Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. In Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chardwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their emotive titles (this one is titled Slavery! Slavery!) the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

Can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces etc incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see it during the 32nd Black October Month. Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed to me very patronising.

In fact gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence explaining that London was the capital of the British Empire… It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have a poor knowledge of British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder? If anything.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually unexpected and upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among

To reduce, in other words, an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new orthodoxy to which we would be wise to subscribe. My argument is, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms? In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 by John Darwin (2007)

Empires exist to accumulate power on an extensive scale…
(After Tamerlane: The Rise and Fall of Global Empires 1400 – 2000 page 483)

Why did the nations of Western Europe rise through the 18th and 19th centuries to create empires which stretched around the world, how did they manage to subjugate ancient nations like China and Japan, to turn vast India into a colonial possession, to carve up Africa between them?

How did white European cultures come to dominate not only the territories and peoples who they colonised, but to create the modern mindset – a vast mental framework which encompasses capitalist economics, science and technology and engineering, which dominates the world right down to the present day?

Why did the maritime states of Europe (Britain, France, the Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese) end up either settling from scratch the relatively empty places of the world (America, Australia), or bringing all the other cultures of the world (the Ottoman Empire, Hindu India, Confucian China and Shinto Japan) under their domination?

For a hundred and fifty years politicians, historians, economists and all kinds of academics and theoreticians have been writing books trying to explain ‘the rise of the West’.

Some attribute it to the superiority of the Protestant religion (some explicitly said it was God’s plan). Some that it was something to do with the highly fragmented nature of Europe, full of squabbling nations vying to outdo each other, and which spilled out into unceasing competition for trade, at first across the Atlantic, then along new routes to India or the Far East.

Some credit the Scientific Revolution, with its proliferation of new technologies from compasses to cannons, an unprecedented explosion of discoveries and inventions. Some credit the slave trade and the enormous profits made from working to death millions and millions of African slaves to create the profits which fuelled the industrial revolution and paid for the armies which subjugated India.

Lenin thought it was the unique qualities of European capitalism which had perfected techniques to exploit the proletariat in the home countries and then to subjugate less advanced nations, which would inevitably lead to a global capitalist war once the whole world was colonised.

So John Darwin’s book, which sets out to answer all these questions and many more, is following an extremely well-trodden path. BUT it does so in a way which feels wonderfully new, refreshing and exciting. This is a brilliant book. If you were only going to read one book about imperialism, this is probably The One.

For at least three reasons:

1. Darwin appears to have mastered the enormous revisionist literature generated over the past thirty years or more, which rubbishes any idea of innate European superiority, which looks for far more subtle and persuasive reasons – so reading this book means you can feel yourself reaping the benefits of hundreds of other more detailed & specific studies. He is not himself oppressively politically correct, but he is on the right side of all the modern trends in historical thought (i.e. is aware of feminist, BAME and post-colonial studies).

2. Darwin pays a lot more attention than is usual to all the other cultures which co-existed alongside Europe for so long (Islam, the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire, the Safavid Empire, the Chinese Empire, Japan, all are treated in fascinating detail and given almost as much space as Europe, more, in the earlier chapters) so that reading this book you learn an immense amount about the history of these other cultures over the same period.

3. Above all, Darwin paints a far more believable and plausible picture than the traditional legend of one smooth, consistent and inevitable ‘Rise of the West’. On the contrary, in Darwin’s version:

the passage from Tamerlane’s times to our own has been far more contested, confused and chance-ridden than the legend suggests – an obvious enough point. But [this book places] Europe (and the West) in a much larger context: amid the empire-, state- and culture-building projects of other parts of Eurasia. Only thus, it is argued, can the course, nature, scale and limits of Europe’s expansion be properly grasped, and the jumbled origins of our contemporary world become a little clearer.

‘Jumbled origins’, my God yes. And what a jumble!

Why start with Tamerlane?

Tamerlane the Eurasian conqueror died in 1405. Darwin takes his death as marking the end of an epoch, an era inaugurated by the vast wave of conquest led across central Asia by Genghis Khan starting around 1200, an era in which one ruler could, potentially, rule the entire Eurasian landmass.

When Tamerlane was born the ‘known world’ still stretched from China in the East, across central Asia, through the Middle East, along the north African shore and including Europe. Domination of all of China, central Asia, northern India, the Middle East and Europe was, at least in theory, possible, had been achieved by Genghis Khan and his successors, and was the dream which had inspired Tamerlane.

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

But by the death of Tamerlane the political situation across Eurasia had changed. The growth in organisation, power and sophistication of the Ottoman Empire, the Mamluk state in Egypt and Syria, the Muslim sultanate in north India and above all the resilience of the new Ming dynasty in China, meant this kind of ‘global’ domination was no longer possible. For centuries nomadic tribes had ravaged through Eurasia (before the Mongols it had been the Turks who emerged out of Asia to seize the Middle East and found the Ottoman Dynasty). Now that era was ending.

It was no longer possible to rule the sown from the steppe (p.5)

Moreover, within a few decades of Tamerlane’s demise, Portuguese mariners had begun to explore westwards, first on a small scale colonising the Azores and Canary Islands, but with the long-term result that the Eurasian landmass would never again constitute the ‘entire world’.

What was different about European empires?

Empires are the oldest and most widespread form of government. They are by far the commonest way that human societies have organised themselves: the Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, Persians, the Greek and Roman Empires, the Aztec Empire, the Inca Empire, the Mali Empire, Great Zimbabwe, the Chinese empire, the Nguyễn empire in Vietnam, the Japanese Empire, the Ottoman empire, the Mughal empire, the Russian empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, to name just a few.

Given this elementary fact about history, why do the west European empires come in for such fierce criticism these days?

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

  1. Because they affected far more parts of the world across far more widespread areas than ever before, and so ‘the constituency of the aggrieved’ is simply larger – much larger – than ever before.
  2. Because they were much more systematic in their rapaciousness. The worst example was surely the Belgian Empire in the Congo, European imperialism stripped of all pretence and exposed as naked greed backed up by appalling brutality. But arguably all the European empires mulcted their colonies of raw materials, treasures and of people more efficiently (brutally) than any others in history.

The result is that it is going to take some time, maybe a lot of time, for the trauma of the impact of the European empires to die down and become what Darwin calls ‘the past’ i.e. the realm of shadowy past events which we don’t think of as affecting us any more.

The imperial legacy is going to affect lots of people, in lots of post-colonial nations, for a long time to come, and they are not going to let us forget it.

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided up into nine chapters:

  1. Orientations
  2. Eurasia and the Age of Discovery
  3. The Early Modern Equilibrium (1750s – 1800)
  4. The Eurasian Revolution (1800 – 1830)
  5. The Race Against Time (1830 – 1880)
  6. The Limits of Empire (1880 – 1914)
  7. Towards The Crisis of The World, 1914 – 42
  8. Empire Denied (1945 – 2000)
  9. Tamerlane’s Shadow

A flood of insights

It sounds like reviewer hyperbole but there really is a burst of insights on every page of this book.

It’s awe-inspiring, dazzling, how Darwin can take the elements of tremendously well-known stories (Columbus and the discovery of America, or the Portuguese finding a sea route to India, the first trading stations on the coasts of India or the unequal treaties imposed on China, or the real consequences of the American Revolution) and present them from an entirely new perspective. Again and again on every page he unveils insight after insight. For example:

American Take the fact – which I knew but had never seen stated so baldly – that the American War of Independence wasn’t about ‘liberty’, it was about land. In the aftermath of the Seven Years War (1756 – 63) the British government had banned the colonists from migrating across the Appalachians into the Mississippi valley (so as to protect the Indians, and because policing this huge area would be ruinously expensive). The colonists simply wanted to overthrow these restrictions and, as soon as the War of Independence was (after the British gave up in 1783), set about opening the floodgates to colonising westward.

India Victorian apologists claimed the British were able to colonise huge India relatively easily because of the superiority of British organisation and energy compared with Oriental sloth and backwardness. In actual fact, Darwin explains it was in part the opposite: it was because the Indians had a relatively advanced agrarian economy, with good routes of communication, business hubs and merchants – an open and well-organised economy, which the British just barged their way into (p.264).

(This remind me of the case made in The Penguin History of Latin America by Edwin Williamson that Cortés was able to conquer the Aztec and Pissarro the Incas, not because the Indians were backward but precisely because they were the most advanced, centralised and well organised states in Central and South America. The Spanish just installed themselves at the top of a well-ordered and effective administrative system. Against genuinely backward people, like the tribes who lived in the arid Arizona desert or the swamps of Florida or hid in the impenetrable Amazon jungle, the Spanish were helpless, because there was no one emperor to take hostage, or huge administrative bureaucracy to take over – which explains why those areas remained uncolonised for centuries.)

Cultural conservatism Until about 1830 there was still a theoretical possibility that a resurgent Ottoman or Persian empire, China or Japan, might have reorganised and repelled European colonisers. But a decisive factor which in the end prevented them was the intrinsic conservatism of these cultures. For example, both Chinese and Muslim culture venerated wisdom set down by a wise man (Mohammed, Confucius) at least a millennium earlier, and teachers, professors, civil servants were promoted insofar as they endorsed and parroted these conservative values. At key moments, when they could have adopted more forward-looking ideologies of change, all the other Eurasian cultures plumped for conservatism and sticking to the Old.

Thus, even as it dawned on both China and Japan that they needed to react to the encroachments of the Europeans in the mid-nineteenth century, both countries did so by undertaking not innovations what they called restorations – the T’ung-chih (‘Union for Order’) restoration in China and the Meiji (‘Enlightened rule’) restoration in Japan (p.270). (Darwin’s description of the background and enactment of both these restorations is riveting.)

The Western concept of Time Darwin has a fascinating passage about how the Europeans developed a completely new theory of Time (p.208). It was the exploration of America which did this (p.209). America gave the Europeans an entirely new understanding of human Time. Because here they encountered, traded and warred with Stone Age people who used bows and arrows and (to start with) had no horses or wheeled vehicles and never developed anything like a technology. This led European intellectuals to reflect that maybe these people came from an earlier phase of historical development. In fact, maybe societies evolve and change and develop.

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting how societies progressed from the x age to the y age and then on to the z age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

And once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere definitely lower or backward on these paths or stages of development. And being at the top of the tree, why naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th I’ve always been a bit puzzled by the way that, if you read accounts of then European empires, there is this huge difference between the 18th century and the 19th century. Darwin explains why: in the eighteenth century there were still multiple European players in the imperial game: France was the strongest power on the continent, but she was balanced out by Prussia, Austria and also Spain and Portugal and the Dutch. France’s position as top dog in Europe was admittedly damaged by the Seven Years War but it wasn’t this, it was the Napoleonic Wars which in the end abolished the 18th century balance of power in Europe. Britain emerged from the Napoleonic Wars as the new top dog, with a navy which could beat all-comers, which had hammered the French at the Battle of the Nile and Trafalgar, and which now ruled the waves.

The nineteenth century feels different because Britain’s world-encompassing dominance was different in kind from any empire which ever preceded it.

Africa If I have one quibble it’s that I’d like to have learned more about Africa. I take the point that his book is focused on Eurasia and the Eurasian empires (and I did learn a huge amount about Persia, the Moghul empire, China and Japan) and that all sub-Saharan Africa was cut off from Eurasia by the Sahara, but still… it feels like an omission.

And a woke reader might well object to the relative rareness of Darwin’s references to the African slave trade. He refers to it a few times, but his interest is not there; it’s in identifying exactly where Europe was like or unlike the rival empires of Eurasia, in culture and science and social organisation and economics. That’s his focus.

Russia If Africa is disappointingly absent, an unexpected emphasis is placed in each chapter on the imperial growth of Russia. I knew next to nothing about this. A quick surf on Amazon suggests that almost all the books you can get about the Russian ’empire’ are about the fall of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution and then Lenin or Stalin’s creation of a Bolshevik empire which expanded into Eastern Europe after the war. That’s to say it’s almost all about twentieth century Russia (with the exception of a crop of ad hoc biographies of Peter the Great or Catherine the Great).

So it was thrilling to read Darwin give what amounts to a sustained account and explanation of the growth of the Kingdom of Muscovy from the 1400s onwards, describing how it expanded west (against Poland, the Baltic states, Sweden), south towards the Black Sea, south-west into the Balkans – but most of all how Russian power was steadily expanded East across the vast inhospitable tundra of Siberia until Russian power reached the Pacific.

It is odd, isn’t it, bizarre, uncanny, that a nation that likes to think of itself as ‘European’ has a huge coastline on the Pacific Ocean and to this day squabbles about the ownership of small islands with Japan!

The process of Russian expansion involved just as much conquering of the ‘primitive’ tribal peoples who hunted and trapped in the huge landmass of Siberia as the conquest of, say, Canada or America, but you never read about it, do you? Can you name any of the many native tribes the Russians fought and conquered? No. Are there any books about the Settling of the East as there are thousands and thousands about the conquest of the American West? Nope. It is a historical black hole.

But Darwin’s account of the growth of the Russian Empire is not only interesting as filling in what – for me at any rate – is a big hole in my knowledge. It is also fascinating because of the role Russian expansion played again and again in the game of Eurasian Risk which his book describes. At key moments Russian pressure from the North distracted the attention of the Ottoman Empire from making more offensive thrusts into Europe (the Ottomans famously encroached right up to the walls of Vienna in 1526 and then again in 1683).

When the Russians finally achieved one of their territorial goals and seized the Crimea in 1783, as a result of the Russo-Turkish War, it had the effect, Darwin explains, of cracking the Ottoman Empire open ‘like an oyster’. For centuries the Black Sea had been an Ottoman lake and a cheaply defensible frontier. Now, at a stroke, it became a massive vulnerability which needed costly defence (p.175).

And suddenly, seeing it all from the Russian perspective, this sheds new light on the timeworn story of the decline of the Ottoman Empire which I only know about from the later 19th century and from the British perspective. For Darwin the role of Russian expansionism was vital not only in itself, but for the hemming in and attritional impact it had on the other Eurasian empires – undermining the Ottomans, making the Chinese paranoid because Russian expansion around its northern borders added to China’s sense of being encircled and endangered, a sense that contributed even more to its risk-averse policy of doubling down on its traditional cultural and political and economic traditions, and refusing to see anything of merit in the Westerners’ technology or crude diplomacy. A policy which eventually led to complete collapse in the Chinese Revolution of 1911.

And of course the Russians actually went to war with imperial Japan in 1905.

Numbered lists

Darwin likes making numbered lists. There’s one on almost every page. They rarely go higher than three. Here are some examples to give a flavour of his careful, forensic and yet thrillingly insightful way of explaining things.

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium The geopolitical revolution which ended the long equilibrium of the 18th century had three major effects:

  1. The North American interior and the new lands in the Pacific would soon become huge extensions of European territory, the ‘new Europes’.
  2. As a result of the Napoleonic war, the mercantile ‘zoning’ system which had reflected the delicate balance of power among European powers was swept away and replaced with almost complete control of the world’s oceans by the British Navy.
  3. Darwin gives a detailed description of why Mughal control of North India was disrupted by invasions by conquerors from the north, first Iran then Afghanistan, who weakened central Indian power at just the moment the British started expanding from their base in Bengal. Complex geopolitical interactions.

The so-called stagnation of the other Eurasian powers can be characterised by:

  1. In both China and the Islamic world classical, literary cultures dominated the intellectual and administrative elites – the test of intellectual acumen was fitting all new observations into the existing mindset, prizes went to those who could do so with the least disruption possible.
  2. Cultural and intellectual authority was vested in scribal elites backed up by political power, both valuing stasis.
  3. Both China and the Islamic world were profoundly indifferent and incurious about the outside world.

The knowledge revolution Compare and contrast the East’s incuriosity with the ‘West’, which underwent a cognitive and scientific revolution in which merit went to the most disruptive inventors of new theories and technologies, and where Darwin describes an almost obsessive fascination with maps. This was supercharged by Captain Cook’s three huge expeditions around the Pacific, resulting in books and maps which were widely bought and discussed, and which formed the basis of the trade routes which followed in his wake, and then the transportation of large numbers of convicts to populate Australia’s big empty spaces (about 164,000 convicts were transported to the Australian colonies between 1788 and 1868).

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars I hadn’t quite realised that the Napoleonic Wars had such a traumatising effect on the governments of the main European powers who emerged in its aftermath: Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia. Very broadly speaking there was peace between the European powers between the 1830s and 1880s. Of course there was the Crimean War (Britain, France and Turkey containing Russia’s imperial expansion), war between Austria and Prussia (1866) and the Franco-Prussian War. But all these were contained by the system, were mostly of short duration and never threatened to unravel into the kind of general conflict which ravaged Europe under Napoleon.

Thus, from the imperial point of view, the long peace had four results:

  1. The Royal Navy’s policing of all trade routes across the Atlantic and between Europe and Asia kept trade routes open throughout the era and kept costs down for everyone.
  2. The balance of power which the European powers maintained among themselves discouraged intervention in either North or South America and allowed America to develop economically as if it had no enemies – a rare occurrence for any nation in history.
  3. The post-Napoleonic balance of power in Europe encouraged everyone to tread carefully in their imperial rivalries.
  4. Geo-political stability in Europe allowed the growth across the continent of something like a European ideology. This was ‘liberalism’ – a nexus of beliefs involving the need for old-style autocratic power to be tempered by the advice of representatives of the new middle class, and the importance of that middle class in the new technologies and economics unleashed by the industrial revolution and in founding and administering the growing colonies abroad.

Emigration Emigration from Europe to the New World was a trickle in the 1830s but had become a flood by the 1850s. Between 1850 and 1880 over eight million people left Europe, mostly for America.

  1. This mass emigration relieved the Old World of its rural overcrowding and transferred people to an environment where they could be much more productive.
  2. Many of the emigrants were in fact skilled artisans. Moving to an exceptionally benign environment, a vast empty continent rich in resources, turbo-charged the American economy with the result that by the 1880s it was the largest in the world.

Fast His chapter The Race Against Time brings out a whole area, an entire concept, I’ve never come across before, which is that part of the reason European colonisation was successful was it was so fast. Not just that Western advances in military technology – the lightning advances in ships and artillery and guns – ran far ahead of anything the other empires could come up with – but that the entire package of international finance, trade routes, complex webs sending raw materials back home and re-exporting manufactured goods, the sudden flinging of railways all across the world’s landmasses, the erection of telegraphs to flash knowledge of markets, prices of goods, or political turmoil back from colonies to the European centre – all of this happened too quickly for the rival empires (Ottoman, Japan, China etc) to stand any chance of catching up.

Gold rushes This sense of leaping, hurtling speed was turbo-charged by literal gold rushes, whether in the American West in the 1840s or in South Africa where it was first gold then diamonds. Suddenly tens of thousands of white men turned up, quickly followed by townships full of traders and artisans, then the railway, the telegraph, the sheriffs with their guns – all far faster than any native American or South African cultures could hope to match or even understand.

Shallow And this leads onto another massive idea which reverberates through the rest of the book and which really changed my understanding. This is that, as the spread of empire became faster and faster, reaching a kind of hysterical speed in the so-called Scramble For Africa in the 1880s (the phrase was, apparently, coined by the London Times in 1884) it meant that there was something increasingly shallow about its rule, especially in Africa.

The Scramble for Africa

Darwin says that most radical woke historians take the quick division of Africa in the 1880s and 1890s as a kind of epitome of European imperialism, but that it was in fact the opposite, and extremely unrepresentative of the development of the European imperialisms.

After all the Scramble happened very quickly – unlike the piecemeal conquest of Central, Southern of North America, or India, which took centuries.

The Scramble took place with almost no conflict between the European powers – in fact they agreed to partitions and drew up lines in a very equable way at the Congress of Berlin in 1885. Other colonies (from the Incas to India) were colonised because there were organised civilisations which could be co-opted, whereas a distinctive feature about Africa (‘historians broadly agree about one vital fact’ p.314) was that people were in short supply. Africa was undermanned or underpeopled. There were few organised states or kingdoms because there simply wasn’t the density of population which lends itself to trading routes, settled farmers and merchants – all the groups who can be taxed to create a king and aristocracy.

Africans hadn’t progressed to centralised states as humans had in Eurasia or central America because there weren’t enough of them. Hence the poverty and the lack of resistance which most of the conquerors encountered in most of Africa.

In fact the result of all this was that most of the European governments weren’t that keen on colonising Africa. It was going to cost a lot of money and there weren’t the obvious revenue streams that they had found in a well-established economy like India.

What drove the Scramble for Africa more than anything else was adventurers on the ground – dreamers and fantasists and ambitious army officers and business men and empire builders who kept on taking unilateral action which then pitched the home government into a quandary – deny their adventurers and pass up the opportunity to win territory to a rival, or reluctantly support them and get enmeshed in all kinds of messy responsibilities.

For example, in the mid-1880s a huge swathe of West Africa between the desert and the forest was seized by a buccaneering group of French marine officers under Commandant Louis Archinard, and their black rank and file. In a few years these adventurers brought some two million square miles into France’s empire. The government back in Paris felt compelled to back them up which meant sending out more troops, police and so on, which would cost money.

Meanwhile, modern communications had been invented, the era of mass media had arrived, and the adventuring soldiers and privateers had friends and boosters in the popular press who could be counted on to write leading articles about ‘the white man’s burden’ and the torch of civilisation and ask: ‘Isn’t the government going to defend our brave boys?’, until reluctant democratic governments were forced to cough up support. Modern-day liberals often forget that imperialism was wildly popular. It often wasn’t imperialist or rapacious governments or the ruling class which prompted conquest, but popular sentiment, jingoism, which couldn’t be ignored in modern democracies.

Darwin on every page, describes and explains the deep economic, trade and financial structures which the West put in place during the nineteenth century and which eventually underpinned an unstoppable steamroller of annexation, protectorates, short colonial wars and long-term occupation.

The Congress of Berlin

The Congress of Berlin helped to formalise the carving up of Africa, and so it has come to be thought of as evil and iniquitous, particularly by BAME and woke historians. But once again Darwin makes you stop and think when he compares the success of the congress at reaching peaceful agreements between the squabbling European powers – and what happened in 1914 over a flare-up in the Balkans.

If only Bismarck had been around in 1914 to suggest that instead of rapidly mobilising to confront each other, the powers of Europe had once again been invited for tea and cake at the Reichstag to discuss their differences like gentlemen and come to an equable agreement.

Seen from this perspective, the Berlin Congress is not so much an evil colonialist conspiracy, but an extremely successful event which avoided any wars between the European powers for nearly thirty years. Africa was going to be colonised anyway because human events have a logic of their own: the success was in doing so without sparking a European conflagration.

The Scramble for China The Scramble for China is not as well known as its African counterpart,  the competition to gain ‘treaty ports’ on the Chinese coast, impose unfair trading terms on the Chinese and so on.

As usual, though, Darwin comes at it from a much wider angle and makes one massive point I hadn’t registered before – which is that Russia very much wanted to seize the northern part of China to add to its far eastern domains; Russia really wanted to carve China up, but Britain didn’t. And if Britain, the greatest trading, economic and naval power in the world, wasn’t onside, then it wouldn’t happen. There wasn’t a genuine Scramble for China because Britain didn’t want one.

Why not? Darwin quotes a Foreign Office official simply saying, ‘We don’t want another India.’ One enormous third world country to try and administer with its hundreds of ethnic groups and parties growing more restive by the year, was quite enough.

Also, by the turn of the century, the Brits had become paranoid about Russia’s intentions to conquer Afghanistan and march into North India. If they partitioned China with Russia, that would mean policing an even longer frontier even further way against an aggressive imperialist power ready to pounce the moment our guard was down.

Summary

This is an absolutely brilliant book. I don’t think I’ve ever come across so many dazzling insights and revelations and entirely new ways of thinking about a time-worn subject in one volume.

This is the book to give anyone who’s interested not just in ‘the rise of the West’ but how the whole concept of ‘the West’ emerged, for a fascinating description not just of the European empires but of all the empires across Eurasia – Ottoman, Persian, Moghul, Chinese and Japanese – and how history – at this level – consists of the endless juggling for power of these enduring power blocs, the endless and endlessly

complex history of empire-, state- and culture-building. (p.490)

And of course it all leads up to where we are today: a resurgent Russia flexing its muscles in Ukraine and Crimea; China wielding its vast economic power and brutally oppressing its colonial subjects in Tibet and Xinkiang, while buying land, resources and influence in Africa. And both Russia and China using social media and the internet in ways we don’t yet fully understand in order to undermine the West.

And Turkey, keen as its rulers of all colours have been since the Ottoman days, to keep the Kurds down. And Iran, as its rulers have done for a thousand years, continually seeking new ways to extend its influence around the Gulf, across Syria and to the Mediterranean, in eternal rivalry with the Arab world which, in our time, means Saudi Arabia, against whom Iran is fighting a proxy war in the Yemen.

Darwin’s books really drives home the way the faces and the ideologies may change, but the fundamental geopolitical realities endure, and with them the crudeness and brutality of the tools each empire employs.

If you let ‘morality’, especially modern woke morality, interfere with your analysis of this level of geopolitics, you will understand nothing. At this level it always has and always will be about power and influence, dominating trade and ensuring raw resources, and behind it all the never-ending quest for ‘security’.

At this level, it isn’t about following narrow, English notions of morality. Getting hung up on that only gets in the way of grasping the utterly amoral forces at play everywhere in the world today, just as it’s always been.

Darwin stands up for intelligence and insight, for careful analysis and, above all, for a realistic grasp of human nature and human society – deeply, profoundly flawed and sometimes pitiful and wretched though both routinely are. He takes an adult view. It is absolutely thrilling and a privilege to be at his side as he explains and analysis this enormous history, with such confidence, and with so many brilliant ideas and insights.


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Imperial fiction

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

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

Urban Impulses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nations of South America by population

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

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

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

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

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

Nations of Central America by population

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

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

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

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

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

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

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

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

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

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographers

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

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

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


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Turkey: A Short History by Norman Stone (2012)

I picked this up in the library to shed more light on the very early years of Anatolia, specifically on the Seljuk Turks who stormed into the old Persian Empire in the 1050s, seized the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate, Baghdad, in 1055 and went on to inflict a seismic defeat on the Byzantine Empire at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the equivalent – for the region – of our Battle of Hastings, which marked the decisive shift of control of Anatolia i.e. modern Turkey, away from the Christian Greeks and towards the Islamicised Turks.

On reflection it was foolish to expect much on just this one era from a book which is only 165 pages long, only claims to be a short history, and which has reached the origin of the Ottoman Turks (the 1250s) by page 23 and the fall of Constantinople (in 1453) by page 32.

The Seljuk period is skimmed over in a few brief pages and the Battle of Manzikert in a couple of brief sentences. I’m glad I had read the long, detailed account of the build-up, the battle itself, and its historical repercussions, in John Julius Norwich’s book, Byzantium: The Apogee.

Odd tone

This is an odd book. All the important dates and ideas are here, but Professor Stone comes across as a rather grumpy and capricious older fellow, who makes dated attempts at humour, and is easily distracted by historic trivia.

He takes a dismissive tone to much historical debate, a kind of urbane, pooh-poohing lofty tone. For example, he jocosely points out that Iranian schoolchildren learn that Turkish barbarians came and stormed their civilised empire, while Turkish schoolchildren learn that effete, decadent imperial Persia was revived and renewed with the strong, virile blood of the Turks. Similarly, discussing the influence of Asian tribes on the early state of Russia (in the 1500s), he writes,

The Russian princes eventually copied the Tatars, Moscow most successfully, and in 1552, Ivan the Terrible conquered the Tatar capital, Kazan, on the Volga. Nineteenth-century warhorses then presented Russian history as a sort of crusade  in which indignant peasants freed themselves from ‘the Tatar yoke’. (p.20)

‘Nineteenth-century warhorses’? I’m still not totally sure what he means by that phrase. Does he just mean boring schoolmasters, or is he also referring to the wider culture of Russian writers and journalists and thinkers etc.

He mentions the many areas or issues where the early history of the Turks is contested by historians, where there are conflicting theories – but rarely without being pretty casual, sometimes rather dismissive, or even facetious.

There is a twentieth-century claim that the early Ottomans (which is a westernisation of Osmanli) were bright-eyed fighters for the cause of Allah, itself the answer to a rather Christian-triumphalist claim that they were noble savages who had to learn everything from Byzantium, but the evidence either way is thin. (p.23)

Jocose

So all the right dates are here, along with nodding references to the main cruxes or issues of Turkish historiography – and the book does give you a good quick overview of the entire history from the Seljuks to the glories of the great Ottoman Empire (at its peak in the 1550s) and then its long decline down to the death agonies in the First World War, and then the rebirth of modern Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk.

But all conveyed in a deliberately jocose, facetious way.

The Turks had a modern army, whereas the Christians were still fighting pre-gunpowder wars, in which heavy cavalry, imprisoned in armour, charged off pretentiously after quarreling leaders had windbagged away as to who would lead. (p.27)

‘windbagged away.’ Presumably Stone thinks – or his editors suggested – that he could make the knotty and complex history of medieval and Renaissance Turkey more palatable if he slipped in wrote it in a jokey and irreverent tone.

The Pope staged a great conference in Rome in 1490 and, as in Cold War days, it attracted all manner of bores, adventurers and braggarts – poor Cem [the Ottoman sultan’s exiled brother], some stray Byzantine pretenders, a fake Georgian prince or two, men wanting money to print unreadable tracts, Portuguese waffling at length, Hungarians going on about their woes… (p.43)

Hence the ho-ho tone of much of his commentary (‘Portuguese waffling at length, Hungarians going on about their woes’) – except that it itself is heroically out of date. It reads like the jokey slang of the Just William stories, or Geoffrey Willans’ Down with Skool! books from the 1950s. Looking it up I see that Professor Stone was born in 1941, so is now 78, was around 70 when this book was published. On one level, then, it feels a bit like a repository of naughty schoolboy attitudes from the 1950s.

Turkish trivia

Not only is the tone odd, but Stone is easily distracted by eccentric factoids and historical trivia. For example, it is odd that the prelude to this short book, where space is surely a premium, spends five pages describing the German academic exiles from Nazi Germany who came, settled in Istanbul, and helped set up the world-class university there. All very well and interesting, but not really the first or most important thing which readers ought to know about Turkish history.

Once we get to his swift outline of the Turks’ obscure early history in Central Asia, it is dotted with odd explanations, for example the fact that the Italian word pastrami derives from a Turkish original which he uses to illustrate some key aspects of the Turkish language – the way it includes preposition, tenses and other information by making changes to internal vowels and adding prefixes and suffixes and structural changes (although this brief paragraph is not really very useful).

He is particularly fond of the way medieval crowns and titles have descended by historical accidents to the most unlikely descendants. Thus he tells us that, after the last crusaders had been kicked out of the Holy Land in 1291, some took refuge in highly fortified islands, such as Cyprus, the ruler of which called himself ‘King of Jerusalem’ for generations afterwards, the title eventually passing to… the Courtenay family in Devon!

Similarly, he describes the machinations by which the Sultan Bayezid (1360 – 1403) kept his brother Cem detained by various Christian powers far from the throne, until Cem died – at which point Bayezit had all Cem’s descendants murdered – except for one, who fled to the Knights of St John on Rhodes, converted to Christianity, acquired a title from the Pope and… has a chief descendant in Australia!

The book is packed with trivial pursuit factoids such as:

  • on the Bosnian-Serbian border there were silver mines Srebrenica, the town which saw massacres during the Yugoslav wars, derives from the Slavonic name for ‘silver’
  • in the Middle Ages the Black Sea was the high road for the Russian trade in furs and slaves – the present-day Turkish name for prostitute, orospu, is medieval Persian, and the central part of it denotes ‘Rus’
  • Turkish rulers hit on the idea of recruiting young boys from occupied lands (especially Greece) to the court, converting them to Islam, giving them an education and training. Some formed the nucleus of elite units within the army known, in Turkish, as the yeñi çeri (meaning ‘new soldiers’) who, over time, became known to Westerners as the Janissaries
  • The Topkapi palace in Istanbul is laid out in courtyards with elaborate pavilions known as köşk, the Turkish word for an ornate wooden mansion, smaller than a palace – which is the source of the English word ‘kiosk’

And there are lots more distracting and diverting factoids where they came from.

Contorted style

Another major feature of the book is the odd, garbled prose style. On every page he phrases things, well, oddly.

To what extent was the success of the Ottomans based on Islam, or would you read this the other way round, and say that the Ottomans were successful when their Islam was not taken too seriously? (p.7)

His prose is not incomprehensible, just oddly laid out. Stiff. Ungainly.

There is a line in Proust, to the effect that someone looks on history as would a newly born chicken at the bits of the eggshell from which it had been hatched. (p.8)

You can see what he’s getting at, but can’t help noticing how inelegantly it has been phrased.

By the mid-fifteenth century Byzantium had shrunk to the point that it consisted of just Constantinople and its hinterland. (p.29)

Or:

The Mameluks had made endless trouble for Constantinople and with their fabled riches from trade they provided an obvious target for Selim, who trundled his gunnery and Janissaries to effect against them. (p.49)

I think he means that Selim trundled his guns and Janissaries off to fight the Mameluks, with (or to) great effect i.e. his guns and Janissaries were very effective. Odd phrasing though, isn’t it? And these oddities crop up on every page. After a while I began relishing the book, not only for its ostensible subject, but also for its car-crash prose.

As early as the eighth century, Turkish mercenaries had made their appearance in Persia, in the then capital of which, Baghdad, the Caliphate reigned over all Islam. (p.18)

A personal history of Turkey

Maybe you could turn my critique on its head by simply describing this book as a personal history of Turkey, one in which Professor Stone felt released from the corsets of formal, academic history writing, to air his opinions about everything – from penpushing bureaucracies to partisan school teachers, from the absurdities of the old Eastern Europe through the tastiness of Turkish tea – all served up in an idiosyncratic style which is continually reaching for the droll and the whimsical, rather than the serious or profound.

Madrid and Ankara are both artificial capitals, without economic activity between pen-pushing and boot-bashing. (p.54)

Conclusion

So, if you’re looking for a short history of Turkey written in idiosyncratic English, which certainly covers all the bases but also includes an entertaining selection of odd anecdotes and Turkey trivia – then this is very possibly the book for you!


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The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (2) by Michael Haag (2012)

The Turks were aliens; the crusaders were not.

Haag’s book is opinionated in a very unacademic way. He has certain hobby horses, vehement ideas – about the central role played by the Templars in the crusades, and about justifying the crusades by completely rethinking their context, portraying the crusades not as violent attacks against peace-loving Arabs, but as justified attempts to help oppressed Christians in the Holy Land – which he gives vent to repeatedly and almost obsessively so that, eventually, the detached reader can’t help having misgivings about the objectivity of what they’re reading.

Nonetheless, that big reservation stated right at the start, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book.

The Tragedy of the Templars signals its unorthodox approach by going back not ten or thirty or fifty years before the founding of its ostensible subject, the Order of the Knights Templars (in 1139), but by going back one thousand four hundred years earlier, to the conquests of Alexander the Great – and then giving a sweeping recap of all the wars and vicissitudes which struck the Middle East from 300 BC through to the eruption of the Muslims from Arabia in the 630s AD.

The book has notes on every page and an excellent bibliography at the back, and yet it sometimes reads like the opinions of a crank, determined at any cost to convince you of his deliberately revisionist point of view. This comes over most obviously in the very unacademic use of repetition. Again and again he drums home a handful of key points. These are:

Haag’s key points

– the Crusades were not an unprovoked outburst of Western, racist, colonialist, greed and violence

– they were a rational response to repeated pleas for help from figures like the Patriarch of Jerusalem and the Emperor of Byzantium

Why the pleas? because:

– even as late as the First Crusade (1095-99) the majority population of the Levant, of Jerusalem and all the other holy cities, let alone of Anatolia and even of Egypt – were Christians:

Christians had remained the majority at Damascus until the tenth century and maybe into the eleventh. (p.208)

Five hundred years after the Arab conquest, Egypt was still a substantially Christian country (p.211)

The Nubians were Christians, as were the majority of Egyptians (p.235)

– these Christians had suffered under the lordship of the Muslim Arabs who came rampaging out of Arabia in the 700s and quickly conquered north up the coast of Palestine into Syria, eastwards conquered the old Persian Empire, and westwards conquered Egypt and beyond

– but, despite centuries of inter-marriage, the Arabs remained an aristocracy, thinking of themselves as lords, knights, emirs and rulers over a broad population of subservient serfs – and these serfs remained predominantly Christian

– through the three hundred years from the mid-700s to the mid-1000s these Christian populations suffered from being second-class citizens, forced to wear clothes which identified them as dhimmis and, occasionally, when the oppression got really bad, forced to wear halters round their necks or be branded

– meanwhile they were forbidden to repair existing churches, build any new ones, and had to stand by while existing ones were often desecrated and destroyed in periodic waves of persecution or forcibly converted into mosques

So Haag’s central point, rammed home on scores of occasions, with all the data he can muster, is that it was not the Crusaders who were the foreign invaders – it was the Muslim Arabs. It was the Arabs who had invaded and conquered Christian Egypt, Christian Palestine, Christian Syria and raided into Christian Anatolia.

Bethlehem where Jesus was born, Nazareth Jesus’ home town, the River Jordan where Jesus was baptised, Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified and rose again, Tarsus where the apostle Paul came from, Antioch where the followers of Jesus were first named ‘Christians’, Damascus, on the road to which Paul had his great conversion experience – all these lands had, by about 400, become solidly Christian and were ruled by the Christian Roman Empire.

It was the Arabs who invaded and conquered them and subjected the Christian inhabitants to all kinds of discrimination and persecution. Christians were forbidden to build new churches or repair old ones. Thousands of churches were destroyed or converted into mosques. There were periodic massacres which triggered pleas from Christian leaders in the region to the Emperor in Constantinople for help, with the result that the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim invaders in the East were permanently at war.

And it wasn’t just the Arabs who were the alien invaders…

The Seljuk Turks add to the chaos

What specifically triggered the Crusades was the arrival of a third force on the scene, the Seljuk Turks, who swept out of central Asia, converted to Islam, and conquered Muslim Persia including the capital of the Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055.

From the 1060s the Seljuks besieged and took various cities in Palestine, as well as probing the eastern edges of Anatolia – the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Their ultimate goal was to tackle the Fatimid Dynasty based on Egypt. The Turks had converted to the majority or Sunni brand of Islam. A territorial ambition to seize Egypt – centrepiece of the Muslim lands – was compounded by the fact that the Fatimids were adherents to Shia Islam, which Sunnis regard as a heresy.

The Fatimids, for their part, also wanted control of (at least southern) Palestine, in order to create a buffer against the insurgent Turks. This meant that the two Muslim opponents clashed in various battles, at various times throughout the later 11th century, taking and retaking bits of Palestine from each other.

Meanwhile the Byzantine Empire was reeling from its defeat by the Turks at the momentous Battle of Manzikert in 1071, after which:

the empire lay open before bands of Turkish tribesmen, who looted, murdered and destroyed as they marauded westwards until in 1073 they were standing on the Bosphorus opposite Constantinople. (p.76)

As an anonymous chronicler put it:

Almost the whole world, on land and sea, occupied by the impious barbarians, has been destroyed and has become empty of population, for all Christians have been slain by them and all houses and settlements with their churches have been devastated by them in the whole East, completely crushed and reduced to nothing. (quoted on page 76)

It was not the Crusaders who were invading; it was the Seljuk Turks who, in the years after 1071, invaded, conquered, devastated and took control of a vast central region of Anatolia which had been part of the Roman Empire and solidly Christian for at least 600 years.  When the First Crusade arrived 25 years later it was to recover solidly Christian lands which had been invaded and to liberate its Christian inhabitants.

Anyway, the Byzantine Emperor survived the Turkish siege and soon began launching retaliatory raids into Syria and against Muslim strongholds in Palestine. So that’s Turks and Byzantines warring across the region.

And the Turks had brought with them bands of Turkomens, tribesmen of similar ethnic origin who didn’t, however, submit to Seljuk centralised authority and so raided, kidnapped and murdered across the region at will.

And the area had become infested by nomadic Bedouin, who took advantage of the prevailing chaos to also raid and kidnap and murder. Haag quotes liberally from the accounts of Christian pilgrims from Western Europe who made the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and then found every step of their way to the Christian Holy Places fraught with the necessity to pay bribes to countless Muslim officials, and to pay armed guards to protect them from all manner of marauders and kidnappers.

Muslim destruction of Christian shrines, churches and towns

In 1077 Turkish forces led by Atsiz bin Uwaq laid siege to Jerusalem, destroying the surrounding orchards and vineyards. The city finally capitulated on promise of good treatment but Uwaq reneged on the deal and massacred about 3,000 of the Muslim population. He went on to devastate Palestine, burning harvests, razing plantations, desecrating cemeteries, raping women and men alike, cutting off ears and noses. He destroyed Ramla then went on to Gaza where he murdered the entire population, devastating villages and towns, burning down churches and monasteries.

In other words, the advent of the Seljuk Turks into the Middle East inaugurated a new era of chaos and disorder in the Holy Land

The Muslim East was wracked by misgovernment, division, exploitation, fanaticism an aggression. (p.79)

And this was widely reported by Christian pilgrims who returned to Western Europe (if they survived) telling tales of kidnap, rape and extortion, tales which had a cumulative effect at local, regional and national levels.

Back in 1009 al-Ḥākim bi-Amr Allāh, the sixth Fatimid caliph, embarked on an attempted ‘annihilation’ of Christians in the Levant, and called for the systematic destruction of all Christian holy places which culminated in the destruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

This was the church built over two of the central holy sites in Christian tradition, the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where he is said to have been buried and resurrected.

On Al-Hakim’s orders the church of the Holy Sepulchre was razed to its foundations, its graves were dug up, property was taken, furnishings and treasures seized, and the tomb of Jesus was hacked to pieces with pickaxes and hammers and utterly obliterated. Al-Hakim’s orders led to as many as thirty thousand churches being destroyed across the region or converted into mosques. News of the utter destruction of one of the holiest sites in Christendom shocked and appalled Christians from Constantinople through to Rome and into the Kingdom of the Franks. How much longer were the holiest sites in Christendom to remain at the utter mercy of fanatical opponents?

It was against this setting that Haag lists the repeated pleas for help, from the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, among others, which struck a chord, above all, with the Pope in Rome who, more than anyone else, heard eye-witness reports from pilgrims high and low about the mounting chaos in the region, about the wanton violence inflicted on pilgrims, and the wanton destruction inflicted on the Holy Sites themselves.

Seen from this perspective, the Crusades are not the unprovoked eruption of a bellicose West. The question is not why the Crusaders came, the question is why they took so long to respond to the pleas for help from their persecuted fellow Christians.

The Reconquista

The other really big idea I took from the book was that the Crusades happened in parallel to the Christian reconquest of Spain. I sort of knew this but Haag’s book really binds the two processes together, explaining how the Templars (the nominal subjects of his book) played as big or maybe a bigger role in the liberation of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim control as they did in the Holy Land in the early years, anyway).

He points out how Popes and senior church figures called for the Christian knights of North and West Europe to put aside their differences and fight the Muslims in both places. When you look at a map of the Mediterranean Haag’s use of the phrase ‘war on two fronts’, fighting ‘on two fronts’, really makes sense.

The map below, from Wikipedia, clearly shows a) how the Muslims conquered the East, the West and the Southern coast of what had once been the Roman Christian Mediterranean and how, as a result, all the Mediterranean islands – Sicily, Sardinia, Crete, Cyprus – became battlefields for the centuries-long ‘assault by Islam against a Christian civilisation that had once embraced the whole of the Mediterranean’ (p.93)

If you were a Christian knight it wasn’t just a case of joining a Crusade to the Holy Land (as Haag points out, the term ‘crusade’ wasn’t coined until centuries after the things themselves had ended – contemporaries wrote about ‘taking the cross’). It was a question of where you chose to sign up to the global effort to stop and repel the invading Muslims – in Spain, in Sicily, in Cyprus or in Egypt or the Holy Land.

Map of the main Byzantine-Muslim naval operations and battles in the Mediterranean

Crusades wicked, Reconquista OK?

The big question all this left me asking is – Why is the ‘Crusade’ to liberate the Christian Holy Land from Muslim rule nowadays always criticised and castigated in the harshest possible terms as a racist, violent and greedy example of Western colonialism, whereas… the parallel ‘Crusade’ to liberate the Iberian Peninsula from Muslim rule, which was fought by much the same knights fighting for the same spiritual rewards offered by the same Pope… is totally accepted?

Does anyone suggest we should hand Spain back over to Muslim rule, to its rightful Moorish owners? No. The question is absurd. Does anyone suggest we should apologise to the Muslim inhabitants of Spain who were expelled 500 years ago? No. The notion is absurd.

Is it because the Crusades are perceived as consisting of violent attacks on Muslims living in a land they’d inhabited for hundreds of years? Well, the Reconquista was drenched in blood.

Or does the stark difference in historiographical thinking about the two Crusades mean that morality in history – how we judge the morality of past events – simply boils down to their success? The Christian Crusaders managed to expel the Muslims from Spain by about 1500, it has been a solidly Christian land for the past 500 years and so… it is accepted as the natural state of things…

Whereas the Christian Crusaders who tried to hang onto the Holy Land were always doomed to failure by virtue of the endless waves of new invaders streaming in from Asia (first the Turks, then the Golden Horde of Genghiz Khan’s Mongols) which were always going to outnumber the Christians’ dwindling numbers… and so… their effort is seen as reprehensible and subject to all the insults and abuse modern historians and the politically correct can level at them.

Yet the two Crusades were carried out by the same kind of knights, over the same period, inspired by the same ideology, and offered the same rewards (seizure of land and the remission of sins).

Is one a totally accepted fact which nobody questions, and the other a great Blot on the face of Western Civilisation, simply because one succeeded and the other failed?

The West

Not far behind that thought is the reflection that the West is simply called the West – is the West – because Muslim conquerors conquered the East.

‘The West’ was not some great insurgent triumphant entity – it is all that was left after the rampaging Muslims seized all of North Africa, all of the Middle East and most of Spain, then, in the 1100 began the process of seizing all of what we now call Turkey.

Previously Christendom had encompassed the entire Mediterranean and the lands around it. In this basic, geographical sense, the West is the creation of Islam.

The Knights Templar

So what about the ostensible subject of the book, the Order of the Knights Templar? Well it takes a while to get around to their founding in the 1130s… and then, in the rather unscholarly way which the reader soon gets used to, Haag goes out of his way to praise their involvement – claiming they were decisive or vital in almost every encounter with the Muslims over the next two hundred years – and to exonerate them from all accusations of greed, inaction or treachery brought against them by contemporaries. For example,

– when the contemporary chronicler William of Tyre criticises the Templars for their involvement in the murder of an envoy from the ‘Old Man of the Hills’ (p.251) – Haag dismisses William’s criticism as biased.

– Haag claims that the Crusader states – by the 1100s often administered by the Templars – were far more religiously tolerant than the surrounding Muslim states. When the Templars didn’t support an ill-fated Frankish expedition against the Fatimids in Egypt, Haag makes excuses for them. And so on.

So there’s lots of detail about the Knights Templars (when they were set up, their location in Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, the vows they took, names of the founders and much, much more).

But, again, I was rather dazzled by one Big Idea about the Templars, which is the notion that they were the first multinational corporation. They were established after the First Crusade had established the Crusader states in Palestine, to guard the Holy Places and protect pilgrims. Quite quickly they began offering banking services i.e. they set up branches in London, Paris, Rome, on the Mediterranean islands – because if you were going on pilgrimage to the Holy Land it was wise not to carry a big sack of gold which all manner of Muslim pirates, kidnappers and bandits might steal from you. Better to deposit the gold in London or Paris or Rome, and receive a chit or docket proving the fact, while the Templars recorded the fact on their increasingly sophisticated ledgers.

Within a hundred years they were on the way to becoming official bankers to the King of France. They made huge loans to the King of England and helped finance the Reconquista. By their constitution they answered only to the Pope in Rome. The point is that – not being allied with this or that European prince or king – they were strikingly independent. No-one had any interest in ‘conquering’ them, there was nothing to conquer except a set of international financial services.

Land and tithes in the West, gold and banking facilities across Europe, and by the time of the Battle of Hattin it is estimated the Templars, along with the Hospitallers (the other great order of knights) held maybe a third of the land of Outremer, the kingdom beyond the sea (i.e. the Christian kingdoms in the Holy Land established after the success of the First Crusade).

I found these ideas about the economic roots of their power and wealth more interesting than the blizzard of detail Haag also gives about the Templars’ involvement in various battles and strategic decisions. He follows the story right through to the events leading up to the suppression of the Knights Templar by King Philip IV of France who persuaded the Pope to suppress the order on trumped up charges of blasphemy, heresy and homosexuality, when his real motivation was simply to write off the enormous debts he’d incurred with the order to fund his prolonged war with England.

Saladin

As part of his program to debunk every myth about the Crusades, Haag really has it in for An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub, commonly known as Saladin (1137-1193) who defeated the Crusaders at the Battle of Hattin in 1187, then seized Jerusalem later the same year, events which triggered the third Crusade (1189-92) in which Saladin was confronted by Richard I of England, both becoming heroes of legend for centuries to follow.

Haag places Saladin carefully in the succession of Turkish leaders who wanted to overthrow the Fatimid Dynasty in Egypt and establish their own kingdom. Haag goes out of his way to point out that:

– Saladin was not an Arab, he was a Turk; in fact he wasn’t strictly a Turk, but a ‘Turkified’ Kurd (p.233), having been born in Tikrit of Kurdish family, his father rising within the ranks of the Turkish army to become a city governor

– Saladin spent far more time waging jihad against his fellow Muslims than against the crusaders

[between 1171 and 1186] Saladin had spent no more than thirteen months fighting against the Franks; instead he directed his jihad almost entirely against his fellow Muslims, heterodox in many cases but most of them far from being heretics (p.262)

– this is one of the points Haag really dins home with endless repetition seeking to emphasise that Saladin was not a Muslim hero defending Muslim Palestine from marauding Crusaders – he was a Kurd fighting under the banner of the Seljuk Turks, against his fellow Muslims in Egypt and Syria, in order to establish a dynasty of his own

As the Cambridge History of Islam explains, Saladin’s army was ‘as alien as the Turkish, Berber, Sudanese and other forces of his predecessors. Himself a Kurd, he established a regime and an army of the Turkish type, along the lines laid down by the Seljuks and atabegs in the East.’ In capturing Egypt, and in all his wars against the Muslims of Syria and the Franks of Outremer, Saladin was not a liberator; like the Seljuks and like Zengi and Nur al-Din, he was an alien leading an alien army of conquest and occupation. (p.234, emphasis added)

– Saladin wrote letters and issued edicts claiming he was fighting a jihad against heresy and the infidel – in both cases Haag claims, he was hypocritically assuming a religious mantle to conceal what were basically the same lust-for-power motivations as all the other petty emirs and viziers competing in the region, a record of ‘unscrupulous schemes and campaigns aimed at personal, and family aggrandisement’ (Lyons and Jackson’s biography of Saladin, quoted on page 262)

– Haag goes out of his way to contrast Saladin’s fierce campaigns against what he regarded as Muslim heretics (especially Ismaili Islam, which he explains as a form of dualism), with the religious freedom operating in the Crusader states of Outremer, even quoting a contemporary Muslim chronicler, Ibn Jubayr, who admits that many Muslims preferred to live under the rule of the Franks who didn’t care what style of Islam they practiced, where they were treated fairly in the law courts, and taxed lightly (p.243).

– far from being the chivalrous knight of legend, Saladin routinely beheaded captured prisoners of war, as well as massacring the populations of captured towns, or selling all the women and children into slavery, for example:

  • after taking the Templar stronghold of King’s Ford in 1179 Saladin took 700 prisoners, who he then had executed
  • all the Templars and Hospitallers who survived the Battle of Hattin (4 July 1187) were, according to an eye witness account, lined up and hacked to pieces with swords and knives (p.274)
  • when Jaffa refused to yield to Saladin, it was eventually taken by storm and the entire population either massacred or sent off to the slave market at Aleppo
  • after taking Jerusalem, Saladin was reluctantly persuaded to allow the inhabitants to go free if they could pay a ransom; about 15,000 of the population was sold into slavery; all the churches had their spires knocked down and were converted into stables

As with Haag’s treatment of the entire period, his treatment of Saladin is detailed, compelling and, you eventually feel, strongly biased. I dare say the facts are correct, but Haag continually spins them with the very obvious purpose of undermining the legend of Saladin the chivalric defender of Muslims.

But to the casual reader, what really comes over is the immense violence and cruelty of everyone, of all sides, during the period. Muslims massacred Muslims. Muslims massacred Christians. Christians massacred Muslims. When Richard the Lionheart took Acre after a siege, he executed 3,000 Muslim prisoners, including women and children. All sides carried out what we would consider war crimes, because all sides were convinced God was on their side.

And all sides took part in the slave trade. Populations of captured towns were liable to be sent off to the great slave trade centres such as Ayas on the coast. I was genuinely surprised to learn that both the Templars and the Hospitallers took part in the slave trade, shipping captives taken in Palestine to work for the houses, especially in southern Italy and Christian Spain (p.229).

In the last decades of Outremer, as town after town fell to the Turks, the men would usually be slaughtered but their women and children would be taken to the slave markets of Aleppo or Damascus. Many thousands of Frankish women, girls and boys must have suffered this fate, as well as great numbers of native Christians.

Otherwise the great centre of the slave trade in the late thirteenth century was the Mediterranean port of Ayas, in the Armenian kingdom of Cilicia. Marco Polo disembarked at Ayas in 1271 to begin his trip to China at about the same time that the Templars opened a wharf there. the slaves, who were Turkish, Greek, Russia and Circassian, had been acquired as a result of intertribal warfare, or because impoverished parents decided to sell their children, or because they were kidnapped, and they were brought to Ayas by Turkish and Mongol slavers. (p.230)

Slavery is mentioned a lot throughout the book. I would really like to read a good account of slavery in the Middle Ages.

Steven Runciman’s negative interpretation of the crusades

Haag in several places criticises Sir Steven Runciman, author of what, for the second half of the twentieth century, was the definitive three-volume history of the crusades, published from 1951 to 1954.

Haag’s criticism is that Runciman was a passionate devotee of Byzantine culture and the Greek Orthodox church – for example, the Protaton Tower at Karyes on Mount Athos was refurbished largely thanks to a donation from Runciman.

And so Runciman considered the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusaders one of the greatest crimes in human history. His entire account is heavily biased against the crusaders who he portrays as ‘intolerant barbarians’ and, in the famous conclusion to his history, calls the entire enterprise a long act of intolerance and a sin against the Holy Ghost.

This is important because:

It is no exaggeration to say that Runciman single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades. (Thomas F. Madden, 2005)

And his three-volume history, still published by Penguin, created the impression which

across the Anglophone world continues as a base reference for popular attitudes, evident in print, film, television and on the internet. (Christopher Tyerman, Fellow and Tutor in History at Hertford College, Oxford)

Looking it up, I can see that Haag’s criticism of Runciman – that he was consistently and obviously biased against the crusaders, and that his negative interpretation has been massive and widespread and continues to this day – is now widely shared.

Reflections

The big picture lesson for me is not that this, that or the other side was ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ (and Haag’s interpretation has successfully undermined my simple, liberal, politically correct view that the Crusades were xenophobic, colonial massacres by showing how extremely complicated and fraught the geopolitical and military situations was, with a complex meshing of different forces each fighting each other).

The more obvious conclusion is that all sides in these multi-levelled conflicts shared values and beliefs and codes of conduct and moral codes and ethics which are wildly different from ours today – almost incomprehensibly different – drenched with a religious fanaticism few of us can imagine and prepared to carry out atrocities and cruelties it is often hard to believe.

It is in this light that the shambolic fourth (1204), fifth (1217-21) and sixth crusades (1228-9) must be seen – less as the violent intrusions of a homogenous Superpower into the peace-loving affairs of poor innocent Muslims – more as forms of time-honoured attack, war and conquest (and ignominious defeat) which had been practiced by all mankind, over the face of the whole world, since records began.

The 4th, 5th and 6th crusades may well have been blessed by the Pope (who also didn’t hesitate to excommunicate them and their leaders when they wandered off-target) but in practice followed the entirely worldly, calculating, selfish, power-hungry agendas of the various European princes and kings who led them.

Already, during the third crusade, the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa had openly plotted with the Serbs, Bulgarians, Byzantine traitors, and even the Muslim Seljuks against the Eastern Empire and at one point sought Papal support for a crusade against the Orthodox Byzantines. Feeling between Latin West and Greek East was becoming ever more polarised.

It is this which helps explain why the so-called fourth crusade ended in the shameful sack of Constantinople in 1203-4. The Venetians were promised a huge sum if they built ships to carry 35,000 warriors to the Holy Land. They stopped all commercial activity to build the fleet. When the knights arrived they were more like 12,000 and the Venetians were told they would only be paid a third of the promised sum. After fractious negotiations, the Venetians came up with a compromise solution – the existing Crusader force would seize the port of Zara in Dalmatia. Zara had been dominated economically by Venice throughout the 12th century but had rebelled in 1181 and allied itself with King Emeric of Hungary and Croatia. It was a Christian city, but the ‘crusade’ proceeded nonetheless, and Zara fell to the combined Venetian-Crusader forces, after which it was thoroughly pillaged. Then, after further complicated negotiations, the crusaders were prevailed upon to attack Constantinople, capital of the Greek Byzantine Empire, by the Venetians, led by their blind Doge Dandolo. The Venetians had long been commercial rivals of the Greeks, and it was said Dandolo had himself been blinded by Byzantine forces in a much earlier conflict between them. There were many more complications – for example the crusaders were told they were fighting to liberate the deposed Byzantine emperor but, during the resultant siege, this emperor was hastily restored by the population of Constantinople, which robbed the attack of its prime goal. Didn’t stop the ‘crusaders’ from finally storming the walls and sacking the Greek capital.

The point is not that this was appalling. The point is that it quite patently has nothing whatsoever to do with the Holy Land or Muslims or liberating the Holy Places and all the rest of crusader rhetoric. It was quite clearly commercial and political warfare of the kind going on all across the world at the time, in a world awash with armies and fighting princes, kings, khans, emperors, sultans and so on, not to mention Chinese emperors and Mayan and Aztec kings.

Same goes for the long-delayed and wandering expedition of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, which he grandly titled the Fifth Crusade, and which led up to him being crowned king of Jerusalem on 29 March 1229 but which was obviously more to do with his personal ambition than any ’cause’, let alone representing anything called ‘the West’. Frederick was excommunicated by the pope three times for pursuing his utterly selfish aims. He only stayed two days in Jerusalem. By this stage the once famous city was a dump, filled with ruins and churches turned into stables. As soon as decent, Frederick took ship back to Europe and got on with the serious job of building up his empire.

The fall of the Templars

And the point – that beneath a thin veneer of religious rhetoric, all these events were just dynasty-making, invading, conquering, and commercial conflicts of a familiar and entirely secular kind – is reinforced by the last few pages of Haag’s book, which chronicle the downfall of the Templars. King Philip IV was hugely in debt to the Templars. He decided to take advantage of the fact that the last Christian enclave in the Holy Land, Acre, had fallen in 1291, and the last little offshore island, Arwan, had fallen to Muslim forces in 1303, to turn on the Templars with a whole string of trumped-up charges of heresy, sodomy and so on which, despite the efforts of the pope to support an order which was nominally under his control, succeeded. The order was convicted of heresy, its leaders were burned at the stake and – the point of the exercise – King Philip’s huge debts were cancelled.

None of this is very edifying. But it is all very, very human.

Maps

There are only three maps in the book but they are excellent, clear and easy to read and they include all the place names mentioned in the text. I can’t find the name of the map designer but he or she is to be congratulated.


Related links

Reviews of other books and exhibitions about the Middle Ages

Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich (1991)

By the tenth century to be a eunuch was, for a promising youth about to enter the imperial service, a virtual guarantee of advancement; many an ambitious parent would have a younger son castrated as a matter of course. (p.130)

This is a timeline of Byzantine emperors between 802 and 1081, based on John Julius Norwich’s book, Byzantium: The Apogee (1991).

This book is volume two in his three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, and the first thing you notice is that although the book is a similar length to the first one (389 pages to volume one’s 408), it covers only half the number of years (478 years in volume one, 281 in this volume). The reason is that there are more sources for this later period, and the sources are more complete, and so our histories can be more detailed. Indeed,

thanks to such writers as Liudprand of cremona, St Theophanes and his continuators, George Cedrenus, John Scylitzes and above all the odious but ever-fascinating Michael Psellus, we can enjoy an incomparably nore colourful picture of life in the Imperial Palace of Byzantium in the early middle ages thatn we can of any other court in Europe. (p.xxii)

Permanently embattled

By the time this book starts the Byzantine Empire feels permanently embattled. Muslim armies were constantly attacking in what we now call Syria and Palestine, in Anatolia, but also in faraway Sicily, even invading the Italian Peninsula. The Muslims had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and a new breed of Arab pirates or ‘corsairs’ was attacking Byzantine shipping, and raided the islands of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

As if this wasn’t enough, there was the barbarian threat from the north. The book opens with Constantinople besieged by the mighty armies of Khan Krum of the Bulgars, later replaced by Symeon I. And the Bulgars themselves were later superseded by the ‘Rus’, in the shape of the Khan of Kiev and his armies.

Time and again Constantinople is only saved by the impenetrability of its defensive walls. The Byzantine response to these threats was either a) to buy the attackers off with vast tributes of gold and treasure or b) occasionally to lead counter-attacking armies, and the emperors who are best remembered tend to be the ones who were successful in defeating these foes in battle.

Constant war

All this means that Norwich’s book is overwhelmingly, consistently, about war – describing campaigns, battles and – more dispiritingly – the endless cycle of sieges and sackings of cities, the massacring of inhabitants or their selling off into slavery, the ravaging of countryside, the murder and killing and raping and looting of civilians.

Every year, as spring rolled around, the campaigning season resumed and off the armies went to pillage and kill, the armies of the Bulgars or Muslims or Rus or Greeks. It does, eventually, become a quite depressing chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man. Since Norwich hardly mentions Byzantine art or architecture, what you’re left with is a gloomy cavalcade of men’s infinite capacity for murder and destruction.

Palace intrigues

And that’s before you get to the palace politics, for the book also highlights the endless scheming among the emperor’s immediate family and the higher echelons of the civil service and army. There is a whole succession of generals or top administrators who mount coups and seize ultimate power. Successful or failed, the coups are always accompanied, not just by predictable bloodshed, but by especially cruel punishments, namely the blinding and castration of the loser, and often of all his sons (to prevent them presenting a long-term threat the the winner).

The divisive impact of religion

And then there is the perpetual problem of religion. This comes in two forms:

  1. the Patriarch and ‘home’ church of the Greeks might oppose the wishes or behaviour of the emperor, raise crowds and mobs against him, excommunicate him and so on – which led to the forcible deposition and sometimes imprisonment of unruly religious leaders
  2. the Pope in faraway Rome could be just as much of a problem, acting with what the Byzantine emperors considered was unacceptable independence, and forever poking their noses into Byzantine court business, for example supporting or even harbouring a deposed Patriarch, sending ambassadors to the emperor insisting the latter obey this, that or the other stricture of the church

Iconoclasm

And that’s before you even consider the complexifying impact of the great divide about Iconoclasm – the belief that images of any sort should be banned from religion, a policy issued by an emperor which led to the gleeful destruction of untold amounts of painted icons, statues, mosaics and other art works in the following hundred years or so. But for Norwich, interested primarily in the political impact of everything, what matters is that Iconoclasm split the ruling class, with some emperors, empresses, their senior administrators and the aristocracy, and even generals and the army holding directly contrary views – some in favour of the strictest interpretation of Iconoclasm and the destruction of religious images wherever they were found – others directly opposed to this policy, and reversing it whenever they had the chance.

If you combine all these elements – repeated coups and civil wars, permanent cultural civil war over Iconoclasm, and annual invasions and attacks by at least three distinct groups of enemies (Bulgars, Rus, Muslims) – it makes for Game of Thrones levels of political intrigue, poisonings, blindings and assassinations, all set against the permanent backdrop of vicious and immensely destructive wars.

The cover illustration is of a fabulous golden icon, and my impression of Byzantine and Greek Orthodox culture had been of austere magnificence: but this book undermines that and is hard to read, not only because the details are often confusing, but because the overall impression is of unrelenting low-minded conspiracy, killing and destruction, covering entire centuries.


Emperors of Byzantium 802 – 1081

The Empress Irene

Iconoclasm (the banning of religious images and icons) had been instituted by Leo III the Isaurian in 726. 80 years later it still divided the empire. The empress Irene had dominated her weak husband, Leo IV (775-780) and their son, Constantine VI (780-797) who came to the throne aged just nine and who, when he became a threat to her power, Irene had arrested and blinded, resulting in his death soon afterwards.

So then the wicked Empress Irene reigned by herself for five years, alienating most sections of the empire – by being a woman, by being an icon-supporter, and for the foul murder of her own son.

In 800 Pope Leo II crowned King Charles of the Franks as Holy Roman Emperor in St Peter’s Rome. This astonished the Byzantines who considered it an appalling assault on their power and prerogatives, but to both Pope and new Emperor, Irene, as a woman, simply did not count and so, for them, the throne of Roman emperor was vacant.

To seal the deal Charlemagne, in 802, sent Irene a proposal of marriage. This in fact struck her as a decent exit strategy to escape the gathering number of enemies to her rule. But her leading ministers rebelled. Led by the Logosthete of the Treasury (the minister of finance), they mounted a coup, and exiled Irene.

Nicephorian dynasty (802–813)

Nicephorus I Logothetes (802 – 811)

The leader of the coup against Irene took the name Nicephorus. Irene had cancelled loads of taxes in a bid to be popular with the people and thus brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. The fact that Nicephorus had been finance minister meant he understood how important it was to revitalise the tax base, rebuild the city’s walls, and build up the army. In 803 an Armenian general in the Byzantine army, Bardanes Turcus, rebelled but his revolt was crushed, Bardanes being sent to a monastery where he was, in the traditional style, blinded to prevent him being any more of a threat.

Irene had tried to buy off both the Khan of the Bulgars (in the north) and the Muslim Caliph Harun al-Raschid (in the East) with gold tribute. Nicephorus immediately cancelled both these tributes, sparking war with both (although Raschid died in 809).

He led initially successful campaigns against the Bulgars but was killed at the Battle of Pliska against the mighty leader of the Bulgars, Khan Krum. Initially, Nicephorus had successfully led raids into Bulgar territory and destroyed their capital city, but he and his army were eventually caught in a narrow defile and annihilated. Krum had Nicephorus’s skull encased in silver and used it as a cup for wine-drinking.

Staurakios (July – October 811)

The only son of Nicephoros I, Staurakios automatically succeeded on his father’s death but had been present at the Battle of Pliska and was himself severely wounded, left paralyzed and in constant pain. He was forced to resign within a year, and retired to a monastery where he died soon after.

Michael I Rangabe (811 – 813)

Son-in-law of Nicephorus I, Michael succeeded Staurakios on the latter’s abdication. A spendthrift in everything except defence, he wasted money on high living while Khan Krum devastated various Byzantine towns.

In late 812 Krum offered battle some miles from the capital and in June Michael marched out at the head of an army but, as battle began, the Anatolian wing of the Byzantine army, led by Leo the Armenian, deserted their posts. As a result the Byzantine army was decimated, Michael made it back to Constantinople where he abdicated (retiring to a monastery where he lived quietly for another thirty years), all four of his sons were castrated and his wife and daughters sent to a monastery – while Leo the Armenian returned to the capital and seized the throne.

Non-dynastic

Leo V ‘the Armenian’ (813 – 820)

Born about 775, Leo joined the army and rose to become a general in which capacity he betrayed the army in a confrontation with Khan Krum of the Bulgars, leading to the abdication of Michael I.

Leo still had to deal with Krum and arranged a meeting with the Bulgar at which he treacherously set assassins to kill him. They failed and Krum made off, infuriated, destroyed all the buildings without Constantinople’s city walls – palaces and churches – then systematically destroyed every Byzantine town he could seize, murdering all the men and taking the women and children into slavery. Adrianople was burned to the ground and the entire population sent into slavery beyond the Danube.

Leo, for his part, mounted some sneaky raids into Bulgar territory where, the chroniclers report, his armies had instructions to kill all the children (dashing their heads against rocks and walls, is the precise description). It was a war of extermination on both sides.

Then, just as Krum was supervising the siege engines rumbling up to the walls of Constantinople for a final siege, he dropped dead of apoplexy. To everyone’s surprise, peace had come.

Leo devoted the remainder of his rule to reviving Iconoclasm. The previous three ill-fated emperors had been icon-supporters and their reigns had coincided with financial and military disasters. Leo hoped to revive support for his rule by falling in line with the majority of the upper class, the army and many of the Eastern refugees (who now thronged the city, having fled the armies of the Arabs) who were all deep-rooted iconoclasts. (Iconoclasm feeling became stronger the further east you went.) In 815 Leo promulgated an edict against images which led to an orgy of destruction across the empire. So much beauty and art, silken vestments, gold icons, priceless statues – destroyed forever.

Something – the chronicles are unclear – led to a rift with his one-time good friend Michael from Armoria, who began speaking openly against the emperor and who Leo had imprisoned and ordered to be thrown into a burning furnace. Before this order could be carried out, Michael was freed by accomplices who went with him to the imperial chapel on Christmas Day 820, where they struck down Leo, first cutting off his sword arm, then his head. Leo’s corpse was paraded in ignominy around the Hippodrome. Leo’s four sons were castrated (one died during the procedure) and sent, along with his wife and daughters, into exile.

Amorian dynasty (820–867)

Michael II ‘the Amorian’ (820 – 829)

Michael was an illiterate boor who made his son co-emperor in a bid to establish a settled dynasty. Almost immediately he faced a rebellion which evolved into a civil war, led by Thomas the Slav, a Byzantine general, who besieged Constantinople. However Thomas’s army was unexpectedly attacked from the north by the Bulgars and massacred. The survivors retreated to a walled town, and Michael now felt confident enough to lead a Byzantine army to besiege them. Michael quickly persuaded the rebels to surrender with a promise of mercy, and to give up Thomas – who promptly had his hands and feet chopped off and his body impaled on a stake.

During Michael’s reign the empire lost Crete to Arab pirates, who ravaged all the towns and converted the entire population into slavery. Another band of Arab adventurers began the Muslim conquest of Sicily. Both islands became the home for Arab corsairs who preyed on shipping all over the eastern Mediterranean, despite Michael sending numerous fleets to try and stop them.

Michael died peacefully in his bed, the first emperor in a sequence of six to do so.

Theophilus (829 – 842)

Born in 813, Theophilus was the only son of Michael II, the illiterate Armorian. Co-emperor since 821, he succeeded on his father’s death aged 25 and was, according to Norwich, ‘magnificently qualified to take on the responsibilities of emperor’.

Theophilus had to deal with the aggressive campaigns from the Muslim East of Caliph Mutasim, who besieged and sacked Armoria, the second city in the empire: when some of the inhabitants took refuge in the town church, Mutasim burned them alive in it, the rest of the population was put in chains and taken back across the desert towards Syria but, when water ran short on this long trek, almost all of them were executed. Only 42 made it alive to Muslim territory. Years later the 42 were offered a final choice between converting to Islam or martyrdom. All 42 chose death and were beheaded on the banks of the River Tigris, thus entering the canon of saints of the Byzantine church. Burning, murdering, death.

Theophilus continued the iconoclastic policies of his father, but rather half-heartedly (with some notably brutal exceptions: he had two Christian writers who refused to renounce icons, tattooed across their faces with a long iconoclastic poem, and he had the greatest icon painter of the time, Lazarus, scourged and branded on the palms of his hands with red hot nails). Nonetheless, in Norwich’s opinion, when Theophilus died, aged just 29, from dysentery, ‘the age of iconoclasm died with him’ (p.52).

Interestingly, in response to the Muslim seizure of Crete and Sicily, Theophilus appealed to the son of Charlemagne, Lewis the Pious, to join forces and drive the Muslims from the Mediterranean. Interesting because, as Norwich points out, if Lewis had done so, the age of the crusades (i.e. armed Western Christian knights interfering in the Muslim Mediterranean world) would have come two and a half centuries early and, if it had become a sustained campaign uniting the Western and Eastern Christians, might have seized back more of the Mediterranean littoral.

Michael III ‘the Drunkard’ (842 – 867)

Born in 840, Michael succeeded on Theophilus was succeeded by his son Michael, born in 840 and so just two years old, with the result that the empire was ruled by his mother, Theodora, until 856. She called a Church Council in 845 which anathematised Iconoclasm, not without the usual fierce ecclesiastical in-fighting. (The fierceness of language and actual bodily violence involved in these Church disputes has to be read to be believed. Senior Christian opponents to imperial policy were often arrested, tortured, scourged and whipped, branded, blinded and exiled.)

The Logothete and eunuch Theoctistus manoeuvred his way to becoming co-ruler with Theodora. (Logothete: An administrative title originating in the eastern Roman Empire. In the middle and late Byzantine Empire, it became a senior administrative title, equivalent to minister or secretary of state.)

Theoctistus led a fleet which managed to recapture Crete, and another Byzantine fleet attacked and ravaged the Muslim naval base at Damietta. In other words, this period saw the start of a significant fightback against Muslim domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Theoctistus and the Empress adopted the ruinous policy the pair adopted of the systematic persecution of the heretics known as Paulicians. The Paulicians were Christians of a sort, but rejected large parts of the Old and New Testament and many of the practices of the Church. They were based in Armenia, a mountainous region far to the east of Anatolia. They were ordered to renounce their beliefs but refused, and so a vast military army set out to the East and, if the chroniclers are to be believed, massacred up to 100,000 of the Paulician community – by hanging, drowning, putting to the sword and even crucifixion. Not only was this a foul atrocity in itself, but strategically short-sighted in that it drove the entire community into alliance with the Muslim regime based in Baghdad.

Map showing the spread of the Muslim empire and how surrounded and embattled the Byzantine Empire became (and how foolish it was to drive the Armenians into alliance with the Muslims)

The Empress Theodora’s brother (Michael’s uncle) Bardas, overthrew Theoctistus, confronting him in the palace with a group of soldiers and the young emperor himself, who ran him through with a sword. That was in 855.

Bardas was raised to Caesar in 862. Norwich considers Bardas’s ten year-rule (855-865) one of unparalleled success, notable for his military victories over the Bulgars to the north and the negotiation of their conversion to Christianity, for the growing confidence and distinctness of the Eastern Church, and for Bardas’s personal sponsorship of learning – setting up schools and a university – and the arts.

In the last years of Bardas’s rule the monks and scholars, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, were invited by the Khan of the Bulgars to help convert his Slavic people to Christianity. (Formerly it was believed that Cyril, forced to invent new letters to convey Slavic speech sounds, invented the Cyrillic script which is named after him. Nowadays it is thought he and Methodius invented the Glagolitic script, and that Cyrillic was developed later by their students and followers.)

This story didn’t end well, though, because the Khan of the Bulgars wrote a long letter to the emperor complaining about the endless squabbles among the Byzantine Christian missionaries, and asking for clarification on various points of theology. The emperor Michael made the mistake of arrogantly dismissing it, with the result that the Khan turned to the Pope, who gave him a clear, thorough and polite response. The result was the Khan of the Bulgars gave his allegiance to the Pope in Rome and expelled all the Byzantine missionaries.

Meanwhile, Emperor Michael declined into alcoholism. In his last years he took a favourite, Basil, a strong, illiterate peasant from Armenia, talented with horses, and raised him to the level of Court Chamberlain. All kind of speculation floats around him, including the possibility that he was Michael’s gay lover. Michael ordered Basil to marry a young woman who was almost certainly Michael’s mistress, in order to give his mistress free access to the palace (and Michael), without scandalising the clergy. It is possible, then, that when Basil’s wife bore him children, they were in fact the children of the emperor…

Whatever the details, Basil tightened his grip on Michael’s affections, becoming a serious rival to Michael’s uncle, Bardas. On 21 April 866, on the eve of a naval expedition which he was meant to be leading to liberate Crete from the Muslims, Bardas was sitting next to Michael in the imperial pavilion, when Bardas stepped forward and assassinated him. The emperor was obviously in on the coup because he issued a statement declaring Bardas a traitor and exonerating Basil.

Macedonian dynasty (867–1056)

Basil I ‘the Macedonian’ (867 – 886)

Having assassinated Michael’s uncle, Bardas, in 866, 18 months later, on 24 September 867, Basil and seven followers killed the emperor Michael as he lay in a drunken stupor in his bedchamber. Basil had himself proclaimed basileus.

Basil led successful wars in the East against the Arabs and the Paulicians, and seized back the entire Dalmatian coast, Bari, and all southern Italy for the Empire. He initiated a major review and digest of the laws (on the model of Justinian’s code) and also commissioned the building of new churches and palaces. He had four sons but one, young Constantine, was the apple of his eye. When Constantine died suddenly in 879, Basil went into a decline, becoming surly, reclusive and unbalanced. A later legend says he was killed by a stag while out hunting. We’ll never know for sure.

Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886 – 912)

Instead of Basil’s favourite son, Constantine, it was his next eldest son, Leo, who succeeded, aged twenty. Already he has acquired the nickname ‘the wise’ for his scholarship, grace and deportment. But Leo VI’s reign saw an increase in Muslim naval raids, culminating in the Sack of Thessalonica, and was marked by unsuccessful wars against the Bulgarians under Symeon I.

Leo sparked a far-ranging religious dispute because he married a succession of wives, who all managed to die of illness or in childbirth. He kept at it because he was desperate for a male heir but when he married for the fourth time, to Zoe ‘Carbonopsina’ (of the black eyes), the church was outraged.

Orthodox theology disapproved of even one remarriage, only reluctantly admitted two – so long as the partners spent a good deal of time repenting and praying – but to remarry for a third time was completely forbidden and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nicholas, was not slow to criticise and anathematise the emperor. So Leo had Nicholas exiled and appointed a new Patriarch who carried out his wishes. But Nicholas’s dismissal and the scandal of the four marriages split the church into fiercely opposing factions.

Alexander (912 – 913)

Leo had sidelined his brother, Alexander, during his reign. When Leo finally died his brother inherited and promptly set about undoing much of his brother’s work, starting by banishing Leo’s wife, Zoe, and ignoring Leo’s careful diplomacy with the ever-threatening Bulgars. He restored the troublesome patriarch, Nicholas, who Leo had dismissed and who returned from exile furious and determined to take his revenge on everyone in the hierarchy who had condoned Leo’s marriage.

Alexander was an alcoholic and died of exhaustion after a polo game, leaving the throne to Leo’s young son, Constantine, born in 905 and so aged just seven.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913 – 959)

At Alexander’s death there is a scrabble for power. When Zoe learned that Alexander lay dying she rushed back to the palace to protect her and Leo’s son, Constantine. On his deathbed Alexander confirmed Constantine as heir, but appointed a Regency Council led by Nicholas. And the first thing Nicholas did was order the empress to have her hair shorn and be sent to a nunnery, where she was renamed Sister Anna.

Within days the leader of the army, Constantine Ducas, mounted a coup against the regency Council, but as he snuck into the city, he and his conspirators (including his eldest son, Gregory) were caught and killed. Almost certainly Nicholas was in league with Ducas but, after the coup failed, it gave Nicholas the pretext he needed to launch a drastic reign of terror.

Whole companies were massacred, their bodies impaled along the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus; others were flogged or blinded…. Ducas’s widow was exiled… his younger son… was castrated. (p.127)

Leo VI had wisely paid a tribute or bribe to Symeon the Great, Khan of the Bulgars, to stop him ravaging Thrace (the area to the north of Constantinople).

Constantine rashly stopped the payment with the result that Symeon led a Bulgar army right up to the walls of Constantinople. At this point the Patriarch Nicholas went out to see Symeon and did some kind of deal, so that the Bulgars went away.

But 1. Nicholas’s brutal treatment of the empress and 2. his brutal treatment of the army and 3. the rumour that he had sold out to the Bulgars, led to the collapse of the Regency Council. This triggered the swift return of ‘Sister Anna’, who reclaimed the role of Augusta and Regent and her true name of Zoe.

The next thing that happened was a coup organised by the admiral Romanus Lecapenos. He overthrew the empress (and sent her back to the convent again, hair shorn, Sister Anna once more) and quickly wedded his daughter to Constantine, thus becoming the young emperor’s father-in-law. Romanus worked to make himself invaluable and to seize all the levers of state. Eventually he got himself crowned senior emperor in 920.

Constantine was sidelined during the Lecapenos regime, but asserted his control by deposing Romanus’s sons in early 945. Byzantine forces helped an Armenian king against the Muslims in the East and destroyed an advancing Muslim army in south Italy, restoring a lot of the empire’s prestige. The Byzantines then caught an attacking army of Bulgars under Symeon I unprepared, forcing it to retire back over the Danube.

Constantine’s long reign also saw a flourishing of the arts known as the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’, with the emperor sponsoring encyclopaedic works and histories. He was a prolific writer himself, best remembered for the manuals on statecraft (De administrando imperio) and ceremonies (De ceremoniis) which he compiled for his son, Romanus II.

Romanus I Lecapenos (920 – 944)

This is the admiral, mentioned above, who seized power in 920 and ruled as the emperor Constantine’s ‘father-in-law’. After becoming the emperor’s father-in-law, he successively assumed higher offices until he crowned himself senior emperor. Like a previous Armenian emperor, Basil I, Romanus was keen to create a family dynasty.

His reign was marked by the end of warfare with Bulgaria and the great conquests of John Kourkouas in the East. Romanus promoted his sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine as co-emperors over Constantine VII. Eventually Constantine VII threw off his rule and sent him to an island as a monk. He died there on 15 June 948.

Romanus II ‘the Purple-born ‘ (959 – 963)

The only surviving son of Constantine VII, Romanus was born on 15 March 938 and succeeded his father on the latter’s death in 959. He ruled for four years, although the government was led mostly by the eunuch Joseph Bringas. His reign was marked by successful warfare in the East against Sayf al-Dawla and the recovery of Crete by general Nicephorus Phocas.

Nicephorus Phocas (963 – 969)

The most successful general of his generation who restored Byzantine fortunes in the West and East, Nicephorus II was born around 912 to the powerful Phocas clan. The Phocas family were one of the leading powers in the state, having already produced several generals, including Nicephorus’ father Bardas Phocas, his brother Leo Phocas, and grandfather Nicephorus Phocas the Elder.

On the ascension of Emperor Romanus II in 959, Nicephoros and his younger brother Leo Phocas had been placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies respectively. In 960, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops in a campaign against the Muslim Emirate of Crete. They besieged the capital, Chandax, till it fell in 961, and took back the island after 130 years of Muslim occupation. Meanwhile, another Byzantine force recovered Cyprus in 965.

Nicephorus was recalled to Constantinople by Constantine and sent to the East, where he defeated the governor of Tarsus, ibn al-Zayyat in open battle, before taking the major Muslim city of Aleppo. From 964 to 965, he led an army of 40,000 men which liberated Cilicia and raided in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. Then Nicephorus led Byzantine forces which besieged and took Tarsus. In 968, Nicephorus conducted a raid through Syria into Palestine which reached the city of Tripoli, raiding and sacking most of the fortresses along his path and which finally managed to take the city of Antioch. It was a high summer for the empire.

However, to finance these wars Nicephorus had increased taxes both on the people and on the church at a time of poor harvests and general dearth, while maintaining unpopular theological positions and alienating many of his most powerful allies. This combination of policies led to a series of riots in Constantinople. These involved his nephew, John Tzimiskes, who, despite having played a key role in many of his military victories, Nicephorus banished to Asia Minor on suspicion of disloyalty.

Tzimiskes was a popular general and, rallying his supporters, was smuggled back to Constantinople. Fellow conspirators let him into the palace, where he and a gang of collaborators murdered Nicephorus in his sleep. Thus ended the life of one of the most successful emperor-generals in Byzantine history.

John I Tzimiskes (969 – 976)

Tzimiskes took over as regent for the young sons of Romanus II. As ruler, Tzimiskes crushed the Rus in Bulgaria and ended the Bulgarian tsardom, before going on to campaign in the East.

According to Norwich, travelling through Anatolia John was appalled to discover the vast extent of the lands acquired by the Imperial chamberlain Basil Lecapenos. Basil got to hear about the emperor’s anger and, fearing that he was about to lose his lands and position, paid servants to administer a poison to Tzimiskes. Taken very ill, John just about made it back to Constantinople before dying. He was, in Norwich’s opinion:

One of the greatest of Byzantine emperors (p.230)

Basil II ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ (976 – 1025)

Basil was the eldest son Romanus II, born in 958 and, with Tzimiskes’ death, he now inherited the throne aged just 18. He was to have a long and successful reign but the first half was a struggle to establish his own personal rule.

The first decade of his reign was marked by rivalry with the powerful Imperial chamberlain, the eunuch Basil Lecapenos, who he eventually managed to overthrow, confiscating all his estates and having him banished. Then there was a prolonged attempt by two rival generals  – Bardas Phocas and Bardas Sclerus – to overthrow him, though the generals spent as much time fighting each other as the emperor. Both eventually failed, though not after prolonged unrest and military campaigns.

Threatened by the rise of Thomas the Slav who revived the kingdom of the Bulgarians, Basil found it wise to form an alliance with Vladimir I of Kiev whose entry into the Church (the baptism of him and his court) Basil supervised, as well as marrying off his sister, Anna, to the new convert. Vladimir would, in time, be made into a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, for his zeal in building churches, monasteries, and converting his people.

In his campaigns in the East against the Muslims, Basil had seen for himself the immense estates built up by the class of ‘nobles’ or ‘those with power’, and he determined to break their influence, confiscating all large estates, reducing much of the aristocracy to poverty, rejuvenating the peasant communities which the empire depended on for its manpower, and reverting large tracts of land to the emperor.

Basil then did a deal whereby Venice was awarded the coast of Dalmatia to rule under Byzantine suzerainty: this suited the Venetians for the area was rich in wood and grain, and they also wanted to campaign against Croatian pirates; and suited Basil because it left him free for his life’s work, a sustained campaign against Bulgaria. It took twenty years but he eventually defeated Thomas the Slav and his son, and the usurper who murdered the son. All Bulgarian territory and cities were seized, and all survivors of the royal family taken prisoner off to Constantinople. In fact Basil ruled wisely, keeping taxes deliberately low and assimilating leading Bulgar aristocrats into the Byzantine administration.

Basil II’s reign is widely considered the apogee of medieval Byzantium.

Map of the Byzantine Empire in the year 1025 – most of present-day Turkey, Greece, the southern Balkans and south Italy

Constantine VIII (1025 – 1028)

The second son of Romanus II, Constantine was born in 960 and raised to co-emperor in March 962. During the rule of Basil II, he spent his time in dissipation. He was 65 when he came to power and managed, in three short years, to fritter away almost all of his brother’s achievements. Unsure of his powers, he became paranoid, suspicious of courtiers and plots, and hundreds of men arrested, tortured and blinded on trumped-up charges.

Only on his death-bed, aged 68, did he worry about the succession. He had three daughters, themselves now relatively old (in their 40s and 50s) and decided that the most presentable of them, Zoe, should be married off to continue the line. After some squabbling about who the lucky man should be, his civil service settled on Romanus Argyros to be Zoe’s husband. The fact that Romanus was already married was not a barrier, since Constantine said, Marry my daughter or I will blind you and your wife. So Romanus’s wife willingly divorced him, took the veil and disappeared to a convent. Next day Romanus married Zoe. Next day the emperor was dead.

Zoe (1028 – 1050)

The daughter of Constantine VIII, Zoe succeeded on her father’s death, as the only surviving member of the Macedonian dynasty. She had three husbands – Romanus III (1028–1034), Michael IV (1034–1041) and Constantine IX (1042–1050) – who ruled in quick succession alongside her.

Zoe’s first husband: Romanus III Argyros (1028 – 1034)

Romanus was an ageing aristocrat, judge and administrator when he was chosen by Constantine VIII on his deathbed to become Zoe’s husband. He was educated but had an inflated opinion of his own abilities and led his army into a disastrous defeat against the Muslims in Syria. Realising his limitations he decided to make a name for himself by building an enormous church to Mary Mother of God, but taxed the population of Constantinople to the hilt to build it with the result that he became very unpopular.

Contemporary chroniclers also claim he had alienated his wife once he realised they were never going to conceive a child (despite both parties spending lots of money on amulets and charms and potions to restore fertility). He had her confined to her quarters and cut her spending allowance.

Gossip had it that Zoe took a young, handsome Greek lover, Michael, related to the most powerful figure at the court, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos. The chronicler Michael Psellus suggests the couple poisoned Romanus who was discovered expiring by an imperial swimming pool.

Zoe’s second husband: Michael IV ‘the Paphlagonian’ (1034 – 1041)

Within hours of Romanus’s death, Zoe arranged to be enthroned alongside her 18-year-old lover Michael.

Michael quickly came to despise his aging wife and, once again, had her confined to her quarters. He was an epileptic when they married and his condition rapidly worsened, so that he had a curtain installed around the throne which could be quickly drawn by servants at the first sign of a fresh attack.

Aided by his older brother, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos, Michael’s reign was moderately successful against internal rebellions, but his massed attempt to recover Sicily from the Muslims totally failed, not least because it was put under the command of John the Orphanotrophos’s sister’s husband, Stephen.

As he grew iller, Michael spent more time building churches and having masses said for his soul. His older brother, the by-now all-powerful John the Orphanotrophos, could see he was dying and cast around for ways to preserve the dynasty. His other brothers were eunuchs, so John’s search alighted on the son of his sister, Maria, and her husband Stephen, Michael.

Basil II had wisely decreed the defeated Bulgarians should only pay tax in kind. John the Orphanotrophos unwisely revoked this and imposed tax demands in gold. This, plus the imposition of an unpopular Greek to rule their church, led to a revolt of the Bulgars. Michael amazed everyone by taking to his horse and leading the Byzantine army which successfully put the revolt down. He then returned to the capital and died.

Zoe’s son: Michael V Calaphates (‘the Caulker’) (1041 – 1042)

In the last stages of terminal illness, Michael IV was persuaded to adopt Stephen’s son (his nephew), also named Michael, as his own son and heir. Michael IV duly died, aged just 25, and was succeeded by this nephew and namesake, who became Michael V.

In time Michael would be nicknamed calaphates or ‘the caulker’ because this had been the humble shipyard profession of his father, Stephen, before John the Orphanotrophos had wangled him a job as admiral on the ill-fated expedition to reclaim Sicily. He certainly had a very tenuous claim to the throne.

No emperor in the whole history of Byzantium had less title to the throne than Michael Calaphates. (Norwich p.292)

Michael V immediately 1. mounted an assault on the court civil service, making widespread changes 2. removed John the Orphanotrophos from power, confiscating his property and sending him to a monastery. Next he tried to sideline Zoe, having her shaven and send to a convent, but, unexpectedly, this sparked a popular revolt which led to days of mass rioting – resulting in the largest casualties from civic strife the capital had seen since the Nika riots. Michael was forced to recall her and restore her as empress on 19 April 1042, along with her sister Theodora but this wasn’t enough. Norwich quotes the eye witness account of Michael Psellus who went with the mob to the palace chapel where Michael and his uncle, Constantine, were hiding, describes them being persuaded to leave, escorted by the City Prefect through a jeering mob, and then met by the public executioner sent by Zoe, who proceeded to blind them both in front of the baying mob. They were both sent to separate monasteries, Michael dying later that year.

Michael had managed to get himself deposed after a pitiful four months and 11 days on the throne,

Zoe had hoped the riots were solely in her favour but it became apparent that the city didn’t trust her, associating her too much with the ancient regime, and began clamouring for her sister, Theodora who had, fifty years earlier, been consigned to a convent where she had spent most of her life.

Zoe’s sister: Theodora (1042 – 1056)

Born in 984, Theodora was therefore 58 when she was raised as co-ruler on 19 April 1042. However, it quickly became clear that the sisters didn’t get on and that, worse, the court, civil administration, the army and so on were liable to divide into sects supporting one or other woman. The solution was to bring a man in to rule. Theodora, still a highly religious virgin, refused absolutely to be married, but Zoe, now 64, accepted with relish. (It is symptomatic of the name shortage in Byzantium that all three of the candidates which were considered for her hand were named Constantine.)

Zoe’s third husband: Constantine IX Monomachos (1042 – 1055)

Wikipedia tells the story:

Constantine Monomachos was the son of Theodosius Monomachos, an important bureaucrat under Basil II and Constantine VIII. At some point, Theodosius had been suspected of conspiracy and his son’s career suffered accordingly. Constantine’s position improved after he married his second wife, a niece of Emperor Romanus III Argyros. After catching the eye of the Empress Zoe, Constantine was exiled to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos by Zoe’s second husband, Michael IV.

The death of Michael IV and the overthrow of Michael V in 1042 led to Constantine being recalled from his place of exile and appointed as a judge in Greece. However, prior to commencing his appointment, Constantine was summoned to Constantinople, where the fragile working relationship between Michael V’s successors, the empresses Zoe and Theodora, was breaking down. After two months of increasing acrimony between the two, Zoe decided to search for a new husband, thereby hoping to prevent her sister from increasing her popularity and authority.

After her first preference displayed contempt for the empress and her second died under mysterious circumstances, Zoe remembered the handsome and urbane Constantine. The pair were married on 11 June 1042, without the participation of Patriarch Alexius I of Constantinople, who refused to officiate over a third marriage (for both spouses). On the following day, Constantine was formally proclaimed emperor together with Zoe and her sister Theodora.

During his thirteen-year rule Constantine supported the mercantile classes and favoured the company of intellectuals, thereby alienating the military aristocracy. A pleasure-loving ruler, he installed his long-term mistress, Maria, grand-daughter of the rebel Bardas Sclerus, in the palace with the apparent approval of the old empress, although this scandalised public opinion. He endowed a number of monasteries, chiefly the Nea Moni of Chios and the Mangana Monastery.

He had to cope with two major military revolts, of George Maniakes, the empire’s leading general who was rampaging across southern Italy in combat with the new power in the region, the Normans, and who, when recalled to the capital, was so angry that he had himself declared emperor by his troops in 1042 and marched on Constantinople, ending up killed in a skirmish with loyal troops in Thessalonica in 1043; and three years later by Leo Tornikios, who raised an army in Thrace and marched on the capital, which he besieged. After two failed assaults Leo withdrew, his army deserted him and he was captured. At Christmas 1047, he was blinded and no more is known of him.

Though he survived these threats, Constantine’s rule saw the elimination of the Byzantine presence from Calabria and Sicily, the Seljuk Turks had established themselves in Baghdad and were planning their invasions of Anatolia, and the Danube frontier had been breached by a number of invading tribes – the Pechenegs, the Cumans and the Uz. Which leads Norwich to comment:

The Emperor Constantine IX was more confident than Constantine VIII, more of a realist than Romanus Argyrus, healthier than Michael IV and less headstrong than Michael V. Politically, however, through sheer idleness and irresponsibility, he was to do the Empire more harm than the rest of them put together. (p.307)

Norwich goes into great detail to describe the Great Schism between the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople which climaxed in legates from Rome placing a grand bull of excommunication on the high altar of St Sophia cathedral during the Eucharist. It is a long, sorry, shambolic story of misunderstandings and animosity between bigots on both sides.

This was bad politics because both sides needed to unite to drive the Normans out of Sicily. Their disunity allowed the Normans to seize control of the island and part of southern Italy. Interestingly, Constantine set about restoring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which had been substantially destroyed in 1009 by Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and endowing other churches in Palestine.

During Constantine’s reign, Theodora was again sidelined, but Zoe died in 1050, and Constantine himself followed her in 1055. At which point Theodora briefly assumed full governance of the Empire and reigned until her own death the following year (1056).

As both Theodora and Zoe had no children, the chronicler Michael Psellus describes the panic-stricken meetings in which senior officials cast around for someone to replace her. They finally settled on an elderly patrician and a member of the court bureaucracy, Michael Bringas, who had served as military finance minister (and hence the epithet Stratiotikos often attached to his name). The senior civil servants knew he was one of them, and thought he would be easily managed. The dying Empress was persuaded to nod her head in approval of the choice, just hours before she passed away.

Non-dynastic (1056–1057)

Michael VI Bringas ‘the Old’ (1056 – 1057)

Michael was in his 60s, an ageing bureaucrat who had put up with years of low level abuse from military types. Now, as emperor, he took his revenge, spending money on the civil service and state officials, but underfunding the army. In his first review of the leading generals he amazed them by berating them in violent terms, and followed it up a few days later with more of the same.

They rebelled. A conspiracy of generals persuaded their leading figure, the tall, successful leader Isaac Comnenus, to lead the army of the East against Constantinople. Everywhere they went troops and citizens rallied to his flag, but nonetheless they were forced to fight a hard-fought battle against the army of Europe which Michael had summoned to his defence, just across the Bosphorus near Nicomedi. After a prolonged struggle, the eastern army triumphed and – after negotiations with Michael’s envoys – the emperor abdicated and was allowed to retired to a monastery where he died in 1059.

Comnenid dynasty (1057–1059)

Isaac I Comnenus (1057 – 1059)

Born about 1005, Isaac was the empire’s leading general when he was declared emperor by his troops and led them against Constantinople in 1057. He reigned for just two years, during which he tried to fund and organise the army better, but alienated the church (by arresting Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch who had persuaded Michael VI to abdicate) and much of the population (rigorous collection of taxes, reduction in state salaries, confiscation of property from the mega-rich).

There are two stories about his death: either he simply abdicated, perhaps depressed by the scale of the problems he faced and the obdurate roadblocking of the civil service, and retired to a monastery. In the other version he caught a chill while out hunting which turned into pneumonia.

In both versions of the story Isaac needed to name a successor and ignored his daughter, brother and five nephews to choose Constantine Ducas, the most aristocratic of the group of intellectuals who had helped revive Byzantine learning a few years before.

Doucid dynasty (1059–1081)

Constantine X Ducas (1059 – 1067)

There is no Emperor in the history of the later Roman Empire whose accession had more disastrous consequences. (p.337)

Constantine was a highly educated Greek aristocrat but he was also, in Norwich’s opinion, ‘a hopelessly impractical and woolly-minded bureaucrat’ (p.336) and ‘arguably the most disastrous ruler ever to don the purple buskins’ (p.338).

Why all the blame? Because Constantine wasted the imperial finances on high living and indulged in theological and philosophical speculation. Meanwhile he replaced standing soldiers with mercenaries and left the frontier fortifications unrepaired.

This led to mounting unhappiness within the army and an attempt by some generals to assassinate him in 1061 which was foiled. The result of running down the army was that under his rule the Empire lost most of Byzantine Italy to the Normans under Robert Guiscard, suffered invasions by Alp Arslan in Asia Minor in 1064, resulting in the loss of the Armenian capital, and by the Oghuz Turks in the Balkans in 1065, while Belgrade was lost to the Hungarians.

But it is the rising threat from the Seljuk Turks which Norwich focuses on. He describes the Turks as being a nomadic tribe of warriors, famed for their abilities firing a bow and arrow from the saddle, which originated in Transoxiana, and moved south, converting to Islam and slowly taking over Persia. They finally seized the capital of the old Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055. Meanwhile they also led expeditions against Armenia, which was by way of being a buffer state between the east and the Empire, and then pushed on into Anatolia, raiding as far as Ankara and Caesarea.

It is for Constantine’s systematic and deliberate running down of the Empire’s army and physical defences that Norwich names him worst Byzantine Emperor ever. In the same year that the Turks penetrated as far as Ankyra – with no army or force of any kind sent to prevent them – that Constantine died.

On his deathbed Constantine made his wife swear not to remarry and made all the senior officials sign a pledge that the succession could only go to a member of his family, the Ducases.

By his second wife, Eudocia Macrembolitissa, Constantine had the following sons:

  • Michael VII Ducas, who succeeded as emperor
  • Andronicus Ducas, co-emperor from 1068 to 1078
  • Constantius Ducas, co-emperor from 1060 to 1078

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 1

Born about 1050, Michael was the eldest son of Constantine X and succeeded to the throne aged 17 but showed little interest in ruling, leaving that to his mother, Eudocia, and uncle, John Ducas.

On 1 January 1068, Eudocia, having deceived the leading aristocrats about her intentions in order to get her deathbed promise to Constantine not to marry again annulled, married the general Romanus Diogenes, who now became senior co-emperor alongside Michael VII, and Michael’s brothers Constantius and Andronicus.

Romanus IV Diogenes (1068 – 1071)

If the Ducas family was one of the grandest, oldest and most illustrious parts of the courtly bureaucracy, Romanus hailed from the Anatolian military aristocracy. Eudocia, at least, appeared to realise that, with the pressing threat from the Turks, the Empire needed a strong military leader.

Michael VII had surrounded himself with sycophantic court officials, and was blind to the empire collapsing around him. In dire straits, imperial officials resorted to property confiscations and even expropriated some of the wealth of the church. The underpaid army mutinied, and the Byzantines lost Bari, their last possession in Italy, to the Normans of Robert Guiscard in 1071. Simultaneously, there was a serious revolt in the Balkans, where the Empire faced an attempt at the restoration of the Bulgarian state. Although this revolt was suppressed by the general Nicephorus Bryennius, the Byzantine Empire was unable to recover its losses in Asia Minor.

Struggling against this tide, Romanus immediately began to try and correct all the abuses which had built up around the army, to settle all arrears of pay, negotiate new contracts with mercenary soldiers, raise new levies from peasants in Anatolia, improve equipment and training.

In 1068, 1069, and 1070 he led raids into Turkish territory, seizing towns. The leader of the Turks by this point was Alp Arslan and the two leaders tried to negotiate a truce, but this was constantly broken by the Turcomen, lawless bandits related to the Turks who had not adopted Islam or any central authority.

Finally Romanus set off in the spring of 1071 with the largest army he could muster to crush the Turks. But – to be brief – it was he and the Byzantine army which was crushingly and definitively defeated, at a massive battle near the small fortress of Manzikert in August 1071.

There is reams of speculation about what exactly happened, but it seems certain that, having split his army in two due to uncertainty about the precise location of the Turk army, when Romanus located it and called for the other half, led by Joseph Tarchaniotes, to come to his aid, it didn’t. Speculation why continues to this day. After lining up for an engagement the Turks then retreated systematically, luring Romanus’s army towards mountains at the edge of the plain, where he feared getting trapped, so turned his forces. But some of them interpreted this as flight, rumour spread that the Emperor was killed, the Turks suddenly attacked in force, and the rearguard, led by one of the rival Ducas clan, fled. The remaining army was massacred by the Turks, Romanus fighting to the end, captured and brought before the Turkish leader.

The battle of Manzikert was the greatest disaster suffered by the Empire of Byzantium in the seven and a half centuries of its existence. (p.357)

Alp treated Romanus with respect, concluded a treaty with him, had him dressed, his wounds treated, and escorted back towards Constantinople: it would pay him to have a defeated Emperor in his power who would respect their treaty, rather than a new young buck who would ignore it. But Romanus’s fate was already sealed.

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 2

When rumours of a calamitous defeat reached Constantinople, the initiative was taken by Michael’s uncle John Ducas and his tutor Michael Psellus. They quickly proclaimed Michael VII Senior Emperor and he was crowned as such on October 24, 1071. Eudocia was quickly despatched to a convent.

Romanus seems to have mustered what remained of his army for the return march on Constantinople but was beaten in two consecutive battles with loyalist troops, after the second of which he gave himself up. Despite promises of a safe passage he was blinded and then paraded in rags sitting backwards on a donkey.

After Manzikert, the Byzantine government sent a new army to contain the Seljuk Turks under Isaac Comnenus, a brother of the future emperor Alexius I Comnenus, but this army was defeated and its commander captured in 1073.

The problem was made worse by the desertion of the Byzantines’ western mercenaries, who became the object of the next military expedition in the area, led by the Caesar John Ducas. This campaign also ended in failure, and its commander was likewise captured by the enemy.

The victorious mercenaries now forced John Ducas to stand as pretender to the throne. The government of Michael VII was forced to recognize the conquests of the Seljuks in Asia Minor in 1074, and to seek their support against Ducas. A new army under Alexius Comnenus, reinforced by Seljuk troops sent by Malik Shah I, finally defeated the mercenaries and captured John Ducas in 1074.

The net effect of these years of chaos was that the Turks established enduring control of a vast swathe of Anatolia, previously the main source for the Empire’s grain and manpower. The Turks named it the Sultanate of Rum (derived from ‘Rome’).

The economic upheaval caused by all these defeats added to widespread dissatisfaction and in 1078 two generals, Nicephorus Bryennius and Nicephorus Botaneiates, simultaneously revolted in the Balkans and Anatolia, respectively.

Bryennius raised the standard of revolt in November 1077 in his native city of Adrianople and marched on the capital. But, out east, Botaneiates gained the support of the Seljuk Turks, and he reached Constantinople first. They arrived as rising prices and food shortages led to riots and widespread burning and looting in March 1078. Michael abdicated on March 31, 1078 and retired into the Monastery of Studium.

Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078 – 1081)

Born in 1001, Nicephorus rose to become the strategos of the Anatolic Theme, rebelled against Michael VII and was welcomed into the capital as a saviour to the ruioting and anarchy. He had his rival Bryennius arrested and blinded.

Botaneiates was in his seventies when he came to power, old and faced with the breakdown of the civil authority (after the leading bureaucrat had been murdered in the riots) and the ongoing weakness of the army on all fronts, which led to uprisings, rebellions and invasions on all borders, Botaneiates struggled and failed to cope.

Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118)

In the nick of time arrived a saviour. Exhausted, Botaneiates abdicated in 1081 and retired to a monastery where he died on 10 December of the same year. He abdicated in favour of an aristocratic young general who was to reign for the next 37 years with a firm hand and give the Empire the stability is so sorely needed.

He was Alexius Comnenus, nephew of Isaac Comnenus. His reign was to be dominated by wars against the Normans and the Seljuk Turks, as well as the arrival of the First Crusade and the establishment of independent Crusader states. But that is the start of a new era, and so here Norwich ends the second volume of his history of the Byzantine Empire.


Thoughts

Same names

I found this book hard going for several reasons. The most obvious is there’s a lot of repetition of names. Quite a few Leos, Michaels, Nicephoruses and Theodosuses recur throughout the narrative and when, on page 265, you find yourself reading about yet another Leo or another Michael, suddenly your mind goes completely blank and you can’t remember whether this is the one who inherited as a baby or was an alcoholic or murdered his brother or what…

And it’s not just the emperors’ names which get confusing. There were roughly two other major figures at any one moment of Byzantine history – the Patriarch of Constantinople – the head of the Eastern Church – and the Logothete or Chamberlain (in fact there were a number of logothetes with specialised roles, but there only ever seems to be one head of the imperial household and/or civil service at a time).

The point is that these other figures, also share just a handful of the same names. There were quite a few patriarchs named Leo or Nicephorus, and the same with the logothetes.

Then there’s the popes. Every Eastern Emperor and Patriarch had a troubled relationship with the Patriarch of Rome who increasingly ran the Western Church and, after Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800, had an increasing say in the running of the new Holy Roman Empire.

There appear to have been no fewer than ten popes named Leo during the three hundred years covered by this book. At the moment I am reading about the overthrow of the emperor Constantine by the Armenian general Romanus who, once he had seized power, had to settle things with his powerful rival Leo Phocas, before turning to turning to settle things with pope Leo. And all this is recorded for us in the chronicle of Leo the Deacon.

There are lots of Leos in this book.

It doesn’t help that Norwich’s standard practice is to introduce a new figure with their full title and number (Leo V, Michael II) but thereafter to omit the number. So you can easily find yourself reading about a Leo conspiring against a Nicephorus while a Basil lurks in the background – and wonder whether you’re in the 8th, 9th or 10th century.

The lack of social history indicates deeper gaps and absences

In fact this confusion about names and people stems from a deeper problem. Norwich, in his preface, candidly admits he isn’t interested in economic or social history. He likes people, and so his book is purely a history of the succession of the emperors, their wives, of troublesome patriarchs and rebellious generals – a history enlivened with plenty of gossip and speculation about the emperors’ sex lives and true parentages and military campaigns and heroic monuments. Fair enough, and all very entertaining.

But the unintended consequence of this VIP-based approach is that nothing ever seems to change.

The empire is permanently threatened by the Muslims in the east and the barbarians from the north. Time and again, one or other of them leads a massive army right up to the walls of Constantinople. Time and again, the emperor has a falling-out with the patriarch, imprisons him, replaces him, and holds an ecumenical council to try and impose his will on the church. Time and again, a rebellious general or jealous colleague assassinates the emperor in the heart of the palace and declares himself basileus.

There is little or no sense of historical change or development. Instead it feels a little like we are trapped in a very ornate version of Groundhog Day.

This is more than just confusing – the absence of economic or social history really profoundly fails to capture the passage of time.

What was the impact of mass destruction? I grew puzzled and frustrated every time I read that the Bulgars razed Adrianople to the ground and took 100,000 citizens off into slavery; or the Muslims razed Armoria to the ground and devastated the entire region, or captured Sicily or Crete.

Because in Norwich’s narrative, events like this are only interesting or relevant insofar as they consolidate or undermine each emperor’s position, as they feed into court intrigues.

But I kept wondering about their effect on the Byzantine Empire as a whole? Surely the utter destruction of its second city, the ravaging of entire areas, and the loss of major islands in the Mediterranean – surely these events changed things: surely trade and the economy were affected, surely the tax base and therefore the ability to pay for civil services and the army were affected. Surely archaeology or letters or books by private citizens might shed light on the impact of these events and what it felt like to live through them.

But none of that is included in Norwich’s narrative, which focuses exclusively on the tiny, tiny number of people right at the pinnacle of the empire and their increasingly squalid and repetitive shenanigans.

This is a highly entertaining account of the colourful lives and conspiracies of the Byzantine emperors, which gives you all the major political and biographical events of the period, but – the more I read it, the more I felt I was missing out on a deeper understanding of the Byzantine Empire, of its economy and trade – was it based on farming (and if so, of what?), or mining, or trade (and if so, with who?).

Writers And of its broader social structure and changes. Were there no poets or chroniclers who give us insight into the lives of ordinary people – farmers, and traders and lawyers – beyond the corrupt and violent emperors and their horrible families?

Art Art is mentioned occasionally, but only in the context of the massive schisms caused by Iconoclasm. I appreciate that there are other, separate books devoted to Byzantine art, but it’s just one of a whole range of social and cultural areas which remain pretty much a blank.

Slavery Slavery is repeatedly mentioned as a fundamental element of the empire and, indeed, of the surrounding societies. We hear again and again that both Muslim and barbarian raiders sold their captives into slavery. But what did that mean? Who ran the slave trade? Which societies had most slaves? What was a slave’s life like? How did you escape from slavery, because there are casual mentions of former slaves who rise to positions of power…

Eunuchs Eunuchs played a key role in Byzantine civilisation, and plenty of sons of deposed emperors were castrated; but not once does Norwich explain what this really meant, I mean not only how the operation was carried out, but there is no exploration of the culture of the court eunuchs, and how this made the Byzantine court different from those of, say, the King of the Franks or the Muslim Caliph in Baghdad.

So this is a great gaudy romp of a book which gives you all the necessary dates and explanations of the political and military history – but I was left wanting to know a lot more about the Byzantine Empire.


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical jokes

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

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

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

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

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

Style

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

Steampunk

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

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

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

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

Victorian slang

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

Rich style

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

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

Or Oliphant looking at mugshots of Victorian criminals:

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

Or the lowering weather during the Stink of London:

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

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

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

The plot

The book is divided into five ‘iterations’.

First Iteration: The angel of Goliad (62 pages)

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

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

Second Iteration: Derby Day (23 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third iteration: Dark Lanterns (102 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fourth iteration: Seven Curses (93 pages)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The climax

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Modus: The images tabled

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1991

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

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

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

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

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

Comment

I am in two minds about this conclusion.

On the one hand it is a familiar science fiction trope, that somehow humans have been eliminated by computers – as in the Terminator franchise of movies – or only the facade of human life is maintained to serve the computers’ purposes – very like the situation in The Matrix films. And it’s fair to say that this abrupt, dystopian future does follow logically from the speculations of Ada Lovelace, which themselves grow out of the pioneering work of Babbage, so worryingly premature and advanced in this alternative history.

BUT, all that said, the appeal of the previous 282 pages all derived from the vivid language and extravagant delineation of a host of very human characters, especially tough Mallory, suave Oliphant, and unflappable Fraser. And a lot of the appeal is from the verbal energy of their dialogue and the Victorian vocabulary deployed in the narrative prose. The final Terminator-style vision of a post-human world goes a long way to annulling all the affection and complex network of feelings for both the characters and the prose which the previous 380 pages had so carefully, and impressively, built up.

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

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

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


Related links

Reviews of books by William Gibson

Alternative histories

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

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

I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (1950)

I, Robot is a ‘fixup’ novel, i.e. it is not a novel at all, but a collection of science fiction short stories. The nine stories originally appeared in the American magazines Super Science Stories and Astounding Science Fiction between 1940 and 1950, and were then compiled into a book for stand-alone publication by Gnome Press in 1950, in the same way that the Foundation trilogy also appeared as magazine short stories before being packaged up by Gnome.

The stories are (sort of) woven together by a framing narrative in which the fictional Dr. Susan Calvin, a pioneer of positronic robots and now 75 years old, tells each story to a reporter whose been sent to do a feature on her life.

These interventions don’t precede and end every story; if they did there’d be eighteen of them; there are in fact only seven and I think the stories are better without them. Paradoxically, they make a more effective continuous narrative without Asimov’s ham-fisted linking passages. Calvin appears as a central character in three of them, anyway, and the comedy pair of robot testers, Powell and Donovan appear in another three consecutive stories, so the stories already contained threads and continuities…

A lot is explained once you learn that these were pretty much the first SF stories Asimov wrote. Since he was born in 1920, Robbie was published when he was just 20! Runaround when he was 21, and so on. His youth explains a lot of the gawkiness of the language and the immaturity of his view of character and, indeed, of plot.

So the reader has a choice: you can either judge Asimov against mature, literary writers and be appalled at the stories’ silliness and clunky style; or take into account how young he was, and be impressed at the vividness of his ideas – the Three Laws, the positronic brain etc – ideas which are silly, but proved flexible and enduring enough to be turned into nearly 40 shorts stories, four novels, and countless spin-offs, not least the blockbusting Will Smith movie.

Introduction

The introduction is mostly interesting for the fictional timeline it introduces around the early development of robots. In 1982 Susan Calvin was born, the same year Lawrence Robertson sets up U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. The ‘now’ of the frame story interview is 75 years later i.e. 2057.

  • 1998 intelligent robots are available to the public
  • 2002 mobile, speaking robot invented
  • 2005 first attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2008 Susan Calvin joins U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc as its first robopsychologist
  • 2015 second, successful, attempt to colonise Mercury
  • 2006 an asteroid has a laser beam placed on it to relay the sun’s energy back to earth
  • 2037 the hyperatomic motor invented (as described in the story, Escape!)
  • 2044 the Regions of earth, having already absorbed and superseded ‘nations’, themselves come together to form a global Federation

What this timeline indicates is Asimov’s urge to systematise and imperialise his stories. What I mean is that other short story writers write short stories are always part of a larger narrative (systematise) and the larger narrative tends to be epic – here it is the rise of robots from non-talking playmates to controllers of man’s destiny. Same as the Foundation series, where he doesn’t just tell stories about a future planet, or a future league of inhabited star systems – but the entire future of the galaxy.

1. Robbie (1940, revd. 1950 first appearance in Super Science Stories)

It is and 1996 and George Weston has bought his 8-year-old daughter, Gloria, a mute robot and playfellow. The story opens with them playing and laughing and Gloria telling Robbie stories, his favourite treat. However, Gloria’s mother does not like the thought of her daughter being friends with a robot so gets her husband to take it back to the factory and buy a dog instead. Gloria is devastated, hates the dog and pines away. To distract her her parents take her on a trip to futuristic New York. Gloria is excited but, to her mum’s dismay, chiefly because she thinks the family are going there to track down Robbie, who she’s been told has ‘run away’. When told that’s not the case she returns to sulking. Dad has a bright idea, to take her to a factory where they make robots in order to show Gloria that Robbie is not human, doesn’t have personality, is just an assemblage of cogs and wires. Unbeknown to Gloria or his wife, George has in fact arranged for Robby to be on the production line. Gloria spots him, goes mad with joy and runs across to him – straight into the path of a huge tractor. Before any of the humans can react, Robbie with robot speed hurtles across the shop floor and scoops Gloria out of danger.

This story, like the others, is supposed to give rise to some kind of debate about whether robots are human, have morals, are safe and so on. Well, since it is nearly 2019 and we still don’t have workable robots, that debate is fantasy, and this is a sweet, cheapjack story, written with flash and humour.

2. Runaround (March 1942 edition of Astounding Science Fiction)

It is 2005 and two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, have been sent to Mercury along with Robot SPD-13, known as ‘Speedy’. Ten years earlier an effort to colonise Mercury had been abandoned. Now the pair are trying again with better technology. They’ve inhabited the abandoned buildings the previous settlers left behind but discovered that the photo-cell banks that provide life support to the base are low on selenium and will soon fail.

The nearest selenium pool is seventeen miles away Donovan has sent Speedy to get some. Hours have gone by and he’s still not returned. So the story is a race against time.

But it is also a complicated use of Asimov’s famous Three Laws of Robotics. The pair discover down in the bowels of the abandoned building some primitive robots who carry them through the shade of low hills as close to the selenium pool and Speedy as they can get. (If they go into the direct light of the sunlight they will begin to be irreparably damaged, even through spacesuits, by the fierce radioactive glare.)

They see and hear Speedy (by radio) and discover he appears to be drunk, reciting the words to Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. The Three Laws of Robotics are:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Now because Speedy was so expensive to build, the Third Law had been strengthened to preserve him and he has discovered something neither spaceman anticipated, which is that near the selenium are pools of iron-eating gas – much of Speedy being made of iron. When Donovan sent him to get some selenium he didn’t word the command particularly strongly.

So what’s happened is that, in Speedy’s mind, the second and third laws have come into conflict and given Speedy a sort of nervous breakdown. Hence the drunk-like behaviour. He approaches the selenium in obedience to the second law; but then detects the gas and backs away.

The astronauts try several tactics, including getting their robots to fetch, and then lob towards the selenium pool, canisters of oxalic acid to neutralise the carbonic gas. Eventually they tumble to the only thing which will trump laws 2 and 3, which is law 1. Powell walks out of the shadow of the bluff where they’ve been sheltering, into full sunlight, and calls to Speedy (over the radio) that the radiation is hurting him and begging Speedy to help. Law one overrides the other two and Speedy, restored to full working order, hurtles over, scoops him up and carries him into the protective shade.

At which point they give Speedy new instructions to collect the selenium, emphasising that it is life or death for them whether the photo-cell banks are replenished. With the full force of Law One behind him, this time Speedy overrides Law three (self protection) fetches loads of selenium, they fix the cells, everyone happy.

3. Reason (April 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A year later the same ill-fated couple of spacemen are moved to a space station orbiting the sun whose task is to focus the sun’s energy into a concentrated beam which is then shot back to a received on earth. They finish constructing one of the first of a new range of robots, QT-1, who they nickname ‘Cutie’, and are disconcerted when it starts to question them. Specifically, it refuses to believe that they made it. In a series of increasingly rancorous conversations, Cutie dismisses the men as flimsy assemblages of blood and flesh, obviously not built to last.

Cutie eventually decides that the main power source of the ship must be the ‘Master’.He dismisses all the evidence of space, visible from the ship’s portholes, and all the books aboard the ship, as fables and fantasies designed to occupy the ‘lower’ minds of the men.

No, Cutie has reasoned itself into the belief that ‘There is no Master but Master, and QT-1 is His prophet.’ Despite this it carried on going about its duties, namely supervising the less advanced robots in the various tasks of keeping the space station maintained. Until the guys realise, to their further consternation, that Cutie has passed his religion on to them and they now refuse to obey the humans. In fact they pick up the humans, take them to their living quarters and lock them in under house arrest.

Powell and Donovan become very anxious because a solar storm is expected which will make the immensely high-powered beam to the earth waver and wobble. Even a little amount will devastate hundreds of square miles back on earth. But to their amazement, and relief, Cutie manages the beam perfectly, countering for the impact of the solar storm far better than they could have. At some (buried) level Cutie is still functioning according the 1st and 2nd laws i.e. protecting humans. The pair end up wondering whether a robot’s nominal ‘beliefs’ matter at all, so long as it obeys the three laws and functions perfectly.

Although marked by Asimov’s trademark facetious humour, and despite the schoolboy level on which the ‘debate’ with the robot is carried out, and noting the melodramatic threat of the approach of the solar storm – this is still a humorous, effective short story.

4. Catch That Rabbit (February 1944  issue of Astounding Science Fiction )

It’s those two robot testers, Powell and Donovan, again. They’re jokey banter is laid on with a trowel and reeks of fast-talking, wise-cracking comedians of the era.

Powell said, ‘Mike — you’re right.’
‘Thanks, pal. I knew I’d do it some day.’
‘All right, and skip the sarcasm. We’ll save it for Earth, and preserve it in jars for future long, cold winters.’

The plot is comparable to the previous story. Now they’re on an asteroid mining station where a ‘master’ robot – nicknamed Dave because his number is DV-5 – is in charge of six little worker robots – nicknamed the ‘fingers’ – digging up some metal ore. Problem is they’re not  hitting their quotas and, when Powell and Donovan eavesdrop on the worker robots via a visi-screen, they are appalled to see that, as soon as their backs are turned, Dave leads the other six in vaudeville dance routines!

After much head-scratching and trying out various hypotheses – as in the previous story – they eventually tumble to the problem. The trouble seems to kick off whenever Dave encounters a slight problem. So it would seem that supervising six robots is simply too much of a strain, when an additional problem is added. Solution? Eliminate one of the robots. Dave can handle the remaining five, plus whatever issues arise in the blasting and mining operation, just fine.

There is, however, a typically cheesy Asimov punchline. So what’s with the chorus line dancing? Donovan asks. Powell replies that when Dave was stymied and his processors couldn’t decide what to do – he resorted to ‘twiddling his fingers‘ boom boom!

5. Liar! (May 1941 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Accidentally, a robot is manufactured which can read human minds. With typical Yank levity it is nicknamed Herbie, since its number is RB-34. U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc mathematician Peter Bogert and robopsychologist Susan Calvin, at various points, interview it. Now Herbie, as well as answering their questions, reads what’s on their minds, namely that Bogert wants to replace Lanning as head of U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc, and that Calvin is frustratedly in love with a young officer at the firm, Milton Ashe.

To their delight, Herbie tells Bogert that Lanning has handed in his resignation and nominated Bogert to replace him, and tells Calvin that Ashe is in love with her too.

Their happiness doesn’t last. When Bogert confronts Lanning with news of his resignation, the latter angrily denies it. Calvin is on the point of declaring her feelings for Ashe, when the latter announces that he soon to marry his fiancee.

In the climactic scene the four character confront Herbie with his ‘lies’ and it is Calvin who stumbles on the truth. Herbie can read minds. He knows what his human interlocutors wish. He knows revealing that those wishes are unrequited or untrue will psychologically damage them. He is programmed to obey the First Law of Robotics i.e. no robot must harm a human being. And so he lies to them. He tells them what they want to hear.

Beside herself with anger (and frustration) Calvin taunts the cowering robot into a corner of the room and eventually makes its brain short circuit.

Little Lost Robot (March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

On Hyper Base, a military research station on an asteroid, scientists are working to develop the hyperspace drive. One of their robots goes missing. US Robots’ Chief Robopsychologist Dr. Susan Calvin, and Mathematical Director Peter Bogert, are called in to investigate.

They are told that the Nestor (a characteristic nickname for a model NS-2 robot) was one of a handful which had had its First Law of Robotics amended. They learn that, as part of their work, the ether scientists on Hyper Base have to expose themselves to risky levels of gamma rays, albeit for only short, measured periods. They and their managers found the Nestors kept interfering to prevent them exposing themselves, or rushing out to fetch them back in – in rigid obedience to the first law, which is to prevent any humans coming from harm.

After the usual red herrings, arguments and distractions it turns out that a nervy physicist, Gerald Black, who had been working with the missing robot, had gotten angry and told it to ‘get lost’. Which is exactly what it proceeded to do. A shipment of 62 Nestors had docked on its way off to some further destination. Next thing anyone knew there were 63 Nestors in its cargo hold and nobody could detected which of the 63 was the one which had had its First Law tampered with.

As usual Asimov creates a ‘race against time’ effect by having Calvin become increasingly concerned that Nestor 10 has not only ‘got lost’ but become resentful at being insulted by an inferior being’, and might carry on becoming more resentful until it plans something actively malevolent.

Calvin carries out a number of tests to try and distinguish Nestor 10, and becomes genuinely alarmed when entire cohorts of the nestors fail to react quickly enough to save a human (placed in a position of jeopardy for the sake of the experiment).

Finally, she catches it out by devising a test which distinguishes Nestor 10 as the only one which has received additional training in dealing with gamma radiation since arriving at the Hyper Drive base, the other 62 remaining ignorant.

After Nestor 10 has been revealed, Calvin sharply orders it to approach her, which it does, whining and complaining about its superiority and how it shouldn’t be treated like that and how it was ordered to lose itself and she mustn’t reveal its whereabouts… and attacks her. At which Black and Bogert flood the chamber with enough gamma rays to incapacitate it. it is destroyed, the other 62 ‘innocent’ nestors are trucked off to their destination.

Once again, this story is a scary indictment of the whole idea of robots, if it turns out that corporations can merrily tamper with the laws of robotics in order to save money, or get a job done, well, obviously they will. In which case the laws aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.

Escape! (August 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

Published in the month that the War in the Pacific – and so the Second World War – ended, after the dropping of the two atom bombs on Japan.

In that month’s issues of Astounding Science Fiction readers learned that U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. possess a Giant Brain, a positronic doodah floating in a helium globe, supported by wires etc. Reassuringly, it is a chattily American brain:

Dr. Calvin said softly, ‘How are you, Brain?’
The Brain’s voice was high-pitched and enthusiastic, ‘Swell, Miss Susan.’

A rival firm approaches U.S. Robot etc. It too is working on a hyperdrive and, when its scientists fed all the information into their supercomputer, it crashed. Tentatively, our guys agree to feed the same info into The Brain. Now the thing about the Brain is it is emotionally a child. Dr Calvin thinks that this is why it manages to process the same information which blew up the rival one: because it doesn’t take the information so seriously – particularly the crucial piece of information that, during the hyperdrive, human beings effectively die.

It swallows all the information and happily agrees to make the ship in question. Within a month or so the robots it instructs have built a smooth shiny hyperdrive spaceship. It is over to the two jokers we’ve met in the earlier stories, Powell land Donovan, Mike and Greg, to have a look. But no sooner are they in it than the doors lock and it disappears into space. Horrified at being trapped, the two men wisecrack their way around their new environment. Horrified at losing two test pilots in a new spaceship Dr Calvin very carefully interviews The Brain. Oh, they’ll be fine, it says, breezily.

Meanwhile, Mike and Greg undergo the gut-wrenching experience of hyperspace travel and – weird scenes – imagine themselves dead and queueing up outside the Pearly Gates to say hello to old St Peter. When they come round from these hallucinations, they look at the parsec-ometer on the control board and realise it is set at 300,000.

They were conscious of sunlight through the port. It was weak, but it was bluewhite – and the gleaming pea that was the distant source of light was not Old Sol.
And Powell pointed a trembling finger at the single gauge. The needle stood stiff and proud at the hairline whose figure read 300,000 parsecs.
Powell said, ‘Mike if it’s true, we must be out of the Galaxy altogether.’
Donovan said, ‘Blazed Greg! We’d be the first men out of the Solar System.’
‘Yes! That’s just it. We’ve escaped the sun. We’ve escaped the Galaxy. Mike, this ship is the answer. It means freedom for all humanity — freedom to spread through to every star that exists — millions and billions and trillions of them.’

Eventually the spaceship returns to earth, joking Mike and Greg stumble out, unshaven and smelly, and are led off for a shower.

Dr Calvin explains to an executive board (i.e. all the characters we’ve met in the story, including Mike and Dave) that the equations they gave The Brain included the fact that humans would ‘die’ – their bodies would be completely disassembled, as would the molecules of the space ship – in order for it to travel through hyperspace. It was this knowledge of certain ‘death’ which had made the rivals’ computer – obeying the First Law of Robotics – short circuit.

But Dr Calvin had phrased the request in such a way to The Brain as to downplay the importance of death. (In fact this is a characteristic Asimovian play with words – Dr Calvin’s instructions to The Brain made no sense when I read them, and only make sense now, when she uses them as an excuse for why The Brain survived but the rival supercomputer crashed.

Like most of Asimov’s stories, there is a strong feeling of contrivance, that stories, phrases or logic are wrenched out of shape to deliver the outcome he wants. This makes them clever-clever, but profoundly unsatisfying, and sometimes almost incomprehensible.)

Anyway, The Brain still registered the fact the testers would ‘die’ (albeit they would be reconstituted a millisecond later) and this is the rather thin fictional excuse given for the fact that the Brain retreated into infantile humour – designing a spaceship which was all curves, providing the testers with food – but making it only baked beans and milk, providing toilet facilities – but making them difficult to find, and so on. Oh, and ensuring that at the moment of molecular disintegration, the testers had the peculiar jokey experience of queueing for heaven, of hearing their fellow waiters and some of the angels all yakking like extras in a 1950s musical. That was all The Brain coping with its proximity to breaking the First Law by retreating into infantile humour.

Follow all that? Happy with that explanation? Happy with that account of how the human race makes the greatest discovery in its history?

Or is it all a bit too much like a sketch from the Jerry Lee Lewis show?

Lanning raised a quieting hand, “All right, it’s been a mess, but it’s all over. What now?’
‘Well,’ said Bogert, quietly, “obviously it’s up to us to improve the space-warp engine. There must be some way of getting around that interval of jump. If there is, we’re the only organization left with a grand-scale super-robot, so we’re bound to find it if anyone can. And then — U. S. Robots has interstellar travel, and humanity has the opportunity for galactic empire.’ !!!

Evidence (September 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

A story about a successful politician, Stephen Byerley. Having been a successful attorney he is running for mayor of a major American city. His opponent, Francis Quinn, claims he is a robot, built by the real Stephen Byerley who was crippled in a car accident years earlier.

The potential embarrassment leads U.S. Robot and Mechanical Men Inc. to send their top robosychologist test whether Byerley is a robot or not.

  • She offers him an apple and Byerley takes a bite, but he may have been designed with a stomach.
  • Quinn sends a journalist with a hidden X-ray camera to photograph Byerley’s insides, but Byerley is protected by some kind of force shield

Quinn and Calvin both make a big deal of the fact that Byerley, if a robot, must obey the three Laws of Robotics i.e. will be incapable of harming a human. This becomes a centrepiece of the growing opposition to Byerley, stoked by Quinn’s publicity machine.

During a globally broadcast speech to a hostile audience, a heckler climbs onto the stage and challenges Byerley to hit him in the face. Millions watch the candidate punch the heckler in the face. Calvin tells the press that Byerley is human. With the expert’s verdict disproving Quinn’s claim, Byerley wins the election.

Afterwards, Calvin visits Byerley and shrewdly points out that the heckler may have been a robot, manufactured by Byerley’s ‘teacher’, a shady figure who has gone ‘to the country’ to rest and who both Calvin and Quin suspect is the real Byerley, hopelessly crippled but with advanced robotics skills.

This is one of the few stories where Asimov adds linking material in which the elderly Calvin tells the narrator-reporter than Byerley arranged to have his body ‘atomised’ after his death, so nobody ever found out.

All very mysterious and thrilling for the nerdy 14-year-old reader, but the adult reader can pick a million holes in it, such as the authorities compelling Byerley to reveal the whereabouts of the mysterious ‘teacher’ or compelling him to have an x-ray.

The Evitable Conflict (June 1950 issue of Astounding Science Fiction)

The Byerley story turns out to be important because this same Stephen Byerley goes on to become the head of the planetary government, or World Co-Ordinator, as it is modestly titled

The story is a fitting end to the sequence because it marks the moment when robots – which we saw, in Robbie as little more than playthings for children in 1998 – taking over the running of the world by the 2050s.

Byerley is worried because various industrial projects – a canal in Mexico, mines in Spain – are falling behind. Either there’s something wrong with the machines which, by this stage, are running everything… or there is human sabotage.

He calls in Susan Calvin, by this stage 70 years old and the world’s leading expert on robot psychology.

She listens as Byerley gives her a detailed description of his recent tour of the Four Regions of Earth (and the 14 year old kid reader marvels and gawps at how the planet will be divided up into four vast Regions, with details of which one-time ‘countries’ they include, their shiny new capital cities, their Asian, Africa and European leaders who Byerley interviews).

This is all an excuse for Asimov to give his teenage view of the future which is that rational complex calculating Machines will take over the running of everything. The coming of atomic power, and space travel, will render the conflict between capitalism and communism irrelevant. The European empires will relinquish their colonies which will become free and independent. And all of humanity will realise, at the same time, that there is no room any more for nationalism or political conflicts. It will become one world. Everyone will live in peace.

Ahhh isn’t that nice.

Except for this one nagging fact — that some of the projects overseen by the Machines seem to be failing. Byerley tells Calvin his theory. There is a political movement known as the Society for Humanity. It can be shown that the men in charge of the Mexican canal, the Spanish mines and the other projects which are failing are all members of the Society for Humanity. Obviously they are tampering with figures or data in order to sabotage project successes, to reintroduce shortages and conflicts and to discredit the Machines. Therefore, Byerley tells Calvin, he proposes having every member of the Society for Humanity arrested and imprisoned.

Calvin – and this is a typical Asimov coup, to lead the reader on to expect one thing and then, with a whirl of his magician’s cape, to reveal something completely different – Calvin says No. He has got it exactly wrong. the Machines, vastly complex, proceeding on more data than any one human could ever manage, and continually improving, acting under an expanded version of the First Law of Robotics – namely that no robot or machine must harm humanity – have detected that the Society for Humanity presents a threat to the calm, peaceful, machine-controlled future of humanity – and so the machines have falsified the figures and made the projects fail — precisely in order to throw suspicion on the Society for Humanity, precisely to make the World Co-Ordinator arrest them, precisely in order to eliminate them.

In other words, the Machines have now acquired enough data about the world and insight into human psychology, as to be guiding humanity’s destiny. It is too late to avert or change, she tells Byerley. They are in control now.

Despite its silliness, it is nonetheless a breath-taking conclusion to the book, and, as with the Foundation stories, makes you feel like you really have experienced a huge and dazzling slab of mankind’s future.


Comments

The inadequacy of the Three Laws epitomises the failure of all attempts to replicate the human mind

I suppose this has occurred to everyone who’s ever read these stories, but the obvious thing about them is that every single story is about robots going wrong. This doesn’t exactly fill you with confidence about a robotic future.

A bit more subtly, what they all demonstrate is that ‘morality’ is a question of human interpretation: people interpret situations and decide how to act accordingly. This interpretative ability cannot be replicated by machines, computers, artificial intelligence, call them what you will. It probably never will for the simple reason that it is imperfect, partial and different in each individual human. You will never be able to programme ‘robots’ with universal laws of behaviour and morality, when these don’t even exist among humans.

Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics sound impressive to a 14-year-old sci-fi nerd, or as the (shaky) premise to a series of pulp sci-fi stories – but the second you begin trying to apply them to real life situations (for example, two humans giving a robot contradictory orders) you immediately encounter problems. Asimov’s Three Laws sound swell, but they are, in practice, useless. And the fact that the robots in the stories seem to do nothing but break down, demonstrates the problem.

Neither the human mind nor the human body can be replicated by science

Asimov predicted that humans would have developed robots by now (2018, when I write), indeed by the 1990s.

Of course, we haven’t. This is because nobody understands how the human brain works and no technologists have come anywhere near replicating its functionality. They never will. The human brain is the most complicated object in the known universe. It has taken about three billion years to evolve (if we start back with the origin of life on earth). The idea that guys in white coats in labs working with slide rules can come anywhere close to matching it in a few generations is really stupid.

And that’s just human intelligence. On the physical side, no scientists have created ‘robots’ with anything like the reaction times and physical adroitness of even the simplest animals.

We don’t need robots since we have an endless supply of the poor

Apart from the a) physical and b) mental impossibility of creating ‘robots’ with anything remotely like human capacities, the most crucial reason it hasn’t happened is because there is no financial incentive whatsoever to create them.

We have cheap robots already, they are called migrant workers or slaves, who can be put to work in complex and demanding environments – showing human abilities to handle complex situations, perform detailed and fiddly tasks – for as little as a dollar a day.

Charities estimate there are around 40 million slaves in the world today, 2018. So why waste money developing robots? Even if you did develop ‘robots’, could they be as cheap to buy and maintain as human slaves? Would they cost a dollar a day to run? No.

Only in certain environments which require absolutely rigid, inflexible repetitive tasks, and which are suitable for long-term heavy investment because of the certainty of return, have anything like robots been deployed, for example on the production lines of car factories.

But these are a million miles away from the robots Asimov envisaged, which you can sit down and chat to, let alone pass for human, as R. Daneel Olivaw does in Asimov’s robot novels.

All technologies break

And the last but not the least objection to Asimov’s vision of a robot-infested future is that all technologies break. Computers fail. Look at the number of incidents we’ve had just in the past month or so of major breakdowns by computer networks, and these are networks run by the biggest, richest, safest, most supervised, cleverest companies in the world.

On 6 December 2018 around 30 million people use the O2 network suffered a complete outage of the system. The collapse affected 25 million O2 subscribers, customers of Tesco Mobile and Sky Mobile, business such as Deliveroo, the digital systems on board all 8,500 London buses, and systems at some hospitals.

In September 2018 Facebook admitted that at least 50 million accounts had been hacked, with a poissible 40 million more vulnerable. Facebook-owned Instagram and WhatsApp are also affected along with apps and services such as Tinder that authenticate users through Facebook.

In April 2018 TSB’s banking online banking service collapsed following a botched migration to a new platform. Some customers were unable to access their accounts for weeks afterwards. About 1,300 customers were defrauded, 12,500 closed their accounts and the outage cost the bank £180 million.

These are just the big ones I remember from the past few months, and the ones we got to hear about (i.e. weren’t hushed up). In the background of our lives and civilisation, all computer networks are being attacked, failing, crashing, requiring upgrades, or proper integration, or becoming obsolete, all of the time. If you do any research into it you’ll discover that the computer infrastructure of the international banks which underpin global capitalism are out of date, rickety, patched-up, vulnerable to hacking but more vulnerable to complex technical failures.

In Asimov’s world of advanced robots, there is none of this. The robots fix each other and all the spaceships, they are – according to the final story – ‘self-correcting’, everything works fine all the time, leaving humans free to swan around making vast conspiracies against each other.

This is the biggest fantasy or delusion in Asimov’s universe. Asimov’s fictions give no idea at all of the incomprehensible complexity of a computerised world and – by extension – of all human technologies and, by a further extension, of human societies.


Asimov breaks the English language

Asimov is a terrible writer, hurried, slapdash, trying to convey often pretty simple emotional or descriptive effects through horribly contorted phraseology.

As I read I could hear a little voice at the back of my mind, and after a while realised it was the voice of the English language, crying out as if from a long distance away, ‘Help me! Save me! Rescue me from this murderer!’

The main corridor was a narrow tunnel that led in a hard, clatter-footed stretch along a line of rooms of no interdistinguishing features.

Harroway had no doubt on the point of to whom he owed his job.

Dr. Lanning smiled in a relief tangible enough to make even his eyebrows appear benevolent.

The signal-burr brought all three to a halt, and the angry tumult of growingly unrestrained emotion froze.

The two giant robots were invisible but for the dull red of their photoelectric eyes that stared down at them, unblinking, unwavering and unconcerned. Unconcerned! As was all this poisonous Mercury, as large in jinx as it was small in size.


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

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

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kings, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William the Bastard who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


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