Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

‘Politics is history on the wing! What other sphere of human activity calls forth all that is most noble in men’s souls, and all that is most base? Or has such excitement? Or more vividly exposes our strengths and weaknesses?’
(Cicero defending his fascination with politics to his secretary, Tiro, in Imperium, page 263)

What you notice first about this book are a) its length (480 pages) and b) the blank flatness of its style. Here’s how it opens:

My name is Tiro. For thirty-six years I was the confidential secretary of the Roman statesman Cicero. At first this was exciting, then astonishing, then arduous, and finally extremely dangerous. During those years I believe he spent more hours with me than with any other person, including his own family. I witnessed his private meetings and carried his secret messages. I took down his speeches, his letters and his literary works, even his poetry – such an outpouring of words that I had to invent what is commonly called shorthand to cope with the flow, a system still used to record the deliberations of the senate, and for which I was recently awarded a modest pension. (p.3)

Very clear, plain and factual, with a complete absence of literary effects or colour. Opening my review of Harris’s 2016 thriller Conclave to extract the list of my reviews of Harris’s other novels, I see this is exactly what I thought about that work, too, so I might as well quote myself:

A cliché can be defined as a thought or description which you’ve read or heard so many times before that it slips past the eye or ear with the minimum amount of disturbance, barely registering, like soothing background music in a hotel lift or lobby. It is designed not to detain you but speed you on your way to your business appointment.

This is true of a great deal if not most of Harris’s writing – it is smooth and effective without stirring any ripples. If you pause for thought, it is at what he is reporting – documentary explanations of the personalities and politics of 1st century BC Rome – but never the way he reports it. As befits a man who worked for decades in high level journalism, Harris’s English is unfailingly clear and lucid, a servant of the subject matter, never drawing attention to itself.

Harris isn’t an awful writer, he is a very good writer, but of a kind of clear and rational prose which is almost devoid of colour. This is very effective when conveying factual information (and his novels tend to be packed with factual information which needs to be written out as clearly as possible in order for the reader to understand what is at stake). But it leaves something be desired when it comes to character, setting or atmosphere.

Having read four histories of ancient Rome which all feature passages about Cicero, Sallust’s Catiline War in which he plays a starring role, Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and a selection of Cicero’s letters, I feel pretty familiar, if not slightly bored, by the actual content of the book i.e. the setting, characters and main events of Republican Rome from 79 to 64 BC (the exact dates are indicated on the title pages of the novels two parts).

For me, already over-familiar with the course of events, the interest was not in the narrative as such, but in the way Harris ‘brings the history alive’ by vividly imagining particular moments. These are hardly great literature but they have an uncanny knack of ringing true and, slowly, subtly, without you realising it, placing you right there, in the houses of the great, in the forum and senate house and numerous other locations of ancient Rome, watching the characters interact, the voters queue up on the dusty Field of Mars, the scrum of senators waiting outside the senate house, the night time stink coming from the public dumps just beyond the city walls, Cicero’s habit of tossing a leather ball from hand to hand as he thinks, or working a crowd of clients, pressing the flesh and greeting everyone by name.

The prose is as interesting as tap water, style-wise, but quite quickly the sheer intelligence Harris brings to his descriptions of ancient Roman power politics and the deftness with which he describes scenes and settings, really draw the reader into the narrative.

Ticking the boxes

Having just read Plutarch’s Life of Cicero and Cicero’s letters, I recognise well-known anecdotes or remarks popping up throughout the novel. It feels slightly, to someone familiar with the source texts, as if Harris made a list of key anecdotes about and descriptions of Cicero and then found places to insert them into his text. It has a slightly mechanical feel. Thus we get mention of:

  • Cicero’s habit of making witty jokes about people which mortally offended them, thus making unnecessary enemies (pages 62, 296, 325, 326, 347, 403)
  • how Marcus Licinius Crassus got rich by sending his people to wherever a fire had broken out in Rome and offering to buy their houses from the owners at rock bottom prices then, when they’d sold them, sending in his fire brigade to put out the fires and make a massive profit on the properties (pages 79 and 306)
  • Cicero’s touchiness about his lowly provincial origins (p.97)
  • the fact that the leading lawyer in Rome, Quintus Hortensius Hortalus, owned a statuette of the sphinx, the subject of one of Cicero’s wisecracks as reported in Plutarch’s life (pages 237 and 444; Plutarch’s Life of Cicero chapter 7)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of pushy young Gnaeus Pompeius telling the dictator Lucius Cornelius Sulla that more people worship the rising than the setting sun (p.218)
  • the much-told story of how Caesar was captured by pirates and, after he was eventually ransomed and released, returned with Roman soldiers, tracked down all his captors and supervised their crucifixions (p.287)
  • the anecdote in Plutarch of the raven flying over the forum when Pompey was acclaimed to the special command to eliminate the pirate threat, and which was killed by the roar of approval from the crowd, dropping stone dead out of the sky (p.324 and Plutarch’s Life of Pompey chapter 25)

There’s a steady stream of these little flash bulbs going off in the narrative, as one by one anecdotes from the sources are deftly inserted into the text and ticked off the list.

Politics

But the real subject of the novel is not Cicero’s life but politics.

Harris was famously close to the Blair family during Tony Blair’s years as leader of New Labour. Although not directly involved in politics he saw how power and personality played out at the highest levels, experience which underpins The Ghost, his 2007 novel about a fictional Labour Prime Minister and his wife, which is blatantly based on Tony and Cherie Blair. That novel was published just a year after this one and you can’t help thinking they were worked on simultaneously, insights into the nature of power allotted to one or other of the closely related texts as appropriate.

All this is relevant because political power is also the subject of Imperium. It’s a novel about power and Harris takes every opportunity to really imagine what the exercise of power would have looked and felt like in ancient Rome. Harris’s descriptions can perhaps be categorised into implicit and explicit descriptions.

1. By explicit all I mean is explicit comments on and about the nature of power. Tiro’s narrative is littered with apothegms and reflections on the exercise of power, which are phrased in such a way that they could apply to Westminster today or to any place where power is exercised:

  • Power brings a man many luxuries, but a clean pair of hands is seldom among them. (p.2)
  • ‘The first rule in politics, Tiro, never forget a face.’ (p.29)
  • ‘Sometimes if you find yourself stuck, in politics, the thing to do is start a fight – start a fight, even if you do not know how you are going to win it, because it is only when a fight is on, and everything is in motion, that you can hope to see your way through.’ (p.58)
  • As every fool knows, the quickest way to get to the top on politics is to get yourself close to the man at the top. (p.76)
  • Politics is a country idiot, capable of concentrating on only one thing at a time. (p.77)
  • There are certain politicians who can’t stand to be in the same room as one another, even if mutual self-interest dictates that they should try to get along…This is what the Stoics fail to grasp when they assert that reason rather than emotion should play the dominant part in human affairs. I am afraid the reverse is true, and always will be, even – perhaps especially – in the supposedly calculating world of politics. (p.84)
  • I have frequently observed this curious aspect of power: that it is often when one is physically closest to its source that one is least well informed as to what is actually going on. (p.90)
  • No one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. (p.132)
  • There are few forces in politics harder to resist than a feeling that something is inevitable, for humans move as a flock and will always rush like sheep towards the safety of a winner. (p.188)
  • ‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)
  • The work gave Cicero his first real taste of what it is to have power – which is usually, when it comes down to it, a matter of choosing between equally unpalatable options – and fairly bitter he found it. (p.235)
  • Cicero knew that the way to a great man‘s confidence, curiously enough, is often to speak harshly back to him, thus conveying an appearance of disinterested candour. (p.271)
  • Is this not the dream of every proud and ambitious man? That rather than having to get down in the dust and fight for power, the people should come crawling to him, begging him to accept it as a gift? (p.292)
  • How important appearance is in politics. (p.296)
  • The journey to the top in politics often confines a man with some uncongenial fellow passengers and shows him strange scenery. (p.301)
  • You can scheme all you like in politics, the gesture seemed to say, but in the end it all comes down to luck. (p.333)
  • It is dangerous in politics to find oneself a great man’s whipping boy. (as Cicero began to find himself ‘owned’ by Pompey, p.340)
  • What a heap of ash most political careers amount to, when one really stops to consider them! (p.394)
  • ‘Cicero, you disappoint me. Since when has idiocy been a bar to advancement in politics?’ (p.398)
  • ‘The ability to listen to bores requires stamina, and such stamina is the essence of politics. It is from the bores that you really find things out.’ (p.405)
  • It is always said of elections, in my experience, that whichever one is in progress at the time is the most significant there has ever been. (p.469)

As mention of Tony Blair suggests, quite a few of these sayings about politics could be applied to the contemporary British political world which Harris had seen at first hand. The kind of generalised rules Tiro articulates are designed to be widely applied. Thus when he has Cicero say:

‘The most fatal error for any statesman is to allow his fellow countrymen, even for an instant, to suspect that he puts the interests of foreigners above those of his own people.’ (p.251)

it made me think of how Jeremy Corbyn was monstered in the Tory press for his associations with the IRA and Hamas i.e. was accused of being unpatriotic. When Tiro describes the hysterical fear triggered in Rome when pirates attacked and burned the port city of Ostia, and how Pompey and Caesar describe this as a new kind of threat, international, with no centralised power structure, which must be crushed – it was impossible not to hear echoes of the kind of rhetoric which filled thousands of articles and op-eds about al-Qaeda in the aftermath of 9/11 (p.268).

Tiro’s thoughts are designed to make the reader hover, equivocally, between the ostensible setting of Rome 70 BC and London 1990s or 2020s. If there’s any consistent ‘literary’ effect in the book, maybe it’s this.

2. What I mean by implicit is the way Harris brilliantly captures the dynamics of power as it plays out in personal confrontations, in dramatic scenes and situations cleverly constructed to demonstrate how power politics really works in practice; how cunning political operators handle themselves and manipulate others. Thus:

  • The meeting with Lollius Palicanus who represents Pompey’s interest and tries to persuade Cicero to join up to Pompey’s cause. (p.61)
  • The meeting with Crassus outside Rome after the latter had crushed the Spartacus rebellion and crucified 6,000 of the rebel gladiators along 350 miles of the Appian Way. That’s all very Hollywood, but the point of the scene is the way the two men, intellectually and psychologically, sound each other out, assess each other, sparring and disagreeing while on the surface remaining immaculately polite, all while Tiro looks on. (p.81)
  • The way Cicero is invited to Pompey’s first big levée in the city after returning from his successful campaigns in Spain, and then only cursorily greeted by Pompey in a lineup like the cast meeting a royal at a movie premiere. It is a memorable image of the relationship between true, exceptional power (Pompey) and a rather desperate aspirer (Cicero). (p.97)
  • The entire extended description of the trial of Gaius Verres amounts to Cicero creating power from his oratory and the wealth of evidence he has amassed, and then wielding it against Verres along with the lawyer he has bought (Hortensius) and the corrupt senators he has bribed until they are all swept away in mob anger at the governor (Verres’s) scandalous, criminal behaviour. (chapter 9, pages 203 to 238)
  • ‘There is as much skill in knowing how to handle a meeting of ten as in manipulating a gathering of hundreds.’ (p.290)
  • ‘He leaned in close and moistened his lips; there was something almost lecherous about the way Crassus talked of power.’ (p.309)

And then the climax of the plot, the sequence of events leading up to Cicero’s big meeting with the grandest of Rome’s aristocrats and the Faustian pact he enters into with them in order to get elected consul, is an elaborate, multi-levelled and quite thrilling dramatisation of power in action, dirty deals, betrayals, compromises and all.

Imperium

Hence the title of the book. The plot centres on Cicero as described by his loyal freedman and secretary Tiro, but its real subject is power, how to win it, use it and keep it, as the narrator Tiro himself explains on page 2 with its hokey reference to the opening of Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid. ‘Arms and the man I sing’, wrote Virgil. Harris writes:

It is of power and the man that I shall sing. By power I mean official, political power – what we know in Latin as imperium – the power of life and death, as vested by the state in an individual.

I looked up the Wikipedia definition:

In ancient Rome, imperium was a form of authority held by a citizen to control a military or governmental entity. It is distinct from auctoritas and potestas, different and generally inferior types of power in the Roman Republic and Empire. One’s imperium could be over a specific military unit, or it could be over a province or territory…In a general sense, imperium was the scope of someone’s power, and could include anything, such as public office, commerce, political influence, or wealth.

Tiro writes that:

Whenever I picture the word imperium it is always Pompey who comes to mind. (p.326)

But the same is true of half a dozen of the other characters who each exemplify really dizzying, intimidating top-level power in action – the terrifying Crassus, slippery Caesar, suave Publius Clodius Pulcher or half-mad Catiline. The whole novel is heady with the aroma of power and the endless threat and risk from the machinations of super-powerful men. Harris doesn’t need much literary styling because the subject matter itself is so psychologically powerful.

The plot

The text is divided into two parts:

Part one – Senator (79 to 70 BC)

This introduces the narrator, Marcus Tullius Tiro, freed slave and secretary to up-and-coming lawyer and aspiring politician Marcus Tullius Cicero. Tiro tells us he is writing his memoirs as he approaches the ripe old age of 100, long after Cicero and everyone else he will describe is dead. (Since Tiro tells us he was aged 34 in the year Cicero won the Verres case (p.230), which was in 70 BC, then 65 years later, the date must be 5 BC, well after the Roman Republic disintegrated and was replaced by the sole rule of Augustus, who established the template for the emperors who followed.)

Part one quickly jumps over Cicero’s early career, describing his sojourn in Athens where he learned oratory from the best teachers available, his election to the senate, and then the one-year governorship he served in Sicily, followed by his return to Rome and election as aedile.

But the majority of part one is devoted to Cicero’s involvement in the prosecution of the Roman governor of Sicily, Gaius Verres, for outrageous corruption and extortion, showing how it all began when a Sicilian whose business had been ruined by Verres arrives on Cicero’s doorstep, and following the subsequent twists and turns as Cicero and Tiro get drawn into his ‘case’, eventually travelling to Sicily to assemble evidence, and how the case itself gets tangled up in the bitter rivalry between Rome’s two strong men, the great general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and the menacing plutocrat Marcus Licinius Crassus.

Part one ends with Cicero overcoming all the vested interests facing him and triumphantly winning the Verres case. Along the way we have been introduced to key politicians and leading figures in Cicero’s personal life, his fearsome wife, Terentia, and beloved daughter, Tullia, his support network of brother Quintus Tullius Cicero and cousin Lucius. And enjoyed Harris’s well-researched descriptions of various aspects of life in ancient Rome, from the squalid apartment blocks known as insulae to the richest mansions, the festivals and triumphs, with special emphasis on the forms and rituals surrounding elections to public posts and ill-tempered debates in the senate.

Part two – Praetorian (68 to 64 BC)

The first part had a really strong central subject in the Verres case. Part two is a bit more diffuse. It starts by giving an insider’s view of the machinations surrounding the senate’s decision to appoint Pompey to a special command to deal with the threat from pirates, against the opposition of the aristocratic party, most of the senate and, most menacing of all, Crassus.

Then the narrative settles onto Cicero’s attempts to be elected one of Rome’s 8 praetors and, once he achieves that position, his manouevring for the ultimate prize, election as consul. Many obstacles present themselves but none as big as the enmity of the half-mad Lucius Sergius Catilina.

The novel develops into a genuinely nerve-wracking thriller as Tiro is smuggled into a secret meeting of Caesar, Crassus, Catiline and others who have developed a master plan to take over the running of the state and then make huge sums by selling off state land and taking over Egypt. Cicero then attends a late-night private meeting of Rome’s senior aristocrats, informs them about this plot and persuades them, reluctantly, that the only way to foil it is to give Cicero their vote in the consular elections, and it is this election which forms the climax of the second part.

Harris has this great knack of generating genuine excitement in a narrative – not anything to do with his style, but with the intelligent laying on of facts and his vivid depiction of the psychology of power politics. The result is that the novel builds to a real climax in the form of a thriller-style conspiracy which Cicero cleverly turns against the conspirators by revealing it to the aristocrats in exchange for their support.

And then…Cicero has won! Achieved his lifetime’s ambition. He is a consul, one of the two most powerful men in Rome for a year. And the book ends with a little family celebration on the roof of his house underneath the stars, where his entourage learn the details of the deal he made with the aristocrats and the compromises he will have to make during his time in power. Politics is nothing if not the art of compromise, dirty deals in smoke-filled rooms.

Imperium is the first in a trilogy of novels about Cicero’s career so the reader can be confident that the consequences of this deal will be described in the second book of the trilogy, Lustrum. Anyone who knows about Cicero, knows that it was during his year as consul that the Cataline conspiracy erupted, one of the most dangerous and florid events in late Republican Rome. Wow, what a feast of political intrigue for Harris the political novelist get his teeth into!

The multi-layered connectivity of Roman politics

From a factual point of view, one thing comes over very strongly in this novel which is often missing from the history books and this is the tremendous importance of family, clan, tribe and social connections among Rome’s elite in creating the very complex political ‘system’ or just situation, seething with competition and rivalry.

Elections in ancient Rome were a complicated business:

  • The Centuriate Assembly elected the highest offices of consul, praetor, and censor. This assembly divided all adult male citizens into 193 centuries organised into tiers by rank and property, with the equites or knights at the top and the unarmed and unpropertied at the bottom. Which century voted first was decided by lot and the winning century was called the centuria praerogativa (p.471)
  • Quaestors and curule aediles were elected by the Tribal Assembly, while tribunes and plebeian aediles were elected by the Plebeian Council. The electorates for both these assemblies were divided into 35 tribes or geographical units of voters. Harris names and gives pen portraits of the important tribes in his description of the election of Cicero as aedile (pages 198 to 200).

A really important point to grasp is that all votes were not equal. The votes of the wealthy and upper classes counted for a lot more than the votes of the average citizen. In the Centuriate Assembly the oldest established tribes voted first and their votes counted for more.

As well as tribes, the city was divided into wards. Each of these had community meeting halls and community (or gang) leaders, who could turn their members out if you needed a crowd, to jeer at a trial or cheer a triumph or jostle senators on their way into the senate house.

The novel gives a vivid description of the ‘voting syndicates’ based on local wards, which had organisers and which could be bought at a price (the precise, elaborate and well established method of bribing these syndicates is described in detail on pages 406 to 408).

The reader is made aware of the way these tribes and wards fed into political situations and calculations.

But sitting above this complicated electoral system was the intricate web of family connections which dictated or rather, made up Roman politics. It had arguably two aspects.

1. Like any aristocracy, the Romans had very ancient, super-well-established families which could trace their origins right back to the legendary times when the monarchy was overthrown (about 500 BC). Their authority was bolstered by their family’s track records in holding office and this was made visible because the atriums of the worthiest families contained wax busts of the ancestors who had held public office, in particular the consulship. These busts could be removed from the home and paraded by the proud descendant at festivals or political events.

The Togatus Barberini, a marble sculpture from first-century Rome depicting an unknown Roman of noble birth holding effigies of his ancestors in either hand

Let’s take a detour into structural linguistics for a moment:

Synchrony and diachrony are two complementary viewpoints in linguistic analysis. A synchronic approach considers a language at a moment in time without taking its history into account. A diachronic approach considers the development and evolution of a language through history.

The Roman upper classes can be considered in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective. I’ve just outlined the diachronic perspective, namely the history of each family and its eminent members. But the ruling class must also be seen synchronically in terms of its alliances in the present.

2. Thus someone like Cicero, trying to play the political game, had to be aware not only of the histories of all the most eminent families, but also of the super-complicated mesh of marriage alliances, of uncles, aunts, first and second cousins which connected families and factions at the highest level.

In addition to the complex interlinking of powerful families by marriage went the uniquely Roman custom of adopting someone from a different family into yours, but not in our modern sense of adopting a baby or toddler. It meant adopting a full-grown adult from one family into another. To take two famous cases, Publius Clodius Pulcher came from a very distinguished and ancient family but in a demonstration of aristocratic eccentricity, in the 50s had himself adopted by an obscure plebeian family so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs. More famously, Octavian was adopted by Julius Caesar as his heir, a legal position he used to maximum advantage when he arrived in Rome after Caesar’s assassination in 44 BC.

Laid on top of this was political alliances which came in at least two flavours: First, as a rule, the aristocracy stuck together and thought of themselves as the optimates or best people (hero figure Sulla, contemporary leader Quintus Lutatius Catulus). Anyone who opposed them was liable to be tarred as populares i.e. upstart representatives of the ever-unruly ordinary people of Rome, unpredictable, cowardly, ignoble (hero figure Marius, contemporary star Caesar).

But of course, the unrelenting competition for power of the ambitious often cut across class divides. Thus the psychopathic Cataline (‘A jagged streak of violent madness ran through Catalina like lightning across his brain’, p.351) who ended up trying to lead an abortive rebellion came from one of the oldest patrician families in Rome, gens Sergia. In his frustrated furious ambition to seize power he ended up allying himself with the working classes and political outcasts of all kinds.

His younger contemporary, Clodius, also came from one of Rome’s oldest and noblest patrician families, the Claudia gens. But, again, lust for power and a certain aristocratic perversity, led him to get adopted by an obscure plebeian so that he could be elected tribune of the plebs, which is why he changed his middle name from the aristocratic ‘Claudius’ to the more plebeian ‘Clodius’.

In addition to all this was the complicated system of clients and patrons. Rich and influential Romans acquired clients who they had done or would do favours for in return for their political or financial support, and so whose patron they would be. Powerful individuals such as Crassus, Caesar or Pompey were continually working behind the scenes to acquire and cultivate networks of hundreds of clients. Nothing came for nothing. All the deals which businessmen, lawyers, politicians and military commanders were doing all the time created new alliances, new networks of clientilism and patronage.

So as you read about figures in Republican Rome, you have to be aware that they operated in a society where people were individuals but also came enmeshed in a tribe, a clan, a family, with both a particular family history and the complexity of recent familial alliances (through marriage or adoption), as well as their position in the simmering conflict between optimates and populares, as well as their calculated commitments to this or that powerful patron.

Taken together these elements or strands created the fantastically complex matrix of history, family, class, financial, legal and political obligations which Tiro at one point (in a rare departure from Harris’s use of the plainest of plain English) describes as the ‘webwork’ of Roman society.

It’s into this webwork of 1st century BC Rome that the book swiftly plunges the reader, and a great deal of the pleasure of reading it derives from getting used to this multi-levelled game of allegiance and obligation which Cicero (and everyone else) finds themselves playing all their adult lives. With the whole thing acutely observed by the clever but non-participating eye-witness, Tiro.

Family connections

Publius Clodius Pulcher’s biography demonstrates the complex interlinking at the top of Roman society. His elder brothers were Appius Claudius Pulcher, consul in 54 BC, and Gaius Claudius Pulcher, praetor in 56 BC and subsequently governor of Asia. His sisters included Claudia, the wife of Quintus Marcius Rex, Claudia Quadrantaria, the wife of Celer, and Claudia Quinta, the wife of the fantastically successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus.

Through his family, Clodius was closely connected with a number of prominent Roman politicians. His brother-in-law, Lucullus, was consul in 74 BC, while brother-in-law Celer was consul in 60, and the latter’s brother, Quintus Caecilius Metellus Nepos, in 57. Mucia Tertia, a half-sister to the Caecilii, was the wife of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, and later Marcus Aemilius Scaurus, praetor in 56 BC. A half-brother, Publius Mucius Scaevola, was a pontifex, while his brother Quintus was an augur, and tribune of the plebs in 54.

So anyone who tangled with Clodius had to be aware that he was also going to provoke some or all of his extended network of family members and spouses, who each had their own positions of power, ambitions and networks of clients to consider. Matrices and intricate webworks of alliance, patronage and position, in every direction…

Aspects of ancient Rome

  • The hubbub as senators gathered in the senaculum before entering the chamber for a debate.
  • Sumptuous description of Pompey’s grand triumph. (p.115)
  • The look, feel and smell of rundown apartment blocks.
  • The stench of decay coming from the public dump outside the Esquiline Gate. (p.193)
  • Detailed description of the melée on the Field of Mars on election day. (pages 196 to 200)

Harris has Tiro describe Catullus as ‘that cruellest of poets’ (p.307).

Cicero describes Tiro as his second brother (p.428).

Lowering

Right at the end of the book I realised what it is I find so depressing about Harris’s books. Not a word in any of his political books hints for a moment that politics is about making a fairer, juster, safer world, could be about plans for building a better society, helping the vulnerable, righting historic wrongs, supporting hard-working families, planning carefully for the future etc. In Harris’s discourse none of this exists.

‘The trouble with Lucius is he thinks politics is a fight for justice. Politics is a profession.’ (p.234)

Like the outstanding political journalist he was, Harris sees politics is just another career, like medicine or the law. Tiro (like the narrator of Harris’s novel of contemporary politics, Ghost) never mentions policy or political programmes, what is best for Rome and its people, but thinks only in terms of individual politicians, their scams and strategems, and the special buzz you get from being in the room with the big beasts as they are making seismic decisions.

It’s depressing because in this world of professional politicians and their journalistic hangers-on nothing ever changes and nothing ever will. A succession of charismatic crooks, desperate wannabes, blustering liars, and bullying blowhards will create coalitions of supporters enough to scrabble their way to the leadership of their parties, then do anything, say anything, make any promise and cook up any impractical policy, in order to ensure good headlines in tomorrow’s papers and cling onto power for another day.

I found that Cicero was fond of repeating certain phrases and these I learned to reduce to a line or even a few dots – thus proving what most people already know, that politicians essentially say the same thing over and over again. (p.14)

Harris’s journalistic cynicism may be intelligent and witty, and the speed of the narrative as it builds up to the big conspiracy at the end is certainly thrilling. But to any thinking reader it is also pretty dispiriting.

If you’re right in the thick of the political vortex it is no doubt tremendously exciting, and this novel powerfully projects Harris’s first-hand knowledge of the nail-biting psychology of power 2,000 years back onto the dramatic political career of Cicero. Countless memoirs testify to how thrilling it can be to be right in the thick of the political world, talking to the leaders of nations as they wage the daily struggle to stay in power, please the people and shaft their rivals. But you only have to walk out of the room, down the corridor and out into the fresh air to suddenly find the hype and hysteria surrounding most politics pathetic and squalid.

And if you’re a citizen of the country unlucky enough to be ruled by these bloviating blunderers, then there is no excitement at all, but depressed resignation at the spectacle of the unending bickering and mismanagement of idiots.

The visceral thrill of the political manoeuvrings which Harris describes so well make it easy to lose sight of the basic fact that the personal rivalries described in Imperium destabilised the late Roman Republic for decades, eventually leading to nearly 20 years of civil war and social upheaval, deaths, destruction, starvation, ruin.

Politics in our own time has given us Brexit, the mismanagement of the Covid crisis, widespread corruption, now a pointless war in Ukraine and a global food crisis. The stupidity of human mismanagement, which some people dignify with the term ‘politics’, never ends.


The Cicero trilogy

Robert Harris reviews

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The Roman Republic by Michael Crawford (second edition, 1992)

No, not the Michael Crawford, star of the 1970s TV series Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. His version of the Roman Republic would have been hilarious. “Ooooh, Brutus!”

No, this Michael Crawford is the English historian, born in 1939 and still with us, privately educated (like most classicists – St Paul’s and Oxford) who nonetheless takes a solidly socialist view of history. Page two of his preface states that:

I continue to believe that the principal reason for the destruction of Republican government at Rome was the neglect of the legitimate grievances of the population by the governing classes…

The use of ‘continue to believe’ implies that he valiantly persists in his views despite stiff opposition, an impression he goes on to compound by telling us, rather naively and over-earnestly:

…just as I continue to believe that a socialist framework offers the only eventual hope for the survival of our own world. (page vi)

‘Eventual’ is a funny choice of word and, like ‘continue’, hints at an embattled state of mind, of taking a heroic stand against a sea of opponents. (This is also an early indication of Crawford’s often idiosyncratic prose style and oblique way of describing important events.)

Crawford’s earnest socialism might have made sense in 1978 when the first edition of this book was published, but had gone out of style by 1992 when this second edition arrived – a year after the Soviet Union collapsed and the oppressed nations of Eastern Europe were freed from Russian tyranny. Mrs Thatcher had been stabbed in the back by her own MPs in late 1990 but it wasn’t until 1997 that John Major’s useless Conservative government was replaced by Tony Blair’s pazazzy New Labour – which proceeded to destroy forever the kind of socialism Crawford believed in, aligning the left with globalising neo-liberal economics, financial deregulation, public-private partnerships, university tuition fees and the galloping inequality which has brought us to our present happy situation.

Reading Crawford’s little preface makes me sad for all the good people who thought they could make the world a better place and have resoundingly failed. As a result, although the events he describes took place over 2,000 years ago, an air of forlornness hangs over the entire text.

The Roman Republic

It’s not a very good book. Crawford rushes. He squeezes too much information into gangling sentences or long paragraphs. Nothing is gone into in enough detail. Take this example:

Not altogether surprisingly, there were those in Carthage who did not regard the verdict of the First Punic War as final; the creation of an empire in Spain and the acquisition thereby of substantial military and financial resources were followed by Hannibal’s invasion of 218 (the Roman tradition attempted to make the entirely justified attack on Saguntum by Hannibal into the casus belli, in order to salve its conscience over the failure to respond effectively to the appeal by Saguntum to Rome). (p.50)

Bloody long sentence, isn’t it? And useless as factual exposition. With just a little bit more effort Crawford could have given us a separate sentence or two describing the establishment of the Carthaginian empire in Spain by Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, how Hannibal assumed the mantle of command when his father died in 228 BC, and how a series of clashes with the Romans eventually led the Carthaginians to conclude that the only way to solve the ‘Rome problem’ was a direct attack on Italy, which Hannibal launched in 218.

One more sentence could have explained the importance of the battle of Saguntum a lot more clearly. As it is Crawford devotes nearly 40 words to it but somehow manages to not only not explain what happened, but to make it more obscure than if he’d never mentioned it.

Most of Crawford’s book is like this: it contains plenty of facts but a) you can tell that a lot of context and explanation and details are missing, and b) it’s all told arsey-versey, meaning in a ‘wilfully confused and disorderly’ way.

Because I already know the outlines of the story from the other three histories of Rome I’ve read I am able to decipher Crawford’s clipped and contorted references, but it became very tiresome. He gives no sense of Hannibal’s campaign in Italy; he gives no sense of the civil war between Marius and Sulla; he gives no sense of why Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) was such a spectacularly successful general; his account of Caesar’s command in Gaul is so brief as to be non-existent; his coverage of the Catiline conspiracy is risible; his explanation of Cicero’s exile is impenetrable unless you happen to already know the facts and issues; his mentions of Clodius give no sense at all of the street violence unleashed by his gangs or why it led to Pompey being awarded sole power to bring peace to the streets of Rome; and so on and so on. All this is mentioned but nowhere properly explained. As a narrative history of the Roman Republic, this book is rubbish.

The Fontana History of the Ancient World

This volume is the first part of The Fontana History of the Ancient World so maybe Crawford was given a specific period and a tight page limit and this explains the text’s cramped contortions. The book has just 200 pages into which to cram a history which theoretically covered 720 years from the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC through to the rise of Octavian in the 30s. It also has to contain a timeline, four appendices, half a dozen maps, a list of further reading and 4 separate indices. Maybe that’s why it feels so rushed and superficial. But the lack of space doesn’t explain Crawford’s strange style and often crabbed and obscure way of trying to explain events. That’s just crap.

Schematic

If the book’s weakness is its lack of narrative depth or proper full explanation of events, its strongest parts are where it is most schematic – brief and pithy as a PowerPoint presentation. The chapter headings give a sense of this high-level, schematic approach:

  1. The sources
  2. Italy and Rome
  3. The Roman governing classes
  4. From Italian power to Mediterranean power
  5. The conquest of the East
  6. The consequences of empire – the governing classes
  7. The imperial power
  8. The consequences of empire – the governed
  9. Reform and revolution
  10. Rome and Italy
  11. The end of consensus
  12. The world turned upside down
  13. The embattled oligarchy
  14. The militant dynasts

Good titles, aren’t they? But each of these chapter is too short – 10 pages on the sources, 5 and a half on early Rome’s rise to eminence among the patchwork of Italian tribes, 8 and a half on the ruling class. And the same goes for the four appendices:

  1. The Roman assemblies
  2. The Roman army
  3. Equites
  4. The special commands

They look good but they are 3-and-a-half, one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half and one-and-a-half pages long, respectively. Too short, too allusive to explain anything properly.

Main themes

Crawford tell us his main idea is that the collapse of the Republic was caused by “the neglect of the legitimate grievances of the population by the governing classes” but already in the introduction he undermines his own thesis when he attributes the collapse to two other causes, both of which are more persuasive to me, namely:

1. “The failure to develop communal institutions for the maintenance of order” – when the Senate and the tribunes or popular assemblies fell out there was no institution or way to arbitrate the disputes. Together with the absence of any police force or independent judiciary, this meant whoever ruled the streets or led the biggest army could a) seize power, as in the civil war between Sulla and Marius in the 80s BC or b) more insidiously, create an atmosphere of lawlessness and hooliganism as created by Publius Clodius Pulcher in the 50s.

2. The mad competitiveness between very rich, very ambitious members of what Crawford, throughout the book refers to as the Roman ‘oligarchy’. (Oligarchy is defined as: ‘control by a small group of powerful people.’)

Crawford quotes Aristotle as saying that, so long as it remains united, an oligarchy is impossible to overthrow – but once members fall out with each other, then collapse can come very suddenly. In Crawford’s view, the collapse came about because of:

1. The wealth generated by the hugely expanded Roman empire was unprecedented and put unprecedented power for bribery and corruption into the hands of the super-rich.

2. The long periods for which eminent generals (Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey, Caesar) led their men created super-generals, super-leaders, whose rivalries involved entire armies, and, as per point 1, the Republic simply had no way to arbitrate between them (p.25).

In the last forty years of the Republic, the Senate found itself having to award more and more special commands to leading generals (Pompey received most) to allow them to deal with logistical or military problems which were too large, spread out over too long a time period or too far away, for the existing machinery of one-year consuls and regional governors to handle.

Thus Pompey was given a special command to deal with the ongoing pirate problem in 67, immediately followed by a special command to deal with the unending war against Mithridates VI in Asia. The growing reliance on special commands was symptomatic of how the institutions of the republic couldn’t cope with the challenge of running an empire.

Who was the Roman oligarchy?

So who were the “governing classes” which Crawford refers to in his introduction? Chapter 2 gives a pithy overview.

Soon after the overthrow of the monarchy in about 510 BC, the Roman ruling class decided to ensure they were never again ruled by the caprices of one man, so they took two steps:

1. they divided executive power between two officials, the consuls and

2. they had them elected, and for one year only – enough time to carry out official duties and for one military campaign season, then their time was up and someone else took over

Those seeking election generally had to have held more junior positions in what developed into a ladder or stepping stones of official positions. These offices of ‘magistracies’ evolved over the years but, given the human tendency to multiply bureaucracies, remained surprisingly few.

They were, in rising order of responsibility, the posts of quaestor, aedile and praetor. These positions were referred to collectively as the magistracies. This sequence of public offices was called the cursus honorum. Candidates for the magistracies had to canvas the people at annual hustings. They were elected by all adult males who had property enough to be included in the regular census carried out for this purpose which had originally been established to assign men to appropriate ranks in the citizen army.

Hence another elected post, that of censor, responsible for keeping the list of citizens a) eligible to vote and b) assigned to the appropriate rank in the army, up to date.

To be eligible to join the army a citizen needed to be a member of the assidui i.e. to achieve a basic property qualification (p.97). The assidui were divided into five classis or ranks, according to their assets, and it was the job of the censors to keep this list of citizens, their property and their ranking up to date.

The senate consisted of all the men who had previously held office as a magistrate. Senate derives from the Latin word senex which simply means old man, on the assumption that mature men who had held office gave good advice.

The single most important thing to grasp about Roman politics is that the senate did not make laws. It was a solely advisory body – although it arrogated to itself certain policies, specifically financial policy and military strategy. Anybody intending to create legislation was expected to consult the senate, which could and did hold extensive debates for and against legislation, suggesting amendments, improvements or that laws be rejected. But the senate didn’t actually pass the laws. It relied on the popular assemblies to propose and vote on actual laws.

Members of the same small group of families held magistracies and eminent positions in the state for hundreds of years. These were the patricians who monopolised the important magistracies and the various religious offices and half a dozen priesthoods (which were also elected).

The patricians distinguished themselves from the plebs or plebeians, who supposedly came from more recent, less ancient and venerable families. But within a century or so of the overthrow of the kings the plebs agitated to have a say for themselves, campaigns which eventually led to the creation of an assembly where the plebs could discuss their issues, the concilium plebis, and the creation of the post of tribune of the plebs. The tribune’s original function was to protect citizens from arbitrary actions by the (mostly patrician) magistrates. Over the years the number and powers of the tribunes slowly expanded.

In 342 BC the plebs broke through a glass ceiling and won the legal right to stand for the consulship  alongside patricians. The consequence was the growth of a mixed patrician-plebeian nobility because, by the 300s, the leading plebeian families were not at all common working people but had developed into a class of very wealthy families in their own right (‘the plebeian leadership was rich and ambitious’, p.28).

This mixed patrician-plebeian nobility is what Crawford means when he (frequently) refers to the ‘oligarchy’ (‘control by a small group of powerful people.’)

The history of the Roman republic is the history of the fierce rivalry between a relatively small number of men at the core of this patrician-plebeian oligarchy, as they were forced to express it through the channels of a) election to a magistracy b) success as a military commander c) success as governor of an overseas province.

It was a complicated and sensitive mechanism which, by its last century, was riddled with bribery and corruption and, as mentioned above, fierce competition between its members for power and status which repeatedly spilled over into street violence. In the final 50 years it escalated into armed rebellion and civil war between Roman legions loyal to rival Strong Men.

Roman flexibility

Although they went on about their legends and traditions, one of the most notable things about the Roman state and culture was their flexibility.

Constitutional flexibility As provinces were acquired and something like an empire came into being, the Roman oligarchy expanded the number of magistracies sitting under the consulship, increasing the number of quaestors and praetors i.e. they were flexible in adapting their constitution.

Cultural flexibility From about 200 BC onwards the Roman elite took an increasing interest in Greek art, architecture, literature and philosophy, and frankly copied it (as in the plays of Plautus and Terence), and slowly developed their own versions and distinct styles.

Citizen flexibility But both these aspects rested on the ancient Roman custom of incorporating peoples into their state. Thus the conquest of the many tribes of Italy by one city state didn’t result in their miserable subjugation, but by the carefully calibrated award of Roman citizenship to tribes and communities around the country. When Rome went on to conquer foreign lands (starting with Sicily in the 240s) she made no demands that the population change their religion, culture or laws – they simply had to offer up young men for the Roman army (p.74).

The openness of Rome to outsiders was one of the sources of her strength in Italy (p.78)

It was this ability to incorporate foreign lands, foreign peoples, the best of foreign cultures and even their gods and religions, which underpinned a thousand years of success.

The impact of empire on the Roman ruling class

It’s worth making the minor point that all the historians talk about Rome having an ’empire’ well before the end of the Republican period and before they had actual emperors. In the talismanic year 146 BC the Romans crushed Carthage in the west and Corinth in the East, thus confirming their hegemony over the Mediterranean. The defeat of Carthage handed over the latter’s territories in north Africa and Spain to Rome, and after Rome defeated the Achaean League in 146 BC she used Greece as a jumping off point for greater involvement in ‘Asia’ (modern day Turkey) and across the sea in Egypt.

An empire in fact well before it became an empire in name.

Extreme wealth

Crawford’s thesis is simple: the phenomenal wealth which could be extracted from these overseas territories (‘generals and governors abroad had almost limitless opportunities for illegitimate enrichment’, p.74), plus the prestige attached to military success and the public triumphs awarded to victorious generals, led to increasing disparities among the ruling elite: some became phenomenally rich and successful, others less so.

The enormous power wielded by Roman magistrates operating far from senatorial oversight led to grave abuses; the wealth acquired from office by some members of the oligarchy separated them spectacularly from the rest and enabled them to bribe their own way and that of other members of their family to further office. (p.84)

The conquest of the Greek East from 200 BC onwards provided ready access to Greek artistic and intellectual skills and techniques and to wealth on a staggering scale. (p.85)

He quotes the Roman saying that a provincial governor needed to screw not one but three fortunes out of his unfortunate subjects: one to repay the money he borrowed to pay his election expenses; one to bribe the jury at the trial for corruption he would inevitably face when he got back to Rome; and the third one for the traditional reason – to have the wherewithal to fund the conspicuously rich lifestyle demanded by his class (p.171), a particularly conspicuous example being the successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus. By the 60s:

Provincial government not only provided men with wealth and connections on a scale unimagined a generation earlier; the great commands placed in their hands for a time almost regal power and led to their being showered with symbolic honours appropriate to that power. Here again Pompeius surpassed all his predecessors. (p.176)

So, as the first century BC progressed, at the very top of the Roman oligarchy, competition for the consulship, for governorship of a province or generalship of an army overseas, became increasingly fierce and bitter because the rewards became increasingly mind-boggling.

It was bitter rivalry about who would lead the Roman military campaign against Mithridates VI of Pontus in modern-day Turkey, which precipitated the civil war between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla starting in 88 BC. It was failure to agree a mechanism whereby Caesar could lay down command of his army in Gaul and transition to being a consul in 49 which led to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. It was the failure of the centuries-old institutions of the Republic to control and mediate the rivalry between these super-powerful men, and then between Octavian and Mark Antony after Caesar’s assassination, which led, after repeated collapses, to its complete replacement by the rule of one strong man.

Seen in this light, the domestic policies of the oligarchy throughout the 2nd century and into the 1st century, consisted of the oligarchy’s attempts to moderate and police itself, to hold this power in check. It had created a machine of awesome power which it could no longer control.

The decade 59 to 49 saw competition between the leading members of the oligarchy reach such an intensity that it destroyed the framework in which competition operated or had meaning. It burst out as the naked use of force. Might could only be met with might and could only lead to the triumph of one man only, Octavian.

The land problem

This much is maybe obvious. Crawford’s left-wing perspective comes out in his insistence that the ‘people’ played a leading role in the process. He claims they did this in two inter-related ways. First, was the land problem. In a nutshell, in the last 150 years of the republic the ordinary peasant farmer was driven off the land in ever-increasing numbers. The richest patricians relentlessly bought up land, exploiting the harsh money-lending and debt laws which penalised ordinary farmers.

This explains why there were so many attempts to redistribute land and to enact some form of debt relief over those 150 years. Take C. Laelius’s proposal in 140 that land be redistributed to the needy in order to raise them up to the property qualification required by recruitment into the army, thereby improving it, (p.91). Or Tiberius Gracchus’s proposals for redistributing land from the wealthy to the landless in 133. Crawford devotes a chapter to describing in detail the process of land appropriation by the rich and the various attempts by reformers to stem the tide (pages 94 to 106).

They mostly failed and the net result was the creation of huge estates (which came to be called latifundia) owned by very rich landowners, and the driving of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers off the land and into the towns, where they created shanty towns and formed the mobs susceptible to popular rabble rousers.

Thus the rise of the super-rich not only destabilised their own class, the oligarchy, but indirectly contributed to the rise of the mob mentality which increasingly dominated Roman politics in the last 50 years of the republic.

The lynching of Tiberius Gracchus

Crawford goes along with all the other historians I’ve read who say that the public lynching of the reformer Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC marked a turning point because for the first time laws, justice and deference gave way to brute violence. His younger brother was similarly massacred along with hundreds of his followers a decade later, but it was really the long and bitter Social War of the 90s which led directly into the civil war of the 80s, and to the appalling politically motivated murders commissioned by both Marius and Sulla, which made politicised street violence an accepted event.

A generation later, the street violence between the gangs led by Clodius and Milo destabilised politics throughout the 50s. And it was Mark Antony’s speech in the forum the day after Caesar’s assassination, displaying Caesar’s body and reading out his will, which roused the mob to a fury and to go off and torch the houses of the conspirators, thus driving them to flee from Rome, putting them on the back foot and guaranteeing that Antony and his group in the oligarchy would triumph.

The point is these successive outbreaks of constitutional collapse were partly enabled by the growth of a large class of urban proletariat, mobs of the unemployed or underemployed, former farmers driven off their land, embittered and ready for anything. It explains the appeal of Catalina’s vague promises to overthrow the entire state and start again to large numbers of the urban poor.

And we know from Cicero’s letters that even Octavian, who was to be the last man standing at the end of this series of ruinous civil wars, went out of his way to make himself liked by the mob.

In a sentence: the population displaced from the land and herded into the cities provided the raw material of aggrieved proles which the unprecedentedly powerful and homicidally competitive oligarchs were able to manipulate for their advantage.

Slavery

There was a third element: slavery. As conquest followed conquest in the 2nd century, as entire cities and peoples were conquered and some (not all) sold into slavery, there developed a tidal wave of slavery. This had two effects: one was that the economy didn’t need the peasant farmer any more; slaves could farm huge latifundia virtually for free. Second was a ratcheting up of the luxury living of the urban rich, and even the well-off middle classes, once their houses became full of slaves who did all kinds of work and services for free. The Roman historian Appian wrote:

‘So the powerful became very rich and slaves spread all over Italy.’ (quoted on page 102)

There was probably a third effect as well, which was the slave trade itself, which Crawford says really got going in the 140s i.e after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth. Easy to overlook the slaves and the simple fact that they created a vast amount of economic value for little overhead. The trade made slave traders very rich, but transformed the lives of Roman citizens of all but the lowest classes. (p.102).

‘When the Romans became rich after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth they used enormous numbers of slaves…’ (Roman historian Strabo quoted on page 131)

The growing use of slaves led to three slave wars or risings, in 135 to 132, 104 to 100, and 73 to 71. The Greek island of Delos became the centre of the slave trade in the eastern Mediterranean . It was said it could receive, sell and dispatch tens of thousands of slaves every day! (p.131).

Conclusion

This is a poor book, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Its take-home message is straightforward: it is bad, sometimes fatal, to the peace and viability of a society to let some of its members become disproportionately rich or powerful. Extreme wealth not only corrupts individuals but destabilises entire societies. A largely ignored message still relevant to us inhabitants of the ‘advanced’ economies of the West.


Roman reviews

The World Exists to Be Put On A Postcard: artists’ postcards from 1960 to now @ the British Museum

Last year the writer, curator (and sometime expert on The Antiques Roadshow) Jeremy Cooper donated his quirky collection of 1,000 postcards designed by artists from the 1960s to the present day, to the British Museum.

This FREE exhibition presents a selection of 300 works from the collection, and features a wide range of artists and artist collectives from the past five decades including Gilbert & George, Richard Hamilton, Yoko Ono, Guerrilla Girls, Tacita Dean, Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Dieter Roth, Carl Andre, Claes Oldenburg, Gavin Turk, Rachel Whitehead and many more.

The collection – which took 10 years to assemble – now means that the British Museum has one of the world’s leading collections of this rather unexpected art form. I, for one, certainly hadn’t realised how widespread and flexible an art form ‘the postcard’ had become.

Dada Land (1975/1977) by Bill Gaglione and Tim Mancusi. Reproduced by permission of the artists

The idea is that, since the radical conceptual and political breakthroughs of the 1960s, artists have found the postcard to be a cheap, flexible, democratic, accessible and fun format to present a whole range of ideas, whether satirical, subversive, silly or surreal.

Hence, if only at the level of invitation to an art show, many of the most famous artists of the past years have used the format, while others have gone to town with whole conceptual explorations of its possibilities.

The exhibition is divided into the following categories or headings:

Richard Hamilton (1992-2011)

In an early work such as Whitley Bay 1996, Hamilton used details of commercially produced postcards in his pop collages. Two years later he produced a concertina, ‘pull-out’ postcard. You unclipped it and eight postcard-sized unfolded, each showing a commercial image of Whitley Bay, which was progressively blown up larger and larger until the image became just an abstract blur of dots and patches.

Dieter Roth (1930-1998)

Swiss-born Roth produced various postcard art. He collaborated with Richard Hamilton on paintings made in Spain, and then produced postcards depicting the paintings, but conceived of as artworks in their own right. In a series titled 120 postcards Roth overpainted and reworked a clichéd tourist image of Piccadilly, to create a set of independent artworks.

Fluxus

The Fluxus art movement drew in a large number of artists, composers, designers and poets during the 1960s and 1970s who engaged in experimental art performances. Japanese artist On Kawara made a series titled ‘I GOT UP’ in which he simply sent postcards to hundreds of friends around the world marked with a date stamp declaring ‘I got up at…’ and then the time and date. He continued the series from 1968 to 1979.

An example of the I Got Up series by On Kawara (1979)

These postcards now fetch extraordinary sums at auction. The one above, sent in 1979, was part of a lot of On’s I GOT UP postcards which sold for £162,500. Wish I’d known him and he’d sent me one! As with so much ‘subversive’ art which was going to change the world, it is now bought and sold by Russian oligarchs and Chinese billionaires for sums you and I can only gawk at.

Ben Vautier created a postcard titled The Postman’s Choice with an address box and stamp space on both sides, so you filled in two addressees. Who should the post office send it to?

I liked the extended-size postcard, Beached, by Lawrence Wiener (b.1942). It was made to publicise a video he made in five sections of himself throwing, pulling, lifting, dragging, and levering natural materials to make a sculpture on a beach in Holland.

Beached by Lawrence Weiner (1970)

Feminism

Postcard art was a way for women artists of the 1960s and 70s who felt excluded from the male art world to bypass the traditional gallery system.

From 1971 to 1973 American artist Eleanor Antin (b.1935) sent fifty-one postcards of her hundred-boots project to a thousand people in the art world. During a two-and-a-half year roadtrip round California she placed the hundred boots in various incongruous settings and photographed them. What a brilliant idea!

Four details from 100 Boots (1971-73) by Eleanor Antin

Lynda Benglis (b.1941) and Hannah Wilke (b.1940) made postcards of themselves naked.

Lynda Benglis nude postcard

They were working to ‘challenge the idea of female objectification, often using their own bodies to explore sexuality in their work’.

Ponder-r-Rosa series by Hannah Wilke (1977)

Yes, I always find that pictures of naked young women help me to stop thinking about women in terms of their appearance or sexuality. Male gaze duly obliterated.

Performance

Stelious Arcadiou (b.1946) grew up in Melbourne, Australia, changed his name to Stelarc in 1972, and specialised in self-inflicted performances in which his body was suspended from flesh hooks. And his preferred way of promoting these performances was via photos on postcards distributed to other artists, galleries and critics.

Stelarc, Event for lateral suspension (1978)

In 1979 artist Chris Burden gave an art performance in which he described his relationship with a truck named ‘Big Job’, while clutching a gigantic wrench, and sent out postcards recording the event.

Big Wrench by Chris Burden (1979)

Conceptual I

This category includes Carl Andre – who made postcards of bricks or sections of concrete arranged in urban and landscape settings – landscape art by Richard Long, showing photos of places he’s visited and sculptures he’s made from natural materials in remote locations – and quite a few by Gilbert and George in a variety of settings and with text subverting their own status as artists and the whole point of art. Silly but oddly compelling, as usual.

Gilbert and George in a rural setting (1972)

Richard Long’s postcards of artworks he’d made as part of his long treks, in places as different as rural Devon and Mongolia, struck me as clever use of the medium. Some of  his artworks were temporary, made of mud or stones which would decompose or be assimilated back into the landscape. Some resulted in no tangible work whatever, just the record of the walk. Long’s postcards were, therefore, postcards from nowhere, mementos of things which never existed or would soon cease to exist. One of the things I’ve loved about Richard Long’s walking art since I first came across it is the way he captures the spooky, empty, vanishing nature of long-distance walks. You are intensely here, now, in this place. And yet half an hour later you are a mile away, over hill and dale, and the hereness and the nowness… are just memories… or photographs… or postcards…

Conceptual II

American artist Geoff Hendricks (b.1930) made a series of seven postcards depicting beautiful photographs of clouds. He styles himself a ‘cloudsmith’. Very relaxing.

Sky Post Card #7 by Geoff Hendricks (1974)

Endre Tót

Born in Hungary in 1937, Endre Tót trained as a painter but became involved with the Fluxus group. He is represented by possibly the best works in the exhibition, a 1974 series titled One Dozen Rain Postcards.

In these Tót made Xerox copies of photos from newspapers, printed them in purple, and then typed dots and dashes onto the surface of the copies in order to give the effect of rain. Each variation of the rain motif is deliberately humorous: some show heavy rain falling in just one place, or it raining indoors, and so on.

One of the One dozen rain postcards by Endre Tót (1971-1973)

These were all very witty – with other subjects including horizon rain (the dashes all running horizontally parallel to the horizon of a sea postcard) and new rain/old rain – but they also struck me as a genuinely innovative use of the size and shape of the postcard format.

Paradise regained

American photographer Duane Michals (b.1932) made a series of six postcards which starts out with a fully clothed couple in a modern office and, in each one, items of clothing are removed from the people while the office becomes more full of pot plants and foliage, until they are naked in an apparent forest.

Paradise regained by Duane Michals (1968)

Graphic postcards

Some of the most innovative postcard art comes in graphic form i.e. text only, or text over minimal imagery. Hence the bold declarative text The World Exists To be Put On A Postcard by Simon Cutts which gives the show its title. Personally, I liked the extreme minimalism of this graphic postcard, made all the funnier by that fact that it required not one but two modern artists to create it, Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs.

There’s a painting on the wall by Peter Doig and Matthew Higgs (1996)

Postcard invitations

In a more traditional use of the format, artists often sent out invitations to art exhibitions (or happenings or performances) in the shape of postcards, detailing the location and time of the exhibition. Many of these were treated like ephemera and lost, only years later did collectors start to value them.

Invitation to Holy Cow! Silver Clouds!! Holy Cow! (1966) by Andy Warhol © 2018 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London

There’s the original invitation card for the now legendary Freeze exhibition organised by Damien Hirst which introduced the world to the (YBAs) (Young British Artists), and a funky 3-D postcard Julian Opie sent out as an invitation to his 1996 exhibition Walking Dancing Undressing Smoking showing the cartoon of a trim woman in his trademark strong black outlines, but done in that process where, if you shift your point of view, the figure appears to move.

Political postcards I

Because they are cheap and, by their very nature, designed to be distributed, postcards have been an appropriate format for all kinds of artists promoting their political agendas. Using the postal system they can easily be circulated thereby evading traditional gallery and museum networks, which is why many postcard artworks were often politically subversive or carried a social message. Images satirising and lambasting Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher abound.

Thatcher Therapy Dot-to-Dot Puzzle No. 1 (1984) by Paul Morton. Reproduced by permission of the artist. Courtesy Leeds Postcards

There’s a post-card designed by John Lennon and Yoko Ono with the simple text WAR IS OVER. Its optimistic innocence is counterpointed by a completely different pair of postcards by photo-montage artist Peter Kennard of a) some cruise missiles plonked on the back of the hay cart in Constable’s painting The Haywain and b) the super-famous montage of Tony Blair taking a selfie against the backdrop of Iraqi oil wells going up in flames.

There’s another really vivid one with the big angry text I DON’T GIVE A SHIT WHAT YOUR HOUSE IS WORTH (by Leeds Postcards, 1988).

Political postcards II – Feminism

Back  in the gritty 1970s artist Alison Knowles and composer Pauline Oliveros published a set of cards commenting on the outsider status of women in the world of classical music. The idea was to take photos of women composers and to attach a big text describing each classical male composer with the kind of derogatory comment they felt women composers were all-too-frequently dismissed with e.g. she’s a lesbian.

Beethoven was a lesbian by Pauline Oliveros with Alison Knowles (1974)

Similar outsider anger is the unique selling point of the Guerrilla Girls collective with their well-known poster slogans such as ‘Do women have to be naked to get into the Met Museum?’

But best of all is the set of works by Jill Posener who, in the 1980s, sprayed witty graffiti ‘with political, feminist, lesbian and anti-consumerist themes’ onto billboards, defacing irritating, sexist and patronising advertising campaigns with hilarious jokes.

Saw his head off by Jill Posener (1981)

Altered postcards

Because they’re so cheap and cheerful artists have felt free to manipulate, transform, burn, cut up, deface, collage, paint over and generally muck about with postcards. Yoko Ono published a white postcard with a little hole in the middle for you to look through at the sky. Ray Johnson cut up, pasted and wrote over whatever printed material he could find. Genesis P/Orridge made a series of postcards in which the same black and white images of his mum and dad were positioned closer and closer to each other, until they merged.

In the 1980s Michael Langenstein (b.1947) made a series titled Fantasy and Surreal Postcards, collages of commercial postcards in which iconic images are made to do funny things, for example the Statue of Liberty is shown on her back in the Hudson River apparently dong the backstroke, or Concorde is shown having flown into and got stuck half-way through one of the great pyramids at Giza.

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Excalibur by Michael Langenstein (1986)

Portrait postcards

Portraits often appeared on exhibition invitations, for example there’s one of David Hockney inviting to an exhibition in the 1960s. American artist Carolee Schneeman (1939-2019) and Anthony McCall made their own Christmas postcards. Again, the best of the bunch was, for me, the funniest one, which showed British artist Peter Hutchison (b.1930) being showered with foot-high letters in a work titled Struggling with language from 1974.

Struggling with language by Peter Hutchison (1974)

Recent postcards

Despite being overtaken by digital technology, emails, texts and numerous forms of social media, the postcard continues to thrive, in the real world out there, as well as in the art world. This last section showcases recent postcard art by Tacita Dean and Frances Alÿs, by Braco Dimitrijevic and Alison Wilding, Gillian Wearing and Jeremy Deller.

Sarah Lucas and Tracey Emin are pictured wearing scruffy anoraks and each holding a pair of big balls, in the tradition of the smutty seaside postcard. Meanwhile, Rachel Whiteread – an avid collector of postcards, apparently – has punched holes into innocuous scenic postcards thus turning them into miniature sculptures.

Untitled (2005) by Rachel Whiteread. Photograph © 2018 Rachel Whiteread

Thoughts

Who knew so much work existed in this area, who knew that ‘the postcard’ was a modern art genre in itself. Sceptical to being with, I am now totally converted. The categories I listed above aren’t exhaustive: there were quite a few one-off creative and experimental projects which come under no particular category but are also included.

A test of an exhibition is whether, at the end of it, you want to go round again, and I did. Having gone round once carefully reading the labels, I then went round again, just for fun, stopping at the ones which made me smile or laugh out loud (smiling at the rain postcards, guffawing at Jill Posener’s brilliant anti-sexist cards from the 80s).

It’s fun and it’s FREE. Pop along for an entertaining and enlightening experience.


Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

This is a major retrospective of the art of the (female) Korean artist Lee Bul, born in 1964 and still going strong, so something of a mid-career snapshot. It brings together over 100 works in the five enormous exhibition rooms of Hayward Gallery, plus some work located outside.

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul: Crashing showing Monster Pink (left) and Civitas Solis II (in the background) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

As you walk into room one, you immediately realise that much of Lee’s art is big, involving costumes, installations, mannequins and dummies.

You also realise that it is done to a high degree of finish. Everything looks very professional and seamless. It comes as no surprise to learn that much of her recent work is conceived by her but created by a studio of craftspeople and technicians.

I’m always a little envious of my teenage kids. When they come to art exhibitions like this, they roam at will, attracted by whatever is big and brash, rarely bothering with the boring wall labels or grown-up ‘issues’, enjoying things purely for what they look like and how much fun they are. They would certainly find lots to admire here, from the point of view of the spectacular and dramatic.

Monster Pink, pictured above, is accompanied by Monster White both of which look like assemblages of wriggling worms, like some mutant aliens from Dr Who. The same sci-fi vibe attaches to what look like fragments of space suits dangling from the ceiling. On closer examination you can see that these are life-size depictions of the human body in the style of Japanese manga comics, in which both men and women have sleek, perfect bodies, often encased in futuristic body armour.

Lee has produced dismembered versions of these, half a sleek, armoured torso, or combinations of limbs and extremities, moulded into striking but disconcerting fragments of mannequins. Soft pink sacks hang next to sleek machine-tooled silhouettes.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Cyborg WI on the left (photo by the author)

Up the concrete ramp, in room three, there’s what seems to be a model of a futuristic city, held up by thin scaffolding, some kind of hyper-freeway emerging from a tall plastic mountain, complete with a massive neon sign clicking on and off.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… (2005) Photo by the author

Nearby is a big ‘cave’ made of shiny plastic, with a ‘door’ to go in through, a ‘window’ to look out of, and walls decorated with a mosaic of mirror fragments.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Bunker (M. Bakhtin) (photo by the author)

Best of all, from an excitable teenager’s point of view, are two big transport machines.

Downstairs in long, low room two, is what appears to be a space-age hovercar not unlike the one Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi use to go to the city of Mos Eisley to look for Han Solo in the first Star Wars movie.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Live Forever III (photo by the author)

To my amazement, visitors are actually encouraged to get into this device (once they’ve slipped on some protective plastic bags to go over their shoes). As I was saying to myself the immortal line ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’, the gallery assistant lowered the roof and sealed me in.

You’re forced to lie quite low in the beautifully upholstered leather chair and watch a TV monitor placed right in front of you. If only I could have flicked the ignition, heard the engine roar, made a secret tunnel door open up and slid down a chute into the nearby River Thames to begin a high-speed boat chase against the baddies who’d just blown up the MI6 building.

Alas, all that actually happens is that the screen hanging in front of your face plays tacky Korean karaoke videos. You’re invited to put on headphones, pick up the handy microphone and join in which I was far too intimidated to do.

Finally, up the Hayward’s heavy concrete stairwell to gallery four where a) the entire floor has been covered in futuristic reflective silver plastic, giving it a Dr Who-TV set appearance, and b) and in which floats one of Lee Bul’s most iconic works, a huge model of a zeppelin made from shiny reflective silver foil.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable - Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo: Linda Nylind

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon (2015-2016) at Hayward Gallery © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Linda Nylind

And thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…

My son, a big fan of manga, animé, graphic novels and sci-fi, would have loved all this, consumed purely as spectacle, as weird and wonderful objects of fantasy and imagination.

However, art is rarely this simple or free. The artists themselves, and certainly their curators and critics, are all too ready to catch the butterfly of fantasy in a net of explanations, drag it back down to earth, and pin it to a board next to all the other specimens in their collection. For example, when you look up the Wikipedia article about Lee, it begins:

Lee’s work questions patriarchal authority and the marginalization of women by revealing ideologies that permeate our cultural and political spheres

firmly dragging Lee’s art into contemporary art discourse with its all-too-familiar obsessions of gender, race, ideology and politics.

The free exhibition handout and the wall labels are where you go for more information about Lee, and they certainly are extremely informative and illuminating. In addition, there are two timelines printed on walls – one telling the history of South Korea since the 1950-53 war to the present, and one describing the development of modern art in Korea from the time of Lee’s birth (1964) to the present day, with a special emphasis on women’s art and issues.

All very interesting, but the more you read, the more you become weighed down by interpretations of art which see it all in terms of ponderous ‘issues’ – of ‘challenges’ and ‘subversions’ and ‘questionings’ – the more it feels like you are sitting through a dreary two-hour-long sociology lecture.

KOREA

The South Korea Lee was born into was ruled by a right-wing dictator who had come to power in a military coup, General Park Chung-hee, who ruled with an iron fist from 1963 to 1979. Park inaugurated a series of five year plans designed to modernise Korean society and the economy at breakneck speed.

But Lee’s parents were left-wing dissidents and, although they weren’t arrested, were subjected to harassment, periodic house searches, banned from government employment and hassled into keeping on the move, never settling long in one place.

Thus Lee’s childhood memories are of often cold and bleak makeshift homes and the oppressiveness of the authorities set against a vista of brave new towns, cities, motorways and buildings built quickly of shoddy cement, destined soon to crumble and become seedy and derelict.

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

Amidst all the other ‘issues’ addressed in the art, it was this latter notion – the failure of utopianism – which interested me most. It seems to me that we are currently living through just such an epoch of failure, the slow-motion failure of the dream of a digital future.

Having worked in four British government departments or agencies on their websites and IT projects for the past eight years I have seen all manner of cock-ups and mismanagement – the collapse of the unified NHS project, the likely failure of the system for Universal Credit which was launched in 2010 and still doesn’t work properly, let alone the regular bank failures like the recent TSB collapse. All this before you consider the sinister implications of the recent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica-U.S. Presidential elections debacle.

I have also observed the negative impact of phones and laptops on my own children i.e. they have both become phone addicts. As a result of all this I have very strong, and generally negative, opinions about ‘the Digital Future’.

That’s why I warmed to this aspect of the work of Chinese art superstar, Ai Weiwei, as displayed at the 2015 Royal Academy retrospective of his work. Twitter, Facebook and all the rest of them sell themselves as agents of ‘liberation’ whereas they are, quite obviously in my opinion, implements of a new kind of surveillance society, instruments of turbo-charged consumerism, and the tools of Russian hackers and any number of other unknown forces.

Yet people love them, ignore the scandals, can’t give up their phones or Facebook accounts, and big corporation, banks and governments carry on piling all their services online as if nothing could possibly go wrong with this technology.

With all this in mind I was surprised that there was no mention anywhere of the digital utopia, of digital technology, of phones and screens and big data anywhere in this big exhibition. Instead the utopias Lee Bul is concerned with seemed to me very dated. People wearing futuristic (manga) outfits or living in futuristic cities – this all seemed very Flash Gordon to me, very old tech, a very 1950s and 60s definition of what the future is going to look like.

This feeling that her art is very retro in its vision was crystallised by one of her most iconic works, which was a star feature of the 20th Sydney Biennale in 2016 – the enormous foil zeppelin – Willing To Be Vulnerable – Metalized Balloon.

I’m perfectly aware that the Hindenburg Zeppelin is an enduring symbol of technological hubris and disaster – that it burst into flames and crashed to the ground in 1937. I’ve seen the black and white film footage many times, I’ve even watched the terrible 1975 disaster movie they made about it.

Willing To Be Vulnerable is one of Lee’s most recent works and yet… isn’t it a very old reference to a long-ago event. It would be like discussing the rise of right-wing populism by reference to Adolf Hitler (German Chancellor when the Hindenburg crashed). It’s a plausible reference, sort of, but it’s not very up to date, is it? It’s not where we are now.

And then again, it isn’t even a detailed or accurate model of the Hindenburg. It’s just a big shiny balloon. An awesomely big shiny balloon. My kids would love it. I couldn’t really see it interrogating or questioning anything.

ARCHITECTURE

The grandiose rhetoric of Korean President Park Chung-hee’s regime, and its relative failure to build the utopia it promised, also explain the strong theme of architecture throughout the exhibition.

When you look closer, you realise that the big model of the kind-of super highway emerging from a phallic mountain – Mon grand récit – Weep into stones… – pictured above, is accompanied by a series of paintings and sketches on the walls showing aspects of architecture, visions and fantasies of architecture which come to ruin.

They are subtler, quieter work which would be easy to overlook in the first impact of all the big models and installations. I particularly liked one collage painting which gives an impression of some kind of disaster involving a glass and chrome skyscraper. The idea – urban apocalypse, skyscrapers in ruins – has been done thousands of times – but I admired the layout and design of it, the shape of the main image with its ‘feeler’-like hairs at the left, and the way the small fragment floats freely above it.

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable - Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

Untitled (Willing to be vulnerable – Velvet #6 DDRG240C) 2017 by Lee Bul

POLITICAL CRITICISM

Again, it’s only if you read the wall labels and exhibition guide quite carefully that you realise there is a thread of political satire running through the show. In room one, in between the more striking cyborgs hanging from the ceiling, are a couple of small mannequin models of President Park, naked, in full anatomical detail (reminiscent in the way they’re less than life size and so somehow feeble and vulnerable, of Ron Mueck’s mannequins of his naked dead dad, back in the 1997 Sensation exhibition).

Next to the ‘bat cave’ installation (Bunker), which I described above, is what at first seems like an enormous ‘rock’, made out of some kind of plastic. It’s titled Thaw and if you look closer you just about see another model of President Park, wearing his trademark dark sunglasses, as if he’s been frozen in ice in some alternative science fiction history, and is only waiting to thaw out and rise again…

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Next to this is a very big installation of a bath. Unusually, you are allowed to walk across the tiled floor which makes up a good part of the installation, towards the bath itself – a big rectangular affair as if in a sauna or maybe in the bath rooms of some kind of collective housing – to discover that it is ringed with what looks like white meringue tips, and that the bath itself is full of black ink.

This is Heaven and Hell and without the exhibition guide there’s no way you’d be able to guess that it commemorates Park Jong-chul, a student protester who was tortured and killed by the South Korean security services in a bathtub in 1987.

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Installation view of Lee Bul at Hayward Gallery showing Heaven and Hell (1987) Photo by the author

Thinking about political art, Peter Kennard’s blistering photomontages flaying political leaders such as Mrs Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and Tony Blair come to mind, for example the enormous photomontage of Tony Blair plastered with images of atrocities from the Iraq War which was on display at the recent Age of Terror exhibition at the Imperial war Museum.

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, with a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

Installation view of Age of Terror at Imperial War Museum London showing Head of State, a photomontage by Cat Phillipps and Peter Kennard, and a marble sculpture of a CCTV camera by Ai Weiwei

There is nothing that overt or emotional here. Everything is much more controlled, inflected, allusive. Given that Lee Bul is sometimes referred to as a political artist, there’s nothing at all that – for me anyway – packed any kind of real political punch.

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

With a certain inevitability, what the exhibition probably showcases most consistently is Lee Bul’s identity as a woman artist coming from a society which was extremely repressive, not only of political dissent, but of any form of feminism or gender politics.

The historical timeline tells us that a women’s movement only got going in Korea in the later 1980s and that Lee Bul was an enthusiastic part of it. It tells us that her earliest work went beyond sculpture to explore the possibilities of performance art.

Thus room two contains six screens on which we see some of Lee’s performances – ‘provocative performance works involving her own body’, as the commentary describes them – which she carried out between 1989 and 1996.

In Abortion (1989) she suspended herself from the ceiling of an auditorium for two hours and entertained the audience with lines from poems and pop songs as well as a description of her own abortion, a medical procedure which is still, to this day, apparently, illegal in South Korea.

The Monsters at the start of the show, the wriggly worm creations, turn out to be costumes which Lee wore either writhing around on the ground or walking the streets in order to question received ideas about X and subvert assumptions about Y.

Throughout the exhibition the ‘issue’ of gender and the ‘problematics’ of the female body are reiterated. For example, the timeline of women in Korean society describes ‘the rise of a generation of artists concerned with the representation of the female body‘ who also began ‘subverting the way that women are depicted in the media’.

The guide explains that

at the core of Lee’s recent work is an investigation into landscape, which for the artist includes the intimate landscape of the body

It turns out the her interest in the manga-style cyborgs comes less from a feeling for science fiction tropes or ideas around artificial intelligence and the possibility of improving human bodies by combining them with machine parts (from pacemakers to prosthetic limbs), no, she

is interested in what the figure of the cyborg – a transhuman hybrid of flesh and machine – can tell us about desire, our relationship to technology, and cultural attitudes towards the female body.

Or, as the press release puts it:

Shaped by her experience of growing up in South Korea during a period of political upheaval, much of Lee Bul’s work is concerned with trauma, and the way that idealism or the pursuit of perfection – bodily, political or aesthetic – might lead to failure, or disaster. Questioning women’s place in society, particularly Korean society, she also addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of ‘feminine’ beauty.

Actually, rather like the so-called ‘political’ works (Thaw and Heaven and Hell) I only discovered that Lee was addressing the ways popular culture shapes our idea of femininity or questions cultural attitudes towards the female body by reading the guidebook. It really wasn’t that obvious from just seeing the works themselves. The three or four cyborg fragments hanging from the ceiling are probably, but not very obviously, female. They could belong to any gender, and be about anything.

Later on there are a couple of ‘busts’ made of lurid plastic of human thoraxes encased in cyber-armour but they aren’t very obviously female. The fact that they’re made of garish pink plastic and the design of the manga-style armour is the striking thing about them.

In one or two of the videos, the artist is seen naked or semi-naked, which even I picked up on as probably a reference to the female body, although I’ve never understood how young, nubile women artists stripping off is meant to subvert anything. To me it plays directly to society’s expectation that the most important or interesting thing about nubile young women is their nubile young bodies.

But if you hadn’t been told by the exhibition website, press release, guide and wall labels that her work ‘questions ideas of femininity’ I’m not sure you’d particularly notice.

I was, for example, surprised to learn that the silver zeppelin ‘addresses the ways in which popular culture – in both the East and West – informs and shapes our idea of feminine beauty’. Really?

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Willing To Be Vulnerable by Lee Bul (photo by the author)

Via Negativa II

I haven’t yet mentioned another of the really impressive installations, Via Negativa II (2014) which is a maze made out of metal sheets suspended on stands, a bit like the stands you get at conferences but arranged to create an entrance into a convoluted labyrinth of shiny metal plates.

It’s not a very big maze – only three people are allowed in at a time. The ‘justification’ or ‘idea’ behind it? Well, the walls are covered with a text by an American psychologist, Julian Jaynes, in which he argued that early humans experienced a split consciousness when messages from one hemisphere of the brain to the other were experienced as auditory hallucinations. To make it art, the text is printed in a mirror image of itself i.e you can’t actually read it. You’d need to hold up a mirror to the text to see it printed properly.

I suppose this small metal maze is designed to recreate that sense of mild hallucination that Jaynes describes. At its heart there is certainly a great experience when you find yourself in a cubicle dominated by grids of yellow lights reflected to infinity in parallel mirrors. The other two visitors and I all jostled for the best position to take photos from. Maybe it’s meant to make you think about something, but it’s also just a great tourist photo opportunity.

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

Installation view of Lee Bul showing Via Negativa II (2014) (interior detail) © Lee Bul 2018. Photo by Mark Blower

This is all great fun, but is it ‘questioning the limits of the human’ or ‘interrogating cultural ideas of the female’? Not really.

The international language of art

In fact, you don’t learn very much about the art or culture or history of Korea from this exhibition nor even – surprisingly – about feminism.

What comes over loud and clear is that this is now the international language of art – the same kind of brash, confident, well-manufactured, high concept work which you also see being produced by (the workshops of) Ai Weiwei, Damien Hirst, and numerous other superstars.

(Hirst sprang to mind as soon as I saw Lee Bul’s Majestic Splendour, a work consisting of rows of decomposing fish with sequins on, from 1997 which, of course, echoes Hirst’s A Thousand Years, a vitrine containing a cow’s decomposing head which he displayed in 1990. Great minds think alike.)

Not long ago I visited the fascinating exhibition of everyday products from North Korea held at the House of Illustration behind King’s Cross station. There I learned about the unique political system, the Cult of the Leader and the special economic policy (Juche) of North Korea. I learned about the importance of opera, theatre and enormous public performance in their culture, about the way the Korean language lends itself to blocky futuristic design, and about their fondness for a much brighter, more acid colour palette than we in the West are used to.

In Lee Bul’s exhibition I don’t think I learned anything at all about South Korea apart from being reminded of the name of its military dictator, and that its repressive military dictatorship was, well, repressive.

For me this exhibition shows that whatever her origins, whatever her personal biography may have been (the difficult childhood, the early anti-establishment and feminist performances), Lee Bul is now – in 2018 – on a par with Ai and Hirst in creating aroma-less, origin-free, international objets d’art for the delectation of equally rootless, cosmopolitan art critics, and for transnational buyers and billionaire investors.

I went to the press launch where the show was introduced by the director of Hayward Gallery – the American Ralph Rugoff – and the show’s curator – the German Stephanie Rosenthal. As they spoke I was struck by how all three of the people behind the microphones were members of an international art élite, a cosmopolitan, transnational art world which seems impossibly glamorous to those of us forced to earn our livings in the country of our birth and unable to jet off to international biennales in Venice and Sydney, to visit art shows at the Met in New York or the Foundation Cartier in Paris or the Mori Gallery in Tokyo or the Museum of Contemporary Art in Seoul (all places where Lee has exhibited). Wow. What a glamorous jet-setting life!

Summary

This is a very well-put together overview of the career to date of one of the world’s most successful and distinctive artists. It’s packed with big, bold, funky, cool objects and installations.

If you think art needs to be ‘about’ something, then you will enjoy the way the commentary invokes issues around the female body, around social utopias, about architecture and landscape, about the interface of technology and humans, to explain Lee’s work.

Or, like me, you may come to the conclusion that these issues, ideas and texts may well be important to motivate and inspire the artist, to get her juices flowing – but that most of the works can just be enjoyed in and of themselves, as highly inventive three-dimensional objects – fun, strange, colourful, jokey – without requiring any sort of ‘meaning’ or ‘interpretation’.


Related links

Related reviews

Reviews of other Hayward Gallery exhibitions

The Manifesto of the Communist Party by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)

This little booklet is worth whole volumes: to this day its spirit inspires and guides the entire organised and fighting proletariat of the civilised world. (Lenin)

The history of the Manifesto reflects the history of the modern working class movement; at present, it is doubtless the most widespread, the most international production of all socialist literature, the common platform acknowledged by millions of working men from Siberia to California.
(Preface to the 1888 English edition)

Layout of this blog post:

  1. Historical background
  2. Marx’s uniqueness
  3. Marx’s failure to complete Das Kapital
  4. The background to the Communist Manifesto
  5. The basic idea
  6. Structure
    1. Part one – The achievements of the bourgeoisie and why it is digging its own grave
    2. Part two
      1. the role of communists vis-a-vis the proletariat
      2. the future of private property
      3. the invalidity of bourgeois ideas of justice, morality etc
      4. how the proletariat will take over power
    3. Part three – Description and dismissal of a number of rival socialist or communist movements
  7. My thoughts:
    • the Manifesto’s appeal
    • its problems
    • its legacy
    • what we need today

1. Historical perspective

Utopian dreams of overthrowing repressive social structures go back in Europe at least as far as the Middle Ages. In the 17th century the British civil wars of the 1640s not only established a Puritan republic but threw up a variety of utopian schemes for redesigning society. The French Revolution turned into the Terror, then gave way to the military adventurism of Napoleon, but the ideas contained in its Declaration of the Rights of Man – of social and political freedom – haunted Europe for the rest of the nineteenth century.

2. Marx’s uniqueness

What made Marx’s vision of a free, equal and just society different from all its predecessors was that he based it on a massive analysis of the economic and technological underpinnings of society (of the Victorian society he lived in and – he claimed – of all previous human societies, too).

Previous utopians had based their ideas on moral or psychological or religious premises. Marx claimed to have discovered objective scientific laws of history which proved that industrial societies would inevitably move towards a revolution which must usher in a communist society i.e. one where everyone was equal, everyone worked, everyone had a say in what work they did, natural resources were exploited fairly for the benefit of all, in which there would be no more ‘classes’, in which everyone would rejoice in their work and lead fulfilling lives.

Marx thought it was inevitable because all capitalist economies tend towards the formation of monopolies: companies buy other companies, deploy economies of scale and pay, get bigger, buy out other companies – think of American multinationals, Google, Microsoft, Unilever, Monsanto. Meanwhile the workers in these ever-larger concerns get more and more value squeezed out of them, getting poorer while company shareholders get richer. As the workers approach closer and closer to the condition of slaves, the owning bourgeoisie become more and more rich.

Marx thought this unavoidable tendency in all capitalist systems for the concentration of wealth into fewer and fewer hands, while more and more people join the ranks of the immiserated proletariat, was leading to a society divided ever more sharply into two opposing camps – a shrinking bourgeoisie and a growing proletariat. The size and misery of the proletariat could only be contained by the various lackeys of the system – the police, law courts, the fig leaf of ‘parliamentary democracy’ and all the other phoney frontages of bourgeois society.

Our epoch, the epoch of the bourgeoisie, possesses this distinct feature: it has simplified class antagonisms. Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other – Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.

Eventually, by sheer weight of numbers, it dawns on the proletariat that they have it in their own hands to rise up at ‘the decisive hour’, to overthrow the system, to eliminate the hated bourgeoisie, to seize control of the means of production and distribution, and to usher in the great day of universal freedom. Everything will be owned by ‘the people’ who will all have a say in how things are made and distributed.

3. Marx’s failure to complete Das Kapital

Marx spent thirty years sitting in the British Library getting haemorrhoids in the effort to flesh out his new theory of capitalism, with the aim of making it incontrovertible, unanswerable, irrefutable – a task he found, in the end, impossible.

The publication of volume one of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy in 1867 made Marx the foremost socialist thinker of the age – nobody could match its enormous erudition and its tremendous insights into the actual practical working of the capitalist economy. But despite all those hours in the library, he never completed volumes two or three before he died in 1883. It is important to realise that his life’s work as a scholar and theorist was left incomplete.

4. Background to the Communist Manifesto

Luckily for the general reader, a generation earlier he had produced a pop version of his ideas, in the form of the Manifesto of the Communist Party. The Communist Manifesto has been reprinted countless times over the decades since and became the single most accessible work by Marx,

It was published early in 1848. This was the year which saw political uprisings all across Europe. Young Karl was just 30 and deeply involved in European revolutionary politics. The manifesto was written to explain the programme of a new party, the Communist League. This had been established on June 1, 1847 in London by a merger of ‘The League of the Just’, headed by Karl Schapper and ‘the Communist Correspondence Committee of Brussels’, which was headed by Karl and his close friend and collaborator, Frederick Engels.

(A key characteristic of communist movements throughout the ages is the way they have always been divided into hundreds of groups on the left, which merge, splinter and fight each other like ferrets in a sack to promote their own special and uniquely correct view of the revolution. Left-wing politics has always been highly fissile. Thus a good deal of Marx and Engel’s best works were written not to attack the Bourgeoisie but to attack fellow socialists, Engels’s most influential work – Socialism Scientific and Utopian – was written for just this purpose, to rubbish all other flavours of socialism and communism and assert Marx’s vision as uniquely scientific and objective. The arcane in-fighting of left-wing groups in the 1840s and 50s prefigure the way that 20th century communist dictators like Stalin and Mao ended up putting so many of their own colleagues on trial. Communism is a radically unstable idea which, however, can tolerate no deviations from a very strict party line. The more you ponder this basic fact, the more you realise that it is an almost inevitable recipe for repression.)

5. Summary of the central idea

Less than thirty pages long, the Manifesto of the Communist Party was mostly the work of Karl, as he came up to his thirtieth birthday. The basic idea is simple.

The proposition is this: That in every historical epoch, the prevailing mode of economic production and exchange, and the social organization necessarily following from it, form the basis upon which it is built up, and from that alone can be explained the political and intellectual history of that epoch;

that consequently the whole history of mankind (since the dissolution of primitive tribal society, holding land in common ownership) has been a history of class struggles, contests between exploiting and exploited, ruling and oppressed classes;

that the history of these class struggles forms a series of evolutions in which, nowadays, a stage has been reached where the exploited and oppressed class – the proletariat – cannot attain its emancipation from the sway of the exploiting and ruling class – the bourgeoisie – without, at the same time, and once and for all, emancipating society at large from all exploitation, oppression, class distinction, and class struggles. (from Engels’s preface to the English edition of the Communist Manifesto, 1888)

6. Structure of the Communist Manifesto

Before we proceed, let’s be clear about terminology.

By bourgeoisie is meant the class of modern capitalists, owners of the means of social production and employers of wage labour. By proletariat, the class of modern wage labourers who, having no means of production of their own, are reduced to selling their labour power in order to live. (Engles 1888 note to the main text)

The Communist Manifesto is divided into three parts:

    1. Bourgeois and Proletarians
    2. Proletarians and Communists
    3. Socialist and Communist Literature

1. Part one – Bourgeois and Proletarians

Part one is in many ways the most inspirational and enjoyable part, a sustained hymn to the startling achievements of the new Victorian bourgeoisie, to the:

industrial millionaires, the leaders of the whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois.

I’m not the first person to point out that although Karl said the bourgeoisie were wicked appropriators of the wealth created by other men, although they had overthrown all previous social relationships, reduced the family to organised prostitution, enslaved millions, and thrown their poisonous tentacles right round the world in search of profit – Karl can’t help being excited and enthused by their astonishing achievements.

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

It has been the first to show what man’s activity can bring about. It has accomplished wonders far surpassing Egyptian pyramids, Roman aqueducts, and Gothic cathedrals; it has conducted expeditions that put in the shade all former Exoduses of nations and crusades.

The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together. Subjection of Nature’s forces to man, machinery, application of chemistry to industry and agriculture, steam-navigation, railways, electric telegraphs, clearing of whole continents for cultivation, canalisation of rivers, whole populations conjured out of the ground – what earlier century had even a presentiment that such productive forces slumbered in the lap of social labour?

Impressive stuff, eh? Nonetheless, we need to hate the bourgeoisie. Why?

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his ‘natural superiors’, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self interest, than callous ‘cash payment’. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom – Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.

The bourgeoisie has stripped of its halo every occupation hitherto honoured and looked up to with reverent awe. It has converted the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid wage labourers. The bourgeoisie has torn away from the family its sentimental veil, and has reduced the family relation to a mere money relation.

Marx says the modern industrial bourgeoisie has introduced a permanent sense of change, of unsettled and ever-speeding novelty into society, due to its need to continually disrupt and revolutionise the means of production, in order to invent new ways to make a profit.

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The endlessness of bourgeois rapacity has led it to spread its tentacles over the face of the earth, creating empires of exploitation to further its lust for profit.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

But this energy is creating its own nemesis.

The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself. But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians.

Repeatedly, Marx asserts that this pattern – ‘the wheel of history’ – is inevitable and unstoppable.

The essential conditions for the existence and for the sway of the bourgeois class is the formation and augmentation of capital; the condition for capital is wage-labour. Wage-labour rests exclusively on competition between the labourers. The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by the revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

The proletariat is the revolutionary class, the class that holds the future in its hands. Crucially, the proletariat is a class like no other in history because it contains all that is best in the entire history of humanity: its victory will be the victory of humanity.

All previous historical movements were movements of minorities, or in the interest of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interest of the immense majority. The proletariat, the lowest stratum of our present society, cannot stir, cannot raise itself up, without the whole superincumbent strata of official society being sprung into the air.

It is an immensely powerful vision, combining a thrilling overview of all human history, with devastatingly accurate insights into the nature of contemporary social and economic change, and an inspirational prophecy of the end of all conflict and the advent of a fair and just golden age.

Part two – Proletarians and Communists

Part two addresses a number of distinct issues, among them the role of the communist party, the future of private property, and the precise nature of the revolution.

The relationship of the communists to the Proletariat A dicey subject because it becomes clear that the Proletariat needed to be wakened from their slumber and roused on to the barricades by thinkers, writers and activists who were, ahem, unfortunately, of bourgeois origin. Karl explains it thus:

Just as, therefore, at an earlier period, a section of the nobility went over to the bourgeoisie, so now a portion of the bourgeoisie goes over to the proletariat, and in particular, a portion of the bourgeois ideologists, who have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole.

Raised themselves, in other words, to the lofty eminence of agreeing with Karl and Frederick’s theories! Knowing that he’s tackling a slightly embarrassing and touchy problem (if the rise of the Proletariat is so inevitable, why should they need the help of any members of the bourgeoisie?), this section is more programmatic and dogmatic than the more thrillingly rhetorical tone of part one.

In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement.

The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.

The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.

‘They have the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.’ This claim to a uniquely privileged understanding of History would underpin the idea of a vanguard communist party until, in Lenin’s hands, it formed the basis of a ruthless dictatorship, which, in turn, gave rise to Stalin whose techniques of central control by terror were copied by Mao and numerous other, lesser, communist dictators.

Because it follows from what Marx says that, if the leaders of the Communist party are the only ones gifted with this special understanding of History, then any deviation or dissent from their views must by definition be an attack on the Course of History itself, a kind of blasphemy against the Unstoppable March of the Proletariat, and must be dealt with ruthlessly because it threatens to derail the Forward march of History.

Fortunately, Russia had a lot of empty sub-Arctic territory where anyone who questioned the party’s ‘clear understanding of the line of march’ could be sent for re-education.

But Karl spends less time on this issue than on the fate of private property.

The communists want to abolish private property, and Karl’s arguments explaining why include an enormously important idea. He says that the kind of property he wants to abolish is only bourgeois property, the kind built up by expropriating the labour of the slaving proletariat – and that all the philosophy, morality, legal and cultural arguments any of his opponents bring against this proposal are bourgeois ideas of philosophy, law, morality and culture and therefore invalid.

There are two points here, one about property, two about the complete invalidity of all ideas derived from the bourgeois domination of capitalist society, which is much bigger.

First, private property. Karl says communists only want to abolish the private property of the bourgeoisie since it all amounts to theft from the slave proletariat.

The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. But modern bourgeois private property is the final and most complete expression of the system of producing and appropriating products, that is based on class antagonisms, on the exploitation of the many by the few.

What about the property of the non-bourgeoisie? Should they be worried about having it confiscated?

Here Karl resorts to some shifty arguments. He claims that the small peasant and petty artisans needn’t worry about having their property taken away because they have no property anyway. We day by day watch the monster squid bourgeoisie confiscate everyone’s property and so – the small peasant and petty artisan have no property to lose. (The only problem with this line of argument being that, of course they did.) Marx claims that a working definition of the proletariat – which he claims makes up nine-tenths of the population – is that they own nothing except their labour which they sell like slaves to the bourgeoisie.

You are horrified at our intending to do away with private property. But in your existing society, private property is already done away with for nine-tenths of the population; its existence for the few is solely due to its non-existence in the hands of those nine-tenths. You reproach us, therefore, with intending to do away with a form of property, the necessary condition for whose existence is the non-existence of any property for the immense majority of society.

Therefore, according to Karl, abolishing private property cannot hurt the workers or artisans or peasants because they have no property to ban. Only the bourgeoisie have property and since it is all the result of slave labour and therefore criminal, it is perfectly fair to confiscate it. All property must be confiscated by the revolutionary class, prior to redistribution.

This is a good example of the way Marx’s background in German philosophy blinds him to reality. He is used to dealing with Hegelian concepts which are neat and tidy. You can hear the conceptual tidiness in these ideas: the proletariat, artisans and peasants own nothing; only the bourgeoisie own anything; the bourgeoisie’s possessions are acquired through exploitation; therefore, it can all be confiscated by the new revolutionary communist government with a clear conscience.

Slick and compelling, this rhetoric completely ignores the way that peasants, for example, do own things, from icons and family heirlooms through to the tools of their agricultural work, to scraps of family land and maybe livestock.

It was following pure Marxist ideology which led first Stalin then Mao to force through the collectivisation of agriculture in revolutionary Russia and then China, on the basis that the peasants didn’t – and according to Marx shouldn’t – have any possessions of their own, so it wouldn’t matter. But the peasants did of course own all kinds of things, most importantly patches of land on which they grew food or livestock for themselves. When all of this was confiscated from them, they lost all motivation to work hard to grow just that little bit extra for themselves, and if they were caught anywhere doing so they were punished – with the result that agriculture in both Russia and China collapsed as a result of communist policies of collectivisation, resulting in the starving to death of millions of people.

There is a direct line between the conceptual tidiness of Marx’s writings, the rhetorical sleights of hand with which he makes absolute claims such as the peasants and artisans own no property which completely ignore the complex facts of reality on the ground – and the deaths of millions of poor people a hundred years later.

All bourgeois ideas are invalid, nay, criminal.

Law, morality, religion, are to [the communist] so many bourgeois prejudices, behind which lurk in ambush just as many bourgeois interests.

This is a massive idea, in its way the most important idea of the book.

We may sort of agree with Karl that the history of all previous societies has been the history of class conflicts. (It’s a dubious claim. Just because all previous societies – in fact all human history- has been pretty violent doesn’t prove the class-based nature of these conflicts. A moment’s reflection suggests that most violence in history has been between factions of ruling classes not between classes as such, or prompted by invasions by other groups. Could it just be that humans are violent by nature?)

We may give more agreement to Karl’s idea that the capital-owning class of Karl’s generation had built up huge amounts of money which they needed to constantly invest in new ventures in order to keep the system running.

We may agree that this ‘capitalist’ system had reached out from the cities into the countryside to make production more efficient, and stretched its tentacles right around the world in search of new raw materials and new markets to sell to – and that this process is the basis of imperialism, a process which was visibly gathering speed throughout Karl’s lifetime.

But we cross a very important line if we go on to agree that all the values expressed in a capitalist system are fake and invalid – are only fig leaves behind which the revolting bourgeoisie can do its work of exploitation.

But don’t wrangle with us so long as you apply, to our intended abolition of bourgeois property, the standard of your bourgeois notions of freedom, culture, law, &c. Your very ideas are but the outgrowth of the conditions of your bourgeois production and bourgeois property, just as your jurisprudence is but the will of your class made into a law for all, a will whose essential character and direction are determined by the economical conditions of existence of your class.

Yes, it’s clear that many laws in many societies are passed to bolster the ruling classes. It’s arguable that legal systems of many countries exist mainly or solely to protect the property and persons of the rich.

But to go one step further and to say that the very ideas of justice, law and morality are bourgeois prejudices which need to be abolished – that is a big line to cross, but it is a central element of Karl’s theory.

This section is devoted to proving that all bourgeois ideas of property, of freedom, of law and justice and of culture, are merely the contingent, transient notions thrown up to protect this particular form of economic production, the capitalist phase, and will, like the comparable notions of all previous ruling classes, eventually be overthrown by the coming communist revolution, this time forever.

The selfish misconception that induces you [the bourgeois apologist] to transform into eternal laws of nature and of reason, the social forms springing from your present mode of production and form of property – historical relations that rise and disappear in the progress of production – this misconception you share with every ruling class that has preceded you.

Cross that line – invalidate all those ideas of truth, justice or morality, in fact condemn them for their association with the criminal bourgeoisie – and you are left with no other source of values, ideas or morality except the proletariat whose guides are, of course, in practice, the ruling the communist party, which all experience has shown ends up being ruled by one super-powerful dictator.

The abolition of this state of things is called by the bourgeois, abolition of individuality and freedom! And rightly so. The abolition of bourgeois individuality, bourgeois independence, and bourgeois freedom is undoubtedly aimed at.

Marxist philosophers have spent 170 years devising ever-subtler refinements on the notion that ideas are produced by the social structures of the societies they originate in, and that all ideas are to some extent implicated or compromised by the power structures of that society, and so the palpable unfairness of Western capitalist society undermines its own ideas of justice, freedom etc.

All bourgeois ideas of truth, justice, law, morality and so on are merely tools and fig leafs for the ongoing exploitation of the proletariat.

But far from the scholarly seminar rooms of France and America where this kind of thing is debated, over in communist Russia and China, this principle allowed all so-called bourgeois notions of ‘fair’ trials, of the process of law, of freedom of speech or of the press and so on – all checks on absolute power – to be swept away in their entirety and replaced by revolutionary freedom, revolutionary justice and revolutionary morality.

Thus, by a grim logic, this ‘revolutionary justice’ tended to boil right down to the dictates of the highly centralised communist party which, in practice, boiled down to the whims and dictates of the man at the top. He issued ‘quotas’ of counter-revolutionaries or kulaks or saboteurs or spies or capitalist running dogs etc who needed to be eliminated and zealous functionaries rounded up suspects and eliminated them, without trials, without evidence, without any help or defence, without any of those discredited ‘bourgeois’ restraints on absolute lethal power.

By ‘individual’ you [opponents of communism] mean no other person than the bourgeois, than the middle-class owner of property. This person must, indeed, be swept out of the way, and made impossible.

Chinese counter-revolutionaries about to be swept out of the way and made impossible

Chinese counter-revolutionaries about to be swept out of the way and made impossible

The revolution So how will this perfect world actually in practice come about? How did Karl propose that we get from 1840s Britain, France and Germany to the classless utopia of the future?

Again I’m not the first person to point out that Karl left the nuts and bolts of this extremely important issue extremely vague and unclear, nor to point out that the later revolutions (in Russia or China) didn’t correspond at all with his prophecies. Here’s how Marx describes the transition.

We have seen above, that the first step in the revolution by the working class is to raise the proletariat to the position of ruling class to win the battle of democracy. The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degree, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total productive forces as rapidly as possible.

Of course, in the beginning, this cannot be effected except by means of despotic inroads on the rights of property, and on the conditions of bourgeois production; by means of measures, therefore, which appear economically insufficient and untenable, but which, in the course of the movement, outstrip themselves, necessitate further inroads upon the old social order, and are unavoidable as a means of entirely revolutionising the mode of production.

So the proletariat are meant to ‘win the battle of democracy’ – does he mean in elections? What does he mean? The proletariat will use the power thus acquired to wrest control of capital ‘by degree’ from the bourgeoisie. There may be some ‘despotic inroads’ in the rights of property.

It all sounds like a peaceful if rather coercive process. There’s no mention of guns and street battles and firing squads, of prolonged civil war, famine and emergency measures.

Instead, having won ‘the battle for democracy’, the successful proletariat will then implement its ten-point plan:

  1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.
  2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.
  3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.
  4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.
  5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the state, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.
  6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.
  7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.
  8. Equal liability of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.
  9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.
  10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c, &c.

And then:

When, in the course of development, class distinctions have disappeared, and all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character. Political power, properly so called, is merely the organised power of one class for oppressing another. If the proletariat during its contest with the bourgeoisie is compelled, by the force of circumstances, to organise itself as a class, if, by means of a revolution, it makes itself the ruling class, and, as such, sweeps away by force the old conditions of production, then it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.

In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

By sweeping away the exploitative conditions which created it as a class, the proletariat will sweep away all exploitative relations and end all class antagonisms, forever. Society will become:

an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.

Again, you can see the beautiful clarity of the concepts underlying this view of the world, history and social change. It is like a set of equations on a blackboard; everything balances and works out perfectly.

The amazing thing is that anyone, anywhere, took such a naive view of human nature, as to think this was remotely possible.

Part three

Part three of the Communist manifesto is the least interesting. It consists of dismissals of everyone else’s visions of socialism and communism, in each case Karl explaining why they fall short of the purity, clarity and accuracy of his own views, and/or how they are merely the fig leaves of reactionary forces.

One by one he demolishes:

  1. Reactionary Socialism
    • Feudal Socialism (aristocrats encouraging the proletariat against the rising bourgeoisie, with a secret agenda of protecting their aristocratic privileges)
    • Clerical Socialism (much rhetoric from priests about ‘brotherly love’, which in reality serves to support the existing regime)
    • Petty-Bourgeois Socialism (a version which accurately critiques the ills of modern capitalism but in the name of nostalgia for old ways of production and social relations i.e. backward looking)
    • German or ‘True’ Socialism (when imported into backward Germany, French revolutionary slogans were converted into grandiose philosophical phrases which were taken up by petty-bourgeois philistines who opposed actual social change)
  2. Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism (a section of the bourgeoisie understands social grievances and wants to do everything necessary to redress them – short of actually changing society)
  3. Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism (dating from an early era of industrialisation, various philanthropists judged the proletariat helpless victims and mapped out utopian communities for them to live in. As the proletariat has grown in power, these utopian socialists have grown fearful or resentful of it, criticised it and clung on to their (now reactionary) ideals – thinkers in this area include Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen)

As mentioned above, fierce criticism of all other socialist/communist thinkers or movements is an intrinsic part of Marxist thought right from the beginning, and would bear fruit in the twentieth century in a rich rhetoric of vituperation and, of course, the arrest and murder of millions of ‘right deviationists’, ‘capitalist lackeys’ and so on.


7. My thoughts

Basic appeal

Like Christianity before it, Karl’s scientific communism provides:

  • a complete analysis of present society
  • a complete theory of human nature
  • a complete theory of human history (in terms of class conflicts) all leading up to the present moment
  • the promise of an end to all sorrows and suffering in the imminent arrival of a Perfect Society
  • and a complete theory of who you are, where you fit into the story and how you,too, can be saved

And it’s all going to have a happy ending. Karl says so. Science says so. The revolution is at hand. Any minute the workers will rise up and overthrow the hated bourgeoisie. This time next year we’ll be living in paradise.

The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation and with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. (1882 preface)

Millions of half-literate working men and women living in appalling conditions, working seven days a week, 52 weeks a year, were offered a vision that change would not only come, but was inevitable – not only in Karl’s Europe, but 70 years later, across continental Russia, 100 years later in China, and then across the newly independent nations of Africa and South America.

There’s no denying that Marx’s shrewd social and economic analysis, combined with his utopian rhetoric, have offered the hope of change and a better life to hundreds of millions of people.

Intellectual appeal

It’s such a powerful system partly because Karl combines mastery of three distinct fields:

  • philosophy
  • economics
  • politics

For the really well-educated, for the philosophically super-literate, Karl adapted the German philosopher Hegel’s idea of the dialectic to produce a vision of the motor of history. All previous philosophers considered human nature and society essentially static. Sure, stuff happened, but nothing that particularly changed human nature, so a 19th century philosopher could ponder essentially the same questions about human nature, reality and knowledge as Plato had done 2,000 years earlier.

Karl tore this static vision up and said humans are changed by the societies they live in, they are shaped and formed by their society. And every society is based on its technological and economic basis.

Does it require deep intuition to comprehend that man’s ideas, views, and conception, in one word, man’s consciousness, changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life? What else does the history of ideas prove, than that intellectual production changes its character in proportion as material production is changed? The ruling ideas of each age have ever been the ideas of its ruling class.

It hadn’t been clear to previous ages, but as Karl and his contemporaries watched the bourgeoisie inventing steam engines and trains and telegraphs and factory production, they simultaneously watched them taking power in parliaments across Europe (for example, in the revolution of 1830 in France which brought to power the bourgeois king Louis Phillippe or in the changes wrought by the Great Reform Act in Britain in 1832, and so on) and saw that the two were related.

It was clear as never before that political power is based on economic power. And economic power is based on control of new technology. That society changes as its technological and economic base changes. And what people think is changed by these changes in society.

When people speak of the ideas that revolutionise society, they do but express that fact that within the old society the elements of a new one have been created, and that the dissolution of the old ideas keeps even pace with the dissolution of the old conditions of existence.

Ideas are socially determined. New technology = new economic arrangements = new classes (bourgeoisie overthrows landed aristocracy) = new ways of thinking.

Human nature is not fixed and static as philosophers in their book-lined studies had always thought (because, after all, it suited them very nicely to think that). Human nature is malleable and dynamic.

Thus 2,000 years of static philosophy are overthrown by Marx’s new dynamic philosophy based on the first, truly scientific understanding of economics.

And both together underpin the new politics outlined above i.e. the inevitability of a communist revolution led by the proletariat.

Like Christianity, Marxism is a belief system so vast and complex that you can enter it at any level – as an illiterate coal miner or a PhD student – and find you are surrounded by powerfully thought-through answers to almost any question you can ask about contemporary society, answers which are all the more impressive because they pull in evidence and arguments from such a wide range of the human sciences.

Problems

The biggest problem with Karl’s scientific communism was, of course, that it turned out to be wrong.

According to him, History was a kind of unstoppable conveyor belt and the most advanced capitalist countries would be the first to topple off the end into communist revolution, those being Britain, Germany and America.

But – despite plenty of social strife, none of these countries in the end had the communist revolution Karl said was inevitable. Instead, the big communist revolution took place in Russia, the most economically backward country in Europe, and then passed on to China, the most economically backward country in Asia.

The fundamental idea of communist inevitability – capitalism at its most advanced must evolved into communism – was categorically disproved.

Walter Laqueur, in his book on the Weimar Republic, says that some left-wing intellectuals as early as the 1920s were wondering if communism would turn out not to be a revolutionary force at all, but to be a centralised social system which would force industrialisation onto backward countries in a way their tottering aristocratic governments couldn’t. That it would turn out to be a form of compulsory industrialisation which would do capitalism’s job for it.

And that now appears to have been the case. Russia passed through a long period of forced industrialisation under a repressive communist regime, and has eventually emerged as a capitalist country. Reverted to being a capitalist country. China is doing the same.

In the Communist Manifesto Karl numbers among the bourgeoisie’s many crimes the way it drags all sectors of a nation into industrial production under a strong, centralised government.

The bourgeoisie keeps more and more doing away with the scattered state of the population, of the means of production, and of property. It has agglomerated population, centralised the means of production, and has concentrated property in a few hands. The necessary consequence of this was political centralisation. Independent, or but loosely connected provinces, with separate interests, laws, governments, and systems of taxation, became lumped together into one nation, with one government, one code of laws, one national class-interest, one frontier, and one customs-tariff.

But this is precisely what China and Russia did during their communist years.

Meanwhile, the most advanced capitalist country in the world, America, went from strength to strength, successfully managing periods of great economic distress (the Depression of the 1930s) to emerge as the world’s leading economic power after World War Two, offering what most of the global population considered to be an unbelievably luxurious and free way of life, and most definitely not becoming a communist state.

Marx’s compellingly scientific vision of the inevitable unfolding of history turned out to be just about as wrong as it was possible to be.

Legacy

If Karl’s idea of scientific inevitability looks broken beyond repair; if his entire notion that the dictatorship of the proletariat would give rise to a classless society looks laughable, since we know it just gave rise to dictatorship, pure and simple – nonetheless, much of his analysis of the social effects of capitalism linger on to this day in the social sciences.

Chief among these I would select: the idea that capitalism must constantly seek the new, new technologies which disrupt old structures, create huge new markets and needs (the internet, mobile phones, laptops, tablets and so on).

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The idea of job insecurity. Circumstances have fluctuated wildly over the past 170 years, but we are again living in a gig economy, a minimum wage economy, where many people are being paid the minimum required, with as little job security as necessary, by employers determined to screw as much value out of them as possible.

In proportion as the bourgeoisie, i.e., capital, is developed, in the same proportion is the proletariat, the modern working class, developed – a class of labourers, who live only so long as they find work, and who find work only so long as their labour increases capital. These labourers, who must sell themselves piecemeal, are a commodity, like every other article of commerce, and are consequently exposed to all the vicissitudes of competition, to all the fluctuations of the market.

And the central idea of alienation, that people feel alienated from their work, as if they’re making or producing something for others’ benefit, that they no longer in fact ‘make’ anything, just contribute paper, reports, powerpoints or spreadsheets to a huge system which seems to generate vast wealth for the owners of multinational companies or big government departments, but brings no sense of closure or achievement to the people sitting in front of crappy computers all day.

Owing to the extensive use of machinery, and to the division of labour, the work of the proletarians has lost all individual character, and, consequently, all charm for the workman. He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.

Though so much has changed, many of Karl’s descriptions of the nature of work in a capitalist system, and the alienation it engenders, remain eerily accurate.

We need…

Someone to update Marx. Since the collapse of Soviet communism in 1990 the left in the West has been rudderless. Tony Blair thought he could square the circle of being left-wing within a neo-liberal capitalist system with his idea of ‘the Third Way’, which boiled down to public-private initiatives and setting targets in all aspects of government. Bill Clinton did something similar. Both ended up being patsies to international business.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, released from the threat of serious socialist or trade union resistance, big businesses in all Western nations have zoomed ahead with massive pay rises for executives, accompanied by zero hours and gig economy contracts for workers, and the stagnation of pay among the middle management. Lots of people are really pissed off.

A Marxist critique helps explain why and how this is happening in terms of capital accumulation, the way companies constantly seek to casualise labour, and the way capital buys political parties and laws which further its interests.

It also explains why, without a plausible left-wing alternative, the disgruntled populations of the industrialised nations will be tempted to turn to populist, nationalist leaders, who encourage xenophobia, conservative values, protectionist economic policies, but will ultimately fail because they don’t understand the real economic trends underpinning the crisis. Donald Trump.

So insights derived from Marx’s economic and social theories can still help us to understand the present moment. The problem is that the central plank of his theory – the notion that an ever-growing industrial proletariat will become so numerous that it simply must overthrow its oppressors – is no long remotely credible.

Marx has left us the intellectual tools to understand why we are so unhappy, but with no idea how to solve the problem.

Which explains why you read so many newspaper and magazine articles lamenting the end of meritocracy, the rise in job insecurity, the way our children will be the first ones to have a worse quality of life than their parents, the ruin of the environment, and the growth in wealth among the super-rich – you read in papers and hear on the radio the same thing year in, year out — but nobody has a clue what to do about it.


Related links

Communism in Russia

Communism in China

Communism in Vietnam

Communism in Germany

Communism in Poland

  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

Communism in France

Communism in Spain

  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification, only just escaping arrest, interrogation and probable execution himself

Communism in England

The Ghost by Robert Harris (2007)

This is a cracking thriller, exciting, intelligent and insightful about a range of contemporary issues.

Harris and Blair

The unnamed narrator is a ghost writer ie he co-writes the memoirs of sportsmen, entertainers, celebrities, people in the public eye who have a life story to tell but can’t write.

Out of the blue he is invited to ‘ghost’ the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, Adam Lang (obviously based on Tony Blair, who stepped down from the premiership in June 2007; this novel was published in September of the same year).

Harris was an early supporter of Blair in the mid-1990s. As a personal friend he had access to Blair throughout his premiership and, as a political journalist (political editor of the Observer newspaper, aged just 30) he also possessed a solid understanding of the wider British political scene. This comes over in the book which shows both a humorous familiarity with both the publishing world and an insider’s knowledge of the machinations, the personalities, of high politics.

Harris takes us through the process of meeting agents, publishers, negotiating and signing a deal, with lots of snappy insights into the ruthless commercialism of the process and the boardroom politics involved.

The narrator has just split up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Kate, who was once a devoted supporter of Lang and is now an equally firm denouncer of him as a traitor and war criminal, because of his decision to help the Americans invade Iraq.

So with nothing to tie him down, the narrator flies out to Boston, takes a cab on to the luxury house located on a remote stretch of the coast of Martha’s Vineyard. It’s actually the ultra-modern beach-side mansion of the owner of the publishing house which has paid $10 million in advances for Lang’s autobiography, Marty Rhinehart.

Here he meets the man himself, his secretarial staff – notably the blonde, over-made-up Personal Assistant Amelia Bly – and Lang’s redoubtable wife, Ruth.

Elements of unease

The pace is superbly managed. Harris masterfully deploys plotlines, details and atmosphere to combine and create a powerful sense of unease, slowly undermining the breezy narrative tone, like a dinghy springing multiple leaks.

McAra’s death Right at the start we learn that someone else had been working on the autobiography before our man – one of Lang’s entourage, a loyal party hack named Mike McAra. One bleak December night he appears to have fallen over the edge of the ferry you have to take to get to Martha’s Vineyard. Everyone concludes it was suicide. But a doubt has been planted in our minds…

Panic rush Meanwhile, McAra’s abrupt removal from the scene creates a crisis in the publishing timeline. The narrator is horrified to learn that the publishers expect him to deliver a finished manuscript within a month. Almost impossible, but his worries are assuaged by the fee: he’ll get $250,000! Well, that will help – but still it means the narrator feels crowded, hassled and under pressure.

Mugged and set up? When he leaves the publishers (at its horrible, modern, windswept offices out towards Heathrow) Rhinehart presses on him another manuscript he’d like the narrator to read. This is odd, given the tight deadline on the main book, and odd that it’s wrapped in a bright yellow bag.

Just after the narrator gets out of the cab back at his flat and is turning to open the door, he is brutally mugged, punched in the gut and knocked to the floor. When he comes round he a) feels terrible, bruised and grazed b) realises the bag has been stolen.

Recovering in the safety of his flat, the Narrator has a paranoid moment when he wonders whether Rhinehart gave him the yellow bag as a test, thinking someone might think the narrator was carrying the manuscript of Lang’s autobiography – and that this is worth mugging someone and stealing.

Terrorism The novel was written and published soon after the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London and the narrator conveys the jaded expectation that bombings might become a regular occurrence of modern London life. In fact, there is a (fictional) Tube bombing,  at Oxford Circus, on the same day he visits the publisher and receives the assignment.

Security When his cab arrives at the remote Martha’s Vineyard house, the narrator is unnerved at the level of security surrounding the former Prime Minister. Security guards patrol the perimeter of the property, check his ID as his cab approaches, the house windows are bullet proof and so on. The narrator is scared witless when there is a sudden emergency lockdown of the house, complete with metal panels descending over the windows and a deafening klaxon – although this turns out to be the regular weekly test.

Complicity in torture Even as he sets off, the Narrator sees on the TV news at home, then at the airport terminal and glimpses in the courtesy newspapers, a breaking news story that Lang is being named as having personally ordered the capture of four British Muslims in Pakistan by the SAS, who then handed them over to the CIA to be interrogated as possible terrorism suspects. This is to be the mainspring of the plot and to blow up into a fast-moving crisis.

The plot

Once past security, introduced to everyone and ensconced in the beachfront house, the narrator has a successful morning working session with Lang, teasing out personal stories from his early life.

However, the process has barely begun before it is blown off course by news that Lang’s former Foreign Secretary has personally intervened in the news story about the four Muslims, to name Lang as guilty of ordering their arrest.

Immediately, there is speculation on the TV news that Lang might be indicted at the Hague for war trials. Gathered round the TV in the isolated house, Lang, Ruth, Amy and the narrator watch, appalled, as the lead prosecutor at the Hague announces she will be leading a full investigation into the accusations.  While the group feverishly discuss what Lang’s response should be – fly back to Britain to face out the charge, fly to Washington to meet his pal the President – the narrator finds himself drafted in to write Lang’s official response, which is then released to the press.

All this blows a big hole in the Narrator’s plans for a week of cosy chats about his life and career, as Lang and his entourage abruptly depart for Washington, there to be photographed shaking hands with a grateful President etc, and leaving the Narrator suddenly alone in the big echoing luxury mansion by the slate-grey winter sea.

What McAra discovered

Here, to his discomfort, he has been given the room used by the dead aide, McAra, and it is as he is clearing out the dead man’s stuff that he comes across a pack of photos and documents from Lang’s university career, posted to him by the Lang Foundation archive.

And notices something odd. Among a series of old photos of Lang at Cambridge there’s one of him with various student actors in the famous Footlights review, and scribbled on the back a phone number. When the narrator tentatively rings it he is horrified to hear the voice of the ex-Foreign Secretary, Rycart, Lang’s mortal enemy, answering the phone. In a panic, he breaks the connection.

At the beach

With Lang now departed for the airport and nothing to do or read, the narrator finds himself brooding on McAra and his mysterious death. He borrows one of the house bicycles and cycles out to where McAra’s body was found on an isolated beach. Harris gives a brilliant description of a dark rainstorm coming in, then breaking. The narrator takes shelter in the porch of an old timer who comes out to tell him there’s no way that body could have drifted from the ferry route to this beach, not with the currents round here; and all about ‘the lights on the beach’ the night McAra’s body was found. And then about the old lady who was telling everybody what she saw until she had an accident, fell down the stairs, poor thing, and is now in a coma. The narrator is seriously spooked. Could it be McAra’s accident/suicide was staged. Was he in fact murdered? And why?

Barely has he started thinking this through than he is disconcerted to see Ruth Lang (and her bodyguard, who follows her everywhere) trudging up the beach towards him. She insists they pile the bike in the back of their hummer and drive him back to the mansion.

Sleeping with the Prime Minister’s wife

Here they have hot baths, dress and have dinner, during which the narrator finds himself confiding some of his new discoveries to Ruth. She is shocked, and then concerned. What has Adam got himself into? At the end of the evening she comes into his room, still in her night-dress and collapses in tears into his arms. And into his bed. And they have sex.

The narrator knows it’s a bad idea and in the morning it seems a lot worse. Ruth is brisk and hard and efficient, dismissing their overnight dalliance, making cutting remarks about him not being ‘a real writer’.

The narrator has had enough and decides to get off the island altogether for a break. The house servants this time persuade him not to cycle but to take the spare car, one of those all-mod-cons American jeeps. He is disconcerted to learn it is the car McAra was driving when he disappeared off the ferry, but it’s the only one available.

Where the satnav takes him

The narrator gets in and drives towards the ferry, all the time irritated by the satnav which he can’t figure out how to turn off. Doesn’t matter at first because it directs him to the ferry and then on to the nearest town, where our man will be quite happy to sit in a Starbucks and ponder his odd situation.

But the Satnav has other plans. It insistently tells him to turn around and take the next exit out of town. Because he is bored, irritated and curious, he gives in and does what it tells him. Only as he proceeds further into the new England wilderness does it dawn on him that he is following the route of McAra’s last journey.

Professor Emmett

The directions bring him to an isolated track into deep woodland, where there are a few scattered homesteads, and to the house of – he discovers when he looks at the mail in the mailbox – a certain Professor Paul Emmett. Even as he’s sitting there in the car wondering what to do next, Emmett’s car sweeps by and into his drive. So the narrator rings the intercom and gets invited up to the house.

Here Emmett proves himself at first a genial host, happy to answer questions about his magical year at Cambridge as a Rhodes scholar. He is less forthright about his memories of Lang, who he claims not to remember at all, until the narrator confronts him with the old photos he’s got showing Emmett and Lang together in the same drama production. He becomes cagey. Then when the narrator produces his news that McAra drove up here to meet him on the night of his death, Emmett point blank denies it. In fact he produces his wife who independently looks up their diary and shows that they were at an academic conference all the weekend in question. And his geniality has long worn out. He asks the narrator to leave.

Emmett – CIA – Lang?

In the nearby village of Belmont the narrator finds an internet café and spends some time googling Paul Emmett. He discovers Emmett is head of a typical right-wing US think tank and lobby group. He googles the CVs of the other directors and discovers they are all in the military or the arms trade. Then he stumbles across an accusation made years back by a CIA whistleblower that Emmett was himself a CIA agent, from as far back as the 1970s. The CIA? And Adam Lang, Britain’s Prime Minister?

Outside the internet café the narrator notices a black car parked a discreet distance from his jeep. He begins to look at the other occupants of the café with a suspicious mind. Is that just an ordinary couple sitting looking at the one laptop? What about the middle-aged guy over in the corner? Do they know what the narrator has found out? Is he being followed?

By now seriously spooked, the narrator uses the phone number he found on McAra’s Lang photo and rings Rycart again, but this time stays on the line. He explains who he is and how he found the number. Rycart tells the narrator to fly up to New York, he’ll arrange a secure cab to collect him, and bring him to an airport hotel where they can talk.

Conference with Rycart

And that’s what happens. Once frisked and checked out by the security guard-cum-cabbie, the narrator meets Rycart in an airport hotel and they tentatively share their knowledge. McAra had found out that Lang as a student was close to Emmett – hence them being together in the Cambridge photos – for Emmett had an American scholarship to Cambridge for a year.

Both of them think that Emmett must have been acting as a CIA recruiter even at that early stage, and that he recruited Lang as a CIA agent. For Rycart this explains why ‘everything went wrong’ during Lang’s premiership. Can he, he asks the narrator, think of a major decision the government took which did not favour US foreign policy? Agreeing to the invasion of Iraq and being its vociferous defender? Agreeing to ‘extraordinary rendition’ ie kidnapping suspects? Not contesting Guantanamo Bay? Unequal trade agreements? The list goes on…. All sponsored by a British Prime Minister who was in fact acting under orders from his American puppet masters!

Rycart confirms that this was McAra’s conclusion, too, and that – in a bombshell for the narrator – was McAara, one of Lang’s oldest and most loyal lieutenants, who handed Rycart the information about the four Muslims who were kidnapped by the SAS! Who betrayed his boss, having come to the conclusion that his boss had betrayed the entire country.

Their hotel room confabulation is suddenly interrupted when Lang himself phones the narrator’s mobile. ‘Where are you, man? In New York, why? Oh to meet your publishers, OK. Well, come up and meet us, we’re at the Waldorf Hotel.’

Rycart nods his agreement so the narrator says yes – now terrified that he is probably under surveillance and of what happened to McAra and to the little old lady. ‘They’ have shown they will stop at nothing to hush the story up.

Back with Lang

He gets a cab from the hotel airport to the Waldorf but finds the Lang entourage just on the point of leaving. They are hurrying to fly back to the Vineyard and the narrator gets caught up in the hurry and panic, and swept up into one of the cars.

Once aboard the small plane, and everyone is settled, the narrator gets one final opportunity to interview Lang – seven minutes it turns out to last, he tapes it – and asks him directly about McAra. Ruth had said they had a terrible row the night before McAra died: what was it about? Lang says he doesn’t want to talk about it. But when the narrator reveals that it was McAra who handed the evidence of Lang’s orders for the Muslims to be kidnapped over to Rycart, he is shaken to his core. ‘Mike, Mike, Mike, what have you done?’

But it was a short flight and the plane is coming in to land. The narrator and the PA, Amelia, watch Lang, now haggard and gaunt, walk onto the plane steps and down and begin to cross the runway to the departure lounge, where they can see Ruth waiting.

A British voice rings out – ‘Adam!’ – it is one of the baggage handlers and Lang, ever the pro, breaks his walk to turn and shake hands with him when BOOM! – a big explosion throws the narrator, Amelia and everyone else back through the door.

A British suicide bomber has blown up himself and Lang. As the narrator recovers in hospital he finds out the bomber’s son died in Iraq and then his wife in a terrorist bombing. Ex-Army himself, he’d made himself a suicide vest. Lang is blown to smithereens, and so end the narrator’s worries.

Recuperation and writing

He recovers in hospital – it was his hearing which took the most damage – and then in a blaze of inspiration he writes the book, having found the ‘voice’ which can speak for Lang the strange, empty actor he’s got to know as well as anybody ever has, filling the book with his own brief, passionate involvement with this strange man.

He meets the deadline and the book is published on time. Like most ghosts, he isn’t invited to the launch party but Amelia is and she takes him as her plus one.

Ruth is there and air kisses the narrator – mwah mwah – then he sees her looking over her shoulder making some subtle indication of her head, turns – and is amazed to see Emmett standing behind him! He has a horrible flash, a moment if insight. What if… it wasn’t Lang that Emmett recruited?

The secret revealed

Back at his flat the narrator remembers some throwaway words Rycart used in their furtive hotel meeting: McAra had said something about the truth being in the beginning of his original long manuscript. What if he meant – in the beginnings? Suddenly he looks at the first word of each chapter of the manuscript and they spell out a hidden message:

Langs wife Ruth studying in 76 was recruited as a CIA agent in America by Professor Paul Emmett of Harvard University

So the most effective British Prime Minister in a generation turns out to have been manipulated in all his major policy decisions by his more clever, canny wife, who all along had been an agent for the CIA!

That explains why, as Rycraft enumerates them, that government was a lapdog to the yanks and never took a single decision that didn’t favour America’s aggressive foreign policy. Lang wasn’t influenced by the CIA: he was shallow and impressionable enough to be influenced in all these major decisions by his wife!

Envoi

The final, genuinely spooky, pages are written by the narrator on the run. Convinced his life is at risk he is now moving from hotel to hotel changing name, spending only cash. He is confirmed in his paranoia when he reads in the paper that Rycart and his driver have died in a freak road accident. God, the net is closing in.

In the final paragraphs we learn that he has sent the manuscript of the text we’re reading to his girlfriend, Kate – the one who was no friend to Lang – with instructions to open it and send it to a publisher if she doesn’t hear from him every month or reads that he is dead.

So the fact we are reading this novel at all implicates us, the readers – the narrator must have been killed. But at least the truth is out! It is a cheesy but convincing end to a brilliantly convincing thriller.


Politics

I shared the general euphoria when Tony Blair and New Labour came to power in 1997. As I worked on an international news programme in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I knew a bit about the Middle East, but wasn’t especially appalled when the Coalition invaded Iraq, though I knew (apparently, unlike most MPs) that the WMD argument for the invasion was a load of guff. So I am not one of the vengeful who feel Tony Blair must be indicted for war crimes.

International affairs have never been an appropriate place for western morality, it is entirely a question of Realpolitik and the art of the achievable. So I think the main accusation against the Americans isn’t immorality, but sheer ineptitude. Every schoolchild should be made to read Fiasco by Thomas E. Ricks, a truly awe-inspiring account of the way the Americans screwed up every aspect of the invasion and especially the post-war ‘pacification’ of Iraq. We are still, 13 years later, dealing with the fallout, which may last more than a generation.

What is impressive about Harris’s novel is the way he dramatises so many points of view about the war and the resulting terror attacks – Lang gets to have his say justifying the invasion and the war on terror; Rycart, his ally-turned-enemy, has his say about betrayal at government level; Kate, the narrator’s girlfriend, embodies the reaction of many New Labour devotees turned vengeful in their disillusionment; and the ex-Army man who blows up himself and Lang represents all those who lost family as a direct or indirect result.

Amid the bombings, news alerts and general hysteria, the narrator is a deliberate everyman figure, someone we can all relate to, someone aware of the scary changes in the society around him but with a living to make, who just has to get on with it.

Having read a newspaper report accusing Lang of giving the authorisation for the four Muslims to be kidnapped and rendered to Guantanamo, the narrator thinks:

I read it through three times. It didn’t seem to add up to much. It was hard to tell any more. One’s moral bearings were no longer as fixed as they used to be. Methods my father’s generation would have considered beyond the pale, even when fighting the Nazis – torture, for example – were now apparently acceptable civilised behaviour. I decided that the ten per cent of the population who worry about these things would be appalled by the report, assuming they ever managed to locate it; the remaining ninety would probably just shrug. We had been told that the Free World was taking a walk on the dark side. What did people expect? (p.57)

That captures the feeling of most of us, doesn’t it? Aware that bad things are being done in our name but powerless to stop any of it.


Style and feel

Reviewing Harris’s previous thrillers, I noted that they all use ‘modern thriller prose’, fairly plain and functional in its clarity – but that he gave each novel a distinctive slant or angle. This one is comedy. The narrator is the wrong side of 30, in an unhappy relationship with TV producer ‘Kate’, lives in a poky top floor flat in Notting Hill, and wonders how his early ambitions came to this. Nonetheless he approaches every situation, almost to the end, with attractive hangdog humour, and quite quickly you are charmed by his humorous take on situations and people. Of the head of the publishing firm:

Maddox sat with his back to the window. He laid his massive, hairless hands on the glass-topped table, as if to prove he had no intention of reaching for a weapon just yet. (p.22)

It is a clever trick – in a book full of cleverness and alertness – to establish the narrator as an easy-going comic turn, before the suspense of the conspiracy starts to kick in. His humorous mind-set makes him easy to warm to and sympathise with and this makes it all the more plausible and compelling to accompany him on his slow-dawning journey of realisation.

This, Harris’s fourth thriller, seemed to me to have more a few more poetic touches, more descriptions and atmosphere than his previous novels. In particular there is lots of description of out of season New England seaside resorts in blustery January, of the lowering weather and half-abandoned streets.

After a while we came to a crossroads and turned into what I guessed must be Edgartown, a settlement of white clapboard houses with white picket fences, small gardens and verandas, lit by ornate Victorian streetlamps. Nine out of ten were dark but in a few windows which shone with yellow light I glimpsed oil paintings of sailing ships and whiskered ancestors. At the bottom of the hill, past the Old Whaling Church, a big, misty moon cast a silvery light over shingled roofs and silhouetted the masts in the harbour. Curls of wood smoke rose from a couple of chimneys. I felt as though I was driving on to a film set for Moby Dick. (p.53)

This one seemed to me to have more, and more imaginative, similes than its predecessors – a steady trickle of imaginative, stimulating, useful comparisons.

The receptionist at the hotel in Edgartown had warned me that the forecast was for a storm, and although it still hadn’t broken yet, the sky was beginning to sag with the weight of it, like a soft grey sack waiting to split apart. (p.195)

Amelia slipped into position in front of the computer screen. I don’t think I ever saw fingers move so rapidly across a keyboard. the clicks seemed to merge into one continuous purr of plastic, like the sound of a million dominoes falling. (p.125)

Not only is the plot gripping and enthralling, but sentence by sentence, Harris’s prose is a delight to read. Easy, limpid, intelligent, imaginative.

The book reeks of intelligence, a profound understanding of the processes of politics, a solid grasp of the social and political scene in the terror-wary 2000s. This is the second time I’ve read it and, like all Harris’s novels, I can imagine giving it a few years, and then rereading it again, for the pure intellectual pleasure of engaging with such a smart and savvy author.


Dramatis personae

  • The unnamed narrator – a seasoned, good humoured ghost writer
  • Kate –  his left-wing girlfriend, formerly a member of the Labour Party, who now hates Adam Lang
  • Marty Rhinehart – head of a multinational publishing corporation which spent a $10 million advance on Lang’s memoirs, who’s loaned his house out to Lang as a bolthole to work on the memoirs
  • John Maddox – scarily bullish chief executive of Rhinehart Inc.
  • Roy Quigley – 50-ish, senior editor at Rhinehart Publishing (UK Group Editor-in-Chief) who we see almost get sacked
  • Sidney Kroll – Lang’s sharp Washington attorney
  • Nick Riccardelli – the narrator’s hussling agent
  • Adam Lang – former British Prime Minister
  • Ruth Lang – his clever scheming wife
  • Mike McAra – former staffer for Lang, who spent two years doing preparatory research for his boss’s autobiography, then mysteriously disappeared off a ferry, presumed suicide
  • Amelia Bly – Lang’s elegant, blonde, over-made-up personal assistant, who, it becomes clear, Lang is having an affair with
  • Richard Rycart – former Foreign Secretary under Lang, now a rather vainglorious member of the UN, it is he who sends the International Criminal Court the documents implicating Lang in the kidnapping (‘rendition’) of four Muslim terror suspects
  • Professor Emmett – CIA agent who was sent to Cambridge in the 1970s to recruit rising stars, and recruited Ruth Lang

The movie

The movie was directed by no less a luminary than Roman Polanski. It is astonishingly faithful to the novel, featuring almost the identical scenes and much of the original dialogue, which shows how focused and lean Harris’s writing is. The most obvious change is that whereas Lang is assassinated by a (white English) suicide bomber in the novel, the same angry character assassinates him using a sniper rifle in the movie. I think the bomb is more fitting / ironic / poetical, and explains why the narrator is laid up in hospital for a while afterwards. People being shot are ten a penny in American movies, as in American life.

I watched it with my son (18), who hadn’t read the book, was thoroughly gripped by the narrative’s slow building of tension and fear, and then amazed at the final revelation that it was Ruth all along.

Credit

The Ghost by Robert Harris was published by Hutchinson in 2007. All quotes and references are to the 2008 Arrow Books paperback edition.

Related links

Robert Harris’s thrillers

1992 Fatherland – Berlin 1964. Germany won the Second World War. Xavier March is a cop in Berlin, capital of the huge German Empire. The discovery of a corpse in a lake leads him on an increasingly nail-biting investigation into the dark heart of the Nazi regime and its most infamous secret which, in this terrifying parallel universe, has been completely buried.
1995 Enigma – Bletchley Park 1943, where a motley collection of maths, computer and coding geniuses are trying to crack the Germans’ Enigma codes. The hero – weedy geek Tom Jericho – discovers that the gorgeous, sexy woman who seduced him and then as casually dumped him a month later, is in fact a spy, stealing top secret intercepts from the base for her Polish lover. Or is she?
1998 Archangel – Dr Christopher ‘Fluke’ Kelso, a populist historian of contemporary Russia, stumbles across one of the secrets of the century – that the great dictator Josef Stalin had a son, brought up by communist fanatics in the forests of the frozen north, who is now ready to return to claim his rightful position as the ‘Great Leader’ and restore Russia to her former glory.
2007 The Ghost – The gripping story is told in the first person by an unnamed narrator, a ghost writer called in to complete the memoirs of former UK Prime Minister Adam Lang (a thinly disguised portrait of Tony Blair) after the previous writer died mysteriously. Marooned with the politico and his staff in a remote mansion on the coast of New England, the ghost writer slowly uncovers a shattering conspiracy.
2011 The Fear Index A series of bizarre incidents plague American physics professor-turned-multi-billionaire hedge fund manager, Alex Hoffmann. Slowly it becomes clear they are all related to the launch of the latest version of his artificial intelligence program – VIXEL-4 – designed to identify and manage anxiety and fear on the financial markets, but which has gone significantly, bewilderingly, beyond its money-making remit.
2013 An Officer and a Spy A long, absorbing fictional recreation of the Dreyfus Affair which divided France at the end of the 19th century, seen from the point of view of a French army officer who played a key role in the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus as a German spy, and then slowly, to his horror, uncovers the evidence which proves that Dreyfus was innocent all along, and his trial one of the great miscarriages of justice in history.

Absolute Friends by John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, the narrative turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical but the product of research – nonetheless, the character’s feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics of these books).

Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council.

He also lowers his sexual sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role Ted is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel whenever he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling, upper-class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to his British handlers.

The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy Two the British spy, Mundy Three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a tall, shaggy, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent.

Then, one day, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project.

(Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, i.e. in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She explains that she is the victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

Above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

And so all this brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex, where alternative discourses and theories can flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion.

It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them (Klein, Stiglitz). I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky!

Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end Ted loads Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The big shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall.

Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then… some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Oh. OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in the leg and shoulder. He makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside. At which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst into the attic followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists who, in le Carré’s view, are always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy, with the American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography of him, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood. The same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever.

From which he progressed to Oxford University, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars.

The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero (the Old Etonian Justin Quayle) from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission where we first meet him, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which le Carré’s many fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced into a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

1. To be vastly patronising – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh.

2. Appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)

3. To pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’

4. To show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.255)

5. To conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (p.204)

10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:

  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown, superior, knowing mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper-class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘The former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice.’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy.’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school.’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • As he starts his career as a spy, Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex.

‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ le Carré has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’

Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no.

Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative.

Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot, and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel.

Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed fascinating light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba).

Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are, on the whole, right wing and ridicule lefty politics so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi and all the rest, I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel, but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments, and their central points, all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes.

But when a character has to explain the exact geopolitical crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all the time. I just don’t care very much because:

a) There is nothing I can do about it.
b) It is the way of the world. Which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry? Which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should.

The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make le Carré’s views look childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony. In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or of competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character in Absolute Friends does not have a my-little-pony memory but… the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210).

So I’m still just about winning my bet. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary Larry Pettifer who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia – and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma – in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically ‘the Orlov brothers’ from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

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