Brideshead Revisited: The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh (1945)

“Ought we to be drunk every night?” Sebastian asked one morning.
“Yes, I think so.”
“I think so too.”
(Charles and Sebastian as students discuss their drinking habits in Brideshead Revisited)

Brideshead Revisited is probably Evelyn Waugh’s most famous novel, simply because of the huge success of the 1981 ITV dramatisation. Which is ironic, because there’s a strong case for arguing that Brideshead is the least representative of Waugh’s works.

It’s also odd that it’s so popular, considering it amounts to a prolonged description of the destructive effects of alcoholism, the bitterness of adultery and infidelity, and a sustained account of one of the most dysfunctional families in literature.

Brideshead Revisited is divided into five sections: a short prologue (13 pages) and even shorter epilogue (6 pages) and 3 long central parts which each cover a distinct period in the characters’ lives. At 331 pages in the Penguin paperback edition, Brideshead is by some margin Waugh’s longest book, his other novels averaging around 220 pages, the travel books a skimpy 160 or 170.

The novel begins in 1923 and tells the story of the friendship between Charles Ryder and the beautiful, debonaire Sebastian Flyte, second son of scandalous Lord Marchmain, who is the owner of the impressive country house of the title, Brideshead. (To be clear, the grand house is named after the little river Bride which runs through the shallow valley where the house is situated; the title the family own and pass on is ‘Marchmain’, so Lord Marchmain, Lady Marchmain and Marchmain House in London; but the actual family name as written in passports and legal documents is Flyte).

The 1940s perspective

But although the novel’s events are set in the 1920s, when Charles and Sebastian were carefree undergraduates, and then the 1930s, when they are young men exploring the world, Waugh goes to some pains in his 1959 preface to the book to emphasise that the novel is not of those relatively carefree times.

Very much the opposite, Waugh wrote Brideshead on a break from military duty from autumn 1943 through to June 1944, in the depths of the war, in the bleak winter of 1943, when not only the war against Nazi Germany was in doubt but, even if we won the war it had begun to seem to people like him as if the entire grand, upper-class, country house and high society world which Waugh had known and revelled in, would be swept away.

It looked increasingly as if a post-war England would be a grim, egalitarian, socialist place where the grand old families would be ruined by death duties (mentioned on page 96), the beautiful country houses would be pulled down to make way for council estates (as the family’s London base, Marchmain House, is pulled down to make way for flats) and that the frivolous hedonistic life he had enjoyed as a Bright Young Thing in the 1920s would be replaced by grim proletarian earnestness.

Therefore, Waugh’s memories of 1920s Oxford and 1930s London Society, his descriptions of the impossibly grand country house and the stirring nobility of its venerable owner, Alexander Lord Marchmain, even his descriptions of the food and drink consumed at various points, are all intensely coloured by wish fulfilment and fantasy, are the hungry fantasies of a man who, like everyone else in Britain, had had to put up with four years of rationing, for whom a really stylish meal was a distant memory, and who feared that everything he held dear in life was about to be crushed out of existence.

You could argue that one of the chief appeals of almost all Waugh’s other novels is their restraint, the way events, people and dialogue are, for the most part, clipped and understated. Several of his most shocking effects are created this way, by cutting dialogue or description at key moments right back to the bone and letting the reader do the work, imagining for themselves the characters’ responses.

It’s in this respect that Bridgeshead is so uncharacteristic of his oeuvre, because it is so overstated, so sumptuously over-written, so bloated.

Its unusual length, which I mentioned above, is one aspect of this, and both are related to the use of a first person narrator, Charles Ryder, to tell this long story (see below).

In the 1959 preface Waugh states all this very clearly and goes some way to apologising for the book’s florid excesses. But he also explains that, although he’s tinkered with phrasing all the way through and cut some passages (which ones?) he has not rewritten the entire thing, it would be impossible, it is what it is, a testament to a particular time and mood. His final sentence emphasises that it is given to the reader not as a souvenir of the 1920s or 1930s, which is so lavishly describes, but more as an imaginative fantasy spawned by the darkest days of the 1940s.

Prologue

The centrality of the war mentioned in the preface is immediately confirmed in the text itself by the short but grim prologue. We find ourselves in the depths of the Second World War and encounter a first-person narrative told by an erudite, self-aware, articulate person who is named half way through as Captain Charles Ryder. He is the somewhat insubordinate leader of C company in an infantry regiment.

He and his men are stationed in some sordid barracks in the middle of England in the middle of a rainy winter, with horrible food, broken windows and slack soldiers. He and the new colonel do not get on one little bit and his subtle insubordination brings down extra work and duties on his company, to the chiding of the regimental sergeant major.

The general crappiness of Ryder’s existence is crystallised in the person of Hooper (no first name is ever given), ‘a sallow youth with hair combed back, without parting, from his forehead, and a flat, Midland accent’. Hooper’s long hair, failure to shave and general slovenliness drive the colonel mad but Ryder grudgingly likes him because he sums up Ryder’s own disaffection with the army and its ways.

Ryder’s regiment are ordered to pack up and leave the barracks for new accommodation, a process which involves an enormous amount of fuss and bother and rules and shouting and loading up numerous lorries which pull out under cover of dark and drive miles through narrow lanes (no motorways and well-lit dual carriageways back in those days).

They eventually turn through the gates of some country house and drive up the drive and park alongside other lorries at a joining of the ways. It is only when someone casually mentions the name that, with a shock, Ryder realises this is Brideshead House, a place which meant so much to him in times past. And with that, the screen shimmers and we are transported back precisely twenty years to Ryder’s happy days as an innocent undergraduate at Oxford University.

Part one: Et in arcadia ego

Oxford 1923, giddy undergraduates living the high life. Charles Ryder is 19 and an undergraduate at (an unnamed) college and it is the heady celebrations of Eights Week. Ryder’s shy, secretive father had been to Oxford but in this as so much else slyly, and slightly maliciously gave him little preparation (‘Then, as always, he eschewed serious conversation with me’). It was a cousin, Jasper, who gave him the best practical advice on what to expect and how to survive. The old architecture, the friends, the parties, Waugh vividly conveys the cult of Oxford as a special place, a world apart, a glamorous, romantic fantasy world.

Charles’s father

Charles’s father is a grim figure. His mother went off to serve in the Red Cross during the Great War and was killed. It broke his father who, ever since, has dwelled in his London home, not far from the Edgeware Road, with one servant, Hayter, seeing no-one. Charles’s stays with him during the Oxford vacations are little wars of domestic attrition during which his father feigns indifference, occasionally rising to flickers of malice. His father is a deeply unhappy man and his unhappiness casts a pall over the grim little household and Charles when he’s staying there.

As usual with Waugh, the text is packed with lovely details and interesting reflections on the mood of the post-Great War generation of students, colourful characters and great scenes. But the core of the story is simple: it is a long account of the tangled relationship between the unhappy and self-conscious Charles Ryder with the glamorous but cursed Marchmain family, owners of the grand house at Brideshead, which starts with Charles’s student friendship with Lord Sebastian Flyte, fey, handsome, rich and blithely hedonistic, younger son of of the troubled family.

Oxford

In Charles’s first terms as an undergraduate, Sebastian is already a well known figure. Ryder is shy, a bit embarrassed, moves in much more modest circles, until, late one night, a very drunk Flyte sticks his head through Ryder’s open ground floor window and vomits copiously. Charles has a hard time explaining it to his ‘scout’ (or servant) Lunt, who has to clean it up the next morning. Feeling remorseful the next day, Sebastian invites Charles to lunch by way of apology.

And so begins the friendship which is to shape Ryder’s life. Sebastian’s social set is far above Charles’s, and includes the notable figure of the tall, south American, lisping, highly cosmopolitan and very camp homosexual Anthony Blanche, who is also to recur through the narrative, in that way novels have of introducing half a dozen characters who weave and bob throughout the text and the years to come.

Soliloquies

One aspect of Brideshead’s excess is the enormous great speeches its characters make. Half way through the first part the outrageously camp Anthony Blanche, turning heads wherever he goes with his loud, gay voice, takes Charles for dinner in Thame and talks at him non-stop for 8 pages. When Charles goes to stay with Sebastian at Brideshead during the long (i.e. summer) vacation, Sebastian is given to huge speeches of exposition, about the house and his family.

All this is in stark contrast with the tremendously clipped and abbreviated dialogue found in the previous novels. It makes you reflect that there is a relationship between brevity and wit (as Hamlet pointed out 400 years ago). A lot of the humour of the earlier novels derives from the clipped, snappy dialogue. The wittiness of dry understatement.

Whereas here the characters go on for page after page and this fact is closely related to the general lack of comedy. There is still the general self-regarding drollery of undergraduate humour – Anthony teasing the butch bully boys of the Bullingdon Club from the window of his rooms is very funny, and some of the repartee when Charles and Sebastian are drunk is funny. But by and large the story is darker and takes itself seriously in a way none of his previous books did.

Unhappy families

I never watched Brideshead when it was first broadcast. The clips of it I saw seemed painfully stereotyped, the same characters wearing the same clothes and drawling the same 1920s upper-class mannerisms as in a thousand Agatha Christie dramatisations. TV is all the same. I can’t bear its dull predictability, its glossy sameyness.

And I managed to skip it the last time I read all Waugh’s novels, going straight from Put Out More Flags to the start of the Sword of Honour trilogy. So this is the first time I’ve read Brideshead Revisited and I’m surprised by lots of things about it, but chiefly by how gloomy it is. I thought Sebastian came from this grand, successful, happy aristocratic family. I am very surprised to discover how broken, dysfunctional and miserable it is.

A decade earlier Lord Marchmain had gone off to fight in the Great War and met some French actress and never came back. Lady Marchmain now lives the life of the peripatetic rich, shuttling between the grandest hotels in Europe. In other words the grand house is not the seat of a happy, extended and sociable family but more like a shell which is only episodically inhabited.

The eldest son and heir, ‘Bridey’, as Sebastian calls him, with his ‘Aztec face’, is earnestly Catholic and has toyed with becoming a Jesuit priest, before reluctantly assuming the role of son and heir. Sebastian’s sister, Julia, is the spitting image of him, same intonation, same toss of the head, but harder and more cynical. And then there’s youngest sister, Cordelia, ‘a robust child of ten or eleven’ at a convent school.

With the result that Brideshead is very far from being the happy home and social hive I assumed it to be. It is a gloomy, empty, shuttered place, where the various family members briefly alight, unshutter a few rooms, have a few meals prepared by the discreet servants (led by Wilcox the butler), then disappear off again.

Sebastian’s strongest attachment is to his nanny, Nanny Hawkins. It’s that kind of family, where the son’s deepest attachment isn’t to his remote, absent parents, but to his plain (and rather stupid-sounding) nanny.

The impact of having a first-person singular narrative

A very important thing about the book is that it has a first-person narrator, the first Waugh novel to do so. In all the other stories the beady gaze of a third-person narrator encouraged the tough detachment which suits narratives about multiple characters, often seen from a distance, through crowds, briefly mentioned by other characters: the kaleidoscope affect of his social novels. Waugh’s earlier narratives skip and jump at will from one character or social scene to another with great speed and dexterity.

Adoption of a first person narrator, however, drastically alters that pace and feel, by forcing us into the mind of just the one person for a whopping 300 pages. With this shift, all other aspects of the novel become heavy and long. Instead of jaunty, snappy dialogue, we get these 8-page monologues. Instead of very precise and, more often than not, drolly clipped descriptions, we get Charles’s lugubrious, long-winded and precious reflections. Here he is describing how his long stay at Brideshead that first summer of his friendship with Sebastian, led him to study its interiors and design and changed his taste for good.

Since the days when, as a schoolboy, I used to bicycle round the neighbouring parishes, rubbing brasses and photographing fonts, I have nursed a love of architecture, but though in opinion I had made that easy leap, characteristic of my generation, from the puritanism of Ruskin to the puritanism of Roger Fry, my sentiments at heart were insular and mediaeval.

This was my conversion to the baroque. Here under that high and insolent dome, under those tricky ceilings; here, as I passed through those arches and broken pediments to the pillared shade beyond and sat, hour by hour, before the fountain, probing its shadows, tracing its lingering echoes, rejoicing in all its clustered feats of daring and invention, I felt a whole new system of nerves alive within me, as though the water that spurted and bubbled among its stones was indeed a life-giving spring.

1. Note the obsession with self, with one’s thoughts and impressions and tastes and so on, which is an inevitable part of having a first-person narrator. The third person narrator of Waugh’s earlier novels flitted about at will, often only settling on a scene for a page or less, leaving as soon as it got boring. With Charles we are stuck with page after page of the same thoughts and ideas, beautifully described, but increasingly monotonous.

2. Stylistic indulgence: that final sentence is 78 words long, and is an example of Waugh letting himself go, just one of many passages of stylistic self-indulgence. This kind of thing crops up in the earlier novels, for example in passages describing Hetton, country seat of Tony Last, but previously it was very disciplined, brief, trimmed back, before the narrative reverted to crisp dialogue, and used sparingly. Here, these kinds of indulgent descriptions go on for pages. Middle-aged spread.

Brief summary

Charles meets Sebastian i.e. Sebastian throws up through his window, is carried off unconscious. Next day he gets an invite to lunch with Sebastian by way of apology. Is introduced to Sebastian’s bear, Aloysius, an ironic affection of Sebastian’s. Charles is introduced to the flamboyantly camp Anthony Blanche. A week or so later Sebastian borrows another undergraduate’s car and they drive through the country to his family’s stately home, Brideshead House, which is empty and shuttered, except for Nanny Hawkins in her attic servant’s room.

The long vacation i.e. summer holiday: Charles returns to his father’s grim joyless house in London with its view ‘across the grimy gardens and irregular backs of Bayswater, at the jumble of soil pipes and fire-escapes and protuberant little conservatories’.

Then he gets a telegram from Sebastian saying he’s had an accident and needs looking after, so Charles joyfully packs a bag and catches a train to the country station nearest Brideshead. Here he is collected by Sebastian’s sister, Julia, and for the first time gets her measure, sees she is a female equivalent of Sebastian, only much tougher.

It turns out Sebastian fractured a tiny bone on his foot having a hissy fit during a croquet game. He is in a wheelchair. Julia happily hands over responsibility for caring for him to Charles and drives off. Charles and Sebastian spend an idyllic month sunbathing or exploring the architectural riches of the house. Charles, we discover, is an amateur artist and sketches the main fountain and other features and even starts decorating one of the rooms with painted panels.

This idyll is interrupted when Sebastian is invited by his father to his place in Venice. Venice. Yes, Venice. Home of artistic and social snobbery. ‘You simply must see the Tintorettos in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo, they are so much more subtle and spiritual than his fresco in San Giorgio, don’t you think, dahling?’ And ‘We have been invited to the Corombona palace for a party; one simply must see the Corombona palace lit up for the ball, there’s nothing quite like it, is there dahling?’ All laid on with a trowel.

Charles is introduced to Lord Marchmain who is tall and Byronic and detached, carefully playing a part. And to his ‘mistress’, Cara, in the event, after all Charles’s nineteen-year-old fantasies, just a middle-aged woman like any other:

She was not a voluptuous Toulouse-Lautrec odalisque; she was not a ‘little bit of fluff’; she was a middle-aged, well-preserved, well-dressed, well-mannered woman such as I had seen in countless public places and occasionally met.

They go to the finest restaurants, eat the finest food, drink the finest wine, are invited to the finest parties, visit the finest churches and see the finest art because they are the finest people. It was about this point that I began to dislike the book and its characters and began to hope that bad things were in store for them, as there so often are in Waugh novels.

It’s almost as if Waugh himself shared this dislike which is crystallised when Cara very frankly tells young Charles that the Marchmain family hate each other, taking their lead from Lord Marchmain’s furious hatred of his wife:

‘He hates her; but you can have no conception how he hates her. You would think him so calm and English — the milord, rather blasé, all passion dead, wishing to be comfortable and not to be worried, following the sun, with me to look after that one thing that no man can do for himself. My friend, he is a volcano of hate. He cannot breathe the same air as she. He will not set foot in England because it is her home; he can scarcely be happy with Sebastian because he is her son. But Sebastian hates her too.’

Cara explains that all the roles for a man are filled in Sebastian’s family: his father is a Byronic hero-cum-Lothario, his elder brother a solid chap but also a closet religious fanatic. In a sense all there is left for Sebastian is to be the baby of the family, pretending to talk to his teddy bear.

Oh and Cara for the first time sounds the theme of concern that Sebastian might become a serious alcoholic; she’s seen the way he drinks, obsessively, compulsively.

Holiday in Venice over, Charles and Sebastian return to Oxford for the first term of their second year. (There were and still are three terms at the University of Oxford: Michaelmas – October to December; Hilary – January to March; Trinity – April to June. Note that each term lasts precisely 8 weeks and, since 3 times 8 makes 24, this means that if you attend Oxford University you actually spend less than half the year actually there. You can stay in college rooms or rented accommodation before or after the term dates, and there are social events a bit before and a bit after, but essentially an Oxford education takes up less than half of each of its calendar years.)

The find that Anthony Blanche has left the university (the correct terminology is ‘has gone down’). Sebastian drolly tells us: ‘Apparently he’s taken a flat in Munich – he has formed an attachment to a policeman there’. And it turns out Anthony was the centre of a circle of loud hedonists who, without him, break up into ‘a bare dozen lethargic, adolescent Englishmen’.

Charles had gone into debt in his first year and been forced to grovel to his distant father for money, something he determines to avoid in his second year, and so he lives more sensibly, buys sensible clothes, the kind you would wear for a country house party, takes his degree subject (History, like Waugh’s) fairly seriously, even attends a few lectures! He writes his two essays a week and signs up for an extra-curricular course in life drawing at the Ruskin School of Art (fancying himself, as mentioned above, as an artist). Sebastian, meanwhile, feels alone and alienated. They take to shunning their colleges and hanging out in low pubs in town.

One day Julia arrives en route back to London from a country house party, driven by a dashing 30-year-old Canadian Great War veteran named Rex Mottram. A few days later Rex invites them to a charity ball in London, along with Sebastian’s boyhood chum, Boy Mulcaster. They stay at the Marchmain family’s London house, which is inventively named Marchmain House.

The three of them get rat-arsed drunk and slip out of the charity party and off to a seedy nightclub-cum-brothel which Boy Mulcaster claims to know about. It is the Old Hundredth at 100 Sink Street, which some readers may remember is where Jock takes Tony Last to pick up a tart who they can pay to pretend to spend a dirty weekend in Brighton with him, in order to provide evidence for the divorce case, in A Handful of Dust.

Anyway, they get even more drunk at the club and pick up two ugly tarts, but Sebastian insists on driving back to Marchmain House (it only appears to be a few hundred yards away, down Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly). Unfortunately, Sebastian manages to do half the distance on the wrong side of the road before pulling up right across the road to let one of the girls out. This is when the police arrest them.

They are astonished to be actually arrested and thrown into some cells, where Sebastian and Boy kick up a fuss but Charles, being the moderately sensible one, gets a message out to Rex Mottram. Rex thoroughly enjoys visiting them in the cells and playing the part of older, more responsible friend. He very smoothly chats up the police and the authorities, gets them released, handles their court appearance, provide lawyers, deals with the press, and then with their college authorities back at Oxford. Quite the adventure!

The last few chapters of Part One describe Sebastian’s decline into depressed alcoholism.

Part two: Brideshead deserted

The end of their undergraduate degrees. Sebastian disgraces himself for the third time (the first was getting arrested, the second appearing drunk in front of the whole family before dinner) when he’s found at 1am wandering drunk as a skunk round Christ Church’s main quadrangle.

He is ‘rusticated’ (i.e. expelled) for a term and only lobbying by Lady Marchmain and a friendly don she cultivates named Mr Samgress ensure that he will be allowed to return, but only if he goes and stays with the respectable Catholic, Monsignor Bell which, predictably, Sebastian refuses to do.

I began to realise the novel was going to be about the decline and fall of this lovely pretty boy whose decline into alcoholism would be a symbol of the sad degrading of undergraduate innocence.

In the interim i.e. while he is forbidden to attend the autumn term, it is decided that Sebastian will be taken under the wing of this affable and obsequious don, Mr Samgrass, who will take him on a tour of the sites and sights of the Levant i.e. Turkey.

For his part, Charles realises he’s come to dislike Oxford and asks his father if he can leave without a degree and enrol in art school. His cold and indifferent father is delighted at his leaving the city of dreaming spires but predictably poo-poohs his chances of a career in art: ‘Do what you want, son.’ So Charles goes to art school in Paris.

Worth pointing out that Charles never seems to me to be a believable artist. For a start he is snootily dismissive of all modern art, reassuring young Cordelia that modern art ‘is all bosh’ (p.147).

Back from Paris at Christmas, Charles is invited to Brideshead and so goes for the traditional family time. Mr Samgrass gives a dull lantern lecture about his and Sebastian’s trip around Anatolia but the only thing on everyone’s mind is Sebastian’s further decline into alcoholism. Sebastian now smuggles whiskey up into his room, is tipsy all afternoon and offensively drunk at dinner time. The drinks tray which used to be on the sideboard is removed at Lady Marchmain’s orders. The butler, Wilcox, needs Lady M’s approval before bringing Sebastian the champagne he orders.

When Lady Marchmain announces she is too tired to go to Chapel and Lord Brideshead announces he will be riding to hounds tomorrow, breaking in Julia’s new horse, I was suddenly overwhelmed by the colossal, thick-headed, philistine boredom of these people’s lives. None of them appear to do anything productive at all except eat and bitch about each other.

Sebastian is now an alcoholic. The family have cut off his bank account, so he’s resorted to pawning his watch and cigarette holder for money for booze. Charles visits Sebastian in his room and remonstrates with him, as he sits numbly by the blazing fire. But it’s the same old argument: Sebastian’s dislike of his family, his wish to be left alone, has hardened into this escape into alcohol. Their attempt to deprive him of drink has come to stand for their attempts to stifle every aspect of his life.

So Sebastian surprises the family by saying he’d like to go hunting tomorrow. Maybe the fresh air and exercise will do him good, his mother says, hopefully. But naively. Sebastian lets on to Charles that his plan is to break away from the hunt as soon as possible and spend the day drinking in a nice quiet pub. He asks Charles for some cash to buy drinks and Charles loyally gives him two pounds.

(He also shares the big secret of the so-called Grand Tour he did with Mr Samgress, namely that he did a bunk as soon as he could, bumping into Anthony Blanche of all people and staying with his and his ‘Jew boy’ [Sebastian’s words] boyfriend. Blanche negotiated a deal with Mr Samgress, that the latter would continue with his tour, sending letters back to Lady Marchmain assuring her all was well, while splitting the money for the trip with Sebastian and letting him go his way, until they were reunited to return to England for Christmas. Now Charles realises why Samgress looked so damn nervous throughout his lecture and every conversation about the trip: he was lying through his teeth.)

So next morning comes and Sebastian is up and joins the merry throng in the stables and sets off on horseback, but as the pack breaks up makes his way to a remote country hotel bar. From where he has to be collected, blind drunk. That evening the family barely make it through an embarrassed dinner.

Next morning Charles bluntly asks Sebastian if he still wants him to stay and Sebastian bluntly says no. So Charles packs his things and prepares to leave. He goes to say goodbye to his hostess, Lady Marchmain, who bluntly asks if he gave Sebastian the money he used to get smashed the day before. Charles immediately admits it. Lady Marchmain takes an unusually high-handed line and says she is astonished at such wickedness. They all thought he was their friend. What on earth possessed him to do something so wicked, etc? Charles reflects it was very like being expelled from school, and suddenly wonders what he’s doing there.

As the car drives him away from the house Charles is only too glad to wash his hands of the whole silly family. Good riddance. He’s had enough. He returns to Paris, to his nice little apartment overlooking the Seine, to art school. This was Christmas 1924 going into the new year of 1925.

Rex in Paris

Only the Marchmains haven’t finished with him. Next thing he knows Rex Mottram is knocking on the door of his Paris flat. Seems he persuaded the family to let him take Sebastian abroad, to Switzerland, to a doctor who runs a clinic for alcoholics (‘Dr Borethus at Zurich.’). But, stopping over in Paris, Rex made the mistake of going to a club where he won a fortune at cards, coming home late at night, cheerfully telling Sebastian. In the morning Sebastian was gone and so were Rex’s winnings, a cool £300.

It’s infuriating for Rex because, as he explains to Charles over dinner at ‘a little place Charles knows’, he is far advanced in his campaign to marry Lady Julia. With disarming and rather repellent candour Rex explains how he has wormed his way into London’s high society by becoming Lady Brenda Champion’s lover, hence golf with the Prime Minister, influential friends in the City and so on. But having conquered that world, he now needs to mate, to make a permanent connection, and obtain the classiest dame at the cheapest price (remember Rex is a Canadian and lives for The Deal [I wonder why Waugh didn’t make him the more obviously mercenary nationality of American]).

Rex and Julia

All of Part Two, chapter two is devoted to a long exposition of Rex’s efforts to woo Lady Julia, starting with her coming out parties as a debutante in the 1924 season, through his slow patient wooing, including reassuring the family and Lady Marchmain of his good intentions, while carrying on a similar campaign to win over Julia’s absent father, residing in Monte Carlo.

Things are well advanced, and Rex is even prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice and convert to Catholicism (though it means nothing whatsoever to him, to the comic dismay of his catechist, Father Mowbray). The church is booked, the bridesmaids have been chosen and the family are reviewing the guest list when Bridey walks into the living room at Brideshead and delivers a bombshell: Rex is already married, to a woman back in Canada in 1915.

Rex says he divorced her. Yes but in the Catholic faith you cannot divorce your partner, and you certainly can’t marry someone who has been married before. Rex doesn’t get this and thinks he can just throw money at the problem. In a rational world he would be able to, but these people are Catholics and so live their lives via a matrix of life-denying rules and obligations.

Julia insists she wants to marry Rex but it simply can’t be done in the Catholic faith, so they settle on a compromise, to marry in a hurry in an out of the way Protestant chapel with a handful of witnesses. It is exactly the opposite of the grand society wedding both of them wanted, it is a huge disappointment to their family, it is a scandal to all their Catholic friends, all the guests have to be disinvited, all the gifts have to be returned, it is a shamble all round, and gets Julia and Rex’s married life off to a miserable start from which it never recovers. Yay for Catholicism.

Lady Teresa a good and saintly woman and yet everything bad happens to her. She had to watch her handsome husband become an alcoholic and then an adulterer. She had to watch her beautiful son become another alcoholic. Now she has to watch her daughter apostasise from the Catholic faith in order to have a squalid little hole-in-the-corner wedding to Rex Mottram. Julia on her mother:

‘All through her life Mummy had all the sympathy of everyone except those she loved.’ (p.192)

The General Strike

Charles reads about it in the English newspapers in Paris. Very funny how all Rex’s grand plans were foiled by the family’s irrational beliefs.

Next episode is the General Strike of May 1926. Charles and other posh ex-pats genuinely fear that a revolution is breaking out and so he leaves his studies in Paris and returns hot foot to London – only to find everything absolutely as boring as usual, except his friends are now going to jazz clubs and getting drunker than ever.

He is inducted as a special constable and protects a convoy of milk churns, only once getting into a mild dust-up in the Commercial Road. He came from Paris with a colleague in the art world, a Belgian Futurist named Jean de Brissac la Motte. This chap was the only casualty of the General Strike that Charles heard about:

Jean, who joined another company, had a pot of ferns dropped on his head by an elderly widow in Camden Town and was in hospital for a week. (p.199)

Very much in the same spirit of absurdity with which he describes the comically inept conflict in Waugh in Abyssinia and Black Mischief.

Anthony Blanche again

But in fact this brief return to London is mostly notable for bumping into the egregious Anthony Blanche in a very sleazy Soho club. Anthony is, of course, full of gossip about Sebastian, to wit, Sebastian came to stay with him in Marseilles, stole and pawned his belongings to keep himself in booze, so Anthony took him away from Europe to Tangiers, where Sebastian appears to have fallen in with some rough trade from the Foreign Legion. Not looking too good for young Seb, is it?

Julia contacts Charles while he’s in London and asks her to come visit Mama in Marchmain House. There Charles learns Lady Marchmain is dying, the docs say she has a few weeks at most. When they arrive Lady M is sleeping so can’t see him, but while he’s there Julia asks, begs, Charles to go to North Africa and rescue Sebastian.

Charles in Casablanca

So Charles finds himself dragged back in. He flies to Casablanca, is briefed by the British Consul who finds ‘young Flyte’ a worry and none too popular with the Moors who are anti-booze. Charles is directed down a warren of dodgy alleyways and comes to a filthy house at the end of a dirty alleyway, to discover Sebastian’s partner or friend, the disreputable German there. The German tells him Sebastian’s in a hospital run by monks, so off Charles goes. At the hospital they tell him Sebastian’s made himself  so weak with drink that the slightest infection could carry him off. Sebastian is surprised to see Charles and Charles is distressed to see how poorly Sebastian has become, thin and lined.

He sorts out a deal between the family and a local British bank to supply Sebastian with a regular weekly stipend as long as he’s judged to live regularly, eat regularly and look after himself.

Back in London he discovers Lady Julia has died. In the Paris restaurant Rex had told him the Marchmain family had lived beyond their means ever since the war. Marchmain is hugely in debt. Now Charles learns the family are selling Marchmain House in London which will be turned into a block of flats. Bridey commissions him to paint it before it is demolished and these turn out to be the architectural paintings which launch Charles’s career as an artist.

Part three: A twitch upon the thread

Chapter one

‘I was glad when I found Celia was unfaithful,’ I said. ‘I felt it was all right for me to dislike her.’

I liked this part best. It seems the least immature and snobbish. It is ten years later. Charles has become a successful architectural painter, had umpteen exhibitions, published best-selling books of paintings of classic English stately homes and winsome cottages. Some six years earlier he married Celia, sister of Boy Mulcaster. Two years ago he discovered she had been unfaithful to him and it turned his heart to stone. He surprised everyone by setting off on a long tour through Mexico and Central America, painting and sketching ancient ruins being reclaimed by the jungle.

That’s all backstory. Part three opens with Charles having completed his South American odyssey and flown to New York to be reunited with his wife before boarding the liner to take them back to Blighty. Celia is bright and super-sociable, organising a farewell party then, as soon as they’re aboard, another party with a huge swan carved of ice in the ship’s main room which is soon packed to bursting with all their guests.

But reunion with Celia just proves to Charles he doesn’t give a damn about her, or the children he’s had with her. His heart is hard. He discovers Julia Mottram née Flyte, Sebastian’s sister is aboard. Realises he hasn’t seen her for ages. She’s invited to the party but doesn’t attend.

At the height of the party the ship begins to heave. Soon it is in the midst of a big Atlantic storm, bucking and rolling for days. Charles’s wife takes to her bed very sick and this gives Charles the opportunity to look up Julia. They walk round the ship in the storm, brave the dining room, talk for hours about their lives and hopes. She describes how her marriage to Rex Mottram became a sham as she slowly realised he was only part of a man, a big Ambition and nothing more. He managed to get her pregnant but the baby was stillborn which cemented their rift.

Julia tells him that since Lady Marchmain’s death and the sale of Marchmain House, her father refused to come back from his Continental dalliances and so she and Rex live in big old Brideshead, along with Bridey who has holed up in a room in the same tower as old Nanny Hawkins and become more and more reclusive. Nobody’s heard from Sebastian in years.

After some shilly-shallying, they try a walk along the ship’s rails but are thrown together by the ship’s roll, with the spray in their hair and suddenly the sun breaking through in glory, she whispers in his ear, yes, she will sleep with him, yes, and leads him below to her cabin where they commit adultery.

Adultery itself is a very boring subject as is the spurious air of tremendous importance it gives its practitioners, who think their little drama is the centre of the world – but I liked the setting of a luxury 1930s liner in a severe storm, that felt novel.

Chapter two

Charles arrives in England and almost immediately has an exhibition in a London gallery. His wife Celia a) knows nothing about the fact he’s fallen in love with Julia b) is his very capable manager; she organises his exhibitions, draws up the guest list, worries about reviewers and sales.

Charles is haughtily contemptuous of the whole circus as he had been of the huge party his wife organised on the ship. That is what makes this third part the most enjoyable, Charles’s withering contempt – for the critics, for the reviewers, for the cognoscenti, for his wife, for the minor royalty who pops in to shake hands, for the insincere snobs his wife has invited to luncheon, and finally, for his wife herself, who he still cordially despises as much as he did when he discovered her infidelity two years earlier.

By the way, Waugh captures the excruciating embarrassment of these kinds of occasions but he in no way at any point persuades us that Charles is an artist. Author and character’s failure to mention any art movements of the day or any living artist convinces the reader that Charles a literary man’s idea of an artist i.e. an observer of people and psychologies and characters and whatnot i.e. a novelist and not an artist at all. The artists I know are obsessed with how things look and light and angles and composition.

At the end of the opening day of his exhibition Charles cries off going down to their country seat (the Old Rectory) or seeing his small children, in preference for going with Julia to Brideshead. At that moment, Celia realises he is leaving her, is in love with Julia.

And he really is in love with her, the night of passion on the transatlantic liner really opened a door into a new world of wonderful love. He waits excitedly at Paddington till she arrives and they hop on the train, enjoying dinner in the dining car. Then a car collects them at the station and drives them to grand old  Brideshead where Rex, older and thicker and coarser, is entertaining a gang of his friends in politics and finance, all roaring and shouting over each other. They are discussing the Spanish Civil War which broke out in July 1936 and the British Abdication Crisis of November to December 1936.

Chapter three

It is two years later, 1938, and Charles has moved into Brideshead and is an accepted fixture there. Rex mostly stays up in London, Bridey drops in at mysterious intervals, Charles only sees his wife and children at Christmas of which there have been two since he and Julia became lovers.

At the end of another pleasant day spent trying to paint Julia, Bridey drops by for dinner and drops a bombshell. He is getting married, he will resume his ownership of Brideshead, Rex and Julia will have to move back to London to be nearer Rex’s constituency (he is an MP), Charles also will have to move out.

Bridey makes the insensitive remark that his bride-to-be is devoutly Catholic and so won’t allow a woman in sin to inhabit the same building. That would be Julia, living in sin with Charles. Julia bursts into tears and runs out onto the terrace where Charles goes to comfort her, which leads into a great long incoherent speech about Catholicism and sin she delivers, written in a completely different style from anything else in the book, and which is, apparently, a highpoint of the novel for many people. It’s her own acknowledgment of the Catholic faith and theology she has spent her entire lifetime running away from.

Chapter four

The details of the divorces. Charles divorces Celia. She retains the Old Rectory and the children. Rex asks Charles to ask Julia not to divorce him, hasn’t he been reasonable, he hasn’t minded his wife having an affair, he’s had a few of his own, but a divorce is different, bad for the reputation, old boy.  But she persists. Lawyers, depositions, witness statements, accountants, settlements, properties.

Cordelia turns up. When Charles last saw her she was a religiose 15-year-old heavily influenced by the nuns of her convent education. 14 years later we learn that she packed all that religious stuff in and went off to serve in a hospital throughout the Spanish war. Charles is shocked to see she is so plain as to be ugly, blunt, to the point, efficient.

She tells a long story about how she heard Sebastian was in Tunis and went to see him. He really is an impoverished wreck of a man now. He had taken his German, Kurt, to Greece where he began to get better. But then got in a fight and thrown in prison which is where the Nazi authorities heard about him and had him repatriated back to Germany. Sebastian travelled to Germany to find him and took ages to track him down only to find he had become a propaganda-spewing Nazi. He refused to recognise Sebastian, but the latter’s doggedness eventually broke him down and, finally, the pair planned to escape back to Africa, but the authorities realised Kurt was about to defect so threw him into concentration camp. It was a long time before Sebastian learned he hanged himself there, and made his way back to North Africa.

When Cordelia arrived he was in absolute poverty and pestering a fellowship of monks to be sent to Central Africa as a missionary. Cordelia discovers that everyone who meets this ravaged shambles of a man is moved by him and convinced of his beatitude. He’ll become a poor servant of the brothers. Everyone thinks he is very close to God. Charles can’t see it. Cordelia patronise him. It’s because he’s not a Catholic. Catholics are special people. They know God. Sometimes it takes great suffering, oh me, oh my, tremendous suffering. But then one comes out of it with a greater sense of one’s faith. Doesn’t one?

Catholicism, in this guise, seems to be a way of proclaiming how special one is. Since all these characters are already frightfully special because they come from a special family and went to special schools and have special feelings, being Catholic on top is like being special squared, cubed, special to the nth degree. It’s an accusation often made against Waugh that his Catholicism was just another form of snobbery, only instead of being in with the aristocracy it meant being in with God. The ultimate club.

Of course one doesn’t like to brag or get above one’s station but one is just quietly confident that one knows a bit more about God and life and morality and the purpose of the universe than non-believers possibly can. Poor mites.

Chapter five

Bridey and his new wife were just about to take possession of Brideshead when, to everyone’s surprise, in view of the deteriorating international situation, Lord Marchmain announces he is returning to occupy his ancestral seat. Great fussing among the servants and tenants but it is a cold blustery day when the car draws up and Lord Marchmain emerges a tied, weak old man, who needs help getting out of the car and can only stand with a stick.

Charles and Julia remain with Cordelia, as Lord Marchmain has himself installed on the ground floor, in the old ‘Chinese room’. He wants them to be around him at all times, he is scared of being alone, he knows he is dying.

He candidly announces he has taken violently against Bridey’s new wife, a middle-aged divorcee named Beryl Muspratt, bourgeois wife of the deceased Admiral Muspratt. Over and over Marchmain reverts to the subject of the ghastly Beryl and tells the others he will not let her occupy the same rooms and role as his beloved wife and his mother before her. She is coarse and vulgar. Why, he’d rather gift the house to Julia and Julia, later, tells Charles she would love to inherit it, own it, and run it. And this opens up for Charles the possibility of becoming the man, the effective owner of Brideshead House!

But Lord Marchmain declines very fast and on the couple of times the lawyers are called to amend his will to let Julia inherit, he’s too ill to see them. He says he has plenty of time and, surprisingly, he has, lingering on into midsummer.

This gives him long enough to be given pages of rambling speech, mixing up the Chinese figures on the painted walls of his bedroom with a sentimentalised vision of Brideshead’s history, the old medieval castle, Agincourt, Nelson, Waterloo etc.

And for Marchmain to become the centre of a bitter tussle among his children and Charles. As Marchmain goes downhill and, eventually, can’t breathe without an oxygen cylinder, Bridey insists he is given the last rights by a local priest. Charles takes the agnostic view that the shock might kill him and recruits his doctor to back him up. Julia is in the middle and the theological argument gets mixed up in the psychology of their relationship.

In a nutshell, right at the very end, the local Irish-Scottish priest is a model of gentleness and restraint and it is Julia who breaks the deadlock by taking the responsibility for taking him into her father’s room. The priest says the last rites over Lord Marchmain’s unmoving body, they all kneel, even Charles who finds himself praying that Marchmain will make a sign and signal that he hears the priest, that he repents his sins, that he lets God into his life.

And there, at the book’s climactic moment, after the priest has finished anointing him, the half paralysed old man does feebly make a sign of the cross. He accepted the grace of God. They are all very moved.

Later that evening he dies. Julia meets Charles at the corner of the stairs and tells him she cannot marry him. He’s seen this coming for months, the rebirth of her Catholic faith. Now she says she cannot set up him as a worldly good in rivalry to God. She must forsake him in order to devote herself to God. She is condemning them both to lonely lives of regret and unhappiness but, hey, that’s what her religion is all about.

Epilogue

Back to the present and Charles is given a tour of the building by the Quartering Officer. He informs Charles that the place belonged to a Lady Julia Marchmain but she vacated it some time ago when the army requisitioned it. She is overseas, working as a nurse with the army (in Palestine, with Cordelia, it turns out).

The point if the tour is to show how the hooligans of the army have treated the house, damaging everywhere, boarding over panelling and paintings, pulling down trees to build an access road, driving three ton lorries into the balustrade, chucking fag ends into the dried up fountain. Yes the place has been trashed and vulgarised. In Charles’s eyes this all represents The Age of Hooper, his sordid, useless, layabout adjutant.

He bumps into a servant he knows who’s taking tea to Nanny Hawkins, the only original member of the crew in the place, and he sits and listens to her for half an hour talking of all the changes. But right at the end, despite the squalor, the emptiness and the echo of past tragedies and unhappinesses, Charles becomes convinced it all has been for something, because despite the house’s decline and fall a small red flame of faith was rekindled, in Julia’s breast and in his own heart. Out of ashes has come God’s grace.

Summary

Although its many flaws are obvious (the over-writing, the sentimentality, the snobbery and elitism, and then the peculiar heartlessness and cynicism) in the end I liked it. It feels significantly more… more serious than the comedies of the 1930s. And although his account of people screwing up their lives in the name of Catholicism reminds me all too much of Catholics I’ve known in real life whose religion made them deeply unhappy…on a fictional level, I was won over by the idea that Waugh’s aim was less a sentimental nostalgia for the heady days of his 20s, but a more hard-headed intention to show the playing out of the Holy Spirit among a cast of characters, centred on an old Catholic family.

I didn’t burst into tears when old Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross but I can understand people who might. I mean I enjoyed the plan, the composition of the thing, its design: in which old Marchmain finally repents for his sins and returns to the church after a quarter century of scorn, how it plays out in the strange haunted holy figure of the beggar-before-God Sebastian; how it plays out in the different characters of Julia and Cordelia who both become nurses and servers. And how it appears to revive his schoolboy faith in Charles himself. Brideshead Revisited is a long book. A lot happens. It has many vividly imagined scenes. it feels much deeper and richer than anything he’d written before. I can see myself becoming a little hooked by it…


Unashamed nostalgia

The old ways are best:

We shared what had once been a dressing-room and had been changed to a bathroom twenty years back by the substitution for the bed of a deep, copper, mahogany-framed bath, that was filled by pulling a brass lever heavy as a piece of marine engineering; the rest of the room remained unchanged; a coal fire always burned there in winter. I often think of that bathroom–the water-colours dimmed by steam and the huge towel warming on the back of the chintz armchair–and contrast it with the uniform, clinical little chambers, glittering with chromium plate and looking-glass, which pass for luxury in the modern world.

Julia on Rex Mottram as a type of the ghastly modern world:

‘He wasn’t a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce.’

Silly billy modern world.

Gorging

Waugh freely admits in the 1959 preface that some of the descriptions were written by a man half starved by four years of severe rationing and fantasising about mouth-watering pre-war dinners. Here’s Charles impressing Rex Mottram at a restaurant in Paris:

I remember the dinner well — soup of oseille, a sole quite simply cooked in a white wine sauce, a caneton à la presse, a lemon soufflé. At the last minute, fearing that the whole thing was too simple for Rex, I added caviare aux blinis. And for wine I let him give me a bottle of 1906 Montrachet, then at its prime, and, with the duck, a Clos de Bère of 1904. (p.166)

And wine:

I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again, lunching with my wine merchant in St. James’s Street, in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as at Paillard’s with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.

The British Empire

Lady Julia on Sebastian:

‘Well, I’m fond of him too, in a way, I suppose, only I wish he’d behave like anybody else. I’ve grown up with one family skeleton, you know–Papa. Not to be talked of before the servants, not to be talked of before us when we were children. If Mummy is going to start making a skeleton out of Sebastian, it’s too much. If he wants to be always tight, why doesn’t he go to Kenya or somewhere where it doesn’t matter?’

Satirical in tone but an enduring reminder that John Bright’s famous remark that the British Empire amounted to ‘a vast system of outdoor relief for the upper classes’ was, in fact, true. Failed in London, try in Kenya.


Credit

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh was published by Chapman and Hall in 1945. All references are to the 1984 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

Evelyn Waugh reviews

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

Brenda and Tony

Five or six years ago Brenda Rex married Tony Last. She is Lord St Cloud’s daughter, ‘very fair, [with an] underwater look’. They lived in a flat in London till Tony’s father died two years later, and left him an impressive Victorian country house, Hetton, loving described in a page of purple prose. But what with the upkeep of the big draughty place and wages for the fifteen or so servants (including the butler, Ambrose), they don’t have much disposable income and can’t afford to go up to London very often.

They have a simply adorable little boy, John Andrew, who has a tut-tutting nanny. One of the other servants is a riding master, Ben Hacket, who’s teaching the boy how ride and jump fences on his pony, Thunderclap (and in a comic recurring theme, also exposing the boy to rather fruity phrases which nanny considers wholly inappropriate).

Enter John Beaver

One weekend, John Beaver, a non-descript young man comes to stay. He has no money and no title and no relatives. One night when Tony was up in town he found himself in the bar of his club, Bratts, almost alone except for this Beaver fellah, and they had a few drinks and then dinner and Tony, out of politeness, asked him to come down to stay at the country place. Never dreamed he would. But here he was, having caught the train down.

There are no other guests so he and Brenda put a brave face on entertaining the young man, carefully assigning him the coldest spare bedroom (Sir Galahad; with Victorian heaviness, all the bedrooms are named after characters from the King Arthur stories) with the most uncomfortable bed, in a bid to get rid of him asap.

During the day Tony makes excuses to go out on estate business, see to his tenants, pop into the local town, go to church on Sunday morning and generally avoid young Beaver. So it falls to Brenda to engage him in conversation and try to keep him entertained.

At first, when Beaver has gone to dress for dinner or whatever, when she is alone with Tony, she complains about how tiresome he is. But Beaver is used to staying at country places, he’s the non-descript, unimportant chaps who makes up the numbers at countless society parties and weekends, and so he puts on a good display of conversation and pretends to be interested in the house and ends up staying an extra night. By the time he leaves on Monday morning Brenda is describing him as quite tolerable, you know.

Their affair begins

Thus begins the slow slide by which Brenda Last commences an adulterous affair with bland John Beaver, to her own surprise, the amazement of her sister, Marjorie, and the delight of gossip-starved wider society.

(Brenda’s sister, Marjorie is married to Allan, ‘the prospective Conservative candidate for a South London constituency of strong Labour sympathies’. They are hard up, too hard up to afford a baby, but popular. They live in a little house in the neighbourhood of Portman Square, very convenient for Paddington Station and they own a Pekingese dog named Djinn, who various other characters find objectionable.)

John’s backstory

John’s backstory is that his father is dead and he was laid off from the one job he’s ever had, in an advertising company, during the Slump. Now he lives with his mother, Mrs Beaver, in her small house in Sussex Gardens. He calls her ‘mumsy’. She runs a small business providing furnishings for the London homes of the rich. He has the dark little sitting-room (on the ground floor, behind the dining-room) and his own telephone. His clothes are looked after by an elderly parlourmaid.

Beaver has one distinction – he is a universal backstop guest for posh parties. If a society hostess is arranging a smart dinner party and a male guest lets her down at the last minute, John is the man she calls. Thus John spends the early part of every evening sitting beside his phone, waiting for a call, and is rarely disappointed. Someone, somewhere, needs a presentable man at short notice and, from his base in Sussex Gardens, he can walk or catch a cab to be with his hostess in as little as fifteen minutes, sometimes arriving just as the guests are going in to dine, sometimes after they’ve completed their first course.

Tony the model squire

Tony Last’s distinguishing feature is his immense love for his rambling old house, Hetton, and the plans continually revolving round his head of how to renovate and improve it. He attends church every Sunday (sitting in the family box pew his father had specially built, which is big enough to hold an armchair!), chats with the rather gaga vicar (‘the Reverend Tendril’) after the service, makes friendly conversation with the villagers, many of whom are his tenants. He is a sentimentalised vision of the modern squire, hard up in the modern way, forced to scrimp and save, but benevolently patriarchal and well meaning. His quiet, rural integrity stands in time-honoured opposition to the shallow, immoral infidelities represented by the big bad city.

Familiar plot

In fact the outline of the plot is time-honoured and traditional. Young society girl marries nice chap with house in country, moves to country, produces son and heir, becomes bored, then very bored, then has fling with first halfway eligible man who crosses her path.

Obviously there’s lots of precisely imagined and described detail, both of the affair and the London high society it takes place amongst. One of the striking things for a modern reader is how Brenda and Beaver make no attempt to hide their affair. They attend the usual round of high society parties so that within days their names are being bandied about over dinner party tables and morning phone calls. Very quickly everyone knows they’re having an affair, everyone except poor Tony.

Waugh indulges in a little editorialising, repeating the idea floated in Vile Bodies that people read gossip columns, and gossip generally, in order live fuller lives via other people. The key word is ‘vicariously’, which occurs here and in the similar passage in Bodies:

The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at a restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject in bed over the telephone. (p.57)

Gossip is a key part of Waugh’s fiction. Waugh is the poet laureate of gossip.

A love nest in London

The affair takes a step up when Brenda persuades Tony that she needs a little flat in town, a pied a terre, an idea suggested by Mrs Beaver who is converting a Victorian house into stylish bedsits containing a bedroom and ensuite bathroom. Tony reluctantly lets Brenda rent one and then accedes to her sudden desire to spend rather a lot of time at it. For a front she claims to want to take an adult degree in economics, it will help her manage accounts at Hetton. Tony innocently believes this obvious lie.

For his part, John is chuffed to be treated with new respect by the polite society which he has previously only been on the fringes of.

And Beaver, for the first time in his life, found himself a person of interest and, almost, of consequence. Women studied him with a new scrutiny, wondering what they had missed in him; men treated him as an equal, even as a successful fellow competitor. ‘How on earth has he got away with it?’ they may have asked themselves, but now, when he came into Bratt’s, they made room for him at the bar and said, ‘Well, old boy, how about one?’ (p.58)

So the plot – bored married woman has affair – may be pretty run of the mill, the pleasure comes from: Waugh’s beautiful style; a thousand and one acute observations about the people and posh lifestyles he’s describing; and, more subtly, the precise way Waugh conceives and records the slow change in Brenda’s attitude and in the climate of her marriage. If you want to drag ‘morality’ into literature, then it is a moral decline, but recorded, annotated, measured, in psychological details.

‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar

Brenda stays away from Hetton more and more. When she comes back to Hetton Tony is pitifully glad to see her. Our sympathies harden against Brenda when she conspires to palm off a free single woman on Tony. With atrocious misunderstanding of her husband, she thinks if she can push him into having an affair, then they’ll be morally equal.

So Brenda comes down to Hetton with two posh society friends and Mrs Beaver, who is now offering to do up the main rooms in the house (to Tony’s dismay). But the point of the visit is an extended comic passage about a ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar (real name Jenny), a heavily made-up and over-scented vamp who Brenda and the other women take every opportunity to leave alone with Tony, as she flirts with him, gives him a silly nickname, hints at her tragic past, declares she simply loves the house and in every way tries to tempt him into an affair which will then justify Brenda’s brazen, heartless adultery. But it is a comic fail. They’ve all underestimated Tony’s good, true, faithful heart.

The Shameless Blonde

Tony’s best friend, Jock Grant-Menzies, comes for the weekend bringing his latest girlfriend, a thoroughly modern divorcée who the two men have nicknamed ‘the shameless blonde’. Her actual name is Mrs Rattery and she was American by origin but is now thoroughly internationalised, having lived for years in the best hotels in capital cities around the world. She turns out to be supremely capable and flies in her own plane to Hetton, which she lands in the park, climbing out, tall and limber in her flying outfit, the model of a 1930s, Art Deco, über-woman.

Next day is the big fox hunt which young John Andrew has been excitedly looking forward to for months. Waugh describes the buildup and hunt with the same thoroughness and accuracy that he brings to any subject if he sets his mind to it (compare the numerous factual descriptions in his travel books). For me, fox hunting doesn’t become any the less ludicrous the more the traditions and rituals surrounding it, are described. Most Londoners get more foxes in their gardens than the Pigstanton Hunt gets in this novel. But it is an important symbol of the life of the country squire, that sense of deep English heritage which also informs, say, the novels of Saki or Siegfried Sassoon.

Death of John Andrew

Half way through the book comes its devastating shock. Little John Andrew is really enjoying the hunt but his father made Ben promise to bring him back before 1pm and as 1 approaches, despite John’s whines to be allowed to ride some more, Ben tells him they must return.

All morning there have, of course, been numerous other riders and horses. The most notable was Miss Ripon riding a very difficult, temperamental bay horse her father has been trying to get rid of for years. She’s packed in following the hunt and joins them on the ride along the road back to the stables, with John to her right and Ben on the outside. At a bend in the lane one of the country buses unexpectedly appears coming the other way but slows right down and pulls over. Bit nerve-making but OK. But, alas, Miss Tendril, the vicar’s niece, has come up behind the horses on her fashionable motor bike and at that precise moment it backfires with a terrific, loud report.

Miss Ripon’s horse starts and panics, rearing sideways and knocking John Andrew off his mount and onto the tarmac road. Ben yells at Miss Ripon to whip her horse, which she does and it regains focus and shoots off down the road. But not before it lashes out with a powerful rear hoof which connects with John Andrew’s head and sends him flying into the ditch where he lies perfectly still. He is killed instantly.

The impact of John’s death

In his previous novels Waugh had deliberately underplayed the deaths of various characters, they happened peripherally, that was a deliberate tactic in creating the sense of the brittle, heartless high society he wanted to portray.

Here, it is the opposite. We arrive back at Hetton to find Tony has been informed of his son’s abrupt, tragic and quite meaningless death. Like the stiff upper lip English gent he is (or fancies he is, or Waugh fancies he is) he is dealing capably with all the social obligations and arrangements which a death in the family entails. The workmen redecorating the drawing room have been sent home. Mr Tendril the vicar pays a sombre visit. With typical empath and selflessness, Tony is most concerned about Miss Ripon who was in a terribly emotional state and kept blaming herself. Ben arrives and gives his side of the story. Jock arrives and is with Tony alone.

Everybody agrees it was nobody’s fault, no one is to blame. This phrase is echoed again and again by various characters and with each iteration becomes more meaningless. It is a cruel, shocking insight into a universe with absolutely no purpose or concern for anybody.

Tony is most worried who will tell Brenda. He’s phoned her at her London flat umpteen times but no reply. Jock, who, like everyone else, knows about Brenda’s affair with Beaver, volunteers to go to London and tell her. Initially Mrs Rattan, the  brisk, effective American divorcée, offers to fly them both up to London but something in Tony’s tone makes her change her mind. It is notable that, out of all the characters, it is the only non-English person, the American divorcée, who grasps just how deeply Tony is in shock, that he is on the verge of going completely to pieces. So she says she will stay with him, overriding all his objections, meaning Jock will take the train up to London. And stay she does during the long empty afternoon of his newly desolate life, trying to distract him with numerous different card games. The understated power of this passage brought tears to my eyes.

Brenda’s reaction

Meanwhile, there is another scene designed to shock. Jock makes it to London, knocks on the door of Brenda’s flat, only for her neighbour to open, none other than the vampish, self-dramatising ‘Princess’ Abdul Akbar’. She knows where Brenda is, at Polly Cockpurse’s place where a gaggle of posh ladies are having their fortunes read by the latest fashionable fortune reader. When Brenda emerges from her session she sees from her friends’ faces that something bad has happened and she rushes downstairs to see Jock. He tells her to prepare herself and then tells her that John is dead.

Brenda goes white and has to sit down. But as Jock begins to tell the details of the death, about the hunt and the horse, Brenda becomes confused, perplexed – and then realises Jock isn’t talking about John Beaver, he is referring to her son, John Andrew. At which point the novel screeches off its hinges into a terrible moment of moral indictment. In that split second of realisation, Brenda is relieved that it was only her son who was killed, not her adulterous lover.

[Jock] ‘I’ve been down at Hetton since the week-end.’
[Brenda] ‘Hetton?’
‘Don’t you remember? John was going hunting to-day.’
She frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying. ‘John… John Andrew… I… oh, thank God…’ Then she burst into tears.
She wept helplessly, turning round in the chair and pressing her forehead against its gilt back. (p.118)

God. Has any fictional character ever been so totally skewered? She is relieved to learn that it’s only her son who’s died. And realises it in the same moment, realises what a terrible terrible thing that is to have thought and felt.

Jock drives Brenda back to her flat, sits while she packs her things in shock, drives her to the station to catch the train down to Hetton. She makes a feeble attempt to excuse herself, saying she didn’t know what she was saying. Jock says bluntly: ‘You know what you said.’ He drives to his club. He stands at the bar saying nothing to anyone.

A few days later, when Jock goes down to Hetton to keep Tony company, he listens as Tony explains why Brenda told him she had to get away from the house, how deeply upset she must be, how he wishes he could help her. Jock says nothing. He doesn’t tell anyone what she said. God, the buttoned-up, repressed, tight-lippedness of these people.

Brenda and Tony attend the inquest. Afterwards she moves slowly, mechanically. Sits in a daze. Stares out the window. This is really beautifully conveyed, her sleep-walking dazedness. She tells Tony it’s all over, she must get away. He doesn’t understand. Not till she writes him a letter from back in London saying she is in love with John Beaver and wants a divorce. Tony is incredulous. He… he trusted her.

The divorce

An entire chapter is devoted to a detailed description of the absurd lengths one had to go to in the 1930s to gain a divorce. Because Tony is a gentleman he ‘does the right thing’ which is arrange to be the guilty party. He contacts a divorce solicitors who organise the usual procedure, which is that he goes to a hotel somewhere (he chooses Brighton) with a woman of his choice (Jock and Tony give this a lot of thought and then go visit a dingy ‘nightclub’ they’d visited one very drunk night earlier in the story, and alight on the blowsy prostitute, Milly). They explain the deal to Milly, explaining it will be purely a business transaction, no sex required. When Milly asks if she can bring her 8-year-old daughter, Winnie, Tony briskly refuses. Nonetheless, when Milly arrives at the station to meet Tony for the train to Brighton a few days later, she has brought Winnie who proves to be a world class pain in the butt during the following tortuous weekend.

So they catch a train together to Brighton, accompanied at a distance by the two private detectives hired by the divorce solicitors who will testify to Tony’s adultery in court and so win the divorce. Winnie keeps whining, wanting ‘ices’ and insists on being taken to see the sea despite there being a howling rainstorm. Tony outrages his detectives’ sense of professional propriety by socialising with them, buying them drinks and then cocking up the all-important ‘morning after’ scene by having such an early breakfast in the hotel restaurant with whining Winnie that it is an effort to then put a dressing gown on (over his other clothes) and clamber into a big double bed with Milly (who’s tired and grumpy) so they can be served by hotel staff who will later testify to finding them in bed together etc.

An unpleasant obligation, required by his impeccable good manners and sense of responsibility, is finally completed.

Payback

Back in London Tony is visited by Brenda’s elder brother, Reggie, an obese archaeologist. At this point it gets nasty.

It should probably be pointed out that Waugh himself was betrayed by his first wife and went through a very painful divorce. They were married for precisely one year before she revealed she was having an affair with a good friend of both of theirs. It is not difficult to see the passage that follows, this scene with Brenda’s adipose brother Reggie, as cold-blooded revenge. Waugh shows very clearly how Tony’s honesty and fidelity and good manners are systematically traduced by every member of her family and all her friends.

The humiliating ordeal he put himself through in Brighton and his offer of £500 a year settlement are thrown back in his face as bullyingly insufficient. The brother, Reggie, tells Tony that Brenda wants at least £2,000 a year. Lots of relatives think Tony is behaving badly by refusing to take Brenda back. Give it a year, suggests Marjorie, and she’ll get over Beaver and be ready to come back. Tony should wait. He should be forgiving.

In a cold fury at Reggie’s demands Tony phones Brenda and asks if this is really what she wants. £2,000 a year. She admits that John Beaver put her up to it. Beaver’s pointed out they’ll both be quite hard up so will need Tony’s money to live on. Tony asks her if she understands that this will mean he’ll have to sell Hetton. She stumbles and hesitates and starts crying and tells him to stop bullying her, but then admits, yes, she knew.

That’s all he needed to know. He puts the phone down and strides back into the restaurant where Reggie is waiting. And tells him he can fuck off. He’s cancelling the divorce, the whole trip to Brighton was a sham and he has witnesses to prove it. He’s not going to divorce Brenda or give her a penny. Tough. He gets up and walks out. The reader is meant to be on their feet, cheering. The worm has finally turned. After a long narrative of being betrayed, lied to and laughed at behind his back, Tony rejects the whole stinking lot of them.

On a journey

The final quarter of the novel presents another surprise. The scene has moved utterly from England. We find Tony aboard a ship heading for South America (!). Why? How?

Avoiding his former clubs, Bratts and Brown’s, for fear of running into Beaver or indeed anyone he knows, Tony had taken to frequenting the third club he’s a member of, the Greville Club. This is a more highbrow, donnish place, and it is here that he meets the short, brown figure of Dr Messinger. Tony had been leafing through travel brochures toying with going on a long journey with no particular idea where. Over lunch Dr Messinger tells him about his ongoing quest for a lost Shining City in the Amazon, which he has various maps and native accounts of. By the end of lunch Tony has agreed to accompany him. Why not?

And so there follows a long beautifully described sea voyage from the cold grey English Channel through the big waves of the Atlantic and on to the azure seas of the Caribbean. Descriptions of fellow passengers and a brief flirtation with the 18-year-old daughter of an eminent Trinidadian family.

Then he arrives at a port on the coast of South America, rendezvous with Messinger and they set off upriver into Amazonia with a team of eight blacks, chugging upstream in a shallow boat for ten days. At this point they leave the boat and make a stash of supplies – base camp – before walking to a nearby Indian village. Here they recruit a dozen or so men and women to carry their supplies for a week or more further into the interior. These people are from the Macushi tribe. They go so far but , after a week’s tramping, refuse to go further because it means crossing into Pie-Wie territory. Dr Messinger hopes these remote Pie-Wie people will be able to guide them to the Lost City.

Waugh himself went on a three-month long expedition into Amazonia which he described in Ninety-Two Days. Much of the detail of Tony and Messinger’s trip is based on that, not least a) descriptions of the umpteen different type of fly, mosquito, jiggers and even vampire bats which assail them during the day and are a serious menace by night and b) precise descriptions of the black crew on the boat and then the indigenous Indian porters, silent, self-contained movements, their  unconquerable fear of the other tribe.

Vivid descriptions of each stage of the Amazon journey are juxtaposed with developments back in London, namely the rather inevitable falling out of the adulterous lovers Brenda and John. Beaver tires of Brenda’s clinginess, Brenda, with no support from Tony, becomes desperate for money, lowers herself to ask for a job at Mrs Beaver’s shop and is mortified at being turned down.

Final developments

To summarise, beneath the impressively authentic details of Amazonian natives and fauna, key things happen:

1. Tony comes down with fever – Messinger nurses him for days.

2. Their food runs low and Messinger is forced to leave feverish, hallucinating Tony and set off for help, in the canoe, down the river. Unfortunately, he is swept over a waterfall and drowned.

3. Tony’s pitiful weakness is powerfully described. The way he tries to fill the empty lantern with paraffin but is so weak he knocks the can over and listens helplessly as the precious liquid gouts out into the soil, weeping helplessly, was very affecting.

4. The scene cuts to some days later when an exhausted, fever-ridden, delirious Tony stumbles out of the jungle. Indians spot him and take him, shambling, covered in bites and rashes and cuts, to the only educated man in the area, a Mr Todd.

The bleak ending

Mr Todd nurses Tony slowly back to health, but when Tony mentions it is time for him to leave, Mr Todd makes excuses. Things take a sinister turn. Mr Todd has a collection of mouldy, ant-eaten old books, including a complete set of Charles Dickens. He asks Tony to read to him for a few hours every afternoon. He used to have another man staying with him who did this. He shows Tony the poor wretch’s grave. Slowly Tony realises the other man was stuck there, trapped, a slave, forced to read Dickens in exchange for food. He realises Todd intends to keep him there in the same way, nursing him, feeding him, but never letting him go.

Tony is stuck because Mr Todd’s shack is so isolated. He lives off food provided to him by the native Indians and a few items of livestock. For scores of miles in every direction there is only barren savannah where Tony would starve and parch to death, or the impenetrable rainforest he stumbled out of. If he tried to escape in either direction it would be without food or water and so, as Tony realises, he would die within days. And so he is forced to stay

One day a European explorer stumbles into the clearing. Todd makes sure he is never alone with Tony but before the explorer continues on his way, Tony slips him a note saying he is alive and well. The explorer disappears back into the forest and Tony spends months and months in hope his message will percolate down to the coast and someone will come looking for him.

One afternoon Mr Todd tells Tony the villagers are having a feast, it might interest him to observe and take part. So they spend the evening at the little local village eating cooked meat and drinking generously from the home brewed alcohol. Tony wakes with a terrible hangover to discover his watch has gone from his wrist. Mr Todd comes into his room in the shack and informs him that a search party of Europeans had come looking for him. The native feast was a ruse to drug Tony and hide him out of the way so that when the search party arrived, Mr Todd was able to tell them that Tony had, alas, perished, to show them the grave of Tony’s predecessor saying it contained Tony, and to give them Tony’s watch as proof. Thus they were sent away with bearing a conclusive account of Tony’s sad death in a faraway country back to all his friends and family in England.

Mr Todd calmly explains all this to Tony and it is a sign of Waugh’s tremendous technique that he doesn’t give us Tony’s reaction at all. We don’t see him, hear him utter a word, share his thoughts, there is no description of his response to the fact that he is now doomed to spend the rest of his life, stuck in a crappy clearing in the middle of nowhere, eating the same awful subsistence food day after day, and forced, in order to survive, to read the complete works of Charles Dickens to a madman.

Coda

With new of Tony’s death Hetton passes to his nearest relatives, the ‘poor Lasts’, a cadet branch of the family we had heard about a few times earlier in the narrative. They are decent people but have to downsize the domestic staff and energetically set about expanding the farming operation, specially of lucrative silver foxes, bred for their fur.

Brenda, as a widow, is free to marry. John Beaver had, some time earlier, heartlessly abandoned her in order to accompany his mother on a business trip to America. From this nadir of her fortunes, she manages to recover herself and brings off the coup of marrying Tony’s old friend Jock Grant-Menzies. It speaks volumes about both of them that Jock notoriously heard her first reaction when told that ‘John’ had died, and so fully knows what a heartless , selfish bitch she is – and yet goes ahead with the marriage.

Author’s message

The world is cruel and pointless. Human life, by itself, is meaningless.

For a month now [Tony] had lived in a world suddenly bereft of order; it was as though the whole reasonable and decent constitution of things, the sum of all he had experienced or learned to expect, were an inconspicuous, inconsiderable object mislaid somewhere on the dressing table; no outrageous circumstance in which he found himself, no new, mad thing brought to his notice, could add a jot to the all-encompassing chaos that shrieked about his ears.

Religion is rarely mentioned in the book, none of the characters take it seriously, it only features in the form of the slightly gaga comedy vicar, with his comic name, Mr Tendril. And yet anyone who knows that Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, can sense that the more he emphasises the cruel, amoral heartlessness of the world, the more this vision of despair cries out for a countervailing force, for a force which will restore meaning and purpose and morality to the shabby lives of these broken puppets. Without mentioning Catholicism once, it can be interpreted as a deeply religious book.

Waugh’s way with words

London:

Dawn broke in London, clear and sweet, dove grey and honey, with promise of good weather; the lamps in the streets paled and disappeared; the empty streets ran with water, and the rising sun caught it as it bubbled round the hydrants; the men in overalls swung the nozzles of their hoses from side to side and the water jetted and cascaded in a sparkle of light. (p.190)

The day of the inquest:

A day of fitful sunshine and blustering wind; white and grey clouds were scarcely moving, high overhead, but the bare trees round the house swayed and shook and there were swift whirlpools of straw in the stable yard. Ben changed from the Sunday suit he had worn at the inquest and went about his duties. Thunderclap, too, had been kicked yesterday and was very slightly lame in the off fore.
Brenda took off her hat and threw it down on a chair in the hall. ‘Nothing to say, is there?’

The way the eloquent description is capped off by the taut, abbreviated dialogue is masterly. The desolate scene in the stable yard echoes, mirrors, symbolises or represents Brenda’s state of mind. So that all is needed by way of dialogue is not a long speech of anguish but the opposite, a short taut sentence saying it all.  It’s not rocket science, it’s not a new technique in the novel; it’s just done very, very well.

Tony aboard a cheap steamer heading in bad weather down the English Channel, which is carrying one other passenger:

The wash of the ship was quickly lost in the high waves. They were steaming westward down the Channel. As it grew to be night, lighthouses appeared flashing from the French coast. Presently a steward walked round the bright, upper deck striking chimes on a gong of brass cylinders, and the genial passenger went below to prepare himself for dinner in hot sea water which splashed from side to side of the bath and dissolved the soap in a thin, sticky scum. He was the only man to dress that evening: Tony sat in the mustering darkness until the second bell. Then he left his greatcoat in the cabin and went down to dinner.

For me it is a physical, imaginative and psychological pleasure greater than anything a movie or TV adaptation could possibly give me, to read words like this. The precision of what they describe, the precision of their vocabulary, the fluency of their expression, the contrasting rhythms between the opening three relatively short sentences and then the long middle one which rolls and rights itself like the ship it describes. The subject matter may be bitter and grim, but it is always an immense pleasure to read Waugh’s beautifully clear and expressive prose.


Related links

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Peru: a journey in time @ the British Museum

This is a magnificent exhibition. I think the British Museum is my favourite museum/gallery in London, not only because of the beauty of the building, its sense of size and spaciousness, the awesome breadth and range of its holdings – but because it also combines two of my favourite subjects, art and deep history: art in the widest sense, from the high art of imperial courts to the folk art of Inuit or African tribes; and ‘history’ meaning 50 or 100 years ago, but 5,000 or even 50,000 years ago, the full depth and breadth of all human history.

Copper and shell funerary mask, Peru, Moche, AD 100 to 800. Museo de Arte de Lima, Peru. Donated by James Reid

What

In fact the quality of the objects on display in this exhibition is one of its most striking points. I’ve been to scores of exhibitions about ancient cultures and often the curators are forced, through lack of archaeological evidence, to display shards of pottery or fragments of swords and so on and reconstruct their appearance.

By striking contrast, I don’t think I’ve ever been to an exhibition where the quality of every single piece on display was so high. Peru: a journey in time is an exhibition of physically complete, highly finished and dazzling masterpieces!

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

I was fascinated to learn that this is in large part because of the dry desert conditions of coastal Peru where a lot of its ancient cities were sited meant that all objects, even rugs and tapestries, remained beautifully preserved in the sand for centuries. Apparently these deserts are among the driest in the world, and the exhibition opens with a huge 4-minute video projected onto the wall showing aerial shots of (presumably a helicopter) flying over Amazon jungle, then the breath-taking Andes mountains, through winding river valleys and then, finally across the beautiful bone dry deserts and so to the sandy shoreline. I sat and watched the whole thing several times. It’s awesome.

The exhibition brings together over 40 objects transported from nine museums across Peru to join 80 other pieces from the British Museum’s own collection, many of them rarely if ever exhibited before, including beautiful pots and ceramics, gold headpieces and gauntlets, highly decorated fabrics used to wrap royal corpses and much more.

So it really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see such an extensive exhibition of such wonderful, beautiful objects from remote and ancient cultures most of us have never heard of.

Where

So where are talking? Right at the start the show features a big map showing the borders of modern Peru. I can’t find it anywhere online and this is the least worst available alternative. In the centre is the modern state of Peru with key archaeological sites highlighted. To the north is Ecuador, the north-east Colombia, to the east Brazil, to the south-east Bolivia.

Map of ancient sites in Peru

But the point is that, until a few hundred years ago, until the arrival of the Spanish conquistadores in the 1530s, all the South American states didn’t exist, in fact the modern state of Peru didn’t come into existence until 200 years ago (and the Museum does point out that the exhibition is by way of celebrating Peru’s bicentennary).

Before the 1530s the central part of the west coast of South America was ruled by a succession of native states and empires, the mountains of the Andes were more sparsely populated, though containing some towns and holy sites, and the Amazon rainforest was inhabited by countless indigenous tribes who have left little or no trace.

When

As to when, the big, big revelation of this show is that the Incas, who most of us have heard about, were only the last and relatively short-lived of a whole series of empires which rose to eminence and ruled various parts of the mountain and coastal regions of what we now call Peru for centuries, the first empires dating from thousands of years BC.

As the co-curator of the exhibition, Cecilia Pardo, puts it:

‘While the Incas are one of the most well-known civilisations from Peru, they were actually relatively recent in terms of the long history of this region. We’ll be taking visitors back many thousands of years earlier.’

The Museum provides an illustrated timeline:

And the exhibition is arranged in simple chronological order, with a room (or, since the spaces are actually marked off by fine bead curtaining) a ‘space’ assigned to the six most important empires or cultures. Each one is introduced by a wall label giving a brief overview of the culture’s dates, rise and extent, cultural practices, a map showing that particular culture’s centres, ritual sites, and one or more big big photos of a key site.

The wall labels are just the right length, but it still requires an effort to get the timeline clear in your head, to try and remember the names of the successive cultures and then to remember the cultural practices associated with each.

Pottery vessel in the shape of a contorted body, Peru, Cupisnique,1200 to 500 BC. Museo de Arte de Lima. Donated by Petrus and Verónica Fernandini. Photo by Daniel Giannoni

The timeline can be summarised as:

  • 15,000 BC first humans arrive in South America
  • 2,500 to 1,800 BC first pottery remains
  • 1,200 to 200 BC Chavin culture
  • 900 to 200 BC Paracas culture
  • 200 BC to 650 AD Nasca culture
  • 100 to 800 AD Mosca
  • 600 to 900 AD Wari
  • 900 to 1400 AD coastal kingdom of Chimú
  • 1400 to 1533 Inca Empire

So the Inca ‘room’ is the last one in the show (well, there’s a kind of epilogue showing how some of the practices, patterns and designs of the earlier cultures linger on among peasants or high-end artists in modern Peru), and it goes heavy on the famous ruined city of Machu Picchu, with the usual breath-taking photos, architectural diagrams showing its structure and layout and so on. But we know about Macchu Picchu sitting atop its mountain, 8,000 feet above the tropical forest and the spectacular views which we routinely see in screensavers or travel brochures. (I’m always disappointed to be reminded that Machu Picchu, from the Quechua Indian language, simply means ‘old mountain’. As so often, the foreign words are so much more evocative than the bald English translation.)

But it’s the other spaces, devoted to the other cultures, which are the real revelation. Here they are in order with a few of the outstanding highlights.

1. Living landscapes

Introduction to the breath-taking but challenging environments of Peru, rainforest in the east, high Andes mountains, and desert down to the coast. Introduces ideas from the various cultures, suggesting how the peoples lived in tune with nature, developed agriculture, commerce and art, and their own theories of time and history, and of death and the afterlife.

2. Early cultures and the Chavin (1200 to 500 BC)

3. Life and death in the desert

How the Paracas and Nasca peoples lived along the south coast of Peru, one of the most arid places on the planet. the most outstanding achievement of the Nasca people couldn’t be included in the exhibition because it is the huge ‘geoglyphs’, outline shapes of animals which they carved in the desert. They did this by removing the top layer of earth and exposing the lighter sediment beneath to create stylised depictions of animals and other natural objects. And there aren’t just a handful: to date between nearly 100 new figures had been found with the use of drones and archaeologists believe there are more yet to be discovered.

The Monkey geoglyph, Nasca, Peru. ©Walter Wust / PROMPERÚ.

As to the Paracas, the standout thing here was their cult of severed heads. One of the biggest exhibits is a big tapestry aid flat in a case which you can stroll round. At first I took that busy pattern to be of stylised figures, a bit reminiscent of  the early video game, Space Invaders.

Mantle depicting mythical beings holding severed heads. Museo de Arte de Lima. Prado Family Bequest. Restored with a grant from the Bank of America Art Conservation Project.

It was only when I looked closer that I realised every single one these figures was carrying in their hand a severed head. At first I thought this was a gruesome proof of human sacrifice comparable to the Aztec cult of cutting human hearts out of the defeated in battle. This seemed to be confirmed when in realised several of the pots in this section also depicted figures holding a rope tied to the top of a severed human head.

And then saw a set of wood carvings (rare survivals from the period which have been in the British Museum vaults for over a century, apparently, and never before been put on public display). These were of naked figures (we know they are naked because they had prominent wooden penises) again with thick rope around their necks.

The curator explained it all. In most societies war means unbridled violence between large armies, all too often rampaging across territory and considering it a valid war aim to kill all civilians, destroy all buildings and agriculture. Not so the Paracas. According to the curator, if conflict arose between groups, representatives were chosen to take part in something more like the games in the Roman amphitheatre. The losers were not killed there and then but submitted to this ritual of abasement and execution. The penises are important not as symbols of fertility but because they emphasise the captors’ naked status.

The losers were taken by boat to a holy island just off the coast, where were priests or religious officials who performed the beheading according to rituals. This explains why this section of the exhibition included a beautifully complete and detailed ceramic of a boat being sailed, with a fully dressed sailor at the tiller and several naked captives on deck, all with the stylised short thick rope round their necks.

To return to the funerary wrapping, the curator now explained that the 70 or so figures depicted are gods or protective spirits of the afterlife, and the head each one is holding by a rope represents an ancestor of the person being wrapped in this covering. So, by the end of his presentation, I realised what a precious object this was and how highly charged with religious and ritual symbolism.

(The exhibition features half a dozen or so videos, each devoted to particular exhibits, and this funeral cloth was accompanied by a video showing exactly how it would have been used to wrap the body of its high status owner.)

4. The Moche (AD 100 to 800) and the Chimu (AD 1000 to 1400)

These two cultures dominated along the coast and inland valleys of northern Peru. The outstanding artefacts from the Moche period were the stunningly finished and lifelike pottery heads and figurines.

Painted pottery vessel in the form of a warrior holding a club and a shield, Peru, Moche AD 100 to 600. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

This is what I meant when I said that the exhibits are in astonishing condition. If these pots were from ancient Greece or Rome, you’d put up with half the decoration being scratched off, chips and fragments. But all the pottery heads and figurine included in the exhibition were in immaculate condition. They looked like they’d been made and glazed last month instead of two thousand years ago.

You might have expected that the portrait heads and figurines were stylised and stereotyped or standardised. But the curator  pointed out that archaeologists have discovered a set of pottery heads depicting a man with a distinctive facial disfiguration, and the three pots clearly show him as a youth, a mature man and an old man. In other words, these ceramic heads are portraits of real people. I found that breath-taking.

5. The Wari (AD 600–900) and Inca (AD 1400–1532)

The two great empires of the highlands of the Central Andes, this part of the exhibition overshadowed, as mentioned above, by stunning images of Machu Picchu.

6. The Andean legacy

The final part of the Inca space shows Western influences impinging on native traditions, Christianity apparently wiping out native religions and rituals, books written entirely by Spanish clerics (all the cultures listed above were illiterate so we can never know the detail of their beliefs or practices) giving a very one-sided account of the native peoples, often misunderstanding or distorting their beliefs and traditions.

Kero drinking vessel with a painted scene showing a human figure wearing both Western and Inca attire, Colonial 18th century. © 2021 The Trustees of the British Museum

But then the final (small) space is devoted to a more optimistic vision, showing how many of the native traditions, despite Spanish attempts at obliteration, survived and went underground, emerging centuries later in enduring traditions of arts and crafts, in native words and traditions kept alive in rural areas..

Why

Why go? Because it is a magnificent exhibition. All the exhibits are in stunningly good condition. The photos of the Peruvian landscape are breath-taking, made me want to jump on a plane and go see for myself. The sense of history it gives, of how deep history works, of the growth and overlap and intermingling of distinct cultures over long periods of time on similar or adjacent territories, fire the historical imagination.

If you like images of severed heads, this is the exhibition for you! And I haven’t even mentioned the frequency of other images and motifs taken from the natural world, such as the recurring motifs of pumas or panthers, and the sly presence of snakes in many images. For example, the stunning 2,500-year-old gold headdress and pair of ear plates decorated with embossed motifs of human faces with feline fangs and snakes’ appendages, part of an elite burial found at Kuntur Wasi.

It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind. Go.

A video review

Here’s a rather home-made but accurate depiction of what the exhibition looks like, made by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh (1934)

It is by crawling on the face of it that one learns a country; by the problems of transport that its geography becomes a reality and its inhabitants real people…[by describing them one offers one’s reader] a share in the experience of travel, for these checks and hesitations constitute the genuine flavour.
(Ninety-Two Days, page 170)

Waugh had a reason for going to Ethiopia, the subject of his previous travel book, Remote People – to cover the coronation of Haile Selassie. The journey described in this book, by contrast, had a much more ramshackle provenance. He chose to go to British Guiana, the colony tucked up on the north coast of South America, north of Brazil, more or less because few other people did. Unlike India or Kenya or Egypt he could find no books on the place and nobody else who’d been there.

By sea to South America

So off he went on a cheap steamer down the English Channel, across the rambunctuous Atlantic, to the fragrant West Indies and so on to dock at Georgetown, capital of British Guiana. Here he is looked after by the Governor and introduced to Mr Bain, the Commissioner for the district, who supervises the purchase of a large number of supplies for his trip and accompanies him by train along the coast to New Amsterdam at the mouth of the River Berbice.

But what exactly is the purpose of his trip? Waugh doesn’t know, even after he’s got back to Blighty, which partly explains why the book opens not with him aboard ship or setting off into the jungle, but domiciled in a nice English house in the country, preparing his desk with nice clean foolscap paper and a pen and ink and then himself wondering… what was that all about?

Quick summary

Well, the basic outline is easily conveyed. From New Amsterdam, Waugh headed by boat up the Berbice River, pausing at various settlements, then leaving the river to trek on foot or horseback through the jungle, crossing the border into Brazil and northern Amazonia, before hiking north along the Ireng River, stopping at isolated ranches and remote settlements, then taking to boat again on the River Essequibo, skirting various waterfalls, including the famous Kaieteur Falls, then a short train east across country to the Demarara River, and so by boat back to Georgetown where the river debouches into the Atlantic.

To Kurupukari

First stop was Kurupukari, 100 miles south. Half the journey is by paddle steamer along the Berbice River (p.33). Then they land and go by horse along a cattle track, These are tracks the vaqueiros use to drive cattle from the savannahs of the interior down to market at the coast. The journey takes six days travelling at 15 miles a day, through rain forest he describes with awe, huge columned trees rearing a hundred feet overhead (p.40).

After talking about it every day of their 6-day hike, Waugh is surprised to find it consists of… a flagpole lying in the grass (it isn’t finished yet and they don’t have a flag) and one bungalow built in a clearing. Not even a jetty, not even native mud huts (p.44). This extreme sparseness of population characterises the entire trip.

Kurupukari is on the Essequibo river and they are awaiting a boat laden with supplies to meet them. Waugh describes the staple foods of the interior which are farine, a tasteless and rather disgusting vegetable product made from the cassava root, and tasso, made from salted wind-dried strips of dead cow.

On this first part of the trip he is accompanied by the talkative Mr Bain and a plan of sorts had evolved, that Waugh proceed in stages along the cattle track, visiting various small settlements along the way, until reaching the larger settlement of Bon Success, from which he could head west to Boa Vista, ‘next to Manaos the most important town in the Amazonas’. Mr Bain paints a picture of a city of inexpressible grandeur, complete with boulevards and opera houses. Sounds great. Waugh adopts the plan. The reader knows with certainty that he is going to be bitterly disappointed.

To Kurupukari and beyond

Bain remains at the primitive government station at Kurupukari. Once the boat with its supplies arrive, they’re unloaded then distributed among several horses, then early the next morning Waugh and his group of 4 servants/natives (Yetto, Price, Sinclair, Jagger) cross the river and set off on horseback. The dominant figure of this section is the egregious Yetto, a black man of surpassing ugliness, but a solid support who he becomes deeply attached to.

There follow 6 days riding along a traditional cattle track, occasionally meeting one or two vaqueiros driving a handful of cattle, sometimes coming across the corpses of cattle, which don’t endure the journey to the coast very well, dying of insect-borne diseases or sometimes attack by large animals. He learns more about his travelling companions.

Jagger is an enigma, a civilised man from a notable family on the coast, he was educated in Scotland. According to Yetto he was ruined in lawsuits with his family and has degenerated into one of the ‘race of tramps who wander the cattle country, there and in Brazil, living indefinitely off the open hospitality of the cattle ranches’ (p.53). He attaches himself to Waugh’s party for a while, then is too ill to keep up the pace and stays behind at one of their temporary camps, never to be heard of again.

He meets half a dozen vaqueiros driving 50 cattle. Next day they meet three Englishmen travelling in the other direction, towards the coast.

On the third day they cross a dry creek and come into a little savannah (i.e. open area of sand and scrubby thorn bushes) named Suranna. There is a native settlement. Waugh explains something about size and scale. A dozen or so mud and thatched huts constitutes a ‘large’ settlement. More than 20 mud huts is exceptional. The largest he ever saw apparently contained 22, though he arrived too late at night to see this vast metropolis. Next day they arrive at Annai which consists of precisely one house (p.58).

In other words the entire region, both the settlements in the savannahs, the so-called ranches, the white ‘settlements’ – all are characterised by emptiness and very sparse population.

After a long hot ride across the parched savannah, he arrives at Christie’s ranch (p.62). Christie is an old black guy who has religious visions and agreeably lunatic ideas. He’s been preaching to the local Indians for thirty years and hasn’t made a single conversion.

Next stop is a ranch owned by Georgetown Chinese named Mr Wong and run by Daguar (p.67). The ranch consists of three wattle and mud huts in a wired enclosure. Primitive, isn’t it? The ranch is on the River Ireng and Waugh is surprised to find this forms an international border. Across the muddy river is Brazil. He describe the pestilential effects of the cabouri fly, whose bite you don’t feel till it’s gorged itself and dropped off, and ticks which burrow into the skin, and bêtes rouges, little red creatures which burrow under your skin and cause unbearable itching.

(Later he tells us the rivers contain stingrays, electric eels and carnivorous fish, p.77. Why were these areas never settled or developed? There’s your answer.)

Next morning’s ride brings him to a village marked on the maps as Pirara but which in fact simply doesn’t exist. The name has been transferred to a ranch five miles away, owned by an American named Hart. This actually amounts to more than one building, with facilities such as a shower room, with very decent meals cooked by the wife, a Creole nanny for the children and – mirabile dictu – a truck, which had been manhandled this far up the trail, didn’t have much petrol and no regular roads to travel.

Waugh explains that South American countries are notorious for going to war over remote bits of territory. Britain nearly went to war with Brazil and Venezuela about different bits of remote savannah. He learns maps are largely invented, and based on rumoured natural features (such as rivers) which often don’t exist. He gives a mocking account of a boundary commission which is meant to be working with Brazilian officials on defining the border (p.71).

Next day’s journey brings them to the ranch of Bon Success owned by Mr Teddy Melville, one of Mrs Hart’s brothers. They drive there in the famous motor van. It is very bumpy (p.73). They have breakfast with Teddy and his charming wife, before driving beside the River Takuru to the missionary settlement of St Ignatius, where Waugh is hosted by the lovely Father Mather. Waugh pays off Price (who’s going on to the station at Bon Success, Yetto and Sinclair (who turn and head back down the trail). Part one of the journey is over.

Again, Waugh remarks on its bareness and lack of people. All over Africa he saw missions, schools and churches packed out with native pupils, congregations, teachers and pupils. Here, almost nobody. A tin and thatch church, and a primitive schoolhouse which holds, at most, a dozen Indian children. The mission building has a second story (first one he’s seen) and, amazingly, a reading lamp. Great relief (p.75).

Most of the scattered ranchers and all the Brazilians across the river are Catholics. Father Mather ministers to them all. There is one shop, the only one for 200 miles in any direction, kept by an affable Portuguese named Mr Figuiredo, who dresses comfortably in pyjamas, treats them to a feast, and charges exorbitant prices for everything (p.79). He is taken to visit local Indians including a charming tattooed witch.

After a delightful restful week, on 1 February he sets off with a guide, David, and his Brazilian brother-in-law Francesco, to cross the river and so the invisible border into Brazil and ride the 3 days to Boa Vista (p.81). They stop for the nights at primitive mud and thatch huts, with a few other travellers kipping in a shack full of hammocks, served weak revolting tasso stew by sleepy womenfolk.

Next day is the longest, hardest, hottest of them all. Waugh is struck by the way the locals carry no water at all, presumably because the land is criss-crossed with streams. Except they’re all dried up and the sun is fierce. Twelve hours without a drink and he hallucinates walking into his club and ordering glass after glass of iced orange juice. At dusk they reach an actual stream and drink mug after mug of freezing water.

Next day they enter the inhabited Rio Branco district and come upon a well organised sugar mill, where they are welcomed and well fed. Teams of workers and passers-though eat in series at a long bench. Next day they reach the Rio Branco opposite which stands the legendary Boa Vista he’s heard so much about.

(It might be worth noting that Boa Vista is simply the Portuguese for ‘Good View’, bom and boa being equivalent to the French bon and bonne i.e. ‘good’, depending on whether the noun is male or female. Rio means river and branco means white. So they arrive at Good View on the White River. Pretty basic, isn’t it?)

Boa Vista

Of course Boa Vista turns out to be nothing like the gaudy fantasies he’s concocted on the tiring journey there. It is a shabby collection of ramshackle buildings laid out on an ambitious grid pattern with a broad muddy high street and cross streets which peter out into bare savannah a few hundred yards in either direction. Population maybe a thousand skinny, scrawny, malnourished, sulky, listless people.

The inhabitants of the entire Brazilian region of the Amazonas were, apparently, descended from convicts sent there as punishment. Waugh found a low, sullen, suspicious atmosphere everywhere. There was an atmosphere of homicide, everyone has guns, there have been well publicised murders. He finds it: ‘a squalid camp of ramshackle cut-throats’ (p.92).

And the population insisting on eating the same monotonous, revolting farine and tasso as everywhere else, despite the achievement of the local nuns in having a very diverse vegetable garden.

Waugh stays at the Benedictine Mission, led by Father Alcuin, and is predictably complimentary about the monks and nuns’ level of quiet, constructive civilisation.

Three things

1. Waugh is easily Bored

According to these books, Waugh had a great capacity for getting very, very bored. He describes sauntering round town to the 4 or 5 people he knows and watching them work, staring at the sky. Attending church is by far the most colourful and interesting thing to do, not only for him but for many of the inhabitants, what with its colour, decorations, smells of incense and singing, no matter how ragged. He gets so bored he reads an edition of Bossuet’s sermons and lives of the saints in French (p.98).

At which point I remembered the almost identical descriptions of his crushing boredom which appear in Remote People. There he gives a comic description of being stuck between trains in the dusty town of Dirre-Dowa, resorting to reading a volume of Alexander Pope’s poems and then, even more desperate, a French dictionary. In his later travelogue, Waugh in Abyssinia, Waugh gets so bored in Addis Ababa waiting for war to actually break out that he buys a baboon!

The point is, Waugh is obviously quickly and easily bored. It would help if he had any hobbies but the issue of boredom highlights two others.

2. Music

He has no ear for music. None at all. He doesn’t enjoy hearing music and, at one point, when he is in a particularly good mood riding among beautiful scenery, he says he’d like to sing, but doesn’t know how. Having no sensitivity at all for music means living in a greatly reduced world of experience.

3. Waugh is no naturalist

Waugh is walking, riding or taking boats through exotic and varied country (savannah and rainforest) and yet his observations of the natural world are rudimentary. He notes the way rainforest consists of enormous tree trunks like columns with all the interesting stuff way at the top. He notes the 3 or 4 super-irritating bugs (the carouba fly et al). He gives detailed notes on all the horses he rents, hires, buys, and that he and his various colleagues ride at various times.

Apart from that – nada. Nothing about the birds or rodents. Occasional general references to blossom but no detail about the flowers, flowering bushes and so on. Maybe the savannah is parched and sandy as he describes, but still.

Pondering these absences makes you realise what is present in his writing. Thinking about what isn’t in the travelogues, made me reflect on what is. Which is people. He’s interested in people, characters, what they look like, how they behave, and really interested in how they talk.

Every single person he meets on a trip like this is foreign, non-English. True, many of them speak a form of English, but generally mangled and contorted, creoles or stumbling phrases. Or they don’t speak English at all and he has to struggle by with his schoolboy French. And then he observes other people who don’t speak each others’ languages struggling to communicate by talking pidgen Portuguese or German to each other (p.96).

What emerges from this little ponder is that Waugh is interested in – and devotes his energies to – people and how they speak. Thus he gives a peremptory description of Boa Vista, but his account only comes to life when he is describing people. People such as Mr Figuiredo who keeps the only decent store for hundreds of miles around, the mysterious German, Herr Steingler (p.95), Father Alcuin who is convinced England is run by freemasons (p.97), the little Brazilian Boundary Commissioner (p.99), Martinez the low-spirited manager of the town’s main story (p.100), Eusebio, a plum native of the Macushi tribe who is striking for not having one belonging in the world (p.117), Mr Hart the kindly middle-aged American with a lovely wife and a Creole nanny who looked like Josephine Baker (p.119).

It is a significant moment right at the end of the book when, assessing what he had learned or seen and done on the trip, he says he has added the religious visionary Mr Christie ‘to my treasury of eccentrics’ (p.168). And:

In Georgetown I met an agreeable character named ‘Professor’ Piles who lived by selling stuffed alligators. (p.168)

Evelyn Waugh’s ‘treasury of eccentrics’. Quite.

And where his ears really prick up is with gossip and the way people are inter-connected. There isn’t that much to say about a man who lives by himself or who you encounter on his own. But a man and his wife are immediately more interesting to gossip and speculate about, and a man and wife and various children, hopefully by different wives, gives you a lovely, juicy subject to explore. Thus, in this account, Waugh comes to life when he discovers that so and so is married to Mr Hart’s sister. Or that Teddy Melville is a legendary man of the area with countless children and grand-children. People are his thing: stories, gossip, the quirks of how they behave and talk. This is what makes his famous diaries so wonderful, a lifetime of observing people and giving little anecdotes.

The turning point

After a week he is desperate to get away from Boa Vista and reckons on taking boat with the Brazilian Boundary Commissioner who is steaming down the River Branco and so will be able to take him to the legendary metropolis of Manaos. Except that, after days of waiting, the Boundary Commissioner refuses to take him (p.99). By now Waugh is quite concerned about catching malaria – everyone he meets has malaria and suffers malarial fever for half the week, starting with his host Father Alcuin who is wretchedly ill during his entire stay.

So  he decides to stop trying to penetrate further south into Brazil, but to turn about and retrace his steps back across the river and into British Guiana. Back to St Ignatius Mission, Bon Success, Pirara and Daguar’s ranch BUT, at that point, instead of completely retracing his route i.e. a long trek through the rainforest back to Takama, turning north-north-west and taking a new route, through forest hugging the border with Brazil and then beside the River Potaro with its many waterfalls, to where it joins the mighty Essequibo river, fifty miles or so along this, and then by train east to join the smaller Demarara River which runs down to the sea at Georgetown.

Highlights of the return journey

After crossing back into Guiana, Waugh gets wildly lost and rides his horse north instead of east, stumbling by chance over the shack of an old Indian who very kindly leads him back to the proper trail and so on to St Ignatius’ Mission. Here he stays with kindly Father Mather for ten days, as he assembles the goods which will be needed for the new route home.

Calling the travel bluff, myths of travel (pages 114 to 116)

Here he includes an amusing digression in which he sets out to debunk some of the myths which surround solitary travelling, such as:

You feel free

On the contrary every single item you want to take becomes an encumbrance which slows you down and there are very often only two possible directions along long lonely trails, forward or back. He often feels trapped by limitations of time, energy, money and distance.

You are untrammeled by convention

On the contrary, Waugh feels he knows a wide range of eccentrics, bohemians who dress and behave in all kinds of florid ways back in England. It’s true that you meet a wide range of people on a trip like this, and some of them are very scruffy, and the native Indians may be almost naked, and so on. But you aren’t. Conventions must be maintained, especially in the Tropics where, if you begin to slip, it’s easy to go completely to pieces.

You have a hearty appetite and sleep the sleep of the blessed

Rubbish. The food is inedible, everywhere they go the monotonous inevitability of farine and tasso nearly drives him mad. Often he can barely eat what villagers offer and prefers to go hungry.

And the ‘beds’ are generally hammocks or, if you’re lucky, lumpy tin beds, or a thin sheet on stony savannah. Either way, the Tropics, specially the rainforest, are filled with noise, the endless racket of hooting wild animals. And then there are the mosquitoes, flies and ticks which mean a moment’s lack of attention can lead to any numbers of bites and then the whole night spent itching and tossing and turning. And then, when you’re at the end of your tether, it starts to rain and you get soaked to the skin (p.141).

River baths

If there was one thing he definitely enjoyed and was unique to the trip, it was bathing in cool river waters, ducking under waterfalls, lying in pools near waterfalls. Nothing in England could match the sheer physical bliss of this experience, particularly after a long day’s horse ride or trek.

Karasabai

The primitive little village of Karasabai which prompts an extended meditation on the character of the Amazonian Indians. He ropes in recent books about the existence of primitive matriarchal societies, and throws in some general cultural speculation about the noble savage, the myths of the garden of Eden and so on. Very run-of-the-mill. What came over for me was the Amazon Indian’s listlessness. Their flat, unemotional, morose affect.

He has an interesting passage explaining that the Indians have no hierarchy at all, no words for sir or servant, no words conveying superior or inferior status. They do things when  they want to, and stop when they don’t and nobody can make force them.

The Indian villagers stare at him but never move, never say anything, never display any real curiosity. He unpacks various marvels from his bag and then goes for a wash and when he comes back the things and the Indians are in the same position.

He compares this with the blacks he met in Africa who all showed far more energy and creativity and inventiveness and would have pinched everything in his bag if he turned his back. The Indian women wear shabby little linen dresses and try to hide in them. He contrasts them with what he calls ‘the swagger and provocation of a Negress’ (p.124). When they take a shallow boat down the river, the two blacks with him enjoy strenuously rowing and showing off their strength. The little Indian family with them have a vague got at it, dangle paddles in the water, uninterested, then give up and huddle together.

The Indians are divided into ‘peoples’ and refuse point blank to cross from the territory of their people into another people’s, or to have anything to do with other peoples. Peoples Waugh meets include the Macushi, Kopinang Indians, the Patamonas. (Wikipedia suggests the correct term is ‘indigenous tribes’ and lists nine residing in Guyana: the Wai Wai, Macushi, Patamona, Lokono, Kalina, Wapishana, Pemon, Akawaio and Warao.)

You could choose to interpret the Indians’ listlessness and incuriosity to a special spiritual understanding of the world, lack of interest in material goods or the white man’s worldview. Waugh doesn’t comment much till the very end when he is driven to deep dislike of the selfish Indian family who share the paddled boat down the river. They can’t be bothered to walk a few hundred yards to see the Kaieteur Falls, one of the wonders of the world, and Waugh bluntly ascribes it to ‘mere stupidity and lack of imagination’ (p.158).

Tipuru

At the village of Tipuru they catch up with the Catholic priest Father Keary who is going his rounds of the villages. After his initial surprise at meeting a posh young English Catholic rider, Keary agrees they can travel on together. This makes everything much easier for Waugh, for Keary understands the people, the language, has his own resources and, of course, can speak English so Waugh will have someone to talk to.

So they set off accompanied by a new servant, Antonio, his wive and four native bearers. A sequence of villages, Shimai with five houses, one hut by itself inhabited by an old black woman, an unnamed village of three huts, Karto with three huts, Kurikabaru a metropolis of thirteen huts on a bleak hilltop, and so on. Sparse and empty country. Isolated Indians who are, however, wonderfully hospitable, laying out supplies of cassiri drink, peppers, cassava bread and sometimes milk. (To this day Guyana remains ‘one of the world’s most sparsely populated countries.’)

Mikrapuru

And so via a series of tiny settlements over the watershed which divides Amazonia from the Caribbean rivers and so down out of the rainforest to Mikrapuru, 15 or so miles from the river Essequibo and home to the civilised and hospitable Mr Winter. Waugh had met Winter at a social do back in Georgetown on the coast.

Winter has set up a camp here and employs native Indians to wash for alluvial diamonds in the river Potaro. Waugh describes the ingenious series of filters fed by dammed creek water into which Indians employed for the purpose pour, throughout the day, gravel and mud, in the hope the filters will reveal either river gold or diamonds. Winter had kept his camp for three years. It is very isolated, the few white neighbours who once lived within reasonable reach have all left, and the Indians work for him for a while, to earn simple gewgaws and then, with their own mysterious timing, melt back into the forest. Waugh contrasts the Indians’ wispiness, their ghostliness and general lack of interest, with the bullish enthusiasm of the blacks he sees. Winter’s foreman is black. Coming from the coast they have a better sense of work and discipline.

Journey to the river

After ten days or so, Waugh has exhausted his own provisions and Winter was low on them to start with, so it’s time to leave. He will ride with Winter’s foreman down to the River Potaro to board the first of three boats which will take him the stages between the impassible waterfalls which punctuate the river (being the big one, Kaieteur Falls, then Waratuk Falls and Amatuk Falls).

Haunting description of Holmia which had once been an extensive European plantation, built for the balatá trade (balatá is ‘a hard rubber-like material made by drying the milky juice produced principally by the bully tree). Holmia fell into poverty and ruin, has been abandoned for decades and now largely reclaimed by the jungle.

He describes the 700-foot fall of the waterfall at Kaieteur (p.155). Wikipedia tells me it is ‘the world’s largest single drop waterfall by the volume of water flowing over it’. It is ‘about four and a half times the height of Niagara Falls…and about twice the height of Victoria Falls.’ As you might expect, it prompts Waugh to a burst of lyricism:

I lay on the overhanging ledge watching the light slowly fail, the colour deepen and disappear. The surrounding green was of density and intenseness that can neither be described nor reproduced; a quicksand of colour, of shivering surface and unplumbed depth, which absorbed the vision, sucking it down and submerging it. (p.156)

After they’ve scrambled down the side of Kaieteur Falls, it’s a morning’s boat ride to Waratuk, where they unload the goods and Waugh watches the two blacks lower the boat through gaps in the huge boulders which make up the rapids with astonishing skill, and then 3 hours or so on to Amatuk, where the river is impassible and the boat has to be secured, ready for Winter’s foreman to recover it in 4 or 5 days time after he’s completed the journey to Georgetown to buy stores.

There is something approaching a guesthouse at Amatuk, opened by a Mrs McTurk for tourists who never came, and Waugh pays the old black housekeeper a dollar to sleep in something like a real bed and sit in an armchair and read a book. He is nearly back in civilisation.

There follows a complicated sequence of lorry journeys, two more boat journeys from landing point to landing point, and then the journey east along what I now learn was an abandoned railway from the Essequibo to the Demarara river.

This is a peg for the general point makes which is that the area he was visiting was past its boom years. Twenty years earlier there had been boom times for plantations of ballata, and gold and diamond sieving. But the ballata trees were all used, the gold and diamonds never appeared in sufficient quantities, now Waugh’s journey is through a degraded and stagnating landscape, or a beautiful jungle landscape punctuated with wrecks and ruins. The government is building a proud new road to open up the interior but Waugh gives an impressive list of reasons why this is too little, too late (p.163). If the road fails, then maybe the colony will revert to being just a coastal strip and a couple of coastal towns and the interior will revert to its primitive integrity.

And so by slow boat down the ever-widening Essequibo to Rockstone. This is another settlement which has collapsed, with most of the buildings lying empty and rotten (p.166). It’s the terminus of the railway which runs 50 miles east to Wismar on the Demarara River but it no longer functions as a railway. People walk along it and there is an old tractor which pulls an empty carriage, if anyone can be found to drive it.

He uses all his persuasiveness, and five dollars, to persuade of the boat that brought him and the ‘stationmaster’ to beat the tractor into life and, at midnight, he and other passengers are roused from sleeping on the platform, mount into the open carriage and it shunts off slowly and perilously along the rail line. After a few hours it starts to hiss down and everyone is soaked.

At dawn he arrives at the railway’s terminus at Wismar on the Demarara River where the boat is, mirabile dictu, waiting, and he boards it for a pleasant sail down the river and back to civilisation (of a sort) in Georgetown. Where he looks up friends, buys a ticket and waits to catch the next boat back to England.

The Dickens connection

While staying with Father Mather at the Mission he discovers a passion for reading and discovers that good father has a library of all Charles Dickens’s novels. These make good big chunky reading and Waugh borrows some volumes for the journey to the coast. This, obviously, is the germ of the fate of Tony Last at the grim climax of A Handful of Dust.


Credit

Ninety-Two Days by Evelyn Waugh was published by Duckworth in 1934. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Other travel books

Dr. Brodie’s Report by Jorge Luis Borges (1970)

In Buenos Aires anything can be fixed; someone always has a friend.

Paratexts

Borges was world famous and getting old by the time he came to compose the 11 short stories collected in Dr Brodie’s Report. They had all been recently published, either in 1969 or 1970 just as the author, born in 1899, was turning 70.

The book has a little gaggle of paratexts, namely a foreword, a preface and an afterword, in which Borges tells us that these stories were the first he’d written since 1953, after a 16 year hiatus in fiction writing – and it really shows in the drastic change of style and subject matter the stories in this collection exhibit compared with the metaphysical and brainteasing ficciones from the 1940s which made him famous.

Surprisingly, of all the authors in the world, Borges names Rudyard Kipling as his model for these stories, and not the later, very compressed Kipling, but the bright young thing of the 1888 collection Plain Tales From The Hills. (As it happens, I have read and reviewed all Rudyard Kipling’s many short stories so can vouch for the difference between the early and later Kipling.) Borges rather artlessly tells us he has tried to write stories in the same straightforward manner as early Kipling.

He calls the art of writing ‘mysterious’ (‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream’) and goes on to describe how a beginning or end of a story will come to him as he walks down a street in Buenos Aires but he has to wait for the middle to appear. More often than not, if he forces it, those are the weakest bits.

He mentions his politics (controversially right-wing) but emphasises that personal opinion is trivial and superficial; the process of creation taps into unconscious forces which are much deeper (a rule which could also be applied to Kipling’s highly controversial work).

Borges was 70 when the book was published. He tells us he has given up ‘the surprises inherent in a baroque style as well as the surprises that lead to an unforeseen ending. I have, in short, preferred to satisfy an expectation rather than to provide a startling shock.’ This is presumably what he means when he calls the stories ‘straightforward’, but still, none of these paratexts really prepare us for the complete change in subject matter, tone and style from his classic ficciones of the 1940s and 50s.

Instead of those weird and wonderful fantasies which play with mind-bending ideas of space and time and infinity and reality, these 11 stories are brutally realistic, sometimes macabre tales, of Buenos Aires hoodlums and gaucho lowlifes or, as he puts it in The Intruder:

a brief and tragic mirror of the character of those hard-bitten men living on the edge of Buenos Aires before the turn of the century

They are hard tales of tough slum dwellers without any of the bookish trappings, the scholarly references or the playful whimsy of his classic ficciones.

The stories

1. The Gospel According to Mark

In March 1928 failed medical student Baltasar Espinosa, a lifelong townie, is invited by his cousin to go and stay on a ranch, La Colorada ranch, in the southern part of the township of Junín. During his stay the local river floods and his cousin is called away on business. Baltasar is left with the three illiterate servant family, the Gutres. Illiterate and uneducated, They are in awe of him, treat him with great respect which turns to awe when he starts, out of pure boredom, every evening after dinner reading to them from a big old traditional Bible in the house. There is banging and nailing, there are mysterious sounds. One morning the simple-minded Gutres adults double check with Espinosa that Jesus let himself be crucified to save all humanity and then… seize Baltasar and take him out back of the house to crucify him on the cross they’ve been building!

Well, this story lacks all the characteristics of the classic Borges ficciones, the saturation with books, bookish references and high-flying metaphysical and philosophical ideas. And it certainly does bear a resemblance to the Rudyard Kipling who wrote a number of hauntingly macabre and horrifying stories. I liked it very much.

2. The Unworthy Friend

The narrator remembers when he used to visit the Buenos Aires Bookstore run by Santiago Fischbein. He remembers Fischbein once telling him an anecdote about when he himself was young, barely more than 15. He was taken into the circle of a local tough guy named Francisco Ferrari. He hero worshipped this tall Latin-looking cool dude who dressed all in black and was amazed when, after bumping into him a few times, Ferrari asked him to hang out in the saloon with all the other members of his gang. Eventually he is invited to take part in a break-in to a factory and told to be the lookout. The morning of the planned break-in he took a long tram journey downtown and reported the whole thing to the police, who were initially sceptical. But that night, when the gang are inside the warehouse, the police arrive quietly, having tethered their horses further down the road (their horses?), the narrator lets them slip into the warehouse without raising the alarm, then hears four shots. It wasn’t a gunfight, as he knows Ferrari and co. didn’t have guns. When the cops drag Ferrari’s corpse and that of his older mentor, don Eliseo Amaro, out of the building, the narrator realises it wasn’t an arrest, more an assassination, the settling of old scores.

3. The Duel

The very understated, barely detectable rivalry between two upper-class Argentine ladies, Clara Glencairn de Figueroa and Marta Pizarro, who both decided to become painters and remained friends despite their rivalry.

4. The End of the Duel

This is a grim, macabre and often barely understandable tale about two hardened gauchos, Manuel Cardoso and Carmen Silveira, who farm neighbouring land and, for any one of a number of reasons, become hardened rivals and enemies.

Until a civil war breaks out in 1870 and they fight for a while on one or other of the sides (it’s the reds versus the whites and, on a first reading, I became confused about who was who and why), the point being they are fellow soldiers on the same side, though their hatred continues unabated.

Anyway, the two rivals are on the white side, which loses a battle to the reds, and are both captured. The red officer in charge is one Captain Juan Patricio Nolan, who has a reputation as a prankster, and now he comes up with a weird and sadistic ‘prank’, which is to set them to run a race after they have had their throats cut. Got that? So they line up with all the red soldiers and white prisoners watching, then a couple of red soldiers step across and cut both their throats as Nolan tells them to start their race. Cardoso and Silveira run a handful of paces before both falling to the ground and bleeding their last into the dry dirt.

You call that a ‘prank’?

5. Rosendo’s Tale

Way back in his 1935 collection, A Universal History of Infamy, had included one ‘realistic’ story of Buenos Aires lowlife hoodlums, or gang members (insofar as that term applied to 1920s criminal gangs). That story was told through the point of view of a gang member who idolises their tough leader, Rosendo Juárez, and describes the puzzling events of a night when another hoodlum, nicknamed ‘the Butcher’, burst into a dance the gang were holding, and confronted their macho leader, Rosendo Juárez who, inexplicably, dropped his knife, failed to rise to the bait, and simply walked away.

Now, 35 years later, Borges publishes a story which gives Rosendo’s side of the story in a first-person narrative. In a nutshell, after a life devoted to becoming chief hard man and head of a gang, when he was confronted by the blustering bullying Butcher, he had a revelation, he realised he was looking in a mirror, he realised what he had become – and was disgusted, realised his whole life was revolting, dropped his knife, and simply walked out into the night never to come back.

Then something happened that nobody ever understood. In that big loudmouth I saw myself, the same as in a mirror, and it made me feel ashamed. I wasn’t scared; maybe if I’d been scared I’d have fought with him. I just stood there as if nothing happened.

The real puzzle here is why Borges bothered. To put it another way, it’s bewildering to think that Argentina’s literary world gave a damn about the earlier, quite difficult-to-follow, hard-to-believe and ultimately trivial story, to such an extent that everyone, including Borges, thought it worthwhile writing this sequel or alternative view.

6. The Intruder

Two lowlife brothers, Eduardo and Cristián Nilsen are hard-drinking, tall, red-haired stingy brawlers. One day Cristián brings home Juliana Burgos and, to cut a tedious story short, both brothers fall in love with her. Eventually, Cristián lets his brother ‘use’ her and they live as a threesome. But the brothers can’t help getting jealous of each other so one day sell her to a brothel. But then Cristián catches Eduardo slipping off some nights to the brothel to carry on boffing Juliana, so they buy her back and bring her home to be their servant and sex slave. Eventually Cristián murders Juliana and the brothers bury her body out in the country.

This story didn’t put me off Borges, a writer can write whatever they want, but it put me off the tone and feel of this book, and it put me off Argentinians a bit.

7. The Meeting

The case of nervous, dark-skinned Maneco Uriarte and tall, white-haired Duncan took place around 1910. The narrator is nine or ten and his cousin Lafinur takes him to a barbecue at a country house called The Laurels. There’s a fine barbecue, then an evening drinking which settles into a game of poker while the boy narrator goes exploring the big, strange house. The owner of the house comes across him and is just showing him his fine collection of knives (Argentinians and their knives).

But the sound of shouting interrupts him and takes them back to the main room where the poker players have got drunk and Uriarte is shouting that Duncan cheated him. The confrontation escalates, someone points out there’s a cabinet of ornamental knives nearby, the select one each and go out into the garden followed the the rest of the men who form a ring while the pair tentatively and then in earnest begin a knife fight which ends with Uriarte plunging his knife into the chest of Duncan who falls to the floor and dies.

Then there’s a little bit of the old Borges magic, a little bit of voodoo thinking. Years later Borges describes his memory to a chief of police who is able to identify the knives as having belonged, before this incident, to two famous rivals, almost as if… as if it was the knives who were destined to fight, not the men:

I began to wonder whether it was Maneco Uriarte who killed Duncan or whether in some uncanny way it could have been the weapons, not the men, which fought. I still remember how Uriarte’s hand shook when he first gripped his knife, and the same with Duncan, as though the knives were coming awake after a long sleep side by side in the cabinet.

8. Juan Muraña

For years Borges liked to tell people he grew up in the Buenos Aires neighbourhood of Palermo, famous for knife fights and guitar playing (Argentines and their knives!). He sounds like an educated upper-middle-class kid who has a pathetic hero worship of street gangsters and hoodlums.

On a train journey he bumps into an old schoolfriend, Emilio Trápani, who has read his book about the poet Evaristo Carriego in which, apparently, ‘you’re talking about hoodlums all the time.’ Well, says, Trápani, he’ll tell him a story about a real hoodlum. Trápani tells him his mother’s sister married Muraña.

Of all the men around Palermo famous for handling a knife way back in the nineties, the one with the widest reputation was Muraña.

Knives knives knives. Maybe the book should have been titled Knife Fighters of Buenos Aires. And indeed this story is about yet another knife murder.

Trápani was a boy and barely understood his mother’s anxiety that they were about to be evicted from their apartment by the Italian landlord. His mad old aunt, who had been married to the notorious knifeman, Muraña, lives up in the attic. One day his mother takes Trápani to see the landlord, but they arrive to find a crowd and that he’s been stabbed to death. Only weeks later does the boy Trápani venture up into the attic where his mother’s mad widowed sister lives and from her ravings, suddenly realises that she did it but she blames it on her late husband’s knife. In fact she identifies the knife with her husband, and holds it out to the boy saying:

“Here he is. I knew he would never forsake me. In the whole world there hasn’t been another man like him. He didn’t let the gringo get out a word.”

And then a two-penny, ha-penny payoff.

Juan Muraña walked the familiar streets of my boyhood; I may have seen him many times, unawares. He was a man who knew what all men come to know, a man who tasted death and was afterward a knife, and is now the memory of a knife, and will tomorrow be oblivion—the oblivion that awaits us all.

The story itself is a bit spooky but these final lines are, I think, bathetic (meaning: ‘producing an unintentional effect of anticlimax’) because they are so entirely conventional and, almost, sentimental.

9. The Elder Lady

An extended memoir of a rather grand though not particularly well-educated old lady, Mrs. María Justina Rubio de Jáuregui, daughter of a hero Colonel Rubio of the civil war, who lived with her memories of a gladsome girlhood and a homestead with acres of land but, by the time Borges knew her, was restricted to a room in a suburban apartment. On her hundredth birthday, in 1941, there’s a big party, a minister attends, journalists cover it, there are grand speeches and champagne. That night she took to her bed and over the following days, calmly and dignifiedly died.

In the Afterword Borges frankly admits this was a portrait of a great-aunt of his.

10. Guayaquil

This story feels the closest to one of the ficciones in that it is spooky and eerie and takes place in the world of scholarship and academia.

Some letters have been discovered written by the great Simon Bolivar, Liberator of the continent of South America, among the papers of the scholar Dr. José Avellanos of the (fictional) nation of Estado Occidental. Most of them are run-of-the-mill except for one of them which gives Bolivar’s side of the momentous encounter between himself and the Argentine national hero General San Martín, at a place called Guayaquil, in which General San Martín renounced political ambition and left the destiny of South America in the hands of Bolívar.

The discoverer of the letters, Avellanos’s grandson Dr. Ricardo Avellanos, opposes his own country’s government so put the letters up for auction and the Argentine ambassador won them for the glory of his nation. The narrator is a reputable historian, who secures the backing of the National Academy of History and the relevant Ministry to be the official representative of Argentine who will fly to Estado Occidental to take receipt of the letters and then write the definitive scholarly paper about them.

However, the narrative opens soon after the narrator is surprised to be visited at his bookish home by another historian, Dr Zimmerman, who has been proposed by the University of Cordoba. Zimmerman is a refugee, having fled the Nazi takeover of Prague.

The meat of the story is that through a strange and obscure process which the narrator barely detects and cannot define, Zimmerman, although mild and retiring and perfectly polite, somehow manages to – not to persuade, that would be too explicit – to somehow manoeuvre the narrator into abandoning his journey and to sign a letter authorising Dr Zimmerman to fly to Estado Occidental as Argentina’s official representative.

There is mention of the Golem, the legend of the animated anthropomorphic being, which was defined in a novel by an author from Prague. For a flickering second we wonder if Borges is implying that… Zimmerman is the golem. But no…

At several other points Zimmerman invokes the name of Arthur Schopenhauer, the philosopher who said the world as we know it is a product of our own unrelenting drives or Will. So… is he a demonstration of the power of this Will? Without violence, without threats, without any argument or even attempts at persuasion, he simply gets the narrator to do what he wants him to.

Or, (as Borges states in the Afterword) ‘if the reader is in a magical mood’, then the encounter of the two historians could be envisioned as a re-enactment of the confrontation between the two generals which the famous letter describes, in which General Martin inexplicably renounces his rights or ambitions to political power and leaves the way open for Bolivar. As the narrator finds himself inexplicably renouncing his scholarly ambition and leaving the path open for Zimmerman.

This is the most classically Borgesian of these stories, the most complex and subtle and, for that reason, haunting, but it echoes the theme of some of the other stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

11. Doctor Brodie’s Report

This is more like ficciones Borges. The narrator finds a manuscript tucked away in an old edition of Lane’s translation of the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (London, 1839). He identifies the manuscript as written by a David Brodie, D.D., a Scottish missionary who worked first in central Africa and then transferred to the jungles of the Amazon.

It is a fragment which starts in the middle of his description of the super-primitive men he has found himself among, and who he calls the Yahoos. Obviously this name refers to the apemen found in Book 4 of Gulliver’s Travels and the text’s method of systematically describing the Yahoos’ appearance, food, and their disgusting concept of royalty reminded me of H.G. Wells systematically describing the Eloi and the Morlochs or the society of the Selenites on the moon, or the Country of the Blind.

I have spoken of the queen and the king; I shall speak now of the witch doctors.

The point being that, even though many of the details are disgusting, the authorial tone is warm and reassuring, like being in an Edwardian wood-panelled room smelling of pipe tobacco, sitting in an ancient and absurdly comfortable sofa, listening to a beloved uncle telling a story.

And so the manuscript goes on, describing the Yahoos’ customs, their king and queen and four witch doctors and their amazingly primitive language. But the story lifts off when Brodie speculates that they might not always have been in this state of extreme degradation, but may be the wrecks of a degenerate nation, a hunch he thinks is confirmed by inscriptions he finds on the heights of the plateau adjoining the malarial swamps where the Yahoos now choose to live.

He describes his escape from the land of the Yahoos and journey to a settlement of blacks, who had a Catholic missionary, who nursed Brodie back to health. Many months later he found himself back in Glasgow where he composed this narrative and is still haunted by visions of the utter collapse of humanity which the Yahoos represent.

Algunos pensamientos

I suppose one way of thinking about the vast difference between Borges’s metaphysical ficciones of the 1940s and these ‘straightforward’ memories of knife fighters and crooks is that the ficciones represent Europe, are an extension of the bookish culture of European civilisation, while these stories are much more monotone, mostly realist accounts of Buenos Aires slums and lowlifes; except, that is, for The Gospel According to Mark which appals with its Edgar Allen Poe macabre-ness, and the final two stories which echo some of the metaphysical magic of the ficciones:

[As to the witch doctors] they are four, this number being the largest that their arithmetic spans. On their fingers they count thus: one, two, three, four, many. Infinity begins at the thumb…

This is the Borges of the 1940s, most of the other stories not at all. They’re not bad, but…

Eternal recurrence

One strong theme emerges from the four or five strongest stories, which is the idea that history repeats itself, or patterns of human behaviour repeat themselves, living on after their original protagonists are long gone.

Thus in The Gospel According to Mark the crucifixion is re-enacted by illiterate peasants who barely understand its context or significance.

The Meeting and Juan Muraña are closely linked in the way that the knives at the centre of each story in some sense ’embody’ the characters of their previous owners, as if the knives are destined to carry on acting out certain types of knife-ish behaviour.

In an oblique way The Elder Lady is about a person who has lived on into her own afterlife, a symbol of events which are almost forgotten and have almost lost their meaning.

In Guayaquil Borges himself suggests that the two present-day historians of the story may be unknowingly re-enacting the drama of confrontation and renunciation first lived out by the two generals whose history they are studying.

And in the chilling Doctor Brodie’s Report the narrator suggests that even in their state of complete immiseration and illiterate, inarticulate degradation, the the people he calls the Yahoos might still retain echoes of social organisation, namely institutions such as the monarchy, a language of sorts, priests or witch doctors, poets and belief in an afterlife. As if the structures of civilisation echo and re-echo through the ages, no matter how degraded and meaningless they have become.

Naming the collection after this story and placing it at the end leaves a quite misleading aftertaste of Wellsian science fiction, of Conan Doyle wonderment, of Edwardian English adventure yarns quite utterly different from the very Latin American settings of almost all the other stories.


Related links

Borges reviews

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

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

Questions

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

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

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

Answers

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

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

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

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

John Darwin

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

For at least three reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

Why start with Tamerlane?

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

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

Map of the Mongol Empire created by Genghis Khan

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

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

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

What was different about European empires?

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

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

Because, Darwin explains, they were qualitatively different.

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

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

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

Structure

After Tamerlane is divided into nine chapters:

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

A flood of insights

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

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

American

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

India

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

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

Cultural conservatism

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

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

The Western concept of Time

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

European thinkers quickly invented numerous ‘systems’ suggesting the various ‘stages of development’ which societies progressed through, from the X Age to the Y Age and then on to the Z Age – but they all agreed that the native Americans (and even more so, the Australian aborigines when they were discovered in the 1760s) represented the very earliest stages of society, and that, by contrast, Western society had evolved through all the intervening stages to reach its present state of highly evolved ‘perfection’.

Once you have created mental models like this, it is easy to categorise all the other cultures you encounter (Ottomans, Hindus, China, Japan, Siam, Annamite etc) as somewhere lower or backward on these paths or stages of development.

And being at the top of the tree, why, naturally that gave white Europeans the right to intervene, invade, conquer and administer all the other people of the world in order to ‘raise’ them to the same wonderful level of civilisation as themselves.

18th and 19th

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

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

The absence of Africa

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

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

The expansion of the Russian empire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numbered lists

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

The 18th century geopolitical equilibrium

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

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

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

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

The knowledge revolution

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

Traumatic impact of the Napoleonic Wars

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

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

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

Emigration

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

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

Fast

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

Gold rushes

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

Shallow

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

The Scramble for Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Congress of Berlin

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

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

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

The Scramble for China

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related reviews

Exhibitions

History

Imperial fiction

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

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

Urban Impulses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nations of South America by population

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

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

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

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

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

Nations of Central America by population

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Shouts

To quote the curators:

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

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

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

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

2. Pop-ular

To quote the curators:

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

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

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

Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The photographers

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curators

The exhibition is curated by María Wills and Alexis Fabry.

Demographics

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

Shame. This exhibition deserves more visitors than that.


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Frank Bowling @ Tate Britain

‘Just throw the paint, Spencer!’
(Frank Bowling to his assistant, Spencer Richards, as told by Richards on the exhibition’s visitor audioguide)

This is a really good exhibition. Bowling isn’t a genius – this show doesn’t compare with the van Gogh exhibition downstairs at Tate Britain – but he is a consistently interesting and experimental artist, who has produced a steady stream of big, colourful and absorbing paintings. I found it hard to finally leave, and kept going back through the rooms to look again at the best paintings in the show.

Frank Bowling

Frank Bowling is a black British artist. He is still going strong, painting every day at the impressive age of 85.

Frank Bowling. Photo by Alastair Levy

Bowling was born in Guyana in 1934 and moved to England with his parents in 1950, when he was 15. After experimenting with poetry, and doing his National Service, Bowling decided to pursue a career in art and studied at the Royal College of Art. His contemporaries were David Hockney, Derek Boshier, Allen Jones, R. B. Kitaj and Peter Phillips. In fact, at graduation in 1962, Hockney was awarded the gold medal while Bowling was given the silver.

Back in those early years he was caught up in the expectation that he would be a ‘black’ artist and concern himself with colonial and post-colonial subjects – an expectation, he admits in modern interviews, that he at first played along with, doing a painting of African politician Patrice Lumumba and in 1965 at the First World Festival of Negro Arts, held in Senegal, winning the Grand Prize for Contemporary Arts.

It was only when he moved to New York in the mid-1960s that Bowling discovered the light and space and artistic freedom of contemporary American art. Encouraged by American critics, he changed his style, adopting the prevailing mode of abstract art, alongside the likes of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman.

As Bowling’s assistant, Spencer Richards, tells us on the visitor’s audioguide: ‘he didn’t want to be hemmed in by race and origins and that kind of stuff.’

This is the first major retrospective ever held of Bowling’s work in Britain. The gallery says it is ‘long overdue’ and seeing that he was elected a member of the Royal Academy of Arts in 2005 and awarded an OBE as long ago as 2008, it does seem extraordinary that this is the first major retrospective devoted to his work.

Nine rooms

The exhibition is in straightforward chronological order. It is divided into nine rooms each of which addresses a particular phase or style. But as I’ll explain later, in fact the show can be divided into two halves – flat surfaces, and gunky, gooey, three-D surfaces.

Room 1 Early work

This selection of early paintings includes works heavily influenced by Francis Bacon, the number one British artist in the early 1960s. Blurred figures trapped in cages look as if they’ve just been blasted by radiation.

Other early works use geometric patterns, referencing the Op Art (i.e. the playful use of geometric shapes) of Bridget Riley.

This room features some examples from a series he did using the motif of a swan, its neck and head realistic, but its body exploding, as it were, into abstraction, set against neat geometrical figures – note the orange and green concentric circles which have kind of melted, to the right of the swan’s body. If you look closely you can see that Bowling has mashed real bird feathers into the bloody, messy splurge of pain on the right. Unsettling.

Swan 1 (1964) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Room 2 Photographs into paintings

It was the Swinging Sixties. The room contains the original Observer magazine front cover of a Japanese model in a Mary Quant dress typical of the period.

Cover Girl (1966) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Very reminiscent of David Hockney’s kind of ‘wrecked Pop Art’ of the period i.e. taking images from fashion and pop culture and kind of smearing and subverting them. More obvious is the ghostly outline of the house at the top. What is that? It is based on a photo of the big house which contained the Bowling family business (Bowling’s Variety Store) back in his home town of New Amsterdam, Guyana.

A friend sent Bowling the photo (the original is on display in one of the several display cases devoted to notes and letters and magazines and other ephemera which shed light on his career) and he used it obsessively in a whole series of paintings which contain the house motif superimposed on maps and abstract shapes. We can guess that this obsessive repetitiveness derives from a psychological need on the part of the artist to revisit the house, and by extension, the land of his parents. On the other hand – maybe it is just a powerful image or motif which he was interested in placing in different paintings, juxtaposing with other images to create the dynamism and energy of any collage.

Room 3 The map paintings

These are enormous. Suddenly we are in a huge white room on the walls of which are hung some truly enormously huge paintings. They are made of acrylic paint on flat canvas. In the second half of the 1960s Bowling was in New York and liberated by the scale and ambition of American painting, especially the abstract expressionists like Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still.

Just like them, the works are enormous and almost abstract, covered in great washes of paint, to create dynamic forcefields of colour.

Installation View of Frank Bowling at Tate Britain. Photo by Matt Greenwood

The gallery guide points out that almost all of them contain maps and that they mark ‘Bowling’s rejection of the western-centric cartography of many world maps’. I think this is wrong, and a typical attempt to shoehorn politically correct sentiment into the art. It stands to reason that many of the paintings feature a map of South America. Bowling is from Guyana which is in South America. And some of the others feature the ghostly stencilled outline of Africa. Ultimately he is of African heritage.

But quite a few of the others – like Dog Daze (1971, on the left in the photo above) feature a map of the entire world, laid out according to standard convention, exactly as you see it in any atlas or poster – with the Americas at the left, then the Atlantic, then Eurasia with Africa dangling down. Not subverting or rejecting anything in particular. I bought the audioguide to the exhibition and this contains quite a few quotes from the man himself, and Bowling makes it perfectly clear time and again, that his art is not about a ‘subject’.

Art is to do with painting colour and structure

If there are maps in the huge map paintings it is not to make the kind of politically correct, left-wing, political point which the curators want him to make. It is because they offer a motif around which the art can constellate and come into being. It enables the art. Its force is not political, it is imaginative.

For sure maps can be given meanings. I can paint an outline of Africa and declare it is ‘about’ slavery. Or empire and colonialism. Or oppression. Or poverty. Or the fight for independence. or about war. Or about dance and music. Or about anything I want it to ‘mean’. Then again, maps may just be shapes and patterns which are interesting and stimulating, as shapes, as a well-remembered shapes from schooldays, but which carry precisely as much freight and meaning as the viewer wishes to give them.

Some of these works are stunning, comparable to the Rothko room at Tate Modern, big enough for the visitor to fall into, to meditate on, to create a mood of profound calm and wonder.

At one end of the room is a stunning work titled Polish Rebecca, dating from 1971. You can make out the stencilled shape of South America at the centre and the wall label tells us that the Rebecca in question was a Polish Jewish friend of Bowling’s, and that the work is a meditation on the shared history of the African and Jewish diaspora – revealing ‘Bowling’s interest in the way identities are shaped by geo-politics and displacement’.

To me this is reading the liberal political concerns of 2019 back into a painting from 48 years ago. Maybe it is so. Maybe not. What’s not in doubt is that it is a stunning composition, dominated all the tints and shades of purple, the strange beguiling white feathering effect spreading up the west coast of South America, and the random swishes of green, blue and orange paint. In the flesh this enormous painting is utterly entrancing.

Polish Rebecca (1971) by Frank Bowling. Courtest of the Dallas Museum of Art © Frank Bowling

Room 4 The poured paintings

As if to prove that Bowling is more interested in art than in bien-pensant, liberal, progressive political theory, the next room is devoted to paintings with absolutely no figurative content. He set up a tilting platform that allowed him to pour paint from heights of up to two metres. As the paint hit the canvas it cascaded down in streams of mingling colour.

Ziff (1974) by Frank Bowling. Private collection, London, courtesy of Jessica McCormack © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Structured accident, not unlike the spatter paintings of Jackson Pollock and then the hundreds of random spurting spattering throwing flicking shooting artists of the experimental 1960s and 70s. The titles also became less meaningful, more accidental, referencing people who were in his thoughts or events during the day, totally random.

Room 5 – Cosmic Space

Each new room has been marked by technical experimentation. In this once are works from the later 1970s where he began a set of further experiments. He began using ammonia and pearlessence, and applied splotches of paint by hand, producing marbling effects. He embraced accidents, which sometimes hardened into mannerisms. For example it was at this time that he took to leaving buckets of pain on the surface of the wet canvas, creating a circular ridge.

In Ah Susan Whoosh Bowling added water, turpentine and ammonia to the acrylic paint to create complicated chemical reactions. He poured the paint directly onto the canvas and then manipulated it with a squeegee. The technique forced him to work quickly, making strategic decisions to exploit the random combination of elements. It’s testimony to his skill that so many of these works, created under demanding conditions, with little or no planning, come out looking so haunting and powerful.

Ah Susan Whoosh (1981) by Frank Bowling. Private Collection, London

No reproduction can convey the shiny metallic tint of many of the colours, the sparkle on the surface of the paintings, which changes as you walk around them.

Three D

This brings me to the big divide in Bowling’s career which I mentioned at the start. The first four or five rooms are full of works where the paint lies more of less flat on the canvas. But in latter part of his career, from about 1980, and certainly in the last four rooms, Bowling’s canvases become thick and clotted three-dimensional artefacts.

He started using acrylic gel to create waves and ridges of colour and goo. And he started embedding objects in the paint. At first he used acrylic foam, cut into long strips, creating zoomorphic swirls and spirals.

In fact the ribbed nature of this foam reminded me a bit of fish skeletons, and the way some of these skeletal ruins emerge from a thick goo of paint, reminded me sometimes of the movie Alien. According to the wall labels:

Bowling also started to use a range of other materials and objects in his work. He applied metallic pigments, fluorescent chalk, beeswax and glitter to his densely textured surfaces. In several works, found objects such as plastic toys, packing material, the cap of a film canister and oyster shells are embedded within the paint. These items are rarely fully visible but add to the complexity and mysterious quality of the work.

Spreadout Ron Kitaj (1984–6) by Frank Bowling. Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

Spreadout Ron Kitaj is so named because the artist Ron Kitaj saw an exhibition of Bowling’s works in 1986 and got in touch. Bowling describes the strips of acrylic foam he embeds in the surface of works like that as ‘the ribs of the geometry from which I work.’ The painting also includes shredded plastic packing material, plastic jewellery, toys and oyster shells. It’s not one of the best works here – its effect is too dark and dingy for me – but it’s very typical of his modus operandi.

Room 7 – Water and Light

In 1989 Bowling went back to his childhood home in Guyana, accompanied by one of his sons. He immediately noticed the quality of the light in South America.

‘When I looked at the landscape in Guyana, I understood the light in my pictures is a very different light. I saw a crystalline haze, maybe an East wind and water rising up into the sky. It occurred to me for the first time, in my fifties, that the light is about Guyana. It is a constant in my efforts’ (1992).

As you might expect, the trip resulted in works which try to capture the effect, using Bowling’s (by now) trademark effects of acrylic gel swept into ridges, themselves arranged in very loose box or square shapes.

Sacha Jason Guyana Dreams 1989 Tate © Frank Bowling. All Rights Reserved, DACS 2019

From the later 1960s Bowling had studios in London and New York. His London studio is in East London and here he has made a series of paintings titled Great Thames which do just that – reference the mighty river Thames, invoking the long line of landscape painters who Bowling is well aware of – Gainsborough, Turner and John Constable.

In the way they adapt his by now trademark use of gel to create boxes and ridges, scattered with metallic pigments, scored and indented with all manner of objects found around the studio and pressed into the surface – nonetheless, the Great Thames paintings on display here prompt comparisons with Monet – not so much in technique or even in aim, but in the shimmering evocativeness of the finished product.

Great Thames IV (1989-9) by Frank Bowling. Arts Council Collection, South Bank Centre © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2019

Room 8 – Layering and stitching

In the 1990s, Bowling continued to work with acrylic paint and gel and continued to experiment with incorporating different materials and objects into his paintings. He experimented with stitching canvases together and attaching the main canvas to brightly-coloured strips of secondary canvas, to create a distinct border to the work.

 

He took this further by cutting up earlier canvases, and stapling sections together, juxtaposing different paint applications and colours. Like the many found objects embedded in the gloop, this stitching is very evident and all tends towards emphasising the materiality of the work of art. And, in some sense, its contingency. It is like this. But it needn’t have been like this. Meditate not only on the work. But on the arbitrariness and contingency which leads to the work.

Girls in the City (2017) by Frank Bowling © Frank Bowling

Girls in the City was made by stitching together seven individually stretched canvases. You can still see the vaguely square, ‘brick’-like shapes he creates using raised ridges of acrylic gel. But to that element of boxness, is added a more literal boxiness created by the piece’s assemblage from smaller parts. He is quotes as saying the works from this period were ‘organised in the way people structure themselves, in the way we are’ – presumably, assembled from lots of disparate elements.

Room 9 Explosive experimentation

This last room is devoted to works made over the past ten years. My first reaction was I didn’t like them so much. Nowadays confined to a sitting position, Bowling has used assistants to help him, and has continued his experimentation. He uses washes of thin paint, poured paint, blotched paint, stencilled applications, the use of acrylic gels, the insertion of found objects, and stitching together of different sections of canvas.

This results in what, for me, are rather a departure from the work of the previous three or so rooms. In a work like Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton the stitching is very much on display, in the sense that the canvas with the great pink crescent on it has been roughly chopped in half and stitched onto another canvas underneath, which appears to consist of a regular pattern of coloured stripes which provide a striking ‘interval’ between the top and bottom halves, and also, when you come to look at it, a frame around the ‘main’ canvas. And that’s before you get round to processing the complicated imagery, the vibrant colours and the scoring and striking into the surface, which characterise the ‘main’ image.

Iona Miriam’s Christmas Visit To and From Brighton (2017) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy Frank Bowling and Hales Gallery, Alexander Gray Associates and Marc Selwyn Fine Art © Frank Bowling. All rights reserved DACS 2018

I think that I was still too in thrall to the box or square gel ridge shapes of the earlier works, still processing the effect of them, to really appreciate these more recent works. Maybe you need to visit the exhibition several times to really absorb Bowling’s variety and inventiveness. These last works seem to be going somewhere completely new. I hope he lives long enough to show us where.

Summary

The works in the first part of the show are interesting and good, but often feel very much of their time like the Swinging Sixties cover girl and other works which feel like mash-ups of Hockney, Bacon, Kitaj with patches of Op Art thrown in.

The enormous map paintings – some of them over seven yards long – riffing off the abstract expressionists, are very powerful and absorbing in their own right.

The poured paintings reminded me a bit of school art projects. An interesting idea but the results weren’t that great.

It is only when Bowling starts working with acrylic gel and metallic tints, and embedding foam and then all kinds of objects into the surfaces of his paintings, that something weird and marvellous happens to his works.

Words cannot convey the rich and strange results of these experiments. The dense gloop, the metallic tints, and the strange clotted surfaces, alive with all sorts of half-buried objects, create enticing effects. I walked back and forth through the show half a dozen times or more and each time one particular painting stood out more and more strongly – spoke to me.

Philoctetes’ Bow (1987) by Frank Bowling. Courtesy the Artist and Hales Gallery © Frank Bowling

This reproduction in no way conveys the richness of the colour of this huge painting (it is 1.8 metres tall by 3.6 metres wide; it would cover most of the wall of an average sitting room).

And also doesn’t convey the way the long curve along the bottom which dominates it, actually sits proud of the surface. It is a characteristic slice of acrylic foam which also looks like a long, thin strip of corrugated cardboard. It not only creates the composition, but it projects it forward off the wall, and into your imagination. I kept being drawn back to look at it again and again, to sit in the bench placed in front of it precisely so the visitor can let it permeate every cell of your imagination.

Wow! What an amazing body of work.

Demographics

When I arrived at 10.30 the exhibition was almost empty. When I walked slowly through it at 12.30, there were 38 visitors, including me – 12 men and 26 women. There were no black or Asian people at all. The only people of colour were two of the Tate ‘visitor assistants’. There were half a dozen or so teenagers who seemed to be on a school trip, and one or two 20-somethings. The rest of us were white, middle-aged, grey-haired old types. Which reinforces the impression I’ve gained from reviewing some 150 art exhibitions: the gallery-going public in London is overwhelmingly white, middle-class, old or retired, and predominantly female.

Curators

Frank Bowling is curated by Elena Crippa, Curator, Modern and Contemporary British Art and Laura Castagnini, Assistant Curator.

The promotional video


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James Cook – The Voyages @ the British Library

2018 marks 250 years since Captain James Cook set off from Plymouth on the first of his three epoch-making voyages of exploration to the Pacific. In 1768 most of the coastlines and islands scattered across this vast body of water – nearly 64 million square miles of ocean – were unknown to Europeans. When Cook’s third voyage returned to Britain in 1780, most of the blank spaces had been filled in as a result of his labours.

This exhibition is an excellently curated and imaginatively staged account of Cook’s big three voyages. It:

  1. sets them in the wider framework of European knowledge of the time
  2. shows how each one was received and assimilated by both the elite scientific community and the broader general public
  3. most significantly of all, goes to great lengths to present the other side of the story, the by and large disastrous consequences for the ‘native’ or ‘first peoples’ of Australia, New Zealand and across the Pacific islands not so much of Cook’s visits themselves, but of the consequences – the way these peoples found themselves quickly caught up in the worldwide web of European trade, exploited, marginalised, often decimated by disease and of how their descendants, even today, are fighting to make their voices heard and to re-establish the importance of their culture and their version of history.

Image result for james cook voyages

Voyage One 1768-71

Cook had gained a reputation as a hard working navigator and map-maker during the Seven Years War (1756-63) in Canada, when he had charted the St Laurence Waterway and then, when peace came, made the first detailed charts of the island of Newfoundland off the Canadian coast.

So when the Royal Society approached the Royal Navy for a captain to lead an expedition to the Pacific, to carry scientific equipment and astronomers there in order to observe the transit of Venus across the sun which was due to take place in June 1769, the Admiralty saw an excellent opportunity to combine science with exploration and Cook’s name came into the frame.

The Navy provided the ship, HMS Endeavour which Cook sailed on, and he was under Admiralty orders that, once the transit was observed, he should sail on to try and find the fabled southern land which geographers and explorers of the time were convinced ran along the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Cook took along with him Joseph Banks, a charming, privately wealthy botanist, with an extensive retinue of six artists and assistants, plus his servants and pet greyhounds. The huge collections of plants, birds, fish and other life forms which Banks made on the three year journey would later be sent to the new Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and to the Royal Society, for categorisation and study.

The first voyage crossed the Atlantic and touched at Tierra del Fuego on the southern tip of South America, before sailing into the Pacific and on to Tahiti. Here the astronomers got to know the native people, built a fort, and observed the transit of Venus – then the Endeavour sailed on to New Zealand. By sailing right round and charting the two islands in detail, Cook proved that New Zealand was not part of the fabled Great Southern continent.

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

Cook’s Chart of New Zealand © British Library Board

In April 1770 Cook anchored on a spot which he named Botany Bay, on a long stretch of the eastern coastline of Australia. The north coast had been mapped by the Dutch but this eastern coast Cook claimed for Britain and named New South Wales. Detecting no human habitation he declared it terra nullius i.e. uninhabited – the start of 250 years of ignoring and marginalising Australia’s aboriginal people.

Cook’s ship was holed on the Great Barrier Reef, and after a very dicey few hours getting the ship afloat again, they found a sheltered cove in which to make extensive repairs. After completing the survey of east Australia, they sailed north-west to reach Batavia, capital of the Dutch East Indies, where a number of Cook’s crew were struck down by malaria and dysentery, and so across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and home.

Banks sent the vast cornucopia of specimens, sketches and descriptions made by him and his retinue to the Royal Society and became what David Attenborough describes as ‘the Great Panjandrum’ of the late-18th century scientific world.

Voyage Two 1772-5

This time Cook was sent with explicit orders from the Admiralty to search for the Great Southern Continent. After a dispute about accommodation Banks didn’t, alas, go on this second trip.

In searching for the Southern Continent, and ultimately proving its non-existence, the expedition would cross the Antarctic Circle three times and, during the winter months, would make two long circuits of the south Pacific, charting a number of islands and island groups not before accurately plotted on European maps.

The voyages among towering icebergs in the southern seas gripped my imagination most, but Cook also made longish stays at Tahiti and Easter Island.

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

The Resolution and the Discovery in Prince William Sound, Alaska by John Webber © British Library

Voyage Three 1776-80

Cook was put in charge of the Resolution to be accompanied by the Discovery, captained by Charles Clerke. This time his mission from the Admiralty was to sail via Tahiti to the Pacific North-West coast of America in search of that other great chimera, the fabled ‘North-West Passage’ which sailors, for two centuries – had been hoping would allow ships to sail from the vast Hudson Bay in north Canada, clear through into the Pacific and so on to the Indies.

As no such passage exists, Cook never found it. Instead this voyage was as epic as the others, taking in stops at Queen Charlotte Sound in New Zealand, Tasmania, Tonga and Tahiti, places they had previously visited.

In January 1778, the expedition called at the Hawaiian islands, which were then unknown in Europe. After taking on supplies here, Cook sailed for the North Pacific coast of Canada. They arrived at the coast of modern Oregon and sailed north around the coast of Alaska looking in vain for some river or channel or outlet which would give access to the fabled short cut around North America.

They landed in the Aleutian Islands to take on water and then proceeded on through the Bering Strait in August 1778, still hoping to find access to a channel. Instead they ran up against a barrier of sheet ice and, following this east, discovered that it extended in an unbroken line from the west coast of North America all the way to the east coast of Asia. In August the expedition reached Russian soil. In other words – there was no way through.

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

Three Paddles from New Zealand by Sydney Parkinson, 1769 © British Library Board

The quest was over and Cook now needed to make winter quarters. Rather than stay up in Arctic waters, he decided to return to Hawai‘i. On 26 November 1778 the ships sighted Maui and on 16 January 1779 the ships arrived off Kealakekua Bay on the west coast of Hawai’i. They anchored and resumed friendly relations with the native people, led by King Kalani‘opu‘u, repairing the ship, taking on provisions and resting.

Finally, the ships sailed out of Kealakekua Bay on 4 February to resume their mission. But soon after their departure a storm blew up and the Resolution’s foremast was damaged, forcing them to return. King Kalani‘opu‘u had supervised elaborate farewell ceremonies for Cook and his men and now, according to diarist James Burney, ‘was very inquisitive, as were several of the Owhyhe Chiefs, to know the reason of our return and appeared much dissatisfied with it’.

Overnight on 14 February 1779, the large boat from the Discovery disappeared. As he had done in other places, Cook went on shore with the marines to take a senior figure hostage in order to demand its return. Charles Clerke later recorded that, on finding Kalani‘opu‘u having just woken up, Cook believed him to be ‘quite innocent of what happen’d and proposed to the old Gentleman to go onboard with him, which he readily agree’d to’. As the party returned to the beach, where two or three thousand people had assembled, tensions increased. News may have reached the crowd of the death of a man shot by British sailors who were blockading the harbour. Violence broke out and Cook was killed on the beach alongside four of the marines. Sixteen Hawaiians are believed to have been killed.

Both sides quickly regretted the misunderstanding and violence, but it was too late and – as commentators ever since have pointed out – it was indeed a symbol, a sign, a prophecy, of more misunderstanding and violence to come…

The exhibition

To my mind the British Library sometimes struggles to compete with the other major galleries or the British Museum for the simple reason that whereas the galleries have great works of art and the Museum has fabulous artefacts, for the most part the Library, by definition, is restricted to books and other printed matter, extending to pamphlets, prints, maps and so on, but none of them necessarily that visually impressive.

But the curators have gone to great lengths to overcome this potential drawback and to bring together the widest possible range of sources.

Books Thus, as you’d expect, there are a number of original journals and diaries, of Cook himself, as well as of important colleagues such as Banks and several of the other naturalists, surgeons and scientists who accompanied him.

Maps If you like maps, you’ll love this show. There are European maps from before Cooks’ voyages, maps generated by predecessors like Tasman, and his French contemporary de Bougainville, and then the maps which Cook himself generated.

Cook’s charts It was fascinating to see the very actual maps that Cook himself drew and created. At the end of the day, this was what all this extraordinary effort was about – the charts which were brought back to be used by the Royal Navy and by commercial sailings. These were the core of the project and it is great to have the opportunity to study in real detail the results of Cook’s handiwork, to read the wall labels and have explained to you why there were gaps here or there (for example, a stretch of the Australian coast wasn’t charted in detail because Cook couldn’t penetrate through the Great Barrier Reef to observe it closely), and even his errors. He mistook a peninsula on the South Island of New Zealand for an island, and an island off the North Island for a peninsula. Nobody’s perfect.

Objects But to supplement these obvious selections, the curators have also brought in some interesting objects such as one of the telescopes which was used to observe the transit of Venus and an example of the new timepieces which helped navigators work out longitude and thus establish their position.

Copies of Harrison's chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Copies of Harrison’s chronometer made by John Arnold © Royal Society

Oil paintings There’s also a handful of big contemporary oil paintings – of Cook himself and Joseph Banks and of the famous Tahiti Islander, Mai, who Cook brought back to Britain and who made a great splash in London society, being painted by William Parry and Joshua Reynolds among others, as well as having books and poems dedicated to him.

Botanical and scenic sketches Banks was a man obsessed with gathering absolutely every specimen of flora and fauna he could get his hands on throughout the entire three-year voyage. Spurred on by his work ethic, the naturalists and artists he had brought with him generated a wealth of sketches and drawings (including the earliest European depiction of a kangaroo!).

The exhibition sets the sketches alongside the finished oil paintings which were later worked up from them, either by the original artist or by a commercial artist back in London. Often the original sketches were ‘improved’ or ‘finished’ for inclusion in one of the many books which were published about the voyages to capitalise on their popularity, and the exhibition quietly points out how the rough and accurate sketches became noticeably westernised i.e. the landscapes became more soft and ‘sublime’ as per contemporary taste, and the sketches of the native people’s sometimes very rough shelters were transformed into noble dwellings, sometimes complete with ancient Greek columns, again to fit in with prevailing Western tastes for the idea of ‘the Noble Savage’.

One of the highlights is the striking drawings of natives and plants by Sydney Parkinson (who made nearly a thousand drawings of the plants and animals collected by Banks and Daniel Solander on the first voyage). There are evocative drawings of native people decorated by elaborate tattoos by William Hodges, beautiful flowers painted by Georg Foster who went on the second voyage, and so on.

Native objects In stark contrast to all these visual images created from within the western artistic tradition, the exhibition also includes a number of original artefacts by the natives, or aboriginals, or first peoples of the many places Cook visited.

These include, for example, a wooden cuirass or piece of armour from Prince William Sound, a bow and arrow, and a flute and drum, and a beautiful Nootka rattle carved in the shape of two birds.

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

Rattle from Nootka Sound, c. 1778 © Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge

To quote the press release, exhibition highlights include:

  • Paintings depicting Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia by the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia, which are on display as a group for the first time
  • The first chart of New Zealand by James Cook
  • The first artworks depicting the Antarctic by William Hodges on loan from the State Library of New South Wales, reunited with James Cook’s handwritten journal entry describing the first crossing of the Antarctic Circle, for the first time in 100 years
  • Specimens from the first voyage, including the mouth parts of a squid, on loan from the Royal College of Surgeons
  • Expedition artist John Webber’s watercolour landscapes, including the first European illustrations of Hawai’i
  • Jewellery and musical instruments, including a necklace from Tierra del Fuego, ceremonial rattle from Nootka Sound (Vancouver Island) and bamboo flute from Tahiti, on loan from Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
  • Natural history drawings, including the first European depiction of a kangaroo by Sydney Parkinson on loan from the Natural History Museum

Quite an assembly, going far beyond books and maps – and from a strikingly wide variety of sources.

Staging In terms of staging and presentation, the curators have gone to a lot of trouble to create a marine atmosphere, by painting the walls with sea-inspired colours. The exhibition is in the form of a kind of maze of differently shaped rooms, some painted light blue to display the voyage material, and deliberately contrasted with ‘brown’ rooms, lit by replica 18th century oil lamps to represent the time spent back in London. In these rooms are displayed the paintings, prints and publications of all sorts which the voyages inspired.

It’s interesting to note the number of literary works, with quite a few epic poems, dramas and satires based on the sea voyages or on the character of the new peoples Cook had ‘discovered’, particularly the peoples of Tahiti and Hawai’i.

It’s also notable that a number of these works were openly critical of Cook, of the occasional violence with natives which – despite Cook’s best efforts – broke out, and accurately predict the likely dire consequences for people suddenly thrown into the ‘modern’ world economy with absolutely no preparation or help.

Videos And there are no fewer than eight shortish (three minutes) videos, specially commissioned for the exhibition and dotted throughout the show, which feature not only maps and charts and the art work listed above, but modern day shots of many of the key (and generally quite stunning) locations, plus a range of interviewees explaining what actually happened on each voyage, and their importance.

Among the European interviewees are David Attenborough who enthusiastically describes Cook as probably the greatest maritime explorer of all time, and Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, whose book about Cook is on sale in the well-stocked exhibition shop.

The controversy

And this brings us to what is maybe the dominant thread running through this exhibition. As Thomas says in one of the films, the past 30-40 years have seen a revolution in attitudes towards Cook and white colonial rule generally.

As recently as the 1970s there is footage of the Queen and Princess Anne sitting on a beach in Australia watching a re-enactment of Cook’s landing with his crew, and making his notorious claim that, the land being ’empty’, he claimed it for the British Crown.

Well, attitudes among educated people throughout the Western world have been completely changed since then and now there is widespread acknowledgement of the possible illegality of those claims, and the definitely devastating impact of white colonial contact with native peoples.

From Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, across the scores of small islands of Polynesia and up into the Arctic Circle among the Inuit Indians, the impact of white explorers on native ‘first’ peoples was almost always catastrophic.

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

‘Inhabitants of the Island of Terra del Fuego in their Hut’ by Alexander Buchan, 1769 © British Library Board

As the films make clear, it is only in recent decades that the presence of the native peoples has been fully acknowledged, and the voices and experiences of the first peoples of Cook’s time, and of their contemporary descendants, fully heard.

Thus the eight short videos had contributions from a number of qualified white people – from David Attenborough, Nigel Thomas, Australian historian Dame Anne Salmond, from a male author and a woman biologist. But there were at least as many if not more ‘native’ voices heard – descendants of the Australian Aborigines and a number of the Pacific islanders / Polynesians where Cook stopped. I’d like to name them all, but the captions giving their names and titles only appeared very briefly, and there was – well – a lot to see and take in.

What came over in the words of all the native peoples – aborigine, Maori, Tahitian, Hawaiian – was the hurt.

After all these years – after 250 years – their descendants are still very upset about the way that:

  • their lands were taken from them
  • their heritage, their culture, their languages and customs and religions, were ignored, submerged, obliterated
  • their populations were decimated by the many terrible diseases the white men brought (smallpox, syphilis)

Entire peoples found themselves consigned to being second class citizens or not even that – invisible, non-people, with no political or legal rights, no voice, no say.

It is impossible to deny that this was the impact of Cook’s voyages. Without doubt the voyages were themselves heroic endeavours and respect to the men who carried them out. And there is plenty of evidence that Cook himself was a just and fair man, who made efforts to have natives treated fairly, who personally respected the rites and cultures which he encountered, and who rigorously punished any members of the crew found mistreating or exploiting natives.

But even Cook himself was uneasily aware that the technologically backward peoples he was discovering would struggle to survive in the face of Western technology, ships, guns, and trade.

Tupaia Nothing can really make amends for the wrongs which were done to native peoples across the Pacific in the aftermath of Cook’s explorations. The dignity with which the curators treat their often tragic histories is a start. Hearing from their descendants in the eight videos also ensures that the voices of the first peoples will always now be part of the Cook story.

But the exhibition also sheds new light on some specific and named natives. I’ve mentioned Omai – real name Mai – who was befriended and persuaded to travel all the way back to Britain.

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

Omai by William Hodges © Royal Museums Greenwich

We also hear about named kings and high priests who Cook and his officers treated fully as equals, giving them gifts, attending their religious ceremonies.

But the exhibition also brings out how vital many natives were to Cook’s success. It was, after all, only with the help and co-operation of the various local peoples that Cook was able to anchor, land, make repairs to the ship, to access vital fresh water and, above all, food.

And communicate. Another Tahitian, Hitihiti, travelled with Cook on to a number of Pacific islands, notably Easter Island, where he was invaluable as acting as an interpreter to first peoples.

Another very notable figure is the Polynesian high priest and navigator Tupaia. He accompanied Cook to New Zealand and Australia and is referenced by many of the aboriginal interviewees in the films as a kind of role model for the power he had and the respect he commanded from the white man.

And now it appears, from evidence in a recently discovered letter of Joseph Banks, that many of the sketches included in the archive of the first voyage were drawn by Tupaia himself, not by British artists. They are shown here for the first time with their proper credit and this knowledge gives them a whole new mystique and poignancy.

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Banks and a Maori by Tupaia © British Library Board

Summary

The voyages of James Cook were a great human achievement, displaying stunning bravery, discipline, determination, scientific and artistic expertise. The long-lasting impact on native peoples all over the vast Pacific region was almost always disastrous.

The exhibition makes a very good effort to capture the complexity of the resulting situation – amazement at a great achievement from the Age of Discovery. Difficult, moving and upsetting testimonials to the sorry centuries which followed.

The video


Related links

  • James Cook – The Voyages continues at the British Library until 28 August
  • The British Library microsite contains links off to quite a few good articles about each of the voyages, the natural history, indigenous peoples, the north-west passage, imperial legacy and much more

MAMista by Len Deighton (1991)

In The Night Manager we saw how John le Carré reacted to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War – the subjects which had provided his fictional bread and butter for nearly thirty years. He reacted by moving the same organisation – British Intelligence – and the same kind of plot motifs – the traitor within – seamlessly into the world of international arms smuggling.

The Samson novels

From 1983 Len Deighton had been engaged on an epic series of novels, the Samson series, which were based around the Cold War conflict, specifically the espionage war against the communist regime and agents of East Germany.

With one bound this, his first post-Berlin Wall novel, flies completely free of that entire world. It is set a hemisphere away, in the fictional South American country of Spanish Guiana. This is ruled by the moderately repressive regime of General Benz, but is plagued by the usual social problems eg poverty and squalor, and the discrepancy between the small, urban, middle class and the large number of illiterate peasants who work the land. The political landscape is filled with liberal politicians, communist intellectuals and Marxist guerrillas.

In the opening chapters we meet three central characters.

Angel Paz is a twenty-year-old explosives expert, a Latino based in America, sent to a good college and recommended by his father to a job with his mobster Uncle Arturo. Instead of taking the job, Paz takes his allowance and redirects the plane ticket to Spanish Guiana with a young man’s idealism and fervour to fight for a cause he believes in. Inevitably, he is swiftly disillusioned by the poverty and misery of the country, the ignorance of the peasants, and the squalid nature of the ‘struggle’ he gets involved in.

Coming from a completely different place is middle-aged Australian doctor Ralph Lucas. He left his comfortable farming family to serve in Vietnam as a combat doctor, where he saw bad things, before moving on to London and becoming involved in various charities. We see him in the board meeting of one of these which, among many other good works, is suggesting sending medical supplies to communities affected by the guerrilla fighting in the south of Spanish Guiana ie away from the urban centres in the north. Lucas finds himself manoeuvred at the meeting into going to the territory himself to assess the situation, but reassures his sister he’ll only be gone a few weeks.

In an early scene Paz is met off the boat into the Spanish Guiana capital, Tepolo, by Inez Cassidy, the improbably good-looking ‘press officer’ for the MAMista guerrillas. Her presence is tolerated in the capital because it suits the regime to have a conduit to communicate with the guerrillas through, and it demonstrates Benz’s liberal tolerance to foreign officials ie from the United States. Inez takes Paz to a safe house kept by a man named Chori, where Paz uses his skills to create a bomb which they then break into the Ministry of Pensions and plant, attached to a timer.

Fictional presidents

To my surprise and dismay these scenes are intercut with scenes set in the West Wing of the White House, where we meet John Curl, National Security Adviser to the President of the USA, described here as a tall, noble, intelligent decisive man.

I wonder if it could be a reliable yardstick that a novel is going to be rubbish, if it includes a fictional US President. The Golden Gate by Alistair MacLean, featuring the kidnap of a rugged intelligent US President, is one of his worst novels. The Devil’s Alternative by Frederick Forsyth is completely unbelievable at every level, but especially hindered by the improbably perfect characterisation of the tough, intelligent, decisive US President.

In reality the world has enjoyed a free world led by Ronald Reagan 1981-89, George Bush 1989-93, Bill Clinton 1993-2001, George W Bush 2001-09, Barack Obama 2009-. The gap between the fictional presidents of thriller writers – tall, rugged, extremely intelligent, tough but sensitive, decisive but caring – and the reality of Reagan, Bush, Clinton et al, is just too wide not to be ludicrous. And so renders any fiction depicting this kind of heroic, noble US President immediately vulnerable to ridicule.

Americans in Spanish Guiana

Anyway, the scenes between Curl and the Prez are to show that there’s a little US geological survey in the south of the Spanish Guiana and they’ve discovered the right conditions for oil. Curl has a plan to use this to sort out several problems: although the Americans aren’t fond of Benz (who they know turns a blind eye to the flourishing cocaine trade) they are equally unwilling to help the MAMista guerrillas.

But Curl may be able to act through a proxy: he arranges to bump into the head of a major oil firm, Steve Steinbeck, at his gym. Here, Curl puts to Steinbeck the possibility of having tax breaks and government help to develop and exploit the oil. In exchange, the oil company can take responsibility for security ie buy millions of dollars worth of guns and armaments, trucks and armoured personnel carriers.

Now it just so happens that the opening scenes describe the TV news showing pictures of protests and marches against the closing of large sections of the arms industry in California. Thus the Guiana deal could square several circles by:

  • supporting a US oil company
  • to provide an alternative source of oil to the ever-flaky Middle East
  • with government subsidies
  • which are actually funneled back to arms companies in California
  • new contracts which the President can announce in his upcoming trip to California
  • thus boosting his popularity

Ralph Lucas

Lucas flies into Guiana and is met by Inez Cassidy the day after the bomb went off in the Ministry, apparently injuring passersby. She takes him to the same squalid safe house where Paz is staying and they take an instant dislike to each other, which is a shame because the novel is going to be about how all three are thrown together.

This odd trio are invited to a reception at the American embassy, which is unexpectedly raided by Benz’s Federalista cops. Everyone is thrown into prison but because Lucas had wisely gone along with the arrest, he gets a blanket overnight in the cell with a straw mattress. Because Paz resists, like the young firebrand he is, he is beaten up, has his scalp shaved and thrown into a concrete cell with no bed blanket, bucket or anything. The next morning they are hauled up to be interrogated by chief of police, Cisnero, who eventually lets them go.

With the guerrillas

Inez, Paz and Lucas fly south in a dodgy prop plane to a ‘secret’ airfield. Here they are met by dishevelled remnants of the MAMistas. Along the way we’ve learned that one of the key political figures in Guiana is Dr Guizot, capable of rallying the urban middle class behind the Revolution. A large number – several hundred – MAMistas – took part in an attack on a convoy transporting Guizot between prisons. Unfortunately, the Army had been tipped off and massacred the guerrillas – of the several hundred, only thirty or so escaped – and it is these battle-worn troops who now arrive at the shack by the airstrip where Inez, Paz and Lucas are hiding out, led by their middle-aged peasant ‘general’, Ramón. Oh, and Dr Guizot was killed in the raid, so it was all for nothing and they have lost one of their main political allies.

Through Paz, Inez and Lucas we are now introduced to the MAMista guerillas, getting to know the wily Ramón, seeing them in their true poverty, beginning to get a feel for the implacable jungle, its heat and humidity, the insects and leeches. From now to the end of the novel scenes in the jungle with the bickering guerrillas are interspersed with scenes in the White House, contrasting events on the ground with the way they are reported to – and manipulated by – Curl and the American administration.

Bungled raid

The next thing that happens is the guerrillas raid the US geographical station: the guerrillas want its vehicles and fuel. Lucas finds himself dragged into a combat role when he is chosen to drive a decoy jeep into the compound – which is heavily defended from watchtowers with guards. Lucas drives in OK and walks to the main office where he meets the white paleographer, Charrington, and his sidekick, a big black guy named Singer. Things start to go wrong when we watch Inez use a rifle with scope to take out the two Indians in the watchtowers. Immediately two or three vehicles full of armed guerrillas screech through the open gates and the guerrillas deploy throughout the camp. Lucas realises Ramón lied to him when he said they’d rely on Lucas’s negotiating skills. In reality it’s an armed raid and Ramón’s deputy puts a gun to Charrington’s head. The latter sensibly hands over the keys to vehicles but Ramón decides they must take Charrington and Singer hostage.

A terrible accident happens as they’re leaving: Charrington yells at his wife that he’ll be OK and be back in a few days, but she insists on running down towards the departing vehicles and past the generator building, which is a bad idea, because Paz has primed the generator with lots of explosive and, just as she runs past, it explodes, throwing her wrecked, instantly dead body fifty yards against the perimeter fence. Which Charrington sees and so does his little boy who has been running after her.

Rosario

The guerrillas drive for a day or so to the nearest settlement, the typically slummy impoverished town of Rosario where the different characters respond in different ways to the US geographical survey raid debacle. Paz is angry and defensive; Inez is upset; Lucas seems to be entirely emotionless: I think the idea is that he was completely emotionally cauterised in Vietnam and has never recovered an emotional life. He is eating when news is brought that Charrington has tried to commit suicide by smashing up his glasses and eating the broken glass. We watch Lucas tend to him in his last agonies: what a terrible way to go.

The novel is written in deadpan sentences which are extremely effective at conveying atmosphere. Thus a day or two later I still remember details of the description of Rosario, especially the townspeople’s surly dislike of the guerrillas. Nervously they put on a feast for them, bringing out their best food and wine simply to avoid the guerrillas stealing it anyway. Reluctantly they let the MAMistas put up revolutionary posters around the town. Next day, as their trucks drive off we see the townspeople systematically taking them down, worried what the opposing Federalistas will do when they arrive.

Winter camp

Finally the convoy of trucks with Ramón, Paz, Inez and Lucas arrives at the so-called winter camp. The idea was this was to be the launching point for an attack on the more urbanised north, which never in fact came. The violencia has been going on at least five years, but seems completely bogged down and Lucas now discovers why. Thousands of guerrillas are living in this makeshift camp, partly based around an abandoned matchworks by the vast river, a tributary of the Amazon. Here hundreds of the men, volunteers from the soft north, are falling ill to all sorts of jungle ailments, fungus, bronchitis and throat diseases, cuts and scratches becoming infected and gangrenous. Lucas sets about a wholesale reform of healthcare, burning down the old ‘hospital’, building a new one from scratch, reviewing all the men and recommending a healthier diet, administering what antibiotics he has and painkillers and overseeing at least one death a day. He even reforms the diet, cancelling the tinned rations and insisting on fresh stew made from whatever ingredients can be caught or picked in the jungle, plus fresh vegetables.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the guerrillas are being defeated by illness, disease, bad health, by the jungle: they will never make any ‘revolution’.

Frente

It is in this context that Ramón travels to a safe house in the north (in fact one of the houses of the Minister of Agriculture) who has loaned it in a deal guaranteeing the safety of his own lands to the south from guerrilla attack. Here he meets the leaders of the other left leaning forces in the country: Big Jorge, who has risen to represent the coffee growers, a large rural constituency, and Dr Marti, a bespectacled intellectual who represents the urban intellectuals, the students and bourgeois communists.

It is an interesting meeting as Deighton explains each side’s constituencies, who they represent and what they are bargaining for. Ramón tells them all the key figure of Dr Guizot is alive and has sent him with instructions (despite the fact we saw him burying Guizot’s bullet-riddled body in the jungle earlier). Ramón is hoping to persuade the other two to launch attacks of their own, in order to present a united front against Benz’s regime but, we slowly realise, neither is willing to do that. Big Jorge’s coffee farmers have, in recent years, taken to cocaine farming and are now making big money which relies on the current regime being in power and giving them large bribes. Ie they have less and less interest in overthrowing anything; all they want is to field a militia force to defend their areas, against either MAMistas or Federalistas. Dr Marti for his part, is a comfortable old man: his students may stage sit-ins and protests but aren’t enough by themselves to overturn the majority in the urban centres which are prosperous under the Benz regime.

There is a gruesome moment: the rough old revolutionary, Chori, whose stinking boarding house our heroes assembled in at the start, was never released from his prison cells, unlike the foreigners Lucas and Paz. He – and then his father – were beaten and tortured until he reveals the location of this secret high-level summit. His torturers fly north until they are circling the minister’s house where the assembled guerrillas and leaders are alarmed but remain concealed. Convinced he has lied to them, the Benz regime torturers throw Chori’s body out of the circling plane. It falls a long way and is not a pretty sight when it lands.

There are a lot of not pretty sights in the novel. It is not a book for the squeamish. Deighton has a very disconcerting way of describing devastating injuries, murders, explosions, shootings, dismemberments in flat factual prose, leaving the reader reeling. This shock tactic was at the heart of Bomber, his upsetting epic novel about a bombing raid on Germany during World War II. Countless people die in all sorts of brutal, horrifying ways. This novel has a similarly cold-hearted and brutal impact.

Trek through the jungle

Ramón returns to the winter camp, thoroughly disillusioned and makes a decision. He has discovered that Singer, the black guy they took hostage at the US base, is in fact a CIA agent. He tells Paz and Lucas and his closest associates the CIA have a million dollar reward for Singer’s return and they must take him north, smuggle him into the city, get the money. It is a long long way north across trackless, pathless, roadless jungle. Even to me it seems like a hopeless futile task.

Thus begins the last third of the novel which is a long agonising description of the degeneration of the mission into collapse and failure. To summarise 100 pages or so: the thirty or so men who set off, led by the totally inexperienced Paz, attended by Lucas, accompanied by Inez, carrying Singer the valuable hostage, encounter the full range of jungle obstacles, having to hack their way through bamboo, wade through streams, fall into swamps, all the time being bitten by mosquitoes and clamped onto by leeches, all beneath almost non-stop torrential rain. Within days the pace has slowed right down and men are falling ill, dysentery appears along with other ailments.

The first really big challenge is crossing a massive river they come to which blocks their way to the mountains in the north. There is a horrible scene where a keen but weak young soldier volunteers and has nylon rope tied to his body so he can swim across and establish a line. He’s two thirds of the way across and in a fair way to drowning when a patrol boat appears out of nowhere and reduces his body to bloody hunks of meat with a rapid fire machine gun. Did I mention the book is bloody and violent? The guerrillas reply by chucking grenades into the boat, which eviscerate and cook its inhabitants. Another patrol boat was approaching from the south and, when the firing from the first one began, Lucas is able to open up with a rifle and shoot dead all four men in it. They use this boat to ferry men and supplies across the river.

The mountains

After the river come the mountains. They are staggering up the slopes, hacking through jungle or burned and sunstroked by the blistering sun, when Singer and Lucas realise they are being followed. A lot of these hundred pages are devoted to the shifting relationships between Paz the cocky leader who is slowly worn down, Lucas who is solid and dependable as doctor but has hardly any medicines and is cold-hearted, and Singer the black CIA agent who sings old Negro spirituals and generally mocks the revolutionaries’ stupid aspirations and uselessness at fieldcraft. But all three realise they’re being followed. And then that there are signs the trail has been used before: maybe there’s a force in front of them?

Down the other side of the mountains they go, in a state of high alert and into a wide swampy area. Here there is a sudden and unexpected firefight which draws the novel to a close. In one of the West Wing scenes, Curl had got the President to approve sending a warship to the coast of Guiana to extract the missing CIA agent. Unbeknown to Paz, Lucas and Inez, Ramón had been doing a deal with Singer and, via him, the Administration: having despaired of support from Jorge or Marti, and realising his army is dying, Ramón has agreed to a deal to allow US oil drilling to go ahead and take a cut of the profits in order to ensure safe transport of the oil from the south to the coast.

Deighton does a convincing job of describing the geopolitics or political machinations of the various players. Cutting the guerrillas in on the deal effectively puts them on the US payroll and draws their teeth. Eventually, on another level of complexity, it is revealed that Curl is planning to use the oil company to defoliate the cocaine growing areas on a big scale and arm or support the Marxist guerrillas in moving in on Big Jorge’s drug growers. The by-now-tamed MAMistas would be subsidised to grow coffee. So Curl gets: a new oil source for the US; Marxist guerrillas tamed; a major source of cocaine neutralised. Singer explains all this to Lucas, as well as the fall-back plan: if Ramón reneges on the deal the oil company can turn the large amount of arms, ammunition, trucks and APCs over to General Benz’s army to take on and destroy the guerrillas. All the angles have been smoothly calculated.

Firefight and farce

Suddenly shooting breaks out. Deighton gives a description of the fighting from both points of view. One minute the guerrillas are hacking through jungle the next machine guns and grenades are going off. The attackers are the group of American troops led by a West Point CIA graduate who had been helicoptered in to snatch Singer. Deighton has written a number of highly praised histories of World War Two, and has a deep knowledge of battles. This firefight is complete confusion. Both sides think they are being ambushed when in fact they have simply blundered into each other. The result is bloody brutal chaos. Half a dozen guerrillas are horribly killed, skulls split open, vaporised brains spraying their neighbours, arms shot off, guts spewing everywhere. Both sides break off, running into the jungle, and soon are not only not in contact but couldn’t even find their ways back to the battlefield if they wanted to.

Lucas stays with several men who die horribly in agony. Inez has been wounded by some small piece of shrapnel which has entered her body doing Lucas can’t tell how much damage. Santos, Paz’s number two, has his arm shot off and dies in stages. Once clear of the fight they regroup in the jungle but Paz volunteers to go back and fetch some of the panniers full of medical supplies. He never returns. He never returns because he blunders into the area where the American forces are recovering. They knock him out, but not before hearing him speaking in fluent American. The head of the CIA snatch squad is therefore convinced that this healthy looking young dude, speaking American, wearing a baseball cap and shades, must be the CIA agent he was sent to recover. He and his men carry the unconscious Paz to a clearing where they are recovered by their helicopter which flies them out of the forest to the coast and out to the waiting US warship.

The guerrillas continue struggling through the jungle, now with wounded men who slowly die, the rest decimated by disease. Singer is incapacitated with dysentery and is tied to a pole and carried. Lucas realises Inez is dying. On a desperate last stage, Lucas tells Singer to carry on without them, they’ll catch him up. An hour later Singer hears two shots and knows Lucas has shot dead Inez and killed himself. Some days later the last surviving guerrillas come across tracks and then a half-skinned dear. They collapse. Shyly the local pygmies who they’d disturbed return and lead them along more tracks to their village where they are greeted by a ravaged white man. In the latest in what is beginning to feel like an endless line of images of futility, he turns out to be an Austrian missionary who came to the area decades earlier, lost his faith but stayed on. He was hoping the new arrivals might be Europeans he could talk to. But the handful of surviving guerrillas are all too sick to go any further and the black man they’ve been carrying on a pole has been dead for days.

Last twists of the knife

Paz wakes up in hospital in Los Angeles. He is keeping silent through the medical treatment which is restoring his health, knowing that any minute the powers that be will realise he is not the real Singer. But he needn’t worry. At the start of the novel we saw Paz taking money and a plane ticket from his mobster uncle Arturo. Now Arturo visits him in hospital and, with an accomplice, performs a mafia-style execution, injecting Paz with poison.

Now all the main characters have died horribly and futilely, the final scene is the arrival of the US President in California to announce the big new arms contracts which will save the industry in California and revive his popularity levels, all as Curl had planned. To be honest, I couldn’t work out whether the death of Singer, the CIA man, was meant to undercut this final scene, by suggesting the deal with the guerrillas would now fall through and everything he’s about to announce to the press will fail to happen. (I don’t think so because, although Singer might be dead, it would be easy enough to send another envoy to Ramón and reconfirm the deal ie a cut of the oil profits to suspend the ‘revolution’.) Or whether it is schoolboy irony that the President’s shiny announcements to the press ignore and belie the terrible tragedies we’ve seen happening ‘on the ground’ ie everyone dying.

Either way, like Bomber, the entire novel, by the end, feels as if it has been a vast exercise in deeply depressed and depressing futility.


Comments

Deighton’s earliest novels are notable for their witty tricksiness which, in the spy books, extended to including spy information packs and handy spy equipment in the hardback editions. This fondness for pattern and games extended to the Bernard Samson novels with their linked titles – Berlin Game, Mexico Set, London Match. Here, in this novel, thirty years into his writing career, it feels as if Deighton has completely jettisoned all attempts at humour and coyness. The story is told in straightforward linear fashion: one damn thing happens after another. In The Night Manager le Carré used flashbacks to attempt to create character, albeit in a rather obvious way. Deighton by contrast is tight-lipped. Things happen. And when he goes beyond description and plot you can maybe see why.

For, although he can create a gripping scenario and storyline, Deighton is uncomfortable investigating the human or psychological side of it. When the narrator does comment on his characters, his remarks are surprisingly superficial, disconcertingly so. As if a mature man wrote the story and then got his 12-year-old son to interpret it.

Ramon was the mystery man that chaos and revolution always attracted. (p.198) When the violencia came Big Jorge solved his problems in the way that so many other men had solved their problems before him: he marched off to war. (p.198)

[Lucas] considered [Ramón] a patient, and extended to him that paternalistic superiority that is a part of the physician’s role. (p.216)

The activities they engage in, the gruelling, crucifying torment of the jungle trek which Paz, Lucas, Inez and Singer undergo, are mercilessly described with clarity and vigour. But when they are thinking about each other, when the narrator describes their feelings or motivation, the results are surprisingly simple-minded, almost like a fairy story or children’s story, an effect created by the very simplicity of sentence structure which, in the descriptive passages, is Deighton’s strength.

Within Paz, there had built up an enormous anger. As he saw it, he’d tried to befriend Lucas and Singer but his overtures had been rebuffed. He resolved to be avenged on them at the first chance he had. But from now on he would try to conceal his feelings; he would be as deceitful as they were. (p.280)

It was Angel Paz who began to sing. Where he found the energy was hard to say but he took the responsibility of command very seriously. He recognised that morale needed help. (p.285)

Complicated, cruel, cold-hearted, violent and political plotlines – Yes.

Psychology, characterisation, much sign of warmth or humanity – No.


Related links

Len Deighton’s novels

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

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