The World In Winter by John Christopher (1962)

I told my son (21 and a science fiction fan) the title of this book and, even before I’d begun to summarise the plot, he said, ‘So it’s about a new ice age’ – which pretty much sums it up. But with a lot of unexpectedly strange and odd aspects.

Like the same author’s Death of Grass (1956: virus kills all edible grasses i.e. wheat, oats etc plunging the world into famine) or John Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids (1951: the whole world goes blind) or J.G. Ballard’s two eco-disaster novels, The Drought (1964: fresh water runs out) and The Drowned World (solar flares warm the atmosphere and melt the icecaps; published, incidentally, the same year as this novel, 1962) The World In Winter takes the premise of one simple but huge catastrophe hitting the world, and then studies the effects of the resulting social collapse through the eyes of a handful of middle-class characters.

Part one – London

1. The sun cools

The Big Disaster is that the amount of radiation (i.e. heat) coming from the sun declines – not hugely, by about 10%, but that is enough. The formerly temperate latitudes become uninhabitably cold, which includes England and the city where the story is (rather inevitably) set, London. It’s called the Fratellini Effect after the Italian scientist who first reported it.

2. The middle-class characters

are as follows: Andrew Leedon works on a documentary TV show (presumably for the BBC). He is married to Carol, they live in Dulwich and have two boys both away at boarding school, Robin and Jeremy. Leedon’s job as a journalist makes him cognate with the protagonists of John Wyndham’s The Kraken Wakes, journalist and documentary scriptwriting couple Mike and Phyllis Watson. It’s an obvious and handy device, especially for a disaster/apocalypse novel, because it means your characters work in a newsroom and so directly or through colleagues, learn about events from all round the world, allowing the author to describe global developments from a panoptic point of view, while saving selected ones for your characters to go and experience in person – very much the procedure of The Kraken Wakes.

But Christopher is notably more gritty than Wyndham. It’s emphasised that Leedon’s marriage is not full of love; Carol is more selfish than he realised, although stunningly good looking.

Andy’s Editor-in-Chief, McKay, introduces him to a senior civil servant in the Home Office, David Cartwell, posh, charismatic and married to rather plain Madeleine (this is emphasised and important to the plot). The two couples, the Leedons and Cartwells, socialise a few times, then, one night when David is tied up with work, he encourages Andy to pop round and see Madeleine (‘Maddie’).

It takes 40 pages or so for Andy to discover his wife, Carol, has started an affair with charismatic David, and David is none-too-subtly encouraging him (Andy) to start an affair with his wife, Maddie. Carol comes to meet David off a flight at Heathrow, to tell him in the bar that she’s having an affair.

Andy still loves his wife and hopes that either Carol or David will tire of the other, but this is because he hasn’t grasped that they are both promiscuous by nature. He is shattered when she tells him she’s already had three or four affairs behind his back. Poor Andy carries on clinging to the hope that Carol will take him back, long after he’s been forced to move out of the marital home and gone to live in a hotel. He pops round to see Maddie regularly, to pour out his woes and cry on her shoulder. At first he is distraught and she is upset and they share their unhappiness. Eventually the inevitable happens and they start a relationship, but it is sort of half-hearted, born out of their mutual plight rather than mutual attraction.

So the main surprise in the book is the amount of effort Christopher devotes to analysing this four-way affair in great detail before any of the Big Disaster arrives.

3. Stages of social collapse

Christopher’s aim is to establish the very boring, mundane, ordinary lives of some rather nice, upper-middle-class professionals. Only intermittently do any of them discuss what is at first only one news story among many others, the minor story about some boring-sounding meteorological changes, which one or other of the men is occasionally involved in writing about or discussing at civil service meetings. We are fed more information about the Fratellini Effect, about the volume of heat which reaches the earth and estimates of the percentage by which it appears to be declining…

When The Big Collapse comes, it comes fairly fast, over the course of an autumn and increasingly severe winter in England. First snow falls heavily in the south of England, including London. The Thames freezes over as far as Chiswick and then the Pool i.e. the centre of trade in and out of the country. Transport becomes difficult. The government asks people to ration coal and food.

David invites Andy for a drink (they have carried on being drinking associates, David in the carefree charming manner of the eternal public school winner, Andy in the angry sulking mode of the eternal cuckold). David advises Andy to take Carol and the boys to Africa, probably to one of the old colonies. Andy thinks David is joking. He’s not. A week or so later, meeting again down the pub, David hands Andy an envelope from Carol. It tells him that she really has a) taken the boys out of school b) sold their family house c) flown to Lagos. Andy is scandalised. David says it’s going to get a lot worse.

Troops start patrolling the railway termini. Glasgow is in the hands of a mob. Later Andy and Carol are walking in Hyde Park when they get caught up in a riot inspired by agitators at Speakers’ Corner, a mob which rampages off to Harrods to loot it for food. Andy says he’d better move in with Maddie. Save money, energy, and to protect her.

David explains to Andy that the government is setting up a security fence around central London, marked by barbed wire, policed by the army with guns – to be called the Pale. In the last scene of part one, Andy goes on a tour of the perimeter fences with a patrol of two armoured cars led by Captain Chisholm, tall, early twenties, Yorkshire accent. When one of the cars breaks down in heavy snowdrifts outside Kings Cross an ugly crowd gathers which Chisholm disperses with tear gas.

Moving on, Andy persuades them to take a slight detour through the snowdrifts to St Bart’s hospital. The hospital is half-wrecked with plentiful broken windows and frozen corpses in the deep snow around the main entrance. They hear screams and down a side alley discover a nurse in the process of being gang-raped. They come to her rescue, shooting one of the three rapists dead and helping her into the armoured car, where she sits sobbing quietly. But when they come to the barbed wire barricade at St Paul’s the lieutenant in charge won’t allow her to be admitted into the Pale. Orders are orders. There isn’t enough food to feed the current inhabitants of the Pale. While the two men argue, the nurse gets out of the car and, without a word, turns and trudges off through the heavy snow. I think it’s meant to be an image of utter resignation and despair.

Back within the Pale, David pays Andy and Maddie a last visit. They are both permanently dizzy from hunger, they are eking out supplies of coffee with 2 or 3 cups a week. David says he is in charge of the evacuation plan and can get them on one of the last flights out of England. It’s now or never. Maddie initially says no but David blackmails them by saying, in that case, he won’t go and all three of them will stay and starve in snowbound London. So Maddie agrees to leave.

Part two – Nigeria

Which means that part two opens and remains set, rather unexpectedly, in Nigeria circa 1962. Now, Nigeria had only gained its independence from Britain in 1960, so… Well, presumably the recentness of independence from colonial mastery feeds into Christopher’s characterisations and plot. Throughout this part I was trying to gauge how much is straight disaster novel and how much is liberal satire on the white colonial master brought low.

Andy and Carol arrive and check into a hotel only to discover most of the menial staff are poor European whites. Andy goes to see Carol who, you will recall, left some months earlier. She is nicely ensconced in a flat and has sent the two boys to boarding school in Ibadan; some people always come out on top. They meet in a bar, which has been recently decorated with murals of frozen Europe. Carol warns Andy conditions are hard here in Nigeria. Would he consider a job in the army training Nigerians? Rumour has it there’s going to be a pan-African war against apartheid South Africa, but Andy is not that kind of man. As he’s leaving he loiters to chat to the poor white doorman and accidentally sees Carol re-entering the club on the arm of a prosperous-looking Nigerian dressed in evening suit. Aha. She has found a sugar daddy. His name is Adekema. She was always that kind of woman i.e. resourceful, resilient and adaptable.

When Andy and Maddie go to the bank to change the savings they had wired ahead, an unnecessarily gleeful assistant manager tells them that a Nigerian government edict has recently declared Sterling non-existent. There is no money for them to extract. They go to complain to the British Embassy but discover the embassy staff are in the same plight. From now on all Brits are going to have to sell what possessions they have or get whatever jobs they can, from a standing start. Like Carol, the embassy guy suggests Andy tries to get a job in the Nigerian army.

Maddie and Andy walk down to the beach with their few possessions, lie under the stars and Andy finds himself crying for the old world and the lives they have lost. Maddie undoes her blouse and bra and cuddles him to her bosom where he cries his eyes out. This exactly recalls the scene in The Kraken Wakes in the Caribbean island where, after seeing the exploding anemone creatures snaring people all round the square in their sticky cilia and drawing them together into mulched balls of flesh, the male protagonist Mike Watson finds himself uncontrollably weeping and having to be consoled by his tougher wife, Phyllis. So much for ‘boys don’t cry’ (page 96).

The embassy recommended they try a man named Alf Bates, so Maddie and Andy go see him. Unlike the pukka protagonists, Alf is working class, as indicated by his name, his accent and by the terms he uses to describe the locals, which include ‘blackie’ (which I don’t think I’d hear or read before) and other, less flattering terms, which you can guess.

Alf suggests to Maddie that she becomes an escort in a bar on the lagoon, which Andy angrily rejects. Then he fits them up with somewhere to stay, although he warns them it is a slum, a bad, African slum. And it is, indeed, one room with loose floorboards, one of which you pull up to poop into the space under the building, a roof made of leaky corrugated iron, a bed made of greasy sacking, no other furniture. It is Maddie’s turn to have a moment of utter misery and Andy tries to comfort her (page 113).

Andy applies to join the Nigerian Army. Though he is told he is too old, at 37 (page 105) for a combat role, he is eligible to become a trainer based on his National Service in the Tank Regiment. However it’s only at this point of the process that the civilised Nigerian interviewer reveals that he will have to pay £120 dash or bribe. Andy doesn’t even have ten pounds. So that option closes.

On Alf’s advice Maddie has wangled a job at the local hospital. Not even as a nurse, but a cleaner. Andy comes down with a fever. Paying a local woman to tend to him while Maddie’s at work and paying for medicines uses up the last of their money. Now they have to survive on her salary and the occasional scraps she can filch from the hospital kitchen.

Thus these two former prosperous, middle-class white people are living in abject poverty when, one day, Andy is approached in a local market by a well-dressed Nigerian who asks him if he’ll appear in a documentary about poor white refugees. There’s a pound in it for him so Andy jumps at the chance and is duly filmed buying some tat from a stall for the cameras. A few days later Andy is visited by a polite and smartly dressed Nigerian who he recognises as an African intern who he was kind to when he and some peers visited Andy’s TV studios back in England, way back at the start of the novel. He recognised Andy’s face, and now he is repaying Andy’s favour.

His name is Abonitu. His uncle is the Chairman of the Television Board. Abonitu is a producer and he’s looking for an assistant. Would Andy like to be his assistant? Andy leaps at the chance! So on this wonderful day, he is whisked from insanitary poverty to a penthouse room in a hotel. He has new clothes, a new pad, good food, he and Maddie can afford to take a maid. Their lives are transformed out of all recognition. Suddenly they are back in middle class-land, eating at restaurants, drinking in clubs, fussing about the vintage of wines or whiskeys.

But the Carol-David-Maddie plotline continues. Carol invites him for a drink. She tentatively suggests that, as and when David finally leaves London and arrives in Lagos, Maddie might get back together with him. In which case… she hesitantly suggests, do you think there’s any possibility of her and Andy getting back together? Andy is torn between scorn and the embers of love for Carol.

Later there’s a visitor to Andy and Maddie’s apartment. It is a Brit, Wing-Commander Peter Torbock. He confirms that things in England are finished. The royal family and government have fled to the West Indies. He reveals that David (still in London, remember) asked the wing-commander to smuggle a letter past the censorship to Maddie here in Nigeria. In it David says he isn’t coming after all. He hates change. He’s going to stay in London. Torbock shares a drink or two, discusses his own future: he fancies settling in South Africa, even if it does mean fighting in the war with the rest of Africa which everyone is talking about. He’ll be flying back to London one last time then that’s it.

Next morning when Andy wakes up there’s a note on the table and breakfast nice and neatly laid for one. Maddie has abandoned him. She left bright and early and harassed Torbock into taking her with him on the flight back to London. Despite all they’ve been through, and what they’ve meant to each other, she’s decided she wants to be with David.

Cut to Andy getting plastered on a bar crawl down by the marina, Lagos’s entertainment hotspot. There’s a very loud jazz band and three strippers onstage while Abonitu informs a very drunk and surprised Andy that several African countries are mounting expeditions not just to northern Europe, but to Britain in particular. Egyptian and Algerian ones are leaving in the spring but the Nigerians plan to steal a march on them by setting off this winter. Abonitu is going as documentary-maker to the expedition: does Andy want to go too? What has he got to lose – he says yes.

Part three – Back to England

Part three is long and packed with scenes and descriptions. The African expedition sails to Brittany where the pack ice makes further progress impossible, so they unload the fleet of hovercraft they’ve brought with them, in order to travel over the solid ice covering the English Channel.

Guernsey Andy and Abonitu are in the slowest hovercraft which falls astern and loses the others in a dense mist. They end up completely lost and come ashore on Guernsey, sticking up out of the surrounding ice. They are immediately surrounded by men with guns and an imposing man on a carthorse.

This man claims to be the Governor of Guernsey, takes them through the snowdrifts to a former hotel, asks to be called Emil, ignores Abonitu (because he’s black) and continually humiliates a man he calls ‘the Colonel’, the former governor of the island. Emil spends the evening getting steadily more drunk as he holds court to his captives, but a little after they’ve been shown up to a spare bedroom the ‘Colonel’ sneaks in and helps them escape. They go down through a drain to the beach, where they take by surprise the guard of Guernsey men standing over the hovercraft with guns. Having crept aboard the hovercraft and overpowered the Guernsey guards on it, they fire up the engine and, while the African soldiers pick off the men on the quay who are now alerted to their getaway, Andy steers the hovercraft over one of the fishing boats Emil’s men had used to block the harbour (tense moment!) and out onto the open ice.

Andy helped save Abonitu’s life and so the pair are now blood brothers.

Mainland England They find eventually rejoin the main convoy and continue round the Isle of Wight and up the River Itchen to Winchester. From the beginning there have been tensions among the Nigerians and between Abonitu and the thuggish leader of the expedition, Mutalli. On several occasions Abonitu makes good decisions and humiliates Mutali in front of the others. For example, he suggests that the sentries being set weren’t sufficient and were lazy into the bargain, so he insisted they be doubled and monitored.

Fight Next morning the only other two whites on the expedition, two technicians, were found to have absconded. It’s this which triggers a showdown between Mutalli and Abonitu which quickly escalates into a knife fight. The Africans form a circle and the two men go for each other. Just like in the movies the bigger, stronger man, Mutalli, is initially winning, and cuts Abonitu a couple of times, before he fatefully slips on a patch of ice and, as he tries to regain his balance, Abonitu is able to head butt him to the floor, then kick him in the head, then kneel over him and stab him repeatedly.

Thus Abonitu becomes the expedition’s de facto leader and institutes much tighter discipline. Having crossed ‘country’ (locked under the pack ice) the expedition of hovercraft arrive at the Thames valley and make their way downstream towards London. At Chiswick they come across what looks like a battlefield, with the ice spiking what look like thousands of bodies strewn across a field. Some of the ice has been hacked away and bits of body chopped off, obviously to be eaten. That’s how things are, now, in ice-bound England.

Frozen London The craft pass a frozen Battersea Power Station and the Tate, the latter shows signs of having been on fire, most of the marketable art was sold long ago, the enjoyment of these kinds of scenes deriving from the frisson of seeing places you’re so familiar with (well, if you’re a Londoner) transformed by disaster and ruined. They finally stop at the Palace of Westminster and create a base there. All kinds of ironies about the former colonial masters, now having an expedition of Africans venture into their ruined territory…

The expedition attacked But the expedition is attacked almost immediately by men with guns. In fact, the expedition comes under continual attacks, mounted in shifts, and then snipers start up, firing from the spires of Westminster Abbey. Eventually the Africans are forced to create a laager of hovercraft out on the Thames. They abandon all thought of peacefully exploring the streets of London. They are under siege.

Colonial ironies The sniping continues and then the natives start to push metal protection walls out onto the Thames creating a series of firing shields. Throughout all this Andy repeatedly asks Abonitu why they’re even there, what the point of the expedition is, and no really convincing answer is given. It felt to me more as if the author enjoyed the symbolism of civilised high-tech Africans returning to the ruined, dead heart of the old empire which once (very recently) ruled and dominated and defined them. This topic results in a lot of conversation about savages and empire and colonialism and barbarians, which is quite ‘witty’ and ironic, but doesn’t quite justify the actual story, the narrative.

Parlay Eventually it dawns on both of them that maybe someone should go and parley with the natives and, well, since Andy is the only white man in the entire expedition… So Andy sets off walking across the frozen Thames towards the embankment, waving a white flag and, to his relief, they stop shooting.

The Governor of London The natives throw down a rope ladder onto the frozen ice, heave him up over the embankment, identify him as white and unarmed, and take him along the Embankment to Charing Cross, up and across Trafalgar Square. Here he is blindfolded before being led into some building, and up some carpeted stairs, and into a room where he hears the voice of the person his captors tell him is ‘the Governor of London’ and…. it is none other than his old frenemy, David Cartwell!

Now there is one of those Big Reveal scenes, where Dr No or Goldfinger or whoever the Baddie Mastermind is, explains the true nature of the situation our hero has been trying to piece together.

Thus David explains to Andy why he likes it here in deep-frozen London and how he came to be in complete control of what was once defined as ‘the Pale’, lording it over the surviving men and women. He puts a proposition to Andy: hack through the cables powering the lights on the hovercraft, give the attacking English just five minutes to overwhelm the Africans and he will be rewarded. Andy is openly sceptical: what, be rewarded with a pitiful existence in a deep freezer? Not very appealing.

David replies that they have evidence that the Fratellini Effect has bottomed out. Not only that, but the weather is stabilising and improving. They’re hoping for a partial thaw next summer, when they may be able to grow things and get the country ‘back on its feet’.

Enter Maddie Andy says he’ll think about it but then David plays his ace and orders someone else to join their tete-a-tete, the someone else being none other than his former lover, Maddie! and they proceed to have a gushy lover’s reunion. Rather absurdly, she declares that it was Andy she really loved all along; in fact Andy is the first to admit that the whole thing feels like a fairy tale (page 222).

At first Andy accuses Maddie of only being so lovey-dovey to him because David put her up to it in order to persuade him to betray the Nigerians. But Maddie says that as soon as she arrived back in London she regretted ever leaving because she realised it’s him she loved all along. At which point she removes her thick fur coat and reveals that she is pregnant. The baby is his. ‘Oh darling I love you.’ ‘Yes I love you, too etc.’ For me, by this point, the novel had ceased being credible or interesting. Hollyoaks on ice.

Andy is taken back to the Embankment and freed to walk back across the frozen Thames to the hovercraft.

All through this part three, Abonitu has been referring off and on to England as his ‘queen’, who needs to be taken, owned, possessed and ravished. Now, when Andy tells him he saw Maddie, these metaphors go into overdrive and I realised the author intends us to see both men as being on personal quests for quixotic females: Andy for ever-changeable Maddie, Abonitu for the remnants of colonial Britannia. This seems quite attractive when I summarise it, but in the actual reading, seemed heavily contrived.

Abonitu says they should set up base in the Tower of London, it would be more ‘symbolic’, and from there they can storm and burn their way westward, as if it really were turning into some kind of medieval allegory.

Anyway, the climax of the story is that, as Abonitu is debriefing Andy on his conversation with David, Abonitu turns his back to get some more brandy, Andy leans over and grabs his rifle and then clobbers him over the head with the rifle butt. Abonitu falls unconscious and then Andy makes his way sneakily around all the hovercraft, pulling out the cables which feed the floodlights, as per David’s instructions. When the night-time English attack begins, the Nigerians find none of their floodlights work, so they can’t illuminate the frozen Thames, so they can’t see where the attackers are, with the result that the Londoners they easily storm the African hovercraft.

Christopher appears to be a bit bored by his own ending. The last chapter is two pages long and finds David, the victor of the Battle of the Frozen Thames, dictating terms to Abonitu, the loser. He announces that he will let Abonitu and his men return to Africa in one of the hovercraft, retaining the other 10 for himself. He tells him to tell the African nations that Britain is still a sovereign state and will not accept colonial status, and so that, when and if he (Abonitu) returns, it should be as ambassador to an equal country.

In the end, the novel hasn’t been much about the new ice age, but about middle-class relationships and adultery, and about national and ethnic identities and loyalties. In the end, Andy is true to his country and his race. I couldn’t tell if this was meant to be deeply ironic, satirical, or straight-on patriotic.

Thoughts

It’s an odd book. Lots of it is very well described – the crappy one-room slum shanty in Lagos, in particular, stays in my memory as an emblem of immiseration. But many elements stick out as odd: leaving aside the basic premise (sun cools, new ice age etc) the prolonged focus on the tangled affairs of the two middle class couples and the way they become so central to the story, in particular the way David the smooth civil servant ends up becoming Governor of a post-disaster London, all this seems…

Then the wholesale removal of the action to Nigeria is an unusual and disconcerting development, particularly the way the protagonists are plunged into such utter poverty and misery.

And then there’s the bizarreness of the African expedition to darkest England (does Nigeria possess lots of hovercraft?) which is made even weirder by the protracted episode with the drunken Governor of Guernsey and his vicious mistreatment of the former governor, the now-humiliated ‘Colonel’.

Some of these sound good in theory, in a high level summary, but read very oddly in the flesh, when written out into sentences and paragraphs of narrative. At moments it seems more like a bad dream than a realistic narrative.

The book is as deliberately and consciously far from gee-whizz ray guns and rocket-ship space opera as Christopher can make it and has men crying in despair and a fairly serious analysis of the shifting moods and emotions in a complex menage-à-quatre, it has a multi-tiered depiction of race both within a former imperial colony and among the former colonised who find themselves in the position potential colonisers, at which point the novel becomes a meditation on race relations much more pregnant with meaning than the original sci fi disaster.

And yet…. somehow, all these powerful and fierce images and elements, somehow they don’t all quite add up, lots goes on but it doesn’t cohere and, despite the adult themes, it doesn’t feel… fully grown-up. 


Credit

The World In Winter by John Christopher was published by Eyre & Spottiswoode in 1962. All references are to the 2016 Penguin paperback edition.

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Late Victorian

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

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

1900s

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

1910s

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

1920s

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

1930s

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

1940s

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

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism, in order to reach the safety of the remote valley where his brother owns a farm where they can plant non-grass crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but with two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger in the memory
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

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

1970s

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

1980s

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

1990s

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

2000s

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

2010s

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

Lessness by Samuel Beckett (1970)

Never but dream the days and nights made of dreams of other nights better days. He will live again the space of a step it will be day and night again over him the endlessness.

Beckett’s writings as antidote to the modern world

Sometime around 1802, that’s to say 220 years ago, William Wordsworth wrote:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

And nowadays, via smartphones and social media, probably the majority of the population has invited the world right inside their brains, addicting many people to the mini-dopamine hits created by an unending stream of updates on every aspect of an over-wired world, from their friends’ latest makeup secrets to attempted coups in America. Surveys show that people check their smartphones every 12 minutes and spend two and a half hours a day staring at their tiny screens.

Beckett is an antidote to all this. In a world where everything is reduced to easily assimilable, shorter and shorter bite-sized snippets designed to provoke the crudest emotions of mirth or outrage, Beckett’s texts are messages from another planet, one right on the edge of known experience or comprehension. The mere fact that each reader struggles to make sense of many of Beckett’s works, or to make their own sense of it, is a blessèd relief.

Beckett’s nihilism has a place but isn’t the whole story

I can see that the ostensible ‘content’ of much of Beckett often circles around ideas of physical decrepitude, mental collapse, describes human relations which have decayed into the grave and beyond, allegorical figures crawling through mud for years or trapped inside tiny white spaces.

  • Blank planes sheer white calm eye light of reason all gone from mind.
  • Head through calm eye all light white calm all gone from mind.
  • Face to calm eye touch close all calm all white all gone from mind.

And many people respond to his insistent imagery of collapse, decay and futility very strongly – in a positive way if it helps express their own sense of futility, or very negatively if they find his unceasing emphasis on collapse, decay and futility too negative and depressing to handle.

But for me literature is first and foremost about words and how they are deployed. As a middle-aged man whose family has been through various stresses and traumas, I understand where his content is coming from, I can appreciate its grimness, I witnessed at first hand the physical and mental decline and gruelling deaths of my parents, I sometimes feel in myself the symptoms of decay he writes about – all of that is very vividly captured in text after text.

But I also know the world is huge and contains an enormous range of happy and joyful human experiences as well, which are never covered in his writings and that a healthy mental attitude has space for both. My father’s dementia was real and upsetting but it didn’t negate the joy and happiness of playing with my baby son.

Beckett’s subject matter has its place in what you could call a total overview of the human condition, but it is not the be-all and end-all of the human condition. It is one take (a very powerful, haunting take) on one aspect of human existence.

Beckett’s language as a liberation from sense

I’m struggling to express the idea that you can fully and deeply read his works, especially the prose works, without being depressed by them. The opposite. Although the ostensible subject matter may be about mental collapse and decay, the language it is written in and the elaborate structures he creates with his stylised language, can be fantastically liberating.

One way of thinking about it is that Beckett writes at an angle away from ordinary life as most of us live it, in a style of language which is just over the horizon of how any of us think or create sentences, read or write or talk, ourselves – and so it consistently shows us other ways, other possibilities of mental life.

If we take these two elements, style and content – the title of this piece, Lessness, clearly indicates its continuity with Beckett’s interest in collapse, inanition, sparsity and the minimal. In fact it is an attempt to translate the French word Sans which is the title of the original French version of the piece. Possibly Lessness is less good than Sans. At first sight it seems a bit obvious, like a bit of a cliché, another predictable iteration of Beckett’s core theme.

But the actual text is anything but a cliché. The text is something as weird and different now as it was 50 years ago. Here’s the first sentence:

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind.

It feels like the words are themselves the ruins of longer sentences which once made sense. Maybe it can be parsed as: the ruins are the true refuge towards which, at long last, the speaker or voice or sentence is heading towards after so many false starts, which have been going on time our of mind.

This trope, the endless attempts to start again and try to end an account, to complete a narrative, can’t go on, must go on, features in numerous Beckett texts and is (for me) best expressed in the brilliant radio play Cascando. The central idea is familiar – but if you open your mind to the flow of the words they, for me, open up new mental vistas:

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only upright. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless.

Carl Andre’s Equivalents

It’s another example of the central Beckett technique of repetition: ‘Develop a set of key words or phrases. Repeat with variations.’ The technique is cognate with musical composition but words are not music. The technique is closer to minimalist art.

When I was a boy, in 1976, there was a firestorm of criticism in the philistine press at the fact that the Tate Gallery had paid £2,300 for an artwork by minimalist artist Carl Andre titled Equivalent VIII. The eight equivalents consist of 120 firebricks arranged in different simple geometric shapes. Personally I think they’re, well I won’t say ‘genius’, but I like the simplicity of the idea, I like what it says about how you can ring the changes with very simple elements, using the same elements over and over to create an eerie, abstract kind of beauty. I like its crispness and asperity.

The Equivalents series by Carl Andre

Their whiteness is important. The rejection of any colour. Their shape and arrangement set up dynamics in your mind. Repetition of the same basic components, but with teasing and beguiling variations.

Repetition with variation

The visual effect of the Carl Andre is comparable to the verbal effect of Lessness, which is dense with repeated words and phrases, positioned and repositioned so you can admire the angles, enjoy the patterning. Thus the word ‘ruin’ appears 26 times, ‘grey’ 52, ‘earth’ 22, ‘sky’ 30. The phrase ‘gone from mind’ occurs 17 times, the phrase ‘little body’ 22 times.

Scattered ruins same grey as the sand ash grey true refuge. Four square all light sheer white blank planes all gone from mind. Never was but grey air timeless no sound figment the passing light. No sound no stir ash grey sky mirrored earth mirrored sky. Never but this changelessness dream the passing hour.

There does appear to be a human in the text: We are told he will curse God, he has a little body, cracked face, two holes for eyes, looking up at the sky, it will rain, it will rain again.

On him will rain again as in the blessed days of blue the passing cloud

So, if we’re searching for literal meaning, maybe it’s a typical Beckett tramp in a typical Beckett ditch exposed to the typically harsh elements. Although he’s also said to be in sand. Is he on a beach?

  • He will stir in the sand there will be stir in the sky the air the sand.
  • In the sand no hold one step more in the endlessness he will make it.
  • One step in the ruins in the sand on his back in the endlessness he will make it.

While we’re trying to get our head round the variations, Beckett –as is his habit – throws in a few swearwords to épater le bourgeoisie (although nothing as rude as the words we came across in How It Is):

Little body little block genitals overrun arse a single block grey crack overrun.

For those who seek symbolism in literature it appears as if the human figure is the only upright object among the ruins but is also on his back in the sand (22 instances) and ash (18). Contradiction. Paradox. Mirror images.

And insofar as the text describes, or at least references, the notion of a ‘refuge’, it can be manipulated into being ‘about’ man the refugee – a very fashionable concern of our times – endlessly seeking a refuge which is in fact in ruins, haven denied, no home, the endless rain, sand and ash. It has just enough semantic content to snare our minds, but is abstract enough to take almost any concern or idea we wish to project onto it.

Patterns and structures

As it happens, in a neat coincidence (if it is a coincidence) just as Andre’s sculpture Equivalent VIII consists of 120 bricks, so Becket’s prose work Lessness consists of 120 sentences. In fact, digging a little deeper, you discover the entire piece is the creation of a fantastically structuring imagination.

For some printed editions include a dotted line half way through to emphasise that the second 60 repeat the first 60 but in a different order. Because Beckett wrote each sentence on a separate piece of paper and drew them from a hat at random. He then wrote the numbers 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 on other sheets of paper and drew these at random to determine how many sentences would appear in each paragraph.

The sentences are structured around 6 families of images. In some print editions Beckett gives a guide to them with his usual mathematical precision:

  • Group A: collapse of refuge, key word ‘refuge’
  • Group B: outer world, key words ‘earth sky’
  • Group C: body exposed, key words ‘little body’
  • Group D: refuge forgotten, key phrase ‘all gone from mind’
  • Group E: past and future denied, key word ‘never’
  • Group F: past and future affirmed, key phrase ‘he will’

As Beckett put it, the text weaves through the family of images in, first, one random (dis)order (60 sentences) and then in another. It is a tale of two disorders, each containing, paradoxically, precisely the same 769 words although, to paraphrase Eric Morecambe, not necessarily in the same order.

Aleatory art

In the 1950s John Cage pioneered an aleatory process of composition whereby some elements of the composition are defined but their order, their length, the notes themselves and their pitch, were determined by ‘random’ inputs created by throwing dice or other randomising procedures. In fact Marcel Duchamps and Dadaists had experimented with this approach during the Great War. So Beckett was coming late to a well-established avant-garde practice.

The Beckett Companion (from which the section above is copied) states that this is the only time Beckett experimented with such a strictly aleatory approach, and I think you can see why: that a random approach is never entirely random. After all the author defined the themes, chose the words which express them, invented the number 120 and that it would consist of the same 60 sentences repeated – all this is chosen, is created, before the aleatory element which is, in the overall context, a relatively minor part of the process. The cherry on the cake.

BBC radio production

Interestingly, Lessness was given a full-blown radio production and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7 May 1971. The six ‘image families’ were distributed among six different actors, namely Donal Donnelly, Leonard Fenton, Denys Hawthorne, Patrick Magee, Harold Pinter and Nicol Williamson, directed by Martin Esslin.

The fact this could be done shows there’s more to Lessness than meets the eye. That it exists (as one of the commentaries says) at a place where prose and drama meet. It’s another tangent, or angle from ‘normal’ prose, at which the text operates and which, to repeat my opening point, makes it a kind of antidote to the obvious and the immediate which is what we mostly meet with in contemporary culture.

I’ve searched high and low on the internet for a version of that 1971 BBC production but can’t find it. If anyone has the link I’d love to hear from you.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

Abstract Expressionism edited by David Anfam (2016)

This is the catalogue or book of the 2016 Royal Academy exhibition of Abstract Expressionism – ‘arguably the most significant movement of the twentieth century’ (Christopher Le Brun) – the first large retrospective in this country since 1959.

It’s a massive hardback book, 320 pages long, and containing:

  • four long essays – by exhibition curator David Anfam, Susan Davidson, Jeremy Lewison, Carter Ratcliff
  • a twenty-page chronology of the movement
  • followed by 200 pages of illustrations of paintings and sculptures, then a further section of watercolours and sketches, and then key photographs from the era

Several thoughts arise from a slow careful perusal of this enormous tome.

Earlier than realised

Although I associate it with the 1950s, and the style did indeed dominate that decade, the creation, labelling, and publicising of Abstract Expressionism all happened in the 1940s. It was as early as 1946 that the art critic Robert Coates, writing in The New Yorker, first used the term ‘Abstract Expressionism’, perceptively describing how the new school took the anti-figurative aesthetic of modernist French and Dutch artists but combined it with the emotional intensity of the German Expressionists.

It was even earlier, in 1943, that Jackson Pollock was talent spotted by the rich heiress Peggy Guggenheim, signed up to her gallery and given his first one-man exhibition, invited to paint a mural in the entrance to her New York apartment (Mural – ‘the first outstanding large-scale painterly abstraction ever created in America’, p.33). This was seen by umpteen influential visitors including the critic Clement Greenberg who promptly wrote an article declaring Pollock ‘the greatest painter this country had produced.’ To step back a bit, this was all happening in the same year as the Battle of Stalingrad i.e. the first decisive defeat of Nazi Germany, and the Allied invasion of Italy. The Second World War hadn’t even finished yet. Nobody knew about the Holocaust.

It was still only in the 1940s that Abstract Expressionism was reaching a mass audience – August 8, 1949 to be precise – when Pollock was given a four-page spread in Life magazine that asked, ‘Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?’ and which projected him to nationwide superstar-artist fame. The next year he dropped his trademark ‘drip’ technique, which in fact only lasted the short period from 1947 to 1950, in order to explore new styles. Neither the critics nor buyers were interested. They wanted more drips. ‘Play us the old songs, Jackson.’ Given the pressures and the spotlight, it’s surprising that he soldiered on till 1956 before dying in a drunken car crash which might have been suicide.

This all lends support to the revisionist view of Stephen Polcari, that the Abstract Expressionists were not responding to the crises of the Cold War – though that is how they were marketed and perceived at the time – but in fact had their roots in the social, economic, and political crises of the 1930s, when they were all impressionable young men. If they shared a tragic sense it was shaped by the Great Depression, the rise of Fascism, the war in Spain and then the descent into darkness of the entire continent whence ‘civilisation’ supposedly originated.

It was well before the Cold War and the A-Bomb, way back in 1943 that Rothko and Gottlieb wrote a letter published in the New York Times which expressed the kind of doom-laden intensity which all the AEs seem to have shared, asserting that:

the subject matter is crucial and only that subject matter is valid which is tragic and timeless. (quoted p.21)

Is Abstract Expressionism a good label?

As usual with many art ‘movements’, many of the key players weren’t particularly happy with the label imposed on them – Abstract Expressionism – and others went the rounds, like ‘the New York school’ or ‘Tenth Street painters’. But AE stuck. They never produced a manifesto or exhibited together, and there’s no one photo with the main players together. But people – curators, collectors, galleries, journalists, and us – the poor uninformed public – we all need labels to hang on to, especially in the middle of the century when art movements came and went with such dizzying rapidity.

And the artists certainly all knew each other, lived in the same area of Downtown Manhattan, hung around in the same taverns and bars, and were subject to the same washes of influence as America experienced the Depression, the great influx of refugee artists from the Nazis, reacted (in different ways) against the naive nationalist art of the 1930s, against Regionalism and Social realism, but engaged in highly individual struggles to find a new idiom, new ways of seeing and doing art.

The paintings

This brings us to the actual art and the obvious conclusion that the mature styles of the four or five main players were very different and extremely distinctive. There were a lot of second string artists floating around, who produced good work or influenced the Big Boys in one way or another – and the generous selection in the RA exhibition and this book goes out of its way to include works by Adolph Gottlieb, Richard Pousette-Dart, William Baziotes, Joan Mitchell, Conrad Marca-Relli, Jack Tworkov, Milton Resnick, some 20 artists in all.

But leafing through the beautiful reproductions, again and again the works of five key names stood out for me, emerging as titans above the crowd. (In essay four, the gallery owner Betty Parsons who played a key role in promoting AE, is quoted describing Pollock, Rothko, Still and Newman as ‘the Four Horsemen’.)

A word about aesthetics

It’s challenging and entertaining to try and put into words what it is that makes some paintings canonical and some redundant or not-quite-there. The latter phrase gives a clue to my approach. I find that, for most art or museum objects I see, some give the sense of being finished and completely themselves. Thus among my favourite works of art anywhere are the Benin bronzes at the British Museum. They seem to me to have set out to do something and to do it perfectly and completely. They are completely themselves, impossible to alter or improve. Similarly, the famous helmet from Sutton Hoo completely (ominously, threateningly) says what it sets out to, bespeaks an entire world and civilisation.

So if I have any aesthetic theory it is not the application of any external guidelines of beauty, requiring a work of art to conform to this, that or the other rule. It is something to do with a work coming entirely into its own, its own space and design. Having suggested a certain form or subject or shape, then delivering on that idea, completely. Fulfilling its premises.

Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956)

Pollock’s best drip paintings dominate the era and all his contemporaries as clearly as Andy Warhol dominated Pop Art. Possibly others were better artists, showed more consistent artistic development and certainly others have their fans and devotees – but nobody can deny Pollock and Warhol’s works are immediately recognisable not just as art, but as icons of a particular period and place.

And, in my opinion, they fulfil my theory of completeneness – that an artist has a moment when they crystallise a signature style by fully developing the tendencies implicit in their approach (as discerned in their earlier developing works).

Thus it is very obvious that there is a long run-up of pre-drip Pollock (Male and Female 1942, Eyes in the heat 1946) as he groped his way in the dark from works whose size and shape was influence by his mentor, Thomas Hart Benton the mural-maker, but whose content is often dominated by Guernica-period Picasso — and there is a hangover of post-drip Pollock (when he experimented for a while with just black – Number 7, 1952). Both of them are interesting, but so-so.

But then there is drip PollockBlue Poles (1952) is a masterpiece, a completely immersive experience, as completely itself as the huge lily ponds of Monet. Immersive because it is vast and its size is an important factor. After splatting the surface with a preliminary network of black, white, yellow and red loops, Pollock used the edge of a plank dunked in blue paint to create the eight poles. Like Matisse’s dancing cutouts, this is an example of perfect taste, perfectly ‘getting’ the possibility of a visual rhythm. It isn’t classical or symmetrical or figurative of anything – it is a pure design which, for some reason to do with perceptual psychology, just works. Close up you can appreciate the extraordinary lacework of other colours dripped across the canvas, trademark yellow, red and whites, to create a dense tapestry weave of texture and colour. It is entirely itself. It is a summation of everything implicit in the drip approach to painting. And it is this sense of completing all the potential of the method which gives it its thrilling excitement, which makes it a masterpiece, and also a ‘classic’ of this style.

Along with works like Summertime (1948) and Number 4 (1949) these seem complete expressions of what they’re meant to be, of a certain Gestalt. Once you’ve thought of dripping raw paint across the canvas, then it turns out that certain levels of complete coverage and a certain level of complexity of the interlinking lines is somehow optimum, others less so. Too much and it is just mess; too little and it looks empty. At his peak Pollock produced a string of works which experiment with colours, shape of canvas and so on, but which all display an innate feel for just how to do this kind of painting.

Mark Rothko (1903 – 1970)

Rothko, also, is up there in the recognisability stakes in the sense that his final, achieved style is instantly distinctive. He too struggled to find his way from a sort of blocky blurry realism (Interior, 1936) on a journey via a completely different look in a work like Gethsemane (1944), which looks like washed-out surrealism, before coming to the brink of his mature style with experiments in big blotches of soft-edged colour (No.18 1948, Violet, Black, orange, Yellow on White and Red, 1949).

But then – bang! – he hits it, he finds his voice, he claims his brand, he crystallises his vision, he stumbles upon the formula of big rectangular blocks of shimmering colours which will last the rest of his life, what Anfam calls his ‘chromatic mirages’ (p.21).

Rothko left the murals he’d prepared for the restaurant in the new Seagram building to London’s Tate Gallery. There’s a darkened room containing all of them in Tate Modern and you can sit staring into them for hours. Critics saw in them the same kind of existentialist anxiety (all those massive blocks terrifying threatening the viewer, all the anxiety of those unknown fraying edges) that they saw in Pollock — but these days they are more like aids to calm reflection and meditation, and the audioguide plays very quiet meditative music by American experimental composer Morton Feldman. From Cold War angst to post-modern pleasure.

But however you read them, there’s no denying that Rothko stumbled upon (worked his way through to) an entirely new way of conceiving of coloured paint on canvas, a discovery and a formula – and then spent twenty years working through hundreds of variations, exploring and stumbling across further discoveries. Big, bright, abstract, moody. And a world away from Pollock’s splats. the casual viewer could be forgiven for asking how the two could ever be bracketed together, where the one is very much about the dynamic power of vibrantly interlacing lines and the other is very much about the calming meditative effect of enormous blocks of shimmering colour.

Clyfford Still (1904 – 1980)

The much-told story about Still is that he was prickly and difficult, went his own way, argued with all the other AEs, in the early 1950s terminated his contract with a commercial gallery and ended up neither exhibiting nor selling any of his pieces, but working away steadily in provincial obscurity in Maryland. He died in possession of 95% of everything he’d ever painted and made a will leaving his life’s work to whichever organisation could create a museum dedicated to housing and showing it. After numerous negotiations this turned out to be the City of Denver and it was only in 2011 that there finally opened a museum dedicated to Still, and that this vast reservoir of work was made available to critics and the public. In the short time since then his reputation has undergone a major revaluation and the room devoted to his work at the Royal Academy exhibition was, arguably, even more impactful then the displays of Pollock and Rothko. Still was a revelation.

Like the others, Still took a long journey, and his early work is represented by another semi-figurative work from the 30s, PH-726 (1936). But by 1944 he has stumbled upon his formula – sharp rips or tears against solid fields of colour, PH-235 (1944), all done in a really thick impasto or thick layer of paint which adds to the sense of presence and impact.

What are they? Wikipedia says his mature works ‘recall natural forms and natural phenomena at their most intense and mysterious; ancient stalagmites, caverns, foliage, seen both in darkness and in light lend poetic richness and depth to his work.’ Because the commentary goes heavy on his upbringing in the mid-West and of the associations of Denver, Colorado, I saw in several of them the pattern of cattle hides, the tans and blacks and beiges which you see in some Indian art, teepees, shields. Just a fancy.

Barnett Newman (1905 – 1970)

Newman had his first one-man show in 1948, the year he broke through to his mature style with the Onement series. Again, his was a long journey out of 1930s figurativism, until he made a discovery / stumbled across an idea / achieved a mature style (delete as applicable), creating what Anfam calls his ‘transcendent spatial continuums’ (p.21). Once he’d found it, repeated it through countless iterations.

A classic Barnett Newman has a vertical line – or ‘zip’ as he himself called them – dividing a field of colour – initially drab colour but becoming brighter and brighter as the 1950s progressed. The zip defines the picture plane, separates the composition yet binds it together, sunders it yet gives it a weird tremulous unity.

Why does it work? I’d give good money to read an analysis by a psychologist or expert in the psychology of perception, of shapes and colours, who could explain the effect they have on the mind of the viewer.

According to this book, among the big-name AEs, Newman was rather overlooked in favour of the brasher bolder works of his peers. Also, Pollock and Still, to name two, used highly expressive brushwork and thick or spattered layers of paint. Standing close you can see the thick clots of oil on the surface. Newman’s paintwork is flat and restrained. In fact his colourfulness and geometric designs link him more to the school of ‘post-painterly abstraction’ which emerged in the 1960s and are almost connected to the cool understatement of minimalism.

Franz Kline (1910 – 1962)

Kline’s breakthrough moment is much mythologised. Working as a commercial illustrator in New York while struggling to work his way towards some kind of abstract language, Kline was visited by Willem de Kooning who suggested he use a projector to blow up & project his complicated paintings onto the wall and then select small details to reproduce as full scale canvases. Taking this insight, Kline quickly worked out a style of broad black brushstrokes on white, which continually seem to gesture towards something yet are abstract. Are they fragments of larger designs and shapes? Or references to Japanese calligraphy (which Kline always denied)? Or dramatic actions in themselves?

Like all the other AEs, Kline’s work is big, really really BIG. Whatever the differences in style and approach, the AEs had this one thing in common – their work is huge and immersive. (A sign at Barnett Newman’s second exhibition at the Betty Parson’s Gallery in May 1951 actually requested visitors to stand close up to the picture; visitors had been requested to do the same at the Pollock exhibition which immediately preceded it – p.93.)

Kline is further evidence for my theory that artists often reach a recognisable defining style and produce a number of works which somehow express the quintessence of their voice or vision, only after a journey upwards and, alas, sometimes a later decline or wandering away… Having perfected the black and white calligraphy style – so instantly recognisable – by the time he was just 40, after a while at the top of his game, Kline had nowhere to go except back into colour, and these later colour works, although fine in their own way, represent a really noticeable falling away of the energy which the stark black-and-white contrasts produced. For some reason this style looks terribly dated, very late 50s early 60s, whereas the black and white calligraphic works look timeless to me.

Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997)

De Kooning is the one big AE I couldn’t get on with at all, and the more I saw the more I disliked his stuff. Partly because I think he never did develop a defined style. To me, all of his stuff looks like messy sketches on the way towards something better, they all look like the dispensable journey works on the way to… nowhere. The same horrible messy scrawl effect is his one signature effect.

All the other AEs strike me as having a purpose, a direction. Pollock’s works are far more artful than they appear, Rothko’s are careful experiments, Newman achieved a kind of classic restraint and Still’s jagged compositions are unerringly ‘right’, conveying something much bigger than the images seem to warrant.

Only de Kooning’s works, out of the whole show and this long book, consistently look to me like a slapdash mess, a dog’s dinner, victims of what Anfam calls his ‘lacerating sweeps’ (p.21). And the series of depictions of women  – his ‘wrenching engagements with the female sex’ (Anfam, p.22) – which are often singled out by the critics for praise, to me could hardly be uglier and more repellent if they tried.

Adolph Gottlieb (1903 – 1974)

Apparently Gottlieb is perceived as a second string AE, his career weaving through a series of styles, including surrealism in the 1930s, a spell in the Arizona desert simplifying images to a primal essence, and the development of ‘pictographs’ representing psychologically charged shapes and patterns. It was as late as 1956 that he developed the ‘burst’ style, dividing the canvas into two halves, with a round sun-like object above and a busy earth-like mass below – creating a dialectic between calm and busy, with the use of bright colours to interfere and resonate.

Hundreds of bursts resulted and I can see why critics looking for world-shattering angst and grand existentialist statements might deprecate them, but I like him for devising a new ‘look’ and then producing fascinating variations on it.

Neglected women

One of the most pressing concerns of our times, in the arts and elsewhere, is restoring the reputations, the overlooked achievements and untold stories, of neglected woman. Four women artists worked in and around Abstract Expressionism and are included here:

Janet Sobel (1894 – 1968) began painting at the mature age of 43 when her son left home leaving behind his copious art materials. She progressed from figurative paintings featuring dreamy rather Chagall-like faces enmeshed in zoomorphic patterns, through to pure abstraction and eventually the technique of dripping paint. Some scholars claim it was Sobel who arrived at the drip technique before Jackson. That’s one for the scholars. All her works have a lightness. Maybe it was the light decorative effect as opposed to the Big Boys’ existentialist histrionics more than the fact she was a woman which wrote her out of the story for so long.

Lee Krasner (1908 – 1984) Krasner evolved through a series of styles. During the heyday of the AEs she tended to be overlooked by virtue of the fact that she was married to the top dog, Jackson Pollock. But the works included here show she had a related but distinct vision of her own.

Just living with Jackson sounds like a demanding job, but creating alongside him, in a related but clearly distinctive style, is little less than heroic. The next two are to one side for the simple reason that they were of a younger generation

Joan Mitchell (1925 – 1992) You can see the importance of the gesture but, a little like de Kooning, I don’t see it going anywhere.

They’re big, one of the simplest criteria for being an abstract expressionist. But arriving at Salut Tom at the end of the exhibition felt like we’d moved a long way from late-40s existentialism into a brighter more decorative world. Same style, different world.

Helen Frankenthaler (1928 – 2011) She painted onto unprimed canvas so that the paint soaked into it, thus creating a very flat surface.

Peggy and Betty

The fourth essay in the book is in many ways the most interesting, telling the complementary stories of two hugely important gallery owners who promoted the work of the Abstract Expressionists from the first – the Jewish millionairess Peggy Guggenheim and the scion of a wealthy WASP family, Betty Parsons. Peggy lived in Paris between the wars, becoming fantastically well-connected among the city’s avant-garde, arranging exhibitions and starting her own staggering collection, before fleeing ahead of the Nazi invasion in 1940, back to New York, where in 1942 she set up The Art of This Century Gallery.

Like Peggy, only without the millions, Betty went to live in Paris, where she herself pursued a career as an artist, taking lessons, before losing her money in the Wall Street Crash and being forced back to the States, to teach, and then to work in commercial galleries. She learned the trade, becoming popular among artists for her good taste and business sense (i.e. selling their pictures and making them money). In 1945 she set up the Betty Parsons Gallery which ran till her death in 1982. When Guggenheim returned to Paris after the war, Parsons took on many of ‘her’ artists, and the article turns into an impressive roster of the exhibitions she put on for one after another of all the key artists of the time, working hard to promote them and get them sales.

The essay is a fascinating insight not only into the achievements of these two vital women, but into the art world in general. It’s shocking to learn how little the artists sold at these shows – they’d display a dozen or 16 new works, for between $250 and $1,400 – and quite frequently none would sell at all. Or only small watercolours would sell to what turn out to be friends of the artist or the gallery owner herself. Works which now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction.

In a fascinating detail, the book mentions several times that one problem was the paintings’ sheer scale: it was one thing to create a fourteen foot square canvas in the space of a half derelict loft-cum-studio, quite another thing to expect even quite rich people in New York to find enough wall space to hang it, back in the cluttered 1940s and 1950s. It was only well into the 1960s and more so in the 1970s that ideas of interior design changed significantly, that clutter was thrown out and rooms knocked together to create large airy spaces, often painted white, in which the vast canvases of the Abstract Expressionists suddenly made sense.

But by this point the AEs were up against the equally large creations of Post-painterly Abstraction, Pop Art, Op Art, Minimalism and so on and New York was established as the centre of a fast-moving, big money art culture.


Related links

Reviews of other American art exhibitions and books

Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings

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

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

Wars

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

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

Personal life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photography

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

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

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

Learnings

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

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

The point or purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

Related links

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