The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (1990)

In the soothing reek of his tobacconist’s quiet stockroom, at the corner of Chancery Lane and Carey Street, Oliphant held the corner of the blue flimsy above the concise jet of a bronze cigar-lighter in the shape of a turbanned Turk. (p.338)

This is a really absorbing, intelligent and often mind-blowing book.

We are in 1855, though not the 1855 familiar from history books, for this is an alternative history. The ‘point of divergence’ from actual history appears to come around 1822 when Charles Babbage, not only theorises about the possibility of a computing machine (as he did in actual history) but builds one. This sets off a cascade of technological changes which result in a new political party, the Industrial Radical Party, seizing power, apparently by the assassination of then-Prime Minister the Duke of Wellington, in 1831. This led to a period of widespread rioting and anarchy, during which Luddites smashed the new-fangled machinery, referred to by the characters as the Time of Troubles.

It was during, or as a result of this disorder, that the Industrial Radical Party came to power with a vision of a completely new type of society, governed by reason and science and calculation. The ‘Rads’ co-opted the more flexible of the Luddite and working class leaders into cushy jobs as leaders of tame trade unions (p.295). Once in power the ‘Rads’ inaugurate an era of dazzling new technological and industrial innovations, led by a great social movement of industrialists, radicals and savants.

Lord Byron emerges as the great orator of the Industrial Radical Party, but Charles Babbage is its grey eminence and foremost social theorist (p.93)

Examples of these innovations are that Charles Babbage’s Calculating Machine has found a wide variety of applications, including the creation of a Central Statistics Bureau which stores information about every person in the country via the medium of paper with holes punched in them (in reality, ‘punched card’ computers, which could only do very basic data storage, were not developed till the late 1890s, early 1900s).

Babbage’s very first Engine, now an honoured relic, was still less than thirty years old, but the swift progression of Enginery had swept a whole generation in its wake, like some mighty locomotive of the mind. (p.121)

British people are no longer ‘subjects’ in this technicalised society, they are ‘citizens’, each issued with a unique citizen number, against which numerous records are kept, including their credit rating.

Another example is the new-fangled kinetrope machines, sets of cellulose cards with images on them which are ‘clacked’ through a machine in front of a light source to produce moving images (about 40 years before the earliest moving picture machines were actually invented).

London’s underground train system is well advanced, with characters hopping off and on the noisy, smelly subterranean trains (in reality, the first tube line wasn’t opened until 1863). London’s streets are filled with steam engine-driven omnibuses or ‘gurneys’ as they seem to be called.

To summarise, in this alternative history, a wide range of new technologies have been developed about 50 years before they did so in the real world, and this produces a continual clash between the characters’ mid-Victorian speech, dress and behaviour, and the continual array of newfangled technology the authors keep creating for the to interact with.

Historical jokes

There are a number of knowing, nudge-nudge, boom-boom jokes in which the authors imagine alternative destinies for various Eminent Victorians. Thus I sat up with a jolt when one of the central characters is approached by a short, grey-haired man who says he started life as a doctor but then wasted his youth dallying with poetry, before finding his current métier – as a purveyor of kinetrope films. His name? John Keats.

Benjamin Disraeli, far from gouging his way up the ‘greasy pole’ of politics (it was Disraeli who coined that expression), is stuck as a super-fluent novelist and journalist.

A divergence from our history which is probably too large to be a ‘joke’ is that, in this alternative history, the American Civil war has already broken out and war is raging between the Union North and Confederate South. The most striking feature of the war has been a working class insurrection in New York which has led to the creation of a ‘Commune’ (just as was to happen in Paris in 1870) led by the German émigré journalist and agitator Karl Marx! Presumably he found an England ruled by the Industrial radical party not a safe place to settle and moved on to New York (where, after all, he had many sympathisers, the real Karl Marx writing numerous articles for the New York Daily Tribune as its Europe correspondent from 1852 to 1862).

Another joke for the literary-minded is the fact that, in this world Lord Byron did not die of malaria in Greece in 1824, but lived on to become a leader of the Radical Party and is, at the time of the novel, Prime Minister of England, although the social disturbances described in the middle of the story coincide with the ‘old Orator’s’ death.

In fact this is a central fact to the plot, because the mystery or secret at the heart of the book rotates around Byron’s daughter, Lady Ada Byron who was, in our version of history, an advanced practitioner of Babbage’s theories, so much so that she is nowadays sometimes credited with being the very first computer programmer. In reality Ada died aged only 36 in 1852; in the novel she is still alive, but a very dubious figure, rumour has it she is addicted to gambling of all sorts and, when we first meet her, she appears to be high on drugs.

Style

The prose is stuffed and cluttered with two distinct elements, steampunk and Victoriana.

Steampunk

Continual reference to machines and technologies and the political party and scientific discoveries which dominate the age, never letting you forget its novel alternative industrial ambience. Wherever possible people use gadgets, machines which click and clunk together, cards which have hole punches, steam-gurneys in the street, offices with voice tubes, telegraphs not only between post offices but extending to people’s individual houses, and so on. Here’s a description of Oliphant’s telegraph machines.

Three Colt & Maxwell receiving-telegraphs, domed in glass, dominated the end of the table nearest the window, their tapes coiling into wire baskets arranged on the carpet. There was a spring-driven transmitter as well, and an encrypting tape-cutter of recent Whitehall issue. the various cables for these devices, in tightly-woven sleeves  of burgundy silk, snaked up to a floral eyebolt suspended from the central lavalier, where they then swung to a polished brass plate, beating the insignia of the Post Office, which was set into the wainscoting. (p.296)

Or the scene at the enormous Central Statistics Bureau, keeper of the most powerful Engines which keep tabs on all citizens:

Behind the glass loomed a vast hall of towering Engines – so many that at first Mallory thought the walls must surely be lined with mirrors, like a fancy ballroom. It was like some carnival deception, meant to trick the eye – the giant identical Engines, clock-like constructions of intricately interlocking brass, big as railcars set on end, each on its foot-thick padded blocks. The whitewashed ceiling, thirty feet overhead, was alive with spinning pulley-belts, the lesser gears drawing power from tremendous spoked flywheels on socketed iron columns. White-coated clackers, dwarfed by their machines, paced the spotless aisles. (p.136)

Victorian slang

I wonder how two authors born in South Carolina (Gibson) and Texas (Sterling) managed to create a prose style absolutely stuffed with Victorian slang and argot.

Rich style

But above and beyond these two identifiable components, the style is just very rich, the sentences seamed with inventive imagery and interesting vocabulary. Here are our heroes standing by the sewage-laden Thames.

Fraser looked up and down the mudflats at the foot of the embankment. Mallory followed his gaze. Small boats were embedded in the grey-black mud as if set in cement. Here and there along the bend of the Limehouse Reach, rivulets of viridian slime reached up through the gouged tracks of channel-dredgers. (p.253)

Or Oliphant looking at mugshots of Victorian criminals:

It was a collection of stipple-printed Engine portraits. Dark-haired Englishmen with hangdog looks. The little square picture-bits of the Engine prints were just big enough to distort their faces slightly, so that the men all seemed to have black drool in their mouths and dirt in the corner of their eyes. They all looked like brothers, some strange human sub-species of the devious and disenchanted. (p.128)

Or the lowering weather during the Stink of London:

Outside the Palace, the London sky was a canopy of yellow haze.
It hung above the city in gloomy grandeur, like some storm-fleshed, jellied man-o’war. Its tentacles, the uprising filth of the city’s smokestacks, twisted and fluted like candlesmoke in utter stillness, to splash against a lidded ceiling of glowering cloud. The invisible sun cast a drowned and watery light. (p.164)

Or the kind of zippy, mind-expanding phraseology which prose can do better than all TV or film:

It was hot, uncommon hot, beastly hot. There was not a ray of sun but the air was mortally still and the high cloudy sky had a leaden, glowering look, as if it wanted to rain but had forgotten the trick of it. (p.138)

The plot

The book is divided into five ‘iterations’.

First Iteration: The angel of Goliad (62 pages)

Cockney courtesan Sybil Gerrard, daughter of the Luddite agitator Walter Gerrard (who was hanged as the Radical Party took power) has been taken up by Michael Radley, Flash Mick, who promises to make her an apprentice adventuress and take her with him to Paris. Flash Mick is orchestrating the European speaking tour of Texas legend and American politician, Sam Houston. We witness one of his speeches about his life and times, which is accompanied by a kinetrope projection of moving pictures onto the backdrop behind him, managed by Mick. However, Houston double crosses Mick by stealing the projection cards. Mick sends Sybil up to Houston’s hotel room, while he keeps the Texan busy drinking in the hotel’s smoking room but Sybil is horrified to discover an assassin waiting in the room, who holds his knife to her throat to hush her. A few minutes later Mick opens the door into the darkened room, and finds himself pinned against the wall by the assassin and his throat brutally cut. Then Houston himself arrives to find himself confronted by the assassin. He’s one of the Texan fighters who consider that Houston betrayed them, particularly when Texan soldiers were massacred by the Mexicans who’d captured them after the battle of Goliad, and ran off with their money. Houston tries to sweet talk him round but the assassin pushes him to the floor and then shoots him in the chest, before smashing the hotel window and escaping down the fire escape.

Horrified, Sybil crawls to Houston’s body as he gurgles pleas for help, and realise she is crawling over diamonds which have spilled out from Houston’s cane. The man was a walking treasure trove. She stuffs as many as she can into her bodice, then stands and exits the hotel room. Standing for a moment quietly in the empty hotel corridor, before walking as casually as she can away.

Second Iteration: Derby Day (23 pages)

Introduces us Edward Mallory, tall, bearded hero of a scientific expedition to Wyoming where he discovered the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus, hence his nickname ‘Leviathan Mallory’.

He is at Epsom for the Derby, drinking in the sights and sounds of a mid-Victorian day out. He goes to see his younger brother, Tom, who’s got a good job working for the designer and builder of a new type of (steam-powered) racing machine, Michael Godwin (p.74). The machine looks like a big tadpole on wheels, named The Zephyr. Godwin suggests Mallory bets £10 on the Zephyr, but he doesn’t have that much. So Godwin says he’ll lend Mallory a tenner and if they win they’ll share the proceeds, or he can pay him back if it loses. So Mallory goes along to a betting booth, places the £10 and then, on impulse, decides to gamble all the money he has in the world, £40. In an exciting race, Zephyr wins at long odds. Mallory makes £500 – he is rich!

Mallory is making way for a steam-powered brougham or carriage pushing through the crowd, when he notices the young woman sitting in it punching the older woman by her side (p.85).

Mallory immediately intervenes to protest but a rough-looking man driving the carriage leaps out and asks him what business it is of his, lunges at him and – Mallory realises – stabs him in the thigh with a stiletto. Mallory is a big man, he was a boxing champion and has survived in the wilds of the American West. Now he smashes the little spiv in the face, breaking some of his teeth. The bloodied little man screams at Mallory that he will not only kill him, he will destroy him.

Mallory helps the woman who was hit out of the coach. She is wearing a veil and talks as if drugged and quite calmly hands a long wooden box, ‘something like an instrument case’ (p.85). When she removes the veil he realises it is Ada Byron, daughter of the Prime Minister and one of the most important theoreticians of the calculating machines which dominate modern life, ‘Lady Ada Byron, the Queen of Engines’ (p.89). Mallory accompanies her to the Royal Box where she is let in by the security guards, but not him, who they turn away. He wanders off puzzled, to collect his winnings, and realises he is still holding the long wooden case. What is in it? Why did she hand it to him?

When Mallory opens it he discovers it is full of Engine-produced cellulose cards i.e. designed to be ‘clacked’ or projected onto a screen via a light source. Mallory stashes it in his locker at the Museum of Practical Geology (p.103).

Third iteration: Dark Lanterns (102 pages)

The phrase dark lanterns appears to refer to people working undercover, for whatever reason.

Having recently returned from a scientific expedition to the American mid-West – where he cemented his reputation by discovering the fossilised skeleton of a brontosaurus – Mallory is staying in rooms at the vast Palace of Palaeontology. Here he is visited by Laurence Oliphant, supposedly a journalist, in fact some kind of official, and wounded in the ‘Tokyo Affair’, by a sabre slash across his wrist.

Oliphant knows Mallory’s secret – that on the scientific expedition he also undertook gun-running tasks for the Royal Society Commission on Free Trade. Unnervingly, he also knows that Professor Rudwick, who has recently been murdered in London, was also carrying out secret offices for the Commission on Free Trade. Rudwick had been arming the Comanche Indians in Texas. He was murdered the same night Sam Houston was wounded and his publicist, Mick Radley, was eviscerated, as we saw in the first iteration.

(It takes some teasing out from the hints scattered across the narrative, but I think the gun-running is somehow to undermine America by making Texas focus on is own troubles with Indians. We know America is racked by a civil war. Britain is happy for America to remain fragmented into separate countries – the Union, the Confederacy, an independent republic of Texas, and so on.)

Mallory walks through central London to the Museum of Practical Geology in Duke Street, where he meets and chats with Thomas Henry Huxley, in real history famous for publicising Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. For a long time after Darwin’s theory was published there were two schools of evolutionists: uniformitarians who believed the world was immensely old and evolution had taken place very slowly over vast periods; and catastrophists, who believed the whole world and its living systems were regularly shaken by cataclysms, volcanic activity, tsunamis, comets crashing into the planet, you name it and that these catastrophes ware the driving force of change in life forms. Until the start of the 20th century they actually had science on their side, because all educated opinion had it that the sun was only a few million years old. This was because astrophysicists knew nothing about radiation and dated the sun on the basis that it was a burning ball of hydrogen (p.178). Only with the discovery of sub-atomic particles and the splitting of the atom did science realise that the sun is driven by nuclear fusion, and that this process could have been going on for billions of years, which swung the pendulum in favour of the uniformitarians.

In the 1980s and 1990s Stephen Jay Gould and colleagues advanced the theory of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ i.e. the notion of very long periods of slow change interrupted by a number of cataclysmic events which rewrote ‘the book of life’. The debate continues to this day.

The conversation with Huxley makes it clear that Mallory was a catastrophist (which matches the sometimes melodramatic events of this book) (p.115). Huxley introduces the man who is going to erect the brontosaurus bones into a life sized model at the museum, and they have an argument since he has been told to build the animal squatting like a frog, since a rival palaeontologist thinks it lived in swamps. Mallory strongly disagrees and says it must be built with a tall neck stretching up like a giraffe, since it ate leaves off the canopies of trees.

Mallory goes to Horseferry Road, site of the Central Statistics Bureau, heart of this Engine-based society. He’s been advised to come here by Oliphant, in order to track down the ruffian who stabbed him at Epsom using the CBS’s vast ‘Engines’, primitive computers used to file and sort vast numbers of punched cards. Oliphant told him to contact Wakefield, Undersecretary for Quantitative Criminology.

Mallory bribes the assistant, Tobias, who Wakefield allots to help him look through the mugshots the Engines shoot out on the basis of his description. Doesn’t seem to be a record of the cad who stabbed him. But there is a mugshot of the vividly red-haired ‘tart’ who he saw punch Lady Ada. She is Florence Bartlett.

Back at the Palace of Palaeontology, sweating because of the hot summer weather, Mallory has lunch and picks up letters from his family back in Sussex (much is made of his Sussex heritage and a Sussex accent he can revert to, if provoked), and his little sister who’s getting married. it crosses his mind to buy her a wedding present.

So after lunch in the Palace’s dining room, Mallory walks along Piccadilly to Burlington Arcade where he buys a large clock for his younger sister and discovers he is being followed by a man who holds a handkerchief to his mouth a lot, who Mallory christens the Coughing Gent. Mallory lets himself be trailed into an alleyway where he suddenly springs on the man, driving him to the ground when he is himself struck hard on the back of the head by a cosh and collapses dazed, then wanders back down the alleyway to Piccadilly, leaning against a paling with blood coursing down his head and neck.

He realises he is near where Oliphant lives and blunders up to the door of his house in Half Moon Street. Oliphant lets Mallory in, tells his man to get water and a flannel and proceeds to clean and stitch up the wound. When Mallory suddenly remembers he left his sister’s precious clock in the alleyway, Oliphant dispatches Bligh who discovers it untouched and brings it safely back. Oliphant playfully speculates whether the attack was made on behalf of rival scientists (or ‘savants’ as they’re called throughout the book) or is some kind of payback for his gun-running activities in America.

Either way, he recommends the discreet services of Inspector Ebenezer Fraser of the Bow Street Special Branch.

In an eerie scene Oliphant then introduces Mallory to half a dozen Japanese businessmen and diplomats who have come to learn the ways of the West and raise their land out of backwardness and superstition. They are all kneeling Japanese style at a lacquer table in a back room of Oliphant’s apartment. Here they demonstrate to him a robot woman they have made which pours out drinks.

After passing a hot sweaty night in his rooms at the Palace, Mallory is woken by cleaners come to flush out the stinking toilet. There’s also a letter printed on celluloid, demanding that he return the box he took from lady Ada, via instructions given in the Daily Express, and threatening to ruin him otherwise, signed ‘Captain Swing’. Even as he reads it the card bursts into flames and he has to grab other papers to douse it. At that moment Ebenezer Fraser enters his office.

Fraser shows Mallory a photo of Professor Rudwick’s cut-up body and a note which implies it is only the first in a series. It seems someone is trying to frame Mallory and scare fellow savants into thinking he is instigating a series of murders.

Fraser and Mallory walk through London while they discuss a number of issues, recent history, the Time of Troubles, the triumph of the Industrial Radical Party, Lady Ada Byron’s real character (a savant, yes, but also a notorious gambler) for Mallory has an appointment to meet the noted romantic novelist and scribbler, Benjamin Disraeli, who he finds eating a breakfast of coffee and stinking mackerel fried in gin (!). Disraeli has been engaged to write an account of Mallory’s adventures in America, which went well beyond scientific investigation for fossils and included friendship with the Native Americans. Mallory censors his memories for Disraeli (leaving out the fact he had sex with Indian women) and ends up helping the author fix an early form of typewriter.

Back in the street, Mallory hooks up with Fraser who had been waiting. Something weird is happening to the sky. It has turned a yellow colour and the atmosphere is thick and pestilent. Smells of sewage. This is the book’s version of the real historical event of the Great Stink of London which took place in 1858, when hot weather made stinks from the Thames overrun central London forcing Parliament to move to Oxford.

In this novel it combines with dense fog to create an end-of-the-world atmosphere.

Fraser exposes the Coughing Gent and (presumably) the accomplice who coshed Mallory, as well-known private detectives Mr J.C. Tate and Mr George Velasco. Sullenly, like naughty schoolboys, they put up with Fraser’s description of them, then, when Mallory offers to pay guineas, confess the man who put them up to following Malory is a fellow savant and rival palaeontologist, Peter Foulke.

They have a gritty lunch at a roadside booth and then return to the Palace of Palaeontology to discover that someone has broken in and set fire to his room, burning a lot of his papers and clothes. It is this ‘Captain Swing’ again who is clearly carrying out a vendetta till he gets the box of cards back. Luckily Mallory has hidden them safely where no-one will ever know – inside the skull of the brontosaurus fossil which the assistants are even now erecting in the museum. the only person he tells is Ada Lovelace, who he writes a personal message to.

Mallory now decides he wants to do some ‘genuine, blackguard, poverty-stricken drinking’ and Fraser suggests they go to the pleasure grounds at Cremorne Gardens in Chelsea. The shops are closing, The sky is dark yellow. it is difficult to breathe. Earlier they’d noticed the Underground railway workers had come out on strike claiming it was impossible to breathe underground. Now shops are putting up their shutters. Somewhere on the way to Chelsea Fraser and Mallory are best by a gang of boys, jeering in their faces, one of them riding an early type of roller skates. After yelling abuse at our chaps this boy spins out of control and shoots through a plate glass window. Instantly his mates start looting the shop. Fraser wades in and someone throws a shard of glass which embeds in his back, painfully though not fatally. Mallory pulls it out, staunches the bleeding and helps Fraser to the King’s Road police station.

Fourth iteration: Seven Curses (93 pages)

Mallory proceeds on to Cremorne Gardens where he gets drunk and chats up a woman with a fine figure if a blocky, lantern-jawed face. After a dance, they proceed to a snog, she takes him outside and lets him touch her breast. She persuades Mallory to pay their fare on a paddle streamer which will take them along the sluggish, effluent-filled Thames down to the East End. She’s called Hetty and we realise she is the flatmate of Sybil who we met in the first iteration. They are both courtesans.

Hetty takes Mallory back to her squalid little rooms where they have sex several times, in a manner constrained by Victorian convention and vocabulary, for example he has to pay a lot extra for her to strip naked. Mallory uses French letters he had earlier purchased in Haymarket, and the authors use the Victorian word ‘spend’ for orgasm which, along with numerous other details, give it an authentic historic feel.

Next morning Mallory emerges into a London which seems overcome by cataclysm. Overnight there has been widespread looting and shooting. Mallory himself is nearly shot down by a nervous shopkeeper. Firemen have been attacked. An omnibus pushed over and set on fire. London has collapsed into complete anarchy, with armed bands, drunk bands, rioters and looters roaming the streets and trashing street after street, as Mallory discovers as he makes his way through the foggy, dangerous streets. He gets set on by a mob and only frees himself by firing his revolver into the air.

Then, in a surreal scene, he comes along a trundling cart being used by three bill posters to stick up enormous posters along the base of London buildings. This all seems harmless until he reads one they’ve just put up which starts off publicising a speech to be given by him, Mallory, before turning nasty and accusing him of all sorts of crimes. Mallory threatens the bill posters who call for their boss, who describes himself as the Poster King and sits inside the jaunting, swaying carriage into which he invites Mallory for a civilised chat. He explains that they were engaged this morning by a man calling himself Captain Swing. This captain has based himself in the West India Docks. Mallory gives them cash in exchange for all the posters libelling him.

Mallory blunders through the fog dodging rioters to arrive back at the Palace of Palaeontology, with his clutch of posters. It is full of refugees from the heat and stink and fog and anarchy.

Here he is delighted to discover his brother Brian, back from service in India. And Tom, the youngest brother, has motored up in the famous Zephyr. What of the marriage of their younger sister? Mallory asks. Brian sadly informs him that some bounder wrote a letter to Madeline’s fiancé accusing the innocent girl of all kinds of scandal (pre-marital sex, basically).

Mallory explains the letter was written by the tout, the driver, the man who attacked him, the infamous Captain Swing. It is just part of a much larger campaign, for London is now plastered with posters exhorting the working classes to rise up against their oppressors and claim what is theirs. Fired by revenge, Brian and Tom vow to join Ned on a march to the west India Dock to find and punish this fiend. Fraser (who has joined them) agrees to come along, in the spirit of arresting this dangerous anarchist.

They trundle across London from Kensington to the Isle of Dogs on Tom’s Zephyr but when they get to the docks realise that its eight-foot-high walls are guarded and the gates locked and barred. The only way in is via the locks giving onto the Thames which is at low tide. So they strip and wade across the foul stinking mud, until they’re spotted by guards, a ragamuffin crew of anarchists, but pretend themselves to be anarchists and looters and so are helped up to ground level, washed off with water and cologne, and led along to a big meeting of the lads by a cocky young lad who calls himself the Marquess of Hastings.

Here, in a warehouse, Mallory is astonished to find an audience of looters and anarchists and communists being addressed by none other than Florence Russell Bartlett, the red-haired young woman who had been bullying Lady Ada at Epsom and is now haranguing an audience of lowlifes about ‘the revolutionary spirit of the working class’ (p.268)

Mallory has a coughing fit and is led away by the Marquess but, in his reactions to the speaker, pretty clearly gives himself away as a patriot and radical. Before he can react Mallory punches Hastings unconscious. Hasting’s black servant Jupiter stands watching, not lifting a finger. As he remarks:

‘There is nothing to history. No progress, no justice. There is nothing but random horror.’ (p.272)

Mallory returns to the lecture to find Bartlett now onto the death of the family and the triumph of free love in the communist society when he stands up and declares he has a message for Captain Swing. An uproar breaks out, chairs are thrown at him, Mallory brings out his pistol and shots are fired. Suddenly he, Brian, Tom and Fraser are on the run through the warren of Victorian warehouses. This turns into a prolonged fight, with our boys doing well but soon running out of ammunition while the enemy consolidate their position and begin sniping. our boys hide within an enormous pile of bales of cotton which they hurriedly erect into a makeshift fortress. The tide turns their way when Brian lets off an artillery piece he has, killing quite a few of the attackers, and making his way into the fortress with new rifles, but then they are again pinned down.

Captain Swing himself approaches waving a white flag, calling for a truce and asking for the return of the wooden box of cards. Then the entire situation is transformed with a tremendous explosion and collapse of part of the ceiling. One or more naval ships out in the Thames are firing at the docks, which have been identified as a centre of sedition. The roof collapses. Fire breaks out. Dead and injured anarchists lie about the floor. In a cinematic moment Mallory emerges to stand on the ‘parapet’ of the cotton fortress. Captain Swing, far away on the floor of the warehouse, takes aim and misses, while Mallory methodically swings a rifle into the correct grip, takes aim, and shoots Swing down. Fraser leaps to the parapet beside him then clambers down and across the body-littered warehouse floor to clap the wounded captain in handcuffs.

At just this moment the long sweltering heat stifling the capital finally breaks in a tremendous thunderstorm.

Catastrophe had knocked Swing’s fortress open in a geyser of shattered brick dominoes. Mallory, blissful, the nails of his broken shoe-heel grating, walked into a London reborn.
Into a tempest of cleansing rain. (p.287)

The last four pages of the chapter jump to Mallory as an old man of 83 in 1908. He lived to a ripe old age and rose to become President of the Royal Society. Now we find him in the study of his home and, in a manner entirely fitting the rather hallucinatory scenes we’ve just witnessed, the narrative gives two alternative scenarios for his death from heart failure.

On his desk are two folders, one to his left, one to his right. In one scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his left which describes the demise of the Japanese branch of the international Society of Light, which makes him sad and then so angry that he bursts an artery.

In the other scenario, Mallory opens the folder on his right which describes the amazing new fossil finds which have been made in the Burgess shale in western Canada, an explosion of weird and inexplicable animals shapes never seen before or since which creates such a rush of blood to his head that he suffers a stroke and dies.

Fifth iteration: The All-Seeing Eye (64 pages)

We appear to have left Mallory now. The new focus of the narrative is Laurence Oliphant, who poses as a dandyish journalist but quite obviously belongs to one of the security services with a special interest in tracking representatives of foreign powers.

It’s in this respect that he was hosting a dinner party for six Japanese men that Mallory interrupted. Now he goes about a day’s work accompanied by another fawning Japanese who is infatuated with British technology ad modern appliances, a Mr Mori Arinori.

We are told that it is November 1855, some six months after Mallory’s adventure in the cotton warehouse. Lord Byron has in fact died, and been replaced by Lord Brunel (presumably Isambard Kingdom) though not without civil disturbances through the summer and there now appears to be a purge of old Luddites whose cases are being reopened and re-prosecuted by the zealous Lord Charles Egremont who is conducting something of an anti-Luddite witch-hunt.

Oliphant’s leisurely drawling personage (‘his gaze, beneath the black brim of his top hat, is mild and ironical’) proceeds to:

– visit Dr McNeile, a physician who uses an articulated ‘manipulation table’ and electric currents applied to the body to try and cure ‘railway spine’, a spurious medical condition in which the ‘magnetic polarity of the spine’ is supposed to have been reversed by trauma. Oliphant had been recommended to McNeile by Lady Brunel, wife of the new Prime Minister (p.295).

– home to his house in Half Moon Street off Piccadilly, where his butler Bligh serves him a luncheon of cold mutton and pickle with a bottle of ale. Oliphant checks the three receiving-telegraphs on his desk and finds a request to meet from Fraser, the detective who accompanied Mallory through most of the previous two sections.

– take a cab to Brigsome Terrace in the East End where Fraser is waiting to show him the body of a huge man who died of poisoning while eating a tin of baked beans in a squalid little flat. Oliphant questions Fraser and his subordinate Betteridge. A complicated picture emerges whereby several Pinkerton agents arrived in London eighteen months earlier and had begun to extend a network of contacts and informants. Betteridge had been tasked with attending a performance by a troupe of women dancers come over from New York – The Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. New York is now a workers’ commune, run by Karl Marx (the authors describe the revolution growing out of anti-conscription riots, and there were indeed widespread and violent riots against the conscription imposed during the Civil War).

In the crowd at the panto performance Betteridge had spotted the well-known agitator, Florence Bartlett. It emerges that Bartlett is a well-known murderer and vitrioleuse i.e. acid thrower. She likely commissioned the Texian giant whose corpse they’re standing over to murder Professor Rudwick, when he refused to agree to some mission or task – and then poisoned the giant.

– next day proceeds to the Statistics Bureau and to see Wakefield to ask him to run information through to the Engines to tell him who sent a particular telegram to the Duke’s Hotel. Wakefield’s machine tells him it was Charles Egremont. Oliphant asks Wakefield to find the text of the telegram and leaves.

–  Oliphant is much possessed by memories of flash Mick Radley’s death. He was there in the smoking room getting drunk with Houston and Mick, when Mick was called out of the room by a scared-looking woman (who we know to be Sybil Gerrard). Later that night Oliphant was called back to the hotel and has vivid flashbacks of searching through the belongings of the eviscerated Radley and wounded Houston. The Texian connection links into the visit of the red Ballet, and the arrival 18 months earlier of the Pinkertons. No direct links, But a mood.

– to visit Mr Hermann Kriege, late of the New York Volks Tribüne, who had greeted Karl Marx to New York, and had been on the central committee of the commune Marx set up there, till they fell out and Kriege had to flee for his life, now living in poverty-stricken exile in a slum in Soho (like many other American exiles). Oliphant is paying him to be a spy and informer about goings-on in the émigré community.

– to a pub in nearby Compton Street, which hosts dogs fighting rats competitions. Much drinking and gambling and dead rats and, occasionally, dead dogs. Oliphant meets Fraser and together they go up to the rat arena where they meet the manager Sayers, and show him a daguerreotype of the giant found murdered in the East End. Sayers confirms that that’s the big man who murdered professor Rudwick. They bump into Tate and Velasco, the confidential agents we last saw assaulting Mallory, guns for hire. They are cocky and abusive so that Fraser nearly arrests them, but suave Oliphant is charm itself and tells him to desist. They swank themselves that they are hired by an eminent member of Parliament, Oliphant guesses Egremont.

– Oliphant breakfasts (presumably the next day) with Mori Arinori, the most zealous of the Japanese who have come to Britain to study its go-ahead culture. Oliphant takes him to the pantomime at the Garrick theatre, Whitechapel, to see the Manhattan Women’s Red Pantomime Troupe. The performance is full of inexplicable modernism and half naked women. They go backstage and are introduced to a ‘Helen America’ who insists they go round the corner to the latest thing in self-service cafeterias (Mr Arinori is entranced; in reality this kind of thing wouldn’t appear in America till 100 years later). Oliphant shows her an Engine-produced image of Flora Barnett which makes Helen America cross, saying Flora is no communist, is not even American. She realises Oliphant is some kind of policeman and storms out of the café.

– Arriving home, Oliphant discovers that the boy Tobias who he bribed at the Statistics Bureau has tracked down the punch code of the telegraphic message sent to Duke’s hotel and delivered it while he was out. After fiddling about with screwdrivers and such, he rigs up his own telegraph-receiving machine to read the card and translate it into text. It is an illiterate long message sent by Sybil Gerrard accusing Charles Egremont of ‘ruining’ her i.e. taking her virginity out of wedlock, which we saw her dictating and sending in the first chapter, when Sybil thought she was going to Paris with flash Mick.

– Oliphant, rather amazingly, pays a visit to Albert the Prince Consort, with whom he on intimate terms, having brought a present for the son and heir, Alfred. (It turns out the Japanese automaton we saw earlier in the story was also a gift designed for young ‘Affie although, like most children, he’s managed to break it). In the middle of reading Affie the new storybook he’s brought, an urgent message comes for Oliphant.

He races by cab to Fleet Street where he discovers there’s been an outrage. Florence Bartlett and two assistants broke into the Museum of Practical geology and stole the skull Mallory’s brontosaurus. They made their getaway in a horse and trap. Getting caught in a jam with another cab, the baddies pulled out a gun, passing police fired on them and there happened to be a soldier passing by and carrying one of the new ‘Russian shotguns’ which – I have only now realised – are a newfangled type of extremely destructive hand-held weapon, maybe like a bazooka (I realise Brian had used one of these to devastate the attackers in the Battle of the West India Docks). Anyway, Florence Bartlett and her two assistants are very dead, along with half a dozen passersby and police. Rival police agencies are at work on the bodies and Fraser takes Oliphant aside and slips him the case they found on the dead robbers, covered in plaster and obviously extracted from the skull. And a letter informing Bartlett that the case is inside the skull. They both recognise the hand-writing of Ada Lovelace, deary me she really is deep into this trouble.

Oliphant slips away with this booty, and examines it at leisure at the office of his tobacconists’, not far away in Chancery Lane. He destroys the letter from Ada then asks the man to lock the box containing the Engine-cards in his safe. What the devil is on them??

The climax

In pages 330 to 355 or so we find out what it’s all about. The set of Engine-cards which Mallory received from lady Ada and Captain Swing went to such trouble to reclaim and which Flora Bartlett died stealing, are French in origin. They contain a code designed to disable the Great Napoleon, the name given to the vast calculating machine prized by the French. Disabling it is a blow for the anarchists and those who oppose this surveillance society.

Oliphant confronts Wakefield in his club and learns that Egremont, via his department of Anthropometry, has taken over the Bureau of Statistics. Wakefield is scared to be seen with Oliphant. We learn from his muttered remarks that Oliphant and his people were the first to practice swiping people off the street, interrogating them and then making them disappear. They did it in a ‘good’ cause. But now Egremont and his people are going to do it in order to secure their grip on power. Egremont is close to Francis Galton, cousin of Darwin, who holds power in the Lords and is a strong proponent of genetics. Of helping evolution along by sterilising the poor and weak and forcing the breeding of the noble and fit. It isn’t stated in these terms, but this constellation of forces has the potential to institute a Fascist society.

Convinced he is being followed, Oliphant slips out into a back alley, and catches a night train to Paris where he meets a trusted colleague high up in the Imperial Police Force. He wants to the whereabouts of Sybil Gerrard. It is only when he meets Sybil in a bohemian Montmartre café that we learn that it isn’t simply a case of Egremont deflowering – or maybe ‘abusing’ Sybil, as we would say nowadays.

Much more dangerous to Egremont is that in his early days, he was a sympathiser with the Luddites, he was a colleague and friend of Sybil’s father. It was only later that he helped get him arrested and hanged. And the witchhunt he is organising under the new Prime Minister, Lord Brunel, reflects his paranoia about his old links with the Luddites resurfacing.

In the Montmartre café Oliphant appears to persuade a reluctant Sybil to help him, to dictate a testament about her own deflowering but also about Egremont’s early political heresy, which will ruin him and stop the totalitarian party.

Cut to a really brief, clipped scene: Mr Mori Arinori arrives outside the Belgravia home of Charles Egremont MP in a new-fangled Zephyr, parks, takes off his goggles, walks politely over to Egremont, ignoring the machine-gun-armed bodyguard, bows, hands Egremont ‘a stout manila envelope’ and returns to his car. Egremont watches him, puzzled.

The reader is left to deduce that the envelope must contain Sybil’s testimony and some kind of demand that Egremont resign.

Modus: The images tabled

This is a peculiar thing to have in a work of fiction: the last 27 pages form a sort of appendix made up of excerpts from various documents, diaries, letters, recordings, histories and so on which shed light on how the alternative history came about, tell us about the later destinies of many of the characters, and ‘explain’ the meaning of the Engine-cards.

1864 – A (fictional) extract from an essay by Charles Babbage explaining how insight into using a language of signs and symbols extended the theoretical workings of the Difference Engine into the practical form of an Analytical Engine.

1830 – Letter to a newspaper encouraging readers to go out and vote for Babbage in the 1830 General Election.

1912 – (Fictional) history describing how Wellington’s repression in 1830 featuring massacres of protesters led to the Times of Trouble and eventual triumph of Lord Byron’s Industrial radical Party.

1855 – (Fictional) letter from Disraeli describing Lord Byron’s state funeral.

1855 – three-page testimony from Byron’s wife describing how she had to put up with his – to her – disgusting sexual practices which she out up with while finding solace in the kindly educating of Charles Babbage, full of ‘the pure light of mathematical science’.

1855 – a couple of miners working with the huge underground digger boring tube tunnels witness a visit by the Grand Master Miner Emeritus

1855 – record of the words of the Reverend Alistair Roseberry who denounces Ada Byron as a debauched gambler, before he is grappled to the ground and actually shot.

1855 – Brunel’s address to his cabinet asking their help to deal with the murder of Roseberry.

1855 – testimony of Kenneth Reynolds, nightwatchman at the Museum of Practical Geology, on discovering the corpse of the Marquess of Hastings who a) we met cockily inviting Mallory and brothers up into the West India Docks, who then b) Mallory punched unconscious and c) took part in the robbery led by Florence Bartlett to steal the box of Engine-cards from their hiding place in the skull of the brontosaurus, being lowered by rope through the skylight, extracting the box and handing it up to his colleagues before slipping and falling onto the hard stone floor below, shattering his skull.

1870 – memo to the Foreign Office from Lord Liston, describing the drunk behaviour of the ex-President of the American Union Mr Clement L. Vallandigham – to which is added a note that Sam Houston, ex-President of Texas, recently passed away in exile in Mexico.

1875 – spoken reminiscences of Thomas Towler, grandfather of Edward Towler, inventor of the Towler Audiograph who remembers a) the extreme poverty before the Rad government revolutionised the economy and b) the way Lord Byron roused the English to send food to Ireland during the Potato Famine, thus securing the loyalty of the Irish for generations.

1857 – John Keats gives testimony about a meeting with Oliphant. Oliphant is a smooth operator but we have but we have been given access to his mind and his rather paranoid fears and waking nightmares about an ‘all-seeing Eye’, which knows all our numbers and identities, that the computational powers of the Engines will match and supersede God’s knowledge. Oliphant has Keats confirm that kinetropy is probably the most advanced branch of computing, and then gives him the French Engine-cards to analyse and find out what they mean.

Lyrics to the Great Panmelodium Polka, the panmelodium being the Victorian steampunk version of a juke box.

1860 – snippet of gossip from Tatler machine that Oliphant has set sail, leaving Britain to join the Susquehanna Phalanstery established by Professor Coleridge and the Reverend Wordsworth, which could be interpreted as a) the gloomy religious visions which we saw occasionally dogging his mind have tipped him over or b) Britain became too dangerous for him.

1866 – the full Victorian-style playbill of a major new Kinotropic Drama staged by J.J. Tobias, who we met as the junior clerk in the Quantitative Criminology section of the Central Statistics Bureau, and who Oliphant bribed to get him the text of the telegram which turns out to have been the accusation sent by Sybil to Charles Egremont.

1854 – poem written by Mori Yujo, samaurai and classical scholar on his son’s departure for England.

1854 – letter home to his father from Mori Arinori describing his first sighting of the shore of England.

Narrative A – a return to the third person narrator which gives a seven-page description of Lady Ada on a speaking tour of Paris in which she describes in rather mystical terms the potential for the so-called ‘Modus Programme’ to lead to an Engine whose method of self-referentiality might eventually lead it to self-awareness. There’s scattered applause from the half-filled auditorium and Fraser (for it is he; a much older, white-bearded Fraser, wounded from some incident in the line of duty, now retired and allotted a final task of being Lady Ada’s bodyguard) helps her to her changing room where he knows she’ll help herself liberally to the gin. He waits at the stage door where he finds a woman loitering. At first he (and the reader) think it might be part of some diabolical scheme: maybe someone’s going to kidnap lady Ada and replace her with an impersonator who will travel across Europe saying… saying what, exactly?

But it turns out to be Sybil Gerrard, only now using the surname Tournechon (as she told Oliphant when he tracked her down to the Montmartre café). When Ada emerges, at first Sibyl asks for an autograph – then changes her tone and asks what it feels like to be a little old lady, lecturing to empty halls, deliberately hurtful. Then changes her tune again, trying to push past Fraser (who is by now pushing her away) in order to give Ada a large and genuine diamond ring, presumably made with one of the diamonds she stole from Houston after he was stabbed.

Then she is gone. Fraser helps her into the gurney. It drives to their hotel. Fraser helps her up to her room. They discuss money. Maybe she will have to go and lecture in America, though whether Confederate South or Union North… Fraser recalls being given the job by ‘the Hierarch’ (the only time this word is used in the book: who does he mean? is it as simple as Lord Brunel?) His task is to keep her out of England and so out of scandal, away from gambling dens, try to keep her sober and out of trouble.

1991

And then, in a weird and disorientating final move, Ada is in her hotel room, looking into a mirror and… it reflects a city which is… the city of London in 1991.

These last four or so paragraphs are confusing. The Wikipedia synopsis says that the London described on this final page, the London of this alternative world, is a city built entirely of Engines in which the self-referential computer programme referred to by Lady Ada finally, at the very end of the book, in its last words, attains self-consciousness!

When I first read it I didn’t get this, and I didn’t understand the final, impressionistic sentences where this is, apparently, described as happening.

What I very much did read into the final couple of paragraphs was the apparent fact that human beings have ceased to exist. That cities are futuristic artefacts in which human-like simulacra are created by the All-Seeing Eye solely for the purpose of analysing their actions, interactions, for analysing the nature of causation and chance themselves.

Paper-thin faces billow like sails, twisting, yawning, tumbling through the empty streets, human faces that are borrowed masks, and lenses for a peering Eye. And when a given face has served its purpose, it crumbles frail as ash, bursting into a dry foam of data, its constituent bits and motes. But new fabrics of conjecture are knitted in the City’s shining cores, swift tireless spindles flinging off invisible loops in their millions, while in the hot unhuman dark, data melts and mingles, churned by gearwork in a skeletal bubbling pumice, dipped in a dreaming wax that forms a simulated flesh… (pp.382-3)

Comment

I am in two minds about this conclusion. On the one hand it is a familiar science fiction trope, that somehow humans have been eliminated by computers – as in the Terminator franchise of movies – or only the facade of human life is maintained to serve the computers’ purposes – very like the situation in The Matrix films.

And it’s fair to say that this abrupt, dystopian future does follow logically from the speculations of Ada Lovelace, which themselves grow out of the pioneering work of Babbage, so worryingly premature and advanced in this alternative history.

BUT, all that said, the appeal of the previous 282 pages all derived from the vivid language and extravagant delineation of a host of very human characters, especially tough Mallory, suave Oliphant, and unflappable Fraser. And a lot of the appeal is from the verbal energy of their dialogue and the Victorian vocabulary deployed in the narrative prose.

The final Terminator-style vision of a post-human world goes a long way to annulling all the affection and complex network of feelings for both the characters and the prose which the previous 380 pages had so carefully, and impressively, built up.

I wish they had found some other clever way of rounding off the story which kept it within the gorgeously humanistic tapestry of the alternative 19th century.

Or maybe left it with the rather inconsequential back alley confrontation between Ada and Sibyl. It’s often a feature of ‘literature’ that it does not end with a boom and a bang, it relies for its final impact on something more obtuse and implied, such as that vivid but ineffective confrontation between Ada and Sybil would have provided.

So I think I think that the ending of this wonderful, thoroughly researched and deeply entertaining book, lets it down.


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Alternative histories

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (1962) In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War.
  • The Alteration by Kingsley Amis (1976) Set in a 20th century England and Europe where the Reformation – and thus the Industrial revolution – never happened and so the Catholic Church still rules the entire continent.
  • SS-GB by Len Deighton (1978) A detective thriller set in England soon after Nazi Germany won the war and occupied England.
  • Russian Hide-and-Seek by Kingsley Amis (1980) Set in a near-future when the Soviet Union took advantage of the campaign for nuclear disarmament and invaded and conquered England.
  • Fatherland by Robert Harris (1992) A detective thriller set in the 1960s after Nazi Germany invaded Britain, made peace with America, and now rules the entire continent.

Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood. (An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted p.136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the thrown in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during the period. David explains this book will cover the two major and nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

Thus he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple – how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861. So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts: David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly sharp and critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • 1st Afghan War (1839-42)
  • 1st Opium War (1839-42)
  • 1st Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46)
  • 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (1848–49)
  • 2nd Anglo-Burmese War (1852-3)
  • The Crimean War (1853-6)
  • 2nd Opium War (1856-60)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856-7)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857-9)

The nature & scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history – these accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45 and so tend to think of ‘war’ on the same epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope and aim, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scoured from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle. Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire. This is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:’

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand.’ (quoted on p.233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describes the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers, then charging a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describes the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks and saw the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early period, in 1857, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those held back and so not slaughtered in the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej which quickly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle fire and grape and canister shot being poured into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion , and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. there they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from thousands sticks in my mind: at the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river, but as they loaded into the boats treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces approached all of them – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. it is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of bloody bodies.

Yes. I know – the butchery, on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion, requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul, put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged confused dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out – an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227-237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But the people rejected him, we never controlled the outlying settlements, we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – and so shouldn’t have been surprised when there was a popular uprising which quickly took Kabul, besieging the Europeans in an indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which we were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter – the first weeks of January – b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains, and so the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total who went into Afghanistan, one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul; we didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base; and we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed, and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation This really comes across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression; but the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost and the rest followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of the account of the Crimean War where a quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city and prevented two years of costly siege: but the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies time to defend Sevastapol to the hilt. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both generals lost the opportunity to devastate them with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison forced out of Delhi by the ‘rebels’, joined by reinforcements, took the cantonment to the north-west of the city: had they attacked immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, they said they needed more forces – and the moment was lost (p.307).

Months passed and then waited: had they attacked straightaway who find a secure base above the city and then prevaricate for months and months and months, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city.

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage – SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often that turned what would have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been an austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistics support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition so that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy/bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans – who promptly rose against us; and, in order to save money, ordered a column out to meet a relief force coming from the north instead of waiting – which was promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths, due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry. ‘The Army is a shambles’, he quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faces and always trying to get away with the cheap option.

David gives a handy checklist for responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of these imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government, which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also – more importantly – incurred unwanted cost: all very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease: 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these ‘wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refuse to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harass British traders (the ruler of Burma the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force is dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resist in any way, especially if any of our chaps is killed, then the whole thing is converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation is whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/right/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) – and a large force is sent to sort them out.

Then it turns out to be tougher going than we thought, there are unexpected defeats, casualties mount up, it takes longer than we expected, soldiers start dying of heat and disease, they have the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), run out of ammunition, reinforcements are delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism help to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing drags on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrive to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or face-saving compromise, news of which is cabled back to a jubilant nation, there’s dancing in the streets, pubs and streets are named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals are handed out, victory parades, the native rulers are arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples brutally massacred and cowed into submission… for the time being.

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but realised they couldn’t hold it and retreated back to British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261)
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of garden, its building architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expedition force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

Footnotes & insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are packed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might/force/violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852-3.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how new ‘rifles’, manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield, hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’, were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period, much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, away from the heavy double buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels – popular history at its best.


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