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 onve 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, across more than half a decade, to chronicle every aspect of the continent’s violent politics and conflicts, its transition from predominantly rural to mostly urban societies, its music and fiestas and cultures and traditions, its signs and streetlife, its nightclubs and dancehalls.

Most of the photographers only have one or two images and so you are presented with a blizzard of names and biographies, not to mention a bewildering variety of countries and decades. Cuba in the 1950s very different from Nicaragua in the 1980s, and different again from Mexico now.

(N.B. the texts in italics are copied from the thick 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.

There are many ways to approach this cornucopia. You could take a thematic approach, grouping together themes such as politics, street activism, street scenes, commercialisation, fiestas, religion and, of course, every curators’ favourite topics, gender and identity.

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. To quote the curators:

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.

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.

You could zero in on a handful of the most famous photographers, who won international reputations during the period, such as Alberto Korda from Cuba (1928-2001), Graciela Iturbide (b.1942) from Mexico, and Sergio Larrain (1931-2012) from Chile.

You could do it by country. I had to stop and remind myself what countries actually make up ‘Latin America’. There’s complexity and ambiguity because 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 – 213 million
  2. Colombia – 50 million
  3. Argentina – 45 million
  4. Peru – 33 million
  5. Venezuela – 33 million
  6. Chile – 19 million
  7. Ecuador – 17 million
  8. Bolivia – 12 million
  9. Paraguay – 7 million
  10. Uruguay – 3.5 million
  11. Guyana – 780,000

We know these nations all have something in common, namely they all speak Spanish or Portuguese as a result of having been conquered by those countries in the 16th and 17th centuries, and administered for centuries as key parts of their empires. Thus they speak ‘Latin’ languages, and thus ‘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 – 122 million)
  2. Guatemala – 18 million
  3. Honduras – 10 million
  4. El Salvador – 7 million
  5. Nicaragua – 6.5 million
  6. Costa Rica – 5 million
  7. Panama – 4.5 million
  8. Belize – 390,000

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

These inequalities which led to revolutions, counter-revolutions, and military coups throughout 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), and which feature heavily in the exhibition, most notably in this photomontage of General Pinochet of Chile by Fernando Bedoya.

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.

They 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 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 in the jungle, 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.

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

The curators themselves have divided the exhibition up into two sections (one for each of the two floors across which the show is presented), 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. That would be an epic, maybe impossibly 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.

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.

Street scenes and riots and cops and sex workers there are a-plenty. But there was also a steady continuous stream of images various different photographers had taken of the eerie beauty of details of urban architecture – the pattern of cobbles in the street, or sipped posters on peeling walls, and several artists 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. Hence the very 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 the sheer number dilutes and lessens them.

Hardly any of them have the standout lyricism and compositional genius of the thirteen prints by Manuel Álvarez Bravo which are on show 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 I was bored. There’s certainly more technical diversity than I remember, more collages and montages and artistic treatment of photographic images. But almost all of them are images taken on the street. They have a scrappy, hand-held quality. There isn’t a single one composed in a studio, and not a single one of a landscape. 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, artists 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

After a while it dawned on me that 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?

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.


Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

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 ripe old 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 two black faces belonged to 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 dudes. 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 two-thirds female.

Curators

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

The promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

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.

High Citadel by Desmond Bagley (1965)

O’Hara’s lips quirked as he mentally reviewed his garrison. An old man and a young girl; two sedentary academic types; a drunk and someone’s maiden aunt; and himself – a broken-down pilot. On the other side of the river were at least twenty ruthless men  – with God knows how many more to back them up. His muscles tensed at the thought that they were communists… (Chapter 3, II)

Desmond Bagley (1923 – 1983) was a British journalist and author of 16 thrillers, the last two published posthumously. Along with Alistair Maclean (b.1922) and Hammond Innes (b.1913), Bagley helped establish the conventions of the modern thriller genre, a tough, resourceful lone hero up against a gang of desperadoes involved in a fiendish scheme.

All three authors published throughout the 1960s and 70s in stylish and distinctive paperbacks by Fontana books at the bargain price of 25p or 30p or even 35p.

Though almost exactly contemporary with MacLean, Bagley started publishing almost a decade later. After various adventures in Africa, including working in the mining industry for some years, he gravitated towards journalism, then short story-writing and only published his first novel, The Golden Keel, in 1963 at the age of 40.

High Citadel

This is his second novel. It is a ‘motley crew’ thriller ie a small random assortment of passengers are moved from an intercontinental airplane experiencing engine trouble, to the knackered Dakota freighter of a ramshackle charter company to be flown by jaded pilot Tom O’Hara across the Andes in the fictional country of Cordillera, based on Chile.

Set-up

O’Hara is surprised when his shiftless hispanic co-pilot pulls a gun on him and forces him to land at a makeshift landing strip high in the mountains, though the hijacker dies in the resulting crash. At which point it is revealed that one of the older passengers is a well-known politician who has returned to the country with the aim of overthrowing the military dictator, Lopez. But it is not the dictator’s men who organised the hijack, but the communists who also want this good democrat dead.

Thus begins a narrative in which the 10 or so survivors of the crash must make their way back to civilisation, despite attacks by the communists which turn into a miniature war.

  • Tim O’Hara – Irish charter airplane pilot, flew fighters in the Korean War, wife left him, became a drunk
  • Filsom – owner of ramshackle Andes Airways for which O’Hara flies a beaten-up old Dakota
  • Grivas – his co-pilot, who pulls a gun and forces him to land high in the Andes
  • Aguillar – elderly politician, the democratic leader before a military dictator seized power
  • Benedetta – his niece and carer
  • Miguel Rohde – Aguillar’s bodyguard, with a gun
  • Forester – very capable American businessman, who also flew fighters in the Korean War
  • Peabody – fat drunk Yank
  • the Coughlins – elderly couple reliving their honeymoon; both killed in the crash
  • Dr Willis – academic studying high altitude conditions
  • Miss Ponsky – elderly American spinster
  • Dr Armstrong – pipe-smoking medieval historian on holiday; turns out to be a specialist in medieval weapons and supervises the manufacture of a working crossbow and trebuchet

Plot development

The actual hijacking is over very quickly. The plane has crashed at a landing strip for abandoned mine workings and the survivors set off the next day to walk down the track to civilisation. However, as they turn a corner leading to the only bridge over a deep river they are fired on by armed forces on the other side. It is the communists, the old rope bridge has partly given way as one of their lorries crossed it on the way up to rendezvous with the plane to capture and kill Aguillar, and they are busy repairing it.

This leads to the heart of the book which is a stand-off: communist guerillas on one side of the gorge with jeeps and lorries and lots of guns; our motley crew of survivors on the other with just one gun but – in an unexpected development – an academic who turns out to be a specialist in medieval weapons and shows our guys how to make lethal crossbows and a working trebuchet using tools in the workshop of the abandoned mining camp. Our chaps hold off the guerillas by preventing them repairing the bridge, while the toughest men – Rohde and Forester – set off to cross a high pass in the Andes to the other side and contact troops who (hopefully) have been suborned to support the democrat politician.

Communists

The drunk pilot O’Hara is given memories of being tortured by communists during the Korean War to explain his determination not to let Aguillar fall into their hands, and most of the other characters are American with a phobia of communism. O’Hara mentions Castro, whose seizure of power in Cuba had only happened 6 years earlier, in 1959, and whose agents are said to be spreading across south America fomenting revolution. The US attempt to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs invasion was as recent as 1961. Whatever else it is, the novel is topical but it’s striking how the very name communist is equated with total evil, with no attempt to distinguish the Korean version from the Latin American one.

Willis was glad to get away from the certainty of a hand-to-hand fight, defenceless against the ruthless armed men who were coming to butcher them. (Ch 8, V)

They might as well be orcs or followers of Lord Voldemort. It is a binary worldview in which they are simply pure malevolence. Really?

Style

After the non-stop hysteria of MacLean, the style is commendably sane and sober as the lead characters formulate and discuss plans in a calm rational manner. The calm and sane style makes the natural forces which get involved – a blizzard which attacks the men as they are crossing the high pass, and the accompanying fog lower in the valley – all the more believable. Rohde and Forester’s ordeal in a high-altitude snow-storm is particularly gripping because understated, and when they do reach the final stages of snow exhaustion it is very plausibly described.

Forester felt warm and at ease, and to him the two were synonymous. Strange that the snow was so warm and soft, he thought; and opened his eyes to see a glar eof white before him. He sighed and closed his eyes again, feeling a sense of disappointment. It snow after all. He supposed he should make an effort to move and get out of this deliciously warm snow or he would die, but he decided it was not worht the effort. He just let the warmth lap him in comfort and for a second before he relapsed into unconsciousness he wondered vaguely where Rohde had got to. (Ch 9, I)

If anything, the style and the mentality is a little too cerebral. All the passengers accept the hijack, the crash-landing in which some passengers are horribly crushed, the forced march down the mountainside then attack by the communists, then a prolonged state of siege and being called on to fire crossbows to kill their opponents or blow up their vehicles pretty calmly. The elderly lady cries a little after she’s killed a man with a crossbow, that’s about it. Apart from the drunk Peabody who soon gets his comeuppance, all the men are calm, focused and practical.

There are a few attempts to give the characters some ‘realistic’ psychology, but these tend to sheer away into thriller cliché almost immediately: O’Hara is given a scene away from the others, discovered getting drunk by the nubile Benedetta and after a few rebuffs he confesses the story of his capture and torture by communists in Korea as she holds him to her bosom and realises he is the man for her. Tough guy opens his heart; pretty heroine falls for him with a Victorian simple-mindedness.

She felt an almost physical swelling pain in her bosom, a surge of wild, unreasonable happiness, and she knew that she had been wrong when she had felt that Tim was not for her. This was the man with whom she would share her life – for as long as her life lasted. (Ch 6, IV)

Conclusion

The book appeals to boys and men interested in the mechanics of survival but it is genre fiction because it pays almost no attention to realistic psychology, to the likely consequences of even one of this sequence of quite drastic events on the average person it claims to depict, and converts the potentially interesting cast into pawns in a simplistic battle between Good and Evil.

He felt a growing rage within him at the unfairness of things; just when he had found life again he must leave it – and what a way to leave; cooped up in a cold, dank tunnel at the mercy of human wolves. (Ch 10, II)

And then in the last 50 pages, all attempts at realism are dropped as the story goes pyrotechnic in a manner worthy of the new and fashionable James Bond films, with the enemy airfield blown up, Forester heroically piloting a stolen jet fighter against the comunist forces, all the baddies shot up and the gallant survivors driving a battered bullet-flecked truck down the hill to freedom. To top off the sense of adolescent absurdity, Dr Armstrong the academic, quotes the famous Band of brothers speech from Henry V.

Planes mentioned in the text

Related links

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of High Citadel

Cover of the 1971 Fontana paperback edition of High Citadel

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

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