The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton (1908)

‘We say that the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the essential ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it. But philosophers dislike property as property; they wish to destroy the very idea of personal possession.’
(A policeman, talking to the novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Syme)

Chesterton’s paper-thin characters

Having just read four novels on the trot by H.G. Wells, I am well aware that one of Wells’s notorious shortcomings is the way his characters are often mere pawns in scenarios or plotlines designed to convey Wells’s social, technological and political ideas.

At least that’s what I thought until I read these two novels of Chesterton’s. Wells’s characters have Shakespearian depth compared to Chesterton’s.

Chesterton’s characters are names attached to attitudes, or positions, and a great deal of the interchanges between these entities are really the cut and thrust of opposing ideas in a debating society.

I find Wells’s characters endearing because, by comparison, they do have real back stories and histories – for example, Wells goes to maybe silly lengths to give realistic depth to his character Bert Smallways. He builds up our sense of Bert’s ability with mechanics and engines, at repairing bicycle and motor bikes, a skill which will come in handy as he proceed through the adventures in the novel, The War In the Air.

Chesterton’s characters, by contrast, are almost all the same. They all give clever speeches. They are all fond of paradoxes. And very fond of generalising about human nature, about God. Reminiscent of the kind of ‘soft’ theologising you get in Graham Greene. But whereas Greene does it (at length) in his novels mainly to make the reader share Greene’s basically suicidal worldview by blackening human nature at every opportunity…

Human nature is not black and white but black and grey.

We are all of us resigned to death: it’s life we aren’t resigned to.

In human relationships, kindness and lies are worth a thousand truths.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

… Chesterton does it to make the reader chortle with the recognition of a clever paradox, to satirise the progressive philosophies of his day, and to point to something deeper and more mysterious about human existence.

The introductions to The Napoleon of Notting Hill or The Man Who Was Thursday confidently extract from them certain ‘messages’ and ‘meanings’; but the experience of actually reading the books is nowhere near as clear-cut and simple. I found them both to be murky and difficult reads. I sensed that a ‘message’ was being propounded, I just couldn’t work out what it was.

Chesterton’s characters are, in fact, so featureless and interchangeable that they do, often, interchange. The Man Who Was Thursday is not so much a novel, more a fantasy entirely concerned with false identities and secret sides, and characters who flip, in a moment, from being on the side of darkness to being on the side of light – or vice-versa.

The plot

The novel is set in the present-day, Edwardian era, where we find two poets in the garden of an artist’s colony, located in a fictional new garden city, named Saffron Park.

Mr Lucian Gregory, the red-haired poet, is holding court. All the young ladies of the town flock to admire him and his daringly ‘anarchistic’ sentiments. But on this evening Gregory is confronted by another poet, flaxen-haired Mr Gabriel Syme, who politely doubts the anarchist’s ‘commitment’.

Gregory argues that poetry is anarchy and breaking the rules. This makes the young ladies swoon with excitement. Syme counters that poetry is law and gives as an example the wonderful poetry of the London Underground, where you have a map and know exactly which station is coming next on any journey. Law and logic and certainty are the only poetry (says Syme).

Angered, Gregory waits for the party to end then confronts Syme outside the ground of his house. In a feverish conversation Gregory reveals that he really is an anarchist and makes Syme swear not to tell anyone. At which point Syme reveals that he is really a policeman, but that Gregory must swear to tell no-one. They both solemnly swear to keep each other’s secrets.

You see how Chesterton’s taste for symmetry and paradox overcomes any attempt at ‘realism’.

Gregory promptly takes Syme along to a pub which contains a secret table which – in true James Bond style – at the touch of secret button descends down through the floor to a basement below the pub.

This turns out to be the meeting place of the most dangerous Anarchists Club in London. Syme accepts all this with upper-class sang-froid. He is told he is attending a meeting to decide who will become the next leader of this anarchists’ ‘chapter’. He learns there are seven anarchist groups, each ruled by someone given the codename of a day of the week. Head of the entire Anarchist Movement is a mysterious man named Sunday.

As it happens the man named ‘Thursday’, who was leader of this section, recently passed away and tonight they are voting for his successor. Everyone expects Gregory to be elected ‘Thursday’, but he is suddenly overcome by worry that, making them all sound too dangerous will prompt Syme to denounce them all to his police colleagues.

So Gregory makes a surprisingly tame speech recommending they obey the Law, which is met with general disappointment from the assembled anarchists. At which (in a characteristically Chestertonian paradox) Syme the policeman leaps to his feet and makes a startlingly violent speech, denouncing Gregory’s pacifism – and he is elected by an overwhelming majority. Humorous paradox, and ironic reversal.

Thus Syme is made the new ‘Thursday’ and is led off down a secret passage which opens onto the Thames where a steam boat is waiting – leaving Gregory seething with anger and impotence. It is, to say the least, odd to the modern reader that Gregory keeps his promise not to expose his rival – but then the entire novel is odd, and is really more of a psychological fantasia than a ‘novel’. If you try applying realistic criteria you will get nowhere.

The man who was Sunday

The steam boat chugs along to the Embankment in central London where ‘Thursday’ is met by ‘the secretary’, a posh man with a disfigured face who takes him through the streets up to Leicester Square where the Anarchists are holding a meeting on a balcony overlooking the tourists.

Their leader, Sunday, has a theory that if you loudly announce to everyone that you are an anarchist no-one will believe you. Thus they make their plans to blow up kings and emperors, at an open-air restaurant while waiters come and go bringing drinks and dishes, tut-tutting and laughing at those funny old anarchists who do like their little jokes. Irony. Paradox.

Syme is greeted by the assembled anarchist leaders as the new Thursday and promptly introduced to Monday, Tuesday etc. Chesterton takes the time to introduce them all to us, along with their real identities and histories, including a grey-haired professor.

After all the introductions, Sunday does in fact call them away from the terrace and into a locked room, where he announces that one among them is a traitor!!

This is a scene I’ve seen in so many James Bond and other spy adventure movies, I wonder if it originated with Chesterton. Probably not, in which case I wonder if an origin can be found – or whether the trope of the spy among the band of conspirators, the traitor in our midst, is not in fact as old as story-telling.

Anyway, Sunday ratchets up the tension with furious denunciations of the as-yet-unidentified spy in their midst, and Syme is just about to stand up and confess that it is he when, to his amazement, a scraggy-haired Polish anarchist does just that – stands up and confesses to being a policeman, throwing his blue police card onto the table.

Sunday is incomprehensibly magnanimous, and asks him to go now and promise not to tell their plans to anyone (!).

Then Sunday gets down to organising an assassination outrage against a politician visiting Paris. After this the group break up and go their separate ways.

Syme is pursued

There is then a spookily atmospheric sequence where Syme wanders along to a Soho restaurant… only to find the so-called Professor has followed him.

Syme gets up, walks through Covent Garden and stops in a pub… only to find the Professor sitting at a table.

Syme storms out and runs along to St Pauls, its dome shimmering as night falls and with it a shower of snow and hears, in the snowdrift quietness… the sound of the Professor pottering along behind him.

Gripped by a kind of panic fear Syme runs on through the black London streets, down to the docks and ducks into a rough pub. Where the Professor walks through the door straight after him.

Sequences like this fully justify the novel’s sub-title, ‘A Nightmare’. There is something fully nightmareish, something creepily uncanny, about this unstoppable pursuit.

The Professor finally confronts Syme, asking whether he is a policeman, which Syme furiously denies. ‘Shame,’ replies the Professor’, because I am,’ and he tosses onto the table the same type of blue police identity card that the Pole had done earlier, at the same time ripping off the mask which makes him look like a senile old man, to reveal a fresh-faced young chap beneath!!!!

So now Syme knows that three of the seven dangerous anarchists sitting round the meeting table off Leicester Square… were in fact policemen (the one who got throw out, himself and now, the Professor)!

Double identities and ironies!

Revealing the other police spies

This has taken us up to chapter 8 of 15. To cut a long story what happens next is that Symes and the Professor then track down the other three members of the group and discover, one by one, that they are all policemen masquerading as anarchists.

Unmasking the last one requires the by-now assembled squad of undercover policemen to catch the ferry to France and track down the last member of the seven, who was nominated to be the assassin sent to blow up a leading politician in Paris. The last of the seven is a French aristocrat named the Marquis de Saint Eustache.

This turns into a really compelling and weird fantasia of a sequence as our man Syme ends up fighting an elaborately staged duel with the Marquis, under the misapprehension that the latter is actually an anarchist.

During the duel (with fencing swords) Syme repeatedly sticks his point into the Marquis with no apparent result. Exactly as in a nightmare where, whatever you do to stop it, the monster keeps getting back up.

The solution of the mystery, revealed at the climax of the contest, is that the Marquis is wearing an early type of bullet-proof vest.

Anyway, the Marquis has no sooner revealed that he, like all the others, is in fact an undercover policeman than the train, which everyone thought he was intending to catch to Paris to carry out his terrorist outrage – pulls into the nearby station.

Chased by anarchists

To the horror of the assembled anarchists-now-revealed-as-policemen, a great crowd of genuine anarchists swarm out of it, all wearing Keystone Cops-style black masks over the tops of their faces, and led by none other than the ‘secretary’ who had escorted Syme from the Embankment to the anarchist meeting in Leicester Square, in the earlier chapter.

The chase is on! Our chaps run through woods with the gang of black-masked figures gaining on them. They arrive at a farm the marquis knows, where the kindly old owner lends them horses. But the anarchists are still gaining on them and then they are horrified to hear the sounds of horse galloping after them and to recognise the kindly old man among them. He is one of the Enemy!!

Our chaps gallop onto another house where a friend of the Marquis’s lends them cars and off they zoom. But one breaks down and they hear… other motor cars chasing them, look up and see the ‘friend’ among their pursuers. The whole world is against them!

This nightmare sense becomes overwhelming when they arrive at a fishing village on the coast and… the entire population rises up against them, forming a mob, joined now by the horse riders and the car drivers, creating an enormous crowd of black-masked anarchists and villagers and fishermen who surround them and chase them down onto a pier, pushing them further and further out till they reach the end of the pier and have nowhere left to turn.

The earth in anarchy

No wonder this chapter is titled ‘The Earth In Anarchy’. Apparently, Chesterton wrote the book during a bout of severe depression. It was partly caused by the great wave of anarchist, socialist, positivist and nihilist thinking which swept over Europe in the 1890s and 1900s. All these trends were materialist, denying the existence of a ‘soul’ or God, insisting on the purely material view of life as a constant struggle unmediated by any kind of transcendent values.

As a devout Anglican, Chesterton found all of these philosophies represented profound attacks on his most deeply cherished beliefs and all the things he loved in life.

The Man Who Was Thursday is thus a kind of ecstasy of horror, a vision of a world borne down in a great black tide of nihilism. As he explained: ‘It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date.’

At this, its hysterical climax, Syme, pushed to the end of the quay, suddenly rebels and runs straight at the anarchist crowd and, in particular, at the ‘secretary’ who is leading them. He accuses them of being filthy anarchists who deny the beauty of order and law and life.

At which point the ‘secretary’ steps back, tears off his mask and announces ‘I arrest you in the name of the law.’

‘The law?’ screams Syme. ‘But you’re anarchists.’

‘No you’re the anarchists,’ says the secretary. ‘I am a policeman and these are my deputies, and we have dressed up as anarchists as a disguise, to try and mix in with you.’

!!!!!!

The crowd which has been chasing them all this time was doing so because they had been told they were pursuing dangerous anarchists. They aren’t anarchists at all. The entire thing has been a mistake and a misunderstanding.

‘There is some mistake,’ [the Secretary] said. ‘Mr. Syme, I hardly think you understand your position. I arrest you in the name of the law.’
‘Of the law?’ said Syme, and dropped his stick.
‘Certainly!’ said the Secretary. ‘I am a detective from Scotland Yard,’ and he took a small blue card from his pocket.
‘And what do you suppose we are?’ asked the Professor, and threw up his arms.
‘You,’ said the Secretary stiffly, ‘are, as I know for a fact, members of the Supreme Anarchist Council. Disguised as one of you, I – ‘
Dr. Bull tossed his sword into the sea.
‘There never was any Supreme Anarchist Council,’ he said. ‘We were all a lot of silly policemen looking at each other. And all these nice people who have been peppering us with shot thought we were the dynamiters. I knew I couldn’t be wrong about the mob,’ he said, beaming over the enormous multitude, which stretched away to the distance on both sides. ‘Vulgar people are never mad. I’m vulgar myself, and I know. I am now going on shore to stand a drink to everybody here.’

Note this last little speech. Bull is one of the anarchists-who-is-really-a-policeman and here he expresses one of Chesterton’s shibboleths.

It is the intellectuals who we should be worried about, the intellectuals who are promoting anarchy and socialism and nihilism, the intellectuals who are attacking everything good and sweet and clean.

By contrast, the so-called common people have never lost touch with the real values of life, with country lanes and Anglican churches and pints of good old English ale.

Who is Sunday?

So all the six anarchists named after the six days of the week, who are now all revealed to be policemen in disguise, catch the ferry and train back to London and all troop off to Leicester Square to confront big black-suited Sunday. He is still (as in a dream) sitting eating on the balcony overlooking the square where they left him. To be honest I didn’t understand the ending at all. Here is the Wikipedia summary:

Sunday reveals that setting them against each other was all part of his Master Plan. In a surreal conclusion, Sunday is unmasked as only seeming to be terrible; in fact, he is a force of good like the detectives. Sunday is unable to give an answer to the question of why he caused so much trouble and pain for the detectives.

Gregory, the only real anarchist, seems to challenge the good council. His accusation is that they, as rulers, have never suffered like Gregory and their other subjects and so their power is illegitimate. Syme refutes the accusation immediately, because of the terrors inflicted by Sunday on the rest of the council.

So the crux of the thing seems to be that Gregory (the poet, the man we met in the opening scene) is the only spokesman for real anarchists – and he says that the opinions of Syme and all the rest are not valid because they have never suffered.

Only Gregory and his kind have suffered, and their terrorism is justified by their suffering.

But Symes denies this. He and others like him have suffered. The anarchists don’t have a monopoly of suffering. Syme shouts:

‘No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, “We also have suffered.”‘

A dream

And then… it all turns out to be a dream! Syme awakens. He has napped while on a country walk. He resumes his walk along a country lane, in a little epiphany of the kind of values, images and ideas which Chesterton values: the countryside, tradition, good fellowship.

And this hymn leads up to a vision of one of the pretty young women who Syme had met and chatted to in that garden at the start of the novel.

As [Syme] gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain he seemed to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere, ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’

* * *

When men in books awake from a vision, they commonly find themselves in some place in which they might have fallen asleep; they yawn in a chair, or lift themselves with bruised limbs from a field. Syme’s experience was something much more psychologically strange if there was indeed anything unreal, in the earthly sense, about the things he had gone through.

For while he could always remember afterwards that he had swooned before the face of Sunday, he could not remember having ever come to at all. He could only remember that gradually and naturally he knew that he was and had been walking along a country lane with an easy and conversational companion. That companion had been a part of his recent drama; it was the red-haired poet Gregory. They were walking like old friends, and were in the middle of a conversation about some triviality. But Syme could only feel an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.

Dawn was breaking over everything in colours at once clear and timid; as if Nature made a first attempt at yellow and a first attempt at rose. A breeze blew so clean and sweet, that one could not think that it blew from the sky; it blew rather through some hole in the sky.

Syme felt a simple surprise when he saw rising all round him on both sides of the road the red, irregular buildings of Saffron Park. He had no idea that he had walked so near London. He walked by instinct along one white road, on which early birds hopped and sang, and found himself outside a fenced garden. There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with the gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.

Sunday’s parting question as the nightmare collapses – ‘Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?’ is the question Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38–39. It is a challenge to Syme and maybe to the reader, asking whether they have the ‘commitment’ to follow in Jesus’ footsteps… Maybe this makes sense to a Christian but within the context of the novel it is difficult to… pin down, to really understand.

Metaphysical landscapes

At its most intense – in the sequence where Syme is followed by the spooky Professor across London, and in the delirious chase scene across the French countryside where everyone on earth seems to be pursuing our heroes – The Man Who Was Thursday becomes a really effective spine-chiller.

And throughout there is an otherworldly sensibility at work. Chesterton’s is a mind which doesn’t flow toward the concrete but naturally leads him off into apocalyptic theological and symbolical landscapes. Here he is summing up Syme’s first impression of the other anarchists sitting round the conference table.

Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world. Again and again Syme strove to pull together his common sense in their presence. Sometimes he saw for an instant that these notions were subjective, that he was only looking at ordinary men, one of whom was old, another nervous, another short-sighted. The sense of an unnatural symbolism always settled back on him again.

Each figure seemed to be, somehow, on the borderland of things, just as their theory was on the borderland of thought. He knew that each one of these men stood at the extreme end, so to speak, of some wild road of reasoning. He could only fancy, as in some old-world fable, that if a man went westward to the end of the world he would find something – say a tree – that was more or less than a tree, a tree possessed by a spirit; and that if he went east to the end of the world he would find something else that was not wholly itself – a tower, perhaps, of which the very shape was wicked. So these figures seemed to stand up, violent and unaccountable, against an ultimate horizon, visions from the verge. The ends of the earth were closing in.

‘An ultimate horizon, visions from the verge.’ That is where a lot of Chesterton’s imagination is always tending. He is always moving from the actual towards the metaphysical, but the metaphysical with an Edwardian twist.

The strangeness of some of these visions reminds me of the weird otherworldly landscapes conjured up in C.S. Lewis’s great science fiction trilogy, or even in Wyndham Lewis’s very peculiar theological science fiction novel, The Childermass.

London landscapes

However, the parts of the book I liked most were when Chesterton’s natural taste for the fantastical is tied, anchored and embedded in naturalistic descriptions of Edwardian London.

For example, on the tugboat journey from the secret basement where Syme is elected ‘Thursday’ to a mooring at the Embankment near Charing Cross, where he first meets the ‘Secretary’ and is escorted to Leicester Square.

Over the whole landscape lay a luminous and unnatural discoloration, as of that disastrous twilight which Milton spoke of as shed by the sun in eclipse; so that Syme fell easily into his first thought, that he was actually on some other and emptier planet, which circled round some sadder star.

But the more he felt this glittering desolation in the moonlit land, the more his own chivalric folly glowed in the night like a great fire. Even the common things he carried with him – the food and the brandy and the loaded pistol [which he has brought from the anarchists meeting] – took on exactly that concrete and material poetry which a child feels when he takes a gun upon a journey or a bun with him to bed.

The sword-stick and the brandy-flask, though in themselves only the tools of morbid conspirators, became the expressions of his own more healthy romance. The sword-stick became almost the sword of chivalry, and the brandy the wine of the stirrup-cup. For even the most dehumanised modern fantasies depend on some older and simpler figure; the adventures may be mad, but the adventurer must be sane. The dragon without St. George would not even be grotesque.

So this inhuman landscape was only imaginative by the presence of a man really human. To Syme’s exaggerative mind the bright, bleak houses and terraces by the Thames looked as empty as the mountains of the moon. But even the moon is only poetical because there is a man in the moon.

The tug was worked by two men, and with much toil went comparatively slowly. The clear moon that had lit up Chiswick had gone down by the time that they passed Battersea, and when they came under the enormous bulk of Westminster day had already begun to break. It broke like the splitting of great bars of lead, showing bars of silver; and these had brightened like white fire when the tug, changing its onward course, turned inward to a large landing stage rather beyond Charing Cross.

The great stones of the Embankment seemed equally dark and gigantic as Syme looked up at them. They were big and black against the huge white dawn. They made him feel that he was landing on the colossal steps of some Egyptian palace; and, indeed, the thing suited his mood, for he was, in his own mind, mounting to attack the solid thrones of horrible and heathen kings. He leapt out of the boat on to one slimy step, and stood, a dark and slender figure, amid the enormous masonry. The two men in the tug put her off again and turned up stream. They had never spoken a word.

Chesterton’s point in the middle of the passage is a conservative, Christian one, that even the little things in our life are illuminated and somehow redeemed by repeating older, more noble ‘figures’ and archetypes.

Maybe. Maybe not. But there is no denying the majesty of his description of day breaking like the splitting of great bars of lead, nor the power of his description of Syme leaping onto the slimy steps of a quay, a slender figure dwarfed by the enormous stones of the Embankment.

For Chesterton that physical description is the basis for his theological points; but for me the physical description is the metaphysical. The depiction of the actual world around us – whether in well-chosen phrases or in lines of pen or charcoal – is, for me, the really true worship.

The seven days of the week

Monday

He was the Secretary of the Council, and his twisted smile was regarded with more terror than anything, except the President’s horrible, happy laughter. But now that Syme had more space and light to observe him, there were other touches. His fine face was so emaciated, that Syme thought it must be wasted with some disease; yet somehow the very distress of his dark eyes denied this. It was no physical ill that troubled him. His eyes were alive with intellectual torture, as if pure thought was pain.

Tuesday

The man’s name, it seemed, was Gogol; he was a Pole, and in this circle of days he was called Tuesday. His soul and speech were incurably tragic; he could not force himself to play the prosperous and frivolous part demanded of him by President Sunday… Gogol, or Tuesday, had his simplicity well symbolised by a dress designed upon the division of the waters, a dress that separated upon his forehead and fell to his feet, grey and silver, like a sheet of rain

Wednesday

A certain Marquis de St. Eustache, a sufficiently characteristic figure. The first few glances found nothing unusual about him, except that he was the only man at table who wore the fashionable clothes as if they were really his own. He had a black French beard cut square and a black English frock-coat cut even squarer. But Syme, sensitive to such things, felt somehow that the man carried a rich atmosphere with him, a rich atmosphere that suffocated. It reminded one irrationally of drowsy odours and of dying lamps in the darker poems of Byron and Poe. With this went a sense of his being clad, not in lighter colours, but in softer materials; his black seemed richer and warmer than the black shades about him, as if it were compounded of profound colour. His black coat looked as if it were only black by being too dense a purple. His black beard looked as if it were only black by being too deep a blue. And in the gloom and thickness of the beard his dark red mouth showed sensual and scornful. Whatever he was he was not a Frenchman; he might be a Jew; he might be something deeper yet in the dark heart of the East. In the bright coloured Persian tiles and pictures showing tyrants hunting, you may see just those almond eyes, those blue-black beards, those cruel, crimson lips.

Friday

Next a very old man, Professor de Worms, who still kept the chair of Friday, though every day it was expected that his death would leave it empty. Save for his intellect, he was in the last dissolution of senile decay. His face was as grey as his long grey beard, his forehead was lifted and fixed finally in a furrow of mild despair. In no other case, not even that of Gogol, did the bridegroom brilliancy of the morning dress express a more painful contrast. For the red flower in his button-hole showed up against a face that was literally discoloured like lead; the whole hideous effect was as if some drunken dandies had put their clothes upon a corpse. When he rose or sat down, which was with long labour and peril, something worse was expressed than mere weakness, something indefinably connected with the horror of the whole scene. It did not express decrepitude merely, but corruption. Another hateful fancy crossed Syme’s quivering mind. He could not help thinking that whenever the man moved a leg or arm might fall off.

Saturday

Right at the end sat the man called Saturday, the simplest and the most baffling of all. He was a short, square man with a dark, square face clean-shaven, a medical practitioner going by the name of Bull. He had that combination of savoir-faire with a sort of well-groomed coarseness which is not uncommon in young doctors. He carried his fine clothes with confidence rather than ease, and he mostly wore a set smile. There was nothing whatever odd about him, except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead. Syme’s eye always caught the black glasses and the blind grin. Had the dying Professor worn them, or even the pale Secretary, they would have been appropriate. But on the younger and grosser man they seemed only an enigma. They took away the key of the face. You could not tell what his smile or his gravity meant. Partly from this, and partly because he had a vulgar virility wanting in most of the others it seemed to Syme that he might be the wickedest of all those wicked men. Syme even had the thought that his eyes might be covered up because they were too frightful to see.

Sunday

At the nearest end of the balcony, blocking up a great part of the perspective, was the back of a great mountain of a man. When Syme had seen him, his first thought was that the weight of him must break down the balcony of stone. His vastness did not lie only in the fact that he was abnormally tall and quite incredibly fat. This man was planned enormously in his original proportions, like a statue carved deliberately as colossal. His head, crowned with white hair, as seen from behind looked bigger than a head ought to be. The ears that stood out from it looked larger than human ears. He was enlarged terribly to scale; and this sense of size was so staggering, that when Syme saw him all the other figures seemed quite suddenly to dwindle and become dwarfish.


Related links

The Napoleon of Notting Hill by G.K. Chesterton (1904)

In his prime, between 1910 and into the 1930s, Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1874-1936) was a hugely successful ‘writer, poet, philosopher, dramatist, journalist, orator, lay theologian, biographer, and literary and art critic’.

He wrote a vast amount of essays, reviews, columns, articles and literary criticism – notably helping a revival of interest in Dickens with his 1906 biography of the great man – and also wrote extensively about religion, leading up to his own conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1922.

Probably Chesterton’s most enduring legacy is the 53 Father Brown detective stories published between 1910 and 1936, which are regularly dramatised for TV or radio. His next most famous works are probably the novels The Man Who Was Thursday, and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.

Edwardian humour

The Napoleon of Notting Hill is a comic novel, full of satire and high spirits, not all of which are easily understandable. Some of the incidental humour is pretty laboured and dated.

For example, book three (of five) opens with an extended satire on the kind of poetry published around 1904 and the kind of criticism it received, in the form of an extended joke about a volume of poetry, Hymns on the Hill. This fictional book of poetry is described as being reviewed by the king, no less, who uses the pseudonym ‘Thunderbolt’ and is described as being a member of the so-called ‘Hammock’ school of criticism. This ‘hammock’ school of criticism gets its name because so many of their reviews start by referring to the great pleasure the book brought the reviewer as he lazed in his hammock on a seasonal summer’s afternoon.

I understand how this is a gentle satire on the state of literary criticism circa 1904, and it is sort of funny, in its way, but it requires a bit of effort to cast your mind back to that kind of era and worldview.

Similarly, book one opens with a chapter satirising the fashion for ‘prophecies of the future’ which were so popular in Chesterton’s day and which is obviously designed to skewer not only H.G. Wells – by then the leader of a whole school of scientific prophecy – but all the other prophets of socialism and pacifism and vegetarianism and so on which proliferated at the turn of the century. Chesterton mocks them all by describing their prophetic predictions, and then extending them to ludicrous extremes.

Then, having itemised all the individual prophets and their foibles, Chesterton demolishes the lot with one grand fictional gesture. Which is to make this novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, another grand social prophecy, to set it in the far distant remote year of 1984, and then to assert the simple fact that, contrary to all the predictions of all the so-called prophets… nothing whatsoever has changed!

All the great catastrophes and collapses and social revolutions predicted by the prophets… have failed to transpire.

For, as Chesterton writes, with a broad smile on his face, the people – the uneducated, uninterested masses – have listened to the Great Prophets, have read their books and articles and… ignored them, and just got on with their lives.

They have played the traditional game which Chesterton puckishly names ‘Cheat the Prophet’, with the result that:

When the curtain goes up on this story, eighty years after the present date, London is almost exactly like what it is now.

The Napoleon of Notting Hill

In fact the England of 1984 is a despotism but in the nicest possible way. Democracy has faded into the rule of one man, a titular ‘king’, overseeing committees of efficient civil servants. But there have been no devastating wars, society carries on much as it always has, chaps still wear frock coats and top hats, ladies wear elaborate Victorian dresses with corsets and bustles, horse-drawn hansom cabs rumble through the streets. The only change that concerns us is that the ruler of the country, the so-called ‘king’, is chosen at random, from a long list of eligible citizens.

In the first couple of pages we are introduced to a trio of young men – the Honourable James Barker (‘one of the most powerful officials in the English Government’), Wilfrid Lambert (a ‘youth with a nose which appears to impoverish the rest of his face’, ‘a fool’) and their short friend Auberon Quin, who:

had an appearance compounded of a baby and an owl. His round head, round eyes, seemed to have been designed by nature playfully with a pair of compasses.

Some of the early incidents, before the story really gets going and taking up several chapters – are offputtingly inexplicable. In one they bump into the exiled President of Nicaragua in Whitehall, and watch as he goes to mad extremes to recreate the flag of his lost country – first sourcing the colour yellow by tearing a rip in an advertising hoarding for Coleman’s mustard, then the colour red by plunging a knife into his own hand and staining a handkerchief red. After spouting much inconsequential Latin fieriness, the ex-President walks proudly off into the night never to be met again. I found this scene incomprehensible.

Quin, Lambert and Barker are strolling through Kensington Gardens one fine day, Quin infuriating the other two with his latest tom-fool idea which is that the secret of humour is telling elaborate stories which don’t have a point. He is just sticking his head between his legs and making a cow noise when… two equerries walk up and announce that the new King of England, picked by random lot is…. Quin! He will be King Auberon!

While the other two go pale with horror, Quin preens and plumes himself and struts around.He wanders up into Notting Hill, where a serious little boy wearing a toy knight in armour costume, prods him in the tummy with a wooden sword, whereat Quin very seriously tells the young man he must defend his home turf, the Hill of Notting, with all his strength and honour, before strolling off dispensing similar ‘advice’ to puzzled passersby.

But this brief encounter with the little boy sets Quin thinking. What if he used his power to make the rulers of all of London’s boroughs wear medieval armour and halberds and…? And so when his friend Barker visits ‘his majesty’ a few days later, he finds Quin on the floor surrounded by poster paints, playfully sketching out new coats of arms and coloured standards for each of the 32 London boroughs.

The King was happy all that morning with his cardboard and his paint-box. He was engaged in designing the uniforms and coats-of-arms for the various municipalities of London. They gave him deep and no inconsiderable thought. He felt the responsibility. (Book 2, chapter 2)

As the last sentence indicates, the whole thing is told with an amused, tongue-in-cheek drollery.

Ten years later

Cut to ten years later: Quin is still King Auberon and still the joker. the 32 London boroughs really have become self-governing fiefdoms and all their officials forced to wear the ridiculous cod-medieval outfits Quin has designed for them.

One day a building developer (‘Mr Buck, the abrupt North Kensington magnate’) comes to complain about delays in getting a new road and housing development which he is managing. It is intended to go from Hammersmith up through Notting Hill and beyond but the rulers of Notting Hill are being obstructive. Soon he is joined by the Provosts of West Kensington and so on – all dressed in the ceremonial costumes which Quin still childishly insists they all wear, announced by medieval pages and so on.

They’re all complaining to Quin about the hold-ups and delays blocking the project, and the costs and the overheads and profit margins, when a remarkable thing happens — the Provost of Notting Hill arrives and, at a stroke, reveals that he takes all Quin’s nonsense about medieval pageantry perfectly seriously!

He speaks medieval phraseology as if he means it. He says ‘my liege’ and ‘my honour’ and waves his doughty sword and generally takes Quin’s silly joke at face value.

‘I bring homage to my King. I bring him the only thing I have – my sword.’
And with a great gesture he flung it down on the ground, and knelt on one knee behind it.
There was a dead silence.
‘I beg your pardon,’ said the King, blankly.

Stunned, Quin looks closer and realises this chap is none other than the little boy who prodded him in the tummy with a toy sword ten years earlier. His name is Adam Wayne and now, aged 19, he announces that he is prepared to defend the Hill of Notting to the death! Well, well.

The novel then tells us something about Adam Wayne’s character. Never having been out of London – or even Notting Hill – he is a genuine modernist, in the sense that he finds poetic beauty in the urban landscape, finds fairyland in railings and gas lamps and hansom cabs, and in the silhouette of terraced houses against the night sky. (This is, again, satire on what Chesterton takes to be the absurd pretentiousness of modernist poets and writers.)

Above all Wayne takes absolutely seriously the notion that Notting Hill is a precious land, worthy of his patriotism, worthy of defending.

In a comic sequence we are shown Wayne canvassing opinion among the shop-keepers on Notting Hill, visiting a grocer’s, a chemist’s, a barber’s, an old curiosity shop and a toy-shop. The comic premise is simple: Wayne enters each shop and speaks the 15th-century register of patriotism and heroism and defending the Hill – and the (generally) short, round, balding shop-keepers are comically nonplussed.

(It’s interesting to learn just how long short, irascible shopkeepers have been a reliable staple of English humour – from H.G. Wells’s numerous retailers [I’ve just read about Bert Smallways, keeper of a bicycle hire shop in The War In The Air] to Jones the butcher in Dad’s Army and Arkwright in Open All Hours, the blustering, bumbling shopkeeper is a comic staple.)

Anyway, Wayne meets with predictable, and comic, incomprehension until he comes to the sweet and toy shop of Mr Turnbull, who stuns him by revealing that, in his spare time, he plays wargames with his lead soldiers and – has even built a model of Notting Hill which he uses to play wargames!

What a find! A man after Wayne’s own heart!

The Pump Street fight

Anyway, the Provosts of the boroughs affected by Wayne’s refusal to let the new road development cut up through Notting Hill put their case before King Auberon for his approval. Specifically the plans call for the demolition of a few buildings in Pump Street. Wayne says no. Led by Buck, the businessmen offer Wayne three times the properties’ value. But Wayne refuses point blank to see any part of his kingdom despoiled, and leaves the meeting.

At which point Buck and the other speculators say they will simply send men in to knock down the buildings, halbardiers from each of the allied boroughs, Wayne or no Wayne – and the king sadly acquiesces. He had intended to create fun, frivolity and fantasy, and now it’s all got a little out of hand.

The king has only just moved on to begin a champagne dinner, arranged by servants in Kensington Gardens, when things really do get out of hand.

He hears the sound of shouting, footsteps running closer, and then – to his and his courtiers’ astonishment – wounded halberdiers come running and stumbling from Notting Hill, beating down a flimsy wall which separates Kensington Gardens from the public thoroughfare and then, in the gap, appears a god-like figure, blazoned with light – it is Adam Wayne, General of the army of Notting Hill!

A dazed Barker (one of Quin’s friends who we met back at the start of the book), who had been involved in the battle, stumbles south to High Street Kensington where he bumps into the entrepreneur Buck closing up his shop, and tells him what has happened.

Buck is immediately on his mettle, rallies the Provosts of all the nearby London boroughs, quickly assembles a few hundred soldiers from each of them, and leads them on a march converging on Pump Street, which has now become the symbolic epicentre of the war.

But the Notting Hillers take control of the nearby gasworks and turn off the gas supply to the streetlamps, plunging all the roads into darkness. Intimately familiar with their home turf, the Hillers launch devastating attacks, genuinely hurting, maiming and killing their opponents.

Chesterton manages to gloss over the seriousness of injury and death, instead inserting writing a funny chapter where King Auberon storms into the offices of his favourite newspaper, The Court Journal. Here he terrorises the editor into giving him huge placards to write incendiary headlines on, and then sets about concocting an entirely fictional description of the battle – in the manner of a modern newspaper – presumably this is all satire on journalism and newspapers’ readiness simply to invent the stuff they print – when real eye witnesses to the fighting, Barker and Buck, stumble into the offices.

Immediately the whimsical king nominates himself Foreign Correspondent to the paper and sets off ‘for the front’, in his usual, comically histrionic style:

‘I have an idea,’ he said. ‘I will be an eye-witness. I will write you such letters from the Front as will be more gorgeous than the real thing. Give me my coat, Paladium. I entered this room a mere King of England. I leave it, Special War Correspondent of the Court Journal. It is useless to stop me, Pally; it is vain to cling to my knees, Buck; it is hopeless, Barker, to weep upon my neck. “When duty calls”… the remainder of the sentiment escapes me.’

There follows an increasingly complex description of the various battles now being fought across the borough, which climax with man-to-man fighting around the waterworks on Campden Hill.

Meanwhile Buck has sent for reinforcements from the further-flung London boroughs, who have all promptly sent a few hundred men each. He now has a substantial force at his disposal. During a lull in the battle Buck sends an emissary to Wayne pointing out that they now outnumber the Notting Hillers by ten to one. In the manner of confident business men he makes a bet with the king that Wayne will promptly surrender. The king suspects not.

And is proved correct when an emissary from Wayne arrives, arrayed in full medieval gear, and blandly asks the assembled army of the boroughs to surrender.

Buck and his entourage burst out laughing, what a preposterous idea. But the emissary goes on to point out that Wayne has secured Campden Hill reservoir and, if a surrender is not given in ten minutes, will open it, flooding and drowning the entire army which is standing in the valley below.

Astonished, Buck realises they will have to surrender. The mischievous king is delighted with this turn of events. And so the Empire of Notting Hill commences.

The last battle

Now the novel cuts to twenty years later. Notting Hill is an empire to which the other London boroughs pay obeisance. It is entered via nine huge, elaborately carved gateways on which are depicted events from the battle for Independence.

King Auberon is walking its quiet and amazingly prosperous streets. He notes how the five shopkeepers who Wayne visited all those years ago now rule over colourful emporia and use the elaborate diction of medieval merchants. In fact Wayne’s victory is not so much a military conquest of the rest of the London as the discovery that everyone turned out to want to live a life of medieval colour and romance, to want more than the simple Edwardian money-grubbing. Dressing and speaking as medieval burghers and courtiers turns out to be surprisingly liberating.

The king bumps into Barker, who begins explaining that the men of Kensington sometimes get exasperated by the Notting Hillers’ lordliness when… the lights abruptly go out. A local inhabitant tells our puzzled protagonists that this happens every year on the anniversary of the Great Battle. Then the Hillers start singing a martial song of victory — and this pushes the ever-touchy Barker over the edge. He grabs a sword, yells ‘South Kensington’ and leaps at passing revellers. Some of the other passersby turn out to be from other London boroughs, and join in. From nowhere appears Buck, leader of the allied boroughs in the earlier war and so soon there is a massive battle taking place… again.

And these final pages are odd, strange and puzzling. One of the reasons I read older books is because they come from a foreign country, where lots if not most of the assumptions are different – about society, class, technology, gender, race, about language itself – and you find yourself being brought up dead on every page by words, expressions, ideas, things taken for granted by the author and their Edwardian readers which we, a hundred years later, find outlandish or inexplicable – all of which force the modern reader to stop and rethink their prejudices, values and opinions.

I find this approach much more challenging than reading modern fiction, which mostly just confirms our current liberal pieties. It is more bracing to be challenged.

In these last passages the reader is really challenged.

Chesterton descends into a kind of romantic fugue state, the battle becomes a vision of romantic fighting from the period of King Arthur, all swords and halberds, and quickly relinquishes all contact with reality.

At the climax of the battle Wayne stands with his back against a huge old oak tree, symbolic of deep English character. Repeated waves of attackers can’t separate him from it until, in finally pulling him from it, they only manage in pulling the whole tree up by its roots, which promptly falls onto the crowd of soldiers killing all of them.

This is obviously a hugely symbolic moment but… symbolic of what, exactly?

I read in the introduction to the book that Chesterton was criticised, then and now, for glorifying war, for thinking of war as a redeeming cleansing activity. For example, critics quote King Auberon musing as he walks round the empire of Notting Hill:

‘Old Wayne was right in a way,’ commented the King. ‘The sword does make things beautiful.’

But the use of the word ‘sword’ immediately reveals that Chesterton is not really thinking about war as such. The book was written in the aftermath of the Boer War with its barbed wire, concentration camps and machine guns which had very much dominated British culture. No fool glamorises that kind of war. The key is given by the king’s very next remark:

‘It has made the whole world romantic…’

The book doesn’t glamorise war, it praises the life-enhancing qualities of medieval romance – while at the same time richly satirising it. The book tries to have its cake and eat it. Right up until the end, when something much stranger happens.

This strangeness reaches a new height in the very last chapter – titled ‘Two Voices’ – when out of the ruins and grim silence at the end of the last battle, from out of the darkness of the night amid the landscape ruined with corpses, arise two voices.

I’ve read the chapter twice but still don’t really understand what they’re saying. It seems to be a sort of conservative hymn to the notion of undying, unchanging values.

‘If all things are always the same, it is because they are always heroic. If all things are always the same, it is because they are always new. To each man one soul only is given; to each soul only is given a little power – the power at some moments to outgrow and swallow up the stars. If age after age that power comes upon men, whatever gives it to them is great. Whatever makes men feel old is mean – an empire or a skin-flint shop. Whatever makes men feel young is great – a great war or a love-story.

‘And in the darkest of the books of God there is written a truth that is also a riddle. It is of the new things that men tire – of fashions and proposals and improvements and change. It is the old things that startle and intoxicate. It is the old things that are young. There is no sceptic who does not feel that many have doubted before. There is no rich and fickle man who does not feel that all his novelties are ancient.

‘There is no worshipper of change who does not feel upon his neck the vast weight of the weariness of the universe. But we who do the old things are fed by nature with a perpetual infancy. No man who is in love thinks that any one has been in love before. No woman who has a child thinks that there have been such things as children. No people that fight for their own city are haunted with the burden of the broken empires. Yes, O dark voice, the world is always the same, for it is always unexpected.’

The text then takes on a theological tone. Suppose he is God, says one voice, and he made the whole universe as a joke, as a jeu d’esprit, knocked it off for his own amusement and then forgot about it.

At which point dawn begins to lighten the eastern sky (with rather crashing symbolism) and one of the two voices is revealed as that of King Auberon and the other, that of Wayne.

‘Wayne,’ says the king, ‘it was all a joke. I meant it as a joke.’ ‘Then that makes it all the more real,’ says Wayne.

All criticism of Chesterton sooner or later mentions his fondness for paradoxes, for the unexpected, for reversals. And that’s what happens here. Somehow, the very fact that the entire premise of the story was one man’s childish joke — makes its unintended consequences all the more profound and serious.

Wayne says it doesn’t matter what motivated Auberon: all that matters is that the two of them – the two poles of human nature – the over-satirical and the over-earnest – came together to restore humanity to the poetic way of life, vision and diction which it deserves.

It isn’t war as such: it is the romance of human life which Chesterton is asserting, in this strange visionary conclusion to what had been, up until these last few pages, a fairly easy-to-assimilate satire.

‘I know of something that will alter that antagonism, something that is outside us, something that you and I have all our lives perhaps taken too little account of. The equal and eternal human being will alter that antagonism, for the human being sees no real antagonism between laughter and respect, the human being, the common man, whom mere geniuses like you and me can only worship like a god.

‘When dark and dreary days come, you and I are necessary, the pure fanatic, the pure satirist. We have between us remedied a great wrong. We have lifted the modern cities into that poetry which every one who knows mankind knows to be immeasurably more common than the commonplace.

‘But in healthy people there is no war between us. We are but the two lobes of the brain of a ploughman. Laughter and love are everywhere. The cathedrals, built in the ages that loved God, are full of blasphemous grotesques. The mother laughs continually at the child, the lover laughs continually at the lover, the wife at the husband, the friend at the friend.

‘Auberon Quin, we have been too long separated; let us go out together. You have a halberd and I a sword, let us start our wanderings over the world. For we are its two essentials. Come, it is already day.’

In the blank white light Auberon hesitated a moment. Then he made the formal salute with his halberd, and they went away together into the unknown world.

As I say, I read older books because they are so often challenging, not because of their plots or characters, but because of ideological or political or theological or cultural assumptions which underly them are so often hard to understand or sympathise with. Making the effort to do so, in my opinion, whether you agree with them or not (indeed, whether you completely understand them or not) expands your mind.

Better than TV. Better than movies. Better than drugs.


A hint of modernism

Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.

Thus T.S. Eliot wrote in The Waste Land, published in 1922 but much of it written much earlier. Accidie and world-weariness were clearly common feelings among Edwardian writers – passages in Conrad and Wells spring to mind – and I was struck how vivid and forceful the same feeling appears in Chesterton.

He is eloquent on the sheer oppressive boredom of London’s long, blank streets. Adam Wayne is a figure of fun, but in his innocence he often speaks truth:

‘I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might wake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.’

Maybe it was Tennyson who introduced this mood of specifically urban despair into English poetry. Here’s a lyric from his long, desolate poem In Memoriam, commemorating his best friend who died young.

Dark house, by which once more I stand
Here in the long unlovely street,
Doors, where my heart was used to beat
So quickly, waiting for a hand,

A hand that can be clasp’d no more –
Behold me, for I cannot sleep,
And like a guilty thing I creep
At earliest morning to the door.

He is not here; but far away
The noise of life begins again,
And ghastly thro’ the drizzling rain
On the bald street breaks the blank day.

Dickens knew that long bald street, and so did Chesterton.

The blank white morning had only just begun to break over the blank London buildings when Wayne and Turnbull were to be found seated in the cheerless and unswept shop.

Blankness upon blankness. And:

‘I have walked along a street with the best cigar in the cosmos in my mouth, and more Burgundy inside me than you ever saw in your life, and longed that the lamp-post would turn into an elephant to save me from the hell of blank existence.’

So although most of the book bubbles with (sometimes incomprehensible) satire and good humour, and then metamorphoses into a hymn to medievalism – nonetheless, not far from the surface and bubbling up in random locations, is Chesterton’s awareness of the bleak boredom of city life.


Related links

The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908)

Slowly, broadly, invincibly, there grew upon Bert’s mind realisation of the immense tragedy of humanity into which his life was flowing; the appalling and universal nature of the epoch that had arrived; the conception of an end to security and order and habit. The whole world was at war and it could not get back to peace, it might never recover peace. (Chapter Ten, The War in the Air)

The War In The Air is often referenced because in it Wells so accurately anticipated lots of details of aerial warfare – dogfights, bombing raids, even what the earth looks like from up in the air – none of which existed or were possible when he wrote the book in 1907 and when the most primitive flying machines had only just been invented.

In other words, I knew before starting that it was a masterpiece of imaginative prophecy.

But my heart sank a bit when I began to read it and realised that it’s another one of Wells’s mongrel books, in that it’s a real mish-mash of subject matter and tone.

Thus he chooses to recount the outbreak of this epic world war (sometime around 1914, i.e. in his then-future) and the triumph of the mighty German airfleet – via the adventures of the comic figure of Bert Smallways, keeper of a failed second-hand bicycle shop in suburban Kent. Bathos.

Bert Smallways

In fact, once you settle into them the fifty pages at the start of the novel which describe the suburban adventures of Bert and his business partner, Grubb, are both interesting and amusing. Interesting because they’re packed with Edwardian social history. Wells gives a review of how the Kentish village where grandfather Smallways lives (Bun Hill) is slowly engulfed by the spread of London suburbs, roads, railways, telegraph as the 19th turns into the 20th century, along with a blight of advertising hoardings, bicycles and new-fangled motor cars.

Amusing because Bert and Grubb’s pitiful attempts to set up and run their bicycle repair and hire shop are played entirely for laughs.

The staple of their business was, however, the letting of bicycles on hire. It was a singular trade, obeying no known commercial or economic principles – indeed, no principles. There was a stock of ladies’ and gentlemen’s bicycles in a state of disrepair that passes description, and these, the hiring stock, were let to unexacting and reckless people, inexpert in the things of this world, at a nominal rate of one shilling for the first hour and sixpence per hour afterwards. But really there were no fixed prices, and insistent boys could get bicycles and the thrill of danger for an hour for so low a sum as threepence, provided they could convince Grubb that that was all they had. The saddle and handle-bar were then sketchily adjusted by Grubb, a deposit exacted, except in the case of familiar boys, the machine lubricated, and the adventurer started upon his career. Usually he or she came back, but at times, when the accident was serious, Bert or Grubb had to go out and fetch the machine home. Hire was always charged up to the hour of return to the shop and deducted from the deposit. It was rare that a bicycle started out from their hands in a state of pedantic efficiency. Romantic possibilities of accident lurked in the worn thread of the screw that adjusted the saddle, in the precarious pedals, in the loose-knit chain, in the handle-bars, above all in the brakes and tyres. Tappings and clankings and strange rhythmic creakings awoke as the intrepid hirer pedalled out into the country. Then perhaps the bell would jam or a brake fail to act on a hill; or the seat-pillar would get loose, and the saddle drop three or four inches with a disconcerting bump; or the loose and rattling chain would jump the cogs of the chain-wheel as the machine ran downhill, and so bring the mechanism to an abrupt and disastrous stop without at the same time arresting the forward momentum of the rider; or a tyre would bang, or sigh quietly, and give up the struggle for efficiency. (Chapter 2)

I enjoy this kind of gentle, Dad’s Army-type humour about the foibles and failings of ordinary English folk.

What makes it a Wells novel, though, is that this review of social and technological changes brings us up to the present and then… goes beyond it, into the future.

After the bicycle and car, old grandfather Smallways then watches the further developments of aerial monorails which soon criss-cross the country, dangling from vast metal pylons, and soon put the railways out of business. Wells also describes the advent of a new style of motor cars which have only two central wheels and travel at previously unheard-of speeds.

I.e. the story naturalises and domesticates what are in fact bold speculations about near-future technological developments.

One of these is the development of a new kind of flying machine which Bert and his mates, in among their other misadventures, read about in the newspapers. they even glimpse displays of the new flying machines because they live quite close to the Crystal Palace where some of the new-fangled machines go up and fly around.

Mr Butteridge inventor of the airplane

The rambunctious inventor of this new type of airplane is a certain Mr Butteridge who is treated with characteristic Wellsian facetiousness: he is fiercely secretive about his invention as well as being passionately in love with his mistress.

After several comic mishaps which made me think of The Last of the Summer Wine (Bert and Grubb take two young ladies for a Bank Holiday spree until Bert’s motorbike suddenly catches fire, leading to much mayhem), Grubb and Smallways are forced to acknowledge that their bicycle shop is no longer a going concern. So they close it down, and go down to the seaside to try their luck as ‘entertainers’.

They have just set up stall on the beach at Littlestone and begun singing to bored holiday-makers and curious children when everyone sees a strange sight – an air balloon coming drifting not very far above the ground trailing ropes behind it.

Yelling from it is none other than Mr Butteridge, shouting at the scattered holiday makers to catch the ropes and pull him down. And this is what a smattering of male day trippers proceed to do, grabbing the dangling tow ropes to pull down and stabilise the balloon just above the cobbles of the beach.

Butteridge explains that he was taking a pleasant day’s flight when his companion became ill. He then sets about manhandling the unconscious lady in all her Edwardians bustles over the side of the basket between its ropes and stays. It’s a fiddly, difficult business and he is just in the middle of it when a gust of wind comes along and — tips Butteridge and his lady out onto the sand, bumps the basket suddenly to the side so that Bert tumbles head-first into it and then — having thrown all the other hands off the ropes, Bert finds himself whooshing quickly high, high up into the sky in the runaway balloon.

No matter how preposterous the story, Wells has a real gift for fiercely imagining all the details of the scenarios he works up. On almost every page there are vivid touches which take you that much further into the story, and overcome your rational indignation at its silliness. Here’s Bert, having just fallen into the balloon’s car and half-stunned himself.

He had an impression he must be stunned because of a surging in his ears, and because all the voices of the people about him had become small and remote. They were shouting like elves inside a hill.

‘Like elves inside a hill’. That image has stayed with me for several days since I read it.

Anyway, Bert drifts east in the balloon over the English Channel, across France and then across Germany. There is a comic sequence in which he tries to land and throws out the iron anchor at the end of a rope which then proceeds to ravage its way across a small German town, smashing windows, ripping off rooftiles and prompting an angry crowd to chase him shouting abuse in German. It is only when the balloon drifts over an enormous field of huge man-made dirigibles, that he is finally shot down and comes back down to earth.

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

With the German attack fleet

It turns out that Germany is on the brink of declaring war against Britain (as so many people in 1908 feared she would do) and is mobilising this vast secret fleet of airships. Bert is taken before the commander-in-chief, the tall, blonde, merciless Prince Karl Albert.

But there is a complication: up in the balloon Bert had had time to rummage around in the basket’s various cupboards and drawers, fortunately finding food, but also uncovering a load of technical plans for Butteridge’s new airplane design.

And discovering that Butteridge had been planning to sell the designs to the Germans. The revelation that Butteridge was a traitor floors simple-minded Bert. But worse is to come for the German high command now mistakes him for Butteridge, under the impression that he has fled England with plans to deliver to them. Bert is forced to go along with their misunderstanding and pretend to be a famous inventor!

You can imagine the comic misunderstandings as Bert pathetically tries to play up to his role of genius, despite being nothing more than a failed second-hand bicycle salesman. Because of the comical German accents I was reminded of the TV show, ‘Allo ‘Allo. It feels about that level of silliness.

And because the Germans think Bert has brought them important plans, without a bye-your-leave he is ordered to accompany the fleet as they set off on the aerial attacks which will mark the outbreak of the war in the air, as a technical adviser.

So Bert is bundled into the lead airship of the German fleet, the Vaterland, put under guard of the humane, English-speaking Kurt, and up he goes, witnessing the sight of the vast German attack fleet of the future, scores of vast zeppelins, each of which carries a number of new-design fighter planes, or Drachenflieger.

This allows Wells to give soaringly evocative descriptions of what it is like to fly, what it is like to rise above the level of the clouds into pure sunshine, what it is like to look down over the patchwork quilt of farmland, over sunlight reflected on rivers, over cities, and then over the broad Atlantic Ocean. All invented: no human being had done this when Wells wrote his lyrical descriptions of what it must be like.

The battle of the North Atlantic

Then Bert witnesses the Battle of the North Atlantic (chapter 5), when the airship fleet comes to the help of the German High Seas fleet as it attacks the American Atlantic fleet of the Eastern seaboard of the USA. Wells gives a really vivid description of watching a sea battle among the huge dreadnought battleships of the day, the shells, the explosions, the sight of men like ants swarming out of the guts of wrecked ships as they sink, and then wriggling in the water amid explosions of steam and oil.

Nobody had ever seen sights like these before. Wells’s imagining of them is vivid and often disgusting. Bert is sickened by the sight of so much destruction, pain and death.

Attack on New York

Then the fleet flies on to New York whose pre-eminence in the worlds of finance, economics and culture, even in 1907, Wells fully describes, before going on to intensely imagine the attack on New York (subject of chapter 6). After the airships have flattened Wall Street and the City Hall, the New York authorities surrender.

But the population of this great metropolis can’t understand or accept this and spontaneous attacks on the hovering airships break out from all over the city, with the result that the terrible, inflexible Prince Karl Albert orders Broadway to be demolished. Bert watches the incendiary bombs fall, smashing buildings and sending flame waves through the thronged streets, burning countless men, women and children to death. Horrible anticipations of the firestorms which will destroy Coventry, Hamburg, Tokyo, 35 years later.

That night a storm comes up, battering the German airships, and in the middle of it America’s air force attacks, the plucky little fighter planes taking on the huge German airships, the battle illuminated by lightning and thunder, to Bert’s terror.

The Vaterland is hit by bullets, then its steerage hit by American planes, so that it tips nose upwards, some airmen falling down through the galley to their deaths, while Bert fastens himself inside a locker. For days the Vaterland drifts helplessly with the wind northwards, over desolate Canada, till the remaining crew down her in a barren frozen wasteland. Here the Prince takes charge of the survivors, makes the wounded comfortable, distributes rations, builds a camp and orders all the men to erect a vast radio antenna in order to contact the rest of the fleet and call for rescue.

A world at war

Bert pitches in with the other survivors. After five or six days of this intense bleak existence, the Germans get their radio working and discover that the whole world is at war: air fleets have burned London and Berlin and Hamburg and Paris, Japan has devastated San Francisco, and China has mobilised its fleet of planes and airships.

Hence the title of chapter 8 – A World At War. Wells gives an overview of what happens: turns out all the nations of the world all along had secret fleets of airships which they are now launching at each other. Half of Europe attacks the other half. India becomes involved in attacks to the North. A Chinese-Japanese fleet attacks San Francisco and then flies across the entire American continent to attack Niagara, which has become the American base of the German fleet. Even the nations of South America launch fleets of their own.

The uniquely new aspect of aerial warfare is that air fleets can bombard enemy territory but can’t really hold it. Rebellions against the ‘victors’ can break out anywhere, and airships are relatively cheap and quick to build so that at some remote location a ‘conquered’ country can quickly build a new fleet, which can then sail to the main cities of the attackers, and devastate them.

Wells makes the impassioned case that air warfare will therefore, of necessity, by an unstoppable logic, be relentlessly destructive, each side able to inflict potentially endless devastation on the other’s centres of population, but never being able to securely hold them and quell opposition. The resulting war will be endless and endlessly devastating.

Camp Niagara

Meanwhile a German zeppelin has found the crew of the downed Vaterland at its temporary camp in Labrador, picks them up (including Bert) and conveys them all to the town of Niagara, which the Germans have turned into their land base in the United States.

Bert is dragooned into the base of German flight crews, heaving and carrying crates of ammunition or tanks of liquid hydrogen and so on, to provision the resting airships. All at once the zeppelin he arrived in lifts off and Bert, running to watch, witnesses the epic battle between the entire German fleet of 67 airships and the 40 airships of the Southern Wing of the approaching Asiatic fleet.

The battle is, as usual with Wells, grippingly and thrillingly described, as little Bert Smallways looks up at the sky turned fiery battlefield, as well as witnessing the Asiatic forces land and storm the American buildings held by shooting German airmen.

Bert watches the lead German airship destroyed by attacking Asians till it crashes into the river above Niagara Falls, gets caught in the bridges and man-made paraphernalia around the islands, before finally getting washed over the falls, rolling and turning, collapsing into a mash of metal and silk and machinery. Bert runs to the edge of the falls to watch the wreckage be washed, half-submerged, down the river.

There goes Kurt, the only German who was his friend, and the fleet that brought him half way round the world, the symbol of Europe.

On Goat Island

Now Bert is alone on Goat Island, at the mercy of the landing Asian armies. Hiding behind trees and bushes he watches the Asiatics seek out the last hiding Germans and chop them to pieces with swords. Then mine and set fire to all the remaining buildings of the Niagara base. Then return to their sleek Asiatic planes or climb up rope ladders into the air balloons, and so depart.

Suddenly all is quiet. Bert realises with a shock that he is marooned on Goat Island as the one bridge which connected it across the river to the mainland was destroyed by the German zeppelin which crashed onto it.

Bert wanders round the entire perimeter of the island realising he is stuck. He discovers a locked-up tourist cafe, breaks into it and opens tins of corned beef and milk for a meal. Then sits and watches the amazing Niagara falls and the smouldering ruins of the town across the waters.

Although Wells couldn’t know it, this long passage reminds me of a later English sci-fi writer, J.G. Ballard, the poet laureate of abandoned cities, ruined motorways, moribund high rises and derelict amusement arcades.

Bert finds the corpse of an Asiatic flyer who had fallen onto a tree trunk and been spitted. He discovers another body snagged in bushes at the edge of the island. This one he pokes with a long stick to dislodge and is heart-broken to see it turn over and reveal the face of Kurt, the English-speaking German who was so kind to him, yet had felt an eerie foretaste of his own death (they had got to know each other and had several long conversations on the zeppelin flight across the Atlantic).

Bert’s eerie solitude ends with the discovery that two Germans had survived the crash of the airship by the island, notably the mighty and militaristic Prince Albert himself and a servant.

The Germans seize Bert and start bossing him around, ordering him to repair the broken Asiatic plane. He discovers that they have hidden all the food in the refreshment cafe.

Eventually, their arrogant manner makes mild-mannered Bert rebel and, seizing the machine gun he had rescued from another Asiatic warplane, Bert threatens the two Germans – who promptly turn tail and run.

Thus begins a classic example of the trope of two enemy combatants stuck on a small island and trying to hide from / eliminate the other. Bert doesn’t know whether the Germans have weapons of their own. He realises he can’t afford to go to sleep. A literary reference for this situation might be Lord of the Flies but it reminded me more of the movie Hell in the Pacific where Lee Marvin plays a World War Two pilot downed on a remote Pacific island with a Japanese castaway, both of them at each other’s throats.

In the end Bert tracks the pair down, discovering the prince asleep. Foolishly the German reaches for his sword and – as in a thousand movies – Bert pulls the trigger before he knows what he’s done, killing Prince Karl. The other German runs off leaving Bert to endure more anxious hours wondering whether he’s about to be ambushed at any second, until eventually he finds a rope the German had tried to fling across the broken stretch of bridge in order to escape. The rope is frayed and broken. Looks like the German failed in his attempt, and must have drowned.

Bert now fixes the broken Asiatic fighter plane (they are very small and the motors are not unlike those of the motor bikes Bert is familiar with. I was struck that Wells foresees that the wings of fighter plans will flap, profoundly wrong).

Among the Americans

After further comic mishaps Bert eventually flies the little plane off the island and makes it some way south before running out of fuel and crash landing somewhere in the American countryside.

He wanders past various isolated settlements until he reaches a provincial store full of good old boys. When Bert tells them his remarkable story, they give him food for free, and then bring him up to date with the news, namely that the war has escalated into a global conflagration and led to the widespread collapse of civilisation all around the world.

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic

When one of the tobacco-chewing old timers laments that some Brit named Butteridge died just after inventing a new kind of flying machine which might have protected the Yanks against the Asiatic hordes (he says an estimated army of a million Asians has landed on the Pacific coast) and goes on to say that rumour has it that some spy shot him and stole his balloon and all his plans – Bert chokes into his beer, and reveals that he was that man and that he still has Butteridge’s original plans stashed away in his chest-protector (an item of clothing he has managed not to remove in the entire previous fortnight’s adventures and which is, by now, very smelly).

Accepting this revelation very dryly, the leader of the saloon decides they must take the plans to the president in order for America to defend itself. But where is the president? Well, the saloon drinkers know that he and his cabinet are constantly on the move to escape the relentless bombing of the Asiatic air fleets.

Bert and the American village leader, Laurier, set off by bicycle (the monorails, which had replaced trains, have all stopped running because all the power stations have been bombed). It turns into a six-day-odyssey across a bombed-out, ruined America, through smouldering towns, past gangs of suspicious locals armed with guns, past black men strung up from trees by lynch mobs, through a country falling to pieces.

The Great Collapse

In the final chapter – The Great Collapse – Wells adopts his hieratic, prophetic tone.

He reveals that ‘we’ – the author and his audience – are now living in the peaceful era of the World Government, ‘orderly, scientific and secured’. He is looking back to what is now far enough in the past to constitute a particular historical era. He and his audience, looking back, can see how, just as Western civilisation reached its peak of productivity, wealth, peace and security – it exploded in this great catastrophic war.

A universal social collapse followed, as if it were a logical consequence, upon world-wide war. Wherever there were great populations, great masses of people found themselves without work, without money, and unable to get food. Famine was in every working-class quarter in the world within three weeks of the beginning of the war. Within a month there was not a city anywhere in which the ordinary law and social procedure had not been replaced by some form of emergency control, in which firearms and military executions were not being used to keep order and prevent violence. And still in the poorer quarters, and in the populous districts, and even here and there already among those who had been wealthy, famine spread.

And then came the great plague.

It is eerie how accurate Wells’s prophecy was: six years after the book was published a world war erupted, leading to four years of unprecedented destruction which nobody expected or could control, which led to the end of four major empires, the utter collapse of Russia into years of anarchy and civil war and something similar in Ukraine and Poland, plus major collapse in Germany.

All followed by the influenza epidemic which killed more people than all the fighting (it infected 500 million and may have been responsible for as many as 100 million deaths).

Utter devastation

Utter devastation

And Bert Smallways? He and Laurier finally track down the President of the USA and hand over the blueprints of the Butteridge airplane, which are also telegraphed to Britain.

Being simple and cheap to make it can be mass produced by communities all over both countries. But the result isn’t, as you might expect, to fight off the Asiatics or to win the war. It is to end Western civilisation, which collapses into local warbands, warlords, medieval city states, gangs of prowling vigilantes, stragglers, beggars, bringers of disease, famine and pestilence. It is 14th century Europe at the time of the Black Death.

Bert sails back to Britain

Job done, Bert cadges a lift from a British ship in Boston which sails across the Atlantic, is stricken with plague halfway, the survivors are picked up by another ship with a depleted crew, they are shot at in Madeira, and finally arrive in Wales to discover complete social collapse.

The buildings and monorails (and the advertising hoardings Wells hated so much) still stand, but there is no money, no credit, no central authority, half the people are dead, the other half starving, armed bands protect precious arable land.

Bert makes his way across this devastated landscape, into England, to Birmingham where what’s left of the government is still trying to fight the war. He finds there is no place for him here and leaves just before the city is incinerated by a mass raid of Asiatic airships.

He hikes south via Oxford, crosses the Thames at Windsor, and finally arrives at his brother’s house in Bun Hill to find his brother lean and feverish, his wife upstairs dying of plague, and Edna – the Helen of Bert’s great odyssey, the woman whose memory has kept him going through thick and thin – living with her mother at Horsham and terrorised by a local hoodlum, Bill Gore, who wants to marry / rape her.

By this time, as you might expect, Bert has been considerably changed by his experiences. He is no longer an innocent abroad, no longer the man who threw up when he saw his first battle.

Now he is lean, tanned, has been in many fights, and is armed.

When local tough Bill comes a-visiting Edna the next day, Bert doesn’t even bother parlaying but simply shoots him dead on the spot, then shoots his number two, then wings the number three as he runs off.

Bert then swaggers down to the local pub, announces he’s just shot the local gang leader, and asks who wants to join the Vigilance Committee he’s setting up? Intimidated, they all do. Bert establishes himself as the leader of the gang.

And he marries Edna and they farm the land, raising crops and livestock, living from year to year, defending their community against marauders. Edna bears 11 children, most of whom live, there are rich years and lean years, occasionally the shadow of an airship floats overhead, whether one of ‘ours’ or one of ‘theirs’ nobody knows or cares any more.

I found Well’s description of the complete social collapse of early twentieth century civilisation, and its quick reversion to medieval levels of society, powerfully compelling. Reminded me of the umpteen television series about the end of civilisation which I watched as a teenager in the 1970s, such as Survivors.

And I found the brief overview of Bert and Edna’s lives, now converted into tough farmers who breed and then, in their own time, pass away and are buried, genuinely haunting.

Epilogue

Set in the future, thirty years after the Germans started the world war which ended civilisation, the book’s last ten pages depict Tom Smallways, Bert’s brother, now a bent-over old man of 63, worn by decades of work in the fields, and one of Bert’s younger children, a son, Teddy, who’s come to stay.

They wander through the ruins of Bun Hill while old Tom tells the little boy about ‘the old days’, when there was ample food, when people could read, when there was clean water and sewerage and electric power and motor cars.

All gone now. Now they live amid the ruins of the old civilisation as the Britons lived among the ruins the Romans left behind, marvelling at the giants who must have made these fabulous buildings.

Now there is no knowledge of metalwork or even how to make clothes. People dress in shreds and tatters left over from the old days.

And Tom scares the little boy with legends about the big ruins to the north known as LONDON. One of the villagers went looking for booze there, got lost and swears that, as soon as the sun went down, the souls of the millions of dead rose again, and walked the streets in all their old finery, dodging between the hansom cabs and the motor cars, until they saw him and all crowded round to abuse him, and he saw that their faces were all screeching skulls.

The book is titled The War in The Air, which sounds quite energising and romantic. I had no idea it ended with such a powerfully imagined vision of the complete collapse of Western civilisation and its reversion back into the obscurity of a new dark age.


Wells’s vivid imagination

When Bert and Grubb take two young ladies out for a Bank Holiday spree all goes fine until Bert’s antique motorbike springs a petrol leak which then catches fire. He stops, the lady gets off screaming while first Bert and Grubb, and then various passersby all get roped in trying to put out the galloping fire. At one point a motor car stops driven by a posh, upper-class chap who offers the chaps his tarpaulin to smother the flames.

Then everybody realised that a new method was to be tried. A number of willing hands seized upon the Oxford gentleman’s tarpaulin. The others stood away with approving noises. The tarpaulin was held over the burning bicycle like a canopy, and then smothered down upon it.

‘We ought to have done this before,’ panted Grubb.

There was a moment of triumph. The flames vanished. Every one who could contrive to do so touched the edge of the tarpaulin. Bert held down a corner with two hands and a foot. The tarpaulin, bulged up in the centre, seemed to be suppressing triumphant exultation. Then its self-approval became too much for it; it burst into a bright red smile in the centre. It was exactly like the opening of a mouth. It laughed with a gust of flames. They were reflected redly in the observant goggles of the gentleman who owned the tarpaulin. Everybody recoiled.

I think that’s just a brilliant passage. The description of how the flames slowly penetrate the covering is wonderfully accurate. I’ve seen flame eat through a covering material just like a ‘bright red smile’.

And then the reflection of the red flames in the goggles of the Edwardian motor car driver is like a close-up from a movie. Brilliantly imagined and described.

Although his plots are often ludicrous, almost every page of a Wells novel contains moments like this, intensely imagined and vividly written.

Political pamphleteering

They also contain long passages in which Wells gives vent to his personal feelings of outrage at corrupt government and warlike generals.

Here he is, taking his place in the long tradition of liberals and humanists lamenting that governments waste so much money on building ever-more sophisticated and expensive weapons of war, while the children of the countries the arms are meant to be ‘protecting’, starve in the streets.

So it was that Bert Smallways saw the first fight of the airship and the last fight of those strangest things in the whole history of war: the ironclad battleships, which began their career with the floating batteries of the Emperor Napoleon III in the Crimean war and lasted, with an enormous expenditure of human energy and resources, for seventy years. In that space of time the world produced over twelve thousand five hundred of these strange monsters, in schools, in types, in series, each larger and heavier and more deadly than its predecessors. Each in its turn was hailed as the last birth of time, most in their turn were sold for old iron. Only about five per cent of them ever fought in a battle. Some foundered, some went ashore, and broke up, several rammed one another by accident and sank. The lives of countless men were spent in their service, the splendid genius, and patience of thousands of engineers and inventors, wealth and material beyond estimating; to their account we must put, stunted and starved lives on land, millions of children sent to toil unduly, innumerable opportunities of fine living undeveloped and lost. Money had to be found for them at any cost – that was the law of a nation’s existence during that strange time. Surely they were the weirdest, most destructive and wasteful megatheria in the whole history of mechanical invention.

And though Wells didn’t know it at the time, this was more or less what happened to the vast dreadnought battleships of his day, the competition to build which helped fuel rivalry between Britain and Germany in the years leading up to the Great War.

After all the huffing and puffing, after all the warmongering newspaper editorials and speeches, after the expense of hundreds of millions of pounds and Deutschmarks, the British and German fleets ended up bringing their decades of rivalry to a climax at the inconclusive Battle of Jutland in 1916 (‘fourteen British and eleven German ships sank, with a total of 9,823 deaths’). Thereafter the enormously expensive German fleet spent the rest of the war bottled up in port until it was scuttled in 1918. Futile waste of money doesn’t begin to describe it. Hence Wells’s rage.

Wells’s prefaces

Wells was as profuse in interpreting his own novels as he was recklessly prolix in writing them. This novel had a whole series of prefaces tacked on the front as the years went by, in each of which he manages to give the novel a different spin.

1921 preface

In the 1921 preface printed in the Penguin paperback, he categorises The War In The Air, alongside some of his other novels, as a ‘fantasia of possibility’, meaning that he takes one scientific idea and then pursues it to its conclusion.

Some of these ideas (the notion of a time machine or invasion from another planet) are obviously fanciful. This one was a more realistic working-through of the consequences of unrestricted war in the air.

In an interesting insight, or suggestion, Wells argues that aerial warfare will eliminate the old-fashioned idea of a war with defined fronts, of specific locations where armies fight each other and either win or lose.

Instead, he predicted that the militarisation of the air would lead not only to vastly greater destruction than mankind had ever known before – but that it would also make wars oddly indecisive. Both sides would be able to reduce each other’s civilisations to smoking rubble before it was really clear who had won.

This didn’t happen in the immediate future, in the First World War, when airplane technology wasn’t advanced enough to make any impact on the conflict. But it is very much what happened in the Second World War, when Allied bombing and the Russian advance reduced Germany to rubble, but not before the Germans had devastated towns and cities across the continent, namely in Britain, but also in the devastating Blitz on Poland right at the start. America devastated mainland Japan for months without persuading the Japanese to surrender. It took not one, but two atomic bombs, before the Japanese finally saw sense.

1918 preface

By contrast, the 1918 preface doesn’t mention any of this. In this one Wells makes a shorter, sharper point, arguing that – in light of the catastrophe of 1914-18 – there could only possibly now be one position in international affairs, which was to call for a World Government.

Our author tells us in this book, as he has told us in others, more especially in The World Set Free, and as he has been telling us this year in his War and the Future, that if mankind goes on with war, the smash-up of civilization is inevitable. It is chaos or the United States of the World for mankind. There is no other choice.

This idea – the necessity of a World Government to prevent the end of civilisation – was to be the central issue Wells plugged away at for the rest of his life.

Regarding the narrative, Wells in his 1918 preface refers to it as ‘a pamphlet story – in support of the League to Enforce Peace’.

I am just struck by the way that Wells’s restless imagination was unable to stay in one place even when he was referring to his own works: this one novel was, at various times, both a ‘fantasia of possibility’ and ‘a pamphlet story’.

And in neither preface does he mention the more obvious fact that it is also a broadly comic novel.

You can see why, to ‘serious’ critics and writers, Wells’s novels became a byword for being artistic messes – scientific prophecies jostling for space with earnest political commentary, whimsical social comedy pressed up against jaw-dropping science fiction visions, sentimental love stories morphing into daring espousals of Free Love.

From about 1900 Wells chucked everything and the kitchen sink into his books, which become steadily longer and more chaotic.

In order to enjoy them you have to abandon literary criticism, have to forget the urgings of Henry James or Joseph Conrad that the novel ought to be a high-minded and beautifully written aesthetic whole – and just accept that they are part-pamphlet, part-technological prophecy, part Ealing Comedy, part self-interested plea for free love, part awe-inspiring visions of a future world in ruins – and enjoy all the different bits, styles and tones of voice, as you stumble across them, for their own sake.

Wells’s underlying sense of futility

But, as I pointed out in my review of In The Days of The Comet, I also couldn’t help getting the strong feeling that underlying all Well’s bumptious humour and angry politics and technological wizardry is a deep, abiding sense of the futility of all human effort.

Sooner or later in all his books, that note is sounded and seems, to me, to be the foundation of all this writing.

Here is Lieutenant Kurt (the only German who treats Bert decently, as the sit in the base in Canada waiting to be rescued) admitting to Bert that he will never see his sweetheart again.

‘You’ll see ‘er again all right,’ said Bert.

‘No! I shall never see her again…. I don’t understand why people should meet just to be torn apart. But I know she and I will never meet again. That I know as surely as that the sun will rise, and that cascade come shining over the rocks after I am dead and done…. Oh! It’s all foolishness and haste and violence and cruel folly, stupidity and blundering hate and selfish ambition – all the things that men have done – all the things they will ever do. Gott! Smallways, what a muddle and confusion life has always been – the battles and massacres and disasters, the hates and harsh acts, the murders and sweatings, the lynchings and cheatings. This morning I am tired of it all, as though I’d just found it out for the first time. I HAVE found it out. When a man is tired of life, I suppose it is time for him to die. I’ve lost heart, and death is over me. Death is close to me, and I know I have got to end. But think of all the hopes I had only a little time ago, the sense of fine beginnings!… It was all a sham. There were no beginnings…. We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness. New York – New York doesn’t even strike me as horrible. New York was nothing but an ant-hill kicked to pieces by a fool!

‘Think of it, Smallways: there’s war everywhere! They’re smashing up their civilisation before they have made it. The sort of thing the English did at Alexandria, the Japanese at Port Arthur, the French at Casablanca, is going on everywhere. Everywhere! Down in South America even they are fighting among themselves! No place is safe – no place is at peace. There is no place where a woman and her daughter can hide and be at peace. The war comes through the air, bombs drop in the night. Quiet people go out in the morning, and see air-fleets passing overhead – dripping death – dripping death!’

‘We’re just ants in ant-hill cities, in a world that doesn’t matter; that goes on and rambles into nothingness.’

Wells felt the grim relentlessness of the Darwinian struggle for survival, and that the latest technological discoveries of the Scientific Age meant that these once-small and localised struggles would now spread right around the globe, become unstoppable, spelling a universal war, and a sky dripping with death.

He could see it, literally imagine every detail of it, see the bombs falling and the cities destroyed and the fleeing human ants incinerated by firebombs – way before any of his peers could and he warned about it in everything he wrote – but nobody else imagined it as intimately, as terribly, most people ignored it and carried on writing about love affairs and garden parties, and it drove Wells wild with frustration.

Hence the despairing tone at the end of yet another preface he wrote to this book, this time at the end of his life, in 1941, in the depths of the new world war.

Again I ask the reader to note the warnings I gave in [the 1921 preface], twenty years ago. Is there anything to add to that preface now? Nothing except my epitaph. That, when the time comes, will manifestly have to be: ‘I told you so. You damned fools.’


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

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

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

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

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

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

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Forever War by Joe Haldeman The adventures of William Mandella, one of the first to join up for the elite forces organised to fight the Taurians who humans encounter as soon as they discover interstellar travel, in a novel often taken as an allegory for the undending Vietnam War, in which Haldeman himself actually fought.

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa

%d bloggers like this: