Remote People by Evelyn Waugh (1931)

How wrong I was, as it turned out, in all my preconceived notions about this journey.
(Remote People, page 97)

After weeks of reading heavy factual and often horrifying history about Africa, it was like getting into a warm bubble bath to read some Evelyn Waugh. He is a wonderful writer, clear and smooth – admittedly with occasional old-fashioned locutions and sometimes antiquated word order which makes you realise he was closer to the Victorians than to us – but he is nonetheless a deep pleasure to read because of his calm, clear, quietly cynical, drily humorous attitude. For his sophistication and style. For his combination of super-civilised manners and bright heartlessness. For his permanent alertness to the absurdity of life.

We sat in the open under an orange-tree and drank chianti and gossiped about the coronation, while many hundreds of small red ants overran the table and fell onto our heads from above. (p.72)

We saw a bridge being built under the supervision, apparently, of a single small boy in gumboots. (p.153)

[Jinja golf course] is, I believe, the only course in the world which posts a special rule that the player may remove his ball by hand from hippopotamus footprints. (p.156)

Temporary correspondent

Waugh establishes his a) posh, country house party persona and b) all-important membership of the network of posh public schoolboys who ran everything in 1930s England, by telling us that he was travelling by train back to London from a splendid country house in Wales when he bumped into an old chum who worked for The Times and, by the time the train journey had ended, his chum had promised him a job as a temporary correspondent to cover the upcoming coronation of the new emperor of Ethiopia, scheduled for November 1930.

So that’s why the reader opens the book to discover Waugh aboard a steamship, the Azay le Rideau, which has sailed from Marseilles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and is now docking at Djibouti on the coast of French Somalia. The ship is packed with dignitaries, royal guests, diplomats, journalists and cameramen, plus a unit from the Foreign Legion down in 4th class, and even military bands, all heading for the coronation.

There is ample Carry On comedy about the behaviour of guests on the ship, fuss about porters and baggage, and endless complications about who’s going to get priority places on the very occasional train service which runs from Djibouti up to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

Haile Selassie

A few words about Haile Selassie. He didn’t inherit the ancient throne of Ethiopia in a straightforward manner, by being the eldest son of the previous emperor, it was much more complicated than that. His most notable forebear was the emperor Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) who extended and consolidated Ethiopia’s imperial rule over its neighbouring territories and defeated the invading Italian forces at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Menelik left no immediate male heir and was succeeded on his death in 1913 by young Lij Iyasu (Lej Yasu, in Waugh’s spelling), who was the son of Menelik’s eldest daughter.

However, Lij Iyasu quickly alienated the powerful Ethiopian aristocracy with his erratic behaviour and the last straw came when he abandoned the millenium-old Ethiopian Christianity for Islam. He was dethroned and replaced by his aunt, his mother’s half-sister, Zewditu (or Zauditu as Waugh spells it). (Waugh also mentions that many of Lij’s Muslim followers were massacred at the town of Harar, p.18.)

Zewditu is an interesting figure in her own right, the first female ruler of Ethiopia in its history, she ruled as empress till her death in 1930. However, long before that, she had appointed young Ras Tafari Makonnen her heir.

Ras is a traditional title in Ethiopia. It translates somewhere between ‘duke’ and ‘prince’, which explains why accounts of its history are full of people with ras in their names. Tafari is a personal name which means ‘one who is respected or feared’. Makonnen was his family name.

Tension arose between Empress Zewditu and Ras Tafari because she was a deeply conservative and devout Christian whereas the young Tafari though Ethiopia needed to modernise.  In 1928 conservative elements in the court tried to overthrow Tafari and have him exiled, but they were defeated by a majority of the more progressive aristocracy. Zewditu was forced to confer on him the title of Negus or king, confirming his position as regent and heir to the throne.

Renewing the feud, in 1930, Zewditu’s own husband Ras Gugsa Welle led a rebellion against Negus Tafari in Begemder, hoping to end the regency in spite of his wife’s repeated pleas and orders to desist. But Gugsa was defeated and killed in battle by the Ethiopian which Tafari had devoted the previous decade to modernising, at the Battle of Anchem in March 1930.

A few days later the empress died, whether as a result of long-term illness or from shock at the death of her husband remains a subject of speculation to this day. Either way the path was now clear for Ras Tafari to inherit the throne and he was officially recognised by his peers as Negusa Nagast which translates as ‘King of Kings’. It is this title which is usually translated into English as ‘Emperor’.

It took 6 months to arrange for the actual coronation to be organised. It took place on 2 November 1930. It was traditional that, upon his coronation, the emperor choose a regnal name and Tafari chose to retain the name given to him at his baptism, Selassie, and incorporate it into his full imperial name – Haile Selassie. In the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, Haile means ‘power of’ and ‘Selassie’ means Trinity – so Haile Selassie means ‘Power of the Trinity’.

So much for his names. They’re just one aspect of the way that, the more you study it, the more the history of Ethiopia and Selassie’s place in it, become complicated and flavoursome.

Waugh at the coronation

Ethiopia was, at the time, more or less Africa’s only independent country, untainted by colonial rule. Italy had tried to colonise it in the 1890s but the Italian army was massacred at the Battle of Adowa in 1896 and signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia recognising its borders and independence.

Once news of this grand imperial coronation became known, the European countries sent their own princes and dukes to attend the ceremony of a fellow royal. There were also ambassadors quietly jostling for position, and the Americans sent business representatives to try and do deals with the new ruler. Hence the presence of the Duke of Gloucester (King George V’s son), Marshal Louis Franchet d’Espèrey of France, Prince of Udine representing King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and representatives of the United States, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium and Japan.

This all explains the atmosphere of colourful and confused diplomatic parties and Ethiopian  ceremonies which were held during the official week of celebrations leading up to the coronation and which Waugh reports with glee and satire.

He emphasises the surreal atmosphere of posh Westerners in top hats and monocles walking through streets full of white-robed locals riding mules and wearing bandoleers and antiquated rifles.

Every man in Abyssinia carries arms; that is to say, he wears a dagger and bandolier of cartridges around his waist and has a slave boy walking behind with a rifle.

The nearest thing he can compare the ‘galvanised and translated reality’ of Addis Ababa in coronation week to is Alice in Wonderland. In fact surreal details crop up throughout the narrative, making the reader gasp. I was particularly struck when, later in the story he goes for a stroll round the shabby town of Harar and discovers that a lion in a wooden cage is kept behind the courthouse (p.83).

The text continually teeters on the edge of fiction. I mean it is continually turning into a novel. Presumably most of what he reports actually happened but Waugh’s account dwells on characters and incidents which feel like they’re from a fiction. Thus (characteristically showing off his intimacy with the  aristocratic Bright Young Things of his generation) he falls in with ‘old friend’ Irene Ravensdale, the fantastically posh Mary Irene Curzon, 2nd Baroness Ravensdale, Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston, and they go on trips together to local attractions. They spend an afternoon scrambling through the forest of Jemjem ‘in hopeless pursuit of black-and-white monkeys’ (p.71).

He also becomes friendly with an American professor – Professor W. – who is depicted as a comic character because he is supposedly an expert on Ethiopian history and culture yet doesn’t speak the language and consistently misunderstands what is going on – particularly at the coronation service itself where he gives a running commentary on proceedings which turns out to be wrong in every detail.

Despite this Waugh decides to go on a mini expedition with the professor, to Debra Lebanos, a remote monastery which has for four centuries been at the heart of Ethiopia’s spiritual life. The chapter describing this little jaunt exemplifies many of Waugh’s strengths as a traveller, observer, writer and, dare one say it, thinker.

First of all there are the colourful characters: the Armenian taxi driver they hire to take them on the long, gruelling desert journey, with his no-nonsense attitude and catchphrase, repeated at every crisis: ‘Ça n’a pas d’importance.’ The professor, who’s brought along a crate of empty Vichy water bottles to fill with holy water from the sacred spring but which keep rolling underfoot or falling out the car every time they stop. Then, once they get to the ‘monastery’ there are extended descriptions of the priests who turn out to be a pretty shabby lot, though not as shabby as many of the ‘monks’ who are, in reality, the sick and the halt and the lame who came on pilgrimages and stayed on to populate the place.

One aspect of these blunt descriptions is Waugh’s lack of pretence. About two things he has sentimental blind spots – the Catholic faith and a shamelessly sentimental, William Rees-Mogg-style fantasy about an Old England of enlightened paternalistic squires. But about everything else he is pitilessly, inexorably accurate.

Thus he doesn’t hesitate to describe the sacred monastery as a filthy dump, full of shabby undisciplined ‘monks. Even when they deign to take him and the professor up to the sacred stream, their guide gives a good indication of their general level of piety by pausing the walk to shuffle off into the nearby rocks and have a crap.

The chapter makes a more general point about travelling, or about the kind of travelling Waugh is doing, to very out of the way places – which is he doesn’t hesitate to show that a lot of these ‘legendary’ places turn out to be nothing like they’re cracked up to be. It is refreshingly not the tourist brochure or movie version, but a pitiless gaze at the impoverished, scrappy reality. Same goes for the various coronation scenes and religious ceremonies he witnesses which are often chaotic and shabby.

Then there’s broad comedy, epitomised by the honey scene. Waugh and the professor have brought with them a hamper full of choice Western delicacies (jars of olives, tins of foie gras, crackers), but when the priests offer them food they can’t, of course, refuse.

At first the priests insist that they sacrifice a beast, either a sheep or a goat, despite our heroes’ protestations. It takes the Armenian driver to make them understand that the priests exist on a very scanty diet and so killing a goat for visitors is a big treat for them, the priests. It is typical sly satire that, even when he knows this, Professor W.’s high-minded Boston principles – he is a vegetarian – make him refuse the gift, to the priest’s obvious disappointment.

But what happens next is brilliant. The priests offer to put them up in the only spare room they have, which they describe as a great honour, so Waugh and the professor are horrified to discover it is a filthy shack full of lumber and junk and pullulating with fleas.

Worse is to follow for the priest then returns with some traditional food, namely some rounds of disgusting local soggy grey ‘bread’ and, worse still, a jar of local ‘honey’. This is not the honey you buy at Harrods; it is authentic Ethiopian honey collected the traditional way, scraped off the trees where wild bees have their nests. And so the jar of translucent gloop visibly contains bits of bark, dead insects and bird poo.

Our heroes are horrified but the priest hunkers down and then looks on expectantly, evidently waiting for his honoured visitors to tuck into the monks’ bounty. Stymied and refusing to touch the poisonous viands, our heroes are at a pass, until the professor overcomes his scruples and feigns an attack of severe stomach upset, holding his tummy, pretending to be faint, mimicking throwing up.

Suddenly all attentive, the priest goes to fetch some water, then makes sure they are comfortable for the night, condoling with the poor professor. As soon as he’s left the squalid little hut, our starving heroes tear open their hamper, pull out tins of grouse and bottles of beer and have a feast – being very careful to tidy every scrap of evidence back into the suitcase before the priest returns a few hours later (pages 63 to 64).

And the last point to be drawn from this chapter, is that on occasion Waugh rises to the level of really serious insight. Not allowed into the inner sanctum of the monastery to watch the priests perform their hidden rituals, Waugh has an epiphany. He realises the enormous contrast between the obscure, secret and hidden rites of the pagan East and the bright, open, public ceremonies of Western Christianity. He spends a page explaining how Roman Christianity performs its rituals in the open, in the light, for all to see and participate in and, the corollary of this, how its liturgies and theology give clear, hard-edged verbal definition to the hazy, murky intuitions, the holy terrors and ecstasies of the East.

Obviously whether this is precisely true is debatable, but it’s a big, thought-provoking idea and it arises naturally from the bed of pitiless observation and dry comedy which he creates for it. The unflinching gaze, the comedy and satire, are all based on deeper ideas, which you may or may not agree with, but which provide a serious, substantial foundation for the comedy.

Gentlemen of the press

Waugh is well aware he is masquerading as a foreign correspondent aware that he has no experience of such a role and nothing to qualify him except the self confidence inculcated at a jolly good public school and Oxford. He is alert to the ridiculousness of his own position but also to the farcical aspects of the job. For example, the assembled press cohort realise that the coronation itself is going to take place too late for their copy to make the first editions. Waugh gives a comic survey of the way the entire press corps responds by deciding to make up descriptions of the coronation and gives us choice excerpts of detailed descriptions of the exotic ceremony which were published in various British newspapers and which were entirely fictional. There are also grace notes, as it were, describing the unruly pushing and jostling of the cameramen, especially the one and only film crew in attendance (from America, of course).

The point for Waugh fans is this sets the tone for the even more farcical description of the press and foreign correspondents which he gives in the book’s sequel, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and which formed the basis for what is often described as the funniest satire ever written about the British press, the magnificent comic novel Scoop (1938).

Harar

The assignment to cover Selassie’s coronation forms the first part of the book but it is only the start of an odyssey in which Waugh takes the opportunity to visit a number of British colonies in East Africa. All in all, the trip was to take 6 months (p.84) and take in an impressive list of countries, namely Aden, Kenya, Zanzibar, the Belgian Congo and South Africa.

He explains how, once he had filed the requisite number of reports via telegraph back to The Times his contract came to an end and he was a free man. In London he had booked passage by boat from Djibouti to Zanzibar, but now finds he has ten days to kill and is uncertain what to do. Until, that is, the British Consul in Harar, Mr Plowman, kindly invites him to come and stay.

In fact the consul has to remain a few more days in Addis, so Waugh decides to make his own way overland to Harar, travelling by train and taxi. Harar was the first Ethiopian town visited by the famous Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton and one of the first territories conquered by the warrior emperor Menelik II. It was the town where the caravans met between highlands and coastal lowlands; where Galla, Somali and Arab interbred to produce women of outstanding beauty.

Or so Waugh fantasised. In reality, he finds it to be a dingy medieval town. He is visited by the bishop of Harar and quizzes him about the French poet, the boy wonder Arthur Rimbaud, who lived here after he fled France and became a gun runner to the emperor Menelik II. He is disappointed to learn that the bishop remembers him only as a solemnly serious man, who took a native wife and had a gammy leg (p.79).

The owner of the hotel where he stays, the Leon d’Or, is ‘an Armenian of rare character’, Mr Bergebedgian, who has a wonderfully relaxed attitude to life. The Armenian takes him to all the shops in the town, where he incites himself in, has a coffee and chat with the owner, moves on, telling Waugh all the gossip of the town, shows him the town prison and courthouse (the one with a lion in a wooden cage behind it).

In an aside Waugh says he grew to really admire this man’s character: he thinks he is the most tolerant man he has ever met. Bergebedgian takes him to a hilarious local party at the governor’s house, and then on to a wedding party, which he only dares visit when fully armed and accompanied by two armed police.

Slavery

Last point about Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie ascended the throne, slavery was still legal and common in Ethiopia. An estimated 2 million of the population were slaves. As a modernising ruler the King of Kings moved quickly to abolish it but, inevitably, it lingered on in remote rural areas for decades.

First nightmare

This is the name Waugh gives a short 6-page section describing his unbearable tedium at missing a train connection and so being marooned in the dull dusty town of Dirre-Dowa and then, when he did manage to get a train to the coast, just missing the steamship to Zanzibar and so being marooned in Djibouti.

It is a dithyramb on the excruciating dullness of being stuck in a tropical town with nothing to do and no-one to visit. His attempts to alleviate the boredom are accurate and funny, including a painstaking  attempt at reading the complete works of Alexander Pope which he has (for some reason) brought with him. When he gives up Pope, he is reduced to reading through a small French dictionary in alphabetical order. Then he sits staring out the window in a state of stupefaction. As he accurately notes, most travel books don’t honestly recount the amount of time that is spent in boredom and inanition and frustration and, occasional, depression.

This short chapter certainly rang a bell with me, reminding me of many moments of boredom and loneliness on my various foreign travels. It’s another aspect of Waugh’s unflinching truthfulness.

Aden

It is very surprising to discover the importance which politics assume the moment one begins to travel. (p.120)

His description of Aden as a shabby rundown dump is a masterpiece with many laugh-out-loud moments. He meets the usual cast of eccentrics, or people who, in his novelist’s hands, become eccentrics, such as the two enterprising young German engineers who are working their way round the world. He finds the bachelor world of chaps dining at their clubs very congenial. After all, he says, it’s the womenfolk who ruin colonies, insisting their menfolk stay at home in the evenings, indulging in ferocious snobbery and pooh-poohing the natives.

Waugh describes going to the open air cinema where, a few minutes into the black and white comedy he realises almost everyone around him has fallen fast asleep. He attends a scout meeting where the patient British scoutmaster hopelessly tries to teach Arab youths how to build a fire or the ten rules of scout law.

He attends a council of local Arab chiefs and goes into great detail about the social and political situation of Yemen and southern Arabia. It was barely ten years since the entire area was taken over by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which had run it for centuries. There is a detailed analysis of the complicated rivalries among the tribes, exacerbated by Ottoman rule and now complicated by British attempts to bring peace between internecine feuds. The council is a jurga hosted by the Sultan of Lahej and attended by Sir Stewart Symes, Resident at Aden from 1928 to 1931. He gives detailed insight into the challenges of trying to manage such a fissiparous people.

The tendency of Arab communities is always towards the multiplication of political units.

Disintegration, tribalism, feuding, rivalry, enmity and war. Britain withdrew from South Yemen in 1967. Since September 2014 (seven years and 2 months) Yemen has been torn apart by a brutal civil war in which about 380,000 people have died, including some 85,000 children who have died of starvation. Still. Independent of the ghastly British.

Zanzibar

Zanzibar turns out to be an ordeal. Sweltering oppressive heat and the subterranean prevalence of black magic. December is the worst time of year to visit. He spends all day sweating, only achieving peace a few times a day for a few minutes under a cold shower.

The general point he makes about Zanzibar is that it was taken over by the British with the express aim of abolishing the long-standing East African slave trade run by Arabs, which had increased in volume after the Sultan of Oman relocated his court to Zanzibar in 1840.

Now, in 1930, Waugh sees all around him evidence of the decay of Arab rule and ownership and the steady buying up of everything by merchants and businessmen from India. Waugh overtly likes the old aristocratic Arab culture and deprecates the ascension of what he sees as the ‘mean and dirty’, lower middle class merchant culture of the Indians (p.128) (but then he dislikes the sharp-elbowed middle classes of every race).

Kenya

He has an unpleasant experience with two officious British passport control officials at Mombasa on arriving at the Kenya coast, but once he gets to Nairobi he starts to have a wonderful time. It is Race Week and he has letters of introduction to top chaps, such as the Governor’s aide-de-camp, and spots various chaps and chapesses he knows from school and London (the benefits of being part of that network of public schoolboys and their sisters, wives and girlfriends), and so is swept away in a whirl of race meetings, parties, gambling, cocktails and nightclubs. It is London’s Bright Young Things nightclub society recreated on the equator.

This chapter contains a long serious section about the race issue in Kenya, about race and imperialism and the problems of the white settlers. It is fascinating to read an account from the period, as he grapples with what, to him, are recent developments, such as the government White Paper on the future of Kenya published in 1923.

Basically, Waugh comes out strongly in favour of the colonial settlers. He thinks they acquired the land legitimately, by buying it at fair auction. He thinks most of the land was waste and uncultivated before white farmers invested their life savings to buy it, then reinvested their profits to develop it. He accepts at face value the idea that the whites have a special ‘love’ for the country and its people.

He brings in the broader argument that all of human history has been a record of mass migrations and so the white settlement of the best parts of Africa is just another form of migration and time will tell whether it works out or not.

And finally, he makes the case that many of the white settlers represent a model of the traditional English squirearchy which has died out in the motherland, that they represent something fine and noble, with a patriarchal concern for the natives who they are slowly lifting out of savagery and into civilisation.

More than that, he thinks the way the mindset of the white settlers is so at odds with the socialising ideology of the modern they live in that they have a sort of special connection with the figure of The Writer, who is also at odds with his time.

Hmm. He’s wrong and the settlers were wrong. They might have had legal right on their side, but it was a system of law imposed by the conquering empire, a system which, notoriously, took no account of the African natives.

Waugh’s account is valuable and interesting because it isn’t an out-and-out racist, white supremacist argument, it’s much more mixed and nuanced than that. He happily criticises the whites, saying Anglo-Saxons are peculiarly prone to paranoid fears of other races. He says the appropriation of Masai land was a great injustice. He dislikes incidents of overt anti-black racism when he sees them. But, at the same time, his depiction of the white settlers as country-loving squirearchy is laughably sentimental and rose-tinted.

His account is valuable because it takes you into the complex dynamic of the situation circa 1930. There are:

  • the hard-working white settlers and farmers
  • the white professionals living in Nairobi and the towns who have made a killing out of property speculation
  • the distant government and civil service in Whitehall who all the settlers think don’t understand them and are gagging to sell them out
  • the colonial government on the ground in Nairobi which tries to mediate between London and the settlers, while also taking into account the interests of the natives
  • the native Africans who remain almost completely invisible and silent in Waugh’s account
  • much more visible and vocal are the Indians, successful businessmen who outnumber the whites, are often richer and more successful than them, but are infuriated at the way they are excluded from all aspects of white colonial life by a solid colour bar

In this account it is the Indians who are subject to pronounced racist attitudes. Waugh gives a tendentious account of three Indians he has a conversation with in Mombassa who get very heated. They are angry that they have no rights in Kenya, no legal or political rights and are discriminated against. Then they get angry about Indian independence. Waugh clearly dislikes them.

But they’re in the right. And he acknowledges the fact when he spends half a page dwelling on the hysteria which perfectly ordinary Anglo-Saxon people are driven into when abroad, when part of this absurd empire and their white privilege is threatened. He finds it incredible that the merest speculation that the governor might amend the law to allow Indians a vote in the Kenyan government has hot-headed whites muttering in their clubs about kidnapping the Governor and staging an anti-London protest similar to the Boston Tea Party.

He concludes the 4 or 5 pages he devotes to the subject by saying the entire colonial thing is an experiment. It’s perfectly possible that in the next 25 years the whole thing will be swept away. And, of course, eerily enough, that is just what happened. The entire ants nest of squabbling interest groups was swept away in the great tide of African independence which reached Kenya just 30 years later in 1963, to be replaced by an entirely new dynamic of tribally based political parties and much more severe problems.

Race and class

It comes as no surprise that a public schoolboy travelling the British Empire in 1930 occasionally betrays a condescending and patronising tone towards the ‘natives’. The two obvious things to go on to say are:

1. That he regularly expresses more or less the same condescending criticism towards Europeans, royalty, the English middle classes, colonists and so on, in fact about the entire enterprise of Empire which, like so many of his generation, he finds endlessly ridiculous. When he has dinner with a Quaker doctor and his wife there was ‘no nonsense about stiff shirts and mess jackets’; they eat dinner outside in their pyjamas.

2. For every negative comment about this or that group or tribe, there are plenty of positive remarks about other groups or nations or races or tribes.

For example, he goes out of his way to remark that the two most impressive and congenial people he met in his entire 6-month trip were Armenians and gives extended descriptions of their characters.

When I came to consider the question I was surprised to realise that the two most accomplished men I met during this six months I was abroad, the chauffeur who took us to Debra Labanos and Mr Bergebedgian, should both have been Armenians. A race of rare competence and the most delicate sensibility. (p.84)

No white supremacy there. He is full of admiration for the beauty of the women of Harar. And what prompted me to write this little section was a remark he makes à propos of his time in Zanzibar.

The Arabs are by nature a hospitable and generous race… (p.128)

He very much enjoys the company of a Turk he met on the boat to Zanzibar, enjoys discussing history and hearing history from an intelligent man born and bred entirely from the Mohammedan point of view (p.124).

The dividing line for Waugh isn’t race, as such: it is the line between civilisation and barbarism. Black men who can read and write, are educated, or maybe neither but still have manners and decorum are, for him, civilised. The Arabs demonstrate tremendous courtesy and hospitality. His two favourites among the hundreds of people he met were Armenians for their tolerance and capability. So it’s not to do with race, it’s to do with culture and civilisation.

On the other side of the line are what he calls the savages, the uneducated, illiterate, filthy and threatening natives, the ‘savages with filed teeth’ with long hair glued together by rancid butter dressed in rags. And then the homicidal behaviour of natives remote from all townships, who murder strangers on sight, sometimes eating them. For Waugh it’s not about skin colour as such, but behaviour and values, and these can be shared by anyone regardless of skin colour or ethnicity.

There is a third category which is the pushy, angry, Indian merchants and the occasional Jewish entrepreneur he encounters, and who he takes an instinctive dislike to. But again this isn’t necessarily about race. He just dislikes money-minded merchants of any culture: he is reliably contemptuous of British businessmen, especially lower-middle-class shopkeepers, and deprecates the commercially minded Yanks who hang round the emperor’s coronation. It’s not racism, it’s snobbery.

Alert and malicious

One contemporary described the young Waugh as having the appearance of ‘an alert and malicious faun’. Exactly. He is always alert. He notices (or invents) details which give his descriptions and accounts a tremendous specificity.

But this alertness of observation only ‘exists’ because of the way it is embodied within the text by the preciseness of his vocabulary and the timing of his phrasing, which themselves enact the aloof, scrupulous, alertness of attitude.

After a profoundly indigestible dinner, Mr Bergebedgian joined us – the unsmiling clerk and myself – in a glass of a disturbing liqueur labelled ‘Koniak’. (p.80)

I’m not claiming Shakespearian mastery of the language for Waugh, but pointing out the accuracy of observation and description. The way he casually mentions that the dinner was ‘profoundly indigestible’ is funny, continuing a theme about the general poverty and dirtiness of most of the places he stayed in, indeed the hotel kept by the affable Armenian Mr Bergebedgian is described in the only travel book of the region as one to be avoided at all costs.

But it’s the placement of the adjective ‘disturbing’ which made me burst out laughing. The unexpectedness but preciseness of the word. And then it is also part of the stylised vocabulary of the public school Bright Young Things. It is part of the pose they are trained in to underplay disasters and setbacks. ‘Oh I say, how unfortunate / how regrettable / how simply ghastly’ they say as their plane falls out of the sky, canoe goes over the falls, or the roast beef is a trifle overdone. ‘Disturbing’ is typical of that public school understatement: why say something as crudely explicit as ‘disgusting’ or ‘unpalatable’ when you can achieve humour and mastery of the situation with English understatement? So this one word raises a host of connotations. It is a complex effect delivered with immaculate timing, and it is the combination of a) surreal detail described with b) English understatement c) with perfect timing, which are a key part of Waugh’s reliably entertaining style.

On other occasions it is just the sheer beauty of his descriptions. On the ferry across Lake Tanganyika he is forced to make a rough bed on the deck, all the cabins having gone to the savvy passengers who had bribed the captain:

As we got up steam, brilliant showers of wood sparks rose from the funnel; soon after midnight we sailed into the lake; a gentle murmur of singing came from the bows. In a few minutes I was asleep. (p.170)

It’s not the most dramatic scene, but he describes it with such smoothness and style, having taken a few overnight ferries I recognise the mood, I felt I was there. When it is appropriate to be simple and descriptive, he is.

At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it is the extended caricatures of the people he meets.

Soon after five the captain appeared. No one looking at him would have connected him in any way with a ship; a very fat, very dirty man, a stained tunic open to his throat, unshaven, with a straggling moustache, crimson-faced, gummy-eyed, flat-footed. He would have seemed more at home as the proprietor of an estaminet. (p.168)

Variety and innocence

This leads into my last point which is that the book contains a great diversity of characters. Alright, there aren’t any speaking parts for Africans once he’s left Ethiopia; but this large caveat aside, I found it wonderful that wherever he went, there was this diversity of races and nationalities: the two Armenians stick out, but plenty of Italians, French, Belgians, Germans, the Indians in Zanzibar, the Arabs and Jews in Aden.

And it’s not just nationalities, but a florid variety of characters and types, ranging from the shabby ship’s captain mentioned above to the most correctly dressed Governors and ambassadors, via Quaker missionaries in pyjamas, the monks of Debra Labanos in their filthy tunics, Kikuyu serving ‘boys’, Abyssinian bandits dressed in white gowns and riding donkeys, the historically-minded Turk, any number of demoralised Greek hotel keepers.

It has the same abundant mix of nationalities and types all rubbing along together which you get in the Tintin books of the 1930s and 40s. One of the things I loved about Tintin when I was a boy was the way all the characters are so colourful, come from different countries, speak different languages, cook different cuisines, are so wonderfully varied. The argumentative sea captain, the dotty professor, the dignified butler, the unstoppable opera singer, her timid assistant, the piratical South American dictator, the nitwit detectives – how unlike the very boring, samey suburban English people I grew up among, what a wonderful escape into a realm where everyone is a vivid and distinct character.

The same variety is evident right from the opening scenes of this book on the cruise ship bringing Waugh to Djibouti with its colourful cast of passengers, from princes to Foreign Legionaries.

I’ve just read half a dozen books about African countries where, at independence, almost the entire European population fled (Congo, Angola) or, soon afterwards, was expelled and all their businesses nationalised (Zaire, Uganda).

Buried in the chaos of the Second World War were huge ethnic cleansings and attempted genocides. The Cold War saw ideological differences stop being entertaining and become murderous. In Africa (and South America and South-East Asia) communist guerrillas kidnapped and murdered foreigners, dictatorships ran death squads, the world became a much more dangerous place. In Africa, specifically, successive nationalist regimes nationalised all foreign businesses and expelled their owners. The Greek hotel owners, the Armenian taxi drivers, the Russian who runs a hide company in Addis Ababa, the other European oddballs who’d fetched up in remote corners and, of course, the large Indian business communities in many African countries – all expelled, all banished, all swept away. Replaced by much more homogeneous societies, 100% black, 100% African.

I think that’s what happened. By the time I went a-travelling in the late 1970s it felt like the colourful bricolage or personalities you regularly encounter in Tintin or pre-war travel books had vanished: in Egypt I met only Egyptians, in Thailand only Thais, in Turkey only Turks, in Greece only Greeks.

The colourful world in which you pulled into an Ethiopian or Ugandan town to find the only hotel run by a morose Greek and the only taxi in town driven by a cheerful Armenian taxi driver and got chatting with a jolly Turk happy to explain the Mohammedan view of history – that colourful world of real variety and diversity had gone for good.


Credit

Remote People by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1931. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

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Victoria’s Wars by Saul David (2006)

The 2nd Europeans, 31st and 70th Regiments of Native Infantry drove the enemy from their cover with great slaughter. I only saw one European amongst the dead; at least a part of one. He was a sergeant of the 2nd Europeans; his cap, grog bottle, and his head was all we saw. There was a letter in the cap, but I could not make out any of it, for it was saturated with blood.
(An anonymous British private describing the aftermath of the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, quoted on page 136)

This book is unashamed good fun, intelligent, gripping, informative and horrifying by turns.

Victoria’s Wars: The Rise of Empire consists of 400 pages of lucid and compelling prose which retell the rattling stories of the British imperial conflicts during the 24 years between Queen Victoria ascending the throne in 1837 and the death of her much-beloved husband, Albert, in 1861. The period is sometimes referred to as the ‘Dual Monarchy’ and saw the size of the British Empire almost quintuple in size from 2 million to 9.5 million square miles. But this didn’t happen peacefully: the British Army fought 30 or so campaigns during this relatively brief period. David explains this book will cover the two major and the nine medium-sized wars of the period. That’s a lot of fighting.

David disarmingly admits in the Author’s note that he first got addicted to the thrill and swashbuckling adventure of Britain’s early Victorian imperial wars from a boyhood reading of George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels. When he came to research the period as a mature historian, he discovered that Victoria and Albert had more say in some of these conflicts than had previously been reported.

And so he had the idea of interweaving his accounts of these (pretty well-known) imperial conflicts with the key events in the lives of the royal couple: how Victoria inherited the throne (in 1837), her coronation (in 1838), her wooing and wedding to Albert (February 1840), and then their periodic interventions in politics through till Albert’s death in December 1861.

So a central thread of this narrative is the surprisingly detailed interest the royal pair took in Britain’s imperial conflicts. David quotes the letters which show Victoria being surprisingly critical of her governments for the way they (mis)managed both the Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, and the other conflicts of the period.

The early Victorian wars

The wars are:

  • First Afghan War (1839 to 1842)
  • First Opium War (1839 to 1842)
  • First Anglo-Sikh War (1845 to 1846)
  • Second Anglo-Sikh War (1848 to 1849)
  • Second Anglo-Burmese War (1852 to 1853)
  • The Crimean War (1853 to 1856)
  • Second Opium War (1856 to 1860)
  • The Anglo-Persian War (1856 to 1870)
  • Indian Mutiny (1857 to 1859)

The nature and scope of these ‘wars’

This is essentially a military history, not a political or diplomatic or strategic or cultural history. These accounts take us right into the guts of the fighting and this approach, as always, has numerous benefits.

For a start they make it clear what ‘war’ actually means in each instance, in terms of geographic location and strategic intention. I’ve never really read in detail about the Crimean War before, and so was surprised and enlightened to learn that Britain and France, for a start, need never have fought it at all.

The conflict arose because the Czar insisted on bullying Turkey into granting authority over all Christians in the ailing Ottoman Empire to Russia. The Turks vacillated between agreeing with Russia or giving in to France who, under Napoleon III, also wanted control of the Turkish Christians, and Britain, who saw the whole thing as yet another pretext for Imperial Russia to extend her power south and take control of the entire Black Sea, thus threatening Britain’s supply lines to India.

If the allies had managed to pull Austria into the alliance of France, Britain and Turkey this would probably have sufficed to make Russia back off, but instead, while the diplomats wrangled, Russia sent her armies into the Balkans to besiege strategic towns there with a view to marching on Constantinople. Britain and France decided Russia must not only be threatened out of the Balkans but taught a lesson. This lesson, it was decided, would be the seizure of Russia’s main military port in the Black Sea, Sevastapol on the Crimean Peninsula.

That was it. That was the aim of the Crimean War: to teach Russia a lesson by seizing Sevastapol. But the allies landed 20 miles away to the north of the port, took ages to get all the equipment ashore, slowly marched to the city and then dithered about attacking – all of which gave the defenders of Sevastapol time to create awesome defences around it, thus setting the stage for a long and bloody siege which dragged on through the cruel Russian winters in which thousands of men slept in mud and water and snow and, not surprisingly, died like flies from cholera when the hot summer came.

What a miserably mismanaged cock-up. The three battles I’d heard of – at the River Alma, Inkerman and Balaklava – were all subsidiary battles fought only to achieve the main goal, seizing Russia’s only warm water port.

We are used, in our time, to the Total Wars of 1914 to 1918 and 1939 to 1945 and so tend to think of ‘war’ as something pursued on an epic scale, fought to obliterate the opponent. It is thought-provoking to read about ‘wars’ of much more limited geopolitical, geographical and military scope, fought with much smaller numbers, using much more primitive weapons and with much more limited, diplomatic aims.

Blow-by-blow eye-witness accounts

The second feature of a military history like this is its detailed, blow-by-blow description of the actual fighting, the battles and encounters, feints and charges and stands. (David’s book is graced with lots of charming hand-drawn maps – perfectly clear but in a whimsical deliberately archaic style – maps of the whole country affected, and then detailed maps of specific battles. These are vital.)

Thus David’s account of the ill-fated Kabul expedition, or the Crimea, or the Sikh Wars or the Mutiny, are studded with eye-witness accounts, scavenged from letters, journals, diaries and official battle reports, which take the reader right into the sweat and fury of battle.

Again and again we read the specific actions of named individuals and their vivid, terrifying descriptions of fighting off Pathan warriors with swords, parrying Russian soldiers with bayonets, of rushing walls and stockades or helping comrades under fire.

The following is from the account of Private Wightman of the 17th Lancers describing how the survivors of the Charge of the Light Brigade, disorientated and riding back through dense smoke, veered by mistake up the sides of the valley only to encounter Russian infantry:

My horse was shot dead, riddled with bullets. One bullet struck me on the forehead, another passed through the top of my shoulder; while struggling out from under my dead horse a Cossack standing over me stabbed me with his lance once in the neck near the jugular, again above the collar bone, several times in the back, and once under the short rib; and when, having regained my feet, I was trying to draw my sword, he sent his lance through the palm of my hand. I believe he would have succeeded in killing me, clumsy as he was, if I had not blinded him for the moment with a handful of sand. (quoted on page 233)

I guess this sort of thing is not for everyone but if you’re a certain sort of boy or man then you’ll find these hyper-detailed accounts of combat thrilling and exciting. ‘Why do men fight?’ girlfriends have asked me over the years. For the simple reason that it is the most exciting thing a man can experience – or a certain sort of man, at any rate.

One example can stand for thousands: here is the young British officer Garnet Wolseley describing the feeling of standing on the battlefield shouting for volunteers to help him charge a well-defended enemy stockade in Burma in 1853.

Wolseley could see the numbers of the Burmese above their stockade, urging the British on with shouts and gesticulations. Once again he experienced the thrill of the charge as adrenalin coursed through his veins. ‘The feeling is catching,’ he wrote; ‘it flies through a mob of soldiers and makes them, whilst the fit is on them, absolutely reckless of all consequences. The blood seems to boil, the brain to be on fire.’ (p.169)

Or here is Lieutenant E.A. Noel of the 31st Foot describing the exhilaration of charging the Sikh artillery at the Battle of Ferozeshah on 22 December 1845. The battle was:

‘murderous, but glorious, the excitement of charging right into the mouth of the guns you cannot conceive.’ (quoted p.101)

Most of the common infantry fought because a career in the army offered the security and pay their lives in Britain couldn’t provide, as well as training and camaraderie and a sense of identity. The officers – as David brings forcefully home – were mostly upper-class twits, not least because throughout this era officers could simply buy their ranks no matter how inexperienced or incompetent, seeing the army as a means to social and financial advancement.

Nevertheless, ragamuffin proles or chinless toffs, all or any of them could be swept up in the heat of actual battle and find themselves performing super-human feats.

Heroism

For men under pressure reveal extraordinary capacities. There are accounts of mind-boggling heroism here, of men fighting on single-handed, manning guns after all their comrades are killed, racing across open ground towards walls stuffed with musketeers shooting at them, and so on.

It was during this early Victorian period, in 1857 to be precise, that a new medal, the Victoria Cross was instituted for just such acts of stunning bravery. (David has a fascinating section about the creation, the design and casting of the first Victoria Crosses: they were, and still are, cast from the bronze cascabels – the large knobs at the back of a cannon used for securing ropes – of two Russian cannon captured at Sevastapol, hence the dull gunmetal colour. The remaining metal from these cascabels has still not all been used up; there is said to be enough metal for eighty-five more medals, p.282)

At the battle of the Alma the defeated Russians were limbering up their guns and withdrawing them, when Captain Edward Bell of the 23rd Fusiliers ran forward alone and, armed only with a pistol, surprised the Russian driver, who fled, while Bell seized the horse and led horse and Russian gun back to the British side of the breastworks. For this he later won the first Victoria Cross awarded in the Crimea (p.207).

At the Battle of Inkerman (5 November 1854) Captain John Crosse of the 88th Foot found himself defending the Saddle Top Ridge against advancing Cossacks:

‘I found myself close to a knot of six Russians who were advancing to attack me… I shot four of the Russians, the fifth bayoneted me & fell pulling me down on top of him, the sixth then charged on me & [with my sword] I cut down his firelock on to his hands and he turned back.’ (quoted p.241)

Who needs movies?

Butchery

But, of course, scattered moments of heroism are all very fine, and tend to be remembered by all concerned for the fine light they shed on combat, but fighting boils down to men killing each other in hair-raisingly grisly ways, hacking at each others’ bodies with blunt swords, stabbing and gouging and strangling and bludgeoning, while others are shooting bullets which smash bones, joints, shoot through your eyes or mouth or skull.

Take the relief column under Lieutenant Robert Pollock which was sent to rescue the British hostages held in Kabul (those who had been held back and so not slaughtered in their passage through the mountains). As this force went back over the ground taken by the retreating Kabul garrison, it walked over bodies the whole way.

All along the road from Fatiabad lay the remains of the Kabul garrison, the corpses ‘in heaps of fifties and hundreds, our gun-wheels passing over and crushing the skulls and other bones of our late comrades at almost every yard.’ (quoted p.71)

Having rescued the British hostages, this column also withdrew back to India, but was harried all the way by the fierce Ghilzai tribesmen. One of the last to die was Ensign Alexander Nicholson of the 30th Native Infantry. The following day, John Nicholson, just released from Afghan captivity and following the same path to safety, came across his brother’s mutilated corpse, with his penis and balls cut off and stuffed into his mouth, as was the local custom (p.72).

After the Battle of Sobraon (Sikh War, 10 February 1846), the British drove the Sikh defenders back onto a narrow bridge over the River Sutlej, which promptly broke. Thousands tried to swim across but were slaughtered by rifle and grape and canister fire shot into the swimming mass at point blank range. Gunner Bancroft described the river water as:

‘a bloody foam, amid which heads and uplifted hands were seen to vanish by hundreds.’ (p.109)

By the same token as he uses eye-witness accounts to describe the progress of battles, giving the sense of total immersion in the gripping, terrifying experience of combat, so David also details the appalling gory butchery and bloodshed of battle. He gives a harrowing account of the Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, on 25 October 1854:

A corporal who rode on the right of the 13th was ‘struck by a shot or shell in the face, completely smashing it, his blood and brains spattering us who rode near’. A sergeant of the 17th had his head taken off by roundshot, ‘yet for about thirty yards further the headless body kept the saddle, the lance at the charge firmly gripped under the right arm.’ (p.232)

There is an appalling price to pay for all these conflicts and the pages of this book are drenched in blood and brains. Describing the Indian ‘rebels’ at Sikandarbagh, Fred Roberts recalled:

‘Inch by inch they were forced back to the pavilion, and into the space between it and the north wall, where they were all shot or bayoneted. There they lay in a heap as high as my head, a heaving, surging mass of dead or dying inextricably entangled. It was a sickening sight… ‘ (quoted p.342)

I wonder if David did a tally of how many people died during these imperial conquests, men killed in battle, and women and children murdered in the accompanying atrocities by both sides: to the casual reader it seems like it must have been several million – the Crimean War alone accounted for some three quarters of a million dead on all sides. So much blood. So many human bodies composted back into the soil.

‘We overtook numbers of their infantry who were running for their lives – every man of course was shot. I never saw such butchery and murder! It is almost too horrible to commit to paper.’ (An officer of the 9th Lancers at the Battle of Sadiwal, Second Sikh War, 21 February 1849, p.137)

One example from hundreds sticks in my mind. At the siege of Cawnpore, when the ‘rebel’ Indian regiments rose up against their European officers and families, pushing them back into a hastily defended cantonment, a ball from an Indian canon decapitated the son of the British commander, Major-General Sir Hugh Wheeler, leaving the boy’s hair and brains smeared on the wall of his father’s wall. His son’s brains and hair (p.310). In fact, the rebels promised the garrison safe passage down the river but, as they loaded into the boats, treacherously opened fire, killing 800 or more Europeans. The survivors were thrown into a small building along with Brits from other locations, nearly 200 in all, almost all women and children, and kept prisoner in the blistering heat, without food or water for weeks. When a relief column of British forces arrived, all these Europeans – 194 women and children – were hacked to death with swords. It is recorded that the killers needed replacement swords because the first ones became blunt hacking on human bone. Then all the bodies were thrown down a well, quite a few still alive at the time, only to asphyxiate under the weight of the dead.

Yes, I know – the butchery on both sides, during the Indian Rebellion requires a book of its own. But still, it’s the father having to see the hair and brains of his son smeared across the wall which has stayed to haunt me at nights…

Incompetence

But maybe the main learning from the book is the staggering level of blundering incompetence shown by so many Brits at so many levels. As a survivor of the catastrophic retreat from Kabul put it, the complete destruction of the allied force was due to the ‘incompetency, feebleness and want of skill’ of the military leaders (p.70) and this story is echoed again and again during these 24 fraught years.

The absolute epitome of mismanaged, confused, dunderhead behaviour was the Charge of the Light Brigade, sent into the wrong valley against well-placed Russian guns which wiped them out, an event David goes into in great detail (pp.227 to 237) and which just gets worse the more you understand it.

The entire Crimean campaign became a byword for mismanagement, not least in the inability to feed, clothe and medicate British troops who died in their thousands during the first winter besieging Sevastapol. It was this dire situation which prompted T.J. Delane, the editor of The Times, to write an editorial excoriating the incompetence of the army and the government.

The noblest army England ever sent from these shores has been sacrificed to the grossest mismanagement. Incompetence, lethargy, aristocratic hauteur, official indifference, favour, routine, perverseness, and stupidity reign, revel and riot in the camp before Sevastapol, in the harbour at Balaklava, in the hospitals of Scutari, and how much closer to home we dare not venture to say. (p.254)

How the devil did these clodhoppers manage to acquire and run the greatest empire the world has ever known? The book suggests a number of levels at which British incompetence and stupidity operated:

1. The wrongness of basic aims

Was it even worth fighting the Crimean War or the Afghan war in the first place? Diplomatic pressure was already making the Russians withdraw from the Balkans; after three years of war, the peace treaty at the end of the Crimean War didn’t achieve much more than had been on the table at the start.

Similarly, the First Afghan ‘war’ amounted to an armed expedition into Afghanistan to overthrow the existing ruler – Dost Mohamed – for being too friendly to the Russians and to replace him with an exile of our choosing, Shah Suja, who would then owe us undying loyalty. The British force with some 10,000 camp followers fought its way through south Afghanistan, finding it harder than predicted, and eventually took Kabul, forcing Dost to flee and imposing the new ruler. But then a) the people rejected him b) we never controlled the outlying settlements c) we promised subsidies (bribes) to various tribes which we failed to pay or cut back – so nobody should have been very surprised when there was a popular Afghan uprising which quickly took back control of Kabul, and besieged the Europeans in their indefensible cantonment.

The divided British leadership patched up an agreement with Dost Mohamed’s son in which our people were promised free passage over the mountains back to Jelalabad but a) it was winter, the first weeks of January and b) nobody told the various angry tribes who controlled the mountains about the deal,. With the result that the vast retreating force of several thousand soldiers and over 10,000 camp followers, were picked off at leisure by bandits or died of exposure in the sub-freezing temperatures. Notoriously, of the 16,000 or so total Brits who went into Afghanistan, only one – ONE – survivor, a Dr Brydon, made it alive to Jelalabad.

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of William Brydon, sole survivor the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

The Remnants of an Army (1879) by Elizabeth Butler, depicting the arrival of Dr William Brydon, sole survivor of the disastrous retreat from Kabul in January 1842

2. Strategic blundering

The Kabul disaster reads like a textbook example of how not to do it. For a start leadership of the expedition was divided between the military leader Elphinstone and the political emissary, Macnaghten. The cantonment where the British Army based itself was significantly outside the city of Kabul rather than commanding its centre. We didn’t build a citadel of strength to act as a secure base. And we relinquished control of the only secure building in the city, the Bala Hissar fort, to the new playboy ruler we had installed and his harem.

3. Indecision and hesitation

These two elements really come across as a key cause of failure in almost all these conflicts. Even after fighting broke out in Kabul the British leaders refused to take it seriously. Quick and decisive action might have stamped it out, captured the ringleaders and dissipated the local aggression. But the military leaders on the ground hesitated or plain refused to march into the city and so it was lost, and the rest – the siege of the isolated British encampment and its eventual surrender – followed logically.

The same hesitation or plain refusal to attack leaps out of David’s account of the Crimean War. A quick attack on Sevastapol immediately after the allied forces had landed might have taken the city in weeks and prevented two years of costly siege. But the generals in charge – Lord Raglan for the British, Jacques Leroy de Saint-Arnaud for the French – wanted to wait until everything was ready and everyone had landed etc, thus giving the Russkies plenty of time to prepare extensive and impenetrable defences. After the hard-fought Battle of the Alma River, with Prince Menshikov’s army retreating in disarray, both allied generals lost a golden opportunity to devastate the enemy with the as-yet unbloodied British cavalry.

Only by taking chances are crushing victories won. And the Battle of the Alma could have been a crushing victory; it might even have ended the war… [but] neither Raglan nor Saint-Arnaud had the genius or nerve required to destroy the Russian Army in a single battle. Instead it was allowed to withdraw largely intact to fight another day – with disastrous long-term consequences for the allies. (p.212)

The same reluctance and refusal shines out of David’s account of the Indian Mutiny, a much bigger and more complex event, in which there’s one silver thread concerning how the British garrison was forced out of the capital Delhi by the ‘rebels’, but was quickly joined by reinforcements and took the cantonment to the north-west of the city. Had they then attacked the centre of the city immediately they might have driven the rebels out and squashed the rebellion at its heart. Instead, just like Raglan and Saint-Arnaud in Crimea, they waited, they prevaricated, under the reluctant leadership of Brigadier Archdale Wilson, who drove his officers mad with frustration by continually claiming he needed just a few more guns, ammunition, soldiers, before he launched the attack to retake the city – and the moment was lost (p.307).

A very crude rule emerges from all of these accounts which is: If you see an advantage, SEIZE IT! Even if all your regiments, cavalry, artillery or whatever haven’t totally arrived – if you see the enemy retreating or vulnerable – GO FOR IT. Time and again opportunities were lost for quick, decisive knockout blows because the men in charge hesitated, were afraid, wanted to be sure of total success… and all too often delay turned what could have been quick campaigns into brutal struggles of attrition in which tens of thousands died needlessly.

4. Penny pinching

Prevarication was often caused by the wish to save money, for another thread which emerges from this book is the way the British wanted to have an empire on the cheap. It’s striking to realise how nothing has changed in the national culture in 180 years – we’ve always been a penny-pinching, austerity nation. Garnet Wolseley complained that all the logistical support for the army had been shut down ‘on so-called economical grounds’ and much of the rest contracted out to private suppliers – hence the revolting inedibility of the food provided for the soldiers in the Crimea. Ring any bells?

Thus the disaster at Kabul was partly caused by the Treasury demanding cuts to the costly expedition with the result that its political leader, Macnaghten, halved the subsidy or bribe being paid to a northern tribe of Afghans, who promptly rose against us. Then Macnaghten, in order to save money, sent a column out to meet a relief force supposedly coming from the north which was itself promptly massacred.

The Crimea was a classic example of a major war which we tried to fight on the cheap, resulting in military stalemate (we won the side battles of Inkerman and the Alma but obstinately failed to take Sevastapol for years) and the deaths due to lack of equipment (proper winter uniforms, tents, even food) of thousands and thousands of poor bloody infantry.

‘The Army is a shambles’, David quotes one officer as commenting (p.186). Eventually, the government was shamed by the extensive newspaper reporting of Russell (among others), the reports of Florence Nightingale, and pressure from the Queen herself, to face the facts that it was going to cost money to win the damn thing.

And David highlights the same mindset at the outbreak of the Indian Rebellion: the government didn’t take it seriously because it didn’t want to take it seriously because it didn’t want to spend the money which ended up being required to put it down. By this stage, twenty years into her reign, Queen Victoria had the confidence to write to her Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, criticising the government for, yet again, being:

anxious to do as little as possible, to wait for further news, to reduce as low as possible even what they do grant…’ (quoted p.327)

I’ve read so many times that the Empire was a device for looting and creaming off vast wealth from colonised countries that I am genuinely puzzled how come an account like this gives the strong impression of a colonial government in a permanent financial crisis, consistently underfunding and under-equipping the army it needed to police the empire, acting slowly, refusing to recognise the severity of the crises it faced, and always trying to get away with the cheapest possible option. If we were rolling in loot, why the penny-pinching?

David gives a handy checklist of responsibility for the Afghan disaster, which serves as a useful checklist for many of the other imperial fiascos. Who was to blame?

  • The political ruler of India, Lord Auckland, for ordering an invasion of Afghanistan which was never really necessary in the first place – the existing ruler was fairly friendly and could have been bribed to be on our side without the loss of a single life.
  • The Tory government which, in order to save money, demanded a reduction in troop numbers and reduction of local bribes – thus helping to spark the rebellion.
  • General Cotton, the senior military man on first arrival in Kabul, who acquiesced in making the large, indefensible, out-of-town cantonment the main British base.
  • Sir William Macnaghten, the senior political agent on the spot, who deliberately played down the rebellion when it started, refusing to give permission for quick, decisive suppressing action, then made a hash out of negotiating with the enemy chieftains (for which he was shot dead on the spot by one of them).
  • Brigadier-General Shelton, the man in charge of the British forces, who made a series of decisions all based on hesitation and caution, which allowed the rebellion to spiral out of control.

5. Unwanted freelancing

Another theme is the regularity with which the men on the spot far exceeded their orders from the home government which then found itself forced to back them up. For example, the governor-general of India, Lord Ellenborough, sent Sir Charles Napier in 1842 with a force designed to bring the amirs of Sind, in north-west India, into submission to the British. Instead, Napier fought a series of battles and annexed the territory outright, to the horror of the board of the East India Company (who still, technically, ruled India) and the government of Robert Peel. It was felt to have been unnecessarily aggressive but also –more importantly – incurred unwanted cost. All very well for these soldier chaps to go a-conquerin’ territory, but then someone had to pay for the new lands to be garrisoned, manned, administered and so on, which cost a fortune.

6. Disease

Three quarters of the 20,000 British deaths in the Crimea were caused by disease. 10,000 allied lives were lost to cholera, dysentery and fever before the allied armies even arrived at the Crimea, due to the squalid conditions at the base camp of Varna. In the winter of 1855 it was clear both sides in the Crimean War desired peace, but Napoleon III of France let himself be persuaded by the British to keep his forces at the Sevastapol siege through the winter to keep the pressure on Russia. With the result that the French lost more men – at least 30,000! – to disease in the final three months of the war than they lost in all combat operations of the previous two years.

Disease was the bane of all these wars, fought in extreme heat or freezing cold in the plains of India, the jungles of Burma, the snowbound Afghan mountains or the frozen trenches of the Crimea.

The grim dynamic of imperialism

Again and again the same pattern and sequence of events took place: local rulers of land bordering the existing empire refused to become our allies (Dost Mohammed in Afghanistan) or harassed British traders (the ruler of Burma or the Qing Emperor in China) so a British force was dispatched to bring them to heel/punish them/force them to let free trade continue.

If they resisted in any way, especially if any of our chaps was killed, then the whole thing was converted into a massive Insult and Dishonour to Queen and Country and suddenly the entire nation was whipped up by the government/popular press to avenge/redeem this Insult, carrying out ‘the just retribution of an outraged nation’ (p.71) and a large force was sent to sort them out.

Then all of a sudden it turned out to be tougher going than we expected. There were unexpected defeats, casualties mounted up, it took longer than we expected, soldiers started dying of heat and disease, they had the wrong uniforms (winter for summer or vice versa), ran out of ammunition, reinforcements were delayed, individual acts of amazing heroism helped to conceal systematic failings of strategy, funding and logistics and so the whole thing dragged on, sometimes for years.

Eventually, enough extra forces, ammunition and cannon finally arrived to force a ‘victory’ of sorts or at least a face-saving compromise, news of which was cabled back to a jubilant nation, there was dancing in the streets, pubs and streets were named after the various bloody battles – the Alma, the Balaklava – medals were handed out, victory parades were held, the native rulers were arrested, exiled, replaced, the native peoples were brutally massacred and cowed into submission, for the time being…

All in all, it is a shameful narrative of bullying, exploitation and hypocrisy but almost everyone was caught up in it, the national narrative. It is inspiring that there were radical thinkers and even MPs who were solidly against the notion of Empire, who consistently thought it directly contradicted Britain’s own rhetoric about Freedom and Liberty. But they made little impression on the jingoistic national culture, which only became more and more imperialistic as the century progressed.

Vandalism

A summary of these years wouldn’t be complete without some mention of European vandalism and destructiveness.

  • After the gruesome retreat from Kabul in which over 10,000 died, British forces were despatched to rescue the European hostages being held west of the city. They successfully rescued them and fell back on a pacified Kabul but quickly realised they couldn’t hold it and so ended up retreating back into British India. But not before the force, under Lieutenant Robert Pollock and widely nicknamed the ‘Army of Retribution’, had blown up Kabul’s ‘magnificent Great Bazaar’ amid widespread looting and destruction (p.71), as punishment for the murder of the British envoys whose dismembered bodies had been hung up there a year earlier (p.54).
  • During the Crimean War Sir George Brown was despatched with a force to capture Kertch, a vital supply port on the east coast of the Crimean Peninsula. Once they’d captured the relatively undefended town the allied troops went wild, looting homes, murdering civilians and raping women. They also burnt to the ground Kertch Museum with its priceless collection of early Hellenic art (p.261).
  • The Summer Palace of the Chinese Emperors at Beijing was (to quote Wikipedia) ‘widely conceived as the pinnacle work of Chinese imperial garden and palace design… an architectural wonder, known for its extensive collection of gardens, its architecture and numerous art and historical treasures.’ Towards the end of the Second Opium War in 1860, as an Anglo-French expeditionary force approached Beijing, two British envoys were sent to meet Prince Yi under a flag of truce to negotiate a Qing surrender. When news emerged that the delegation had been imprisoned and tortured, resulting in 20 deaths the British High Commissioner to China, Lord Elgin, retaliated by ordering the complete destruction of the palace. It was comprehensively looted and then burned to the ground. The Chinese have never forgotten or forgiven this crime.

The British crap on about the Blitz. I wonder if there is a single country we ran in our imperial heyday where we didn’t commit gross acts of vandalism, looting and destruction.

Footnotes and insights

This is the kind of fact-packed popular history where even the footnotes are jammed with interesting information. There’s a footnote on almost every page and every one is worth reading – from details of the  several assassination attempts on Queen Victoria, the Indian origin of the words sepoy, sirdar, pundit and so on, what a regiment’s ‘colours’ actually are (two flags, one regimental, one for the queen), how the town of Ladysmith in South Africa got its name, and an extended sequence on how the famous Koh-i-noor diamond came to be handed over the British and included in the crown.

The evolution of military hardware

Alongside the thread about Victoria and Albert’s interventions is another thread which dwells on the evolution of military technology during this period. I was fascinated to read about the arrival of steam warships. At first battleships continued to have masts and depend on sail power – if there was wind – but were also equipped with steam engines for when there wasn’t. Only slowly did they make the full transition to steam. I was particularly interested in the advent of a new design of much smaller warship, only 200-foot long, powered by steam and equipped with a small set of rotatable guns. Because of their size these could penetrate up even minor rivers and still deliver punishing artillery fire. They were called gunboats and for the first time really allowed the Royal Navy (and Britain) to extend its might / force / violence into the remotest river frontages all over the globe (p.159).

And so for the first time I really understood the meaning of the hoary old expression ‘gunboat’ diplomacy’, which is always used to describe Lord Palmerston’s belligerent foreign policy during this period. The use of gunboats is exemplified here by their use in the Second Burma War, 1852 to 1853.

Just as interesting was David’s detailed description of how the new ‘rifles’ manufactured at the new workshops on the River Lee at Enfield (hence the ‘Lee Enfield rifle’) were developed to replace the old flintlocks which were still in use at the start of the period. The new rifles were much more accurate at a longer distance, giving our boys a distinct advantage.

A little less interesting, but still giving you the sense of getting a complete overview of the military world of this era, is David’s attention to the evolution of uniforms, which moved away from the heavy double-buttoned tunic and the clumsy tall shako hat towards a more practical (but still to us, improbably unwieldy) mid-Victorian uniform.

Conclusion

This is a compellingly written, exciting and illuminating book on many levels: accessible, thrilling, horrifying and insightful popular history at its best.


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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.

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