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


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.


The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.


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

Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire by Roger Crowley (2015)

Our Lord has done great things for us, because he wanted us to accomplish a deed so magnificent that it surpasses even what we have prayed for… I have burned the town and killed everyone. For four days without any pause our men have slaughtered… wherever we have been able to get into we haven’t spared the life of a single Muslim. We have herded them into the mosques and set them on fire… We have estimated the number of dead Muslim men and women at six thousand. It was, Sire, a very fine deed. (Afonso de Albuquerque describing the Portuguese capture of Goa on 25 November 1510, p.286)

In 1500 the Indian Ocean was the scene of sophisticated trading networks which had been centuries in the making. Muslim traders from the ‘Swahili Coast’ of Africa traded up the coast to the Red Sea and across land to Cairo, heart of the Muslim world, while other traders crossed the ocean eastwards to the coast of India, where Hindu rajas ran a number of seaports offering hospitality to communities of Muslims and Jews in a complex multi-ethnic web.

The trading routes were well established and the commodities – such as pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – were managed via a familiar set of tariffs and customs. Even if you were caught by one of the many pirates who patrolled the sea, there were well established procedures for handing over a percentage of your cargo and being allowed to continue on your way.

All this was dramatically changed by the sudden arrival in 1497 of the super-violent Portuguese, who had orders from their king and from the pope:

  • to destroy all Muslim bases and ships
  • to establish European forts at all convenient harbours
  • to bully all local rulers into proclaiming complete subservience to the King of Portugal
  • to build churches and convert the heathens to Christianity

This is the story of how an idyllic, essentially peaceful, well ordered and multicultural world was smashed to pieces by the cannons, muskets and unbelievable savagery of barbarian Europeans. This book is a revelation. I had no idea that the Portuguese ‘explorers’ of the ‘Age of Discovery’ were quite such savage sadists.

Massacre of the Miri

Probably the most notorious incident, which epitomises the behaviour and attitudes of the invaders, was the massacre of the Muslim pilgrim ship Miri.

The Portuguese sent their ships to conquer the Indian Ocean in large groups or ‘armadas’.

On September 29, 1502, the fourth great Portuguese Armada spotted a large merchant ship carrying Muslim pilgrims returning from Mecca. The ship, the Miri, was identified as belonging to al-Fanqi, thought to be the commercial agent representing Mecca – and the interests of the Muslim Mamluk dynasty in Cairo – in Calicut, one of the commercial seaports on the west India coast.

Portuguese Captain Matoso cornered the pilgrim ship which surrendered quickly, the captain and passengers imagining they would be able to buy off these ‘pirates’ in the traditional manner. But these were not pirates; they were Christians or, as they would come to be recognised around the Indian Ocean, sadistic, uncivilised barbarian murderers.

Commander of the Armada, Vasco da Gama, ignored all the offers of gold or cargo. His Portuguese crew plundered the ship, stole all its cargo and then made it plain that he planned to burn the ship with all its passengers – men, women and children – on board. As this realisation sank in the civilian passengers desperately attacked the Portuguese with stone and bare hands, but were themselves shot down by muskets and cannon from the Portuguese ships.

On October 3, 1502, having gutted the Miri of all its valuables, the Portuguese locked all the remaining passengers in the hold and the ship was burnt and sunk by artillery. It took several days to go down completely. Portuguese soldiers rowed around the waters on longboats mercilessly spearing survivors.

All in all it was a fine example of:

The honour code of the fidalgos with its rooted hatred of Islam and its unbending belief in retribution and punitive revenge. (p.144)

the honour code which, as Crowley emphasises, inspired the Portuguese voyages of conquest and terror.

The Calicut massacre

It helps to explain this behaviour, and put it in context, if you know about the Calicut Massacre. Back in December 1500 the Second Portuguese India Armada, under the command of Pedro Álvares Cabral, had gotten frustrated at the slow pace at which his ships were being filled with spices at Calicut, the largest spice port on the western coast of India, despite having made an agreement with its raja or zamorin.

To hurry things along Cabral ordered the seizure of an Arab merchant ship from Jeddah, then loading up with spices nearby in the harbour. Cabral claimed that, as the Zamorin had promised the Portuguese priority in the spice markets, the cargo was rightfully theirs anyway.

Incensed by this theft, the Arab merchants around the quay started a riot and led the rioters to the ‘factory’ or warehouse which the Portuguese had only just finished building to store their booty. The Portuguese onboard the ships in the harbour watched helplessly while the Calicut mob successfully stormed the ‘factory’, massacring 50 of the Portuguese inhabitants, including some Franciscan friars.

Once the riot had quietened down, Cabral sent to the Zamorin asking for redress. When it wasn’t forthcoming, Cabral seized around ten Arab merchant ships in the harbour, confiscating their cargoes, killing their crews, and burning their ships. Blaming the Zamorin for doing nothing to stop the riot, Cabral then ordered all the guns from his fleet to bombard Calicut indiscriminately for a full day, wreaking immense damage, killing many citizens and starting fires which burnt entire quarters of the town.

Crowley shows us again and again how one bad deed, a bit of impatience or a slight cultural misunderstanding was liable to blow up, in Portuguese hands, into explosions of super-destructive wrath and mass murder.

The crusader mentality

It helps to understand the Portuguese approach a bit more if you realise that the Portuguese kings – John I (1481-1595) and Manuel I (1495-1521) – didn’t send out explorers and scientists – they sent warriors. And that these warriors were still steeped in the aggressive anti-Muslim ideology of the crusades.

Crowley’s narrative sets the tone by going back nearly a century before the Portuguese entered the Indian ocean, to describe the ‘crusade’ of an earlier generation when, in 1415, Portuguese crusaders attacked Ceuta, an enclave of Muslim pirates on the north coast of Africa. The Ceuta pirates had been a pest to Portuguese shipping for generations, and the Portuguese finally had enough, stormed and sacked it.

Having established the sense of antagonism between Muslims and Christians, Cowley leaps forward to the next significant moment, to when the Muslim Ottoman armies took Constantinople in 1453. The fall of Constantinople to the Muslims sent shocks waves throughout Christian Europe.

  • It made Christian kings, and their peoples, all over Europe feel threatened
  • It cut off trade routes to the East, for spices and so on

1. The quest for new routes to the spice trade

In other words the fall of Constantinople provided a keen commercial incentive to navigators, explorers and entrepreneurs to come up with alternative ways of reaching the Spice Islands by sea. While in the 1490s Christopher Columbus was trying to persuade the King of Spain to fund his idea of sailing west, around the world, to reach the Indies, the King of Portugal was persuaded to fund expeditions in the opposite direction – down the coast of Africa with the hope that it would be easier to cruise around Africa and reach the Spice Islands by heading East.

The spices in question included the five ‘glorious spices’ – pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and mace – but also ginger, cardamom, tamarind, balms and aromatics like wormwood, Socotra aloe, galbanum, camphor and myrrh.

Also brought back from India were dyes like lac, indigo and dyewood and precious ornamental objects and materials like ivory, ebony and pearls. All these good fetched up to ten times as much on the quaysides of Lisbon or Venice as they cost to buy in Calicut. But that was when they had been transhipped from warehouses in the ports of the Middle East. The conquest of Constantinople reduced the transhipment trade and led to a more aggressive attitude from Muslim traders, which badly hurt the commercial prosperity of Venice, in particular.

2. Outflanking Islam

But the aim of the explorers was not only to get commercial access to the spice trade. throughout the Middle Ages it had been widely believed that Christianity had been carried by the apostle James and others, deep into Africa, into Arabia, and even as far as India.

So there was a military element to the expeditions. Christian strategists thought that, if the explorers could make contact with the Christian communities which were believed to exist in faraway India, and were able to link up – then together they would be able to surround, the European armies attacking from the west, the newly awakened Indian Christian armies attacking from the East.

In other words, alongside the element of exploration, ran an aggressive continuation of the fierce anti-Muslim, crusading mentality of John and Manuel’s medieval forebears.

This helps to explain the unremitting anti-Muslim hostility of the commanders of all the great Portuguese Armadas to the East. Not only did their kings demand it, not only was it part of their explicit, written instructions (which survive to this day), but their conquering mentality was backed up by the full force of the pope and the Holy Catholic Church.

The whole European apparatus of state power, religious intolerance, and the technology of war – metal armour and huge shipboard cannons – was brought to bear on the inhabitants of the Indian Ocean.

Wage war and total destruction… by all the means you best can by land and sea so that everything possible is destroyed. (The Regimento or instructions given by King Manuel I to Dom Francisco de Almeida in 1505)

Thus it was that warrior-sailors like the Sodré brothers or the du Albuquerque cousins received orders quite simply to destroy all Muslim ships and trade between the Red Sea and Calicut.

Sadism and intimidation were seen as legitimate tactics. The reader loses count of the number of local hostages, ambassadors and civilians who are taken by the Portuguese who, if anything displeases them, proceed to hang their hostages from the yardarms, before dismembering them and returning their scattered body parts to their horrified relatives waiting on shore. This happens lots of times.

When Vicente Sodré intercepted a large Muslim ship carrying a full cargo of treasure, commanded by the wealthy and well-known merchant Mayimama Marakkar, Vicente had Marakkar stripped naked, tied to the mast, whipped and then subjected to the Portuguese practice of merdimboca or ‘shit in the mouth’ – the name says it all – with the added refinement that the Portuguese forced Marakkar – an eminent and pious Muslim – to eat pork and bacon fat (p.141).

Deliberately offensive, determined to rule by Terror, fuelled by genocidal racism, unflinching, unbending and merciless, the Portuguese conquerors, in this telling, seem like the Nazis of their day.


So this is the story which Crowley’s book tells: the story of how tiny Portugal, at the far western tip of Europe, managed in thirty or so years, from the late 1490s to the 1520s, to establish the first global empire in world history – in reality a set of connected outposts dotted along the west and east coasts of Africa, the west coast of India – before moving on to explore the East Indies – all the while pursuing this policy of unremitting intimidation and extreme violence. It’s a harrowing read. Noses are slit and hands chopped off on pretty much every page.

Conquerors is divided into three parts:

  1. Reconnaissance: the Route to the Indies (1483-99)
  2. Contest: Monopolies and Holy War (1500-1510)
  3. Conquest: The Lion of the Sea (1510-1520)

Over and above the narrative of events, we learn a couple of Big Things:

1. How to round the Cape of Good Hope

The navigational breakthrough which allowed all this to happen was the discovery of how to round the Cape at the southernmost tip of Africa. For generations Portuguese ships had hugged the coast of Africa as they tentatively explored south and this meant that they struggled with all kinds of headwinds, shoals and rocks, particularly as they rounded the big bulge and struggled east into the Gulf of Guinea. The net result was that by 1460 they had established maps and stopping points at the Azores, Madeira, but only as far south along the African coast as the river Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The Great Breakthrough was to abandon the coast altogether and give in to the strong north-easterly winds which blew sailing ships south and west out into big Atlantic – and then, half way down the coast of Brazil, to switch direction back east, and let the strong west winds blow you clean back across the Atlantic and under the Cape of Good Hope. See the red line on the map, below. This immensely significant discovery was made in the 1460s.

That’s if things went well. Which they often didn’t – with calamitous results. Crowley reports that of the 5,500 Portuguese men who went to India between 1497 (the date of Vasco de Gama’s first successful rounding of the Cape), 1,800 – 35% – did not return. Most drowned at sea.

All the armadas suffered significant loss of life to shipwreck and drowning.

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

Outward and Inbound routes of the Portuguese Indian Armadas in the 1500s (source: Wikipedia)

2. The accidental discovery of Brazil

The Second Portuguese India Armada, assembled in 1500 on the order of Manuel I and commanded by Pedro Álvares Cabral, followed the strategy of heading west and south into the Atlantic in order to catch easterly winds to blow them round the tip of Africa. But the ships went so far that they sighted a new land in the west, landed and claimed it for Portugal.

It was Brazil, whose history as a western colony begins then, in April 1500, though it was to be some time before anybody made serious attempts to land and chart it, and Crowley makes no further mention of it.

3. Rivalry with Venice

I knew the Portuguese were rivals with the Spanish for the discovery and exploration of new worlds. I hadn’t realised that the creation of a new route to the Spice Islands rocked the basis of Venice’s maritime trade and empire.

Venice had for generations been the end point for the transmission of spices from India, across the Indian Ocean, through the Red Sea to Suez, across land to Cairo, and by ship to Italy. This was all very expensive, especially the transhipment across land. Venice was rocked when the entire supply chain was jeopardised by the new Portuguese sea route, which resulted in huge amounts of spices and other exotic produce ending up on the quays of Lisbon at a fraction of the Venetian price.

With the result that the Venetian authorities sent spies to Lisbon to find out everything they could about the Portuguese navigators, their new routes and discoveries. They also sent emissaries to the Sultan in Cairo, putting pressure on him to either take punitive measures against the Portuguese, or to lower the taxes he charged on the land journey of Venetian spices from Suez to Cairo and on to Alexandria. Or both.

The sultan refused to do either. Venetian fury.

The rivalry of Venice is sown into the narrative like a silver thread, popping up regularly to remind us of the importance of trade and profit and control of the seas 600 years ago, and of the eternally bickering nature of Europe – a seething hotbed of commercial, religious and political rivals, all determined to outdo each other.

Prester John and a new Crusade

Medieval Christendom was awash with myths and legends. One such tale concerned a mythical Christian King who ruled in wealth and splendour somewhere in Africa, named ‘Prester John’.

When King Manuel sent out his conquerors, it was not only to seize the spice trade of the Indian Ocean, but to make contact with Prester John and unite with his – presumably massive and wealthy army – to march on Mecca or Cairo or Jerusalem, or all three, in order to overthrow Islam for good and liberate the Holy Places.

Vasco de Gama had this aim at the back of his mind as he set off to round the Cape, and so did Afonso de Albuquerque who, at the end of his life, was still planning to establish Christian forts on the Red Sea and to locate the mysterious John in a joint crusade against the Muslim sultan of Cairo.

If anyone was Prester John it was the self-styled ’emperor’ of Ethiopia, who some of the Portuguese did travel to meet, although he turned out – despite all his pomp and pageantry – to be completely unprepared to help any kind of European Christian Crusade against his Muslim neighbours, not least because they completely surrounded and outnumbered him.

Still, it is important to remember that the whole point of funding these expensive armadas into the Indian Ocean wasn’t primarily to open up new commercial routes: for the king and his conquerors, that was a happy side aim, but the Key Goal was to link up with the kingdom of Prester John and the imagined Christian kingdoms of the East, in order to exterminate Islam and liberate the Holy Places.

Crowley’s approach – more adventure than analysis

Crowley’s approach is popular and accessible. He prefers anecdote to analysis.

Thus the book’s prologue opens with a giraffe being presented to the Chinese emperor in Beijing in the early 1400s. This had been collected by the Chinese admiral Admiral Zheng He, who led one of the epic voyages which the Yongle Emperor had commissioned, sending vast Chinese junks into the Indian Ocean in the first decades of the 15th century. The flotillas were intended to stun other nations into recognition of China’s mighty pre-eminence and had no colonising or conquering aim.

The Yongle emperor was succeeded in 1424 by the Hongxi emperor who decided the expeditions were a waste of time and so banned further ocean-going trips, a ban which within a few decades extended to even building large ocean-going vessels: small coastal trading vessels were allowed, but the Ming emperors hunkered down behind their Great Wall and closed their minds to the big world beyond.

One way of looking at it, is that the Hongxi emperor handed over the world to be colonised by European nations.

The point is Crowley gets into this important issue via an anecdote about a giraffe, and doesn’t really unpack it as much as he could.

A few pages later, the main text of the book opens with a detailed account of the erection of a commemorative cross on the coast of Africa by Diogo Cao in August 1483. It was one of several he erected on his exploratory voyage down the west African coast.

In both instances Crowley is following the time-honoured technique of starting a chapter with an arresting image and dramatic scene. The problem is that when he proceeds to fill in the background and what led up to each incident, I think his accounts lack depth and detail. For example, my ears pricked up when he mentioned Henry the Navigator, but Henry’s life and career were only fleetingly referenced in order to get back to the ‘now’ of 1483. I had to turn to Wikipedia to get a fuller account of Henry’s life and importance.

Once on Wikipedia, and reading about Henry the Navigator, I quickly discovered that ‘the invention of the caravel was what made Portugal poised to take the lead in transoceanic exploration’, because of the light manoeuvrability of this new design of ship.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

A 15th century Portuguese caravel. it had three masts and a lateen or triangular sail which allowed the caravel to sail against the wind.

Crowley certainly has some pictures of caravels, and describes them a bit, but doesn’t really give us enough information to ram home why their design was so game-changing.

It may be relevant that Crowley studied Literature not History at university. He is continually drawn to the dramatic and the picturesque, and skimps on the analytical.

To give another example, Crowley periodically namechecks the various popes who blessed the armadas and gave instructions as to the converting of the heathen and fighting the Unbeliever. He briefly mentions the famous Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, whereby Pope Alexander VI brokered the deal deciding which parts of the New World would belong to the rivals Spain and Portugal. But there is nowhere any real analysis of the enormous role the popes and the Catholic Church played in the geopolitics behind all this exploring and conquering.

Instead, Crowley is continually drawn to the most vivid and melodramatic moments: battles are described in terms of who got an arrow in the eye, and strategy is more seen as deriving from the raging impatience of this or that Portuguese commander than from higher-level geopolitical imperatives.

The personal, not the wider geo-political situation, is what interests Crowley in Europe and Indian and Islamic politics.

Crowley’s style

Crowley writes the short staccato sentences of a popular thriller – fine if you’re looking for poolside entertainment, but not enough if you’re looking for something with a little more analysis and insight.

It was time to move on. However, the wind thwarted their departure. The wind turned. They were forced back to the island. The sultan tried to make peace overtures but was rebuffed. Ten nervy days ensued. (p.67)

This is thriller writing, or the prose style of a modern historical romance.

Either Crowley, his editors or his publishers decided that hos book would be best marketed as popular, accessible, hair-raising history. Thrilling, gripping and often quite horrible history.

In the rain, with the continuous gunfire, in a tropical hell, soaking and sweating in their rotting clothes, they were increasingly gripped by morbid terror that they were all going to die. (p.275)

He gives us gripping individual scenes, but not so many real insights, let alone overarching analysis or ideas.

Thus, despite the book being some 360 pages long, and including lengthy end notes, I felt I’d only scratched the surface of these seismic events, had been told about the key dates and events, and seen quite a few hands being cut off – but was left wanting to understand more, a lot more, about the geographical, economic, technological and cultural reasons for the success of Portugal’s cruel and barbarous explorers and empire makers.

This feeling was crystallised when the book ended abruptly and without warning with the death of the bloodthirsty visionary, Afonso de Albuquerque, in 1415.

For sure he was a central figure, who grasped the strategic importance of seizing Goa, who tried to storm Aden, who arranged a native coup at Ormuz, who burned Muslim towns and ships without mercy, who chopped the hands and ears off his hostages by the score. By page 330 he had become the dominant figure of the book, almost as if it the book was at one stage intended to be a biography of just him.

So the book ends with his death in 1515 but … the Portuguese Empire had only just got going. There would be at least another century of colonising effort, in Brazil, on the coast of Africa, and further East, into Malaysia, Japan and China. A century more of adventures, wars and complex politicking.

None of that is here. Crowley briefly refers to all that on the last pages of his book, before a few sententious paragraphs about how it all led to globalisation and modern container ships. But of the real establishment and running of the Portuguese Empire which stretched from Brazil to Japan there is in fact nothing.

The book’s title is therefore a bit misleading. It should be titled something more like The generation which founded the Portuguese empire. That would excuse and explain his relatively narrow focus on de Gama, Cabra and Albuquerque, and on the king who commissioned their exploits, Manuel I. Maybe adding Manuel’s dates – 1495-1521 – would make it even clearer.

In fact, with a bit of rewriting, the book could have become Manuel I and the conquerors who founded the Portuguese Empire: that accurately describes its content.

The current title gives the impression that it will be a complete history of the Portuguese Empire – which is why I bought it – and which is very far indeed from being the truth.

Related links

1848: Year of Revolution by Mike Rapport (2008)

1848 became known as ‘the year of revolutions’ and ‘the springtime of nations’ because there was political turmoil, fighting and unrest right across Europe, resulting in ministries and monarchies being toppled and new nation states proclaimed.


The underlying causes were agricultural, economic and demographic.

1. Agricultural failure

From 1845 onwards grain harvests across Europe were poor, and this was exacerbated when the fallback crop, potatoes, were hit by a destructive blight or fungal infection which turned them to mush in the soil. The result of the potato blight in Ireland is estimated to have been one and a half million deaths, but right across Europe peasants and small farmers starved, often to death. Hence the grim nickname for the decade as a whole, ‘the Hungry Forties’.

2. Economic downturn

This all coincided with an economic downturn resulting from industrial overproduction, particularly in the textile industry. Textile workers and artisans were thrown out of work in all Europe’s industrialised areas – the north of England, the industrial regions of Belgium, Paris and south-east France, the Rhineland of Germany, around Vienna and in western Bohemia.

3. Population boom

Hunger and unemployment impacted a population which had undergone a significant increase since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. Countryside and cities alike had seen a population explosion.

The surplus of population was across all classes: it’s easy to see how an excess of many mouths to feed in a countryside hit by bad harvests, or in towns hit by economic depression, would result in misery and unrest. A bit more subtle was the impact of rising population on the middle classes: there just weren’t enough nice professional jobs to go round. Everyone wanted to be a doctor or lawyer or to secure a comfortable sinecure in the labyrinthine bureaucracies of the autocracies – but there just weren’t enough vacant positions. And so this created a surplus of disaffected, well-educated, middle-class young men who found roles to play in the new liberal and radical political movements.

If the surplus poor provided the cannon fodder in the streets, the surplus professional men provided the disaffected theoreticians and politicians of liberal reform and nationalism.

Inadequate response

As usual, the politicians in charge across Europe didn’t fully understand the scale of the poverty and distress they were dealing with and chose the time-honoured method of trying to repress all and any expressions of protest by main force.

Rapport’s book describes massacres in cities all across Europe as the garrisons were called out and soldiers shot on marching protesters in capital cities from Paris to Prague. This had an inevitable radicalising effect on the protesting masses who set up barricades and called on more of their fellow workers-urban poor to join them, and so on in a vicious circle.

However, these three underlying problems (population, hunger, slump) and the repressive response by all the authorities to almost any kind of protest, did not lead to one unified political movement of reform in each country. Instead the most important fact to grasp is that the opposition was split into different camps which, at the moments of severe crisis formed uneasy coalitions, but as events developed, tended to fall apart and even come to oppose each other.

There were at least three quite distinct strands of political opposition in 1848.

1. Liberalism

Of the big five states in 1840s Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – only France and Britain had anything remotely like a ‘democracy’, and even in these countries the number of people allowed to vote was pitifully small – 170,000 of the richest men in France, representing just 0.5% of the population, compared to the 800,000 who were enfranchised by the 1832 Reform Act in Britain (allowing about one in five adult British men the vote).

Despite the small electorates, both Britain and France at least had well-established traditions of ‘civil society’, meaning newspapers, magazines, universities, debating clubs and societies, the theatre, opera and a variety of other spaces where views could be aired and debated.

This was drastically untrue of the three other big powers – Prussia, Austria and Russia had no parliaments and no democracies. They were reactionary autocracies, ruled by hereditary rulers who chose ministers merely to advise them and to carry out their wishes, these moustachioed old reactionaries being Czar Nicholas I of Russia, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria and Frederick William IV of Prussia.

Therefore, while liberals in Britain merely wanted to expand the franchise a bit, and even the radicals were only calling for complete manhood suffrage (encapsulated in ‘the Great Charter’ which gave the movement of ‘Chartism’ its name and whose collection and presentation to Parliament amounted to the main political event of the year in Britain) and whereas in France liberals wanted to see expansion of the suffrage and the removal of repressive elements of the regime (censorship) – in the three autocracies, liberals were fighting to create even a basic public space for discussion, and a basic level of democracy, in highly censored and repressive societies.

In other words, the situation and potential for reform in these two types of nation were profoundly different.

But to summarise, what marked out liberals across the continent is that they wanted constitutional and legal change, effected through what the Italians called the lotta legale, a legal battle (p.43).

2. Nationalism

Sometimes overlapping with liberal demands, but basically different in ambition, were the continent’s nationalists. Italy and Germany are the obvious examples: both were geographical areas within which the population mostly spoke the same language, but they were, in 1848, divided into complex patchworks of individual states.

In 1806 Napoleon had abolished the 1,000 year-old Holy Roman Empire, creating a host of new statelets, kingdoms, duchies and so on. Some thirty-nine of these were formed into the German Confederation. The German states were a peculiar mix of sovereign empires, kingdoms, electorates, grand duchies, duchies, principalities and free cities. The German Confederation was dominated by the largest two states, Prussia in the North and the Austrian Empire in the south.

Italy was arguably even more divided, with the two northern states of Lombardy and Piedmont under Austrian rule, the central Papal States under control of the Pope, while the south (the kingdom of Sicily and Naples) was ruled by a bourbon king, with other petty monarchies ruling states like Tuscany and Savoy.

1848 was a big year for the famous Italian nationalists, Garibaldi and Mazzini, who attempted to stir up their countrymen to throw off foreign rule and establish a unified Italian state. It is an indication of how dire Italy’s fragmentation was, that the nationalists initially looked to a new and apparently more liberal pope to help them – Pope Pius IX – the papacy usually being seen as the seat of reaction and anti-nationalism (although the story of 1848 in Italy is partly the story of how Pope Pius ended up rejecting the liberal revolution and calling for foreign powers to invade and overthrow the liberal government which had been set up in Rome.)

So 1848 was a big year for nationalists in Italy and the German states who hoped to unite all their separate states into one unified nation. Far less familiar to me were the nationalist struggles further east:

  • the struggle of Polish nationalists to assert their nationhood – after 1815 Poland had been partitioned into three, with the parts ruled by Prussia, Russia and Austria
  • as well as a host of more obscure nationalist struggles east of Vienna – for example:
    • the struggle of Magyar nationalists – the Hungarians – to throw off the yoke of German-speaking Vienna
    • the Czechs also, attempted to throw off Austrian rule
    • or the struggle of Ukrainian nationalists to throw off the domination of their land by rich Polish landowners

Many of these movements adopted a title with the word ‘young’ in it, hence Young Italy, Young Germany, Young Hungary, Young Ireland, and so on.

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire

Map of Europe in 1848. Note the size of the Austrian Empire in blue, but also the deep penetration into Europe of the Ottoman Empire (Source: Age of the Sage)

Rapport shows how nationalists in almost all the countries of Europe wanted their lands and peoples to be unified under new, autochthonous rulers.

N.B. It is important to emphasise the limits of the 1848 revolutions and violence. There were no revolutions in Britain, the Netherlands, Sweden-Norway, in Spain or Portugal or in Russia. The Springtime of Nations most affected France, Germany, Italy and the Austrian Empire.

3. Socialism

After liberalism and nationalism, the third great issue was the ‘social question’. While the rich and the upper-middle class seemed to be reaping the benefits from the early phases of the industrial revolution – from the spread of factory techniques for manufacturing textiles, the construction of a network of railways which helped transport raw materials and finished goods and so on – a huge number of rural peasants, small traders, and the urban working class were living in barely imaginable squalor and starving.

The paradox of starvation in the midst of plenty had prompted a variety of theoretical and economic analyses as well as utopian visions of how to reform society to ensure no-one would starve. These had become more prominent during the 1830s. It was in 1832 that the word ‘socialism’ was first coined as an umbrella term for radical proposals to overhaul society to ensure fairness and to abolish the shocking poverty and squalor which so many bourgeois writers noted as they travelled across the continent.

So ‘socialist’ ways of thinking had had decades to evolve and gain traction. Rapport makes the interesting point that by 1848 Europe had its first generation of professional revolutionaries.

The great French Revolution of 1789 had propelled men of often middling ability and provincial origin into high profile positions which they were completely unprepared for. By contrast, 1848 was a golden opportunity for men who had devoted their lives to revolutionary writing and agitating, such as Louis-August Blanqui and Armand Barbès.

(As Gareth Stedman Jones makes clear in his marvellous biography of Karl Marx, Marx himself was notorious to the authorities as a professional subversive, and his newspaper, the Neue Rheinische Zeitung became the bestselling radical journal in Germany, but he had little impact on the actual course of events.)

The various flavours of socialists were united in not just wanting to tinker with constitutions, not wanting to add a few hundred thousand more middle-class men to the franchise (as the liberals wanted) – nor were they distracted by complex negotiations among the rulers of all the petty states of Italy or Germany (like the nationalists were).

Instead the socialists were united in a desire to effect a comprehensive and sweeping reform of all elements of society and the economy in order to create a classless utopia. For example, by nationalising all land and factories, by abolishing all titles and ranks and – at their most extreme – abolishing private property itself, in order to create a society of complete equality.

A crisis of modernisation

Rapport sums up thus: The revolution and collapse of the conservative order in 1848 was a crisis of modernization, in that European economies and societies were changing fast, in size and economic and social requirements, but doing so in states and political cultures which had failed to keep pace and which, given the reactionary mindsets of their rulers and aristocracy, were dead set against any kind of reform or change. Something had to give.


Rapport tells the story of the tumultuous events which swept the continent with great enthusiasm and clarity. He gives us pen portraits of key reformer such as the nationalists Mazzini and Garibaldi and the socialist Blanqui, and of arch conservatives like Klemens Metternich, Chancellor of Austria, the young Bismarck of Prussia, and the sneering Guizot, unpopular premiere of France.

This is a great cast to start with but quite quickly the reader is overwhelmed with hundreds more names of radicals, republicans, liberals, reactionaries, conservatives and monarchists, ordinary workers and emperors – Rapport clearly and effectively presenting a cast of hundreds of named individuals who played parts large and small during this tumultuous year.

The first and decisive event of the year was the overthrow of King Louis Philippe in France and his replacement by a hastily cobbled-together Second Republic, in February 1848. This was a genuine revolution, and in what many took to be Europe’s most important nation, so news of it spread like wildfire across the continent, emboldening radicals in Italy, Austria, Prussia and further east.

Rapport describes events with a keen eye for telling details and the key, often accidental incidents, which could transform angry hunger marchers into an revolutionary mob. For example, the outraged citizen of Milan who knocked a cigar out of the mouth of a preening Austrian officer, sparking a street fight which escalated into a ‘tobacco riot’, prompting the city’s Austrian governor to call out the troops who then proceeded to fire on the mob, killing six and wounding fifty Italian ‘patriot and martyrs’. That is how revolutions start.

There is a vast amount to tell, as Rapport describes not only the turmoil on the streets, but the complex constitutional and political manoeuvrings of regimes from Denmark in the north to Sicily in the south, from Ireland in the west to Hungary, Ukraine and Poland in the east. I didn’t know so much happened in this one year. I didn’t know, for example, that in the Berlin revolution, in March, one day of epic street fighting between liberal reformers, backed by the population against the king’s army, resulted in 800 dead!

Fierce streetfighting around Alexanderplatz in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

Fierce fighting at the Alexanderplatz barricade in Berlin on the night of 18-19 March 1848

It was eye-opening to be told in such detail about the scale of the violence across the continent.

I knew that the ‘June Days’ in Paris, when General Cavaignac was tasked with using the army to regain control of all the parts of the city where revolutionary barricades had been set up, resulted in vast bloodshed, with some 10,000 killed or injured. But I didn’t know that when Austrian Imperial troops retook Vienna from the liberal-radical National Guard in the last week of October 1848, the use of cannon in urban streets contributed to the death toll of 2,000 (p.287).

There were not only soldiers-versus-workers battles, but plenty of more traditional fighting between actual armies, such as the battle between the forces of the king of Piedmont and Austrian forces in north Italy leading to the decisive Austrian victory at Custozza on 25 July 1848.

But it was the scale of the urban fighting which surprised and shocked me.

In another example, for a few months from April 1848 the island of Sicily declared its independence from the bourbon king of Naples who had previously ruled it. However, the king sent an army by ship which landed at Messina, subjecting the city to a sustained bombardment and then street by street fighting, which eventually left over two thirds of the city in smouldering ruins (p.260).

The social, political but also ethnic tensions between native Czech republicans and their overlord Austrian masters, erupted into six days of violent street fighting in Prague, June 12-17, during which Austrian General Windischgrätz first of all cleared the barricades before withdrawing his troops to the city walls and pounding Prague with a sustained artillery bombardment. Inevitably, scores of innocent lives were lost in the wreckage and destruction (p.235).

So much fighting, So much destruction. So many deaths.

New ideas

Well, new to me:

1. The problem of nationalism The new ideology of nationalism turned out to contain an insoluble paradox at its core: large ethnically homogenous populations were encouraged to agitate for their own nation, but what about the minorities who lived within their borders? Could they be allowed their national freedom without undermining the geographical and cultural ‘integrity’ of the larger entity?

Thus the Hungarian nationalists had barely broken with their Austrian rulers before they found themselves having to deal with minority populations like Romanians, Serbs, Croats and others who lived within the borders the Hungarians claimed for their new state. Should they be granted their own independence? No. The Hungarians not only rejected these pleas for independence, but went to war with their minorities to quell them. And in doing so, split and distracted their armies, arguably contributing to their eventual defeat by Austria.

Meanwhile, Polish nationalists were dead set on asserting Polish independence, but in Galicia quickly found themselves the subject of attacks from the Ruthenian minority, long subjugated by Polish landowners, and who claimed allegiance to a state which they wanted to call Ukraine. Like the Hungarians, the Poles were having none of it.

Thus nationalism spawned mini-nationalisms, sub-nationalisms, and ethnic and cultural conflicts which began to look more like civil wars than struggles for ‘independence’.

As a result, two broad trends emerged:

1. The chauvinism of big nations Nationalists from the larger nations developed an angry rhetoric castigating these troublesome little minorities as culturally less advanced. Rapport quotes German nationalists who criticised the Slavic minorities for their alleged racial and cultural inferiority – a rhetoric which was to have a long career in Germany, leading eventually to the Nazis and their Hunger Plan to starve and enslave the Slavic peoples.

2. Austro-Slavism In response to the breakaway aspirations of Hungary, the Hapsburg (Austrian) monarchy developed a strategy of Austro-Slavism. This was to appeal directly to the many minorities within the empire, and within Hungarian territory in particular, and guarantee them more protection within the multicultural Austro-Hungarian Empire than they would receive in one of the new, ethnically pure, nationalist states. ‘Stay within our multicultural empire and you will be better off than under repressive monoglot Hungarian rule.’

Thus when representatives of the Slovaks asked the new Hungarian Parliament (which had been created in March 1848 as a concession from Vienna) to allow the teaching of the Slovak language and the flying of the Slovak flag in Slovak regions within the new Hungary, the Hungarians vehemently refused. They accused the nationalists of ‘Pan-Slavic nationalism’ and of wanting to undermine the integrity of the new Magyar (i.e. Hungarian) state. Not surprisingly when, later in the year, open war broke out between Austria and Hungary, many Slovak nationalists sided with Austria, having made the simple calculation that they were likely to have more religious, racial and linguistic freedom under the Austrian Empire than under the repressively nationalistic Hungarians.

3. The threshold principle of nationalism The threshold principle is an attempt to solve the Nationalism Paradox. It states that a people only ‘deserves’ or ‘qualifies’ to have a state of its own if it has the size and strength to maintain and protect it. Surprisingly, Friederich Engels, the extreme radical and patron of Karl Marx, espoused the threshold principle when it came to the smaller nationalities in and around Germany. Being German himself he, naturally enough, thought that Germany ought to be unified into a nation. But the Czechs, Slovaks and other ‘lesser’ peoples who lived within the borders of this new Germany, Engels thought they didn’t deserve to be nations because they didn’t come up to ‘German’ standards of culture and political maturity. (Explained on page 181).

This was just one of the problems, paradoxes and contradictions which the supposedly simple notion of ‘nationalism’ contained within itself and which made it so difficult to apply on the ground.

Nonetheless, 1848 marks the moment when nationalism clearly emerges as a major force in European history – and at the same time reveals the contradictions, and the dark undercurrents latent within it, which have dominated European politics right down to this day.

4. Grossdeutsch or Kleindeutsch? Uniting the 39 states of Germany sounds like a straightforward enough ambition, but at its core was a Big Dilemma: should the new state include or exclude Austria? The problem was that while the Austrian component of the Austrian Empire spoke German and considered themselves culturally linked to the rest of Germany, the Hapsburg monarchy which ruled Austria had also inherited a patchwork of territories all across Europe (not least all of Hungary with its minorities, and the northern states of Italy): should those obviously non-Germanic part of the Austrian empire be incorporated into Germany? Or would Austria have to abandon its empire in order to be incorporated into the new Germany?

Exponents of a Grossdeutsch (Big Germany) option thought it ridiculous to exclude Austria with its millions of German-speakers; of course Austria should be included. But that would mean tearing the Austro-Hungarian empire in half because obviously you couldn’t include millions of Hungarians, Romanians and so on inside a ‘German’ state (the Kleindeutsch, or Little Germany, position).

Or could you? This latter thought gave rise to a third position, the Mitteleuropäisch solution, under which all of the German states would be incorporated into a super-Austria, to create a German-speaking empire which would stretch from the Baltic in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, a bulwark against Latins in the west and south, and the Slavic peoples to the east and south-east, promoting German culture, language and way of life across the continent, by force if necessary. (pp.298-300)

Comical and hypothetical though this may all sound, it would prove to be at the centre of world history for the next century. It was the ‘German Problem’ which lay behind the seismic Franco-Prussian War, the catastrophic First World War, and the global disaster of the Second World War.

The European Economic Community, established by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, at bottom was an attempt to settle the ‘German Problem’ i.e. to tie the German and French economies so intricately together that there could never again be war between the two of them.

Some people think the ‘German Problem’ was only really settled with the reunification of the two Germanies in 1990, but others think it still lives on in the disparity between the rich industrial West and the mostly agricultural and impoverished East.

And the question of German identity, of who is or isn’t Germany, has been revived by Angel Merkel’s over-enthusiastic acceptance of a million refugees in 2017, which has led to the widespread popularity of far right political parties in Germany for the first time since the Second World War.

All of which tends to suggest that the virus of nationalism, unleashed in 1848, can never really be cured.


It takes four hundred pages dense with fact and anecdote to convey the confused turmoil of the year 1848, but Rapport had already spelled out the overall results in the opening pages.

Although all the protesters hated the reactionary regimes, they couldn’t agree what to replace them with. More specifically, the liberals and socialists who initially found themselves on the same barricades calling for the overthrow of this or that ‘tyrant’ – once the overthrow had been achieved or, more usually, a liberal constitution conceded by this or that petty monarch – at this point these temporarily allied forces realised that they held almost diametrically opposed intentions.

The liberals wanted to hold onto all their property and rights and merely to gain a little more power, a little more say for themselves in the way things were run; whereas the socialists wanted to sweep the bourgeois liberals out of the way, along with the monarchy, the aristocracy, the church and all the other tools of oppression.

It was this fundamentally divided nature of the forces of ‘change’ which meant that, as events worked their course, the forces of Reaction found it possible to divide and reconquer their opponents. Almost everywhere, when push came to shove, middle-class liberals ended up throwing in their lot with the chastened autocracies, thus tipping the balance of power against the genuine revolutionaries.

The high hopes of 1848 almost everywhere gave way to the resurgence of the autocracies and the restoration of reactionary regimes or the imposition of old repression in new clothes. Nowhere more ironically than in France where the overthrown monarchy of Louis Philippe gave way to the deeply divided Second Republic which staggered on for three chaotic years before being put out of its misery when the canny Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte – who had gotten himself elected president right at the end of 1848 – carried out the coup which brought him to power as a new Emperor, Napoleon III, in 1851.

Rapport’s account also makes clear that the violence and turmoil wasn’t limited to 1848 – it continued well into 1849:

  • in Germany where the newly established ‘national’ parliament was forced to flee to Frankfurt and, when the Prussian king felt strong enough to surround and close it, its suppression sparked a second wave of uprisings, barricades, vicious street fighting and harsh reprisals in cities all across Germany e.g. Dresden where Richard Wagner took part in the insurrection, whose violent suppression left over 250 dead and 400 wounded.
  • and in Italy where the republics of Rome and Venice were besieged and only conquered after prolonged bombardment and bloodshed. (It is a real quirk of history that the Roman republic was besieged and conquered by French troops, ordered there by ‘President’ Napoleon. Why? Because the French didn’t want the approaching Austrians to take control of Rome and, therefore, of the Papacy. Ancient national and dynastic rivalries everywhere trumped high-minded but weak liberal or republican ideals.)

More than anywhere else it was in Hungary that the struggle for independence escalated into full-scale war  (with Austria) which dragged on for several years. By the end, some 50,000 soldiers on both sides had lost their lives. When the Austrians finally reconquered Hungary, they quashed its independent parliament, repealed its declaration of rights, reimposed Austrian law and language and Hungary remained under martial law until 1854.

The Hungarian revolt led to the establishment of an independent parliament in 1849 which seceded from the Austrian Empire. Unfortunately, this was crushed later in the year by a combination of the Austrian army which invaded from the west, allied with Russian forces which invaded from the East. The parliament was overthrown, Hungary’s leaders were arrested, tried and executed, and the country sank into sullen acquiescence in the Austro-Hungarian Empire which lasted until 1918, when it finally achieved independence.

None of the ‘nations’ whose nationalists were lobbying for them to be created ended up coming into existence: both Italy and Germany remained patchwork quilts of petty states, albeit some of them reorganised and with new constitutions. Italy had to wait till 1860, Germany until 1871, to achieve full unification.

Polish nationalism completely failed; Poland didn’t become an independent nation state until 1918.

Same with the Czechs. They only gained nationhood, as Czechoslovakia, in 1918 (only to be invaded by the Nazis 20 years later).

Only in France was the old order decisively overthrown with the abolition of the monarchy. But this, ironically, was only to give rise to a new, more modern form of autocracy, in the shape of Napoleon III’s ’empire’.

It is one among many virtues of Rapport’s book that he explains more clearly than any other account I’ve read the nature of Napoleon’s widespread appeal to the broad French population, and the succession of lucky chances which brought him to the throne. Karl Marx dismissed Napoleon III as an empty puppet who made himself all things to all men, not quite grasping that this is precisely what democracy amounts to – persuading a wide variety of people and constituencies that you are the solution to their problems.

Everywhere else the European Revolution of 1848 failed. It would be decades, in some cases a century or more, before all the ideas proclaimed by liberals came into force, ideas such as freedom of expression and assembly, the abolition of the death penalty (1965 in Britain), of corporal punishment and censorship (Britain’s theatre censorship was only abolished in 1968), the emancipation of minorities and the extension of the franchise to all men and women (in the UK it was only in 1928 that all men and women over the age of 21 were allowed a vote – 80 years after 1848).

Order over anarchy

The political and economic situation had certainly got bad enough for a constellation of forces – and for hundreds of thousands of alienated urban poor – to mobilise and threaten their rulers. But none of the reformers who inherited these situations could command the majority needed to rule effectively or implement their plans before the Counter-Revolution began to fight back.

The failure of the French Second Republic, in particular, made clear a fundamental principle of advanced societies. that the general population prefers an able dictatorship to the uncertainty and chaos of ‘revolution’.

(This is also the great lesson of the wave of anarchy which swept across Europe after the Great War, described in by Robert Gerwarth’s powerful book, The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End 1917-1923.)

Again and again, in different countries, Rapport repeats the lesson that people prefer order and security, albeit with restricted political rights, to the ‘promise’ of a greater ‘freedom’, which in practice seems to result in anarchy and fighting in the streets.

People prefer Order and Security to Uncertainty and Fear.

When faced with a choice between holding onto their new political liberties or conserving their lives, their property and their communities against ‘anarchy’ or ‘communism’, most people chose to sacrifice their freedom for the sake of security. (p.191)

A simple lesson which professional revolutionaries from Blanqui to our own time seem unable to understand. It is not that people are against equality. If asked most people of course say they are in favour of ‘equality’. It’s that most people, in countries across Europe for the past 170 years, have time and time again shown themselves to be against the anarchy which violent movements claiming to fight for equality so often actually bring in their train.


I get a little irritated by readers and commentators who say things like, ‘the issues in the book turn out to be surprisingly modern, issues like freedom of speech, constitutional and legal reform, the identity of nations and their populations’.

Rapport himself does it, commenting that many German states expressed ‘startlingly modern-sounding anxieties’ (p.337) in response to the Frankfurt Parliament’s publication of its Grundrechte or Bill of Basic Rights, in December 1848.

This is looking down the telescope the wrong way. All these themes and issues aren’t ‘surprisingly relevant to today’. What phrases like that really express is that, we are still struggling with the same issues, problems and challenges – economic, social and cultural – which have dogged Europe for over 200 years.

The past isn’t surprisingly ‘relevant’. It is the world we live in that is – despite all the superficial changes of clothes and cars and techno-gadgets – surprisingly unchanged. We are still struggling with the problems our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and their parents and grandparents, failed to solve.

If you’re of the tendency who think that handfuls of people living a hundred or two hundred years ago – early socialists or feminists or freethinkers – were ‘prophets’ and ‘surprisingly relevant’ it’s because this way of thinking tends to suggest that we standing tip-toe on the brink of solving them.

I, on the contrary, take a much more pessimistic view, which is that this or that thinker wasn’t a startlingly far-sighted visionary, simply that they could see and express problems and issues which over the past two hundred years we have completely failed to solve.

When so many better people than us, in more propitious circumstances, have failed, over decades, sometimes centuries, to solve deep structural issues such as protecting the environment, or how to organise states so as to satisfy everyone’s racial and ethnic wishes, or how to establish absolute and complete equality between the sexes – what gives anyone the confidence that we can solve them today?

All the evidence, in front of the faces of anyone who reads deeply and widely in history, is that these are problems intrinsic to the human condition which can never be solved, only ameliorated, or fudged, or tinkered with, in different ways by different generations.

Related links

Related blog posts

I Like It Here by Kingsley Amis (1958)

It would be very easy, cheap and pleasant, Bowen often reflected, to drink oneself to death in Portugal. Perhaps he would try it some time. (p.85)

Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’  in London, married with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to do the unthinkable and go ‘abroad’ – you know, where foreigners live, babbling their incomprehensible languages, cooking their oily food, imbibing their undrinkable concoctions.

Although Portuguese beer tasted much less of bone-handled knives than other continental beers, it still wasn’t as nice as English beer. (p.73)

The hero as philistine

This is Kingsley Amis’s third novel and the third to feature a protagonist who makes a virtue of working in the humanities (lecturer, librarian, writer) but cordially loathing them – mentioning classics from the Iliad to Aaron’s Rod only to dismiss them as mind-erodingly boring, mentioning contemporary authors (Graham Greene, Iris Murdoch) only to explain how tired even thinking about them makes him feel (Conrad is memorably dismissed as ‘that crazy Polish scribbling sea-dog’ p.155). If he does betray any cultural knowledge (a quote from Dr Johnson, fondness for Henry Fielding) he immediately downplays it as an accident, immediately vowing to disown it if anyone repeats this slur on his manhood.

He expresses the same attitude for all the other arts. Frank Sinatra is singing on the radio but he cuts him off in mid-yowl. Dismisses Tchaikovsky and all the rest of that boring rot.

Oh, how he loathed architecture. He would have liked to see it all done away with. (p.39)

Bowen was thinking what a dreadful thing the theatre was… (p.96)

(Bowen is struggling/pretending to write a play during his stay in Portugal and there are several extended and very funny passages about how ghastly the theatre is and actors are.) Other people are tiresome craps or awful sods, to be avoided as much as possible. As to being specific or precise about things, listen I can’t be bloody bothered.

Later they had Three Coins in the Fountain, a song – taken from an American film about some place in Italy… They also had A Pulha or whatever it was… (p.66)

Whatever. Something or other. The thingummy. Many writers make a show of their precise knowledge, especially of foreign phrases, places, customs. Amis goes out of his way not to be bloody impressed by foreigners and not to give a stuff, alright chum?

Sitting drinking away under a tree in an important-looking thoroughfare called something like the Avenida da Liberdade, Bowen tried to feel full of fun. (p.163)

Bowen drank up his whiskey-soda thing, of which he knew nothing except that it contained no whiskey or soda and was bloody good. (p.164)

I thought the title should be pronounced ‘I like it here’, evincing a soupçon of enthusiasm for the foreign location – but now realise the ‘here’ refers to England, London, his house, where he likes being, thank you very much – and so the title should be pronounced, ‘I like it here, right here, alright? why should I have to leave for bloody wogland’?


This amusingly grumpy travelogue is injected with a rather spurious plot. Over a boozy lunch in London, Bowen’s publisher tells him a famous old writer, Strether, who ended his career with a swan song novel a decade earlier, has suddenly popped up with a new manuscript. He lives in Portugal, had always kept an ultra-low profile and dealt via a literary agent out there. Could Bowen track him down and ascertain that it is the actual Strether, that he’s still alive and that he wrote the manuscript now sitting on the publisher’s desk in London. Would that be alright, old boy? We’ll make sure our man in Lisbon, Oates, is there to meet you off the boat and he can probably put you up at his place for a while…

The great bulk of the text is made up of Bowen’s anxieties about going abroad, and the awful practicalities of organising going abroad (all the people you have to deal with), descriptions of the lengthy sea voyage and then all his impressions of arriving in Lisbon and going to be put up in the badly-kept, uncomfortable household of Carlos Oates, half-Portuguese.

He and his wife pay a brief visit to this man Strether, from which it is impossible to work out whether he is a fraud or not, and then the novel concentrates on the parties and socialising at Oates’ and in bars and restaurants around Lisbon. At one particularly drunken outing they meet an ex-pat couple, the Bannions, and get themselves invited to stay in their spare villa, thus departing the insalubrious Oates stables.

Some more days pass lazily drinking and eating before Barbara is suddenly called home by a telegram saying her mother is ill, and another message arrives from the writer, Strether, asking if Bowen would like to go and stay with him a little. Which he does, getting to know the civilised old man over a couple of days, but also witnessing his problems, viz. the visit of a smooth young buck who, Bowen decides, must be blackmailing him. The Buck is accompanied by a young beauty and when both buck and Strether encourage them to walk down to the village bar for a drink, Bowen finds himself wandering through the woods with her, then stopping in a clearing and kissing, then lying on the dry grass and moving into a compromising position when – he is stung on the leg by a hornet, jumps up and runs round the clearing yelling! This and the drunken outing to a restaurant in Lisbon, earlier on, are probably the two most deliberate comic set pieces. The moment is ruined and Bowen accompanies the beauty to the local bar where the young buck arrives to collect her shortly afterwards.

Bowen had noticed bad feeling between Strether and his smartly uniformed young chauffeur and late that night he is awoken by bangs and bumps and sounds of scuffling downstairs – he stumbles down to see Strether on a heap on the verandah which a fit young man leaps over and disappears into the night. For a moment I thought he might be dead and this novel take a complete change in tone, but he is just a bit beaten and hurt his leg falling down some steps. Bowen wraps him up warm, fetches him a whiskey and drives off to get a doctor.

The text cuts to Bowen having another boozy lunch with his publisher back in London, giving a brief summary of his trip and explaining why he’s come to the conclusion Strether is the real thing, is the long-silent writer. Bowen ends with a few more thoughts about how abroad is different from home.

Without the thin Strether sub-plot, this would be in effect an autobiographical account of what the reader strongly suspects was an actual holiday the Amis family enjoyed in Portugal, complete with drunken evenings and minor comic complications.


This is a broadly comic novel in that the tone is always light and humorous and, quite apart from the (fairly rare) comic set-pieces, is full of light-hearted phrases and moments, often deploying the device of ‘the incongruous comparison’. After struggling to make any progress on his stalled play, Bowen

got up and stumped round the room for a bit, clawing like a science-fiction monster at the flies which wove about him their delicate flight-patterns. (p.97)

When the fleas began in Portugal Bowen felt, as one who finds Mont Blanc impressive or sees a knife drawn in a Shanghai bar, that tradition was reasserting itself. (p.86)

There’s a really funny description of a Portuguese official on the phone, trying to sort out a refund for Bowen’s sea tickets, once Barbara has been summoned to fly back to England to see her mother – and the way he use every part of his body to back up the sometimes wheedling, sometimes threatening, sometimes devastated tones he deploys down the line.

Pop culture Amis’s tone and approach go out of their way to avoid the grandiose, the literary, the well-mannered style, and instead rummage around for comparisons and metaphors drawn from the popular culture of the day. Cricket, booze, the radio, the latest novels, magazines. Lots of times Bowen catches himself, or realises someone else is, acting just like someone in the movies. When Strether is beaten up by the chauffeur, Bowen comes to his rescue, sees off the assailant, then wraps Buckmaster in a blanket, brings him whiskey etc. It’s a potentially serious moment, but Strether

looked, with the blanket round his shoulders, like an old Red Indian, the wise one who keeps saying that the white man is his brother and there must be no more blood. (p.175)

An important element of the Amis style is the constant use of rather boyish cultural references, this one brings to life a TV Western or maybe even a boys’ comic.

Comic characters: He is as acute as ever in seeing and quickly delineating the comedic in everyone around him, in  his hands everyone becomes a comic character.

For example, Oates’s two Portuguese friends, de Sousa and Bachixa, always seen together arguing fiercely and both extremely proud of their shiny motorcycles.

– The extraordinary Mr Bannion, retired banker who served in India and issues forth a continuous stream of Gilbert & Sullivan parodies of various nationalities, n’est-ce pas, Danke schön, here’s looking at you kid, quotes, songs and speeches to everyone’s bewilderment.

– A tight-arsed disapproving Welsh couple, the Parrys, who appear in the drunken-night-out-in-Lisbon scene:

[Bowen] wondered if you could have so much the air of going round looking for something to put a stop to unless you really were going round doing that…The circle [round the table] expanded to thirteen persons. Mrs Parry stared round it as though it was composed of card-sharping perverts. (p.120)

Panic That said, a lot of the comedy in the novel is based on the same sense of panic I noticed in its two predecessors. Other people are not only ghastly, they’re often completely incomprehensible. ‘What? What did he just say? What does he want me to do?’ – are common thoughts for the bewildered Amis protagonist.

There’s a particularly humorous scene where de Sousa proudly shows Bowan every inch of his shiny, well-maintained motorbike, pointing out bits and looking up expectantly for Bowan to say something appreciative, but Bowan knows nothing about motorbikes and can’t speak Portuguese, and his mounting exasperation comes just this side of desperation.

Lots of Amis encounters take place on this delicate border between hilarity and hysteria.

In fact, it occurs to me that the Amis hero copes with the problem of other people by turning them into comic types. People haven’t been around much before he’s pointing out their funny hair, or mannerisms, or habits of speech, thus neutralising their ever-present sense of threat. Comedy as a coping mechanism.

He-man According to the etymological dictionary, the phrase ‘he-man’ dates back to the 1830s in America. After the war, Charles Atlas-style American body-builders became a prominent cultural meme. According to Atlas’s Wikipedia article, adverts showing an 8-stone weakling having sand kicked in his face by a bully on the beach but vowing to do a body-building course in order to take his revenge, were very widespread in boys’ comics in the 1940s and 50s. An enduring cultural presence.

A key element of these novels’ proposition is the permanent sense of the hero’s inadequacy. It’s always exaggerated for comic affect, but it feels real nonetheless.

I am exactly the kind of man for this not to happen to, he thought. (p.172) He hoped there was nothing still to come tonight which would find him wanting. There were plenty of things which would to choose from. He was that sort of chap. Quite a number of his actions and attitudes had in the past struck him as unworthy of a man of his alleged sensibility, or a man of his age, or a man. (p.175)

Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim is uneasily aware of failing in every way – professionally, intellectually, artistically, romantically. The naive librarian John Lewis in That Uncertain Feeling is not adequate to the task of mixing with Mrs Gruffydd-Williams’s posh, cultured friends or of coping with her advances. Similarly, in an unexpected amorous encounter with a gorgeous young Portuguese woman, Bowen experiences the characteristic Amis feeling of male inadequacy. What the devil should he say or do in response to her advances?

He wished, as often in the past, that he was a really mature man who ‘knew’ things like this ‘by instinct’. (p.151)

It is typical that Bowan’s memories of wartime service include stalling a motorbike which promptly fell on top of him and crashing his jeep into the back of a lorry (p.178). Inept. Inadequate. Found wanting…

Hatred And the other side of the coin to this crippling sense of inadequacy is an emotional backlash, a reaction, of resentment or hatred. After all, lots of comedy derives from negative feelings but generally siphoned off, redirected or sublimated into exaggeration, parody etc. Here the negativity is often on open display.

For example, Amis takes a page to explain that almost all Bowen’s creative ideas stem, at some level, from his loathing of his mother-in-law. He wants to write something which will express his detestation:

Christ, what a book it would be. A gorgeous, star-shot, blood-red, awesome pall of hatred. (p.98)

Later, the squalid conditions of the Bowen family stay at ‘that bleeding insect-vivarium Oates called a house’ build up to a climax of frustration:

Bowen had waited for Oates to change his suit jacket for his pyjama jacket – a habit of his on hot evenings – because he could hate him more thus attired. (p.133)

before giving his notice to quit. Hatred and resentment are like the below-decks engines of the comedy.

Fear And underlying the entire attitude and persona, as in the previous novels, Amis is quite explicit that the basis of the protagonist’s character is fear.

He had thought in the past that a binary system of laziness and conceit accounted fully for all the motions of his life, but of late its orbit had shown perturbations from a third component. This additional body seemed to be fear, and abroad, of course, was what took him to perihelion. (p.134)

He is afraid of other people, of new situations, of being anywhere strange – of ‘encounters with the unmanageable’ (p.140) – and controls his fear and anxiety with deeply ingrained routines of ridicule, criticism and insult.

It is difficult not to see the entire text as a fascinating set of variations on all the possible ways, at every conceivable level – from overall plot, through incident and character, down to the choice of metaphors and similes, and even to individual words – in which these defence mechanisms against his fundamental people-phobia can be embodied and deployed.

A bit of politics

Just a whiff. Not too much. Bowen feels in some vague way ‘for the poor’ and is certainly against anyone more successful or hoity-toity than him. In Portugal, their host, Oates, turns out to be a supporter of the dictator, Salazar, listing his achievements (schools, hospitals). But then Bowen and his wife meet a man in a bar who is a staunch opponent of the dictator and depicts all of Portuguese society as based on corruption and graft, the hospitals and schools built in a few obvious places to palliate Western allies (the Americans) on whom the dictator relies for support and money.

In an interesting passage Bowen compares this corrupt set-up to the dismal politics of Blighty, where sleepy old Macmillan slogs it out with dire Hugh Gaitskell, while the unions strike for more pay; and contrasts both with the situation in France, where the communist party has a real political presence and the country is tearing itself apart over the Algeria Question. In Paris Sartre and Camus; in London Amis and Osborne.


A reliably funny comic novel, replete with all the Amis comedic effects, but rather thin on plot, and unusually short (180 pages).

Related links

Reviews of Kingsley Amis’s books

1954 Lucky Jim – Jim Dixon is a fraudulent history lecturer at a non-entity college, beset on all sides by problematic relations with ghastly people – with his pompous boss, Professor Welch and his unbearable family, with his clingy neurotic girlfriend, with the shower of contemptuous colleagues he shares a cheap rooming house with. Very funny in a sometimes rather desperate way.
1955 That Uncertain Feeling – Bored, frustrated librarian John Lewis in South Wales finds himself being seduced by the worldly wife of a local industrialist. Some hilarious scenes rather damped down by the wrenching portrayal of his genuinely hurt wife. An intense scene of dissipation and sex on a nearby beach, climax with the mistress’s mad driving home which leads to a sobering crash. Lewis eventually rejects the whole monied, corrupt scene and moves with his wife to a small mining town where he feels more in touch with his Welsh roots.
1958 I Like It Here – Welshman Garnet Bowen, happily scraping a living as a ‘writer’ in London, married to Barbara with three young children, is persuaded by his publisher to go ‘abroad’, to make some money from writing articles and also to check on a long-silent famous author who has resurfaced with a new novel – resulting in an amiable travelogue with comic characters and not much plot.
1960 Take a Girl Like You – the adventures of Jenny Bunn, twenty-year-old northern lass come down south to be an infant school teacher, who is pursued by every man she meets not to mention the lesbian lodger, and falls into a fraught relationship with public school teacher Patrick Standish, who is unforgivably harsh with her and sleeps with a number of other women, before they both rather reluctantly agree they have to get married.
1962 My Enemy’s Enemy – seven varied and persuasive short stories, including three set in an Army unit which anticipate The Anti-Death League and a seventh which is a short, powerful science fiction tale.
1963 One Fat Englishman – Obese, alcoholic, lecherous English publisher Roger Micheldene drinks, eats, insults and fornicates his way around New England, hideously embarrassing himself, his country, and the reader.
1965 The Egyptologists (with Robert Conquest) – an intermittently hilarious novel about a ‘society’ of Egyptologists with elaborate rules designed to prevent anyone outside the select few attending its scholarly meetings – but which, alas, turns out to be the front for a group of women-hating adulterers.
1966 The Anti-Death League – A long, convoluted and strikingly unfunny story about an Army Unit somewhere in the countryside which is preparing for an undefined and rather science fiction-y offensive, Operation Apollo, which will apparently have dire consequences for its officers. In particular the male lead, dashing James Churchill, who has a genuinely touching love affair with beautiful and damaged Catharine Casement.
1968 Colonel Sun: a James Bond Adventure (under the pseudonym Robert Markham)
1968 I Want It Now – The adventures of Ronnie Appleyard, an ambitious and predatory TV presenter, who starts off cynically targeting depressed young Mona, daughter of Lord and Lady Baldock, solely for her money and contacts, but finds himself actually falling in love with her and defying both the dragonish Lady B and the forces of the Law, in America and London.
1969 The Green Man – a short, strange and disturbing modern-day ghost story, told by the alcoholic, hypochondriac and lecherous Maurice Allington.
1971 Girl, 20 – Music critic Douglas Yandell gets dragged into the affair which elderly composer Sir Roy Vandervane is having with a 17-year-old girl and the damage it’s doing his family and grown-up daughter, the whole sorry mess somehow symbolising the collapse of values in late-1960s England.
1973 The Riverside Villas Murder – Detective novel set in the suburban Home Counties where the loss of handsome 14-year-old schoolboy Peter Furneaux’s virginity is combined with a gruesome murder, both – it turns out – performed by the same good-looking neighbour.
1974 Ending Up – A short powerful novel showing five old people, relatively poor and thrown together by circumstances into sharing a run-down country cottage, getting on each others’ nerves, appalling younger relatives when they visit, plotting and scheming against each other, until the bleakly farcical ending in which they all die.
1975 The Crime of the Century – detective serial written for the Sunday Times then published as an entertaining novella, Amis’s style is stripped to the bone in this yarn of a serial killer of women who succeeds in sowing multiple red herrings and false leads, before his melodramatic and implausible attempt on the Prime Minister’s life.
1976 The Alteration – a brilliantly imagined alternative reality in which the Reformation never happened and England is a central part of the ongoing Catholic Hegemony over all Europe, known simply as ‘Christendom’, in a novel which explores all aspects of this strange reality through the story of a ten-year-old choirboy who is selected for the great honour of being castrated, and how he tries to escape his fate.
1978 Jake’s Thing – Oxford don Jake Richardson has become impotent and his quest to restore his lost libido is a ‘hilarious’ journey through the 1970s sex therapy industry although, as always with Amis, the vitriolic abuse and sharp-eyed satire is interspersed with more thoughtful and even sensitive reflections on middle-age, love and marriage.
1980 Russian Hide-and-Seek – Soft science fiction set in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians and in which a hopeless attempt to overthrow the authorities is easily crushed.
1984 Stanley and the Women – First person narrative told by muddling middle-aged advertising salesman Stanley Duke, whose son Steve suffers a severe mental breakdown, thus (somehow) leaving poor old Stan at the mercy of his wife, ex-wife, ex-mistress and the insufferable female psychiatrist who treats the boy. Long, windy, self-pitying, misogynistic.
1986 The Old Devils – A 400-page magnum opus describing the lives, tangled relationships, the endless bitching and phenomenally unhealthy drinking of a dozen or so elderly, grumpy Welsh men and women, the trigger of the meandering ‘plot’ being the arrival back in their South Wales community of professional Welshman and tireless philanderer, Alun Weaver. Long and gruelling until its surprisingly moving and uplifting conclusion.
1988 Difficulties with Girls – A sequel to Take A Girl Like You, revisiting lecherous Patrick Standish (35) and his northern wife (Jenny Bunn) as they settle into a new flat on London’s South Bank, encounter the eccentric neighbours and struggle with Patrick’s sex addiction.
1990 The Folks That Live on the Hill – An amiable look at a cast of characters which rotate around retired librarian Harry Caldecote who lives in London with his sister, worries about his dim brother Freddie, and the rather helpless lesbian Bunty who he’s found accommodation for, dodges his scheming son Piers and his alcoholic niece-by-marriage, posh Fiona. His most enjoyable novel for years.
1991 We Are All Guilty – A short polemical novella for teenagers in which Amis dramatises his feelings that society has become rotten with do-gooding social workers, psychiatrists and trendy vicars, via the story of Clive Rayner, a teenage tearaway who breaks into a warehouse for kicks but causes an accident in which the night watchman is crippled. Instead of being harshly punished, Clive finds himself being exonerated and forgiven by everyone, which leaves him boiling with rage and frustration.
1992 The Russian Girl – Middle-aged Russian literature expert, Dr Richard Vaisey, has an affair with a talentless young Russian woman poet who is visiting London, which results in his wealthy wife kicking him out of their house, destroying all his books and notes, cutting off his allowance and generally decimating his life. Brutally funny.
1994 You Can’t Do Both – The boyhood and young manhood of Robin Davies who, like Amis, is at secondary school during the 1930s, at Oxford during the war, obsessed with girls girls girls throughout, and completely fails to live up to his responsibilities as a supposed adult, continuing to have affairs behind his loyal wife’s back until his final, humiliating come-uppance.
1995 The Biographer’s Moustache – Literary hack, Gordon Scott-Thompson, is commissioned to write a ‘critical biography’ of super-annuated novelist and social climber Jimmie Fane, leading to a sequence of comic escapades, which include being seduced by his pukka wife and a prolonged visit to the surreally grand home of the Duke of Dunwich, before Gordon’s plans, inevitably, collapse around him. Very enjoyable.

Horse Under Water by Len Deighton (1963)

‘Your job is to provide success at any price. By means of bribes, by means of theft or by means of murder itself. Men like you are in the dark, subconscious recesses of the nation’s brains. You do things that are done and forgotten quickly.’ (p.141)

The Ipcress File made Len Deighton famous overnight. It sold out repeat reprints and there were high hopes for this, the sequel. Ipcress had identified itself as ‘Secret File No.1’ and Horse Under Water had ‘Secret File No.2’ prominently displayed on the cover suggesting a direct link, but it is not so much a sequel as part of a series of novels about the same British spy (unnamed in the novels, though given the name Harry Palmer in the series of movies starring Michael Caine). Ie a spy series like the Bond books which started in 1953, or le Carré’s Smiley series which started in 1961 (and like numerous others I’m probably not aware of). Apparently, Deighton planned five novels but only four were published before he moved on to other things.

Paratextuality and presentation

As well as the supposedly official stamp on the flyleaf (saying the text has been ‘Downgraded to unclassified’), and the letter placed before the narrative and dated 1941, which is meant as a clue to the plot, and the customary footnotes throughout as well as longer appendices explaining references in the text, there is another page before the main text, titled ‘Solutions’ with 58 numbered words on it. It took a few chapters for me to realise it’s another Deighton game – each chapter title is a cryptic crossword clue, the ‘Solutions’ page gives the one-word answers, and these answers sum up the matter of the chapter.

(Crosswords In Ipcress the Narrator very conspicuously fusses over a crossword from page 40 to page 140; similarly, in this book he starts a crossword about three-quarters the way through and his worrying over the clues mirrors the slotting together of the ‘plot’.)

Inconsequential detail

Jean and I spent a lazy Saturday afternoon. She washed her hair and I made lots of coffee and read a back issue of the Observer. The TV was just saying ‘… a Blackfoot war party wouldn’t be using a medicine arrow, Betsy…’ when the phone rang. (Ch 4)

The text is packed with inconsequential detail, overheard snippets of conversation, fragments (like the fragments of demotic life quoted in the classic Modernist texts of Joyce or Eliot).

The rain beat heavily against the car windows. Outside Woolworth’s a woman in a plastic raincoat was smacking a child in a Yogi Bear bib. Soon we stopped at Admiralty Arch. (Ch 13)

These are all alienation techniques – foregrounding the trivial, repressing the important, a continual textual self-consciousness which:

  • shows the Narrator’s mind is permanently registering every detail of his surroundings, like a trained camera
  • keeps the reader alert to the fact that we are reading a fiction
  • is a running commentary on the trivia of consumer culture

He mentions cubism at one point and I wondered if the novel could be compared to cubist technique. In many places the sentences don’t follow as a train of thought but jump from one facet to another, like an attempt to see all the angles of a situation at the same moment.

Something similar can be said about the very short chapters, often only a page long, like facets of a diamond, scores of shiny surfaces refracting the light – the secret – at the core of the gemlike plot. On the other hand, they don’t seem short because so much is conveyed by them. I’d hazard a guess that Deighton put a lot of work into cutting back his texts, paring away till they are as clipped and allusive as possible.

Super detachment

In a more conventional spy story the protagonist would be thinking through his issues and problems with us. The majority of text in the Alistair MacLean novels I’ve been reading consists of the hero thinking through very thoroughly all possible avenues of action, sharing and involving the reader in his high-tension predicament, then doing it all over again as the situations change and plans have to be adapted.

The exact opposite, Deighton very deliberately eschews almost all inner thinking by his protagonist. He is at pains to show how detached and clinical his protagonist is and, since it is the detached clinical protagonist telling the story, the narrative itself comes over as clinical and detached. For example, a colleague who’s been helping out on the Portugal job gets into our man’s car at the London Airport car park to drive it over to him and the car explodes, killing this colleague, as our man watches.

Joe was at the far end of the enclosure; he opened the door of my VW, got in and switched on the main lights. The rain tore little gashes through the long beams. From inside the car came an intense light; each window was a clear white rectangle, and the door on Joe’s side opened very quickly. It was then that the blast sent me across the pavement like a tiddly-wink. ‘Walk, not run,’ I thought. I jammed my spectacles on to my nose and got to my feet. A cold current of air advised me of an eight-inch rent in my trouser leg. (Ch 20)

‘Advised.’ The text evinces training, self-discipline, no emoting. It tags our man as he follows standard procedure ie we follow who he calls, what code words he uses, and so on. Our man steals a taxi and calmly drives away. The last sentence, the parting thought of the sequence, the thing the author wants to imprint on your mind about the whole incident, is: ‘I soon mastered the knack of double-declutching the crash gearbox.’ Cool, in the sense of absolutely unflustered and not admitting to any feeling.

Always with the vivid detail; rarely with the thought; never any emotion.

Description instead of plot

A lot of effort is gone into puzzling and confusing the reader. Puzzles, like the crossword clues. Deighton gives description instead of exposition. Much of this description is vivid and brilliant, sharp snapshots of people and places and scenes.

I watched the waves moving down on to the shore. Each shadow darkened until one, losing its balance, toppled forward. It tore a white hole in the green ocean and in falling brought its fellow down, and that the next, until the white stuffing of the sea burst out of the lengthening gash. (Ch 15)

Worth remembering that, before his writing career took off, Deighton studied at Saint Martin’s School of Art, won a scholarship to the Royal College of Art, worked as an illustrator in New York and as an art director in an advertising agency. He has a good eye, very good. Possibly this contributes to the tendency for detail not discourse, pictures not ideas.

There is a point on the A3 near Cosham at which the whole of Portsmouth Harbour comes into view. This expanse of inland water is a vast grey triangle pointing to the Solent. The edges are sharp serrated patterns of docks, jetties and hards enclosing the colourless water. (Ch 3)

A bit like a Paul Nash landscape. And since a lot of the novel is set in Portugal this gives plenty of opportunity for painterly descriptions.

We walked through the fish market. The flat concrete benches were ashine with bream and gilthead, pilchards, sardines and mackerel. Outside the sun reflected off the sea with a million flashing pinpoints of light, as though every bird was sitting there on the ocean top flashing angry white wings. (Ch 15)

Page after page of vivid – if often rather mannered – description. Sunday supplement subject matter – wow! the exotic destinations! The Algarve! Marrakesh! – done in Modernist-lite style. All very enjoyable.

The scrawny old houses [of Albufeira] stared red-eyed into the sunset. Two or three cafés – houses with a public front room – opened their doors, pale-green colour-washed walls were punctuated with calendar art, and crippled chairs leaned against the walls for support. In the evening the young bloods came to operate the juke box. A small man in a suede jacket poured thimble-size drinks from large unlabelled medicine bottles under the counter. Behind him green bottles of ‘Gas-soda’ and ‘Fru-soda’ grew old and dusty. (Ch 43)


And all the brighter and more exotic by contrast with sorry smoggy London. Fog, smog, bedsits, rented flats, threadbare carpets, shillings for the meter.

The airport bus dredged through the sludge of traffic as sodium-arc lights jaundiced our way towards Slough. (Ch 6)

Anti-Bond, anti-London clubs, swish apartment and best hotels. The narrator’s offices are in unglamorous Charlotte Street, he lives in a flat in Southwark and his beady eye registers all the shabby details of modern life.

I leaned upon the gravy-stained tablecloth as Paddington slid past. Soot-caked dwellings pressed together like pleats in a concertina. Grey laundry flapped in the breeze. Past Ladbroke Grove the small gardens suffocated under choking debris, only corrugated iron and rusty wire remained of things collapsed. (Ch 39)

Reminiscent of Philip Larkin’s famous downbeat poem of observations from a train, Whitsun Weddings, which was published just around this time, in 1964. But London is big and varied, and there are also numerous bursts of knowing sarcasm.

Number 37 Little Charton Mews is one of a labyrinth of cobbled cul-de-sacs in that section of Kensington where having a garage as a living-room is celebrated by planting a rose bush in a painted barrel. (Ch 48)

The Welsh countryside in winter comes alive under his pen.

On the horizon bare branches grew across the grey skyline like cracks in sheets of ice. Foraging around the snow patches of rooks fluttered and flopped until my arrival sent them climbing into the moist air, their black wings richly pink in the light. (Ch 40)

There are lots of paragraphs worth reading and rereading and savouring for the pure pleasure of their prose. In these early books Deighton is a wonderful stylist.


He’s not Oscar Wilde. There’s not a lot of repartee and back-chat. But what there is fits the overall style in being pithy, smart, wry, detached.

Joe MacIntosh drove me to one of the married-officer accommodations along Europa Road past the military hospital. It was 3.45am. The streets were almost empty. Two sailors in white were vomiting their agonising way to the Wharf and another was sitting on the pavement near Queen’s Hotel.
‘Blood, vomit and alcohol,’ I said to Joe, ‘it should be on the coat of arms.’
‘It’s on just about everything else,’ he said, sourly. (Ch 7)

Do these two government agents discuss the mission? Do they swap notes or catch up on information? Nope. Instead there is signature Deighton inconsequential detail, indirection and smart repartee. Very snappy, very with it, very 1963. Of course, the Narrator is cocky with his superiors, that’s part of his schtick. Thus Dawlish, his boss, gives him a snippet of his personal life.

‘Present from my son. He’s very fond of quotations by Wellington. Each year on the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo we have a little party, and all the guests have to have an anecdote or quotation ready.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I do the same thing every time I pull on my Wellington boots.’ Dawlish slid me a narrowed glance. (Ch 39)

‘Slid the narrow glance’ has Raymond Chandler’s feel for exotic ways of describing looks, his obsession with eyes. Similarly, Deighton’s snappy take on the trials and tribulations of everyday life, such as gas meters and payphones.

He took me up to a room on the third floor back. It had an antique gas-meter that looked hungry. I fed it some one-franc pieces. It liked them…I dialled a Bayswater number. The phone made the noises associated with making a phone call in England. It buzzed, clicked and purred; it had more tones than a chromatic scale. After two or three tries it even rang at the other end. (Ch 31)

Witty comparisons

I don’t know whether Chandler invented the smart-alec simile, but it seems to be part of the humorous self-consciousness of the thriller genre. It is flashy. The text is showing off its savviness with language just as the protagonists show off their knowledge of guns and cars and (in Deighton’s case, especially) good food. The whole genre is supremely confident and knowing. It is letting you into its secrets. Look, I can handle a .38 Smith & Wesson hammerless 6-shot. Look, I know how to prepare authentic stifado. Look, I understand how to play off competing government intelligence agencies. Look, this is how vividly I see everything:

Dawlish was a tall, grey-haired civil servant with eyes like the far end of a long tunnel… Dawlish nodded, removed his spectacles and dabbed at his dark eye-sockets with a crisp handkerchief. Behind him on the window ledge the sun was rolling dusty documents into brandy snaps. (Ch 2)

The old man switched off the motor. It spluttered like a candle, and there was a brief silence before the sea began its background music. Left to the disposition of the ocean the little boat was handed from wave to wave like a rich patient between specialists. (Ch 12)

HK lived a long way down the Praca Miguel Bombarda. It was a simple house with a red-and-white tiled entrance hall. The dark furniture did a heavy dance as we walked across the uneven plank flooring. From the entrance hall one could see right through the house to where the light-grey sea, dark clouds and whitewashed stone balcony hung like a tricolour outside the back door. (Ch 14)

Dawlish took out a handkerchief and lowered his nose into it, like he was going from a seventh-storey window into something held by eight firemen. (Ch 19)

A little finger of grey cloud rubbed the tired eye of the moon. (Ch 24)

I sat down. I was as limp as a Dali watch. (Ch 45)

He closed his eyes, gulped down his claret and leaned against the wall like a worn-out roll of line. (Ch 50)


Deighton’s style incorporates a wide array of prose strategies: very clipped factual; poetic prose, specially nature scenes; brief dialogue snippets; technical specifications; English posh (upon, whilst, amongst), quoting newspapers, TV adverts. But in the second half of Horse I noticed more Americanisms. During the interview with the American drug smuggler, HarryKondit, in the heroin factory, the Narrator becomes briefly American, using Damon Runyan or Raymond Chandler argot, telling HK he can ‘fade’. On the boat, in the next scene, he is afraid lying on the deck ‘could earn me a slam on the kisser, too’ (p. 176.)

(I noticed that the puffs on the cover of Funeral In Berlin include one from the San Francisco Chronicle saying Deighton is ‘the Raymond Chandler of the cloak and dagger set.’)

And the plot?

Diving There is a plot, of course, quite a few plots in fact, which keep our narrator (and us) confused right up to the end of the text. Number one, our man is instructed to recruit divers to investigate a WWII German submarine sunk off the Portuguese coast. The plan is to retrieve counterfeit Nazi money the sub is reported to have been carrying, and use it fund Portuguese revolutionaries who are planning to overthrow the Salazar dictatorship. If they come to power, they will owe a debt to HMG. Which HMG will have achieved at no cost, thus pleasing the accountants.

Albufeira The first half of the book is dominated by diving: the Narrator’s (comic) diving instruction by the Navy at Portsmouth; then the flight to Gibraltar, picking up Joe MacIntosh, Our Man in Spain, and an Italian named Girgio, the Best Diver In Europe; then the drive to the fishing village of Albufeira and setting up base in an apartment there. Then the unexpected arrival of two ‘helpers’ from the British Embassy in Lisbon, pukka Clive Singleton and good-looking Charlotte Lucas-Mountford, quickly nicknamed Charly. Then the settling into a routine of morning dives to the U-boat.

Strangers Here they are approached by the charming American, Harry Kondit (aka HK) who knows everyone in town including a weaselly 40-year-old fixer, Fernie, and the highly suspect Big Man of the region, Senhor Manuel Gambeta do Rosario da Cunha. The Narrator is deeply suspicious of all of them.

Back in London As diving operations proceed, the Narrator makes a lot of short trips back to London to check on a number of other strands: first, a light-hearted one about a scheme he and his boss have, to set up a new network of informants; second, on his return from the diving training in Portsmouth he was followed by cars, one registered to Cabinet Minister, Henry Smith. What is Smith’s interest? While the Narrator is supervising the diving off the Portugal coast, what is going on behind his back in England? Who are his English enemies? What is the deep history of these English foes ie is there a long-term conspiracy?

Then the third element is the assortment of foreigners he meets in Portugal, who each seem to have their own agendas. There are several distinct threads:

  • scientific breakthrough – one of the cars that followed the narrator back from his training course in Portsmouth was owned by a certain Ivor Butcher, the man who sold Intelligence what appear to be worthless plans for converting ice into water instantly by interfering with the molecular structure (ie useful for missile-firing submarines cruising under Arctic ice sheets). References to it crop up in houses of suspects etc: does it work, after all? Is this what the plot is about? The Narrator meets Butcher at the bar of the Ritz, where he buys off him the diary of Henry Smith which happens to have been nicked by one of Butcher’s burglar contacts – in it the Narrator finds coded messages which seem to refer to smuggling industrial components to Red China.
  • drug smuggling – about two-thirds through the Narrator gets an analysis back from Forensics that the canister they extracted from the U-boat had traces of heroin attached. He makes a trip down to Cardiff, to the FO Forensics Lab, and spends an evening with our drugs expert in his chilly Welsh home, being briefed on the drug world circa 1962, including the large amount of acetic acid generated as a by-product of heroin production.

A vivid description of his first dive into the U-boat ends with Giorgio suddenly appearing with his arm badly ripped, bleeding. The Narrator takes him to the surface, and brings him ashore where he dies of shock and blood loss.

Soon after discovering the canister which Giorgio extracted from the U-boat has traces of heroin in it, the Narrator finds from the Research Dept that da Cunha is in fact a former German naval officer and the shifty Fernie is a renegade British Navy officer and frogman. Aha.

Back in Albufeira, with Giorgio and Joe dead (blown up in the Narrator’s car at Heathrow), Singleton requests leave, and, left to themselves, Charly seduces the Narrator. Over a post-coital cigarette she mentions HK runs a big cannery factory, which generates lots of acetic acid, hence the vinegar smell. Double aha! The Narrator immediately goes over to the factory with Charly and a gun and catches HK red-handed refining heroin.

Confronting HK Long chapter in which the Narrator finds out a lot: Fernie found heroin in the old sub; encouraged HK to set up a refinery, which then became a business; the raw material is thrown overboard on buoys from passing ships, collected by Fernie, processed by HK, sealed in sardine cans and attached to the hulls of ships bound to the States; recovered by frogmen their end. Da Cunha is an ex-Nazi, but not directly involved: HK pays him protection money, and da Cunha borrows HK’s big pleasure boat whenever he wants to. Fernie knows Ivor Butcher who’s visited a few times: but does this make Butcher a messenger from Smith, or back to Smith? After HK has said everything the Narrator lets him go but Charly, unexpectedly, pulls a gun and shoots him, only wounding him. The Narrator intervenes, takes the gun, allows HK to flee. Turns out Charly is a US Narcotics agent.

On the boat HK flees but leaves a note saying Fernie’s going out on the boat for another pick-up. The Narrator gets Charly to row him out and hides on the boat. Fernie turns up and, along with the 14 year-old street urchin Augusto, goes out to pick up the next drop of opium. The Narrator gets the drop on them but only after they’ve failed to collect the merchandise. He beats Fernie in a fight and establishes it wasn’t dope Fernie was after, but the Weiss List. The Weiss List is a list of high-placed individuals in England who were ready to collaborate when the Nazis invaded. Fernie knows da Cunha has it hidden in a sunken buoy.

(Fernie’s life story Fernie tells his life story ie fighting for Franco during the Spanish War, volunteering as a Navy diver, being captured by the Germans, and recruited into The League of St George which would have become the Nazi Party in occupied Britain, led by Graham Loveless, Henry Smith’s nephew. As the Allies advanced he and Loveless photocopied the list and buried it, before being arrested. Loveless threatened to reveal all the names on it and was hanged for his troubles; Fernie lived. But when Fernie returned to Hanover to dig up the list, a block of flats had been built on it. Meanwhile, the man now known as da Cunha had secured the only copy and was using it liberally to blackmail eminent Brits, a small part to fund HK’s heroin factory, but mostly to support a network of Fascist parties across Europe.)

As the boat approaches shore again, HK shoots Fernie dead using the rifle with telescopic sights. He uses up all his bullets allowing the Narrator to get ashore, hook up with Charly and visit da Cunha’s villa – long abandoned – but where he finds another, and much larger, laboratory. Aha. He orders Singleton to pack up all the diving gear and return it to London. And then the Narrator returns to London himself.

Dawlish and the Narrator get their intelligence committee off the ground. Dawlish signs ‘Closed’ on the Albufeira file but the Narrator refuses to let it lie. It feels like the story is finished to me, but it in fact continues for another 30 pages of densely packed narrative. Da Cunha makes the mistake of leaving some equipment in his old lab and then ordering it to be shipped to him. The Narrator has put surveillance on the villa and follows the equipment to a small airfield where it’s loaded onto a plane heading south. He gets air traffic control in Gibraltar to follow the plane as it flies across the Med to Marrakesh.

Marrakesh Here there is a bizarre scene where the Narrator uses influence with the local police to track down da Cunha, and interview him. Da Cunha is now openly the former Nazi Knabel, and he confirms that the expensive lab is to continue working on his (madcap) scheme to turn ice into water for military purposes, before beginning to froth at the mouth (literally) about the rebirth of a Europe-wide Fascist movement. The Narrator patronises him about this because all the time Ossie, a professional burglar we met earlier in the novel, is breaking into da Cunha’s quarters and stealing the transmitter set to the frequency of the buoy at the bottom of the sea off Albufeira which contains the Weiss List.

Helicopters Cut to the Narrator and divers spending several days criss-crossing the sea off Portugal until they pick up the beacon signal, then transmitting the call which makes the buoy rise to the surface, where it is easily retrieved. the Narrator opens it on board a naval vessel and, sure enough, it contains detailed correspondence with high ranking British Nazi sympathisers. Da Cunha had been using it for years to blackmail money out of men like Smith. Now the Narrator sees why he was tailed, and why Smith was interested in him. It was to hide the existence of the Weiss List, not to cover the heroin smuggling that his car was blown up at Heathrow.

We knew When the Narrator presents all this as new evidence to his boss, Dawlish, the latter pulls out a big file marked Young Europe Movement. He’s known about it all along. They were just using the Narrator because they knew he’d flush out the list itself. So the heroin was a side issue, after all. The ice-to-water device was moonshine. It was all about the Weiss List, but will any of the Nazi sympathisers be arrested? Of course not. Though Intelligence will let it be known that the full list is now in their hands…


The narrative is often confusing because the plot is confusing because the basic premise of the series is that spying is confusing. As the Narrator tells the Minister on page two of The Ipcress File, the story is confusing because he’s in a confusing business. Similar sentiments here:

‘It’s so confusing, isn’t it?’ Charly said.
‘Confusing,’ I replied. ‘Of course it’s confusing. You involve yourself in industrial espionage and then you complain about it being confusing.’ (Ch 44)

Cleverer people than me have been completely flummoxed by Deighton’s plots. Having read all the early ones, I’ve realised the best thing is to relax and enjoy the view – the style and presentation – and let the plot look after itself. Not, in fact, unlike the Narrator who is often as perplexed as we are.

I walked to the beach trying to arrange the facts I had access to. As I look back on it I had enough information then to tell me what I wanted to know. But at that time I didn’t know what I wanted to know. I was just letting my sense of direction guide me through the maze of motives. (Ch 43)

And, in keeping with the fundamental worldview of the books that the world is vastly more complicated and fractured than any one narrative can capture – ‘There would always be unexplainable actions by unpredictable people. (Ch 47) – some loose ends are never tied up.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said.
‘OK but don’t ever hanker after tidiness. Don’t ever think or hope that the great mess of investigation that we work on is suddenly going to resolve itself like the last chapter of a whodunnit… After we’re all dead and gone there will still be an office with all those manilla dust-traps tied in pink tape. So just knit quietly away and be thankful for the odd sock or even a lop-sided cardigan with one sleeve. Don’t desire vengeance or think that if someone murders you tomorrow we will be tracking them down mercilessly. We won’t. We’ll all be strictly concerned with keeping out of the News of the World and the Police Gazette.’ (Ch 21)

Dramatis personae

  • The Narrator – 40-something British Intelligence agent
  • Dawlish – his boss
  • Jean – his secretary and lover
  • ‘Tinkle’ Bell – 17-stone employee of British intelligence
  • Henry Smith – Cabinet Minister whose car was used to tail the narrator back from his diving course in Portsmouth and who he suspects of masterminding something. Smith tries to use his influence to get the diving operation cancelled but two thirds of the way through the book the Narrator confronts Smith in his immensely posh club. Firstly, he refuses to obey the order to abandon the diving; secondly, he bluffs Smith, saying he knows about his component-smuggling-to-Red-China operation, something he has deduced from other sources. Smith appears genuinely taken back by the Narrator’s knowledge of this and for a while we are left wondering whether this is what the story is actually about.
  • Giorgio – Italian diver they hire to investigate the sunken U-boat. He becomes nervous and the Narrator spots him heading off one night for a secret rendezvous; then, when accompanying the Narrator on the latter’s first dive to the U-boat, Giorgio is murdered, his diving suit shredded, his arm badly mauled, he dies of shock and blood loss as the Narrator just about manages to bring him ashore.
  • Joe MacIntosh – intelligence man in Portugal, fixes up the flat in Albufeiras for the Narrator and Giorgio. In a shock scene is killed when he gets into the Narrator’s car at Heathrow airport and it explodes. Who planted the bomb? Why did they want to kill the Narrator?
  • Clive Singleton – from the British Embassy in Portugal, turns up at the Narrator’s flat in Albufeiras, which the Narrator is not happy with. Good swimmer, is soon assisting Giorgio in his daily dives to the U-boat.
  • Charlotte Lucas-Mountford aka Charly – accompanies Singleton to the Albufeira apartment, quickly settles in as the home help, shopping at the local market, cooking, cleaning, washing shirts. She has a striking figure which she shows off in various bikinis and micro-skirts. 1960s sexism, if you choose to object. Against his better judgement the Narrator is seduced by her, whereupon she tips him off about HK’s heroin factory. N promptly raids it and interviews HK, is prepared to release him but Charly shoots HK, though not fatally. She is a US Narcotics agent, and drops out of the story at this point.
  • Harry Kondit, known as HK – loud American who approaches them on the beach and quickly is inviting to them to dinner, knows all about the diving. Suspicious. Turns out to be a heroin processor. Shot by Charly but escapes, they think he’s fled town. But he is hiding and shoots Fernie dead with rifle with telescopic sights from the clifftops.
  • Senhor Jorge Fernandes Tomas aka Fernie – 40-year-old local fixer. Highly suspicious. Turns out to be renegade Royal Navy officer and frogman, Bernard Peterson. Loses a fight with the Narrator on the motor-boat, then spills the beans: he has been using the Weiss List to blackmail, as well as helping HK run the heroin operation. HK shoots him dead.
  • Senhor Manuel Gambeta do Rosario da Cunha – (allegedly) the leading man of the district: HK introduces him to the narrator who goes for a long intricate dinner at his palace, where the narrator acquiesces in the suggestion that he is a good friend of ‘Mr Smith’.
    • ‘You are in contact with Mr Smith?’
      ‘Of course I am,’ I lied quickly. (p.69)
  • After dinner Senhor da Cunha hands him a package claiming it was washed up with a body from the U boat: N takes it back to London where it is identified as a good quality die for forging British sovereigns. N suspects da Cunha is a fake, the story about a washed-up body is baloney; the die is some kind of bribe – but he doesn’t know what for. Da Cunha turns out to be ex-German Navy officer, using the Weiss List to blackmail eminent Brits, and using the proceeds to fund European Fascist movements. The Narrator tracks him to Marrakesh where he steals the transmitter used for retrieving the underwater container which holds the Weiss List.
  • Ossie – world-class burglar and underworld contact – tells the Narrator that the Portuguese revolutionaries he’s been ordered to give the Nazi counterfeit money to have signed a contract with a British arms manufacturer who’s got wind of being paid with counterfeit money and therefore wish to remove the Narrator. Is it they who planted the bomb in the Narrator’s car? In a second appearance at the end of the book, Ossie is commissioned by the Narrator to steal the transmitter used for retrieving the underwater container which holds the Weiss List.
  • Ivor Butcher – crook who sold British Intelligence the duff information about the ice converter (for £6,700!); also an underworld contact whose a middle-man passing messages from Smith to da Cunha.
  • Kevin Cassell – in charge of Intelligence records: reveals Henry Smith MP’s heavy involvement in arms companies, in backing the Nazis, Fascists, foreign dictators etc. Ends up in possession of the Weiss List.


Pop culture dates fantastically fast. These books have the quaintness of another era, 50 years ago. The narrator references a Jayne Mansfield calendar and the latest Miles Davis disc playing in the American’s yacht (‘Miles Davis began to pump the cabin full of sound,’ p.98), the Aldermaston marches and Tio Pepe sherry, Charlie Mingus, Elvis Presley, Omo soap powder. HK’s luxury yacht has a 17-inch TV set! But nothing dates it quite as dramatically as seeing the cars these guys were driving and regarded as the height of style.


Listing the initialisms is one way of viewing the text, of taking a specimen slice. For what it’s worth, to out-Deighton Deighton, I give them in the order they appear in the text, as clues to the direction the story takes, the foreign and glamorous right next to the mundane and banal.

  • WOOC (P) – the intelligence unit the narrator works for; initials never explained
  • VNV – Vós não vedes – ‘You do not see’, name of Portuguese revolutionary movement
  • FO – Foreign Office
  • HMG – Her Majesty’s Government
  • PST – Permanent Secretary to the Treasury
  • FST – Financial Secretary to the Treasury
  • QM – Quarter Master
  • PO – Petty Officer
  • CPO – Chief Petty Officer
  • HO – Home Office
  • WM – Weekly Memoranda sheets from the JIA (Joint Intelligence Agency) at the MoD (Ministry of Defence)
  • C-SICH – Combined Services Informatihttps://astrofella.wordpress.com/?s=chandleron Clearing House
  • DNI – Director of Naval Intelligence
  • CIGS – Chief of Imperial General Staff
  • PUS – Permanent Under-Secretary
  • LEB – London Electricity Board
  • FSL – (Home Office) Forensic Science Laboratory
  • PSL – Papavar somniferum Linnaeus, the species of poppy which yields opium
  • SD – Sicherheitsdienst
  • SS – Schutzstaffel
  • ARP – Air Raid Precautions
  • BUF – British Union of Fascists
  • ITMA – It’s That Man Again (radio show)
  • PIDE – (Portuguese) Internal Police for the Defense of the State

Organisations and acronyms are another way of avoiding the issues, as anyone who’s worked in a big organisation knows.

Related links

Cover of the 1963 Penguin paperback edition of Horse Under Water

Cover of the 1963 Penguin paperback edition of Horse Under Water

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

%d bloggers like this: