Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1962)

The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding.

There is no pleasure more complex than that of thought.

In the course of a life dedicated to letters and (at times) to metaphysical perplexity…

Borges wrote a surprising amount (some 70 books in Spanish) and yet he is principally known in the Anglo-Saxon world for just one work published 60 years ago, Labyrinths, a breath-taking collection of 40 mind-bending short stories, short essays, and ‘parables’, all of which reference, quote and play with a multitude of obscure and arcane texts and ideas derived from philosophy, theology and mysticism.

Penguin went on to publish a flotilla of four or five other volumes by Borges, but none of them hold a candle to Labyrinths which is one of the most important volumes of short stories in English in the second half of the 20th century. It is a scandal that, to this day, only a fraction of Borges’s output has been translated into English.

Adventures among books and ideas

Labyrinths consists of 23 ficciones, ten essays and eight ‘parables’. All the stories were written and first published in Borges’s native Spanish in Argentine literary magazines between 1941 and 1956. The first 13 stories are taken from a previous collection, Ficciones, published in 1945, which was expanded in successive editions, and the remaining ten were published in a collection titled The Aleph, published in 1949, and also added to in later editions. That’s a long time ago but when you look at individual stories it’s striking to see that most of them were first published in literary magazines much earlier, most of them at the very end of the 1930s, during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war years. Although he carried on writing into the 1980s, his greatest hits were composed in the 1940s.

Before I exhaust myself giving brief summaries of each of the pieces, let me make a simple point which is that, rereading Borges’s stories made me realise that possibly his major discovery was that, for the purposes of writing a short fiction, you can replace plot with ideas.

What I mean is that the best stories discuss philosophical and metaphysical or mystical ideas and, in doing so, refer to scores of obscure Latin and Greek, or Christian or Islamic texts and sources – and that it is this, rather than plots, character or dialogue, which fills his stories.

Most adventures are, almost by definition, about people, about named characters. Borges’s short fictions are adventures whose protagonists are ideas, ideas characterised by their multi-layered bookishness and whose explanation requires multiple references to all manner of arcane texts – and whose ‘adventure’ consists in the logical unfolding of far-fetched premises to even more-mind-boggling conclusions: such as the man who discovers he is a dream created by someone else; or that the entire universe is made up of an infinite library; or that all human activity is determined by a secret lottery; and so on.

It is immensely characteristic of this preference for ideas over psychology or emotions or feelings that, when the narrator of Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius stumbles across an encyclopedia purporting to catalogue the fictitious planet of Tlön, he experiences a moment of delirious happiness i.e. emotion, feeling – but quickly stifles it:

I began to leaf through [the encyclopedia] and experienced an astonished and airy feeling of vertigo which I shall not describe, for this is not the story of my emotions but of Uqbar and Tlön and Orbis Tertius.

In fact various emotions do occur in the stories, there are characters and events, but this moment can stand as a symbol of the way that fiction’s traditional concerns for character and emotion and plot are, on the whole, in Borges’s stories, repressed or sidelined in order to make way for the adventures of ideas and books.

Borges’s bookishness is not for everyone

And I suppose there’s a point that’s so obvious that it’s easy to miss which is that you have to be fairly learnèd and scholarly, or at least fairly well-read, in order to really enjoy these works. On the first page alone of Deutsches Requiem Borges mentions Brahms and Schopenhauer and Shakespeare and Nietzsche and Spengler and Goethe and Lucretius. Now I not only know who these guys all are, but I have read some or much of all of them (a lot of Shakespeare and Nietszche, a book of Schopenhauer’s, some Goethe and Spengler) and so the mental edifice which invoking their names creates, the structure and framework of the story, are all entirely familiar to me and so I can enjoy how Borges plays with their names and references.

But I suppose there will be many readers who haven’t read (or listened to, in the case of Brahms) these authors and composers, and so might have to stop and Google each of them and, I suppose, this might well put off a lot of potential readers. It’s not that the stories are intrinsically ‘difficult’ (though sometimes they juggle with ideas on the edge of comprehension) so much as that the entire atmosphere of intense bookishness and scholarly whimsy which they evoke might well deter as many unbookish readers as it fanatically attracts fans and devotees among the literary-minded.

Contents – Fictions

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (1940)

Uqbar is a mythical land which the narrator and friends find mentioned in a ‘pirated’ edition of Volume XLVI of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, but can find referred to nowhere else, despite ransacking the reference books of numerous libraries. The article explains that the literature of Uqbar was one of fantasy, featuring epics and legends set in two imaginary regions, Mlejnas and Tlön. In part 2 of the story we learn that Tlön is less an imaginary realm than an entire ‘planet’.

At first it was believed that Tlön was a mere chaos, an irresponsible license of the imagination; now it is known that it is a cosmos and that the intimate laws which govern it have been formulated, at least provisionally

Once he has posited the existence of this ‘planet’, the narrator goes on to recount the dizzying nature of its language and its many schools of philosophy:

  • one of the schools of Tlön goes so far as to negate time: it reasons that the present is indefinite, that the future has no reality other than as a present hope, that the past has no reality other than as a present memory
  • another school declares that all time has already transpired and that our life is only the crepuscular and no
    doubt falsified and mutilated memory or reflection of an irrecoverable process
  • another, that the history of the universe — and in it our lives and the most tenuous detail of our lives — is the scripture produced by a subordinate god in order to communicate with a demon
  • another, that the universe is comparable to those cryptographs in which not all the symbols are valid and that only what happens every three hundred nights is true
  • another, that while we sleep here, we are awake elsewhere and that in this way every man is two men

This is what makes Borges’s stories so phenomenally packed and mind-bending: that each individual sentence is capable of introducing to an entirely new way of thinking about the world.

The postscript to the story describes the narrator stumbling on a letter which purports to summarise the process whereby magi in the early 17th century decided to invent a country, how the idea was handed down as the texts proliferate, till an early Victorian American decided they needed to be more ambitious and describe an entire planet. In 1914 the last volume of a projected 40-volume encyclopedia of Tlön was distributed to the cabal of experts. It is estimated it will become the Greatest Work of Mankind, but it was decided this vast undertaking would itself be the basis of an even more detailed account which was provisionally titled the Orbus Tertius. Slowly, the narrator claims, mysterious objects from Tlön have appeared in our world. This last part is set two years in the future and describes a world in which news of Tlön has become widespread and artefacts from the imaginary planet are appearing all over the world and beginning to replace our own.

The contact and the habit of Tlön have disintegrated this world…Already the schools have been invaded by the (conjectural) “primitive language” of Tlön; already the teaching of its harmonious history (filled with moving episodes) has wiped out the one which governed in my childhood; already a fictitious past occupies in our memories the place of another, a past of which we know nothing with certainty — not even that it is false… A scattered dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their task continues. If our forecasts are not in error, a hundred years from now someone will discover the hundred volumes of the Second Encyclopedia of Tlön. Then English and French and mere Spanish will disappear from the globe. The world will be Tlön.

So it is, on a fairly obvious level, a kind of science fiction disaster story in which our world will eventually be taken over and/or destroyed by the imaginary creation of the cabal.

The Garden of Forking Paths (1941)

A story which opens with a book and is about a book. Its first sentence is:

On page 22 of Liddell Hart’s History of World War I you will read that an attack against the Serre-Montauban line by thirteen British divisions (supported by 1,400 artillery pieces), planned for the 24th of July, 1916, had to be postponed until the morning of the 29th….

The story is the account of Dr. Yu Tsun, former professor of English at the Hochschule at Tsingtao, a spy acting for the Germans, based in England, in Staffordshire, but is rumbled by a British officer, Captain Madden, so makes his way by train to the village of Ashgrove and the house of one Dr Stephen Albert, who describes the efforts of Yu’s ancestor, ‘Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost’. The story reveals that this labyrinth is metaphorical: it actually stands for the scattered manuscript of an incomplete book. The garden of forking paths is the novel promised by never completed. But the nature of the fragments is deliberate:

The Garden of Forking Paths is an incomplete, but not false, image of the universe as Ts’ui Pên conceived it. In contrast to Newton and Schopenhauer, your ancestor did not believe in a uniform, absolute time. He believed in an infinite series of times, in a growing, dizzying net of divergent, convergent and parallel times. This network of times which approached one another, forked, broke off, or were unaware of one another for centuries, embraces all possibilities of time.

So it’s about a book which encompasses all time, and all possible permutations of time.

The Lottery in Babylon (1941)

Tells the story of the development of a hyper-complex lottery run by the all-powerful ‘Company’ in a fictional version of ‘Babylon’, which ends up becoming the basis for everything which happens, for every event in everybody’s lives.

Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote (1939)

This purports to be a brief article by a follower of the now deceased writer Pierre Menard. It starts by listing the complete works of the defunct writer, some 19 in all, thus establishing the hyper-bookish context; then goes on to describe the unprecedented attempt by Pierre Menard to rewrite (sections of) Don Quixote as if by himself, as if for the first time, as if written by a 20th century author, and the complexity and strangeness of the result.

The Circular Ruins (1940)

The unnamed man arrives in a canoe from the south, beaches it in the mud and climbs to the ancient ruins.

The purpose which guided him was not impossible, though it was supernatural. He wanted to dream a man: he wanted to dream him with minute integrity and insert him into reality

He devotes years to dreaming, piece by piece, a perfect young man, who he then teaches in his dreams and who then finally becomes a real entity in the real world, who can pass painlessly though fire. But when a forest fire rages towards the ruins where he has been living the man walks boldly towards them – only not to feel a thing and to realise, that he himself is a dream-man who has been dreamed, in his turn, by someone else.

The Library of Babel (1941)

The narrator lives inside a library so huge, made up of infinite levels and extending through infinite galleries of hexagonal rooms, that he and all the other inhabitants regard it as the known universe. From this perspective, of an inhabitant of the infinite library, he shares with us the discoveries and/or theories of various other inhabitants who, through the centuries, have explored deeper into the infinite library, made discoveries and come up with theories as to its origin and purpose, for example the theories of the idealists (‘the hexagonal rooms are a necessary form of absolute space’) or the mystics (‘The mystics claim that their ecstasy reveals to them a circular chamber containing a great circular book, whose spine is continuous and which follows the complete circle of the walls’) origin stories (‘Man, the imperfect librarian, may be the product of chance or of malevolent demiurgi’), those who have given up trying to find meaning (‘I know of an uncouth region whose librarians repudiate the vain and superstitious custom of finding a meaning in books and equate it with that of finding a meaning in dreams or in the chaotic lines of one’s palm’).

Five hundred years before his birth the momentous discovery was made that the library contains all possible combinations of their language’s 25 symbols, in other words, contains all human knowledge, and much more, contains the history and future of everyone. This led to a wave of optimism and pride. This gave rise to a category of men named inquisitors who travel far and wide in search of these phantom volumes which will explain everything, and are named the Vindications. This was followed by the depressing realisation that, although these books certainly exist, in a library infinitely large anyone’s chances of finding them are infinitely small. Which gave rise to a semi-religious movement of nihilists, the Purifiers, who set out to examine and destroy all books which are not Vindications. But even their senseless destruction of millions of books made little difference in a library which is infinite in size.

The knowledge that everything has already been written has had a negative effect. Some have become religious hysterics. Suicides have become more common. The population of the hexagonal rooms has been depleted. He wonders whether the human species will be extinguished.

Funes the Memorious (1942)

Ireneo Funes was a dark, Indian-looking man from Uruguay. He died in 1889. The author of this piece is contributing a memoir of him to a volume to be published in his honour. Funes was a perfectly ordinary young man till a horse threw him aged 19. From that point onwards, he remembers everything which happens to him, every single impression, sight, sound and smell which his senses register, is recorded in the fine instrument of his memmory.

The two projects I have indicated (an infinite vocabulary for the natural series of numbers, a useless mental catalogue of all the images of his memory) combine in this dazzling idea. Not just memory, he notices everything.

He was the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world

And the ‘story’, really an essay based on a fictional premise, explores what it would mean to live in this state.

To think is to forget differences, generalize, make abstractions. In the teeming world of Funes, there were only details, almost immediate in their presence.

The Shape of the Sword (1942)

Not a bookish brain-teaser, this is a much more straightforward story. The narrator, who is referred to as Borges, is forced when travelling in the North to stay in the house of a man who has a reputation as a martinet and occasional drunk who is disfigured by a half-moon-shaped scar on his forehead. The man treats Borges to dinner then they get talking and finally the man tells him his story: how he was a fighter with the IRA during the Irish Civil War, and helped mentor and protect a vehement young recruit, one John Vincent Moon, a committed communist who shut down every discussion with his fervent ideology. On a patrol they were caught by a guard who shot and nicked Moon’s shoulder. They break into the abandoned house of an old Indian officer, to hide out. When the town they were hiding in was taken by the Black and Tans, he returned to the house to overhear Moon betraying him to the authorities on the promise of his own safe passage, whereupon he chased Moon round the house brandishing one of the swords belonging to its absent owner until he caught him and branded his face with the half moon with a sword.

All through the story you’d been led to believe the narrator was the strong man. Only at the end does he break down and confess that it was he who was the betraying coward, John Vincent Moon. And hence the scar cut into his face.

Theme of the Traitor and the Hero (1944)

A very short story which foregrounds its own fictiveness, as Borges admits it’s an idea for a story which could be set anywhere, then arbitrarily settles on Ireland where, he says, a man named Ryan is researching the famous assassination of an eminent Irish patriot, his great-grandfather, Fergus Kilpatrick, in a theatre in 1824. His researches show him that Kilpatrick’s assassination shared many details with that of Julius Caesar, the parallels so eerie that for a while he develops a theory of ‘the existence of a secret form of time, a pattern of repeated lines’, and invokes the theories of Condorcet, Hegel, Spengler and Vico to back him up.

But then a stranger reality emerges. He discovers the oldest and closest of Kilpatrick’s companions, James Alexander Nolan, had translated the main plays of Shakespeare back in 1814. Finally the story that emerges is this: the conspirators kept being betrayed to the police so Kilpatrick had tasked his oldest comrade, Nolan, with identifying the traitor. At a secret meeting of the patriots Nolan announced that it was Kilpatrick himself. The great patriot admitted it. They discussed how to deal with him. They came up with a drama, a play, a theatrical event, which would ensure Kilpatrick’s punishment and death, and yet if he was said to have been assassinated at the theatre, people’s illusions about him, and the Cause in general, would be preserved. And so Nolan, the Shakespeare translator, arranged it all, even borrowing certain events (the unheeded warning) in order to make the ‘assassination’ more melodramatic and memorable.

And also, his disillusioned great grandson and biographer speculates, to leave messages to posterity. Some of the allusions were pretty crass. Maybe he, Ryan, was intended to discover the truth. After weighing the pros and cons, Ryan decides to suppress what he has learned, and write a straightforward biography climaxing in the great man’s tragic assassination. Maybe that, too, was part of the plan.

Death and the Compass (1942)

This is a murder mystery of a particularly arch and contrived tone, but reading it makes you realise Borges’s debt to the English yarn tellers of the 1890s, to Robert Louis Stevenson and especially Conan Doyle. We are introduced to Erik Lönnrot, another in the long line of hyper-intellectual freelance detectives with a taste for paradox and irony i.e. an entirely literary creation, who also, as per the tradition, plays off a phlegmatic police inspector, Franz Treviranus.

At the Third Talmudic Congress held in the Hotel du Nord, Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky goes to bed one night and his body is found dead, stabbed in the chest, the next morning. The dead man, of course, had a number of rare and arcane books of theology in his room. Which Lönnrot takes away and reads:

One large octavo volume revealed to him the teachings of Israel Baal Shem Tobh, founder of the sect of the Pious; another, the virtues and terrors of the Tetragrammaton, which is the unutterable name of God; another, the thesis that God has a secret name, in which is epitomized (as in the crystal sphere which the Persians ascribe to Alexander of Macedonia) his ninth attribute, eternity — that is to say, the immediate knowledge of all things that will be, which are and which have been in the universe…

Books books books. But then more bodies turn up dead – small-time crook Daniel Simon Azevedo, then the kidnapping and murder of one Gryphius. We know the three murders are linked because at the scene three sentences are written, ‘The first letter of the Name has been uttered’, and the second and the third.

After the third the police are anonymously sent a letter sent by ‘Baruch Spinoza’ asserting that a fourth murder will not be carried out. But Lönnrot has seen through all this. He Dandy Red Scharlach set out

to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother. I have woven it and it is firm: the ingredients are a dead heresiologist, a compass, an eighteenth-century sect, a Greek word, a dagger, the diamonds of a paint shop.

The Secret Miracle (1943)

Hladik had rounded forty. Aside from a few friendships and many habits, the problematic exercise of literature constituted his life…

Jaromir Hladik is an author of, among others, an unfinished drama entitled The Enemies, of Vindication of Eternity (which discusses immutable Being of Parmenides, the modifiable Past of Hinton, and the idealist philosopher, Francis Bradley) and of a study of the indirect Jewish sources of Jakob Böhme, he has translated the Sepher Yezirah and published studies of the work of Böhme, of Ibn Ezra, and of Fludd. He is another of Borges’s hyper-bookish heroes.

The Nazis take Prague and seize Hladik who is identified as a Jewish author and condemned to death. The story deals with the feverishly philosophical ideas which flood his mind during the days and nights he spends in his prison cell leading up to his sentence of death by firing squad, in which he discusses with himself various aspects of time and reality and God, and has a dream that God’s word is vouchsafed to him through a random book in a library, and in which he goes through the elaborate plot of his verse drama, The Enemies, which is itself a drama about reality and illusion. He begs God for a year to finish the work in order to justify himself and Him.

Finally he is led out to the shabby yard where the soldiers are hanging round bored, are rallied by their sergeant and line up to shoot him but, just as the order is given, time freezes, completely, but Hladik’s consciousness continues, observing the frozen world about him from his frozen body, at first in panic, and then realising that God heard his plea and has given him a year to complete his drama. And the final page of the drama describes how he does that, not needing food or water or bodily functions, but devoting a year of time to bringing the verse drama to complete perfection, And as the last phrase of it is completed in his mind, the world resumes, the firing squad fires, and Hladik slumps, dead.

Three Versions of Judas (1944)

Borges’s fiction is above all hyper-bookish, made out of references to arcane philosophical or theological texts from the Middle Ages or Antiquity. Most (if not quite all) the ‘stories’ mimic the style and approach of an old-fashioned scholarly article, not least in having textual footnotes which cite other scholarly volumes or references.

Instead of a description of a city or house or street or natural location, a time of day, or the physical appearance of a protagonist, Borges’s fictions set their scene amid books and references.

In Asia Minor or in Alexandria, in the second century of our faith, when Basilides disseminated the idea that the cosmos was the reckless or evil improvisation of deficient angels, Nils Runeberg would have directed, with singular intellectual passion, one of the Gnostic conventicles. Dante would have assigned him, perhaps, a fiery grave; his name would extend the list of lesser heresiarchs, along with Satornilus and Carpocrates; some fragment of his preachings, embellished with invective, would survive in the apocryphal Liber adversus omnes haereses or would have perished when the burning of a monastery library devoured the last copy of the Syntagma. Instead, God afforded Runeberg the twentieth century and the university town of Lund. There, in 1904, he published the first edition of Kristus och Judas and, in 1909, his major book, Den hemlige Frälsaren. (Of the latter there is a German translation, made in 1912 by Emil Schering; it is called Der heimliche Heiland.)

Amid a dense forest of allusions to obscure works of theology and scores of beliefs held by the orthodox and heretical, Borges articulates the three theories developed by Danish theologian, namely:

  1. In his book Kristus och Judas, Runeberg asserts that Judas was a kind of ‘reflection’ of Jesus in the human world; just as Jesus was sent from heaven, so Judas took up the burden of being human in order to pave the way for Jesus to take the path to the crucifixion and salvation of humanity.
  2. Meeting fierce criticism from fellow theologians, Runeberg rewrites the book to assert that it was Judas who sacrificed more than Jesus, mortifying his spirit for the greater good.
  3. Then in his final book, Den hemlige Frälsaren, Runeberg develops this idea to its logical conclusion, which is that it was Judas not Jesus who made the ultimate sacrifice and truly laid down his life for humanity. Jesus hung on the cross for 6 hours but then he was translated to heaven, whereas Judas committed suicide, taking upon himself not only an eternal reputation for treachery and betrayal, but condemning his own soul to eternity in hell. Which one made the greater sacrifice? Therefore, Runeberg asserts, it was Judas who was the true incarnation of a God determined to make the most complete identification with humanity possible, even to the uttermost depths of human depravity and damnation.

The Sect of the Phoenix (1952)

Those who write that the sect of the Phoenix had its origin in Heliopolis and derive it from the religious restoration following upon the death of the reformer Amenophis IV, cite texts from Herodotus, Tacitus and the monuments of Egypt, but they ignore, or prefer to ignore, that the designation ‘Phoenix’ does not date before Hrabanus Maurus and that the oldest sources (the Saturnales of Flavius Josephus, let us say) speak only of the People of the Custom or of the People of the Secret.

Repeatedly the stories invoke the same kind of imaginative world, a world of arcane books and abstruse learning, which revolves not so much around pure philosophy – the academic subject of Philosophy which concerns rather mundane discussions of language or ethics which bothered Plato and Locke – but the swirling multi-coloured world of abstruse theologies and mystical visions of the divinity and cults and lost texts, of heresiarchs (‘the founder of a heresy or the leader of a heretical sect’) and patriarchs, sectarians and mystagogues, Talmudists and Confucians, Gnostics and alchemists, adepts in secret rituals and concealed knowledge, and which has adherents down to the present day such as the heretical theologian Nils Runeberg from The Three Versions of Judas or the learned Rabbi Marcel Yarmolinsky in Death and The Compass, intense bookish eccentric figures who carry the convoluted world of medieval theology into obscure corners of our workaday world.

This brief story is an ostensible short scholarly essay by a narrator who claims:

I have collated accounts by travelers, I have conversed with patriarchs and theologians… I have attained on three continents the friendship of many devotees of the Phoenix

And so is in a position to know that devotees of ‘the sect of the Phoenix’ are everywhere, of all creeds and colours, speaking all languages, often not even realising it themselves. I think the essay is an answer to the question, What if there was a religion so widespread that its adherents didn’t even realise they followed it?

The Immortal (1949)

A princess (!) buys a second hand edition of Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad off a book dealer, Joseph Cartaphilus, in London and later finds in the leaves of the last volume a manuscript, which then makes up the body of the story. It is a first person narrative by Marcus Flaminius Rufus, military tribune of one of Rome’s legions, who hears rumours of a land to the West where sits the City of the Immortals and so sets off with a troop of 200 soldiers and sundry mercenaries all of whom desert him in the face of all kinds of adversity, until he comes to consciousness in a settlement of speechless troglodytes before staggering on, exhausted, hungry, thirsty towards a high rocky plateau on which is built a mysterious city, but when he finally gains entrance he discovers it is not only abandoned and deserted, but built with an excess of useless passages and windows and balconies and details amid he becomes lost and then overwhelmed by its size and complexity and horrifying pointlessness.

When he emerges he discovers one of the speechless troglodytes has followed him like a loyal dog. He nicknames him Argos after Odysseus’s loyal dog and over the next few weeks tries to teach him to speak. Then, one day, there is a ferocious downpour of rain, and Argos suddenly speaks, responds to the name, recognises the classical allusion and, to the narrator’s astonishment, reveals that he is Homer, author of the Iliad and the Odyssey and that the other haggard, grimy, speechless troglodytes, they are the Immortals, who long ago wrecked their beautiful city, rebuilding it as a surrealist testament to the unknown and irrational forces which control our fates, and withdrew to the caves and lives of inarticulate resignation.

Because he has drunk of the river that runs past the troglodytes’ caves he is now immortal and the narrative briefly covers his wandering life for the following centuries, until in 1929 he drinks from a stream in Eritrea and realises, with enormous relief, that it has restored his mortality.

The Theologians (1947)

An orgy of theological minutiae describing the academic rivalry between two sixth century theologians, Aurelian of Aquileia and John of Pannonia, who compete with each other in refuting the heresy of the so-called Monotones (namely that history is cyclical and all people and events recur again and again), which twists via a dense undergrowth of theological quotes and references to a climax in which Aurelian witnesses John being burned at the stake for the very heresy he had set out to refute, and then the two rival theologians meet up in heaven where, in true Borgesian fashion, they are revealed to be two aspects of the same person.

Story of the Warrior and the Captive (1940)

Droctulft was an eighth century Lombard warrior who, during the siege of Ravenna, left his companions and died defending the city he had previously attacked. Borges imagines this pallid denizen of the pagan forests and the boar hunt arriving at a city, his dazzlement at the order and clarity and architecture and gardens, and suddenly throwing in his lot with the citizens, fighting against his former comrades.

And this reminds him of his grandmother who was from England. She lived out on the borderlands. One day she was introduced to a young woman Indian who, it transpires, was English, from Yorkshire, her parents emigrated and were killed in an Indian raid and she was stolen away and married to a chieftain who she has already borne two children. Borges’s grandmother offers to take her away, to return her to civilisation, but the Englishwoman-gone-native refuses. She, like Droctulft, has made a deep choice.

Emma Zunz (1948)

Emma’s father commits suicide because he was swindled out of his share of the factory he set up. She vows to be revenged on the swindler, Aaron Loewenthal (all the characters in this story are Jewish) and, a shy 19, dresses up, goes hanging round in bars, in order to lose her virginity to some rough foreigner. This is to nerve her for the assassination, when she presents herself to Loewenthal in the guise of a stoolpigeon for the ringleaders of the disgruntled workers in the factory but, when he rises to fetch her a glass of water, impulsively shoots him, though she’s not very good at it and takes three shots. She then calls the police and pleads a story that Lowenthal tried to rape and outrage her, which, Borges says, is true, in spirit if not in detail, and her genuine outrage and sense of shame and hate secures her an acquittal at her subsequent trial.

The House of Asterion (1947)

The world seen from the perspective of the Minotaur. (The idea is related to the brief one-page summary Borges gives of a story he planned to write about the world seen from the point of view of Fafnir, the gold-guarding dragon in the Nibelung legend. You can see how you could quickly generate a list of stories ‘from the point of’ figures from myth and legend.)

Deutsches Requiem (1946)

Otto Dietrich zur Linde is a Nazi and a devout follower of Schopenhauer and his doctrine that nothing that happens to us is accidental (it is a happy coincidence that I’ve recently been reading Samuel Beckett, who was also very influenced by Schopenhauer, in particular by his attitude of quietism).

As the Second World War breaks out Otto Dietrich zur Linde is involved in a shootout which leads to the amputation of one of his legs. As a good Nazi he is eventually rewarded by being made, in 1941, subdirector of the concentration camp at Tarnowitz.

When the wonderful Jewish poet David Jerusalem is sent to the camp, zur Linde sets about systematically destroying him because, by doing so, he is destroying the compassion in his own soul which keeps him down among ordinary humans, prevents him from becoming Nietzsche’s Overman.

As the tide of war turns against the Germans, zur Linde speculates why and what it means before realising that Germany itself must be destroyed so that the New Order it has helped to inaugurate can come fully into being. This short text turns into quite a disturbing hymn to Nazism:

Many things will have to be destroyed in order to construct the New Order; now we know that Germany also was one of those things. We have given more than our lives, we have sacrificed the destiny of our beloved Fatherland. Let others curse and weep; I rejoice in the fact that our destiny completes its circle and is perfect.

Averroes’ Search (1947)

A classic example of Borges’s fascination with the byways of medieval mystical theology, and his ability to spin narratives out of it.

Abulgualid Muhammad Ibn-Ahmad ibn-Muhammad ibnRushd (a century this long name would take to become Averroes, first becoming Benraist and Avenryz and even Aben-Rassad and Filius Rosadis) was writing the eleventh chapter of his work Tahafut-ulTahafut (Destruction of Destruction), in which it is maintained, contrary to the Persian ascetic Ghazali, author of the Tahafut-ulfalasifa (Destruction of Philosophers), that the divinity knows only the general laws of the universe, those pertaining to the species, not to the individual…

It is a complex text, woven with multiple levels of references, which revolves round a dinner party attended in the then-Muslim city of Cordoba in Muslim Spain by the great medieval Muslim commentator on the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle, and some colleagues and friends including one who claims to have travelled as far as the fabled land of Sin (China). When he was there he recounts being taken to a large hall with tiered banks of seats where many people on a raised platform acted out events. The other diners agree how ridiculous this sounds and we learn that, apparently, the traditions and culture of Islam did not have or understand the entire concept of the theatre and the drama.

The essay focuses on the way this conversation was relevant for Averroes because he was that day working on a translation of Aristotle and puzzled by two words he had come across, ‘tragedy’ and ‘comedy’ which have no parallel in the world of Islam.

This is all fascinating and beautifully described amid the gardens and roses and civilised calm of the Muslim city, but on the last half page Borges twists the story onto a different level altogether by intruding himself as the author and declaring he only told this story as an attempt to describe a certain kind of failure to imagine something, and that, as the story progressed, he, Borges, realised that he was failing to imagine his own story, thus the story and the writing of the story, both addressed the same subject, in a kind of duet.

I felt, on the last page, that my narration was a symbol of the man I was as I wrote it and that, in order to compose that narration, I had to be that man and, in order to be that man, I had to compose that narration, and so on to infinity. (The moment I cease to believe in him, ‘Averroes’ disappears.)

Wow.

The Zahir (1947)

Clementina Villar was a model and celebrity, always appearing at the right place at the right time dressed in the height of fashion. She dies in a slummy suburb and Borges attends her wake. Decomposition makes her look younger. On the rebound from his grief he drops into a neighbourhood bar, orders a brandy and is given the Zahir among his change. The Zahir is an everyday coin but:

people (in Muslim territories) use it to signify ‘beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad.’

He can’t stop looking at it, he takes it home, he turns it over and over, it obsesses his sleep, eventually he gets lots in a maze of streets, slips into another bar and pays for a drink handing the coin over, goes home and has his first good night’s sleep in weeks.

The Waiting (1950)

An unnamed man checks into a boarding house in a suburb of Buenos Aires and tries to lead a completely anonymous life while he waits for his assassins to track him down and kill him.

The God’s Script

The story is told by Tzinacán, magician of the pyramid of Qaholom, an Aztec priest whose city was conquered and burned down by the conquistador Pedro de Alvarado who tortured and mangled him to try and extract the secret of where all the native gold and treasure was hidden. Now he lies in a dungeon where he has been subsisting for years, but it is a strange prison because on the other side of the wall is kept a jaguar which paces up and down in his cell. Only at certain hours of the day, when the light is right, can Tzinacán see it. Over the years Tzinacán becomes obsessed with the idea that his god Qaholom must have foreseen the disaster which overcame his people,

The god, foreseeing that at the end of time there would be devastation and ruin, wrote on the first day of Creation a magical sentence with the power to ward off those evils. He wrote it in such a way that it would reach the most distant generations and not be subject to chance. No one knows where it was written nor with what characters, but it is certain that it exists, secretly, and that a chosen one shall read it.

So it is another story about a kind of secret knowledge, known only to adepts, occult and hidden. To cut a long story short, Tzinacán has a revelation which is indistinguishable from going mad, as he ponders the nature of this message from the gods, as he ponders at length what the language of a god would be like, how it would contain the whole world, not even in a sentence, but in one infinite word, and he suddenly perceives it in the shape of an infinite wheel, on all sides of him, made of fire and water, the secret of the world is contained in fourteen words of forty syllables, if he said them out loud the prison would disappear and he would be master of the land of Moctezuma – but he never will because he has ceased to be Tzinacán, he has ceased to have his concerns or aims, and therefore he knows the secret of divine power, but the very knowledge of it means he never has to use it.

Essays

The Argentine Writer and Tradition (1951)

The problems of national identity and literary heritage faced by the writer in Argentina are not something most of us have spent much time worrying about. Reading Borges’s essay on the subject mostly confirms that I know nothing whatsoever about Latin American literature. For my generation this meant entirely the magical realism school pioneered by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and a cluster of related writers such as Mario Vargas Llosa and, fashionable among feminists, Isabel Allende. I’m fairly well read but I’d never heard of any of the names or works Borges refers to, for example I had no idea the great Argentine epic poem is El gaucho Martín Fierro by Jose Hernandez which is, apparently, packed with gaucho colloquialisms.

Initially the essay dwells on obscure questions about the relative merits of ‘gauchesque’ poetry (which he takes to be the contrived nationalistic poetry of literary circles of Buenos Aires) vis-a-vis the poetry of payadas (improvised musical dialogues on philosophical themes which reveal their true nationalism precisely by the absence of localising dialect) but both of which are almost meaningless to me since I can’t read Spanish and had never heard of Martín Fierro. (Borges had published in 1950 a study of the gauchesque, Aspectos de la literatura gauchesca and in 1953 an essay on Martín Fierro.)

But slowly emerges his main point which is more comprehensible, namely that ‘national’ poetry or literature does not at all need to limit itself to local colour and national subjects: witness Shakespeare who wrote about Italians and Danes, and Racine whose works are entirely set in the world of Greek myth. Thus:

The idea that Argentine poetry should abound in differential Argentine traits and Argentine local colour seems to me a mistake.

In Borges’s opinion, there are other elements of the Argentine character which distinguish their literature, among which he mentions: ‘ the Argentine’s reticence, his constraint’, ‘Argentine reserve, distrust and reticence, of the difficulty we have in making confessions, in revealing our intimate nature’. In demonstrating the unnecessity of having local colour, he cites the fact (observed by Gibbon) that there are no references to camels in the Koran. This is because Mohammed, as an Arab, so lived in the culture of camels that he didn’t even have to mention them. That is how local colour should be conveyed – by the subtlety of its absence. Thus when Borges reads Argentine nationalists prescribing that Argentine writers should write about the Argentine national scene using local colour and local words, he thinks they are dead wrong.

He goes on to speculate about the role of the Jews in European literature, and the Irish in English literature, both of which are over-represented, and it’s because they are outsiders and so not tied by tradition; they can be innovators.

For that reason I repeat that we should not be alarmed and that we should feel that our patrimony is the universe; we should essay all themes, and we cannot limit ourselves to purely Argentine subjects in order to be Argentine; for either being Argentine is an inescapable act of fate — and in that case we shall be so in all events — or being Argentine is a mere affectation, a mask.

(In Labyrinths this appears as rather a one-off work, but in fact Borges wrote extensively throughout his career on Argentine subject matter, including Argentine culture (‘History of the Tango’, ‘Inscriptions on Horse Wagons’), folklore (‘Juan Muraña’, ‘Night of the Gifts’), literature (‘The Argentine Writer and Tradition’, ‘Almafuerte’, ‘Evaristo Carriego’), and national concerns (‘Celebration of the Monster’, ‘Hurry, Hurry’, ‘The Mountebank’, ‘Pedro Salvadores’).

The Wall and the Books

A meditation on the fact that the Chinese emperor, Shih Huang Ti, who commissioned the building of the Great Wall but also ordered the burning of all the books and libraries. It allows Borges one of his characteristic series of dreamy speculations. It is recorded that Shih Huang Ti’s mother was a libertine whom he banished. Maybe burning the books was a symbolically Freudian attempt to abolish the entire past which contained his personal shame. Maybe the wall was a psychological wall to keep out his guilt. He also forbade death to be mentioned and sought an elixir for immortality, so maybe fire and wall were to keep death at bay. If he ordered the building of the wall first then the burning of the books, we have the image of an emperor who set out to create, gave up, and resigned himself to destroying; if the order is reverse, we have the image of an emperor who set out to destroy everything, gave up, and dedicated himself to endless building. Dreamy speculations:

Perhaps the wall was a metaphor, perhaps Shih Huang Ti sentenced those who worshiped the past to a task as immense, as gross and as useless as the past itself. Perhaps the wall was a challenge and Shih Huang Ti thought: “Men love the past and neither I nor my executioners can do anything against that love, but someday there will be a man who feels as I do and he will efface my memory and be my shadow and my mirror and not know it.” Perhaps Shih Huang Ti walled in his empire because he knew that it was perishable and destroyed the books because he understood that they were sacred books, in other words, books that teach what the entire universe or the mind of every man teaches. Perhaps the burning of the libraries and the erection of the wall are operations which in some secret way cancel each other.

A lazy Sunday afternoon of perhapses. The essay ends with a thunderclap, the notion that the way these two contrasting facts seem about to deliver some kind of revelation which never, in fact, arrives, the sense of a great meaning, which is never made clear:

this imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon.

The Fearful Sphere of Pascal

‘It may be that universal history is the history of a handful of metaphors.’ In which case he is examining one particular metaphor, that of the infinite sphere whose centre is nowhere, and pursues it through the works of Xenophanes of Colophon, Plato, Parmenides, Empedocles, Alain de Lille, the Romance of the Rose, Rabelais, Dante, Copernicus, Giordano Bruno, John Donne, John Milton, Glanville, Robert South, Pascal.

This very brief trot through the different expressions of the same metaphor suggest very strongly a sense of the rise and rise in optimism in human thought up to a kind of breakthrough in the Renaissance, summed up in Bruno’s attitude, which then crumbles into the sense of fear and isolation expressed by Pascal. I.e. this tiny essay gives a powerful sense of the changing moods and contexts of Western civilisation.

Partial Magic in the Quixote

It starts by asserting that Cervantes set out to write an utterly disenchanted account of the sordid reality of the Spain of his day yet certain moments of magic and romance nonetheless intrude; but this fairly simple point then unfolds into something much stranger as Borges zeroes in on the fact that in part two of Don Quixote the characters have read part one and comment on their own existence as characters. Borges then lists a number of other examples of fictions which appear within themselves such the Ramayana of Valmiki which, late on, features an appearance of the Ramayana of Valmiki as a major part of the plot. Similarly, on the 602nd night of the Thousand and One Nights, Scheherezade summarises the history of the king which includes his encounter with her and her telling of the stories which make up the nights, including the telling of the 602nd night, which includes the telling of the king’s own story, which includes his meeting with her and her telling of all the stories over again, including the telling of the 602nd night, and so on, forever.

What is it that intrigues and disturbs us about these images of infinite recursion?

I believe I have found the reason: these inversions suggest that if the characters of a fictional work can be readers or spectators, we, its readers or spectators, can be fictitious.

Valéry as Symbol

This brief note appears to be an obituary for the French poet Paul Valéry who died in 1945. Borges takes the surprising tack of comparing the French poet with the American poet Walt Whitman. On the face of it no two figures could be more different, Whitman loud, brash, confident, chaotic, contradictory, is morning in America, while Valéry, careful, sensitive, discreet, reflects the ‘delicate twilight’ of Europe. What they have in common is they created fictional images of themselves, made themselves symbolic of particular approaches.

Paul Valéry leaves us at his death the symbol of a man infinitely sensitive to every phenomenon and for whom every phenomenon is a stimulus capable of provoking an infinite series of thoughts.. Of a man whose admirable texts do not exhaust, do not even define, their all-embracing possibilities. Of a man who, in an age that worships the chaotic idols of blood, earth and passion, preferred always the lucid pleasures of thought and the secret adventures of order.

Kafka and His Precursors

A sketch at identifying precursors of Kafka’s ‘atrocious thought’, Borges finds precursors in Zeno’s paradoxes; in the ninth century Chinese writer, Han Yu; Kierkegaard; a poem by Browning; a short story by Léon Bloy; and one by Lord Dunsany. We would never have noticed the Kafkaesque in all these texts had Kafka not created it. Thus each author modifies our understanding of all previous writing.

The fact is that every writer creates his own precursors. His work modifies our conception of the past, as it will modify the future.

Avatars of the Tortoise

There is a concept which corrupts and upsets all others. I refer not to Evil, whose limited realm is that of ethics; I refer to the infinite.

He tells us that he once meditated a Biography of the Infinite but it would have taken forever to write. (Borges did in fact publish Historia de la eternidad in 1936.) Instead he gives us this fragment, a surprisingly thorough and mathematically-minded meditation on the second paradox of Zeno, the tortoise and Achilles. It is an intimidating trot through philosophers from the ancient Greek to F.H. Bradley and Bertrand Russell, in each one finding reformulations of the same problem in logic and various ways round it.

Only in the concluding paragraph does it become a bit more accessible when Borges brings out the meaning of Idealistic philosophy, that the world may be entirely the product of our minds and, as so often, ends on a bombshell of an idea:

We (the undivided divinity operating within us) have dreamt the world. We have dreamt it as firm, mysterious, visible, ubiquitous in space and durable in time; but in its architecture we have allowed tenuous and eternal crevices of unreason which tell us it is false.

In this view, Zeno’s paradoxes are among a putative small collection of problems or paradoxes or unnerving insights which are like cracks in the surface of the world we have made, cracks which gives us a glimpse of the utterly fictitious nature of ‘reality’.

The Mirror of Enigmas

A note on the verse from the Bible, First Letter to the Corinthians 13:12 in which Saint Paul writes: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.’ He considers half a dozen meditations on it by the author Léon Bloy which I found obscure. I preferred the final passage where he describes the thinking underlying the intellectual activity of the Cabbalists:

Bloy did no more than apply to the whole of Creation the method which the Jewish Cabalists applied to the Scriptures. They thought that a work dictated by the Holy Spirit was an absolute text: in other words, a text in which the collaboration of chance was calculable as zero. This portentous premise of a book impenetrable to contingency, of a book which is a mechanism of infinite purposes, moved them to permute the scriptural words, add up the numerical value of the letters, consider their form, observe the small letters and capitals, seek acrostics and anagrams and perform other exegetical rigours which it is not difficult to ridicule. Their excuse is that nothing can be contingent in the work of an infinite mind

A Note on (toward) Bernard Shaw

A book is more than a verbal structure or series of verbal structures; it is the dialogue it establishes with its reader and the intonation it imposes upon his voice and the changing and durable images it leaves in his memory. This dialogue is infinite… Literature is not exhaustible, for the sufficient and simple reason that no single book is. A book is not an isolated being: it is a relationship, an axis of innumerable relationships…

I didn’t quite understand the thrust of this essay which begins by refuting the notion that literature is purely a game, and asserts that it involves and tone of voice and relationship with a reader, and then seems to go on to say that this is in some measure proven by the works of George Bernard Shaw whose philosophy may be derivative (Butler and Schopenhauer) but whose prolific invention of character is unprecedented in his time. The sardonic Irishman is an odd choice for the sly Argentinian to single out for praise.

A New Refutation of Time

Consists of two essays written in the 1940s. They are complex and hard to follow but I think he begins with the philosophical doctrine of Idealism which claims the human mind consists of a succession of sense perceptions and doesn’t require there to be a ‘real world’ out there, behind them all. Borges is, I think, trying to go one step further and assert that there need not be a succession of sense perceptions, there is no logical necessity for these impressions to be in the series which we call time. There is only the present, we can only exist in the present, therefore there is no time.

Parables

A series of very short thoughts, images, moments or insights which inspire brief narratives pregnant with meaning or symbolism. Kafka, of course, also wrote modern parables, parables with no religious import but fraught with psychological meaning.

Inferno, 1, 32

God sends a leopard kept in a cage in late 13th century Italy a dream in which he explains that his existence, his life history and his presence in the zoo are all necessary so that the poet Dante will see him and place him at the opening of his poem, The Divine Comedy.

Paradiso, XXXI, 108

Who of us has never felt, while walking through the twilight or writing a date from his past, that something infinite had been lost?

Maybe the mysterious thing which St Paul and the mystics saw and could not communicate appears to all of us every day, in the face of the street lottery ticket seller. Perhaps the face of Jesus was never recorded so that it could become the face of all of us.

Ragnarök

He has a dream. He was in the School of Philosophy and Letters chatting with friends when a group breaks free from the mob below to cries of ‘The gods! The gods’ who take up their place on the dais after centuries of exile. But during that time they have become rough and inhuman, they cannot actually talk but squeak and grunt.

Centuries of fell and fugitive life had atrophied the human element in them; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these outlaws. Very low foreheads, yellow teeth, stringy mulatto or Chinese moustaches and thick bestial lips showed the degeneracy of the Olympian lineage. Their clothing corresponded not to a decorous poverty but rather to the sinister luxury of the gambling houses and brothels of the Bajo. A carnation bled crimson in a lapel and the bulge of a knife was outlined beneath a close-fitting jacket. Suddenly we sensed that they were playing their last card, that they were cunning, ignorant and cruel like old beasts of prey and that, if we let ourselves be overcome by fear or pity, they would finally destroy us. We took out our heavy revolvers (all of a sudden there were revolvers in the dream) and joyfully killed the Gods.

Parable of Cervantes and the Quixote

How could Miguel de Cervantes ever have guessed that his attempt to mock and undermine the glorious myths of the Age of Chivalry in his fictitious character, Don Quixote, would itself become a larger-than-life myth? (Well, anyone who has studied a bit of human nature and knows that humans are the myth-making species, constantly rounding out narratives, creating stories which explain everything in which larger-than-life figures either cause all evil or all good.)

The Witness

Borges imagines the last pagan Anglo-Saxon, the last eye-witness of the sacrifices to the pagan gods, living on into the new age of Christianity. What memories and meanings will be lost at his death? Which makes him reflect on what will be lost when he himself dies.

A Problem

A very abstruse problem: Cervantes derives Don Quixote from an Arab precursor, the Cide Hamete Benengeli. Imagine a scrap of manuscript is discovered in which his knightly hero discovers that in one of his fantastical conflicts he has actually killed a man. How would Quixote respond? And Borges imagines four possible responses.

Borges and I

The narrator, Borges, speculates about the other Borges. On a first reading I take this to be the Borges of literature, the Borges who both writes the stories and is conjured into existence by the stories, who is not the same as the flesh and blood Borges who walks the streets.

Little by little, I am giving over everything to him, though I am quite aware of his perverse custom of falsifying and magnifying things

Everything and Nothing

A moving and beautiful meditation on the life of William Shakespeare which paints him as a hollow man, plagued by his own emptiness, who seeks to fill it with books, then with sex with an older woman (marriage to Anne Hathaway), moving to the big city, and involvement in about the most hurly-burly of professions, acting, before someone suggests he writes plays as well as acting in them, and he fills his soul with hundreds of characters, giving them undreamed-of speeches and feelings, before, an exhausted middle aged man he retires back to his provincial birthplace, and renounces all poetry for the gritty reality of lawsuits and land deals before dying young.

In a fantastical coda, he arrives in heaven and complains to God that all he wants is to have an identity, to be a complete man instead of a hollow man, but God surprises him with his reply.

After dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’


Labyrinths

A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men; its architecture, rich in symmetries, is subordinated to that end. (The Immortal)

The choice of this word for the title of the volume is no accident. The metaphor of the labyrinth, referring to endless tangles of intellectual speculation, crops up in most of the stories and many of the essays. It is a founding metaphor of his work.

  • Tlön is surely a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth devised by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.
  • Haslam has also published A General History of Labyrinths
  • I have some understanding of labyrinths: not for nothing am I the great grandson of that Ts’ui Pên who was governor of Yunnan and who renounced worldly power in order to write a novel that might be even more populous than the Hung Lu Meng and to construct a labyrinth in which all men would become lost.
  • I thought of a labyrinth of labyrinths, of one sinuous spreading labyrinth that would encompass the past and the future and in some way involve the stars
  • Once initiated in the mysteries of Baal, every free man automatically participated in the sacred drawings, which took place in the labyrinths of the god every sixty nights (Babylon)
  • Another [book] (very much consulted in this area) is a mere labyrinth of letters (Babel)
  • He is rescued from these circular labyrinths by a curious finding, a finding which then sinks him into other, more inextricable and heterogeneous labyrinths (Theme of the Traitor and the Hero)
  • I felt that the world was a labyrinth, from which it was impossible to flee… (Death and the Compass)
  • On those nights I swore by the God who sees with two faces and by all the gods of fever and of the mirrors to weave a labyrinth around the man who had imprisoned my brother (Death and the Compass)
  • Meticulously, motionlessly, secretly, he wrought in time his lofty, invisible labyrinth (The Secret Miracle)
  • Intolerably, I dreamt of an exiguous and nitid labyrinth: in the center was a water jar; my hands almost touched it, my eyes could see it, but so intricate and perplexed were the curves that I knew I would die before reaching it. (The Immortal)
  • There were nine doors in this cellar; eight led to a labyrinth that treacherously returned to the same chamber; the ninth (through another labyrinth) led to a second circular chamber equal to the first. (The Immortal)
  • You are not lighting a pyre, you are lighting a labyrinth of flames. (The Theologians)

The most labyrinthine story is The Garden of Forking Paths in which the word occurs 18 times.

The labyrinth is a metaphor for the mind and the way it never stops speculating, creating unending streams of interpretation, of our lives, of the world, of each other, of everything, each more entrancing and futile than the one before (among which are ‘the intimate delights of speculative theology’). Thus many of his ‘stories’ feature hardly any characters, events or dialogue – all the energy goes toward capturing the beguiling, phosphorescent stream-of-ideas of an extremely learned, religio-philosophical, fantastical mind:

I thought that Argos and I participated in different universes; I thought that our perceptions were the same, but that he combined them in another way and made other objects of them; I thought that perhaps there were no objects for him, only a vertiginous and continuous play of extremely brief impressions. I thought of a world without memory, without time; I considered the possibility of a language without nouns, a language of impersonal verbs or indeclinable epithets. (The Immortal)

And this endless stream of ideas reflects the way a mature world is full of infinite iterations of any given object. Looking at a coin in his hand:

I reflected that every coin in the world is a symbol of those famous coins which glitter in history and fable. I thought of Charon’s obol; of the obol for which Belisarius begged; of Judas’ thirty coins; of the drachmas of Laï’s, the famous courtesan; of the ancient coin which one of the Seven Sleepers proffered; of the shining coins of the wizard in the 1001 Nights, that turned out to be bits of paper; of the inexhaustible penny of Isaac Laquedem; of the sixty thousand pieces of silver, one for each line of an epic, which Firdusi sent back to a king because they were not of gold; of the doubloon which Ahab nailed to the mast; of Leopold Bloom’s irreversible florin; of the louis whose pictured face betrayed the fugitive Louis XVI near Varennes. (The Zahir)

And:

Money is abstract, I repeated; money is the future tense. It can be an evening in the suburbs, or music by Brahms; it can be maps, or chess, or coffee; it can be the words of Epictetus teaching us to despise gold; it is a Proteus more versatile than the one on the isle of Pharos. It is unforeseeable time, Bergsonian time, not the rigid time of Islam or the Porch.

Everything relates to everything else. Everything is a symbol of everything else, including the most profound categories of thought, hundreds, thousands of which have been dreamt up by the centuries full of metaphysicians and mystics. Anything can stand for anything else and that is, or should be, the freedom of literature, showing us how the infinite nature of human thought can liberate us, at every moment.

Tennyson once said that if we could understand a single flower, we should know what we are and what the world is. Perhaps he meant that there is no fact, however insignificant, that does not involve universal history and the infinite concatenation of cause and effect. Perhaps he meant that the visible world is implicit in every phenomenon, just as the will, according to Schopenhauer, is implicit in every subject… (The Zahir)

Or perhaps something else again, and something else again, and on forever, as long as we breathe, as long as we have consciousness, which consists of impressions, connections, moods, feelings and thoughts endlessly unfurling. Hence his interest in The Infinite, which is the subject of many of the stories (The Library of Babel) and the essay on Achilles and the tortoise which examines the infinitely recursive nature of intelligence. Speaking of the paradox, he writes:

The historical applications do not exhaust its possibilities: the vertiginous regressus in infinitum is perhaps applicable to all subjects. To aesthetics: such and such a verse moves us for such and such a reason, such and such a reason for such and such a reason…

And so on, forever.

Labyrinths as a labyrinth

I began to note how certain names and references recur in many of the stories, for example the name and works of Kafka or the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, Schopenhauer’s notion of the world as a fantasy, Spinoza’s that all things long to persist as themselves – when it occurred to me that these references and motifs which recur across so many stories and essays themselves create a matrix or web which links the texts subterraneanly, so to speak, and themselves create a kind of labyrinth out of the text of Labyrinths. That the totality of the book Labyrinths is itself a labyrinth.

And, rereading that definition – ‘A labyrinth is a structure compounded to confuse men’ – maybe the enjoyment of this awesome book comes from savouring pleasurable confusions; maybe it is about entering a world of carefully controlled and contrived intellectual bewilderments.

The Borgesian

There’s an adjective, apparently, Borgesian, which means: ‘reminiscent of elements of Borges’ stories and essays, especially labyrinths, mirrors, reality, identity, the nature of time, and infinity’.

In his preface, André Maurois, in an attempt to convey the sense Borges’s stories give us of a vast erudition, says that Borges has read everything, but this isn’t quite true. His fictions very cannily give the impression that he has read widely, but it becomes clear fairly quickly that he has read widely in a very particular kind of text, in a certain kind of semi-mystical philosophy and metaphysics, often venturing from the fairly reputable works of Berkeley or Hume or Schopenhauer out into the arcane and mysterious byways of Christian and Islamic and Judaic theology, with the occasional excursion into the wisdom of Chinese magi.

These attributes – the combination of reputable Western philosophers with obscure religious mystics, and the casual mingling of Western texts with dicta from the Middle East or China – are exemplified in probably most famous of all Borges’s stories, Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. Here’s a complete list of all the books and ideas referred to in just this one short essay:

Books

  • The Anglo-American Cyclopaedia (New York, 1917)
  • Ritter’s Erdkunde
  • Justus Perthes’ atlases
  • Silas Haslam: History of the Land Called Uqbar (1874)
  • Silas Haslam: A General History of Labyrinths
  • Lesbare und lesenswerthe Bemerkungen über das Land Ukkbar in Klein-Asien (1641) by Johannes Valentinus Andreä
  • Thomas De Quincey (Writings, Volume XIII)
  • Bertrand Russell: The Analysis of Mind (1921)
  • Schopenhauer: Parerga und Paralipomena (1851)
  • Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial, or a Discourse of the Sepulchral Urns lately found in Norfolk by Sir Thomas Browne (1658)

References

  • the Gnostic philosophers’ belief that the world is a pale parody of the real Creation
  • the Islamic tradition of the marvellous Night of Nights
  • David Hume’s comments on the philosophy of George Berkeley
  • Meinong’s theory of a subsistent world
  • Spinoza’s attribution to the Almighty of the attributes of time and extension
  • a heresiarch of the eleventh century
  • Zeno’s paradoxes
  • The Tao Te Ching
  • The 1001 Nights
  • hermetic philosophy

And then there are the hoaxes for which Borges acquired quite a reputation. Silas Haslam does not exist, is merely a fictional author and, scattered throughout these 40 texts, among the pedantic footnotes citing genuine works of philosophy or theology, are scattered other fictional authors, thinkers and ideas. In Borges’s hands the worlds of fiction and ‘reality’ meet and mingle on equal terms. They are, after all, situated in the realm of discourse, and can there be anything more imaginary than that?


Related links

Borges reviews

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham (1953)

The Kraken Wakes is told in retrospect, by a man living in a drowning world, when most of England is under water due to the melting icecaps, looking back over the events which slowly led up to this catastrophe [in fact the action of the book seems to cover about ten years], who tells us he is setting out to piece together an account of the events leading up to the catastrophic present.

It began so unrecognisably. Had it been more obvious – and yet it is difficult to see what could have been done effectively even if we had recognised the danger. Recognition and prevention don’t necessarily go hand in hand. We recognised the potential dangers of atomic fission quickly enough – yet we could do little about them. If we had attacked immediately – well, perhaps. But until the danger was well established we had no means of knowing that we should attack – and then it was too late. However, it does no good to cry over our shortcomings. My purpose is to give as good a brief account as I can of how the present situation arose – and, to begin with, it arose very scrappily….

Like Day of the Triffids, Kraken is a first-person narrative told by a polite and well-meaning, middle-class man, in this case named Mike Watson. He’s a journalist with the (fictitious) English Broadcasting Corporation, which, in a recurring joke, people are always mixing up with the BBC. The fact that both stories are told by very much the same kind of young middle-class man made me speculate that Wyndham probably realised he needed a different tone or register for his narrator in order to prevent the two books sounding the same.

So that’s probably the reason why, whereas Bill Masen’s account in The Day of The Triffids is consistently grim and often horrifying, the narrator of this book keeps up a chirpy, facetious tone throughout. In fact, the central feature of this book is the narrator’s relationship with his smart and sassy wife, Phyllis, herself a documentary scriptwriter, with whom he keeps up a solid stream of jokey banter and backchat and has a very 1950s kind of relationship, to the extent that it’s made jokily clear that it’s very much the wife who wears the trousers:

‘But, with a pressure of tons, and in continual darkness, and – ‘ I began, but Phyllis cut across me with that decisiveness which warns me to shut up and not argue…

‘A man of perception,’ I said. ‘For the last five or six years – ‘
‘Shut up, Mike,’ said my dear wife, briefly. (p.124)

‘Mike, darling, just shut up; there’s a love,’ said my devoted wife.

This snappy husband-and-wife banter completely differentiates the books from the rather grim, serious-minded tone of Triffids and makes this catastrophe feel much more like a bank holiday outing. This tone is established in the short prologue, or ‘Rationale’ as he calls it, which opens the book, Mike and Phyl are looking out over the English Channel, nowadays full of icebergs because the Arctic icecaps are melting and the sea-level is drastically rising, and he first suggests writing some kind of account of the disaster which has overtaken the world. Good idea, she says, and offers to help.

Plot summary

Phase one (pages 11 to 72)

Journalist Mike Watson is on a honeymoon cruise with his new wife, Phyllis, when they see five red shapes, fuzzy and gaseous, speed across their wake and crash into the sea. So he was lucky enough to be in at ‘the start’. There are other sightings, including from an RAF fighter pilot who encounters some of these flying speedballs, shoots one which promptly explodes. The years go by and Watson becomes the meteor specialist at his broadcaster, all the letters from cranks and flying saucer spotters are sent on to him. And yet reports continue to come in of groups of red dots flying at high speed across the sky and into the ocean, generally at its deepest parts.

At ECB Watson finds himself lumbered with reporting on the steady trickle of sightings of the fireballs and builds up a reputation as an expert. As such he is invited to the Admiralty where a Captain Winters shows him a map of the oceans with lines drawn showing the descent of the many fireballs reported over the past few years, which shows how they have all entered the water near the oceans’ deepest points, up to five miles deep, where the water pressure is up to five tons per square inch!

And that’s why he and Phyllis are invited aboard a Royal Navy mission to the Caribbean, where a bathysphere containing two men is lowered deeper than any such vehicle has gone into the deep sea before. It’s a tense and detailed description which leads to the inevitable – at the deepest depths where no fish are, the two men in the little metal sphere think they see some vague shape moving just out of reach of the lights. Next thing they are cut off. The cable is winched up and the hawser it was attached to hasn’t been cut, it has been fused. They try again with an unmanned sphere carrying cameras, this too gets to about the same depths, the watching crew see something, then all power is cut.

Actually they’re invited to witness this expedition because of Phyllis. She is a documentary scriptwriter (while the narrator Mike is a straight journalist). So the idea of having a husband and wife team means Wyndham gives his pair twice as many chances to be invited on expeditions or to meet and interview key figures and experts as the story unfolds.

In this respect, the solo nature of the narrator of Triffids emphasises the sense of loneliness and isolation which is one of the harrowing aspects of that book which describes how one man slowly uncovers the impact of the catastrophe; whereas the dynamic in Kraken is the exact opposite – he needs a number of sources in order to present a synoptic overview of events: and so having what are in effect two protagonists doubles the number of contacts and interviews and sources the book can use.

And a great deal of it is second-hand, in the sense that Mike and Phyllis – having been on the doomed bathyscaphe expedition – begin following every aspect of the story and scouring the news for related stories.

Thus, after another interview with Captain Winter back at the Admiralty, they go on to monitor new developments. So they meet up and interview a journo from NBC who accompanied an American version of the bathyscaphe expedition. All the hacks were on a separate ship accompanying the navy vessel and were watching their bathyscaphe via remote cameras when shouts from above brought them all up on deck in time to see some kind of electric charge surge up the cable, light up the ship like a Christmas tree, and then it exploded.

Something is down there, snipping the wires of these bathyscaphes, and then sending up enormous electric charges. The NBC guy tells them it’s not the only one. Another research ship has disappeared near the Aleutian Isles.

Time passes, three years to be precise (p.41) during which Mike and Phyllis celebrate the birth of son William and then mourn his death 18 months later. And then more reports of sinkings come in: the Americans lose a cruiser off the Marianas, the Russians east of the Kuriles, a Norwegian research ship in the Southern Ocean. I.e. the pattern extends.

When the Americans lose a destroyer their patience snaps. They invite half the world’s press along to witness an experiment with an atom bomb, which is towed out to above the deepest part of the sea off the Philippines where the destroyer was lost – it is released and allowed to sink several miles into the depths, then detonated. Mike and the other spectators see the eruption of water, the cloud forming above it and then their ship is buffeted by the wave, but little apart from that.

Back in London our pair have dinner with another couple of journos who swap theories and opinions. One of them recounts the theory put forward by a certain Bocker, which is the one the reader has figured out by now, which is that the ‘fireballs’ are some kind of spaceships carrying intelligent passengers who have evolved in a deep sea environment and now have come to colonise earth’s. They didn’t take kindly to the investigating bathyspheres, took to destroying the ships attached to them and now – they speculate – will not take kindly to having an atom bomb exploded over their heads.

In the coming months several more atom bombs are dropped into the depths with unmeasurable affect (p.53). But through the grapevine Mike and Phyllis learn that several of them failed to go off. That’s worrying (p.57). Several more research ships have disappeared.

Phyllis interviews Dr Matet, noted oceanographer and friend of Captain Winters of the Admiralty. He tells her oceanographers have begun to notice major discoloration of the oceans’ major flowstreams, as if vast amounts of the ooze on the ocean beds is being disturbed (pp.59-61).

They jointly interview Alastair Bocker, eminent geographer (pp.63-65). He has developed his theories further. If intelligent life has come from beyond earth, and if it thrives at the enormous pressures of the deep ocean, then they can be seen as settlers or colonists who will set about making the found environment more congenial to their civilisation. And if someone starts dropping massive bombs on their heads, we shouldn’t be surprised if they retaliate.

They read about a tsunami killing 60 or so people on the remote island of Esperanza. Neither of them know where that and Phyllis has never heard the word tsunami.

Phase one ends with a couple of pages of Phyllis reading out a draft script for ECB, written in amazingly purple prose about the mysterious depths of the great oceans, and bringing together all this scattered evidence to wonder what’s afoot…

Phase two (pages 73 to 182)

Part one – Ships being sunk

Years earlier they had bought a cottage in Cornwall with money left by an aunt of Phyllis’s. It has a fine view across a river, more land and to the sea beyond. I always think that, if you’re appearing in an apocalyptic end-of-the-world novel, it’s always a good idea to have a comfy country bolthole to retreat to.

In the Times is a report of a Japanese ocean liner, the Yatsushiro, which sank in moments, drowning over 700 passengers and crew. A day or two later an official statement is put out blaming it on ‘metal fatigue’. Our heroes are sceptical, sounds like a cover-up story. Phyllis imagines all those men, women and children as the freezing water gushed into their cabins, and is inconsolably upset.

Guests come to stay (Harold and is posh wife, Petunia or ‘Tuny’) and the posh wife without hesitation blames all these incidents on the Russians and lambasts Western politicians who are, she thinks, refusing to name names and, in effect, appeasing the commies. In her view Bocker is a fellow traveller propagating a Soviet cover story. General conversation, the guests go to bed and leave a few days later.

Mike works on a book commission for a history of royal love lives, Phyllis is writing a history of a stately home. A month later they hear the news on the radio that the huge British liner, the Queen Anne, has sunk. Half an hour later the head of EBC news and features rings up and says they want a half hour feature about it – why? Because rumour is going round that the Russians did it and might swell into enough of a movement to begin to pressurise the government to do something, risking escalation into, ultimately war.

Having written it they drive back up to London and arrive to hear that two more ships, American this time, have gone down. Now the Americans are angry and send a flotilla of battleships to the area loaded with high explosive and another atom bomb. But two of them are blown up as they get near the area, one was carrying the bomb primed to detonate at five miles depth, the other ships turn and flee, a few more being caught in the eventual blast, five surviving.

But now it’s official – there’s something down there. A global conference is held, at which the Russians walk out in protest. Watson is typically sarcastic about business as usual being resumed. Scientists devise anti-vibration protection and ‘dolphins’ which are supposed to spot the enemy, close in and blow up, and we get a description of an apparently successful trial. Governments declare the seas sailable again, and prematurely declare that ‘the Battle of the Deeps’ has been won (p.111). But it hasn’t. A month later a clutch more ships are sunk.

Part two – The sea tanks (pages 112 to 182)

But the real thrust or point of phase two is an entirely new development, which is the advent of the so-called sea tanks and their revolting sticky anemone weapons.

Reports start to come in from remote islands in the Pacific of some kind of attacks taking place on remote communities. A ship which investigates the next day discovers a poor shorefront settlement completely denuded of people, all the houses, trees and other objects glistening with a foul-smelling slime, and huge regular grooves running up the sand (pages 114 to 121).

As more and more reports come in, the authorities realise they are co-ordinated attacks. Bocker is consulted for his opinion. Mike is invited for a drink by EBC’s head of news and features (Freddy Whittier) who tells him that one of the stations’ sponsors is fed up with the lack of knowledge about these creatures and so is sponsoring an expedition to go and find out more. He has commissioned Bocker to lead it, since he has been right about the situation from early on. And since Bocker now holds advanced theories about the location of the enemy bases in the deepest parts of the oceans, Bocker calculates the next attacks will come in the Caribbean.

Since Phyllis and Mike have been in on it from the start, Bocker asks for them to come along as representatives of the media. So they fly to the island of Escondida and have barely arrived before there is an attack on a nearby island. (It is typical of the book’s deliberate flippancy that Mike translates Bocker’s scientific work into his own joky idiom when he says, ‘if we were disappointed, we were also impressed. It was clear that Bocker really had been doing something more than a high-class eeny meeny miney mo, and had brought off a very near miss.’ Eeny meeny miney mo 🙂 )

The team consists of Dr Bocker and two close assistants, Bill Weyman and Alfred Haig, Mike and Phyllis, Muriel Flynn, Johnny Tallton, the pilot, Leslie, Ted the cameraman, Alfred who rigs up bright stage lights down at the harbour and the streets into the square in case there’s a night attack.

In the most sustained and imaginatively intense passage in the book, they are woken one night, ten days into their stay, by an attack. They hear screams and shooting from the harbour, then see people fleeing across the main square which their hotel looks out onto. Then they finally see the ‘sea tanks’. Imagine an elongated egg, thirty or forty feet long, made of a dull, lead-like metal. Slice it along its length and place the flat surface on the ground, a bit like half an avocado, except longer than a car (p.138). Well, Mike and Phyllis watch these huge half-avocados made of dull leaden metal slowly moving forward, apparently without wheels, several of them barging through the sides of houses. They take up positions in the square, despite rifle bullets pinging off them. Then very slowly bulges begin to appear in their carapaces, turn into globes attached by spindly threads and then the globes break entirely free and hover in the air.

Then with a crack they explode and unleash scores of very long tentacles or tendrils which whip out in all directions. If they touch inanimate objects they fall to the floor but, somehow, if they touch anything human, even the clothes or shoes of a human, they stick. At the first bang Mike and Phyllis had instinctively recoiled but not fast enough and one thread attaches to Phyllis’s forearm. Almost immediately the thing starts reeling its threads back in, drawing every animate person along with them. Within seconds Phyllis is being drawn from the bedroom where she’d withdrawn, into the main room and towards the balcony. Mike grabs her round the waist and grabs the bed-leg with the other. Now it becomes a trial of strength and for a moment Mike is scared he’ll lose his grip but then Phyllis lets out a scream and the sticky tendril has torn a six-inch strip off her forearm and some of the skin from her fingers but it is withdrawing, without her.

Mike runs to the window in time to see the sequel, which is people from all parts of the square being drawn willy-nilly towards the anemone thing. There’s Muriel from their team, being pulled along by her hair, and Larrie, who seems to have broken his neck in the fall from his hotel window, and now Mike watches the disgusting sight of all these people being drawn closer and closer and finally packed and squidged into a ball of compressed flesh. Then the ball of people goes spinning away back down the street it came from, towards the sea.

Scattered firing from villagers who have rifles continues but makes no impression on the sea tanks which continue to release the anemone weapons until they’re quite done, and then slowly return backwards the way they came back into the sea. Long before that happens Mike is beside Phyllis, washing her wounds and tearing up bed sheets to dress them.

Only then do we learn, from Phyllis’s side of the dialogue, that Mike himself is crying and she is holding him in her arms (p.143). In a very understated, British way, they have both been severely traumatised.

Next day Bocker holds a conference of the survivors. The mood is grim. They speculate about the meaning of the attacks. Is it for food or sheer malice? Bocker gives one of his speeches (of which there are a number punctuating the book) in which he wonders whether man’s domain on earth might be under threat. Maybe humanity’s days are numbered…

Mike and Phyllis fly back to Britain with what film Ted the cameraman was able to take and eye witness accounts. Back in the office they discover similar attacks are proliferating all round the world and the number of sea tanks rapidly escalating into scores. Captain Winters of the Admiralty invites them in to give an eye-witness account to a senior admiral who asks them their opinion of Bocker’s theories and this is the trigger for more earnest, and strategic pondering on what ‘we’ (humanity) should do next.

They go down to the cottage in Cornwall but can’t get away from the news which brings accounts of multiple attacks all round the world. Almost as a throwaway we learn that ocean trade has all but dried up and so Britain is having to airlift in food and other essential supplies. It can be done but is very expensive and so the price of everything has shot up and rationing of some items has appeared. (When Kraken was published post-war rationing had still not completely ended.)

As news comes in of more and more attacks all round the world, Phyllis cracks. She had built herself an ‘arbour’ in the cottage’s garden, somewhere she could work outdoors on her ‘novel’, but one day Mike finds her sitting in it, slumped across the manuscript, crying her eyes out. She can’t think of anything except the state of war, and can’t get the shock of what they saw in Escondida out of her mind. For some relief they motor over to North Cornwall for some surfing and a day’s brisk activity does them good. But on the way back they make the mistake of turning on the radio, immediately hear more bad news, which takes them right back to the horror of the sea tanks, and Phyllis bursts into tears again.

Mike calls a doctor who gives Phyllis a sedative and recommends a Harley Street nerve specialist. It is only now, however, that we learn that part of her problem is that Mike has been talking about the incident on Escondida in his sleep, and makes it clear that in his dreams he sees Phyllis, not Muriel, being dragged across the town square and slowly mashed to pulp along with all the other victims. He too needs rest. And she needs a break from his nightmares and sleep-talking.

And so Mike travels by himself to stay in a room in a manor in Yorkshire, stops work, takes the phone off the hook, and devotes himself to long walks over the moors. After six weeks of rest cure he feels like a new man. Until he drops into a pub after a long hike and the radio is on and he overhears news of a massive attack on a port in north Spain where an estimated 3,000 people lost their lives.

By now the authorities all over the world are fighting back against the aliens. Ports large and small are either abandoned or heavily fortified. Tanks and artillery are deployed. And air forces put on high alert. And this has begun to pay dividends. If the sea tanks are hit by tank shells or airplane cannon shells they explode dramatically. There’s an extended passage describing the attack on Santander and how the local military called in air strikes which proved surprisingly effective. (I had to remind me that all this would have taken place under the military dictatorship of General Franco.)

His restful mood disrupted, Mike returns from his Yorkshire hotel to the cottage in Cornwall only to find Phyllis is long gone. She’s tidied up and locked up and apparently gone back up to London. When Mike arrives at their London flat he is surprised to find it deserted. He phones his pal at EBC, Freddy Whittier, and discovers that Phyllis lasted just a week in the Cornwall cottage by herself before she returned to the London flat and resumed work, writing material about the attacks. Freddy flabbergasts Mike by telling him that Phyllis has gone off with Dr Bocker to Spain, to investigate the scene of the recent Santander attacks. Bored and lonely, Mike spends the evening at his club (p.175). [His club?]

In the early hours of the next morning he gets a call from Freddy and at first panics, thinking it is bad news about Phyllis. Far from it, she’s doing fine in Spain. Freddy is ringing to say a taxi’s on its way, a plane ticket has been organised, and he’s being sent by the EBC to a small fishing village on the west coast of Ireland which has just been attacked by what people are now calling the ‘bathies’. This journey and what Mike finds are not described in any detail. It is simply the trigger for the new development that the bathies now for the first time start to attack the coastline of Britain, which quickly reverts to a spirit-of-the-Blitz state of militarisation. Ports and harbours are mined and barb-wired, military deployed, RAF put on alert.

The British government lends all military aid to the Irish. (It is an interesting sidelight on history, that Mike the narrator sees this as the Irish being prepared to forgive and forget and put ‘the past in the past’ – an interesting insight into the rockiness of Anglo-Irish relations even in 1953.) Anyway, the bathies have lost the element of surprise and large numbers are blown up by the mines they trundle over, by depth charges dropped on them, by air strikes or artillery. Their casualty rate on some raids is 100% while human populations have learned simply to flee out of range at the first warning. The only raids England suffers are in Cornwall, and the only one with any real consequences is an attack on Falmouth Harbour.

A few days after the Falmouth raid, the attacks cease, worldwide (p.179). Dr Bocker makes one of his periodic comments on the situation in a speech in which he says his early suggestions that we try and communicate with the enemy were obviously wrong. Now he recommends a policy of total annihilation, before they launch the next phase of their attack, whatever that might be.

Phase three (pages 183 to 240)

The move from phase one to phase two was relatively smooth and continued the tone of the normal world and its activities. Phase three, however, opens with a jolt, literally, as the small boat Mike and Phyllis as navigating through water at night bumps into a net. As Mike begins tampering with it a flare goes up illuminating the scene and a rifle shot goes off. Mike looks across at the sides of the flooded valley, to the parade of houses which disappears under the water, and hears a voice warning him away. Aha. As Mike fires up the engine and their little boat putters away, Phyllis asks where they are and, as Mike replies, somewhere in the Weybridge area, the reader has his or her suspicions confirmed. Yes, we are clearly in full-scale disaster mode now.

For, as the text quickly explains, the aliens did indeed launch the next phase, though it took a while for humanity to catch on. Quite simply, it was to melt the polar ice caps and flood the world, completely flood it, until it is a world of water – just the way the aliens like it!

As usual it crept up very slowly on an unsuspecting humanity, not least because most trans-ocean shipping had been suspended for some time, and the weather ships which would have noticed changes in temperature and, especially, widespread fogs, had ceased to observe things. But the fogs become increasingly apparent in Siberia and north America. Then spotter planes report back on vast numbers of icebergs being calved from the Arctic and Antarctic ice sheets. All of which leads up to another article by Bocker, this one titled The Devil and the Deeps.

Bocker and polyphony

I’ve come to realise that Bocker’s articles provide a sort of structure, or regular punctuation of the narrative, each appearance of article he writes crystallising the sequence of events to date and then making drastic suggestions, which his readers and hearers are consistently not ready to listen to.

Not only that, but they add to the multiplicity of voices in the book. As it has progressed, Bocker has emerged as a Cassandra figure, the first to speculate the fireballs were from another world, the first to theorise that the incidents of the sinking ships might not be accidents and the great flows of ooze might be more than a natural occurrence, but indicate the work of industrial intelligence in the ocean deeps. His articles have taken on a more and more Biblical tone of apocalypse and prophecy. They add to the spectrum of voices and register, which also includes:

  • the serious factual briefings from Captain Winters or the admiral
  • the scientific briefing about ocean-bottom ooze from Dr Matet
  • eye-witness accounts from the American journos in ships accompanying one of the first to be blown up
  • opinions of fellow journalists (Mallarby of The Tidings and Bennell of The Senate, p.44)
  • radio broadcasts, including the dramatic one of the ship trying to steam away from where a navy ship carrying an atom bomb went down (p.97)
  • newspaper articles and leaders (p.207)
  • even the hammy radio script which Phyllis herself writers (pp.70-72)

It’s a very polyphonic novel.

Anyway, in terms of the plot, Bocker’s article is the first one to grasp the enormity of the situation, something which he then expands on when Mike and Phyllis go to pay their by now regular visit. After some chatter it boils right down to this: the authorities will act too late because they always do; in any case, there’s probably no practical way to stop then; so the best strategy is – find a nice self-sufficient hilltop – and fortify it!

And so it comes to pass. Slowly the sea levels rise. In London the embankment is sandbagged but overflows anyway. But this is just the beginning. Bocker joins Phyllis to review the urgent work put into raising the embankment parapets by ten or 12 feet. Waste of time says baleful Bocker.

All round the world the waters continue their rise. Hundreds of thousands build levees but the smart money starts to abandon the cities and the low-lying ground and move to the country. Mike’s narration takes us through two successive years when, on each year, the spring tides broke through whatever barriers were erected. After the second flooding of London the authorities acknowledge that they’re going to have to leave.

What gives all this a frisson of familiarity is not only the fact that we now know that the ice caps are melting and the sea level is going to rise, but the shambolic response of the authorities to the gathering crisis, a make-it-up-as-you-go-along attitude which we have all seen in the British government’s response to coronavirus (COVID-19).

News comes in of refugees from flooded Holland and Denmark. When they tramped into north Germany, fighting broke out. In England, too, refugees from the drowning East found high land along the Chilterns barricaded off. In London, people moving from the riverside towards Hampstead and Highgate found roads barricaded and snipers taking potshots from windows. And then the barricades were stormed. The emergency electricity supply failed. Looting broke out.

Mike and Phyllis move their stuff through the half-anarchic, half-orderly streets to a last-ditch studio and offices which the EBC have rigged up at the top of the Selfridge’s building in Oxford Street. They hear of increasing panic flights, of cars being stopped their occupants turfed out, widespread looting. Parliament moves to Harrogate, 700 feet above sea level.

Their bosses had imagined the small crew manning the station (complete with oil and petrol reserves, power generators, and as much food as they could loot from the store beneath) would remain and carry on presenting entertaining variety radio programmes until summoned north. In reality, as the year advanced, order broke down, the streets flooded faster than expected and became the prowling ground of armed gangs of looters, who they had to fight off several times.

By spring of the following year the staff in their redoubt have been reduced from 65 to 25, most requesting to be evacuated by the helicopter which can land on the store’s roof. (Note: helicopters play a small but significant role in both Triffids and this novel.) There’s an effective scene when, one bright sunny day, Mike and Phyllis walk down to Trafalgar Square. The water is lapping against the parapet on the north side. There is a sheet of solid water down Whitehall to the half-submerged Houses of Parliament. Seagulls squawk from St Martin’s in the Fields. They are surprised to see a speedboat come roaring under Admiralty Arch and zoom away down Whitehall. Phyllis says let’s leave. Mike agrees. They’ll need a boat.

But they hang on through another season. Their old friend, Freddy Whittier and his wife, who had stayed with them in the Selfridges redoubt, take a helicopter out. A few weeks later he phones to tell Mike and Phyl not to follow them. The government area of the town is under siege. Civil war is about to break out. He promises to get the next chopper back to London but, although it leaves Harrogate it never arrives. A week or so later the Harrogate office are dictating the latest in a long line of forlorn, futile, spirit-raising announcements, denying rumours of fighting and collapse, when the phone line goes dead. It is never restored.

Another winter comes round. The streets are almost empty, though the few people you meet are carrying guns. They hear the counties surrounding London have set up miniature fiefdoms and repel refugees. They still have plenty of food and oil for the generator but when the water level reaches Oxford street and starts to drain into the basement of the Selfridge’s building, they feel it’s time to move. On bright May day Mike finds Phyllis up on the roof looking across the lake that is Oxford Street and crying. She says what all people going through tribulation say, since the time of Job and before:

Look at it, Mike! Look at it! We never did anything to deserve all this. Most of us weren’t very good, though we weren’t bad enough for this, surely. And not to have a chance! If it had only been something we could fight – . But just to be drowned and starved and forced into destroying one another to live – and by things nobody has ever seen, living in the one place we can’t get at them! (p.229)

She’s breaking down. It’s time to go. Mike finds a fibre-glass dinghy and loads it up. They say goodbye to their remaining colleagues and set off upriver. And that’s where we found them as the start of this final section. Turned back by a net and sniper and taking shelter in the top story of a flooded house.

In the middle of the night Mike hears a bumping against the wall and springs out of his sleeping bag in time to see a smaller vessel bumping against the wall before drifting away. He gives chase in the dinghy, grapples and boards it to find the body of a woman shot dead. He turfs the corpse over the side.

It’s a motorboat named the Midge. He and Phyllis transfer their goods into it and take to the coast to navigate (in an amateurish way) down towards Cornwall. In fact first they return to central London and load up with maximum provisions. The last remaining team in Selfridges think they’re crazy and try to persuade them to stay. But once they’ve loaded everything they can think of, they set off downstream towards the Thames Estuary and then round and along the Channel coast. The journey takes a month, with scattered observations of what the English landscape, coast and cliff look like under 100 feet of water.

The cottage is still there. It has been ransacked but is physically sound. Only now does Phyllis reveal that the summer several years ago when she developed an interest in bricklaying and built the arbour, supposedly to shelter and write in… well, she buried a load of stores in it. Nobody’s found them. They should be alright for a while…

Now these are the last pages. Mike tells us he began writing his account in November. Now it’s January. The rate of seawater rise has decreased. The sea tanks have been reported but don’t find many victims and all the little scattered communities post watchers, so the inhabitants know to flee. The hill their cottage sat on has become an island. People leave them alone. The winter has been bitterly cold, with howling gales. Sometimes the sea has frozen. It is becoming an Arctic climate. Soon nothing will grow. They decide to rig the Midget with a sail and dead south, presumably to France.

Two endings

Ending 1

The 1973 British Penguin paperback which I own ends thus:

Just as I was expecting the couple to sail off into the blue, there is a dramatic last-minute reversal. One day as they’re preparing the yacht Midget for her big journey, a strange sailing boat enters their backwater and hails them. The man has a message. Over what radios survive have come messages announcing a government of reconstruction. Speech given Dr Bocker (him again, right here at the end of the narrative) saying the water has ceased rising. Mike and Phyll are astounded to learn that only between a fifth and an eighth of Britain’s land remains. But the population has collapsed. Three hard winters and no medical provision has seen millions die of pneumonia and related diseases.

Now they’re going to try and organise and rebuild. The messages ended with a list of specialist personnel required. Mike and Phyll’s names were on it. They are requested to report to London. The man even tells them the boffins seem to have developed some new device to combat the bathies. A device which emits powerful ultrasonic signals. Developed by the Japanese. Already it’s been trialled by them and the Americans and seems to have cleared some of the shallower deeps. Large amounts of white jelly have floated to the surface, same as what exploded with such force from the sea tanks when they were shelled.

Suddenly, suddenly there is hope. It’s going to be hard surviving in a world changed out of recognition and yet… they will face the future bravely!

Ending 2

Intriguingly, the online version of the novel I referred to ends differently, thus:

This version begins its final section at the same moment, with Mike and Phyllis preparing the Midget for her voyage but, instead of a sailing boat coming up the creek, they are amazed to see a helicopter (Wyndham and his post-apocalyptic helicopters!). It circles their island, then hovers just above the uneven stones and heather, a briefcase is thrown out then a figure clambers down a short rope ladder and dusts himself off as the helicopter lifts off and flies away.

As they run up to him they realise it is Dr Bocker! Again! Phyllis embraces him and bursts out crying. Mike walks up and shakes his hand. He admits it has been lonely, very lonely and depressing. They help him up and down to the house, where Bocker produces a flask of whiskey! and proceeds to explain. He first flew to London where the BC crew told him Mike and Phyl had come to Cornwall and so he followed.

They are going to rebuild, The water has ceased to rise. They have lost a lot of land and a lot of people. But he estimates with what remains they can feed five million people. The population of Britain has collapsed from 46 million to just five million! Bocker says the country has disintegrated into tens of thousands of micro communities each defending their own and utterly isolated.

Step one is to break down that isolation by producing thousands of cheap battery-operated radios and dropping them on the communities, helping them get back in touch, broadcasting the new central authority’s plans. That’s where Mike and Phyll come in. He needs experienced and confident broadcasters to lead the operation.

Mike and Phyl are both stunned, above all by the revival of community, the sense that there are others out there, and they can work together. But what about the bathies, what about the evil aliens lurking in the deeps? And this is when Bocker tells them about the ultrasonics weapons which the Japanese have developed and seem to work really well. They’ve sent plans to the Americans who have started to mass produce them. (America, Bocker tells us, was hit nowhere near as badly as Britain. Britain is a cramped over-crowded place and pays badly for it when put under pressure. America is vaaaast.)

For a while, none of us spoke. I stole a sidelong glance at Phyllis; she was looking as though she had just had a beauty treatment.
‘I’m coming to life again, Mike,’ she said. ‘There’s something to live for.’

What about the Arctic cold? Bocker replies the scientific consensus is that the water will slowly warm up. Improbably, he claims the climate may end up being better than it used to be. In other words, this ending feels as if it was written to order to be significantly more upbeat than ending A. Maybe – along with the reference to America not being hit nearly so badly and about to mass produce the weapons which will save the world – maybe this version was written specially to flatter an American audience.

Thoughts

When I read this as an impressionable adolescent my imagination was fired to extraordinary heights. After H.G. Wells, Wyndham was my god when I was about 13, and the scene in the Caribbean town square where the alien globules explode into masses of sticky tentacles stayed with me for years. However, returning as a jaded adult and a man tired out from raising a family and hanging on to a demanding job, I read and experience this book completely differently.

I am now struck by the cleverness of the book’s narrative structure, and by the tone. By structure I mean two things:

1. One is the way he makes the protagonists journalists in order to allow them not only to be sent to a number of key scenes and incidents (they see the first fireballs land in the sea, they witness the first atom bomb being dropped in the deeps, they are the first Western eye-witnesses of the disgusting coelenterates) but also to interview a number of key experts, namely Captain Winters from the Admiralty and, most importantly, to really get to know Alastair Bocker, the book’s main theorist for the entire sequence of events.

2. Second aspect of structure is the way the story is told by a husband-and-wife team. Mike is the sole narrator but Phyllis gets to interview some of the experts, or they jointly meet other witnesses over dinner or drinks, and her opinions are as important as, and often sharper than, her husband’s. This dyad gives us not only gives the narrative access to more important people and eye witness, it also means the husband and wife team spend a lot of time discussing events, pondering and analysing and speculating and, of course, taking the viewer with them in their theories and speculations.

And this ‘pair structure’ is just part of the way the information about the story comes in from multiple sources. Because they are journalists working for a broadcast outlet, they sit in the nerve centre of an organisation devoted to bringing together information from every possible source, from everywhere round the world. And, after their accidental eye witnessing of some of the earliest fireballs landing in the sea, Mike finds himself early on lumbered with the task of co-ordinating other news on the subject, nobody in the early stages realising it will go on to become the story of the age.

3. But the biggest and most dominant aspect of the book for me as a married man, is the tone. The entire book is drenched in the way Wyndham conveys the relationship between Mike and Phyllis, in fast-talking, witty banter. It reminded me a bit of the Thin Man movies (1934 to 1947) based on the smart-guy, knowing banter between husband-and-wife detectives, William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Mike and Phyllis argue, they make up, she cuts across him during interviews and he knows when to shut up, they discuss ideas for stories and edit each other’s work. Thinking about it, Wyndham obviously not only wanted to differentiate the book, in structure and tone, from Triffids, but possibly also from standard science fiction, of the kind he’d been writing with so little success since the 1930s.

In the 1960s critics came to unkindly dismiss this approach as ‘cosy catastrophe’, but you can turn that critique on its head and point out that Wyndham was trying to take science fiction tropes away from the wide-eyed, boys-own-adventure world of the American SF magazines, and situate it, instead, precisely among the urban, middle-class bourgeoisie. To see what happens when you take characters who could come from a respectable drawing-room drama, who drink sherry before dinner and are oh-so-blasé about news reports and government statements – and then drop them into the middle of a world-shattering catastrophe.

I thought it was a telling moment when Mike and Phyllis are lounging by the pool on the island of Escondida and Phyllis jokingly says she feels as languid as a character in one of Somerset Maugham’s stories from the Far East (p.127). Maugham’s stories (which I have comprehensively reviewed elsewhere in this blog) are set among the pukka, public school-educated, colonial classes, and this passing reference is a reminder of the broader world this story is meant to be set in, and of the class Mike and Phyllis don’t really belong to, but certainly can relate to. What would happen to these pukka sahibs and memsahibs if catastrophe struck their world? Of course they’d carry on talking and acting the same, right up till the bitter end.

So from the point of view of the ‘radical’ 1960s, maybe The Kraken Wakes can be seen as a cosy catastrophe (as Brian Aldiss jokingly dismissed it). But maybe it’s also by way of being an experiment in mixing genres, of applying bubble gum disaster science fiction to drawing room drama characters and seeing what happens.

4. Loneliness I will now compare and contrast Kraken and Triffids. And I’ve already mentioned it, but the lasting impression of The Day of The Triffids is of intense and soul-harrowing loneliness. It’s a book with multiple levels of isolation and aloneness:

  • the protagonist is isolated when the rest of the world is struck blind
  • the entire world’s media (meaning, in those days, the radio and newspapers) ceases to function, so everyone becomes isolated, with no way at all of knowing what’s going on except by world of mouth
  • thus the protagonist has to find out what’s going on utterly by himself
  • and no sooner has he met a potential soul-mate who he can share his feelings with than she is kidnapped and taken off he knows not where, thus redoubling his sense of isolation and abandonment

But the fundamental metaphor at the centre of the narrative – blindness – is itself about eternal isolation from the visual understanding of the world, a theme which is rammed home on numerous occasions, when he either sees the blind in pitiful operation or reflects on the essential isolation which blindness imposes on its sufferers. There’s a searing moment when Masen comments on how quiet a blind world is because everyone is forced to listen to try and figure out what is happening. The only sound is the quiet shuffling of shoes along pavements and the sobbing of the newly blind in their infinite misery.

In the depth to which these tropes extend, in the multiple levels the story taps, Triffids approaches fable or allegory, and I found the totality and intensity of its vision truly terrifying.

So Kraken comes as an extraordinary contrast: it couldn’t be more the opposite, the jokey flippant, knowing, media-savvy tone of the two protagonists meaning the book is buoyed on a tone of knowing flippancy.

‘I wish,’ said Phyllis, ‘that I had been kinder and tried to pay more attention to dear Miss Popple who used to try to teach me geography, poor thing. Every day the world gets fuller of places I never heard of.’

Even when it becomes clear that the incident on Escondida has caused them both some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, this emerges only obliquely, and all the more movingly because of it. And in the later stages, even when Mike has to go to a rest home and Phyllis goes down to the cottage to recover: the stress and psychological impact is strongly hinted at and sort of described –but in this book the reader is never really as psychologically involved as I felt I was in Triffids.

Cold War references

I’ve mentioned some of the examples as they arise in the text, but it’s worth emphasising how strongly present Cold War themes are throughout the story. This operates at multiple levels.

At a ‘serious’ level, some of the experts, the men from the Admiralty or Bocker, discuss the possibility that the whole thing is a Russian ploy, some kind of new-fangled Russian attack.

In a different way, both Mike and Phyllis make jokey, ironic references throughout the novel to ‘our Russian friends’, ‘the other side’, ‘the Soviets’ and so on. Again and again they invoke, satirise and ridicule the Cold War rhetoric which the Russians had perfected about their ostensible quest for ‘peace’ (despite the obvious fact that they had occupied and continued to oppress all the nations of Eastern Europe).

Here’s an example of Wyndham pastiching Cold War rhetoric when, early on, the American government makes a formal complaint to Russia about the fireballs encroaching US airspace.

The Kremlin, after a few days of gestation, produced a rejection of the protest. It proclaimed itself unimpressed by the tactics of attributing one’s own crime to another, and went on to state that its own weapons, recently developed by Russian scientists for the defense of peace, had now destroyed more than twenty of these craft over Soviet territory, and would, without hesitation, give the same treatment to any others detected in their work of espionage…

The fact that Mike is a journalist allows Wyndham to give satirical swipes at the rhetoric of the press releases and communiques the Soviets perfected during this era, which managed to combine a pious wish for peace with barely disguised threats of retaliation and, always, the comic opera boasting that, whatever new technology the West developed, the Russians thought of it first and had already made it bigger and better.

Mr. Malenkov, interviewed by telegram, had said that although the intensified program of aircraft construction in the West was no more than a part of a bourgeois-fascist plan by warmongers that could deceive no one, yet so great was the opposition of the Russian people to any thought of war that the production of aircraft within the Soviet Union for the Defense of Peace had been tripled. Indeed, so resolutely were the Peoples of the Free Democracies determined to preserve Peace in spite of the new Imperialist threat, that war was not inevitable – though there was a possibility that under prolonged provocation the patience of the Soviet Peoples might become exhausted.

Then there’s the level of public opinion – because it’s a global phenomenon, Wyndham’s journalist protagonists regularly discuss the impact on public opinion of each stage of the ‘invasion’ and part of this public opinion is concern about ‘the other side’, and a predisposition to blame everything bad on the Reds.

This aspect – popular opinion – is actually embodied in one of the characters, Tuny, the self-important, pukka woman from Kensington who is the partner of Harold, an old friend of Mike’s. The pair come down to stay at Mike and Phyl’s Cornish cottage and, over dinner, Tuny leaves no-one in any doubt that she knows the entire thing is a Russian plot and that our government is refusing to say so out of fear. In her florid opinion, it’s appeasement all over again.

Quite distinct from the novel’s ostensible subject matter, all this is fascinating social history. At the end of the day The Kraken Wakes is a middle-brow work of fiction (i.e. has no particular aspiration to purely literary merit) but that makes all the more revealing the kinds of thoughts, conversations, opinions about world politics which Wyndham considered typical of the day (and of his likely readership).

The ‘two intelligent species’ problem

Having now read all of Wyndham’s four great novels, I can see that there is a strong unifying thread or impulse underlying all of them, namely the question: ‘Can two intelligent but completely different species cohabit on the same planet?’

Hitherto Homo sapiens has regarded itself as unquestionably the most intelligent species on earth and, probably, anywhere, and swanked and lorded it over creation. In Wyndham’s big four novels, humanity is suddenly confronted with creatures which present an existential threat: in Day of the Triffids, it’s the triffids; in Kraken, the deep sea invaders from space; in Chrysalids, the post-apocalyptic survivor communities are confronted by a new superspecies of human whose leaders treat old-style humans as animals to be eliminated; and in Midwich it is the alien children whose hive mind begins to present a threat to humanity.

All of these novels dramatise the plight of a planet divided into two opposing camps, two types of intelligent species who live in an uneasy balance of peace which, in all four novels, is knocked off kilter and in which our side is put on the back foot.

The point I’m driving at is that you could argue that the deep structure of all four novels embodies or reflects the Cold War rivalry between two highly intelligent, highly armed, aggressive camps – the capitalist and communist worlds – who live in an uneasy peace which could, at the slightest incident, be toppled over into catastrophic conflict.

In other words, that John Wyndham’s novels are Cold War novels not just by an accident of history or in incidental details or in the opinions of some of the characters, but in their deepest structure reflect the challenge of how two utterly opposed types of intelligence can inhabit the same planet without wiping each other out.


Credit

The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham was published by Michael Joseph in 1953. All references are to the 1973 Penguin paperback edition.

Related link

John Wyndham reviews

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by lingering radiation; but as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, and soon he and his mind-melding friends are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small gang of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism in order to reach the remote valley which his brother had told him he was going to plant with potatoes and other root vegetables and which he knows is an easily defendable enclave
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a few centuries hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like mothers into whose body a twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head who it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents is real and a telepathic explorer from a far distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in retrospect, in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 3

The reign of Charles I

The 1620s

King James I died on 25 March 1625 and was succeeded by his son, Charles I. A month and a half later Charles married the French Princess Henrietta Maria (sister of King Louis XIII) by proxy in a ceremony in Paris. She was then sent to Kent where they met and spent their marriage night.

Charles was crowned in Westminster in February 1626 but Henrietta’s Catholicism prevented her from being crowned with him and this lack of a formal coronation, along with her overt Catholicism and the stipulation that she be allowed to practice her Catholicism in the royal court, were all to build up popular animosity against her.

In fact, the French stipulation that she be allowed to bring up her children in the Catholic religion lay the seeds of the overthrow of her son James II in 1685. It’s odd that Charles’s advisers didn’t grasp this obvious fact.

With James dead, Charles gave hid father’s former favourite, and his own best friend, the Duke of Buckingham, his head to launch a war against Spain. Yet just like his father, Charles soon found himself stymied.

  1. Brave talk of capturing the annual Spanish treasure fleet coming from South America turned out to be pointless as the fleet had already safely arrived in Spain.
  2. Buckingham led a naval attack on the port of Cadiz which failed to achieve anything.
  3. Ships which the British lent the French to combat the Spanish off the coast of Holland, ended up being used, instead, to attack France’s own Protestant rebels holed up in the Atlantic port of La Rochelle.

Like his father, Charles called a Parliament expecting patriotic enthusiasm and uncritical support, and was taken aback when it promptly launched a series of attacks on him and his favourite adviser.

Instead of voting him the subsidies he wanted, Parliament impeached Buckingham. Charles responded by imprisoning the leaders of the impeachers, which led to predictable outcries about free speech, which Charles ended by shutting Parliament altogether. So much for the Parliament of 1625.

The forced loan Charles initiated a ‘forced loan’ i.e. the compulsory taxation of his rich subjects, but this led to a storm of protest and Charles found himself having to imprison a whole series of eminent protesters and other officials to carry it through. By this stage relations with France had collapsed – both sides were confiscating each others’ ships – and Charles and Buckingham spent the £200,000 raised by the loan to launch a well-equipped campaign to relieve La Rochelle, the Atlantic port which had become the focus for Protestant resistance to the Catholic king and his chief adviser, Cardinal Richelieu.

The British fleet and army attacked the island of Saint-Martin-de-Ré in order to relieve the Siege of La Rochelle but, for a number of reasons, the siege was a failure, many English lives were lost, and the expedition was eventually forced to withdraw in humiliation.

The 1628 Parliament Charles was forced to call another Parliament, in May 1628, which immediately began debating the various measures he had taken the preceding year, plus abuses arising from the passing of martial law to organise the troops sent to France. Many aspects of this – for example, billeting soldiers on civilians – had become deeply unpopular.

The Petition of Right The upshot was that before Parliament voted him more money, it insisted on Charles agreeing to a ‘Petition of Right’. This was drawn up to confirm four traditional liberties:

  • freedom from arbitrary arrest
  • freedom from taxation not approved by parliament aka arbitrary taxation
  • freedom from the billeting of troops
  • freedom from being governed by martial law

Assassination of Buckingham Charles was careful to specify that these liberties did not affect his own prerogative, and then agreed. Parliament voted him the subsidies he wanted. Buckingham hurried off to Portsmouth to ready the fleet for another attempt to relieve the French Protestants. Then Buckingham was assassinated.

The Duke was stabbed to death on 23 August 1628 at the Greyhound Pub in Portsmouth, where he had gone to organise yet another campaign. According to an eye-witness account, he lived just long enough to jump up, shouting ‘Villain!’ and making to chase after his assailant, but then fell down dead. The assassin was John Felton, an army officer who had been wounded in the earlier military adventure and believed he had been passed over for promotion by Buckingham.

Felton Buckingham was by now so hated that his assassin, John Felton, was feted as a hero, had poems and pamphlets written about him. He was tried and executed, of course, but when his body was taken back to Portsmouth to be publicly hung up, it became an object of popular veneration. A few months later, in October 1628 La Rochelle finally fell to French Catholic forces.

So his favourite was dead and the policy which had driven his first four years as king had completely failed. Charles needed to regroup. He sought to make peace with both France and Spain, and he knew he needed to call one more Parliament. The first of his reign had refused to grant the traditional tonnage and poundage tax to him for the whole reign. He needed that money. But in the meantime…

Peace Charles signed peace treaties with France in 1629 and Spain in 1630. Sick to death of confrontations with Parliament he decided – now he no longer needed special funds for war – not to call another one, and so ruled through his council and by exercising the Personal Prerogative. In fact, he wasn’t to call another Parliament until 1640, a period of 11 years which is referred to as the period of his Personal Rule or (by his harshest critics) as the Eleven Years Tyranny.

After the tribulations of the 1620s, Charles tried to make the 1630s a decade of peace and reconciliation. But such was the distrust generated by the opening years of his reign, that everything he did tended to be misinterpreted for the worst, and in four or five main areas of government, he took aggressively centralising decisions which alienated large numbers of his subjects.

Issues of the 1630s

Ship Money Charles was still chronically short of money and his Chancellors came up with a series of ever-more ingenious ways of mulcting money from his subjects. The most controversial was ship money. This was a traditional and well-accepted tax imposed on coastal communities to pay for ships to be built and crewed to defend coastal towns. Ship money had traditionally been authorised only during wars, and only on coastal regions.

Charles, however, argued that there was no legal bar to collecting the tax for defence during peacetime and throughout the whole of the kingdom. Ship money, paid directly to the Treasury of the Navy, provided between £150,000 to £200,000 annually between 1634 and 1638, after which yields declined. Opposition to ship money steadily grew, but the 12 common law judges of England declared that the tax was within the king’s prerogative, though some of them had reservations. The prosecution of John Hampden for non-payment in 1637–38 provided a platform for popular protest, and the judges only found against Hampden by the narrow margin of 7–5.

Monopolies Charles also raised money by the granting of monopolies for specific trades. This was despite a statute forbidding such action, which, though inefficient, raised an estimated £100,000 a year in the late 1630s.

Act of Revocation Charles also raised funds from the Scottish nobility, at the price of considerable acrimony, by the Act of Revocation (1625), whereby all gifts of royal or church land made to the nobility since 1540 were revoked. If the owners wanted to continue in possession of their property, they had to pay an annual rent.

Forest money In addition, the boundaries of the royal forests in England were extended to their ancient limits as part of a scheme to maximise income by exploiting the land and fining land users within the expanded boundaries for ‘encroachment’.

Sales of Royal lands, especially the large expanses of under-developed Royal forests was another way of raising money. The programme arranged for the sale of forest lands for development as pasture and arable, or in the case of the Forest of Dean, development for the iron industry. This included providing compensation to people using common land, but not for people who had settled illegally. Pushed off land they had been working for some time, many of these rioted. In fact such was the sale of the discontent in the west of England it became known as the Western Rising, with other scattered riots in Feckenham Forest and Malvern Chase.

Despite all these measures, Charles still faced bankruptcy in the summer of 1640. The City of London refused to make any further loans to the king. Pushed to extreme measures, Charles then seized the money held in trust at the mint of the Exchequer in the tower of London. This represented the capital of the merchants and goldsmiths of the city. In August Charles seized all the stocks of pepper held by the East India Company, and sold it off cheap.

You can see how virtually every expedient Charles developed to raise money alienated and embittered large groups of subjects, and especially merchants in the City of London, who came to think of the king as a public menace.

Strafford and Ireland Another long term problem for any British king was the situation in Ireland. Throughout the Tudor period, from Henry VIII through Elizabeth, parts of Ireland had been settled by ‘planters’, not without resistance from the native Irish and their traditional lords, who rose in repeated uprisings.

But the so-called ‘Flight of the Earls’ in 1607 had left a lot of the land in north-east Ireland leaderless, and so James I set about organising the Plantation of Ulster, a plan to encourage emigrants from Scotland to settle in what is now known as Ulster, with funding from the City of London.

With the result that Ireland, by Charles’s time, contained about four identifiable groups:

  • the Irish population, mostly rural peasants
  • the Irish leadership – the traditional lords of various lands and estates who, however, a century of negotiating and compromising with their English invaders had split into various parties, some for compromise, some for submission, some burning for rebellion and independence
  • the ‘Old English’ settlers i.e. the originally English families who had been in Ireland for generations and begun to think of themselves as in a sense Irish, appreciated local customs and laws and who were often put out or deprived by the new plantation
  • the ‘New English’ who had arrived in the past generation and who had a vested interest in expanding and consolidating the new plantation

Managing this situation took a firm hand, and Charles was clever in selecting Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, to be his Viceroy in Ireland. Strafford brought all sides to heel, though at the cost of uniting them all in hatred of his strong-arm, inflexible approach.

Archbishop Laud and religion Something similar happened in religion, where Charles appointed Laud as archbishop of Canterbury. Charles wanted order and clarity and beauty in his church. However, religion continued to be a source of discontent among virtually all his subjects.

Arminianism Charles’s reign saw the spread of Arminianism among Anglican intellectuals. The Dutch Reformed theologian Jacobus Arminius  reacted against the iron predestinationism of Calvin and the Calvinists. According to Calvin, God had already chosen who was saved (the Elect) and who was damned. All we could do was examine our own lives with scrupulous attention and live as purely as possible in the hope we were one of the Elect.

This was in sharp contrast to traditional Catholic teaching which is the more commonsense view that we attain salvation through our works. We may sin and err but we can be forgiven through Church rituals such as confession and the Mass.

Starting in the 1610s, Arminius proposed a sort of middle way, adopting the outlines of Calvinism, and certainly espousing a Christianity much purified of Catholic superstitions (veneration of saints, the Virgin Mary, miracles and so on). But still he modified the harshness of Calvinist theology, asserting that the Atonement of Christ offers each individual some leeway, some freedom, in determining their own salvation or damnation.

To Puritans this was blasphemy, but it was attractive to Charles and his archbishop, Laud. The rise of Arminianism within moderate sections of the Anglican church therefore became a battleground with more radical Puritans.

Buildup to the outbreak of civil war

Thus there were many long-term issues which Charles was struggling with. But the first spark which led to outright violence was his attempt to impose a new prayer book on the Scottish church or Kirk as they called it.

On a visit to Scotland, Charles and Laud had been upset at the variation in church services there, and the scrappy state of many of the churches. Being a devout Christian Charles thought it was his duty as King to renovate and improve the Scottish church. He gave money to repair buildings. But in the same vein he wanted to bring Scottish church practice in line with English. And so he commissioned English clerics to write a new unified prayer book.

When this was first used in a service at Edinburgh in July 1637, it caused a riot. It was seen as an imposition of English values on Scottish religion, and as blasphemously Arminian, or pseudo-Catholic. Religious chauvinism combined with Scottish nationalism. With characteristic arrogance, Charles had held no consultations, either in the Scottish Parliament or in an Assembly of the Kirk.

The protests quickly spread across Scotland, and – as with many religious disturbances – became a handy opportunity for the powerful in the land to push for more independence (and power) from England.

The Scottish National Covenant Quickly they organised the Scottish National Covenant. In February 1638, at a ceremony in Greyfriars Kirk in Edinburgh, large numbers of Scottish noblemen, gentry, clergy and burgesses signed the Covenant, committing themselves under God to preserving the purity of the Kirk. Copies were distributed throughout Scotland for signing on a wave of popular support. Those who hesitated were often intimidated into signing and clergymen who opposed it were deposed. This was followed in August 1639 by a series of acts passed by the Parliament of Scotland that amounted to a constitutional revolution.

First Bishops War Charles decided to invade Scotland and impose his will. A complicated plan to co-ordinate a land invasion and an amphibious landing failed (remember the long list of military failures which characterised the 1620s). A Scottish army was raised and marched to within a few miles of the English border. Talks were held and a peace treaty signed, but both sides regarded it only as a truce.

Charles called a Parliament, as usual hoping for patriotic support and money but, as usual, the Parliament immediately drew up a list of grievances, notably ship money and the arbitrary behaviour of the feared Star Chamber, and called for the impeachment of many of his advisers, so Charles promptly dissolved it.

Second Bishops War Alexander Leslie, 1st Earl of Leven, had fought in the Thirty Years War. He led a vastly better trained and provisioned Scottish army into England in August 1640, which swept aside the ill-trained English militias and seized Newcastle, main source of coal for London. The Scots were in the driving seat. The Scots insisted on being paid £850 per day maintenance.

The Long Parliament Charles was forced to call a Parliament to raise the money to pay the Scots. What was to become known as the Long Parliament organised to take revenge on Charles, impeaching his advisers, and demanded the return of Strafford from Ireland. Strafford was tried and executed Strafford in May 1641 and in August the Scots finally evacuated Northern England after the Treaty of London.

The Irish Rising However, the withdrawal of Strafford, the only man strong enough to balance the conflicting sides in Ireland, turned out to be a disaster. In October 1641 the Irish Rebellion broke out, beginning as an attempted coup d’état by Irish Catholic gentry, who tried to seize control of the English administration in Ireland to force concessions for Catholics, but developing into an ethnic conflict between Irish Catholics on one side, and English and Scottish Protestants on the other. Thousands of English and Scots were forced to flee their homes, amid scare stories of burning and looting and murder and rape.

When news of this arrived in London it transformed the atmosphere from crisis into hysteria. Once again the Protestants felt the deadly paranoia of a Catholic conspiracy. Both Charles and Parliament realised an army needed to be raised quickly to combat the Irish rebels, but neither side trusted the other with such a large force.

And that crux, control of the army raised to put down the Irish rebellion, was the immediate cause of the outbreak of the civil war.


Related links

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky (1996) 2

The reign of James I

Queen Elizabeth I died aged 70 on 24 March 1603. She had resisted marrying a husband or bearing an heir throughout her reign and now died childless. King James VI of Scotland was chosen to inherit the crown of England, ascending the throne at the age of 37, having himself ascended the Scottish throne while still a child aged 13 months, after his mother, Mary Queen of Scots was forced to abdicate in his favour.

James had been brought up by four regents and umpteen guardians, and had survived the poisonous faction-fighting of the Scottish court for 20 years since coming of age.

Kidnapping Scottish kings was almost constitutional practice and James himself was abducted twice. (p.79)

Upon hearing he’d inherited the throne of England, James hastened south to Scotland’s rich, sunny neighbour and never went back. Unfortunately, he brought quite a few Scottish aristocrats and dependents with him, who he awarded key posts in his private council and chamber – although wisely continuing most Elizabethan officials in their posts.

The Scots incomers were unpopular not only with English officials whose jobs they took, but with the man in the street. An ordinance had to be passed against ‘swaggerers’, who were beating up Scots in the streets of London.

James wanted peace and unity, Beatifi Pacifici was his motto. He came in with a promise to make a clean sweep and a new start after the increasingly frozen and paralysed years at the end of Elizabeth’s reign. To this end:

Spain James negotiated an end to the war with Spain, which had been rumbling on for 20 years, with the 1604 Treaty of London, and thereafter tried to curry favour with Spain, widely thought to be the most powerful Catholic power in Europe. He tried to arrange a Spanish marriage for his eldest son, Henry; and in 1618 he had the old Elizabethan hero Sir Walter Raleigh executed, after he’d led an abortive expedition against Spain in South America. This did nothing to impress the Spanish but upset many of James’s new subjects.

Religion James was petitioned about reforming the Church of England before he’d even arrived in London. He called a conference in 1604 at Hampton Court to address religious issues, the most practical outcome of which was a new translation of the Bible into English, which was published in 1611 and became known as ‘the Authorised version’ or ‘the King James Bible’ (pp.72-3).

James managed to adjust and renew Elizabeth’s ‘middle way’ (between Catholicism on the conservative wing and Calvinism on the radical wing), not least by his wise appointment of the best theologians or churchmen for the job – the moderate George Abbott as archibishop of Canterbury, John Donne and Lancelot Andrewes as preachers.

But religion proved to be an intractable problem. The remaining Catholics (including some very influential families) and the fringe of extreme Puritan groups both hoped for greater toleration of their beliefs, and even within the established Church of England there was a broad range of opinion. It was impossible to please everyone and James found himself forced to reinforce the outline of the Elizabethan settlement.

There were Catholic plots from the start. The Pope had long ago established a parallel Catholic church hierarchy waiting to be imposed on England once the Protestant king was liquidated and powerful Catholic members of the aristocracy had risen up to place a Catholic claimant on the throne.

There were two minor Catholic plots within a year of James’s coronation and then the Gunpowder plot of November 1605 – a plan to blow up the king and all the members of the Houses of Parliament before imposing a Catholic regime – and even after the exemplary torture and punishment of the Guy Fawkes conspirators, other plots followed. Taking the long view, the country was still subject to Catholic scares and even hysterias, into the 1670s and 80s.

Royal finances But the real problem of James’s reign was money. He spent money like an oligarch’s wife – he renovated the royal palaces, paid for his predecessor’s state funeral and his own coronation, then had to set up his wife (Queen Anne of Denmark) and his sons (Henry and Charles) with their own establishments.

And then James became notorious for having a succession of ‘favourites’, handsome young men who he lavished money and titles on. Most unpopular of all was George Villiers, raised from obscurity and showered with titles and responsibilities to become the most powerful man in the country, the Duke of Buckingham.

Kishlansky very casually mentions that Buckingham became James’s lover (p.98). The impact of this on the king, the court and his wife, Queen Anne of Denmark, is not at all explored.

As James got deeper into debt, a succession of ministers and officials (notably the Earl of Salisbury, Lord Treasurer from 1608) were tasked with extracting more money from the country. Taxes and customs were increased, old forms of extraction revived, James sold monopolies of trade and discovered he could fine people if he offered them a knighthood and they refused to accept. James’s increasingly mercenary sale of titles, and his creation of a new rank in the peerage, the baronetcy, prompted widespread mockery, particularly in Jacobean plays.

James was used to the Scottish style of politics, to a face-to-face form of government, where you sized a man up and manipulated him accordingly (p.79). He struggled to understand or manage the infinitely more complex ways of English government, with its obstinate Parliament and maze of committees and officials.

His frequent exasperation explains the lengthy and sometimes angry lectures he was wont to give English officials and sometimes Parliament as a whole. Witness the failure of the so-called ‘Addled Parliament’ which met for just nine weeks in 1614 but refused to concede any of James’s schemes to raise money and so which he angrily dismissed.

Divine Right of Kings James was a noted scholar and had written several books on the idea of the Divine Right of Kings, so he struggled to understand how the entire English ruling class claimed to agree with him about this but then presented him with a never-ending stream of precedents and liberties which had the practical effect of completely stymying and blocking his divine wishes.

Scotland James hoped from day one that his old kingdom and his new one could be united. He was king of both and he wanted it to be, so it would happen, right? No. Once again the legal complexities of the situation escaped him but not the hordes of constitutional lawyers and advisers who explained why it couldn’t be done. Plus the visceral fear of many English aristocrats and officials that if the two countries were legally united, then the flow of Scots finding office in the south would turn into a flood.

Ireland The advent of a Scottish king on the throne of England opened the way for the settlement of Ulster i.e. lots of poor Scots had wanted to emigrate to Ireland but been prevented when it was run by the English crown. James’s advent unlocked the floodgates. Thousands of emigrants settled along the coast of north-east Ireland then moved inland, settling land seized from the Irish owners.

Much of it had belonged to the Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell who forfeited it when they absconded to the continent in 1607 in a bid to work with Spain to raise an army, invade Ireland, and restore the Irish aristocracy to the lands and powers it had enjoyed before the Elizabethan conquest.

The Earls of Tyrone and Tyrconnell Their plan was never carried out for a number of reasons:

  • the Spanish government of King Philip III didn’t want to rock the boat, wanted to maintain the new peace with the new Stuart dynasty (established in 1604) in order to focus its energies on its long-running war with the Dutch Republic. In fact discussions had opened about marrying Prince Henry to a Spanish royal bride
  • Spain had recently [1598] gone bankrupt – again
  • the Spanish fleet had only just been destroyed by a Dutch fleet at the Battle of Gibraltar, 25 April 1607 and so wasn’t in a position to mount any kind of invasion

Instead the net result of what became known as ‘the Flight of the Earls’ was a watershed in Irish history. They set sail on a ship to France and thence to Spain but neither they, their heirs or any of their ninety or so followers ever returned. As such, the Flight of the Earls represented the moment when the ancient Gaelic aristocracy of Ulster went into permanent exile. And this opened the way for the settlement of Ulster by Presbyterian Scots – the Plantation of Ulster – and the creation of the Ulster problem which has bedevilled British politics for over a century (pp.70-71).

The Thirty Years War In Kishlansky’s account the outbreak of war in the Holy Roman Empire in 1618 changed the tone of James’s rule. Having just read Peter H. Wilson’s vast account of the war, I found myself disagreeing with the way Kishlansky tells the story. He leaves facts out, his summary feels incomplete and a bit misleading.

In Wilson’s version, Protestant nobles in the Kingdom of Bohemia, worried by the pro-Catholic and anti-Protestant trend of recent policies of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II, raised a rebellion against him and sought allies among the Protestant leaders of the Empire’s scores of independent states. Ferdinand was titular King of Bohemia, but the rebels rejected his kingship and offered the crown to a solidly Protestant prince, the Count Palatine of the Rhine (i.e. ruler of the territory know as the Palatinate) Frederick V – not least because he was the leader of the Protestant Union, a military alliance founded by his father.

Frederick accepted, was crowned King of Bohemia in 1619, and led the military struggle against the armies of the Holy Roman Emperor – but he lost. The Bohemian army was crushed at the Battle of White Mountain just outside Prague on 8 November 1620. Frederick and his wife fled. Because he had only reigned for one calendar year he and his wife became known as the Winter King and the Winter Queen.

Following the Battle of White Mountain the Emperor’s Catholic army seized Prague, the Emperor was reinstated as King of Bohemia, and then his forces, along with a Spanish army led by the Marquis de Spinola, went on to seize the Palatinate, Frederick’s original territory, as well as engaging the Protestant states who had allied with the Bohemians. The Emperor took the opportunity of his victory to impose tough new pro-Catholic policies on all the conquered territory.

The Winter Queen Why did this have an impact in faraway Britain? Because Frederick had been married to Elizabeth Stuart, James’s daughter, in 1613. The marriage took place in London, in the Palace of Whitehall, and was attended by a vast mob of British aristocracy. John Donne wrote a poem about it. Thus it was the British king’s daughter and son-in-law who were violently overthrown by a Catholic super-power and went into exile (in the Hague in the Dutch Netherlands).

From that point onwards King James, and then his successor, King Charles, were pestered by advisers and commentators and pamphlet writers begging the king to intervene, to send money or, preferably, an army.

Protestants of all stripes saw the war – which didn’t end with the capture of Prague but spread into a number of other Protestant states of the empire, and was destined to rumble on for generations – as an attack by the Catholic Habsburgs on all their Protestant subjects.

When you added in the resumption of the long war between Catholic Spain (also ruled by a branch of the Habsburg family) to suppress the rebels of the Protestant Dutch Netherlands, it wasn’t difficult to claim there was a vast Catholic conspiracy to defeat and exterminate Protestantism.

If you add in memories of the Gunpowder plot a generation earlier, or the attempt by the Irish Earls to persuade Spain to reconquer Ireland for Catholicism, you can begin to enter into the embattled, paranoid state of mind of many British Protestants – and to understand their growing frustration at the way James refused to become embroiled in the war, but tried to position himself as some kind of arbiter for peace (pp.102-3).

(A book like this, taking things from the British point of view, makes all this seem like a plausible strategy. Peter H. Wilson’s book, looking from the European perspective, emphasises how laughably grandiose, inept and ineffectual James’s peace initiatives appeared to the participants in the war. The Brits spent a lot of money on pompous embassies which achieved nothing.)

1621 Parliament In 1621 James called a Parliament to provide funds for some kind of intervention in the Empire and, sure enough, member after member rose to pledge their lives and fortunes to the cause of restoring the king’s son-in-law to his rightful kingdom of the Palatinate. But Parliament and king could not agree on the best strategy. The subsidies Parliament voted James were inadequate to finance serious military operations in aid of Frederick, while MPs went on to inflame the situation by calling for a war – not in Germany – but aimed squarely against Spain. They went on to raise a petition demanding that Prince Charles marry a Protestant, and for enforcement of existing anti-Catholic laws.

James was scandalised and warned Parliament that intrusion into his royal prerogative would trigger punishment. This announcement scandalised Parliamentarians, who issued a statement protesting their rights, including freedom of speech. Egged on by the Duke of Buckingham, James ripped this protest out of the Parliamentary record book, dissolved Parliament and imprisoned five of its leaders.

The Spanish match All this time negotiations with Spain for Charles to marry the Spanish Infanta Maria Anna dragged on, with the Spanish King (Philip IV) putting endless obstacles in the way.

Eventually, in 1623 Charles, Prince of Wales (aged 23) and the Duke of Buckingham (aged 31) set off on an epic journey to Spain, crossing the Channel, resting in Paris, then riding south to Spain. The Spanish king and his adviser, Duke Olivares, were astonished at their unannounced arrival, but proceeded to delay things even more.

Amazingly, six months of delay and obfuscation prevented Charles even meeting the intended bride more than a handful of times, while the Spanish negotiators put all kinds of barriers in his way, insisting that Charles convert to Catholicism and allow the bride to freely practice her religion, and lowering her dowry (in part to pay for the Spanish occupation of the Palatinate).

1624 Parliament Eventually, Charles and Buckingham realised they were being played and left in high dudgeon, Buckingham especially, because members of the hyper-formal Spanish court made no effort to conceal their contempt for him, due to his originally humble background.

(Maria Anna eventually married the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III, a much better choice.)

Charles and Buckingham returned to London determined to take revenge for this humiliation, and Charles persuaded his father to call another Parliament. This assembled and renewed its enthusiasm for war but, once again, didn’t vote nearly enough money to create a realistic military force. Buckingham was now sounding out the French about an alliance with them and a French princess for Charles to marry.

Death James died on 25 March 1625. He had lavished a lot of education and hopes on his eldest son, Prince Henry, but Henry died in 1612 aged just 18, of typhoid, so the crown now passed to the next eldest son, Charles, who became King Charles I of England, Scotland and Ireland.

Summary

James became unpopular because of:

  • the crude and greedy Scots he brought with him
  • his rapacious, novel and sometimes legally debatable ways of raising money
  • his failure to settle the (insoluble) religious problem
  • his alleged pro-Catholicism and his sustained failure to support the Protestant, Bohemian cause in Europe
  • his angry confrontations with Parliament
  • his association with the deeply unpopular Duke of Buckingham

Related links

The Thirty Years War by S.H. Steinberg (1966)

S.H. Steinberg’s history of the Thirty Years War is one of the ‘Foundations of Modern History’ series. It’s admirably short (128 pages including references and index), quite old (published in 1966) and surprisingly opinionated. The preface claims that Steinberg ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the familiar story.

Steinberg’s ‘reorientation’ makes four central claims:

1. that the phrase Thirty Years War is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’ – the phrase doesn’t refer to one ‘thing’, but to a proliferation of separate but interacting conflicts across Europe

2. that the war was only an episode in the far larger and longer-running conflict between the dynastic houses of Bourbon (rulers of France) and Habsburg (rulers of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire) which stretched from 1609 to the end of the Franco-Spanish War in 1659

3. that the German part of this conflict was not a war of religion – as is so often claimed – but the result of constitutional issues within the Empire, namely the efforts of the Holy Roman Emperor to weld his hundreds of little states into a more homogenous unit and at the same time to quell the powers of the ‘Estates’ or local authorities within each one

4. and, lastly, Steinberg very strongly asserts that the war was no more nor less destructive than any other conflict of the same size, and that Germany was not (contrary to received opinion) destroyed or ravaged

Three chapters

Steinberg’s book is divided into three chapters:

Chapter One – Background and Problems

This 23-page section does a very good job indeed of placing the conflict in its full European context. Steinberg takes us on a whistlestop tour of all the European powers, explaining their recent history in the build-up to 1618, and their diplomatic and geopolitical aims and goals.

The nations are Spain, France, the Netherlands, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Poland, Russia, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and then, of course, the complicated situation of the Habsburg dynasty itself, divided into two branches – one ruling Spain, its colonies and European territories (most notably in Italy and the Netherlands); the other ruling Austria and holding overlordship over the seven big Electors and the hundreds of states within the Holy Roman Empire.

These 23 pages explained where each of these states was coming from, and what they were looking for, and therefore the potential flashpoints between them, much more clearly than Peter H. Wilson’s epic book on the same subject.

Moreover, and crucially, Steinberg has the ability to sum up key issues in a sentence, which is so lacking in Wilson’s account.

For example, Wilson explains the idea of the so-called ‘Spanish Road’ at great length. This is that, because of hostile French or British or Dutch fleets which might intercept them at sea, it was safer for Spain to send its troops to crush the Netherland revolt, first across the Med to north Italy, and then across the Alps and along a land route between France and the Empire. This land route became known as The Spanish Road.

But it is Steinberg who then gives the reader the vital insight that, the importance of keeping this route open dictated Spanish policy for the next fifty years i.e. every time a duchy or province or state through which the Spanish Road passed threatened to become anti-Spanish, the Spanish were compelled to intervene.

Grasping this basic geopolitical concern of Spain’s makes what at first appear to be all kind of random interventions in faraway states suddenly make sense.

Similarly, Steinberg sums up his discussion of the Netherland’s revolt against Spain by saying that, by the time a truce of 1609 was put in place, Spain had effectively lost the northern Netherlands. The conflict would resume and then continue until 1648, but Spain had lost – it just took them thirty years to realise the fact: and so all their policy based round the aim of retaining the territory was a waste of life and treasure.

In good history writing you need an explanation of the detail, for sure – but at some point you need the author to take a breath, step back from the detail and summarise where we are, what has happened, and what it means. Wilson almost never does that in his vast 850-page book, which is the central factor which makes it so very difficult to read.

Some of Steinberg’s opinions (summarised above) may be controversial or debatable – but his book has the immense virtue that he regularly stops and explains what the situation is, why something was important, why it was a turning point, and what was at stake.

Chapter two – The European War 1609-1660

There’s no denying it’s a very complicated story, and once war breaks out and numerous armies led by umpteen counts, margraves, dukes and archdukes start tramping across Germany and seizing countless towns, cities and territories, it becomes as hard to follow as Wilson’s account of the same material.

Which is precisely why what you could call Steinberg’s ‘pit-stops’ are so invaluable – the bits every two or three pages where he stops and explains what’s happened and where we are.

So, for example, he makes the context of the Bohemian Revolt of 1618 much clearer to me than Wilson does, and also much clearer why it never really stood a chance.

He is much more prepared to pass judgement on the key actors, and it is amazing how just a sentence or two of character description clarifies your understanding of whole swathes of the story. Thus he explains why the leaders of the Bohemian rebellion looked around for a prince to lead them, why the various other candidates were rejected and why they finally settled on Elector Frederick V of the Palatinate. So far so dry and factual. But the text comes to life when Steinberg laconically remarks ‘The Bohemians could not have made a more unfortunate choice‘ (p.38), before proceeding to explain why.

Thus he gives the reader has a key insight to build on, an incisive judgement which puts the couple of pages before and after it into perspective.

Wallenstein Steinberg’s account makes much clearer to me why the 1629 Edict of Restitution led to the sacking of the Emperor’s best general, Wallenstein, in the war up to that point.

Basically, the Edict handed over to the Emperor a broad range of powers, especially about religion, that the states and their parliaments, the ‘Estates’, had been trying to prevent him acquiring for decades. Persuading him to sack Wallenstein was a way for them to get revenge and also of removing the Emperor’s most feared ‘enforcer’. A way of weakening the Emperor’s power to actually carry out the Edict which almost all the states resented as an intrusion into their affairs.

Another reason is that, wherever he went, Wallenstein was very efficient at extracting ‘contributions’ to pay for his forces from the local authorities, whether the stateholder was Catholic or Protestant, for or against the Emperor – and this had alienated the rulers wherever he and the Imperial army went. Thus it was that, when the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II convened the Electors to award his son (also named Ferdinand) the title ‘King of Rome’ (a bit like the title of dauphin in France or Prince of Wales in Britain, indicating that the elected person is the chosen heir to the throne) the states made it plain they wouldn’t do so unless Wallenstein was sacked. Reluctantly, Ferdinand II had to give in.

Steinberg also explains much more thoroughly than Wilson the true extent of Wallenstein’s power, that he set up his own foundries and war industries in the territory he was awarded, was a genius of industrial organisation and logistics as well as military strategy. Somehow, in a much smaller space, Steinberg gives the reader a much better sense of the magnificence Wallenstein had risen to and why he was and remains to this day such a controversial figure. I didn’t get any of that from Wilson.

All of this background information makes it all the more dramatic when, deprived of its inspiring leader, the imperial army promptly suffered a string of military defeats and the Emperor was forced to restore Wallenstein as generalissimo of the Imperial army – and Wallenstein was not shy about making enormous demands before he agreed to return, demands which in Steinberg’s opinion, almost made him ‘co-emperor’.

But resentment against Wallenstein carried on growing on all fronts – he was, crucially, not interested in currying favour with courtiers and politicians at the Imperial Court – and so, despite winning more victories, Wallenstein was eventually murdered on the orders of the emperor in 1633.

All of these facts, all of these events, are present in Wilson’s account, but not presented so clearly or dramatically. Wilson doesn’t give any of the kinds of judgments and insights which Steinberg provides. It was only by reading Steinberg that for the first time I could see how Wallenstein’s life story could be made to form the basis of not just one, but a series of tragic plays, as the German playwright Schiller was to do in the 1790s.

Compare and contrast with Wilson’s immense but strangely flat and uninvolving account, in which Wallenstein’s murder is only briefly mentioned and no analysed or summarised at all. Instead, as with the deaths of all the other key players, Wilson just moves on with his flood of facts.

Whereas it is typical of Steinberg that he devotes time to reflecting on the impact of such a momentous event. He describes how the dead general’s lands and riches were divided up among the most senior of his fellow generals who had conspired against him, in a fairly standard, expectable way. But then goes on to make the breath-taking point which opens up the long vistas of historical consequences:

Down to 1918 a large part of the Austrian aristocracy lived on these rewards of their ancestors’ loyalty to the house of Habsburg. (p.66)

Wow. What a thought! What amazing vistas of insight and understanding that opens up. There is nothing comparably thought-provoking anywhere in Wilson’s account.

Ferdinand on the back foot Similarly, when on page 60, Steinberg halts the narrative of events to summarise that ‘The emperor was in a desperate position’ and then goes on to briefly explain why – it sheds light on all the developments leading up to this point, and helps you, the reader, understand much more what the Emperor’s options were and why he did what he did next. Wilson never says that kind of thing.

Death of Gustavus Wilson was particularly bad at handling the deaths of key figures, often throwing away the deaths of key players in a half-sentence or parenthesis. In complete contrast, Steinberg claims that the death of Gustavus Adolphus in battle in November 1632, just two years into the Swedish invasion of Germany, had drastic consequences:

As far as one man can influence the course of history, the death of Gustavus Adolphus marked a turning point in the history of Europe – it removed the main obstacle in the way of the ascendancy of Richelieu’s France. (p.62)

Just this one sentence provides immense food for thought, and helps you appreciate the really big picture, which is (in Steinberg’s view) that this era saw the steady rise of France and its ruling House of Bourbon, at the expense of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs and that Gustavus Adolphus’s death in battle was a key turning point in that long struggle.

An end date of 1660 Steinberg gives credit to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia for achievements large and small, but doesn’t consider it the end of his story. He ploughs straight on into an account of the Fronde (1648-53), an aristocratic rebellion against the young king of France. Then he describes the machinations between French and Spanish which were eventually resolved at the Peace of the Pyrenees at the very end of 1659.

It is only this – not the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia – which sets the seal on the sequence of events because, in Steinberg’s opinion, it marks a decisive shift in the balance of power towards France:

The Peace of the Pyrenees fulfilled the highest hopes Henry IV had entertained half a century earlier. Spain was reduced to a second-class power, soon to become the pawn in the game of European politics which she had dominated for a century and a half. (p.88)

Steinberg describes the key elements of the two distinct treaties which made up the Peace of Westphalia – a subject treated in depth by Wilson – but also sheds a typically interesting sidelight, a stylish grace note, when he points out that it was the first international treaty not written in Latin — well, the treaties concerning the Emperor were in Latin, he and his Catholic advisers insisted on it — but all the other treaties and related documents were written in French, and French was to become the standard international language of diplomacy down to the Versailles Conference of 1919-20.

It is a fascinating cultural indicator of the eclipse of the late medieval world, the advent of the early modern era, and the Rise of France.

(There’s a fascinating footnote about Cromwell. Steinberg explains that Cromwell tried to do a deal with the Spanish, but demanded two concessions – freedom of religion for Englishmen on Spanish soil, and freedom of trade with the American colonies – both of which the Spanish rejected. And so Cromwell adopted an anti-Spanish policy, seized Jamaica, and gave his support to France. In his small way, Cromwell, also, contributed to the rise of France to European hegemony.)

Chapter Three – The Thirty Years War: Myth and Reality

That title made me smile – it’s very much the kind of book title we had in our school library 40 years ago. You could write a book about more or less any subject in the humanities by simply adding ‘The Man and the Myth’ or ‘Myth and Reality’ after the name of an eminent writer or a famous event, much as all you have to do nowadays is add buzzwords like ‘gender’, ‘race’ and ‘identity’ to an academic book title to get it to sell.

Anyway, Steinberg defends his view that the Thirty Years War was not the unmitigated disaster it is traditionally painted as. He says the experience of two world wars has taught us:

  1. not to believe atrocity stories, which are quickly cooked up by propaganda units on all sides
  2. to learn the meaning of true mass destruction, next to which the TYW is no better and no worse than the wars directly before or after it
  3. that post-war politicians often use the war as an excuse for the failure of postwar policies of economics etc i.e. they have a vested interest in exaggerating a war’s impact, and this is what the rulers of post-war German states did in the 1650s and 60s

Steinberg details how the conflicting sides hired propagandists and learnèd writers (e.g. the jurist Samuel Pufendorf) to put their cases, writers who were paid to distort the war’s causes and course even as it was taking place.

This propaganda often took an anti-Austria approach, notably by the later Prussian ruler Frederick the Great (reigned 1740-86) who wanted to emphasise:

  1. the wickedness of the Austrian Habsburgs
  2. the devastation which they were responsible for
  3. which he (Frederick) so wisely repaired

An endless cycle of ‘reinterpretations’

In the introduction Steinberg confidently claims that the conflict ‘misnamed’ the Thirty Years War was not a religious war between Protestants and Catholics, but derived from constitutional issues within the empire which had been germinating for the previous fifty years. This is his bold new interpretation which ‘reorientates and reinterprets’ the traditional story of the Thirty Years War, as well as his insistence that the war was not nearly as destructive as the ‘traditional’ view holds.

So it is quite amusing that these views – that the war was not a war of religion but a squabble about constitutional powers within the Empire, and was not as destructive as commonly thought – are the radical ‘reinterpretations’ put forward by Peter H. Wilson in his book, fifty years later.

In other words, despite over fifty years of historians attempting to ‘reorientate and reinterpret’ opinion about events, it seems as if some stubbornly resist their efforts. That views about historical events remain firmly entrenched.

So that historians may not be Oedipuses continually overthrowing their fathers, but Oedipuses condemned to overthrow the same father again and again, because each time he is slain, he just pops back up alive again.

To put it more plainly, the evidence of these two books is that historians appear to be condemned to combat ‘myths’ and ‘traditional’ interpretations which, despite all their efforts, never seem to go away. They are driving round and round in circles.

In 1966 Steinberg writes that the phrase ‘The Thirty Years War’ is a misnomer, a ‘figment of collective imagination’, should be done away with, abolished as wildly misleading.

Fifty years later, Peter H. Wilson publishes a vast history of the Thirty Years War with the title The Thirty Years War and delivers a lecture about the Thirty Years War. So much for abolishing this wild misnomer, this ‘figment of collective imagination’.

Conclusion: a historian’s opinion doesn’t change anything. To change the traditional names of events, and the traditional understanding of them, requires more than a couple of lectures and books. It requires huge social and cultural change. Historians reflect broader social trends, and don’t lead them.

Black lives matter

In this respect, it will be interesting to see whether, for example, the recent flurry of interest in the Black Lives Matter movement, with the accompanying burst of interest in the slave trade, makes much difference to academic history, or to the public perception of history.

It would be a fascinating study for a sociologist to assess attitudes across society – from academics through to the woman in the street – before, during and after the BLM protests, to try to establish how historical knowledge and perceptions change, if at all.

The evidence of these two books, written fifty years apart, is that historical knowledge doesn’t really change much — but maybe that’s because they’re both on a subject which most Anglophone readers don’t know or care much about so there’s not really any motivation or need for change.

Maybe on more hot-button topics, like race or women or empire, knowledge and attitudes have changed a lot. I’m not really in a position to judge.

It would be fascinating to read a paper or book on the subject ‘How perceptions of history change’, which identified specific historical eras or topics where the majority opinion has definitely shifted – and then to analyse why the shift has taken place – not looking narrowly at the professional historians and insiders, but at the broader social understanding of key historical events, what has changed (if anything) and why.


Related links

Europe’s Tragedy: A New History of The Thirty Years War by Peter H. Wilson (2010)

Introduction

This is an enormous book (weighing in at 997 pages, including index and notes) which covers an enormous subject, in enormous depth.

The Thirty Years War lasted from 1618 to 1648. It was in fact made up of a series or sequence of wars featuring different antagonists. The central strand linking them is that the staunchly Catholic Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II was fighting mainly Protestant opponents, and that he mostly won. The war is usually divided into four phases:

  • The Bohemian Revolt 1618-20, a rising of the Protestant Bohemian ‘Estates’ against Habsburg rule (‘The revolt was not a popular uprising, but an aristocratic coup led by a minority of desperate militant Protestants’, p.269), which was decisively crushed at the Battle of White Mountain on 8 November 1620.
  • The Danish intervention 1625-30, also referred to as the Low Saxon War or Emperor’s War, when Christian IV of Denmark (who was also Duke of Holstein and Schleswig which lay within the Empire) led an army in support of north German protestant states against Imperial forces. After five or so years of fighting, the war was concluded with the Treaty of Lübeck in 1629.
  • The Swedish intervention 1630-35, when King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden led an invasion of north (and mostly Protestant) Germany. He was motivated by a) alarm at the Emperor’s harsh reimposition of Catholicism on the German states under the Treaty of Lübeck b) the goal of gaining economic influence in the German states around the Baltic Sea. Like Christian IV before him, Adolphus was heavily subsidized by Cardinal Richelieu, the chief minister of Louis XIII of France, who gave him a million livres a year. Gustavus Adolphus died in battle in 1632 but his forces continued the war until the Peace of Prague in 1635 brought peace between most of the Empire’s Protestant states and the Emperor.
  • The French intervention 1635-48, as you can see this is the longest single part of the war. Cardinal Richelieu feared the power of the Habsburg empire on his eastern border and used innumerable policies, treaties with the Danish and Swedes to try and limit and hamper Ferdinand. Finally this broke out into overt war.

This summary nowhere near conveys the complexity of the wider context within which these conflicts took place. When the war broke out, Spain was stuck in a never-ending conflict with its provinces in the Netherlands, what would eventually be called the Eighty Years War (1568-1648) and where its brutal suppression, inquisition, torture and execution of Protestant rebels laid the foundation for the Black Legend of Catholic Spain’s scheming brutality, compounded, in 1588, when the Spanish launched the Great Enterprise, the plan for an amphibious invasion of England to overthrow the Protestant monarch and return to England to being a good Catholic country under Spanish tutelage – what we refer to as the Spanish Armada.

France was a fellow Catholic country and so should have supported both the Emperor and Spain, but in fact politicked against both of them at every turn. For example, the French government supported the Dutch against the Spanish in order to keep the Spanish bogged down, wasting money in the Netherlands, and so presenting less of a threat to French power.

There were other flashpoints such as in Italy where Spain controlled the duchy of Milan. Italy was where the (relatively small-scale) War of the Mantuan Succession (1628–31) broke out and drew in the other European powers in parallel to the 30 Years War. Savoy in north-west Italy, which maintained a precarious independence from the Empire while being eyed by France, was another flashpoint.

In the south-east of Europe, the Holy Roman Empire was threatened by attack from the Ottoman Empire, whose power stretched far into modern-day Hungary (although for long stretches the Turks were distracted by the war they were fighting on their Eastern border against the Persian Empire under Shah Abbas the Great (p.100) who launched a fierce invasion capturing Baghdad in 1623 (p.103.)

North of Hungary there were repeated clashes over the border territory of Transylvania, and this drew in two other powers to the East of the Empire, namely Russia (or the Duchy of Muscovy, as it was commonly referred to), and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, who periodically fought each other.

When Gustavus Adolphus invaded north Germany it was not only to support the struggling Protestant German states, but in order to solidify his power in the Baltic as a whole, specifically projecting his power into Polish territory, who Sweden was, at one stage, directly at war with.

In other words, the Thirty Years War only makes sense – or you can only understand the motives of all the sides – if you appreciate a) the total context of European geopolitics of the time and b) you grasp that all the numerous states of Europe and beyond were continually prepared to use ‘war’ to further their ends.

Accustomed to two disastrous world wars, it is hard for us to reach back to a mindset in which wars were envisioned as relatively limited operations and completely acceptable methods to achieve power-political and territorial ends. To give an example of how it worked, we read time and again of kings or emperors continuing to deploy their armies, while at the same time hosting peace talks and negotiations, each victory or defeat in a local battle, strengthening or weakening their bargaining positions.

Discussions, negotiations, conferences and diets and assemblies, embassies and missions continued between all parties even while armed conflict broke out, was carried on, or suspended during truces.

The role of individual rulers

After the first 500 pages or so I realised I was becoming heartily sick of reading about the endless fighting over the same bits of territory, mainly because the little battles and squabbles come to seem utterly senseless. From the hundreds of separate micro-conflicts which made up the big ‘wars’, what came over most strongly to me was how many of them were driven by personal ambitions.

The entire social structure of the day was build around a fractious, rivalrous and competitive aristocracy who paid nominal homage to their king or emperor but who in reality were endlessly jostling for titles and land and possession. Apparently this was particularly true in France, with senior members of families related to the royal line (‘princes of the blood’) continually conspiring and politicking against each other (p.372).

The Holy Roman Empire was different and vastly more complex because it was made up of four major ‘states’, within which sat 40 or so duchies and princedoms, within which or alongside existed a large number of free cities and autonomous regions – from the very large to the very small, each with their own rulers and constitutions and parliaments or ‘Estates’, as they were called, their traditions and fiefs and privileges and customs and taxation systems, who were joined by a variety of links to the figure of the Emperor.

There were seven Electors, so-named because they were the electorate who chose each new emperor, being the archbishops of the imperial cities Mainz, Cologne and Trier, then the King of Bohemia, the Count Palatine of the Rhine, the Duke of Saxony, the Margrave of Brandenburg. There were fifty spiritual and 30 lay fiefs held by lords of princely rank and then some 200 lesser fiefs, and then 400 or so baronial and knightly families. There were 80 ‘free and imperial cities’. States which were large enough earned the right to attend the imperial Reichstag which was more of a consultative body than a parliament, where the emperor was meant to get his way through negotiation and concessions.

Everyone was competing against everyone else. Everyone wanted more land, more power, to expand their territory, seize new towns and ports and cities and bishoprics and titles and forests and land. And warfare offered a quick way of achieving these ambitions, not only for the rulers who owned armies but for their generals. A massive motivation for being a general in the army was that, if you were successful, you were rewarded with titles and land.

At a very high level the wars can be presented as conflicts between Protestants and Catholics, or between France and the Empire, or between Spain and the Dutch. But at the level Wilson describes, the conflict breaks down into scores of micro-conflicts between Electors and local rulers who had their eye on this or that piece of nearby territory, fighting or negotiating to acquire bishoprics or cities or control of fisheries or forests.

And when large states were defeated, the leader of the victorious forces (for example Gustavus Adolphus or Ferdinand, in the middle Swedish part of the war) was able to parcel out and award all the conquered territory to his successful generals and followers. Thus ‘ownership’ of land could pass through multiple hands which, of course, created an ever-expanding set of grievances and wishes for revenge or reconquest etc.

Seen from a really high level the war amounted to a succession of armies tramping across the same old territory, fighting each other to a standstill or dropping like flies from dysentery and plague, while ravaging the land around them, burning villages and towns, consuming all available food and ruining agricultural land and livestock, devastating the very territories their lords and masters were squabbling over like spoilt children. It is estimated that around a third of the Empire’s cultivable land had been abandoned by 1648 (p.802). Grain production didn’t return to 1618 levels until 1670 (p.806).

And this is what amounted to statecraft in early modern Europe. Endless rivalry and conflict, continually spilling over into ruinous wars.

Why is the Thirty Years War important?

Wilson explains why the Thirty Years War was and is important in his (relatively brief) introduction:

About 8 million people died in this huge, prolonged and devastating war. Many regions and cities of Germany didn’t recover for a hundred years.

The war occupies a place in German and Czech history similar to that of the civil wars in Britain, Spain and the United States, or the revolutions in France and Russia. A defining moment of national trauma that shaped how a country regards itself and its place in the world.

For most Germans the war came to symbolise national humiliation, and was blamed for retarding the economic, social and political development of the country, condemning Germany to 200 years of internal division and international impotence, until Bismarck began the process of German unification in the 1850s.

Wilson’s interpretations

Right at the start Wilson explains that his huge history has three big underlying aims which deliberately set it apart from most ‘traditional’ histories of the conflict:

1. Most accounts simplify the extraordinary complexity of the war. Wilson seeks to restore all of its complexity and the complex way it evolved out of, and interacted with, other parallel conflicts in the Europe of the time (notably the Spanish-Dutch war). But above all he wants to show how the central thread running through the war is their common relationship to the imperial constitution. The emperor wanted to secure peace in his Empire, to enforce the imperial constitution.

2. Thus Wilson wants to assert that the war was not a war of religion. It is true that the Emperor was a staunch Catholic and the Bohemian rebels, the king of Denmark and the king of Sweden were Protestants, and Protestant imperial states (notably the Palatinate and Saxony) allied with them. But Wilson wishes to emphasise that the primary causes were not religious but were – in his view – driven by conflicts over the rights and freedoms allowed the states by the imperial constitution, a constitution the Emperor Ferdinand II had sworn to uphold. Contemporaries rarely spke or wrote abour rarely about Protestants or Catholics – they spoke about Saxons or Bavarians or Swedes or Danes or French or Spanish troops. In Wilson’s view, the focus on Protestants and Catholics is a construction of 19th century historians who a) had their own religious culture wars to fight and b) sought to simplify the war’s complexity.

3. It was not inevitable. The Empire had been at peace after the 1555 Treaty of Augsburg, in fact the period from 1555 to 1618 was the longest period of peace Germany experience until after 1945. Meanwhile civil war raged in France and a bitter struggle in the Netherlands. So war was not inevitable and not the result of inevitable religious divisions. It was more the result of fortuitous and contingent events, starting with the decision taken by a small number of Bohemian aristocrats to rebel against imperial rule, which triggered a conflict in which some of the Protestant states (namely Saxony and the Palatinate) decided to take sides, before the king of Denmark made an unpredictable and personal decision to take advantage of the confusion in north Germany to try and expand his territory. And when the Danish venture had clearly failed, by 1629, the king of Sweden then decided to have a go himself, in order to seize north German territory and solidify his power in the Baltic.

None of these three events were inevitable, they were the contingent decisions of small groups of individuals, kings and their advisors, who decided to use warfare for the traditional goals of expanding their territories and power.

The deep historical context of the Thirty Years War

Wilson’s account doesn’t arrive at the outbreak of actual hostilities until page 269, nearly a third of the way into the book.

This is because, to understand a) why the war broke out b) why it spread c) why it became so horribly complicated – you need to have as full a grasp as possible of the history and complex constitution of the Holy Roman Empire, and of all the neighbouring countries which had an interest in what was happening in Central Europe.

This includes (going in clockwork direction) Spain, France, Britain, the Spanish Netherlands, the Dutch, Denmark, Sweden, Russia (Muscovy), Poland (the Commonwealth of Poland), Transylvania, Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, Serbia, Croatia, the Republic of Venice and various other Italian states, not least the Papacy, and Savoy.

Wilson gives us the deep history not only of the Holy Roman Empire itself, but of all these other countries, for each of them delving back into the 1500s, often into the 1400s, sometimes as far back as the 1300s, in order to explain the dynastic struggles, arranged marriages, land grabs and redistributions and wars which formed the mind-bogglingly complex web of political and military relations across the Europe by the start of the 17th century. (I think the earliest reference is to 1160, the year when the Hanseatic League was founded, page 176.)

The war was deeply bound up with the complex practices of inheritance, for example the routine appointment, in noble families, of younger sons as prince-bishops or prince-abbots, and the complexities of dynastic marriages between ruling families of different states and principalities.

The Holy Roman Emperors

I found the sequence of Holy Roman Emperors a little hard to follow, though on the face of it there’s a simple enough succession:

  • Rudolph II (1576-1612)
  • Matthias (1612-1619)
  • Ferdinand II (1619-1637)

Looks simple, doesn’t it, but Wilson places this trio and their reigns within the context of the vast Habsburg empire ruled by Charles V (1519-1556). Charles inherited extensive domains, including all of Spain and its new colonies in South America, Austria and territories scattered all across Germany, Hungary and Bohemia, in the Netherlands, and large chunks of Italy (e.g. Sicily and Naples). (Wilson gives an extended description of the growth of Spanish colonies in the New World, their use of slavery, and the importance of the silver trade, pp.116-121.)

It was Charles V who decided he had to divide this unwieldy entity into two massive parts (p.50), the Habsburg Partition of 1558. He gave Spain, the Netherlands and the New World to his son Philip II of Spain, and Austria and the Imperial territories of central Europe to his younger brother, the Emperor Ferdinand I (1556-1564).

Thus the creation of a Spanish branch and an Austrian branch of the Habsburgs or ‘family firm’.

But of course it was more complicated than that because 1. the Austrian emperor had numerous other titles, and these were awarded by a range of bodies within his scattered states, each with its own constitution and procedures. Thus the Austrian ruler was at the same time King of Bohemia, King of Hungary and Croatia. But he needed to be elected King of Germany by the seven electors (see the list, above). In general the next-in-line to the throne was elected while the current one was still alive, and received the honorary title ‘King of the Romans’ (a bit like our Prince of Wales).

Incidentally that title indicates the deeply held belief that the emperor was descended from the rules of ancient Rome and, like the later Roman emperors, carried the responsibility for the defence of all Christendom.

And 2. because the emperor was elected, this meant there were other candidates – although in practice this meant only other Habsburgs, in Ferdinand’s case, his brothers. Nonetheless these might be supported by various nations or special interest groups within the Empire because they thought this or that candidate would give them advantages and payoffs.

So as the Holy Roman Emperor who ruled just before the war broke out – Rudolf II – sank into madness or mania, his eventual successor Matthias had not only to face rival candidacies from his brothers Ernst, Maximilian and Albert, but found himself drawn into a prolonged conflict with Rudolf which lasted so long and was so destructive that it gained a name of its own, the Brothers’ Quarrel. As Wikipedia puts it:

The Brothers’ Quarrel was a conflict between Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor and his brother, Matthias in the early 17th century. Their other brothers – Maximilian III and Albert VII – and their cousins – especially Ferdinand II and Leopold V – were also deeply involved in their dispute. The family feud weakened the Habsburgs’ position and enabled the Estates of their realms to win widespread political and religious concessions.

Supporters and opponents in this intra-Habsburg rivalry came not only from within the Empire, but from the other wing of the Habsburg firm, in Spain, as well as a range of nations bordering the Empire. (So, for example, we find the King of Spain leaning on Matthias to make his older cousin, Ferdinand, his successor [which is what happened] in preference to the more unpredictable cousin, Leopold.)

So, even before he was elected, the Holy Roman Emperor had to have advanced political and diplomatic skills.

Early 17th century issues facing the Holy Roman Emperor

And when he finally did come to power, the Emperor faced a number of ongoing issues, which Wilson describes in detail, including:

  • the religious wars in France from 1562 to 1598, which the emperor had to be careful not to get involved in
  • the immense Eighty Years’ War or Dutch War of Independence (1568–1648), the revolt of the Seventeen Provinces of what are today the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg against Philip II of Spain, the sovereign of the Habsburg Netherlands – which frequently spilled over into north-western territories of the Empire
  • ongoing wars between Denmark and Sweden for primacy in the Baltic
  • the Time of Troubles, a period of anarchy, famine and civil war in Russia, 1598 to 1613
  • war between Poland and Russia
  • and, of course, the largest threat of all – from the Ottoman Empire, ‘the terror of Europe (p.76), whose power stretched into Hungary and which permanently threatened to invade up the Danube into the Austrian heartland itself. This threat has flared up most recently in the Long Turkish War or Thirteen Years’ War, fought over the Principalities of Wallachia, Transylvania and Moldavia from 1593 to 1606.

These were just some of the geopolitical issues which the Emperor inherited, continually having to assess which side, if any, to back in all these wars, and prevent physical or political damage to polities within the Empire. And that was before you get to the issues and conflicts bubbling away in the territories which he directly ruled.

In this high-level map of the European context, note:

  • how far into Europe the Ottoman Empire extended, pressing up through Hungary, and why Wallachia and Transylvania were important border states
  • Spain’s territory in Italy, and the south or Spanish Netherlands
  • the distinction between the Holy Roman Emperor’s inherited Austrian holdings (in pink) and the German states which he ruled over but which had independent princes, Electors, margraves and so on (in orange)

The Thirty Years War in its European context (source: International History blog)

The role of religion in the Thirty Years War

And then there was religion. The disaffected monk Martin Luther kicked off the Reformation in 1517. His reformed version of Christianity spread quickly through some parts of the empire, gaining princely converts who were able to protect the feisty monk and theological rebel.

Despite Catholic attempts to crush it in the 1520s and 30s, by the 1540s the existence of large populations and important leaders who had converted to the new religion quickly became a fact of life within the Empire, which was finally ratified in the Treaty of Augsburg in 1555.

But this new religious conflict was just the latest in a litany of conflicting histories, traditions, cultures and languages, constitutions and processes which differentiated and separated inhabitants of the 1,800 or so states which made up the Empire(!).

What distinguished religion was that religious belief struck home to the real core of a person’s identity and psychology; and that the more devout the believer, the more they considered religion a matter of life and death, not only for themselves but for the world. Wilson has a fascinating passage (pp.261-262) describing the rise of apocalyptic writings and end-of-the-world interpretations of Bible texts which, he thinks, were partly sparked by the economically disruptive change in Europe’s climate which we now refer to as the Mini Ice Age.

That said, Wilson goes out of his way to emphasis that religion wasn’t an inevitable cause of conflict, and describes in detail a number of religious clashes in the late 16th and early 17th centuries where rulers sought and achieved compromise and peace. Thus it’s true that a Protestant Union was set up in 1608 and a Catholic Liga in 1609, but by 1618 the Liga had been dissolved and the Union marginalised (p.239).

Religion – like other cultural differences – only becomes a problem if some people are determined to make it a problem, in either of two obvious ways, 1. as a cynical tool to gain advantage or power 2. because the trouble-makers genuinely believe that theirs is the Only Religion, and that their opponents are infidels, heretics, the Devil’s spawn etc.

Some leaders and some states were determined to use religion as a tool, namely the Protestant ruling class of the Palatinate, a fragmented territory in central and west Germany. For zealots like these the election of the devoutly Catholic Ferdinand II presented a threat.

But the Important Point to grasp is that, although all the successive Emperors were devout Catholics, they also had a good grasp of Realpolitik and so realised that they had to find peaceful accommodations and practice toleration for all their citizens. The emperors tried to hold the ring and contain and limit religious conflicts wherever they arose.

Another flaw with the argument that it was a religious war, is the fact that both ‘sides’ – the Catholic and Protestant ‘sides’ – were deeply divided among themselves, something Wilson explores in great detail (chapter 7), not only among themselves (there was a big gap between Lutherans and Calvinists), but also with their foreign sponsors or backers, e.g. Catholic Spain was at odds with Catholic France who, in 1635 went directly to war with the Catholic Emperor.

Thus Wilson opposes historians who see the war as an ‘inevitable’ result of the religious divide which ran through the Empire. He gives much more importance to the prolonged uncertainty about the Imperial Succession i.e. the Brother’s Quarrel, which pitted the ailing Rudolph against his likely successor Matthias (p.255 ff). In this prolonged struggle both sides conspired to weaken the other which, of course, merely weakened the Habsburg Dynasty as a whole, and handed more power to the Parliaments and Estates and other constitutional bodies which ran the Empire’s numerous constituent states, from big kingdoms like Bohemia and Hungary, through large German states like Saxony and Bavaria, down to the tiniest principalities.

Wilson sees the real cause of the war more in the wish of the states to consolidate the power they had wrested from a weakened Habsburg administration and, if possible, to opportunistically extend it.

Events leading up to the Thirty Years War

Having described this complicated situation in great detail, Wilson then describes a series of events which didn’t cause the war, but help to explain the attitudes and policies of the key players when the war broke out, including such little-known incidents as:

  • The Bocskai Revolt 1604-6
  • The Donauwörth Incident 1606
  • The Jülich-Cleves crisis 1609-10
  • The Uskok War 1615-17

There are others and with each one, I realised a) the complexity of European politics in the 17th century b) that I know nothing about it.

The defenestration of Prague 1618

The elite of upper-class Bohemian nobles (just to explain that Bohemia was for centuries the name of the territory which, in the 20th century, was renamed Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic) felt aggrieved by Imperial decisions and appointments. A small number of conspirators decided to take direct action and one evening stormed the castle in Prague and three a couple of Imperial representatives (and their servant) out the window of their state apartment and into the moat.

However the three men did not die, but limped away, were hidden and made good their escapes. This was a bad omen, for the rising of the Protestant Bohemian nobility which the conspirators were aiming for wasn’t as whole-hearted as they wishes and, although some of the Empire’s Protestant states joined their rebellion (Saxony and the Palatinate) most didn’t, wisely waiting the outcome of events.

Briefly, after two years of battles and skirmishes across Bohemia and beyond, the Bohemian rebellion was crushed at the decisive Battle of the White Mountain in November 1620 and Prague was occupied by Imperial forces.

However, the rebellious Protestant provinces of central Germany still had to be brought to heel and this took three more years. And that process was only just being wound up when King Christian of Denmark decided to invade, so inaugurating the second of the four main phases of the war listed above.

I don’t have anything like the time or space or energy to even summarise what happened next. For a detailed account read the Wikipedia article.

The Edict of Restitution 1629

So the really key turning points are:

  • 1618 start of the Bohemian rebellion
  • 1620 The Battle of the White Mountain, where the initial Bohemian rebellion was crushed
  • 1625 The entrance of Denmark under King Christian IV into the war
  • 1630 the entrance of Sweden under King Gustavus Adolphus

But there’s another one – the passage of the Edict of Restitution in 1629. Having defeated Denmark’s forces, the Emperor Ferdinand II felt in a strong enough position to impose the Edict of Restitution. This attempted to turn back all the changes in ownership of religious land and property which had taken place since the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. In the intervening years there had been a steady flow of archbishopric, churches, monasteries (‘the secularised archbishoprics of Bremen and Magdeburg, 12 bishoprics and over 100 religious houses’) which had been expropriated by Protestant princes and rulers. The Edict attempted to reverse all these changes.

The result in 1629 and 1630 was a great transfer of power and property away from the Protestants to the Catholics. Thousands of Protestants had to leave places they’d lived in for generations and flee to Protestant territory.

The Edict applied especially to north-eastern Germany where the Emperor’s writ had been weak for a century. Ferdinand appointed Imperial administrators to take over the secularised states and cities in a bid to re-establish Imperial authority in areas where his control had become weaker.

Apart from alienating a lot of Protestant opinion, the Edict had two consequences. In 1630 Frederick had to call a meeting of Electors to have his son, also named Ferdinand, elected King of the Romans i.e. emperor in waiting.

However, some of the Protestant Electors stayed away from the meeting in protest at the Edict and others demanded, in exchange for supporting his son, that the Emperor sack his hugely successful but contentious general, Wallenstein. Reluctantly, Ferdinand did so, a victory for the dissident Electors and Protestant faction – and evidence for Wilson’s central thesis, that the war was more tied up with the complexity of the Imperial constitution and Imperial power than with religion per se, i.e. the Emperor could never just do what he wanted, but always had to work through the Reichstag, the Electors, the Estates and so on, in an ever-changing web of complicated negotiations.

Anyway, the second result was that the Edict provided the figleaf the king of Sweden, Gustavus Adolphus, needed for undertaking his invasion of north Germany.

The role of Sweden

As a newcomer to this vast and tortuous history, it’s hard to avoid the fairly simple conclusion that most of the war was Sweden’s fault. The Bohemians, the Danes and many of the Protestant states had been fought to a standstill by 1630, and the war could have been ended. Gustavus Adolphus’s invasion of north Germany meant that the war continued for another eighteen years – and, from what I understand, it was these later years which were by far the most destructive.

So the entry-level questions, for me, are: 1. why did Gustavus invade, and 2. – more importantly – why did the Swedes stay on in Germany for sixteen years after Adolphus died in battle in November 1632?

There appear to be three answers to question 1. Because Gustavus saw the chaos in north Germany as a) an opportunity to seize territory there and b) to consolidate Swedish control of the Baltic (against rivals Poland and Russia). And c) he and his chancellor, Axel Oxenstierna, presented themselves as ‘Champions of Protestantism’, rescuing the Protestant German states threatened by the Emperor’s Edict of Restitution (cynically or sincerely, who can say?).

So much for question 1. But it seems to me that the biggest question about the whole war is: Why did the Swedes stay on for a further 16 years, causing epic destruction and ruination across vast swathes of central Europe? The war caused devastation across all central Europe, but the Swedish armies alone may have destroyed up to 2,000 castles, 18,000 villages, and 1,500 towns in Germany, one-third of all German towns! They presented themselves as the champions of the Protestant cause, but in the final months before peace, the Swedes attacked and pillaged the area around Protestant Prague. Surely they weren’t ‘saviours’ but great destroyers?

(Wilson confirms my two-part interpretation on page 719, where he explains that, from Ferdinand’s point of view, the war fell into two parts – 1. the initial Bohemian rebellion which triggered revolts among various other Protestant rulers in Germany (namely the Palatinate and Saxony) and which was finally concluded with the Peace of Lübeck and the Restitution Edict); and 2. the Swedish part, by far the longest and most ruinous part.)

Historical events alongside the Thirty Years War

Eighty years war Throughout the duration of the war, Spain was at war with the rebellious northern provinces of the Netherlands, although both sides managed to keep their conflict from the German war going on next door, even if there were localised incursions or aid, specially from the Protestant Dutch to some of the Protestant states.

British civil wars In 1639, rebellion by Presbyterian Scots led to the First Bishops War, which triggered the descent of Britain into what is variously called the British Civil Wars or the Wars of Three Kingdoms (or the Great Rebellion by contemporary Royalists). It is fascinating to learn that irritation at Charles I’s support for the Emperor led Sweden to send arms and some officers to support the Scottish rebellion. (And also to learn that so many Scots served in the Swedish army, sometimes for decades, and had built up a wealth of practical knowledge of modern warfare. Meaning that, when in 1639 they returned to their homeland they were able to help Scotland thrash England in both Bishops’ Wars, 1639 and 1640).

I was also fascinated to read about two rebellions Spain faced, which added to her long-running war with the Dutch and the conflict with France. These were the rebellions of Portugal and Catalonia.

Portugal The Portuguese rebelled in 1640, in what became known as the Portuguese Restoration War and lasted until 1668, eventually bringing an end to the union of the Spanish and Portuguese crown (the Iberian Union) and establishing the House of Braganza as Portugal’s new ruling dynasty, replacing the Spanish Habsburg who had ruled the country since 1581. It was a member of this ruling dynasty, Catherine of Braganza, who Charles II of Britain married in 1662, soon after his restoration, thus acquiring the territory of Tangiers, not much money, and a wife who proved incapable of bearing an heir, thus indirectly triggering the eventual overthrow of the Stuart dynasty.

Catalonia The Reapers’ War Catalan revolt sprang up spontaneously in May 1640, leading King Philip IV sent an army to suppress it, which sacked several Catalan towns before being defeated outside Barcelona. The French seized the opportunity to take the country of Roussillon from the Spanish and sent arms and soldiers to help the Catalans in exchange for which the Catalans half-heartedly accepted the French king Louis XIII as King of Catalonia. The rebellion dragged on until 1659 when it was wound up as part of the wider peace settlement between Spain and France (the Peace of the Pyrenees).

Brazil A small but fascinating sidelight is Wilson’s detailed account of the rivalry between the Dutch and the Portuguese in Brazil. Basically the Dutch in the 1630s confidently seized a lot of Portugal’s colonial holdings, but Portugal fought back, retaking most of the colony, leaving the Dutch to concentrate on their new colonies in the East Indies.

The Peace of Westphalia

One of the most fascinating aspects of the Thirty Year War was its conclusion, and the long peace conference which led up to the Treaty of Westphalia. Wilson makes the – to me – fascinating point that the peace conference invented the model of international negotiation which was consciously copied at all complex European peace negotiations ever since, at Utrecht in 1714, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, at the Versailles Conference in 1918-19 and which underpins the modern system reflected in the United Nations.

Early modern society was utterly drenched in the notion of hierarchy, starting with God at the top and moving down though his Son, to the angels, to the created world which had Christian kings at the top and their aristocrats, sharing top billing with the Pope and the top notables of the church on one wing, before finally reaching the urban bourgeoisie, and so on down to the peasants, squatting at the bottom. Then the animals.

In this hierarchical view, various nations of Europe fiercely competed to be Top Dog, which in their world meant being the Most Christian nation. It was a status claimed by Spain whose monarchs, after Ferdinand and Isabella had expelled the last Arabs in 1492, thus winning the title of Their Most Catholic Majesties – but also claimed by the Holy Roman Emperor who thought of himself as the Protector of all Christendom – while French kings tried to dignify themselves as the Arbiters of Christendom, and so on.

Certainly, there were lots of flunkeys and carriages and servants and grand display at the peace conference venues in the two Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster. And yet, when it came down to negotiating, the various powers (chief among them the Emperor, Spain, France and Sweden, but also the Electors and other key German princes) were forced to acknowledge the interests and concerns of each other as free and independent entities.

In other words, through the long course of the negotiations (which began in 1643, and so lasted some five years) the conflicting parties were forced to abandon the Early Modern theory of Hierarchy, and adopt what we think of as the Modern Theory, that all nation states are free and independent, have absolute rights and interests and must be negotiated with as individuals.

The positive interpretation of Westphalia regards it as the birth of the modern international order based on sovereign states interacting (formally) as equals within a common secularised legal framework, regardless of size, power or internal configuration. (p.754)

The Emperor could no longer intimidate his dependent states with fine words and a big crown, but had to address their anxieties and requirements.

The final deal consisted of two treaties: the Peace of Osnabrück in which the Emperor settled all issues with Sweden and the states within the Empire, and the Peace of Münster, which settled outstanding issues with France, although carefully excluding the duchy of Lorraine which remained occupied by French troops (p.747).

Devastation and disease

The Thirty Years War became a byword for savagery and brutality even while it was going on. Contemporary accounts emphasised the burning and looting, raping and casual murders which infested the territory, and many artists captured this in disturbing visual form, such as the contemporary engravings of Jacques Callot.

Pillaging a house, plate 5 from the engraving series The Miseries and Misfortunes of War by Jacques Callot (1633)

(Other artists who documented the atrocities of war include Valentin Wagner, Rudolf Meyer and Pieter Snayers.)

But as you might expect, Wilson takes a sophisticatedly revisionist attitude to this as to every other aspect of the war. He labels the view that the war was an unmitigated catastrophe the ‘Disastrous War’ school of thinking, pointing out that different regions had widely differing experiences, which also varied over time. He takes a long cold look at the figures, pointing out all kinds of problems with contemporary records and definitions (for example ’cause of death’).

Nonetheless, it is clear that some regions of Germany saw a loss of 50% or more of their populations. There is agreement that some areas didn’t see a return to their 1618 population figures until 1710 or 1720 (p.795).

It used to be said that around a third of the total population of the Empire perished, but more recent figures revise this down. Still, to put it in context, Wilson points out that the Soviet Union is widely seen to have suffered extraordinary levels of death and devastation as a result of the 1942 Nazi invasion – yet fewer than 12% of the population perished. So even a ‘low’ estimate of 15% of the Empire perishing implies spectacular destruction.

But for me the standout insight is the usual one about almost any war, even into modern times:

Disease proved more potent than muskets, swords and cannon. (p.790)

And again:

The pattern of civilian deaths conforms the general picture of military casualties. Disease was the main killer. (p.792)

Human societies are very fragile things, often only just about able to provide food, clean water and sewage facilities for their existing populations. The second you start a war, and start displacing people, you interrupt the growth, harvesting and distribution of food and deprive people of clean water and sewage facilities. Within days populations begin to starve and become prey to waterborne diseases like typhoid and dysentery.

Human efforts are feeble compared to the forces of nature which are poised all around to massacre us as soon as we let our highly organised but fragile defences slip. This felt like a slightly eccentric minority view till the spring of this year. Hopefully now everyone can agree with it.

Anyway, the usual diseases of war (typhoid, dysentery) were compounded by plague, still a common disease and one which ravaged specific areas. Beyond the bounds of the war, large parts of Italy were decimated by plague in the 17th century, but troops of dirty soldiers traipsing all across the Empire brought it too, and some areas of Germany were laid low. As a tiny example, Wilson describes the town of Ingelfingen where 241 people died in 1634, of whom precisely 7 died during its violent capture but 163 died of plague. 20 times as many.

Although, even here, Wilson is cautious and careful, making the good point that a large number of these people might have died anyway, because plague recurred at ten-year periods throughout Europe. How many died of illnesses they would have got anyway, and how many died because the privations of living in a warzone made them susceptible? Contemporary records are not sophisticated to let us calculate.

Summary

I found this a very hard book to read.

Long

Partly because it’s long, very long – very, very long – and very detailed, so it is easy to put down, then pick up again and have completely forgotten where you were and who Maximilian, Frederick or the Elector Georg are, or which precise part of Germany their armies are tramping over and where they’re headed and why.

Writing about war requires special skills

Eventually I came to realise that Wilson doesn’t write about war very well. Max Hastings or Anthony Beevor manage the brilliant trick of giving a full and clear explanation of the high-level reasons for a war and the strategic changes and developments which develop as a result, alongside brutal eye-witness accounts which convey the fury and horror of individual battles. They clearly signpost key moments, key personalities and key decisions so that they stand out amid the endless sequence of events.

Not enough signposting of key events

Reluctantly, I came to the conclusion that Wilson can do neither. On page after page I found myself lost or confused as I read that Georg marched east to take the three main towns of Upper Saxony while Tilly was heading west to join up with the forces of Wallenstein who had recently seized the imperial cities of x, y and z. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of pages made up of prose like this.

The truce allowed Oxenstierna to move Lennart Tortensson and 9,700 men from Prussia. These troops began arriving in Pomerania in late October 1635 along with a morale-boosting delivery of new clothes for Banér’s ragged army. Tortennson’s units surprised Marazzino, prompting Johann Georg to fall back to protect Berlin in December, while Banér retook Werben and relieved Magdeburg in January 1636. The unpaid, hungry Saxons retreated to Halle. (p.578)

Maybe I’m dim, but by the end of that sentence I was thoroughly confused, and there are hundreds and hundreds of pages just like it.

Ferdinand regarded the third army of the Guelphs as already lost. He formally enfeoffed the elector of Cologne with Hildesheim on 22 August, and authorised Hatzfeldt to enforce this in October and compel the Guelph troops to join the imperial army. Piccolomini had already moved his 15,000 men from Luxembourg in September to assist. Duke Georg responded by tightening his mutual defence pact with Hessen-Kassel on 9 November, while Melander broke the Hessian truce to capture Bielenfeld. (p.617)

All these endless troop movements eventually blurred into one, and I lost any sense of why they were important, who their leaders were and where any of these places were. At first I thought it was me, but eventually concluded it is Wilson.

Suddenly out of the blue he’ll mention that all this marching has led up to one of the key battles of the war or marked some decisive turn — but there isn’t nearly enough scene-setting or signposting in the text. He doesn’t prepare us for the Big Events well enough, and then doesn’t bring out their consequences fully enough. I began to drown in the endless tide of detail.

When I did an apprenticeship in journalism, years ago, this was called ‘burying the lead’. If something Big happens you make sure it is flagged up with a headline and a clear statement of the main event at the top of the copy. The headline and the opening sentence grab you and convey the key information.

The most glaring example of Wilson’s failure to think or write dramatically is the following. The Emperor Ferdinand II was the leading figure of the war from his accession in 1619. He is mentioned on every page, it is he who makes key decisions large and small, appoints generals, sets strategy and negotiates with other states and rulers. Ferdinand is the dominating figure of the narrative and the war. And yet his death only casually mentioned in parentheses on page 586.

Archduke Ferdinand was duly elected as King of the Romans on 22 December 1636 (just in time, because his father died a month after the congress closed).

That’s it, that’s all you get on the passing of this gigantic figure, and then the tide of details flows on as if nothing had happened. There is no build-up, no lead-up to this signal event – not even any explanation what Ferdinand died from, no mention of a funeral, no summary of what he had achieved during his reign. It’s a quite astonishing dereliction of the historian’s responsibility to explain.

Same happens with two other massive figures, Cardinal Richelieu of France and the French King Louis XIII, whose deaths in 1642 are briefly mentioned in the same sentence before the text moves briskly on with no mention anywhere of their importance, what their goals were and whether they achieved them, their responsibility in the war. Nothing.

It is a staggeringly cavalier attitude, and a prime example of the way Wilson is not writing history in a way designed to engage you with individuals and personalities, to make the story exciting or gripping, but with other aims in mind.

Wilson’s revisionist intentions Part of the reason for this lack of good storytelling is that Wilson is more of an academic writer than Hastings or Beevor. You feel he is not setting down the welter of details in order to tell a good story, but because Wilson wants to make academic points. You begin to realise his primary motivation is overturning ‘traditional interpretations and asserting his revisionist account.

And you begin to recognise the moments when he does this as they all follow a similar template or formula – he writes that so-and-so event is usually interpreted as meaning x, but that he is going to reinterprets it as meaning y.

The general conclusion is that Wallenstein represented the last of the condottiere, or great mercenary captains who emerged in the Italian Renaissance. Such figures are thought to represent a transition in historical development as expedients employed by states until governments were capable of organising armies themselves. This is misleading. (p.542)

Or:

The war is customarily portrayed as entering its most destructive and meaningless phase after 1640, as it allegedly descended into ‘universal, anarchic and self-perpetuating violence.’ The development is often attributed to the deaths of the ‘great captains’ like Gustavus, Wallenstein and Bernhard, and is associated with the supposed internationalisation of the war… Much of this is a myth. (p.622)

In other words, for Wilson the text doesn’t exist as a dramatic story studded with key moments which represent massive historical and cultural turning points (like the Czech defeat at the Battle of the White Mountain or the death in battle of Gustavus Adolphus or the murder of the legendary Imperial general Wallenstein). These highly dramatic moments are almost peripheral to his real concern which is to take on the received ideas and interpretations of previous historians and to give key moments his own interpretation.

Thus in chapter 21, towards the end of the book, Wilson goes to great lengths to proves that, far from leaving the Empire a ‘hollow shell’, as many, especially 19th century critics of the treaty claimed, it in fact rejuvenated the Empire,

injected new life into its constitution and strengthened its political culture. (p.778)

But there’s another problem with this approach, beyond making the book lack narrative drive and consistently failing to signpost key moments so that the book ends up feeling like one damned thing after another for 850 pages of dense and detailed text.

This problem is that, to really get the most out of his new takes on old issues – to really understand how Wilson is upending traditional interpretations and giving new readings and slants on well-known events, people or policies – you have to know what the traditional interpretations are.

You have to have a good grasp on how historians have traditionally interpreted, say, Wallenstein’s character or Gustavus Adolphus’s motives, in order to really appreciate how Wilson is giving them a new interpretation, but the feeling that this would help your understanding of what Wilson is trying to do adds to the levels of complexity and slight anxiety I experienced reading his book.

This is, quite simply, asking too much of the average reader – that they should have a detailed enough knowledge of the traditional picture of the Thirty Years War in order to appreciate Wilson’s innovations and new readings.

Wilson’s interest in the finances of the war Just a mention that Wilson’s book is very, very thorough about the financial aspects of the war. He devotes a great deal of space to the ongoing financial tribulations of the Emperor, and the kings of Spain, France, Denmark and Sweden. He explains how they all had to borrow to finance the war, and then were reduced to various extreme expedients, raising taxes, extorting money from conquered territories, looting gold and silver, squeezing Jewish financiers, a whole range of desperate measures, to pay the money back, and often never did.

Towards the end of the book he has a fascinating passage about the so-called ‘Kipper and Wipper’ hyperinflation which afflicted the Empire as states debased their currencies to pay for the exorbitant costs of war, which itself mostly meant paying the wages of the huge numbers of mercenary troops employed by both sides (pp.795-798).

Included in this theme is the fascinating fact, which I knew from other sources but still blows my mind, that although Spain was extracting huge amounts of silver from its mines in the New World (working to death slave labour populations of local Indians and then importing African slaves to carry out the work) it still managed to go bankrupt repeatedly throughout the later 16th and most of the 17th century. Basically, the Spanish Empire wasted all that treasure and more, on its stupid, futile wars, chief of which was trying to suppress the Protestant Dutch for 80 years. An epic example of historic futility.

Back with Wilson’s focus on finances, his summary of the Westphalia settlement includes a detailed consideration of the demobilisation of the troops of all sides stationed in garrisons, castles and cities all over the empire, and the cost of demobilisation. Peace treaties of the time usually included a so-called ‘satisfaction’ money i.e. money given by the loser to the victor to pay off his armies. Earlier in the book, Wilson explained the fascinating fact that it was often difficult to end local conflicts and even entire wars, because armies refused to be demobilised until they were paid.

This book contains an astonishing amount of information and shows an encyclopedic knowledge of the myriad of issues and subjects involved in the history of the period.

Lack of maps Finally, it is a scandal that an 850-page-long book about the most complicated conflict in European history has precisely one map. And quite early on I realised that many places mentioned in the text aren’t even on it. This made it difficult-to-impossible to understand page after page after page of the text which describes this army marching from x to y via the river z, and meeting up with the army of p near the town of m not far from the lake of c — if none of these places are indicated on the book’s one and only map.

Of course, you can try googling all these placenames and, sure enough, find the places on Google Maps (although sometimes the names have changed and it takes a while of checking and double checking to be sure you’ve got the right one). But of course Google Maps doesn’t show the way the territory looked in the 17th century, nor does it show you the route of the complicated army manoeuvres you’ve just read about, or where the armies camped or set up and fought, or anything that you really need to see in order to understand the text.

The complete impossibility of establishing where half the things Wilson was describing were taking place was another big reason why the text eventually became a blur of similar-sounding names and places which became impossible to keep track of.

Conclusion

This book is an awe-inspiring achievement. To have reviewed so much material, to have consulted so many sources, in so many languages, in so many libraries, and to have mastered the early modern history of almost all European countries, and not least the terrifying complexity of the Holy Roman Empire and the complex web of power structures whose failure helped to trigger the war – and then to set it all down into an enormous, lucid, calm, reasonable, well-judged and balanced account like this is an awesome, almost a supernatural achievement.

Nonetheless, my conclusion would be that you should only consider reading this book if you want a really, really, really detailed account of the minutiae of the Thirty Years War, complete with academic reassessments of received historical opinions, and stripped of almost all excitement, drama and interest.

For most normal people, reading the Wikipedia article about the war (and all the related conflicts and key figures) will be more than they’ll ever need to know.

Video

Here’s a video of Peter H. Wilson himself delivering a lecture about the war. The main thing that comes over in this lecture which isn’t obvious from his book, is his simple explanation of why the war lasted so long – which is that both the Dutch and the French wanted to prevent it ending – for if it ended, the Austrian Habsburgs would be in a position to fully support their Spanish cousins to finally defeat the Dutch rebels.

Obviously the Dutch didn’t want this to happen, but neither did the French who were worried about being surrounded by Habsburgs to the south, east and north – and so first the Dutch and then, increasingly, the French, subsidised first the Danish intervention, and then the longer-lasting Swedish invasion of the empire, and then finally, the French themselves became directly involved in the war in 1635.


Appendix: Where does the word ‘Protestant’ come from?

A ‘diet’ or imperial conference was convened at the city of Speyer, in Germany in 1529. Its aims were:

  1. organising the German states to deal with renewed Ottoman Turkish attacks in Hungary
  2. to settle the religious question

The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, himself a devout Catholic, was prepared to take a conciliatory approach to the Empire’s princes and dukes who had converted to the new ‘reformed’ religion of Martin Luther. But the diet was managed by his brother Ferdinand who took a harsher, non-negotiable line. He condemned all those princes who had interpreted a previous diet held at Speyer just three years earlier as allowing them to choose what religion was practiced in their states. No, they couldn’t, Ferdinand said. On the contrary, Ferdinand ordered that all states within the Empire must follow Catholicism, that all church reforms must be scrapped, and that any further reform was punishable by death. The Lutherans’ lives were to be spared, but more radical reformers like Zwinglians and Anabaptists were simply to be executed out of hand. Ferdinand and the Catholic rulers present – the majority – voted for these proposals.

The Lutheran members of the Diet (namely the rulers of Saxony, Brandenburg, Braunschweig-Luneburg, Hesse, Anhalt and the representatives of fourteen imperial cities) entered a formal protest against the decision and appealed to the Emperor Charles V (who had not attended the diet) to reverse its dictates.

Their protest against the harsh results of the second Diet of Speyer led to them becoming known as the protestors or the Protestants and the name became attached to all followers of reformed religion, whatever their precise thrology or practice.

The Rover, or The Banished Cavaliers by Aphra Behn (1677)

‘I know not what thou mean’st, but I’ll make one at any Mischief where a Woman’s concerned’
(Willmore, the Rover of the title)

Aphra Behn (1640-89) is generally considered the first professional woman writer in English literature. She wrote poems, essays and prose narratives but in her own day was best known as the author of some 18 plays, indeed she was second only to the poet laureate John Dryden in terms of theatrical productivity. The Rover is by common consent the most polished and entertaining of her plays.

In fact The Rover comes in two parts, each a self-contained five-act Restoration comedy. Part two contains some though not all of the same characters and so is a sequel, though it was never as popular as the original. Both were heavily plagiarised from a similarly two-part, ten-act play, Thomaso, or The Wanderer, written by the Royalist exile and companion of Charles II, Thomas Killigrew. Thomaso was never performed onstage but was published in 1663-4. Behn comprehensively rewrote it, turning its turgid style and long wordy speeches into brisk comic dialogue.

The argument

The Project Gutenberg online edition is prefaced by a prose summary of the plot. Here it is with my additions and comments:

During the exile of Charles II a band of cavaliers, prominent amongst whom are Willmore (the Rover), Belvile, Frederick, and Ned Blunt, find themselves at Naples in carnival time. Belvile, who at a siege at Pamplona (in Spain) has rescued a certain Florinda and her brother Don Pedro, now loves the lady, and the tender feeling is reciprocated. Florinda’s father, however, designs her for the elderly Vincentio, whilst her brother would have her marry his friend Antonio, son to the Viceroy.

Belville, Fred and Blunt greet Willmore who has just arrived by boat in Naples in company of ‘the Prince’ (the implication being the exiled Charles II). Florinda, her sister Hellena (who is intended for the veil i.e. to become a nun), their cousin Valeria, and their duenna Callis surreptitiously visit the carnival, all in masquerade, and there encounter the cavaliers. Florinda flirts with Belvile and arranges to meet him that night at her garden-gate. Willmore is bewitched by the ready wit of Hellena who is pretending to be a gypsy.

Meanwhile a picture of Angelica Bianca, a famous courtesan, is publicly exposed, guarded by bravos. Antonio and Pedro dispute who shall give the 1,000 crowns she demands for her ‘favours’, and draw swords. After a short fray Willmore, who has boldly pulled down the picture, is admitted to the house, and declares his love, together with his complete inability to pay the price she requires. Angelica, none the less, falling in love at first sight, yields to him.

Hellena and Florinda appear in the street below, the latter mocking Hellena for so suddenly and completely falling in love with the man she briefly met earlier (Willmore). Belvile and pals arrive, knock at Angelica’s door and get Willmore sent out to them. Wilmore makes it plain he has slept with Angelica. Hellena, eavesdropping, hears all this from a hiding place and is heart-broken, but when she confronts him Willmore outfaces the situation and resumes his ardent courtship of her, which is detected by the jealous Angelica, who has followed him vizarded.

In the same scene Florinda in disguise had approached and talked to Belvile, trying to seduce him, but found him loyal to the women he’s in love with which, she realises, is her. She gets him to promise to meet her in ‘the garden’ that evening and leaves a pledge with her which he realises, once she’s gone, is a little picture of his beloved.

A comic interlude in which simple honest Essex gentleman Ned Blunt is enticed back to her house by a very willing whore, Lucetta, who lures him up to her bedroom, where she hops into bed and asks him to strip off, which he promptly does. But as he stumbles towards her a) the lights go out b) the bed moves (a piece of comic mechanism) and c) Ned tumbles through a trapdoor down into a sewer – leaving Lucetta and her pimp Philippo to count the gold they find in Blunt’s clothes. The scene cuts to New Blunt emerging from the mouth of the sewer, very smelly and very sorry.

Florinda that night goes to the garden gate to meet Belvile, but encounters Willmore who is drunk and tries to ravish her. Her cries attract Belvile and Fred, who interrupt drunk Willmore, but then immediately her brother, Don Pedro, and the servants. Florinda just has time to tell Belvile to come back and loiter under her bedroom window later, before she escapes back into the house where she pretends to be fast asleep. Don Pedro and servants beat off Willmore et al who run away.

Willmore has to endure the reproaches of Belvile, who is furious with him for assaulting his beloved. They have wandered to the front of Angelica’s house, where they hide as Antonio approaches and makes as about to enter the house. Because he still feels linked to Angelica Willmore staggers forward and attacks Antonio with his sword, wounding him, before reeling offstage. Belvile goes to Antonio‘s aid just as officers run up and arrest him, conveying him by Antonio’s orders to the Viceroy’s palace.

Antonio comes to Belvile in his cell, with his arm in a sling, and they make friends, Antonio asks Belvile to wear a mask (vizard) and impersonate him in a duel he has to fight with Florinda‘s brother, Don Pedro. Florinda intervenes to part them and Don Pedro gallantly assigns his sister to him thinking he is Antonio(Florinda refuses to be bullied but then Belvile pulls up his mask and reveals to her it is him.) But just as things are panning out well, Willmore staggers up and knocks Belvile’s mask off, Don Pedro realises it is he, and drags Florinda away.

Belvile is even more furious with Willmore and when he won’t stop talking, draws his sword and chases him offstage.

Angelica next comes in hot pursuit of Willmore. She accuses him of faithlessness, he gets bored and wants to hasten off to an appointment with the ‘gypsy’. They are interrupted by the ‘gypsy’ – in reality, Hellena, who arrives dressed as a boy. She tells a tale of the Rover’s amour with another dame and so rouses the jealous courtesan to fury, with Willmore intervening and beginning to suspect this young lad is Hellena. These scenes are getting confusing. Willmore makes excuses and leaves Angelica lamenting that all her beauty cannot hold such a treacherous man.

Florinda, meanwhile, who has escaped from her brother, running into an open house to evade detection, finds herself in Ned Blunt’s apartments. Blunt is sitting half-clad in a very angry mood, reflecting on having been stripped and duped by the whore Lucetta. Florinda throws herself on his mercy but he vows to use and abuse her:

Cruel, yes, I will kiss and beat thee all over; kiss, and see thee all over; thou shalt lie with me too, not that I care for the Injoyment, but to let you see I have ta’en deliberated Malice to thee, and will be revenged on one Whore for the Sins of another; I will smile and deceive thee, flatter thee, and beat thee, kiss and swear, and lye to thee, imbrace thee and rob thee, as she did me, fawn on thee, and strip thee stark naked, then hang thee out at my Window by the Heels, with a Paper of scurvey Verses fasten’d to thy Breast, in praise of damnable Women

Enter Fred who begins to believe Florinda‘s protestations, especially when she mentions Belvile and how he will thank them if they are kind to her. Hmm. Blunt‘s determination on revenge is mollified by the present of a diamond ring, but at this moment a servant announces his friends and Don Pedro are arriving, so they lock Florinda away.

Belvile had told him Don Pedro that Blunt was a fool and would be a good source of amusement. Now, despite his protestations, they break down the door to his rooms and, sure enough, all have a good laugh at Blunt’s expense. But he insists he’s going to have the last laugh and take it out on another Italian whore. But when he shows them the diamond ring Florinda gave him, Belvile immediately recognises it as the love token he gave Florinda much earlier in the play. However, the rest of the company are determined to ‘enjoy’ her as much as Blunt, and in fact draw straws in the shape of drawing their swords to find out whose is longest. Ironically, it is Don Pedro‘s who is promptly sent into the room where Florinda is hiding in order to ravish her – his own sister! Florinda comes running out pursued by Don Pedro, but she is in disguise and he doesn’t recognise her.

A servant arrives and tells Don Pedro his sister is not safe at home – as he thought – but has run off dressed as a page. He makes his excuses and leaves. The moment he’s gone Belvile acknowledges Florinda, they leap into each other’s arms, Willmore says, so this is the woman you’ve been pining for all along’, Fred begs her pardon. A boy is sent out to fetch a priest and Florinda and Belvile go into the other room to be married.

They leave Willmore to protect the pass in case anyone arrives to interrupt the ceremony but who arrives is Angelica in disguise. Willmore totally gives himself away by excitedly hoping it is his ‘gypsy’ i.e. Hellena. Infuriated, Angelica puts a pistol to his chest and is about to shoot him dead. She follows him round the stage as he outdoes himself with a stream of justifications of the cynical debaucher’s attitude.

To everyone’s surprise Antonio walks in, still wearing the sling from where Willmore wounded him last night and takes the pistol off Angelica. But when he realises the man she was threatening is his attacker from last night, he himself threatens Willmore. At which moment Don Pedro enters and overhears Angelica and Antonio declaring their love. Antonio! The man he intended to marry his sister, Florinda!

Also Don Pedro is angry because he challenged Antonio to a duel and Antonio sent a deputy, an impersonator in disguise, who turned out to be Belvile, his own rival. Don Pedro is angry with him and say, as soon as his arm has recovered, he’ll challenge him to another duel. He leaves and Pedro says he is so angry with the man whose cause he tried to promote, he is in a mood to give his sister to Belvile.

Funny you should say that, says Willmore – they are in the other room and have just got married. At which point they emerge and Pedro gives Belvile and his sister his heartiest congratulations. They exit and Willmore is about to follow them when he is accosted by Hellena. There follows a really long dialogue of wits, and he finds he is attracted to her wit and intelligence. He discovers he is ready to marry her. In a comic moment he asks if he may know her name.

The rest of the cast re-enter and Pedro is initially furious that his other sister is being ravished away, the one intended for a nunnery but, in another comic moment, bold Hellena asks the cast whether she should throw in her lot with Heaven or with the Captain:

Hellena: Let most Voices carry it, for Heaven or the Captain?
All cry: a Captain, a Captain.
Hellena: Look ye, Sir – ’tis a clear Case.

Enter Ned Blunt looking ludicrous in a badly fitting Spanish outfit, to give everyone a laugh.

Then enter a group of mummers passing by to the masquerade, who are invited in to play music and dance, thus rounding the play out with music and gaiety.

And the very last lines are to Willmore, the rover himself, as he leads Hellena into the adjoining room to be married.

Willmore: Have you no trembling at the near approach [of marriage]?
Hellena: No more than you have in an Engagement or a Tempest.
Willmore: Egad, thou’rt a brave Girl, and I admire thy Love and Courage.

Lead on, no other Dangers they can dread,
Who venture in the Storms o’ th’ Marriage-Bed.

And thus this convoluted series of shenanigans comes to an end. It is obviously designed to amuse a sophisticated London theatre audience, a large part of which would be precisely the kind of amoral aristocrats the play depicts, so they would enjoy seeing their lifestyle depicted on stage – while others would enjoy moralising about them.

The gossip instinct

It struck me the play is a kind of concatenation of gossip in the sense that

  1. the characters on stage spend almost all their time gossiping about each others affairs’
  2. they spend a lot of time pondering and reflecting and – in effect – gossiping about their own affairs
  3. and this complicated spectacle prompts members of the audience, or readers, to gossip about the gossip – to approve or disapprove of Willmore, to opine that Florinda is too hard or too soft etc

You know the magazines you get at supermarket checkouts which are stuffed full of stories about the stars of TV soaps or presenters of Good Morning Britain or Loose Women, the endless supply of tittle tattle about celebrities going out, getting married, getting pregnant, being unfaithful, splitting up with their partners, getting back together with their partners? Well – it’s like them.

The academics who introduce plays and texts like this are paid to write about them in terms of ‘gender representation’ and ‘female agency’ and ‘women’s empowerment’ and Restoration ‘misogyny’ and the handy cover-all term, ‘The Patriarchy’ (all these terms can be found in the Oxford World Classics introduction to The Rover).

I don’t deny that these are real things, are valid ideas, interpretations, and worth exploring – although the solid wall of feminist interpretation laid over everything like carpet felt, does often get very monotonous, monoglot and wearing.

But I’m suggesting something much simpler and more obvious. These plays – Restoration plays – full of theatrical artifice, 18th century language and elaborate games as they may well be – also appeal to the basic human instinct for Gossiping. They cater to the same love of judging and moralising about other people’s (‘ooh that Willmore!’) as the endless celebrity tittle-tattle which fills the Daily Mail.

Comedy

Also, it is easier to moralise and judge than to write about humour. It is notoriously difficult to write about comedy – to convey in a flat essay the thousand and one things which make an audience smile or laugh, from ironic asides, tone of voice, sarcasm, pratfalls, bathos, grotesque characters, comic mistakes, comic business with props, gags with punchlines and so on.

Much easier to grandly state that a narrative ‘subverts’ 18th century ‘gender stereotypes’ – any schoolgirl can write that kind of thing these days, it’s taught at GCSE and A-level and at university: anybody writing like that is just faithfully parroting what their teachers taught them degree level. Much harder to pinpoint just why The Rover is the brightest and funniest of Behn’s plays.

For example, when Hellena points out that aged Don Vincenzio may increase Florinda’s ‘Bags but not her family‘ I take it as a sly dig at his probable impotence, to be said with a knowing leer to the audience to trigger a fnah fnah laugh. Or, in the same speech, Hellena vividly pictures the scene as her young sister is forced, night after night, to accompany the aged Don Vincencio to his bed. After she has performed the disgusting task of undressing him…

That Honour being past, the Giant stretches it self, yawns and sighs a Belch or two as loud as a Musket, throws himself into Bed, and expects you in his foul Sheets, and e’er you can get your self undrest, calls you with a Snore or two – And are not these fine Blessings to a young Lady?

What middle-aged wife would not recognise this unflattering portrait of her husband? It reminds me of the jokes about unromantic age which fill the TV series Last of The Summer Wine

Clichés and conventions

Italy It is set in Italy. The wickedest reprobates and comic plots are always Italian (cf Shakespeare comedies with their endless Antonios). In fact, there are multiple reasons for its foreign locatio:

– The nations of Europe (and of Britain) were freely stereotyped. Italy was thought to have very devious and sophisticated people – suiting both comedies or tragedies that depended on plot devices like deception and treachery

– Italians were thought to be more hot-blooded and passionate than the phlegmatic Brits (a belief which runs through the 18th and 19th centuries, underpins countless novels and continues, in some quarters, up to this day) – thus allowing for a degree of sexual passion which might not be believable in Brits

I like their sober grave way, ’tis a kind of legal authoriz’d Fornication, where the Men are not chid for’t, nor the Women despis’d, as amongst our dull English;

– Italians were popularly known for their violence – always quick to grab a sword or dagger – as in Romeo and Juliet

Yes: ’Tis pretty to see these Italian start, swell, and stab at the Word Cuckold,

– The weather is better in Italy – so the people are more often outside – in gardens, streets and so on, bumping into each other and thus providing the potential for countless complicated comic permutations. It never rains in plays like this as, of course, it regularly rains in England, keeping people trapped moodily indoors.

Blunt: What a Dog was I to stay in dull England so long

– Also there was the simple pleasure that it was a foreign country with an exotic language, food, customs etc there was a sort of mental tourism in seeing plays in Italy

Faith I’m glad to meet you again in a warm Climate, where the kind Sun has its god-like Power still over the Wine and Woman.

Spain Same sort of thing –

Belvile: Remember these are Spaniards, a sort of People that know how to revenge an Affront.

But with the difference that Britain had little or no military or geographical interest in Italy, whereas we were at war with Spain for a good deal of the 16th century and were major rivals for imperial territories, for example in the Caribbean. Behn has the whore Lucetta’s pimp Philippo find gold pieces from ‘Old Queen Bess’s reign in Ned Blunt’s waistband and comment:

We have a Quarrel to her ever since Eighty Eight, and may therefore justify the Theft,

I.e. the character is made to say that the Spanish have had a quarrel with the British since 1588, the year of the Spanish Armada, the attempt at an amphibious invasion of England which was designed to overthrow the Protestant queen and impose a Catholic Spanish dictatorship, all blessed by the Pope. The Armada had taken place about 70 years before the play’s production, so the same length of time as separates us from the Second World War, which we still remember and commemorate.

Therefore English writing about Spain often has a more bitter or harder edge, whereas Italy had and still has, fewer negative connotations. So it is a little notable that so many of the actual characters are Spanish. Still, the same hot-blooded, exotic rules apply.

English Also, being set abroad allows some of the characters to ridicule the home audience, the English, which is also humorous.

This is a stranger, I know by his gazing; if he be brisk he’ll venture to follow me; and then, if I understand my Trade, he’s mine: he’s English too, and they say that’s a sort of good natur’d loving People, and have generally so kind an opinion of themselves, that a Woman with any Wit may flatter ’em into any sort of Fool she pleases.

Which might have brought ironic cheers from the London audience.

Young woman struggling to be free A young woman is being forced to marry an old man by her wicked father for the money (Florinda being hustled to marry aging but rich Don Vincentio).

The young couple Whereas the young woman wants to marry a dashing young hero: There is a pair of young lovers – Florinda and Don Belvile.

The confidante The young woman has a comic confidante to provide a running comic commentary on the main action and make cynical asides and jokes. This leaves the heroine free to express only Noble and Dignified sentiments – in this instance the cynical humorous confidante is her sister Hellena.

The two couples In fact, as the play unfolded I realised there are two couples.This, apparently, is a core, stock convention of Restoration comedy –

A particularly appealing feature is the contrast between two pairs of lovers. The ‘gay couple’ are witty and independent, with time to banter and tease their way to choosing a marriage partner. Through them, the complexities of commitment could be explored… The second couple are constant and unexciting. Their path to true love is thwarted by outside forces, usually in the shape of a blocking character – Don Pedro in The Rover… (An Introduction to Restoration Comedy)

Rogue male There is an outstanding, amoral, rakish, predatory male figure – Willmore, the Rover.

Thou know’st I’m no tame Sigher, but a rampant Lion of the Forest.

Haste Things always have to be done in a hurry. This is itself a structural requirement of the theatre where it is difficult to convey the passage of months or years. Instead the action must follow pell-mell. Over and above the difficulty of conveying the passage of time, haste and deadlines also simply create tension, energy, dynamism – sweep the audience up in the action – and, of course, prompt the characters to all kinds of desperate behaviour they might not take. Thus when Don Pedro tells his sister, Florinda, that he wants to organise her marriage to young Antonio we can be confident it will trigger all kinds of desperate behaviour.

Dressing up The masked ball or masquerade or disguise is a key element of comedy from ancient Rome to modern pantomime. The feminist scholars of the play get excited because the masquerade allows characters to ‘subvert the gender roles’ imposed on them by ‘misogynist Restoration society’. But in fact dressing up allows for two really basic elements of comic theatre, namely:

1. Freedom you can get away with saying and doing things in disguise which you wouldn’t think of trying normally:

Will. But why thus disguis’d and muzzl’d?
Belv: Because whatever Extravagances we commit in these Faces, our own may not be oblig’d to answer ’em.

2. Comic misunderstanding – where characters say things to each other which match the outfits and characters they’ve adopted, but are wildly inappropriate to the actual characters we – the audience – know them to be.

3. Serious understanding Having read The Rover carefully it dawns on me that dressing up as someone else is also a way of discovering the real motives and character of the person you have designs on, as in the complex scene where Belvile dresses as Antonio and can sound out Don Pedro’s real character; or where Hellena dresses as a young man in order to assess Willmore‘s relationship with Angelica.

Also – people like dressing up for parties. It makes them feel special excited, in a party mood. Thus characters on stage – which have already been simplified and heightened for the audience’s enjoyment – become twice as simplified and heightened. Comedy squared.

Politics Behn was a devoted Royalist. The play is set in the 1650s and Belvile, Willmore, Frederick and Blunt are all English courtiers in exile from the Roundhead, republican government of the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell.

Gentlemen, you may be free, you have been kept so poor with Parliaments and Protectors, that the little Stock you have is not worth preserving—but I thank my Stars, I have more Grace than to forfeit my Estate by Cavaliering.

There are lots of little indications e.g. when Belvile introduces Blunt to Willmore as one of us’.

Belvile: Yet, Sir, my Friends are Gentlemen, and ought to be esteem’d for their Misfortunes, since they have the Glory to suffer with the best of Men and Kings; ’tis true, he’s a Rover of Fortune, yet a Prince aboard his little wooden World.

Class distinction There is an interesting moment when Colonel Belvile gives a satirical portrait of Ned Blunt, one of their party for sure, but an honest country English gentleman who – it is implied – the more urban, worldly Belvile and Willmore despise.

Willmore: Prithee what Humour is he of…?
Belvile: Why, of an English Elder Brother’s Humour, educated in a Nursery, with a Maid to tend him till Fifteen, and lies with his Grand-mother till he’s of Age; one that knows no Pleasure beyond riding to the next Fair, or going up to London with his right Worshipful Father in Parliament-time; wearing gay Clothes, or making honourable Love to his Lady Mother’s Landry-Maid; gets drunk at a Hunting-Match, and ten to one then gives some Proofs of his Prowess—A pox upon him, he’s our Banker, and has all our Cash about him, and if he fail we are all broke.

As so often, the aristocracy are in reality dependent on the honest bourgeoisie – and despise them for it.

Fred: Oh let him alone for that matter, he’s of a damn’d stingy Quality, that will secure our Stock. I know not in what Danger it were indeed, if the Jilt should pretend she’s in love with him, for ’tis a kind believing Coxcomb;

Blunt: No, Gentlemen, you are Wits; I am a dull Country Rogue, I.

Nobody is surprised when honest Ned Blunt is swindled out of his diamond. He even hails from Essex which, right down to this day, 370 years later, is the butt of jokes.

Blunt: ’Tis a rare Girl, and this one night’s enjoyment with her will be worth all the days I ever past in Essex.—

Contemporary references

Moretta: He knows himself of old, I believe those Breeches and he have been acquainted ever since he was beaten at Worcester.

The Battle of Worcester, 3 September 1651 was the last battle of the Civil War.

Moretta: Oh Madam, we’re undone, a pox upon that rude Fellow, he’s set on to ruin us: we shall never see good days, till all these fighting poor Rogues are sent to the Gallies.

Consignment to galleys was a punishment.

Frederick: It may be she’ll sell him for Peru, the Rogue’s sturdy and would work well in a Mine;

The Spanish had used slave labour in their South American silver mines for over a century.

Blunt: I had rather be in the Inquisition for Judaism, than in this Doublet and Breeches

Tells us something about the power of the Italian Inquisition, and of its attitude to Jews, in the 1660s.


Related links

The Auden Generation

Rex Warner was one of the generation of English schoolboys born in the Edwardian decade who went to public schools during the war, then onto Oxford and Cambridge in the 1920s, where they met, mingled and often had affairs (many of them were gay or bisexual), before going on to start their writing careers at the very start of the 1930s.

They were the generation which gave literature in England in the 1930s its distinctive tone, its schoolboy enthusiasms – for the shiny Art Deco world, for a glamorised black-and-white movie view of spies and fighting, and (since so many of them dabbled with left-wing politics) for sixth-form disapproval of unemployment and a simple-minded sort of communism.

At the time, this cohort of poets and novelists was often referred to as ‘the Auden Group’ and in hindsight is often called ‘the Auden Generation’ because of the enormously influence of the poetry and criticism of W.H. Auden. It includes:

  • Edward Upward b.1903 Repton School, Cambridge, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1934
  • Christopher Isherwood b.1904, Repton School, Kings College London
  • Cecil Day-Lewis b.1904, Sherborne School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1935
  • Rex Warner b.1905 St George’s School Harpenden, Oxford
  • W.H. Auden b.1907 Greshams School, Oxford
  • Louis MacNeice b.1907, Marlborough, Oxford
  • Stephen Spender b.1909 Greshams School, Oxford, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain 1936
  • Benjamin Britten b.1913 Greshams School, Royal College of Music

All the guys on this list knew each other well from public school or Oxbridge, and collaborated on poems and plays and travel books which brought a new feel to English literature. They were modern and unstuffy, they rejected the values of their fuddy-duddy Edwardian parents. They were unashamed of their homosexuality or bisexuality, and rejected hypocritical old sexual morality.

They rebelled against their parents’ timid Anglican Christianity (‘nothing but vague uplift, as flat as an old bottle of soda’ as Auden put it). Many of them e.g. Rex Warner and Louis MacNeice, were actually the sons of clergymen and (with a kind of inevitability which tends to disillusion you with human nature) quite a few ended up many years later reverting to the Anglican faith of their boyhoods (e.g. Rex Warner and, surprisingly, Auden himself).

They revelled in the new 1920s world of fast cars and speedboats, the excitement of air travel and the sheer glamour of steam trains with names like The Flying Scotsman. They were totally at home in the new media of radio and film, typified by Auden’s poetic commentary for a documentary about the London to Glasgow night train in 1936.

Auden’s poetry is significant because it is, arguably, the first in English literature which doesn’t reject the city and fetishise the countryside as most previous poets had. It’s true some English poets had conveyed the squalor of the late-Victorian metropolis, and T.S. Eliot had described 1920s urban crowds seen through the eyes of someone having a nervous breakdown:

Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet. (The Waste Land lines 60 to 65)

But instead of horror or revulsion at the modern world, Auden conveys a tremendous excitement and enthusiasm for a world of factories, mine workings, racing cars, air speed records, ocean liners, electricity pylons. (Spender wrote a poem entirely about electricity pylons striding across the landscape, which led some critics to nickname the group the ‘pylon poets’).

And Auden does it in poetic forms which are popular and accessible. If Eliot’s poetry represents a crisis of Modernity in which sensitive, highly cultivated minds break down before the assault of the modern world and convey this in fragmented works packed with recondite references to the highest of European high culture (Dante, St John of the Cross), then Auden is the opposite.

Totally at home in the 20th century with its crowds and trains and trams and advertising hoardings and jazz bands and radio programmes, Auden knocks off ballads and limericks and lyrics and songs with a devil-may-care insouciance, a slapdash brilliance which a whole generation found inspiring and liberating after the psychologically intense, cramped and unhappy poetry of Modernism with its daunting battery of obscure references. Now poetry could be silly, inconsequential, as wittily throwaway as a Cole Porter lyric.

You were a great Cunarder, I
Was only a fishing smack.
Once you passed across my bows
And of course you did not look back.

It was only a single moment yet
I watch the sea and sigh,
Because my heart can never forget
The day you passed me by.

The Auden Group had all been too young to take part in or even understand, the First World War but, as impressionable teens, were exposed by their schoolmasters to endless stories of British pluck and heroism. They had all taken part in the Officer Training Corps at school and were used to playing at soldiers, wearing schoolboy soldier outfits, using schoolboy compasses and schoolboy maps to take part in pretend battles and missions.

It was this bright-eyed, schoolboy innocence they brought to the world as they found it in the late 1920s and 1930s. On the one hand it was a world of thrilling opportunities, with its hot jazz and dance halls, and radio just one of the new technologies opening the horizons of millions, its fast cars and sleek trains.

But on other hand, these boys were just leaving university and looking for their first jobs as the world was plunged into the economic collapse of the Depression, a world in which something had obviously gone badly wrong if millions were unemployed, factories and mines were shut down, and the destitute of Jarrow had to march on London to beg for work.

This exciting, thrilling modern world with all its cocktails and gizmos was at the same time somehow compromised, wrong, in error, needed to be rejected, rejuvenated, overthrown. Beneath the smouldering heaps of slag which disfigured the landscapes of the Black Country and the industrial North, slumbered the dragon of change, impatient to overthrow the old regime, the Old Gang.

Auden, again, vividly captured the feeling of an entire generation of impatient, upper-middle-class young men that they’d been sold a pup, that something was badly wrong, that society was poised on the brink of some terrible catastrophic change.

It is time for the destruction of error.
The chairs are being brought in from the garden,
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast
Before the storms, after the guests and birds:
In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.
The falling leaves know it, the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground, know it–
This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s:

Orders are given to the enemy for a time
With underground proliferation of mould,
With constant whisper and the casual question,
To haunt the poisoned in his shunned house,
To destroy the efflorescence of the flesh,
To censor the play of the mind, to enforce
Conformity with the orthodox bone,
With organised fear, the articulated skeleton.

You whom I gladly walk with, touch,
Or wait for as one certain of good,
We know it, we know that love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union,
More than the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,
The self-confidence of the falling root,
Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang; would leave them
In sullen valley where is made no friend,
The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.

Some of this is, admittedly, pretty obscure, but other bits leap out as wonderfully expressive:

In sanatoriums they laugh less and less,
Less certain of cure; and the loud madman
Sinks now into a more terrible calm.

And the whole things conveys the sense of crisis, through a heady mix of 1. details picked out like close-ups in a movie:

…the abrupt self-confident farewell,
The heel on the finishing blade of grass,

2. Invocations of northern mythology, not the sunlit references poets usually made to Greek mythology, but something northern, darker, more sinister:

This is the dragon’s day, the devourer’s…

3. Snapshots of the real derelict industrial England:

… the children,
At play on the fuming alkali-tip
Or by the flooded football ground…

It was a heady mixture of technical brilliance (Auden could and did write in almost every form known to English poetry, as well as inventing a few), brilliant details which leap out at you, great phrase-making, and confident mastery of modern psychology:

… love
Needs more than the admiring excitement of union

References to kinky sex:

The hard bitch and the riding-master,

And ominous threat, the vague but powerfully expressed sense that there needs to be sweeping social change if anything is to be fixed, the solution to society’s problems, it:

Needs death, death of the grain, our death.
Death of the old gang.

The confidence of his voice influenced an entire generation away from the crabbed, fractured obscurities of Modernism (epitomised by Eliot’s Waste Land and Pound’s Cantos) towards this lighter, more open, confident and often funny tone, oddly combined with its schoolboy enthusiasm for ‘revolution’, for ‘radical’ change – something which, of course, none of them really understood.

(It was this political naivety, this ‘playing’ with radical politics which led George Orwell [b.1903, educated at Eton] to despise Auden, who he described as ‘a kind of gutless Kipling’. He really hated the whole gang. In reviews of their books, Orwell frequently referred to them as ‘the pansy poets’. Two other big names of the Thirties also stood apart from the gang, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, although both were Edwardian-born chaps who attended pukka schools – Greene b.1904, Berkhamsted school, Oxford; Waugh b.1903, Lancing school, Oxford.)

Spain

This sense of Auden’s omnicompetence and omniscience is exemplified in the first half dozen stanzas of the long poem Auden wrote after visiting Spain early in the civil war, titled simply Spain, which was published as a pamphlet in order to raise money for the Republican side.

Spain opens with a succession of stanzas each of which start with the word ‘Yesterday’ and give a visionary review of early Spanish history, building up a sense of the country’s pagan primeval past, before the poem arrives at the plight of the present.

Yesterday all the past. The language of size
Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion
Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;
Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,
The divination of water; yesterday the invention
Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of
Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,
the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,
the chapel built in the forest;
Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;
Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns
And the miraculous cure at the fountain;
Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,
The construction of railways in the colonial desert;
Yesterday the classic lecture
On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

It’s the confident tone, and the breadth of knowledge, and the fluent technique which allows him to include all these references in such powerful striding rhythms, which thrilled and influenced all the writers, especially the poets, of the 1930s. Only a few managed to resist, to establish a voice of their own.

Stephen Spender

Spender was a key figure of the group, went to the same private school as Auden, on to Oxford, then to bohemian Germany, was bisexual, political, published his first poems in 1933, joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1936, travelled to Spain and wrote extensively about it during the civil war. Over the years he developed extraordinary connections with writers across Europe and became a leading literary figure in post-war Britain, not least as literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967. He was made a CBE in 1962 and knighted in 1983.

But I’ve always his poetry Stephen Spender wet and weedy. He’s too nice. He lacks the peculiar obscurity and the threat which lies behind even the most apparently accessible Auden. And he generally delivers one good phrase per poem and then the rest feels like padding. Here’s his famous pylon poem.

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made,
And crumbling roads
That turned on sudden hidden villages

Now over these small hills, they have built the concrete
That trails black wire
Pylons, those pillars
Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret.

The valley with its gilt and evening look
And the green chestnut
Of customary root,
Are mocked dry like the parched bed of a brook.

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This dwarfs our emerald country by its trek
So tall with prophecy
Dreaming of cities
Where often clouds shall lean their swan-white neck.

It’s a copy, a pastiche, the work of a devotee. Much of it is poor, like the opening line:

The secret of these hills was stone, and cottages
Of that stone made…

The line about the electricity pylons being ‘Bare like nude giant girls that have no secret’ catches most people’s eyes, specially if they’re men. This is the best stanza:

But far above and far as sight endures
Like whips of anger
With lightning’s danger
There runs the quick perspective of the future.

This has the Auden touch with its explicit reference to threat and danger and sense of the future as being ominous. ‘Whips of anger’ is good. But overall, it is (in my opinion) second rate.

Louis MacNeice

One of the contemporaries who was influenced by Auden (they all were) but maintained his independence was the car-loving, heterosexual Louis MacNiece.

MacNeice wrote funny, stylish poems which took a more mordant, sceptical look at the contemporary world than Auden’s. All Auden’s poems, when you look closely, contain a lot about his own personal unease and psychological issues. For the decade of the 1930s his inclusion of these neuroses (generally the parts of his poems which are most obscure in syntax and imagery) seemed to express the anxieties of the times.

MacNeice was a much more frank and forthright personality and so a lot of his verse has a more objective, external, sometimes journalistic vibe. Even when he starts off writing about workers in a factory, Auden ends up dragging in his own uncertainty and anxiety. MacNeice stays far more impersonal or, when he does express himself, that self is far more straightforward (maybe because he was far more straightforwardly heterosexual).

Possibly his most famous short poem or lyric is Snow.

The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes—
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one’s hands—
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

It isn’t neurotic or nostalgic or sentimental or depressed as so much poetry can be. It is vigorous and positive. It isn’t dressed in old-fashioned Victorian poetic rhetoric: its vocabulary and speech rhythms are absolutely modern:

… I peel and portion
A tangerine and spit the pips

What could be more prosaic and mundane? Except that, into this banal scene, MacNeice has inserted a world of wonder and, for the purpose, invented a register which allows wonder without any recourse to old-fashioned phraseology or imagery.

World is crazier and more of it than we think

No classical myths or historical figures or lady loves are invoked. Just one man in a room, sitting by a snug fire, peeling a tangerine as it starts to snow outside and suddenly he is struck by how weird and varied the world is. And how wonderful it is to be alive.

Autumn Journal

MacNeice is far more at home in his own skin than Auden. His most famous longer poem, Autumn Journal, is a wonderfully flowing verse diary he kept of the 1938 autumn of the Munich Crisis, recording day-to-day impressions of what he read and felt and saw in the London around him as everyone held their breath while British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain flew three times to Germany to negotiate with Hitler in a bid to resolve the crisis over Czechoslovakia and prevent a world war.

It opens with a vivid depiction of the fuddy-duddy world of Edwardian colonels and village fairs which Auden, also, often satirised. But whereas Auden shoots out scattergun pellets, flying impatiently from one cinematic detail to another, note how MacNeice is much slower, more patient, describes the scene thoroughly, more like a novel.

Close and slow, summer is ending in Hampshire,
Ebbing away down ramps of shaven lawn where close-clipped yew
Insulates the lives of retired generals and admirals
And the spyglasses hung in the hall and the prayer-books ready in the pew
And August going out to the tin trumpets of nasturtiums
And the sunflowers’ Salvation Army blare of brass
And the spinster sitting in a deck-chair picking up stitches
Not raising her eyes to the noise of the ’planes that pass
Northward from Lee-on-Solent. Macrocarpa and cypress
And roses on a rustic trellis and mulberry trees
And bacon and eggs in a silver dish for breakfast
And all the inherited assets of bodily ease
And all the inherited worries, rheumatism and taxes…

(The poem is laid out with more visual inventiveness than above, with successive lines indented to give visual variety. This doesn’t seem to be possible in WordPress.)

Actually, rereading this opening section makes me realise how much this passage depends on the word ‘and’ to create what is, in some ways, a rather simple accretion of detail. Auden leaps from detail to detail giving you a dizzy sense of a master film director; MacNeice says: ‘and another thing…’, giving you the sense of someone leading you into an interesting story.

Whether because of the fear and censorship surrounding homosexual love, or because Auden was so much the intellectual in whatever he wrote whereas MacNeice is much closer to the pie-and-a-pint, ordinary man-in-the-street, MacNeice’s heterosexual love lyrics are simpler and more immediate that Auden’s. Less troubled. Here’s a later passage from Autumn Journal where he’s thinking about his wife:

September has come, it is hers
Whose vitality leaps in the autumn,
Whose nature prefers
Trees without leaves and a fire in the fireplace.
So I give her this month and the next
Though the whole of my year should be hers who has rendered already
So many of its days intolerable or perplexed
But so many more so happy.
Who has left a scent on my life, and left my walls
Dancing over and over with her shadow
Whose hair is twined in all my waterfalls
And all of London littered with remembered kisses.

Beautiful, non? In its simplicity of diction, flow and candour.

Afterlife of the Auden Group

The arts in the 1930s were a bit like the 1960s. Caught up in fast-moving turbulent times a new generation of writers, poets and artists spearheaded new forms and media and subjects, determined to overthrow the conservative certainties of their parents, especially when it came to sexual freedom and artistic experimentation – many getting mixed up with heady declarations of political and social revolution, which they spent the rest of their lives trying to live down (Day Lewis left the Communist Party in 1938, Spender in fact only lasted a few months as a member and a decade later he was one of the six leading European writers who recorded their disillusionment with communism in the seminal essay collection The God That Failed, 1949.)

And then it all suddenly ground to a halt. The abject failure of the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War – ground down to defeat amid internecine conflict and bitter recriminations – broke their boyish idealistic spirit (the Spanish Civil War ended on 1 April 1939). A few months later (September 1939) the Second World War broke out and was not at all the glamorous struggle these public schoolboys had spent a decade anticipating. Literary movements collapsed, people moved away (to America, generally, where Auden and Isherwood fled in 1939).

[Auden’s] departure with Isherwood for America in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender, p.276)

The dust settled and a lot of people spent the rest of their lives writing memoirs and essays and documentaries trying to figure out what it had all meant.

Over the 80 or so years since, a small industry has developed of people who claimed to have been there at decisive moments, eye-witnesses to artistic revolutions, friends of the great – magazine editors and critics who were already lionising and mythologising Auden and his mates in the 30s and spent the rest of their lives carrying the torch (or, alternately, expressing the same animosity towards these flashy and over-successful young whippersnappers).

There are now hundreds of books and thousands of academic papers about The Auden Generation, essays galore which pore and pick to pieces every work by every member of ‘the movement’, major or minor.  What started as in-jokes and fooling between friends have been blown up into dissertations which academics have built entire careers upon.

In this respect the Auden Generation are comparable to the Bloomsbury Group which preceded them: at the core were one or two writers or artists of real note (Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury, Auden in his group) and surrounding them concentric circles of steadily less and less interesting or talented figures, often their friends or family or lovers.

They all wrote memoirs explaining how brilliant they all were, and recording every conversation, letter, diary entry and in-joke for posterity, and biographers coming afterwards have added to the pile and the complexity, dwelling at length on who said what to whom or who slept with whom and what every reference in every letter and diary really means — until it becomes difficult to penetrate the sea of obfuscation and really grasp what was important and lasting.

Auden emigrates to America

When you look at the sea of highly professional and deadening commentary which mythologised the group and the era, you can appreciate why Auden just walked away from it all, from England’s small, incestuous and parochial literary scene, and why he took ship to New York in January 1939, with sometime lover and literary collaborator, Christopher Isherwood. Years later he said in an interview:

The Ascent of F6 was the end. I knew I had to leave England when I wrote it…I knew it because I knew then that if I stayed, I would inevitably become a part of the British establishment. (quoted in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography, page 195)

A member of the Establishment like Cecil Day-Lewis, appointed poet laureate in 1968.

(Mind you, the main, practical reason for moving to America was that there was more work there for a freelance poet, playwright and critic, and a man’s got to eat. One of their literary enemies, Evelyn Waugh, was particularly scathing about the way Auden and Isherwood abandoned their native country just as the Second World War broke out, putting them into his hilarious 1940 novel Put Out More Flags as the characters Parsnip and Pimpernel).

The left-behind

Relocating to America allowed Auden to carry on developing and evolving (generally in a way his early English fans disapproved of) while the group members and hangers-on left back in England often struggled to adapt their youthfully exuberant style to the realities of post-war, austerity England, and then to the grimly conformist 1950s. None of them were ever so young again or able to recapture the first fine careless rapture of being alive in the exciting, terrible, scary and thrilling decade of the 1930s. Spender became an anti-communist, a reliable stalwart of the Cold War literary scene, eventually knighted for his services to blah blah. MacNeice wrote long boring radio plays. Reading any of them in the 1970s was like reading a sustained lament for a lost world.

The Mendelson revival

Even the American Auden became sometimes intolerably boring. In later life he suppressed a lot of his best work from the 1930s – he came to believe it was meretricious, flashy and immoral – or tinkered, rewrote and generally watered down what he did allow to be reprinted, so that for a long time it was impossible to find or read.

Only after Auden’s death in 1973, when his literary executor Edward Mendelson published a comprehensive volume of everything Auden wrote in the 1930s – The English Auden – were we able to read a) the poems Auden had banned from being reprinted for 30 years or more; b) the original, generally far more dynamic versions of his poems; c) lots of surprisingly attractive ephemera, lyrics from plays or literary magazines which had slipped through the cracks.

Which is why The English Auden isn’t just a handy collection of all Auden’s writing from the period, but 1. an incredible collection of poetry of genius, as well as 2. explaining at a stroke why Auden so dominated the period, creating a voice and style and persona and rhetoric for modern moods and feelings, in an enormous range of formats and genres, which captured a decade as few writers before or since ever have.

And even made it into a Richard Curtis movie:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.

He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.

The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.


Related links

Cocaine Nights by J.G. Ballard (1996)

‘Leisure societies lie ahead of us…’ (Irving Sanger, p.180)

A poolside thriller

Although it’s longer than almost any of Ballard’s other novels, Cocaine Nights feels like a nice easy read, an airport or poolside thriller with an increasingly psychotic edge.

I found Day of Creation and Rushing to Paradise a struggle to finish because their stories were so preposterous, but Cocaine Nights fits much more easily into the thriller genre and for much of the time was as easy as eating an ice cream at the cinema. It was published 26 long years after Ballard had published the angular, challenging, Atrocity Exhibition and, reading this book, it feels worlds away in size, form and approach…

Cocaine Nights is a confident first-person narrative told by Charles Prentice, a seasoned travel writer who’s knocked about a bit and knows the ways of the world. When he learns that his kid brother Frank has been arrested and will be going on trial in Marbella, in the south of Spain, Charles flies to Gibraltar, hires a car and drives up the Spanish coast.

Frank has been living for the past few years in an exclusive resort named Estrella de Mar where he was manager of the popular Club Nautico, overseeing ‘a familiar world of squash courts, jacuzzis and plunge-pools’.

Charles checks into a nearby hotel, and makes an appointment to meet Frank’s Spanish lawyer. Here, for the first time, he discovers the charges against his brother. A swanky holiday house overlooking the resort was set on fire in an act of deliberate arson, and the retired British couple who lived there, the Hollingers, along with their niece Anne, an au pair and the male secretary, Roger Sansom, were all burned to death in the arson attack.

Frank was discovered by the police a few hours later in possession of molotov cocktails – wine bottles filled with a highly flammable mix of ether and petrol – of the kind which without doubt started the fire. When Charles finally manages to visit Frank at his Spanish prison he discovers, to his bewilderment and consternation, that Frank is going to plead guilty.

Charles spends a week snooping round Estrella, interviewing as many of the inhabitants as he can. On the surface it’s bustling with good, clean, wholesome bourgeois activities, a theatre club putting on plays by Tom Stoppard and Harold Pinter, an arts cinema, pottery classes, tennis lessons, choral societies – it’s Surrey by the sea.

In many ways Estrella de Mar was the halcyon county-town England of the mythical 1930s, brought back to life and moved south into the sun. Here there were no gangs of bored teenagers, no deracinated suburbs where neighbours scarcely knew each other and their only civic loyalties were to the nearest hypermarket and DIY store. As everyone never tired of saying, Estrella de Mar was a true community, with schools for the French and British children, a thriving Anglican church and a local council of elected members which met at the Club Nautico. However modestly, a happier twentieth century had rediscovered itself in this corner of the Costa del Sol…

And:

Purpose-built in the 1970s by a consortium of Anglo-Dutch developers, Estrella de Mar was a residential retreat for the professional classes of northern Europe. The resort had turned its back on mass tourism, and there were none of the skyscraper blocks that rose from the water’s edge at Benalmadena and Torremolinos. The old town by the harbour had been pleasantly bijouized, the fishermen’s cottages converted to wine bars and antique shops. Taking the road that led to the Club Nautico, I passed an elegant tea salon, a bureau de change decorated with Tudor half-timbering, and a boutique whose demure window displayed a solitary but exquisite designer gown. I waited as a van emblazoned with trompe-l’œil traffic scenes reversed into the courtyard of a sculpture studio…

What with this thriving art scene, drama club, art classes, pilates, swimming lessons, sailing, tennis and much, much more, Estrella de Mar seems like paradise:

Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

But the more ‘amateur sleuthing’ Charles does and the more he finds out, the stranger the place appears.

One night, sitting in his car outside the resort’s main nightclub, the Club Nautico, pondering his next move, he sees what he takes to be a violent rape taking place in a car parked nearby. He runs over to rescue the woman, the man makes a getaway out the other door, but the woman, although obviously assaulted, with her knickers round her ankles and bleeding from the mouth, shrugs him off, pulls herself together and walks away. More disconcerting, as he stands there confused, Charles realises there was an audience watching: there are couples sitting in all the cars facing the one where the assault was taking place. Exasperated, Charles bangs his fists on their windshields:

‘What are you people playing at?’ I shouted. ‘For God’s sake . . .’

But one by one the cars turn on their ignitions, and slowly drive way.

Similarly, Charles notices prostitutes hanging round some of the streets in micro-skirts and boob tubes, mingling with the traffic, waiters, delivery men, shopkeepers and so on of the busy resort. But, on closer examination, he is disconcerted to realise that they are two ‘respectable’ women, wives of two men who run the town’s travel agency. Is it a kind of sex game, played to excite their husbands, or themselves? Or do they need the money?

A similar sense of bafflement surrounds descriptions of the fateful fire which killed the Hollingers. It happened on the Queen’s birthday, 15 June, and wasn’t a secret affair, the opposite. The villa was hosting a big party with everyone who was anyone at the resort invited, and so there was a crowd of over 200 drinking, partying, laughing, around the villa’s massive swimming pool. Hollinger even proposed a loyal toast to the Queen from his balcony, before going back inside (he was, Charles is repeatedly told, patriotic but aloof and rather pompous). Then suddenly the crowd started to realise that the big villa was on fire. Various guests tried to smash in the patio doors or windows, but they were fire-sealed and security-locked. Some guests tried to put ladders up to the first floor balcony and windows but the ladder caught fire.

So a) everyone saw the fire happen happen b) a lot of people tried to intervene but c) the Hollingers didn’t try to open any doors or windows but, apparently, stayed snug inside their separate bedrooms while their villa burned to the ground around them.

Charles visits the scene of the burned-out villa with one of the ex-pats who was there that night and who takes him through the events in detail. He closely questions all the other ex-pats who’ll agree to see him. He has long conversations with Frank himself, on his visits to him in prison, but his brother is infuriatingly vague about what happened or who is to blame. Charles is stunned when Frank’s lawyer tells him Frank is definitely going to please guilty to all five counts of murder.

Why? Why confess to a crime he didn’t commit? What the hell is going on?

To find out Charles decides he has to move into Estrella de Mar itself, so he checks out of the hotel up the coast where he’d been staying (the Los Monteros Hotel) and takes up occupation of Frank’s now-empty apartment, and starts digging deeper into the place and its inhabitants. All this has taken place by about page 70 – chapter 6 of the book’s 28 chapters – and the rest of the novel describes what he finds out.

And he finds out… that there is, as the BBC Sunday night drama has it, Death in Paradise. From the start Ballard had set a tone of aggressive sexuality – Charles has only just got into his hire car at Gibraltar when he spies a sultry woman driver in a nearby car fixing her make-up and has sexual fantasies about her. He is quick to spot the hookers on the streets of Estrella da Mar and quick to embark on a sexual affair with the resort’s troubled doctor, Paula Hamilton, and quickly suspects the bruises around her face are not from some harmless accident, but from the rough sex games, the S&M scene he quickly suspects exists behind closed doors at the resort.

So far so BDSM, so Crash, so porny. But if you park the porn – and Charless quick realisation that a certain amount of drugs is being consumed at the resort, mainly speed and cocaine – if you put all this modish window dressing to one side, the basic structure of the story is the same as a hundred Agatha Christie novels, and a thousand sleepy, Sunday night BBC ‘dramas’, the same basic structure:

  1. at an idyllic country community / stately home / happy family
  2. a mysterious death occurs
  3. an outsider comes in to investigate (Poirot, Miss Marple, Charles Prentice)
  4. who conducts a series of interviews with half a dozen key players
  5. which slowly reveal that any one of half a dozen characters might have had motives to carry out the murder(s)
  6. in which he or she uncovers clues carefully placed by the writer to keep us guessing
  7. so that the outsider/investigator slowly discovers that the idyllic community / stately home / happy family has dark (and hopefully depraved) secrets
  8. until by a process of induction, or through further incriminating events, the outsider/investigator finally discovers ‘the truth’

Thus, although the sex and drugs elements are fashionably depraved, and some of the details are quirky (like when Charles is buzz-bombed by a man-powered glider, which is a throwback to his weirder sci-fi stories) on the whole the narrative unfolds with the utter predictability of a 1930s murder mystery.

As you might have predicted, ‘shadowy figures’ try to warn Charles off, starting with a half-hearted attempt to strangle him on the balcony of Frank’s apartment, which is arranged to frighten him but not to actually hurt him.

As you might expect, Charles accompanies the Spanish detective in charge of the investigation on an extended tour of the burned-out villa as they retrace the stages of the crime, step by gruesome step, lingering over each room in which one or more of the victims were found burned or asphyxiated to death.

As you might expect, the detective reveals some unusual facts, such as that old Hollinger died in the house jacuzzi (good idea) but not with his wife, with young Anna the au pair. And that Anna was pregnant – but with whose child? Tut tut. And that Mrs Hollinger wasn’t in her room but in bed with the male secretary, Sansom. Saucy goings-on. ‘Lawks a-mercy, Monsieur Poirot, whoever would have thought it!’

As you might expect, Charles discovers a videotape in the melted VHS player of the burned-out villa – which the police have somehow overlooked – and takes it back to Frank’s apartment to view. It is, to no-one’s surprise, a porno, an amateur hand-held affair which starts with a standard lesbian romp, but turns nasty when some tough young men enter and appear to genuinely rape the tearful central figure. Yes, Estrella de Mar has a darker side, which grows a lot darker when Charles discovers it was his new girlfriend, Dr Paula Hamilton, who filmed the whole event.

As you might expect, there is a morose outsider, who has his own secrets to hide. In a Christie novel it’s often the gamekeeper or family retainer who turns out to have his own secrets. In this book it is the gloomy Swede Andersson, who maintains high powered speedboats which – on investigation – defy the Spanish navy to import hashish and heroin from North Africa. Drug smuggling.

Stuff happens. Someone sets fire to a stolen speedboat in the harbour. Someone sets fire to Prentice’s hire car. Someone dive bombs him with a hang glider when he climbs to the lemon grove above the Hollingers’ burned-out villa looking for evidence.

He feels himself settling into this world of casual crime, drug-taking and porn film-making, a ‘hidden Estrella de Mar, a shadow world of backstreet bars, hard-core video-stores and fringe pharmacies’, his brother Frank, stuck in gaol, becoming an ever more notional figure. Sanger the resort psychiatrist says he’s beginning to resemble his brother.

The Bobby Crawford effect

Bobby Crawford, the resort’s energetic tennis coach, was drifting down the coast from one sleepy resort to the next. When he arrived at Estrella da Mar he found it as torpid and somnolent as all the others he’d been at. But party by accident he was involved in some petty crimes and observed that it pepped the victims up no end. Experimentally, he embarked on a one-man crime wave, breaking into the luxury villas, nicking video players, pouring wine on precious carpets, spraying graffiti on garage doors, vandalising cars.

The effect is dramatic. People come out of their TV-induced coma to come to the resort offices to complain. They set up neighbourhood watch schemes. Having met each other they have parties to discuss latest developments, discover they have a taste for amateur dramatics or sports. People started turning up at what had previously been Crawford’s moribund tennis club.

I understood how [Frank] had fallen under Crawford’s spell, accepting the irresistible logic that had revived the Club Nautico and the moribund town around it. Crime would always be rife, but Crawford had put vice and prostitution and drug-dealing to positive social ends. Estrella de Mar had rediscovered itself.

The owners and investors – notably the shark-like Betty Shand – in the resort observe all this. They egg Crawford on. Encouraged he explores how far he can take the notion of energising crime. Some of the members of the newly founded film club are encouraged to make saucy films. A handful of the tougher sports club members are recruited into Crawford’s gang which carries out random attacks or thefts.

Ballard’s thesis

So bit by bit, Ballard’s thesis is at first hinted at by various characters, and then finally explained at length by Crawford in what might as well be a Shakespearian soliloquy addressed directly to the audience. The thesis is that society is sinking into a profound slump of boredom and accidie, addicted to TV while its mind vegetates. But people need excitement and an environment of petty crime energises and enlivens entire communities.

What they need, though they refuse to accept it, is a certain amount of amoral crime. And the person who supplies it, the impresario of crime, is the unacknowledged saviour of moribund communities. In the right time and place, the psychopath can be a saint.

‘The psychopath plays a vital role. He meets the needs of the hour, touches our graceless lives with the only magic we know…’ (Bobby Crawford explaining to Charles)

Put to the test – the Residencia Costasol

And all this is put to the test, when the likeable energetic Crawford recruits Charles in him and his rich sponsors’ next project which is to move on to the next sleepy ex-pat resort down the coast, the Residencia Costasol.

Half-reluctant but intrigued, Charles allows himself to be persuaded to become the manager of the main nightclub in the resort down the road. It is dead in the water, an utterly moribund community of numbed zombies who stay indoors all day watching TV. Charles watches how just a few incidents of petty crime begin to waken the dead. Crawford takes him on a car tour of the empty, perfectly manicured streets, with Crawford stopping every so often to break into an empty villa and steal a video recorder, or some jewellery, to spraypaint a garage door or vandalise a slumbering Porsche.

Charles is initially sceptical but then amazed when people start visiting the resort offices to complain, stop to buy some stuff, go into the bars for a drink, a few of them sign up with Crawford’s tennis club, some of them ask about entertainment at Charles’s nightclub.

Charles finds himself sucked into the scheme and becoming compliant to ever greater scandals. When a luxury yacht is burned down in the marina, it not only shocks the inhabitants, it reminds everyone that they own yachts, and soon the yacht club is booming. And so is Charles’s nightclub, doing a roaring trade, with people staying up late partying to the dance music. Which of course attracts drug dealers who Crawford, we find out, is managing and running. Similarly, some prostitutes arrive but Charles is stunned when he realises some of the women tottering in high heels, micro-skirts and boob tubes are wives of well-to-do residents. The Crawford Effect works. Residencia Costasol is becoming another Estrella da Mar.

Charles turns into his brother

All this has taken some months and Charles changes. He had rushed out to Spain on the first flight to help his brother and pestered his lawyers and the police for his first few weeks. Then, as he uncovers more about Estrella’s secret sub-culture, he put off seeing his brother until he understands more. And this quest to understand takes him down the road we’ve described, until he realises he has become his brother – performing exactly the role in the Residencia Costasol that Frank played in Estrella, a lynchpin in the resort’s social life, turning a blind eye to activities which skirt illegality and, increasingly, veer into outright immorality, but not taking an active part so much as trying to restrain or channel Bobby Crawford’s boyish, unstoppable, amoral appetite for stirring things up.

And so it is that Charles puts off opportunities to visit his brother for months on end, and slowly comes to the realisation that he doesn’t want to or need to. When Paul Hamilton tells him that Frank’s much-delayed trial is about to start the next day, Charles brushes it off. His metamorphosis into his amoral brother is complete.

Whodunnit

Eventually we get to the payoff, which comes as little or no surprise. Who set fire to the Hollingers’ villa? They all did or, to be more precise, all the main characters Charles has met played a part. There wasn’t really a central mastermind or fixed plan, but some of the people he’s met got hold of petrol and ether, others filled the villa’s air conditioning with this flammable mix. Each individual told themselves they were preparing a prank, a practical joke, a bit extreme maybe, but essentially harmless. In an act of collective psychosis none of them acknowledged what they were doing, until it began to happen and then it was too late – the fire spread too fast and aggressively for anyone to stop it or the villa’s inhabitants to escape.

And then the collective act had performed its function. The entire community felt bound together by collective guilt, like members of some primitive tribe who kill, cook and eat their chief. They have all partaken of the blood sacrifice. They are bound more closely than ever together.

‘He [Bobby Crawford] stumbled on the first and last truth about the leisure society, and perhaps all societies. Crime and creativity go together, and always have done. The greater the sense of crime, the greater the civic awareness and richer the civilization. Nothing else binds a community together. It’s a strange paradox.’ (Paula Hamilton explaining to Charles)

And in fact, to his dismay, his lover Paul Hamilton who finally reveals all this to him, also reveals that Frank did in fact play a key role in the arson. And that’s why he has decided to plead guilty. By pleading guilty he saves the others, saves the community.

Novel or fable?

By this stage you can see how the book has ceased to be a realistic novel or thriller. It is making a case. It is what the French call a roman à thèse – a novel which is didactic or which expounds a theory. Humans are animals. Despite all propaganda to the opposite, they need excitement and thrills. The person who provides this excitement – the psychopath as saint – is reviled but secretly welcomed. The sequence of petty crimes leads inexorably to a great act of collective murder which binds the community in collective guilt.

By this point the book has ceased being a realistic novel and become a kind of elaboration of Sigmund Freud’s highly questionable anthropological theories. In his later writings Freud speculated that early human societies were bound together through the ritual murder of The Father, and claimed to have found evidence for this in ancient mythology, from the Greeks to the ancient Israelites.

If you buy into this logic, or if you are now reading the book more as a Freudian fable than as a Christie-style whodunnit, the final section comes as no surprise, but has a pleasing inevitability about it. Things are thriving at the Residencia Costasol but Charles picks up more and more signals that another extreme event is in the offing, though he can’t discover what it is, and for a while the reader is alarmed that he himself might be the target, or his erstwhile lover, Paul Hamilton.

Or, in a big red herring, maybe the target will be Dr Irwin Sanger, the resident psychotherapist at Estrella de Mar who, we come to learn, has a fetish for under-age girls, and is more or less driven out of Estralla, taking refuge in a villa he’s bought at the Residencia Costasol, close to the one Charles is living in. Is a gang of vigilantes going to attack the increasingly fragile old man and torch his villa?

In the event it is Bobby Crawford. He’d made an appointment to meet Charles, but as Charles approaches the tennis court where Bobby spends all his time between supervising the community’s criminal activities, he finds Crawford lying on the court, shot through the heart. Charles stoops and picks up the small handgun which killed him, moves Bobby’s head, gets blood all over his shirt and hands… just as he hears the siren of the police car, looks up to see Inspector Cabrera, who had investigated the original arson attack, who had quizzed him at length about his brother, who had watched his character slowly transform… Inspector Cabrera walks towards him across the court and in the last sentences Charles realises that he, Charles Prentice, will take the blame, take the rap, plead guilty of Bobby’s murder… for the greater good of the community.

And the novel ends on this Grand Guignol, Edgar Allen Poe moment.


Characters

An indication of its difference from previous novels is the sheer number of characters. A novel like The Crystal World had about eight named characters, Concrete Island only about four, whereas Cocaine Nights feels has the extended cast of Eastenders.

The narrator

  • Charles Prentice, travel writer and older brother of Frank
  • Frank Prentice, long term inhabitant of Estrella de Mar, accused of the murder by arson of the Hollingers

The ex pats

  • David Hennessy, retired Lloyd’s underwriter, now doddery the treasurer of the Club Nautico
  • Bobby Crawford, Club Nautico’s tennis professional and impresario of crime and transgressive behaviour
  • Dr Paula Hamilton, physician at the Princess Margaret Clinic, formerly Frank’s girlfriend
  • Sonny Gardner, barman and crew member on  Frank’s thirty-foot yacht
  • Elizabeth Shand, Estrella de Mar’s most successful businesswoman, a former partner of Hollinger’s
  • Dr Irwin Sanger, Bibi’s psychiatrist
  • Anthony Bevis, owner of the Cabo D’Ora Gallery
  • Colin Dewhurst, manager of a bookshop in the Plaza Iglesias
  • Blanche and Marion Keswick, two jaunty Englishwomen who ran the Restaurant du Cap, an elegant brasserie by the harbour
  • Gunnar Andersson, a young Swede who tuned speedboat engines at the marina, boyfriend of Bibi
  • a retired Bournemouth accountant and his sharp-eyed wife who runs a video-rental store in the Avenida Ortega
  • the Reverend Davis, the pale and earnest vicar of the Anglican church (officiates at one of the funerals of the arson victims)

The five arson victims

  • the Hollingers – he a retired British film producer, she (Alice) one of the last of the Rank Charm School starlets
  • Anne, their niece
  • Bibi Jansen, the Swedish au pair who died in the fire
  • the gay male secretary, Roger Sansom

The Spanish authorities

  • Senor Danvila – Frank’s lawyer
  • Inspector Cabrera, detective investigating the arson case
  • Rodney Lewis, Charles’s agent in London

Strengths

Ballard writes so vividly. Almost every paragraph has a phrase which scintillates with linguistic charge. There is a wonderful clarity and precision to his vision.

  • The pool terrace was deserted, the choppy water settling itself for the night
  • I walked into the dining room, listening to my footsteps as they dogged me across the parquet flooring
  • [after the fire] The remote-control unit lay on the bedside table, melted like black chocolate
  • Shreds of burnt chintz clung to the walls, and the dressing room resembled a coal scuttle in a rage
  • Dominating all the other craft in the yard was a fibre-glass powerboat almost forty feet long, three immense outboards at its stern like the genitalia of a giant aquatic machine

He’s not always on song. Sometimes the rhetoric can become overwrought, almost always when he lapses into cliché, into the expected:

  •  The faint scent of bath gel still clung to my skin, the perfume of my own strangulation that embraced me like a forbidden memory

And so part of the pleasure of reading the book comes from watching Ballard navigate the fine line between acuity and pretentiousness, between vivid originality and something a little more clumsy. For example, which side of the line is this?

He left the boatyard and led me along the walkway between the moored yachts and cabin-cruisers. The white-hulled craft seemed almost spectral in the dusk, a fleet waiting to sail on a phantom wind.

That’s a little over-ripe for me, a bit too self-consciously Gothic. A phrase like this overlays the scene with a forced or pretentious comparison. It moves from the specific outwards to the general and so diffuses the effect. I prefer descriptions which travel in the opposite direction, which zero in, which make you sit up and pay closer attention to the thing itself:

Andersson stopped at the end of the quay, where a small sloop rode at anchor. Beneath the Club Nautico pennant at the stern was its name: Halcyon. Police exclusion tapes looped along its rails, falling into the water where they drifted like streamers from a forgotten party.

This acuteness also applies to his perceptions of people.

As his eyes searched the sky over the town I noticed that he was looking everywhere but at the Hollinger house. His natural aloofness shaded into some unhappy emotion that I could only glimpse around the bony corners of his face.

That feels acute to me, and original. Very simple vocabulary, but conveying a way of perceiving new to most of us. Only prose fiction can do this, surprise us in this way.

Ballard’s sardonic vision of ex-pat communities

The whole narrative is premised on the idea that the ex-pat communities along the Mediterranean have a special atmosphere of zombified inanition. Sometimes Ballard describes this with the seriousness that the premise of a fable requires, but other times he is wonderfully acute and funny at describing the strange limbo world of these kind of over-heated ex-pat resorts. He doesn’t hold back:

While a young Frenchwoman topped up my tank I strolled past the supermarket that shared the forecourt,where elderly women in fluffy towelling suits drifted like clouds along the lines of ice-cold merchandise. I climbed a pathway of blue tiles to a grass knoll and looked down on an endless terrain of picture windows, patios and miniature pools. Together they had a curiously calming effect, as if these residential compounds -British, Dutch and German – were a series of psychological pens that soothed and domesticated these émigré populations…

The retirement pueblos lay by the motorway, embalmed in a dream of the sun from which they would never awake. As always, when I drove along the coast to Marbella, I seemed to be moving through a zone that was fully accessible only to a neuroscientist, and scarcely at all to a travel writer. The white facades of the villas and apartment houses were like blocks of time that had crystallised beside the road. Here on the Costa del Sol nothing would ever happen again, and the people of the pueblos were already the ghosts of themselves…

Estrella de Mar seemed a place without shadows, its charms worn as openly as the bare breasts of the women of all ages who sunbathed at the Club Nautico. Secure on their handsome peninsula, the people of the resort were an example of the liberation that follows when continuous sunlight is shone on the British.

Via his characters, Ballard can be even more forthright in his opinions:

‘Have you seen the pueblos along the coast? Zombieland. Fifty thousand Brits, one huge liver perfused by vodka and tonic. Embalming fluid piped door to door…’

Charles is more detached and analytical – he is, after all, a writer by profession – but is given the same point of view:

Already thinking of a travel article, I noted the features of this silent world: the memory-erasing white architecture; the enforced leisure that fossilised the nervous system; the almost Africanised aspect, but a North Africa invented by someone who had never visited the Maghreb; the apparent absence of any social structure; the timelessness of a world beyond boredom, with no past, no future and a diminishing present. Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…

Empty pools and full pools

One symbolic way of indicating the difference between Ballard’s pre-Empire of the Sun fiction and the novels he wrote after that catharsis, is that, in all his pre-Empire stories and novels, the swimming pools are drained and empty; in all the post-Empire stories, the swimming pools are filled to the brim, reflecting the bright blue Mediterranean sky, and denoting a world of timeless, affectless plenty.

Weaknesses

It’s hard not to notice Ballard’s use of a deliberately limited descriptive vocabulary, a very restricted number of moods or gestures which all the characters display, as if they are androids with about five settings. This lexical narrowness bespeaks, indicates and enacts a sort of emotional and cognitive narrowness in his characters.

People are always needing to be ‘calmed’, because something is ‘unsettling’ or over-exciting them; many of the characters or situations are described almost from the start as ‘deranged’ or ‘demented’; the narrator does no end of ‘sensing’, ‘sensing’ that people know more than they let on, ‘sensing’ that he is unwelcome, ‘sensing’ that characters really mean this or that secret motive.

Calm

  • Paula tried to calm me, sitting me in the leather armchair and putting a cushion behind my head…
  • Cabrera watched me from the door, restraining Paula when she tried to calm me…
  • She turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • Before I could remonstrate with her she turned to face me, and touched my forehead with a calming hand…
  • ‘Now, sit down and try to calm yourself,’ Sanger steered me from the garden door, whose handle I was trying to turn, concerned for my overexcited state…
  • One of them touched my cheek, as if calming a child…
  • Trying to calm myself, I sipped Frank’s whisky and listened to the shrieks and laughter as the sun came up over the sea…
  • I put my hands on her shoulders to calm her.

Demented/deranged

  • I remembered the disagreeable Guardia Civil at Gibraltar and speculated that the fire had been started by a deranged Spanish policeman protesting at Britain’s occupation of the Rock.
  • Andersson stood astride the grave, spade held across his chest like a jousting pole, glaring in a deranged way at the psychiatrist.
  • Repeated cleanings had blurred the pigments, and the triptych of garage, windows and door resembled the self-accusing effort of a deranged Expressionist painter
  • The bedrooms were daubed with graffiti, a riot of black and silver whorls, a demented EEG trace searching for a brain
  • As Laurie Fox screamed in her demented way, spitting out the blood she had sucked into her mouth, Sanger seized her around the waist.
  • In the soil scattered from the plant tubs a demented geometer had set out the diagram of a bizarre dance of death…

Unsettled

  • ‘You’ve unsettled a great many people since you arrived, understandably so…’
  • His talk of re-opening the case unsettled me…
  • The frankness of her erotic response, the unashamed way in which she used her sex, seemed to unsettle Crawford..
  • I fingered the plastic sachet, tempted to help myself to this forgotten cache, but I was too unsettled by the visit to the Hollinger house
  • The testy humour, and the edgy manner of someone unsettled by standing more than a few seconds in front of a mirror, would have appealed to Frank…
  • Cabrera hesitated before getting into his car, unsettled by my change of tack
  • Crawford sat forward, speaking quietly as if not wanting to unsettle the silence.

Sensed

He uses the phrase ‘Already I…’ to convey the sense that something is creeping up on the narrator, that things are overtaking him, that things are moving at pace…

  • Already I sensed that she was looking on me with more favour, for whatever reasons of her own…
  • Already I sensed that I was being kept under surveillance…
  • Already I could sense the freedom that this intimate world would have given to Alice Hollinger…

Narrowness and repetition

Obviously we all have restricted vocabularies, our own idiolects (‘the speech habits peculiar to a particular person’) and Ballard is a very clever, self-aware writer.

Sol much so that I wonder whether the repetition of actions, of moods and of the relatively small range of words that he uses to describe them is deliberate – that he accepts the same narrow set of words which suggest themselves as he writes, because doing this adds to the stylisation of the text. That the repetitions not only of plot, but of specific words and phrases, adds to the sense of stylisation which accompanied, in the old days, coronations and religious rituals, and in our media age, define the camera angles and gestures of movie actors.

So that when the any of the other characters tell Charles to ‘calm’ himself, we remember Jim in Empire of the Sun continually being told by the adults to calm down. When the narrator remembers his father sparring with the Saudi police and so ‘unsettling’ his mother, we remember all the other Ballard characters who have been ‘unsettled’ by a drowned world, crystallising forests, the inhabitants of high rises killing each other, and so on.

This narrowness of plotting, and the narrowness of vocabulary, are central issues in critiquing Ballard’s work.

Running Wild is about a luxury gated community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Cocaine Nights is about a luxury ex-pat community for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Super-Cannes is about a luxury business park for top professionals which is the scene of a massacre and turns out, on investigation by an outsider, to conceal very dark depths.

Is the repetition of the same basic plot, told in prose which heavily features the same stylised attitudes and words (unsettle, calm, deranged) a bad thing or a good thing? Does the repetition of ideas and phrases cumulatively build up a powerful vision of the world?

Or feel like the repetition of a writer who’s lost inspiration? I think it’s more the former, that the hammering away of the same vocabulary is like a miner hammering away at a coal seam underground, relentlessly chipping away at the same pressure point to try and achieve a breakthrough into a new way of seeing.

Ballard’s improbable dialogue

Dialogue in thrillers is always pat, neat and snappy. Think of any of the classic American writers, Dashiel Hammett or Raymond Chandler. By this late stage in his career Ballard had evolved his own version of this stagey dialogue in which characters don’t speak like hard-boiled gangsters but like lecturers in media studies, all very savvy and smart about Freud and Fellini. Here’s Crawford the tennis coach talking to Charles the narrator about his brother, Frank:

He stared at the air with his arms raised to the sky, as if waiting for a sympathetic genie to materialize out of the spiralling dust.
‘Charles, I know. What’s going on? This is Kafka re-shot in the style of Psycho. You’ve talked to him?’
‘Of course. He insists he’s guilty. Why?’
‘No one knows. We’re all racking our brains. I think it’s Frank playing his strange games again, like those peculiar chess problems he’s always making up. King to move and mate in one, though this time there are no other pieces on the board and he has to mate himself.’

‘This is Kafka reshot in the style of Psycho‘ and then moving on to make comparisons with chess games. Do you think anyone, anywhere has ever spoken like that, let alone a professional tennis coach?

Here’s Charles sparring with nervous Dr Paul Hamilton.

‘Besides, my patients need me. Someone has to wean them off the Valium and Mogadon, teach them how to face the day without a bottle and a half of vodka.’
‘So what Joan of Arc was to the English soldiery you are to the pharmaceutical industry?’

Has anyone ever said something is sharp and snappy as that to you? Here’s Charles talking to Inspector Cabrera:

‘Inspector, when I meet Frank I’ll say that I’ve seen the house. If he knows I’ve been here he’ll realize how absurd his confession is. The idea that he’s guilty is preposterous.’
Cabrera seemed disappointed in me. ‘It’s possible, Mr Prentice. Guilt is so flexible, it’s a currency that changes hands . . . each time losing a little value.’

Ah, the literary policeman as philosopher. Here’s Charles with Dr Hamilton, again:

‘Who is he exactly?’
‘Not even Bobby Crawford knows that. He’s three different people before breakfast. Every morning he takes his personalities out of the wardrobe and decides which one he’ll wear for the day.’

Snappy. Or:

As we stood together I placed my hand on her breast, my index finger following the blue vein that rose to the surface of her sunburnt skin before descending into the warm deeps below her nipple. She watched me uncritically, curious to see what I would do next. Without moving my hand from her breast, she said: ‘Charles, this is your doctor speaking. You’ve had enough stress for one day.’
‘Would making love to you be very stressful?’
‘Making love to me is always stressful. Quite a few men in Estrella de Mar would confirm that. I don’t want to visit the cemetery again.’
‘Next time I’m there I’ll read the epitaphs. Is it full of your lovers, Paula?’
‘One or two. As they say, doctors can bury their mistakes.’

Boom boom, as artful as Oscar Wilde or Joe Orton. Here’s Charles interviewing Andersson the boat repair man:

‘You don’t like looking at the Hollinger house, do you?’
‘I don’t like looking at anything, Mr Prentice. I dream in Braille.’

It’s all as slick and stylised as the dialogue in a Noel Coward play, mingled with a pleasant stream of sub-Wildean paradoxes.

‘Money, sex, drugs. What else is there these days? Outside Estrella de Mar no one gives a damn about the arts. The only real philosophers left are the police.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘Selfish men make the best lovers. They’re prepared to invest in the woman’s pleasure so that they can collect an even bigger dividend for themselves.’ (Dr Hammond)

‘The arts and criminality have always flourished side by side.’ (Dr Sanger)

This whip-smart repartee mixes oddly with Ballard’s very limited set of emotional responses, and then again with the off-hand references to hard drugs or kiddie-porn or BDSM sex. It’s an odd combination.


Ballard’s erroneous futurology

‘Everything comes sooner these days. The future rushes towards us like a tennis player charging the net.’ (The psychiatrist Irwin Sanger)

Ballard is routinely trotted out as a ‘prophet’ or ‘futurologist’, but this strikes me as plain wrong.

Cocaine Nights obsessively repeats the idea that the enclaves of bored wealthy ex-pats along the Costa del Sol somehow indicate what the future will be like:

  • Perhaps this was what a leisure-dominated future would resemble? Nothing could ever happen in this affectless realm, where entropic drift calmed the surfaces of a thousand swimming pools…
  • ‘Frank always claimed that Estrella de Mar is what the future will be like…’
  • ‘In Estrella de Mar, like everywhere in the future, crimes have no motives…’
  • ‘I talked to Sanger the other day – he thinks we’re the prototype of all the leisure communities of the future…’
  • ‘Charles, this is the way the world is going. You’ve seen the future and it doesn’t work or play. The Costasols of this planet are spreading outwards. I’ve toured them in Florida and New Mexico. You should visit the Fontainebleau Sud complex outside Paris – it’s a replica of this, ten times the size. The Residencia Costasol wasn’t thrown together by some gimcrack developer; it was carefully planned to give people the chance of a better life. And what have they got? Brain-death…’
  • ‘It’s Europe‘s future. Everywhere will be like this soon…’

At its bluntest, here is Dr Sanger lecturing Charles:

‘Our governments are preparing for a future without work, and that includes the petty criminals. Leisure societies lie ahead of us, like those you see on this coast. People will still work – or, rather, some people will work, but only for a decade of their lives. They will retire in their late thirties, with fifty years of idleness in front of them.’
‘A billion balconies facing the sun. Still, it means a final goodbye to wars and ideologies.’

Has anything more inaccurate and misleading ever been written? This is spectacularly wrong, isn’t it? Ballard was reading from a script first devised in the 1970s, which looked forward to a utopian leisure society in which we’d all struggle to fill our countless hours of pampered idleness. Is that what happened? No. The exact opposite has happened:

Money-rich, time-poor is an expression which arose in Britain at the end of the 20th century to describe groups of people who, whilst having a high disposable income through well-paid employment, have relatively little leisure time as a result. Time poverty has also been coined as a noun for the phenomenon. (Wikipedia)

Spending day after day with nothing to do is not really an accurate portrait of Britain in 2020. Do you feel like you live in ‘a leisure-dominated future’? Plus, this whole discussion only takes place among the moneyed bourgeoisie. Most normal people are having to work harder than ever to make ends meet.

More women are in the workforce not because of abstract principles of ‘equality’ but because they’ve been forced to go to work to supplement their husband’s wages. More people than ever before are working on zero hours contracts. All the articles I read are about how work has invaded people’s ‘leisure’ hours, their evenings and weekends because work emails, texts and documents are now sent to people’s personal devices 24/7. And that’s before you get to the dire condition of the underclass, which I was reading about recently.

A few numbers: In 2014 the officially registered population of British nationals in Spain was 236,669, let’s call it 240,000. In 2014 the UK population numbered about 65 million. So British ex-pats in Spain make up less than 0.4% of the UK population. Hardly at the cutting edge of British social trends.

And even more obviously, this kind of thing is highly Eurocentric – it describes a world of overwhelmingly white chaps and chapesses from the professional classes who are all very comfortably off, thank you very much – Estrella de Mar is full of retired bank managers and accountants and doctors and property developers. What has come to be referred to by their impoverished children as the ‘boomers’.

As a vision of the future of the entire world it is obviously flawed for the simple reason that it totally omits, not only most of the population of European countries, but the whole of the rest of the world. A moment’s reflection on the condition of the population of either China or India (combined populations 2.75 billion people) suggests that the future of the planet is not one of luxury resorts offering a wide range of sports activities…

Ballard’s view of the future. My view of the present

Ballard’s vision of an affluent society where the well-off retire at 30 and have so much time on their hands that they take to drugs and murder to spice up their lives is plausible enough when you read it, as is much science fiction or genre fiction.

But the moment you start seriously thinking about it, you realise it is a ludicrously out-of-touch fantasy. The kind of thing only a writer – a person who spends almost all their time at home, staring out of windows, or meeting other like-minded middle class types – could conceive of, and that only academics who’ve spent a lifetime reading about transgressive sex and literary tropes, but who have precious little knowledge of international affairs, geopolitics, environmental or population trends, could take seriously.

This is a clever, very educated and very literary book, with an enormous amount of pleasure to be had from Ballard’s often inspired way with language and his endless stream of acute insights and vivid turns of phrase.

And yet the social vision at the heart of the narrative felt to me curiously dated, remote and out of touch with the actual world the rest of us live in, and are going to live in.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

%d bloggers like this: