The Good Soldier Švejk, Part One: Behind the Lines by Jaroslav Hašek (1921)

Švejk or Schweik, Shveyk or Schwejk (pronounced sh-vague) is a cultural icon in his native Czechoslovakia. His name is a byword and forms the basis of an adjective – Švejkian – which describes the insouciance and devil-may-care attitude of the common man in the face of hostile officialdom.

Švejk is a survivor, an amiably simple-minded, middle-aged man who never takes offence or gets angry, who walks through life with a sweet smile on his face, who faces down the various jumped-up officials and army officers who try to break him with a calm, imperturbable gaze, a survivor with a ready fund of cheerful stories about friends and acquaintances, which are appropriate for every situation he finds himself in, no matter how challenging, happy as long as he has a pint in one hand and his pipe in the other.

The Good Soldier Švejk as drawn by Joseph Lada

The Good Soldier Švejk is a very long book at 750 pages in the Penguin paperback translation by Cecil Parrott. But, unlike many supposedly ‘comic classics’, it is actually genuinely funny, in the way that Švejk’s imperturbable good humour either disarms or drives mad the endless stream of policemen, coppers’ narks, prison warders, lunatic asylum officials, army officers, chaplains and so on who confront and try to break him.

Švejk just doesn’t care. He lives in a shabby boarding house, frets about his rheumatism, and trades in mongrel dogs which he blithely tells everyone are thoroughbreds and pedigrees although they’re nothing of the sort. Some years earlier he had done military service in the 91st regiment but been kicked out for idiocy. He has a certificate to prove it – a certificate of imbecility – which he is liable to bring out and present to perplexed officials in the spirit of being helpful, ‘Yes, your worship, I am a certified idiot, your worship’.

Plot summary, part one

The story begins in Prague with Švejk’s landlady Mrs Müller, giving Švejk news of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo that precipitates World War I. Švejk sets the tone by not grasping the importance of any of this, and mixing the archduke up with several other Ferdinands of his acquaintance.

He goes to the local pub, the Chalice, landlord Mr Pavilec, where a police spy, Bretschneider, is encouraging the drinkers to speak their minds about the news, and then promptly arresting them for treasonous talk.

Švejk is arrested and taken off to police headquarters where he discovers numerous other innocents are filling the cells. He hears their stories which reflect the absurdity and randomness of police and official procedures, one of the guiding themes of the book. (Later he learns that the completely harmless landlord Pavilec was arrested at the same time as him but convicted and given ten years.)

But it is also where Švejk first demonstrates his uncanny ability to stay calm and reasonable in the face of ranting officials, like the police inspector shouting abuse at him for being a dirty traitor.

Švejk being yelled at by ‘a gentleman with a cold official face and features of bestial cruelty’

Švejk is taken before an examining magistrate, then back to the cells, and is then paraded before medical experts who have to decide whether he really is such an idiot as he appears.

They refer him to a lunatic asylum, which he enjoys a lot despite being forced to wear a white gown and where he is inspected by another set of experts, this time psychiatrists.

Eventually Švejk is kicked out and taken by the police back to another police station. Here he’s put in a cell with an anxious middle-class man who’s been locked up for doing something disreputable and is pacing up and down cursing the impact it will have on his wife and children. Švejk tries to calm him by telling some of his endless fund of stories about people he’s met or known or heard of, though some of the stories are comically inappropriate like the tale of the man who hanged himself in a police cell.

Švejk is then released from custody but is being accompanied through the streets by a policeman when they see a small crowd around a poster of the Emperor on the wall and Švejk gives vent to a patriotic cheer, which prompts his rearrest and return to the police station (for stirring up crowds, causing civil unrest).

Švejk is brought before yet another police official who listens to his excuses and, in an unusually piercing scene, looks into his wide-foolish, baby blue eyes for a long moment and… decides to release him. Švejk walks forward, kisses his hand, and then exits the police station and makes his way back to the Chalice pub where this whole sequence began.

Commentary

All this happens in the first 50 or so pages, the first quarter of volume one – and you can see straightaway that the ‘plot’, such as it is, consists almost entirely of Švejk the little man being dragged before an apparently unending sequence of police, warders, investigators, magistrates, doctors, and psychiatrists.

It is, essentially, the same scene of the little man facing down officialdom, repeated again and again.

Plot summary, part two

Švejk discovers that Mrs Müller has taken lodgers into his room while he was away. Švejk kicks them out and life returns to its easy-going normality for a week or so. But then Švejk receives his call-up papers to report to the nearest army barracks.

Incongruously, and memorably, he gets Mrs Müller to wheel him to the recruitment offices in Prague in a wheelchair, while he clutches his crutches, teporarily unable to walk because of his rheumatism.

Švejk is transferred to a hospital for malingerers because of his rheumatism, where he discovers the inhumane and brutal treatment the poor and sick are subjected to (and which some die of). He attends a compulsory church service for the malingerers, where they are given a sweary drunken sermon from the disreputable chaplain, Otto Katz.

Švejk bursts into tears at the constant swearing and emotional battering of Katz’s sermon. Surprised, Katz asks to see him, then takes him on as his assistant.

Švejk is inspected by the learned doctors

This pair have various adventures containing broad satire at the church’s expense – bluffing their way through Catholic services they don’t understand, being too drunk to remember the words, losing various bits of holy equipment (particularly the scene where Švejk is sent to buy Holy Oil and ends up in an art shop where he is sold painters’ oil).

Then Katz drunkenly loses Švejk at cards to Lieutenant Lukáš, an army officer much given to drinking, womanising and gambling.

Lieutenant Lukáš and Švejk proceed to have a series of adventures of their own, the most memorable being:

  1. when one of the lieutenant’s innumerable lovers and mistresses turns up unexpectedly and demands to move into the lieutenant’s rooms, until Švejk has the simple idea of telegraphing her husband to come and collect her, which all goes off with surprising civility
  2. and when Švejk obtains a pet dog for the Lieutenant by the simple expedient of getting one of his mates in the dog-catching underworld to steal one for him

Lieutenant Lukáš is delighted with his new dog until he bumps in the street into its former owner, one Colonel Friedrich Kraus von Zilllergut, to whom the dog, of course, goes running, and who – alas – turns out to be Lukáš’s senior officer.

Furious, Colonel Friedrich promises to get Lukáš moved up to the front immediately. Lukáš returns to confront Švejk with the fact he concealed that the dog was stolen, and has gotten him (Lukáš ) turfed out of his cushy life and sent into danger. But when Švejk looks at him with his mild clear eyes Lukáš, like everyone else who tries to get angry with him, feels his fury fizzle out in the face of such stolid, good-tempered imbecility.

And so volume one ends with the promise that volume two will follow the adventures of Švejk and Lukáš to war!

Religion

Hašek’s attitude towards religion is unremittingly satirical. All religion is an empty con, as far as he’s concerned, and if it had any meaning or content that was all finished off in the Great War.

Preparations for the slaughter of mankind have always been made in the name of God or some supposed higher being which men have devised and created in their own imagination… The great shambles of the world war did not take place without the blessing of priests… Throughout all Europe people went to the slaughter like cattle, driven there not only by butcher emperors, kings and other potentates and generals, but also by priests of all confessions… (p.125)

A central character in this first volume is the alcoholic, womanising, sceptical army chaplain Otto Katz who takes Švejk as his assistant and stars in a number of comic scenes:

  1. the first one is when he gives a rambling drunk sermon to a congregation of prisoners from the punishment barracks, who all nudge each other in anticipation of the chaplain’s regular drunken ranting
  2. in another he and Švejk get a visiting chaplain (who actually seems to believe in God and all that nonsense) blind, rolling drunk, until it’s safe for Katz to explain to him (the drunk chaplain) that he (Katz) only masquerades as a chaplain because it’s a well-paid, safe way of avoiding being sent to the front.

Satirical contempt is Hašek’s attitude to religion, and he yokes in the religions of the Incas or primitive tribesmen or Mongols to show how the same con has been pulled time and time again, marauding killers inventing some God in whose name they can commit whatever atrocities they like.

Švejk and the two drunken priests, the sincere one on the lft, Otto Katz on the right

Brutality

As I said, The Good Soldier Švejk is genuinely funny and yet, at the same time, it is surprisingly brutal. If I think of Edwardian comedy I tend to think of H.G. Wells’s comic novels featuring bumptious counter-jumpers like Mr Polly who are sort of comparable to Švejk, or the lighter moments of E.M. Foster, or the first novels of Aldous Huxley (1921, exactly same year as Švejk) – light comedy about vicars or chaps falling off bicycles.

By contrast Hašek’s book describes a world which, even in its civilian incarnation, is astonishingly harsh and brutal. Anyone in even the slightest position of authority seems to think it acceptable to shout and scream at anyone junior to them. All the characters find it acceptable to punch others across the mouth or box their ears or kick them downstairs. There are continual references to flogging as a casual form of punishment.

Švejk kicks the moneylender out of the house of Chaplain Katz

There is a generalised atmosphere of physical abuse which becomes a bit oppressive. On more or less every page people are kicked or hit or flogged:

  • p.163 Švejk tells the story of the trial of an army captain who was tried in 1912 for kicking his batman to death
  • p.165 the narrator describes informers who delight in watching fellow soldiers be arrested and tied up
  • p.167 Lieutenant Lukáš is described as routinely hitting his batmen across the jaw and boxing their ears

And the brutality applies not just to humans. When Švejk enters the employ of Lieutenant Lukáš we are told that all the Lieutenant’s previous servants tortured the his pets, starving the canary, kicking one of the cat’s eyes out, and beating his dog. Soon after starting work for him, Švejk even offers to flay the lieutenant’s cat alive, or crush it to death in a doorway, if he wants (p.167).

Or take Hašek’s detailed description of the physical assaults and torments to which supposed malingerers are subjected to by the medical authorities, described in chapter 8, page 62.

  1. cup of tea plus aspirin to induce sweating
  2. quinine in powder
  3. stomach pumped twice a day
  4. enemas with soapy water
  5. wrapped up in a sheet of cold water

More than one patient is described as having died from this treatment.

Maybe it’s a prejudice in me, but I can’t really recall this kind of thing, this level of violence and personal physical abuse, in any English novels of this era, certainly not in the comic novels – or when they do occur it is to highlight the psychopathic savagery of the exponents.

But here everyone behaves like this.

And this permanent background hum of punches and kickings and floggings occasionally rises to scenes of real horror. For example, in the barracks prison Švejk can hear other prisoners being beaten and tortured. He can hear the long, drawn-out screams of a prisoner whose ribs are being systematically broken (p.95).

And in the office of Judge Advocate Bernis are photos of the ‘justice’ recently meted out by Austrian soldiers in the provinces of Galicia and Serbia.

They were artistic photographs of charred cottages and trees with branches sagging under the weight of bodies strung up on them. Particularly fine was a photograph from Serbia of a whole family strung up – a small boy and his father and mother. Two soldiers with bayonets were guarding the tree, and an officer stood victoriously in the foreground smoking a cigarette. (p.93)

Goya’s drawings of the Horrors of war described all this a century earlier. What changed, maybe, was that the First World War was fought by civilian armies and so entire populations were subjected to horrors and atrocities with large numbers of soldiers either actively ordered to torture and murder civilians, or forced to stand by while it took place. Did anything like this happen in the West, I mean did the English army systematically torture and hang civilians in Flanders?

Kafka compared with Hašek – people

Bertolt Brecht pointed out that Josef Švejk is the identical twin but polar opposite of Kafka’s Joseph K.

Mulling over this remark, I realised this is because, for Kafka, other people barely exist: they are are sort of mirrors, or maybe extensions of the central protagonist’s own terror and anxiety, shadows dancing through the central figure’s endless nightmare.

Whereas Švejk’s life is full of other people – a steady stream of officials, doctors, police and army officers who try to break him, as well as the endless list of people he knows about or has met or heard or read about and who provide the subjects of the huge fund of stories, gossip and cheery anecdotes which he can produce at the drop of a hat to suit any situation.

So, at first sight they are indeed polar opposites – Kafka describes a haunted terrain of ghost figures, Hašek’s book is thronged with real substantial people, and can, up to a point, be taken as presenting a panoramic view of Austro-Hungarian society.

Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy

In chapter seven of The Castle the village mayor explains to K. how mistakes in the vast and complex bureaucracy up at the Castle have led to him being summoned to work as a Land Surveyor even though another department of the Castle had specifically cancelled this same request – but news of the cancellation didn’t come through in time. Now K is floating in limbo because the badly-run bureaucracy has both requested and not requested him, employed and not employed him: there is a reason for him being there, and no reason; hence his feeling of being a non-person, stuck in limbo.

Well, I was very struck when something almost identical happens in Chapter Nine of The Good Soldier Švejk. Here the narrator describes how Švejk comes up before Judge Advocate Bernis, and then proceeds to describe how, despite being ‘the most important element in military justice’, this Bernis is a masterpiece of ineptitude and incompetence.

Bernis keeps a vast pile of muddled documents which he continually loses and misplaces, and so simply makes up new ones. He mixes up names and causes and invents new ones as they come into his head. He tries deserters for theft and thieves for desertion. He invents all kinds of hocus pocus to convict men of crimes they haven’t even dreamed of. He presides over ‘an unending chaos of documents and official correspondence.’

But not only this. We learn that Bernis has a fierce rival and enemy in the department named Captain Linhart. Whenever Bernis gets his hands on any paperwork belonging to Linhart, he deliberately removes papers, swaps them with others, scrambles it up in the most destructive ways possible. And Linhart does the same to Bernis’s papers.

Thus their individual incompetence is compounded by active malevolence. And these are just two of the hundreds of thousands of incompetent fools who staffed the vast Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy. (In a satirical parenthesis we learn that the papers on Švejk’s case weren’t found till after the war, and had been wrongly filed in a folder belonging to JOSEF KOUDELA, and marked ‘Action Completed’.) (pp.91-92)

The Bernis-Linhart passage isn’t the only place in the novel where the bureaucracy of the police, legal system, medical authorities or army is described as being rotten and inept. In a sense, this vision of bureaucratic incompetence underlies the entire novel, with Švejk being an everyman figure sent on an endless picaresque journey through a landscape of muddle and confusion, which builds up into a powerful overview of a society in the grip of stasis and decay.

Indeed, even a casual search online turns up articles which paint a breath-taking portrait of the huge scale, byzantine complexity, and elephantine inefficiency of the Austro-Hungarian Empire:

Kafka compared with Hašek – bureaucracy

Anyway, the recurring presence of various wings of the state bureaucracy in The Good Soldier Švejk has two big impacts on our reading of Kafka.

1. Many critics praise Kafka for his ‘unique achievement’ in describing a vast, spookily endless and all-powerful bureaucracy. But Švejk is teaching me that such an enormous, omnipresent and incompetent bureaucracy really did exist in the late Austro-Hungarian Empire; that it is less a product of Kafka’s mind than we at first thought, that the general sense of decay which Kafka conveys was the actual state of the Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy in its dying days, even down to the details of the absurdity caused when different sections of the bureaucracy failed to communicate with each other.

2. Insofar as they are both dealing with more or less the same entity – this vast bureaucracy – then it makes us reflect on the differences between the ways Kafka and Hašek describe it, which can summed up as the inside and the outside:

Kafka describes the personal and psychological impact of a huge faceless bureaucracy on its victims (Joseph K and K) – we see it from inside their minds and we experience along with them the nightmareish sense of helplessness, anxiety and stress it causes them.

Whereas nothing at all upsets Švejk. The Good Soldier Švejk is, to a surprising extent, just as much of an indictment of the stupid, all-encompassing, vicious and inefficient Habsburg bureaucracy, but it is described entirely from the outside, in objective and comical terms. The effect on the reader is like reading a journalistic report in a satirical magazine. The continual atmosphere of blundering officialdom, cruelty and sometimes really horrible violence, is kept entirely under control, remote and detached by the tone of brisk satire, and above all by the burbling presence of the indefatigable, unflappable, undefeatable figure of Švejk. Without Švejk it would be a horror show.

Conclusion

I need to read a) other novels of the period b) some actual history of the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to discover just how true this was.


Related links

The Good Soldier Švejk

Literary Life by Posy Simmonds (2003)

Front cover of Literary Life by Posy Simmonds (2003)

I’ve noticed that many of Simmonds’s books are not numbered. This slender hardback contains sixty-four pages of cartoons satirising all aspects of the literary life, from the panic of sitting in an empty room staring at a computer with writer’s block, to the backstabbing and paranoia of literary parties, to the loneliness of book signings, to the plight of small independent bookshops, and so on.

The obvious thing about this subject is its extreme obviousness. They say, ‘Write about what you know’, well what could be more familiar, and more hackneyed, clichéd and done to death, than the subject of a writer writing about writing – about the petty discomforts, the irritations, the niggling jealousy and petty rivalries and bitching and in-fighting and gossiping of the literary world.

What ‘serious’ novelist hasn’t written a book about a novelist writing a book or how tough it is being a writer or how hard it is coming up with new stuff, and so on and self-pityingly, narcissistically on…

Literary Life

  • Writer’s block Six frames showing a woman writer alone in her kitchen (apart from her cat, natch) struggling from 9.05 am to 12.30 pm to produce just one sentence and that one, in the end, one of venom and violence expressing her suppressed frustration.
  • Wintergreenes An independent bookshop which is being threatened because a vast branch of ‘Boulders’ has just opened down the road. Three characters, the plump middle-aged owner, Penny, a skinny girl assistant Zoe, and a stubbly angry young man who swears so much abuse at the new Boulders that Penny calls him in because he’s putting off the customers.
  • Wintergreenes Colin is still moaning about the new branch of Boulders up the road to which optimistic Penny replies that it’s a muzak-filled hypermarket whereas what their little shop offers is intimacy and personal service. Colin jaundicedly replies that what their shop offers is shelter from the rain for a couple of alcoholics and a mum with her shopping.
  • Time goes by… At a book launch a middle aged man tells his companion that when he was young, he used to get turned on by leggy young things dressed in short black skirts but nowadays he remembers they’re just from the publicity department and fantasises about… them selling more copies of his novel.
  • Panel A Q&A session at a literary festival. The joke is the panel consists of a kindly old buffer, a smart young woman, a stubbly dud smoking a fag and a broad serious-looking man, so that when a guy in the audience asks a question about so-and-so’s work being all about extreme violence and sadism and coprophilia and so on, we’re expecting him to be addressing stubbly bloke or broad serious bloke, but it turns out he’s talking about the works of the harmless looking old buffer in the half-rim glasses.

Q&A by Posy Simmonds (2002)

  • The same character in the right of the strip above (Owen), appears at home in a book-lined study reading a newspaper review to his wife and rejoicing because it slaughters the new book of a rival, right up till the moment that his wife points out that the only reason he hates his rival (Denton) is because he slept with her (the wife) at Oxford.
  • One big picture showing four adults on a long train journey trying to read their own books while an enthusiastic schoolgirl gives them a long, detailed explanation of the latest Harry Potter book. (The first book in the series, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, was published on 26 June 1997.)
  • Wintergreene The rep of a publishers makes his monthly visit and tries to interest Penny in their latest publication. She insists it is garbage, rubbish, with zero cultural value until the rep mentions that the same author’s last book sold 400,000… at which Penny swiftly changes her tune and says, Put me down for six.
  • A man’s soliloquy about moving to the country and joining the village reading group which gives an accurate and withering portrayal of all the petty jealousies and rivalries and irritations it causes.
  • Owen’s book signing We learn that the rugged-face author we first met in the Q&A panel is named Owen Lloyd and we see him at a book signing in a bookshop where no one at all stops by to buy a copy of his book. There is some bitter Simmonds satire because what we read is Lloyd’s maundering self-pity about nobody coming up, the pity in the eyes of the booksellers and his PR agent, and how nobody, oh nobody, knows what it is like to be ignored, he thinks as… he and the pretty young publishers assistant walk right by a homeless man on the street begging for some change.
  • A teenage couple are in bed asleep when there’s a knocking at the door and they realise her parents have come home early. She opens the door an fraction to the suspicious parents but then completely diverts their attention by assuring them she is doing her revision and quoting from Keats. Mollified, they go away.
  • Enemies of promise A woman writer is trying to write in the stylish open plan house but is completely put off by the sound of her husband upstairs trying to give a bottle to their toddler, with accompanying commentary and chatter. Pity the poor woman writer in her luxury house!
  • Big single cartoon of a drinks party in a big bookshop and a middle-aged writer chatting up one of the short-skirted waitresses with the immortal line: ‘You know, you’re really beautiful… Have you ever thought of being a novelist?’
  • A cool, stubbly author in shades spends ten pictures of the strip complaining like mad about how awful it is to be so successful and rich and be recognised everywhere and be bothered by fans all the time – his doleful friend uttering agreement – saying they just won’t leave him alone, take that couple of young women over there, they… they… but in fact the two women get up and simply walk out the bar… at which point the ‘successful’ author says ‘Bitches’.
  • Same young male author who we now learn is named Sean Poker and is ringing his agent because he’s been offered the opportunity to model for a new set of designer pants.
  • A woman writer in a nice Pringle sweater is sitting in a front room festooned with Christmas tree and cards (and accompanied by her cat, natch) as she reads through several paragraphs she’s written about the First World War till she comes to the word stuffing (‘kicked the battered armchair whose stuffing…) at which point she leaps up and runs outside to catch her husband who’s just getting into the car to go shopping, and tells him not to forget the stuffing.
  • At a literary party attended by Owen Lloyd a woman is explaining how she organised a petition to complain about some political cause. ‘And has there been a reaction?’ asks Owen. ‘You know, the usual predictable stuff,’ she replies, and what she means is there’s been a jealous outcry from all the authors who weren’t invited to join the petition.
  • Wintergreene In the local independent bookshop one customer is giving bother, dripping rainwater and coughing and sneezing over the books.

Wintergreene by Posy Simmonds

  • One big illustration showing a confident man leading his reluctant wife and friends on a big walk through the woods and pontificating: ‘… and when, you know, any minute we could all die of smallpox, or anthrax… you think “Why? Why does one write? What a futile occupation! What difference could a bloody book make to anything!?… and then you think, “No, come on… isn’t that something rather magnificent – sitting at one’s PC in the face of Armageddon?” And, that in a nutshell, is the theme of…’
  • Wintergreene Penny the owner tells skinny Zoe to be more polite so the next customer who comes in get the full ingratiating service and Zoe agrees to order three copies of a book which, it turns out, the lady ordering wrote herself and is published by a vanity press – at which point Penny explodes with swearing and angriness, contradicting her own earlier strictures for Zoe to be polite, at which point… they both realise that trying to give up cigarettes is HELL, so that’s what the strip is really about.
  • Full page cartoon showing a big tall paunchy man in a suit on the phone in an open plan office complaining, at length, about the shoddy production values on a recent book…
  • Ecstasy Featuring the thickset author Owen Lloyd, he is surfing the internet looking to see how much copies of his novels are fetching on Ebay and is gratified that first editions are fetching up to $790 until he comes across a copy which bears a personal inscription, which he remembers writing to the love of his life, and so is FURIOUS with her.
  • A big one-page cartoon showing various children’s characters (bears, giraffes, Alice in Wonderland I think) all drinking and smoking in a book-lined room, obviously at a sort of party for children’s book characters and one rabbit is asking another: ‘So how did you get into children’s publishing?’ and the other is replying, ‘Oh, it’s in the family… my father was a Flopsy Bunny’. As so often with Simmonds, you feel it’s clever without being actually funny.
  • A big, page-sized cartoon spoofing magazines aimed at women and their babies: this is called Your new Baby but ‘baby; is metaphor’ for book.
  • The Literary Three Three parody schoolgirls from a 1950s private school receive a book from their time-travelling Uncle Bill. It is a book about schoolgirls in 2003, for some reasons schoolgirls in New York whose parents are frightfully rich if divorced, and she and her friends play truant, nick things from shops, smoke joints and go all the way with boys.
  • A writer sits in a book-lined room with his laptop open, unable to write while he flips through TV channels, which are showing: 10 worst motorway pile-ups, Killer mud-slides, Killer bees, Hitler’s torturers, until he finally comes upon a channel showing Noddy, cheers up, and starts tapping away at his book.
  • A strip satirising a woman writer writing a sex scene who, the more feverish the scene becomes, the more intensely she focuses and writes. More to the point, the more brutal and primal the cartoon becomes, until drawn in wide, thick, primal lines. The couple she’s describing climax, and the writer leans back and lights herself a cigarette.

Writer’s orgasm by Posy Simmonds

  • Wintergreene Zoe is off to the local supermarket. The ‘joke’ is that she can buy books from the supermarket to stock their little independent bookshop cheaper than they can buy them from the publishers.
  • One large cartoon showing a tearful woman walking out on a bespectacled writer sitting in front of his computer, and saying: ‘Wait, Charlotte!.. You can’t leave me now, I haven’t finished my novel – I need your misery!’
  • A young woman tells her frumpy middle-aged mother that she’s packing in writing a book, and even being a reviewer, because she wants to be a full-time, stay-at-home mum. The mum gives a whole list of how horrible it will be to be so isolated and patronised and then cheerfully concludes, there’ll be a good polemical feminist book in it!
  • The national character Successive hikers come across a stand of daffodils and, in succession, fumble to quote the famous Wordsworth poem.
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Spoof advice column in which the twist is that Dr Derek gives ‘literary’ advice to struggling writers. Suzie X spends sits for hours and hours in her little room and nothing comes out. Yes, she has writer’s block!
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Vicki X comes about her husband, who’s developed a swollen head ever since he won the Booker Prize. Yes, he’s suffering from ‘swollen head’.
  • One big cartoon in which a couple well into middle-age are sitting in their book-littered front room and, to his great irritation, his wife is reading some of the old love letters he sent her.
  • Facts and fallacies No.6 Children’s picture books An extended satire on common misconceptions about children’s books i.e. they are written by women in Suffolk cottages, only take five minutes to think of the story, 98% of people who work in children’s publishing are called Emma, everyone who works in picture books are held in the highest esteem. — Reading a strip like this you get the impression that there is no aspect of her life which Posy Simmonds can not feel aggrieved about. It doesn’t strike me as at all funny, but a moan from someone who feels that their own picture books aren’t taken seriously enough.

Facts and Fallacies No. 6 by Posy Simmonds

  • Spot the differences Two large cartoons of a dad in his dressing gown in the family kitchen reading review of his new book in the paper watched by his wife and two little girls (and the cat). We are invited to ‘spot the difference’ between one picture in which ‘They rate it’ and the other picture in which ‘they hate it.’ I looked quite carefully and decided there are no differences except that in the ‘rate’ it one, the author, the wife and daughters and the cat are smiling. At about this point I wondered why I was bothering to read this book.
  • Pride and prejudice Jane Austen is invited to return from the Great Beyond and be given the full media treatment of an author i.e. rude and probing questions and decides, er, no thanks.
  • Facts and fallacies No.11: Publishers’ readers i.e. it is not a cushy little job, 97% of publishers’ readers are not multi-tasking home-makers, there is not a cabal of London writers who reject possible rivals, and so on.
  • A big, single cartoon satirising the vast multi-story, department store-style bookshop.

Department store bookshop by Posy Simmonds

  • Dr Derek’s casebook James X turns up at Dr Derek’s surgery bleeding, it’s one of the worst cases of ‘a critical mauling’ that he’s ever seen.
  • A modern woman is at home on the sofa watching the tennis, for nine frames. On the ninth she hears the front door opening, turns the telly off, and sneaks back into her study, which is where her husband, returning from taking the kids out for a walk, finds her pretending to be hard at work.
  • Dr Derek’s casebook Quite a humorous strip in which Dr Derek counsels novelist Colin X about how to do sex in novels properly i.e. cut the purple passages, don’t feel shy about using a rubber (to rub out embarrassing passages) and… once a chapter is quite normal!

Dr Derek’s casebook by Posy Simmonds

  • Le Déjeuner sur le Sable One big cartoon parodying Manet’s famous painting Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe adapted to show three posy Brits sunning themselves in the South of France, with the main male figure reading Proust. — Simmonds has parodied this painting in at least two previous strips.

Le Déjeuner sur le Sable by Posy Simmonds

  • Dynaglobe’s summer party Once again we are with author Owen Lloyd as he attends the annual party given by publishing conglomerate, Dynaglobe. How he hates it, getting trapped with some stupendously successful airport novelist, who patronises him on his minuscule sales, the coven of women writers, either trying to rope him into discussion groups, or who you shagged last year and can’t remember their names, or a new young nymphet who you just start chatting up when you notice the gaggle of middle-aged women opposite all watching and tittering. He only goes so people know he’s still alive. — Having been to similar London parties of the well-heeled and successful I find this totally accurate and grimly depressing.
  • Nurse Tozer Quite a funny strip which extends the idea of Dr Derek, the literary doctor, over-wrought and on holiday he overhears some bronzed bimbo dismissing a book by Victor Hugo as ‘junk’ and explodes, explaining who Victor Hugo was and calling the woman a moron, until he is hustled away by ever-watchful Nurse Tozer, who then gives quite an interesting speech to the holiday woman about how popular literature comes in bite-sized chunks which wear down your brain. — This was a good strip because it felt like the comedy premise really bore up all the way through the strip.
  • Writer’s problems No.4 How to create a buzz An unnamed male author complains that, although he has written three successful crime novels, he has never created a buzz, his real-life persona is too boring, he doesn’t take drugs or have affairs, he loved his parents etc. The strip then ironically recommends that next time he’s at a literary party he takes a pair of rubber gloves, blows one up, places it over his head, then lets it go and it will blow round the room creating… a tremendous buzz!
  • seasonal traditions in the book trade No.2 Spotting the Christmas turkeys The three staff at the independent bookshop, Wintergreene, which we’ve come to know through several strips – owner Penny, slender sprite Zoe and stubbly earnest young man Colin – are depicted reading the publishers’ catalogues for the upcoming Christmas period and taking the mickey out of the synopses of the direst-sounding books – ‘lifts the lid off media-folk in Alderley Edge…’, ‘… an epistolary novel done in text messages…’, ‘… another bloody book about moving to a Provençal village…’
  • One enormous cartoon showing a disgruntled author (Nat Tarby) in a vast modern bookstore all set and ready to do a book-signing with piles of his books on the table in front of him and… not a customer in sight. — I feel like Simmonds has depicted this scene of the disappointing book-signing at least 3 or 4 times already. She may think it’s endlessly funny, but once was sort of enough.

Murder at Matabele Mansions: A Christmas Mystery

A six-page graphic short story, a murder mystery in which woman Detective Sergeant Stoker phones Detective Inspector Collar from a crime scene at the back of a mansion block. The body of unpopular second-hand book-seller Godfrey Fibone, 58, is found round the back of Matabele Mansions, apparently in the act of carrying a black bin liner out to the dustbins he slipped and cracked his head.

However, Stoker and Collar notice that the contents of the bin-liner are strangely inappropriate for a man who lived alone, including dirty nappies (he had no children), tea bags, a curry TV dinner, and cat food tins (he didn’t own a cat).

So they set about interviewing all the inhabitants of the mansions – which gives Simmonds an opportunity to display her gift for characterisation, not only in drawing but in the very dense text which describes each of the dead man’s neighbours, being:

  • Viv and Chris Collins-Smith, website designers
  • June Tozer, divorcee and masseuse
  • Gavin Boyce, novelist
  • rude Dennis Buttril
  • Mrs Kowalski, entertaining her daughter and son-in-law to dinner
  • Tim Makepeace, a research chemist
  • Ian MacDire, worked for British Telecom

Next day forensics confirm Fibone was murdered, then carried out to where his body was arranged to make it look as if he’d slipped and had an accident. The detritus in the bin bag, combined with what the two police learned in their interviews, should be enough for the reader to work out who the murderer was. Can you work it out?

Cinderella

Another six-page graphic short story, starts with Desmond Duff, 85, inhabitant of an old people’s home (alert readers will remember that Desmond featured as the man of the month for April in the calendar for 1988 which Simmonds drew for the Spectator).

He and his fellow inhabitant, Joan, learn the owners are throwing a lavish Christmas party to which residents are not invited. As they hear the first sounds of music a fairy god-daughter appears and gives them their wish, giving them back their youths, making Desmond a very smart, svelte 20-something, and Joan a stylish young lady in a ball gown and fur. But they must be back in the home by midnight.

They set off to the party and make quite a splash, Desmond impressing with his suavity, Joan being immediately chatted up by a lothario who invites her out to his car for a bit of slap and tickle. Several guests trigger Desmond into giving a blistering lecture about how miserable it is living in their hosts’ old people’s home, how they’re treated like crap, the accommodation is rotting, the food is dismal, and is in mid-flow when he hears the clock ringing midnight and so runs out into the snow where he transforms back into his 85-year-old body…

Finds himself in the car park where the young Lothario emerges partly unbuttoned and holding a slipper, describes how he was in a passionate clinch with the ravishing young beauty who suddenly wriggled out of his grasp and ran off, leaving only a slipper behind. Clutching the slipper, he stumbles back into the party and old Joan comes out of her hiding place behind a car, embraces Desmond, says ‘Wasn’t it wonderful?’ and they potter slowly back towards the home.

But there is a happy end note. Desmond’s rant in the party, in front of lots of influential guests, has spurred the owners to make improvements, sort out the smell on the stairs and fix Desmond’s radiator etc, and generally fuss over Desmond and Joan. So it’s a happy ending! Cheers!


Thoughts

The subject of writers, authors, novelists agonising, writer’s block, book-signings and endless literary parties – I don’t think any subject could bore me more. A few of the strips or cartoons are amusing, but most are wearing, or positively depressing.

The interest, such as it is, comes from the extraordinary variety of cartooning styles which Simmonds deploys. There’s:

  • the spoof true romance style of the Dr Derek strip, where the characters all have the same kind of chiselled angular outlines
  • the freestanding humorous cartoon of the department story-style book warehouse, where all the figures have softened rounded outlines
  • the facts and fallacies strip which, along with the Owen Lloyd cartoons, has a looser drawing style and is meant to create a much wider variety of faces and characters
  • the sketchy loose, unfinished lines of the Writer’s orgasm strip, which starts loose and then deliberately becomes bold and fragmented to visually make the point
  • the ‘cartoon realism’ of the Wintergreene strips – in the one above look at the tremendous attention to detail paid in the opening picture which depicts the shop frontage in the rain, or the third picture which shows the geography of the shop’s interior, dominated by a stand of books in the foreground which divides the disapproving owner on the left and browsing punter on the right
  • the Le Déjeuner sur le Sable style, which is so loose and scratchy that bits of it could almost be by Quentin Blake
  • and the Writers’ panel at the top of this review which has realism of a sort – witness the microphones in front of the speakers – but a sort of wobbly or wonky realism – the microphones aren’t drawn with the same razor sharp precision as the exterior of the Wintergreene shop – instead it is a realism softened or mollified in order to bring out the variety of human faces in the audience and on the panel – it is just enough realism to create a space in which comic types can exist

These are all distinct drawing or cartooning styles (plus some others I haven’t mentioned) which Simmonds has mastered and can deploy at will. It’s an impressive display of versatility and virtuosity.

So for me, there are half a dozen funny strips in the book (if their aim is to be funny or entertaining) but the real pleasure to be had derives from Simmond’s impressive mastery of the craft of drawing, her fluency and versatility.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Mustn’t Grumble by Posy Simmonds (1993)

In 1987 cartoonist Posy Simmonds brought down the curtain on the weekly strip cartoon she’d been drawing for the Guardian newspaper and which featured the everyday lives and woes of a gaggle of well-meaning middle-aged, middle-class mums and dads, coloured by a feminist slant on the tribulations of being a stay-at-home mum, or a working mum, or a young woman, or just a woman, in a sexist, man’s world.

The strip focused in particular on the married couple George and Wendy Weber, he an earnest, hunched-over, mustachioed lecturer in sociology at a London polytechnic, she an ex-nurse and harassed mother of six trying to do night school classes, the pair of them united by a commitment to touchy-feely liberal socialism, and vegetarianism and environmentalism. They felt a bit out-dated when they first appeared in the paper in 1977, and they and their world had failed to move with the times, with the triumph of Thatcherism, the unashamed declaration that ‘greed is good’, the ‘Big Bang’ deregulation in the City of London which brought tsunamis of new money coursing through the capital, out into the Home Counties and bought tens of thousands of holiday homes around the countryside, while the Thatcher government did its best to dismantle the post-war welfare state, demonised single mums and welfare scroungers, and huge tranches of heavy industry were denationalised or scrapped.

In 1987 Simmonds axed the Posy strip and concentrated on writing and illustrating children’s books. She continued to do miscellaneous illustrations for the Guardian and other newspapers and magazines. Then in 1992 she returned to the paper with a new strip which lasted a year, chronicling the misadventures of a grumpy, middle-aged, male novelist, J.D. Crouch. (Why, I couldn’t help thinking, does a vehement feminist devote a strip to a man, and a grumpy, middle-aged man at that? Is it because men are more interesting to write about – but surely that’s feminist heresy. Or is it because men, middle-aged grumpy men, are such fun to lambast and satirise?)

This volume, Mustn’t Grumble, brings together that miscellaneous work, plus some of the Crouch series, so feels a bit bitty.

I think the title, Mustn’t Grumble, is ironic. I assume it is an ironic comment on what would nowadays be called the white privilege of most of the characters, who are members of the comfortably-off, London, middle-classes – with a particular focus on Crouch and the London world of writing and publishing – who, despite living what a lot of the rest of the British population would regard as a life of luxury, still manage to be unhappy and find fault with everything.


A calendar from 1988

Simmonds created large-format, monthly cartoons – more illustrated texts – for the Spectator magazine through 1988 and 1989. The calendar format allowed Simmonds to focus on a completely new range of characters, one a month, whose lives are taken to typify the ‘greed is good’ decade as it ended and gave way to the 1900s. Thus:

  • January Miles Upmaster (42) LMX broker at Johnson, Duff, Morant, lives in Parsons green with wife Vanessa and daughters Jojo and Davina
  • February Chloe Banister (37) design consultant at a top Soho consultancy, a house in Dulwich Village with husband Hugo (TV commercials director) and son Jack, who’s down for Westminster.
  • March Jackie Green (29) bed and breakfast landlady, husband’s off work ill, Jackie’s doing lots of jobs to make ends meet and can no longer afford to live in the seaside village of her birth.
  • April Desmond Duff (82) retired engineer and resident of Deddingham Court Rest Home.
  • May Mr Robin Chutney-Darke, a dealer in 18th and 19th century paintings, educated at Eton.
  • June Katie Gilleyman (7) is having a birthday party, which in true bilious Simmonds style, is an opportunity for her to describe the snobbery, hypocrisy and showing off among the various mums.
  • July Tony McVitie and Lorraine, waiting exhausted in the departure lounge for the plane back to England from Malta, where they’ve been on holiday and Lorraine’s lovely long legs got a) sunburnt b) bitten by mosquitoes.
  • August Farmer Hughes facing financial ruin.
  • September Prissie Rugeley, mother of four and wife of a British Army infantry officer stationed in Germany.
  • October James Dalston Crouch (59) fading novelist, is at Euston accompanied by sexy young publicity girl from his publishers, having arrived back from a dismal outing to a book signing in Manchester where only six people turned up.
  • November Simon Sandercock (33) single, company director, rugger player, in blue and white striped tie and bright red braces, what a hoot he is!
  • December A characteristically cynical and downbeat take on Christmas, Simmonds focuses on an ageing failed actor named Gerald, who had high hopes, played a number of roles in provincial theatres and a few sitcoms, and now is reduced to working as Father Christmas in a department store.

What’s striking is how wordy these profiles are, how densely worked-out everyone’s backstory is, as if they are characters in a novel. There’s nothing particularly comic or even entertaining about the characters, except, maybe, the wry smile of recognition which I identified earlier as the prime pleasure from a Posy Simmonds cartoon.

And they’re in colour, full colour, unlike all the Posy strips, attention to colour which will come into its own in the later graphic novels.

Six bounden duties

I had to look up the meaning of this phrase. A ‘bounden duty’ is ‘a responsibility regarded by oneself or others as obligatory’. Each of the six is in the page-sized format of the Posy strips.

  1. Conservation A message from Aubrey Shyte, owner of Grade II listed Rakesham Hall, in which he spouts the usual crap of owners of very big houses which are largely funded from the public purse, and explains why it is necessary to close the public footpath through his deer park.
  2. Numeracy and literacy As if for children, the strip compares the world of Smilies (1st class travel, 1st class service, 2nd homes, 2nd cars, 3 hour lunches etc) and Grumblies (1 parent families, 2nd class citizens, 3rd world conditions etc) i.e. the gleeful rich and the miserable poor. The sentiment is hardly novel, and the tone is bleak and bitter. The entertainment, such as it is, comes in the format and in the satirical use of child-style drawings to convey this bitter truth.
  3. A sense of humour Simmonds parodies a range of different comic styles with dead humourless, depressing, grim content i.e. the first little strip is about the gender wage gap, then how we’re killing the planet with radiation, then the health gap between the rich and the poor, then a working class woman complaining about male chauvinism… Hard to see who this kind of thing is aimed at… Is it preaching to the choir to make them feel more bitter and angry?
  4. Keeping the lines of communication open Middle class parents in the kitchen with a bottle of wine open discussing their awful children, lazing around reading porn all day… while the teenage kids are in the living room saying their parents are grumpy because they’re going through the menopause and mid-life crisis – both teams saying it’s just a phase the others are going through. This just feels bleak and depressing.
  5. Not to change one’s spots A comfortably off middle class family claim they haven’t changed a bit, well, they’ve sold the old C CV and bought a Volvo, sold the bean bags and Che Guevara posters, and built a new conservatory on the back of the house, still running a poster shop which is doing frightfully well, and as to politics it’s not them that’s changed, it’s the Labour Party. — Obviously the point is to show how they have changed out of all recognition from their young adult selves.
  6. To record Some kind of satire on the middle class compulsion to record everything with a camera and on video, with a bit of extra satire / bitterness thrown in at the end saying there are some events too traumatic to be photographed… and that’s when the bloodsucking media step in… Odd, because Posy did of course work most of her life for the bloodsucking media.

The cherry orchard A satire on Londoners and their second homes in the country, cast in the form of a parody of the Chekhov play, with the middle class couple lamenting the fact that the orchard across the road was sold by the farmer to a developer who’s built a bloody great garden centre there! The couple can’t wait to sell up and get back to London.

Hard Times (1992)

As mentioned above, Simmonds returned to the Guardian with a new strip rotating about the failing novelist J.D. Crouch, but giving herself the freedom to feature other ad hoc characters and even – the occasional cameo appearance from the old Weber favourites.

  • Hard times An ironic strip in which reinsurance broker Miles Upmaster gets home and berates his young wife for having friends round, eating expensive food etc, seeing as he’s had no bonus for two years, the firm’s reorganising and he might even be sacked. In the final picture he lies back on an elaborate, swagged and bow-tied four-poster bed and laments how hard his life is.
  • An explanation by J.D. Crouch, Author Crouch explains that the recent interview and photos of him at home with his family are a travesty, that he dislikes his grown-up son and is going through a rough patch with his second wife.

  • Mid-life libido in forward and reverse J.D. Crouch first of all rants to his wife that their son had a pretty young woman over to stay and how dare he use the place as a knocking shop. When his wife puts him right, that they’re not shagging, just friends, he slept on the floor etc, Crouch switches to the polar opposite position and says, Good God, why on earth is his son not knocking off such a fabulous ‘piece’, lovely bum in figure-hugging leather. In other words, Men, eh! Lascivious hypocrites.
  • Mens sana Crouch and his adult son have an argument because the old man is always having epic baths, which triggers a trip down memory lane, remembering all the baths he’s had in all the cheap shitty flats, and how much he cared about Thom Gunn and Suez in the 50s, and Ferlinghetti and Czechoslovakia in the 60s, and the more luxury bath he got when his first novel made it big and was adapted for TV. Now we find Crouch splashing about in a huge jacuzzi!
  • Literary party Crouch tells us about a literary party he went to, giving his version of events in which he nonchalantly sailed through the crowd – but this is counterpointed by sub-titles pointing out what really happened, which is that Crouch barely got close to the people he said he talked to, and nobody was interested in talking to him except a waitress who said she thought her granny liked his stuff. Depressing portrait of a man on the way down.
  • Club ability Crouch’s wife Sophie is invited to his club where a crusty old cigar-smoking bore explains to her why they don’t allow women members and she proceeds to take the mickey, yes, my God, what would happen if women were allowed in to remind men of their child-rearing responsibilities or maybe drinking all alone at the bar or… Feminism = helping middle-class women join exclusive London clubs.
  • Haves and have-nots An idealistic young teacher is trying to teach a junior school class to pretend to be flower buds in the soil which slowly wriggle upwards and burst into the light. One little boy gets it, but when she asks the others to do the same they explain he’s only showing off because he’s got a brand new pair of Nike Air trainers.
  • Lost Eden A Victorian picture of children playing in the street is criticised by do-gooding modern parents, tut tut, they might be knocked down by a lorry or abducted by a paedo… contrasted with a picture of today’s young people, packed inside onto a sofa, eating junk food and watching violent videos on TV.
  • Noises off A well-off middle class woman is in bed with her husband and the can hear the coughing of the vagrant who sleeps in their doorway all night, and she then has an aria describing how awful it is and how awful she and her husband feel, and that’s why they’re double glazing the window so they won’t be able to hear him any more.
  • The vileness of penury Vanessa, blonde wife of reinsurance broker Miles (who we’ve met several times by now) answers the door to her ex-cleaner. Miles has been laid off so they’ve had to sack all their staff and the strip consists of a sequence of speeches in which Vanessa asks the tracksuit-bottomed cleaner to feel sorry for her, now that they’re both in the same boat and all.
  • Common market A stuck-up posh mum walks round a London market lamenting the scruffy way the common fruit and veg are displayed and comparing everything negatively with the simply super markets you get in France (where she, of course, has a second home) – and wonders why all the stall-keepers scowl at her.
  • Insecurity Miles and Vanessa Upmaster (again) she wakes up in the middle of the night (in their wonderfully curtained and beribboned double bed) because she hears something outside and her subsequent fears give a list of all the burglars and criminals a posh white lady can imagine, up to and including the hiss of an ocy-acetylene kit until they realise… it’s the sound of someone having a piss in their doorway.
  • Beneath the ivory tower The life of a writer is a hard one, grinding away, wasting time in all kind of displacement activities. And so grumpy J.D. Crouch goes to the grocers where he buys some peas and some such while listening to customers discussing the ups and downs of Lady Di’s marriage to Prince Charles (they were married on 29 July 1981, during 1992 the book about her by Andrew Morton, plus leaked phone recording revealed their marriage was a sham). Crouch takes a characteristically pompous and high line that he doesn’t read ‘newspapers’ or mucky his fingers with current affairs. Whereas we then see him take the groceries home wrapped in a newspaper which he feverishly unfolds, straightens out and reads.
  • Agony and ecstasy The Webers haven’t completely disappeared. Here George makes a reappearance. An old friend from the poly took early retirement and was irked when, shortly afterwards, the poly upgraded to a university. Now he meets George and colleagues in the pub who set him right about how working conditions are ten times harder, no-one will fund their course, the seminar room is always booked, the students are doing so many other modules they can’t concentrate on your courses, and so on…
  • Object lesson A mum who bears a resemblance to an older, grey-haired Wendy Weber, tries to comfort her daughter who’s convinced she’s fat and ugly, the mum telling her she’s not and she should be glad not to be treated as a ‘sex object’, the result of all the battles her mum and the feminists of her generation fought, and any way she’s bombarded with phone calls from boys. That, mum, the girl is explained, is because I can drive. They want me to be their taxi driver. As she slopes away she sobs, ‘I’d rather be a sex object.’
  • Dating a single parent Man arrives to take a woman on a date. Her little one bursts out crying and needs to be comforted. When she asks the teenage daughter to look after the toddler, the teenager bursts out that mum doesn’t care about her revision or her exams. So they all end up crying in a cuddle, and when the mum eventually extricate herself to go with her date, she looks frazzled. Being a woman is so hard!
  • Coming cleanish Crouch is having an affair with a young woman (do writers do anything else, in Posy Simmonds?) and spends the strip working through different scenarios how to tell his wife, ending up with bottling out and not telling her at all.
  • Acquiring the habit Crouch comes across his teenage children quietly reading books and is astonished and delighted and tells wife Sophie to keep quiet, but she insists they’re a load of old rubbish they found at the jumble sale, full of nauseating stereotypes and their bickering puts the kids off reading so they turn on the TV and get glued to the box.
  • Fireworks At a fireworks party a grandad is arguing with his teenage grand-daughter, complaining about her generations’s pessimism, they’ve never had it so good etc. The mother intervenes to break up the fight but finds both the others turning on her, the grandad saying the 60s generation had it lucky, with an economic boom, growth in higher education, jobs galore, cheap flats, sex on tap thanks to the pill, yes and all before AIDS says the daughter and before you know it, old and young have ganged up on the middle-aged mum. It’s tough being a middle-aged woman!
  • Sunbeam corner A bizarre strip in which a balding middle-aged man conducts a smiling exercise, in order to keep optimistic, although the words underneath spell the grim news headlines of the day (Maastricht, wages freeze, subsidiarity, British steel, Downing Street, Public spending freeze, Price increases etc.
  • We’re dreaming of a white Christmas Aubrey Shyte, the pompous rich landowner, has become a real hate figure for Simmonds, and leads this hypocritical rendering of ‘White Christmas’, against the backdrop of a dingy, rundown street somewhere in London with a couple of homeless people sleeping in doorways, until the snow covers up the homeless and the street looks remarkably scenic and festive. God, Simmonds hates Christmas! Of the ten or so Christmas cartoons she’s done, all are dyspeptic.

A calendar from 1989

Another series of page-large pieces, each featuring a person of the month, described in immense wordy detail and accompanied by a full-scale, colour cartoon, with a spattering of other smaller ones illustrating the text.

  • Janvier Mme Rutherford, harassed French teacher, two young children in daycare, husband works at a garden centre, worn down with stress by the horrible kids, growing class sizes, LEA cuts so she has to cover other teacher’s lessons, and soon. God, it’s hard being a woman (teacher).
  • February Conversation among a gaggle of middle-aged men and women attending a health spa in the country, ending with the sort of comedy that they sneak out to scoff a packet of Maltesers in the car park.
  • March A soliloquy from Australian dentist Warren McMurdo moaning about the bad state posh patient Simon Sandercock arrives in.
  • April Rachel (14) on her horse Sultan, at this year’s First Gashford Hunt.
  • May Dido is 18 from Haverstock Hill and at a super private school.
  • June Etiquette for the new landed gentry: Dealing with trespassers i.e. if you’re nouveau riche and bought a whopping house in the country you need to clear trespassers off your land but be damned certain they’re oiks and walkers, and not other members of the gentry who you need to keep buttered up.
  • July Gillian Button (25) with a first in French and Drama, is now a PA at the BBC, and a surprisingly heavy smoker.
  • August Clive Troutley (37) a golf addict.
  • September When harassed housewife Pippa gets to W in the alphabet book she’s reading her kids, she realises everything named in it is either a health hazard or threatened with extinction (panda, whale etc). Depressing.
  • October Adam Nubleigh (27) went to a North London comprehensive but dresses and sounds as if he went to a posh private school and flogs fake antique furniture to the over-rich.
  • November Posh Naomi Padfield is a big opera fan. She is given a soliloquy about how she’s driven up to Covent Garden from Beaconsfield despite the beastly traffic on the M40.
  • December Colin Cockley is managing director of Retouché Studios, here he is at the firm’s Christmas party.

Note:

  1. how everyone is white, heterosexual and all are either Londoners or from the sunny Home Counties. Black, Asian or immigrant experience, lower-middle or working-class experience, are things beyond Simmonds’s ken and which she therefore, wisely, avoids.
  2. The use of rich deep colouring.
  3. The very heavy use of text. At least half, sometimes more, of the space is text. There’s little funny or amusing about these caricatures, but a great deal of effort has gone into thinking through each of the characters’ backstories.

Bumping along the bottom

Being a further set of the weekly strips Simmonds devoted to failing novelist J.D. Crouch, with appearances from other characters, and a few cameo appearances from our old friends George and Wendy Weber.

Does ‘bumping along the bottom’ refer solely to Crouch, or to the entire middle class which was hit hard by the recession of 1991-2?

  • Bumping along the bottom Miles Upmaster, who we’ve met a number of times, is now officially unemployed and trying to sell his house, reduced to scrubbing and cleaning it and then keeping his temper while prospective buyers walk round it poking and prying.
  • Scene from a literary life J.D. Crouch takes his dog for a walk on the common and, noticing people stopping and staring, egotistically assumes because he was on TV last night doing an interview. Simmonds gives him plenty of room to preen and swank before pulling back to reveal that all this time his dog is being shagged by another dog. That’s why people are staring and pointing.
  • Missing persons Canvassers for political parties are shown working their way along a busy road of suburban houses, and the inhabitants making all kinds of excuses for not speaking to them. Only at the end does one of the frustrated canvassers explain they’re all dodging the poll tax (which required that you had to register to pay the council tax in order to get on the electoral register. An estimated million people preferred to have no vote and so avoid paying the tax).
  • Election fever A satire on the Crouch household getting ‘election fever’, told from the point of view of the wife, Sophie, who feels dizzy and nauseous for three weeks (being a Labour voter) compared to grumpy old Crouch the novelist who votes Conservative (Why? ‘Because of my wallet’), the strip follows through election night when, contrary to all the opinion polls, the Conservatives under John Major returned to power (9 April 1992).
  • Tired old sociologist George Weber sits, alone and alienated, in a shopping centre and marvels that people are still continuing on the same mindless consumerism which characterised the 1980s, despite the economic crash, unemployment, bankruptcies and so on. His musings are transformed into those of a naturalist studying the great herds of the African savannah.
  • Topped balls Crouch is trying to get membership of an exclusive golf club but his attempts are ruined by his wife, Sophie, who insists on coming along, bring the two small children and picking mushrooms.
  • Spot the difference Using the split screen or binary technique she’s used elsewhere, Simmonds contrasts the fortunes of a dealer in oil paintings and watercolours at their 1988 ‘view’ and the same event four years later in 1992 i.e. at the 1992 view, he can’t afford canapés, the wine is cheap and nobody is buying.

  • Terminal belly ache Waiting at the airport department lounge with his wife and children, Crouch volunteers to go and get a magazine for his wife to read. When he returns after some delay he is in a filthy mood, complaining about the junk people watch and read and eat and drink. Wife Sophie knows what this means. He didn’t find a copy of one his books in the bookstall.
  • Déjeuner sur le patio A simply lovely English middle-class couple lament that their simple holiday hideaway in rural France has been ruined by all kinds of pollution (from the septic tank, the chlorine in the swimming pool, the copper sulphate they spray the vines with), there seem to be endless repairs, snarling dogs if you go for a walk and they’re the only ones in the village who didn’t vote for Le Pen. God how they wish they could return to the simple life in London!
  • Old rose-tinted spectacles Two big pictures contrasting Then and Now. Once, grown-up folk cast friendly eyes on children… Now they’re scared of them.

Old rose-tinted spectacles by Posy Simmonds (1993)

  • One man’s meat A middle-class couple agonise about what to take to their kids’ school’s International Picnic to represent British cuisine. Everything they think of (bacon, ham, sausage rolls, pork pies) will offend one or other religious or cultural sensitivity.
  • The brood Seems to be the Weber family’s kitchen in which are Wendy Weber, now that much older and with grey hair, talking to her married daughter Belinda, who appears to have had a baby, and the eldest daughter Sophie. Sophie’s thinking about having a baby and has seen something on the telly about how over-50s can be fertilised. Belinda and Sophie both think that’s gross and, more to the point, both think Wendy should be investing her time and savings in them and their babies.
  • P.C. PC 43 A heavy-handed satire about a police constable who uses only politically correct language e.g. referring to the homeless as ‘the involuntarily undomiciled’.
  • A lecture Crouch is invited ‘all the way out here’ to the polytechnic where George Weber works to deliver a lecture. Now, afterwards, George is accompanying him to the train station. Initially Crouch complains about the poor attendance and the bad food and the crappy wine and slowly George – an older, grey-haired George Weber – turns the tables and starts to lecture Crouch about how hard it is trying to keep an underfunded university lit and working despite not having the advantage of fancy-ancy Oxbridge colleges.
  • Sour grapes of wrath Crouch is at a book signing and seethes with jealousy because no one is asking for his signature but crowds are flocking around comedian Nigel Doyle and working mum and TV presenter Denni Welch. His loathing bursts out into muttered insults and abuse with his PR people telling him this isn’t going to persuade people to come over. This struck me as sad, not funny and is, I think, the third book signing strip we’ve seen.
  • The perfect present As usual, Christmas brings out the bilious, cynical and bad-tempered in Posy Simmonds, as she describes the tribulations of a young woman who has become the girlfriend of a married man who left his wife for her. This Christmas the ex-wife is holidaying with her lover in Luxor and the girlfriend knows that, whatever she buys and no matter how much effort she goes to, her boyfriend’s kids will vent all their rage and anger at their parents’ break-up onto her.
  • I’m dreaming of… Packed with resonance for fans of the Posy strip, this shows Belinda, eldest daughter of George and Wendy Weber, now married to her banker, (options trader) Alistair Razor-Dorke and director of her own upmarket catering company, as they ponder whether to spend Christmas with her parents (George and Wendy in their poky terrace conversion) listening to them moan against the government, or with his parents (frightfully posh but live in a draughty old country house and will serve posh but decrepit old food) – or stay in their swish two-bedroom, waterfront, duplex apartment, hmmm, it’s not a difficult decision.
  • I’m dreaming of… Reappearance of the appalling alcoholic Edmund Heep who rings work to say he’s too sick to come in and describes the night before when he went on a pub crawl with a friend, downing an appalling amount of booze, nearly getting into a fight with skinheads before stumbling into a late night caff and ordering scrambled eggs. Now he is claiming it was the eggs, the eggs that made him ill.
  • Christmas: The adoration of the general public As usual, Simmonds’s take on Christmas is jaundiced and cynical. Her Christmas strip for 1988 consisted of one large cartoon showing two sides of Christmas (this binary juxtaposition of past and present or idealised and actual, is an extremely common device). On the left we see the crib with the baby Jesus in it and Mary worshiping surrounded by angels, in the style of a Renaissance painting. On the right we see the identical stable but in this one Father Christmas is doling out presents to excited kiddies whose parents are queueing up in front, under the watchful eye of a security guard with walkie-talkie. There is a comic touch in that many of the mums and dads are saying ‘aaah’ at the religious scene, but the security guard is saying into his walkie-talkie ‘aaah… over.’

The end of January 1989

Once again, this is done in a calendar format, with one strip for every month of the year. I didn’t understand why they’re titled ‘The end of…’ January, February etc. The pictures are smaller than ever and overwhelmed with explanatory text, which sometimes begin to read like short stories.

  • The end of January A wordy sequence explaining the career of Kevin Penwallet, once an anthropology lecturer who quite working at the same polytechnic as George Weber to set up a shop in the sweet Cornish?) seaside village of Tresoddit. He started with health foods in 1979, but was forced to bend to prevailing commercialism and in 1989 turned it into Ye Olde Gift Shoppe full of twee knick-knacks before, in 1988, turning it into an upmarket delicatessen catering to the ever-increasing numbers of wealthy Londoners, to a chorus of disapproval from the locals, and from his old friend George Weber who accuses him of ‘collaboration with the consuming interests of the over-rewarded.’
  • The end of February George Weber is appalled by the mother’s day cards his daughters are browsing and points out to Wendy that they all present reassuring images of motherhood, mostly from the 19th century, and this is because we, as a society, are traumatised and sacred of numerous new hazards – streets full of muggers and addicts, paedophiles, country full of radioactive sheep and cows with BSE, rivers full of junk and pesticides, ozone layer being eaten away, sex is dangerous (AIDS) – and so need mummy’s hand to cling on to. Trouble is, when he tries to envision a perfectly up-to-date vision of mother caring for her young ones, what he sees is… a child-minder.
  • The end of March A sustained blast against the comprehensive pollution and desecration of the countryside, as seen by the endless flow of bumper-to-bumper traffic heading down our polluted motorways.
  • The end of April A soliloquy from an unbearably posh upper-class lady telling us how they’ve done up their house, and the whole neighbourhood is gentrified and you can buy decent prosciutto and the tramps have been kicked out of the square which has been turned into a wildflower garden and they can afford the best private education for their kids, mind you all this comes at the high cost of security, security locks, security buzzers, a panic room and an electrified truncheon.
  • The end of May: Jerusalem A satire on the new young rich and their passion for redecorating their stonking new homes, set to a parody of Blake’s Jerusalem: ‘And did those brogues in ancient times, Walk upon Nigel’s verdant sward, Or were they only just acquired, In Bond Street with an Access card…’ and so on.
  • The end of June: Our friendly neighbourhood Use of the frequent juxtaposition technique, two large pictures showing past and present or appearance and reality, in this case showing the polite greetings made between a cross-section of modern young people out walking, set against…the ferociously aggressive messages conveyed by their huge and frightening dogs.

  • The end of July: Turning back the floral clock A history of the floral clock on the seafront parade of some coastal town, as it evolved from 1959, 1969, 1979 to 1989, with tut tutting comments from each generation of locals.
  • The end of August This is a laboured satire on a middle-class family with two older children, just back from shopping at their local organic grocers’ with their right-on dad, who proceed to find various slugs and maggots in all the fruit and veg, much to the children’s disgust, but the patronising father assures them this is a good sign, shows no pesky pesticides were used.
  • The end of September: A Jeremiad for the new academic year We’re in the staff room of George Weber’s poly where the staff are grimly depressed about the start of a new year, and where the principal lecturer in information design brings them even lower by revealing that his students are doing signs for the new massive ‘Phosco’ superstore being built on the edge of town.
  • The end of October Soliloquy by one of Simmonds’s trademark posh mums with massive hairdo who spends the first half lamenting what blood-sucking bastards the people who bought their house are… and the second half explaining how they’ve screwed a great deal out of the people they’re buying from. Hypocrisy doesn’t come much purer.
  • The end of November: The march of feminism as shown by the changing shape of women’s shoes from 1969 to 1989, with a bit of satire thrown in about how the Forward March of feminism seems to be being held up by sisters in the 1980s. Tut tut.
  • A Christmas Carol A typically sour Simmonds take on Christmas in which the spirit of Christmas, looking very much like our old friend, the alcoholic Edmund Heep, appears to a sleek, well, manicured City banker, all to the accompaniment of a parody of the festive hymn: ‘While Shepherd watched his stocks by night, And monitored the pound, The other chaps went down the pub, And Gloria stood a round…’

As mentioned, there’s so much text and information in some of these cartoons that they read almost like short stories. This affects the size of the pictures, which are often very small and crammed with narrative text, and then further filled with speech or thought balloons – quite a stuffing of text and meaning until the ‘reading’ experience becomes quite complicated or demanding.

All this anticipates the style of her graphic novels with their dense interplay of different types of text (narrative, dialogue, thoughts, along with parodies, songs and quotes) with very tightly-drawn pictures arranged in very precise and rather cramped compositions.

Thoughts

Negative and depressing

When I first read through the six books collected in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus I came to the end deeply disliking Posy Simmonds for her unremitting negativity and satire which I felt lacked wit but overflowed with bile.

Having taken the time and trouble to go through and itemise pretty much every cartoon in Mrs Weber’s Omnibus, I now realise the negative feeling I took away largely stems from this final collection, Mustn’t Grumble, for in it the tone really darkens, she stops being very funny at all and the satire – for example against brutal rich bastards like Aubrey Shyte – becomes genuinely bitter.

Meanwhile the extended series of cartoons about the failure and self-loathing of past-it novelist J.D. Crouch also – for me – had nothing redeeming about it, it’s just episodes from the life of a middle-aged man who is failing and angry against the world.

And the twenty-four calendar characters from the Spectator similarly have next to nothing humorous about them but are all-too-accurate barometers of a society becoming steadily, relentlessly more greedy, self-serving, and shamelessly unequal.

So I realise now that it was mainly this last book which left such a bitter aftertaste in my mind, and overshadowed the fact that most of the earlier collections are much lighter in tone, and do contain genuinely comic moments which are worth savouring and remembering.

Abandoning the Weber family meant, to some extent, abandoning the containment of her bitter vision of the world within the cosy arena of the regular gallery of comic characters.

Set free, unconstrained, but also unsoftened, by the mollifying filter of the Weber characters, Simmonds’s vision emerges in this final collection, as one of real anger and bitterness at the social injustice and the revolting hypocrisy of the new, rich middle classes of Thatcher’s Britain.


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Pure Posy by Posy Simmonds (1987)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical context

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

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

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


Pure Posy

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

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

The triumph of Thatcherism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Themes

Changing times / the Weber values becoming passé (9)

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

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

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

Women and feminism (7)

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

Difficulties of motherhood and childcare (4)

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

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

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

Childhood and small children (4)

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

Men’s Talk by Posy Simmonds (1986)

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

Divorce

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

Ironies of love (2)

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

Sex and adultery (5)

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

Forbidden fruit by Posy Simmonds (1986)

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

A writer’s life (3)

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

Academia (3)

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

Middle class mores and hypocrisies (10)

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

Union Jakes by Posy Simmonds (1986)

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

Pastiches and parodies (5)

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

Second homes (3)

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

Old Arcadia by Posy Simmonds (1986)

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

Christmas (3)

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

Teenagers and the Generation Gap (3)

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

Edmund Heep the alcoholic (3)

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

Miscellaneous (4)

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

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

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

Animal liberation and vegetarianism (2)

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

Homosexuality (1)

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

A kind of liberation by Posy Simmonds (1985)

Politics (4)

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

The end of the Webers (2)

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

Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Credit

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


Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Pick of Posy by Posy Simmonds (1982)

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

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

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

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

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

Pick of Posy is the second in the series of collections, given that True Love was a one-off ‘graphic novel’, loosely based on the schoolgirl crush of one of the characters, Janice Brady, for a regular cast member, tall, suave philandering advertising executive Stanhope Wright. The most obvious aspects of the book are:

– it is twice the length of Mrs Weber’s Diary, at getting on for 90 pages

– the diary format which dominated the first book has been dropped, allowing the strips to stand on their own

– the drawing has changed and improved; the earliest cartoons from the previous book were sometimes drawn with a very heavy, thick outline; in Pick of Posy the lines are thinner, more subtle

– and accompanying this there is a noticable increase in the amount of background detail in the frames. Some cartoonists leave the frames almost empty except for the human characters. Simmonds’s frames are stuffed with detail of an almost photographic realism.

Compare and contrast the almost children-book simplicity of a very early cartoon, most of the frames having a simple white background:

With the style of only a few years later, which is stuffed with minutely catalogued and realistic details, designed to reinforce the mood and meaning of the text.

Class distinctions

Surfing the net around Simmonds I came across an American blogger who said that for a long time he didn’t understand Posy Simmonds cartoons at all. He didn’t get what they were about, they just seemed so British, with no real humour in them. Then one particular strip gave him a Eureka moment and made him realise that Simmonds’s cartoons are predominantly about class, about the thousand tiny subtle markers of class and class distinctions which the British obsess about and which are so opaque or invisible to outsiders. That was the key, and from that point onwards he was able to understand and appreciate them.

I think this is a massive insight. It explains why the strips are almost all talk or thought bubbles, rather than actions or events. Because it is via thoughts and dialogue and words and concepts that the subtle distinctions of class which are Simmonds’s meat and drink are expressed.

But I think you can extend the insight. Her cartoons are not only about class. Age and gender are also dominant themes:

  • Gender in the form of the familiar sex war in which countless women feel they are the hard-done-by, downtrodden, stay-at-home-mums, or harassed working mums, or young women wolf-whistled in the street, or leered over at work by lecherous middle-aged men.
  • Age in the obvious way that the concerned liberal Weber couple have a teenage daughter, Belinda, who has become a punk, goes out with leather-clad bikers, and generally rebels against everything her parents held sacred, as do the two punk sons of alcoholic whiskey salesman Edmund Heep. The presence of these two types of teenage rebellion (one female, the other male) allows Simmonds to make countless jokey observations about the gap between the idealistic 60s generation and the nihilistic 70s generation.

This line of thinking helps explain why the strips are not about broad humour, or puns or boom-boom punchlines, but are concerned with a thousand subtle, acute observations on the differences of class and age and gender which permeate British society and, in particular, which divide the so-called middle classes into scores of sub-tribes or groups.

Mundane subject matter

It explains why so much of the subject matter – what is happening in the strips – is extremely mundane and everyday: it is not the events which are interesting, it is the way they spark divergent responses in this or that middle class tribe, divides men’s responses from women’s, the overly-concerned liberal parents from their spotty stroppy kids.

The wry smile of recognition

It explains why even her strongest fans tend to use words like ‘wry’ and ‘dry’ about her humour, which are code for something which is obviously not serious but also is not trying to prompt laughter. Instead I think the central aim or effect of her cartoons is to trigger recognition: her readers read a strip and nod their heads and think – ‘Yes, I know that sort of angry mum, or leery businessman, or stroppy teenager’. They give you a wry smile of recognition.

It’s the same kind of wry smile that is prompted by her clever-clever references to famous paintings, or use of pastiche elements like suddenly accompanying the strip with the worlds of an Elizabethan song, or slipping into the style of 1950s True Romance magazines.

All the elements – recognition of social types, recognition of their precise class position, recognition of clever cultural references – are designed to make you nod and think, ‘Yes, I get it; very clever’.

Humour

Where there is humour in the strips, beyond the wry smile of recognition, it is most often expressed in ironic reversals – when an exasperated mother, or concerned parents, or adulterous man, set out with one intention and then find themselves ironically frustrated, or (very often) outsmarted by their children or rivals or would-be targets.

A good example is Peaceful twilight years where George’s Aunt Weber comes to stay and is sitting comfortably in front of the television when she starts saying ’89’, repeatedly. George and Wendy look at each other and then have a sotto voce conversation about how the old lady’s going gaga, and Wendy very patronisingly asks if that’s her age. To which Winny shocks her and the reader by replying that, No, 89 is the number of violent TV deaths she’s seen so far this month. ‘They say today’s children see over 10,000 TV murders by the time they’re 15… I’ve seen over 120,000.’ Now that is quite funny.

Or Happy families where Paul and Emma Standish have come round to George and Wendy’s for Sunday lunch and afterwards one of their little kids starts drawing on Wendy’s wall and then on the sofa so Wendy gives her a light smack which leads to an enormous argument and debate about the rights and wrongs of smacking – the comic punchline comes as the strip cuts away to the other kids playing quietly on the floor, one of whom says: ‘It always ends in tears.’

Themes

I tried to do a one-sentence summary of some of the strips just to record what they’re actually about:

  • Spotlight on beauty Wendy buys new wall lights, fits them herself but is then horrified when they spotlight the mess, damp and chaos in her kitchen
  • Happy ever after George and Wendy take the mickey out of all the merchandising surrounding the Royal Wedding, which prompts their teenage daughter Belinda to complain that they’re always belittling things and mocking romance, at which point George and Wendy say they’re just as much in love as ever, which prompts Belinda and the other kids to go ‘Eurgh, GROSS!
  • Sunday TV Wendy, her mum and the little kids are watching a TV documentary about lions in Africa which includes scenes of them mating, which prompts her mum to whisper, in French so the kids don’t understand, that they ought to turn it off – so they turn it off and draw the kids’ attention to their two pet rabbits in their cage, but when the adults have left, the kids notice that the rabbits are also mating and -m in an ironic payoff – one of the older kids parodies their grandma by saying ‘Ooh la la, Keith! Pas devant les enfants!’ because, of course, being good middle-class children they do of course understand French.
  • Mea culpa Wendy is in the basement kitchen of the Weber household when she sees a man walking a dog which is doing a poo right outside. She rushes up and out the door to berate him, but he tells her a long shaggy dog story about how the dog was foisted on him by his ailing mother-in-law and he thinks its behaviour is awful, but what can you do? On and on, until it is Wendy who feels abashed and ashamed of herself.
  • Hawks and doves Dominic’s parents are giving a dinner party but the little so-and-so, in his pyajamas, runs around the dinner table shouting and making a fuss and tugging his mums’ skirt: in their minds the guests divide neatly into hawks, who would give him a good smack, and doves, who thinks he is just over-tired and needs attention. The strip ends with his father picking him up at which point he becomes calm and docile, and his long-suffering mother looking daggers at her husband who seems able to mollify their son so effortlessly.

  • Piggy bank George joins everyone else staring at a man who is walking through the street effing and blinding, George goes in to see his bank manager who gives him a hard time about bank security and needing to verify his identity, until George emerges onto the street doing exactly the same kind of effing and blinding as the man the strip started with.
  • Higher education In the Polytechnic canteen on the first day of the new academic year, we see all the staff moaning and worrying.
  • Exchange of views The Dean of the Polytechnic where George works needs to shed some staff and so is shown soft-soaping George and several other old-timers, telling them now is the time to take early retirement, write that book they’ve always wanted to, pick up work as a consultant and so on…

Exchange of views by Posy Simmonds (1980)

  • Identity parade A visiting lecturer at the Poly is introduced to George who recognises him and takes a moment to review where they’ve met – was it at the Uni of Essex in the 60s, at hippy rallies in Hyde Park, at fashionable beatnik cafés, or attending R.D. Laing’s fashionable lectures on psychiatry. Then the penny drops. God, no, it was when they were both in the army doing their national service at Oswestry and the visitor was corporal to George’s private.
  • Clouds of glory A split-screen strip in which George visits the GP because of something up with his poo – on one side the doctor tells him he only weeks to live, all his relatives tearfully come and see him and after his death his magnum opus is published and given a rave review in the Time Literary Supplement; on the other side exactly the same sequence of events leads up to the doctor telling George that, from the state of a sample of faeces he’s given him, George has been eating too much beetroot!
  • Urbs and rus Stanhope and wife Trisha are at their second home in the country and Stanhope pontificates about how his knowledge of country matters and nature is infinitely superior to their neighbour, farmer Pearcey, who is not a real farmer and just makes a mint renting his and to a caravan park. All of which Mr Pearce unfortunately overhears, putting Stanhope in his place with the witty riposte: ‘As the man said, we must all cultivay notre jardin, eh?’
  • THE DENTIST A couple of surreal strips in which Trish Stanhope visits an Australian Marxist dentist who, in effect, hears her embarrassed confession about  how she’s not as left-wing and right-on as she ought to be, what with the second home and the cleaner and the private school for the little ones…
  • Rustic blues Stanhope takes a country neighbour of his, another Londoner who bought up a disused railway station and has renovated it and moans about how he can’t ingratiate himself with the locals to the local pub where – they discover it is packed to the rafters with Londoners down for the weekend and treating the locals to fancy tipples and fags.
  • Home is where the heart is Stanhope drives the family down to his lovely country cottage, singing the praises of the countryside all the way – until he opens a letter waiting for him to discover it is a summons to jury service, at which point he explodes that he’s going to be stuck in this ‘one-eyed dump’ for weeks! (The insult ‘one-eyed’ applied to a remote village will recur in the graphic novels Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe.)
  • Angles and Saxons Stanhope and Trisha Wright are enjoying a picnic in the country with their step-daughter Jocasta, who has brought along her middle-aged boyfriend, an expert in graphs. When a motorbike roaring by sputters to a halt, the boyfriend shows Jocasta a series of graphs based on the likelihood of Stanhope giving the rider a bollocking. But to everyone’s surprise Stanhope is intimidated by the biker, and ends up wishing him well. Much to the chagrin of Stefan the graph-expert. And Jocasta’s punchline to the strip is: ‘Stefan has always believed that British middle class behaviour goes out of its way to defy rational explanation.’ Not that funny.

  • Always welcome Typically English middle-class, envenomed restraint, when Trish and Stanhope welcome Jocasta home to say, and then find themselves lumbered with putting up middle-aged Stefan – going out of their way to make a nice diner for im, and making up the sofa bed with pillows and a duvet – and then retiring to their own bedroom to fret and criticise and disapprove.
  • A room of one’s own Jocasta in her freezing, scruffy student flat at Christmas.
  • Christmas Christmas is a recurrent theme in all the books. Simmonds hates Christmas, all the fol-de-rol and pretending. So the Christmas strip in this book kicks off with Wendy and Trish traipsing through the West End past gaudily decorated shops lamenting which pack of ghoulish relatives are coming to stay this year – but then both notice little Benji cooing over the shop window decorations and Wendy ends up thinking: ‘It’s all a terrible expense… but still… it is Christmas… & one has to do it for the children, after all…’
  • Wish you were here The Christmas Day cartoon is one big picture of Jocasta in bed in her filthy flat, smoking and reading a book surrounded by dirty dishes and fag packets and food wrappers, imagining the polite family Christmas Stanhope and Trish are having with some in-laws who they politely loathe and how everyone is getting on each other’s nerves in that repressed, English way.
  • Lonely heart The thoughts of an Action Man doll who is horrified when his owner’s big sister starts dressing her Barbie doll in the Action Man clothes and putting her in his tank etc.
  • Wendy’s mum comes to stay and insists on doing all the washing up and chores and dusting and cleaning the loo and Wendy is hugely relieved when she finally leaves!
  • Consumers In post-Christmas mode George and Wendy watch ads on TV and George way over-analyse them in terms of ‘reification’ and ‘heuristics’.
  • Perpetuum immobile One big clever cartoon showing alcoholic Edmund Heep propping up the bar at his local and buying drinks for everyone, with his tiresomely cheerful banter.
  • All systems go showing the brand new regional office of International Brewhouse Inc empty, as the designers designed it, and then full of boozy male middle-managers after work, with harassed secretaries having to cover for them. Men, eh!
  • The silent 3 introducing Edmund Heep’s two sons who are safety-pinned, spiky-haired punks, and their mate arguing and swearing at each other all the time.

  • The silent 3: Gather ye rosebuds shows the three punks hanging out, threatening passersby and ogling passing birds, only to reveal at the end that young Jules, occasionally, in the privacy of his own home… can be quite sweet to his old parents, buying his mum a gardening book and his dad a tie.
  • Settlers Quite a funny strip in which George and Wendy are round the house of a friend who’s done up a house in a remote and derelict area, all the language leading you to believe they’re talking about the remote countryside until… they step outside and you realise the house is in n area of abandoned urban wasteland.
  • Happy families Paul and Emma Standish have come round to George and Wendy’s for Sunday lunch and afterwards one of their little kids starts drawing on Wendy’s wall and then on the sofa so Wendy gives her a light smack which leads to an enormous argument and debate about the rights and wrongs of smacking – the comic punchline comes as the strip cuts away to the other kids playing quietly on the floor, one of whom says: ‘It always ends in tears.’
  • An unnamed strip which ironically takes tropes to do with spring, and singing birds and buds breaking through to…. show that these daffodils are blooming in the foetid flat of Jocasta Wright where they start coughing and choking.
  • True confessions Stanhope and his wife Trish are weekending at their cottage, but when Stanhope beings tentatively to tell his wife about his latest fling (they have an open marriage) she gets cross and shouts that she’s not his Mother Confessor. She decides to invite ‘the Dixons’ over although this requires a complex set of instructions as they’re two hours from London. In counterpoint to Trish’s directions Stanhope draws an imaginary maze which would lead Trish to discovering him, Stanhope, in bed with his latest floozy.
  • Angles of incidence Stanhope is in the lift with his mother when he starts making eyes at a pretty young thing who makes eyes back at him. Stanhope’s mother spots it and treads in his feet interrupting the flow of sexual enticement, saying as she helps him limp from the lift: ‘I thought we’d had quite enough of ETERNAL TRIANGLES, Stanhope.’
  • The conversation piece Jocasta and her dad, Stanhope, are hanging out in the airport departure lounge because the plane to take them on their skiing holiday is delayed. Stanhope, as is his wont, starts chatting up another middle-aged woman, which Jocasta listens to for a bit and then suddenly stands up and announces to the entire lounge that she is his mistress which leads to a massive picture showing all the passengers in the lounge commenting on this revelation in a rich mix of European languages.
  • Bitter sweets Trish is shopping at the supermarket when little Willy spots sweets at the checkout counter and starts wailing, crying, screaming for them. The mum she’s with sympathises and a chorus of other women all give their opinions about how to manage – when Trish just smacks Willy, he stops crying in surprise, and she buys him the sweets anyway.
  • Peaceful twilight years George’s Aunt Weber comes to stay and is sitting comfortably in front of the television when she starts saying ’89’, repeatedly. George and Wendy look at each other and then have a sotto voce conversation about how the old lady’s going gaga, and Wendy very patronisingly asks if that’s her age. To which Winny shocks her and the reader by replying that, No, 89 is the number of violent TV deaths she’s seen so far this month. ‘They say today’s children see over 10,000 TV murders by the time they’re 15… I’ve seen over 120,000.’ Now that is quite funny.
  • Perspectives Over dinner George, Wendy and a beardy socialist friend discuss the issues of the day – the arms race, collapse of detente, nuclear war, the economy, nationalism, pollution, destruction of the ozone layer, unemployment… Later than night George has a nightmare but, in ironic counterpoint to all these big weighty subjects, his subconscious is harassed by worries that his library books are three weeks overdue, he might be getting Wendy’s cold, and that something’s dropped off the car.
  • A dog’s life A split screen narrative in which a colleague of George’s at the Poly – Pierce – goes through a typical day, nicking George’s parking space, trying it on with a secretary, criticising George and the other lefties for being so soft, nicking the office projector and so on. In the parallel set of pictures we see the adventures of Pierce’s dog during the day, the doggy equivalent of all Pierce’s actions. Except that at the end of the day Pierce gets home late to a chilly reception from his wife, while the dog gets home to be embraced and rewarded.
  • Sharing George gets home from a draining day to find that Wendy has done all the chores even though it’s ‘his’ turn .He gets quite cross, explaining that he wanted to do the shopping, cooking, cleaning and washing up and her having done it has left him feeling deprived. ‘It was MY TURN to feel really OPPRESSED.’
  • No smoking George takes the train and is driven mad by the loud sounds all the other passengers make, listening to the radio, eating an apple, slurping a cup of tea etc.
  • Bon brush George is cleaning the toilet while Wendy goes out to night class, but his cleaning  conjures up a genii, a middle-aged woman of a genii who proceeds to be shocked that he’s doing the housework and insists a woman’s place is in the home and a load of other sexist cant, so that George pushes her back into the toilet, rams the lid down and flushes it.
  • Il Fondo George and Wendy go to the cinema to see an Italian movie. George drifts off and is thinking about new sheets for the bed, when the characters proceed to strip off and (presumably) have sex, at which George goes all red in the face and… notices Wendy looking at him. Oops, quick, time to hide that male sex drive. So he readjusts his thoughts until he is condemning the film as ‘appalling, horribly sexist, revolting and exploitative.’ When he hurriedly tells Wendy all this as they leave the cinema she smiles and agrees. Phew.
  • Cheers In a pub some leery businessman spends the entire strip chatting up the young woman they’ve promoted to management, patronising and insulting her about how pretty she is, until the woman throws her drink over the guy and storms out, leaving him spluttering: ‘There! See! What have I always said – they’re IRRATIONAL… EMOTIONAL… & completely UNPREDICTABLE.’
  • Uneasy riders George and Wendy’s daughter is a stunningly sexy teenager who wears tight clothes, low tops and is going out with a motorcycle courier. Off she zooms and George and Wendy tut tut and reminisce about their heady days in the 1950s, going by scooter to a cool coffee bar and onto the Royal Court theatre.
  • The natural order Wendy drops little Benji off with one of her neighbours and is appalled to hear the mum telling her boy that he has to be a doctor and the daughters that they have to be nurses. Sexist stereotyping! In fact as soon as the adults have gone this is exactly what the little girls do, playing with their dolly and not letting Benji get a look in. But when they hear the grown-ups returning, the girls give the doll to Benji and tell the admiring Wendy that he’s been a nurse while one of the girls has been acting a mother and brain surgeon. In other words, they know how to play Wendy’s politically correct prejudices. And this is 1979, 40 years ago!
  • Well known facts Another split strip concept, where the children are walking back from school telling each other things their mums have told them like, if you step on the cracks a bear will get you, or if you swallow apple pips a tree will grow in your tummy. This is ironically counterpointed by the mums’ conversations which are all about ‘my mum says’ and ‘my doctor told me’ and ‘my architect friend said’ and so on. Moral: we never really grow up.
  • Art gallery George takes his kids to an art gallery and delivers long high-falutin lectures about the politico-historical realities behind each painting, while the kids yawn and want to leave. I think the joke is that their regular Sunday morning visits, complete with lecture, are identical in format to the kind of preachy sermonising George and Wendy hated about the church their parents took them to.
  • Temptation’s way Belinda Weber goes into town on the tube wearing an extraordinarily sexy black leather figure-hugging outfit and thinks she’s being touched up in the tube carriage. Instead it is a feminist who has covered her with stickers saying ‘This garment exploits women’.
  • Daily dose Jocasta Wright catches the tube and looks at all the images and stories about women in the papers and magazines the commuters are reading, leading to a large cartoon of ‘the Seven Ages of Media Women’
  • A Messy Business Jocasta is walking down the street when she steps in some dog poo, then catches up with a dog on a leash and stares daggers at it, imagines killing it, imagines it dead, imagines the newspaper headlines about herself being a dog killer, and so walks past the dog, smiling cheesily at it. The dog says ‘Chicken’ to her.
  • Promises, promises A female friend insists on showing Wendy the photos from Sue’s wedding. Every single one involves someone who is divorced or splitting up or remarrying. By the time they get to the photo of the happy bride, and her friend comments that they’re getting married rather young, Wendy sardonically comments, don’t worry: ‘It’s just a PHASE she’s going through.’
  • L’après-midi d’une divorcée A divorced mum is waiting for her husband to come and collect the kids. The delay allows her to work herself into a frenzy of anger and frustration at him so that when he finally knocks on the door, she opens it holding her child dressed as a cowboy who demands, ‘Your money or your life, Daddy.’
  • Theory and practice is another split screen, on one side the successive stages of a happy and equable divorce, on the other side a set of mathematical equations depicting an extremely fractious and rancorous divorce.
  • How the other half lives A divorced woman phones her ex-husband imagining him snug in a big bed with his dishy new girlfriend. In fact he is living in a sad bedsit surrounded by rubbish, and is imagining her living in domestic bliss with happy kids stroking the pet labrador. They’re both angry and deluded.
  • Company loves misery At a smart house party a group of women bill and coo over a male friend of theirs who’s recently got divorced. But when he turns up in the company of the stunning young fox, Belinda Weber, their giggly fondness turns to bitterness and spite.
  • Going solo Wendy phones a friend of hers who’s recently got divorced, Ellen, a creator of hand-crafted wooden house signs. Ellen goes to great lengths to tell Wendy how happy she is to be single, to be living by herself, to be free, not to be dominated by some man. But after Wendy hangs up. Ellen bursts into bitter tears.
  • Putting the bootee in At a nice house party Nigel, married with two kids, deduces that single Avril earns three times what he does, and start chatting her up, without realising how patronising and sexist he is being. Finally, his heavily pregnant wife comes to collect him and he manages to really anger her by thoughtlessly remarking: ‘Y’know… I really admire women like that, who make something of their lives’, implying that his wife, by ‘merely having babies, has wasted hers.
  • Rich desserts Tow mums are visiting. Christine has a small baby. the other mums bills and coos and makes an enormous fuss over baby, talking horrible baby talk and putting her up on her shoulder where… the baby proceeds to be copiously sick, much to the first mums’ amusement.
  • Mother knows best Trish is taken out for tea by her mother-in-law, Stanhope’s mother, who proceeds to lecture her about how a mother ought to be at the beck and call of her children, nothing is too good for them… until she spies a mother across the restaurant breast-feeding her baby, at which point she is overcome with disgust and disapproval… much to Trish’s ill-concealed glee.
  • The shape of things to come A joke reveal strip – in which we meet George, Wendy and other parents in the kitchen catering to a raucous party, complaining about the guests, the gatecrashers, throwing up behind the flowers, dancing lasciviously and then… the final big picture reveals that they’re supervising a party not of adults but of 11-year-olds making themselves sick on fizzy drinks and chocolate and gyrating to pop music whose sexy lyrics they can’t possibly understand.
  • At Tobit’s fourth birthday party the well-dressed hostess explains that she simply couldn’t do without her wonderful au pair, Lizzie, who looks after the kids, arranges everything, makes it possible for swish mum to have a jet-setting career. But then she says wonderful Lizzie is leaving her to go and study in America at which all the other mums say, How awful, How dreadful, Oh poor you etc. And then, a second later, realise that they’re saying that the academic success of this woman Lizzie is dreadful… at which point they all rush to correct themselves, How simply wonderful for her etc.
  • Tres snub George and Wendy attend a party of appalling snobs and social climbers at Mrs Brinsley Bowe’s bijou residence, which George regards as excellent field work into ‘a discourse of totemic bricolage’.
  • An acid experience Old friend of George and Wendy’s, American ethno-botanist is staying and is thrilled to meet ferociously sexy Belinda and her cool, shaded boyfriend. Hair-banded, hairy old hippy Frisbee tries to co-opt them into his memories of rebellion and the summer of love, giving them a big bear hug and proclaiming Love, man – while the two youngsters have thought bubbles with KILL in big letters.
  • Sex’n’drugs Wendy worries that Belinda is going out in a very low-cut top which reveals her boobs, but Belinda tells her to calm down, she’s not having sex or taking drugs, like her old hippy parents did at her age.

  • Pupa power Wendy is round a fellow mum’s who begins criticising some fiml or TV programme for being sexist and her teenage kids start taking the mickey out of her: ‘Sexism! sexism! That’s all you talk about’ which sets the mum off ranting about how she’d hoped to bring up two kids to share her liberal values but appears to have raised ‘two SLUGS who lie about chewing holes in everything I stand for.’
  • The joke strip where Jocasta and another girl have gone for a day’s sketching in the countryside accompanied by two of their male tutors. When the old tutors criticise the cynicism of the t-shirts the girls are wearing Jocasta spontaneously takes hers off, and then her jeans (made in South Africa) and then her trainers (made in a Latin American dictatorship) and then her panties (made from multi-national man-made fibre) – until she is sitting naked next to the two clothed men in a pastiche of the famous Manet painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe.

 

  • Manners Friends go and stay at Stanhope and Trisha’s country cottage and at the end of the weekend tell him what a divine time they had, slept like logs, simply the best… then spend the entire drive back to London complaining how ghastly it was.
  • Loss and profit Benji steals George’s car keys and hides them in the garden. George gets angry with him at which point Wendy intervenes to coax Benji and offer him sweets. At which point Benji confesses where he hid them and is rewarded. So that he learns that crime really does pay.
  • L’Étranger George and Wendy are on the beach in the south of France, very white and pasty among the bronzed foreign bodies. Wendy begins to take her bikini off but then is overcome with doubts, prompting George to explain to the other beach occupiers, in his bad French, that they are not embarrassed about going naked, it’s just that the day before they got sunburn on their naughty bits.
  • A little turbulence The insufferably good-humoured drunk Edmund Heep is on a holiday flight which runs into really bad turbulence during which all the passengers beg God that they’ll mend their ways if only the plane survives.
  • Jocasta and friends are hitch-hiking through France and are eating at a seafood restaurant when they can’t helping the noisy Germans and (as usual) the braying confident upper middle class Brits telling their kids how to crack and eat lobster claws, leading Jocasta to bubble-think a parody of the poster for Jaws called Claws in which a giant lobster reaches upto munch the all-unwary swimmer.
  • Edmund and Jo Heep have gone on holiday to a hotel in England where they are embarrassed by their obnoxious punk teenage sons until… Julian gets the letter with his O-level results proclaiming that he’s got all nine, and his parents, the waitress and even the other guests are all full of approval and admiration.
  • All good gifts around us As the time of the Harvest Festival approaches the curate has been canvassing goods to display at the church and tells the vicar the middle classes have been most generous of all… but then reveals all the gifts are pies and cakes and quiches which come from their freezers. Quite why this is funny or satirical or has point eludes me.
  • The last days of peace A broad satirical strip which appears to take the Conservative Party election victory as the pretext for thinking that The Great War Against Inflation is coming in which creches and daycare centres and hostels for the old and so on will all close down, women will be forced back into the kitchen and men will go to the front to fight inflation. It seemed an arch, strained and unfunny allegory which ends with a pastiche of the famous poster with a child sitting on her father’s knee asking, ‘Daddy what did you do during the war?’
  • Zuppa Inglese George takes his two eldest daughters out for an Italian meal and grows increasingly irritated as the waiters hover round the two nubile glamour pusses like flies on poo, until he snaps and tells them to leave them alone. The comedy derives from the fact that George tries to explain that his daughters are not sex objects to be objectified, while the Italian maitre d’ entirely misinterprets him, rereading George’s anger as being like traditional Italian protectiveness towards his womenfolks’ ‘honour’ – and the more worked up George becomes, the more the Italian staff respect his machismo and old-fashioned sense of honour.
  • Facts of life At a summer dinner in the garden the kids innocently ask their parents where babies come from and George gives a factually accurate account of wombs and sperm while Wendy talks about love and romance – and then all the adults overhear the kids repeating this garbled version of misinformation.
  • Sweet sorrow Her mother is taking little Katya to nursery school for the first time and the little girl cries with apprehension while the mum reassures her about all the good things and games and friends she’ll meet. Having left her little girl there, the mum comes away upset and crying and Wendy repeats to her all the advantages and pluses which we have just heard the mum reassuring Katya with.
  • Listen with mother Wendy takes her smallest children to the local art gallery where she is in the middle of explaining what the Camden Town School of artists was trying to achieve when she looks up and realises she’s attracted quite a crowd of adult listeners.
  • A divided self At the offices of Beazeley and Buffin Jocasta shows Stanhope the artwork for a new beauty product which features an impossibly dishy model and, while Stanhope describes in words the numerous ‘feminine’ qualities the product is meant to symbolise, Jocasta does ironic dances and pirouettes round the office, ending up tied up in knots, almost as if… a sexist, patriarchal society places impossible demands on women.
  • Vigilance Jocasta is visting a friend and when it comes time to leave, the friend says she’ll accompany her to the busstop and on the way they discuss how ten years after Liberation women are still not safe to walk the streets at night, all the time aware that a sinister figure is following them through the dark alleys and slowly gaining on them who is… eventually revealed to be the friend’s dad who was concerned and has been following all the time to make sure they’re OK.
  • This sporting life Relatives pop in to visit the Heep family who, we learn, live in a semi under the motorway flyover. The relatives try to make the most of Edmund’s two unprepossessing punk sons who cadge a fiver off them on the pretext that they’re going on a sponsored run. Five minutes later the punks walk back in and when the surprised relative asks why it was such a short run, the punks take off their leather jackets to reveal t-shirts with the slogan ‘Sponsored Motorway Dash’ – they run from one side to the other dodging the traffic.
  • Breath of a salesman TV reporter Gareth french pops into the castle and Ball for a quick one but is accosted by the unbearable Edmund Heep who proceeds to breathe foul pickled onion and scotch egg fumes all over him.
  • Piggy in the middle Benji has a cold so Belinda is reading him a storybook about rich pigs and poor pigs, but Wendy interrupts and criticises the book for having such appalling stereotypes in it such as the mummy pig being in the kitchen cooking all the time and – this being a cartoon – the piggy character start arguing back against Wendy’s political correctness during all of which bickering… Benji has happily fallen asleep.
  • A la recherche du temps perdu Rummaging in the attic Belinda uncovers a pair of fading hippy jeans which revolt her but Wendy explains how it was hand patched and festooned with logos and peace signs and so on, and lectures Belinda that they were the generation who cared… Yeah, and who ‘ROTTED the FABRIC of SOCIETY’ thinks Belinda, with her Lady Di haircut and Thatcherite values.
  • Sheep and goats Sitting on a crowded bus Wendy and a load of other passengers are forced to put up with the ranting of a scuzzy old bigot raving against immigrants, and reds, and long-haired scroungers, and bloody feminists taking our jobs… until the conductor tells him there’s no standing room and he’ll have to get off. At which point Wendy nervously says ‘what a horrible old man’ and then, in the dead silence, realises that everyone else on the bus agreed with him.
  • They’re never ever satisfied Wendy is buying presents for all the kids in a toyshop ad when she gets to the till the middle-aged teller is at first all sweetness and light about watching their little faces light up until… she suddenly lets her guard down and reveals how much she loathes Christmas and thinks modern children are spoiled, after all she never had a paint box, she was never given a brand new bike at Christmas, she
  • Showing off Wendy is off studying while George looks after the kids who beg him to make robin costumes for the school’s Christmas play or they’ll be the only ones without a costume. George piously thinks that going that extra mile, doing those little extra tasks, is what true equality is all about and so dutifully runs up two beautiful robin costumes. Only to attend the performance and realise that his two kids are the only ones with robin outfits and overhear other mums in the audience tut-tutting that some parents really do have too much time on their hands.
  • Perquisites Jocasta goes to the office of her dad, Stanhope, hoping to cadge some Christmas money but instead marvelling at the array of luxury goods he’s been sent by various clients, which are listed in special folksy Christmas font as in the song the twelve days of Christmas. Jocasta points out how fattening or toxic (cigars) they are and ironically wishes her dad ‘a Merry Cholesterol’.
  • Jocasta gives us her view of Christmas, a jaded cynical view which appears to be Simmonds’s since it appears in all her books, a time of boozy pub goers, and cash till ringing up phenomenal sales, and she wishes all of her relatives captious or spiteful presents, for example a lizard-skin belt for her trendy stepmother, but a size too small… etc.
  • In the last strip George and Wendy are in bed when they’re woken by their youngest, Benji, who has a tummy ache and wants a story. Wendy dozes listening to George’s voice reading the story but… which suddenly gives a jolt, becomes very adult, and starts talking George’s characteristic pseudo-intellectual twaddle. Sneaking downstairs Wendy is astonished to find that Father Christmas is in the front room sharing a drink with her husband.

A lot of information, isn’t it, a lot of stories? Not many are funny, most spark. at most, a wry smile of recognition. Some puzzled me with their curious lack of purpose. But there is no doubt that having read all of them carefully, you do build up quite a deep sense of the Weber family and their children and friends and circle and a slightly mocking affection for their well-intentioned foibles.

I think little Benji is my favourite character. All things considered, I think I’d like a piece of chocolate cake, a balloon and a carry home.

Credit

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


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Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut (1979)

The most embarrassing thing to me about this autobiography, surely, is its unbroken chain of proofs that I was never a serious man. I have been in a lot of trouble over the years, but that was all accidental. Never have I risked my life, or even my comfort, in the service of mankind. Shame on me. (p.178)

This is Vonnegut’s ninth novel, published 27 years after his first, Player Piano (1952).

A hell of a lot had happened in those years – most of the 1950s, the entire 1960s and most of the 1970s – sex and drugs and rock and roll, the swinging sixties, hippies, glam rock, prog rock, punk – the Vietnam War with all its student protests segueing into the Killing Fields in Cambodia, the assassination of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, the Civil Rights Movement morphing into the Black Panthers and Black Power, the entire Space Age from Sputnik through the moon landings to the Space Shuttle, the oil crisis, Watergate and the discrediting of the American presidency.

Reading Vonnegut’s novels in sequence is like following him and his country on an enormous bender, and then waking up dazed and incredibly hungover the morning after.

A return to sobriety

That’s how reading Jailbird feels (at first, anyway). In comparison with the freaky experimentalism of Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) and of his most fragmented and experimental novel, Breakfast of Champions (1973) which comes complete with Vonnegut’s own illustrations – and unlike the knackered sci-fi of the dystopian novel Slapstick (1976), Jailbird seems like a return to sobriety and convention.

For example, unlike those three novels whose texts are split up into fragmented sections and paragraphs by asterisks or arrows, garnished with illustrations, packed with digressions, including the author’s speculations about his own characters – Jailbird is visually a return to convention, the prose arranged without gimmicks into consecutive paragraphs, themselves grouped into 23 normal-length chapters (unlike the page or half-page-long chapters of its predecessors). Jailbird looks like a normal book.

The long preface

And it does indeed turn out to be a much more conventional read, in tone, mood and style. This is signalled by the thirty-page preface.

Vonnegut hadn’t been shy of writing prefaces to his novels which, as the 60s turned into the 70s, had contained more and more personal, almost intimate, information (for example, about his mother’s suicide and his own depression).

In striking contrast to the ‘letting it all hang out’ approach of those introductions, the introduction to 1979’s Jailbird is strikingly serious and earnest. In tones close to that of a history book or journalistic feature, it recounts the story of the Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre, in which, in 1894, peaceful and mostly female protesters outside an iron works which had laid off their menfolk for rejecting a pay cut, were shot down by freelance ‘security men’ brought in from outside the state.

The link to the rest of the book is that one of the sons of the brutal Scottish immigrant who owned the iron works – Daniel McCone – who was, therefore, responsible for the massacre, is Alexander Hamilton McCone. Well-meaning and well educated Alexander had tried to intervene to break up the protest but is forced to watch the massacre take place, nonetheless.

This results in him withdrawing to live as a traumatised recluse cut off from society, from even his own wife and daughter, by an extreme stammer. His only company is a young boy, the son of the McCone family’s cook and chauffeur Walter F. Starbuck. In return for keeping him company, Alexander promises to send the lad to Harvard when he grows up.

And Jailbird turns out to be the story of Walter F. Starbuck’s life, as told by himself.

First person memoir

In this respect it is like the first-person memoirs which make up Mother Night, Cat’s Cradle and Slapstick. In all of these an ageing man (66 at the time of writing, p.47) looks back over his life from a current situation in which it is drawing to an end. Use of this retrospective point of view means the narrative can jump around from scene to scene, can set up expectations of the future, can signpost major incidents coming up numerous times before actually getting round to describing them.

And it leaves the narrator free to lard the text with his own comments, thoughts and interpretations, something Vonnegut was very inclined to do in those earlier books.

So this memoir or biography is being written by by Walter F. Starbuck.

Right on the first page he gives us the straightforward chronology of his life (just as he did the life of Billy Pilgrim on page one of Slaughterhouse-Five). He was born in 1913, went to Harvard in 1931, got his first government job in 1938. In 1945 he was sent to Germany ‘to oversee the feeding and housing of the American, British, French, and Russian delegations to the War Crimes Trials’ (p.51) and ends up spending four years in Germany.

In 1946 he married a Jewish translator he met in Germany and quickly had a son from whom he is estranged. In 1953 he was sacked from the federal government and ended up helping his wife with her interior decoration company throughout the 1960s. In 1970 he was offered a job in the Nixon White House, and in 1975 tried and convicted of involvement in the Watergate conspiracies, followed by early release from prison in 1977.

Somewhere in the blurbs for the book it says that this is Vonnegut’s Watergate novel but that is wildly misleading. That makes you think you’re going to be taken into the labyrinthine complexities of the Watergate conspiracies, meet the various bad guys in the Nixon administration, maybe there will be some thriller-style suspense and uncovering of new evidence.

Imagine how thrilling and exciting a write like Robert Harris would make a thriller about Watergate.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Jailbird is neither thrilling nor exciting, it is weird and – the temptation is to say ‘surreal’, but really it is nonsensical in the Edward Lear sense of putting nonsensical, non-sequitur and bizarre ideas together to see what effect they give.

RAMJAC Corps

Thus throughout the book we keep hearing that almost any company you can think of is being bought up by the huge and anonymous RAMJAC Corporation. It is only at the end of the book that we realise RAMJAC is run by one of Starbuck’s old girlfriends, in fact one of the only four women he’s ever loved, Mary Kathleen O’Looney. She lives as a bag lady on the streets of New York, wearing enormous black trainers in which she keeps all her legal documentation, and carrying six stuffed filthy bags around. She stinks, her hair is falling out and she is physically disgusting as Starbuck discovers the day after he is released from prison and a friend hails him in the street.

O’Looney hears his name, grabs hold of his hand, refuses to let go, and takes him down into her secret hideaway in a disused train station beneath Manhattan (to be precise, an abandoned locomotive repair shop beneath Grand Central Station). She reveals that she is the CEO of RAMJAC Corp and sends instructions by mail to the lawyer who administers her wishes under the pseudonym of Mrs Jack Graham. These are verified by including fingerprints of all her fingers and thumbs. This means that criminals who have learned about this system, try to kidnap her and cut off her hands in order to use the fingerprints to steal her money. This is not as paranoid as it sounds: one time she was staying in a hotel suite in Nicaragua waited on only by Mormons, the only people she trusts. She met a woman whose husband had just died of amoebic dysentry and put her up in her rooms, while she (Mary) went to make arrangements to ship the body home.

When she came back the Mormon had been murdered – and both her hands cut off and stolen (p.217).

In the couple of days after being released from prison Starbuck receives kindly treatment from a number of people – a prison guard, the chauffeur who brings him into Manhattan, a waiter at a restaurant, the owner of a deep fat frying joint, and so on.

Chatting to the disgusting, half-bald, filthy O’Looney he mentions their names only to have her straightaway write a letter to her executive lawyer, Arpad Leen, instructing that these eight people (including Starbuck himself) be immediately made Vice Presidents of various divisions of RAMJAC Corps, and that’s how the book ends, with a party attended by this random selection of eight guys who now find themselves executives in a massive American corporation.

Starbuck himself ends up as Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, along with Clyde Carter the prison guard, Cleveland Lawes the limousine driver, Dr Israel Edel the night clerk at the Arapahoe Hotel, Frank Ubriaco owner of the Coffee Shop who once deep-fat-fried his own hand when his expensive watch fell off into the fryer and on impulse he reached in to get it – all Vice presidents of one bit or another of the multinational corporation.

Hopefully, this summary of the RAMJAC/O’Looney thread of the novel shows you that this is not a book about Watergate, nor a thriller, nor really a conventional novel at all.

Satire or ridicule?

And it’s not really a satire on corporate America. A satire usually aims to undermine its target by making accurate, insightful hits on it. Inventing the idea that the most powerful corporation in America is run by a baglady hiding out in a derelict station under Manhattan isn’t really satirising corporate America, it is ridiculing it. This book – maybe all Vonnegut’s books – are less satires than ridicules.

In his view the whole world is so absurd and nonsensical that ridiculing it is the only rational response – including ridiculing the very idea of being a writer and writing novels (which is why I think I like Breakfast of Champions best of the seven novels I’ve read). There is no subtlety or insight to it.

I will say further, as an officer of an enormous international conglomerate, that nobody who is doing well in this economy ever even wonders what is really going on.
We are chimpanzees. We are orangutans. (p.123)

This is not satire. It is the despairing ridicule of a man who has given up trying to understand.

Watergate

The Watergate theme, such as it is, is limited to the following. Starbuck tells us that back in the 1950s he was called on to testify about communists in government. Before the famous House Un-American Activities Committee Starbuck lists a number of colleagues who he knows were communists in the 1930s buthave changed their views and present no threat to the American people. Among these he mistakenly includes a colleague named Leland Clewes. Clewes in fact had never been a communist and tries to clear his name.

Starbuck explains that the young assistant to Senator Joe McCarthy, one Richard Milhous Nixon, then spends two years hounding and investigating Clewes and eventually getting him convicted and sent to jail. This drew Nixon into the public eye. In a roundabout way, then, Starbuck takes the blame for having made Nixon’s career. This is why, a long time later, Starbuck finds himself offered a job at the Nixon White House. Nixon one day remembered his name, asked his aides what Starbuck was doing, wondered if he’d accept a lowly job.

This nothing job is ‘President’s special advisor on youth affairs’ (p.46). Starbuck was given a windowless room in the basement of the White House (‘a sub-basement in the Executive Office Building’), from where he churned out some 200 reports over five years about youth activities, none of which were ever read by anyone. Salary: $36,000 pa.

Starbuck’s sole connection with any of the Watergate conspiracy was twofold. Throughout his time there he could hear people stomping about upstairs. One day he coughed loudly and immediately there was a rumpus down the stairs and a couple of senior staffers burst in demanding to know whether he’d been listening in on their conversations. They then tested the soundproofing, with one of them shouting and swearing upstairs, while another one stood in Starbuck’s office until he was satisfied that even shouting didn’t travel through the floorboards and he could never have heard anything.

And then, in 1975, when police came to search the White House, some of the guilty staffers came rushing downstairs with several crates packed with cash. These were illegal donations to Nixon’s re-election campaign, which they thought they could stash in Starbuck’s out-of-the-way office. But the cops searched even down here, found it, arrested Starbuck, and that was what he was tried and convicted and sent to gaol for, conspiracy to hide, defraud, illegal contributions etc.

So you see, the book offers little or no insight into Watergate or Nixon, or the intricacies of the conspiracy (there is one scene where Starbuck attends a meeting of the entire cabinet, seated far away, the lowest of the low, and chain smoking so much that Nixon makes a joke about him – that is Starbuck’s one and only encounter and anecdote about Nixon pp.61-62. He takes the opportunity to name a number of the men around the table who would end up in prison. But it isn’t an insight or exploration or explanation of the Nixon White House. It is one joke and a list of names).

It’s more as if Starbuck is an innocent bystander, an inoffensive drone right on the periphery of the administration who gets sent to prison because the bad guys stashed some hot money in his office and he was too dutiful to reveal their names. This could have been the basis of a comedy if the rest of the book wasn’t so weird and nonsensical, and about so much else.

Ruth

For example, there is much more about is wife Ruth, her history, how they met and their life together, than there is about politics. Jewish, Ruth had been hidden for the first part of the war, but then discovered and sent to a concentration camp which she survived to be liberated by the Americans and Starbuck met her only hours after they had been requisitioned by an American army unit which needed a translator at a checkpoint. Starbuck himself requisitioned her, took her to a good hotel, fed her up, and employed her as a translator for his work with the War Trials. He takes ten or so pages to describe their work in some detail, to paint a picture of her earnest pessimism, and the determination with which she sets up an interior design company once they return to American in 1949.

Kilgore Trout

Trout was, by this stage, a well known recurrent figure in Vonnegut’s fiction, maybe his most eminent creation, having appeared in Breakfast of Champions, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Slaughterhouse-Five. In Champions he is one of the two major protagonists and we learn a lot about his life. He is definitely a ‘real person’. So it comes as a surprise in Jailbird to learn that Trout is in fact one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves his two year sentence, in fact the only ‘lifer’ in the Federal Minimum Security Adult Correctional Facility near Finletter Air Force Base, Georgia. His real name is Dr Robert Fender and he has a doctorate is in veterinary science. While in prison, Fender also writes science fiction novels under another pseudonym, Frank X. Barlow (p.67).

I have seen the way Trout’s character changes in different novels as an example of Vonnegut’s use of ‘unreliable narrators’, but I think it’s far bigger than that. If we agree that Vonnegut’s strategy goes far beyond ‘satire’ into the realm I’ve described as ‘ridicule’, then Jailbird‘s revealing that Kilgore Trout in fact doesn’t exist, is another example of Vonnegut’s full-spectrum ridiculing of all stable and sensible ideas about fiction. It is an example of his ‘nonsense’ approach to fiction.

One strategy Vonnegut retains from earlier books, especially Breakfast of Champions, is that the narrator summarises entire novels or stories by Trout. The result is that, instead of having to read an entire trout novel, you can simply read the narrator’s one or two-page summary which are much zippier, funnier or wackier.

There are other echoes of earlier techniques as well. You know I said that Jailbird looks more conventional in the sense that the prose is arranged into consecutive paragraphs and the chapters are a sensible length (unlike all three of his previous novels). Yes, but he redeploys the catchphrase. In Slaughterhouse many paragraphs or anecdotes ended with the phrase ‘So it goes’. Here it is ‘And so on’. Similarly, it doesn’t happen often, but every now and then Vonnegut just inserts a one-word paragraph saying ‘Peace’. Just to remind us that the same wacky nonsensicalist of the earlier experimental books is still there, lurking.

And the spirit of the nonsensicalist emerges more and more as the book progresses. There is an extended description of the night in 1931 he took the ‘Yankee clock heiress’ Sarah Wyatt to dinner at the swanky Hotel Arapahoe in Manhattan. Partly because he remembers it all when, having just been released from prison in 1977, Starbuck returns to the same hotel to see it much reduced, shabby and dingy and half boarded up. In fact, the receptionist tells him, the entire area where the restaurant used to be has been converted into a porn movie cinema which specialises in gay porn, many of the movies climaxing with scenes of anal fisting, something which, unsurprisingly, shocks and horrifies the narrator (p.130).

When he expresses an opinion, Starbuck just sounds dazed at what his country has come to.

Mary Kathleen O’Looney wasn’t the only shopping-bag lady in the United States of America. There were tens of thousands of them in major cities throughout the country. Ragged regiments of them had been produced accidentally, and to imaginable purpose, by the great engine of the economy. Another part of the machine was spitting out unrepentant murderers ten years old, and dope fiends, and child batterers and many other bad things. People claimed to be investigating. Unspecified repairs were to be made at some future time. (p.151)

Sacco and Vanzetti

He’s obviously been thinking, or reading, about the celebrated case of the Italian-born American anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti who were controversially convicted of murdering a guard and a paymaster during the April 15, 1920 armed robbery of the Slater and Morrill Shoe Company in Braintree, Massachusetts. They were both executed in the electric chair just after midnight on August 23, 1927.

Vonnegut refers to them in the preface to the book, and the preface ends with a quote from Nicola Sacco writing to his 13-year-old son Dante, a quote which went on to be turned into a song, and rallying cry for the Socialist cause in America.

Help the weak ones that cry for help, help the prosecuted and the victim, because they are your better friends; they are the comrades that fight and fall as your father and Bartolo fought and fell yesterday for the conquest of the joy of freedom for all the poor workers. In this struggle of life you will find more love and you will be loved.

Towards the end of the book, the narrative stops altogether while Vonnegut gives an extended summary of the events surrounding the supposed crimes, trial and execution of the pair. This chimes with the fact that Starbuck, although a Harvard man, was himself a student activist, and an actual member of the communist party.

This is par for the course in Vonnegut’s novels all of which contain large chunks of random subject matter thrown in from all sides. It’s part of what makes them surprisingly chewy and dense.

But it’s difficult to reconcile this apparent earnestness about Sacco and Vanzetti and the anarchist / socialist cause – the totally straight description of the 1894 Cuyahoga Bridge Massacre (fictional, although based on similar worker killings which took place around that time), and descriptions of Starbuck’s own student activism (it was while editing a communist student paper at Harvard that he first met the beautiful and idealistic Mary Kathleen O’Toole) — with the helpless nonsensicality of the main plot i.e. the way a ruined baglady turns out to be running the largest corporation in America. It doesn’t cohere. It’a as if they’re from different worlds – the serious, and the utterly nonsensical.

The nonsense is entertaining and sometimes funny but the trouble is it makes all his ‘serious’ criticisms of America or war or capitalism tremendously easy to ignore, take with a pinch of salt, and dismiss.

Epilogue

In the epilogue Starbuck describes how, soon after being made Executive Vice-President of the Down Home Records Division of the RAMJAC Corporation, he goes to see Mary Kathleen O’Looney in her secret base under grand Central Station and discovers her in a very poor way. In fact she dies in his arms. The epilogue then describes how Starbuck disposes of her body secretly and doesn’t tell anyone. RAMJAC Corporation continues for another two years before the discovery of its CEO’s demise is finally made. At which point Starbuck is taken to court once again, and convicted of not reporting her death, fraud etc.

The book ends with a party given for him by all the other vice-presidents, which has the effect of tying up any loose strands of the ‘plot’, before he is scheduled to be sent back to the slammer. And that is the story of this inveterate jailbird.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick 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
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut Jnr (1976)

This is a really weird story, a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife.

The main story (pp.15-170) is narrated by the two-metre tall man, christened Wilbur Rockefeller Swain but now known as Dr Wilbur Daffodil-II Swain.

It is a morbid and depressing story. Swain is just coming up to his 101st birthday. He lives amid the ruins of New York. The rest of America has been depopulated by Albanian Flu (p.33), but New York had a special plague of its own, known as the Green Plague. Now it is almost empty, with only Swain and a handful or relatives and friends living in the overgrown ruins. To survivors on the mainland it is known only as ‘the Island of Death’.

So Slapstick is a post-apocalypse story.

As so often in fictional memoirs, two timelines run in parallel 1. The ‘present’ in which the narrator wakes up and potters round and we are introduced to the main characteristics of the post-apocalyptic world. Thus Swain starts each chapter with a bit of gossip about his current companions, his emaciated though pregnant grand-daughter Melody, and her husband Isidore, or about their best friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa who keeps a farm worked by ‘slaves’.

Before 2. returning to a conventional chronological account which begins with the birth of him and his twin sister, follows them through their early life, and on to the series of events which led up to the disaster.

Vonnegut uses Vonnegutian tricks such as:

  • The entire text is broken up into very short sections, sometimes a few paragraphs, but sometimes just a few words, all divided by three asterisks in the centre of the page, creating the sense that the whole book is made of fragments glued together, a suitable feel, maybe, for post-apocalyptic fragments.
  • And just as the catchphrase ‘So it goes’ appeared on every page of Slaughterhouse-Five and ‘And so on’ capped every anecdote in Breakfast of Champions, so almost every bit of prose which tells a significant story or anecdote in this book is capped with ‘Hi ho’. At one point the narrator says he must go back through the book and delete all the ‘Hi ho’s’. Which he follows with another Hi ho. Hi ho. I think it is safe to say this use of ironically off-hand taglines has become a mannerism.

From his birth up to the age of 15, Wilbur and his twin sister, Eliza Mellon Swain, pretend to be drooling idiots. In fact they are geniuses, especially if they physically touch their heads together. When they do this they share a joint super-intelligence. But for 15 years all they do is pretend to be retards, and are locked by their parents in their posh Boston home. (They are from a super-rich family.)

This is every bit as weird as it sounds. On their fifteenth birthdays, they overhear their parents discussing sending them to separate homes and so make the startling announcement that they are not brain damaged but the reverse – hyper-intelligent and articulate young people.

This shocks their parents even more, who promptly call in a high-powered women psychiatrist who, vindictively knowing the damage it will cause them, recommends they be separated, declaring Wilbur is the clever one and Eliza is the defect.

So Wilbur is packed off to medical school and becomes a successful pediatrician, while Eliza goes to rot in a home for the mentally defective.

Cut to about ten years later when Wilbur is confronted by Eliza, who has been sprung from the home by a money-grabbing lawyer on the news that their parents have died. She is a wreck, distraught and determined on revenge as she confronts him at his grand mansion. But the moment they actually make physical contact, the old telepathic communication is revived and they have a five-day long orgy during which they tie up all the servants.

Maybe this whole plotline is intended as satirical but it comes over as a kind of poor man’s Philip K. Dick, with its dwelling on identity and reality, and sick obsession with a dead sibling (both Dick and Vonnegut had dead sisters).

Meanwhile, in the background of the story, we learn that oil has been running low, and that American science and technology has stagnated. The sky has turned yellow because of gases released by underarm deodorants. The Chinese are making all kinds of new discoveries. The West is collapsing. Americans are becoming more lonely.

Eliza takes her cut of Swain’s estate and goes to Macchu Picchu. Why? Because it

was then becoming a haven for rich people and their parasites, people fleeing social reforms and economic declines, not just in America, but in all parts of the world. (p.93)

An absurdist theme which runs through the book is that the Chinese, as part of their transformation into top economic power in the world, undertake a programme of miniaturising human beings. There are so many of them, they can only survive if they get smaller.

Thus it is that a lot later in the book, Swain is visited by the Chinese ambassador who is only a few inches tall (the size of Wilbur’s thumb, p.101). Piling absurdity on absurdity, he is named Fu Manchu. He asks Swain to take him to the family mausoleum in which are hidden the various writings Swain and Eliza did when their heads were together and they were a super-genius. Swain doesn’t understand why, but some of these writings are of immense importance to the Chinese – now the leading scientific and technological country in the world.

A second major idea has to do with gravity. When Swain describes life in post-apocalyptic America, he has dropped hints about there being a problem with gravity, that it varies from day to day like the weather, with some days of heavy gravity, some of light. This is, apparently, caused by scientific experiments by the Chinese, though by this stage nobody in America understands what or how or has the power to stop it.

The first time gravity changes is on the day Swain picks up a telegram at his local post office which tells him that Eliza is dead, crushed under an avalanche on Mars (p.106). Mars? Yes she had tipped off the Chinese about the secret documents hidden in the mausoleum and, as a reward, was transported to the new Chinese colony on Mars. Ill-fatedly, as it turns out.

As he walks out onto the steps outside his local post office, gravity changes – for just a minute or so it is doubled, quintupled, and Wilbur falls through the wooden steps he’s standing on, people fall through ladders, chairs, and flimsy flooring. Bridges and tall buildings collapse, elevators plummet to the ground and so on.

The Gravity Shift only lasts a minute or so but undermines the confidence of Americans even more than the failing oil supply and yellow sky.

It is against this backdrop of America’s economic, scientific and political decline, that Swain runs for president on a platform of radically reorganising society. He decides the problem with Americans is they are lonely and isolated. He comes up with a scheme whereby all Americans will be given new middle names by computer. The number of names will be calculated so that each new ‘family’ has about 10,000 members. I.e. if something happens to you there will be 9,999 other ‘family members’ you can call on.

He runs for senator, then president, on the slogan of ‘Lonesome no more’ – which is the sub-title of this book (p.112).

It is hard not to think that this plotline – the satire on American loneliness – is a separate short story or plot idea which Vonnegut has bolted onto the weird story of two twin giants who are cruelly separated. Chucking in Chinese miniaturisation, and the notion that the Earth’s gravity can be played with, as additional sweeties.

By this stage we learn that, because of the end of oil and technology, America has collapsed as a political entity. There are no more printing presses, no more radio or TV – because there is no more fuel (p.117). it has been replaced by warlords which control territories like Michigan or Dakota – hence the King of Michigan, the Great Lake pirates, and other satirical names the narrator casually mentions in passing.

(In a satirical touch, the only way to power the computer which doles out new middle names to the population of America, is by systematically burning all the paper archives in the White House and Congress.)

(In another satirical touch he throws in the fact that the new religion which the general crisis gives rise to is the Church of Jesus Christ the Kidnapped.)

Also, by this stage, Wilbur tells us he has become addicted to some kind of tranquiliser named tri-benzo-Deportamil, which helps him to cope with all the ups and downs of his life with equanimity.

Vonnegut devotes an extensive passage to describing his happiness at visiting a lodge of his own ‘family’, the Daffodils, in Indiana, how kind and welcoming they are. And to explaining how his successful family plan meshes or overlaps with the numerous small wars which the King of Michigan and so on are fighting against each other.

In fact there is a satirical scene where Swain is summoned by the grandiose young King of Michigan who wishes him to solemnly sign a document reversing the famous Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and handing over rule of what was then the vast territory in the centre of the USA over the king. Fine, thinks Swain, and signs.

Epilogue

At this point the memoir written by Wilbur Swain comes to an abrupt end. It is succeeded by an epilogue tying up loose ends.

This takes the story from the meeting with the King of Michigan to his death.

Swain had been contacted by a woman who had discovered a way of contacting the dead. An old farmer arranged a bucket and antique pipe in just such a way atop a defunct particle accelerator (no more electricity; hadn’t worked for years) and, to his surprise, began hearing voices out of the pipe.

Swain, still nominally president although now with few if any powers over a disintegrated country, is told about this and invited to try it. He manages to get through to his sister Eliza, who tells him the afterlife is dreadful. Swain can hear a babble of people coughing, shouting and farting in the background. Eliza says the afterlife is like a badly managed Turkey Farm. She begs him to die and join her. The device for communicating with the dead is known as ‘the Hooligan’ after the name of the farmer who accidentally created it. (p.160-164)

Convinced that she needs his help, and in a hurry to die, Swain persuades the pilot of the helicopter (Captain Bernard O’Hare – sharp-eyed Vonnegut readers might remember that Bernard O’Hare plays an important role in his 1962 novel Mother Night) which flew him to the Daffodil reunion in Indiana (and is himself a member of the Daffodil family) to fly him to Manhattan, long since known as ‘the Island of Death’ because of the mysterious epidemic which wiped out almost its entire population.

Hovering over the empty, overgrown avenues, Swain climbs down a rope ladder and onto the balcony of the Empire State Building, whose staircase he proceeds to walk down. But instead of quickly dying, in the ruined lobby of the building Swain is kidnapped by some ‘Raspberries’ a really primitive clan of humans who live by eating nuts, and berries and whatever they can forage.

As it happens these people have unwittingly stumbled on an antidote to the Green Death, namely fish from the rivers either side of Manhattan which are so polluted that some of the rare chemicals in them act as antidotes.

Now the narrator now tells us that the flu which killed everyone was caused by an invasion of microscopic Martians, whose invasion was repelled by antibodies in the systems of the survivors (p.163). While the Green Death was caused by microscopic Chinese floating through the air who were peace-loving but were invariably fatal to normal-sized human who inhaled or ingested them (p.164).

Swain proceeds to live on derelict Manhattan for a very, very long time. Back around the time when he used the Hooligan and sold Louisiana to the King of Michigan, his last few pills of tri-benzo-Deportamil ran out and he went mental. He had to be tied down for five days in the farmhouse, but managed – in the impossible way characteristic of this narrative – to have sex and impregnate the wife of the old farmer.

She had a son.

He had a daughter, who was packed off to join the seraglio of the King of Michigan who was, by this time, a disgusting old man.  She managed to escape and set off East towards New York to try and track down the mythical grandfather her dad had told her about. Her name is Melody Oriole-2. She was helped along the odyssey by strangers who gave her a baby pram, a candlestick, a compass and an umbrella. And one who rowed her across to the Island of Death.

And that’s how Swain was reunited with his grand-daughter and came to be chatting about her at the start of the book’s 49 chapters. He has his drunken 102nd birthday, organised for him by his old friend Vera Chipmunk-5 Zappa, and drops dead.

Thoughts

It’s a short book (170 pages) but with enough ideas in it to blow anyone’s mind.

Whether any of them – plausible, fantastical, surreal, satirical – are any good, was hard to tell. I was so dazed by the relentless nonsensicality of much of the narrative that it was difficult to take a view. Is it a farrago of rubbish, which a summary of the plot might lead you to think? Or, as a friend of mine who’s a Vonnegut fan thinks, one of his best books?

I couldn’t work out if the four or five hours it took me to read it were time well spent or not.

I think it feels to me like a last hurrah of the absurdist approach, and typographical experimentation, which took off in Slaughterhouse-Five. But then Cat’s Cradle also has an end-of-the-world, post-apocalyptic setting. In fact, both books consist of the memoir of one of the few people who survived the end of the world.

And when I saw how his next novel, Jailbird, reverts to a much more conventional layout and prose style, and realistic subject matter, this adds to the sense that Slapstick is like the fagged-out hangover of the absurdist approach which characterised its three predecessors.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick 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
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut (1973)

Breakfast of Champions is longer than the average Vonnegut novel at 270 pages in an old Panther paperback edition I have.

It’s experimental in several ways. Each paragraph is introduced with an arrow → making them seem more like disconnected apothegms than part of a consecutive prose text, and sometimes the paragraphs reduce to totally disconnected sentences. More like reading Nietzsche than a novel.

Then there’s the author’s amateurish but quite appealing drawings, at least one every two pages, sometimes two on a page, squeezing the prose out, like in a children’s book. I counted 119 of them. Here’s an example.

Page from Breakfast of Champions

And another one.

Goodbye Blue Monday by Kurt Vonnegut

It took Vonnegut a long four years to grind out Breakfast of Champions and several times he abandoned it. It had poor reviews and in later life he gave it a low rating among his works. But I like it. I think it demonstrates two of his leading characteristics.

1. It is chatty. It is like listening to an interesting guy who’s knocked about the world a bit, telling you funny anecdotes, about pornography, explaining how we’re all actually machines, leaning forward to impress on you that war is wrong, and so on.

2. And it is roomy. Having established this chatty, informal persona, Vonnegut can casually rope just about any subjects he wants into the so-called ‘story’.

For example, out of nowhere in particular comes this paragraph:

The Governor of New York, Nelson Rockefeller, shook Trout’s hand in a Cohoes grocery story one time. Trout had no idea who he was. As a science-fiction writer, he should have been flabbergasted to come so close to such a man. Rockefeller wasn’t merely Governor. Because of the peculiar laws in that part of the planet, Rockefeller was allowed to own vast areas of Earth’s surface, and the petroleum and other valuable minerals underneath the surface, as well. He owned or controlled more of the planet than many nations. This had been his destiny since infancy. He had been born into that cockamamie proprietorship.
‘How’s it going, fella?’ Governor Rockefeller asked him.
‘About the same,’ said Kilgore Trout.

That is the complete ‘section’, that’s all we hear about Governor Rockefeller. On the face of it this is some kind of satire against obscene wealth – the kind of stoned oppositionism which made Vonnegut such a hero of the counterculture and 1970s students. What I like about it though is its irrelevance. Its irreverent irrelevance. Its insouciance. He tells a story. Nothing much happened. It was a thing. OK. So long.

As to ‘plot’, well, the story follows events in the lives of two American men, Kilgore Trout, the failed author of hundreds of science fiction novels who we met a few years back in Slaughterhouse-Five and who appears in about five other Vonnegut novels; and Dwayne Hoover,  a Pontiac car dealer in the fictional town of Midland City, Ohio, who is on the brink of a nervous breakdown. The plot comes to a climax with them both meeting, by accident in a bar, and Trout’s presence being the thing which topples Hoover into his psychotic episode (beating up a bunch of people in the bar, his mistress and a couple of cops before being overpowered and taken to gaol).

Both characters contain elements of self-portraiture: Trout since Vonnegut himself struggled a) in his early, poor days against indifference and bad reviews, then b) when he was famous, against writer’s block; and Hoover since Vonnegut (apparently) suffered lifelong from depression, was on anti-depression medication and tried to commit suicide at least once. It is relevant that Vonnegut’s own mother committed suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills when he was 21 – not least because he tells us as much in chapter 17.

‘This is a very bad book you’re writing,’ I said to myself behind my leaks.
‘I know,’ I said.
‘You’re afraid you’ll kill yourself the way your mother did,’ I said.
‘I know,’ I said.

And he makes Dwayne’s wife, Celia, kill herself by drinking Drāno.

a mixture of sodium hydroxide and aluminum flakes, which was meant to clear drains. Celia became a small volcano, since she was composed of the same sorts of substances which commonly clogged drains.

For the richest and most powerful country in the world, America sure was, and apparently still is, full of very unhappy people.

The narrative arc is that Trout – based in New York – is invited to an arts festival taking place in (the fictional) Midland City, and has a string of adventures getting there, while Hoover is going mad in Midland City, disconcerting his various staff and employees at the Pontiac salesroom he owns.

But the real point of the novel is, I think, the way Vonnegut just adds all sorts of anecdotes, stories, jokes, pictures and reflections into it.

For example, the notion that Trout is almost supernaturally prolific allows Vonnegut to add in one-page synopses of Trout’s far-out science fiction novels. They come across as too simple to even be worked up into short stories, but they make excellent one-page diversions. There are at least ten of them, which add an extra layer of wackiness to the mix.

The fake naive style

What most distinguishes Breakfast of Champions from Vonnegut’s other books, and from any other book I’ve ever read, is the author’s deployment of a strategy of describing everything, even the most minute and obvious elements of life and society – as if to an alien who has never heard of them before.

Everything he mentions, almost anything, he stops the narrative to explain it as if to someone who has never heard of it before, often adding one of his drawings.

For example, right in the opening pages he sets out to piss off any conservative readers, and whip up his student fanbase, by treating America and its iconography as if it is inexplicably weird.

Trout and Hoover were citizens of the United States of America, a country which was called America for short. This was their national anthem, which was pure balderdash, like so much they were expected to take seriously… (Vonnegut quotes the entire lyric of the American national anthem)

There were one quadrillion nations in the Universe, but the nation Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout belonged to was the only one with a national anthem which was gibberish sprinkled with question marks.

And:

If they studied their paper money for clues as to what their country was all about, they found, among a lot of other baroque trash, a picture of a truncated pyramid with a radiant eye on top of it, like this: (a hand-drawn illustration of the logo on an American dollar) Not even the President of the United States knew what that was all about. It was as though the country were saying to its citizens, ‘In nonsense is strength’.

A lot of the nonsense was the innocent result of playfulness on the part of the founding fathers of the nation of Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. The founders were aristocrats, and they wished to show off their useless education, which consisted of the study of hocus-pocus from ancient times.

As to American foreign policy:

When Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout met each other, their country was by far the richest and most powerful country on the planet. It had most of the food and minerals and machinery, and it disciplined other countries by threatening to shoot big rockets at them or to drop things on them from airplanes.

All this was written as the Vietnam War reached its bloody climax:

Viet Nam was a country where America was trying to make people stop being communists by dropping things on them from airplanes.

If American authors want to say their country is rubbish, that’s fine by me – although I’d love to read about the backlash there must have been against Vonnegut by any kind of conservative writers, publications or institutions.

What interests me more is the wide-eyed innocence of this narratorial approach – as if he were not only explaining America to aliens, but to alien children.

Thus later on the narrator explains what a beaver is (with a drawing), what a clocktower is (with a drawing) what a gun is (a device for making holes in other people, along with a drawing), what an apple is (with a drawing), what a lamb is:

A lamb was a young animal which was legendary for sleeping well on the planet Earth. It looked like this:

To a large extent whether you like the book or not will be based on whether you can read hundreds of pages written in this faux innocent style, whether you find it liberating, or at least interesting, to see all human activity through these alien child’s point of view. Or whether you find it tiresome and almost demented.

Machines and chemicals

Closely related to the style is the delusion the author attributes to Dwayne Hoover of seeing all other human beings as machines. This is one of the ‘hallucinations’ which tips Hoover over into full-blown madness but we know, from the preface and from comments liberally sprinkled throughout the text, that Vonnegut often feels the same.

As for myself: I had come to the conclusion that there was nothing sacred about myself or about any human being, that we were all machines, doomed to collide and collide and collide. For want of anything better to do, we became fans of collisions. Sometimes I wrote well about collisions, which meant I was a writing machine in good repair. Sometimes I wrote badly, which meant I was a writing machine in bad repair. I no more harbored sacredness than did a Pontiac, a mousetrap, or a South Bend Lathe.

This conceit is used more for humour than bleakness. In fact the idea is most fully expressed in a book by Kilgore Trout which Dwayne reads in the cocktail bar at the climax of the novel and which brings on his fit. In the book, Trout writes:

‘Your parents were fighting machines and self-pitying machines,’ said the book. ‘Your mother was programmed to bawl out your father for being a defective moneymaking machine, and your father was programmed to bawl her out for being a defective housekeeping machine. They were programmed to bawl each other out for being defective loving machines.

‘Then your father was programmed to stomp out of the house and slam the door. This automatically turned your mother into a weeping machine. And your father would go down to a tavern where he would get drunk with some other drinking machines. Then all the drinking machines would go to a whorehouse and rent fucking machines. And then your father would drag himself home to become an apologizing machine. And your mother would become a very slow forgiving machine.’

If read in the right mood, this is pretty funny.

And Vonnegut sees human beings not only as machines, but as bags of chemicals:

I tend to think of human beings as huge, rubbery test tubes, too, with chemical reactions seething inside.

This comes over in the thread running throughout the text whereby the author refers to all kinds of aspects of the characters’ behaviours as being determined, not by free will, but by ‘the chemicals in their brains’.

A lot of people were like Dwayne: they created chemicals in their own bodies which were bad for their heads.

Vonnegut tells us in the preface that:

My own mother wrecked her brains with chemicals, which were supposed to make her sleep. When I get depressed, I take a little pill, and I cheer up again.

I know from personal experience what a huge difference medication for mental illness can make to a person. Chemical imbalances in the brain can certainly be life defining, character defining. Vonnegut lays this fact out with the same wide-eyed fake naivety as everything else from the American flag to apples.

Taken together the ideas that people are a) machines b) whose behaviour is largely determined by chemicals in their brains, dominate the book’s worldview.

Race

There’s a lot about race in the book. Of course the 1960s in America saw the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of its leaders, and the growth of Black Power. How exactly the historical background seeps into the book, I couldn’t say except that it is very aware of ‘the black problem’ and, as you would expect, Vonnegut is 110% on the liberal side, depicting southern slavery, southern bigotry, black crime rates and black incarceration rates as all aspects of white oppression.

Francine mused about the prison, where the guards were all white and most of the prisoners were black.

Then again, he crosses all kinds of lines we, in 2019, have been taught to avoid. He uses the N word more than any modern writer would dare, mostly setting it down in his standard fake naive way, a way that conveys the outrage and injustice embodied in the word all the more powerfully for being used flat and blank.

Harry knew Dwayne better than did any other man. He had been with Dwayne for twenty years. He came to work for him when the agency was right on the edge of the Nigger part of town. A Nigger was a human being who was black.

There’s a lot more in the same ilk, some of it pretty disturbing. Here is Harry LeSabre, sales manager at Dwayne Hoover’s Pontiac dealership, talking with his wife, Grace.

‘Can the reindeer hear you?’ said Harry. ‘Fuck the reindeer,’ said Grace. Then she added, ‘No, the reindeer cannot hear.’ Reindeer was their code word for the black maid, who was far away in the kitchen at the time. It was their code word for black people in general. It allowed them to speak of the black problem in the city, which was a big one, without giving offense to any black person who might overhear. ‘The reindeer’s asleep – or reading the Black Panther Digest,’ she said.

The reindeer problem was essentially this: Nobody white had much use for black people anymore – except for the gangsters who sold the black people used cars and dope and furniture. Still, the reindeer went on reproducing. There were these useless, big black animals everywhere, and a lot of them had very bad dispositions. They were given small amounts of money every month, so they wouldn’t have to steal. There was talk of giving them very cheap dope, too – to keep them listless and cheerful, and uninterested in reproduction.

The Midland City Police Department, and the Midland County Sheriffs Department, were composed mainly of white men. They had racks and racks of submachine guns and twelve-gauge automatic shotguns for an open season on reindeer, which was bound to come.

This is bleak whichever way you view it. Is Vonnegut agreeing that there is a big race problem in America? The idea that blacks are given a small dole to stop them stealing is bleak satire. Should Harry and Grace’s attitude be taken as the average white middle class view of the day? And then the mass arming of the police against the coming of a race war even bleaker.

Sometimes Vonnegut combines his fake-naive approach to race with the conceit that humans are machines, to produce really biting dark satire. Thus, emerging from a porn cinema in Times Square, Kilgore Trout is propositioned by two hookers.

These were country girls. They had grown up in the rural south of the nation, where their ancestors had been used as agricultural machinery. The white farmers down there weren’t using machines made out of meat anymore, though, because machines made out of metal were cheaper and more reliable, and required simpler homes.

All America’s social problems are treated in the same way, with huge detachment as if we are all machines in a grotesquely malfunctioning factory.

Sex

Slaughterhouse-Five offended many Americans because of its dwelling on pornography. Not the writing of pornography, just Vonnegut dwelling on it as a symptom of human beings’ madness. Well, men’s. There’s a lot more of it in Breakfast of Champions.

Sex shops It turns out that Kilgore Trout’s numerous science fiction novels are generally bought up by pornographers purely to pad out their wank mags. This means that, before he sets off to the arts festival in Midland City, Trout spends some time cruising the sex shops around Times Square in New York.

Beaver shots Vonnegut goes to town on this, describing how hard core sex magazines advertise that they contain ‘wide open beaver’ shots i.e. photos of women with their legs and labia apart, for men to masturbate to. It’s a classic opportunity to use the false-naive approach to highlight the absurdity of men, women, sex, humanity.

At the time he met Dwayne Hoover, Trout’s most widely-distributed book was Plague on Wheels. The publisher didn’t change the title, but he obliterated most of it and all of Trout’s name with a lurid banner which made this promise:

WIDE-OPEN BEAVERS INSIDE!!!!!

A wide-open beaver was a photograph of a woman not wearing underpants, and with her legs far apart, so that the mouth of her vagina could be seen. The expression was first used by news photographers, who often got to see up women’s skirts at accidents and sporting events and from underneath fire escapes and so on. They needed a code word to yell to other newsmen and friendly policemen and firemen and so on, to let them know what could be seen, in case they wanted to see it. The word was this: “Beaver!”

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

Pictures of beavers from Breakfast of Champions

When Dwayne was a boy, when Kilgore Trout was a boy, when I was a boy, and even when we became middle-aged men and older, it was the duty of the police and the courts to keep representations of such ordinary apertures from being examined and discussed by persons not engaged in the practice of medicine. It was somehow decided that wide-open beavers, which were ten thousand times as common as real beavers, should be the most massively defended secret under law.

There you have Vonnegut’s satirical view of the absurdity of sex, pornography and society.

The clitoris Trout has written an entire book about the clitoris (p.144) and how a man should pleasure a woman.

Penis size There is also a longish passage half way through the book, where Vonnegut tells us the precise penis lengths of all the make characters in the book. This feels like Tristram Shandy, the most famous example of learnèd wit, i.e. taking the mickey out of absurd scholarship and learning, updated to the era of the Kinsey reports on sexual behaviour. In case you’re wondering:

Dwayne Hoover, incidentally, had an unusually large penis, and didn’t even know it

while:

Kilgore Trout had a penis seven inches long, but only one and one-quarter inches in diameter

at which point, in his fake-naive style, Vonnegut includes a drawing of an inch so that we know what we’re talking about.

Orgasms And this segues into a discussion of how many orgasms the main characters have per month.

Dwayne’s monthly orgasm rate on the average over the past ten years, which included the last years of his marriage, was two and one quarter. [Grace]’s monthly average over the same period was eighty-seven. Her husband [an assistant in Dwayne’s car dealership]’s average was thirty-six.

Cross dressing I was struck that Harry LeSabre is a transvestite. At weekends he likes to dress up in women’s clothes. His wife, Grace, is fine with this, but Harry is petrified lest it get out among his work colleagues.

Homosexuality And Dwayne is bothered because his son, George, has come out as gay, after having a terrible time at the military academy Dwayne sent him to when he was only a boy –

George Hoover went to Prairie Military Academy for eight years of uninterrupted sports, buggery and Fascism. Buggery consisted of sticking one’s penis in somebody else’s asshole or mouth, or having it done to one by somebody else.

with the result that he now insists on being called Bunny and plays piano in the cocktail lounge of the town’s Holiday Inn.

Role playing Earlier Dwayne took his secretary and lover, Francine Pefko, to the Holiday Inn where they made love but then Dwayne a) got really angry with her, shouting accusations, after which b) he collapsed into self pity and wanted her to be his Mommy.

He begged her to just hold him for a while, which she did.
‘I’m so confused,’ he said.
‘We all are,’ she said.
She cradled his head against her breasts.
‘I’ve got to talk to somebody,’ said Dwayne.
‘You can talk to Mommy, if you want,’ said Francine. She meant that she was Mommy.
‘Tell me what life is all about,’ Dwayne begged her fragrant bosom.

Prison sex A minor character, a black man just out of prison named Wayne Hoobler who’s been hanging round Dwayne’s Pontiac salesroom, reminisces about sex in prison.

He missed the clash of steel doors. He missed the bread and the stew and the pitchers of milk and coffee. He missed fucking other men in the mouth and the asshole, and being fucked in the mouth and the asshole, and jerking off – and fucking cows in the prison dairy, all events in a normal sex life on the planet, as far as he knew.

My point being that if a contemporary novel tackled these ‘issues’ it would be praised for being up to date and contemporary. But here’s Vonnegut writing about them 45 years ago. Nothing changes. Sex deranges everything.

The environment

But amid the satire about humans being machines driven by malfunctioning brain chemistry, about the madness of patriotism and wars, about the crazy attitudes to sex and the brutal racism of American society, there’s another strong theme which is environmentalism.

Right at the start of the novel Vonnegut describes Earth as a damaged planet, a dying planet, a wrecked planet, before we learn Trout’s theory that the atmosphere will soon become unbreathable and goes on:

He told Bill that humanity deserved to die horribly, since it had behaved so cruelly and wastefully on a planet so sweet.

The theme is picked up by the truck driver who Trout hitches a lift east out of New York with. As they drive through the wastelands of New Jersey, the driver laments how dirty and polluted the whole state has become.

‘And when you think of the shit that most of these factories make – wash day products, catfood, pop…’ He had a point. The planet was being destroyed by manufacturing processes, and what was being manufactured was lousy, by and large.

He said he knew that his truck was turning the atmosphere into poison gas, and that the planet was being turned into pavement so his truck could go anywhere.

And the theme is repeated big time when they drive through West Virginia and see how the landscape has been devastated by coal mining and Vonnegut, using the fake-naive approach, laments how crazy it is that people, because they own the minerals and oil and coal deep within the Earth, are allowed by our laws to devastate and pollute the surface of the Earth which we all inhabit.

The truck carrying Kilgore Trout was in West Virginia now. The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to make it yield up its coal. The coal was mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

Summary

The experience of reading Breakfast of Champions is funny if disconcerting. The fake naive style, the casual way all kinds of topics are – race, sex, politics, war, environment – are treated with a deadpan straight face and reduced to absurdity by being illustrated with the author’s drawings, all this is often quite amusing.

But as soon as you stop and tabulate the themes, as I’ve done, you can see that just beneath the surface – and quite often on the surface – is world class depression, pessimism and nihilism.

In the last third of the novel Vonnegut himself appears as the author of the book and begins to play a role in it. We learn how he bought a pair of dark glasses on his way to Midland City where he walks into the same cocktail bar where Kilgore Trout is sitting and then watches the entrance of his character, Dwayne Hoover. He then shares with us the process of making up various secondary characters, giving them names and attributes and generally orchestrating the events which follow.

Not only does he tell us how he’s making the story up – in standard post-modern style – but he shares with us his worries about his mental illness (‘leaks’ in this extract is the term Vonnegut has developed to describe glasses and sunglasses).

There in the cocktail lounge, peering out through my leaks at a world of my own invention, I mouthed this word: schizophrenia. The sound and appearance of the word had fascinated me for many years. It sounded and looked to me like a human being sneezing in a blizzard of soapflakes. I did not and do not know for certain that I have that disease. This much I knew and know: I was making myself hideously uncomfortable by not narrowing my attention to details of life which were immediately important, and by refusing to believe what my neighbours believed.

I am better now.
Word of honour: I am better now

Much of these personal anxieties are present in Slaughterhouse-Five but there they are contained and channelled into the vivid description of, and emotional reaction to, Billy Pilgrim’s terrible war experiences. They are justified by the genuine nihilism of war. That’s what makes Slaughterhouse-Five a classic. The subject justifies the deranged treatment. The reader thinks: well, having been through what Vonnegut went through, I’ll give him any amount of leeway in how he presents it.

But Vonnegut is all too aware that this novel completely lacks the historical authenticity and punch of its predecessor. It lacks the excuse of being about a Big Subject.

For sure, he excoriates every aspect of American society and human nature which he can get his hands on, but as a result the book not only lacks focus but lacks a justification. Instead, you keep circling back to find Vonnegut’s face, staring out at the reader in mute despair.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick 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
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1950)

This is a sometimes hauntingly beautiful,sometimes thumpingly obvious, collection of visions, fables, dreams and nightmares. It consists of 26 linked short stories arranged in chronological order to describe mankind’s first expeditions to Mars, the colonisation of Mars, strange encounters with Martians, and then the abrupt abandonment of the planet as almost all the settlers fly back to earth in response to a catastrophic nuclear war.

In fact that figure of 26 breaks down into about 13 substantial stores, interspersed with 13 very short linking passages or free-standing vignettes. But whereas in, say, I, Robot by Isaac Asimov, the linking passages between the stories provide important factual information – Bradbury’s linkers are much softer, gentler, more evocative; if they introduce a theme it is often done only obliquely. Sometimes they are almost prose poems in their own right.

Although they come from the era of hard sci-fi, and were all first published in classic sci-fi magazines, most of the stories have an uncanny, sometimes hallucinatory effect. These two effects – dreaminess, and a concern for prose poetry over ‘facts’ – are well conveyed by the very first opening link section, itself barely a page long, and titled Rocket Summer.

One minute it was Ohio winter, with doors closed, windows locked, the panes blind with frost, icicles fringing every roof, children skiing on slopes, housewives lumbering like great black bears in their furs along the icy streets.

And then a long wave of warmth crossed the small town. A flooding sea of hot air; it seemed as if someone had left a bakery door open. The heat pulsed among the cottages and bushes and children. The icicles dropped, shattering, to melt. The doors flew open. The windows flew up. The children worked off their wool clothes. The housewives shed their bear disguises. The snow dissolved and showed last summer’s ancient green lawns.

Rocket summer. The words passed among the people in the open, airing houses. Rocket summer. The warm desert air changing the frost patterns on the windows, erasing the art work. The skis and sleds suddenly useless. The snow, falling from the cold sky upon the town, turned to a hot rain before it touched the ground.

Rocket summer. People leaned from their dripping porches and watched the reddening sky.

The rocket lay on the launching field, blowing out pink clouds of fire and oven heat. The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts. The rocket made climates, and summer lay for a brief moment upon the land…

That’s it. Blank faced prose, super simplified, to create an often fairy tale effect, or sound like a fable, or as if translated from a simpler language. Note the use of repetition to create the dreamy effect – ‘The rocket lay… the rocket stood… the rocket made…’

For this level of simplicity is deceptive. Simple sentences can contain strange, unexpected effects, odd juxtapositions of the homely and the eerie.

The rocket stood in the cold winter morning, making summer with every breath of its mighty exhausts.

What’s true of individual sentences is true of entire stories. Bradbury’s simple diction can be really simplified down to a kind of Biblical portentousness, or lifted to a fairy tale simplicity, it can have oddities added to turn it into something strange and unexpected. But just as easily, it can topple over into stereotypes and clichés. In the story The Earth Men, the men climbing out of the shiny rocket ship are 1950s Hollywood. The Martians taking them perfectly for granted is satire. The Martians then locking them up in a lunatic asylum is Swiftian satire. Then the Martians executing them all crosses a line into horror.

Bradbury’s deceptively simple prose is capacious and flexible enough to convey enormous shifts in tone and register in consecutive sentences, or within one story.

This is one of the things which makes the stories so disconcerting. Their changeableness.

Future history

The dates and even the events are not really the point of the stories, but despite their hallucinatory weirdness, there is a coherent timeline of sorts, which Bradbury emphasises by placing precise year dates next to each story – and which can be divided into three sections.

The first six stories (January 1999 to April 2000) describes a succession of expeditions to Mars in which the Martians kill each successive little party of earth intruders.

The pivotal story, ‘—And the Moon be Still as Bright’, describes the fourth mission to Mars, which discovers that almost all the Martians have been wiped out by a plague of chicken pox brought by one of the earlier earth missions.

In the middle bloc of stories (December 2001 to November 2005) humans proceed to colonise Mars with no interference – although there are a few eerie encounters with the remaining Martian survivors. Despite the presence of the spookily empty canals and the deserted Martian cities, Mars turns out to have pretty much the same gravity as earth, albeit the air is thinner and sometimes harder to breathe. but the human settlers quick turn it into a second earth, complete with earth agriculture, earth towns with earth names, and populations and prejudices.

The second pivot comes in the story, The Off Season, in which a dumb and violent working class earthman, who has set up a hot dog stall on the main highway from the rocket landing fields to the main colonial city (a hot dog stall? – yes the stories are that American, and the earth settlers make it into that much of a replica of home) hoping to make a killing from the next big influx of settlers — watches, with his pissed-off wife, as the earth is devastated by a nuclear holocaust. They both happen to be looking at distant earth, up in the Martian sky, when –

Earth changed in the black sky. It caught fire. Part of it seemed to come apart in a million pieces, as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded. It burned with an unholy dripping glare for a minute, three times normal size, then dwindled.
‘What was that?’ Sam looked at the green fire in the sky.
‘Earth,’ said Elma, holding her hands together.
‘That can’t be Earth, that’s not Earth! No, that ain’t Earth! It can’t be.’

‘as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded’. See how simple, but dramatically effective, Bradbury’s prose can be.

Driven by overwhelming nostalgia, all the Mars colonists pack into their spaceships and head off back to earth, leaving Mars almost abandoned. A handful of earthlings remain among the now-derelict earth settlements, which are themselves built next to the long-abandoned Martian settlements. A double layer of abandonment and melancholy.

The third section (December 2005 to October 2026) describes the experiences of these last few human survivors scattered across Mars. The very last story describes the arrival of the last-but-one spaceship from earth – bringing an all-American nuclear family, Mom, Dad and three boys. They expect one other family group to follow, a family with four girls. Between them, the adults plan that these children will leave behind all the destructive values of earth and found a new civilisation, becoming ‘the new Martians’.

The stories with nominal dates and lengths

The substantial stories in bold.

  • Rocket Summer (January 1999) 2 pages
  • Ylla (February 1999) 20 pages
  • The Summer Night (August 1999) 4 pages
  • The Earth Men (August 1999) 24 pages
  • The Taxpayer (March 2000) 2 pages
  • The Third Expedition (April 2000) 26 pages
  • —And the Moon Be Still as Bright (June 2001) 39 pages
  • The Settlers (August 2001) 2 pages
  • The Green Morning (December 2001) 8 pages
  • The Locusts (February 2002) 2 pages
  • Night Meeting (August 2002) 13 pages
  • The Shore (October 2002) 2 pages
  • The Fire Balloons (November 2002) 28 pages
  • Interim (February 2003) 2 pages
  • The Musicians (April 2003) 3 pages
  • Way in the Middle of the Air (June 2003) 21 pages
  • The Naming of Names (2004-05) 2 pages
  • The Old Ones (August 2005) 1 page
  • The Martian (September 2005) 21 pages
  • The Luggage Store (November 2005) 3 pages
  • The Off Season (November 2005) 18 pages
  • The Watchers (November 2005) 3 pages
  • The Silent Towns (December 2005) 16 pages
  • The Long Years (April 2026) 17 pages
  • There Will Come Soft Rains (August 4, 2026) 10 pages
  • The Million-Year Picnic (October 2026) 16 pages

Dying falls

As this brief synopsis indicates, it is not an optimistic narrative. We witness the extermination of not one, but two civilisations. Hence many of the stories have a plangent, dying tone. Hence there are a good number of atmospheric moments when people find themselves alone, marooned, isolated, standing amid the ruins of a Martian city, or at the edge of a dried-up Martian sea.

There Will Come Soft Rains,

The story, There Will Come Soft Rains, epitomises this sense of abandonment, although it’s one of the few set on earth. It describes the automatic functioning of a 21st century house – alarm clocks going off, breakfast automatically prepared, little robot cleaners tidying everything away – long after its human inhabitants have been vaporised by the atomic blast which destroyed the whole of the rest of the city the house stands in.

The nuclear war left only this one house standing, with one, city-facing wall charred black by the blast, except, that is, for the silhouettes of the Mom and Pop and the two kids who were playing on the lawn when the bomb detonated and whose vaporised outlines are preserved on the crumbling wall.

You could characterise a story like that as blunt, meaning it is a creative embroidering around a basically hard, crude subject. What’s more, a hyper-clichéd subject. I wonder how many teenage stories and poems and songs describe the horrors of a nuclear war in despairing detail.

The gag, or twist in Bradbury’s story, which lifts it above the utterly clichéd, is the humorous precision with which he describes the continued functioning of all the little futuristic gadgets in the house, creating a wan sense of pathos, once we realise all the humans they work for are long dead.

The Earth Men

A similarly blunt story is the satire The Earth Men, which describes how the second spaceship full of earth explores arrives, and they are disconcerted to find the Martians taking them in their stride. ‘Yes yes,’ the Martians communicate telepathically, ‘I’m busy right now, run along to see Mr Aaa,’ so they go along to another Martian dwelling, to find a harassed official too busy with his paperwork to give them full attention.

The increasingly exasperated explorers are eventually passed onto an official who can barely be bothered to look up from his paperwork before handing them a big silver key and telling them to go down the corridor and open the door.

When the men do as told, they enter a big dome to find loads of excitable Martians who lift them on their shoulders, and hurrah and toast them. ‘This is more like it,’ say the gee whizz space crew, until it slowly dawns on the captain that this is a Martian lunatic asylum. All the Martians who sent them along to Dr so and so who referred them to Mr Aaa who told them to come to this dome – they all thought they were run-of-the-mill Martians having telepathic hallucinations, that’s to say, faking a human (alien) appearance. The Martians who greet them in the dome quickly reveal themselves as suffering from all kinds of delusions, claiming to be explorers from earth or Nepture on the sun.

Finally the earth explorers are attended by Mr Xxx, a psychologist, who diagnoses them as normal Martians who happen to possess abnormal powers of telepathic projection with which they have changed their appearance. He finds their story of being ‘from earth’ very amusing and, when they insist, agrees to be escorted out to their ‘spaceship’.

Mr Xxx enters the ship, pokes and prods around, but remains fixed in his beliefs that it is a remarkable hallucination. Then he pronounces the only cure Martians know for this level of brain sickness i.e. execution.

He took out a little gun. ‘Incurable, of course. You poor, wonderful man. You will be happier dead. Have you any last words?’
‘Stop, for God’s sake! Don’t shoot!’
‘You sad creature. I shall put you out of this misery which has driven you to imagine this rocket and these three men. It will be most engrossing to watch your friends and your rocket vanish once I have killed you. I will write a neat paper on the dissolvement of neurotic images from what I perceive here today.’
‘I’m from Earth! My name is Jonathan Williams, and these — ‘
‘Yes, I know,’ soothed Mr. Xxx, and fired his gun.
The captain fell with a bullet in his heart. The other three men screamed.
Mr. Xxx stared at them. ‘You continue to exist? This is superb! Hallucinations with time and spatial persistence!’ He pointed the gun at them. ‘Well, I’ll scare you into dissolving.’
‘No!’ cried the three men.
‘An auditory appeal, even with the patient dead,’ observed Mr. Xxx as he shot the three men down.

The satire is swift and brutal. It has barely anything to do with science fiction, more a use of science fiction tropes to satirise the self-satisfied lack of imagination of the American psychiatric profession circa 1950. The story doesn’t tap deep emotional roots, although it is effective burlesque.

Night meeting

You could compare the blunt stories in the collection with the many others which are a bit more subtle or poetic in intention.

In Night Meeting an earthman on his way to a party suddenly encounters in the bleak bare Martian landscape, a bronze-skinned, golden-eyed Martian who is on his way to a Martian festival.

Both can hear the music in the distance of their respective parties, can anticipate the warmth, the wine, the beautiful women they will meet there. But when they go to touch each other, their hands go through each other’s bodies. They are both there, but not there. Two moments in time, which are equally as unreal to each other, have somehow overlapped.

Now, even though this story has a vague sense of déjà vu about it – as if I’ve seen it in an episode of The Twilight Zone or Star Trek or somewhere – you can straightaway see that it aims to capture something more eerie and uncanny than the blunt stories. All the details and dialogue of the story are focused on creating a mood of weirdness.

And it’s often true of these more poetic stories that, although they’re set on Mars, they could be set anywhere: this one is basically a ghost story and could just as well have been describing an encounter between, say a modern character and an 18th century highwayman on some remote midnight heath in Cornwall, as an event on planet Mars.

The Fire Balloons

Something of the same yearning, evocative quality dominates The Fire Balloons in which a Catholic priest and his colleagues come to Mars, determined to convert the rare and obscure Martians to Christianity. (For the purposes of this story, we are told that the previous species of Martians, the ones who have been wiped out, lived alongside a much smaller and rarer species, beings which look to us like luminous blue globes).

The priests have several eerie encounters with these strange, remote, hovering globes who, at a key moment, indicate their good intentions by saving the earthmen from a mountain avalanche.

Bu at the finale of the story, the blue globes communicate telepathically that they are perfectly happy, at peace, know no sin and so need no redemption.

This story contains some pretty blunt satire on religion, on Christianity, on Catholic superstition and dogma. But at its core is the wistful memories of the protagonist, Father Peregrine, of being a small boy and watching his grandfather light red, white and blue balloons to send off into the air on Independence Day. I suspected these warm happy memories would mislead the Father into trusting the blue globes who would then savagely let him down – but no, the mood of warm contentment continues right to the end as the happy, fulfilled globes float out of the story.

Civil rights

The Other Foot

Unexpectedly, there is a story strongly redolent of the Civil Rights movement in that it unmistakably set in the Deep South of America, and powerfully supports black characters against the narrow-minded hick racism of white bigots.

This us the second Bradbury story I’ve read which is fiercely critical of white prejudice against black people in America – The Illustrated Man contains the story The Other Foot, in which Mars has been entirely settled by black people, more or less exiled there from America, who have settled and made their own life and are happy. No spaceship has come from earth for twenty years and they think they have been ignored and forgotten.

When a spaceship is sighted, a black man named Willie Johnson recalls all the injustices black people suffered in 1920s and 1930s and 1950s America and whips the crowd up into a frenzy ready to lynch and string up the white folks who emerge from it.

There is real bite and anger in the story which lists in some detail the everyday social, cultural, political, economic and psychological oppression which black people have suffered in America.

Anyway, when the spaceship lands, the knackered old white man who appears in the door tells them there has been a nuclear apocalypse and earth has completely destroyed itself, nothing of civilisation remains. He and his team have patched together the last spaceship on earth and come to ask their forgiveness, come to ask if they will use their (the black peoples’) spaceships, and return to earth and help rebuild civilisation.

The plot sounds pretty silly, but the descriptions of black humiliation left me more shaken than anything else in the book.

Way in the Middle of the Air

Same goes for the ‘black’ story in this collection, Way in the Middle of the Air. It describes a bunch of hard-core, red-neck, southern bigots assembled on the porch of the hardware store owned by Samuel Teece. It describes in full their bigoted comments as a great tide of black humanity sweeps through the high street in front of them on their way to the rocket fields, where the entire black population of the South is going to take ship to Mars.

Teece, the big bully bigot, attempts to prevent two individuals going, a man named Belter riding a horse, who owes him $50. As the crowd gets wind of what’s going in they politely have a whip round and pay Teece his $50 and he is forced to let Belter go. And then Teece spots ‘Silly’, his shop boy, and pulls him over and refuses to let him go, even though the car with the rest of his family is impatient to get going and not to miss the spaceships. he begs, he pleads, he weeps, and eventually some of the other white men on the porch start feeling guilty and uneasy and one old dude says he’ll step in and replace ‘Silly’ and, eventually, Teece is shamed into letting him go, and off he roars in his family car.

Teece gets his gun and waves it around in rage and for a while there’s a real risk he’ll start shooting people in the great crowd at random. By God, he remembers the good old days, riding with the Klan and the lynchings, and Bradbury gives him some paragraphs of reminiscence.

He remembered nights when men drove to his house, their knees sticking up sharp and their shotguns sticking up sharper, like a carful of cranes under the night trees of summer, their eyes mean. Honking the horn and him slamming his door, a gun in his hand, laughing to himself, his heart racing like a ten-year-old’s, driving off down the summer-night road, a ring of hemp rope coiled on the car floor, fresh shell boxes making every man’s coat look bunchy. How many nights over the years, how many nights of the wind rushing in the car, flopping their hair over their mean eyes, roaring, as they picked a tree, a good strong tree, and rapped on a shanty door!

Enraged, Teece gets in his car with a few of the others, and drives off after the crowd. But they come to a great area where the entire black population of the South has abandoned all its unnecessary goods and belongings, a wasteland of trash and memorabilia. And then they hear the roar of the rockets and watch the little silver fins fly up into the sky.

In the cotton fields the wind blew idly among the snow dusters. In still farther meadows the watermelons lay, unfingerprinted, striped like tortoise cats lying in the sun.

The men on the porch sat down, looked at each other, looked at the yellow rope piled neat on the store shelves, glanced at the gun shells glinting shiny brass in their cartons, saw the silver pistols and long black metal shotguns hung high and quiet in the shadows. Somebody put a straw in his mouth, Someone else drew a figure in the dust.

Finally Samuel Teece held his empty shoe up in triumph, turned it over, stared at it, and said, ‘Did you notice? Right up to the very last, by God, he said “Mister”!’

Like The Other Foot, this is a really fierce, penetrating story and utterly unexpected in a book of otherwise quite hokey science fiction stories. It has a science fiction basis or trope, but is really all about earth and injustice in 1950. Even if you don’t like science fiction, you should give The Other Foot and this story a read, this one is the better, I think, because of the intensity with which it recreates the personality and psychology of its central character, the brute bigot Teece.


Related links

Ray Bradbury reviews

1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1953 Fahrenheit 451
1955 The October Country
1957 Dandelion Wine
1959 The Day It Rained Forever
1962 Something Wicked This Way Comes

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis (1981)

Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong. (Amis in his preface)

Amis

Kingsley Amis was a grumpy old bugger. This judgement is based not only on reading his articles and reviews when he was still alive (he died in 1995), but having read and reviewed all twenty of his novels for this blog.

Amis was deliberately middle-brow and flexible. He wrote a James Bond novel (under the pseudonym Robert Markham), a lot of light poetry, reviews and articles, as well as several odd science fiction novels.

In fact he was a science fiction hound, a real addict, and tells us that he leaped at the chance to deliver a series of lectures on the subject at Princeton University in 1959. These were then published as a book purporting to review the history and state of science fiction as it had led up to the state of the genre in 1960, garishly titled New Maps of Hell.

Twenty years after New Maps of Hell, in 1981, Amis was asked to make a selection of favourite science fiction short stories and to write an introduction. Hence this book.

Amis’s introduction

With typical glumness, Amis reckons science fiction has had its glory days and is in decline. He judges this decline to have started at more or less the moment he delivered those lectures, back at the start of the 1960s. He describes how, in the 1940s and 1950s, science fiction belonged to ‘an embattled few’ – hard-core fans who read everything they could get their hands on, despite the sniggers of their parents or teachers. A bit like the ‘hot jazz’ which he and his buddy Philip Larkin liked listening to, while their mothers and girlfriends told them they really ought to be listening to Haydn.

But all this changed in the 1960s. Up till then Amis and other fans had called it SF. During the 60s it became rebranded as ‘sci-fi’, symptomatic of the way it got infected with all the other radical experiments of the decade.

Suddenly there was ‘experimental’ and ‘avant-garde’ ‘sci-fi’, as there was free poetry, rock music, women’s lib and hosts of other innovations which Mr Grumpy objects to. The first two university courses on science fiction were opened in 1961, and Amis thinks that as soon as you start teaching literature or film, you kill its originality.

Only twelve years separate the hilariously kitsch Forbidden Planet (1956) from the slick and sophisticated 2001: A Space Odyssey (released in 1968, and which Amis found repellently self-indulgent) but they inhabit different cultural universes.

The New Wave

The young writers with their trendy experimental approaches to science fiction who came in with the 1960s, became known as the New Wave. Fans argue to this day about when New Wave started, but most agree a tipping point was when Michael Moorcock became editor of New Worlds magazine in 1964, and Moorcock, along with J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, were the prime movers of British New Wave. All three moved away from ‘hard’ science fiction stories about space ships and robots and aliens, showing more interest in literary effects and psychology, often in a very garish late-60s, tricksy sort of way.

Planetary exploration

Another problem which the SF writers of the 1960s faced was that a lot of science fiction came true. In the 1960s men actually started rocketing into space and in 1969 walked on the moon, thus killing all kinds of fantasies with their dull discovery that space was empty and bathed in fatal radiation, while the moon is just a dusty rock. So no fantastic civilisations and weird Selenites after all. In the story Sister Planet in this collection, Poul Anderson imagines Venus to consist of one huge, planet-wide ocean teeming with intelligent life, where men can stride around requiring only respirators to breathe. But when information started to come back from the Mariner series of probes, the first of which flew by in 1962, and the Venera 7 probe which actually landed on the surface in 1970, Venus turned out to be a waterless rock where the atmospheric pressure on the surface is 92 times that of earth, and the temperature is 462 C.

Fiction becomes fact

Meanwhile, in terms of terrestrial gadgets and inventions – the kind of mind-liberating technological innovations which festoon H.G. Wells’s fantastic prophecies – well, jet planes came in, along with intercontinental travel and it turned out to be glamorous but in a, well, yawn, touristy kind of way. Everyone got coloured televisions, but these weren’t used for announcements by the World State or amazing educational programmes; they were used to sell soap powder and bubble gum. Satellites were launched and people were amazed by the first live global broadcasts, but none of this led mankind onto some higher level of culture and civilisation, as so many thousands of sci-fi stories had predicted. Now we have digital communication with anyone on the planet, but the biggest content area on the internet is pornography, closely followed by cats who look like Hitler.

To sum up: a lot of what had seemed like exciting technical predictions in the 1940s had turned into commonplaces by the 1960s. As Amis pithily puts it, ‘Terra incognita was turning into real estate.’

So you can see why the New Wave wanted to take a new approach and look for the weird and alien here on earth, particularly Ballard. By the mid-70s the New Wave was itself declared to be over (about the same time that post-war Serialism in classical music breathed its last gasp), at the same time that a lot of the political and cultural impedimenta of the post-war years ran out of steam. As I view it, this led to a decade of doldrums (the 1970s), and then the appearance, during the 1980s, of bright new commercial styles, Post-modernism in art and literature and architecture, the importation of Magical Realism in fiction, and a new era of sci-fi blockbusters in cinema, the rise of computer aided animation which has transformed the look and feel of films, and to an explosion of all kinds of genres and cross-fertilisations in writing.

Specific examples

But to Amis back in 1980, he says science fiction suffers from ‘gross commercialism’, and uses the Terra incognita argument to explain why many even of the New Wave writers had dried up or gone into alternative forms – Arthur C. Clarke ceasing to write novels, Aldiss writing histories of the genre, and Ballard turning out never to have really been a sci-fi writer, more a writer about modern psychosis who started out by using sci-fi tropes, before moving on.

All this goes to explain why the stories Amis selected for this collection are all from the 1950s (1948 to 1962, to be exact) – from the decade when sci-fi writers had racked up a tradition of sorts to build on, had achieved a mature treatment of recognised tropes – but before those tropes were burned out from over-use and the 1960s ruined everything with its silly experimentalism. You can strongly disagree with this view, but at least it’s a clear defined view, put forward with evidence and arguments.

The short stories

He Walked Around the Horses by H. Beam Piper (1948) (American)

It is 1809. A series of letters from officials in Imperial Austria tell the tale of Benjamin Bathurst, who claims to be a British government envoy who, we slowly realise, has somehow got transported from out 1809 to a parallel history in which the Americans lost the war of independence, there was no French Revolution, no Napoleon, no wars raging across Europe, and so Herr Bathurst is regarded as a lunatic.

The Xi Effect by Philip Latham (1950) (Pseudonym used for his sf by American astronomer Robert Shirley Richardson)

Physicists Stoddard and Arnold discover that radiation above a certain frequency is no longer being detected. Radio stations are becoming unavailable. They measure the eclipse of one of Jupiter’s moons as happening absurdly nearby. Suddenly they think of Friedmann and his theory of the Xi Effect, namely that space isn’t continuous but made up of ‘clots’, clots which can be disrupted by bigger-scale events. Stoddard and Arnold and then everyone else learns that the world and the solar system are shrinking. Since everything is staying in proportion relative to everything else you’d have thought that wouldn’t be a problem except that the one thing which can’t shrink is electro-magnetic radiation. In other words, the world is getting too small for light to travel in it. One by one all the colours disappear, and then everyone is left in universal blackness.

The Quest for Saint Aquin by Anthony Boucher (1951) (American)

After a nuclear apocalypse a ‘monk’ is sent by ‘the pope’ to find the body of a supposed saint in the hills outside San Francisco.

It’s a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953) (American)

Genuinely upsetting story in which a child with telepathy and unlimited powers is born and, while still young, either destroys the world or transports his small town into some void wherein the remaining inhabitants must think nothing but positive thoughts – repeating to themselves ‘it is a good world’ for fear that the little monster – Anthony – will detect negative thoughts and turn them into something unspeakable.

The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke (1953) (English)

A computer company supplies its latest model to a Tibetan lamasery whose abbot tells the chief exec that they will use it to work through every permutation of names for God. They have a belief that, once all the names of God have been expressed, the need for a planet and humanity will cease and the universe will move on to the next stage.

Months later, the two bored technicians tasked with overseeing the installation and running of the machine are relieved to be making their way to the little Tibetan airport to return Stateside when the computer reaches the end of its run and… the world comes to an end.

Specialist by Robert Sheckley (1953) (American)

Interesting description of a galactic spaceship made up of living parts which all perform specialist functions e.g. Walls, Eye, Tracker, Feeder. When their ‘Pusher’ dies in an accident they trawl nearby planetary systems for a new one and, of course, come to earth, where they kidnap a guy who is out camping under the stars, and induct him into the galactic code of co-operation.

Student Body by F. L. Wallace (1953) (American)

Colonists arrive on a new planet where the Chief Exec is keen to get biologist Dano Marin to manage infestations of mice and rats which attack the crops and stores. Slowly Marin realises they are dealing with a species which can mutate at need, almost instantly, in order to survive and which will always manage to evolve into shapes which can elude them. Worse, he realises it will have stowed away on the earlier reconnaisance ships and have made its way back to earth.

The Game of Rat and Dragon by Cordwainer Smith (1954) (pen-name of American author Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger)

Deep space travel reveals vicious entities which attack man’s ships, which get nicknamed ‘dragons’. The only way to kill them is with light bombs which disintegrate their bodies, but it all happens so fast that only the handful of humans who have telepathic powers can manage to be plugged into the ‘pin sets’ which detect the dragons; and the whole effort went up a notch when it was discovered that some cats can be in telepathic unison with the humans, and have even faster reflexes.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl (1955) (American)

Maybe the best story, relatively long and persuasive i.e. you get totally drawn into it.

Guy Burckhardt wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare of an explosion, then goes about his humdrum life in the small town American town of Tylerton, dominated by its state-of-the-art chemical works which is run mostly by the recorded brainwaves of technicians. A new guy in the office shops tries to hustle him a new brand of cigarettes. Later a lorry stops in the street and blares out ads for Feckles Fridges. A flustered man named Swanson accosts him on the street then runs away.

Then he wakes up on June 15 from a nightmare, and goes about his day. New cigarettes, lorry ads, flustered Swanson. That night the fuse blows and, rooting around in the cellar, he discovers that behind the brick walls is metal. And under the floor. The reader begins to wonder if he is in some kind of alien prison. He is down there when overcome by sleep.

Next morning he wakes up remembering everything from the day before except that… his wife thinks it is June 15, the radio says it is June 15, the newspaper says it is June 15. On the street Swanson finds him and, discovering that Burckhardt is confused, takes him through shops and into a cinema, all the time telling him that ‘they’ will be after him. they exit the auditorium, Swanson takes him through corridors, into the manager’s office, then opens a closet door into… a vast steel tunnel stretching in both directions.

Swanson thinks it must be Martians? Is it aliens? Or the Chinese who everyone in the 1950s were so terrified of? Read it yourself.

A Work of Art by James Blish (1956) (American)

Richard Strauss is brought back to life 200 years in the future. He immediately wants to carry on composing and Blish gives a very good analysis of the composer’s music, its characteristics, what he looks for in a libretto and so on and the whole process of composing a new opera.

But at its premiere, the applause is not for the composer, but for Dr Kris, the mind sculptor who has, in fact, used all the traits of the composer to create him and impose him on the mind of a perfectly ordinary unmusical man, Jerom Bosch. At a click of Kris’s fingers, Bosch will revert to his normal workaday self.

The Country of the Kind by Damon Knight (1956) (American)

A rare thing, a first person narrator. In a perfect society of the future (after ‘the Interregnum’) he has been born a brute and a sadist, capable of killing and injuring and defacing while all around him are placid and calm and sensitive. We see, from his point of view, how intolerable and anguished his existence is, forced to live among ‘the dulls’.

Sister Planet by Poul Anderson (1959) (American)

This is a long, involving and bitingly pessimistic story. A small colony of scientists is established on a platform floating on Venus’s endless stormy ocean. They have made contact with ‘cetoids’, dolphin-like creatures and some kind of exchange goes on i.e. the humans leave paintings, sound recordings and so on which the cetoids take off in their mouths, and the cetoids return with various objects, including rare and precious ‘firestones’. These are so precious that ferrying them back to earth and selling them has so far funded the scientific research.

In among their practical duties, the half dozen or so scientists on the outstation chat about how overcrowded and polluted and violent earth is becoming. The main figure among them, Nat Hawthorne is particularly sensitive and close to the cetoids. One day he is astonished when the most friendly of them, who he’s named Oscar, nudges at his feet (on the pontoon which stretches out from the base, where they distribute goodies to the cetoids and receive the jewels in return, level with the ocean and often slopped over by waves) indicating he wants to give him a ride.

Hawthorne puts on breathing apparatus and Oscar takes him deep under the sea to show him a vast coral cathedral which appears to have been shaped, or grown, by the cetoids. there is no doubt that they are ‘intelligent’.

Back in the crew quarters of the colony, he is about to tell everyone about his encounter, when the quiet, intense Dutch scientist Wim Dykstra bursts in to make a major announcement. He has been analysing Venus’s core and has realised that it is on the unstable edge of making a quantum leap upwards in size. If it did that, it would project magma up through the sea creating continents and the presence of rocks would absorb carbon dioxide from the (currently toxic) atmosphere. In other words it could be ‘terraformed’, made fit for human inhabitation – an overflow for what has become a poisoned earth.

it is then that Hawthorne tells the roomful of colonists about his discovery, that the cetoids are undeniably intelligent and creative. At which point there is an earnest discussion about man’s right to colonise new planets, even at the expense of the natives – all of which made me think of contemporary, 2018, discussions about colonialism and racial oppression etc. Reluctantly Dykstra agrees to suppress his work in order to let the cetoids live.

But Hawthorne is gripped by a kind of panic fear. Sooner or later more scientists will come to Venus. They will repeat his experiments. Sooner or later humans will realise they can transform Venus for their own use. Tortured by this knowledge, Hawthorne blows up and sinks the research station, flees in a mini submarine and, when the cetoids come to investigate, slaughters them with a laser machine gun. Then submerges to go and blow up their beautiful coral cathedrals. Before calling the ferry ship which is in orbit down to pick him up. He will claim the cetoids blew up the centre despite his attempts to stop them.

His aim is to demonstrate to earth that Venus is a violent environment which cannot be colonised. And to show the cetoids that humans are murdering barbarians who cannot be trusted.

To save the cetoids – he has to destroy them and their cultural achievements.

The Voices of Time by J. G. Ballard (1960) (English)

A classic expression of Ballard’s interest in entropy and decline. Among the empty swimming pools of some desert American town, scientists go about their work in alienated isolation from each other. A plague of narcolepsy has attacked humanity. More and more people are falling asleep never to waken, the central figure, Powers, keeps a diary of the way he, too, is falling asleep earlier and earlier, his days are getting shorter and shorter. In what time he has left he conducts obscure experiments on plants and animals which seem to mutate at an accelerated rate if exposed to near fatal doses of radiation. He has a typically distant, autistic ‘relationship’ with a patient whose brain he operated on and who now is collecting the last works of art, books and so on by famous artists, writers and such. And has discovered that astronomical research centres have come across series of numbers being sent from apparently different locations around the universe, all of which are running down, like countdowns.

The Machine that Won the War by Isaac Asimov (1961) (American)

A short and characteristically tricksy Asimov story. It is the end of the war against the Denebians. Everyone credits victory to the vast supercomputer, the Multivac, which processed all the information and provided pinpoint accurate decisions about the war.

Executive Director of the Solar Federation, Lamar Swift, has gathered the key men in the team who ran Multivac to celebrate, namely Henderson and Jablonksy. But as both hold their champagne glasses, one by one they reveal that the data they received was never good enough, the sources around the solar system and beyond were too scattered, information came in too slowly… and that the head of the team processing it never trusted them, and so falsified many of the figures.

But instead of being shocked, Swift smile and says, he thought as much. He made all the key decisions which won the war by using a much older technology. And he takes out a coin, flips it with his thumb, covers it as it lands in his palms, and asks: ‘Gentlemen – heads or tails?’

Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut (1961) (American)

A short glib story set in 2018 when everyone is equal because everyone is handicapped by the Handicapper General. Fast athletic people are weighed down by weights. Tall people forced to stoop. Beautiful people wear face masks. Clever people have earpieces fitted which emit piercing noises every 30 seconds. Thus everyone is reduced to the same level, and is equal. Anyone tampering with any of this equality equipment is arrested and imprisoned.

George and Hazel Bergeron’s son, Harrison, was born unusually tall and handsome. He was immediately locked up. The trigger for this short story is George and Hazel settling down to watch TV (George’s thought processes continually interrupted by the screeches in his ear, to prevent him being too clever) and hearing on the news that their son has escaped from prison.

Then he bursts into the TV studio and throws off his restraints, the handicap harness which weighs him down, the rubber mask which makes him ugly – to reveal that he is a tall god. He declares to the watching audience that he is the Emperor, who must be obeyed.

He had interrupted a live broadcast of a ballet and now he asks who among the ballerinas wants to be his wife. One comes forward, throws off her face mask and feet cripplers to reveal that she is beautiful and elegant. Together they start dancing a beautiful ballet of freedom.

At which point the Handicapper General, Diana Moon Glampers, bursts into the studio and machine guns both of them dead. The TV goes black. Loud sounds burst in George’s ear. He goes to get a beer from the fridge. Loud sounds interrupt him on the way back. By the time he’s back on the sofa he has a sense that something sad happened on the TV but neither he nor his wife can remember what.

The Streets of Ashkelon by Harry Harrison (1962) (American)

Trader John Garth is happy living alone on Wesker’s World, dealing with the slow but logical alien inhabitants, the Wesker amphibians, who have learned to speak English.

One day a fellow trader stops by (his spaceship causing hundreds of square metres of devastation) to drop off a priest. Garth tries to prevent him landing, then is very rude to him. To his horror, the slow logical Wesker creatures are awestruck by the priest and the stories he has to tell about God their father and how they are saved. Garth is a typical trader, rough and ready, a hard drinker, but he has been honest with the Wesker creatures and told them as much about the universe and earth as he thought wise.

One day Garth is called along to a meeting the Weskers are having with the priest. In their slow logical way they have come to the conclusion that the priest needs to prove his religion. The Bible – which he has given them to study – brims over with examples of miracles which God was happy to perform to prove his existence. Surely he will perform at least one miracle to convert an entire new planet and save an entire species.

Suddenly Garth sees where this is heading and leaps up to try and bundle the priest out of the meeting hall but he is himself overwhelmed by the Wesker creatures and tied up, from which powerless state he has to watch the creatures overcome the priest and very methodically nail him up to a cross, just like the pictures in the Bible he had given them, the Weskers expecting him to be resurrected.

But of course he isn’t. Days later, still tied up and in a pitch black lumber room, Garth finds the most sympathetic of the Weskers undoing his ropes and telling him to flee in his space ship. Having failed with the priest the Weskers have decided to experiment with him next.

The Wesker asks: ‘He will rise again won’t he?’ ‘No,’ replies Wesker. ‘Then we will not be saved and not be made pure?’ asks the Wesker. ‘You were pure’, Garth sadly replies. ‘You were pure, but now…’ ‘We are murderers,’ replies the Wesker.

Old Hundredth by Brian Aldiss (1963) (English)

This is the most poetic of the stories, Aldiss deliberately using onomatopeia and rhyme in his prose, as well as rich verbal pictures, to convey a dreamlike scenario.

In the far distant future the Moon has left the earth and earth and Venus orbit each other. Humans have long ago left the planet which is now populated by a mix of of animals and ”Impures’, intelligent creatures created by human experimenters on Venus.

Dandi Lashadusa is a giant sloth who traipses round the desert world seeking out musicolumns, insubstantial pillars into which the last people converted themselves, and which become audible music when life forms come close enough to them.

She is guided and advised by a mentor who she is telepathically in touch with, who is slowly revealed to be a dolphin living in a coral cell.


Almost all the stories – 14 out of 17 – are by Americans, the other three by Brits i.e. all very anglophone i.e. wasn’t there any Russian, French, German etc sci-fi during the period? Even in translation?

That’s probably something which came in to rejuvenate the genre after Amis’s day, particularly stories from Russia and the Eastern bloc.

The pros and cons of science fiction

Is Amis right when he says: ‘Science fiction is a pessimistic medium… Most of it is about things going wrong’? Well, on the evidence here, Yes. The Xi Effect, Sister Planet, The Streets of Ashkelon, Student Body and, especially It’s a Good Life, which I found very disturbing – they are extremely negative and pessimistic. But then gloomy Amis chose them. Is the genre as a whole pessimistic? Well… I’d make a case that most of literature is pessimistic. I’m looking at F. Scott Fitzgerald books next to Flaubert’s on my shelves. Not many happy endings there.

Maybe you could argue that there is a kind of ‘global conceit’ about science fiction. In ‘ordinary’ novels one or two people may die; in a science fiction story it is likely to be a whole world, as the world comes to an end in the Clarke story, or man corrupts an entire species as in the Harry Harrison.

Science fiction may be more apocalyptically pessimistic than other types of fiction. This is one of its appeals to the adolescent mind – the sheer sense of scale and the world-ending nihilism. But is at the same time one of the reasons it used to be looked down on. As a flight from the trickier complexities of real human relations in the here and now, the kind of thing supposedly tackled by ‘proper’ fiction.

But all this is to overlook the positive, uplifting and inspiring aspect of science fiction, the teenage sense of exuberance and escape and release conveyed by some of the stories. The sense of the genuinely fantastical and imaginative, that life is stranger and richer and weirder than non-sci-fi readers can ever realise.

A feeling conveniently expressed in one of the stories here:

As a boy he had loved to read tales of time travel and flights to other planets, and the feeling that something transcendent was lurking around the corner had never entirely left him. (The Xi Effect, p.65)


Related links

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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