The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 @ the National Portrait Gallery

Always look on the bleak side of life

Rule one is that, in modern photography, it is forbidden to smile. Photographing anyone smiling instantly leads to your cameras being confiscated. Photographing anyone laughing leads to instant banishment.

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel ClarkeGrifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Grifton from the series Perfect Strangers by Nigel Clarke © Nigel Clarke

Photography is a serious business. Life is all about being isolated and alienated. A tragic affair. None of the sitters in the 57 photographic portraits on show in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2018 is smiling, let alone laughing. Most have expressions of mute despair, sullen passivity, stare plaintively at the camera or mournfully off into the distance.

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Portrait of Marta Weiss and her daughter Penelope from the series Artfully Dressed: Women in the Art World by Carla van de Puttelaar 2017 © Carla van de Puttelaar

Remember that awful movie, Dumb and Dumber. This is a display of Serious and Seriouser.

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Greta and Guenda by Guen Fiore © Guen Fiore

Teenagers are good, because they come with built-in sulkiness (which, as the owner of two teenagers, I know only too well).

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

Eimear by Trisha Ward 2017 © Trisha Ward

A number of the sitters are actually crying, this guy because he’s just been given a beating in a kids’ boxing competition. Yes, life is a tragic business.

Runner Up from the series Double Jab ABC Show by Sawm Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

Runner Up from the series ‘Double Jab ABC Show’ by Sam Wright 2017 © Sam Wright

I wonder if anyone submits photos of people smiling, laughing, joking or having fun, and the judges systematically weed them all out to produce this uniformly glum set of portraits. Or whether clued-up entrants know from their photography courses (by far the majority of snappers in the competition have degrees in photography) that happiness is not art.

Africa

It’s a shame the selection on display makes such a cumulatively negative and depressing impact because, taken individually, there are lots of absolutely brilliant photos here.

And the locations, ages and types of sitter are pretty varied and interesting. It’s true that, as last year, there is a heavy bias towards British photographers (over half) and Americans (about 10 out of 57). But they get around a lot – especially to Africa, which was the setting for a brilliant couple of photos by Joey Lawrence.

Portrait of 'Strong' Joe Smart from, the series Tombo's Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

Portrait of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart from the series Tombo’s Wound by Joey Lawrence © Joey Lawrence

This portrait won third prize. Another image which drew me further in the more I looked, was of a teenager called Sarah in Uganda, photographed by Dan Nelken.

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series the Women of Rutal Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

Sarah, aged 13, carries a five gallon jerrycan of water home three times a day from the series The Women of Rural Uganda by Dan Nelken © Dan Nelken

In fact, the winning photo was one of a series by Alice Mann taken of drum majorettes in South Africa.

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

Keisha Ncube, Cape Town, South Africa 2017 from the series Drummies by Alice Mann © Alice Mann

About 24 of the 64 or so sitters featured in the photos are black. Precisely 32, half the sitters, are white.

Stories

The three photos above, and the suggestive titles of the series which they’re from, raises the matter of the stories behind the photos.

Because the exhibition doesn’t just show 57 photos cold – each one comes with two wall labels, one telling us quite a bit of biography about each photographer (like the fact that most of them are British and most of them have studied photography at university or art college).

And another, often quite lengthy label, telling us about the sitter and the circumstances behind the photo. In some cases these stories are more interesting and thought-provoking than the photos themselves. They say a picture is worth a thousand words, but sometimes a thousand words can say as much or more than a picture.

Take the first of the three black kids, above: we learn that the photo of ‘Strong’ Joe Smart was made in the remote village of Tombohuaun in the Eastern Province of Sierra Leone where Joey Lawrence (Canadian b.1989, self taught) was working with the charity WaterAid. It interested me to learn that Joe had made this mask while playing with his mates, and in between shots mucked about and giggled. It says a lot for the aesthetic of modern photography that no photos were taken of these high spirits. Instead he is depicted like a Victorian angel staring sensitively and seriously into the philosophical distance.

The photo of Keisha Ncube, a nine-year-old drum majorette, is by Alice Mann (b.1991 South Africa, studied photography at the University of Cape Town). It’s one of a set of four on show here (from a much bigger series) all of which are composed beautifully and taken with pin-point digital clarity. The wall label explains how many of these girls come from very poor backgrounds but how saving up for, or making, the costumes, and taking part in the activities gives them a strong sense of dignity and self worth.

Similarly, the photo of Sarah, aged 13, carrying a five-gallon jerrycan of water on her head is a strong image to begin with but gains immeasurably from learning more about the village and her background. The photographer, Dan Nelkin, was born in 1949 in New York.

Unsmiling kids

I counted 64 people in the 57 photos, of whom 31 are children (plus two babies).

Kids give you instant pathos. Especially if you tell them to stop smiling, laughing and fooling around, stand still and look mournful. The wall label explains that Lo Pò (b.1979 studied photography at the London College of Communication) had spent a long frustrating day trying to photograph a racehorse in Sardinia, packed it in and went for a meal at a local pizzeria. Coming out he spotted this pale freckled girl playing with friends. He asked her parents if he could photograph her and placed her against the warm plaster wall which brings out the tones in her skin and hair. It’s an amazing and striking photograph. But it did make me laugh that the first thing the photographer did was stop her playing with her friends. Now, now, none of that laughing and smiling: this is art! Instead she is carefully posed in the soulful, intense, rather numb expression which is the visual style of our age.

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Girl outside the pizzeria at night by Andy Lo Pò 2017 © Andy Lo Pò

Charlie Forgham-Bailey (b.1989, based London, studied French and Philosophy at uni) is represented by a set of four photos of boy footballers, who were taking part in the Danone World Cup four unsmiling, stern looking young dudes.

Ditto this photo of ‘Rishai’, snapped by Meredith Andrews, sitting sternly unsmiling on his bike. ‘Don’t smile kid – this is art!’

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Rishai from the series After School by Meredith Andrews © Meredith Andrews

Two particular photos of kids take the art of seriousness to new levels; by Richard Ansett (b.1966), they are from two series, one titled After the Attack (The Manchester bombing) showing a teenager in her bedroom who witnessed the bombing and has had difficulty leaving her house, since; and one titled Children of Grenfell, whose subject matter you can probably guess.

Old people

But it isn’t just kids who can look grim and unsmiling. Images of old people, the more vulnerable the better, can always be relied on for instant pathos.

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn't Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Nan, Hafen Dag Sheltered Scheme, Mid Glamorgan from the series Old Age Doesn’t Come By Itself by Rhiannon Adam 2017 © Rhiannon Adam

Even famous old people. There’s a dazzling photo of Hollywood legend Christopher Walken (although can anyone name a movie he’s been in since the Deer Hunter?) Against a jet black background, his aged haunted face looms pale and haunted. It’s fascinating to learn that the session took only a few minutes, the photographer Anoush Abrar (b.1976 Tehran, masters degree in photography) setting up, just the two of them in the room, the photos taking just moments to take.

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Christopher Walken by Anoush Abrar 2018 © Anoush Abrar

Katherine Hamnett is featured. Who? The fashion designer who hit the headlines way back in 1984 when she was invited to meet the Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, and wore a white t-shirt of her down design emblazoned with the words ‘58% don’t want Pershing’ referring to Ronald Reagan’s siting of cruise missiles at Greenham Common. Ah, I remember it well. So I was a little surprised to see that she’s still alive, not so surprised to learn that she’s spent a lot of the intervening 34 years making more t-shirts with ‘political’ slogans on them, and not in the slightest bit surprised that the latest one is anti-Brexit photo by Pedro Alvarez (b.1972 took a degree in photography at Blackpool Uni).

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Katharine Hamnett by Pedro Alvarez 2018 © Pedro Alvarez

Ordinary adults

But most people aren’t babies, kids, teenagers or pensioners. Most people belong to the age range 18 to 65. But this age group, what you might call ordinary everyday people, the kind you go into a work environment and see, or see on the Tube at rush hour.

In contrast to serious children, sensitive artists and sad old people I liked some of the photos of blokes. Here’s a geezer, Conor, with his dog Levi, snapped by Tom Cockram (b.1986, BS Hons in photography from Manchester Metropolitan University).

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

Conor and Levi from the series British Boxing by Tom Cockram 2018 © Tom Cockram

The more I looked at this, the more I liked it, though it took a while to figure out why. First, the subject does not fill the frame (compare and contrast with all the images, above). He is set in a landscape, which just makes it visually more interesting. And the landscape itself is intriguing, the way the heavy mist obscures the trees on the horizon, and teases you to try and decipher the types of buildings behind them – hotel, council estate, I think that’s a petrol station on the right. And then there’s the visual relation between one man and his dog, the way the sloped back of the politely sitting dog makes a line which, if you extended it, would touch the man’s head, in other words together they form a triangle, hidden, concealed in the photo, but which, I think, subtly gives it a unity of composition.

Also featuring a bit more background than usual, and an intriguing one at that, is this photo of a ‘guest at a graduation party’ by Adam Hinton (b.1965).

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

Guest at a graduation party by Adam Hinton 2018 © Adam Hinton

The wall label tells us that Hinton had travelled to Plovdiv in Bulgaria to document the largest Roma community in Europe and came across a party celebrating the graduation of several young women from the local university.

I liked this photo because it is not of a serious-looking child, nor of a frail and vulnerable old lady, nor of a high-minded liberal fashionista. It captures the spirit and culture of the huge number of people across Europe, who aren’t educated, don’t read new novels, go to the opera or art galleries, who just make a living trading horses, dealing in scrap metal, working as seasonal labourers, fixing up cars, running second hand TV shops, men who try to do the best for their wives and kids, and on special occasions dress up in bling and greased hair.

It reminded me of some of the photos I’ve seen at the Calvert 22 Foundation, which focuses on art and photography from East European countries, or the absolutely brilliant photos of men and landscapes around the Black Sea taken by Vanessa Winship and featured in a recent exhibition at the Barbican.

I liked all these because they are unusual.

By contrast when I read that one of the photographers on display here had set off on a 1,000 mile roadtrip round America on a Harley Davidson bike, photographing the weird and eccentric people she met, my heart sank. If I never see another black and white photo of weird and kooky, provincial, backwoods, redneck characters from America, it will be soon.

Rinko Kawauchi

There is absolutely no requirement for the exhibition as a whole to be representative of everything. I just like counting, noting data sets, trends, numbers. My day job is a data analyst for a government agency.

Thus I couldn’t help noticing the complete absence of images from India or China which, between them, have 2.7 billion people, 38% of the world’s population. Also because I’m still savouring the exhibition of works by Vasantha Yogananthan at the Photographers’ Gallery. It’s a big country, India. Lots of people. Very colourful. Not here at all (there is one photo of a British Sikh).

I wonder why. Don’t Indians apply? Do Westerners not go looking for colourful subjects in India any more (as they obviously still do in Africa, from the evidence here)?

A country which was specifically represented was Japan, in the form of a special feature – a wall of eleven works by Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi. Kawauchi’s work came to prominence with the simultaneous publication of three books: Hanako (a documentary of a young girl of the same name), Hanabi (which translates as ‘fireworks’) and Utatane (a Japanese word that describes the state between wakefulness and sleep. In 2002 Kawauchi was awarded the Kimura-Ihei-Prize, Japan’s most important emerging talent photography prize, following the publication of her first photobooks.

Her photos are about delicacy. She shoots in a way which lets in so much light that the photos are almost over-exposed, have a milky misty quality. And her subject appears to be the everyday life of her family – ‘small events glimpsed in passing’ – including a couple of striking images of adults holding a tiny, tiny baby.

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi

Untitled by Rinko Kawauchi


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The Amateur Cracksman by E.W. Hornung (1899)

He was beyond comparison the most masterful man whom I have ever known. (Bunny on Raffles)

Ernest William Hornung wrote a series of twenty-six short stories and one novel about the adventures of by far his most successful fictional character, Arthur J. Raffles, cricketer and gentleman thief. The stories are told in the first person by his assistant and chronicler, Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders. The series was published between 1898 and 1909.

The first story, The Ides of March, appeared in the June 1898 edition of Cassell’s Magazine and the first eight adventures were collected in The Amateur Cracksman (1899), with further stories in the successive volumes The Black Mask (1901) and A Thief in the Night (1904), followed by the full-length novel, Mr. Justice Raffles in 1909.

Hornung dedicated The Amateur Cracksman to his brother-in-law, Arthur Conan Doyle, and openly declared that Raffles was a deliberate inversion of the Sherlock Holmes formula, with a faithful amanuensis recording the daring exploits of a clever, bold, resourceful, upper-class English criminal rather than detective. Raffles, as Hornung’s dedication to this volume makes clear, was intended as a ‘form of flattery’.

The eight stories in this first collection are:

1. The Ides of March

Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders is invited to a game of baccarat at Raffles’s rooms in the Albany, a posh apartment block in a little square just off Piccadilly. (Bunny himself lives in rooms in Mount Street.) Bunny was Raffles’s fag at public school. He loses badly at the card game and ends up having to write cheques for £200 to all the other players. When they’ve all left, Bunny tearfully confesses to Raffles that he hasn’t got the money, in fact he hasn’t got any money.

Suavely and confidently, Raffles confides in the young chap that – neither has he! Despite living in a swanky apartment and doing nothing except play a spot of cricket in the summer, he is in fact penniless. The interest in this first story is how Raffles converts Bunny to a life of crime. First he gets him to admit that he needs to do something for money, even something desperate. Then he reminds Bunny of how they used to break the rules at school and asks how he’d feel about ‘breaking the rules’ now. Step by subtle step, Raffles generally leads Bunny on to the brink of admitting that, yes, he would even steal to get the money.

‘Do you remember how we used to break into the studies at school? Here goes!’

At which point, after pausing and considering a bit, Raffles asks him to come along to borrow some money from a friend who lives round the corner. ‘At this hour?’ Bunny asks. ‘Chop, chop old chap’, says the suave head of the cricket eleven, and leads Bunny out into the foggy muddy pavements of Piccadilly.

Raffles takes Bunny to Bond Street and then unlocks the door which gives on to stairs leading up to a flat above a high-class jewellers. ‘So where’s this friend?’ Bunny asks, as a sinking feeling comes over him. Slowly he realises that the flat is empty, abandoned, vacant. The realisation dawns that… Raffles has come to burgle the jewellers.

Over the next few hours Bunny watches Raffles at work, and very impressive it is, too. Raffles has previously reconnoitred the place, and realised that the vacant apartment shared a backyard with the jewellers. So he had approached the estate agent expressing interest in buying the flat and was given a key.

This is how he comes to be able to let himself and Bunny in, taking Bunny through the flat and then down into the basement area between the two properties. Here Raffles crosses the line by breaking open the window into the jewellers. Through the kitchen and up the stairs where they discover… a very strong mahoganny door blocking entry into the jewellers shop.

Raffles removes the lock by painstakingly drilling a series of holes round it. Beyond it is a metal grille door, but Raffles has a set of skeleton keys, one of which opens it. they’re in!

Raffles posts Bunny as a lookout at the street window of the flat and loots all the jewellery he can find, pausing whenever Bunny makes a sign that the local policeman is walking by.

Then they wash their hands and faces (all that drilling was dirty work), lock up what can be locked up, exit and stroll back along Piccadilly to Raffles’s flat. That’s it.

‘Enjoy it?’ Raffles asks Bunny. I’ll quote the entire exchange because, in a sense, it’s the crucial temptation scene, the moment when Bunny passes over to the Dark Side.

‘Like it?’ I cried out. ‘Not I! It’s no life for me. Once is enough!”
You wouldn’t give me a hand another time?’
‘Don’t ask me, Raffles. Don’t ask me, for God’s sake!’
‘Yet you said you would do anything for me! You asked me to name my crime! But I knew at the time you didn’t mean it; you didn’t go back on me to-night, and that ought to satisfy me, goodness knows! I suppose I’m ungrateful, and unreasonable, and all that. I ought to let it end at this. But you’re the very man for me, Bunny, the – very – man! Just think how we got through to-night. Not a scratch – not a hitch! There’s nothing very terrible in it, you see; there never would be, while we worked together.’

He was standing in front of me with a hand on either shoulder; he was smiling as he knew so well how to smile. I turned on my heel, planted my elbows on the chimney-piece, and my burning head between my hands. Next instant a still heartier hand had fallen on my back.

‘All right, my boy! You are quite right and I’m worse than wrong. I’ll never ask it again. Go, if you want to, and come again about mid-day for the cash. There was no bargain; but, of course, I’ll get you out of your scrape – especially after the way you’ve stood by me to-night.’

I was round again with my blood on fire
‘I’ll do it again,’ I said, through my teeth.
He shook his head. ‘Not you,’ he said, smiling quite good-humoredly on my insane enthusiasm.

‘I will,’ I cried with an oath. ‘I’ll lend you a hand as often as you like! What does it matter now? I’ve been in it once. I’ll be in it again. I’ve gone to the devil anyhow. I can’t go back, and wouldn’t if I could. Nothing matters another rap! When you want me, I’m your man!’

And that is how Raffles and I joined felonious forces on the Ides of March.

2. A Costume Piece

Big, brash, loud multi-millionaire Reuben Rosenthall turns up from the diamond fields in South Africa, dominates the newspapers and gossip columns, and holds a huge dinner inviting all the press, at which he boasts of his enormous fortune, the two huge diamonds in his tie-pin and ring, introduces the prize fighter, Billy Purvis, as his bodyguard and pulls out a gun and wants to decorate the hall wall with bullet holes until talked out of it by his hosts.

Well, in case we hadn’t realised it before, this second story gives the author the opportunity of showing just how much Raffles considers himself an artist of crime, an ‘insatiable artist’. Stealing stuff for the sake of it is common and vulgar. The real artist likes a challenge.

Raffles would plan a fresh enormity, or glory in the last, with the unmitigated enthusiasm of the artist.

And few challenges were more obvious than the richest man in Britain offering to take on all-comers.

Raffles takes Bunny to the studio which he rents down an alley in Chelsea. He tells the landlord he’s an ‘artist’ and needs all these costume and props for his models. In fact, the costumes and props are disguises for all occasions.

A few days later, Bunny finds Raffles masquerading as a smelly old tramp near Rosenthall’s hired house in St John’s Wood. Raffles tells him the job will be the next evening.

So they dress up as Shoreditch roughs and sneak through the garden of the house next door. When they see Rosenthall, Purvis and two ladies of the night loudly exit the house and pile into a carriage which sweeps off down the drive, Raffles says, ‘Go go go.’

They leap over the wall, but have barely made it through the open french windows into the dining room before all the lights go on and they find themselves looking down the barrel of a bunch of revolvers.

Rosenthall and Purvis have double-bluffed them, known about their plans for weeks. Raffles immediately starts talking in a broad East End thief dialect. He uses the one piece of information he has about Rosenthall which is that the millionaire is suspected of receiving stolen diamond. This infuriates Rosenthal and his man, Purvis, makes a lunge at Raffles, but this momentarily blocks Rosenthall’s line of fire and Raffles is out of the window in flash, over the wall, through the bushes and gone.

While the other two search for him, Bunny legs it upstairs and hides in a bedroom where, after some searching, Rosenthall and Purvis finally find him and drag him downstairs.

They are just considering what to do with him, when there’s a ring at the door and a policeman walks in who says he is responding to reports of a disturbance from alarmed neighbours. Rosenthall and Purvis indicate that Bunny was one of the burglars at which point the constable briskly handcuffs Bunny and frog marches him out of the building, telling Rosenthall and Purvis that reinforcements will be along in a minute to investigate the burglary.

The policeman is, of course, Raffles, in yet another of his disguises. Well, their plan to rob Rosenthall didn’t come off, so be it:

‘But, by Jove, we’re jolly lucky to have come out of it at all!’

3. Gentlemen and Players

Raffles is, of course, a master of cricket, the ultimate English idea of the gentleman’s game:

a dangerous bat, a brilliant field, and perhaps the very finest slow bowler of his decade,

His cricket prowess gets them invited to a house party down at Milchester Abbey, seat of posh Lord Amersteth, who is hosting a week of Gentlemen versus Players competitions.

Every detail of this story reads like a P.G. Wodehouse comedy, from the deaf old dowager with her ear trumpet, to the callow son of Lord Amersteth, to the dainty young lady, Miss Melhuish, who sits next to Bunny at dinner and tells him an awfully, frightfully, scandalous secret.

Bunny’s reaction to the whole situation, and to Raffles’s imperturbably sang-froid, is priceless.

Of course Raffles has accepted the invitation because he plans to steal the jewels of the posh guests. But Miss Melhuish’s Big Secret had been that one of the guests is a detective from London because two famous London thieves are in the neighbourhood.

This leads to all kinds of comic complications, especially on the part of Bunny, who completely fails to realise that the Scottish ‘photographer’ he spends an hour chatting with after dinner is the detective. Bunny is now terrified that the two London thieves being pursued are him and Raffles.

But they’re not. It is a different set of London thieves. This gang proceeds to carry out an audacious burglary, with inside help from some of Lord Amersteth’s servants, and the room of the Dowager Marchioness of Melrose with the fine jewels is broken into.

Everyone is woken by the rumpus made by the London detective grappling with one of the ‘inside men’ i.e. one of the servants who had helped with the job. Raffles, first on the spot, volunteers to take over holding him guard while the detective – Mackenzie of the Yard – goes dashing out into the garden to try and catch the rest of the gang who have meanwhile shinned down a rope from her Ladyship’s room and are escaping through the garden.

Things take a slightly serious turn when Mackenzie is shot, though survives. The thieves get away. All the guests stay up the rest of the night, discussing the events, on through breakfast and the cab journey to the nearby station and the train ride home.

Only when the train has arrived at Paddington and Raffles and Bunny are alone in a hansom cab, does Raffles reveal that in all the confusion he had darted into the Marchioness’s room and – stolen her necklace!

Burglary as wizard wheeze!

4. Le Premier Pas

Raffles tells Bunny about his first caper. He was on a cricket tour of Australia when his hand was damaged in Melbourne. He desperately needed funds and, asking around and giving his name to people, was amazed to come across a doctor who knew of a relative of Raffles’s who was a bank manager. Who had just taken up a new position in a township fifty miles south, name of Yea.

Raffles saw the opportunity to go and beg money from this distant relative so he borrows the doctor’s fat old mare (who needs an outing) and sets off along a dusty road in the Outback.

At a forest of eucalyptus trees a horse comes bounding out, with a bloody saddle. Raffles blocks it, grabs the reins just as another horseman comes riding up. This horseman is a very rough looking man. He gives the explanation his mate just rode into the branch of a tree, got a bloody nose and fell off, and that he’s come to fetch his horse.

Puzzled, and a little scared, Raffles rides on, arriving at the township of Yea at sunset. He goes to the bank and makes himself known to the man there and then – realises that he’s walking into a big misunderstanding. His namesake, W.F. Raffles, hasn’t yet arrived and the bank official (Ewbank) mistakes Raffles for the new manager.

There is a moment in the conversation when Raffles could have cleared up the misunderstanding, been honest, and waited for his distant relation to arrive. In that moment, he recollects the rough guy and wild horse he saw earlier, and wonders whether they were bushwhackers who had waylaid his namesake. Maybe his namesake has been delayed, kidnapped or even shot.

In that moment, partly out of need and partly for the fun of the thing, Raffles decides to impersonate his namesake and see what opportunities arise.

There follow a couple of pages of comedy as Raffles desperately tries to keep up with what Ewbank knows about the new manager, not least the story that he once saw off an armed robber at his previous job. All this Raffles has to bluff his way through, and finds it nerve-racking but also very exciting.

He asks for a full tour round the bank, and then stays up late jawing with Ewbank, emptying his own drink when the other isn’t watching, trying to get Ewbank as drunk as possible. Eventually Ewbank goes to bed. So does Raffles – for a few hours. Then he sneaks out and saddles the mare, then sneaks down into the bank and, using the keys Ewbank has shown him, lets himself through a door, which leads to steps down into the strong room. Here he fills his pockets with gold sovereigns, carefully balancing the weight. But then—!!!!

He hears banging at the front door of the bank! Caught in the act!!

The banging keeps on till the drunk Ewbank stirs and comes downstairs. Raffles overhears it all. His namesake has arrived and, yes, he was captured and tied up by the bushwhackers. But has worked his way free and here he is more dead than alive.

Raffles hears all this, trapped downstairs in the strong room with the blood pounding in his ears. Ewbank realises that he has been taken in by an imposter (Raffles) and becomes very angry. He grabs his revolver and he and the other Raffles quietly go upstairs to the bedroom where they think our hero is asleep.

Which gives our hero the chance to very, very quietly tiptoe up the stairs from the strong room, along the corridor to the back door, out into the paddock, climb onto the mare and walk her very slowly out into the shadow of the other buildings and towards the road out of town.

There follows a vivid description of Raffles’s ride through the forest of eucalyptus at night with his head pressed against the horse’s mane. He arrives back at Melbourne, stashes the gold in his hotel room, returns the horse to the doctor who is a little puzzled and suspicious but does nothing.

The cricket tour ends. The team return to England. Raffles has discovered a new hobby – thieving!

5. Wilful Murder

Bunny learns that Raffles fences his stolen goods by dressing up in the outfit of an East End crook, and going to meet a fence and swindler named Baird. He puts on a thick slum accent for the purpose – all part of the fun of the game. Except that on his most recent visit, Baird for the first time sees though him and follows him back towards his apartment. Raffles realises he’s being followed. This could be serious.

He takes Bunny for dinner and for the first time Raffles talks about the joys of burglary, giving a surprisingly shallow speech about what larks it would be to have committed a murder and then walk into the club where all the chaps are discussing it and knowing that you are the culprit.

He then sets off to Willesden (which, it is fascinating to learn, was in 1899 still a village on the edge of open countryside) where Baird lives, with Bunny in reluctant but half-fascinated pursuit. They climb over the spiked gate into Baird’s garden, sneak up to the house and carefully cut open the glass with the diamond and treacle trick (look it up) before – discovering Baird’s body at their feet, his head beaten to a bloody pulp with a nearby poker.

This wasn’t part of the plan.

Upstairs they find young Jack Rutter, for some months now a byword among polite Society for dissolution and demoralisation. They discover he was deeply in debt to Baird, with no way to escape, was threatened with ruin and had finally – taken matters into his own hands by battering the old fence and loan shark to death.

Reeling from this discovery, Raffles decides they must take Rutter with them and they leave the house as quietly as they can. All the way home the man is raving that he has done the crime and he must hand himself in, with Raffles begging him to shut up.

Bunny doesn’t see his hero for a few days and, when he does, learns that Raffles took Rutter – still keen for martyrdom at the hands of the law – to his Chelsea hideout, where he fixed him up with a disguise, then caught the train together to Liverpool, where he bought Rutter a ticket to New York and a new life.

6. Nine Points of the Law

Raffles answers an advert in the Daily Telegraph promising two thousand pounds for anyone prepared to take A RISK. He and Bunny are invited to the chambers of a rather shady lawyer and told the problem.

Sir Bernard Debenham has a disreputable son who has drunk and gambled his way into debt. Last time he went down to Sir Bernard’s big country house in Esher the father refused to bail the son out any more. Whereupon the son secretly cut out of its frame a priceless Velasquez painting. He smuggled it up to town and sold it to an unscrupulous Australian tycoon and collector who’s visiting the Old Country, the Honourable J. M. Craggs, M.L.C.

The task is: to reclaim the stolen Velasquez.

Raffles sets off on a whirlwind tour, training it down to Esher to see Sir Bernard, then back up to town, hurrying in and out and not telling Bunny any of his plans.

Then, abruptly, he tells Bunny to make a dinner date for all three of them in Craggs’s rooms at the Metropole Hotel. Bunny assumes he is to be a decoy. He imagines that while he talks to Cragg in one room, Raffles will go to work to extract the rolled up painting from the map carrier in the other room (which is where they’ve discovered it’s hidden).

Bunny shows up for the dinner date at the Metropolem but Raffles doesn’t, and sends a telegram of apology. In actual fact, a little way into the meal, Bunny thinks he can hear Raffles working in the adjoining room and so raises his voice and laughs at inappropriate moments, all the while being subjected to hours of excruciating conversation about the wonderfulness of Australia. It becomes clear that Cragg is a vulgar bore who only bought the picture to upstage an equally vulgar rival back in Oz.

Finally, Cragg insists on showing Bunny the painting itself, and the latter nerves himself for the stream of Australian abuse which will no doubt issue from the millionaire’s mouth when he discovers that the picture is gone. Except that it isn’t. Cragg gets out the map case, opens it, takes out the Velasquez, unfurls it and generally shows off about it.

Bunny is appalled. Raffles must have muffed his opportunity.

Bunny lets Cragg replace the painting, and carries on drinking hard with him until Cragg is so drunk that Bunny has to help him back into his room, where he promptly passes out.

Bunny nips back to his own rooms in Mount Street (which are in Mayfair, only a short cab ride from the Metropole, which was at Charing Cross), then returns, letting himself back up to Cragg’s room. Here he puts a chloroform-soaked hankie over the big man’s nose to make sure he really is out for the count.

Then he extracts the painting from the map case, wraps it round his own body under his coat, gets a cab to Waterloo, and the first train to Esher. He takes a hansom cab to Sir Bernard Debenham’s house where he finds Raffles and, beaming with pride, tells him how he’s saved the day.

Except that he hasn’t. As the reader well suspects, Raffles had successfully carried out the retrieval of the painting, and had replaced the real Velasquez with a fake.

It was procuring this fake which had entailed all the rushing round town which Bunny had partly witnessed. Bunny has gone and taken – the fake! Oh well, Cragg won’t find out till he opens up the case in Australia and will probably be too embarrassed to make a fuss.

Bunny is so mortified that he declares on the spot that he’s going to pack in this life of crime, and go straight!

7. The Return Match

In the third story in this volume, Gentlemen and Players, Raffles and Bunny had gone down to Milchester Abbey for a week of cricket and been caught up in an attempted burglary. Most of the gang had eventually been caught, including the infamous ringleader, Mr. Reginald Crawshay.

Now, in his rooms at the Albany, Raffles reads to Bunny a newspaper report that Crawshay has escaped from Dartmoor prison. Not only that, but he’s stolen the clothes of at least two different civilians in order to escape in disguise.

Raffles suspects he’s heading to London. Why? Because Crawshay wrote Raffles a letter in which he politely and facetiously looked forward to a return match with our hero i.e. revenge. Barely has Raffles finished reading all this, than Mr. Reginald Crawshay emerges from the shadows of the hallway into Raffles’s own flat. Here is right there! Ah. This is tricky.

After much banter it emerges that all  Crawshay actually wants is for Raffles to help him get away, and out of England.

Crawshay has, after all, one enormous advantage over our heroes, which is that he knows that they stole the Marchioness’s jewels. He could blackmail them if he wants to. It’s asmuch in Raffles and Bunny’s interest to help him escape, as it is in Crawshay’s. After agreeing that he’s got them over a barrel, our heroes leave Mr Crawshay with his feet up in front of a fire

They set off towards a station but haven’t even got out of the little square in front of the Albany before they walk past a figure they recognise as Inspector Mackenzie, the Scotland Yard detective who was shot and injured down at Milchester Abbey.

They turn and say good evening to him and are alarmed to discover that the police have tracked Crawshay all the way across London to these very buildings. Raffles reminds the inspector of the service he did the police at Milchester and asks to come along in their investigations. So Mackenzie allows Raffles and Bunny to accompany him up to a vacant room, which the Albany’s manager says funny noises have been heard coming from.

A copper then climbs out onto the lead roof and discovers a rope tied round a chimney, and dangling down above a window… six rooms in. Crawshay must have come up to this empty room, climbed along the roof, then let himself down to the window of… of which room? Mackenzie asks the manager.

Quick as a flash the latter replies, ‘That would be Mr Raffles’s rooms, sir’. ‘Aha’, says Mackenzie. Bunny feels his heart beating fit to burst.

But Raffles is coolness itself and says this has all been very interesting but in fact he now has to rush off for an appointment. He will leave his key with the constable downstairs. Mackenzie can’t say fairer than that.

Looking out the window Bunny sees him hustle, wrapped up tight against the cold fog, towards the entrance to their staircase. And a minute or so later re-emerge, stop with the constable guarding the staircase the police are investigating, and hand over the key, before moving briskly towards Piccadilly.

Then, with a heavy heart, Bunny follows Mackenzie and the police as they go down one flight of stairs, collect the key Raffles has left with the constable, and then go along and up Raffles’s flight.

They open the door to Raffles’s apartment but, instead of finding Crawshay lounging in front of a fire, they find… the figure of Raffles on the floor in front of the fire, with blood on his forehead from a gash and a bloodied poker nearby!!

Coming round, Raffles groggily tells Mackenzie that Crawshay was laying in wait and attacked him before making off with his coat. Bunny of course realises it was another wizard wheeze – Raffles, under extreme pressure, devised the plan of giving Crawshay his coat and instructing him to swaddle himself in it and give his apartment key to the waiting policeman before making his getaway, leaving Raffles to hit himself with the poker, not too hard, making it all look as if Crawshay hit him and escaped.

Just the kind of ‘sport’ which Raffles lives for.

8. The Gift of the Emperor

‘Violence is a confession of terrible incompetence.’

The opening of this story requires a historical footnote. Hornung uses rather facetious and obscure language to refer to what I take to be an actual historical event – which is that the King of Fiji in some way snubs some kind of gift or compliment from Queen Victoria; and to emphasise the snub, the Kaiser of Germany sends an immensely valuable pearl to the king.

This little diplomatic spat caused a storm of indignation in Britain but, more importantly for our hero, it meant that a jewel of immense value was very publicly being sent by steamer to the South Seas.

Thus it is that the story opens with Raffles booking a berth on the German steamer which is transporting this pearl to the South Seas.

We discover that Bunny really has gone through with his threat to give up his life of crime. He is trying to make a career as a freelance writer and, as a consequence, has been forced to give up his Mayfair flat and move out of London to suburban Thames Ditton.

Nonetheless, Raffles manages to persuade him to come on this jolly trip. Maybe he will get some writing done!

Thus it is that Raffles and Bunny take ship to Hamburg where they board the steamer. Raffles quickly identifies the courier of the pearl as one Captain Wilhelm von Heumann. Raffles annoys Bunny by paying lots of attention to a whippersnapper of a young Australian girl, which Bunny thinks is uncharacteristic and distraction from the job in hand. Until he realises that von Heumann has himself been paying the girl a very heavily Teutonic wooing, during which he has shown her the pearl: thus Raffles is flirting with her solely to ascertain its hiding place in the German’s cabin.

Once he does so, Raffles reveals his ingenious plan to Bunny. He strips naked and climbs through the ventilator shaft which connects his ventilator to those of all the other cabins on the same level (including von Heumann’s).

Von Heumann routinely drinks too much at lunchtime, so it is a doddle to suspend a hankie dipped in chloroform over the snoring German’s face until he is really unconscious – and then climb into the cabin, find the pearl, prise it out of its setting, and clamber back into the ventilator shaft, clip von Heumann’s ventilator back into place, and so back to his cabin and the anxiously waiting Bunny.

Like a scene from hundreds of heist movies.

But his triumph is quickly dashed. As the ship steams out of Genoa a new passenger is put aboard. It is none other that Inspector Mackenzie, Raffles’s old nemesis. After a tantalising delay wondering what the inspector’s presence portends, Raffles and Bunny are called into the captain’s cabin, wherein sit von Heumann, Mackenzie and a very beefy first mate.

Long story short – Mackenzie has a warrant for Raffles’s arrest, invoking the Marchioness jewels and two other burglaries. Now they all suspect him of stealing the pearl. Looks like they’ve got him bang to rights. After pretending to get a bit cross, Raffles gives up and shows them where he’s hidden the pearl – inside one of the bullets of his revolver.

But Raffles begs one last request before they put the cuffs on him. He says he’s gotten engaged to the young Australian lassie he’s been chatting to throughout the voyage, and he asks permission to say goodbye to her.

So the forces of law and order escort Raffles to the part of deck where the young lady is promenading, and he gives her a farewell kiss. Then – in a flash – pushes her aside, leaps up onto the rail, waves goodbye to all and sundry, and makes a perfect dive into the sea beneath.

It is sunset and Raffles is immediately hidden in the gathering shadows of the boat and the waves.

Bunny is thrown into the brig in shackles but he thinks he saw, before they dragged him away from the rail, a small dark shape bobbing on the water. Was it the head of a swimmer making for the shore and freedom? Did Raffles survive?


Power, love and control

Bunny was Raffles’s fag at their public school. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to see how it is this master-and-servant relationship which is revived in the first story and forms the basis for everything which follows. Bunny doesn’t enter into a working partnership with Raffles, so much as become his hero-worshipping slave.

It is interesting to learn that Hornung deliberately injected into the relationship a little of the feeling between Oscar Wilde and his ill-fated lover, Alfred Douglas. Raffles is very, very languid at some moments, drawling outrageous cynicisms though his cigarette smoke, while Bunny is so very much in boyish awe of him.

One had not to be a cricketer oneself to appreciate his perfect command of pitch and break, his beautifully easy action, which never varied with the varying pace, his great ball on the leg-stump – his dropping head-ball – in a word, the infinite ingenuity of that versatile attack. It was no mere exhibition of athletic prowess, it was an intellectual treat, and one with a special significance in my eyes. I saw the ‘affinity between the two things’, saw it in that afternoon’s tireless warfare against the flower of professional cricket. It was not that Raffles took many wickets for few runs; he was too fine a bowler to mind being hit; and time was short, and the wicket good. What I admired, and what I remember, was the combination of resource and cunning, of patience and precision, of head-work and handiwork, which made every over an artistic whole. It was all so characteristic of that other Raffles whom I alone knew!

Isn’t that very final sentence the sentiment of a lover? An adoring lover, smug in the knowledge that he, and only he, knows all the secrets of this charming and fascinating man.

I looked at Raffles. I had done so often during the evening, envying him his high spirits, his iron nerve, his buoyant wit, his perfect ease and self-possession.

There was never anybody in the world so irresistible as Raffles when his mind was made up… His arm slid through mine, with his little laugh of light-hearted mastery.

As he spoke he was himself again – quietly amused – cynically unperturbed – characteristically enjoying the situation and my surprise.

I confess to some little prejudice against her. I resented her success with Raffles, of whom, in consequence, I saw less and less each day. It is a mean thing to have to confess, but there must have been something not unlike jealousy rankling within me.

‘his little laugh of light-hearted mastery’

Morality?

I have little or no patience for ‘morality’ in art or literature. ‘Morality’, Freud says somewhere, ‘is obvious’, and I agree. Be decent and respectful to each other would be a start, quite a big start, for most people. Discussing arcane points of ‘morality’ is not only interminable and tedious but also irrelevant to most people’s day-to-day lives.

I can see, however, that a theme or thread running through the stories is the tension between Bunny’s hero worship attraction towards Raffles and his dazzling amorality, and the repulsion generated by his traditional ‘morality” or moral code – stealing is wrong (although it may just be – like so many ‘moral feelings’, based on cruder physical motives: Stealing is nerve-wracking and dangerous).

Anyway, I can see how this set of stories could easily be read not as a set of eight straight dashing exploits, but as a very Victorian morality tale of record of Bunny’s fall from decent behavour, then attempt to free himself by forswearing burglary, and then his come-uppance.

In the last story Raffles gets away, Bunny is clamped in irons and – we learn, rather surprisingly – is sent to prison.

Of what followed on deck I can tell you nothing, for I was not there. Nor can my final punishment, my long imprisonment, my everlasting disgrace, concern or profit you, beyond the interest and advantage to be gleaned from the knowledge that I at least had my deserts.

Public school amorality and the British Empire

I can’t help noticing that Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories about amoral but dashing schoolboys, Stalky and Co., was published in the same year as Raffles, 1899. Stalky and his pals are also fiercely amoral, ducking school rules, conducting feuds and vendettas and punishments – but nonetheless bound by their own schoolboy notions of honour and silence.

However, they are very different in tone – Kipling’s schoolboy stories are, as so often, cruel, gloating and sadistic, whereas Hornung’s are light and gay. Kipling’s style is clipped and sometimes all but unreadable, whereas Hornung’s are meant to be easy-to-consume after-dinner reading.

But both of them share the assumption that public school-educated chaps can get away with more or less anything, because deep down (sometimes very deep down) they are honourable and decent.

It isn’t doing things which are immoral or criminal which brings disgrace. It is doing anything vulgar or crude. It is doing anything which is ‘bad form’. It is letting the side down. After the Indian Mutiny there was a new emphasis among the British ruling classes in keeping up tone, maintaining the form of the thing, playing the game.

It wasn’t necessary to be strictly legal or play by the rules – after all, the empire had been built by a load of chaps who generally bent the rules, often to breaking point. But all this was redeemed by the fact that they were chaps like us. White men who know how to play the game, especially the game of games, the epitome of the spirit of the British Empire – cricket. Raffles’s expertise at cricket is a simple indicator that deep down, right at bottom – no matter how many burglaries and other crimes he is involved in – he is, ultimately, one of us.

Comedy

It is a comedy. Nothing serious happens and if it does it is glossed over with high good spirits, while Bunny paints both his and Raffle’s characters with humorous self-deprecation, in the stylishly amused tone of the moneyed upper classes. Arriving at a house party in the country, Bunny is overwhelmed by poshness.

The chief signs of festival were within, where we found an enormous house-party assembled, including more persons of pomp, majesty, and dominion than I had ever encountered in one room before. I confess I felt overpowered. Our errand and my own presences combined to rob me of an address upon which I have sometimes plumed myself.

‘Address’ is here used in an older sense meaning self-possession and self-presentation. ‘An address upon which I have sometimes plumed myself’ simultaneously combines toffish self-depreciation with toffish assertion. ‘Plumed’. To plume oneself. What a great word.

I’m not really familiar with P.G. Wodehouse but this feels like a precursor of the brisk, upper-class amusement of the Jeeves stories. Lots of the writing is done with great timing and dryness.

‘Candidly, and on consideration,’ said the lawyer, ‘I am not sure that you ARE the stamp of men for me – men who belong to good clubs! I rather intended to appeal to the – er – adventurous classes.’
‘We are adventurers,’ said Raffles gravely.

Language and style

I suffered from a persistent ineffectual feeling after style.

I’ve just been reading the detective stories of Arthur Morrison, more or less contemporary with Hornung, and found myself continually comparing the two writers.

Obviously, Hornung’s stories are light and funny and stylish, whereas Morrison’s are effective little puzzles but often a little dull. But the one really striking difference between them is in their use of language.

Morrison, in all his works, makes heavy weather of using pretentiously archaic and ‘literary’ words like ‘withal’ and ‘ere’ and ‘thereunto’ (none of which appear in Hornung). In his stories about East End slums, this vocabulary is used partly to create a bitter irony between the pompous language and the savage events being described. In his detective stories it is maybe intended to denote the author’s literary abilities and provenance.

But where Morrison uses posh English to create a tone or voice – Hornung uses French and Latin. The narrative voice of Bunny, and the direct speech of Raffles, use Latin or French tags with the blithe confidence of the expensively educated. Morrison’s prose is trying to appear literate and educated. Hornung’s prose effortlessly is so.

‘Enfin, he begs or borrows.’

‘Ergo, as we’re Britishers, they think we’ve got it!”

The man was au fait with cracksmen.

The diamond, the pot of treacle, and the sheet of brown paper which were seldom omitted from his impedimenta.

‘One of the most complete young black-guards about town, and the fons et origo of the whole trouble.’

‘He gives me carte blanche in the matter.’

‘And I had done it myself, single-handed – ipse egomet!’

Not only given to quoting tags from foreign languages, Raffles is just the type of languid dandy who easily quotes from the flowers of literature (Bunny is surprised to find in Raffles’s rooms at the Albany quite so many volumes of poetry – ‘there had always been a fine streak of aestheticism in his complex composition’) or makes knowing references to classic literature.

I particularly liked the moment when Raffles comes across bunny dozing in his bed on their long sea voyage, and knowingly remarks: ‘Achilles on his bunk’.

The poetry quotes aren’t extensive or particularly impressive – he quotes pretty obvious Major Poets such as Tennyson and Keats – it’s more that they indicate the cultured hinterland which Raffles can draw on at will.

A half-educated man uses long, pretentious English words, sometimes not entirely accurately. This was what made listening to trades union leaders in the 1970s so funny.

A well-educated man, by contrast, doesn’t need to – he can use common or garden English prose most of the time, but sprinkle it with just enough Latin and French tags, or casual quotes from the higher literature, to signal his cultural savoir faire.

Raffles’ and Bunny’s Latin and French and Keats and Tennyson offer the same kind of reassurance on the cultural level, that Raffles’s cricketing prowess does on the sporting front – assuring the educated reader of his day and, maybe, still, of ours, that he is one of us!

Arthur Raffles, gentleman thief (standing) and his sidekick Harry 'Bunny' Manders

Arthur Raffles, gentleman thief (standing) and his sidekick Harry ‘Bunny’ Manders


Related links

Reviews of other fiction of the 1880s and 1890s

Joseph Conrad

Rudyard Kipling

Henry Rider Haggard

Sherlock Holmes

Anthony Hope

E.H. Hornung

Henry James

Arthur Morrison

Robert Louis Stevenson

Bram Stoker

H.G. Wells

Oscar Wilde

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

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South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

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Riotous Assembly by Tom Sharpe (1971)

A black man pretending to be a white woman, dancing steps of a ballet he has never seen, dressed in clothes made of a material totally unsuited to a hot climate on a lawn which was imported from England, and kissing the stone face of a man who destroyed his nation, filmed by a woman who is widely regarded as the arbiter of good taste. Nothing could better express the quality of life in South Africa. (p.143)

The word farce doesn’t begin to adequately convey the out-of-control extremity, the relentless savage absurdity of Sharpe’s very funny first novel. The story or, rather, the narrative stuffed with absurd and absurdly violent incidents, focuses on three thick-headed, cruel and blundering policemen in apartheid South Africa – Kommandant van Heerden, Luitenant Verkramp and Konstabel Els. The plot kick starts like a rusty motorbike when they receive a phone call from Miss Hazelstone, an elderly Englishwoman who lives in an old colonial mansion, her grandfather having led the forces which conquered this part of Zululand, her father having been a notorious hanging judge.

Miss Hazelstone was telephoning to report that she had just shot her Zulu cook. Konstabel Els was perfectly capable of handling the matter. He had in his time shot any number of Zulu cooks. (p.16)

These three short sentences convey Sharpe’s style. Quick, effective prose which crisply conveys the ludicrousness, the heartlessness and the absurdity of the events with the maximum of biting humour. Comedy is in the timing and, when applied to comic prose on the page, this means sentences must run briskly and crisply up to a punchline – ideally one with an unexpected insight or comic thrust. As Sharpe’s prose does. Time after time.

In a much later scene, the tied and bound Bishop is visited in prison by a cynically detached English chaplain (who has only been persuaded to do this unpleasant chore because he was assured there some rare wild flowers to be seen in the grounds).

The chaplain paused, and looked at the manacles and chains. ‘Do you wear those all the time?’ he asked. ‘They must be frightfully uncomfortable.’
‘Only when I’m going to be hanged,’ said the Bishop.
The chaplain thought he detected a note of bitterness in the remark… (p.192)

Crisp, clear, ironic dialogue.

Back at the plot, the three police officers drive up to Miss H’s house to find her holding a vast elephant gun from the colonial era and a dead cook lying on the lawn by the statue of her dignified ancestor – and things quickly start descending into Sharpeland. Not wanting the criminality of such an honourable old family to be publicised, van Heerden orders the very stupid Konstabel Els to go down to the gatehouse and make sure nobody comes in or out. ‘Shall I shoot?’ asks the Konstabel and the Kommandant rashly says yes. Els finds a colonial-era blockhouse hidden among bushes and takes up position with the elephant gun, a revolver and lots of ammunition. Which is a shame, because the Kommandant has also called the police station and ordered everyone up to the house, fully armed and accompanied by the six Saracen armoured cars the force possesses, to back up the Konstabel.

On the way they are ordered to post large signs warning against rabies and – just to be on the safe side – bubonic plague, around the perimeter of the estate, and this has the unfortunate effect of creating a large-scale panic in the town in which a lot of the population get caught up and start fleeing.

But the main result is that when the policemen advance towards the gatehouse they are immediately fired on by the psychotic Konstabel Els, the elephant gun having truly awesome powers of destruction and mutilation. — Thus, the first half of the book is dominated by the rapidly escalating absurdity of this stand-off, with the armoured cars being brought up to attack the impregnable blockhouse, and a contingent of officers sent round the side camouflaged as bushes – only to discover the hard way that Miss Hazelstone’s military grandfather had prepared an elaborate system of defences including concealed trenches with sharpened spikes at the bottom onto which many of the hapless officers fall, shrieking with agony. Sharpe’s world is not for the faint-hearted. Many people die.

On entering Miss H’s mansion, Kommandant van Heerden discovers a naked man covered in blood snoring in a bedroom and takes him for the murderer, when it is in fact Miss H’s brother, the very Christian bishop of Barotseland, who had run from his bedroom immediately after the shooting to give Fivepence the last rites (hence the covered-in-blood).

There is a sequence of events which involve the bishop eventually waking, having a bath to wash off the blood and walking down to the luxury swimming pool in the grounds where he takes long relaxing lengths underwater, just as the police arrive at the mansion and start shouting for Miss H to come out. Being underwater, the bishop only dimly hears these shouts, which he mistakes for the voice of God announcing a new calling to him.

Meanwhile, Kommandant van Heerden makes a series of unpleasant discoveries about Miss Hazelstone which turn his (admittedly dim) understanding of the world upside down, namely that she has been having a sexual affair with her Zulu cook, in which they both dressed up in rubber fetish suits, Miss Hazelstone dressing as a man, the cook (named Fivepence) dressing as a woman; further, that the cook had premature ejaculation which could only be staved off if Miss H injected his penis with novocaine.

Unfortunately, Kommandant van Heerden only discovers this after he recovers from a blow on the head incurred while fleeing for her savage Dobermann Pinscher to find himself dressed in just such a rubber sex suit, handcuffed to a king-size bed, with Miss H bearing down on him, syringe in hand!

Eventually Konstabel Els realises the enormity of his actions in killing and maiming some 20 of  his colleagues, beats a hasty retreat from the gatehouse and stumbles across the swimming area in the dark (it’s night-time by now), discovering a handy suit of black clothes in the changing area whose pockets he promptly fills with his revolver, all his ammunition and the empty bottle of scotch which had been fuelling his orgy of shooting.

Thus it is that the bishop emerges from the pool and is just discovering something odd in his pockets when a whole load of policemen and their German Shepherd dogs fall on him, chasing him round the swimming pool, before finally arresting him for the murder of the black cook (not that anyone cares about Fivepence by now) and the massacre of 21 policemen. He is handcuffed and dragged off to the police station where he is amiably tortured until he admits to everything and a whole lot more.

And so the narrative goes, madly, absurdly, dizzyingly, on, having left all plausibility and verisimilitude far behind after the first few pages as it escapes into a completely new world of absurdist farce, bitterly satirical, savagely violent and very, very funny.

Autobiography and ‘impurity’

In the past month or so I’ve been reading novels by Kingsley Amis and David Lodge, which are characterised by a high degree of autobiography. Lodge’s novels in fact amount to a lightly fictionalised autobiography, very obviously based on the key milestones in his own life (boyhood in south-east London during the war, mind-expanding visit to post-war Germany, National Service, impoverished junior academic trying to support a wife and children, academic exchange with an American colleague, and so on).

Amis’s fiction not only hints at his autobiography (bolshie young academic, librarian in Wales, freelance writer) but is further ‘impure’ in the sense that, no matter who the central character is, and whether it’s a first person or third person narration, they all tend to have Amis-style thoughts (grumbles and exasperations), be prey to the characteristic self-conscious deployment of plans and strategies (generally to seduce women, or get revenge on enemies), and all couched in Amis’s deliberately throwaway attitude.

The impure text Taken together, the heavy reliance on autobiography, and the tendency of their characters to sound like their authors, make the work of both novelists ‘impure’ ie the texts relate strongly back to their authors’ tone of voice and obsessions. In any Lodge novel you are likely to come across a lecture about Catholic teaching on sex, in any Amis novel passages of the narrator wondering out loud about some quirk of his consciousness or why women are so ‘difficult’.

The pure text This is by way of contrasting them both with Tom Sharpe, whose comic universe is complete, perfect, and miraculously detached from the real world, like a zany balloon which has slipped its mooring and is floating up into an entirely new dimension, previously unknown to humankind.

No chief of police, trussed in a rubber fetish suit, has ever dangled from handcuffs attaching his wrists to the posts of a bed wedged in the second-storey window of a colonial mansion in provincial South Africa. No constable has barricaded himself into a Victorian gun emplacement and systematically slaughtered 21 of his colleagues with an antiquated elephant gun. No provincial bishop has been interviewed by police so stupid they take his mentions of rubrics, chasubles and orbs to refer to the sexual implements he uses in depraved midnight orgies.

And no elderly lady, confined to a South African mental asylum (as Miss Hazelstone is in the novel’s finale) has organised a full-scale re-enactment of the Battle of Islandlwana, with the black inmates impersonating their Zulu ancestors and the white inmates their Boer antecedents, and which goes disastrously wrong when they get their hands on live ammunition.

No chief of police has ever been promised a heart transplant from an Anglican bishop about to be hanged and has been anaesthetised and cut open in preparation – when at the last minute the hanging goes disastrously wrong, the ancient gallows collapsing and killing half the witnesses with only the bishop making a freak escape – so that the the embarrassed surgeons quietly agree to sew the chief’s chest back up and assure him the transplant was a complete success!

In a refreshingly welcome change, no character in the book is a ‘substitute’ for the novelist. Nobody in it is a writer or an academic. It is uncontaminated by the ‘infection of literature’. Although it is ‘set’ in South Africa under the laws of apartheid – both of which really existed in this world – the narrative itself is wonderfully free of the limits of logic or plausibility, it is as completely alternative and fantastic a world as Wonderland, and the reader staggers from one over-the-top scene to the next feeling like a hallucinating Alice, and experiencing a unique and powerful sense of imaginative liberation.

Related links

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Pan paperback edition of Riotous Assembly featuring the fabulous cartoon illustration by Paul Sample

Paul Sample A word about the illustrator of the classic Pan paperback covers of the Sharpe novels, Paul Sample, a prolific illustrator whose grotesquely exaggerated cartoons perfectly capture the excess of Sharpe’s novels. The covers accurately depict numerous details from the texts, and there is a Where’s Wally-type pleasure to be had from trying to match every element of the grotesque tableaux with its source in the story. You can see lots more of his work at Paul Sample’s website.

Tom Sharpe’s novels

1971 – Riotous Assembly – Absurdly violent and frenzied black comedy set in apartheid South Africa as three incompetent police officers try to get to the bottom of the murder of her black cook by a venerable old lady who turns out to be a sex-mad rubber fetishist, a simple operation which leads to the deaths of 21 policemen, numerous dogs, a vulture and the completely wrongful arrest and torture of the old lady’s brother, the bishop of Basutoland.
1973 – Indecent Exposure – Sequel to the above, in which the same Kommandant van Herden is seduced into joining a group of (fake) posh colonial English at their country retreat, leaving Piemburg in charge of his deputy, Luitenant Verkramp, who sets about a) ending all inter-racial sex among the force by applying drastic aversion therapy to his men b) tasks with flushing out communist subversives a group of secret agents who themselves end up destroying most of the town’s infrastructure.
1974 – Porterhouse Blue – Hilarious satire on the stuffiness and conservatism of Oxbridge colleges epitomised by Porterhouse, as a newcomer tries in vain to modernise this ramshackle hidebound institution, with a particularly cunning enemy in the ancient college porter, Skullion.
1975 – Blott on the Landscape – MP and schemer Sir Giles Lynchwood so loathes his battleship wife, Lady Maud, that he connives to have a new motorway routed slap bang through the middle of her ancestral home, Handyman Hall, intending to abscond with the compensation money. But he reckons without his wife’s fearsome retaliation or the incompetence of the man from the Ministry.
1976 – Wilt – Hen-pecked lecturer Henry Wilt is humiliated with a sex doll at a party thrown by the infuriatingly trendy American couple, the Pringsheims. Appalled by his grossness, his dim wife, Eva, disappears on a boating weekend with this ‘fascinating’ and ‘liberated’ couple, so that when Wilt is seen throwing the wretched blow-up doll into the foundations of the extension to his technical college, the police are called which leads to 100 pages of agonisingly funny misunderstandings.
1977 – The Great Pursuit – Literary agent Frederick Frensic receives the anonymous manuscript of an outrageously pornographic novel about the love affair between a 17-year-old boy and an 80-year-old woman, via a firm of solicitors who instruct him to do his best with it. Thus begins a very tangled web in which he palms it off as the work of a pitiful failure of an author, one Peter Piper, and on this basis sells it to both a highbrow but struggling British publisher and a rapaciously commercial American publisher, who only accept it on condition this Piper guy goes on a US tour to promote it. Which is where the elaborate deception starts to go horribly wrong…
1978 – The Throwback – Illegitimate Lockhart Flawse, born and bred in the wastes of Northumberland, marries virginal Jessica whose family own a cul-de-sac of houses in suburban Surrey, and, needing the money to track down his mystery father, Lockhart sets about an elaborate and prolonged campaign to terrorise the tenants out of the homes. Meanwhile, his decrepit grandfather has married Jessica’s mother, she hoping to get money from the nearly-dead old geezer, he determined to screw as much perverse sexual pleasure out of her pretty plump body before he drops dead…
1979 – The Wilt Alternative – After a slow, comic, meandering first 90 pages, this novel changes tone drastically when international terrorists take Wilt and his children hostage in his nice suburban house leading to a stand-off with the cops and Special Branch.
1980 – Ancestral Vices – priggish left-wing academic Walden Yapp is invited by cunning old Lord Petrefact to write an unexpurgated history of the latter’s family of capitalists and exploiters because the old bustard wants to humiliate and ridicule his extended family, but the plot is completely derailed when a dwarf living in the mill town of Buscott where Yapp goes to begin his researches, is killed in an accident and Yapp finds himself the chief suspect for his murder, is arrested, tried and sent to prison, in scenes strongly reminiscent of Henry Wilt’s wrongful arrest in the first Wilt novel.
1982 – Vintage Stuff – A stupid teacher at a minor public school persuades a gullible colleague that one of the parents, a French Comtesse, is being held captive in her chateau. Accompanied by the stupidest boy in school, and armed with guns from the OTC, master and pupil end up shooting some of the attendees at a conference on international peace taking part at said chateau, kidnapping the Comtesse – who turns out to be no Comtesse at all – and blowing up a van full of French cops, bringing down on themselves the full wrath of the French state.
1984 – Wilt On High – Third outing for lecturer in Liberal Studies, Henry Wilt who, through a series of typically ridiculous misunderstandings, finds himself, first of all suspected of being a drug smuggler and so bugged by the police; then captured and interrogated on a US air base where he is delivering an innocuous lecture, on suspicion of being a Russian spy; before, in a frenzied climax, the camp is besieged by a monstrous regiment of anti-nuke mothers and news crews.
1995 – Grantchester Grind – The sequel to Porterhouse Blue, following the adventures of the senior college fellows as they adopt various desperate strategies to sort out Porterhouse College’s ailing finances, climaxing with the appointment of a international drug mafiosi as the new Master.
1996 – The Midden – Miss Marjorie Midden discovers a naked ex-City banker trussed in bedsheets hidden in her rural farmhouse, The Midden, and then the ancestral hall she owns under attack from the demented forces of nearby Scarsgate police force led by their corrupt chief constable Sir Arnold Gonders, in a blistering satire on the corruption and greed of post-Thatcher Britain.
2004 – Wilt in Nowhere – Fourth novel about the misadventures of Henry Wilt in which his wife Eva and the 14-year-old quads ruin the life of Uncle Wally and Auntie Joanie over in the States, while Wilt goes on an innocent walking holiday only to be accidentally knocked out and find himself implicated in a complicated murder-arson-child pornography scandal.
2009 – The Gropes – Driven out of his mind by his wife, Vera’s, sentimental fantasies, timid bank manager Horace Wiley pretends he wants to murder their teenage son Esmond, who is therefore hustled off to safety by Vera’s brother, Essex used-car dealer, Albert Ponson. Albert gets the teenage boy so drunk that his wife, Belinda, leaves him in disgust – locking their bungalow’s internal and external doors so securely that Albert has to call the police to get released with disastrous results, while Belinda drives the unconscious Esmond with her back to her ancestral home, the gloomy Grope Hall in remote Northumberland where – to the reader’s great surprise – they fall in love and live happily ever after.
2010 – The Wilt Inheritance – Sharpe’s last novel, the fifth and final instalment of the adventures of Polytechnic lecturer Henry Wilt, his naggy wife, Eva, and their appalling teenage daughters, all of whom end up at the grotesque Sandystones Hall in North Norfolk, where Wilt is engaged to tutor the lady of the manor’s psychotic teenage son, and Eva gets caught up in complications around burying dead Uncle Henry, whose body the quads steal from the coffin and hide in the woods with dire consequences that even they don’t anticipate.

The Seventies Unplugged by Gerard DeGroot (2010)

This is a popular history of an unpopular decade. It doesn’t attempt to be a comprehensive overview but instead looks at the years from 1970 to 1979 through 50 representative stories, told in short sections – hence the sub-title ‘A kaleidoscopic look at a violent decade‘.

It’s a light, easy read, like a sequence of interesting magazine articles. DeGroot has an appealingly open, lucid style. He tells his stories quickly and effectively and doesn’t hold back on frequently pungent comments.

The three opening stories each in their way epitomise the end of the utopian dreams of pop culture of the 1960s:

  • the Charlie Manson killings (overnight hippies became scary)
  • the death of Jimi Hendrix (after four short years of amazing success and innovation, Hendrix admitted to feeling played out, with nowhere new to take his music)
  • the marriage of Mick Jagger to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias (the street-fighting man turns into a leading member of the jet set, hobnobbing with Princess Margaret in Antibes etc)

These eye-catching and rather tired items are obviously aimed at a baby boomer, pop and rock audience and I wondered whether it would all be at this level…

70s terrorism

But it gets more meaty as soon as DeGroot begins an analysis of what he considers the 1970s’ distinguishing feature: political violence. In almost every industrialised country small groups of Marxists, visionaries or misfits coalesced around the idea that the ‘system’ was in crisis, and all it needed was a nudge, just one or two violent events, to push it over into complete collapse and to provoke the Glorious Revolution. They included:

  • The Angry Brigade (UK) – bombed the fashionable boutique BIBA on May Day 1971 and went on to carry out 25 bombings between 1970 and 1972.
  • The Weather Underground (US) 1969-77, carry out various violent attacks, while living on the run.
  • The Baader-Meinhof Gang / Red Army Faction carried out a series of violent bombings, shootings and assassinations across Germany, peaking in its May Offensive of 1972.
  • ETA – between 1973 and 1982 responsible for 371 deaths, 542 injuries, 50 kidnappings and hundreds of other explosions in their quest for independence for Spain’s Basque country.
  • The dire events of Bloody Sunday when British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed protesters, a decisive recruiting sergeant for the IRA, which embarked on a 20-year campaign of bombings and shootings, euphemistically referred to as The Troubles leavnig some 3,500 dead and nearly 50,000 injured.
  • Palestinian terrorists (the Black September Organisation) kidnapped then murdered 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in September 1972.
  • The May 1978 murder of former Italian Prime Minister, Aldo Moro, by the Red Brigades. During the 1970s Italy suffered over 8,000 terrorist incidents, kidnappings, bombings and shootings.

These Marxist groups:

  • concluded that, after the failure of the student movements and the May 1968 events in France, non-violent revolution was doomed to failure; therefore, only violence could overthrow the system
  • modelled themselves on Third World liberation movements, on Mao’s peasant philosophy or Che Guevara’s jungle notes – neither remotely relevant to advanced industrialised nations
  • were disgusted with the shallowness of Western consumerist society, they thought violent spectacles would ‘awaken’ a proletariat drugged with fashion and pop music, awaken them to the true reality of their servitude and exploitation and prompt the Revolution:
    • partly because it would make the people realise the system is not all-encompassing, does not have all the answers, is not monolithic, is in fact very vulnerable
    • partly because violent acts would goad the authorities to violent counter-measures which would radicalise the population, forcing them to choose – Reaction or Revolution
  • also thought that violent action would purify its protagonists, liberating them from their petit bourgeois hang-ups, transforming them into ‘new men and women’ ie lots of the terrorists were seeking escape from very personal problems

BUT, as DeGroot so cogently puts it – after detailed analyses of these movements – they all discovered the same bitter truth: that political violence only works in the context of a general social revolt (p.29). Terrorist violence can catalyse and focus a broad movement of unrest, but it cannot bring that movement into being. A few bombings are no replacement for the hard work of creating large-scale political movements.

The terrorists thought a few bombs and assassinations would provide the vital catalyst needed to ‘smash the system’, the dashing example of a few leather-jacketed desperadoes with machine guns would be all that the deluded proletariat required to wake them from their consumerist slumber, rise up and throw off their chains.

But the great mass of the people didn’t share the terrorists’ millenarian delusions and so these gangs ended up simply creating fear, killing and maiming people, in Ireland, Italy, Germany and Spain, for no gain at all.

  • The terrorists were not personally transformed; more often than not they felt guilt – it is quite moving to read the clips from the interviews and memoirs of surviving gang members which DeGroot liberally quotes – some obstinate millenarians to the end, but quite a few overcome with regret and remorse for their actions.
  • The proletariat did NOT suddenly wake from their slumber and realise the police state was its oppressor, quite the reverse: the people turned to the police state to protect them from what seemed (and often was) arbitrary and pointless acts of violence.
  • Worst of all, the gangs found themselves trapped on a treadmill of violence, for a terrorist organisation cannot go ‘soft’ or it loses its raison d’etre: ‘an organisation defined by terror needs to kill in order to keep mediocrity at bay.’ (p.155) Often they kept on killing long after realising it was pointless.

It’s 40 years later and none of the terrorist groups listed above achieved their goals. The opposite. They wanted to provoke a reaction from the Right and they did. Along with the broader political and cultural movements of the Left, they did provoke a profound counter-response from the Right, epitomised (in the Anglo-Saxon countries) by the elections of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, leading to and/or reflecting a profound and permanent shift to the right in all the economically advanced countries.


State terror

All that said, terrorist violence was dwarfed by state violence during the period.

  • I had never read an account of the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971: ie West Pakistan sending its army into East Pakistan/Bangladesh with the explicit purpose of slaughtering as many civilians as it could. It beggars belief that the head of the Pakistan Army said, If we kill three million the rest will do whatever we want. In the event, well over a million Bangladeshis were murdered. 10 million fled to India, before Mrs Gandhi was forced to intervene to put an end to the massacres, and out of this abattoir emerged the new nation of Bangladesh.
  • On 11 September 1973 in Chile General Pinochet overthrew the communist government of Salvador Allende, who was strafed by planes from his own air force inside the presidential palace, before committing suicide. Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-90) was characterised by suspension of human rights with thousands being murdered, and hundreds of thousands imprisoned and tortured.
  • The Vietnam War dragged on and on, the Americans incapable of ‘winning’ but the North Vietnamese not strong enough to ‘win’. Anywhere between 1.5 and 3 million died, hundreds of thousands in America’s savage bombing campaigns. Nixon finally withdrew all US forces in 1974, leaving the South to collapse into chaos and corruption before being overrun and conquered by the communist North in 1975, leaving scars which haunt America to this day. And Vietnam.
  • Up to 500,000 people were murdered during the brutal eight-year rule of Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin (1971-79).
  • The brutal military dictatorship of the Colonels in Greece lasted from 1967 to 1974, supported by America while it suppressed democracy, human rights and a free press. The dictatorship only ended when it supported the military coup of Nikos Sampson on Cyprus, designed to unite the island with mainland Greece but which prompted the disastrous invasion of the north of the island by the Turkish Army, leading to the partition of Cyprus which continues to this day.
  • Between 1975 and 1979 the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia (which the Khmers renamed Kampuchea) murdered some 2 million of its own citizens, a quarter of the country’s population, in its demented drive to return the country to pre-industrial, pre-western peasant purity.
  • The June 16 Soweto uprising in 1976 saw tens of thousands of black South African schoolchildren protesting against Afrikaans, the language of their white oppressors, being made the compulsory language of education. The apartheid authorities responded by unleashing their dogs and shooting into the crowds, killing 176 and wounding around 1,000. When anti-apartheid campaigner Steve Biko was murdered in the custody of the SA police, a crime which galvanised opinion in South Africa and abroad, leading to the book and film about his life, and an intensification of sanctions against South Africa.

Social issues

Racism Vast subject. DeGroot concentrates on the UK and mentions Enoch Powell’s River of Blood speech in April 1968. I hadn’t realised Powell remained quite so popular for quite so long afterwards, well into the 1970s he polled as the most popular British politician, and DeGroot points out the regrettable rise of racism in the 1970s, from David Bowie and Eric Clapton to the founding of the National Front (est. 1967), which prompted the response of Rock Against Racism (est. 1976) and the Anti-Nazi League (est. 1977). A lot of marching, chanting and street fighting.

Drugs Year on year, heroin killed more young Americans than the war in Vietnam. Marijuana use had become widespread by the mid-1970s, with one estimate that 40% of teens smoked it at least once a month. DeGroot’s article describes the way all the government agencies overlooked the fact that cocaine was becoming the big issue: because it was predominantly a white middle-class drug, it was neglected until it was too late, until the later 1970s when they woke up to the fact that Colombian cartels had set up a massive production and supply infrastructure and were dealing in billions of dollars. ‘While Reagan strutted, Americans snorted’ (p.271)

Feminism Another vast subject, which DeGroot illuminates with snapshots, generating oblique insights from some of the peripheral stories in this huge social movement:

  • The high profile ‘Battle of the Sexes’ tennis match between the 55-year-old former world number one and male chauvinist, Bobby Riggs, and 29-year-old women’s number one Billie Jean King. King won and to this day meets women who were young at the time, and who tell her that her example made them determined not to be put off by men, but to go for their dreams.
  • I had never heard of Marabel Morgan and her hugely bestselling book, Total Woman, which takes a devoutly Christian basis for arguing that the path to married bliss is for a woman to completely submit herself to her husband’s wishes. DeGroot makes the far-reaching point that the weak spot in feminism is that a lot of women don’t want to be high-powered executives or politicians, but are reasonably happy becoming mothers and housewives. Moreover, feminists who routinely describe being a mother as some kind of slavery, seriously undervalue the importance, and creativity, and fulfilment to be gained from motherhood.

The silent majority

This leads nicely into his consideration of the rise of the ‘silent majority’ and then the Moral Majority. The phrase ‘the silent majority’ had been around since the 19th century (when it referred to the legions of the dead). It was Richard Nixon’s use of it in a speech in 1969 that prompted newspaper and magazine articles and its widespread popularisation. Nixon was trying to rally support from everyone fed up with student protests, campus unrest, long-haired layabouts, the spread of drugs, revolutionary violence and the rest of it.

The Moral Majority was founded as a movement as late as 1979, from various right-wing Christian fundamentalist organisations. If you’re young or left-wing it’s easy to assume your beliefs will triumph because they’re self-evidently right. I found this section of DeGroot’s book particularly interesting as a reminder (it is after all only a few short, but thought-provoking articles, not a book-length analysis) of the power and numerical supremacy of the people who didn’t want a violent revolution, didn’t want the overthrow of existing gender roles, didn’t want the destruction of business in the name of some dope-smoking utopia, who largely enjoyed and benefited from capitalism, from a stable society, an effective police force, the rule of law and notions of property which allowed them to save up to own their own home, a large fridge-freezer and two cars.


Science and technology

Space race I was galvanised when I read JG Ballard’s remark, decades ago, that the Space Age only lasted a few years, from the moon landing (Apollo 11, July 20 1969) to the final Apollo mission (Apollo 17, December 1972). As a teenager besotted with science fiction, I assumed space exploration would go on forever, the Moon, Mars, and then other solar systems! DeGroot’s account rams home the notion that it was all a delusion. He is critical of NASA’s insistence on manned space flights which cost hugely more than unmanned missions. The retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011 was another nail in the coffin into which fantasies of interplanetary flight have been laid.

Environment Through the prisms of the dioxin disaster at Seveso and the major nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, DeGroot makes the point that environmentalism (along with feminism, anti-racism and gay rights) was one of the big causes of the 1970s, virtually non-existent at the start of the decade, enshrined in law across most industrialised countries by the end.


The economy and industry

This is the big, big gap in this book: it’s entertaining enough to read articles about Mohammed Ali or Billie Jean King or the early computer game, Pong – but it’s a major omission in a history of the 1970s not to have sections about the 1973 oil crisis, the resulting three-day week, the extraordinarily high level of strikes throughout the decade, leading up to what many people thought was the actual collapse of society in the Winter of Discontent (1978/79) and, beneath it all, the slow relentless shift in western nations from being heavily-industrialised, heavily-unionised economies to becoming post-industrial, service economies.

Big shame that DeGroot didn’t bring to these heavyweight topics the combination of deftly-chosen anecdote with pithy analysis which he applies to other, far less important, subjects.


The end of the world

I grew up in the 1970s, into awareness that the world could be destroyed at any moment, the world and all life forms on it, destroyed many times over if the old men with their fingers on the button made a mistake. DeGroot goes into detail about the effectiveness of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction and the sequence of meetings and agreements between America and the USSR – the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks and Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaties – which were reported with breathless excitement throughout the decade.

What he doesn’t convey is the moral climate this created, or rather the immoral climate, of living in a world where you, all your loved ones, and everything you held dear could, potentially, at any moment, be turned to glowing dust.

The threat of complete global destruction provided the grim backdrop against which a steady stream of horrific news about dictators and tyrants, about massacres and holocausts, was garishly lit by the smaller-scale murders and bombings of the IRA or ETA, all creating a climate of violence and futility. Mix in the oil crises of 1973 and 1978, the widespread and endless strikes, the high unemployment and the fundamental economic crises which afflicted all Western countries throughout the 70s, and you have a decade of despair.


Music of anger

My biggest disagreement with DeGroot is about the significance of punk rock (1976-78). For a start, he mixes up the American and British versions, which reflect completely different societies, mentioning Blondie and the Clash in the same breath. The British version was genuinely nihilistic and despairing. Television or the Ramones always had the redemptive glamour of coming from New York; the English bands always knew they came from Bolton or Bromley, but turned their origins in dead-end, derelict post-industrial shitholes into something to be angry or depressed, but always honest about.

Like so many wise elders at the time, DeGroot loftily points out how musically inept most of the self-taught punk bands were – as if rock music should only be produced by classically-trained musicians. He completely fails to see that the music, the look and the attitude were the angry and entirely logical result of growing up into the violently hopeless society which our parents had created and which, ironically, he has done such a good job of portraying in his long, readable, and often desperately depressing book.

Related links

Jameson’s Ride by Alfred Austin (1896)

10 July 2012

When Alfred Lord Tennyson died in 1892 there was no obvious replacement for the post of Poet Laureate. Of the two leading poets, Swinburne was disqualified by the immorality of his earlier poems, William Morris was a trenchant socialist and rejected the post when offered. Kipling, the young star, also refused it, not wanting to shackle his ‘Daemon’ as he referred to his muse, preferring to stay free to speak his mind.

After a hiatus the literary world was surprised when, in 1896, the Tory journalist Alfred Austin was appointed Poet Laureate by the Tory Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, at least in part because of Austin’s journalistic record of supporting Tory causes. Austin held the post until his death in 1913.

Austin’s first poem as Laureate was an ode celebrating the Jameson Raid – the failed attempt to raise a British insurrection against the Boer government of the Transvaal, in South Africa. The uprising was to have been triggered by a raid into the territory by 600 or so British soldiers led by Cecil Rhodes’s fixer, Leander Starr Jameson.

Sir Alfred Austin, Poet Laureate 1896-1913

The planned insurrection in Johannesberg never materialised. Jameson and his men were easily surrounded and captured by the Boers. The Jameson Raid was a fiasco, an embarrassment to the British government, and marked the end of Cecil Rhodes’ political career as he was forced to step down as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony. Britain’s shame, however, was reversed when the Kaiser made the blunder of sending a telegram to the Boers congratulating them on repelling the raid, and hinting that Germany might have come to their aid. Public opinion was outraged and, in a very British manoeuvre, managed to turn an illegal incursion into a foreign country into a heroic rescue mission by plucky heroes. The flagrant untruth that British women and children in the Transvaal were somehow at risk from the beastly Boers was widely disseminated.

Austin’s poem successfully captures the devil-may-care illegality of much Imperial enterprise. It echoes the contempt felt by Kipling and other Imperialists for the lawyers and politicians back in Blighty who prattled on pointlessly while the pressing issues of Empire required urgent action, on the ground, now!

Austin is regularly cited as the being the worst Poet Laureate in our history. The poem’s point of view is certainly shallow and schoolboyish. The rhythm seems to falter regularly, and some rhyme words don’t work. But I don’t think it’s a complete disaster, and anyway it’s an interesting and vivid snapshot of the mindset of the day.

Jameson’s Ride

Wrong! Is it wrong? well, may be;
But I’m going, boys, all the same.
Do they think me a Burgher’s baby,
To be scared by a scolding name?
They may argue, and prate, and order;
Go, tell them to save their breath:
Then, over the Transvaal border,
And gallop for life or death!

Let lawyers and statesmen addle
Their pates over points of law:
If sound be our sword, and saddle,
And gun-gear, who cares one straw?
When men of our own blood pray us
To ride to their kinsfolk’s aid,
Not Heaven itself shall stay us
From the rescue they call a raid.

There are girls in the gold-reef city,
There are mothers and children too!
And they cry, “Hurry up! For pity!”
So what can a brave man do?
If even we win they’ll blame us:
If we fail, they will howl and hiss.
But there’s many a man lives famous
For daring a wrong like this!

So we forded and galloped forward
As hard as our beasts could pelt,
First eastward, then trending nor’ward.
Eight over the rolling veldt;
Till we came to the Burghers lying
In a hollow with hill behind,
And their bullets came hissing, flying,
Like hail on an Arctic wind.

Right sweet is the marksman’s rattle,
And sweeter the cannon’s roar;
But ’tis bitterly bad to battle,
Beleaguered, and one to four.
I can tell you it wasn’t a trifle
To swarm over Krugersdorp Glen,
As they plied us with round and rifle,
And ploughed us again — and again.

Then we made for the gold-reef city,
Retreating, but not in rout.
They had called to us, “Quick! For pity!”
And he said, “They will sally out —
They will hear us come. Who doubts it?”
But how if they don’t — what then?
“Well, worry no more about it,
But fight to the death like men.”

Not a soul had supped or slumbered
Since the Borderland stream was cleft;
But we fought, even more outnumbered,
Till we had not a cartridge left.
We’re not very soft or tender,
Or given to weep for woe,
But it breaks one to have to render
One’s sword to the strongest foe.

I suppose we were wrong, were madmen,
Still I think at the Judgment Day,
When God sifts the good from the bad men,
There’ll be something more to say.
We were wrong, but we aren’t half sorry;
And as one of the baffled band,
I would rather have had that foray
Than the crushing of all the Rand.

Swinford Old Manor, January 9, 1896

P.S. It was, apparently, the same incident, the Jameson Raid, which inspired Kipling’s most enduring poem, If-, regularly voted the nation’s favourite poem. ‘Jameson’s Ride’ is, if you fancy, the Other If-, what If- looks in the hands of a much smaller talent. And highlights the real depth of Kipling’s genius.

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