Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (1952)

Originally there were three Foundation novels, each one a packaging-up of some of the eight linked short stories which Asimov wrote for John Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction magazine from 1941 to 1948.

Thus this, the second book in the original Foundation trilogy, is not a novel at all. It consists of two long short stories, The General (75 pages) and The Mule (149 pages).

And although they were brought out in book form in 1952, they had both been published much earlier, The General in the April 1945 issue of Astounding Science Fiction under the title Dead Hand, and The Mule in two parts in the November and December 1945 issues.

The two stories continue the narrative of the Foundation, established 12,000 years into the era of the Galactic Empire by the leading psychohistorian of the day, Hari Seldon. Seldon had predicted that the Galactic Empire, then at its peak, was in fact destined to collapse over the following 500 years, a collapse which would lead to a dark age which would last for 30,000 years.

He arranged for the establishment of the Foundation and ensured it was based right at the periphery of the Galaxy on a remote planet named Terminus, in such a way that it could rise from the ashes of the ruined Empire, and restore civilisation in a much shorter period of time, hopefully – if his plans went right – only one thousand years.

The five short stories collected in volume one of the trilogy, Foundation, each zeroes in on a particular moment of crisis, when the Foundation faced a threat to its existence, and each one showed how key protagonists used the Seldon Principles of Psychohistory to a) understand how the crisis would play out and b) take advantage of the crisis to enable the Foundation to triumph and evolve.

The two long stories in this volume take the story forward into the third century after the establishment of the Federation, showing how the complex unfolding of events still embodied the importance of Seldon’s principles and foresight.

1. The General

Although it has withdrawn from the Periphery of the Galaxy, the Empire still has keen advocates and military leaders true to its traditions, One such is charismatic and successful General Bel Riose who launches an attack against the Foundation. The leaders of the Foundation discuss how, rather than forcing a direct confrontation, they can maybe use their network of traders to infiltrate and neutralise the attacking force.

They concoct a plan. The Foundation trader Lathan Devers lets himself be captured and taken prisoner by Riose’s battleship where he encounters Ducem Barr, a venerable senator from the planet Siwenna. (Riose had earlier visited Barr and invited him on his expedition, to advise him about the rumours that the Foundation employs ‘magicians’. And readers of the first book will recognise that Ducem is the son of the Onum Barr who we met in the story, The Merchant Princes.)

After a great deal of dialogue and argument – and as they learn that the Imperial fleet is one-by-one reconquering and garrisoning star systems closer and closer to the Foundation territory – Devers and Barr are brought before General Riose. When he threatens to use a Psychic Probe on them, old Barr, to Devers’ surprise, bashes the general over the head with a stone bust, knocking him out.

Devers and Barr promptly leave the general’s rooms and walk quickly to the landing bay, where they get into Devers’ high-powered trading ship which blasts its way free and escapes into hyperspace.

Once safely escaped and tucking into space rations, Barr reveals to Devers that, as they fled, he had pinched the message which had just come through to the general from the Emperor’s much-hated advisor, Brodrig.

They both look at the message and realise that the ambiguity of its phrasing could be interpreted to look as if Brodrig and the general are in a conspiracy to overthrow the emperor.

Aha. They could use the message as evidence to sway the Emperor against his swashbuckling general – and thus rescue the Foundation.

So they travel through hyperspace to the capital planet of the Empire, Trantor, with a view to putting the message before the Emperor, Cleon II.

However, with its population of 40 million, Trantor is a jungle of bureaucracy and our guys have only bribed their way to about the second of ten levels when the interviewing bureaucrat reveals that he is in fact a lieutenant of the Imperial Police, that their ‘conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor’ has been identified, and that they are under arrest.

At which point Devers and Barr have to shoot their way out of the interview room, leg it back to their spaceship and blast their way into Trantor’s stratosphere and so into hyperspace.

It’s too dangerous to try to contact the emperor now, so they abandon their plan and make easy jumps through hyperspace right back out to the Periphery and to Terminus, the planet of the Foundation.

Here they report to the board of leaders of the Foundation (who we had met much earlier in the story), the guys who we saw weighing the encroaching threat of Riose and sending Devers off on his mission.

It is only now that Devers and Barr find out that Riose’s slow advance through neighbouring star systems towards the Foundation has been called off because Riose has been recalled to the Imperial capital planet, Trantor, under a cloud, tried and executed for treason.

And here comes the USP, the Foundation Scene, the Hari Seldon element —

Because it is only now that Devers realises that all this – Riose’s recall – would have happened regardless of anything the individual characters had done. It was a structural inevitability. A weak emperor must always live in fear of a strong general (considering how many generals had overthrown the emperor and taken the crown for himself).

Regardless of anything the council or Devers or Barr could have done, Riose would have failed anyway.

Once again the wisdom of Hari Seldon is proved to have been right – to the characters in the story, and to the admiring reader!

2. The Mule

In a foreword written years later, in the 1980s, Asimov confesses that The Mule was his favourite Foundation story and you can see why. It hangs together better than most of the others, the characters rise above the cardboard pulp level of most of the other ‘characters’, and there are scenes which almost prompt something like emotion in the reader.

It’s a hundred years since the previous story. Trantor, the great capital planet of the Empire has undergone ‘The Great Sack’ by a barbarian fleet. Most of the Galaxy has split up into barbaric kingdoms. The Empire itself has entered into an even more rapid phase of decline and civil wars. So far, so exactly like the actual history of ancient Rome transposed into a science fiction context.

The Foundation has become the dominant power in its quadrant of the galaxy, partly because of its preservation of advanced tech, plus the extensive trading policy we saw being established in the previous stories. Believing itself invulnerable, the leaders of the Foundation have become despotic and complacent.

This has led leaders of the Independent Traders’ Alliance to consider a rebellion against the Foundation. However, before they can make a move they and the Foundation come under attack from a mysterious warlord known only as ‘the Mule’.

The story follows a young couple, Toran and Bayta Darell, who have just got married. Toran’s father is a former trader, his uncle one of the would-be rebel traders. They are among the many who gather to watch another of Hari Seldon’s scheduled hologram messages. Imagine everybody’s horror when Seldon does not mention the Mule, but assumes that a civil war has been fought with the traders from which the Foundation emerged victor. For the first time in Foundation history – Seldon has got it wrong!

That civil war was exactly what was about to happen – until the Mule emerged. Could it be that the Mule is the kind of one-off, individual event which Seldon’s psychohistorical theories did not take account of? Has the comforting sense of inevitability about the Foundation’s rise come to a grinding halt?

Toran and Bayta Darell are the key characters. They fall in with a kind of rebel psychologist, Ebling Mis, and one ‘Magnifico Giganticus’, a clown they rescue at a planetary resort on their honeymoon, who seems to be fleeing the Mule himself. He is about to be arrested when Toran intervenes to save the odd, gawky, clumsy clown, and they take him off in their spaceship.

It looks as if they are to play a more central role than they expected, when this protective move is presented as the ‘kidnapping’ of his clown by the Mule and cited as a pretext for attacking the Foundation.

To everyone’s horror, the outer planets fall to the Mule’s assaults, and then the Foundation’s fleet itself mysteriously surrenders.

Determined to find out why, Toran, Bayta and Ebling Mis conceive the idea of travelling through hyperspace to the Galaxy’s former capital planet, Trantor, to look into the Imperial archives in search of a clue as to the Mule’s origins and behaviour.

Here the book for once fleetingly catches some real imaginative feeling, the kind of feeling H.G. Wells’s novels are full of, when Toran, Bayta and Mis touch down on Trantor to find it a ruin. Amid the buildings wrecked by the Great Sack, a new generation of agriculturalists are clearing away the great metal skyscrapers, to reveal the raw soil and living a primitive agricultural existence.

Tentatively our heroes make peace with these suspicious tribes, who allow them into the ruins of the old Imperial Library. There isn’t in all of Asimov a droplet of the awe and emotion conveyed in H.G. Wells’s description of entering the ruined Great Museum in The Time Machine, but these pages come the closest.

At the Great Library, Ebling Mis works continuously until his health is undermined, but in the climactic last few pages, he reveals a massive new twist in the narrative. He says that his researches show that the Foundation, the one they come from, is only one of two Foundations which Hari Seldon established 300 years earlier. And all the researches Mis have done suggest that their Foundation is the less important one!

Maybe it was a decoy all along, precisely to draw ambitious warlords like the Mule towards it – all the while ensuring that the Second Foundation could go about its work of regenerating civilisation in peace.

Mis, with his dying breath, is just about to reveal the location of the Second Foundation when… Bayta blasts him to oblivion with an atom blaster gun!! What???

Bayta explains to her outraged husband why. She points out to him (and the reader) that they have been at the heart of a whole series of coincidences: present on Terminus when the Seldon hologram appeared; present on another planet, Haven, just before that fell; there was another coincidence when they were pulled over in an unknown quadrant on their way to Trantor, by an unknown spaceship which turned out to be carrying a Foundation official they had met earlier in the story, Han Pritcher; and then – in a massive coincidence – this same Han Pritcher had turned up just a few days earlier on Trantor, apparently, followed them all the way from the Periphery of the Galaxy.

How come all these coincidences? Someone has been spying on them. Someone has been following their progress and their discoveries from the start. But who?

She turns to the spindly ‘clown’, who has been their constant companion since they saved him from an angry mob back on their honeymoon, back in the early pages of the story – Magnifico.

Bayta reveals that Magnifico… is the Mule himself!!!!!!

Magnifico stops cringing and speaking in his irritating fake courtly manner which he has maintained ever since we met him a hundred pages earlier. He straightens up and introduces himself suavely. Yes. He is the Mule. He is a mutant, one of the millions born every year across the galaxy, but with a unique power: he can control people’s emotional moods. Thus he forced a local warlord into such a state of depression that he handed over his fleet to the Mule. Thus he created a sense of despair among the populations of the outer planets, which supinely submitted to him.

It was using this power that he made most of the Foundation fleet simply surrender to him, suddenly overcome with despair and convinced their battle was futile. And it was this mind control which he used on Mis at his researches in the old Galactic Library, forcing him to work himself literally to death to discover the location of the Second Foundation.

So Bayta was right, right to stop Mis revealing its location with his dying words!

What will happen now? Well, after briefly threatening to force Bayta to become his consort – a prospect which makes her shiver with revulsion – the Mule rather adolescently declares that, since the couple genuinely befriended him and looked after him – as so many people didn’t in his wretched, outcast life (sob) he will… let them live. And he walks out the room.

The Darells are left on Trantor. The Mule leaves to reign over the Foundation and the rest of his new empire. The existence of the Second Foundation (as an organization centred on the science of psychology and mentalics, in contrast to the Foundation’s focus on physical sciences) is now known to the Darells and to the Mule.

Now that the Mule has conquered the Foundation he stands as the most powerful force in the galaxy, and the Second Foundation is the only threat to his eventual rule over the entire galaxy.

Before he leaves the Mule vows that he will find the Second Foundation, but Bayta declares it has already prepared for him and that he will not have enough time before the Second Foundation reacts.

What will happen next? Tune into next week’s exciting episode.

Or, in this case, move right on to reading the last two stories in the series, contained in the final book of the trilogy, Second Foundation.


Immaturities

When I first read the Foundation novels aged 12 or 13, I was absolutely gripped, riveted, enthralled by their profound insights into human life and history and society. I remember my sense of horror and thrill when events finally began to diverge from Hari Seldon’s prophecies. What was going to happen?

The trouble is that, since then, I have grown up (I hope). I have certainly read a lot more books, Chaucer and Shakespeare among them, 17th and 18th century satires on courts and kings and emperors, as well as countless histories of the Roman Empire, and other ancient empires, as well as numerous books about politics, philosophy and economics, as well as biographies of actual kings and emperors and political leaders.

My point being that proper literature and actual history are all much better, much more sophisticated, much better written, much more psychologically subtle, than anything in Asimov.

And all have the massive extra value of being true and, therefore, forcing you to think hard about the mysteries of actual history and actual human nature – not human nature out of a bubblegum packet.

Asimov freely admitted that he based the characters of the Emperor Cleon II and his General Bel Riose on the historical Roman Emperor Justinian I and his general Belisarius, as described in Robert Graves’s novel, Count Belisarius.

Years later, when I read Count Belisarius, I realised that it is much, much better than anything Asimov ever wrote, in every measurable way: deeper understanding of human beings and behaviour, vastly better prose style, and giving its reader an in-depth insight into real history.

Psychohistory as twaddle

When I was 12 or 13 I was barely beginning an education in the humanities. Every book I read which touched on history or economics or psychology, no matter how superficially, opened up vast new vistas to me, since it was the first time I’d encountered them. Thus, emotionally naive, inexperienced in anything of life, profoundly ignorant of most intellectual disciplines, books like Asimov’s introduced me to a world of new ideas – how emperors and their slimey sycophants behave – how empires rise and fall – how councils and committees are run – how grown-ups debate things, discuss strategy, make plans.

But the trouble is that I went on not only to read huge numbers of more serious books for my humanities and literature A-levels and degree – but to work in current affairs TV, attending countless editorial meetings, dealing with difficult situations, budgets, live broadcasts – and then, latterly, to work in the civil service, attending countless meetings, presentations, strategy boards, getting a feel for the labyrinthine politics of the civil service and the complexity of real-world politics.

Discovering, at every turn, that pretty much everything Asimov describes and presents is, in fact, a child’s eye, profoundly superficial, immature and depthless version of all these matters. Profoundly immature and simplistic.

Fake wisdom

The conceit is that the trilogy gives the reader immense insight into human history. But it doesn’t, it really doesn’t.

Symptomatic is the central premise that Hari Seldon was a genius who had unprecedented insight into the functioning of human history. Thus we are from time to time treated to some of Seldon’s profound sayings sprinkled through the text for our admiration.

But, when you actually read them, they are twaddle. When Asimov strains to authorly wisdom – just like when he strains to say anything meaningful about human nature, about human relationships, about power politics and so on – he is embarrassingly trite.

‘Seldon’s rules of psychohistory on which it is so comforting to rely probably have as one of the contributing variables, a certain normal initiative on the part of the people of the Foundation themselves. Seldon’s laws help those who help themselves.’ (The Magicians)

‘Never let your sense of morals prevent you from doing what is right!’ (The Traders)

‘Gratitude is best and most effective when it does not evaporate itself in empty phrases.’ (The Mule)

‘There’s a saying on Haven that when the cave lights go out, it is time for the righteous and hard-working to sleep.’ (The Mule)

When the lights go out, it’s time to go to bed! Wow. Wisdom for six-year-olds.

Just as the narratives give the appearance of insight into history and human society without doing anything of the sort, these trite sayings have the appearance of pithy wisdom and humour – but are neither funny nor witty, interesting or useful.

Anthropocentric

The Empire rules over quadrillions of planets in billions of star systems spread across the entire galaxy. And all of them are inhabited by men (and I really do mean men – there are hardly any women in these stories). No aliens, no alternative life forms, nada.

With the result that nothing really strange or alien or uncanny happens in any of these stories.

Although ostensibly science fiction, and certainly featuring space ships and atom blasters, there isn’t a single alien form of life, or alien disease, or alien problem. There aren’t solar winds or gas clouds or unexpected radiation or all the other perils which you might associate with science fiction.

Instead, what you get is a succession of scenes in which adult men (almost no women until Bayta in The Mule, but no children and no emotional ties worth mentioning) discuss power and strategy, trying to tease out how to manipulate and beat each other.

The conflicts are entirely human. It is an entirely human galaxy.

The style, the dialogue

My God, Asimov’s presentation of character through dialogue, and his efforts at dramatic confrontation are scandalously bad!

Most of the scenes are just that – scenes, as if from a play – in which small groups of characters discuss, argue and accuse each other.

They didn’t have TV in the 1940s when Asimov wrote all this, so I’m guessing he owed a lot of how he arranged and wrote these scenes to the conventions of radio drama. That might explain why there are few if any descriptions of things. The Imperial planet Trantor does give rise to a few paragraphs conveying how it is totally covered in manmade structures and habitations, but that’s about it. We get next to nothing about conditions on any of the other planets, and only the slightest descriptions of space ships. These are referred to often enough, but left largely undescribed.

Maybe it was a convention of the pulp sci-fi magazines Asimov was writing for. Maybe the emphasis was all about the human drama, leaving out all unnecessary technical details or prose descriptions. Maybe that was deliberately left to the illustrators to fill out as they saw fit.

Whatever the reason, almost the entire weight of the text and the narrative is thrown onto the dialogue, to explain what’s going on, and to move the plot forward – and, my God, is it cheesy!

Imagine the crappiest dialogue from a cheesy Hollywood historical ‘epic’ and then go down several notches. Cross it with scenes of The Prisoner of Zenda-style swashbuckling heroics. And then have everyone dressed up in costumes from Flash Gordon.

The senior lieutenant of the Dark Nebula stared in horror at the visiplate.
‘Great Galloping Galaxies!’ It should have been a howl, but it was a whisper instead, ‘What’s
that?’ (The Merchant Princes)

Great galloping galaxies! It sounds like Robin’s expletives in the cheesy 1960s TV series of Batman – ‘Holy Uncanny Photographic Mental Processes, Batman!’

The use of ‘Galaxy!’ as a universal oath or expletive by the characters is symptomatic: it is intended to make the whole story feel truly outer-worldly, futuristic, science fictiony. But it comes over as cheap and crass.

‘He may be the proof I need – and I need something, Galaxy knows – to awaken the Foundation.’ (The Mule)

‘When the Galaxy was this?’ (The Mule)

Instead of inspiring awe, or making me feel like I was transported to another dimension – I kept bursting out laughing at this, and at most of the rest of the dialogue’s appalling hamminess.

Characters who are clichés

Asimov has fun trying to create a range of characters, from the ‘Hi honey’ couple the Darells, to the dastardly Regent Wienis and his whiny nephew Lepold, to the stolid Foundation officer Pritcher. The only trouble is that, as soon as he departs from cardboard cutouts, he lapses into staggering cliché. And when he tries for comedy… My God, he is so embarrassing.

In Foundation he has the bright idea of creating a lisping, foppish diplomat named Lord Dorwin, Asimov’s pulp version of the pomaded dandies who infest Restoration drama. Here he is Lord Dorwin in full flood:

‘Ah, yes, Anacweon.’ A negligent wave of the hand. ‘I have just come from theah. Most bahbawous planet. It is thowoughly inconceivable that human beings could live heah in the Pewiphewy. The lack of the most elementawy wequiahments of a cultuahed gentleman; the absence of the most fundamental necessities foah comfoht and convenience – the uttah desuetude into which they – ‘
Hardin interrupted dryly: ‘The Anacreonians, unfortunately, have all the elementary requirements for warfare and all the fundamental necessities for destruction.’
‘Quite, quite.’ Lord Dorwin seemed annoyed, perhaps at being stopped midway in his sentence. ‘But we ahn’t to discuss business now, y’know. Weally, I’m othahwise concuhned.’ (The Encyclopedists)

Maybe Asimov’s original teenage sci-fi addicts found this kind of thing hilarious, but it gets very tiresome very quickly. Especially since, like most Asimov characters, Dorwin says nothing either remotely funny or acute. It is like a schoolboy dressing up in adult clothes – looks great but… he has no idea what to say or how to handle himself among adults.

In Foundation and Empire the central character turns out to be the Mule’s court jester, Magnifico. For most of the story, until he is unmasked as the Mule himself, Magnifico is made to speak in a deliberately cod medieval style, which gets as wearing as quickly as Jar Jar Bink’s disastrous mannerisms in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace:

‘My lady,’ he gasped, ‘it is indeed of an effect the most magical. It is of balance and response
almost beyond hope in its delicacy and stability. On this, it would seem I could work wonders.
How liked you my composition, my lady?’ (The Mule)

There are literally hundreds of paragraphs of dialogue like that. The characterisation of wicked Prince Regent Wienis rubbing his hands and cackling over his spoilt and impressionable teenage nephew, the teenage King Lepold I is like something out of pantomime. I enjoyed these passages because they were so preposterously bad.

‘Lepold!.. Now will you attend?’
The king shrugged and gravitated to the end table where he nibbled at a Lera nut in quite an unregal sulk. He did not dare to meet his uncle’s eyes. Wienis said, by way of preamble, ‘I’ve been to the ship today.’
‘What ship?’
‘There is only one ship. The ship. The one the Foundation is repairing for the navy. The old Imperial cruiser. Do I make myself sufficiently plain?’
‘That one? You see, I told you the Foundation would repair it if we asked them to. It’s all poppycock, you know, that story of yours about their wanting to attack us. Because if they did, why would they fix the ship? It doesn’t make sense, you know.’
‘Lepold, you’re a fool!’
The king, who had just discarded the shell of the Lera nut and was lifting another to his lips, flushed.
‘Well now, look here,’ he said, with anger that scarcely rose above peevishness, ‘I don’t think you ought to call me that. You forget yourself. I’ll be of age in two months, you know.’ (The Mayors)

Summaries of the plots of the Foundation stories (and I’ve read quite a few) have the effect of making them look intelligent and thoughtful. Actually reading them, though, plunges you into a world of embarrassing stereotypes and clichés.

Illiterate

If the dialogue is stagey beyond belief, the narrative prose is often worse. Routinely the reader comes across sentences, or expressions, which only barely make sense. Asimov is an appalling writer of English prose.

Mayor Indbur – successively the third of that name – was the grandson of the first Indbur, who had been brutal and capable; and who had exhibited the first quality in spectacular fashion by his manner of seizing power, and the latter by the skill with which he put an end to the last farcical remnants of free election and the even greater skill with which he maintained a relatively peaceful rule. Mayor Indbur was also the son of the second Indbur, who was the first Mayor of the Foundation to succeed to his post by right of birth – and who was only half his father, for he was merely brutal. So Mayor Indbur was the third of the name and the second to succeed by right of birth, and he was the least of the three, for he was neither brutal nor capable – but merely an excellent book keeper born wrong. Indbur the Third was a peculiar combination of ersatz characteristics to all but himself. (The Mule)

In the cities, the escapers of the Galaxy could take their varieties of pleasure to suit their purse,
from the ethereal sky-palaces of spectacle and fantasy that opened their doors to the masses at the jingle of half a credit, to the unmarked, unnoted haunts to which only those of great wealth were of the cognoscenti. (The Mule)

The “hangar” on Kalgan is an institution peculiar unto itself, born of the need for the disposition of the vast number of ships brought in by the visitors from abroad, and the simultaneous and consequent vast need for living accommodations for the same. (The Mule)

The Mule’s clown who had reported that within his narrow compass of body he held the lordly name of Magnifico Giganticus, sat hunched over the table and gobbled at the food set before him. (The Mule)

‘I tell you, Mis, there’s not a thing there that breathes anything but order and peace – ‘ The door at the far, long end opened, and, in far too dramatically coincident a fashion to suggest anything but real life, a plainly-costumed notable stepped in. (The Mule)

There was an atmosphere about the Time Vault that just missed definition in several directions at once.

Randu, as newly-appointed co-ordinator – in itself a wartime post – of the confederation of cities on Haven, had been assigned, at his own request, to an upper room, out of the window of which he could brood over the roof tops and greenery of the city. Now, in the fading of the cave lights, the city receded into the level lack of distinction of the shades.

What?

Wise.. or wally?

Asimov wants to be taken as a man-of-the-world author, dispensing insightful generalisations about the human condition as suavely and wittily as Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde. But he comes across as a shallow and pretentious jerk, who mistakes pompous sonority for wit and manages to avoid any inkling of genuine insight.

He said, ‘What is the meaning of this?’
It is the precise question and the precise wording thereof that has been put to the atmosphere on such occasions by an incredible variety of men since humanity was invented. It is not recorded that it has ever been asked for any purpose other than dignified effect.

Juddee, the plain, snub-nosed, indifferent blonde at the dining unit diagonally across had been the superficial one of the nonacquaintance. And now Juddee was crying, biting woefully at a moist handkerchief, and choking back sobs until her complexion was blotched with turgid red. Her shapeless radiation-proof costume was thrown back upon her shoulders, and her transparent face shield had tumbled forward into her dessert, and there remained.
Bayta joined the three girls who were taking turns at the eternally applied and eternally inefficacious remedies of shoulder-patting, hair-smoothing, and incoherent murmuring.

‘The precise wording thereof…’

The prose is almost all like this – routinely managing to be either pretentious (in the sense of pretending to a wit and wisdom which it conspicuously lacks) or teetering on the brink of unintelligibility.

A Star Wars note

Lathan Devers is a rough tough inter-galactic trader who flies the fastest little trading ship in the galaxy, always ready with a plan and a bit of blarney to talk his way out of trouble.

Remind you of anyone? Reminded me of Han Solo from Star Wars. So I sat bolt upright when, in chapter 2 of The Mule, we are introduced to a – Captain Han Pritcher! Han. Not a common name, is it? He goes on to play quite a role in The Mule and appears in the final book, too. So when I googled a comparison I was not surprised to discover I among the last people on earth to notice the resemblance, just of the name, but of lots of structural elements between the Foundation stories and the Star Wars movies.

  • Mankind is spread over the entire Galaxy
  • There’s a Galactic Empire with a bureaucratic capital world (Trantor / Coruscant)
  • There are outer provinces whose inhabitants are mainly smugglers and scavengers.
  • Ships jumps into hyperspace for shortening traveling time.
  • The Republic holding out against the Empire (Star Wars) resembles the Foundation holding out against the Empire.
  • Both Hober Mallow (Foundation) and Han Solo (Star Wars) are smugglers who become agents and fighters for their respective worlds, and fly spaceships which can outrun any Empire ship.

Devers bent over the little dead globe, watching for a tiny sign of life. The directional control was slowly and thoroughly sieving space with its jabbing tight sheaf of signals. Barr watched patiently from his seat on the low cot in the comer, He asked, ‘No more signs of them?’
‘The Empire boys? No.’ The trader growled the words with evident impatience. ‘We lost the scuppers long ago. Space! With the blind jumps we took through hyperspace, it’s lucky we didn’t land up in a sun’s belly. They couldn’t have followed us even if they outranged us, which they didn’t.’ (The General, chapter 8)

  • Princess Leia resembles Bayta Darell; while Leia battled against Darth Vader, Bayta battled against the Mule.
  • The Foundation was set up on the ‘outer rim of the galaxy’ and Luke’s home planet of Tatooine is also in ‘the outer rim’.
  • The inhabitants of the Second Foundation have enormous mental powers and their minds can control people and objects. In the Universe of Star Wars this power is called The Force.

Asimov himself saw the connection.

I modeled my ‘Galactic Empire’ (a phrase I think I was the first to use) quite consciously on the Roman Empire. Ever since then, other science fiction writers have been following the fashion, and have written series of their own after the fashion of the Foundation series. In fact, in the late 1970s the Galactic Empire reached the movies in the enormously popular Star Wars, which, here and there, offered rather more than a whiff of the Foundation. (No, I don’t mind. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and I certainly imitated Edward Gibbon, so I can scarcely object if someone imitates me.)
(From Asimov’s essay Empires, 1983)

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1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same London of the future described in the Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love, then descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

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

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

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

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1932 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Elements of a Jack Reacher novel

Reading even a handful of Jack Reacher novels, you can’t help noticing the repeated threads, or tropes, or plot devices, or elements which recur over and again. These thoughts arise from reading The Hard Way but are true of all the others I’ve read.

Violence

Each Jack Reacher novel contains what you could call workaday American, cop thriller violence – fighting, shootouts and so on.

But each one also contains an element which pushes it to the next level of psychopathic cruelty. Hannibal Lector with his advanced and cynical sadism, made his debut appearance in 1986, instantly raising the stakes for any thriller writer who wanted to make an impact. Maybe pulp fiction has always been needlessly cruel, but it’s certainly a key element in the Reacher mix.

In The Hard Way there are two sadistic element:

  1. Hobart’s account of being held for five years in an African prison and, after the initial beatings and tortures, being selected once a year, on his birthday, to have one of his hands or feet amputated by machete and then the stump dipped in bubbling hot tar.
  2. Lane’s threats to his wives. We learn that he had threatened the second wife, Kate, that if she ever tried to leave him, he would break her daughter’s Jade’s hymen… with a potato peeler. The idea is to put him beyond the pale, to establish him as not just a bad man, but a monster. It also has the effect of making the reader feel physically sick.

Reacher’s revenge

I’ve read interviews where Child makes it quite clear that Reacher’s motivation in every book is always revenge. This means that the author always has to construct a plot in which someone reasonably innocent has been wronged, damaged or killed.

That’s the trigger Reacher needs to go into obsessive Search and Destroy mode i.e. the mode which most entertains the hunter-killer reader in all of us.

In the first book in the series, Killing Floor, Reacher’s brother is brutally killed by the counterfeiting ring he is investigating. That’s all it takes. From that point Reacher is on a mission to identify and kill them all, and the fact that one of them turns out to be psychopathically cruel, only bolsters the primitive righteousness of Reacher’s cause.

In The Hard Way, the tenth novel in the series, the Person To Be Avenged feels a little more forced. The ostensible hostages are Lane’s second wife and child, Kate and Jade Allen. When the kidnappers fail to return them after receiving payment, everyone assumes they’re dead and Reacher makes a point of telling several people on his team, several times, that he’s doing all this for them.

‘Kate and Jade are probably already dead.’
‘Then I’ll make someone pay.’ (p.169)

‘They’re dead. You said so yourself.’
‘Then they need a story. An explanation. The who, the where, the why. Everyone ought to know what happened to them. They shouldn’t be allowed to just go, quietly. Someone needs to stand up for them.’
‘And that’s you?’
‘I play the hand I’m dealt. No use whining about it.’
‘And?’
‘And they need to be avenged.’ (p.211)

Two hundred pages later, Lane’s second wife spells out the morality, or the psychological logic of the plots, even more clearly. We have, by this stage of the book, had ample evidence that her husband, Edward Lane, is a twisted sadist. So:

‘He deserves whatever he gets, Mr Reacher. He’s truly a monster.’ (p.439)

That is the sentiment which gives completely free rein to Reacher to use whatever force and violence is necessary, to abandon all scruples, the excuse that justifies the fiercest, Old Testament, unflinchingly brutal vengeance. It is the sentiment ‘he deserves what he gets’ – which provides the underpinning to all the books in the series.

The bad guys are not just crooks pulling a caper, ho ho, like in Ocean’s 11. They always include psychopaths and sadists whose extreme cruelty, in return, justifies Reacher’s use of unforgiving, maximum force.

Expertise

Weapons Reacher is master of all forms of combat and weaponry.

Strategy But also capable in all elements of strategic and tactical awareness. In The Hard Way he is working alongside – and then against – some very well-trained mercenaries, and we are continually reminded of their army training in terms of both strategy and combat.

Handbooks This rises to a climax in the final bloody shootout of the book, where a wealth of army training is invoked by Reacher and his antagonists. At moments like this Reacher novels become almost army textbooks in unarmed and/or armed combat. You wonder how closely Child refers to such handbooks.

That said, sometimes Reacher’s tough guy behaviour comes perilously close to clichés from a collection titled How To Be a Hard Man.

He never sat any other way than with his back to a wall. (p.179)

A to Z Reacher’s knowledge of the street layout, and traffic patterns, of Downtown and Mid-Town Manhattan is demonstrated in dazzling detail. You can’t help feeling that Child himself must have walked every inch of the routes which Reacher follows, and that all the buildings, shops and street furniture would be exactly as he describes.

The chocolatier The building where Lane is told by the kidnapper to drop off the keys to the cars which contain the bags of ransom money, is next to a chocolatier. Reacher and Pauling go through this shop and out into the back where the chocolate is made and moulded, on several occasions. The shop, and all the chocolate-making equipment out back, is described in minute detail. I’d be surprised if it doesn’t exist.

Knowing the time In this book more than the others I’ve read, it becomes a leitmotif that Reacher always knows the time without consulting a clock or watch. It becomes a running joke between him and this book’s Reacher Girl, Pauling.

‘I always know what time it is.’ (p.42)

Of course he does. Repeatedly, Reacher is shown the precise time better than mere watches or clocks, which generally turn out to be fast or slow or broken. Reacher is never broken.

Cars and guns

If you’re a real man you know guns and cars inside out. The car the ransom money is dropped off in is not just a Mercedes Benz. It is a:

‘Silver, four-door sedan, an S-420, New York vanity plates starting OSC, a lot of city miles on it. Dirty paint, scuffed tyres, dinged rims, dents and scrapes on both bumpers.’ (p.15)

And the guns? Don’t get Reacher started on guns.

After they finished their tea Jackson took Reacher into a small mudroom off the back of the kitchen and opened a double-door wall cupboard above a washing machine. In it were racked four Heckler & Koch G36 automatic rifles. The G36 was a very modern design that had shown up in service just before Reacher’s military career had ended…. It had a nineteen-inch barrel and an open folding stock and was basically fairly conventional apart from a huge superstructure that carried a bulky optical sight integrated into an oversized carrying handle. It was chambered for the standard 5.56mm NATO round and like most German weapons it looked very expensive and beautifully engineered.’ (p.440)

In the final firefight, more guns, knives, explosives and night vision goggles are used. Lots of kit, and all of it described in loving detail, and with the knowledge and insight of a true aficionado.

Expert vocabulary

A bit more subtly I was struck by the way Child – in the manner of American thriller writers – always knows the correct terminology for everything. He and his character never say ‘the thingummy, the wotsit’ like most of us. He always knows the correct word.

  • charging cradle – for a mobile phone
  • crosswalk – American term for pedestrian crossing
  • frost heave – uplift on a road surface caused by expansion of groundwater on freezing

Especially in kidnap situations:

  • demand call – from the kidnappers, specifying the amount
  • destination figure – final demand in a ransom
  • instruction call – from the kidnappers, specifying payment details

Reacher knows the name for everything because his author does. Child and his books impress with their confident familiarity with technical terms, military practice, arms and cars, and all aspects of common American phraseology.

  • squawk box – loudspeaker part of an intercom box, especially of a front door buzzer

Humour

I don’t think Reacher says anything funny in books 1 and 3 but numbers 9 and 10 are noticeable for a couple of bits of snappy repartee.

‘You got a name?’
‘Most people do.’ (p.18)

‘Tell me about your career,’ Lane said.
‘It’s been over a long time. That’s its main feature.’ (p.25)

On the move

Do you know the French comic strip Lucky Luke books? Set in the 1870s West, cowboy Luke rambles from town to town with his loyal horse, Jolly Jumper, in each book getting tangled up in a new adventure, defeating the bad guys, tipping his hat to the lady, and moving on.

Each book ends with a picture of Luke riding off into the sunset singing his theme song, ‘I’m a poor lonesome cowboy and a long way from home.’

It’s one of the central American myths, the mysterious, super-capable stranger who rides into town, gets tangled in other people’s troubles, helps out women and children, shoots the bad guys (after enough provocation to be ‘morally’ justified in doing so), then disappears as mysteriously as he came.

It goes back at least as far as James Fenimore Cooper’s novels about the tough capable frontiersman, Natty Bumppo, also known as Leatherstocking, The Pathfinder, Deerslayer, Long Rifle and Hawkeye, and stretches through to the man with no name in numerous Clint Eastwood movies.

Got nothing against women
But I wave them all goodbye…
My horse and me keep riding
We don’t like being tied.

This hoary trope is central to the Reacher stories. Almost every one commences with our hero stepping off a train, bus or plane into a new town, then getting drawn into a 500-page action adventure, then, when the last shot has finished echoing around the corral, tipping his hat to the ladies (particularly the one he has seduced and slept with during the course of the adventure) and ridin’ on out.

Child continually reminds us of this aspect of Reacher’s character, thus plugging him into a deep psychological and cultural archetype.

Reacher always arranged the smallest details in his life so he could move on at a split second’s notice. It was an obsessive habit. He owned nothing and carried nothing. Physically he was a big man, but he cast a small shadow and left very little in his wake. (p.12)

He cast a small shadow. Gee.

The Reacher Girl

Like a Bond girl, there’s a Reacher Girl in every novel. In The Hard Way it’s Private Investigator Lauren Pauling, ex-Special Agent for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. She was on the original FBI investigation of the kidnapping of Lane’s first wife and has felt oppressed by guilt for five years that she and her colleagues screwed up the investigation and allowed the first wife to be killed.

Once he’s been introduced to her, Reacher and Pauling spend a lot of time together pounding the streets of New York, finding Hobart and his sister, then sharing the stressful moment when Lane and his goons show up at the apartment and Pauling, Hobart and his sister hide in the bathroom while Reacher faces the others down and tries to throw them off the scent.

They spend a long night working through theories, Pauling using her contacts at the Pentagon to follow up leads. They become a very tight team. And then they go to bed. Inevitable. From the start she had that look.

Pauling had changed. She was wearing jeans and a t-shirt. She looked good. (p.284)

He stopped talking and watched her, silent. She looked great in the candlelight. Liquid eyes, soft skin… He could smell her fragrance. Subtle perfume, soap, clear skin, clean cotton. The shoulder-seams on her T-shirt stood up a little and made enticing shadowy tunnels. She was slim and toned, except where she shouldn’t be… (p306)

Pauling came out of the bedroom looking spectacular. Shoes, stockings, tight skirt, silk blouse, all in black. Brushed hair, light make-up. Great eyes, open, frank, intelligent. (p.320)

The ‘inevitably will get shagged’ look which is universal in Hollywood movies and thrillers like this. In the era of Me Too and militant feminism I find it a bit mind-boggling that so many books and movies still include the slender, busty, nubile young woman whose main purpose – alongside useful detective work and a bit of expert knowledge – is to get her clothes ripped off and be penetrated by the male hero.

In this respect, as in the wandering avenger trope, the stories feel as old as the hills.

The title

‘I’m going to have to do it the hard way,’ Reacher said.
‘What way is that?’
‘It’s what we call it in the service when we didn’t catch a break. When we actually had to work for a living. You know, start over at square one, re-examine everything, sweat the details, work the clues.’ (p.169)

‘What exactly is going on?’
‘We’re sweating the details and we’re working the clues. That’s what’s going on here. We’re doing it the hard way. One step at a time…’ (p.322)

So the title refers to Reacher’s modus operandi, which is the thorough, systematic application of logic and experience to work out complicated problems and situations.

At the same time, it also refers to the inevitable bursts of violence, particularly towards the end of each story.

There are always points where the sidekick says, ‘Shouldn’t we call the police or the FBI or someone?’ to which Reacher always replies, in effect, ‘No, they’d let the bad guys get away – the investigation would be long and drawn out – we know they’re psychopaths so we’re going to kill them. We’re going to do this my way. The hard way.’

Quite simply, forget the forces of law and order. You are in the presence of the masked avenger, the embodiment of vigilante law.

Epilogue

Unlike the other four Reacher books I’ve read, The Hard Way has an epilogue. A page and a half shows us how all the characters we’ve met are faring a year later, and it reads like a fairy tale.

The surviving bad guys get killed in Iraq. Patti, who had carried the cause of her murdered sister for so long, now has a good job and a boyfriend (after all, a woman isn’t complete without a man, right?).

Investigator Pauling is thriving. The severely crippled Hobart and his sister are benefiting from the money Reacher ended up getting from Lane, and handed straight on to them, to get him proper hospital treatment and decent prosthetic limbs.

The good guys are thriving. The bad guys got their just desserts. God is in his heaven.

And Reacher? Like the poor, lonesome cowboy, Reacher has disappeared into the sunset.

Until the next time…


Related links

Reviews of other Jack Reacher novels

The Scramble for China by Robert Bickers (2011)

Bickers obviously knows a hell of a lot about western intervention in nineteenth-century China – or the story of the Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire 1832-1914, as the book’s sub-title puts it. Unfortunately, he attempts to convey this wealth of information in such a long-winded, round-the-houses manner, choked by a prose style which manages to combine academic jargon and whimsical archaism, that a lot of the time it’s difficult to tease out what he’s on about.

For example, the early chapters open with an unnamed ‘he’ doing something melodramatic and striking, thus creating an arresting opening – but take a page or more getting round to explaining who ‘he’ is, what ‘he’ is doing, where and when and why, thus leaving us in the dark.

They shouldered their way in. At Mr Lindsay’s order, Mr Simpson and Midshipman Stephens put their shoulders against the barred entrance to the Daotai’s quarters and heaved, twice. (Opening of chapter two)

Who? Where? When? Why? Patience, grasshopper. All will be revealed… eventually.

Was it a dream? Were his eyes deceiving him? He pressed forward through the crowd, the report goes, to get a better sight of the strangers, and “immediately began rubbing his eyes”. (Opening of chapter three)

Who? Where etc. Wait. Wait and see. Wait quite a while, in fact, for Bickers to make himself clear.

These teasing anecdotes, once finally explained, themselves take a while to be placed in the wider historical moment, which Bickers tends to explain both repetitively and obscurely. Quite regularly I didn’t know who he was referring to or when because the narrative jumped unpredictably between one set of characters and another, and (very frequently) back and forward over time. The only really consistent thing about his approach is his use of colourless academic phraseology and his scorn for the no-good imperialising westerners.

At first sight there appears to be a good deal of ‘background colour’ – the third chapter prides itself on going into great detail about the role of theatre and opera in Chinese society, from the professional heights of Peking Opera to the most amateur of local productions. Unfortunately, a lot of these purple passages, when you really look at them, merely state the obvious.

To give an example, the ‘he’ described in the opening of chapter three turns out to be a Chinese bystander who’s heard about two Europeans who have arrived out of the blue at Shanghai in – well, the date is lost in the yards of verbiage, I genuinely couldn’t figure it out – and who have blundered into a public opera production. This is Bickers’ cue to write pages about the Chinese opera and theatre tradition. Sounds fascinating, right? Alas, these pages are written thus:

But what was being staged depended on the occasion, and who was paying – the temple, a guild or a private patron. We cannot know, but we do know that the temple and the gathering so rudely interrupted by these bumptious foreign travellers were part of the fabric of Shanghai life and culture, in which were tightly interwoven the sojourning communities of commercial China, men from afar, whose trading activities were a key component of its wealth and importance. (p.59)

This one long sentence informs us that this big temple in Shanghai was part of Shanghai life and culture. Golly. Communities of sojourners (sojourner = ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’) were – in case you hadn’t twigged – ‘men from afar’. OK. And that the trading activities of travelling merchants ‘were a key component of [Shanghai’s] wealth and importance’. ‘Tightly interwoven’ sounds impressive, doesn’t it? What does it mean, though?

I.e. when you take this grand-sounding sentence to pieces, it doesn’t tell you anything that wasn’t already fairly obvious. This is true for thousands of passages throughout the book: sound great, don’t tell you a thing.

Obscurity 

I’ve gone back and reread the opening pages of chapter three, twice, and I genuinely cannot actually work out when the action quoted above is taking place. You have to wait until three pages into the chapter before there is any reference to an actual date, and then it’s to two dates at once, one or both of which may refer back to a scene described in the previous chapter (I think), a reference which, in turn, required me to go back and double-check those dates.

In other words, this book requires quite a lot of double-checking and cross-referencing just to figure out when the thing is happening. Here’s the date reference I’m talking about:

Understanding what they were congregating for on this dreary October day in 1835 and had been watching on that wet June morning in 1832, and why at a temple, will help us develop a fuller picture of the China that first Lindsay and Gütlzaff, and then Medhurst and Stevens, were so intent on interrupting with their presence. (p.53)

This is what I mean by a round-the-houses manner. The opening of chapter three is deliberately obscure and teasing but… becomes no clearer as it goes on, in fact becomes in many ways more obscure and confusing as it goes on. All that really comes over is Bickers’s anti-British attitude (‘so intent on interrupting’) which is, indeed, the central thread of his account.

All this makes for a very frustrating read. Obviously Bickers knows masses about this subject – it is a tragedy for us readers that he can’t set it down in a straightforward, understandable manner.


The sound of his own voice

Complementing the obscure structuring of the book is the convoluted prose style.

1) Long paragraphs Bickers’ paragraphs routinely last an entire page and often longer, so on opening the book anywhere the reader is faced with a blank wall of words, with no way of breaking the text down into smaller, manageable units of meaning. I continually found myself losing the drift of a 2-page long paragraph, my eyes glazing over, suddenly snapping out of it and then having to go right back to the start to figure out what was happening.

2) Long sentences These mammoth paragraphs are indicative of the book’s general long-windedness. Bickers is reluctant to write a simple declarative sentence. He prefers long, swelling periods, dotted with commas to indicate the proliferation of subordinate clauses and – if possible – the insertion of one or two additional facts in parentheses, to make them as ornate and rhetorically over-wrought as possible.

You know those suitcases which are so over-stuffed you have to sit on them to try and get them closed? Bickers’ sentences are like that. And is this over-stuffing done in the name of presenting the facts clearly? Alas, no. Nine times out of ten it is to achieve an effect of style, a rhetorical repetition of phrases or artful alliteration, the deployment of irony or sarcasm – all techniques which are more suitable to a creative writer than to a historian.

And so, yet again, the Tianhou temple at Shanghai played host to parley, and the crude theatrics of private diplomacy, as Medhurst in particular stood, or rather aimed to sit, on his dignity as yet higher officials, the Customs superintendent (with a foreign cloak, he noted) and the district magistrate, came along in turn to sort things out, and found the foreign intruders rudely rebuffing the requirements of propriety when meeting officials of the great Qing. (p.52)

Note the attempts at humour – ‘or rather aimed to sit’. Note the insertion of a parenthesis, which itself contains two grammatical parts ‘(with a foreign cloak, he noted)’. Note the fondness for alliteration, for the sound of his own style – ‘rudely rebuffing the requirements’. Note that rather than describing or explaining the attitudes of the participants, Bickers prefers to convey them through irony verging on sarcasm – ‘the great Qing’.

Basically, this is a historian trying to write like a novelist.

3) Old fashioned Ironically for someone who is so determined to take a loftily modern, politically correct point of view of the old British Empire, Bickers’ prose, as well as being convoluted to the point of incomprehension, is also addicted to very old-fashioned locutions and vocabulary. Since I often couldn’t work out what he was on about, I found myself drawn to collecting his oddities and archaisms (= ‘a thing that is very old or old-fashioned, especially an archaic word or style of language’):

  • History was ever a public act, but it was also ever a private passion. (p.16)

Leaving aside the fact that this grand sounding period means less the more you think about it, there is the phrasing to savour – ‘ever’ to mean ‘always’? Really? In 1817 certainly. In 1917 maybe. But in 2017? Reading so many Victorian journals, tracts, articles has obviously infected Bickers’ style. But this is far from being a one-off oddity:

  • Lindsay was ever deadly serious, of course, and Medhurst too. (p.75)
  • There were private interactions, too, as there had ever been. (p.224)
  • Music was ever also a private pleasure, a private relief, a source of succour. (p.228)
  • Such confidence in the foreign ability to know China better than the Chinese themselves was to be oft rehearsed. (p.39). ‘Oft’?
  • All understood the law, he averred… (p.41) ‘Averred’?
  • All this fury and posture came to nought. (p.46)
  • The bells in Macao were quieted at the request of his physicians, but it all proved to no avail. (p.46)
  • Emigrants from Fujian, who had long sojourned in the city… (p.54)
  • The colonial consolidation and expansion of the emperor’s predecessors was largely foresworn… (p.66)
  • The Qing could but capitulate… (p.324)

Odd that Bickers is so loftily dismissive of the old imperialist bullies when he himself sounds so like a mutton-chopped lawyer out of Dickens:

  • The tension among the Company men in China persisted thereafter… (p.25)
  • … they aimed to get their complaints heard elsewhere along the coast and transmitted thereby to Peking… (p.26)
  • Scholars have begun in recent decades to look beyond the rhetoric of some schools of Chinese statecraft, particularly insofar as it articulated hostility to commerce.. (p.62)
  • Thereafter he held an intendant post in Zhejiang… (p.72)
  • Charles Elliott, by now the British superintendent of trade, rushed to Canton from Macao in cocked-hatted full dress uniform, evading the blockade and thereby deliberately adding himself to the hostaged fray. (p.78) ‘The hostaged fray’?
  • There were ‘mixed feelings’ from The Times, at the conclusion of a ‘miserable war’, and the ‘ill-gotten gains’ therefrom. (p.84)
  • Jardines had fourteen receiving ships by 1845, and usually ten thereafter… (p.92)
  • Like most of the early missionary community in China, he secured a post with the official British establishment during the war, and turned it into a secure position thereafter… (p.94)
  • In this way they rationalised their operations somewhat. (p.106)
  • Telegraph lines snaked their way thereafter to China. (p.164)
  • [The convicted murderer John Buckley] went quietly to his death, the site guarded by twenty-four policemen in case an attempt was made to rescue him, and he was not thereafter missed. (p.180)
  • For almost a quarter of a century thereafter the firm grew and diversified… (p.185)
  • Thomas Hanbury and his ilk were wedded to their interests in the Settlement at Shanghai… (p.189)
  • At least in Britain there was a Public Records Office, and in principle archives were transferred to public access, but nothing of that like existed in China. (p.376) — I don’t think I’ve ever read ‘like’ being used in this way before. ‘…nothing of that like…’ Surely you or I would write ‘but nothing like that existed in China’, but where would be the fun in that?

Alliteration Alliteration self evidently promotes sound and rhetoric over factual content and meaning.

  • Lindsay instantly resumed a pointed game of protocol and precedence. (p.21)
  • Their later frantic, frequent queries… (p.27)
  • It complained that the authorities in Canton were corrupt, capricious and cruel (p.28).
  • All wanted friendly and fruitful relations… (p.41)
  • They left that afternoon with a promise that a polite and properly formal response to their petition would follow. (p.41)
  • Instead they indulged in recondite debates about terms and texts. (p.73)
  • [Nathan Dunn’s exhibition of chonoiserie in London in December 1841] inspired catcalls and copycats… (p.88)
  • Such consular conveniences, compounded by confusions… (p.107)
  • [The Taiping rebels] fought fanatically and fiercely. (p.120)
  • … fifteen years’ worth of precedent and practice. (p.155)

Maybe Bickers is modelling himself on the lyrics of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. In at least one place he does in fact directly quote Gilbert & Sullivan – on page 78 referring to the ‘little list’ being used in negotiations with the Chinese, a phrase which is the focus of a well-known song from their operetta about Japan, The Mikado (1885) (in fact, Bickers likes the jokey reference so much, he makes it again on page 194).

Hendiadys and pairing Why use one word when you can use two – ideally alliterating or rhyming – to deliver that knockout rhetorical punch?

  • Confident, nonetheless, they memorialised now more readily and steadily. (p.370)
  • … ongoing debates and disagreements… (p.374)

Fancy-ancy just for the fun of playing with words:

  • These shows… brought curious orientals to accompany the oriental curiosities on display in London. (p.89)
  • As successive reports made their way back to Britain, and as the lobbyists worked their words… (p.80)
  • But abate it they could not, or abate it they would not… (p.113)
  • Nearly all foreigners could or would still only talk a pidgin English… (p.114)
  • The act of uprising – daring to stand and daring to fight… (p.120)
  • But he could not, or would not, pay them. (p.126)
  • Parkes had grown up as British China grew up. He had grown with conflict and he had grown accustomed to conflict. China was his adult life, his only life… (p.138)
  • The men were there to fight and fought there well. (p.162)
  • So Robert Hart had had his fill of life in the foothills of the China apocalypse, had seen how vacuum would follow and violence ensure if the Qing could not hold… (p.196)
  • This new Peking, the object of romantic contemplation, suggested a China that might be appreciated rather than caricatured, and savoured rather than savaged. (p.221)

Singular nouns or nouns without an article This a real addiction of Bickers’ style, it occurs throughout on every page and gives the prose a stilted, hieratic feel:

  • [Lindsay] was ready to perceive slight and note omission… (p.22)
  • Now Lindsay was sailing north without invitation… (p.24)
  • … he and his retinue had been denied audience… (p.24)

Shouldn’t that be, ‘denied an audience’? It’s not wrong, it’s just that denying many of these nouns an article turns them from specific instances or events into lofty-sounding abstractions – makes them and the sentences they appear in just that wafer-thin bit more stilted and precious than they need be. More portentous and pretentious, to adopt Bickers’ own manner.

  • The predictable regularity of the internationalised trading world was periodically upset, as in any port city, by human failing and misadventure… (36)
  • They knew so well many of the possibilities that lay beyond their reach by imperial order, and engaged in shrewd estimate and wild conjecture… (p.65)
  • Nor was [the emperor Daoguang] the despised feudal archaism of the Marxist history of communist-era China, which castigated the failures of the late-Qing monarchs to combat imperialism’s assault. (p.67)
  • Those Napier-ordered bombardments of the Canton forts were simply ‘minnows’ compared with the just desserts of Chinese obstruction and insult that were to be meted out by British warships. (p.77)
  • The British helped inform this comedy of error. (p.86)

As with the other elements of Bickers’ style it gives the impression of acuity and insight without providing any actual information. The proliferation of these rhetorical tricks explains why you can read whole page-long paragraphs, arrive exhausted at the end, and then wonder why you don’t appear to have learned or remembered anything.

  • The Canton RegisterCanton Courier, and the more ambitious and scholarly Chinese Repository, edited by Elijah Bridgman, the first American missionary to China, all conveyed up-to-date news, description and opinion across the seas. (p.36) Why not descriptions?
  • Every contact with Chinese officials was an occasion for slight. (p.44)
  • It administered each in the way which seemed best, or most pragmatic at the time, and given considerations of resource and capacity. (p.69) Why not ‘resources‘?
  • Bouts of fighting were interspersed with parleys and negotiations, and with defence of insecure occupations of Chinese islands… (p.81) Why not ‘the defence’?
  • Stronger still would be the accumulated body of printed and private report… (p.89)
  • … the consequent legal haziness of their operations generated much correspondence and dispute. (p.93)
  • But domestic crisis was no small matter when rumour swept around… (p.114)
  • If stray shots passed over there would be formal complaint and stern rebuke. (p.127)
  • European initiative needed Chinese resource. (p.156)
  • The Customs delivered increasing resource as foreign trade grew… (p.198)
  • The development of official banks of information and report by consul and commissioner… (p.218)

So Used as an emphasiser, and in an unusual position in the word order, in a very old-fashioned way:

  • Indeed it will help if we understand more about the temple itself, which so stood out on the Shanghai waterfront close by the Customs House and under the highest point on the city wall, and which so stands out in these two landmark accounts of foreign visits to the city…This way we can better understand the China of the early 1830s outside the narrow confines of the factories, the roads, Macao, that narrow semi-foreignised sliver of the Canton delta that so overfills accounts of the early Sino-foreign encounters. (p.53)

Indeed, it would have been better for the gentle reader of these rhetorical tricks which so embellish and so adorn the purple prose of this grandiloquent historianographer, if his exuberant verbosity had been somewhat reined in and replaced with useful and understandable factual content.

Presage Bickers likes this word.

  • The foreign traders, all of them, were to be held hostage for the drug, without fresh food, without their servants, worried that the commissioner’s little list… presaged individual arrests and possibly torture. (p.78)
  • The sight of the burning buildings… presaged some more years of violent Canton problems. (p.101)
  • All such minor disturbances of men and women could presage consular grief. (p.114)
  • An estimated 7 million people were affected by the floods and dyke-failures that presaged the great change [of the course of the Yellow River in 1851] (p.136)
  • This turn to antique China also presaged the opening of another front in the foreign campaign. (p.221)
  • Margary’s slaughter presaged another round in China’s despoliation… (p.260)
  • The new blockade was to presage a new phase in the campaign… (p.296)

The use of ‘presage’ is typical of Bickers’s preference for the orotund and bombastic as opposed to the plain and simple.

Inversions of normal sentence order which makes sentences sometimes difficult to understand.

  • Quickly to the Company’s aid came instead other parties and volunteers… (p.26)
  • What commercial bliss it was that hot Canton spring… (p.78)
  • Rare it was that ‘the preacher commences and ends his discourse without a single intervention’. (p.111)
  • Always in Peking, I think, someone will in fact have heard him. Always someone will have heard the young foreigner belting out song in the capital’s dry air. (p.229)
  • Always there were exceptions… (p.249)
  • Fearful too were Chinese residents and local authorities. (p.349)

Incomprehensible In fact the combination of all the above tricks and jackanapary makes some sentences simply incomprehensible.

  • And what was eventually left over, why, when the hullaballoo was over, and when Lin’s officers had spent three weeks in April and May overseeing the smashing of the balls of opium and their flushing out to sea at Humen, close by the Linten anchorage, then what a market there was for it, and what prices it could now fetch discreetly, much more discreetly, sold along the coast to friends disappointed by the diversion of the spring stock. (p.79)
  • Along the coast with the British Cantonese went nonetheless, or followed soon after. (p.101)
  • Gods of ignorance and bafflement reigned over the China theatre. (p.397)

Sojourners sojourning As mentioned above, a sojourner is ‘a person who resides temporarily in a place’. Lots of westerners came out to newly-opened-up China to make a quick fortune then go home; they are pretty obviously ‘sojourners’, if you choose to use this antique term. But lots of Chinese, both native and immigrants from the south-east Asian diaspora, also came to ‘sojourn’ in the new Crown colonies Britain had wrested from China. Hence there was a whole lot of sojourning going on, and the text doesn’t let us forget it:

  • Sojourners and settlers prefer familiarity to adaptation… (p.62)
  • [The Qing empire] was well used to dealing with sojourners from outside its formal domain… (p.69)
  • Cantonese migrants and sojourners were quick to see additional value in association with the British… (p.102)
  • Robert Fortune’s second sojourn in China… (p.105)
  • They [westerners] were sojourners, mostly… Their sojourns were not short. (p.117)
  • Shanghai itself fell on 7 September 1853 to a sojourner coup. (p.125)
  • The sojourner was mentally relocating, settling in, his sense of where he formally belonged shifting. (p.168)

Personification

  • Arrogant opium swaggered its way along to the newly opened ports. (p.92)

Not traditional history writing, is it?

Tired and jaded

It is an oddity of this book that Bickers’ tone is tired and jaded with the whole western adventure in China before it has even started. Very early on he starts using phrases like ‘once again’ and ‘yet again’, when in fact what he’s describing is happening for the first time. This quickly conveys to the reader that Bickers is frightfully bored with the oh-so-predictable cultural misunderstandings or western bullying or the absurd scenes of everyone standing on their dignity which he depicts.

  • At Shanghai as at Hong Kong, and in every foreign community, such sentiments… were to be expressed again and again… (p.134)
  • Again it all began in Canton… (p.136)
  • And here we are again at the closed gates of the city and at the closed door of the yamen… (p.146)
  • It was the old story, of China coast savviness about Chinese duplicity… (p.213)

This tone conveys the regrettable sense that Bickers feels blasé and superior to the events he’s describing and the poor saps enacting them. If only the human race had given Bickers something a bit more interesting and novel to write about! There’s a striking passage which introduces the First Opium War where he tells us how awfully over-familiar the whole thing is:

The course of events that followed are well known. How Lin Zexu was sent as a special commissioner to investigate the problem in Canton and to put a stop to the trade, how he made his way overland to the city and set about making his mark: all of this has been much narrated. (p.77)

Is it well known, though? Has it been much narrated? Do you know all about Lin Zhu and his overland trek and what happened next? I certainly didn’t. In fact, that’s why I’m reading a book about the scramble for China, precisely to learn about this history, not to be patronisingly told that I ought to know all about it all already.

This passage (there are plenty more in the same vein) crystallised my feeling that Bickers is far too close to his subject matter and makes a kind of rookie error in assuming that his readers share his specialised knowledge and are all as blasé and bored by it as he is.

But many of us have barely heard any of this story before and it is his responsibility to tell it to us. Alas, Bickers is so over-familiar with events that he has to resort to fancy prose and attitudinising to keep his own interest up. I, on the other hand, was hoping for a simple, reliable and clearly written account of the events of these hundred years in China.

Alas, I didn’t get it here. Bickers’ account of the First Opium War is confusing, but not as confusing and partial as his account of the Taiping Rebellion (1850-64) on pages 118 to…. well… his account just fizzles out somewhere ten pages later – which I was particularly looking forward to. As if determined to confuse, he begins his account of the Taiping Rebellion, one of the most epic events in world history, in mid-chapter, after some pages which give the impression they are going to be a description of the cosy lives of the China British. He introduces this vast historical subject with these words:

But then enter the younger brother of Jesus Christ who came to discomfort all their lives… (p.118)

If you didn’t know that the leader of the Taiping Rebellion was a religious visionary who really did think he was the brother of Christ, this opening would be incomprehensible. In fact, Bickers doesn’t give an account of the overall Taiping Rebellion at all – he is only interested in it insofar as a) it demonstrates and was arguably caused by, the destabilising presence of Europeans on China’s coasts and b) it impacted the British settlements at Canton and at newly colonised Shanghai (where, for example, in 1853, the British – from the protection of their walled settlement – could watch pitched battles between the Taiping army and the imperial Qing forces).

The accounts of the Taiping Rebellion in the books by John Keay and Jonathan Fenby are both much clearer and much more penetrating than in Bickers. These two historians clearly explain the causes and consequences of this truly epic conflict, possibly the largest civil war in all human history, anywhere, a titanic devastation which led to the loss of as many as 20 million Chinese lives, maybe more.

The same frivolous and off-hand approach characterises Bickers’s treatment of the contemporaneous but distinct Nian Rebellion (1851-68), given only a brief page here (p.135), fleetingly explained but not analysed in any depth.

The brief mention of the Crimean War (on pages 134 and 135) neither explains that conflict nor its geopolitical ramifications for the European powers in China. Bickers briefly points out that the war had a distinct Pacific element – a fascinating idea I’d never come across before – but then frustratingly drops the subject completely. This feels like a massive and fascinating topic completely ignored. So disappointing. I bought this book precisely to understand the geo-political implications and context and motives for the sequence of China-oriented wars of the nineteenth century, and that turns out to be the very last thing on Bickers’ mind.

This confusing melange of super-brief references to these huge and super-important wars then segues abruptly and, as usual, in a very offhand way, into a typically arse-over-tit account of the Second Opium War (1856-60).

So the foreigners placed their faith in the Qing, once they had warred with them, beaten them, and humiliated them. Again, it all began in Canton. (p.136)

Note the tired and jaded tone as he casually begins a confusing account which spools onto page 150, with a vivid but hard-to-follow explanation for the (scandalous) British burning of the Emperor’ Summer House. OK. But in the 14 or so pages which cover it, Bickers nowhere mentions that he is describing the Second Opium War – you have to know that already. He is so close to, and over-familiar with, his subject, he just assumes that we all know about this stuff already. But we don’t. That’s why we bought your bloody book in the first place.

Towards the end I was genuinely appalled when the only mention he makes of the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, the first war in modern times in which a non-European nation (Japan) thrashed a European one (Russia) is the following. (He’s explaining how, after the Boxer Rebellion was finally quelled, the European nations demanded reparations but, for the most part, didn’t seek to acquire new territory. Apart from Russia):

Russia failed to conform, though, and hung on in Manchuria with 200,000 troops. So the British and the Japanese opened up a new world of international politics by entering into a formal alliance in 1902, breaking with decades of British practice, and in 1904-5 the Japanese smashed Russian forces in Manchuria and Siberia, shocking the European world, and offering new hope for the colonised and threatened. (p.349)

The Russo-Japanese War doesn’t even get a sentence of its own, but is shoehorned into the second half of a sentence which starts in 1902 and ends in 1905. Wow.

The republican revolution which finally overthrew the Qing Dynasty – and ended 3,000 years of rule by emperors – in October 1911, is dealt with – including the accident which sparked it, the spread of revolt, the seizure of power by Sun Yat-Sen, the abdication of the emperor, and the handing over of power to general Yuan Shikai – this seismic event is dealt with in 10 sentences – half a page – and not returned to.

Thus does Bickers leap over hugely important geopolitical, strategic and military events in order to get back to lambasting western businessmen living in sin with their Chinese mistresses, making fortunes from the opium trade and lobbying for more access to Chinese markets.

This is a sociological essay about the British in China, not a history.

Academic jargon

By this stage the reader has realised that Bickers isn’t interested in giving a chronological account of what happened during China’s century of humiliation; he isn’t interested in analysing or explaining the complex geopolitics of a weakened China caught between coastal invaders like the British and, towards the end of the period, the Japanese – all overshadowed by the ever-present threat from the land-grabbing Russian empire in the west and north.

He isn’t even very interested in any of the other European nations – the French and Americans get only a few walk-on parts, while the Portuguese, Dutch or Germans are hardly mentioned at all.

Instead, what becomes clearer and clearer is that Bickers thinks he is giving a kind of cultural history of the British in China.

That’s a fine ambition but he doesn’t live up to it. There is nothing at all in the book about, say, Chinese art or poetry, nothing. What there is, is repeated references to the way the Chinese or British performed as if on a stage with each other, or the way Chinese artefacts (and people) were shipped off to London to be put on display in various public shows and the big European expositions of the later Victorian era, or the way the colonisers engaged in practices and policed sites and shaped public space, and so on. Instead of interesting stuff about Chinese culture, what Bickers gives us is a lot of Eurocentric academic jargon.

Over the past forty years or so, the mind-set and terminology of (mostly French) modern literary theory/history/sociology pioneered in the 1960s and 70s by, say, Roland Barthes or Michel Foucault, has congealed to form a higher entity called just Theory – an attitude and set of jargon which has spread out to infect study of all the humanities subjects at university.

I’m extremely familiar with this all-purpose semi-sociological terminology from the many art exhibitions I go to, where contemporary artists no longer make ‘art works’ – they engage with issues of gender and sexuality, or money and class or whatever, carrying forward projects which use strategies of this, that and the other, which taken together amount to their practice. What used to be called ‘works of art’ are now more often than not the sites of their engagement with some issue or other, where the artists subvert conventional narratives of whatever or challenge this, that or the other norm or convention.

This all-purpose academic jargon has a number of purposes. Firstly, like academic jargon down the ages, from the ancient world through the Middle Ages – it makes the author sound clever. Secondly, it makes it all sound very serious: no longer painting a picture or developing a photo, an artist is now engaged in their practice – like a serious professional, like an architect or a GP. Thirdly, it is all very active – none of that old bourgeois standing around in front of an easel, an artist now engages with, subverts, challenges and questions and interrogates and a whole load of other action words. All very exciting and edgy.

At the same time many of the words have a very clinical and scientific feel: not only the artist, but especially the art critic, is no longer subject to the wishy-washy whims of their bourgeois imagination, but gives the impression of applying rigorous scientific procedures: artists have ‘projects’ and ‘practices’ which are enacted in ‘sites’ and ‘spaces’. Anything like a sculpture or installation reorientates the ‘space’ around it, maybe reorders ‘spatial hierarchies’, probably ‘challenges’ accepted ‘narratives’ or what a work of art can be, and so on.

Another feature of Theory Language is that a little of it goes a long way: these terms have become remarkably all-purpose: you can apply them to almost any human activity and come out sounding serious, weighty and profound.

The only snag is that – although this kind of language, used sparingly, conveys a sense of power and thrust and importance and intellectual force,

a) it doesn’t, on closer examination, really tell you anything at all
b) used too much, it quickly turns into a vacuous jargon of empty slogans – just as the public very quickly got sick of Theresa May telling us she represented ‘strong and stable leadership’ (and turned out to represent the opposite) so an artist, or curator, or critic, or historian who goes on and on about ‘practice’ and ‘projects’ and ‘sites’ and ‘narratives’ in an effort to sound meaningful and scientific and precise – runs the risk of ending up like a cracked record playing the same meaningless jargon over and over again; far from subverting anything, this kind of jargon ends up reinforcing existing conventions about art writing. In fact, it is the new set of conventions.

Examples of academic jargon

Display is an important idea for Bickers. European merchants built big houses – he takes it as an example of ‘display’. They hosted lavishes dinner – more ‘display’. Chinese objects were sent back to London – where they were put on ‘display’. As if grouping these pretty everyday activities under a semi-scientific singular noun gives us all a special insight into human activity, grouping them all together somehow explains… something.

  • China was in this way [exhibitions of China bric-a-brac in London in the 1840s] being normalised as an object for such display and ethnographic and other curiosity. (p.89)
  • Such displaydisplay at table, architectural display – announced probity and confidence (to each other, to Chinese merchants), but it also spoke of vulgarity and extravagance. (p.99)
  • Admiration for the appearance of the Sikhs, the ‘colour’ they were felt and said to have brought to China, and to British display in China… (p.163)
  • What became the routine display of China at such forums was a key strand in the project that Hart was leading. (p.204)

Engage and engagement At a recent internet conference I attended there was a list of banned words; if you mentioned one you had to contribute to the swear box (all money coughed up was sent to a charity for refugees). ‘Engage’ and ‘engagement’ were top of the list. Why? Because they means everything and nothing; because they are empty buzzwords.

  • Farmers engaged in handicraft production. (p.64)
  • The ordered business of its routine engagement with the world at the treaty ports elsewhere was able to continue… (p.352)

Enterprises and projects

the British Empire didn’t carry out strategies or policies, apparently. It engaged in projects and enterprises.

  • At the heart of the official British China enterprise… (p.206)
  • The foreign China enterprise at Shanghai was actually truly a real-estate imperialism… (p.222)
  • They were men of commerce and outside what was formally recognised as British empire, and their enterprise was multi-national and often makeshift. They had no imperial project. (p.382)

Sites and spaces Both make pretty run-of-the-mill places sound important and exciting, and make it sound as if you’re saying something especially perceptive and insightful about them.

  • This book explores the world which created that final photograph and its many sites and fields of action. (p.14)
  • A popular temple was also a commercial and economic site… They were embedded in the daily public space of the city. (p.16)
  • The rural landscape was pocked with market sites. (p.65) — It is so much more emphatic and intellectually demanding than simply writing ‘markets’ or ‘market places’.
  • [Just outside harbour boundaries, opium] was stored, and there were established new sites for conflict and the low-level disorderliness that filled the consulate letter books. (p.93)
  • The new ports were like many of the other sites of power around the Indian Ocean. (p.105)
  • As the new roads and buildings grew up in the treaty ports they were to acquire new memorials, and new sites for commemoration and celebration. (p.112)
  • It might seem odd that we can find so much insistent quiet emphasis on the symbolic ordering of foreign space [the British insisted on having a grand ex-palace to be their legation in Beijing]. Partly this was a response to understandings of Chinese conceptions, a breaking out of spaces and sites allotted them for reasons they interpreted (rightly sometimes) as intentionally demeaning. But they had their own such practices already… (p.206)
  • Foreign observers chuckled at Chinese geomancy, at fengshui, even as they fashioned symbolic landscapes themselves, sacralising space, creating sites for pilgrimage, reflection and remembrance. (p.207)

In this last example Bickers is describing how the British built graveyards wherever they settled. Note how he goes out of his way to ridicule the British who, he claims, chuckled at Chinese geomancy but – at least according to Bickers’ confidently post-imperialist view – were themselves every bit as superstitious and irrational in their treatment of ‘space’ – i.e. building cemeteries. Ha ha ha, silly old British.

But as with almost everything Bickers writes, a moment’s reflection makes you question this casual criticism and superiority: geomancy or fengshui are to some extent optional practices; organising the hygienic and orderly burial of the dead are rather more of a necessity. But – and here’s my point – Bickers has conceived and written this sentence not to make a factual statement – but to score politically correct points over ‘the foreigners’.

  • Peking, resolutely, was different to all the other sites of the foreign presence, different in scale, meanings, history, experience and climate. (p.215)
  • the Inspectorate General was the site in time of an entirely novel private experiment of Hart’s. (p.227)
  • There were of course other sites of jubilee. (p.309)
  • China long remained a site of foreign male opportunity. (p.311)
  • Homes, memoirs show, now became sites for the assertion of the supremacy of the European woman over her servants… (p.313)
  • Real Chinatowns became fictionalised nests of opium dens and sites of the despoliation of white girls by Chinese men. (p.364)

Space

  • [Western music] served to mark space in new ways. (p.228)
  • So at Shanghai they ordered space, responding as quickly as they were able to the breathtaking speed with which opportunities were seized, innovations latched onto, loopholes explored. They also ordered Chinese use of public space, imposing new norms of behaviour, turning urination into a minor criminal category. They also attempted to order aspects of private space: the gambling house, the brothel, the household. (p.224)

On reflection, where Bickers writes ‘space’ he really means ‘behaviour – but ‘space’ sounds more abstract, intellectual and scientific. And, in his usual hurry to denigrate Europeans and the British at every turn, he turns the imposition of regulations like banning people pissing in the street into a bad thing. Maybe we should return to the days of men randomly urinating in the street? Similarly, maybe gambling houses and brothels shouldn’t have been regulated. Naughty, naughty Europeans with their silly imperialising laws.

Practice A super-useful word which can be applied to almost any human activity to make yourself sound impressively intellectual. For example, my postman for the most part engages in letter-delivery activities but has recently expanded his practice to encompass the manual transmission of parcels in the course of which he transitions from the public space of the pavement, governed by one code of conduct, to the private space of my porch, which has become a site for intrapersonal exchange and dialogue i.e. we have a bit of a chat whenever he knocks on the door to deliver a parcel.

Used in this pretentious way ‘practice’ has become a buzzword which lends your text the authority and the spurious pseudo-scientific precision of an anthropologist or ethnographer or sociologist. But like so many of these terms, it mostly just dresses up banality and the bleeding obvious.

  • Officials often had little time intellectually for popular religious practice. (p.61)
  • Buddhist in origin, but adopted far beyond Buddhist practices, [the festival] involved opera performances, processions and bonfires… (p.61)
  • But that containment [of foreign traders by the Chinese] was too restrictive, too contrary to emerging European interests and practices… (p.157)
  • As the concessions and settlements merged spatially with the rest of the developing cities, their autonomous judicial systems and practice routinely returned to deportation as a legal punishment. (p.160)
  • It was a queer affair, the extension of Tongzhi restoration practice to overseas diplomacy… Burlingame was carefully and explicitly instructed not to follow practices which might prompt reciprocal demands on Peking.. (p.212)
  • There were descriptions and assessments too of Chinese practice. (p.281)
  • North China farmers knew that into their brittle world had come new forces, with alien ideas and practices… (p.341)
  • And the practices of the new combined forces of Boxers, the Yihequan, ‘Boxers united in righteousness’, gave them mastery over foreign things… (p.342)
  • Foreign office archives practice was in theory quite clear. (p.375)

Lovely sentence this last one, don’t you think?

Network Not found so much in other Theory-mongers, this word makes you sound like you’re all across modern technology and the internet and the groovy, cool, multi-connected world.

  • [The Taiping Rebellion] was a revolt informed by the new intellectual currents from over the oceans which were at work in Chinese cities and in the networks of people, goods and ideas that flowed through them… (p.120)
  • The swiftness of the incorporation after 1860 of the new sites of treaty port China into these far wider networks shows just how interconnected it already was. (p.156)
  • Globalisation, international migration, the growth of British and other European empires and the networks that cut across and through them, all had a bearing on developments in China. (p.156)
  • China was already deeply embedded in new-fashioned networks… (p.157)
  • So the Inspectorate general became the centre of its own network of stations, as well as a node in wider networks – regional meteorology, the international round of display and representation… (p.204)
  • The growing presence, and relative ease of transmission of goods and people, locked China more and more closely into knowledge networks, not least geographical and scientific ones. (p.165)
  • By 24 October 1860, when allied troops paraded into the heart of the imperial capital escorting Elgin and Gros, two bands in the vanguard heralding their intrusion and the imminent treaty ceremony, China was already being fashioned steadily into new networks – of communications, of people, of ideas. (p.157)

‘New networks of communications, of people, of ideas’ – this is vacuous modern corporate jargon: it could be an excerpt from the press release for any big company, bank or government department – it has that hollow corporate ring, impressive, vibrant-sounding and absolutely empty of meaning.

Scripts and performance This is another classic piece of sociological jargon in which people are depicted as hollow puppets helplessly ‘performing’ ‘scripts’, putting on performances – which they called living and making decisions but which we – everso wise Posterity – can now see as ritualised and formulaic ‘performances’:

  • The China script for the performance of British power and identity in the treaty ports was borrowed from the Subcontinent. (p.162)
  • Many missionaries played at the local level the China game of compensation for injury and damage, property restitution and repair, and symbolic gesture – judgement and proclamation set in stone, or transfer of communally important sites as punishment… Some did so to show how powerful Church and mission were, how actively they could help; to reassure and protect existing converts, and to tempt others. Such action could also provide a stage for the rehearsal of the national honour script, the dignity of the nation residing in the person of the missionary and his flock. (p.249)
  • But as 3,000 troops and labourers disembarked at Langqiao Bay in May 1874, a more routine script was being rehearsed… (p.254)
  • His death was incorporated into the same empire script that he rehearsed as he travelled… (p.260)
  • The limits of this private enterprise imperialism, of the sweaty plans of Bland and his ilk were reached on the early Sunday of of 28 July 1913, when Bruce and his band blundered noisily into sleepy Zhabei, and nobody met them to play their scripted part in the local drama of Settlement expansion. (p.369)

Transgressions and subverting and challenging and interrogating etc. Sounds so exciting and edgy and revolutionary. But is all too often applied to really boring and obvious descriptions in an effort to jazz them up.

  • As guardians of order and peace they saw such large gatherings… as sites of transgressions of moral order. (p.61)

What he means is that prostitutes often plied their trade at big Chinese festivals. Who’d have thought? Pretty transgressive, eh?

Actually, there isn’t as much transgression here as I find in the commentary of art galleries; and only one or two mentions of another favourite of Literary Theory, ‘desire’, used as a kind of bland, all-purpose, catch-all term for sex in the widest sense. Although there are quite a few references to brothels and prostitutes – mainly, of course, pointing out how brothels and prostitutes followed western land grabs and settlements, thus proving what racist hypocrites Europeans were. Oh, and many of them took Chinese mistresses, as well. How vile and disgusting, only white men have ever taken mistresses, and only in China.

Prose like concrete

The direction of Bickers thought is always upwards towards sweeping generalisations. Converting a specific argument between a specific Chinese and English into the generic term ‘dispute’, or particular local laws and customs into the generic word ‘practice’, is always to leave the specific and colourful behind in the name of scientific-sounding but in reality vague and generalised concepts. Move in this direction enough and you are left with sentences which are so generalised they could be about anything, anywhere. It just makes long stretches of this book really, really boring.

Always there were exceptions, men and women horrified by this new world of local conflict and dispute that could unfold as people converted. But the mission enterprise was nonetheless mired from the start in such local dispute, at the same time as it was enmeshed with the wider foreign world in China through nationality, affinity, language, marriage, and wider kin networks. (p.249)

It’s like reading concrete. It’s like being stuck in a supermarket car park looking at thousands of shopping trolleys, all the same. Dispute, insult, practice, site, spatial integration, networks of communication, sites of display, imperial spaces, networks of engagement, circuits of empire, colonial display, imperial sites, the China project, the China enterprise, blah blah blah.

I should have been warned off by the reviewer on Amazon who said reading this book was like walking through thickening mud.

Some, such and many Bickers also has a peculiar way with the words ‘there’, ‘some’, ‘such’ and ‘many’: by peculiar I mean that I’ve read thousands of books, paying close attention to their style, and never come across anyone use those words so eccentrically and idiosyncratically. He is fond of ‘fray’ which recurs many times; and ‘odd’.  It is tempting to embark on an analysis of these short, common words for what they reveal about Bickers’ eccentric uses of them – but this review is long enough already.

  • Such permission was certainly given to some… (p.374)
  • Such fear held good there. (p.374)
  • Such memory is the product of hard state work. (p.392)

A simpler soul might write ‘this kind of’ permission or fear or memory – but Bickers is a sucker for rhetorical effects.

Bullying sanctimoniousness

It goes without saying that a modern white, middle-aged English academic will have completely absorbed the political correctness of their university context and so be extremely, comprehensively, sarcastically critical of the white, middle-aged Englishmen of the past. A modern politically correct academic could take no other attitude.

They are all racist imperialist saps; we, dear reader, are by contrast morally unimpeachable and live in an age of complete enlightenment. Thank goodness the modern West which Bickers is a part of doesn’t go around invading other countries and plunging them into decades of chaos and civil war; thank goodness the modern West doesn’t build encampments in foreign countries – Iraq, say, or Afghanistan – protected from angry natives by huge walls inside which the soldiers and civil servants of the occupying forces, blissfully uninterested in the local culture, are provided with all the pleasures of home.

Yes, the modern historian, embedded in this wonderful Western culture, is sooo superior to his great-great-great-great grandparents who did just the same in China or India. In an account of a speech the Prime Minister Lord Salisbury gave in 1898, Bickers makes sure to point out that it was infused with the outdated ideology of social Darwinism, that he spoke ‘complacently’ and that his imperialist audience ‘chortled’.

What’s ironic is that Bickers’ own account is drenched with the cultural ideology of our times – sanctimonious political correctness – and that he himself never loses an opportunity to ‘chortle’ at the inferiority of other people – in this case, our ancestors. Bickers displays exactly the same patronising tone towards people who can’t defend themselves, as he lambasts haughty imperialists for displaying towards their victims.

Bickers laughs at the British merchants and soldiers, the consuls and captains he depicts, for importing the comforts of home, for bringing in English plants and trees, for building Anglican churches, for ordering prints and paintings of reassuringly patriotic subjects to hang on their walls, and even sending for familiar foods, rather than the bewildering local cuisine.

They wanted and recreated the familiar. They wanted their cigar brought, and then their newspaper. So they made themselves at home on the Huangpu, the Min, Gulangyu island, the slopes of Hong Kong, as snug as they could manage, and read weeks-old news about the real world over the ocean in a fug of finest Havana. (p.117)

Silly selfish saps!

And in their insatiably imperialist lust for profit, Bickers points out that some British firms even sold guns and ammunition to the warring sides in the Taiping Rebellion! The horror of those racist imperialist profiteers! Luckily, we now live in a blessed and enlightened age, when the British government would never dream of selling arms and airplanes, guns and implements of torture to Third World regimes, to countries like Saudi Arabia, who use the planes we sell them to bomb civilians in Yemen. Never ever.

— To be perfectly clear: I find a lot of the historiography of the British Empire, generally written by guilty white liberal men who bend over backwards to be politically correct in every way, to be revoltingly smug, superior and sanctimonious. To assume that their responses to the problems those people living in the 1840s, 1850s, 1860s and so on faced – their motivations to travel where the opportunity was, to set up companies, to trade and make money, to seek a living and a career – were all somehow uniquely wicked, and only the British ever did this or displayed imperialistic behaviour – never displayed before or since by any other nation (including the countless Chinese merchants they traded and set up companies with, or the genuinely bestial Japanese Empire) – and to assume that these are all behaviours which we moderns, in our infinite wisdom, have completely outgrown.

In my opinion, every human being is born into struggle – against their biological destiny, their physical flaws, the illnesses and accidents we are all prone to, against the psychological damage of childhood and education, against the cultural and technological limits of their time and position and, above all, the crushing necessity to make a living, to earn a crust, to eat and drink and stay alive.

My opinion is the same as John Locke’s, that we do better to commiserate our common frailty and sinfulness with our fellow humans – to sympathise with other people, to understand their suffering and pain, to help and aid those who are alive, now, today – and to empathise with the tribulations of those who came before us, who struggled through their own challenges.

But people like historians of empire, who appoint themselves judge and jury over the past, who lump the entire population of Britain into one undifferentiated pile labelled IMPERIALISTS so they can sneer and ridicule and belittle our benighted ancestors, well they run the risk of themselves being lumped in with the Britain of our times, being judged by the same strict broad-brush approach which they apply to the past – and found wanting. Was Bickers not alive during the invasion of Iraq, the invasion of Afghanistan, the financial crash of 2008, the Brexit vote or, at its widest, the election of President Trump? In a hundred and fifty years time won’t he be lumped in with this violent, war-starting, financially ruinous era?

And – the most obvious crime of our age – he is living through the destruction of the planet’s life forms and the tipping point of global warming. In a hundred and fifty years time Bickers too – with his flying round the world and globetrotting, a privileged western academic who ‘travelled extensively, visiting many of the haunting sites scattered across China that feature in the book’ (as the blurb puts it) – will be lumped in with the stupid, blinkered generation who arrogantly took it as their prerogative, as their right, as their entitlement, to burn up fossil fuel, to heat up the atmosphere, and to permanently damage the planet – and all in order to write his sarcastic quips about his obscure forebears.

And, if anybody reads books a hundred and fifty years hence, this type of morally superior historian will be judged all the more harshly because they have forfeited the possibility of themselves being forgiven by the unremitting harshness, judgmentalism, superior and supercilious attitude which they apply so flippantly and casually to people who died 150 years ago, and who cannot speak in their own defence. ‘Judge not lest ye be judged,’ as a dead white man said long ago.

Seen from this perspective – of condemning the helpless dead – judgmental histories like Bickers’ are a form of bullying. And when I see any form of bullying happening right in front of me, although I may not like the victim very much, my instinct is to side with the underdog, with the person being subjected to relentless vilification by someone in power over them.

But the relentless patronising of the past is not only morally offensive, it’s also plain dumb. Repeatedly Bickers comes up with the revelation that these businessmen and traders and merchants and bankers were out to make a profit! That merchants and bankers came out from Britain to set up businesses, to trade, and to make money! God, the implication is – how grubby and tacky and awful, all this fussing about money and profits!

The implied contrast is with morally pure academics, swanning around the world paid for by government grants, unfurling their deathless prose for the benefit of lesser mortals who have to scheme and plan and graft, to set up businesses, borrow capital, employ staff, hire premises and equipment, do deals and live with the permanent risk of going bankrupt or having your offices, staff or family attacked by anti-western zealots. What losers they must be, eh!

Bickers describes how a lot of the China traders got very rich very quick which, it is implied, was a contemptible thing. What depraved wretches! Lucky for us that we live in an era of perfect equality, with no disparities of income and wealth, either here in perfectly governed Britain, or in contemporary not-at-all-capitalist China. Aren’t we so right to feel superior to the past and their despicable get-rich-quick mentality 🙂

Eurocentric

The final irony is that, despite all his fashionably anti-imperial attitudinising, this book is in fact written overwhelmingly from the white western point of view. To be precise, from the British and, by and large, English point of view. Chaps’ diaries are used to put chaps down. Chaps’ accounts of their adventures are used to criticise chaps’ racist attitudes. Chaps’ reports back to the East India Company or Parliament are used to chastise chaps’ crudely mercantile way of thinking.

Oh silly, silly Victorians who knew nothing about multicultural studies or LGBT rights, who thought only in terms of their own age, cultural and social norms. How blinkered some people can be! Could they not guess how they would be judged in 150 years time and reorient all their actions accordingly?

Also, a thorough account of ‘the scramble for China’ really ought to include not just the British but the French, Portuguese and Dutch, with large roles for the Russians and Germans, all of whom got in on the act, scrambling for their own treaty ports and concessions. But in this book there are hardly any accounts of other countries’ activities.

All in all, this book is emphatically not a historical account of the multi-national scramble for China – it is a cultural and sociological study of ‘the British in China 1832-1915′ and its title really should have conveyed that more accurately.

And above all – irony of irony – for such a politically correct writer, there are hardly any Chinese voices in the text. This may be for all kinds of structural reasons, such as that many of these encounters weren’t recorded on the Chinese side, or that the archives were lost in the various revolutions and rebellions. But the fact remains that this is yet another book about the white British empire, by a white British historian, which relies overwhelmingly on the efficient and detailed record-keeping of white Victorian imperialists – in order to twist and quote them out of context with the sole intention of proving what awful racist money-grubbing insensitive imperialists they were.

In other words, through the academic jargon and preening rhetoric, there is little in the facts and nothing in the attitude which are either new or interesting. The Scramble for China conforms entirely and dully to the politically correct dogmas of our time.

Extended example

The Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) was just one of several native Chinese uprisings which overlapped with, or promoted reprisals from, the European powers to create a terrifying vortex of violence right at the end of the nineteenth century. What you’d hope for from a long (400-page) historical account of the period might be an attempt to disentangle these events, to patiently explain and analyse them. Bickers does the opposite.

War was fought across Manchuria, as Russian forces razed Amur river cities, and smashed their way south into Manchuria and north out of Port Arthur. It was fought in Tianjin, the foreign concessions besieged by Boxer bands and the Qing army. It was fought all the hot dusty way to Peking, as a multinational force of foreign troops slogged their way to the capital and relieved the besieged legations and Christian cathedrals. War was fought in Shanxi province, as German and British columns tramped to Taiyun, slaughtering opposition on the way… War was fought between Boxers and Christians, between Qing armies with Boxer allies, and the ‘Eight Power’ allied expeditionary force. It was fought by British marines and Japanese infantry, as well as by Sikhs, Bengalis, Black Americans, Annamese, Algerians and a British regiment of Chinese from Weihaiwei… It was a cruel war: a war between states, a civil war, a fight for personal survival… (p.346)

My critique is simple: every one of these incidents (the battles and campaigns) and ideas (for example, the very mixed nature of the armies) ought to receive extended treatment so that the reader can understand these key events and these important issue better; can learn something.

Instead, this vast tangle of events and ideas is made subordinate to Bickers’ addiction to fancy rhetoric, to the single flashy rhetorical trick of starting a lot of sentences with ‘war was fought’ or ‘it was fought’. Sure, the repetition rams home the idea that there was a whole lot of fighting going on; but the most basic elementary entry-level journalistic questions – who, what, where, when, why and how? are ignored – not in the name of some compelling insight or new thesis – but in the name of grand-standing rhetoric.

Bickers is more interested in describing the way news of these events back home was chaotic and often fabricated, how reports were made up by European journalists or editors, along with staged photographs and how some of the very first newsreel footage in the new technology of moving pictures was also generally faked and rigged.

Golly! News is fabricated and created by fallible and/or profit-seeking papers, magazines and media outlets! Wow! Yes indeedy, Bickers is here to tell us that coverage of far-away wars is often sensationalist and inaccurate.

There was a dearth of authenticity in this much-faked war, characterised and impelled as it was by forgery and wild rumour (p.355)

To read Bickers you’d think this must be the only war in history characterised by ‘forgery and wild rumour’ – as opposed to the obvious fact that, as the saying coined a century ago puts it, the very first casualty of war is truth.– This is a truism. A cliché. A threadbare, bleedingobvious commonplace taught to every GCSE schoolchild. Why am I reading it in a book written by a professor of history as if it is a dazzling new discovery?

My contention is that Bickers knows an awesome amount about this period, but fails to report it clearly or accurately, preferring to corral it all into either a) huge paragraphs designed to show off his rhetorical prowess, or b) long sections filled with tedious academic jargon which, upon a closer reading, always turn out to be obvious and banal.

To adopt Bickers’ own sociological terminology, this book is history ‘recruited’ and ‘refashioned’ for personal ‘display’ and ‘aggrandisement’.

This example is far from unique. A few pages later he does the same thing again. In among the chaos of the turn-of-the-century conflicts there was a lot of looting and pillaging (as, I believe, has occasionally happened in other wars) – but do we gets details, context, causes or consequences, useful facts and analysis to help us understand and remember each of the distinct outbreaks and incidents? Nope. We get another set-piece of booming rhetoric:

They looted at Tianjin; they looted at Peking; they looted everywhere in between, and far out into the northern provinces. They looted for days, for weeks, for months. They looted arsenals, granaries, mints and palaces. They looted the instruments from the old Jesuit Observatory. They looted salt stocks and Tianjin, and treasure from pawnshops. They looted houses and hovels. They looted tombs. They took furs, silks, paintings, jades and porcelains. They looted gold-plate from the roofs of temples. They took books and statues. What they did not like or could not take they trampled underfoot, tore, burned or wrecked. (p.350)

OK, I get it – there was a lot of looting. But who, what, where, when, why and how? Not in this book, you won’t find these basic questions answered.


Conclusion

This long book is a struggle to read. The average person-in-a-hurry could pick up pretty much all they need to know in half an hour by reading these Wikipedia articles.

What this 400-page book gives you which Wikipedia doesn’t, is vast amounts of anthropological-ethnographic-sociological jargon, almost entirely about the Western, and specifically British, individuals involved in the opening up and colonising of China.

There are brief descriptions of festivals or temples, a bit about Peking architecture, many scattered details about relevant places and events though generally delivered in a confusing way – but little or nothing about Chinese art or poetry, history or attitudes, culture or politics – and nothing you can really grasp or learn from about the big wars in Victorian China and their geopolitical implications. And that was the main reason why I bought this book.

Instead, there are lengthy sociological disquisitions about the spread of Christianity through missionary activity (chapter 8), the rise of the Chinese Customs Authority under the legendary Ulsterman Robert Hart (chapter 7), a lengthy account of how Hart’s Customs helped organise a comprehensive network of lighthouses along China’s coast in the 1870s and 80s, which leads on to the western gathering of data generally, about the meteorology of the coast or of Chinese diseases (chapter 9).

Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? But because it is all couched in the limited and stereotyped jargon of ‘practices’ and ‘networks’ and ‘sites of insult’ and ‘imperial enterprise’ etc, and because Bickers never drops his anti-British sentiment (lighthouses were – shockingly -built to make imperial trade safe and guarantee profits! meteorological data designed to help imperialist shipping! medical reports to help the racist westerners better able to exploit etc) it isn’t. It ends up all sounding the same. He manages to make a riveting period of history sound really boring.

Last thoughts

For my £15 I had to wade through hundreds of pages of preening prose and abuse being thrown at long-dead profit-hungry, racist imperialists – but did ultimately emerge with two newish (to me) thoughts:

  1. The China British were always a sort of spin-off of British India, using the same slang, building the same sort of houses, treating the locals, especially their servants and mistresses, with the same appalling and often violent condescension. And the Forward Party of China colonists really thought they could hoodwink and bully the British government back home into supporting an incremental takeover of China through piecemeal wars and ‘punitive actions’ – raucously calling for more and more belligerent intervention. This, after all, was all how we slowly acquired India. Hmmm. Interesting.
  2. Right at the end of the book Bickers describes how he has himself been subjected to harangues and lectures by modern young Chinese criticising him personally for being British and therefore to blame for the ‘century of humiliation’. What is interesting is that these young people have absolutely no experience of any of the events they cite (the violence of 1842, 1860 or 1901). But this story – how their country was subjected to a hundred years of imperialist conquest, a hundred years of victimhood – has been drummed into them by the Chinese state. Why? Bickers explains that, after the Chinese government violently repressed the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and arrested and imprisoned the reform-minded leaders who let it all get out of hand, they then undertook a sweeping review of Chinese education designed to emphasise the uniquely nation-saving achievements of the Chinese communist party and why all Chinese should be forever grateful to it. In order to boost its role as the goody in the story, the communists emphasised the irredeemable baddyness of all foreigners, of Western Imperialism, be it British, French or Russian, and also to lump in the decades of abuse from Japan as somehow permitted and encouraged by those imperialist farangs.

It is fascinating to learn that the anti-western feeling of many of China’s young educated people is more powerful and passionate today than it has ever been – and that it is encouraged by state-sponsored history books, courses and teachers.

The final chapter of Bickers’ book is thirty pages devoted to a rather boring description of how archives and records were rescued from China during the 20th century, and how a patchwork of researchers has set about writing more accurate and unjingoistic accounts of western, and especially British, imperialism in China. Fair enough.

The irony is that they are doing so at the same time as China’s authorities are also sponsoring a highly tendentious anti-western narrative. Bickers worries that this could lead to quite dangerous results:

A globalised China is not new; but a powerful global China is unprecedented. That provides new food for thought, especially as Chinese youth come out into the world equipped for instinctive indignation at China’s past humiliations and what they feel to be contemporary echoes of those. The awkward confidence that such sensitivity engenders in them might make for all of us a very awkward world. (Final words of the text – p.399)

Worrying, eh?

And this leads onto a final thought of mine, which isn’t in the book at all – that we live in an age of Victimhood, of ever-multiplying victim narratives competing to be heard. The Jews have a well-established Holocaust narrative which is now enshrined in Holocaust Memorial Day (January 27). Black History Month has been going since 1970 in the States, 1987 in the UK. Since as far back as 1909 there’s been an International Women’s Day, now held on 8 March. These are state-sanctioned days or periods solemnly commemorating what are, at heart, victim narratives.

But away from these official victim narratives, the sense of being victimised and humiliated proliferates in the modern world – the entire Arab world, for example, blames Europeans and especially the British for allowing Israel to be founded, for giving their countries stupid arbitrary borders, for interfering and undermining their nations in any number of 20th century coups and invasions, and for continuing to kill Muslims in Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria – victim narratives which can be compiled into recruiting literature for al-Qaeda or ISIS.

I’m not passing judgement on any of these or the numerous other narratives of victimhood of our time – just pointing out the fact that the last pages of Bickers’ book make a riveting contrast to the previous 400. For the first 400 he gives hundreds of quotations from bombastic, jingoistic, imperialistic, often overtly racist, patronising and violently confident China pioneers, settlers and apologists all boasting about their power and might and supremacy. Right at the end of the book there is a loud screeching of brakes as you are suddenly dumped into the 21st century and find yourself surrounded by voices all clamouring to show off their weakness, to show you their wounds and their suffering, all competing to show you how vulnerable and abused and humiliated they have been.

Read newspapers and magazines from 1911 and they’re all about power, might and conquest; read newspapers and magazines from 2011 (when this book was published) and it’s a wall of helplessness, victimhood and suffering.


Related links

Other reviews about the history of China or the Far East

Graham Greene, preacher man

The Greene sound

Jazz musicians develop a personal ‘sound’, a unique way of getting music from their instrument which a fan can identify in seconds. Similarly, a writer’s way with the language can be instantly distinctive.

To read any amount of Greene is to become aware of his message, and his preachiness about his message – he cannot stop himself either as narrator, or via the characters he creates, from ramming home his core message of how horrible life is. A ‘message’ which amounts to a ‘sound’, an attitude, a way of shaping a paragraph so that it invariably lead to a despairing comment. This flat despair is Greene’s distinctive voice.

These examples are taken from Book One of The Heart of The Matter.

  • He felt almost intolerably lonely. (1983 Penguin paperback edition p.11)
  • …the odour of human meanness and unjustice… (p. 15)
  • He watched her go out of the dark office like fifteen wasted years. (p.20)
  • These were the times of ugliness when he loved her, when pity and responsibility reached the intensity of a passion. (p.22)
  • Poor Louise, he thought, it is terrible not to be liked… He was bound by the pathos of her unattractiveness. (p.28)
  • There was always a blacker corruption elsewhere to be pointed at. (p.35)
  • A man was surely entitled to that much revenge. Revenge was good for the character: out of revenge grew forgiveness. (p.39)
  • The thought of retirement set his nerves twitching and straining: he always prayed that death would come first. (p.43)
  • It seemed to him that he must have failed in some way in manhood. (p.46)
  • Prying in cupboards you came on humiliations; little petty vices were tucked out of sight like a soiled handkerchief. (p.48)
  • Against the beautiful and the clever and successful one can wage a pitiless war, but not against the unattractive. (p.50)
  • It seemed to Scobie that life was immeasurably long. Couldn’t the test of man have been carried out in fewer years? (p.52)
  • They had been corrupted by money, and he had been corrupted by sentiment. Sentiment was the more dangerous, because you couldn’t name its price. A man open to bribes was to be relied upon below a certain figure, but sentiment might uncoil in the heart at a name, a photograph, even a smell remembered. (p.55)
  • People talk about the courage of condemned men walking to the place of execution: sometimes it needs as much courage to walk with any kind of bearing towards another person’s habitual misery. (p.56)
  • If only I could postpone the misery, he thought, until daylight. Misery is worse in the darkness. (p.57)
  • The truth, he thought, has never been of any real value to any human being – it is a symbol for mathematicians and philosophers to pursue. In human relations kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths. (p.58)
  • For the first time he realised the pain inevitable in any human relationship – pain suffered and pain inflicted. How foolish one was to be afraid of loneliness. (p.81)
  • Happiness is never really so welcome as changelessness. (p.98)
  • Point me out the happy man and I will point you out either extreme egotism, evil – or else an absolute ignorance. (p.123)
  • In the confusing night he forgot for the while what experience had taught him – that no human being can really understand another, and no-one can arrange another’s happiness. (p.85)

I’m sure I heard that last one on Oprah. Or did I read it in a supermarket checkout magazine?

To read a Graham Greene novel is to submit to hundreds of pages of this kind of thing, pseudo-philosophy, nostrums, bromides and truisms about life, gosh, isn’t it long, isn’t it tough, isn’t love difficult etc. After a while it’s like reading hundreds of T-shirt slogans which all begin to blur into one, or the variations on the mottos on coffee mugs: Keep calm and… carry on, eat a cookie, hug your dog, love life, go shopping, eat a banana, call batman etc.

Greene’s novels carry on unstoppably telling you loads of ooh-aah secrets about life till you really want him to just GIVE IT A REST for a few pages. Describe the people. Describe the scene. He is so good at that. Let the story speak for itself and stop swamping it with ‘meaning’.

The sheer number of morals, maxims and what the Middle Ages called sententiae – aphorisms, apothegms, wise sayings – risks swamping the reader and becoming a drone, an irritating background buzz which distracts from the action, the plot, the characters, undermining the fictiveness of the fiction. Greene could consider letting the reader draw their own conclusions instead of ramming home the moral two or three times per page.

At many points the proverbs of despair do help explicate the psychological state of the characters, they have an artistic validity; but at too many other points they are just the Author’s Message, heavy-handed pointers, not allowing us to assimilate the fiction freely, constantly corraling us into just the one, monochrome and oppressive mind-set.

Greene the preacher

So oppressive do they become that you could view Greene’s novels as less as fictions and more as channels he devised to peddle hundreds and hundreds of pages of gruesome theology and cod psychology onto his readers. I doubt whether he could have written whole books devoted to psychology or theology, he wasn’t that systematic, coherent or plausible.

But the creation of ‘characters’ and the scraps of ‘plot’ which constitute the ‘novels’ were all he needed to enable him to palm whole notebooks of ‘insights’ and ‘wisdom’ off onto a gullible public. The ‘novels’ are like a figleaf, an excuse for an unstoppable flow of what amounts to nothing more nor less than preaching. He knows the ‘Truth about Human Nature’ and he is not going to let a page go by without leaning forward in his pulpit and hectoring us with yet another grim and ghastly insight.

Except that instead of preaching mid-Victorian sermons – such as he must have heard his father, the school headmaster, do over and over again throughout his childhood – about keeping a stiff upper lip, the value of Empire and the importance of moral purity, Greene is preaching the mirror opposite – mid-20th century existentialist platitudes about despair, horror and alienation, digging up and revelling in the minutiae of man’s inhumanity to man.

From our perspective in the early 21st century, both postures now seem as bizarre, as dated and as tied to their specific times and places as each other. Greene seemed old-fashioned, gloomy and depressing when I tried to read him in the 1970s. Now his obsessions seem as remote and strange as one of the Metaphysical poets.

Elements of Graham Greene’s style

Greene’s strengths and weaknesses

Greene’s strengths are:

  • tell-tale description
  • interior monologue
  • dialogue, generally at cross-purposes

His weaknesses are:

  • weak plots
  • psychology instead of plot
  • melodramatically bleak worldview
  • using Catholic symbolism to dress up banal situations

1. Description

I enjoy Green’s descriptions. They are used:

  • to describe (generally squalid) locations or sketch out the (generally seedy) physical appearance of characters
  • to act as objective correlatives of the characters’ (generally bleak) thoughts
  • to deflate – in a classic Modernist tactic, to intersperse ‘serious’ dialogue or thoughts with off-key, seemingly random background detail: very frequently the tawdry lyrics of popular songs keep interrupting characters who are having earnest conversations about their souls etc

2. Interior monologue

  • give each character three or four telling moments in their lives, then have those moments recur again and again in their interior monologues: thus Conrad Drover remembering his brother’s wedding in It’s A Battlefield or the Farrant siblings endlessly remembering when Kate told Anthony not to run away from school in England Made Me or Pinkie remembering his parents have sex in Brighton Rock or the agent D. remembering being trapped in a bombed house for 56 hours and his wife being shot in The Confidential Agent
  • interior monologue is an opportunity to slip in lots of editorialising about how vile people are, how you can’t trust anyone, how the world is a battlefield, or prosing about angels and saints and sin and damnation in the more Catholic novels

3. Dialogue

Generally at cross-purposes. Greene’s technique is to show us pages and pages of people’s interior thoughts, and then have them speak to each other to create ‘dramatic irony’ ie to show how people lie or are just oblivious of each other, tut, aren’t people ghastly!

4. Weak plots

Stamboul Train A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of a political exile in an obscure rail junction, and then a cynical business deal in Istanbul.

It’s a Battlefield: a man is condemned for stabbing a policeman; his brother propositions his wife and then, in an access of anger and frustration buys a gun and wanders london till he sees one of the officials involved in his brother’s trial and takes a pop at him; meanwhile his wife’s tarty younger sister spends a night with a middle-aged socialist leader then allows herself to be whisked off by a waiter who’s won a jackpot, and thinks about proposing to her until they have sex after which he changes his mind.

A Gun for Sale After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous agent who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the agent and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot himself.

England Made Me Pretty Kate persuades Krogh the shy industrialist to employ her as his PA and then mistress; and then to give a job to her shiftless brother Anthony, who almost immediately starts giving away industrial secrets to the seedy journalist Minty and so his henchman Hall bumps him off.

Brighton Rock Teenage psychopath Pinkie Brown inherits leadership of a Brighton criminal gang after Kite is killed in London, gets his henchmen to strangle a journalist who helped his rival gangleader Colleoni, but leaves clues behind which lead him to push a weakling gang member over the banisters in a tall tenement building and then marry the only other witness, Rose, an immature 16 year-old waitress but doesn’t reckon for fat Ida Arnott who met the scared journalist just before his murder, and makes it her purpose to track Pinkie down and confront him at a beauty spot where he’s taken Rose to persuade her to kill herself, Pinkie goes to throw acid over interupting Ida but a policeman hits him with his truncheon and Pinkie spills the acid over himself, running screaming over a cliff.

The Confidential Agent As a benzedrine-fuelled thriller this has more plot than usual, summarised in my post on it. D., the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, comes to England, tries and fails to secure a contract for coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners not do the work out of solidarity, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape on a ship accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.

The Power and the Glory An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the Mexican revolutionaries’ pogrom against Catholic officials, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.

All the plots, even when eventful,  are unconvincing or weak. The violent bits often appear arbitrary and out of character with the scores and scores of pages of characters mooning about feeling sorry for themselves. Agent is an exception in including sort-of comic or ludicrous scenes and having the convoluted plot of a farce. Gun For Sale is an avowed thriller and so has the nearest to a compelling plot (hence the many movie versions of it). In general, though, it’s hard to believe most Greene characters capable of much more than drinking heavily and feeling sorry for themselves, a trend which reaches a kind of delirious climax in Power and Glory which is nothing but the protagonist drinking and feeling sorry for himself.

5. Psychology instead of plot

Instead of plot there are pages and pages of interior monologue, prosing about the pessimistic subjects close to Greene’s heart.

6. Melodramatically bleak worldview

In a way, the lack of decent plot, the paucity of events, is compensated by the worldview. To put it another way, whereas in another type of book there might be pages of plot development, in a Greene novel there are pages and pages of people thinking bleak thoughts or traipsing round the sordid streets (or jungle). What fills the books is page after page of Greeneprose which can be ordered by the yard or the mile. Lots of the ‘thoughts’, dreams, memories which, if you read a number of the novels, acquire a samey kind of feel. The same doomy pessimism, the same disgust.

7. using Catholic symbolism to dress up banal situations

Some people take Greene’s Catholicism seriously and take the novels as ‘investigations’ of Catholic theology, or the theology as a tool for ‘investigating’ human psychology. Not believing a word of it, I take the Catholic symbolism to be a way of doing two things:

  1. At its crudest, it’s a way of adding more words to a page and more pages to a book. It is filler. The theology adds to the content; it is a content-generating device – the Catholic characters can waffle on for pages about their oh-so-special sins and spiritual agonies because they are tapping into an established, vast and all-providing worldview.
  2. It’s also a meaning-generating machine. The ‘theology’ lends a spurious significance to events, to plots which, as noted above, are often trivial and inconsequential until they suddenly erupt in extremely improbable moment of melodrama (like Conrad confronting the Assistant Commissioner with a gun or Hall pushing Anthony Farrant into the lake). The bucket Catholicism lends the often immature and melodramatic vapourings of the unhappy characters a depth and seriousness they often don’t really deserve.
The youthful Graham Greene

The youthful Graham Greene

Kipling’s style

Stalky & Co (1899) is the first of his books which has made me actively dislike Kipling. Like most Kipling prose books it’s a series of short stories, this time set in a minor public school where Stalky, Beetle and M’Turk are the teenage heroes of various scrapes and japes. I’ll examine at a short passage from the story ‘Regulus’ to try and explain some of the reasons why I disliked it.

The story

In the boys’ Latin class Beetle gave another boy, Winton, the wrong translation of the word delubris. When Winton uses it in class the Latin teacher tells him off. As the boys exit the classroom Winton takes his revenge:

‘Why did you tell me delubris was “deluges,” you silly ass?’ said Winton.
‘Look out, you hoof-handed old owl!’ Winton had cleared for action as the Form poured out like puppies at play and was scragging Beetle. Stalky from behind collared Winton low. The three fell in confusion.
Dis te minorem quod geris imperas ,’ quoth Stalky, ruffling Winton’s lint-white locks. ‘Mustn’t jape with Number Five study. Don’t be too virtuous. Don’t brood over it. ‘Twon’t count against you in your future caree-ah.’
‘Pull him off my — er — essential guts, will you?’ said Beetle from beneath. ‘He’s squashin’ ’em.’
They dispersed to their studies.

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What does Kipling’s style tell us?

1. The characters, the schoolboys, use Victorian schoolboy slang – silly ass, hoof-handed old owl etc. Fair enough. It’s the narratorial style I’m interested in:

2. ‘Winton had cleared for action’ – is an abbreviated way of saying ‘as the boys left the classroom Winton cleared a space around him in which to attack Beetle’.

3. ‘…and was scragging Beetle…’ scrag is schoolboy slang, but its inclusion in the same sentence makes that sentence dense with information. It is very compressed, too compressed to understand easily.

4. ‘Stalky from behind collared Winton low.’ Again, this is very abbreviated: presumably this means Stalky attacked, jumped on or tackled Winton, but you have to work on it for a second to get clear in your mind what it means. This pause to register also happens throughout Kipling’s novel, Captains Courageous, which made it a very glutinous read.

5. ‘The three fell in confusion.’ You can imagine this being amusingly expanded by a different writer. Probably they went down in a confusion of arms and legs, formed a squirming, punching mass on the floor etc. Untold elaborations of the situation could have been developed. All are rejected by Kipling, who prefers to use a phrase clipped to an uncomfortable extent.

6. ‘Dis te minorem quod geris imperas,’ Fair enough, they’ve just come out of Latin lesson.

7. ‘quoth Stalky.’ Why ‘quoth’? Said, shouted, quoted, expostulated, yelled. Of all possible words why choose one which my dictionary categorises as archaic? Because the boys like quoting – in fact live to a large extent by quoting – rags and tags they’ve come across, Latin tags, quotes from favourite books (lots of Surtees is quoted in the earlier stories; an entire story, The United Idolaters, is based around the fad for quoting the Brer Rabbit stories), arcane and out-of-the-way vocabulary. The point is that Kipling the narrator is using the same style as the boys, deliberately using archaic or quoted phrases. Why? What effect does it have? Two, I think:

a. It means the narrator’s style is aping his subjects’ style. The effect is to make Kipling complicit in, and embedded part of the world, he is describing. An accomplice to its values. The struggle in his stories is rarely between evenly matched opponents. We know Kipling is on the side of Mrs Hawksbee, the soldiers three or Mowgli a) in terms of action or plot, but b) also in terms of style.

b. Looked at from another perspective, it tends to show that Kipling can’t escape from this boyish point-of-view into adult detachment. (Another element: The Bible was thrashed into him as a boy and Biblical quotes and phraseology are all over his prose like chicken pox. The effect is rarely to add  to his prose depth or resonance, as quotations in other authors might, but to hold it back.) My argument is that such quotations reflect a kind of flight from adulthood, an inability or refusal to write plain English prose as commonly written or understood by people of his time. Given a choice between a) writing a simple declarative sentence which accurately explains what is going on or b) either i) quoting from the Bible or another archaic source or ii) using a clipped or compressed phrase, often slang or technical cant – Kipling always opts for strategy ii.

Kipling’s style is not good at explaining what is going on nor at describing things. I think he’s a terrible stylist. I’ve repeatedly had to turn for help to the excellent Reader’s Guide to Kipling just to understand what’s going on in many of the stories. Important facts, key turning points, moral cruxes are obscured, underplayed or hidden by his compulsive need to compress or obliquify.

8. ‘ruffling Winton’s lint-white locks.’ The boys are fighting. This phrase is schoolboy understatement made of two parts: the gentle, playsome verb ‘ruffling’ is chosen as deliberate irony because the boys are punching and fighting. ‘Lint-white locks’ is, again, ironic, but in a different way; i) a namby-pamby poetic phrase ii) focusing on a side detail unconnected with the actual fight going on. Both are distracting tactics or dislocations, understating and avoiding the reality of the violent fight. Why? Because Kipling assumes his ideal reader will share – or his style coerces the reader into sharing – the same understated schoolboy irony as the boys. We are pushed towards not only witnessing the action but sharing in the values of the participants. But I don’t share their public schoolboy values or tone or terminology, and I resent being coerced into doing so.

9. “‘Mustn’t jape with Number Five study. Don’t be too virtuous. Don’t brood over it. ‘Twon’t count against you in your future caree-ah.” Stalky’s dialogue emphasises that even in the midst of a violent fight the boys don’t lose their addiction to elaborate phraseology and deliberately stylised pronunciation. There is a buried message here and in all similar situations – where a character remains loyal to verbal elaborations even in the middle of crises – which links to the ideological strand in Kipling portraying English public schoolmen as keeping their heads when all around lose theirs. Drake finishing his game of bowls before the Armada etc.

10. “‘Pull him off my — er — essential guts, will you?” Use of ‘essential’ here is – presumably – either a quote or a fancy elaboration of speech of the kind the schoolboys delight and compete in. Fair enough. As dialogue it is consistent with their characters and values.

11. ‘said Beetle from beneath.’ Again, the reader could have done with just a tad of elaboration and explanation. When you consider it, this sentence has been pared back to the absolute minimum. Why? It’s connected in strategy to the abrupt final phrase, ‘They dispersed to their studies.’ That ends the whole sequence in the short story which is followed by a break in the text. The entire resolution of the fight, how the boys get to their feet, brush themselves down, whether they shake hands or threaten each other – all of this is omitted. We have no idea what happens. Kipling skips it all.

The absolute bare minimum of information is given. Why? Because chaps don’t blab. Whenever any of the trio begin ‘prosing’, one of the others is liable to kick them under the table. And they immediately shut up. Shutting up is a key element of this brutal schoolboy world. And Kipling’s prose narrative echoes the schoolboy code of clipped understatement.

*****************************************

I’ve used this short excerpt to show that, in my opinion, Kipling’s style:

1. enacts and reinforces the amoral public school values of his protagonists

2. coerces the reader, more or less overtly, to take their part, to sympathise with those values

3. goes to some lengths to avoid being a responsive, adult, freestanding style. Instead of simply describing what is there Kipling will use

a. Biblical quotes

b. Literary quotes

c. Schoolboy or military or technical slang

d. Schoolboy understatement

BUT in my opinion, this ethic of manly (or adolescent) understatement seriously cripples Kipling’s style. It means for long stretches there is really nothing to enjoy in his style, except registering the quotes and the brevity. The brevity doesn’t add to the resonance or meaning, as it does in Hemingway: the less said, the more implied. Instead it makes things less interesting to read and sometimes so obscure you don’t know what’s happening. The less said, the less… said.

A detail to add, here. The first sentence of The United Idolaters is, ‘His name was Brownell and his reign was brief.’ This is describing the arrival of a new teacher (I refuse to write ‘master’ since this is to begin to accept the values and world of these posh people). But we are describing a teacher. He doesn’t reign. Using the word reign is an exaggeration. Seeing a teacher’s authority as a (monarchical) reign is to see it from the schoolboys’ point of view, to place vast importance and significance onto something which is utterly trivial beyond the school gate or even in the teachers’ common room. So sometimes Kipling will knowingly, mockingly exaggerate for affect, as well.

e. schoolboy exaggeration

There are other aspects as well which I don’t have space to list. Almost all of them have one thing in common which is they are evasions of telling the thing as it is; they are habits of a mind which is incapable of accepting things straight, but must forever be seeking archaisms, Bible phrases or stories, exaggeration or understatement, avoiding what is there. Is embarrassed by simple statement. Is always hiding, concealing, ironising.

And in Stalky & Co you can see laid bare the sources of this ‘style’ in the coterie mentality, the exclusive slang and verbal mannerisms, and in the amoral sense of superiority of an extremely narrow class of emotionally stunted English public schoolboys.

And, as Kipling makes clear in Stalky, these are the stunted, oblique boys who became the men who went out to run the Empire on which the Sun Never Set… but which they were eventually forced to hand back to its owners.

Other Kipling reviews

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