to ‘life’ is absent.)

These other lyric poets start out as comparators for Jaromil, but quite soon they start to take over the text. I mean that, after many sections describing this or that about Jaromil, a new section will set off describing ‘him’ and you have to have your wits about you to realise it’s now describing an event in the life of Rimbaud or Lermontov. More and more their names are scattered across the text as Kundera uses the events in  Jaromil’s fictional life to bring out the resemblances between the lyric poets – Baudelaire, aged 40 and still scared of his mother, de Nerval mesmerised by the mother who died when he was a boy, and so on…

Jaromil, we come to realise, is not-that-subtly being presented as a type, as a category of European thought. The Lyric Poet. And the essence of the Lyric Poet (in Kundera’s view) is that he is an immature mummy’s boy.

  • The lyric poet spends a lifetime searching for signs of manhood in his face. (p.97)
  • Tenderness is the fear of maturity. (p.112)

Jaromil wants to be a man, a real man. He wants to possess a woman, many women. He wants to write great poetry, he wants to be accepted by the other poets.

In the last third of the book Jaromil is a young man and is introduced to writers and poets through the artist, the one he had the lucky meeting with at the spa when he was a boy, the one he went to for art lessons, the one who seduced, stripped, painted and photographed his mother (in what are, arguably, the book’s most memorable scenes).

The poets meet upstairs in a pub, argue and get drunk a lot. The format of their arguments is uncannily like the format of the rhetorical questions the narrator asks all through the text: is Surrealism a revolutionary movement? Can poetry help build the new socialist society? And so on.

On the periphery of the poets he meets a sweet and soulful young woman. But she is as innocent and virginal as Jaromil and many pages are spent describing their painful and embarrassing fumbles. These are counterpointed with his now-adult encounters with the artist, and his bohemian coterie, who Jaromil shocks with the vehemence of his revolutionary nihilism, and with the arguments of the established, published poets, who grumble on during the era of the 1948 Communist coup and beyond, endlessly nagging at what kind of poetry is revolutionary, whether it’s kitsch rhymes for the masses, or the hyper-modern Russian avant-garde style poetry which rejects all the old bourgeois forms.


Kundera the narrator

A highly intrusive narrator

Kundera’s narrator doesn’t just intrude a bit on the story: he selects, presents and displays events for our delectation. He whips the text up out of nothing. He is an impresario of the text.

The most obvious symptom of this is his use of rhetorical questions to set up each new section or scene, a tactic which is present from the very first sentence of the book.

Exactly when and where was the poet conceived? (First sentence, page one)

and litters the text thereafter:

  • And what about her son’s soul?
  • But why did Jaromil continue to be an only child? (p.24)
  • And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world? (p.33)
  • Was she thus telling him the real truth at last? (p.54)
  • For Jaromil it [the concept of death] was infinitely far away; it was abstract; it was not reality, but a dream. What was he seeking in that dream? (p.104)
  • What was the source of her sorrows? Who knows… (p.143)
  • If Jaromil had become a zealous functionary, whose work affected the fate of adults, can we still maintain that he was on the run? (p.163)

All these rhetorical questions are a bit reminiscent of a certain type of academic presentation, of a lecture, reminding us that Kundera was indeed a professor of literature for many years (1952-75). They cut to the chase. They eliminate the need for hundreds of sentences setting up a location and a time of day, and a place wherein a great spiritual turning point is going to happen. No, Kundera can simply ask, ‘And how did Jaromil fare with his unique inner world?’ and then get on with answering his own question.

Not having to paint in any kind of background or set any scenes liberates Kundera to get right to the psychological point he wants to make about his characters. It makes the text very cost-effective.

The royal ‘we’

Related to this is the way Kundera he freely uses the royal ‘we’, the authorial ‘we’, to establish his own narratorial omniscience, and to forge a knowing acquaintance with the reader, the ‘we’ coercing us to acknowledge shared assumptions and experiences. The rhetorical questions are often answered by the authorial ‘we’. Why was Jaromil unpopular at school?

  • We are almost embarrassed to say: it was not wealth, it was mother love (p.20)
  • We don’t know why she laughed. [the young woman Jaromil was feebly trying to make love to] (p.133)
  • If we were to ask Jaromil how old the two characters were [in a long poem he’s just written] he’d stammer in embarrassment… (p.138)

And

  • Other [pictures] of certain scenes which we had better pass over. (p.36)
  • We don’t wish to imply that Jaromil was not interested in bodily beauty. (p.110)

Which is related to the use of the phrase ‘let us’, in the sense of ‘let us explore this moment  / word / event a little further’, which also brings out a strong scholarly, academic tone of the narrator.

  • He was one of the elect. Let us examine this word a little closer. (p.99)
  • Ah, let us mercifully skip over some fifteen or twenty minutes of Jaromil’s torment. [he is trying to undress a young woman who is refusing to help] (p.132)
  • Let’s keep Jaromil’s picture before us a while longer. (p.219)
  • Let us also recall the historical context… (p.230)
  • Let us leave our novel for a little while, let us carry our observatory to the end of Jaromil’s life… (p.271)

This ‘we’ is not embarrassed about picking up the narrative, fiddling with it, and plonking it back down right where he wants it.

  • At the end of the last section we left Jaromil in the redhead’s bed. (p.186)
  • Do you hear the distant sound of Death, impatiently stamping its feet? Let it wait, we are still here in the flat, in another novel, in another story… (p.286)

Analysis and italics

Kundera is the kind of author – or thinker about his stories and characters – who is continually analysing their every thought and gesture and turn of mind and habits. One tell-tale sign of this is his use of italics. He is keen not just to explain what they’re thinking or doing, but to delve ever deeper, to really dig down into their psychological sub-strata. In doing so he is keen to clarify the ideas and motivations of the characters he has invented and displayed for our entertainment. And to do this he often finds himself writing like an expository writer, rather like the new theory French writers of the 1960s, who felt compelled to show where they’d revealed a new depth of analysis, by writing it in italics.


The plot part two – History intrudes

I enjoyed the second half of the book more because it moves away from the cloyingly claustrophobic relationship between mother and son which dominates the first half, and focuses increasingly on politics and the tragic political, social and personal consequences of the Communist takeover of power.

Kundera has by now established that all the great mummy’s boy lyric poets were enraptured by the idea of Death and ran off to be soldiers with no idea of the reality – from Shelley travelling to Dublin with pockets stuffed with incendiary pamphlets designed to spark an insurrection (p.175), to Lermontov, a sickly misfit who insisted on joining the Russian army and died in a pointless duel, from Rimbaud who fantasised about manning the barricades during the Paris Commune of 1870 (but was too young) and who instead terminated his precocious poetic career by going off to become a gun-runner in Africa, to Byron who fantasised about joining the great Pan-Hellenic Fight For Freedom, but ended up dying of a mosquito bite in Missolonghi. They were sickly and died pathetically young, like John Keats coughing his lungs up in Rome.

All mother’s boys, all struggling to escape the apron strings, and above all, to prove themselves real men. Kundera throws in withering comparisons with the students of his day – 1948 in Prague – and at the time he was writing the novel – 1968 in Paris – who wrote lyrical slogans all over the walls, calling for a new world, revolution and overthrow.

Slowly we realise what form this wish – the primal wish of the lyric poet to hurl himself into a Cause, to run towards battle and engage with the real world and wrestle with death and stop being a mummy’s boy and become a Real Man – will take for Jaromil.

In the context of the Communist takeover of power in Czechoslovakia, it means he wilfully becomes hard-hearted, he joins the young zealots, he publicly derides the art and poetry of his mentor, the old artist. He derides his own earlier poetry. He quotes the Soviet poet Mayakvsky, who said he stamped on the throat of his own, earlier, bourgeois poetry. Jaromil writes Stalinist poems for workers.

And now Kundera skillfully uses the interplay he’s created between his fictional poet and the real-life poets and the events of 20 years later – 1968 – to begin to scathingly criticise the unthinking, stone-faced, hard-hearted zealotry of the young. For:

Revolutions are lyrical and in need of lyricism. (p.193)

Counter-intuitively, and to the reader’s great surprise, it turns out that the entire book is going to be a condemnation of lyric poetry and of the role it plays in revolutions; is devoted to showing the linkage between the immature absolutism at the heart of revolutions and of youthful lyricism. The way both are totalising, both want to overthrow the complex messy real world, and create a new one of compulsory beauty and harmony and order.

Kundera dissects the psychology behind the lyric impulse: Unable to confront the complexity of adult life, the lyric poets create an alternative world, beautiful and perfect and utterly unreal.

This is the basic situation of immaturity. The lyrical approach is one way of dealing with this situation: the person banished from the safe enclosure of childhood longs to go out into the world, but because he is afraid of it he constructs an artificial, substitute world of verse… He becomes the centre of a small universe in which nothing is alien, in which he feels as much at home as an infant inside its mother… (p.219)

The rousing slogans Jaromil finds himself called upon to create for revolutionary youths marching in the streets of Prague in 1948, are identical to the ones the zealous French students of 1968 will paint all over the walls of the Sorbonne (p.172) calling for the complete overthrow of the existing order and the installation of something which is only a dream and a fantasy, slogans like:

  • Beneath the pavement, the beach!
  • Be realistic – demand the impossible!

In everything I’ve read about the Paris évènements (simply the French word for ‘events’) of 1968, in every documentary, every film, and every art exhibition I’ve seen which references them — the presenters, producers and curators are one hundred per cent behind the students and nostalgic that they themselves weren’t there during this heady lyrical revolutionary time!

It is a bracing surprise and antidote to come across a noted and world famous liberal’ author – who is wholeheartedly against the students and their high-minded slogans, and has gone to such trouble to create such an extended and scathing indictment of the youthful, revolutionary, lyric impulse as an entity.

In amidst the confusion of the 1948 coup and its aftermath, Jaromil has dumped the frigid girlfriend, but then wasted a huge amount of time fixating on a pretty blonde shop assistant from a department store. He tails her everywhere like a useless puppy, and, back in his bedroom, masturbates continually as he imagines finally losing his virginity to her. One evening he is waiting at the department store when her not-so-pretty red-headed friend exits and, before he can bolt, she walks right up to him. She claims to know that he has a crush on her. She’s noticed him looking at her in the shop. She’s noticed him hanging round the shop every evening. On one notable occasion Jaromil had followed the blonde home to her apartment and hung around in the street hoping to catch a glimpse of her – only to see the red-head at the window. And she saw him!

Of course she has utterly misinterpreted the situation when she thinks Jaromil carries a torch for her, but Jaromil is too terrified to put her right.

They walk and before he knows it are kissing, she invites him up to her place and he is about to go through the usual existential agonies when she simply puts her hands between his legs and touches his penis. Which is rock hard. The rest follows like clockwork. Afterwards, as they lie in bed, she asks how many women he’s had and our lyric poet smirks and remains mysteriously silent. The reader laughs because we know the answer is ‘None’ and that he has just lost his virginity.

But, as is always the way with Kundera characters, with Kundera men, as soon as Jaromil has acquired a basic fluency at sex (and above all mastered the technique of undressing a woman, something which has caused him agonies of embarrassment throughout his adolescence) he becomes dissatisfied with the redhead. She natters on all the time. Especially about her family.

The janitor’s son

At school Jaromil had been picked on as a weakling and had formed only one friendship, with the janitor’s son. Now, years later, the janitor has risen to become a senior policeman. He makes a friendly call on Jaromil’s mum, leaves an invitation. So Jaromil goes round to the big building of National Security, signs in his name, and is met by the janitor’s son. (I don’t think we ever learn his name. He is always referred to simply as the janitor’s son, presumably to keep ever-present in our minds the way he, too, is taking revenge for having been an outsider and bullied at school.)

They settle into his office and the man swanks about his heavy responsibilities and the challenge the police face in these difficult times, rounding up enemies of the revolution.

Kundera emphasises that Jaromil, living in a lifelong bubble of mummy’s love, is blissfully unaware that tens of thousands of his fellow Czechs have been arrested, many of them tortured, some of them executed, all on trumped-up charges. All Jaromil sees is the janitor’s son’s manliness. He is a real man. He has manly responsibilities. He has a gun strapped to his belt. This is the real life Jaromil’s been seeking all his years. The Real Life that Shelley and Rimbaud and Lermontov were ever-seeking. A life of Action and Responsibility.

And thrown into the mix, is the long long long, very long list of humiliations public and private which Jaromil has lived through and the book has described, from being bullied at school, to not knowing how to take a girl’s bra off, from being ridiculed in assemblies of mature poets and authors, to being mocked by editors and publishers for being one more among thousands of aspiring poets, and – in a tragi-comic scene towards the end of the novel – being forced to turn down the offer of sleeping with a beautiful woman film-maker because he is crushingly conscious that he is wearing the big grey flannel pants which his mother still lays out for him every morning, as if he were still a schoolboy!

The zealot, Kundera suggests, is overflowing with a thirst for revenge. But not the wide-minded, imaginative revenge which helps to usher in a New World. Just revenge. Just punishment. Just the ability to threaten, intimidate, bully, arrest and, if necessary, torture all those who mocked and persecuted him when he was a boy.

The revolution hands over the running of society to small-minded bullies.

The betrayal

Jaromil is invited to an evening of poetry at a police academy in the countryside arranged by his friend the janitor’s son. Improbably, he is a fan of Jaromil’s Stalinist poetry. A dozen poets attend and Jaromil finds himself drawn into the intense question and answer session which follows the recitals. At the front of the audience is a stunningly gorgeous woman who keeps looking at him. The last stretch of the novel is characterised by Jaromil’s hapless attempts to sleep with her. On the occasion referred to above she invites him up to her apartment but at the last minute he is embarrassed at the thought of his big grey pants. Then he is invited to take part in a film, where he is taken to some country location and asked to recite his poems amid bucolic scenery. But Jaromil is so terrified of her and of the whole situation that he forgets the words to his own poems and, while the whole crew mocks him, is eventually ordered just to stand dumbly opening and closing his mouth while the director assures him they’ll dub the poems on later. Humiliation.

It is in this mood of maximum frustration and humiliation that the tragedy occurs. The redhead is late for their next meeting and Jaromil flies into a fury. She at first says she had to stay late to comfort a colleague who’s having trouble in love. Jaromil is even more angry that some shopgirl comes before his feelings, so the redhead quickly retraces her steps and says she is in fact late because she was saying a final goodbye to her brother (the one she once shared a room with, to Jaromil’s intense immature jealousy, and who she’s always wittering about).

Now she tells him that her brother is planning to flee the country illegally the next day. This triggers a tremendous argument in which Jaromil says how can she be such a traitor – she should have told him the truth straightaway – she doesn’t really love him if she’s prepared to lie to him. He reduces the woman to tears, which (obnoxiously) he finds magical and soothing.

By this stage, I think we are safe in concluding that Jaromil is a thorough-going sneak and bastard.

Next day he dresses smartly and goes to see his friend the janitor’s son at the building of National Security, looking across the table at him ‘as one tough-minded adult faces another; equal to equal; man to man.’ And he calmly betrays his girlfriend and her brother to the security police. The janitor’s son calls in other officials. They take down the girlfriend and her brother’s names and details. Jaromil feels like he is in the real world now, this is Real Life. Jaromil leaves the building feeling Big and Full of Destiny.

He goes home and tries to write a poem but then gets restless and takes a tram to the redhead’s apartment and is surprised to see two men waiting outside it. He hides. When she turns up around 6pm, from work, the two men approach her, they talk for a moment, then they take her to a waiting car and drive off. He goes home troubled. Next morning he goes to see the janitor’s son who thanks him profusely for his prompt and patriotic action, and sends him off with a pat on the back. For the last few pages of this section Kundera shows us the inner workings as the despicable Jaromil decides that the sacrifice of one skinny freckled red-haired girl is well worth it in order to create a better future, a perfect future, in which politics and love will be identical and everyone will do the right thing.

The red-headed girl

The penultimate section up sticks and shifts perspective to years later, telling what happened next.

The redheaded girl was locked up in prison for three years. In this short epilogue, upon release from prison she goes to the train station to take a train to her home town but then hesitates… and decides instead to go to the apartment of… her older lover. He is forty. They met when she was seventeen, erotically talented and eager to please an older man. Not only herself, but she organised some straight and some lesbian orgies for his pleasure. Then she met and fell in love with a young poet, obviously Jaromil, though he goes unnamed.

The older man was happy; he didn’t want any of his mistresses becoming too dependent on him. He guided her through their courtship, gave her advice, and kept the poems Jaromil wrote her, though he despised them.

Then one evening she came to tell him she was leaving him, that she really loved the young poet and was going to dedicate her life to his. She was late leaving and late arriving for her date with the poet. He was cross. She made up an excuse about a colleague at work and when that didn’t wash, invented a story about her older brother preparing to flee the country. She had no inkling that the poet would report her and her brother to the police, or that she’d be arrested, or sentenced to prison.

Now the older man tells her that the poet died soon afterwards. He just got ill and died, nothing dramatic or lyrical. His mother moved away. Nobody remembers him anymore.

The redhead turns away: even her plans to cold shoulder and ignore the poet have come to nothing. It was all a meaningless nightmare. For nothing.

And suddenly the older man realises why she hesitated at the train station about whether to go straight home, and then… and decided to come and see him first. Her brother, totally innocent, was also arrested. She thinks he is still in prison somewhere. So that when she finally faces her family, how will they believe that it was not her who betrayed him and destroyed their family, but some unknown young man who isn’t even alive any more?

Overcome with pity, the man stretches out her hand to touch her cheek… and she bursts into tears.

For me, these last fifteen or so pages were better than all the rest of the novel put together. Jaromil is a vile creature and creates a slow-building sense of contempt and anger. And somehow, intertwined with this, is all the tricksiness of Kundera’s narratorial devices and conceits, the transposition of eras and the merging of Jaromil’s story with episodes from all the other lyric poets of the European tradition. Very clever.

Whereas this short section feels like a straightforward account of a terrible event. Most of Kundera’s stories are cerebral, detached, witty and paradoxical. They prompt admiration. But this tragic epilogue, like the coalmining scenes in The Joke, convey you to a genuine time and place in history where life was terrible, and so have real emotional depth.

The final end

In the short final passage we learn how Jaromil died. He was not yet 20. He is invited to a party at the film director’s. It is full of literati and artists. One of them, a big bluff fellow, confronts Jaromil and asks him if he knows what’s happened to the old artist, the one we saw spot Jaromil’s talent at the spa and then paint his mother? He was declared a a bourgeois enemy of the people, deprived of his studio and paints, and forced to work on a building site. Unlike Jaromil, who has become a Stalinist lickspittle. Jaromil takes a feeble mummy’s boy swipe at the big man, who grabs his arm, turns him round, picks him up by the collar and seat of his pants, and throws him out into the freezing cold (it is a Christmas party).

Absolutely humiliated, and without his coat or jacket, Jaromil can’t leave and travel across town, but he is too frightened to go back into the party, not for hours, not until the last guest has left. By that stage he is shivering uncontrollably. He tiptoes in, collects his jacket and coat and staggers home where he takes to his bed, hallucinates a bit, looked after and tended, as always, by his loyal dutiful Maman. And dies.

Concluding thought

What actually remains of that distant time? Today, people regard those days as an era of political trials, persecutions, forbidden books, and legalised murder. But we who remember must bear witness: it was not only an epoch of terror, but also an epoch of lyricism, ruled hand in hand by the hangman and the poet. (p.270)

This is a complicated thesis, and the book presents a complex case: it seems to be arguing that youth, and the vigour and idealism of youth, and its partner – wonderful, boundless, inspiring passionate lyrical poetry – are all intimately tied in with the crushing annihilating force of the police state which is always unleashed by revolutions: in France, in Russia, in Iran, in the Arab Springs – the intoxicating, life-affirming springtime of peoples is always followed by mass imprisonment and the zealous repression of anything and anyone who doesn’t conform to the revolutionaries’ impossibly other-worldly and lyrical ideas.

Thus this long densely argued book conveys a bleak lesson, but one which Kundera himself lived through, so his testimony carries weight.

Enough weight to overthrow the prejudices and conventions most of us have accepted most of our lives, that lyric poetry is inspiring and uplifting?

Maybe not to overthrow it… but certainly to trouble it.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

Urban Impulses: Latin American Photography 1959-2016 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The history of Latin America has fascinated observers as much as it has mystified them. There is something apparently alien about the continent, an exoticism that derives perhaps from it having once been perceived as a ‘new world’, although there survive monuments and relics of ancient societies whose cultures remain poorly understood by us even today. This elusiveness – hinting simultaneously  at a former state of grace and some original corruption – has rendered interpretation of Latin American history peculiarly vulnerable to speculation and myth-making.
(Edwin Williamson in the introduction to his Penguin History of Latin America, 1990 revised 2009)

Urban Impulses

This is an epic exhibition, if not quite in scale, then certainly in scope. Across four rooms and two floors, the Photographers’ Gallery is showcasing some 200 works by 73 photographers from all across Latin America.

They use a wide range of techniques and approaches to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from a predominantly rural to a mostly urban population, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers are represented by only one or two images and so as you move from photo to photo, you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades, which I found it quite challenging to get a handle on.

Cuba in the 1950s was very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. In this review the texts in italics are copied from the thorough and very useful free handout which accompanies the exhibition.)

Calle Alameda, Santiago, 1983 by Álvaro Hoppe © Álvaro Hoppe. Courtesy of the artist

The history of Chilean photography over the past thirty years is above all that of a rupture, or a ‘tectonic shift’ caused by the military coup of 1973. Until that time, democracy had allowed the history of the medium to evolve without major disruption, but what happened in September 1973 created a generation of photographers committed to documenting the urban tragedy that subsequently emerged on the streets of Santiago during the 1970s and 80s.

As I wandered among this cornucopia of images and histories and countries and events, it struck me that there are many ways to group and arrange it – by subject matter, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

Or you could divide them up by technique – grouping together black-and-white photos (most of them are, in fact, in black and white), colour photos, montages, collages, photojournalism, photocopies, and art works made of photos chopped up and attached to canvases. The curators back up the visitor’s sense of an impressive diversity of medium and approach:

Here a hybrid iconography emerges where photography exists in tandem with other media of mass circulation such as graphics, photo-copying and print media, often involving the marking, cutting and defacement of images where the notion of appearance and disappearance exist in tandem.

Take this striking artwork which features a collage of commercial adverts cut with urgent news photos, and then treated and painted over.

Equis (1985) by Herbert Rodríguez © Herbert Rodríguez. Courtesy of the artist

Rodriguez denounces the injustices suffered by the populations of the Andean and Amazonian regions, dominated by a process of gradual urbanisation, and, more generally, the exploitation of one part of Peruvian society by another. The approach is experimental, the materials – often salvaged from public spaces – are banal, and the collage technique allows them to be gathered together and reordered in different ways.

Another approach would be to zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers who won international reputations during the period and seek them out first – such greats as Alberto Korda from Cuba who created the iconic images of Che Guevara, or Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, or Sergio Larrain from Chile.

Again you could group the photographers by country because many of the photos are political, in the broadest sense, and require a knowledge of the political history of the country in question, foe xample the military dictatorships in Chile or Argentina.

In fact I realised I needed to stop and remind myself just what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. Upon looking into it I discovered there’s a surprising amount of ambiguity about defining and framing the geography.

The term ‘Latin America’ can be taken to refer solely to ‘South America’, or to also include the many nations of Central America and the Caribbean. (Cuba always gets included, despite not being in South or Central America.)

Nations of South America by population

  1. Brazil
  2. Colombia
  3. Argentina
  4. Peru
  5. Venezuela
  6. Chile
  7. Ecuador
  8. Bolivia
  9. Paraguay
  10. Uruguay
  11. Guyana

We know these nations all have one big thing in common which is that they were colonnised by Spain or Portugal in the 16th century, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. So they speak the ‘Latin’ languages of Spanish and Portuguese, and hence the umbrella term ‘Latin’ America – as opposed to ‘Anglo’ America, settled by English speakers in the later 17th and 18th centuries.

Flying low, Mexico City, 1989 by Pablo Ortiz Monasterio © Pablo Ortiz Monasterio. Courtesy of the artist

Mexico is a post-apocalyptic city. It has refused to accept the many declarations of its death. it survived the devastating earthquake of 1985, and has withstood overpopulation and pollution beyond the assumed threshold of human tolerance. The country has attempted to enter the twenty-first century without yet having solved the problems of the sixteenth. – Mexican poet, essayist, novelist and short story writer José Emilio Pacheco Berny

To my surprise there’s debate about whether Mexico should be included in Central America, with lots of people, including many Mexicans, considering themselves part of North America. Incorrectly, I have included Mexico in this list of Central American nations.

Nations of Central America by population

  1. (Mexico)
  2. Guatemala
  3. Honduras
  4. El Salvador
  5. Nicaragua
  6. Costa Rica
  7. Panama
  8. Belize

Maybe the curators should have included a map, a big map, to help remind us of the precise location of all these places. (But then I’m biased. I love maps.)

Most of these nations gained their independence in stormy conflicts against the colonial powers in the early 19th century only to find themselves saddled with legacies of huge inequality and grinding rural poverty.

It was the enduring legacy of these inequalities which led to the revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups of the twentieth century. I well remember the era of military dictatorships in Argentina (1976-83), Brazil (1964-85), Chile (1973-90), and Paraguay (1954-89). Back in the 1970s we associated Latin America (and Greece and Spain and Portugal) with semi-fascist military dictatorships such as the notorious rule of General Pinochet of Chile. In one sense, then, many of these images fro the 1970s felt nostalgic to me.

Pinochet, 1987 by Fernando Bedoya © Fernando Bedoya. Courtesy of the artist

Fernano Bedoya is a key figure in the artistic activism of Peru and Argentina, involved notably in the latter country in the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group formed by mothers of young men who went missing during the military dictatorship. An irreverent artist, he plays with mass production – photography, screen printing, photocopying – and employs a hybrid iconography strongly influenced by pop culture. Committed to the democratisation of art, he has worked with several artists’ collective on participative projects with a distinctly political focus.

The nations of Latin America all have ethnically diverse societies, beginning with the fact that the native peoples of most of the colonised countries lived on, working as serfs or slaves for their European overlords, sometimes interbreeding with them, a racial mix which was then added to by large-scale importation of African slaves from the 16th to the 19th centuries, and then by migration from other, non-Iberian European countries – mostly in the 19th century.

This much most of them have in common. But each of the countries has its own geography and history and ethnic mix and traditions, which are hard to capture in such a variegated display. That’s the problem talking about this ‘region’, it’s so big and encompasses such a confusing diversity of peoples and places that it’s too easy to fall back on casual stereotypes – machismo, military dictatorships, Che Guevara guerillas, remote villages up the Amazon, the destruction of the rainforest, oh and a collection of cheesy dances that your grandparents used to like – the foxtrot, the tango, the cha-cha-cha.

In fact three or four of the photographers here are represented by pics they’ve taken of more or less the same scene, namely unglamorous, middle-aged couples from back in the day, dancing in (presumably hot and sweaty) dance halls. It’s a recurring topic.

Untitled, from the series Tango (1988) by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz. Courtesy of the artist

‘The tango image of Paz Errázuriz, without words, music or movement, frozen at one of those key moments when the dance danced by the dancers comes into its own, affirming the authenticity of the representation of a representation.’ – Chilean poet, playwright, and novelist Enrique Lihn

In fact all this pondering and wondering how to make sense of the profusion of countries and images and artists which I spent some time trying to group or arrange, has already been partly done by the curators themselves. They have divided the exhibition up into just two big parts (one on each of the two floors across which the show is presented), and titled them Shouts and Pop-ular.

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

Shouts considers photography’s role not only in documenting identities and presences, but also to explore absences: in the face of kidnappings and forced disappearances carried out by authoritarian regimes, photography has been a weapon against silence. Public spaces and the city walls have also played an important role: when pen and paper, laws and rights, courts and judges have failed to obtain justice, the walls of the cities have taken on a life of their own. And photographers have portrayed these walls, covered with the slogans and cries of protest of those demanding political, social, and economic recognition, and reflecting the anger and cynicism, the hopes and frustrations of the cities’ residents.

Thus a raft of images depicting street protests, street fighting, street riots, protesters fighting cops. This is one of the rare colour photos in the show.

The Battle of the Plaza de Mayo, Buenos Aires, 20 December 2001 by Eduardo Longoni © Eduardo Longoni. Courtesy of the artist

Longoni documented in colour the disturbances that took place in 2001 in response to the economic crisis and the measures taken by the government of Fernando de la Rúa, which limited cash withdrawals from the banks to 250 pesos a week. The Argentinians, with humour and irony, soon found a name for the policy: the corralito (the diminutive form of the Spanish word for ‘corraling’, which also designates, in popular Argentine Spanish, a tollders’ playground.) On 19 December 2001 a state of emergency was announced. On 20 december, early in the evening, President Fernando de la Rúa resigned. The suppression of the disturbances had taken a toll of thirty-eight deaths all over the country, including seven in Buenos Aires.

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

In Pop-ular, artists’ mine the tropes of mass media and their manifestation in public spaces. Since the 1960s, as Latin America has undergone rapid development, advertising images have diversified and multiplied, marked by the rapid transition to a consumer society. The first widespread use of colour photography was in advertising, and the richness of pop culture imagery, often associated with commerce and advertising, marks the visual identity of the Latin American metropolis. Signs, patterns and typographies, often created by self-taught hands, confer on the display windows an almost innocent beauty.

Thus there are quite a few photos depicting the most obvious aspect of a consumer society, shop windows, featuring shop window mannequins, or surreal subversions of them like the shapely, naked, young woman posing amid mannequins by Jorge Vall.

This all feels very retro since, as we know, the era of physical shops is on the decline.

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

This is the place to point out that the selection hasn’t been made from all the photographs taken by all 73 of these photographers from their entire careers. That would be an epic, maybe impossible, task.

No, this selection has been made from the large, but finite, collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who collected original prints throughout the period in question. 

Maybe this explains why, when I tried to link to some of these images, I couldn’t find any of them on the internet. Maybe they are very tightly controlled – although I did find plenty of other images by many of these photographers. As usual an exhibition like this makes a good starting point to go off on explorations of your own. But the fact that this is a selection from a selection explains some things.

Fifteenth Birthday Party in Ciudad Neza, Mexico City, Mixtecos Norte/Sur series (1989) by Eniac Martínez © Eniac Martínez. Courtesy of the artist

Produced for the Instituto Nacional Indigenista, the series Mixtecos Norte/Sur consists of photographs taken in Oaxaca and along the US-Mexico border. ‘It is the story of Mixtec indigenous people who leave their increasingly unproductive lands in the state of Oaxaca to enter the industrialised world of the United States.’ A girl’s fifteenth birthday party is a cultural milestone, not only in Mexico but all over Latin America. It involves a highly codified celebration, often accompanied by a religious ceremony, at which friends and relatives are given a lavish demonstration of the host’s generosity.

Alongside the street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there was also a stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of Latino urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or stripped posters on peeling walls.

Several photographers had captured the distinctive patters of tiles or brickwork to be found in local buildings, some of which harked back, maybe, to ancient Mayan or pre-Colombian sensibilities. For example, the attractive suite of photos by Pablo López Luz entitled Neo Inca.

Neo Inca LVIII, Pisac, Perú, 2016 by Pablo López Luz © Pablo López Luz. Courtesy of the artist

In the localities near Andean tourist destinations, Pablo López Luz photographs the doorways and facades of buildings and houses, adorned with the stucco relief work of Inca walls. The visual repertory drawn up in this way reflects the local taste for Inca motifs and shows how these have been grafted onto the urban context and brought up to date.

The photographers

So who exactly are the 73 photographers represented here? I’m glad you asked:

  • Carlos Aguirre (b.1948, Mexico)
  • Luiz Alphonsus (b.1948, Brazil)
  • Édgar Álvarez (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Yolanda Andrade (b.1950, Mexico)
  • Jaime Ardila (b.1942, Colombia)
  • Ever Astudillo (1948-2015, Colombia)
  • Álvaro Barrios (b. 1945, Colombia)
  • Juan Enrique Bedoya (b.1966, Peru)
  • Fernando Bedoya (1952, Peru)
  • Enrique Bostelmann (1939-2003, Mexico)
  • Bill Caro (b.1949, Peru)
  • Anselmo Carrera (1950-2016, Peru)
  • Jesús Reyes Cordero (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Armando Cristeto (b.1957, Mexico)
  • François Dolmetsch (b.1940, UK/Colombia)
  • Felipe Ehrenberg (1943-2017, Mexico)
  • Virginia Errázuriz (b.1941, Chile)
  • Paz Errázuriz (b.1944, Chile)
  • María Elvira Escallón (b.1954, Colombia)
  • José Alberto Figueroa (b.1946, Cuba)
  • Fernell Franco (1942-2006, Colombia)
  • RenéFreire (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Carlos Gallardo (b.1954, Chile)
  • Héctor García (1923-2012, Mexico)
  • Paolo Gasparini (b.1934, Venezuela)
  • Lourdes Grobet (b.1940, Mexico)
  • Billy Hare (b.1946, Peru)
  • Alejandro Hoppe (b.1961, Chile)
  • Alvaro Hoppe (b.1956, Chile)
  • Helen Hughes (b.1948, USA-Chile)
  • Graciela Iturbide (b.1942, Mexico)
  • Beatriz Jaramillo (b.1955, Colombia)
  • Mario García Joya (nee Mayito, b.1938, Cuba)
  • Alberto Korda (1928-2001, Cuba)
  • Sergio Larrain (1931-2012, Chile)
  • Adriana Lestido (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Diego Levy (b.1973, Argentina)
  • Eduardo Longoni (b.1959, Argentina)
  • Marcos López (b.1958, Argentina)
  • Héctor López (b.1955, Chile)
  • Pablo López Luz (b.1979, Mexico)
  • Ayrton de Magalhães (1954-2017, Brazil)
  • Eniac Martínez (b.1959, Mexico)
  • Agustín Martínez Castro (1950-1992, Mexico)
  • Sebastián Mejía (b.1982, Colombia)
  • Ernesto Molina (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Luis Molina-Pantin (b.1969, Venezuela)
  • Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (b.1952, Mexico)
  • Mario Cravo Neto (1947-2009, Brazil)
  • Viki Ospina (b.1948, Colombia)
  • Adolfo Patiño (1954-2005, Mexico)
  • Claudio Pérez (b.1957, Chile)
  • Ataúlfo Pérez Aznar (b.1955, Argentina)
  • Jaime Razuri (b.1956, Peru)
  • Santiago Rebolledo (b.1951, Colombia)
  • Miguel Rio Branco (b.1946, Brazil)
  • Herbert Rodríguez (b.1959, Peru)
  • Miguel Ángel Rojas (b.1946, Colombia)
  • Jesús Ruiz Durand (b.1940, Peru)
  • Osvaldo Salerno (b.1952, Paraguay)
  • Francisco Smythe (1952-1998, Chile)
  • Carlos Somonte (b.1956, Mexico)
  • Milagros de la Torre (b.1965, Peru)
  • Nicolás Torres (b.1957, Peru)
  • Juan Travnik (b.1950, Argentina)
  • Sergio Trujillo (b.1947, Colombia)
  • Jorge Vall (b.1949, Venezuela)
  • Pedro Valtierra (b.1955, Mexico)
  • JoséLuis Venegas (b.1944, Mexico)
  • Leonora Vicuña (b.1952, Chile)
  • Jaime Villaseca (b.1949, Chile)
  • Enrique Zamudio (b.1955, Chile)
  • Helen Zout (b.1957, Argentina)
  • Facundo de Zuviría (b.1954, Argentina)

And where would any exhibition of modern photography be without images of transvestites and transgender sex workers?

From 10 to 11 p.m., Mexico City (1985) by Agustín Martínez Castro © Agustín Martínez Castro Estate. Courtesy of the artist’s estate

In the photographs of Agustín Martínez Castro, the city is embodied in the anonymous inhabitants of its nights. The photographer is one o the most sensitive and profound chroniclers of the world of transvestism. Far removed from all sense of visual pathos, Martínez Castro offers an dmirable photo essay on private life, understood as a realm of intimacy, which is celebrated here, and on the stripping away of that intimacy, which is denounced. – Art historian, curator, and editor Roberto Tejada

Summary

If I’m honest, I didn’t like many of the photos in this exhibition. There are lots of them, and I suppose there’s lots of variety, but somehow I found the sheer number, and the hopping from one country to another, and from one decade to another, diluted and lessened their impact.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are currently on display down in the basement of the same building. Each one of those took my breath away.

And after reading and rereading the handout which includes almost every photo in the show, I realised that I was bored. There’s certainly an impressive range of technical diversity – many collages and montages and artistic treatments of photographic images, incorporating them into multi-media artworks. And ten or fifteen of the images did really stand out.

But almost all of these photos are images taken on the street. They almost all have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape, to give two types of photo which are completely absent. It’s shabby, urban sprawl everywhere you look.

Rough street people in rundown looking slums and dodgy neighbourhoods. Scary street punks, one or two convicts in prison. And plenty of scenes of cops and soldiers policing the street, and riots, and people getting beaten up. Grim-faced soldiers. Grim-faced dictators. Grim-faced revolutionaries. Grim-faced prostitutes. Grim-faced hoodlums, tearful mothers protesting against the disappearance of their sons, photomontages commemorating people killed in riots, tattooed gang members.

Untitled (Aquileo Valtierra González), Prisoners series, Mexico (1997) by Carlos Somonte © Carlos Somonte. Courtesy of the artist

Again I was reminded that the whole exhibition is taken from the private collection of Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski. In other words – far from being a representative survey of all Latin American photography, this is a selection from a selection. A personal selection. A personal view of the politics and history of this continent and this era.

After a while it dawned on me that what was oppressing me was there was no joy or happiness in any of the photos. Surely someone, somewhere, in all these 20 or so countries, in the long period between 1959 and 2016, surely someone, somewhere, smiled. Maybe even laughed. Looked at the blue sky, the river, the trees and the exotic flowers in the botanical garden, and was happy? Is Copacabana beach not in Latin America? And hundreds of sun-kissed Caribbean beaches? Have there been no tourists in Latin America, no beaches and parties?

Not in these photos. Not in this exhibition. Glum and grim and earnest and embattled everywhere you look.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

The exhibition is divided between two rooms on floor 3 of the Photographers’ Gallery, and two rooms on the floor below. I visited about noon on a Wednesday. On one floor there were four teenage girl visitors. On the floor below there was just one middle-aged woman. That was it.

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Pure Posy by Posy Simmonds (1987)

From 1977 to 1987 Posy Simmonds drew a regular cartoon strip in the Guardian newspaper gently mocking the middle-class lifestyles and liberal concerns of a regular cast of a dozen or so fictional characters, centred on:

  • Wendy Weber, a former nurse, married to verbose polytechnic sociology lecturer George Weber, trying to attend night school while being mother of a brood of six children, ranging from little Benji to teenage glamour-puss Belinda
  • Jo Heep, married to tedious alcoholic whisky salesman Edmund Heep, and mum to two rebellious teenagers who’ve adopted the punk look
  • Trish Wright, married to philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright, and mother of a young baby

Throughout the period the cartoons were periodically gathered together into books, namely:

  • Mrs Weber’s Diary (1979)
  • True Love (1981)
  • Pick of Posy (1982)
  • Very Posy (1985)
  • Pure Posy (1987)

And these books were themselves gathered together into a huge compendium volume, Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, which was published in 2012 and now appears to be the only way to get hold of the cartoons.

Pure Posy is the fourth and final in the series of collections (given that 1981’s True Love wasn’t a collection but a one-off ‘graphic novel’, following the schoolgirl crush of a naive young woman, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave, philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright).

Historical context

Pure Posy brings together 75 Posy cartoon strips from 1985 through to 1987, a period of great historical change. In Britain the Miner’s Strike of 1984-5 tore the country apart and polarised political and social opinion, while Mrs Thatcher’s harsh monetarist economic policies saw unemployment continuing at record highs in many parts of the country. And yet those who had jobs, especially nice jobs in the City and service sector, had never had it so good, and thrilled to all sorts of new fashions, big shoulder pads, big hair, jogging, health food etc.

On the international scene the arrival of Mikhail Gorbachev as leader of the Soviet Union in 1985 was soon followed by the launch of his new policies of glasnost and perestroika which, although nobody suspected it at the time, would lead to the sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990, and the collapse of socialist ideology all around the world.

But for the first few years, the ones covered by this strip, all most of us saw was a continuation of the worsening relations between the world’s superpowers and the escalation of tensions which terrified everyone that there might be actually a nuclear war, and which was symbolised, in England, by the ongoing protests by thousands of women at the Greenham Common airbase.


Pure Posy

In general the Posy strip formed a haven away from politics and the hurly-burly of events reported elsewhere in the Guardian newspaper, focusing, as it does, on the domestic concerns and foibles of the Weber, Wright and Heep households, with occasional forays off to meet new, unnamed characters to make other points about middle-class, white, heterosexual, well-meaning liberal Londoners.

As in the previous books the strips are deliberately not placed in the chronological order of their publishing but arranged to create a sort of seasonal progression through one notional year, opening with Christmas-themed strips, and in-between progressing through spring, summer holidays, autumn, and back to Christmas again.

The triumph of Thatcherism

That said the general cultural spirit of the times does hang heavy over many of the strips, depicting the extinction of the old 1960s values of caring and concern, in a welter of greed and materialism.

This is epitomised by a very telling strip from 1986 which depicts a local working-class couple commenting on the changes they’ve seen in their neighbourhood, namely that, in the later 1970s/early 1980s, posh middle-class nobs moved in, all called Gemma and holding dinner parties and hiring au pairs but… they spoke as if they were genuinely concerned about unemployment and the need to invest in infrastructure and the NHS and so on. They were nobs, but they were also ‘sort of middle-class socialists’.

Nowadays a new breed of nobs are moving in, who show all the signs of middle-class gentility i.e. obsession with wine, interior furnishings, hiring au pairs and nannies and having a pretty little place down in the country, BUT… they have abandoned their soft-left scruples: Now they say we’ve got to be realistic about unemployment, they choose private medicine over the NHS, they unashamedly send their children to private school.

In other words, this strip epitomises the success of Thatcherism in making middle-class people across the country feel unembarrassed about making money and spending it selfishly.

This one strip shows how the cosy, rather smugly liberal, soft socialist and feminist and environmentalist worldview of George and Wendy Weber became old hat, old fashioned, musty, irrelevant, marginalised, swept away by a new generation of thrusting young entrepreneurs and money-makers.

This theme is further demonstrated by the ‘Ox and Tiger’ strip in which the Webers are at a dinner table – but no longer accompanied by other bearded sociologists and dungareed feminists – now it’s being hosted by a coiffured chap in stripey shirt and red braces, who looks like a banker out of an Alex cartoon.

The world was moving on around the Webers and they were not moving at all, they were being outflanked and outnumbered, even by their own children (notably their go-getting materialist daughter, Belinda who is given several strips despising their useless, woolly old-fashioned values).

Themes

Changing times / the Weber values becoming passé (9)

  • Pot-head revisited The Webers hire Crispin Naylor, a young fogey down from Oxford to tutor their daughter Beverley. He is astonishingly old-fashioned, dressed in a tweed suit and smoking a pipe, he berates the 1960s generation as the ones who undermined the fabric of society. (The ITV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited was broadcast in 1981. The expression ‘young fogey’ was coined in 1984.)
  • The ox and tiger The middle-aged, middle classes have no idea how they’ve screwed up the world for the unemployed young, who bitterly resent them.
  • W.O.T. For some reason Simmonds coins the expression Wifully Over-Tasked for people who choose to over-work or use work as an excuse not to face relationships or parental responsibilities.

W.O.T. A doctor warns (1986) by Posy Simmonds

  • Fortress Britons Simmonds quotes the famous John of Gaunt speech from Shakespeare’s Richard II (‘This other Eden, demi-paradise..) contrasting the jingoistic words with the reality of a society in which everyone’s afraid of everyone else, has burglar alarms on their cars, persons and multiple locks on doors and windows.
  • Gingerbread without guilt At a very swanky private party given for Stanhope Wright a kind of strippergram arrives, except that she has an odd role, which is to assuage Stanhope’s guilt at revelling in such luxury and persuade him that the party is giving employment and jobs to all sorts of people. She is a ‘guilt-o-gram’.
  • Weights and measures Another strip depicting the fad for jogging, exercising and losing weight, depicting a party of bright 1980s people dominated by a smart woman who shows off how much weight she’s lost… until a very ‘big’ woman joins the conversation at which point they change the subject.
  • Toujours la politesse Belinda Weber’s rich City boyfriend is struggling to write a thank you note to George and Wendy for letting him stay over, and describes the evening to a work colleague, ridiculing George being a househusband, them letting the kids stay up and their general liberal permissive household. Maybe Guardian readers were meant to sympathise with the Webers but the thing is… City boy won.
  • Babaware A balding, paunchy middle-class chap goes to a Mothercare type shop pushing a buggy with a very small child in it and asks an assistant about an item of clothing for it, and the assistant makes the mistake of asking, Is it for your grandson? No my son says the man. So the strip is addressing the (middle-class) trend for men to become fathers older and older.
  • Lunch break An office meeting attended by four men and two women who all appear to be equals discussing business, turnover, profits etc. they break for lunch and the men go to a bar where they’re served by scantily-clad young women, while the two women go to an Italian restaurant where they enjoy being fawned over by handsome young Italian men. Then they reconvene and carry on business. Is this strip making a comment on feminism, or equality, or real gender differences? To a modern reader the most striking thing is that they go to a restaurant for lunch break. Or that they have a lunch break at all.

Women and feminism (7)

  • Rough winds do blow On Bank Holiday the Webers drive down to the countryside to visit friends, but after a stroll through the fields and a drink in a pub, George snaps at his host, and we see him worrying and fretting about his work. Don’t worry, explains Wendy, he’s always like that when it’s his turn to look after the kids. Maybe that’s funny but I thought it just insulted men.
  • The house-keeping A wife suggest to her husband that she stops working (as the dogsbody in an art gallery), they stop employing a nanny, she’ll be able to shop properly and have good hot meals ready, iron his shirts and everything properly washed… then she pulls his nose and says ‘April Fool!’ Presumably this is meant to be funny, because in Posy Simmonds’s view, all men’s deepest wish is to have their wives at home looking after the kids, keeping a good house and so on.
  • A mother’s plea Hand-written in dancing script, this is a letter from the statue of a suckling mother perched high on a plinth over some busy street, about how she is ignored, isolated, mute, passive, and only notice her to call her a single-parent family and a threat to society.
  • Always in the news George is in the front room watching telly with Wendy and two of their older daughters, as the news reports a succession of violent and sexual crimes perpetrated by men, while George – cartoon-style- gets smaller and smaller and smaller until, as the three women tut, ‘Tsk, men eh?’ he makes his excuses and leaves. I guess that’s because all men are rapists, paedophiles and child-murderers.
  • Pictures of the ages Like the Seven ages of women and the Seven ages of men cartoons she drew, this wordless strip shows the progress of a woman in twelve pictures from baby to old lady (dressed all in black in a parody of the painting Whistler’s mother [full title ‘Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1’ by the American-born painter James McNeill Whistler]).
  • Long in the tooth Stanhope is in bed with his wife, Trish and for the first half dozen pictures is flossing his teeth which makes a peculiar tic and toc sound. Suddenly his wife says, ‘Stanhope, I want to have another baby before it’s too late’. ‘What’s brought this on?’ asks Stanhope, continuing to make the tick tock tick tock sound of her biological clock.
  • The world turned upside-down My wife remembers reading this strip back in 1987 in its original Guardian context and laughing out loud, it was so true! A harassed secretary, being leered over by her boss, dreams of a world in which women are in charge and men are patronised, touched up and made to do menial tasks, leered at by security guards and building workers etc.

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (4)

  • Who worries about the worriers? Looking miserable and exhausted, Wendy walks home with a mum friend and explains how she gives all her energy to supporting her husband, her mother, Benji and Tamsin and Sophie and the babysitter and the bloody car and even the cat… ‘No one ever worries about ME!’

Who worries about the worriers? by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • An inspiration to us all Having given the kids their tea, Wendy Weber reads an interview in a women’s magazine with a successful globe-trotting woman writers, whose smug patronising tones make Wendy screw the mag up and chuck it in the bin.
  • Nature abhors a vacuum Another ironic reversal: for ten pictures a youngish mum tells Wendy how wonderful it is to finally have her kids off her hands, as they are starting full-time school, painting a vivid picture of what hell it is to be sole carer for young children, and Wendy supportively asks what she’s going to do next, get a job, do a PhD? And the mum dreamily says… ‘Thing is… I thought I’d have another baby.’
  • Cheerful thoughts George and Wendy are in their garden with a heavily pregnant mother, but the conversation soon takes a pessimistic turn as George in particular rants against the horribly violent aggressively materialistic society the new baby will be coming into. Result: general depression.

Childhood and small children (4)

  • The ratings Two youngish children are watching a TV soap in which the characters are shouting and criticising each other, until the voices of their parents in the kitchen get louder and we realise the parents are having a row (she’s accusing him of being selfish and being out every night and leaving her to do all the housework) and so the kids turn away from the TV to watch the squabbling shouting soap which is their parents’ marriage, until the parents quieten down and the bored children return to the TV.
  • Little ones’ lunch A busy strip divided into 4 to six boxes each depicting the various stages of children playing with, putting in their mouths, spitting out, mixing with uneaten food or spitting at their neighbours one of: fizzy drinks, jelly and ice cream, noodles with sauce, chocolate digestive biscuits, stew mash and peas.
  • Men’s talk Two little girls come into a room where two little boys are falling about laughing and eventually find out it’s because one little boy has looked at another boy’s willy. So the girls ask to look at the boys’ willies and themselves fall about with laughter, at which the little boys are aggrieved: ‘S’not funny.’

Men’s Talk by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good sports Little Katie’s birthday party, where the bien-pensant liberal parents are determined to give everyone who takes part in the games presents – although ironically this creates lots of upset and unhappiness because those who genuinely won something are aggrieved that children who didn’t get exactly the same as them.

Divorce

Divorce featured strongly in the previous collection; for some reason it doesn’t feature at all in this one.

Ironies of love (2)

  • Live-in-love Young woman takes her cat to the vet. The cat is furious because after five years of living alone together, the woman’s fiancé has moved in so now the cat is pooing everywhere and generally misbehaving.
  • Moon flush A middle-aged woman is reading a romantic novel (the text of which is given in an unusual font, a type of Courier) and the cat is fidgeting with boredom so she shoos her out into the garden where the cat proceeds to re-enact the ‘romantic’ scene depicted in the novel, with a female cat, till their caterwauling prompts George Weber to throw a shoe at them and the cat scampers inside back to her owner’s lap just as the latter burst into tears at the sad love story she’s reading and the cat sobs at the missed opportunity for a shag.

Sex and adultery (5)

  • Forbidden fruit An ironic reversal of the reader’s expectations, for we find dedicated philanderer Stanhope Wright chatting up a dishy old flame at a Christmas party, and asking whether they can have a quick one for old time’s sake, but, when they sneak outside, it is revealed that they’re both being furtive and ashamed because they’ve nipped out… for a smoke!

Forbidden fruit by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Good timing One of the pastiche cartoons Simmonds is so good at, five rows of pictures which depict the four phases of a casual sexual encounter, namely: well before, before, during, and after – and on the left of the rows a bunch of Rococo cherubs hassling one of their number to intervene with an important message. It’s only at the very last picture that you realise they are encouraging him to prompt one or other of the participants to ask: WHAT CONTRACEPTIVE PRECAUTIONS ARE YOU TAKING?’ (Given that this dates from 1986 it’s surprising Simmonds isn’t satirising the Safe Sex / use a condom message, which first appeared in British journalism in 1984.)
  • Just past it That said, this strip from 1987 is about AIDS, featuring Belinda Weber sitting at dinner with her parents and some friends complacently discussing AIDS and how difficult sex is going to be for young people today… until she burst their complacency by suggesting that the AIDS virus has been about longer than people think, like back into the 1960s… at which the smug middle-aged people start panicking.
  • Where there’s a will A long ironic strip wherein inveterate philanderer Stanhope Wright chats up an old flame over lunch and they agree to have a shag, but there’s a snag: wife? au pair? STD!? No, it’s the new neighbourhood watch scheme and the snooping neighbour Primula Stokes. To evade her ever-watchful gaze Stanhope outlines a plan of Byantine complexity and the would-be shagee politely declines.

A writer’s life (3)

  • Nine till five Satire on a woman writer who has to produce a weekly column showing how she puts off all her other chores and social engagements yet still manages to leave it to the last minute and have a massive crisis the night before.
  • J.D. Crouch As far as I can see this is the first appearance of the tubby, middle-aged, bearded writer J.D. Crouch, who will go on to become a regular feature in post-Posy strips (in 1992 Simmonds commenced a year-long strip solely about him and a writer’s life). Here he is in his natural habitat – the book signing – when unexpectedly his ex-wife appears and asks him to sign a copy of the book for: herself who he beat up in 1975, one each for the writer’s she saw him plagiarise (Kingsley Amis, John Updike, Alan Sillitoe, Gunther Grass), one each for the children he has never bothered to visit, one for his former researcher who he was knocking off while his wife lay in hospital… during which recitation Crouch shrinks smaller and smaller until he is hiding under the table. Men, eh.
  • The pleasure of their company A literary party at which a load of writers mill about gossiping about new books, are jealous of more successful writers, criticise book deals and publishing execs and publicity people and generally bitch and backstab, ending with the ironic conclusion that they don’t know why they bother attending them. A strip like this just makes you despise book luvvies even more.

Academia (3)

  • George retires? In the poly canteen George’s colleagues speculate that he’s retiring and in a chorus tell him about the pitiful perks he’s amassed in 17 years working there (a small parking space, use of the Xerox machine, he can claim for cassette tapes on expenses), all of them tending to how pitiful and puny his rewards are, except that… in an ironic reversal… they all reveal that they are madly jealous of these huge perks and tell him he’d be mad to quit.
  • The absent-minded professor George has a nightmare in which he actually really kicks an insufferable colleague he’s dreamed about kicking for years.
  • To whom it may concern George is angry that he’s been asked to provide a reference for one of his pupils without the student asking him first, also that the boy was lazy and rude. At first he types out the truth, but then we see the debate in his wooly liberal conscience as the figure of the student asks what right George has to ruin his life and, slowly, reluctantly, George goes back through his draft revising it and systematically lying.

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (10)

  • Year of the tiger A dinner party where most of the guests are lamenting how awful 1985 (the year of the Ox) was but how they’re looking forward to 1986 (year of the Tiger) and proceeding to chunter on about the new vintages of Bordeaux and champagne and so on – leading to an outburst by the posh host’s son. An unshaven man who points out that he and his girlfriend are unemployed. They represent the new year and the anger of the tigers.
  • Union Jakes In the Brass Monk pub the Weber’s are discussing Britain with some Americans and the conversation somehow gets onto toilets and toilet humour and the assembled Brits make fools of themselves by trotting through the amazing gamut of slang expressions we have for toilets and crapping.

Union Jakes by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • New minorities A comment on the spread of health food shops and jogging, Edmund Heep is in a cheap corner shop where his punk sons spot him and encourage him to buy a selection of crisps and buns and lollies, but when they go out onto the street we see all the other shops have become gentrified (‘Croissant Neuf’, the Natural Food Store, the Grainery, Herbalism) and it is they who are regarded as oddballs and cranks.
  • Senses and sensibilities A very structured strip in three rows of five pictures, the top row showing three high street shops, including clothes, burgers and records: in the next row pedestrians experience the five sense of sight (nice looking clothes), smell (of fired burgers and chips), taste (people munching burgers on the street), hearing (sounds from the record shop), touch (two women feeling nice clothes). And in the third row is the reaction of passersby to a tramp (unsightly, smelly, distasteful), a busker (unheard) and some vagrants who tell passersby to fuck off (untouchable). This is the kind of strip my daughter (aged 17) read and asked me, ‘So? What’s it meant to be about?’ Maybe Posy’s strips are an early example of ‘virtue signalling’ and reading them was meant to make you feel that, somehow, you more sensitive and caring about the homeless and squalid high streets than anyone else… all without the effort of putting down your newspaper.
  • The Age of REASON A television commentator reports that inhabitants of gentrified Balaclava Road are up in arms because one new incomer has stripped away all the chintzy facade of his house and restored it to being the Victorian artisans’ dwelling (which, we then learn, the entire street, despite their facades, actually consists of).
  • School steps Two teachers at parents’ evening discuss how there’s been a lot of them this evening, them being the parents who fuss about giving their beloved kids extra coaching and tutoring and support and so on and the punchline is that… these are all the signs of over-concerned step-parents. (This 1986 strip is notable for having a non-white person speaking, an apparently Asian male teacher.)
  • What Monet can buy At a house party that posh woman with the big blonde hair and twin pearl necklace we’ve met at her second home and running the Society for People With Second Homes, ribs Wendy because she’s heard Wendy is sending Bev to a private school. No no no no no insists Wendy, however can we expect to tackle inequality and improve the state system if the middle classes abandon it etc etc? But then the daughter in question reveals that she does have a private tutor and Wendy turns bright red with embarrassment.
  • May Day The Webers and children drive through wretched Bank Holiday traffic, the children requiring stops to throw up, everyone getting tired and angry… all to visit George’s mother in her rest home, whereupon she is subtly dismissive of all the presents they’ve brought and moans and complains. Maybe this is meant to prompt ‘the wry smile of recognition’ but I found it simply depressingly accurate.
  • French impressionists A funny strip in which the Webers take some French friends to the Royal Academy and, to the Webers’a amazement, the French rave about the foggy, grey, dull English climate. Really? Yes think of the great masterpieces it has produced and then… they point at some of the shops along Piccadilly showcasing the great names of British art, namely… Harris Tweed, Burberry and Barbour!
  • Smoke signals Bonfire night and three London neighbours have fires which pinpoint their social class: the posh Belpers are burning wood they brought back from the countryside, admittedly with one or two disposable nappies in it; the Timmises are burning an old settee and some shag pile carpet, the Webers are burning old books and magazines and theses (in a symbolic bonfire of so much of the late 60s / early 70s French intellectual content they valued and went out of date like old fruit).

Pastiches and parodies (5)

  • The Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas is retold with the king giving a poor collector of wood in the snow ‘Take this sovereign and this tie / This clever bar utensil / And this stilton and this pie / This matching pen and pencil’… and then the strip cuts to some moustachioed club bores telling a silly joke at a modern party.
  • A second cartoon features Good King Wenceslas and his rich party-goers besieged in their castle by four million unemployed for whom they have zero sympathy: ‘Don’t bore us with talk of strikes / Or your whingeing blather / Off your bums and on your bikes / And pull yourselves TOGETHER!’
  • Pilgrimage An extended skit which takes the opening verses of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (‘Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, The droghte of March hath perced to the roote…’) but applies it to middle-aged, middle class people going on pilgrimage to sanctuaries and health spas.
  • Spring song The text is written in Simmonds’s trademark chintzy hand-written script (technically, dancing script, I think) which tells a jingle (‘As I awoke this morning, I heard a funny thing…’) which is ironically set against poor student Jocasta Wright waking, crunching around in her dingy student flat, and suddenly realising she’s late handing in her dissertation.
  • Household tips from the household gods Not sure it’s really a parody, but the strip is dominated by the Greek gods who give spring cleaning tips on how to clean various dirty areas round the house, like the kitchen floor or the toilet, but give up when – unexpectedly – this includes nuclear waste! A reflection, maybe, of the Chernobyl disaster (26 April 1986).

Second homes (3)

  • Arcadia Also a parody, two large pictures, the first showing an 18th century gentleman and wife admiring a winsome country cottage, the second in the present showing a coachload of tourists turning up to photograph the same cottage, now the second home to rich Londoners.

Old Arcadia by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • Different species Rich London family enjoy walking round the cliffs near their second home identifying plants and species until, in the final frame, they enter a packed pub of locals and we are shown the latter’s thoughts, assessing their worth, calling them a blight, and figuring out how to mulch them for money doing repairs and gardening.
  • Turning an honest penny Tresoddit is the fictional seaside Cornish village Simmonds has invented to take the mickey out of the way the countryside is colonised by rich Londoners buying up second homes. The strip concerns Kevin Penwallet, one-time lecturer in anthropology who gave it up to open a shop in Tresoddit but has been forced to abandon all his socialist principles and reinvent it as an emporium of revoltingly twee knick-knacks for posh London mums to coo over and pay extortionate prices. Again, this isn’t funny so much as depressingly accurate.

Christmas (3)

  • The book opens with one big photo showing a Santa on top an open-top red bus yelling ‘Ho Ho Ho’ in the middle of an Oxford Street absolutely thronged with harassed shoppers, even the bus driver looks pissed off, and Wendy Weber is among the throng and yells up at Santa, ‘It’s NOT FUNNY.’
  • The book ends with a sequence of Christmas strips:
  • Thinking of you this Christmastide Notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright is slow coming to bed with wife Trisha. Being Christmas-time, she is thinking about all her relations, making a list of everyone she’s got to send a card to. Stanhope, by contrast, is weighed down by fears about his relations which are, of course, sexual in nature: He worries that he may have contracted a sexually transmitted disease, maybe even AIDS!!! and so runs through a list of all the women he’s had sex with – Helen after the D&AD awards, Vicki, Penny, you never know. It is typical of Simmonds to be really depressing at Christmas-time.
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page An oddity made up of two big pictures in which you’re asked to spot the difference – except I don’t think there were any differences. Another in which you’re asked to spot the four policemen – except I don’t think there were any policemen in it. Edmund asks three riddles, none of which I thought were funny or interesting. And then there’s a maze the reader has to navigate to help drunk Edmund back to his house.

Teenagers and the Generation Gap (3)

  • George and Wendy’s eldest, Belinda, is moping round the house leading the parents to worry what it could be – break-up with boyfriend? pregnant? herpes? other STDs? drink? drugs? debt? trouble with the police? general depression? But then she comes bouncing out of the loo happy and clutching a box of tampons: she’s had her period and she’s not pregnant.
  • Family planning Trish Wright is showing her step-daughter Jocasta photos of a family wedding tutting about the ghastly relatives. Jocasta says Don’t knock the family, it’s the cornerstone of society (echoing Thatcherite rhetoric), and then ironically goes on to point out how the young couple getting married in the photo will end up having to support a whole array of ageing relatives (as is coming true in our own time).
  • Hair today A young dud with stubble and a ponytail goes into a barber’s who presents him with a bewildering range of haircuts, until the dude says he needs one that will help when he goes home to see his parents to beg for money since he can’t survive on his grant.

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

  • Good samaritans Heep is staggering home drunk in his sheepskin jacket and beer belly, and about to throw up, ignored by decent couples who pass by on the other side of the road when… he is accosted by two skinhead bovver boys who appear to be rifling through his pockets, finding £20 notes etc, but… it turns out they are looking for a 20p piece to open a nearby street lavatory. They find one, pay, help him into it, wait till he’s thrown up, then help him out and give all his money back, and walk off, two modern angels.
  • Giving up An ironic reversal where the appalling Edmund Heep is propping up the bar at some pub and showing off to friends how he’s cut back on smoking by making a cigarette log which he then shows them and reveals.. he’s smoked two packs already that day!
  • Edmund Heep’s problem page as above

Miscellaneous (4)

  • Live from the scene of the tragedy An odd strip devoted to satirising TV news, showing a reporter shoving his microphone in front of someone who’s just witnessed a terrible (unspecified) tragedy, asking how they feel, and the interviewee does what most of us wish they would do in these situations, which is knee the insensitive, crass reporter in the nuts, grab his microphone, and asks him how he feels now!

We bring you – live, from the scene of the tragedy… by Posy Simmonds (1986)

  • To a tree Wendy gets furious with the council workmen who’ve come to prune the tree in front of the house, insisting they cut the bloody thing down as it is a magnet for dog poo.
  • A modern alphabet 26 acronyms, starting with AIDS and going through to the Zzzz of a homeless person in a cardboard box, via  CND, GBH, PLO, UB40, and VDU among others.
  • Two American tourists wonder just what it was that stood out most for them on their visit to Britain and trot through a set of clichés – was it the pub, the language, the history and culture, the healthy lifestyle – to each of which, as you might expect, Simmonds gives a typically depressing, downbeat ironic visual counterpoint (the language of Shakespeare is old codgers in a pub, the healthy food is sausage and mash and beans) until they conclude – depressingly – that whatever it was they sure are glad they don’t live here.

Animal liberation and vegetarianism (2)

  • Flying fur Unexpectedly, a strip showcasing ‘speciesism’ in the form of a selection of furry toys in a department store all complaining about how humans exploit them for food, fur, research and so on
  • Only connect Linked to this 1987 strip which has a straightforward vegetarian message, as the lamb joint Wendy Weber serves up to guest starts singing and dancing.

Homosexuality (1)

  • A kind of liberation The one and only strip about homosexuality in the strip’s ten year existence, this is an odd one about George going shopping with a gay friend and how the gay friend camping it up has ruined all the effort George has put in over the years to persuade the proletarian shopkeeper that it’s OK for men to do the shopping and the housework. I couldn’t work out if this is insulting or patronising, but I couldn’t see how it could be considered funny.

A kind of liberation by Posy Simmonds (1985)

Politics (4)

  • The game of happy families The one and only appearance of the dominant personality of the age, Mrs Thatcher, showing her playing a game of happy families with a vicar which is ruined when it’s revealed one of the cards has run off with his PA leaving a one-parent family to sponge on the state.
  • Heresies and blasphemies George and Wendy try to persuade their daughter Sophie to come on a march against nuclear dumping. the joke, such as it is, is that they present it as a duty, and Sophie resents it as a duty, which eerily echoes the pieties and sitting and standing and shuffling round which used to accompany attendance at church.
  • Suffering Compares the suffering of anonymous dark third World figures (war, famine, disease etc) with the suffering of the bien-pensant middle classes who read Guardian reports about it; and the real relief (food, medicine, money, water, clothes etc) is juxtaposed with the ‘relief’ felt by the Guardian-reading classes at how much they raised and donated to charity.
  • Consequences A surprisingly blunt and crude ‘political’ strip in comparing the fates of three drivers pulled over by the police. The rich white man talks his way out of it. The posh white woman gets off, although not without the policeman patronising her (‘Is this your boyfriend’s car?’). And then a black man driving an expensive car who doesn’t even wait for the police to ask if he’s stolen it but drives right out of the strip. Ending with the rhyme: ‘If you drive a motor car… You’ll get stopped, the chances are. But as a rule, you’ll be alright, If you’re male and posh and white.’ I found this crude, obvious and patronising, especially from a writer who includes no black or Asian or ethnic minority characters in any of her strips. In fact, the black man in this strip appears to be the only black person who speaks in any of the ten years of Posy Simmonds’ cartoon strips and his role is – to get into trouble with the police. Can’t help feeling Simmonds deals in stereotypes which are as patronising and clichéd as anything you’d find in the Sun or Daily Telegraph but just that they’re the patronising stereotypes of her tribe.

The end of the Webers (2)

  • Cutting the cord At a barbecue George sees his grown-up daughter Belinda in a huddle with notorious philanderer Stanhope Wright and thinks she must be propositioning him. In fact she is asking if he will ‘give her away’ at the big traditional wedding she’s planning to have, since her ‘principled’ feminist father refuses to.
  • Wedding party politics A strip describing Belinda’s marriage to options trader Mr Alistair Razer-Dorke, humorously profiling all the relatives and guests in terms of their party politics. In fact the wedding is an opportunity for Simmonds to review the key characters she’s created and whose company readers have kept over the previous ten years – and to say GOODBYE. The Posy strip’s time was up.

Thoughts

I showed my teenage, feminist daughter this book and she surfed through a dozen or so strips before handing it back saying she didn’t find anything in it funny in it, the opposite. She said she felt she was being nagged or scolded – a common enough feeling for readers of the Guardian, which after all is targeted at self-flagellating liberals who feel guilty because they’re not doing enough about sexism and racism and homophobia and Islamophobia and the environment etc.

Some of the Posy strips are funny, but many of them rely on this mood or attitude – of taking a perverse pleasure in being told off or lectured or harangued. Of course the reader feels that, because they are being told off, they somehow rise above the guilt and responsibility for all the wrongs and injustice of the world. As if being nagged and lectured, cleanses and absolves you. As if, by reading a bitter comic strip about homelessness, and tutting and tsking about it, you have in any way whatsoever ameliorated the problem of homelessness.

It’s a peculiar psychological state, this state of recognition of some social ill, without any kind of proposal for what to do about it – and it is much the most frequent feeling you experience at the end of reading a strip, far more so than humour or comedy.

But the real story of the book is the way the Webers with their polytechnic-level, woolly soft liberal socialism and feminism and vegetarianism and permissive attitudes and touchy-feely concern about society and everyone less well-off than themselves had lived far beyond their sell-by date.

The strip had become stuck in that world, a world which had become a small island, a leftover of faded 1960s ideas, while the big wide world outside had moved on into a violent schizophrenic situation, caught between the millions thrown onto the dole, especially in the North of England and Wales, by the wide-ranging devastation of British industry, symbolised by the Miners’ Strike of 1984-5 (not referred to anywhere) – while down in London, the City and related service industries of advertising and TV and publishing had never had it so good, with money cascading out from bankers’ bonuses into holiday homes, and new fashions for clothes and music and foreign holidays, while the escalating tension between the superpowers gave even the most stoic sleepless nights.

Not much of this, the drastically changing national mood, could be captured in the Webers’ homely little world, which is why it was the right decision to kiss them goodbye. And why I admire the cleverness with which Simmonds did it, the book climaxing in the highly symbolic marriage between the Webers’ own daughter, go-getting daughter Belinda – who had repeatedly repudiated and criticised their narrow old views – and rich, posh, public school City banker, Alistair Razer-Dorke.

Simmonds did, in fact, return to writing a weekly cartoon strip for the Guardian for the year 1992-3, and the Webers and a few other characters do, in fact, make a few scattered cameo appearances in it – but it was entirely the right decision for her to end the Weber strip in 1987 and move on to other projects and new perspectives.

Credit

All Posy Simmonds cartoons are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2019 @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize

The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize acknowledges an international photographer for an outstanding body of work that has been exhibited or published in Europe in the previous twelve months. Projects are recognised for their major achievements and innovations in the field of photography and contemporary culture.

The DBPFP19 exhibition aims both to highlight and give platform to four very diverse artistic practices, which simultaneously display innovative, committed and engaged approaches to photography

Each year a long list is drawn up and then the panel of judges whittles it down to a list of four finalists. The winner of the £30,000 prize will be announced at a special award ceremony held at The Photographers’ Gallery on 16 May 2019.

N.B.

Note two things:

  1. books Several of the projects originated as books and the book versions are on display in display cases and can be bought separately at the Photographers Gallery shop. For exhibition purposes the books are dismantled and various elements of them blown-up, printed and variously displayed on the gallery walls, but it’s worth bearing in mind the bookish origins of most of the projects.
  2. projects The prize is not narrowly about photography, it is much more broadly about ‘achievements in the field of contemporary culture’, a very wide and loose definition.

This year’s four short-listed artists are:

1. Laia Abril for the publication On Abortion (Dewi Lewis Publishing, November 2017)

2. Susan Meiselas for the exhibition Mediations (exhibited at the Jeu de Paume, Paris, 6 February–30 May 2018)

3. Arwed Messmer for the exhibition RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis (exhibited at ZEPHYR|Raum für Fotografie, Mannheim, 9 September – 5 November 2017)

4. Mark Ruwedel for the exhibition Artist and Society: Mark Ruwedel (16 February–16 December 2018 at Tate Modern, London)

1. On Abortion by Laia Abril

Laia Abril was born in Spain in 1986 (aet. 33).

Over five years Abril has compiled a multi-layered, visual history of abortion. Her display starts with a row of photos of early contraceptive  devices and abortion equipment, so that you slowly move past a series of images of gruesome-looking implements which have been used to perform abortions through the ages.

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

Illegal Instrument Kit (2018) by Laia Abril © Laia Abril

The next wall features photographic portraits Abril has made of women who tell their traumatic stories of being denied abortions in their native countries, or the risks they undertook to travel to another country to have one.

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Portrait of Marta, 29, Poland by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Each of these start b&w portraits is accompanied by the subject’s story. This is Marta’s:

“On January 2, 2015, I travelled to Slovakia to have an abortion. [In Poland, abortion is illegal except in cases of sexual assault, serious foetal deformation, or threat to the mother’s life] I was too scared to take DIY abortion pills alone. What if something went wrong? So I decided to get a surgical abortion in a clinic abroad. I felt upset about borrowing money for the procedure, and lonely and frustrated because I couldn’t tell anyone what was happening. The hardest part was facing my boyfriend, who opposes abortion. All the same, I felt stronger and more mature afterwards.”

The damage done to individuals by lack of access to legal, safe and free abortion services is indicated by this grid of nine women who all died because of botched abortions or because abortions were denied them by the state, even in cases of extreme medical emergency.

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

Installation view of On Abortion by Laia Abril. Photo by the author

At the end of the final wall is an information panel which lists some of the attacks, arson and murders carried out by anti-abortion activists in America over the past few decades.

The project, in the words of the curators:

addresses the marginalised position of women in past and contemporary societies, whilst exposing the many social triggers, stigmas and taboos that still persist around abortion and female health.

Towards the end is this strikingly clear, bright image.

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

Hippocratic Betrayal by Laia Abril © Laia Abril, 2018

The story behind it is:

“In February 2015, a 19-year-old woman took abortion pills in Sao Bernardo do Campo, Brazil, then went to hospital with abdominal pain. After treatment, her doctor called the police, who handcuffed her to the bed and forced her to confess. In Brazil, abortion is illegal under most circumstances and doctors are known to break their confidentiality code in order to denounce women who try it. Patients accused of attempting abortion have been detained in hospitals for weeks and even months.”

My opinion

A close reading of the criteria and aims of the exhibition suggest there is a tension – or a spectrum – running between pure photography-as-art at one end and photography subordinated to ‘committed and engaged’ achievements in contemporary culture at the other.

Of the four projects, Abril’s seems to me the most obviously political, certainly the most ‘committed and engaged’ and, what’s more, on a highly emotive and often harrowing subject.

On that basis – if the judges give weight to the ‘committed and engaged’ criterion – I’d be surprised if Abril doesn’t win.

2. aka Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas

Meisalas was born in the USA in 1948 (aet. 71).

She is an internationally acclaimed documentary photographer who’s been working for five decades, whose subjects have included war, human rights and cultural conflicts such as the sex industry and the visual representation of women.

She takes an immersive approach, spending long periods of time with her subjects. In addition to photographs, she produces essays and artworks, audio and film installations.

Meiselas has been working on a long-term project titled Kurdistan: In the Shadow of History, offering a multi-layered history of the Kurds. It has not been a happy history. The Kurdish people are spread across an area which overlaps the four states of south-east Turkey, northern Syria, northern Iraq and eastern Iran, what were once described to me as four of the most brutal regimes on earth.

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

Map of Kurdistan © The Washington Times

It was seeing reports of Saddam Hussein’s genocidal attacks on the Kurds in the late 1980s that inspired Meiselas to visit the area in the early 1990s. Here she began to document the atrocities committed by the Hussein regime, including mass executions, tortures and rape.

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Taymour Abdullah, 15, the only survivor of village execution, shows his bullet wound, Arbil, Northern Iraq, December, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Thus began a process which has continued for the past thirty years, with Meiselas continuing to work with Kurdish diasporic communities to document their experiences and gather visual evidence – documents, family photos, maps, mementos and personal stories – to give shape to a collective memory of Kurdistan.

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Destroyed village along the Hamilton Road, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

The work itself consists of two walls of colour photographs showing destroyed villages, exhumed graves, and family members mourning the dead.

Another wall has been turned into an enormous map of the Middle East and Europe, into which pins have been driven at locations where Kurdish diasporas exist (London, Berlin) and from these pins hang photos, documents, brochures and pamphlets telling their stories, complete with photos of themselves, family members alive and dead and so on. A sort of archive of memories.

And, on the fourth wall there is a film installation which, on parallel screens, intersperses photos Meiselas has taken with historic photos and footage of people and places from the region, alongside personal testimony from Kurdish survivors as well as Meiselas herself.

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

Installation view of Kurdistan by Susan Meiselas. Photo by the author

My opinion

Between 1987 and 1991 I worked on Channel Four’s international affairs TV programme. I was the assistant producer in charge of stories from Asia, defined as all the countries from Japan to Israel and including the two most populous nations on earth, China and India.

But it was the Middle East which kept making the news and my stint coincided with the end of the Iran-Iraq War (20 August 1988) and the first Gulf War (2 Aug 1990 – 28 Feb 1991).

During this time I got to know quite a bit about the Kurds and their culture. In fact, on one occasion I was driven to a ‘safe house’ in West London to meet Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan who was at that point on the run from Saddam Hussein’s assassins, for an interview and to persuade him to appear on British TV to put the case for Kurdish independence. He agreed so I was his minder and organiser for that appearance. Later, he went on to be elected the first post-Saddam President of Iraq, serving from 2006 to 2014.

I remember to this day producing the section of the show which covered Saddam’s gassing of the village of Halabja on March 16, 1988. At least 5,000 people died as an immediate result of the chemical attack and an estimated further 7,000 people were injured or suffered long term illness. What a bastard he was. That weekend I produced the part of the show where we interviewed a poison gas expert describing the effects on the body of the nerve agents Tabun and Sarin – the burning lungs, the seared skin, the agonising pain as you go blind – and then a regional expert explaining why Saddam launched the attack and what he hoped to gain (to terrorise the local Kurdish population into stopping their support for the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas who had recently taken control of the region).

The full history of the Kurds is long and complicated. Just the story of the past thirty years, from the persecutions of Saddam, through the chaos of the Iraqi Civil War, and then the eruption of ISIS into Kurdish territory in 2014, right up to last week’s news that Kurdish forces played a key role in taking the final ISIS stronghold in Syria – is a tortuously complicated story which requires a lot of explaining.

So I know a bit about Kurdish political history, I’ve met Kurdish political leaders and regional analysts, I’ve been following developments there for 30 years or so – but I felt ambivalent about this display. Gathering the stories of Kurdish survivors is clearly an important contribution to their oral history. Bringing the story of this brutally repressed people to a wider audience is obviously a very worthwhile cause.

And yet I felt ambivalent about the actual products which you see on display, the layout and content of the exhibition. Take the photos of men showing off the scars from beatings and tortures they received from Saddam’s forces – or of Middle Eastern women standing next to a mass grave of their menfolk. These are stock images of stock subjects.

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Villagers watch exhumation at a former Iraqi military headquarters outside Sulaymaniyah, Northern Iraq, 1991 by Susan Meiselas © Susan Meiselas

Obviously a project like this is well-intentioned and has involved a lot of people in numerous forms of collaboration, in telling their often harrowing stories of persecution or uplifting stories of survival.

But, in my experience, accounts like this run the risk of making the horrors of war and genocide in this region seem like inexplicable nightmares, unless and until you make the hard effort to understand the Realpolitik which lies behind them.

The twin drawback of lots of ‘political’ art is that, whatever its good intentions, it tends to rely heavily on images, and on the testimony of the kinds of people who are available to give testimony, who are keen to have their stories heard. Thus it is easy to take photos of weeping mothers and bleak-eyed family members around a mass grave – and it is easy to take extensive accounts of how this or that family survived the attack on their village, the gassing, the roundups for interrogation, made a long trek into the mountains or managed to flee the region altogether.

But the risk is that these sad images and sad stories have the tendency to create an over-simplified dichotomy between the good and the bad, dividing people into sheep and goats. On the one hand are the inexplicable evil bastards who rape and torture and murder and gas and exterminate (represented here by stock photos of defaced images / posters/ paintings of Saddam) – on the other, the weeping mothers and crying children and shell-shocked men standing beside mass graves which are only now being opened up to reveal their grim contents.

But people aren’t black and white, people are a complex mix and if 20th century history teaches us anything, it is that ordinary boring people can be bullied and persuaded to do, and accept, almost anything.

To be more specific, the Kurds themselves are divided into many factions. They have created numerous militias and fighting forces which have proved themselves very effective and with whom the West, in particular America, has allied itself over the past 20 years – but which are themselves no angels.

The area is riven by religious, ethnic, nationalistic, political and militia-based divisions which look set to destabilise it for the foreseeable future.

And, once you’ve gotten familiar with the subject, the stories you really want to hear are not the stories of the men, women and children who escaped to make new lives in Berlin and London, it is the thinking of the leaders, the generals and the politicians who created this mess. It’s in the minefield jungle of conflicting nationalistic and security aims that some kind of compromise and peace has to be thrashed out.

If you want to understand why this kind of thing happens, and are genuine about trying to prevent it happening again, then listening to lots of weeping women isn’t enough. You need to undertake a thorough study of the landscape, the geography and climate and natural resources of the area (because half the time it comes down to fighting over natural resources – water, oil, farmable land), and then of the long, bitter histories of the warring peoples who have lived there.

Only then do atrocities like this become at least comprehensible, and only as they become comprehensible and analysable, can you gather the evidence and arguments to try and stop them happening again. There’s no way to avoid inexplicable atrocity. But if the atrocity turns out to be explicable – if it can be seen as part of a way of government based on terror, as a way of controlling fierce ethnic divisions – then at least that’s a start to thinking about how the international community should deal with governments based on terror, and begins to provide suggestions on how to police ethnic divisions.

I liked the idea of the enormous map with the pamphlets hanging from it as a thing, as an object – but then I love maps of any kind.

The film projections included lots of evocative old photos of Kurdish peasants taken in the late 19th or early 20th century.

All of the photos are taken with great clarity and all-too-vividly capture the horrible traumatic experiences of the victims.

And partly because the room is darkened to allow us to see the projections, the whole thing has a powerful sensaround feel to it.

And maybe all of this, maybe even the mere existence of a people called the Kurds, will come as news to a lot of the gallery goers.

But for me, personally, I didn’t think this display explains to any visitor why the history of the Kurds has been so troubled, exactly what challenges they face, and the best ways forward to some kind of peaceful solution.

3. RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer

If women protesting against illiberal abortion laws, and the sorry plight of the Kurds are both likely to prompt sympathy – or righteous anger – from the enlightened gallery-goer, then this project by Arwed Messmer is much more problematic.

To state the facts:

The Red Army Faction (German: Rote Armee Fraktion), also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang was a West German far-left militant organization founded in 1970. Key early figures included Andreas Baader, Gudrun Ensslin, Horst Mahler and Ulrike Meinhof. The West German government as well as most Western media and literature considered the Red Army Faction to be a terrorist organization.

The Red Army Faction carried out a series of bombings, assassinations, kidnappings, bank robberies and shoot-outs with police over the course of three decades. Their activity peaked in late 1977, which led to a national crisis that became known as the “German Autumn”. The RAF has been held responsible for thirty-four deaths, including many secondary targets, such as chauffeurs and bodyguards, as well as many injuries throughout its almost thirty years of activity.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: German Federal Archives, 2018

Messmer’s display derives from a massive book, a copy of which is available to leaf through on a table in his exhibition room. According to the Photographers’ Gallery:

Messmer’s project repurposes images, documents and other source materials commonly used in police investigations and crime-scene reconstructions that he researched in German state and police archives. Messmer’s new and surprising ‘narrative’ examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history. The installation highlights the early period between 1967 to 1977, showcasing images from the student protests in 1968, police re-enactments and an extensive collection of investigative, forensic and documentary photographs ranging from the mundane to the surreal.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis (2017) by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: Compilation design and editing of the photographic material. Source: AM_PHS_SCHUPO_FILM 1933_19A_20A Berlin Police Historical Collection Kurfürstendamm, Berlin, 12.04.1968

In the German Autumn of 1977, I was 16 and punk rock was exploding across England. (It wasn’t the only thing that was exploding: here is a list of all the IRA attacks carried out in 1977 – long, isn’t it? If you didn’t live through that era you can’t imagine what it was like to turn on the evening news and read about a new terrorist attack in Northern Ireland, mainland Britain or Europe every night.)

The Clash’s first single White Riot was released in March that year and it seemed a completely appropriate soundtrack to an era of street disorder, to the terrorist shootings, bombings and assassinations which were the routine background to our lives. Baader, Ensslin and other members of the group had been arrested and imprisoned as early as 1972 but this didn’t stop other members of the extended group carrying out terrorist acts throughout the 1970s.

On 17 October 1977, in what came to be called the ‘Death Night’, Ensslin, Baader and Jan-Carl Raspe were found hanged in their cells at Stammheim Prison. The press ran features about the gang and I pinned atmospheric black-and-white photos of these university-educated would-be revolutionaries up on my bedroom wall, along with all the other symbols of the political chaos of the time.

As to Messmer’s display, this is on four walls of one room. On wall is dominated by an enormous blow-up of a black and white photo of student protester Benno Ohnesorg lying dead having been shot by Germany police during a student demo in June 1967, one of the increasingly violent events which crystallised the belief among some students that they, too, needed to take up arms in order to overthrow the West German capitalist, imperialist, patriarchal state.

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence / Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Installation view of RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the bog photo of the death of Benno Ohnesorg and, on the bench in the foreground, the enormous book which the display is based on. Photo by the author

Along the next wall are full-length mug shots of twenty or so student activists protesting at the state funeral of Reichstag President Paul Löbe in August 1967. They’re dressed in all kinds of comical outfits, some wearing make-up, so that it looks more like a parade of clowns and hippies than dangerous radicals. It was still the late ’60s. Hey, hey we’re the Monkees.

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

RAF No Evidence/Kein Beweis, 2017 by Arwed Messmer © Arwed Messmer: research, concept and editing; source: Berlin Police Historical Collection, 2018

Jump forward ten long years to the period just before the Death Night.

The most evocative or eerie or disturbing element in the display, while at the same time being strangely banal, is an entire wall of photos taken inside the cells of Meinhof and Baader at Stammheim Prison at the time of their deaths.

What struck me was how comfy the cells look, with toothbrushes and rolling tobacco lying about and the walls packed with shelves full of books. It looks a lot like my son’s room at university, only tidier.

I noticed books by the usual suspects lying around, works by Marx and Lenin, of course, and then by the supposedly ‘softer’ Western Marxists such as Gramsci, Lukacs and Walter Benjamin.

Freedom through armed, anti-imperialist struggle.

Compared to other prison cells I’ve read about, compared to the Nazi death camps or the barracks in Russian gulags, this looks like the lap of luxury: hot and cold running water, as many books as you want and even – to my amazement – record players (I noticed a copy of Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde in Meinhof’s cell).

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader - Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

RAF – No Evidence/Kein Beweis by Arwed Messmer showing the wall of photos depicting the inside of the Baader – Meinhof cells at Stammheim Prison

My opinion

Does this installation offer a:

new and surprising ‘narrative’ [which] examines how images once used as evidence in criminal cases can now provide a unique insight into our understanding of history?

As with the Meiselas, I felt the display gave you the opposite of history and the opposite of understanding. I appreciate the aesthetic unity of the project; I appreciate in particular the visual uniformity of style and subject matter of the prison cell photos. Having them cover two walls does create a real sense of claustrophobia (tempered, as I’ve mentioned, by envy at their cracking book collection).

But the installation as a whole doesn’t, I think, begin to convey the mad craziness of the times and the power and persuasiveness of the anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, student slogans which rang on in universities across the western world and continued to inspire the plane hijackings, the kidnapping and assassination of bankers and industrialists, or just the random acts of violence which dominated the decade.

The most illuminating thing I’ve read about the terrorist movements which raged through the 1970s are the relevant chapters of The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010). It’s a popular and non-scholarly book, but it’s impact lies in the interviews with ex-members of the terrorist groups in Italy, France and Germany who, to a man, feel nothing but shame and regret for the harm, damage and deaths they caused. The chapter in it about the Red Army Faction (pp.111-121) will tell you more about their motivation, their activities, and the regrets of the former members than anything in this display.

4. Artist and Society by Mark Ruwedel

Ruwedel was born in 1954 in America (thus two of the four entrants are Americans). His is the most straightforward display. After the bewilderingly complex moral, social and political issues raised by the multimedia installations, it’s quite a relief to come to a display in a photography exhibition which consists simply of… photographs.

Classic black and white photos of American landscapes and the American scene.

“Typical American House“, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

‘Typical American House’, Nevada Test Site, Yucca Flat, Apple II Test Site, 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

The four walls of this room display beautifully composed, nicely framed, richly evocative black and white photos of a) abandoned houses in the desert b) the relics of military testing in the desert c) distinctively American houses lining Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles, and d) rivers running through ravines.

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Hells Canyon (1999) by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Reading the wall labels you discover these images are indeed collected into sets which have names:

  • Dusk a series showing empty houses and shacks in the bleak empty desert under the twilight sky
  • Pictures from Hell awe-inspiring landscapes which generations of settlers evocatively named Helltown, Devils Gardens, Hells Hollow or Devils Land
  • We All Loved Ruscha his homage to the artist Ed Ruscha, which recreates shots included in Ruscha’s 1966 book, Every Building on the Sunset Strip
  • Crater which depicts nuclear test sites in Nevada

I like going on long walks in the country, and I’ve been a fan of land artists like Richard Long from the moment I learned about them in the 1980s, and I am a big fan of the J.G. Ballard aesthetic of how Western civilisation is already living amidst its own ruins – so I warmed most of all to Ruwedel’s shots of eerily deserted bomb test sites.

Ruined old shacks in the desert I’ve seen loads of times; picturesque photos of canyons you can see in tourist promos for America’s national parks etc… but the strange metal and concrete shapes built by military forces for reasons long forgotten and long since abandoned… they do it for me every time.

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Nevada Test Site 1995 by Mark Ruwedel © Mark Ruwedel, 2018

Not to be outdone by the bookish competition, Ruwedel is also interested in the craft of photographic printing and the photograph-as-object, and this is demonstrated by a number of his hand-made artist’s books which are on show in a glass display case. Stylish.

My opinion

If the prize were awarded solely of the basis of photography – on a photographer’s skill in choosing great visual subjects, on the quality of composition, the framing, and the creation of atmosphere, I think Ruwedel would win the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize hands down.

But it isn’t. A ‘committed and engaged approach’ is a key criterion for winning the prize, and seen from a political-cultural perspective Ruwedel is the weakest entrant.

The Messmer project is, in my opinion, the next weakest in that the images he has dug up from the archives are certainly intriguing and often striking (the mugshots of 1967 protesters dressed as clowns and freaks) but you had to know a bit about the subject matter first for it to really make sense.

The Susan Meiselas I have already discussed at length, and I suppose is worthy, thorough, deeply engaged, but – in my opinion – flawed.

Which leaves Laia Abril as the likely winner, for several reasons. One is the universal applicability of her subject – the politics of sexual reproduction, the issue of control of women’s bodies, by definition affects at least half the world’s population.

But it’s not just about the emotive subject matter, and her evident commitment to it. It’s also about her skill as a photographer. The emotion Abril gets into the gaunt, haunted portraits of her abortion-traumatised women makes a lasting impact that grows in the memory. Just that one photo of handcuffs attached to a metal bedstead is hard to forget, both as a story, and because it is such a skillful visual composition.

Altogether, regarded as a socio-political art project, I think Abril’s one really does show the fullest, most rounded breadth and depth – ranging from photos of the horrible implements used in back street abortions, to the stark images of women affected by repressive legislation here and now.

If I were a gambling man, I’d bet that Abril will win the prize on 16 May.

Curator

Curated by Anna Dannemann from The Photographers’ Gallery.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Corita Kent: Power Up @ the House of Illustration

Corita Kent (1918-86) was a nun, who began making personal, rather Expressionist prints with religious subjects in the 1950s, and then swiftly evolved in the early 1960s into a pioneering political print- and poster-maker. In 1968, under pressure from the revolutionary times and enjoying greater artistic and commercial success, she asked to be released from her vows, left her order, and became a fully commercial artist, continuing to make prints as personal statements, but also for a wide range of commercial clients, up to her death.

The House of Illustration has brought together some 70 large, colourful Corita Kent prints to create the largest ever show in the UK of this ‘pop artist, social activist and nun’.

The exhibition is bright, uplifting, thought-provoking and, as usual, divided between the gallery’s three exhibition rooms and small video room.

Introduction room

In 1936, aged 18, Frances Kent entered the Catholic Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the name of Sister Mary Corita. In 1951 she was introduced to the technique of print-making by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez.

The first room displays a handful of Kent’s early works, which are dark and stormy, every inch of the surface covered with often dark browns and blacks, amid which you can see outlines of primitivist or Byzantine images of Christ the King. Dark and troubled, packed and claustrophobic, they’re redolent of the Abstract Expressionism which dominated the American art world of the time.

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

In their murkiness they reminded me a bit of the art of Graham Sutherland, the presence of the religious imagery reminding me of Sutherland’s work for Coventry cathedral.

Within a few years Kent had begun to experiment by including handwritten text into the designs. The need to make the text legible meant she had to declutter the images though they are still, in this first room, a little scary, apocalyptic, done in drab austerity colours.

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Main room

This first room is sort of interesting but it doesn’t prepare you at all for the impact of walking into the next space, the gallery’s main room – which features a riot of colour, an orgy of huge colourful prints and posters, showcasing a wide range of fonts and lettering set against vibrant dynamic colour designs.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same artist. Out have gone the minutely detailed, busy and cramped designs, and in have come big white spaces used to emphasise the use of primary colours to bring out simple texts and slogans laid out in a dazzling variety of formats and designs.

Some of the prints still use religious texts from the Bible, but these are accompanied by slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry and lots of subtle or overt references to the signage and billboard adverts of Kent’s native Los Angeles.

There’s a sequence of searing prints protesting against the war in Vietnam and unashamedly using images lifted from magazines and newspapers, hard-core images of soldiers and war of the kind the American public was watching on their TVs every night from the mid-60s onwards, alongside images and slogans protesting against black segregation, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, bitterly lamenting the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on.

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Everywhere you look are classic slogans from the long-haired, dope-smoking, flower power protests of the day. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ‘Stop the bombing’. ‘Get with the action’. ‘Violence in Vietnam’. ‘Yellow submarine’. ‘Come Home, America’, and the slogan which gives the exhibition its title, the words POWER UP spread across four enormous prints. (Which, on closer reading, we discover was the slogan used by the Richfield Oil Corporation in their ads, and one of the many elements of signage in the cluttered visual landscape of her native Los Angeles).

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

It is an astonishing transformation, from the personal and cramped and expressive, to the public and political, big, bright and open, in half a decade.

One of the videos playing in the video room shows ancient footage of young men and woman dancing in circles and painting their faces and carrying all manner of props and decorations and art works, to and from the numerous ‘happenings’ which blossomed all over America.

Earnest young women in mini skirts, men in Grateful Dead sideburns, dancing and painting themselves, intercut with the usual footage of napalm over Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on. It’s the ever-popular 1960s, the decade we can’t leave alone.

The exhibition feels like the poster and print accompaniment of that era, flower power, hippies, protest songs, the stormy later 1960s.

The Fraser Muggeridge studio

A word on the design and layout of the exhibition which is beautifully done by Fraser Muggeridge studio. They have very successfully replicated the super-bright, Pop Art colour palette of the original works without in any way over-awing them, which is quite a feat. The result is that the main and final room themselves take part in the exhibition’s vibrancy and dynamism.

At the end of the main room is a set of 26 prints, Circus Alphabet, from 1968, each one of which combines one of the letters from the alphabet done big, set against a fascinating variety of layouts, some simple, other cluttered with text, in a wide range of fonts. Reminded me of the imagery surrounding Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Apparently, Kent was inspired by the poet e.e. cummings who was devoted to the institution of the American circus (‘damn everything but the circus’, he is quoted as writing), and the prints combine political texts with material she found at the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, with images from A Handbook of Early Advertising Art, compiled by Clarence P. Hornung.

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

What fun! What a tremendous eye for layout and design. What an consistent thirst for innovation and experiment.

End room

The smaller final room is painted a deep azure blue. This space showcases work Kent produced after she asked to be released from her vows and left the convent in 1968. At which point she moved to Boston and became a fully commercial artist. Apparently, her sister became her business manager.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Corita Kent: Power Up at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The photo above captures pieces which demonstrate a new variety and style in her work.

At the bottom right you can see ‘our country is red spilled blood’ from 1970, a poster commissioned by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee to promote a three-day fast for peace and depicting a Vietnamese woman grieving over the body of her dead husband. (At the turn of the 60s, early 70s, a lot of the titles omit capital letters, another testament to the influence of the laureate of lower-case, e.e. cummings).

The wide, thin poster to the left of it uses the slogan, ‘Come home America’, the slogan used in the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign.

Above it, the piece divided between blue on the left and orange on the right, is ‘the Ellsberg poster’ from 1972, containing a quote from US government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 (subject of the recent Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post). The quote reads: ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?’

The display case in this room shows a number of books Corita illustrated, including several by Catholic priests protesting against the war.

But it isn’t all political protest. The two works on the right hand wall in the photo above, are designs to accompany purely literary texts, by James Joyce (on the left) and Rainer Maria Rilke (the pink and orange one on the right).

You have a sense that Kent was exploring beyond the dayglo and sometimes rather baroque stylings of the 1960s (the Sergeant Pepper circus chic) into a more laid-back 1970s. I suppose low-key minimalism was coming in during this period to replace plastic Pop Art.

The work in this room all feels cooler. More understated. The Joyce and Rilke ones look like a cross between Mark Rothko and Matisse’s late paper cuts in their combination of bold colour with abstract patterning.

And I also realised that the texts in all the works in that photo are hand-written and in relatively small point sizes. You have to go right up to the Rilke piece to even realise there’s writing on it. This is a sharp contrast with the Circus works – which use an entertaining variety of ready-made, machine fonts in massive sizes – and with the other more political works: these had non-machine font, hand-cut-out texts and slogans, but they were enormous and simple. The works in this room feel more… intimate in scale and effect.

On the wall opposite is a montage of prints featuring quotes from classic authors, each one treated in interesting new ways, experimenting with fonts and layouts and colours and designs. These are ads commissioned by Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, a TV station. Kent began working with them as early as 1962 and continued to produce magazine-page-sized ads until nearly the end of her career.

A wall of Corita Kent's work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

A wall of Corita Kent’s work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

The texts are fairly trite – worthy and high-minded quotes from Shakespeare or Dr Johnson or Thoreau – the kind of unimpeachable uplift any corporation could use to mask its commercial operations in spiritual guff (‘The noblest motive is the public good’). Taken together, I found they called into question the whole point of pithy slogans. Somehow the way she could turn her vivid imagination to souping up Shakespeare in order to promote a TV channel undermined the seriousness of the ‘political’ work. I could almost hear a stoned hippy saying ‘All artists sell out, man’. She was 52 at the dawn of the 1970s. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30, man.’

Content aside, what impresses is the way Kent produces such a wonderful variety of fonts, designs and layouts in which to set the text, and yet still manages to retain a visual unity and identifiable style. No wonder Westinghouse stuck with her for nearly 20 years.

IBM

The whole final wall is a blow-up of a magazine advert for computer manufacturer Digital. They commissioned Kent to create three suites of screen-printed decorative panels for Digital’s range of desks and computer cabinets. You see the blue and green wash panels at the end of the guy’s desk, on the side of the filing cabinet? That’s Kent’s design. This was in 1978, ten years after the heady year of the King assassination, the Democratic convention riots and all the rest of it. Her designs no longer hope to change the world but to beautify its everyday element. ‘Sold out to the man, baby.’

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Videos

In one of the two videos running in a loop in the small projection room (a spot of googling shows that there are quite a few films about Kent and extended interviews and documentaries), Kent is quoted saying something very interesting about the interaction of text and design. She relates it right back to the work of medieval copyists and the unknown monks who produced the extravagant decorations of illuminated manuscripts (of the kind to be seen at the British Library’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition).

As she puts it, from those early textual illustrators right up to the times of her and her peers, there is some kind of joy and delight in the way colour and pattern brings out additional meanings latent in texts, and words crystallise and empower what would otherwise be abstract colours and designs.

For some reason, no doubt to do with the wiring of the human brain and the way we separately register colour and meaning, the power and variety of interplay between the two systems can often be extremely powerful and, as her work goes to prove, seems to be never-ending.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of Corita Kent. This is a wonderful – and wonderfully designed and laid out – introduction to the development and variety and life-affirming positivity of this scintillating artist.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities 1945-50 by Correlli Barnett (1995)

What a devastating indictment of British character, government and industry! What an unforgiving expose of our failings as a nation, an economy, a political class and a culture!

Nine years separated publication of Barnett’s ferocious assault on Britain’s self-satisfied myth about its glorious efforts in the Second World War, The Audit of War (1986) and this sequel describing how the Attlee government threw away a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to modernise Britain’s creaking infrastructure and industry – The Lost Victory: British Dreams and British Realities, 1945-50.

I imagine Barnett and the publishers assumed most readers would have forgotten the detail of the earlier book and that this explains why some sections of this volume repeat The Audit of War’s argument pretty much word for word, down to the same phrases and jokes.

And these set the tone and aim which is to extend the brutal dissection of Britain’s wartime industrial failings on beyond victory in the Second World War, and to show how the same old industrial and economic mistakes were made at every level of British government and industry – but now how the ruling class not only ignored Britain’s bankruptcy and ruin during the war but consciously chose not to take the opportunity to consolidate and invest in Britain’s scattered industries, her creaking infrastructure, and draw up plans for long-term industrial rejuvenation (unlike the defeated nations Japan and Germany) but instead piled onto the smoking rubble of the British economy all the costs of the grandiose ‘New Jerusalem’ i.e. setting up a national health service and welfare state that a war-ruined Britain (in Barnett’s view) quite simply could not afford.

The unaffordable British Empire

One big new element in the story is consideration of the British Empire. The British Empire was conspicuous by its absence from The Audit of War, partly, it seems, because Barnett had dealt with it at length in the first book of this series, The Collapse of British Power which addressed the geopolitical failings of greater Britain during the interwar period, partly because Audit was focused solely on assessing Britain’s wartime economic and industrial performance.

Anyone familiar with Barnett’s withering scorn for the British ruling class, the British working class and British industry will not be surprised to learn that Barnett also considers the empire an expensive, bombastic waste of space.

It was the most beguiling, persistent and dangerous of British dreams that the Empire constituted a buttress of United Kingdom strength, when it actually represented a net drain on United Kingdom military resources and a potentially perilous strategic entanglement. (p.7)

It was, in sum:

one of the most remarkable examples of strategic over-extension in history (p.8)

The empire a liability Barnett makes the simple but stunningly obvious point that the British Empire was not a strategically coherent entity nor an economically rational organisation (it possessed ‘no economic coherence at all’, p.113). Instead he gives the far more persuasive opinion that the empire amounted to a ragbag of territories accumulated during the course of a succession of wars and colonising competitions (climaxing with the notorious Scramble for Africa at the end of the 19th century) whose rationale was often now long forgotten. It was, as he puts it, ‘the detritus of successive episodes of history, p.106.

For example, why, in 1945, was Britain spending money it could barely afford, administering the Bahamas, Barbados, Guiana, British Honduras, Jamaica, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Trinidad and Tobago, the Windward Islands, and the Leeward Islands? They didn’t bring in any money. They were a drain, pure and simple, on the British Treasury i.e. the British taxpayer.

India too expensive Everyone knows that India was ‘the jewel in the crown’ of the Empire, but Britain had ceased making a trading surplus with India by the end of the 19th century. Now it was a drain on resources which required the stationing and payment of a garrison of some 50,000 British soldiers. It was having to ‘defend’ India by fighting the Japanese in Burma and beyond which had helped bankrupt Britain during the war. Barnett is scathing of the British ruling class which, he thinks, we should have ‘dumped’ India on its own politicians to govern and defend back in the mid-1930s when the Congress Party and the Muslim League had started to make really vehement requests for independence. Would have saved a lot of British money and lives.

Ditto the long string of entanglements and ‘mandates’ and ‘protectorates’ which we’d acquired along the extended sea route to India i.e. Gibraltar, Malta, Cyprus and Egypt with its Suez Canal. None of these generated any income. All were a drain on the public purse, all required the building of expensive military bases and the indefinite prolongation of National Service to fill them up with discontented squaddies who, as the 40s turned into the 50s, found themselves fighting with increasingly discontented locals demanding independence.

So why carry on paying for this expensive empire?

For psychological reasons. Politicians and public alike though the Empire (morphing into the Commonwealth) was what made Britain Great.

Pomp and circumstance Barnett explains how the trappings of Empire were mostly created in the late Victorian period in order to unite public opinion across the dominions and colonies but also to impress the home audience. These gaudy ceremonies and medals and regalia and titles were then carried on via elaborate coronation ceremonies (George V 1910, George VI 1936, Elizabeth II 1952), via pomp and circumstance music, the Last Night of the Proms, the annual honours list and all the rest of it, the grandiose 1924 Empire exhibition – all conveying a lofty, high-minded sense that we, the British public, had some kind of ‘duty’ to protect, to raise these dusky peoples to a higher level of civilisation and now, in some mystical way, Kikuyu tribesmen and Australian miners and Canadian businessmen all made up some kind of happy family.

In every way he can, Barnett shows this to be untrue. A lot of these peoples didn’t want to be protected by us any more (India, granted independence 15 August 1947; Israel declared independence 14 May 1948) and we would soon find ourselves involved in bitter little wars against independence and guerrilla fighters in Malaya, Cyprus and Kenya to name just the obvious ones.

Empire fantasists But the central point Barnett reverts to again and again is the way what he calls the ’empire-fantasists’ insisted that the British Empire (morphing into the British Commonwealth as it was in these years) somehow, magically, mystically:

  • made Britain stronger
  • gave Britain ‘prestige’
  • made Britain a Great Power
  • thus entitling Britain to sit at the Big Boys table with America and Russia

He shows how all these claims were untrue. Successive governments had fooled themselves that it was somehow an asset when in fact it was a disastrous liability in three ways:

  1. Britain made no economic advantage out of any part of the empire (with the one exception of Malaya which brought in profits in rubber and tin). Even in the 1930s Britain did more trade with South America than with any of the colonies.
  2. Most of the Empire cost a fortune to police and maintain e.g. India. We not only had to pay for the nominal defence of these colonies, but also had to pay the cost of their internal police and justice systems.
  3. The Empire was absurdly widely spaced. There was no way the British Navy could police the North Sea, the Mediterranean and protect Australia and New Zealand from Japanese aggression.

The end of naval dominance Barnett shows that, as early as 1904, the British Navy had decided to concentrate its forces in home waters to counter the growing German threat, with the result that even before the Great War Britain was in the paradoxical position of not being able to defend the Empire which was supposed to be the prop of its status as a World Power.

In fact, he makes the blinding point that the entire layout of the Empire was based on the idea of the sea: of a merchant navy carrying goods and services from farflung colonies protected, if necessary, by a powerful navy. But during the 1930s, and then during the war, it became obvious that the key new technology was air power. For centuries up to 1945 if you wanted to threaten some small developing country, you sent a gunboat, as Britain so often did. But from 1945 onwards this entire model was archaic. Now you threatened to send your airforce to bomb it flat or, after the dropping of the atom bombs, to drop just one bomb. No navy required.

An Empire based on naval domination of the globe became redundant once the very idea of naval domination became outdated, superseded. Instead of an economic or military asset, by the end of the Second World War it had clearly become an expensive liability.

The hold of empire fantasy And yet… not just Churchill, but the vehement socialists who replaced him after their landslide general election victory in August 1945, just could not psychologically break the chain. Their duty to the Queen-Empress, all their upbringings, whether on a council estate or at Harrow, all the trappings of the British state, rested on the myth of the empire.

The delusion of being a Great Power Added to this was the delusion that the existence of a British Empire somehow entitled them to a place at the top table next to Russia and America. Churchill had, of course, taken part in the Great Alliance with Roosevelt and Stalin which made enormous sweeping decisions about the future of the whole world at Yalta and Potsdam and so on.

Looking back across 70 years it is difficult to recapture how all the participants thought, but there was clear unanimity on the British side that they genuinely represented a quarter of the world’s land surface and a quarter of its population.

Ernest Bevin What surprises is that it was a Labour politician, Ernest Bevin, who became Foreign Secretary in 1945, who felt most strongly about this. Barnett, in his typically brusque way, calls Bevin the worst Foreign Secretary of the 20th century because of his unflinching commitment to maintaining military defence of the British Empire at its widest and most expensive extent. He repeatedly quotes Bevin and others like him invoking another defence of this hodge-podge of expensive liabilities, namely that the British Empire provided some kind of ‘moral’ leadership to the world. They thought of it as an enormous stretch of land and peoples who would benefit from British justice and fair play, a kind of safe space between gung-ho American commercialism on the one hand, and the menace of Stalinist communism on the other.

And yet Barnett quotes the U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson as getting fed up with Britain’s clamorous calls to be involved in all the high level discussions between America and Russia, calls which would increasingly be ignored as the years went by and which were brutally snapped down during the Suez Crisis of 1956, when America refused to back Britain’s invasion of Egypt and Britain had to back down and walk away with its tail between its legs.

Salami slicing On the specific issue of imperial defence Barnett shows in considerable detail – using minutes and memoranda from the relevant cabinet meetings – that the Attlee government’s inability to decide what to do about defending the farflung Commonwealth set the pattern for all future British administrations by trying to maintain an army and navy presence in all sectors of the Empire (Caribbean, Far East, Middle East) but ‘salami slicing’ away at the individual forces, paring them back to the bone until… they became in fact too small to maintain serious defence in any one place. For the first few decades we had an impressive military and naval force but a) to diffused in scores of locations around the globe to be effective in any one place b) always a fraction of the forces the Americans and the Soviets could afford to maintain.

Empire instead of investment

Stepping back from the endless agonising discussions about the future of the Empire, Barnett emphasises two deeper truths:

1. The 1946 loan The British were only able to hand on to their empire because the Americans were paying for it – first with Lend-Lease during the war, which kept a bankrupt Britain economically afloat, then with the enormous post-war loan of $3.5 billion (the Anglo-American Loan Agreement signed on 15 July 1946). This was negotiated by the great economist John Maynard Keynes:

Keynes had noted that a failure to pass the loan agreement would cause Britain to abandon its military outposts in the Middle Eastern, Asian and Mediterranean regions, as the alternative of reducing British standards of living was politically unfeasible.

A debt that was only paid off in 2006.

2. Marshall Aid While Barnett shows us (in numbing detail) successive British governments squabbling about whether to spend 8% or 7% or 6% of GDP on the military budget required to ‘defend’ Malaya and Borneo and Bermuda and Kenya and Tanganyika – their most direct commercial rivals, Germany and Japan, were spending precisely 0% on defence.

I was surprised to learn that (on top of the special loan) Britain received more Marshall Aid money than either France or Germany but – and here is the core of Barnett’s beef – while both those countries presented the American lenders with comprehensive plans explaining their intentions to undertake comprehensive and sweeping investment in industry, retooling and rebuilding their economies to conquer the postwar world, Britain didn’t.

This was the once-in-a-generation opportunity which Britain also had to sweep away the detritus of ruined British industry, and invest in new technical schools, better training for workers and management, new plant and equipment built in more appropriate locations and linked by a modern road and rail infrastructure.

Instead Britain, in Barnett’s view, squandered the money it borrowed from America (the only thing keeping it afloat during the entire period of the Attlee government) on 1. the grandiose welfare state with its free care from cradle to grave and 2. propping up an ‘Empire’ which had become a grotesque liability and should have been cut loose to make its own way in the world.

Empire instead of Europe

Britain’s enthralment to delusions of empire is highlighted towards the end of the period (1945-50) when Barnett describes its sniffy attitude towards the first moves by West European nations to join economic forces. The first glimmers of European Union were signalled by the Schuman Declaration of 9 May 1950 which proposed the creation of a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the basis of the EU as we know it today.

Typically, the British government commissioned several committees of mandarins to ponder our response, which turned out to be one of interest but reluctance to actually join – with the result that a pan-European coal and steel market was forged and we were left out of it.

The episode starkly demonstrated that five years after Victory-in-Europe Day Britain still remained lost in the illusion of a continuing destiny as a world and imperial power – an illusion which was costing her so dear in terms of economic and military overstretch. (p.120)

The following month (June 1950) North Korea invaded South Korea and Britain immediately pledged its support to America in repelling the invasion. The Korean War ended up lasting three years (until an armistice on 27 July 1953). Britain committed over 100,000 troops to what those who served bitterly called ‘the forgotten war’, of whom 1,078 were killed in action, 2,674 wounded and 1,060 missing, in defence of a nation 5,500 miles away – a military deployment which cost a fortune.

New Jerusalem

This prolonged demolition of the whole idea of the British Empire comes before Barnett even turns his guns on the main target of the book – the British government’s misguided decision not to invest in a comprehensive renovation of the British economy, and instead to devote its best minds, energies and money to the creation of the welfare state and the National Health Service.

Here Barnett deploys all the tactics he used in The Audit of War:

  • he lumps together these two projects, along with the broader aims of the Beveridge Report (massive rehousing, full employment) under the pejorative heading ‘New Jerusalem’ and deliberately mocks all its proponents as ‘New Jerusalemers’ (Beveridge himself described as ‘the very personification of the liberal Establishment’, possessing the righteousness and ‘authoritartian arrogance and skill in manipulating the press which made him the Field Marshall Montgomery of social welfare’, p.129)
  • he goes to great lengths to show how the entire New Jerusalem project was the misguidedly high-minded result of the culture of Victorian idealism, the earnest religious revival of the early and mid-Victorian period as brought to perfection in the public service ethos of the public schools and which he scornfully calls ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’ – meeting and marrying the ‘respectable’ working class tradition of non-conformism and moral improvement, particularly strong in Wales which produced, among many other Labour politicians, the father of the NHS, Aneurin Bevan
  • and how this enormous tide of high-minded paternalistic concern for the squalor and ill health of Britain’s industrial proletariat led throughout the war to a co-ordinated campaign across the media, in magazines and newspapers – led by public school and Oxbridge-educated members ‘the “enlightened” Establishment’, editors, writers, broadcasters – which used all means at its disposal to seize the public imagination

The result of this great tidal wave of high minded altruism was that by 1945 both Tories and Labour were committed to its implementation, the implementing the Beveridge Report of 1942 which called for the creation of a welfare state, for the creation of a national health service free at the point of delivery, and for Beveridge’s other two recommendations – for a vast building plan to erect over 4 million new houses in the next decade, as well as a manifesto pledge to maintain ‘full employment’.

Barnett quotes at length from the great torrent of public and elite opinion which made these policy decisions almost unavoidable – but also emphasises how none of these great projects was ever properly costed (the actual cost of the NHS tripled within two years, far exceeding expectations); and how the warnings of financial ‘realists’ like the successive Chancellors of the Exchequer (Sir Kingsley Wood, Sir John Anderson, Hugh Dalton, Sir Stafford Cripps and Hugh Gaitskell) that Britain simply couldn’t afford them, were rejected by the barnstorming rhetoric of the impetuous and passionate Bevan, who established a pattern of making grandstanding speeches about the poor and needy to his cabinet colleagues, before threatening to resign (page. 150) (Bevan did eventually resign, in 1951, in protest at Chancellor Gaitskell introducing prescription charges for false teeth and glasses).

Case studies and proof

As in The Audit of War these general chapters about the New Jerusalemites, the pointlessness of the empire, the arts and humanities education of both politicians and civil servants, and the lamentable anti-efficiency practices of the trade unions, are all just preliminaries for a long sequence of chapters and sections in which Barnett examines in mind-boggling detail how the Attlee government’s wrong-headed priorities and policies hampered and blocked any kind of industrial recovery across a wide range of industries which had already been struggling even before the war started, and now became fossilised in postures of bureaucracy and incompetence.

It is an absolutely devastating indictment of how restrictive government policies, short-sighted and stupid management, and the incredibly restrictive practices of an embittered and alienated working class all combined to create the ‘British disease’ which had brought Britain to its knees by the 1970s. Some quotes give a feel:

The catastrophically cold winter of 1946-47 forced the shutdown of large swathes of industry.

In 1947 the price of food imports, many of them from the dollar area, rose to nearly a third higher than in 1945. As a consequence of this double misfortune [loss of exports due to shutdown factories, huge rise in cost of food imports] plus the continued £140 million direct dead-weight cost of the world role, Britain was no longer gaining ground in the struggle to close the balance of payments gap, but losing it. In the first six months of 1947 more than half the original 1945 loan of $3.75 billion was poured away to buy the dollar goods and foodstuffs that Britain could not itself afford. (p.199)

In fact, there is evidence that it was the failure of the ‘centrally planned’ economy under Labour to supply enough coal to keep the power stations running, and the general collapse of the economy, which did a lot to undermine faith in their competence.

It is striking that in this great age of plans and planners, it turned out that Labour did not, in fact, have a fully costed and worked out plan for either the costs of the welfare state and NHS, and even less so for what it wanted to do with the country’s economy and industry. The only plan was to nationalise key industries in the vague hope that bringing them into public ownership would make management and workers work harder, with a greater spirit of public unity. But nationalisation did the opposite. Because no new money was poured in to modernise plant and equipment, men kept working in crappy workplaces at hard jobs and insisted on their pay differentials. Instead of directing resources to the most profitable coalmines or steel plants, the Labour government nationalised these industries in such a way that the most inefficient were subsidised by the most efficient, and workers across all factories and mines were paid the same wages – thus at a stroke, killing any incentive for management to be more efficient or workers to work harder. The effect was to fossilise the generally poor level of management and incredibly inefficient working practices, at the lowest possible level.

From the start the various Boards and committees and regional Executives set up to run these ramshackle congeries of exhausted industry regarded their job as to tend and succour, not to inspire and modernise, dominated

by a model of a ‘steady-state’ public utility to be ‘administered’ rather than dynamically managed.

But it’s the fact that, after all these years of articles and speeches and radio broadcasts and meetings and papers and research and books, there were no worked-out plans which takes my breath away.

The Labour government renounced the one advantage of a command economy – direct intervention in the cause of remaking Britain as an industrial society. Except in the fields of defence, nuclear power and civil aircraft manufacture, there were still to be no imposed plans of development – even in regard to industries where the need had long been apparent, such as shipbuilding, steel and textiles. (p.204)

As to these knackered old industries:

It was a mark of how profoundly twentieth century industrial Britain had remained stuck in an early-nineteenth century rut that even in 1937 exports of cotton (despite having collapsed by three-quarters since 1913) still remained a third more valuable than exports of machinery and two-and-a-half times more than exports of chemicals. (p.209)

A Board of Trade report stated that between 60 and 70% of its buildings had been put up before 1900. Whereas 95% of looms in America were automatic, only 5% of looms in Britain were. Most of the machinery was 40 years old, some as much as 80 years old. Barnett then describes the various make-do-and-mend policies of the government which had spent its money on defence and the welfare state and so had none left to undertake the sweeping modernisation of the industry which it required.

Same goes for coal, steel, shipbuilding, aircraft and car manufacturing, each of them suffering from creaking equipment, cautious management, mind-bogglingly restrictive trade union practices, poor design, absurd fragmentation –

The chapter on Britain’s pathetic attempts to design and build commercial airliners is one of humiliation, bad design, government interference, delay and failure (the Tudor I and II, the enormous Brabazon). While politicians interfered and designers blundered and parts arrived late because of lack of capacity in steel works themselves working at sub-optimal capacity because of failures in coal supply (due, more often than not, to strikes and go-slows) the Americans designed and built the Boeing and Lockheed models which went on to dominate commercial air flight.

While the French committed themselves to an ambitious plan to build the most modern railway network in the world, high speed trains running along electrified track, the British government – having spent the money on propping up the empire, building useless airplanes and paying for cradle to grave healthcare, was left to prop up the Victorian network of

slow, late, dirty and overcrowded passenger trains, freight trains still made up of individually hand-braked four-wheeled wagons, and of antique local good-yards and crumbling engine sheds and stations. (p.262)

The Germans had already built their motorways in the 1930s. Now they rebuilt them wider and better to connect their regions of industrial production, as did the French. The British bumbled along with roads often only 60 feet wide, many reflecting pre-industrial tracks and paths. The first 8 mile stretch of British motorway wasn’t opened until 1958.

When it came to telecommunications, there was a vast backlog of telephones because no British factories could produce vital components which had to be (expensively) imported from America or Germany. Result: in 1948 Britain was a backwards country, with 8.5 phones per 100 of the population, compared to 22 in the US, 19 in Sweden, 15.5 in New Zealand and 14 in Denmark (p.265). Some 450,000 people were on a waiting list of up to eighteen months meaning that for most of the 100,000 business waiting for a phone to be installed, making any kind of communication involved popping out to the nearest call box with a handful of shillings and pence and an umbrella (p.267).

Barnett

details the same kind of failings as applied to the entire system of British ports: too small, built in the wrong places without space to expand, harbour entrances too narrow, docks too shallow, cranes and other equipment too small and out of date – then throw in the immensely obstructive attitude of British dockers who were divided into a colourful miscellany of crafts and specialism, any of whom could at any moment decide to strike and so starve the country of supplies.

I was particularly struck by the section about the British car industry. it contained far too companies – some 60 in all- each of whom produced too many models which were badly designed and unroadworthy, made with inferior steel from knackered British steelworks and required a mind-boggling array of unstandardised parts. Barnett tells the story of Lucas the spark plug manufacturers who put on a display of the 68 different types of distributor, 133 types of headlamp and 98 different types of windscreen wiper demanded of them by the absurd over-variety of British cars e.g. Austin producing the A40, the Sheerline and the princess, Rootes brothers making the Sunbeam-Talbot, the Hillman Minx, and three types of Humber, and many more manufacturers churning out unreliable and badly designed cars with small chassis and weak engines.

Barnett contrasts this chaos with the picture across the Channel where governments helped a handful of firms invest in new plant designed to turn out a small number of models clearly focused on particular markets: Renault, Citroen and Peugeot in France, Mercedes and Volkswagen in Germany, Fiat in Italy. It wasn’t just the superiority of design, it was subtler elements like the continentals’ willingness to tailor models to the requirements and tastes of foreign markets, and to develop well-organised foreign sales teams. The British refused to do either (actually refused; Barnett quotes the correspondence).

On and on it goes, a litany of incompetence, bad management and appalling industrial relations, all covered over with smug superiority derived from the fact that we won the war and we had an empire.

It makes you want to weep tears of embarrassment and humiliation. More important – it explains what came next. More than any other writer I’ve ever read, Barnett explains why the Britain I was born into in the 1960s and grew up in during the 1970s was the way it was, i.e. exhausted, crap ad rundown on so many levels.


Related links

Related reviews

Modernity Britain: Opening the Box 1957–59 by David Kynaston (2014)

Opening the Box is the first book in volume three of David Kynaston’s epic social history of post-war Britain.

It opens on 10 January 1957 as Harold Macmillan drops by Buckingham Palace to be made Prime Minister, and ends on Friday 9 October 1959 as the final results show that the Conservatives have won a staggering majority of 100 in the General Election: so the book covers about two years and nine months of British domestic history.

I say ‘domestic’ because there is no, absolutely no, mention of the British Empire, the independence struggles / small wars the British Army was fighting, or the impact of foreign affairs on Britain. The Suez Crisis was dealt with briskly and briefly at the very end of the previous volume: this book is utterly focused on the domestic scene.

In its end points Kynaston provides the usual bombardment of quotations from hundreds of diverse sources, from housewives and soldiers, social planners and architects, young and thrusting writers and crusty old critics, politicians idealistic and cynical, commentators on rugby, cricket, soccer and horse-racing – alongside summaries of scores of numerous sociological reports and surveys carried out during these years into all aspects of social life, and social policy – on housing and new towns and flats, consumer behaviour, ideas of class, the family, and so on.

Unlike a traditional historian Kynaston skips quickly past even quite major political events from the period (and even these tend to be viewed through the prism of his diarists and journal keepers) in order to measure their impact on the ordinary men and women caught up in them.

This is his strength, his forte, the inclusion of so many contemporary voices – experts and ordinary, powerful and powerless – that immersing yourself in the vast tissue of quotes and voices, speeches and reports, diaries and newspaper articles, builds up a cumulative effect of making you feel you really know this period and have lived through these events. It is a powerful ‘immersive’ experience.

But in this, the fifth book in the series, I became increasingly conscious of a pronounced downside to this approach – which is that it lacks really deep analysis.

The experience of reading the book is to be continually skipping on from the FA Cup Final to the Epsom Derby to the domestic worries of Nella Last or Madge Martin to a snide note on the latest political developments by a well-placed observer like Anthony Crossland or Chips Channon, to a report by the town planners of Coventry or Plymouth alongside letters to the local press, to the notes of Anthony Heap, an inveterate attender of West End first nights, or the thoughts about the new consumer society of Michael Young, to the constant refrain of excerpts from the diaries of Kenneth Williams, Philip Larkin and even Macmillan himself.

This all undeniably gives you a panoramic overview of what was happening and, like the reader of any modern newspaper or consumer of a news feed, to some extent it’s up to you, the reader, to sift through the blizzard of voices and information and opinions and decide what is interesting or important to you.

The downside is that you never feel you’ve really got to the bottom of any of the issues. Even the big issues, the ones Kynaston treats at some length (20, 30, 40 pages) never really arrive at a conclusion.

The housing crisis

The housing crisis existed before the war, as social reformers became increasingly aware of just how many millions of British citizens were living in squalid, damp, unlit, unventilated Victorian slums with no running water, baths and only outside toilets – the kind of conditions reported on by George Orwell among others. But the situation was, of course, greatly exacerbated by the German blitz on most of Britain’s major cities, from Plymouth to Glasgow. By 1957 it was estimated there were some 850,000 dwellings unfit for human habitation in the UK.

The result was city councils who were well aware of the need to modernise their cities, to get rid of the old slums and rebuild not only houses but, potentially, the entire layout of the cities. Arguably this was the key issue for a generation after the war and Kynaston reverts to it repeatedly. He quotes town planners and architects as they engaged in fundamental debates about how to go about this task, the most obvious division being between ‘urbanists’, who thought working class communities should be rehoused within the city boundaries, if possible close to or on the same location as the existing slums, once they’d been demolished and new houses built – and ‘dispersionists’, who thought a large percentage of big city populations should be moved right out of the inner cities to a) brand new model estates built on the outskirts of the city, like Pollok outside Glasgow or b) to new towns, overspill towns built 20, 30 or 40 miles away, which could be planned and designed rationally from scratch (places like Stevenage or Harlow).

This debate overlapped with another binary set of alternatives: whether to re-accommodate people in houses or in blocks of flats, with barrages of argument on both sides.

Proponents of flats made the simple case that building vertically was the only way to accommodate such large populations a) quickly b) within the limited space within city borders. They were backed up by zealously modernist architects who had an ideological attachment to the teachings of Le Corbusier and the Bauhaus and thought, at their most extreme, that the new designs for living would change human nature and bring about a new, more egalitarian society. So aesthetics and radical politics were poisonously intertwined in the strong push towards flats.

Ranged against them were a) the tenants, who didn’t want to move into flats, pointing out that flats:

  • are noisy and poorly sound-proofed
  • have no privacy
  • have no gardens
  • so that the kids have to be penned up inside them (‘awful places for families to live in’ – diarist Marian Raynham)
  • the rents are higher

And b) the more conservative or sensitive architects and planners who recognised the simple fact – which comes over in survey after survey after survey that Kynaston quotes – that people wanted a house of their own. Interestingly, this wish turns out to itself be based on an even simpler idea – that almost everyone interviewed in numerous surveys, by writers and newspaper journalists – wanted privacy.

  • ‘I think that the natural way for people to live is in houses,’ Mrs E. Denington, vice-chair of the London County Council’s Housing Committee.
  • ‘Houses are preferred because they are more suitable for family life,’ Hilary Clark, deputy housing manager Wolverhampton

Kynaston emphasises that the years covered in his book were the tipping point.

1958 was the year when modernism indisputably entered the mainstream. (p.129)

During 1958 it became almost a cliché that London’s skyline was changing dramatically. (p.132)

Through the four books so far, and in this one as well, Kynaston gives extensive quotes from slum-dwellers, flat occupiers, new home owners, planners, designers, architects and the sociologists who produced report after report trying to clarify what people wanted and so help shape decisions on the issue.

But – and here’s my point – we never really get to the bottom of the problem. Kynaston quotes extensively and then… moves on to talk about Tommy Steele or the new Carry On film. But I wanted answers. I wanted to hear his opinion. I wanted a systematic exposition of the issues, history and debate which would lead up to conclusions about how we now see it, looking back 65 years.

But there is nothing like that. Kynaston just describes the debate as it unfolded, through the words of reports and surveys and sociologists and architects. But his debate never reaches a conclusion. And after a while that gets a bit frustrating.

Industrial relations

The 1945 Labour government famously nationalised a range of major industries and then, just as famously, ran out of ideas and lost the snap 1951 election.

As the 1940s turned into the 1950s industrial relations remained poor, with Kynaston repeatedly mentioning outbreaks of strikes, sometimes on a big enough scale (like the London dockers strike of 1949) to affect food supplies and spark a range of outraged opinions in the housewife diarists who are among his core contributors.

As the 1950s progress we get snippets of middle class people taking student or holiday jobs down among the working classes and being shocked by the widespread slackness and the culture of skiving which they discover. To balance the picture out, he also gives us, from time to time, vivid portraits of some of the ‘captains of industry’, heads of large companies who turn out to be eccentrics or egomaniacs.

Altogether, as usual, the reader has a vivid sense of the feel of the times and the experiences of a wide range of people living through them. But there are no ideas about industrial policy, trade union legislation, its impact on industry, the economy and the Labour Party which was often seen as being in thrall to stroppy and irresponsibly organisations.

In fact I did glean one idea from reading well over 1,500 pages of Kynaston’s history: this is that around about 1950, the British government and British industry had a once-in-a-generation opportunity to seize the industrial and commercial advantage across a wide range of industrial and consumer goods. German and Japanese industry still lay prostrate after the war and the Americans were focusing on their home markets. If the right investment had been channelled by a capitalist-minded government into the right industries, and if Britain had adopted German-style industrial relations (e.g. having worker representatives on the boards of companies) to ensure unified focus on rebuilding, then Britain might have anticipated what became known as ‘the German economic miracle’.

But it didn’t. The trade unions preferred the freedom of collective bargaining (i.e. found it more convenient to be outside management structure so that they could blame the management for everything and go on strike whenever it suited them), the Labour government was more concerned about a Socialist-inspired programme of nationalising industries in the hope of creating ‘the New Jerusalem’, and many managements found selling the same old products to the captive markets of the Empire and Commonwealth far easier than trying to create new products to market in Europe or America.

At all levels there was a failure of nerve and imagination, which condemned Britain to decades of industrial decline.

The catch is: this isn’t Kynaston’s idea – he quotes it from Correlli Barnett’s searing history of post-war failure, The Audit of War. In a nutshell, Kyanston’s wonderful books present the reader with a Christmas pudding stuffed with a vast multitude of factoids and snippets and post-war trivia and gossip and impressions deriving from an incredibly wide array of eye witnesses. But it is precious thin on ideas and analysis, and at the end of the day, it’s the big idea, the thesis, the interpretation which we tend to remember from history books.

The consumer society

This volume definitely depicts the arrival and triumph of ‘the consumer society’. I had thought it was a later phenomenon, of the 1960s, but no. By 1957 56% of adults owned a TV set, 26% a washing machine, 21% a telephone, only 12% a dishwasher, and 24% of the population owned a car. Aggressive new advertising campaigns promoted Fry’s Turkish Delight, Ready Brek, Gibbs SR, Old Spice, the Hoovermatic twin tub, Camay soap and Blue Band margarine.

People faced with ever-widening products to choose from need advice: hence the Egon Ronay Guide to restaurants, launched in 1957, followed in October by Which? magazine.

Even Mass-Observation, which started with such socialist ambitions in 1937, and has provided Kynaston with such a wealth of sociological material for the previous four books, had, by now, become ‘an organisation devoted to market research rather than sociological enquiry.’

Topics

1957

  • January – Bolton Wanderers beat Leeds United 5-3, the third series of Dixon of Dock Green kicks off, the Cavern nightclub opens in Liverpool, Manchester United beat Bilbao 3-0 to go into the semi-finals of the European Cup, Lawrence Durrell publishes Justine, Flanders and Swann open a musical review at the Fortune theatre, strike at the Briggs motor plant, 20-year-old Tommy Steele continues to be a showbiz sensation, end of the Toddlers’ Truce the government-enforced ban on children’s TV programmes between 6 and 7pm,
  • February – launch of BBC’s weekday new programme Tonight, publication of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy, publication of Family and Kinship in East London by Michael Young and Peter Willmott (‘urbanists’ arguing that extended kinship networks in Bethnal Green provide emotional and practical support which Bethnal Greenites who’d moved out to new estates in Debden missed),
  • March – the Daily Mail Ideal Home exhibition visited by the Queen and Prince Philip, a Gallup survey showed 48% wanted to emigrate, start of big shipbuilding and engineering union strikes,
  • April – opening night of John Osborne’s play The Entertainer
  • May – Manchester United lose the FA Cup Final 2-1 to Aston Villa, petrol comes off the ration after five months
  • June – British Medical Council report linking smoking to lung cancer (reinforcing Richard Doll’s groundbreaking 1950 report) the government refuses to intervene; ERNIE makes the first Premium Bonds random draw, brainchild of Harold Macmillan; end of the pioneering photojournalistic magazine Picture Post founded in 1938, whose star photographer was Bert Hardy;
  • 20 July Prime Minister Harold Macmillan speaks at a Tory rally in Bedford to mark 25 years’ service by Mr Lennox-Boyd, the Colonial Secretary, as MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, and claims that ‘most of our people have never had it so good’; national busman’s strike; publication of Room at the Top by John Braine.
  • September – the Wolfenden Report recommends the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between consenting adults in private; Ted Hughes’ first volume of poetry, The Hawk In The Rain, published; film version of Lucky Jim released, criticised for watering down the book’s realism
  • October – at Labour Party conference Nye Bevan comes out against nuclear disarmament, disillusioning his followers and creating a rift between the party and much of the left-leaning intelligentsia; 4 October Sputnik launched into orbit by the Russians; fire at the Windscale nuclear power plant; publication of Declaration, an anthology of essays by Angry Young Men (and one woman): Doris Lessing, Colin Wilson, John Osborne, John Wain, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Hopkins, Lindsay Anderson and Stuart Holroyd.
  • November – top of the charts is That’ll Be The Day by Buddy Holly and the Crickets; the Russians launch a second satellite, this one with a dog, Laika, aboard; the General Post Office introduces postal codes; Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament set up in response to Britain’s detonation of a H-bomb;
  • December – the Queen’s first Christmas broadcast, from Sandringham;

1958

  • resignation of the Chancellor Peter Thorneycroft after his insistence that government spending should be cut was rejected; launch if Bunty comic for girls
  • February – launch of Woman’s Realm magazine; 6 February the Munich Air Disaster in which a plane carrying the Manchester United football team, support staff and eight journalists crashed on take-off, killing 23;
  • March 1 BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop opens;
  • April – publication of Parkinson’s Law and Dr No; first CND march to Aldermaston; Balthazar, second volume in The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Raymond’s Revuebar opens in Soho; London bus strike;
  • May first performance of The Birthday Party by Harold Pinter and A Taste of Honey by Shelagh Delaney and Chicken Soup with Barley by Arnold Wesker;
  • July The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates; introduction of Green Shield Stamps; the first Little Chef; the Empire and Commonwealth Games held in Cardiff;
  • August – release of the first single by Cliff Richard; Kenton and Shula Archer born; the Empire theatre in Portsmouth closes down, replaced by a supermarket; Notting Hill Riots, the most serious public disorder of the decade, petrol bombs, knives, razors, huge mobs chanting ‘Kill the niggers’ – the race problem Winston Churchill had fretted about in 1951 had arrive with a vengeance with about 165,000 non-white immigrants living in the UK; coincidentally, the launch of The Black and White Minstrel Show; Christopher Mayhew presents a TV series titled Does Class Matter?
  • September – Carry On, Sergeant, first of the Carry On films, released; publication of Culture and Society by Raymond Williams, which more or less founded ‘cultural studies’;
  • October – first editions of Grandstand and Blue Peter;
  • November – publication of The Rise of the Meritocracy by Michael Young;
  • December 3 National Coal Board announces the closure of 36 coal mines, as a result of falling demand due to coal being ‘brutally undercut’ by oil (p.236); 5 December Macmillan opens the 8.5-mile-long Preston bypass, first stretch of motorway in England, which will become part of the M6; John Betjeman’s Collected Poems published, representing one strand of middle class culture, while A Bear Called Paddington is published, first in a series of books, plays and films which continues to this day; 30 the government announces the full convertibility of the pound, meaning it won’t have to run down gold stocks defending it, but at the same time becomes vulnerable to speculation;

1959

  • January Henry Cooper becomes British and British Empire heavyweight champion;
  • February 3 Buddy Holly dies aged 22; film version of Room at the Top released marking ‘the start of the British new Wave in the cinema’; debut of Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at the Theatre Royal Stratford East; March To Aldermaston a documentary about the 1958 march, edited by Lindsay Anderson with Richard Burton reading Christopher Logue’s script;
  • March release of Carlton-Brown of the Foreign Office starring Terry-Thomas; the year’s most popular film, Carry On Nurse; Goldfinger published, the seventh James Bond novel; march from Aldermaston to London; expansionary Budget;
  • May: C.P. Snow gives his lecture about the two cultures (ie most people who run things knowing masses about the arts and nothing about science); Sapphire directed by Basil Dearden is a whodunnit with strong racial overtones; 17th a black student Kelso Cochrane is stabbed to death in Notting Hill leading to raised tensions in West London and ‘Keep Britain White’ rallies and worried reports about the lack of ‘racial integration’ in Birmingham;
  • June
  • July: The Teenage Consumer, a pamphlet by Mark Abrams defining them as aged 15-24 and unmarried;
  • August: Cliff Richard number 1 with Livin’ Doll; President Eisenhower makes a state visit and is on TV chatting with Harold Macmillan;
  • September: City of Spades by Colin McInnes and Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse published;
  • October: The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner by Alan Sillitoe; Noggin the Nog created by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin; and the General Election: Conservatives win 49.4% of the vote and 365 seats, Labour 43.8% and 258, the Liberals 6, giving the Conservatives an overall majority of 100.

Studies and surveys

Being a list of the studies and surveys carried out during the period by sociologists, universities, newspapers and polling organisations:

  • 1954 Early Leaving a study of who left state school early, and why (children of the unskilled working class made up 20% of grammar school intake but only 7% of sixth forms)
  • 1957 Abrams study of 200 working class married couples (they lacked the ambition required to push their children on to further education)
  • 1958 Edward Blishen survey of TV’s impact on families (too much violence; difficult to get the kids to go to bed afterwards)
  • 1958 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed 250 families who’d moved to an overspill estate in Worsley from Salford
  • 1959 J.B. Cullingworth surveyed families who’d moved to Swindon
  • Floud et al study of grammar schools in Hertfordshire and Middlesborough (over half of working class parents wanted no further education for their children after school)
  • Margot Jeffreys interviewed housewives in an out-county LCC estate in Hertfordshire (1954-5)
  • 1957 Maurice Broady conducted interviews on the huge Pollok estate outside Glasgow
  • Eve Bene survey of 361 London grammar school boys on attitudes and expectations (45% of working class kids wanted to stay on past 16, compared with 65% of middle class pupils)
  • 1958 Ruth Glass investigation of racial prejudice
  • 1958 Geoffrey Gorer study of television viewing habits (families don’t talk as much)
  • 1958 Television and the Child by Hilde Himmelweit (kids routinely watch TV till it stops, TV is a great stimulator but fleetingly, shallowly)
  • 1962 Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden Education and the Working Class a study of 88 working class kids in Huddersfield who went to grammar school (charts the parents’ progressive incomprehension of what their children are studying)
  • 1958 The Boss by Roy Lewis and Rosemary Stewart, about the social background of captains of industry e.g. family connections and public school still paramount
  • 1959 The Crowther Report, 15 to 18 (children of unskilled working class over-represented, the kids of non-manual workers under-represented: i.e. they were a sink of the poorest)
  • 1959 Ferdynand Zweig survey of working class men and their attitudes to washing machines
  • 1960 Michael Carter survey of 200 secondary modern schoolchildren as they left school
  • 1961 William Liversidge survey of grammar school and secondary modern school leavers

Patronising and condescending

Although Kynaston several times harps on the fact that Macmillan (Prime Minister from 1957 to 1963) was an Old Etonian, that his first Chancellor, Peter Thorneycroft, was another old Etonian and when he was sacked he was replaced by Derick Heathcoat Amory, another old Etonian, that in fact nearly half of the Macmillan cabinet went to Eton – there turns out to be surprisingly less condescension and patronage from these phenomenally upper-class toffs as you’d imagine. In fact the reverse: Macmillan’s diaries worry about all aspects of the political and international scene but when he tours the country and meets people, I was rather touched by his genuine concern.

No, the really condescending and patronising comments come, as so often, not from the politicians (who, after all, had to be careful what they said) but from the intellectual ‘elite’, from the writers and cultural commentators and architects who all too often looked right down their noses at the ghastly taste and appalling interests of the proles.

Housing

Throughout the book, most of the modern architects regard themselves as experts on human nature, experts on what people want, and are bravely, boldly undeterred by the actually expressed opinions of real people in places like public meetings, letters to newspapers and suchlike bourgeois distractions. Alison and Peter Smithson were among the leaders of the British school of Brutalism. For them architecture was an ethic and an art. As Alison wrote: ‘My act of form-giving has to invite the occupiers to add their intangible quality of use.’ They helped to develop the notion of ‘streets in the sky’, that ‘communities’ could be recreated on concrete walkways suspended between blocks of flats, a form of ‘urbanism that abandoned the primacy of the ground plane in favour of a rich spatial interplay of different layers of activity’.

No matter that the overwhelming majority of ordinary people opposed these plans. The architect knows best. And the planners. Kynaston lists scores of chief architects and planners in cities like Glasgow, Birmingham, Coventry, London, who oversaw a quickening pace of mass demolitions, of slums, of old buildings of all kinds, in order to widen roads, create urban dual carriageways, build new blocks of flats, taller, more gleaming, more visionary, streets in the sky! And if the poor proles who would then be shepherded into these badly built, dark, leaky, anti-social blocks murmured their reluctance, they were ignored, and patronised. Kynaston quotes an article written by Raphael Samuel on the Labour council of Aberdare in South Wales who devised a plan to demolish a third of the town’s houses despite vehement opposition from the inhabitants.

The Glamorgan planners did not set out to destroy a community. They wanted to attack the slums and give to the people of Aberdare the best of the open space and the amenities which modern lay-out can provide. It did not occur to them that there could be any opposition to a scheme informed by such benevolent intentions; and, when it came, they could only condemn it as ‘myopic’. (quoted page 320)

My point is – neither the planners nor architects who refused to listen to ordinary people were Old Etonians; the opposite; they tended to be locally-born, Labour-voting architects and administrators which made their frustration with their own people’s obstinacy all the more pointed.

Culture

The situation was different in the humanities where the most vociferous Marxists tended to have had staggeringly privileged upbringings. Take the Marxists historians E.P. Thompson (educated at the Dragon Preparatory School in Oxford, Kingswood private School in Bath and Corpus Christi College, Cambridge) and Christopher Hill (St Peter’s Private School, York and Balliol College, Oxford), they took it on themselves and their tiny cohort of like-minded communists and academics, to define what the working classes really wanted, and it turned out it wasn’t clean accommodation with hot and cold running water, a washing machine and a nippy new car out the front – Thompson and Hill knew that the working classes really wanted to create a new kind of man for the modern age!

Thus Kynaston ironically quotes E.P. Thompson ticking off Labour politician Anthony Crosland for the crime of suggesting, in his pamphlet The Future of Socialism, that after a decade of austerity and rationing what the people wanted was cafés, bright lights and fun. No no no, lectures Thompson:

Men do not only want the list of things which Mr Crosland offers; they want also to change themselves as men.

Says who? Says Edward Thompson, Kingswood School Corpus Christi College.

However fitfully and ineffectually, they want other and greater things; they want to stop killing one another; they want to stop this pollution of their spiritual life which runs through society as rivers carried their sewage and refuse throughout nineteenth-century industrial towns.

‘This pollution of their spiritual life’ – Thompson is talking about television, specifically ITV, which was polluting the working class with poisons like Gunsmoke and Opportunity Knocks. The actual working class has always been a terrible disappointment to men like Thompson and Hill. Kynaston details at length their agonising about whether to leave the communist party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956, and then how they go on to set up independent Marxist magazines and write articles for other like-minded over-educated academics who fondly thought their little articles made a bit of difference to anything.

But it wasn’t just the privately educated Marxists, genuine men of the people like playwright Arnold Wesker, son of a cook and a tailor’s machinist, who had a really tough upbringing and meagre education in  Stepney and Hackney. He is quoted as attending a left-wing meeting addressed by Raymond Williams (grammar school and Trinity College, Cambridge), author of the pioneering book Culture and Society and then Labour front-bencher Richard Crossman (Winchester and new College), who wrote a column in the Daily Mirror. This is Wesker describing the meeting in a letter to his wife:

How could he, as a Socialist, support a paper [the Mirror], which, for its vulgarity, was an insult to the mind of the working class; a paper which painted a glossy, film-star world. (quoted p.143)

The point is that, at this distance, I admire Crossman for writing a column in the Mirror, the bestselling newspaper of its day i.e. the most-read by the ‘working classes’ – for addressing the world as it is, for making the most of it, and find it hard not to dislike Wesker for his arrogance: ‘the mind of the working class’ – where is that exactly? how does he, Wesker, know what ‘the mind of the working class’ is thinking, or wants?

A little later Kynaston quotes the anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer (Charterhouse and Jesus College, Cambridge) who wrote a series of articles about television in which ‘he came down hard on working class viewers’:

Not only did they eschew ‘topical programmes, discussions and brains trusts, serious music and ballet,’ instead obstinately preferring ‘films and serials, variety and quizzes’, but almost half of them were ‘addicts’ (defined as watching at least four hours a night), with as a result ‘all sense of proportion lost in their gross indulgence, and their family life, if not wrecked, at least emptied of nearly all its richness and warmth.’ (p.152)

My point being that is it not Macmillan and his Old Etonian chums saying this; it was left wing architects, planners, historians, intellectuals, writers, anthropologists and sociologists who were most critical and patronising of the actual working class as it actually existed (despairing that ‘the workers’ were not the idealised heroes of communist propaganda, but lazy blokes who liked to drink beer from cans in front of the Benny Hill show).

Race

There is a similar sense of disconnect on the issue of race and immigration, which Kynaston explores in some detail à propos the Notting Hill Riots of August 1958.

He shows how almost all the reporters, journalists, sociologists and so on who visited Notting Hill and other areas with high immigrant populations (the West Midlands was the other hotspot) discovered, not the virulent hatred of the American South, but nonetheless consistent opinions that immigrants got unfair advance on the housing waiting lists, exploited the benefits system, lived in overcrowded houses and made a lot of noise – all leading to a strong groundswell of popular opinion that immigration needed to be controlled. (There were 2,000 immigrants from Commonwealth countries in 1953, 11,000 in 1954, 40,000 by 1957).

But all the leading politicians, and most MPs, stood firmly against introducing immigration restrictions and were careful not to blame or stigmatise the coloured communities, even when there were gross incidents of racially aggravated riots, like at Notting Hill. The politicians realised it would be very difficult to devise any form of immigration control which wasn’t, on some level, based on the fact that you were trying to stop people with black skins entering the country i.e. naked racism, tantamount to apartheid in Wedgwood Benn’s opinion.

The handful of Tory MPs who did call for restrictions accompanied were shouted down. At one parliamentary meeting, one Tory MP, Cyril Osborne, accompanied his calls with accusations that blacks were lazy, sick or criminal, and drew down such a tsunami of criticism that he was reduced to tears. All MPs observing this realised that immigration was not a topic to speak out on. If any mention was made of it, it must be in the most positive and emollient terms. Thus the political class, the men who ruled the country, painted themselves into a position where free and frank debate of the issue was impossible.

But the actual population of the country, ‘the people’ which all parties claimed to speak for, disagreed. There is a surprising paucity of sociological research, field studies and surveys on the subject (compared with the welter of research done into the endlessly fascinating subject of ‘class’). But Kynaston quotes a Gallup poll taken at the time of the riots, in August 1958, which revealed that:

  • 71% disapproved of mixed marriages
  • 61% would consider moving if significant numbers of coloured people moved into their neighbourhood
  • 55% wanted restrictions on non-white immigration
  • 54% didn’t want people from the Commonwealth put on housing waiting lists on the same level with locals

People’s opinions were simply ignored. The rulers of the country knew best. No attempt was made to limit immigration which continued to grow throughout the 1960s and indeed up to the present day, which has resulted in our present blissful political situation.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of fiction from the period

Austerity Britain: A World to Build 1945–48 by David Kynaston (2007)

David Kynaston (b.1951) has written about 16 history books on broadly three topics: cricket, the City of London, and Britain after the Second World War. His post-war histories (to date; the plan is to take them up to 1979) have been published as three volumes, each of which – rather confusingly – contains two ‘books’:

Should one review the portmanteau volume – Austerity Britain (692 pages long in its current Bloomsbury paperback edition) – or the two ‘books’ it contains? I’ve chosen the latter option, because each of the ‘books’ is so dense and packed with information that they require separate posts.

Approach

What makes the books so delightful and addictive is that they are an oral history. Rather than the stats and graphs of an economic history, or the acts and votes of a political history, or the treaties and negotiations of a diplomatic history, Kynaston’s account quotes at length from diaries, letters, journals and accounts kept by the widest range of people alive during the period, as they react to events large and small, national, international and parochial.

Fairly regularly he stops to consider this or that ‘issue’ – rationing, nationalisation, town planning – in what you might call the traditional historical way, describing key publications or speeches in that area. But then he swiftly returns to the more gossipy main stream of his approach, to quote housewives, workers, local officials.

The result is to be led through the key events and debates of the period, but to see it overwhelmingly in human terms, in the words of the people who shed and led debate but also the reactions of the ordinary man and woman in the street.

Some of the voices

The Famous

  • Neil Kinnock, future leader of the Labour Party, aged 3 when the war ends in 1945
  • Patrick Stewart, 5, moved along by a policeman for singing outside a polling booth in 1945
  • Bill Wyman, bassist with the Rolling Stones, starts grammar school, 8
  • Glenda Jackson, aged 9 when the war ends, starts grammar school in 1947
  • Alan Bennett, 11, spent VE Day in Guildford
  • Kenneth Tynan, drama critic to be, now Birmingham schoolboy, 18
  • Humphrey Lyttleton, 24
  • ultra-royalist James Lees-Milne, diarist, architectural historian, worked for the National Trust, 36
  • Cyril Connolly, editor of Horizon literary magazine, 41
  • Noel Coward, playwright, aged 45
  • J.B. Priestley, novelist and radio broadcaster, 50
  • J.R.R. Tolkien, 53, commenting on the insanity of the atom bomb
  • Harold Nicholson, British diplomat, author, diarist and politician, 58
  • Violet Bonham Carter, Baroness Asquith of Yarnbury, politician and diarist, 58

There are hundreds more but this gives a flavour. Kinnock is quoted as remembering the prefab house his parents moved into. Bill Wyman remembers how going to grammar school in 1947 cut him off from his working class roots, though the boys at his new school teased him for being poor. Lees-Milne is very posh and quoted liberally throughout with his generally negative reactions to the Labour government.

Connolly, as a magazine editor and essayist, wrote reams of material, but Kynaston quotes him, fascinatingly, commenting on the way the great wall of left-wing / communist solidarity among artists, writers, poets and so on during the 1930s simply evaporated after the war and had quite disappeared by 1947. The problem was that they finally had a ‘socialist’ government and there wasn’t a man or woman in ‘the movement’ who wasn’t bitterly disappointed at the reality (p.235). The same sentiment is expressed by George Orwell, who in his long essay, The Lion and the Unicorn (1942), wrote confidently about the general public’s swing to the Left and the notion of central planning but, by 1946, had become disillusioned (pp.45, 173).

All this was exacerbated by the Berlin Airlift, the coup in Czechoslovakia, and the general start of the Cold War. I hadn’t realised that this led to actual legislation banning car carrying communists from public office, with the ruin of many a career.

There are also extensive quotes from key players in politics, from the diaries or letters or speeches of men like Clement Attlee (Labour Prime Minister), Hugh Gaitskell (Minister of Fuel and Power), Aneurin Bevan (Minister of Health overseeing the creation of the National Health Service), Ernest Bevin (Foreign Secretary who oversaw the independence of India, Israel etc), Herbert Morrison (Deputy Prime Minister), Stafford Cripps (Chancellor of the Exchequer).

Slowly you get a feel for their personalities, achievements and disagreements. Around them swim all kinds of minor figures, private secretaries, and MPs, and policy makers such as Michael Young, who wrote Labour’s 1945 manifesto (Let Us Face The Future), coined the term meritocracy and went on to play a key role in setting up the Consumer Association and the Open University.

The Obscure

Kynaston takes his lead from Mass Observation, set up in 1937 by three Cambridge graduates, anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Mass Observation aimed to:

record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events. (Wikipedia)

Kynaston relies heavily on material from the M-O archive now held at the University of Sussex. This takes many forms. M-O carried out tailored surveys on specific issues throwing up statistical results of the numbers in favour or against particular policies. Their contributors often reported on conversations overheard on the street, on the buses or tube, at the theatre etc. And other contributors kept detailed diaries. The most famous of these was Nella Last (1889-1968), who wrote over two million words about everything she died, heard and observed, from 1939 to 1966, making her one of the single largest contributors to M-O.

But Kynaston quotes from a large number of other diarists and recorders, including:

  • Michael Burns, grew up in Tolworth
  • Lawrence Daly, coalminer
  • Alice ‘Judy’ Haines, a young married mother of two living in Chingford
  • Anthony Heap, a middle-aged local government officer from St Pancras
  • Mary King, retired teacher
  • Gladys Langford, deserted by her husband, living alone in the Woodstock Hotel
  • Ernest Loftus, headmaster of Barking Abbey School
  • Edith Palmer, ex-pat’s daughter, late-20s, arriving in England from Kenya
  • Mrs Michael Pleydell-Bouverie who spent three years on behalf of the Daily Mail speaking to ‘the Women of Britain’ about homes and housing
  • Kenneth Preston, a middle-aged English teacher at Keighley Grammar School
  • Marian Raynham, a housewife from Surbiton
  • Henry St John, son of a sweetshop owner, living in Bristol
  • Sir Raymond Streat, head of the Cotton Board
  • Rose Uttin, housewife from Wembley
  • Mrs Madge Waller

Post-war issues

So what do these people comment on and discuss? A huge array of issues and problems which faced Britain right from the moment war ended (Victory in Europe 8 May 1945, Victory in Japan and the final end of the war, 15 August). As stated, Kynaston is not a conventional historian of diplomacy or economics. Issues appear insofar as they impinged on the minds of his huge cast of Britons. None of them are pursued in detail and, after 300 pages, I realised that he rarely comes to a conclusion about any of them. Instead we are presented with a variety of opinions, from top politicians and expert down to housewives and coalminers – and then he moves on.

Domestic affairs

  • Rationing
  • The General Election 5 July 1945
  • The Labour government’s attempts to:
    • nationalise industry
    • set up a National Health Service (launched, after much struggles with the doctors, on 5 July 1948)
  • The housing crisis
  • Education  (everyone accepted the 11-plus, the division between grammar and technical schools, and nobody touched the public schools which were [and are], according to Kynaston, ‘the single most important source of political, social and economic privilege’, p.153)

International affairs

  • Surrender of Germany, suicide of Hitler
  • Atom bombs dropped on Japan
  • Berlin Blockade and airlift
  • June 1947 Marshall Plan
  • February 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia

But most of the people Kynaston quotes have little or no interest in international affairs. After initial relief that the war is over, and then shock at the revelation of the atom bomb, most people sink back into their customary indifference to international affairs (and to politics generally).

Britain might as well not have an empire at all. The independence of Israel and India/Pakistan are not mentioned. Decades ago I read the comment by the Trinidadian historian C.L.R. James, that the tragedy of the British was that all their history took place abroad – by which he meant in the empire.

One of the biggest aspects of the book is the way the British Empire is almost completely absent from it. The people Kynaston quotes are struggling to make ends meet, to find somewhere to live, find a job, and then find food to eat. He quotes a survey of 2,000 adults made in 1948 which revealed that only 49% could name a single British colony. The majority of those surveyed could not name a single British colony.

And so, since so few people knew or cared about the empire, Kynaston devotes much space to popular radio programmes (Woman’s Hour, first broadcast on 7 October 1946 on the BBC’s Light Programme, the popular comedy It’s That Man Again), to the very slow spread of television (only 50,000 sets in 1945). There is more about the Grand National than there is about Gandhi, more about Stanley Matthews (the footballer) than Stalin.

In this book nobody travels abroad (nobody can afford it) but plenty of people have a summer holiday at Margate or Morecambe or at Billy Butlin’s new holiday camps (first one at Skegness in 1936).

Kynaston gives us the results of the key test matches and FA Cup Finals for 1945, 46, and 47, as well as the Epsom Derby, and reports from greyhound races and boxing matches – while all kinds of high-minded middle-class commentators lament that the average working man seems more interested in a pint, a packet of fags and the sports results than he does about the Iron Curtain.

The intellectuals and the masses

This reflects what, for me, is the main impression of the book, which is the enormous divide between the relatively small educated liberal intelligentsia – the policy makers and politicians and thinkers and writers and architects and planners – and the vast majority of the population, still very working class, often illiterate or, as Kynaston puts it:

the profound cultural mismatch between progressive activators and the millions acted upon (p.267)

Kynaston shows how all of the 1945 Labour government’s policies were not just controversial but opposed by large number of people, even the working people the Labour Party claimed to represent. For example, efforts to pass laws guaranteeing the trade unions representatives on boards of the new nationalised industries (a policy followed in Germany) were rejected by the unions. Why? Because they preferred to negotiate wages from a position of freedom and strength (p.229) It was a mindset which, arguably, crippled British industry for generations.

Similarly, it is fascinating to read how many ordinary people (not just the usual suspects, Tory MPs and toff writers), really hard core working class people, were suspicious of, or actively against, the welfare state, the new system of national insurance and the National Health Service.

The gaping chasm between well-meaning left-leaning university-educated intellectuals and ‘the masses’ is probably best demonstrated in the area of housing. Vast amounts of Britain’s housing stock was destroyed by German bombing. But a fair percentage of what survived was desperately rundown slums, particularly in the industrial cities – London’s East End, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and so on contained acres of slums, houses with no running water, gas or electricity, millions of people living with no indoor toilet.

The chasm comes about when the planners and architects put their heads together to solve the problem. There was debate and argument at all levels, but roughly speaking, people wanted houses with a little garden of their own, and the planners wanted to put them in blocks of flats. People wanted their bombed out city centres to be restored to how they were before the war. Urban planners and go-ahead young architects wanted, on the contrary, to demolish what old buildings were left, and create sweeping new town centres, dominated by pedestrian precincts and car parks, surrounded by ring roads. As he writes of the brave new plan devised to demolish and rebuild central Plymouth:

There was little or no local consultation, with all objections overruled. (p.36)

The opening of the book is devoted to arguments about how to rebuild Britain and, through the thicket of specific details about new schemes for Plymouth or Hull, one gets a really clear feel for the divide between those who know best what the people want, and the people themselves – not least, of course, because Kynaston’s whole book is devoted to the people’s voices. He quotes one of the founders of Mass Observation, Tom Harrison:

worried most by the way that planners and others associated with the matter talked as if they were winning over the general public when they were only winning over each other. He had never met any group of people who ‘scratched each other’s backs’ more than planners did. (p.47)

In Bristol the local retail association organised a poll which showed that only 400 were in favour of the new Broadmead shopping centre, while 13,000 opposed it. The planners ignored this and all other opposition, and went ahead and built it.

This Great Divide, this sense of a mass population profoundly alienated from their lords and masters, grows as the book progresses from the May 1945 General Election through to its end point, 5 July 1948, the day the National Health Service was inaugurated. Intellectuals at the time were agonisingly aware of it. Various papers and reports guesstimated that ‘the thinking minority’ ranged from 20% down to a mere 5% of the population (p.55). How could they break out of their bubble to really engage with the great unwashed (an expression coined around 1830 by the novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton)?

Ronald

Maybe the single biggest surprise is the couple of pages devoted to the four months spent by American actor, Ronald Reagan at Elstree Studios making a war movie called The Hasty Heart (pp.314-315). Reagan was appalled by the filthy London smogs and rundown hotels, and – although he went out of his way to praise the director and all the other technicians he worked with – it was a grim first-hand sight of socialism in action which, in his view, amounted to stoppages dictated by the militant trade unions, six-hour queues at hospitals, gaunt impoverished passersby and mile after mile of slate-roofed council houses in the rain.

So far so anecdotal: but Kynaston goes on to say that Reagan himself, writing twenty years later in the 1970s, pointed to this trip to Britain – to seeing the ‘natural’ economic order of free markets replaced by rationing and state interference at every level, and the resulting lack of all basic facilities in a culture dominated by the petty tyrannies of trade union shop stewards and local government officials – as a defining moment in his journey to the Right.

So that, considering Reagan’s centrality to world politics during the 1980s and the role he played in the collapse of the Soviet Union, of communism, and even of full-blooded socialism as a viable political programme, there’s a case for saying that these few months in rainy Hertfordshire changed the history of the world.

General impoverishment

Kynaston devotes pages to political debates about Marshall Aid, about the end of Lend-Lease, about the currency crisis and devaluation of sterling, and so on.

But by far the biggest and most enduring subject of the book is RATIONING, the rationing of food and clothing, which not only continued after the war, but got worse, a lot worse. From the poshest in the land down to a variety of housewives, Kynaston’s quotes convey the sheer numbing crushing effect of days and months and year after year of shortages of meat, bacon, milk, sugar, butter, even of bread.

Demobbed soldiers, or visitors from abroad (including the American playwright Tennessee Williams), or British children arriving in Britain back from the colonies (Cliff Richard arriving from India in 1948, aged 8) all noticed how pale and underfed the population looked. For years after the war the gas supply was weak and the electricity was turned off at certain times of day. Witnesses like Harold Nicholson testify that even in the best London clubs, the food came in minuscule portions and was barely edible.

And then in February 1948 the population was afflicted by the coldest winter of the 20th century. Young Roy Hattersley remembers sledging down the middle of usually busy streets (p.199) but thousands of the elderly and the infirm died. And millions had to dig a path from their back doors to their outside toilets.

There are thousands of wonderful anecdotes, gems and insights throughout the book – but the predominating image is of impoverishment and endurance.

The queue for rationed food - symbol of post-war Britain

The queue for rationed food – symbol of post-war Britain

P.S. Obscure novelists

A lot of the people Kynaston quotes are, inevitably, writers, a self-selecting cohort since he is himself a writer dealing with written records which ‘writers’ dominate.

Your ears prick up at the famous ones (Graham Greene, Noel Coward, Doris Lessing) but he also introduces us to a cocktail party of less well-known writers from the period, a list which has the effect o making you realise how selective ‘literary history’ is, picking out the half dozen ‘serious’ writers from each era or decade, and letting plenty of other authors drop into obscurity.

It is one of the many many pleasures of the book to come across forgotten authors he mentions, and google them and toy with tracking down and reading their (mostly forgotten) works:

  • Ruby Mildred Ayres b.1881 – one of the most popular and prolific romantic novelists of the twentieth century
  • Ethel M. Dell b.1881 – author of over 30 popular romance novels
  • Naomi Jacob b.1884 – author and actress
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett b.1884 – novelist
  • Angela Thirkell b.1890 – author of a series of 19 novels set in Home Counties ‘Barsetshire’
  • James Lansdale Hodson b.1891 – journalist and novelist
  • Sylvia Townsend Warner b.1893 – novelist and poet
  • Elizabeth Bowen b.1899 – Irish novelist and short story writer
  • Mollie Panter-Downes b.1906 – novelist and writer of Letters from England for the New Yorker magazine
  • Pamela Hansford Johnson, Baroness Snow b.1912 – novelist, playwright, poet, literary and social critic
  • Denton Welch b.1915 – writer and painter
  • Sid Chaplin b.1916 coal miner who wrote novels about mining communities in the North-East
  • Joan Wyndham b.1921 – rose to literary prominence late in life through the diaries she had kept about her romantic adventures during the Second World War

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