Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard (2008)

Finally, right at the end of his life (he died the year after it was published), Ballard wrote a genuine autobiography which actually sets the record straight.

His previous two books Empire of the Sun (1984) and The Kindness of Women (1991) had been marketed as autobiographies but, as time went by, it became clearer and clearer that they contained large slices of invention, fictional characters and imaginary events, as well as playing fast and loose with the few actual events of his life which they retold.

(For example, in Kindness his wife is described as dying after slipping and cracking her head against stone steps at a holiday villa in Spain; in fact she died of pneumonia, so the moving description of her slipping, the crack as her head hit the stone, Ballard rushing over and cradling her, seeing the growing bruise behind her ear, her loss of feeling down one side as the ambulance rushed her to hospital – all of that is entirely fictional.)

In interviews Ballard emphasised that both books were novels presented in autobiographical form and this is what a careful reading confirms.

Still, Miracles of Life is an odd book because although it adds new detail about, for example, his parents and their family origins in the West Midlands, or his decision to become a science fiction writer in the mid 1950s, or the passages describing the art and literary world of the 50s and 60s – it doesn’t really alter the essential shape of his biography, and anyone who has read The Kindness of Women will experience a strong sense of déjà vu.

Some incidents, like his description of the famous exhibition of crashed cars he organised in 1970 and how the visitors’ bad behaviour inspired him to write the novel Crash – or the passages about his visit to the set of the Spielberg filming of Empire of the Sun, right down to the words 12-year-old Christian Bale used to introduce himself (‘Hello, I’m you’) feel like they’ve been copied almost word for word from Kindness.

He knew he was dying. Maybe he ran out of time to revise and expand the familiar stories…

J.G. Ballard outline biography

  • born in 1930 and raised in the International Settlement in Shanghai
  • plays as a carefree boy among the privileged ex-pats, goes on cycle rides across the vast teeming fantasy land of Shanghai
  • 1941 Pacific War breaks out: interned along with his parents in Lunghua civilian internment centre 1943-45
  • 1945 the end of the war and strange months of disorientation back in the International Settlement
  • 1946 travels back to England with his mother and younger sister
  • 1946-49 public school in Cambridge
  • 1949 undergraduate at Cambridge studying medicine
  • 1954 packs it in to go and train to be an RAF pilot in Canada
  • 1955 returns to England and takes a string of unsatisfactory jobs, as an advertising copywriter, a porter in a London market, door to door encyclopedia salesman; marries Mary Matthews
  • sells first short story in 1956, commencing a prolific burst of story writing – over the next ten years he writes some 70 stories
  • This Is Tomorrow art exhibition at Whitechapel Gallery kick starts Pop Art and confirms his sense that he should be writing about the psychological impact of the new world of consumer capitalism, advertising, TV and so on
  • 1957 daughter Fay born
  • 1959 daughter Beatrice born
  • knocks out first pulp novel The Wind From Nowhere on a fortnight’s holiday in 1961
  • second, more serious novel, The Drowned World  published in 1963
  • summer 1963 his wife Mary dies of pneumonia on holiday in Spain, leaving him a widower to bring up three small children; he never remarries
  • after wife’s death his subject matter becomes darker (according to critics), more radical and penetrating (in his opinion)
  • 1966 starts writing the short pieces which go to make The Atrocity Exhibition
  • 1970 supervises an exhibition of (three) crashed cars at the Arts Lab
  • 1973 Crash
  • 1974 Concrete Island
  • 1975 High Rise
  • 1984 Empire of the Sun, the novel
  • 1988 Empire of The Sun, the movie, directed by Steven Spielberg

So the basic outline is not that different from what we’d read in The Kindness of Women, and has been sketched out in the biographical blurb at the front of all his books since the 1960s.

Also, it’s no great revelation but it’s worth noting how much the book is weighted towards those 15 formative years in China – it’s only on page 121 of the 278 pages of my paperback edition that Jim finally arrives back in Blighty i.e. nearly half the text covers about a fifth of his life (he died, aged 79, in 2009).


New learnings

Fantasyland Shanghai was a surreal phantasmagoria, from its exotic street life, to its markets, aromatic food, crooks and gangsters and whores, to the dead bodies which lined the streets and the public stranglings which he attended, and streets full of food vendors and shiny American cars cruising past people in rags literally starving to death, and first nights of new glamorous Hollywood movies. His childhood in Shanghai marked him for life, even before the Japs turned on the Europeans and interned them all. As he eloquently puts it:

Anything was possible, and everything could be bought and sold. In many ways, it seems like a stage set, but at the time it was real, and I think a large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.

‘A large part of my fiction has been an attempt to evoke it by means other than memory.’ That’s quite a thought-provoking comment. If you add together the descriptions of Shanghai in Kindness and here, it does add up to an extraordinary phantasmagoria of possibilities, and the often comic-book exaggeration of many of his scenarios and characters may well derive from a child’s cartoon version of an already garish reality.

Cynical By the age of 14 he had become quite as blasé and cynical about life as the long-suffering Chinese around him. His boyhood was just full of dead bodies, the peasants who died overnight in Shanghai, poor beggars who died in doorways, the river full of corpses floating gently to the sea because they couldn’t afford decent burials. And over and above this the public stranglings as a form of justice. And then when the Japanese took over in 1937, public beheadings.

A vast cruelty lay over the world, and was all we knew.

Chilly sex This primal, founding view of the world – as packed with brutal cruelty – helps to explain Ballard’s clinical description of bodies and the thousand and one horrific mutilations they are vulnerable to. And it underpins his view of sex, which – as any reader knows – he depicts with a compellingly clinical detachment.

America From an early age he devoured American comics (Buck Rogers, Superman) and worshipped the big American cars he saw cruising the streets of Shanghai, the American suits worn by Chinese gangsters.

In the confusion of traffic on the Bund he pointed out ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen, the then famous bodyguard of Chinese warlords, and I gazed with all a small boy’s awe at a large American car with armed men standing on the running-boards, Chicago-style

He read comic books by the score and, a little later, Time and Newsweek, and soaked American can-do optimism into every pore of his body. It is interesting to learn that his father was also a can-do optimist, a fan of H.G. Wells and ‘an enthusiast for all things American’.

This worship of Americana underpins the first 25 years of his fiction, with its obsessions with the American space programme and the Kennedy assassination and Vietnam and Hollywood movie stars, and its many stories set in America – for example the entire Vermilion Sands series about a desert resort much like Palm Springs – and finds an unsatisfactory climax in the strangely disappointing novel Hello America.

Reading this book you get a really deep sense of the vast cultural and economic difference between America and Britain after the war and can totally understand why America represented money and gadgets and big shiny cars and exciting music and The Future, a feeling which lasted through the 1960s and then somehow went astray during the 1970s.

The last clutch of novels, from Running Wild to Kingdom Come may be problematic in various ways, but at least they have escaped from the America-worship which dominates the earlier ones.

Lunghua There are two massive revelations about Ballard’s time in Lunghua internment camp:

1. He was there with his parents Both Empire of the Sun and The Kindness of Women depict young Jim as being entirely on his own, abandoned and thrown back on his own resources. In both books it is said that his parents were taken by the Japanese to a different internment camp. But they weren’t. They were with him throughout.

This is a staggering deception and/or aesthetic choice because it quite clearly makes the prison accounts of both books massively more intense. Whereas his real life wasn’t, it was far more mediated by the fact that, at the end of every day’s adventures, he returned to the ‘Ballard family room’ in the block of the abandoned teacher training college which was used as the camp.

Something confirmed by…

He says in many ways his years in the Lunghua internment camp were the happiest of his life! Well, this is a stunning surprise.

All in all, this was a relaxed and easy-going world that I had never known, except during our holidays in Tsingtao, and this favourable first impression stayed with me to the end, when conditions in the camp took a marked turn for the worse. I enjoyed my years in Lunghua, made a huge number of friends of all ages (far more than I did in adult life) and on the whole felt buoyant and optimistic.

Lunghua Camp may have been a prison of a kind, but it was a prison where I found freedom… Despite the food shortages in the last year, the bitterly cold winters (we lived in unheated concrete buildings) and the uncertainties of the future, I was happier in the camp than I was until my marriage and children.

This is a staggering sentiment to set beside the searingly intense text of Empire of the Sun.

Empire’s End Maybe it’s a truism, but I was fascinated to read here, as we did in The Kindness of Women, how decisive the sinking of British ships and the surrender at Singapore (February 1942) were in ending all respect for the British across the Far East. (dream of empire)

The fall of Singapore, and the sinking of the British battleships Repulse and Prince of Wales, devastated us all. British prestige plummeted from that moment. The surrender of Singapore, the capture of the Philippines and the threat to India and Australia sounded the death knell of Western power in the Far East and the end of a way of life. It would take the British years to recover from Dunkirk, and the German armies were already deep inside Russia. Despite my admiration for the Japanese soldiers and pilots, I was intensely patriotic, but I could see that the British Empire had failed.

Again, it’s one thing to read about this in histories, but more impactful to read about its impact from someone who was there.

Pro the atom bomb Here, as in Kindness it is mildly surprising, given the baleful shadow they cast over his early fiction, to learn that Ballard was whole-heartedly in favour of the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

Fortunately the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-bombs brought the war to an abrupt end. Like my parents, and everyone else who lived through Lunghua, I have long supported the American dropping of the bombs. Prompted by Emperor Hirohito’s surrender broadcast, the still-intact Japanese war machine ground to a complete halt within days, so saving millions of Chinese lives, as well as our own. For a hint of what might otherwise have happened, we can look at the vicious battle for Manila, the only large city in the Pacific War fought for by the Americans, where some 100,000 Philippine civilians died.

Part of the psychosis of the post-war years was that the bombs quite clearly saved many (especially American) lives, and so can be justified by this argument; but also incinerated nearly 100,000 mostly innocent civilians, men, women and children and so, on another level, are utterly indefensible. The psychosis derives from the way both these opposite views are ‘true’.

The railway station The startling image which is described in chapter three of The Kindness of Women and which dominates the rest of that book – the experience of coming across four Japanese soldiers at a small train station in the midst of the abandoned rice paddies between Lunghua and Shanghai, and being forced to watch as one of them garrots a young Chinese peasant to death with telegraph wire – in Kindness the scene had a gruesome perfection, and is then made to haunt adult Jim for the rest of his life – in a way I thought was too good (or too bad) to be true. Yet it is described here as being true. Or at least it is repeated here (which may not be the same thing).

Back to Blighty Ballard only first visited England when he was 16. This explains why he felt and writes about it as a bizarre foreign country. His father’s memories of the Lancashire he had lived in during the Great Depression had already primed the pump.

Most of his memories of Lancashire before and after the First World War seemed fairly bleak, and he would shake his head as he described the dreadful poverty. Eating an apple as he left school, he was often followed by working-class boys badgering him for the core.

Now, arriving at Southampton, he immediately saw how small and shabby and badly designed and impoverished everything was. It was immediately clear to him that Britain had, in effect, lost the war, and this impression of post-war shabbiness, rationing and austerity never left him, compared and contrasted with the amazing consumer boom the American economy underwent during those years.

Looking at the English people around me, it was impossible to believe that they had won the war. They behaved like a defeated population. I wrote in The Kindness of Women that the English talked as if they had won the war, but acted as if they had lost it. They were clearly exhausted by the war, and expected little of the future. Everything was rationed – food, clothing, petrol – or simply unobtainable. People moved in a herd-like way, queueing for everything. Ration books and clothing coupons were all-important, endlessly counted and fussed over, even though there was almost nothing in the shops to buy. Tracking down a few light bulbs could take all day. Everything was poorly designed – my grandparents’ three-storey house was heated by one or two single-bar electric fires and an open coal fire. Most of the house was icy, and we slept under huge eiderdowns like marooned Arctic travellers in their survival gear, a frozen air numbing our faces, the plumes of our breath visible in the darkness. More importantly, hope itself was rationed, and people’s spirits were bent low.

His mother dumped 16-year-old Jim with her parents in the West Midlands when she returned to Shanghai, and had a very bad time. ‘Narrow-minded’ doesn’t begin to convey the sense of his grand-parents’ claustrophobic provincialism.

I met him at the worst time, when England was exhausted by the war. There had been heavy bombing in the Birmingham area, and I suspect that they felt my mother’s years in Lunghua were a holiday by comparison. The war had made them mean, as it made a lot of the English mean…

His grandfather loathed the Labour government, which he thought was a form of fascism.

Yet all around him was the desperate poverty of the Black Country, with some of the most ill-housed and poorly educated people in western Europe, still giving their lives after the war to maintain an empire that had never been of the least benefit to them. My grandfather’s attitude was common, and based less on feelings of social class than on a visceral resistance to change. Change was the enemy of everything he believed in.

Later, when he got a job as a door to door encyclopedia salesman in the West Midlands, he for the first time really got to meet the working class and appreciate what poverty means.

For the first time, I was meeting large numbers of working-class people, with a range of regional accents that took a trained ear to decode. Travelling around the Birmingham area, I was amazed at how bleakly they lived, how poorly paid they were, poorly educated, housed and fed. To me they were a vast exploited workforce, not much better off than the industrial workers in Shanghai. I think it was clear to me from the start that the English class system, which I was meeting for the first time, was an instrument of political control, and not a picturesque social relic. Middle-class people in the late 1940s and 1950s saw the working class as almost another species, and fenced themselves off behind a complex system of social codes.

When he phrases it like that you can see why teenage Jim developed a sense that change was vital, that only radical change could revive this dead country; and how the obvious source of hope for change was from rich, powerful and glamorous America.

Contempt for Cambridge In Kindness Jim is amusingly contemptuous of almost everything about Cambridge University, and its fake medievalism. Its only justification was as a tourist trap. In this book we get a bit more detail: he respected the science done at Cambridge, the Rutherfords et al, the work being done in physics and medicine. But he has nothing but contempt for all its traditions of scholars gowns and High Table and madrigals in the college chapel.

There’s a one line reminiscence of him attending an English lecture by F.R. Leavis who was a kind of god among critics, with his insistence that readers feel the life evinced in Jane Austen and Henry James and D.H. Lawrence – and being appalled at the man’s narrowness of understanding; and telling a fellow undergraduate that ‘It’s more important to go to T-Men (a classic noir film) than to Leavis’s lectures. He loathed it all. As in Kindness, his main interest was in investigating the US air force bases dotted all across the Fens.

No one seemed aware that the nostalgic pageant called ‘Cambridge’ was made possible by the fleets of American bombers waiting in the quiet fields around the city.

Francis Bacon He thinks Bacon is central though there is a chastening reminiscence of actually meeting the great man and being dismayed at how little he talked about the inspiration for his work, preferring to erect a buffer, a barrier and talking about perspective and paint and its formal qualities. Nonetheless, Bacon is right up Ballard’s alley:

Bacon’s paintings were screams from the abattoir, cries from the execution pits of World War II. His deranged executives and his princes of death in their pontiffs’ robes lacked all pity and remorse. His popes screamed because they knew there was no God. Bacon went even further than the surrealists, assuming our complicity in the mid-century’s horrors. It was we who sat in those claustrophobic rooms, like TV hospitality suites in need of a coat of paint, under a naked light bulb that might signal the arrival of the dead, the only witnesses at our last interview.

Yet Bacon kept hope alive at a dark time, and looking at his paintings gave me a surge of confidence. I knew there was a link of some kind with the surrealists, with the dead doctors lying in their wooden chests in the dissecting room, with film noir and with the peacock and the loaf of bread in Crivelli’s Annunciation. There were links to Hemingway and Camus and Nathanael West. A jigsaw inside my head was trying to assemble itself, but the picture when it finally emerged would appear in an unexpected place.

This passage conveys the sense which dominates the middle part of the book, that Ballard was driven into paroxysms of frustration by everything he saw wrong about stuffy and impoverished and class-ridden and nostalgic post-war England, and which he was determined to undermine and change.

Friends

  • Kingsley Amis from 1962 to 1964 – Amis was a keen science fiction buff and wrote a glowing review of Ballard’s first novel, and then was personally helpful and supportive after Ballard’s wife died; Ballard emphasises all Amis’s good qualities before he became disillusioned with England, and then life, and turned into a professional curmudgeon
  • Michael Moorcock who became editor of Britain’s leading sci fi magazine New Worlds in 1964 and worked with Ballard to shake up the staid world of SF
  • Eduardo Paolozzo the sculptor and artist who remained a close friend for 30 years

About writing

There’s more here about his writing and his career as a writer than in The Kindness of Women, which isn’t difficult because there was next to nothing about it in that book. In several places he gives several overarching speculations about the nature or motivation of his entire career. Was it all an attempt to recapture the strangeness of his boyhood in Shanghai? Was it all an attempt to stitch together all the psychotic impressions of his boyhood, along with the senseless death of his wife?

My direction as a writer changed after Mary’s death, and many readers thought that I became far darker. But I like to think I was much more radical, in a desperate attempt to prove that black was white, that two and two made five in the moral arithmetic of the 1960s. I was trying to construct an imaginative logic that made sense of Mary’s death and would prove that the assassination of President Kennedy and the countless deaths of the Second World War had been worthwhile or even meaningful in some as yet undiscovered way. Then, perhaps, the ghosts inside my head, the old beggar under his quilt of snow, the strangled Chinese at the railway station, Kennedy and my young wife, could be laid to rest.

This really helps to explain the content and approach of The Atrocity Exhibition.

Later on he gives us another wording of what is basically the same idea:

My years in the [Cambridge Medical School] dissection room were important because they taught me that though death was the end, the human imagination and the human spirit could triumph over our own dissolution. In many ways my entire fiction is the dissection of a deep pathology that I had witnessed in Shanghai and later in the post-war world, from the threat of nuclear war to the assassination of President Kennedy, from the death of my wife to the violence that underpinned the entertainment culture of the last decades of the century.

Either of these notions provide plenty to chew over, but one aspect of them stands out to me. His beloved wife Mary died of pneumonia on a holiday in Spain in August 1963. Three months later Kennedy was shot in Dallas. The closeness of the dates suggests how Ballard must have still been in deep grief over his wife when the Kennedy assassination traumatised a generation, and this helps explain why his writings evince just such a deeply traumatised reaction.

Science fiction It is fascinating to read his opinions about the science fiction of the day and why he gravitated towards it. Basically, the ‘serious’ literature of the 1950s simply seemed ludicrously remote from the realities of everyday life. Even the Angry Young Men were still stuck in a world of public schools and tweed jackets, which – coming from Americanised Shanghai – he simply found ridiculous.

And, if that wasn’t enough, Ballard was reaching for some way to investigate what he saw as the psychopathologies underlying that everyday life – the new forces of consumerism and advertising and television which he watched slowly wash over wrecked, grey England in the 1950s. Nobody was capturing the new psychological and social forces which were being unleashed.

The combination of the two motives explains why he a) wanted to write science fiction – because it seemed untrammelled, liberated, free to explore in a way the novels of old buffers like CP Snow or Anthony Powell never could b) but at the same time he wanted to drastically change what science fiction was about, from soap operas about hunky heroes in space suits brandishing ray guns on distant planets, to an exploration of the weird implications of life in the here and now. It was a two-fold rebellion.

Above all, the s-f genre had a huge vitality. Without thinking up a plan of action, I decided that this was a field I should enter. I could see that here was a literary form that placed a premium on originality, and gave a great deal of latitude to its writers, many of whom had their own trademark styles and approaches. I felt too that for all its vitality, magazine science fiction was limited by its ‘what if?’ approach, and that the genre was ripe for change, if not outright takeover. I was more interested in a ‘what now?’ approach. After weekend trips across the border [this is from the period when he was in Canada briefly training to become an RAF pilot] I could see that both Canada and the USA were changing rapidly, and that change would in time reach even Britain. I would interiorise science fiction, looking for the pathology that underlay the consumer society, the TV landscape and the nuclear arms race, a vast untouched continent of fictional possibility.

As he famously declared, he wanted to explore not outer, but inner space, and he gives a couple of handy clarifications of what this meant for him:

[E.J. Carnell, editor of New Worlds magazine] urged me not to imitate the American writers, and to concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.

And:

My first decade as a writer coincided with a period of sustained change in England, as well as in the USA and Europe. The mood of post-war depression had begun to lift, and the death of Stalin eased international tensions, despite the Soviet development of the H-bomb. Cheap jet travel arrived with the Boeing 707, and the consumer society, already well established in America, began to appear in Britain. Change was in the air, affecting the nation’s psychology for good or bad. Change was what I wrote about, especially the hidden agendas for change that people were already exposing. Invisible persuaders were manipulating politics and the consumer market, affecting habits and assumptions in ways that few people fully realised. It seemed to me that psychological space, what I termed ‘inner space’, was where science fiction should be heading.

And:

In 1964 Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of the leading British science fiction magazine, New Worlds, determined to change it in every way he could. For years we had carried on noisy but friendly arguments about the right direction for science fiction to take. American and Russian astronauts were carrying out regular orbital flights in their spacecraft, and everyone assumed that NASA would land an American on the moon in 1969 and fulfil President Kennedy’s vow on coming to office. Communications satellites had transformed the media landscape of the planet, bringing the Vietnam War live into every living room. Surprisingly, though, science fiction had failed to prosper. Most of the American magazines had closed, and the sales of New Worlds were a fraction of what they had been in the 1950s. I believed that science fiction had run its course, and would soon either die or mutate into outright fantasy. I flew the flag for what I termed ‘inner space’, in effect the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs and research institutes where [his friend, psychologist] Chris Evans had thrived, and which formed the setting for part of The Atrocity Exhibition.

And this is what he did. After his dystopia trilogy of the early 1960s, almost all the rest of Ballard’s novels are set in the present day, and deal with psychosis and mental collapse or obsession i.e. with

the psychological space apparent in surrealist painting, the short stories of Kafka, noir films at their most intense, and the strange, almost mentalised world of science labs

Which is linked to the fact, or helps explain why, so many of his characters are doctors or psychiatrists, from Dr Kerans in his first novel The Drowned World through to the wicked psychiatrist Dr Wilder Penrose in Cocaine Nights.

(although many of his short stories, including some of the best of them continued to be set in the future or in outer space).

Swimming pools Anybody familiar with the first half of Ballard’s career knows that one of his recurring images is the drained swimming pool, which recurs with obsessive regularity, charged with ominous meaning. In Miracles of Life Ballard finally gives his own interpretation of what all those drained swimming pools meant, going back (as so many things in his fiction do) to his boyhood experiences in Shanghai:

In the coming years I would see a great many drained and half-drained pools, as British residents left Shanghai for Australia and Canada, or the assumed ‘safety’ of Hong Kong and Singapore, and they all seemed as mysterious as that first pool in the French Concession. I was unaware of the obvious symbolism that British power was ebbing away, because no one thought so at the time, and faith in the British Empire was at its jingoistic height. Right up to, and beyond, Pearl Harbour it was taken for granted that the dispatch of a few Royal Navy warships would send the Japanese scuttling back to Tokyo Bay. I think now that the drained pool represented the unknown, a concept that had played no part in my life. Shanghai in the 1930s was full of extravagant fantasies, but these spectacles were designed to promote a new hotel or airport, a new department store, nightclub or dog-racing track. Nothing was unknown.

As it happens, I disagree. The symbolism of the drained swimming pool and their function seem simpler to me: swimming pools are a luxury and so drained swimming pools are symbols of a society which, at one point, had it all and has now lost it all.

So, in my view, the drained pools (and their cousins, the drained fountains) are powerful symbols of the collapse of the kind of moneyed and advanced civilisation which is necessary to maintain them. And, indeed, later in the book Ballard acknowledges this – I think – more obvious interpretation.

Other, more sympathetic readers of my earlier novels and short stories were quick to spot echoes of Empire of the Sun. The trademark images that I had set out over the previous thirty years – the drained swimming pools, abandoned hotels and nightclubs, deserted runways and flooded rivers – could all be traced back to wartime Shanghai. For a long time I resisted this, but I accept now that it is almost certainly true. The memories of Shanghai that I had tried to repress had been knocking at the floorboards under my feet, and had slipped quietly into my fiction.

Quietly? Shouting and screaming more like.

Taste for the abandoned Because the drained swimming pools are merely a sub-set of Ballard’s absolute obsession with abandoned buildings, with the trappings of cities and advanced civilisations which have gone into terminal decline and been left abandoned and derelict by their creators.

His short stories are absolutely rammed with abandoned hotels, drained swimming pools and dead or dying airplanes – think of all those stories set amid the rusting gantries of the abandoned space centre at Cape Canavarel, the abandoned resort in Low Flying Aircraft or the entire abandoned city in The Ultimate City or the vision of New York a hundred years after it has been abandoned and filled with sand dunes in Hello America.

Anyway, in this book there’s a memory of exploring a casino in Shanghai which had been abandoned after the Japanese invasion of the city in 1937, and which expands to explain the importance of ‘the abandoned building’ for him. His father had told him not to go inside, but:

After a few minutes I could no longer restrain myself, and walked on tiptoe through the silent gaming rooms where roulette tables lay on their sides and the floor was covered with broken glasses and betting chips. Gilded statues propped up the canopy of the bars that ran the length of the casino, and on the floor ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Nights tales.

But it held a deeper meaning for me, the sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past. I also felt that the ruined casino, like the city and the world beyond it, was more real and more meaningful than it had been when it was thronged with gamblers and dancers. Abandoned houses and office buildings held a special magic and on my way home from school I often paused outside an empty apartment block. Seeing everything displaced and rearranged in a haphazard way gave me my first taste of the surrealism of everyday life, though Shanghai was already surrealist enough.

It’s that feel for the strange magic of abandoned buildings, eerily empty cities and drained swimming pools which absolutely drenches Ballard’s best and most distinctive short stories.

Miracles of Life Lastly, what makes the book truly wonderful is the quality of love which permeates it. He has nothing but kind words for his wife who died so tragically, so long ago, and then for the strong, intelligent and funny woman, Claire Walsh, who became his lifelong partner in the mid-1960s (the one who appears in two of Ballard’s subversive advertisements, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere).

But it’s the passages about his children which overflow with love and pride and set the tone of the book, from his descriptions of helping at the actual births, through bringing them up by himself and spending all his time with them, through to the pride he felt when they married, and in his grandchildren.

Despite the atrocities described in the war years, and the terrible poverty he saw in post-war England, and then his determination to subvert and change the hidebound worlds of literature and science fiction, as he himself points out, all this was froth compared to the deep, rich core of his family life. His easy-going expressions of love for his children are enough to move any parent to tears.

Concs

Miracles of Life is a wonderfully clear, intelligent and warm book. Its leading feature for me is the intelligence of the content. What I mean is that every paragraph says something interesting. It isn’t a meandering ramble. Every paragraph makes a point, paints a scene, depicts a character, and contains thoughtful and thought-provoking insights.

As with all Ballard there’s a chilly, if not clinical feel to some of it. And yet, paradoxically, at the same time, its very honesty and candour, first about his parents, and then overwhelmingly about his children, creates a powerful sense of warmth and affection. It isn’t sentimental, he regards the whole of life and the world with a detached and lucid eye: but that makes the love which suffuses the book all the more valuable and moving.

We spent hours with little fish nets, hunting for shrimps, which were always taken home in jam jars and watched as they refused to cooperate and gave up the ghost. Fay and Bea were fascinated by the daisies that seemed to grow underwater when the stream rose to flood the meadow. Shepperton Studios were easy to enter in those wonderful summers nearly fifty years ago, and I would take the children past the sound stages to the field where unwanted props were left to the elements: figureheads of sailing ships, giant chess-pieces, half an American car, stairways that led up to the sky and amazed my three infants. And their father: days of wonder that I wish had lasted for ever. I thought of my children then, and still think of them, as miracles of life, and I dedicate this autobiography to them.


Related links

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The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard (1991)

The Kindness of Women was marketed as the ‘sequel’ to Ballard’s bestselling autobiographical memoir, Empire of the Sun, his long and gruelling account of the harrowing years he spent in a Japanese internment camp, having been captured and separated from his parents in war-torn Shanghai, but a careful reading suggests it is anything but an ‘autobiography’ and in fact much more like an extremely carefully composed novel which simply incorporates some themes from his life.

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun had a tremendous unity of subject, time and location – starting in Shanghai just at the outbreak of hostilities with Japan, devoting most of its text to the harrowing experiences and degradations of the prison camp, and ending with a section about the strangeness of the war’s abrupt end – after the two atom bombs were dropped on Japan – and the dreamlike unreality of returning to his pukka, middle-class home at their comfortable home in Shanghai’s International Settlement.

It ends with Jim and his mother leaving Shanghai on a boat with other British mothers and children, bound for an England he had never seen, and so covers his life from just the ages of 11 to 15.

One of the many striking things about Empire of the Sun for seasoned Ballard fans was that… it wasn’t science fiction. It felt like a complete break with the past, with his previous dozen or so novels and scores of short stories, in being based on actual, sensible, real world events.

And yet, in another way, it was of a piece with his previous work in that it gave away or revealed the sources of, his entire worldview.

In the first part of the book the narrator, young Jim, describes the exotic phantasmagoria which was 1940s Shanghai, with its foreign people, food, smells, behaviour and casual brutality (public stranglings) in which he is a permanent outsider, where he is the spectator at wonderful and strange scenes – just as the protagonists of so many of his stories are.

And then, of course, the main part of the text, the description of life in the internment camp, is a prolonged portrait of nominally polite well-educated chaps and chapesses going to pieces, reverting to utter torpor or feral behaviour, while young Jim is permanently starved, covered in sores, feverish and over-excited

That more or less describes the behaviour of the protagonists of the key, hard-core Ballard stories and novels, from The Drowned World to High Rise, especially in the novels which almost all describe the same narrative trajectory – the decline and fall of an individual, or a small group of people, into malnutrition and madness.

In its final scenes Empire of the Sun reaches a hallucinatory intensity as Jim accompanies the other dying internees on a long death march across the Chinese countryside towards another internment camp up country, in which scores of exhausted, ill and dying Brits fall away at each rest stop.

Eventually they arrive at the bizarre setting of an abandoned Olympic sports stadium which has been packed with loot from Shanghai by the conquering Japanese and it is here, more dead than alive, that Jim sees a strange light cover the sky which, he later learns, was the atom bomb exploding over Nagasaki which brought the war in the Pacific to an end, and saved the lives of the remaining internees.

So then, it is a very focused narrative, written with delirious intensity.

The Kindness of Women

The Kindness of Women has many of the same qualities of its predecessor, but is much more diffuse. Basically it’s much broader and wider, covering the whole of the rest of Jim’s life, starting a little before the events described in Empire of the Sun (in starts in 1937, the year the Japanese first attacked China, as opposed to Empire which starts in 1941) and then proceeds up until more or less the time of its writing, in the late 1980s.

No autobiographer can simply describe everything they’ve said and seen and done. Instead you have to choose what to describe, and The Kindness of Women takes this very much to heart. It is very episodic. Each of the seventeen chapters zeroes in on a particular period or moment, on key incidents in Ballard’s life, and gives us a good 15- or 20-page tour of it, before moving briskly on to the next key moment or period.

Thus it has far less unity of time and place, and is therefore less focused and intense than Empire of the Sun. That book was seen entirely from young Jim’s point of view, and he was weak and malnourished even before he entered the camp thanks to spending several months on the run – so it is characterised by a) being seen just from Jim’s point of view and b) Jim being almost continuously feverish and hallucinatory.

By contrast, in most of The Kindness of Women a) the narrator is not just about to faint from exhaustion and malnutrition, and b) it features other people, normal people, people who weren’t locked up during the war, who aren’t suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and so who ground the story, contextualise and normalise it, as we follow Jim becoming a medical student, learning to fly in Canada, getting married, having children, going on holidays to Spain, and so on.

That said, the trauma of those years, and how the narrator copes with it, remains a central theme, in fact, as the narrative unfolds, you it is increasingly drummed home that the narrator has never really been able to get away from his early trauma. In this respect, as several others, it’s a less melodramatic but more moving narrative than Empire.

It is also episodic in the sense that the chapters really feel like episodes. Each one has the depth and artistic arrangement of short story. Each chapter or section features a central theme, with several sub-themes arranged around it to counterpoint each other, like a piece of classical music.

The same goes for the recurring characters. When we first meet his boyhood friend in Shanghai, David Hunter or the teenage girl, Peggy, who looks after him in the internment camp – or a little later, at Cambridge, Dr Sutherland and his sixth form assistant Miriam – little do we suspect that these characters will recur throughout the rest of the book, popping up at key moments and coming to assume larger-than-life roles, becoming almost allegorical figures which represent certain types of human experience and behaviour.

The more you read on, the more carefully and artfully contrived you realise the book is, a selection of representative scenes, each composed and arranged very carefully, featuring representative types, so that it becomes not just the retelling of a life, but something much more elaborately wrought: something like the explanation or rationalisation or justification of Ballard’s complex and bizarre worldview.

Not only do key events explain his attitudes and beliefs, but they also justify his aesthetic strategies towards them. I realised this in the chapter about car crashes which is centred on the exhibition of crashed cars Ballard put on in 1969, when I noticed that the vocabulary and phrasing of the chapter was suddenly echoing the phrases he used with such intensity in the novel Crash.

So you not only pass through episodes in his life which are relevant to the fiction, it’s as if elements of his prose style change and alter to incorporate the phraseology of the stories and especially novels which he wrote during that period. If the Crash chapters reads like an excerpt from Crash, with all its references to raked dashboards and jutting binnacles, so the chapter in which he takes LSD reads like the novel The Unlimited Dream Company in its images of light, super-colour, and so on.

I’m suggesting that the book not only takes you through the episodes which inspired many of his stories, it also (subtly, not blatantly) takes you through the many styles he has used.

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is that it contains next to nothing about how he wrote his books, where the ideas came from, about his struggles as an unpublished author, the first short stories, the commission for the first novel, pride at being published, the critics, his involvement in what was quickly called the New Science Fiction, his manifesto about exploring Inner Space and so on.

There is nothing about any of that, or the craft of writing, or how many hours a day he puts in, or meetings with other writers, or writer or artist friends, his ideas about what science fiction is, or fiction in general, or art – nothing.

Writing that, I suddenly realise how narrow the book is, narrow and very focused. It only really features a handful of other characters – the ones mentioned above – and insofar as they keep bumping into each other at various stages of their lives, I realise that are, in a sense, walking embodiments of how to cope with trauma and troubled childhoods.

It’s as if Ballard is arranging and positioning the same characters into different painterly compositions, or posing the same half dozen people for the same sort of group photo which they take every couple of years over a forty year period.

By the end I wondered whether anything in this book actually happened, and whether any of these handily emblematic ‘characters’ ever existed.

The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems that The Kindness of Women is much, much more like a novel in conception and execution, than any kind of autobiography. And it is a novel about the lifelong impact of childhood trauma.


Part I – A Season For Assassins

Chapter 1. Bloody Sunday

The narrator is seven years old. He describes a 7-year-old’s eye view of Shanghai, a great deranged city of the future. His nanny is 17-year-old White Russian refugee Olga. His best friend is David Hunter. They both like making model airplanes and along with other boys engage in epic games of hide and seek across the vast metropolis. Jim loves seeing the Hell-Drivers, American dare-devils who crash their Fords and Chevrolets through flaming wooden barricades. Every morning municipal trucks collect the bodies of the hundreds of Chinese who have died during the night.

The Japanese invade China and Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek makes Shanghai – or the country just around it – one of his battlefields. Chinese planes fly overhead bombing the Japanese military barracks and the Japanese ships in the harbour.

One of them panics and drops a bomb just by the Great World Amusement Park, which kills just over a thousand civilians, mostly Chinese refugees. Shanghai natives are proud of the fact that this is the biggest death toll from one bomb in the history of human warfare.

Jim is caught in the bomb raid, he hears someone shouting his name, it is the Australian nanny of his rich friend David, calling from their chauffeur-driven car. More bombs fall, he is pulled to safety in a doorway by a British soldier. When he re-emerges and goes over to the car he sees the nanny slumped forward in the front seat of the car, young David in the background staring traumatised into space.

Violent death in cars, trauma, staring blankly, psychotic states of mental withdrawal from traumatic events – it all starts here.

Later the Europeans organise an outing to one of the battlefields outside the city, once the fighting has moved far away. Ladies with parasols walk among the wrecked trenches, among the equipment and ammunition and corpses littered everywhere. Jim hears David tittering to himself, a peculiarly disturbed sound, and sees his ‘jarred eyes’ beneath his fringe.

Chapter 2. Escape Attempts

Jump forward to Jim’s experiences in the Lunghua internment camp described so extensively in Empire of the Sun. It would be tempting to think Ballard is rehashing old ground but having finished the whole book, I realise now that these scenes are vital to his artistic purpose – which is to show the unerasable impact of early-life trauma.

We are introduced to other internees, especially 14-year-old Peggy Gardner, taller than Jim, thin, sensible, who tries to calm Jim’s permanent state of over-excitedness. He often slips into ‘hunger reveries’. He is often feverishly over-excited. Pretty much the whole of his subsequent writing career will be devoted to obsessively repeating and re-examining these extreme mental states.

His relations with Japanese soldiers Private Kimura and Sergeant Nagata.

His obsession with planes and flying, expanding on the model airplanes he and David built, his admiration of the American Flying Tigers who fought for Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalists, but his equal admiration for the Japanese pilots he sees taking off through the camp fence from nearby Lunghua airport.

The reversal of values by which young Jim admires the Japanese soldiers for their discipline and efficiency and also, somehow, for their unpredictable violence. He admires the American prisoners in the camp for their laid-back, can-do spirit, their glossy American magazines, their confidence that America will win the war and they’ll soon be released.

Jim reserves his contempt for the British, mostly sunk in torpor and indifference, slow to make anything happen, but quick to scold and nag. The narrator repeats the insight from Empire of the Sun that the authority of the British Empire was irreparably damaged when the British forces at Singapore surrendered. Every colonised people in Asia immediately realised the British Empire’s days were numbered.

One night Jim is breaking into the brick-built food store, slowly scratching away at the mortar and removing one brick at a time, when the Jap guards send up a flare and reveal half a dozen Brits amid the camp wire trying to escape. Jim gets caught up in the roundup of the escapees. One of them is his boyhood friend David Hunter.  They are taken to the Jap barracks to be interrogated by camp commander Mr Hyashi, a former diplomat. Jim watches brutal Sergeant Nagata slapping and punching the escapees, sees the blood on David’s blonde hair and the bruises forming on his face.

Jim escapes severe punishment because he knows how to immediately kowtow to the Japs and say the right thing, namely that he likes it in Lunghua camp and wouldn’t dream of escaping, which is in fact true.

Chapter 3. The Japanese Soldiers

The war ends. Rumours sweep the camp of an American superbomb. The Japanese guards disappear. Jim walks out the open doors of the prison camp and describes the flat, waste lands around it, rice paddies and canals stretching for miles.

15-year-old Jim plans to walk back to Shanghai and the home of his parents. The eeriness of the empty landscape, apart from a few dead bodies, is brilliantly captured. Over it all hangs a strange uncanny light, which Jim associates with the light from the bomb. Ballard’s obsession with nuclear weapons starts here. Later he was to learn that the Japs had planned to march them inland to a death camp where they would have been liquidated. This didn’t happen because the Americans dropped the bomb.

In other words, J.G. Ballard owed his life to the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so when anxiety about the atom bomb and then the hydrogen bomb steadily grew through the 1950s and 60s he was utterly conflicted: on the one hand sharing the acute anxiety of everyone else that the world might be ended by a nuclear holocaust; at the same time owing his actual existence to the very technology which might at any second wipe out mankind.

You can see why the protagonists of so many of his stories are obsessed with the bomb and with the nuclear test sites at places like Enewatak atoll, epitomised by the extremely disturbing story The Terminal Beach. It’s because they all seek to resolve the contradiction of Ballard’s experience, but never can.

Jim stumbles up to an isolated rural station on the railway line and before he can stop realises it is occupied by four Japanese soldiers. Jim knows about Japanese soldiers. Show respect. Never run. Never show fear. Never argue or disagree.

While three of them potter about or lie with their backs against the wooden station building, one of the Japanese soldiers is slowly tying a Chinese peasant to one of the pillars holding up the roof. Slowly coiling him in telegraph wire they’ve cut down from nearby posts. Jim is forced to watch as the Chinese man is slowly bound and garrotted to death, and every second of his agony, and his imploring eyes, and his gargled noises are imprinted on Jim’s mind, in the hot noonday sun, and the complete silence of this abandoned station.

Time has stopped. This action means nothing. The Japanese know that they are dead and so nothing they do matters.

This scene, this moment and this event, the meaningless death of an unknown citizen which he is forced to watch in silence and stillness for over an hour, under a strange white sky, in an alien landscape – the memory of this scene recurs again and again later in the novel as a symbol for the nexus of inarticulable traumas Jim, and the other camp inhabitants and, by extension, millions of victims of the war, suffered.

For no particular reason, the Jap soldiers let him go and Jim stumbles along the railway lines finally reaching Shanghai and stumbling towards his boyhood home where he is reunited with his parents, who have survived the war at a different camp.

Things are restored to ‘normality’. Jim goes cruising the city with David Hunter who, he discovers, has developed a precocious taste for picking up Eurasian prostitutes and somehow making them so furious that they attack him in a mad frenzy. That’s the bit he wants. Replaying endlessly the beating he got in the camp from Sergeant Nagata.

Then Jim and his mother sail back to England. Even at the last moment, on the last page of the China section, Jim witnesses atrocity. The steamer they’re on passes an American landing craft and the homebound passengers see it is full of Japanese soldiers on their knees, wrists tied behind them, and they are being chivvied onto the beach by armed American soldiers towards a line of Chinese soldiers who have bayonets attached to their rifles and are waiting to bayonet the Japanese to death.

Part II – The Craze Years

I was marooned in a small, grey country where the sun rarely rose above the rooftops, a labyrinth of class and caste forever enlarging itself from within. The English talked as if they had won the war, but behaved as if they had lost it.

Chapter 4. The Queen of the Night

Ballard is a medical student at Cambridge and his work there is epitomised by the Dissection Room. Groups of students are allotted a cadaver and Ballard’s group is the only one to get a woman. Everything else that happens in this chapter is counterpointed by Ballard’s poetic descriptions of how this woman’s body is slowly flayed, the layers peeled back to reveal fat, muscle, tendons and then the vital organs, and he nicknames her the Queen of the Night, and is aware of a sort of psychological hold she has over him.

Ballard doesn’t like Cambridge, he certainly despises everything about his college (King’s College, the oldest and grandest college in Cambridge), disliking the daily madrigal singing in the chapel, seeing the whole place as a kind of flea-ridden tourist attraction.

‘It’s a glorified academic gift shop for American universities, where they can buy some quaint little professor for a few dollars. You need to be a tourist or an au pair girl top get the best out of it.’ (p.104)

That was in the early 1950s. Later, in 1978, he thinks:

Cambridge had expanded into a complex of industrial and science parks, ringed by monotonous housing estates and shopping precincts. At its centre, like the casbah in Tangier, was the antique heart of the university, a stopover for well-disciplined parties of Japanese tourists stepping from their TV-equipped German buses. As an undergraduate I had prayed for a new Thomas Cromwell who would launch the dissolution of the universities, but mass tourism had accomplished this, overwhelming the older European universities as it would soon destroy Rome, Florence, and Venice.

The narrator is desperate to escape the confines of college and get out to see the American bombers at the vast new airfields built across East Anglia for the fleets of bombers carrying nuclear weapons, and is hypnotised by the sight of rich American USAAF officers driving round in their huge shiny American cars, Chryslers and Oldsmobiles.

Again, this theme is reprised towards the end of the book in a way which sheds light on his lifelong obsession:

I parked in a narrow lane and stared through the perimeter fence at the worn concrete beside the nuclear weapons silos. The unsung and unremembered cement was more venerable than all the primped and polished stone of the university. The runways were aisles that led to a more meaningful world, gateways of memory and promise.

Jim sees Peggy, the scrawny teenage girl who helped him so much in the camp, came home on the same ship, and blossomed at her girls boarding school in Sussex. She pops up to Cambridge where the carries on being an older sister, chiding him about his scruffiness, his anti-Cambridge attitude, his obsession with Americans and the bomb. They discuss all this in terms of their experiences at Lunghua camp.

He meets an academic, a psychology professor Dr Richard Sutherland, who studied in America, has an American car, he has a pilot’s license and at weekends flies a gypsy moth, it’s even rumoured he’s been on television! He is ‘fast’, meaning trendy, before the word or concept had been invented.

One of his assistants is a girl still in the 6th form of her school, but knowing and sexy, Miriam who wears stylish American underwear and, he thinks, is probably sleeping with the Prof.

Nonetheless, Miriam seduces young student Jim into an affair and we have one of the first of what will be many, many coolly clinical anatomically precise descriptions of sex which includes what you might call unusual features, him placing his penis against her breast, kissing her armpit, her steering his fingers towards her anus.

Something about their combination of extreme sexuality and extreme clarity and calculation makes them very erotic, but the way that he describes with every one of the women in the book in the same clinical and geometric style made me wonder whether the sex scenes, like possibly everything else in the book, is stylised and contrived and completely untrue.

They make an odd trio: the trendy psychology professor, the haunted student and the sexy schoolgirl, driving out to the American air force bases to watch the nuclear bombers taking off and landing. Characters from an archetypal Ballard story, while the English around them seem remote and alien, p.94.

Chapter 5. The Nato Boys

Jump forward a few years and we learn that Jim has quit medical school and enrolled in the RAF. Still, as we readers know, Ballard will remain obsessed with the role and character and social position of The Doctor throughout his fiction, which is packed with doctor protagonists.

Jim enrolled because he wants to fly the big bombers which will start World War Three. But instead of learning to fly in tense divided Germany, Jim and his other volunteers are packed off to the frozen tundra of Canada, to Sakatchewan, to be precise. The whole chapter is underpinned by the sense that, in the overlit fields around the Lunghua camp, in the inexplicable silence and eeriness of the landscape, Jim realised that World War 2 had ended but World War 3 had begun, except that nobody else had noticed it. (p.106)

This perceptive but deranged conviction also underpins much of his later fiction – the name-changing central figure in The Atrocity Exhibition is trying to start World War 3, except not as we know it. As a kind of display of psychological extremes.

Also I hadn’t really understood the significance for his fiction of the fact that Ballard actually trained as a pilot. Manned flight is one of the central obsessions which recurs again and again throughout his works.

Jim describes the camaraderie in the mess, the national characteristics of the different Nato pilots training there. The Turks find it hardest because of the heavy North American food (waffles, turkey and milk).

Oh and David has accompanied him, the same David Hunter we met in Shanghai, he is going to haunt the novel like Jim’s alter ego. There is a prolonged section where David Hunter takes Jim to a brothel, they get completely hammered, so drunk we find Jim reeling on a bed before throwing up into his trousers which are lying on the floor, while two prostitutes take it in turns to suck David’s penis. David always insists on watching and being watched. Later he takes one of the whores into the bathroom and somehow makes her so angry that she attacks David, really beating and slapping him around the face. Jim simply points out it’s the nearest he can come to the times Sergeant Nagata slapped him round the face. Jim meanwhile tries to tenderly stroke and caress ‘his’ whore who, he realises, is pregnant.

One of the Turks, Captain Artvin, goes missing on a training flight in the Harvard planes they use. A few days later Jim, ignoring regulations and flying freely across the frozen tundra, see what he thinks might be the cabin of a drowned plane in a lake.

Jim tells David. He goes out on a second trip, taking so long to relocate the lake that, on the way back, he runs out of fuel and crash lands his plane on a road half buried under blizzard snow. There’s a funny moment when a mink farmer drives by, eyes the half crashed plane with Jim sitting stunned in the cockpit, then drives on.

The mink farmers hate the pilots who deliberately dive and scare their animals. No love lost on the bleak Canadian tundra. Jim is disciplined at an enquiry, and realises the air force is not for him. Miriam had written him a letter saying she’d got a job on a Fleet Street paper. He wants to return to England and explore her amazing American underwear.

Chapter 6. Magic World

Jump forward and Jim has married Miriam and they have two small children. He is now living in a modest suburban house in Shepperton. He explains some of the mystique of Shepperton, surrounded by water, the River Thames and the gravel quarries.

He takes his small children to a piece of rough ground behind Shepperton Studios where there are disused props to play with and which they call Magic World.

This chapter contains very beautiful descriptions of domestic intimacy, of them making love, but it is mixed up with her first pregnancy and giving birth in the hospital which Miriam found so alienating she insisted the second one was delivered at home, a process Ballard describes with a wonderful evocation of intimacy.

They watch Prof Richard Sutherland from Cambridge, who is now a TV academic and pundit, reporting from Cape Canavarel, one of the new generation of media academics whose role, Ballard perceptively suggests, is to teach ‘the world to feel more at ease with itself’ (p.127).

David Hunter pops by. He carried on the Canadian training, served in Kenya, then flew nuclear-armed Vulcans, drifted along the fringes of private aviation, then bought an aerial photography company (p.128). He has the air of a man scared the past is going to creep up and tap him on the shoulder. Long-term post-traumatic stress. They sit up late over whiskey. David reminds Jim of his experience at the railway station. He’s going back to Shanghai, does Jim want to come with?

Jim says ‘No’. Later in bed with Miriam they discuss it. They touch and fondle and caress and discuss. It is a beautiful evocation of married life. Then her third labour begins and there is a vivid, intimate description of labour, complete with farts and piles, and then the arrival of their third child who Ballard describes with eerie precision, like a visitor from an era millions of years old.

Chapter 7. The Island

Miriam and Jim and their three small children are on holiday in Spain, a place called Ampiabravura. Jim foolishly tries to swim round the headland but is nearly run over by a ferry and ends up clambering ashore on a long isolated sandbank.

Miriam motorboats out with the kids and they discover a remote half-abandoned building, which seems to be occupied by a group of half naked hippies.

Miriam explains he’s been back in England for eighteen years and it’s become clear he’ll never feel at home here. (So if he returned in 1945 this must be 1963. He says they’ve been married for 8 years i.e. married in 1955 when Ballard – born 1930 – was 25)

There’s an extended passage describing the new sun-worshipping beach culture which was being established along the 3,000 mile littoral of the Mediterranean (a feature, a mindset of many of his story, not least The Largest Theme Park in the World from 1989). He and Miriam have very clinical sex in hotel bedrooms and bathrooms, her adopting gymnastic poses against mirrors, watching his reflection. Maybe this happened but it feels very… male.

When they return to the secret house on the sandbank, other people are there, a tall blonde man with long hair, women swimming naked. Early hippies. The man is Peter Lykiard, teaches at Regent Street Poly, there’s another couple, and a young American student, Sally Mumford. They smoke joints, they have copies of William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg. Groovy.

Jim and Miriam’s little kids love them. Sally is very good with the kids, calls them pixies. Her father is a millionaire, owner of a Boston department store. Miriam feels like a square.

They are all now a big gang and drive to a nearby town to watch a bullfight. Predictably this triggers primeval urges of blood and violence but it triggers Sally to an outburst of insane violence, she goes into the ring at the climax of the fight, tries to ride the bull, gets lots in a melee, they later find her in the compound for bullfighters and their followers being pushed around, her clothes torn, in a daze.

Next day, back at their special beach, the kids are playing supervised by Miriam, Lykiard and the other couple are in the house, Sally comes and lies by Jim, hands him a joint and makes it clear that she is sexually available, resting her breast against his arm. When he doesn’t respond or rise to the bait she simply stands up, not insulted or aggrieved and strolls off.

On page 157 Miriam us skipping down the steps of the villa, when she stumbles and hits her head on the stone edge. The crack is so loud everyone turns. Jim runs over to her as she looks up dazed. They help her into the inflatable dinghy they use to get to and from the sandbank, she struggles to get out at the main beach, they help her to the hotel where Jim calls a doctor. A practicante arrives and at first says they’ll keep her under observation, but only minutes later calls for an ambulance, as Miriam drifts in and out of consciousness, increasingly confused. Jim accompanies her, massaging her legs as she struggles to breathe with an oxygen mask. By the time they reach the hospital she is dead, p.160.

Chapter 8. The Kindness of Women

Miriam is buried in the Protestant cemetery at Fuigueras. All his friends find it hard to look at him. He has the feeling all the women in the world are withdrawing. He packs up their stuff and drives all the way back across Spain and France with a bottle of whiskey between his thighs.

All the past he had tried to reject – all the dead of China and the war, and especially the young Chinese he saw being strangled to death – race up to stare him in the face.

Miriam’s sister, Dorothy and her husband, are waiting to greet them at the Shepperton home. He clears out Miriam’s drawer, underwear and contraceptives. Slowly he reorientates his perspectives to ready himself for a life raising three small children by himself.

In a scene of intense eroticism a hug with Miriam’s sister Dorothy turns into sex as she makes a conscious decision to console him, and partakes of very Ballardian geometric sex in which people position themselves at angles, move penises around, dangle breasts, rearrange thighs and generally come across as pornographic meccano.

Everything I’ve ever experienced of mature English women tells me a) she’d never have done it b) she’d certainly never have had the rather theoretical architectural sex Ballard describes. Can’t help thinking this is utter fantasy.

Ballard describes the everyday misandry of pretty much everyone they know, plus the school and the authorities, all of whom think a father is not capable of bringing up small children. As a househusband who brought up my small children, I encountered exactly the same prejudices in the 2000s.

‘For God’s sake, men are capable of loving their children.’ (p.171)

Peggy drops by for another one of the conversations in which she reviews his life which are a feature of the book. She is now a very self-possessed pediatrician at Guy’s Hospital. They embrace and Jim feels a stirring but Peggy pulls away. She is the sensible older sister in their relationship.

Friends and colleagues are polite, supportive, David Hunter invites him to parties and navigates him towards eligible women, but at the same time there is a conspiracy of silence: none of his friends can bring themselves to mention his dead wife.

The narrator says he almost envies JFK’s widow, at least nobody can try and sweep her grief under the carpet and, in a flash, I realise the vast psychological importance the JFK assassination must have had for Ballard. It happened in the same year his lost his wife – it was a vast public, global outpouring of grief inextricably linked to Ballard’s own domestic private grief.

An English publisher based in New York takes Ballard out to strip clubs in Soho. This gives Ballard an opportunity to mock the explicit but utterly bored, passionless routines of the porno dancers, as formalised as the routines of air hostesses running you through the emergency drill before take-off.

A friend of Miriam’s pops round while the kids are at school and in a mature, open, unembarrassed way persuades Jim to have sex with her while she’s perched on the edge of the spindryer, the vibrations, you see.

Chapter 9. Craze People

It is now the mid-60s and these are represented for Ballard by Prof Lykiard, pipe smoking, running an arts laboratory, exhibitions of Vietnam atrocities, theatre of Cruelty, Burroughs and so on. Invites Ballard to write notes for an exhibition of images based round the JFK assassination. And Sally, who drops by to play with the pixies and is at the epicentre of the 60s maelstrom, high on amphetamines, editing documentaries about warzones, attending spiritualist events, rock concerts.

Ballard is invited to read some of his works at a massive music festival in Sussex. They take the kids, Sally looks after them but she is disconcerted to discover Lykiard having it off with one of the performance artists backstage. Ballard finds her later, beyond the festival boundaries, playing with some horses in a field. Later she insists they drive to the Sussex coast and, while the children watch, she wades out dangerously far into the water, is knocked off her feet and gets into danger of drowning, until Ballard wades out and rescues her. Blankets and the sense that she is a casualty, infinitely vulnerable, psychic damage.

Later that evening, back in Shepperton, the put the pixies to bed, she is bathed and changed and their sitting on the sofa, she snuggles up to him and makes it clear she is available for sex but when it comes to it, asking to be sodomised, turning her buttocks to him, forcing her face into the pillows, offering her hands behind her back so he can grab her wrists and push them upwards, pinning her, hurting her, as she calls out: ‘Bugger me, Daddy! Beat me! Pixie wants to be buggered!’

I found this whole sequence of events intensely erotic, and at the same time you are obviously intended to realise the depth of her psychological damage, her unloving possibly abusive father, her drug addiction, her manic throwing herself into all the hectic art events of the swinging 60s.

And you also wonder, here as in so many other places, whether any of this happened, or it is entirely fictional.

Sally becomes his guide to the heady swirl of the 1960s, and to sexual liberation. He introduces her to Dick Sutherland, the TV scientist, and this allows Ballard to describe his version of the 60s, not a time of utopian hope, but an era when endless images of violence and atrocity blared from TV screens and sex was so blasted in everyone’s faces that emotion and feeling were exterminated.

This, we realise, is the milieu which produced the intense and weird texts which go to make up what I consider to be Ballard’s masterpiece, The Atrocity Exhibition for example he describes Dick Sutherland carrying out trendy psychology experiments such as submitting subjects to intense footage of war atrocities (Vietnam, Congo) and asking questionnaires about its impact on their sex lives.

Well that is exactly the subject of one of the last chapters in The Atrocity Exhibition.

Then one night she is hosting a party at her ramshackle Bayswater digs, packed with performance artists and film-makers, Dick Sutherland and Lykiard are there. But none of them can prevent Ballard stumbling into a spare bedroom where he finds Sally on her back on the quilted top of the laundry basket, her legs hoiked up round the shoulders of a young Spanish photographer whose trousers are round his hips as he steadily, strongly fucks her. Sally stares past the Spaniard at Jim, smiling happily.

That, also, is a lesson about a decade which Ballard sees entirely in terms of its psychic damage and louring threat, atrocity, nuclear war, Vietnam, theatre of cruelty, drugs and betrayal.

Chapter 10. Kingdom of Light

17 June 1967. Under the supervision of long-time friend, TV pundit and psychologist Richard Sutherland, Ballard has an acid trip, described in terms almost identical to the prolonged fantasia which is his novel, The Unlimited Dream Company. He realises that

Shepperton was a solar garden, a sleeping paradise waiting to be woken from every stone and leaf. (p.206)

which is very much the subject of The Unlimited Dream Company.

The kids are taken out by Cleo Churchill, a childrens book editor Jim’s met at one of Sutherland’s many swinging parties who turns out to live locally and be happy to babysit sometimes, and takes them to Shepperton Park by the river. In fact, later on and well into the acid trip, Sutherland takes a phone call in Ballard’s study, taking his eye off his ward, who gets up and sleepwalks, staggers through prisms of light, as far as Shepperton Park where he sees his children, but especially Chloe Churchill, transformed into a Gustave Moreau archangel, sheathed in multi-coloured lights.

By now I doubt whether anything like this happened, but it is convenient because it means whenever Chloe pops up in the rest of the book, Ballard can have acid flashbacks of her as a rainbow angel of glory.

Sutherland had pitched filming Ballard taking the acid as a programme proposal to the head of documentaries at the BBC. This brings out Sutherland’s popularity but he’s not actually a part of the machine. And the text repeats his justification of acid, namely that the world most of us perceive, made up of discrete objects, with their correct places, governed by laws of gravity and geometry and, above all, by a sense of consecutive Time, are entirely artefacts of the central nervous system and brain which we have evolved to help us cope and manage the objects, other people and other animals around us. But they aren’t the truth. Taking acid isn’t like getting drunk or stoned. It goes far deeper than that, it reveals the world the human nervous system spends most of its time hiding us from.

Having taken acid a dozen or so times I couldn’t agree more. One trip is enough to show you the absolute wonder and amazement of what the human senses are actually perceiving every second of every day – but which are repressed, turned off, ignored so we can get on with being the instrumental, purposive, time-focused animals we are.

Delete all those repressive mechanisms and you experience the central nervous system without its locks and gates, you experience ‘reality’ unleashed. More accurately, you experience the overwhelming flood of sensations which are bodies are receiving all the time, but which the evolved CNS suppresses.

From a literary point of view it’s interesting to see that Ballard uses a lot of the phraseology and imagery which made such an impact in The Crystal World i.e. everyday objects are invested with multiple-angled shards of light, as if embedded in jewels.

My arms and legs were dressed in light, sheathes of mother-of-pearl that formed a coronation armour. (p.203)

In the aftermath, everything seems grey and drab. Shepperton has exhausted itself. A few days later Peggy Gardner drops by. She is more than ever the prim, respectable, professional spinster. Predictably she disapproves of the acid trip and especially the way Sutherland uses Jim in his psychological-TV-media experiments.

But Ballard links it back to Shanghai, Lunghua and the primal scene in chapter three, the four Japanese soldiers torturing a Chinese to death while Jim looks on in terror in an alien landscape. Now, when Ballard repeats his characteristically Ballard ideas, we have a much deeper sense of where they come from.

When he speculates that war is how nations escape from time it sort of makes sense. Certainly if you’ve read British war memoirs, it’s striking how many men were drifting or unhappy, and the call-up in August 1914 liberated many of them from the sense of inevitability and duty and failure implicit in the idea of having to get a career, get on in the world etc. For the duration of the war all those worriers were suspended.

But Ballard means something deeper and expresses it with a surreal logic which is distinctively his, the notion that the Japanese soldiers wanted were waiting for the next war, and that their torture of the Chinese was an attempt to provoke the next war into starting, so they could be free again. It’s only as irrational as thousands of other religious rites and rituals and invocations and calls on the gods or the world to do what we want.

If you fully enter Ballard’s imaginative world, if you buy into his premises, if you experience his experiences – then this kind of claim makes complete sense. Otherwise, you remain on the outside.

All that said, a few weeks later Sutherland is due to pop round with another dose of acid. Jim is at the door seeing off Cleo who has, again, obligingly agreed to take the kids to Magic World, she calmly disapproves, the kids run up to Jim shouting, ‘Come on Daddy, come with us’ and… He does. Once was enough. He turns his back on Dick Sutherland’s dubious psych experiments. As they say in Trainspotting – Choose life.

Chapter 11. The Exhibition

Sally Mumford is back. She’s progressed from speed to heroin and her arms are covered in needle marks and sores, but she still lovers the kids. For Ballard she represents all the toxic hysteria of the 1960s (or Ballard has invented her as a symbol of the same):

Like so many others at the end of the 60s, that ten-year pharmaceutical trial, she thought of the media landscape as a life-support system, force feeding a diet of violence and sensation into her numbed brain. (p.215)

In fact reading that quote at the start of this chapter makes me realise that Ballard is artfully introducing his key theme. As I’ve explained in my reviews of The Atrocity Exhibition and Crash, those books contain fairly straightforward explanations of his obsession with extreme pornography and car crashes, which is that a diet of super-violent war images and atrocities (epitomised by the endless replaying of the JFK assassination) has numbed and desensitised people, so only extremes of sex and sensation can reconnect them.

Reinforcing the mood of hysteria, we are reintroduced to David Hunter who is becoming more deranged. As the years pass he seems to blame Ballard more and more for Miriam’s death. He’s never read any of Ballard’s books, pointing out that he knows the key, the master plot, already. David gives him a lift back from London and goes and parks his car outside a posh Belgravia house out of which emerges a smart little man who David then menaces with his car. It is the Japanese ambassador. And so on.

By this stage I had realised that The Kindness of Women is a kind of handbook, or set of case studies, in post-traumatic stress survivors.

David now flies vintage cars in displays. He invites Ballard and Sally and the kids to one. Although his real passion is saloon car racing at Brands Hatch. He has twice been cautioned for dangerous driving. The reader who knows their Ballard knows where this is all heading.

David is driving Sally back from the air display when they crash, near the approach to Chertsey Road. Ballard follows on later and so is slowed down by the police who are managing the traffic flow past the wrecked cars. David and Sally are both fine, unscathed, but Ballard gets a look of them posed in driving seat and back seat, both frozen in time, staring into space, covered in broken windscreen glass, described in exactly the same phrases which fill Crash.

I was struck by their self-conscious pose, like dancers arrested in an audience-catching flourish at the end of their performance…the postures they assumed within the cabin of the Jaguar, as if they were memorising for future use the exact geometry of Sally’s exposed thighs and the ribbed leather of the upholstery, the precise angle between David’s crutch and the jut and rake of the steering wheel. (p.219)

Did this ever happen? Or is it an entirely fictional recreation of the scenes and phraseology of Crash? Ballard notices the number of people who’ve stopped to gawp at the crashed cars, some of them have got cine cameras out to film the scene. It is, he realises, a new type of street theatre, hypnotic attraction to a pile-up of technology which is somehow linked to the television and its relentless diet of violence and atrocity.

Subsequently David and Sally make complete recoveries, the latter driving Jim back up to London in her dangerous MG while explaining that the thrill of driving dangerously with the ever-present risk of a crash is identical to the motivation of the bullfight (remember the bullfighting scene back in chapter 7, aha, that’s why that was there: to prepare us for this speech), updated to the late 20th century.

Sally is lost in the maze of streets in Marylebone when a sports car surges out of a side street, nearly crashes into them, and hurtles off. Ballard had just had time to grab the wheel and steer the MG out of its path, while Sally did an emergency brake.

It was David. Sally explains that he follows her around, then she follows him. They pretend to crash into each other. This is the plot of Crash. Really rammed home when Sally takes Jim’s hand, puts is between her legs so he can feel how wet she is, and they proceed to have typically clinical Ballard sex amid the clutter of steering wheels and handbrakes, while both of them are aware of David Hunter (aha! his name! was his bland name chosen to lead up to this scene all along) roams the streets of London in his fast car, hunting for prey.

Hunter is, in fact, recreating the endless games of hide and seek which Ballard described them both playing through the vast metropolis of Shanghai, back in their innocent boyhoods. Or is he? Are both fictional inventions?

Cut to the exhibition of crashed cars which Ballard staged at Dick Sutherland’s experimental Arts Theatre Laboratory for four weeks in 1969. Ballard quotes the program notes which claim the car crash is a vector focusing all the violence and anxieties of the age (not least of thermonuclear war) into an event which happens daily, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands each year, and yet which is celebrated on TV and in movies, is presented as a form of entertainment (p.226).

At the opening night the guests behave appallingly, getting drunk, throwing up on the cars, urinating on and in them, fights break out and Sally is nearly raped in the back seat of the smashed-up Lincoln, until rescued by Ballard and Chloe Churchill, who has come along to be a voice of reason amid the madness, although Ballard, typically listens to her sensible comments but sees her reincarnated as the angle of light he saw during his acid trip.

Driving back from that party, Ballard is following Sally in her MG when he becomes entranced in their game and, accidentally-on-purpose, clips the rear fender of her car. This sends her into a zig zag but Ballard loses control of his own car which, as he brakes, veers into the fast lane, one of its tyres explodes, it crashes against the central reservation, turned onto its side and then upside down, skids at speed on its roof, Ballard hanging upside down from his safety belt, into the oncoming traffic.

The emergency services soon arrive, drag him out onto the grass verge, a figure pushes through the quickly assembling crowd and flicks a cigarette lighter lowering it to his face. It is Sally, forensically fascinated to examine his expression, as clinical as Ballard had been when he flayed and unpeeled the dead carcass back at medical school.

There’s a coda: in the last days of the 1960s Ballard attends a demolition derby held at a disused football ground in the East End, as the drivers crash into each other, one of whom is David Hunter who, after he’s crashed out of the competition lies back in his shattered cabin while Sally Mumford in white jeans and crimson jacket yells at him.

Did any of this happen? It feels very very pat, just so, and when Ballard references the Hell Drivers of Shanghai which he had described in chapter one, the reader wonders whether anyone’s actual life could be so wonderfully choreographed and thematically linked.

Chapter 12. In The Camera Lens

Jim is at a film festival in Brazil with Dick Sutherland, who he first met at Cambridge in the early 1950s and have watched morph into an early example of that new social type, the media don, the science presenter. Dick and Jim are attending a film festival in Copacabana.

This chapter neatly captures the way a lot of the behaviours which (apparently) seemed so liberating in the 1960s when they broke through the grey carapace of austerity Britain, somehow came to seem corrupt and tacky and embarrassing in the 1970s e.g. casual sex, drugs (specifically cocaine), flares, long hair, experimental films, TV and foreign jollies

The festival mainly consists of ogling the stunningly sexy Brazilian women taking part in various parades, and attending endless parties. In two brief surreal scenes he finds himself being introduced to the cast of Star Trek, already grey-haired and uncomfortably acting the roles they’ll be famous for till they die, who look like ‘venerable morticians’ (p.238) and to the legendary film director Fritz Lang.

Both encounters add to Ballard’s sense that we all live in a sort of heightened reality TV show. The centrepiece of the festival is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey which, in fact, a glance at Wikipedia tells me was released in May 1968. (Elsewhere in this blog I’ve reviewed the Arthur C. Clarke novel and sequels)

Characteristically, Sutherland is said to be running an alternative festival of science documentaries, and some of these are right up Ballard’s alley. They include a film documenting the treatment of extreme sex offenders, which included varieties of aversion therapy i.e. showing them images of children or vulnerable women and then giving them electric shocks or emetics. Ballard didn’t watch the film, he stood and watched the audience, mainly made up of documentary filmmakers and psychologists who sit entranced, occasionally oohing with appreciation as the patients are given electric shocks or vomit, exactly – says Ballard waspishly – as the devotees in a Soho sex theatre sit entranced, occasionally murmuring their approval at a particularly graphic sex scene.

This leads up to the kind of gnomic remark you suspect Ballard is proud of: ‘In the future everyone will need to be a film critic to make sense of anything’ (p.241). I can see this emblazoned in huge letters over the entrance to the hundreds of Media Studies courses now taught all across the UK and beyond. It sounds good, but it’s not really true. It’s a very dated idea. Nowadays being a data analyst would be more help. As far as I can tell, media studies like gender studies and queer studies and all the rest are stuck in a time warp, still reading Marxist, psycho-analytical, structuralist, post-structuralist and feminist theory, while the world we inhabit has moved on.

A leading film critic on a Rio newspaper introduces our two middle-aged Englishmen to two Rio hookers, Carmen and Fortunata. This is the beginning of Dick and Jim’s ‘odyssey’ which the reader immediately spots is a kind of satirical counterpoint to what Ballard thought was Kubrick and Clarke’s overblown space fantasy.

The Rio hookers take our heroes back to their knocking shop which is two rooms adjacent to a sweatshop in which lots of other poor women manufacture mementos of the film festival, stapling together posters of Robert Redford or Jane Fonda, amid the din of the printworks. The scene also counterpoints the scene in chapter five where David and Jim spent the night with two Canadian whores in a double bedroom.

The general idea is to show the ubiquity of prostitution, and the surprising light it sheds on modern sexuality. There’s a striking moment when Jim’s hooker, Carmen, asks if he wants to film them having sex – a camera and tripod are set up in the corner, obviously it’ll cost extra. That’s not the jolt. The jolt comes when she says, maybe he’d like film of it so he can show his girlfriend. Or his wife. The fact that the equipment is set up and she knows about it, demonstrates that this is common enough to be a commercial venture i.e. it sheds light on modern marriage. Well, some modern marriages.

Dick had (wisely) refused to even enter the ‘bedroom’ of his hooker, Fortunata, it was so filthy, dishevelled, the sheets stained with mucus and lubricant and spermicidal jelly like the car bay at a garage. Instead, when Jim finally finishes fucking Carmen, and she professionally scoops his leaking semen into a succession of tissues, Jim slowly dresses and opens the door back into the workshop to find Richard and Fortunata running round it throwing tatty tourist mementos at each other. A sort of comic counterpoint to the end of the Canada prostitute story in which David provoked his hooker into smacking his face, in memory of Sergeant Nagata.

In a kind of coda, or punchline scene, the Rio film critic hosts a massive party at his mansion, where Jim, sauntering around, comes across a room which has been sealed off, which turns out to be full of lights and technicians and cameramen etc where Carmen is on hands and knees, doggy fashion, and a vexed dog handler is fondling the genitals of a German shepherd. They are trying to get the dog to get an erection and to penetrate Carmen from behind, while she flicks back her hair and looks behind her in boredom, and the host ans various other guests stand around holding their wine glasses and chatting.

Ballard describes all this as if this level of intense pornography is the future, tied to the rise and rise of desensitising TV. But I disagree. I think that vision of a world totally corrupted by TV and pornography is itself very dated, very 70s, dragging on into the 80s, and ended up being a misleading guide to what actually happened.

And now, in 2020, we live in a world where unlimited hard-core pornography is available to anyone at the click of a mouse and yet, the interesting thing about the vast parallel universe of porn on the internet is not that it exists – it’s that so many people choose not to watch it most of the time.

Chapter 13. The Casualty Station

David Hunter has been sent to a mental institute, Summerfield Hospital in south London. Here Ballard visits him, reflecting on the sequence of events that brought them there, and noting the behaviour of the other insane patients. David is pretty compos mentis as mental cases go. Ballard takes a chessboard, they play chess, and David always palms a piece before the end of the game so Ballard will have to come back.

They chat about old times. We are informed that Sally has decamped to Scotland, staying with a friend of her rich father’s trying out the then-new methadone treatment for heroin addiction. This follows her turning up at Shepperton a few months earlier, utterly string out on heroin, refusing to talk or be touched, striding up and down the kids empty bedrooms, ransacking the cupboards for their old toys. Jim takes her to his GP who recommends a specialist who recommends a nursing home on the Thames, and then onto Scotland.

David went back to Shanghai, something Jim says he can’t do, David hunted for the isolated railway station which is the recurrent image of the novel, but couldn’t find it. (The reader suspects this is because it never existed, but was a fictional symbol invented by Ballard.) David points out the car crash exhibition was simply Ballard’s way of re-enacting the atrocity he witness. ‘At a few removes’.

It was car crashing that brought him to the asylum. He and Sally developed a cult of driving up one-way streets the wrong way and one night in London had a head-on collision with a woman cellist who was killed instantly. It was only his demented gibbering at the scene and his RAF record in Kenya which saved him from a manslaughter charge. Instead he was sent to Repton mental home and now here.

In Ballard’s view, David had tried to recreate the cruelty he experienced in China, not realising that the psychopathic, TV-addicted, atrocity newsreel footage-driven 60s was egging him on. He’s just one among tens of thousands of casualties of the 1960s.

The third of Ballard’s representative trio is the TV don, Dick Sutherland and he emerged from the 60s with flying colours, making a series of pop science documentaries, notably one which used the latest fibre-optic technology to film inside the body especially, of course inside the uterus during sex etc, as well as setting up an Institute for Sexual Research, funded by a New York publisher.

It’s a funny thing, but the more Ballard talks about sex and the sex studies and practices of his characters, the more dated the book feels, reminding you that these events happened almost 50 years ago, in a very different time and place, where simply filming sex acts between humans to appear in ‘scientific’ documentaries appeared revolutionary.

When Professor Sutherland sounds off, in one of their stage-managed conversations, telling Jim that there’s going to be more and more sex in the future, so much so that it is going to create ‘new forms of social structure’ – it sounds as dated and, in its way, as childish as Space 1999 or UFO or Joe 90 or all those other TV series for kids which predicted colonies on the moon and everyone wearing zip-up plastic suits by 1999.

Didn’t turn out like that, did it.

We learn that Sally let herself be persuaded to take part in some of Dick’s experiments, let fibre-optic cables be inserted in her vagina while she had sex with a laboratory volunteer, as well as close-ups of every erogenous zone of her body. Slowly she came to think of herself as a set of dismembered parts, eventually expecting to see huge blow-ups of her nipples or clitoris on roadside billboards or upholstering the banquettes of trendy 70s nightclubs. Thus she went to pieces, almost literally.

Peggy Gardner is the last of the set of recurring characters (what David sardonically refers to as ‘the old Shanghai firm’, p.274) which, the reader realises, structure the narrative and allow Ballard to meditate on the fate of his contemporaries.

She turns up for drinks in Shepperton, and they have a couple of pages chatting about how things have turned out. Into her mouth Ballard puts quite severe criticisms of his (Ballard’s) attitude, how he manipulated everyone around him (Dick, Sally, David) to act out his nightmares, how the exhibitions, the drugs, the weird sex and the intense stories are all part of the same indictment. He patronises her a bit, telling her how she’s always looked after her so well and she slaps him in the face, drawing blood.

Rather disappointingly, this leads to sex, described with the same clinical detachment as all the other acts of coitus, and the strange angles of thighs and vulvas and penises as all the other descriptions.

Now this chapter returns to its opening scene, with Jim sitting at a table in Summerfield Hospital playing chess with David. The entire text has been very carefully crafted and arranged as a description of both what happened at the end of the 1960s and how the Shanghai firm had managed.

One of the other patients, a deranged old lady who had been taking daffodils from all the vases in the communal area and laying them carefully in a line at the entrance to a window alcove, has a fit and turns her brimming cup of tea. This is, in a way, a key scene. Jim had observed the woman unable to reconcile the light shining off the brimming meniscus of tea in her cup with the polished glare of the hard floor. Eventually she thinks her way through the problem to the solution and upends her cup, sending tea splashing all over the table and the skirt of the woman handing it out. Who promptly gets furious, grabs the feeble old woman’s wrist and gives her such a push, she sends her collapsing onto the floor.

Ballard is up out of her seat, and goes to her protection, taking her in his arms and then lifting her off the floor, she is so thing and wasted, and taking her down the corridor to the safety of her room. As he carries her, she repeats pitifully, ‘Jesus told me to.’ The point is, if you’ve read enough Ballard, you understand her. You feel, as she did, the mental pain of these conflicting geometries (shimmering liquid v. hard tabletop) and you grasp the Einsteinian brilliance of her solution. To marry hard and soft by spilling the tea, by trying to integrate these conflicting realities.

Jim says goodbye to David, promising to be back in a fortnight and making a mental note to bring daffodils for the mad old lady, and… we understand why.

Part III – After The War

Chapter 14. Into The Daylight

As the 1970s progressed, Sally had disappeared back to America to address her drug habit and other addictions. One day, to his surprise, four years after she left (eight years after the decade’s end so, presumably, 1978), Ballard gets a call and it’s Sally, not only back in the UK, but married! with a child! and living in rural contentment in Norfolk!

Ballard drives out to see Sally, stopping off at Cambridge en route to discover it is now a land of business parks and Japanese tourists. Chez Sally he discovers her little girl, Jackie, is mentally disabled, but is touched by the way Sally is madly in love with her and, when her husband returns from work, with him too.

[Jackie] stared at her father with her trusting, fixed smile, as if she were crossing the world at a slight angle to the rest of us.

The chapter has a second theme, like a piece of classical music, which is that Sally’s husband, Edward, is an amateur archaeologist and along with friends has undertaken a programme of excavating old World War Two airplanes from the mud of Norfolk estuaries where they’ve crashed.

David turns up. He’s been released from the mental home. He’s married an Asian woman and is running an airfreight company in Brussels. The presence of these two leads to nostalgic conversations, with an autumnal feeling.

Then there is the gruesome event at the heart of the chapter. Edward and his hearty beer-drinking team of enthusiasts have hired a hoist which they use to lift their latest find clear of the river mud. It is a spitfire. But as it rises the narrator realises its cockpit glass is unshattered and unopened. The pilot is still inside. Or what’s left of him. Jim and Sally are suddenly stiff with concern as David makes his way over to it and insists on helping to open the cockpit and inspect the insides, which, as they spray cleaning water into it, reveals a rotted uniform, straps and, slowly emerging, a skull and bones.

A week or so later there is an official burial service. Jim attends along with David and is impressed that his old buddy wears his official RAF uniform and stands to attention. In a weird touch, he brings along a Korean he only half knows. Jim realises the Korean is the closest he could find to a Japanese. He needed an Asiatic to bear witness ‘to the interment of all his resentments of the past forty years.’ I found this intensely moving.

Chapter 15. The Final Programme

After a career pursuing TV fame, Dick Sutherland has been diagnosed with cancer and is dying. This gives Ballard the opportunity to put into his mouth a series of witty paradoxes and insights about modern medicine, and the treatment of cancer in particular.

But, trooper to the last, Sutherland has persuaded a TV company to make a documentary filming his last months and persuaded them to take Jim, by now a famous novelist and old pal, to be his interviewer. The idea is that Jim will go to his home, or hospital bed, and interview Dick as he declines.

As you might expect it’s a bumpy ride, with Dick and Jim initially chewing over their glory days in the 1960s, the space programme, adventures in science, but with each successive interview these reassuring totems of the past disappear and the final interview is cancelled. Jim arrives but after a brief conversation Dick dismisses him, the film crew and the outside world and shuts his bedroom door. Two weeks later Jim turns up just in time to see him being wheeled on a gurney into an ambulance, his face sucked into the oxygen mask, his body coiled with plastic tubes like the young Chinese man the boy Jim watched being garrotted to death.

Chapter 16. The Impossible Palace

Paradoxically, Dick’s death exhilarates Jim. He feels liberated, released, energised to pursue his work, It as if the whole of the past has been burned along with Dick’s body at the crematorium. In a sentence which is important for critics or fans of his work, he writes:

 By demystifying his own death he had freed me from any fears of my own. For the first time since the birth of my children I felt that I was wholly done with the past and free to construct a new world from the materials of the present and future.

So was it writing Empire of the Sun which liberated Ballard from the past and left him much more interested in writing stories about the present day? Or was it the death of this old friend which liberated him from his obsessions, set him free to write about the strangeness of the present day? Or are both blinds to something else which happened?

Anyway, in this chapter Ballard walks down to the fair on Shepperton Green. The chapter is written in the style of The Unlimited Dream Company, full of images of light, and beauty, and time suspended. Cleo Churchill, the friend of his wife’s who was such a good friend to Jim and babysat his kids on countless occasions, is with him as he goes through mementos of Dick Sutherland’s life, sent him by Dick’s sister.

This mood of sensitive elegy moves seamlessly into their holding each other, then embracing, then going up to the bedroom and slowly undressing. Ballard has, by now, perfected a peculiarly detached and clinical way of describing sex, which, nonetheless, manages to be touching and affectionate. Maybe because of the complete honesty and openness it implies between the lovers.

I held Cleo’s breasts in my hands, touching the blue veins that ran past her broad nipples, and caressed away the pink grooves left by the wiring of her brassiere. I kissed a small scar in her armpit, relic of a childhood I had never known, and ran my lips through the shoal of silver stretch marks, like seeds of time spilled across her abdomen by Ceres herself as she sowed her fields. She held my penis in her hands, rolling it gently between her palms, her fingers drawing on my scrotum. Phallic corridors receded from us, an erotic labyrinth in an impossible palace. When I kissed Cleo’s nipples a battalion of lovers bent their heads. I sat on the bed as she knelt on the carpet between my knees, her forearms resting on my thighs. She took the head of my penis in her mouth, touching the tip of my urethra with her tongue, then sank deeper to hold the shaft between her teeth, biting lightly on the swollen muscle.

They become lovers or partners or whatever the correct terminology is. Thus on the day that the documentary about Dick’s death is broadcast they decide to go outside and celebrate life by hiring a boat and cruising down the Thames to Runnymede. (Many of the chapters have this structure, of two major themes or events juxtaposed.)

They cruise as far as the Kennedy Memorial (which I have visited and photographed) and which, inevitably gives rise to reflections from Ballard, absolutely obsessed with the Kennedy assassination as his fiction is.

I thought of the role that Kennedy and his assassination had played in my own life, and how his televised images had shaped the imagination of the 1960s. Stills from the Zapruder film had seemed more poignant than a Grünewald crucifixion.

Now they are accidental bystanders of a death and a resurrection. It’s a sunny day beside the Thames and a wife is reversing their car to push the trailer for a speed boat across a narrow beach into the river so that the husband can man-handle the boat, in the water, onto the just-submerged trailer. There is a little girl in the back seat and as the wife loses control of the trailer it drags the car into the river where the tide takes it. The girl is screaming and beating on the closed windows as the car sinks under the water level. Ballard bounds forward and tries to open the back door but the car skews away from him, as the husband leaves go of the boat which drifts across the river, hitting another cruiser, while two or three men steady the car and push it back up onto the shallow beach, no sign of the girl.

When they open the back door the river water rushes out and they find the girl’s body curled up on the floor, lifeless and limp. Cleo is clutching Ballard’s shirt and crying her eyes out, when a bare-kneed, red-eyed, bearded hiker approaches along the Thames-side path (one I’ve walked many times) suddenly grasps the meaning of the scene in front of him, pushes through the crowd, takes the girl, snicks an obstruction out of her throat and pulls forward her tongue, and on one movement, slicks down his beard, covers her nose and mouth in his mouth and breathes out, takes his mouth away, and pushes her diaphragm. She chokes up the water in her lungs, coughs and splutters and her hysterical mothers clutches her, as the hiker clambers to his feet, reclaims his backpack from a nearby couple and walks on along the path while people are still coping with the sudden turnaround in events.

Who was he?

Chapter 17. Dream’s Ransom

The narrator takes part in the filming of a scene from Empire of the Sun on location in a mansion in Sunningdale, fifteen minutes drive from his long-time home in Shepperton. Many of his friends and neighbours in Shepperton have always worked as extras in the films made at the massive studios there, and now, surreally, he finds many of them playing bit parts in a scene from his own boyhood. Is this why he and Miriam chose to live there all those years ago? Did he have a premonition of how are and life would link up? He even meets a bright-eyed twelve-year-old wearing his old school uniform who steps up and brightly says: ‘Hello, I’m you’. It must be the boy Christian Bale who plays him in the Steven Spielberg film version of Empire.

Then (so many of these chapters come in two parts or themes) he and Cleo (who is obviously now his partner) fly to Hollywood to attend the premiere of the film about his boyhood. He has all kinds of mixed feelings.

‘I think the actors felt that I was the odd man out, the only one who wasn’t real. Most of them had been back to Shanghai.’
‘You could have gone with them.’
‘I know, but I hadn’t the nerve. I wasn’t ready to face everything again—I’ve spent my whole life trying to sort it out. This is the right way to go back to Shanghai, inside a film…’

They check into a hotel and drive around Hollywood which, of course, confirms all his fantasies of Americana which he has been besotted by since he was a boy. He is dazzled and bewildered by the forty-foot-high billboards advertising the film version of his own boyhood back at him.

One afternoon Cleo is out shopping when there’s a ring at the room doorbell and a sophisticated lady waltzes in. It is Olga, who was his superior and impoverished nanny all those years ago, back in Shanghai. Now she is married to a rich American ear and nose surgeon (Mr Edward R. Weinstock). She is brisk and businesslike as they review her struggle to survive in wartorn China, he takes her to lunch, back at their apartment she briskly strips him and they make love.

As at other moments in the book, and quite often at moments when he has sex with the various women, you can’t help feeling contrived, just so and pat the patterns he’s making are. It is an artful ending to the book, rounding things out, finally living out the sexual fantasies about his 17-year-old nanny when he had been a pubertal 12-year-old. And he describes it with a bit of gee-whizz Ballard style:

The film of our life rushed backwards through the projector, devouring itself as it hunted for some discarded moment that held the key to our earliest selves.

In the very last scene, a week after the premiere of Empire, Jim and Cleo make their way down to the Pacific at Venice Beach. And as they watch bronzed Californians launch a replica of Thor Heyerdahl’s papyrus ship, Ra, looking at happy people enjoying the free ocean, Jim realises he is healed.

The time of desperate stratagems was over, the car crashes and hallucinogens, the deviant sex ransacked like a library of extreme metaphors. Miriam and all the murdered dead of a world war had made their peace. The happiness I had found had been waiting for me within the modest reach of my own arms, in my children and the women I had loved, and in the friends who had made their own way through the craze years.

It is an immensely satisfying, carefully arranged and moving conclusion to what is probably his best, most wide-ranging, honest and humane book.

CONCLUSION

By the end I suspected that none of these people ever existed (except for his wife and three children, that much is documentary fact) and quite possibly none of these events ever happened (except the car crash exhibition, that much is on the public record.) Apart from those handful of facts, everything else seems just too pat and contrived and perfectly poised to have anything to do with the chaotic sequence of events known as ‘life’.

Anyway, much bigger than the artfulness of its construction, what makes it a really beautiful book, in my opinion, is the breadth of its COMPASSION.

I was in the operating theatre when my wife had our second child and Ballard’s description of assisting at the birth of his daughter is one of the most moving things I’ve read, because of the way it captures complete intimacy between husband and wife.

The portrait of the excitable young woman, Sally, and the sequence of discovering her boyfriend with someone else, then trying to drown herself off the Sussex coast, and then of Ballard rescuing her, bringing her home, bathing and dressing her and then, slowly, making love to her in the stylised way she needs, is full of complexities of compassion and feeling you don’t often read in novels. It is a kind of compromised compassion, a compassion which knows there is something self-serving in its motives but cares and loves nonetheless.

And the on-again, off-again relationship with his best friend and rival and damaged alter ego, David Hunter, this rises to several moments of deep compassion and love.

And it’s worth rereading the passages where Ballard has sex with two prostitutes, one in Canada, one in Brazil, to really process the tenderness which informs his approach. He ends up stroking the small of the back of the hooker in Canada because he discovers she is pregnant and, after their weird Ballardian clinical sex is over, he carries on being interested in her and her life and soothes and strokes her in a companionate, non-sexual way.

And when he goes to the rescue of the stricken old mad lady, Doreen, in David’s asylum, that is a kind of quintessence of compassion, helping the helpless elderly.

In other words, this book contains scenes of horror and atrocity – notably the central event of the young Chinese being garrotted – and it deliberately contains scenes of lucid and detached sexuality which some might find fetishly exciting and some might find cold and repellent…

But, for me, the enduring legacy of the book is an overwhelming feeling of love and compassion, all the more amazing for way these rare plants managed to survive and flourish in a world containing so much violence and atrocity and numbing stimulations and cheap (or expensive) thrills.


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Crash by J.G. Ballard

WARNING: This review contains written text of an extremely brutal and explicit sexual nature.

Crash is Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ book because of its combination of psychotic behaviour (the characters’ obsession with car crashes) with extraordinarily powerful pornographic writing. It depicts the sexual fetishisation of car crashes with tremendous intensity:

In these crude photographs, Vaughan had frozen my uncertain embraces as I edged my wounded body into its first sexual encounters since the accident. He had caught my hand stretching across the transmission tunnel of my wife’s sports car, the inner surface of my forearm dented by the chromium gear lever, my bruised wrist pressing against the white flank of her thigh; my still-numb mouth against Renata’s left nipple, lifting her breast from her blouse as my hair fell across the window-sill; Helen Remington sitting astride me in the passenger seat of her black saloon, skirt hitched around her waist, scarred knees pressing against the vinyl seat as my penis entered her vulva, the oblique angle of the instrument panel forming a series of blurred ellipses like globes ascending from our happy loins.

The book is packed with scenes like this, in which the two central male characters become sexually addicted to fantasies of brutal car crashes, masturbating and ejaculating over their photos and film footage of terribly car wrecks or paying prostitutes to adopt the postures of car crash victims for their semen-filled, pornographic satisfaction.

Source explanations in The Atrocity Exhibition

Why? Well, a clue is given in one of the intense, experimental texts which make up Crash’s predecessor, The Atrocity Exhibition. In it are several little speeches given by the book’s resident psychiatrist, Dr Nathan, who suggests that:

‘Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions. Talbert’s library of cheap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.’

And later the same idea is repeated:

‘Sex is now a conceptual act, it’s probably only in terms of the perversions that we can make contact with each other at all. The perversions are completely neutral, cut off from any suggestion of psychopathology – in fact, most of the ones I’ve tried are out of date. We need to invent a series of imaginary sexual perversions just to keep the activity alive.’

Nathan is suggesting that conventional sex has become so ‘vanilla’, and we humans so incapable of reaching each other during it, that only extreme perversions and pornography can nowadays prompt a response, a reaction, a genuine connection.

The Atrocity Exhibition doesn’t stop at car crashes, but suggests the erotic potential of newsreel atrocities, napalm burning Vietnamese villages, and speculates that eye witnesses to the Kennedy assassination experienced a surge in their sex lives for months afterwards. The book is saturated to overflowing with sexual imagery and feelings.

Ballard is being frank about the way that sex, sexual arousal and sexual excitement is nowhere near as easily defined or controlled as we like to think. But in Crash he is concentrating on the weird obsession people have with cars, on cars as the focal point of post-war culture.

The mystique of car crashes

Crash is obviously related to the famous exhibition Ballard put on in 1969 titled Crashed Cars, displaying three auto wrecks complete with photos of their original locations and conditions, an exhibition which scandalised right-thinking people at the time but would pass with barely a flicker today (it was fifty years go, after all).

Why stage it at all? Because there is something genuinely hypnotic and entrancing about car crashes. We stop to stare at them on the motorway or the street but, more symptomatically, our culture is full of all sorts of thrills and excitements to do with cars, from Formula One racing to stock car rallies to the American fad for demolition derbies, and thousands of movies which feature ‘thrilling’ car chases.

Crash is only really taking the idea of risk and excitement implicit in our culture’s obsession with cars to its logical, intense and irrational conclusion.

It is clear that the car crash is seen as a fertilizing rather than a destructive experience, a liberation of sexual and machine libido, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an erotic intensity impossible in any other form. (The Atrocity Exhibition)

Part of what shocked readers then and now is the calm, detached, scientific way in which Ballard describes, using only the correct biological terminology (there are no swearwords anywhere in the book), the sexual obsession of the two central male figures, their erections, the shape of their penises, the way they rub the glans against the hand or shoulder of a paid-for prostitute, and the calm way he describes arranging the prostitutes so that their ‘vents’ and ‘clefts’ are presented in stylised poses, or imagines the vaginal mucus of the film star who both men are obsessed with, Elizabeth Taylor.

Vaughan propped the cine-camera against the rim of the steering wheel. He lounged back, legs apart,one hand adjusting his heavy groin. The whiteness of his arms and chest, and the scars that marked his skin like my own, gave his body an unhealthy and metallic sheen, like the worn vinyl of the car interior. These apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials,fractured gear levers and parking-light switches. Together they described an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire.

Part of the book’s transgressive thrill comes from the way the most outlandish sexual impulses are treated in this blank, detached, factual way. ‘Have you no shame, no manners, no restraint?’ the books critics asked. No, replied Ballard.

The collision of our two cars, and the death of her husband, had become the key to a new sexuality. During the first months after his death she moved through a series of rapidly consumed affairs, as if taking the genitalia of all these men into her hands and her vagina would in some way bring her husband back to life, and that all this semen mixed within her womb would quicken the fading image of the dead man within her mind.

See – no swearwords, just a documentary factuality. But of a subject (‘all this semen mixed within her womb’) that is usually discussed and described in polite circumlocutions (‘she had several boyfriends after her husband died’). It is this incredibly blunt reduction of all aspects of relationships to penises and vulvas which is, I think, the most calculatingly offensive aspect of the book.

The plot – short version

The plot is fairly straightforward: The married narrator is a professional producer of TV commercials. He has a car crash and as a result finds his (already rampant) sexuality being warped into re-enacting or remembering the crash, not least with the woman survivor of the car he crashed into, Dr Helen Remington. He is spied on and then meets Dr Robert Vaughan, a former TV presenter and a man obsessed with the sexual fetishisation of car crashes. He meets Vaughan’s small circle of fellow scarred crash survivors, and both the narrator and his wife find themselves drawn into the sexual fetishisation of car crashes in its most intense form, exploring the outer limits of perverse sexuality, before the book ends with Vaughan’s failed attempt to crash his car into the limousine of Elizabeth Taylor, the Hollywood film star who is in London to make a film.

The plot – long version

The (initially unnamed) first-person male narrator is a 4-year-old producer of television commercials (p.80) and lives near the film studios in Shepperton, west of London. He has a wife named Catherine and is having an affair with his secretary, Renata. One day he is involved in a car crash, his tyre blows out, propelling his car across the central reservation into the path of an ongoing car and they collide head-on. The male driver of the other car is thrown clean through the windscreen and bleeds to death all over the narrator, the man’s stunned wife staring into his eyes.

Narrator and wife – now widow – are taken to Ashford hospital where they both slowly recuperate and notice a burly doctor prowling around. Through a series of events the narrator finds himself bumping into the crash victim, whose name is Dr Helen Remington.

First a note that his sex life with his wife was already intensely erotic. She has affairs with fellow pilots or businessmen, knowing about his affair with Renata. During their marital sex, together they describe and/or re-enact Catherine’s latest sexual adventure and, at the moment of climax, she reveals her latest lover’s name.

The narrator drives Renata to the location of the crash, parks on the hard shoulder, and proceeds to have sex with the reluctant woman. A car is parked not far behind them and he notices a man with a camera. Later he’ll find out this was Vaughan voyeuristically photographing him.

A few days later, having dropped his wife at her work, the narrator picks up one of the hookers who hang round London airport and drives her to the top of Northolt multi-story car park to have sex. She is giving him a blowjob when a flashbulb goes off. Detaching himself and getting out, the narrator follows the photographer back to his car and realises a) it is the same man he saw prowling in Ashford hospital and parked behind him on the hard shoulder b) it is Dr Robert Vaughan, former computer scientist with a glamorous career as a TV presenter (a new type of crossover figure in the late 1960s and 70s). Vaughan refers to the narrator as ‘Ballard’. Aha. It is one of those kinds of novels, the kind where the narrator has the same name as the author. Not very often, though, so I’ll continue to refer to him as ‘the narrator’ since this is how he comes over in the text.

A week or so later, Ballard goes to the Northolt police pound to find his wrecked car, he finds Helen there. They drift into conversation and, in an electrifying scene, he offers to drive her home and they find themselves driving towards the location of the crash. The narrator becomes carried away by hyper-sexual fantasies

I followed the queue of cars, already thinking of how she would behave during sexual intercourse. I tried to visualize her broad mouth around her husband’s penis, sharp fingers between his buttocks searching out his prostate.

The narrator surreptitiously rubs the glans of his penis against the steering wheel until he ejaculates. He is quite shaken up; Helen seems to notice, and she puts his hand on her shoulder and guides him to a quiet side street, where she tells him about her job in the immigration department of the airport, while the narrator trembles with complicated lusts. He drops her home.

A week after the coroner’s inquest, the narrator sees Helen waiting at a bus stop at one of the airport terminals and offers her a lift. Once again they ascend the motorway and head towards the crash site. She presses against his shoulder. Wordlessly he comes off the motorway and drives to a deserted service road among the reservoirs. Here they have shatteringly erotic sex, mutual masturbation followed by her mounting him, all parts of their bodies in contact with the complicated mouldings, plastic and glass of the car’s interior.

The plastic laminates around me, the colour of washed anthracite, were the same tones as her pubic hairs parted at the vestibule of her vulva. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, semen and engine coolant.

Over the next few weeks they have sex in his car routinely, but discover they can’t achieve it at her house: he can’t get an erection, she gets irritable and snappy.

While his wife is away at some conference the narrator takes Helen to a stock car rally – his jilted secretary gave him two tickets as an ironic gesture. One of the contestants is a wrecked-looking man with a ponytail of white hair who we learn is named Seagrave, a former stunt driver at Shepperton studios. He is encouraged in taking part by none other than the sinister Dr Vaughan.

When the stunt Seagrave is involved in goes wrong, Vaughan asks Helen to accompany him as he drives Seagrave to the nearest hospital, with the narrator following in his car. Once at the hospital, Helen takes Seagrave in, while the narrator gets into the passenger seat of Vaughan’s car. It is here, during their long wait, that the narrator first becomes sexually attracted to Vaughan and his (already hyper-active sexual imagination) fantasises about holding the bigger man’s penis, about masturbating him, or being entered by him, and almost sees the globules of the big man’s sperm spurting across the car dashboard. (It is like this all the way through.)

When Seagrave is released, Vaughan takes him, Helen and the narrator back to Seagrave’s house. Here they meet his thin nervy 30-year-old wife Vera, his 2-year-old son, and two friends, a TV producer who worked with Vaughan early in his career and a 30 year-old social worker named Gabrielle who has metal braces on her arms and back from a severe crash. While they sit on Seagrave’s sofa in his suburban house, Vaughan takes Ballard out to the back where he shows him his ‘project’, which is a big album of photos showing every stage of Gabrielle’s life from the crash, which he attended and helped at, through every stage of her recovery. Entranced, the narrator realises the crash blessed her with an entire new sexuality.

This agreeable young woman, with her pleasant sexual dreams, had been reborn within the breaking contours of her crushed sports car. Three months later, sitting beside her physiotherapy instructor in her new invalid car, she held the chromium treadles in her strong fingers as if they were extensions of her clitoris. Her knowing eyes seemed well aware that the space between her crippled legs was constantly within the gaze of this muscled young man. His eyes roved among the damp moor of her pubis as she moved the gear lever through its cage. The crushed body of the sports car had turned her into a creature of free and perverse sexuality, releasing within its twisted bulkheads and leaking engine coolant all the deviant possibilities of her sex.

Then Vaughan shows the narrator the sequence of photos he’s taken of him, in the car crash, in hospital, in cars having sex with Renata and then Helen. The narrator isn’t offended or upset, he’s fascinated. then Vaughan shows him the next stage of the project: photos of the movie star Elizabeth Taylor, who is currently in London, staying at the Hilton Hotel while she makes a movie at Shepperton Studios. Vaughan asks if the narrator knows her. Well, obviously not. But she is making a film at Shepperton and the narrator has an office there to produce commercials.

A few days later the narrator is at the studio, watching Liz Taylor herself be made up for the next scene of her film which is, eerily, spookily and unsurprisingly- a car crash. not only that, but Seagrave is being made up as Elizabeth Taylor in order to be her stunt double. There’s a kerfuffle at the door of the studio and the narrator sees Vaughan fighting off a security camera who is trying to take Vaughan’s camera away. Vaughan is a big man and retains it. He intends to photograph the scene.

The scene cuts to the narrator in bed with his wife. She is a very dirty lady, they are perfectly suited, as their marital sex reaches a climax, she asks the narrator insistently about Vaughan – has he seen Vaughan’s penis, how big is it, what shape is it, has he sucked his penis, would he like to, what flavour is his semen – and so on, until they both have thunderous orgasms.

In The Atrocity Exhibition some of the characters speculate about the invention or advent of a ‘new sexuality’. I realise that in Crash all the characters are living a new sexuality, and not just the men, not at all:

Gabrielle ‘The crushed body of the sports car had turned her into a creature of free and perverse sexuality’

Catherine ‘That Catherine should choose Vaughan, whose manic style summed up everything she found most unnerving, struck me as perfectly logical. The multiple car-crash we had seen had sprung the same traps in her mind as in mine.’

Helen ‘The collision of our two cars, and the death of her husband, had become the key to a new sexuality… Only in the car could she reach her orgasm.’

Helen has got a new job at the Road Research Laboratory. She takes the narrator along to witness one of those staged car crashes where the car is full of text crash dummy mannequins. Inevitably, Vaughan shows up, with his camera, and surreptitiously masturbates as the crash is carefully and elaborately staged by the RRL technicians, and Ballard gives a minutely detailed, moment-by-moment description of the test car crash, as filmed in slow motion.

Shavings of fibreglass from [the test motorbike rider’s] face and shoulders speckled the glass around the test car like silver snow, a death confetti.

The 30 or so spectators, including the Minister’s wife, stand around in silence, dumbfounded. It is like a religious ceremony. The narrator glances across and sees the wet patch at Vaughan’s crotch. Then Vaughan strolls over to the smashed car, wrenches open the front door and wedges onto the seat next to the mangled mannequin. Later he drives the narrator home and shows him the questionnaires he’s been getting his ‘friends’ and contacts to fill out, asking which politicians or celebrities they would like to see in car crashes; what sort of crashes they would be; what kind of wounds the celebrities would receive. The answers amount to an encyclopedia of physical atrocities which Ballard takes to the limit and beyond, as the entire book is intended to.

As Vaughan turned the car into a filling station courtyard the scarlet light from the neon sign over the portico flared across these grainy photographs of appalling injuries : the breasts of teenage girls deformed by instrument binnacles, the partial mammoplasties of elderly housewives carried out by the chromium louvres of windshield assemblies, nipples sectioned by manufacturers’ dashboard medallions; injuries to male and female genitalia caused by steering wheel shrouds, windshields during ejection, crushed door pillars, seat springs and handbrake units, cassette player instrument toggles. A succession of photographs of mutilated penises, sectioned vulvas and crushed testicles passed through the flaring light…

They pull over at a motorway services where the narrator buys a couple of bottles of wine, Vaughan rolls some joints and they pick up a couple of whores. The blonde sits in front next to the narrator as he drives, but in the back seat Vaughan subjects the dark-haired, slim-hipped one to extraordinary humiliations, moving and arranging her body into the postures of crash victims, exploring her cleft and orifices with scientific detachment, continually changing their positions. As he drives, the narrator realises he can control the sexual junctions taking place in the back by varying his speed, overtaking, accelerating, or going down exit ramps. Vaughan climaxes, they drive back to the services and dump the girls.

Over the next few days Vaughan bombards requests to get access to the actress and hand her his questionnaire. He is mad. In the narrator’s office he feverishly draws in imaginary car crash wounds on a publicity photo of Elizabeth Taylor while hitting his penis in a karate chop gesture, working himself towards orgasm, till the narrator stops him, all too aware of how aroused he is by Vaughan’s arousal. The narrator is fantasising almost continually about performing fellatio on Vaughan or being sodomised by him.

A few days later the narrator is driving Vaughan and Catherine back from the airport into central London. They are forced to slow down by the emergency services surrounding a three-car pile-up. The postures of the victims are graphically described as well as the firemen’s efforts to cut them out of the wreckage. They park on the hard shoulder a hundred yards further along, and Vaughan leaps out with his camera. A footbridge over the motorway is packed with sightseers gawping at the crash. The narrator notes the sexualised atmosphere, with the gawpers eventually leaving, arms round their partners.

On the way back into London the narrator pulls over into a service station and pays to go through the car wash repeatedly, while Vaughan has sex with his wife in the back seat, arranging their bodies in a series of stylised postures. Back in their apartment, the narrator dabs the wounds and bruises on her body with the tip of his penis.

Increasingly in thrall to Vaughan, the narrator becomes his unofficial chauffeur as they first steal cars, then borrow them using passkeys obtained from Seagrave’s wife for cars parked at the airport, and drive round looking for crashes or picking up whores or just available girls who Vaughan can position and abuse in innumerable poses in the back seat.

It’s during this period that they arrive at a devastating crash scene in order for Vaughan to a) get his camera and flash bulbs and take countless photos of the woman victim as she lies mangled across the front seats b) then cradle her head as she bleeds out into her white blouse and c) soon afterwards pick up a cheap prostitute and, in the back of his and the narrator’s car, makes her adopt the posture of the dying woman, examining her from all angles, and stylising her position before ejaculating over her.

They arrive at another crash to find the car of a middle-aged dentist has rolled over and off the road into a suburban garden. Waiting till the police and other services have quite left, Vaughan jumps down into the garden, takes his penis out and rubs it along various surfaces of the car. Finding a piece of chalk the police had used, he draws an outline of his penis against the paintwork. Pleased, he draws a succession of penis outlines all over the car and across the car’s seats and dashboard.

Vaughan, Gabrielle and the narrator visit the Motor Show at Earl’s Court. Showroom salesmen are embarrassed by Gabrielle’s extensive wounds and braces. Later, the narrator has sex with Gabrielle in her car, both of them bored with the conventional motions, until she starts kissing and sucking his scars, and he pushes his erect penis into the scarred grooves and clefts of her body caused by her crash. At which point they both become very aroused, and go on to have sex in her car over the following weeks.

The final chapters describe Vaughan’s increasing restless frustration. It’s a shock to both of them when they hear on the police radio of a crash involving Vaughan’s muse, Elizabeth Taylor. When they get to the scene they realise that – garishly and gruesomely and ironically – it is the raddled old stuntman, Seagrave, wearing the Elizabeth Taylor he’s been paid to wear when he was her body double in the staged car crash in the film she is still making at Shepperton.

Seagrave was high on LSD and drive head-on into the car of a faded TV presenter, and is dead, the present badly injured, and Vaughan follows the stretcher bearers carrying her to the ambulance (only to be turned away by the police who are coming to know Vaughan and his suspicious behaviour). Later he picks up a prostitute and rams his erect penis down her throat for ten minutes straight, making her gag and then vomit.

As the narrator accompanies Vaughan on their midnight outings to film or photograph crash scenes, or pick up prostitutes to arrange in ever more ghoulish postures of crash victims, the narrator realises his is increasingly attracted to Vaughan’s own sexuality, letting his homosexual tendencies become evermore obvious until, as he watches Vaughan copulating with prostitutes in the back seat of their car, he imagines it is he himself who is submitting to Vaughan’s oily, scarred hands and receiving his swollen penis in his anus or mouth.

The ante-penultimate chapter (21) is devoted to an extraordinarily vivid description of an acid trip, Vaughan giving the narrator a sugar cube dipped in acid as they set off driving and the drug kicking in as the narrator drives along the motorway, the text becoming carefully more visionary to reflect the gathering hallucinations.

Despite being tempted to drive into the oncoming traffic they manage to negotiate their way to a quiet slip road where, tripping off their faces, the narrator finally gets his long-held wish and has sex with Vaughan, unbuttoning him and kicking and kissing all his scars, before sucking his penis and then sodomising him and ejaculating in his anus, before the two very odd men return to slumping half naked in the front seats of their parked car, watching the light pour in glory from the crashed cars lying in the wrecker’s yard they’ve stopped next to.

Chapter 22 is brief and describes the narrator coming down from his acid trip, the world slowly returning to its banal grey, as he staggers from Vaughan’s heavy American Lincoln car and takes refuge in a wreck at the entrance to the wrecker’s yard. After an hour or so he stretches and stands up, and is walking back when he hears the roar of an engine and the Lincoln comes racing out from the underpass and tries to kill him, smashing into the side of the wrecked car and tearing down a stretch of the yard’s wooden fence, before roaring off along the slip road.

In chapter 23 it has taken the narrator some days to come down from his acid trip, and he is still having flashbacks and feeling shaken, not only by the intensity of the hallucinations, but by the memory of Vaughan suddenly, aggressively gunning the engine of the car and heading straight for him, trying to run him down.

The affair with Helen seems to have ceased and now he is recovering at the apartment and is looked after by Catherine who, having had sex with Vaughan, understands his addiction. They go out together in his car looking for the damaged archangel of the motorways, the concrete constructions described with the errant luminosity of the acid aftershocks.

They bump into Seagrave’s widow, Vera, at a filling station. She tells them the police are now definitely after Vaughan after an American serviceman was run over at Northolt. The narrator begins to explain that it’s not people but technology that stimulates Vaughan, but Vera cuts him short by telling him she was in the car with Vaughan. Ah. So he’s gone postal, crossed the line, achieved critical mass. Not sleeping or eating, haggard and grim-faced, Vaughan really has become the psychotic killer of the highways.

He is laying in wait for them. Catherine tells the narrator Vaughan followed her home from work at the airport, tailing her. The narrator follows Catherine as protection and next day takes part in a high-speed chase as Vaughan ram up alongside her, fades in the slow lane, then makes another approach and scrapes right alongside Catherine’s right car, before pulling away and disappearing down an exit ramp.

Day after day Vaughan follows Catherine along the expressways and airport perimeter roads. His old heavy Lincoln car is becoming a battered wreck, with dented fenders and wings, quarter windows smashed out, paintwork damaged and bent. The narrator doesn’t warn his wife about Vaughan’s intentions, but then he hardly needs to. Both of them have entered the end-zone, hypnotised by the high speed death-game they’re playing which is, of course, inextricably interfused with a panoply of sex games.

Aware of this coming collision, Catherine had entered an entranced room within her mind. Passively, she allowed me to move her limbs into the positions of unexplored sex acts.

After sex, in the quiet of the night, the narrator hears a heavy car gunning outside. He waits, dresses and goes down. There is Vaughan’s Lincoln, in all its battered dishevelled glory. Inside is a tartan blanket and empty food tins, Vaughan has evidently been living in it, on the run from the police. Catherine appears, she noticed his absence. As they stand beside the wrecked auto in the midnight silence, they hear the roar of another engine and walk back towards the ramp up out of the underground garage of the high rise where they live. Suddenly the narrator’s car appears, driven by Vaughan at manic speed. Before they have chance to cry out, the silver car has swerved round them and off into the night.

Ten days pass and the Lincoln slowly dies, its tyres deflating, rain and leaves getting in through the smashed windows, then a gang of youths completing the decay with a thorough trashing.

The short final chapter returns us to the start. Ballard’s stories are often book-ended like this, opening with a macabre scene and then going back to tell us how we ended up here. This is the structure of Crash. It opens with the narrator arriving at the scene of Vaughan’s final crash, the one in which he tried to collide with the chauffeur-driven limousine of movie star Elizabeth Taylor but missed, sailing through the safety barriers of a flyover and landing into the roof of a passing coach full of tourists. Vaughan is killed outright. Many of the tourists are killed or horribly maimed.

Now the narrator watches the white-faced film star, Liz Taylor, who the entire story has, in a sense, been about, standing by her stationary limo and being comforted by the chauffeur.

As well as the police and ambulance and helicopters fluttering overhead, a huge crowd has been drawn by (untrue) radio reports of the actress’s death and Ballard deploys his hallucinatory skills to great effect to describe the scene as a great stage set.

On the roofs of the police cars the warning lights revolved, beckoning more and more passers-by to the accident site, across the recreation grounds from the high-rise apartment blocks in Northolt, from the all-night supermarkets on Western Avenue, from the lines of traffic moving past the flyover. Lit by the arc-lights below, the deck of the flyover formed a proscenium arch visible for miles above the surrounding traffic. Across the deserted side-streets and pedestrian precincts, the concourses of the silent airport, the spectators moved towards this huge stage, drawn there by the logic and beauty of Vaughan’s death

The final apotheosis of the car crash as media event and public spectacle, liberating a multitude of latent sexual forces, attracting hundreds of sightseers, they know not why, and opening previous unknown doors in their minds.

The Epilogue describes the narrator and Catherine visiting the police pound, the one where he began his affair with Dr Remington, now in search of the wreckage of the car Vaughan stole and died in. They cram themselves into the wrecked back compartment and, inevitably, conduct a small sex act, she sitting astride him to ‘draw off a small spurt of semen after a short throe’. Then they walk among the wrecked cars.

Headlights are turned on, blinding them. Walking round to the car they find it occupied by Gabrielle, the car-crash cripple and Dr Remington. Ah. They are now a lesbian item. They reverse away and are gone. a) They were paying homage to Vaughan’s wrecked car and celebrating his legacy b) Ballard was handily informing us how their story ended up, the narrator pleased that Dr Remington’s explorations of sexual perversity are continuing.

The narrator realises he had cupped his hand under Catherine’s vulva after their sex to catch his oozing semen. Now, in the final scene of the book, they stroll among the wrecked cars and the narrator uses his semen to bless and anoint the instrument panels and steering wheels and handbrakes and all the other implements of pain and wounding and maiming which a car’s passenger compartment contains. It so perfectly conveys the jewelled perversity of the book that it’s worth quoting at length.

When they had gone, Helen’s arm on Gabrielle’s shoulder as she reversed away, Catherine and I moved among the cars. I found that I was still carrying the semen in my hand. Reaching through the fractured windshields and passenger windows around me, I marked my semen on the oily instrument panels and binnacles, touching these wound areas at their most deformed points.

We stopped at my own car, the remains of its passenger compartment sleek with Vaughan’s blood and mucilage. The instrument panel was covered with a black apron of human tissue, as if the blood had been sprayed on with a paint gun. With the semen in my hands I marked the crushed controls and instrument dials, defining for the last time the contours of Vaughan’s presence on the seats. The imprint of his buttocks seemed to hover among the creases of these deformed seats. I spread my semen over the seat, and then marked the sharp barb of the steering column, a bloodied lance rising from the deformed instrument panel.

Catherine and I stood back, watching these faint points of liquid glisten in the darkness, the first constellation in the new zodiac of our minds. I held Catherine’s arm around my waist as we wandered among the derelict cars, pressing her fingers against the muscles of my stomach wall. Already I knew that I was designing the elements of my own car-crash.

Stylised gestures, junctions and angles

Rereading the book I was taken by storm by the intensity of the sexual feelings and fantasies described by the narrator.

But also by another major thread, which is harder to describe and also a lot less sexy and so less grabby and impactful. And this is that, underlying the sexualisation of car crashes there is a kind of deeper level of weirdness, which is the basic, foundational insight – perception – hallucination, call it what you will, whereby Ballard identifies the geometry, the angles and abstract shapes and angles, underlying human bodies, human gestures and human behaviour.

In The Atrocity Exhibition Ballard mentions the Vorticists, the short-lived English avant-garde art movement which flourished just before the Great War. As the Tate website puts it:

Vorticist painting combined cubist fragmentation of reality with hard-edged imagery derived from the machine and the urban environment.

Add intense sexuality to the hard-edged imagery and you have Ballard:

The same unseen sexuality hovered over the queues of passengers moving through airport terminals, the junctions of their barely concealed genitalia and the engine nacelles of giant aircraft…

The same conjunctions, all the more terrifying when they seemed to evoke the underlying elements of character, I saw in the photographs of facial injuries. These wounds were illuminated like medieval manuscripts with the inset details of instrument trim and horn bosses, rear-view mirrors and dashboard dials. The face of a man whose nose had been crushed lay side by side with a chromium model-year emblem. A young coloured woman with sightless eyes lay on a hospital couch, a rear-view mirror inset beside her, its glassy stare replacing her own vision.

If the Vorticists (and the Futurists and other Modernist painters) saw the machine beneath the skin of the human organism, Ballard sees the machine beneath the skin – and then sees the machine and the human having sex.

As I explored her body, feeling my way among the braces and straps of her underwear, the unfamiliar planes of her hips and legs steered me into unique culs-de-sac, strange declensions of skin and musculature. Each of her deformities became a potent metaphor for the excitements of a new violence. Her body, with its angular contours, its unexpected junctions of mucous membrane and hairline, detrusor muscle and erectile tissue, was a ripening anthology of perverse possibilities.

A violent world sensationalised but also sanitised by mass media

There’s another thread running through the book, too, which is the sensationalising of atrocity by the newly available mass media i.e. television and photojournalism magazines.

Commentators in Ballard’s day were paying a lot of attention to the power of this new mass media, ‘new’ mainly referring to the newish technology of television, which was becoming more and more widespread.

It was only a few years since the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan had published his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, in 1964, which introduced the phrase: “The medium is the message”. The imaginative dominance of television was new, and it was taking place at the same time as an explosion in the uncensored coverage of war and atrocity, the mid-60s seeing the burnt corpses of Vietnam brought into everyone’s living room on the nightly news.

To many people, such as McLuhan, it seemed as if the visceral power of TV was introducing a new era in human consciousness and I think it’s important, for a sympathetic reading of the book, to grasp the novelty and power of these new insights about this popular new medium – and then to realise that Ballard was giving them visceral expression, taking to a straight-faced extreme the psychological damage which worried lots of contemporaries.

Here is the narrator’s wife visiting him in hospital after the crash:

Catherine watched me trying to catch my breath. I took her left hand and pressed it to my sternum. In her sophisticated eyes I was already becoming a kind of emotional cassette, taking my place with all those scenes of pain and violence that illuminated the margins of our lives – television newsreels of wars and student riots, natural disasters and police brutality which we vaguely watched on the colour TV set in our bedroom as we masturbated each other. This violence experienced at so many removes had become intimately associated with our sex acts. The beatings and burnings married in our minds with the delicious tremors of our erectile tissues, the spilt blood of students with the genital fluids that irrigated our fingers and mouths. Even my own pain as I lay in the hospital bed, while Catherine steered the glass urinal between my legs, painted fingernails pricking my penis, even the vagal flushes that seized at my chest seemed extensions of that real world of violence calmed and tamed within our television programmes and the pages of news magazines

So it’s not just a book about car crashes and sex: it’s a wider investigation or hallucination about the impact of extremely violent images being served up to quite ordinary citizens day after day after day in newspapers and on TV, and an exploration of the numbing, desensitising, and then disturbing impact this ultimately has on its consumers.

Here is the narrator, who has just driven his secretary to the site of that first crash and parked on the hard shoulder and finds himself in a psychotic state, linking: a) an extreme terminology describing sex and her body with b) the traumatic experience of the crash – all melded with c) the terrible images of human suffering which are now routinely packaged and promoted by the mass media. It makes for a searing combination:

I moved my hand along her thigh. Her vulva was a wet flower. An airline coach passed, the passengers bound for Stuttgart or Milan peering down at us. Renata buttoned her coat and took a copy of Paris-Match from the dashboard shelf. She turned the pages, glancing at the photographs of famine victims in the Philippines. This immersion in parallel themes of violence was a protective decoy. Her serious student’s eyes barely paused at the photograph of a swollen corpse that filled a complete page. This coda of death and mutilation passed below her precise fingers as I stared at the road junction where, fifty yards from the car in which I now sat, I had killed another man.

Car crashes and sex, yes: but also, between the lines, an indictment of the cynicism and exploitativeness of the high-minded magazines and TV programmes which distributed images of atrocity for profit.

If you need novels to have ‘themes’, then it is not hard to extract some weighty and still-very-relevant themes and ideas from this, at first glance, deliberately obscene and provocative novel.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

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

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

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

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressedeep the population suppressed

The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard (1970)

WARNING: This review contains quotations which are extremely brutal and/or sexually explicit.

Fingers fretting at the key in her pocket, she watched Travers search through the montage photographs which the volunteers had assembled during anaesthesia. Disquieting diorama of pain and mutilation: strange sexual wounds, imaginary Vietnam atrocities, the deformed mouth of Jacqueline Kennedy. (p.68)

The fact that American edition of the book was titled Love and Napalm gives you fair warning of what to expect.

The Atrocity Exhibition is only a short book, 110 pages in the Granada paperback edition I’ve got, and yet it opens up wide, jagged horizons and makes a tremendous impact because of its format.

The human organism is an atrocity exhibition at which he is an unwilling spectator. (p.13)

Experiments and collage

Ballard was keenly interested in experimental fiction and art, an interest which reached its peak in the late-1960s. As early as the late 1950s he’d created a series of collages assembled from texts cut out of scientific magazines. In 1967 he began a series of what came to be called ‘Advertiser’s Announcements’, being surreal or collagist parodies of traditional adverts. And we know that Ballard originally wanted The Atrocity Exhibition to be a book of collage illustrations.

I originally wanted a large-format book, printed by photo-offset, in which I would produce the artwork – a lot of collages, material taken from medical documents and medical photographs, crashing cars and all that sort of iconography.

In the event this proved impractical and Ballard ended up creating a kind of verbal equivalent of collage from a sequence of stand-alone prose pieces. These were originally published as stand-alone ‘stories’ in various art and sci fi magazines.

The final text of The Atrocity Exhibition is divided into 15 of these pieces or stories or texts, and then each of these is sub-divided into very short sections, often only a paragraph long. Each paragraph has a title of its own, in bold. The result is to make the book a highly fragmented read and certainly not a ‘novel’ with a consistent linear narrative in any traditional sense. Here’s a typical paragraph, or fragment, or angle.

Auto-erotic. As he rested in Catherine Austin’s bedroom, Talbot listened to the helicopters flying along the motorway from the airport. Symbols in a machine apocalypse, they seeded the cores of unknown memories in the furniture of the apartment, the gestures of unspoken affections. He lowered his eyes from the window. Catherine Austin sat on the bed beside him. Her naked body was held forward like a bizarre exhibit, its anatomy a junction of sterile cleft and flaccid mons. He placed his palm against the mud-coloured areola of her left nipple. The concrete landscape of underpass and overpass mediated a more real presence, the geometry of a neural interval, the identity latent within his own musculature.

1. You immediately see the intense but detached pornography of the female body, which never uses swearwords but refers to intercourse and all aspects of sexuality by their strict scientific names, ‘sterile cleft and flaccid mons’.

2. And you immediately see how the sex is intimately and intricately interwoven with equally precise descriptions of architecture and modern transport machines – helicopters flying over the motorway from the airport, a concrete landscape of overpasses and underpasses.

3. And beneath it all, initially obscured by the novelty of the clinical sexuality and the obsessed concrete-mania, lies the characteristic Ballard exorbitance, the Edgar Allen Poe hysteria ‘mediated’, as he would put it, through the detachment of the science journalist, summarising his perceptions as ‘symbols in a machine apocalypse’.

And yet there is no apocalypse. A few cars crash, one helicopter crashes and burns (I think), but there’s nothing like an ‘apocalypse’. The apocalypse – the extremity of all the situations – is all in the mind – of the cipher-characters and, ultimately, of Ballard himself.

The chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition

Here’s a list of the fifteen ‘chapters’/stories and the magazines they were first published in, and dates of first publication. You can see how the composition of the pieces stretched over three years from spring 1966 to late 1969 i.e. was a relatively slow and scattered process.

  1. The Atrocity Exhibition (New Worlds, Vol. 50, # 166, September 1966, excerpt)
  2. The University of Death (Transatlantic Review, No. 29, London, Summer 1968)
  3. The Assassination Weapon (New Worlds, Vol. 50, # 161, April 1966)
  4. You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe (Ambit # 27, Spring 1966)
  5. Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown (New Worlds July 1967, excerpt)
  6. The Great American Nude (Ambit # 36 Summer 1968)
  7. The Summer Cannibals (New Worlds # 186 January 1969)
  8. Tolerances of the Human Face (Encounter Vol. 33, No. 3, September 1969)
  9. You and Me and the Continuum (Impulse, Vol. 1, No. 1, March 1966) FIRST
  10. Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy (Ambit # 31, Spring 1967 [the 26 paragraph titles are in alphabetical order])
  11. Love and Napalm (Export USA Circuit #6, June 1968)
  12. Crash! (ICA-Eventsheet February 1969, excerpt) LAST
  13. The Generations of America (New Worlds # 183, October 1968)
  14. Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan (Brighton: Unicorn Bookshop, 1968)
  15. The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race (Ambit # 29, Autumn 1966)

Condensed novels

In one interview Ballard described the chapters or stories as each forming an individual, ‘condensed’ novel.

They’re certainly condensed in the sense that, as you read them, it feels as if lots of the action and description and linking passages which would create an ordinary ‘story’ have been surgically removed. Instead the paragraphs jump between isolated moments or scenes, between characters, between settings, so that it’s often difficult to see how they’re at all related, apart from featuring the same names. I’m not sure I really followed the ‘narrative’ of any of them.

And the prose style is just as ‘condensed’. Although it’s only 110 pages long, The Atrocity Exhibition is a chewy read because every single sentence feels packed with meaning and significance. There’s no filler or run-of-the-mill description or dialogue. It makes you realise how slack the texture of most normal novels is.

The Geometry of Her Face. In the perspectives of the plaza, the junctions of the underpass and embankment, Talbot at last recognized a modulus that could be multiplied into the landscape of his consciousness. The descending triangle of the plaza was repeated in the facial geometry of the young woman. The diagram of her bones formed a key to his own postures and musculature, and to the scenario that had preoccupied him at the Institute. He began to prepare for departure. The pilot and the young woman now deferred to him. The fans of the helicopter turned in the dark air, casting elongated ciphers on the dying concrete.

Threads and themes

So the book consists of fifteen short (7, 8 or 9 page) sections, themselves sharply cut up into 20 or 30 fragments or perspectives which superficially justifies the term ‘condensed novels’.

But actually, the term is quite misleading because the sections are not as free-standing as it implies. In fact there are clear, indeed dominating, threads, themes, images and ideas which link almost all the chapters and make the assembly of the texts together much bigger than just the sum of a bunch of disparate parts.

For a start the same ‘characters’ recur in almost all of them – Dr Nathan the psychiatrist, Catherine Austen a mature love object and Karen Novotnik, a younger woman.

The first three or four sections all feature a central male protagonist who leads the action and the other characters comment on although, in an approach which I enjoyed, this character’s name changes from chapter to chapter – from Travis to Talbot to Tallis and so on – and in each incarnation he’s not quite the same person, as if reality shifts subtly in each story, or as if each avatar each one represents an alternative possible reality. This would explain why the young woman Karen Novotnik appears to die not once but several times, each time in a different scenario.

Celebration. For Talbot the explosive collision of the two cars was a celebration of the unity of their soft geometries, the unique creation of the pudenda of Ralph Nader. The dismembered bodies of Karen Novotny and himself moved across the morning landscape, re-created in a hundred crashing cars, in the perspectives of a thousand concrete embankments, in the sexual postures of a million lovers.

As well as these recurring names, the texts are held together by their obsessive circling round the same handful of images, ideas and names. In fact, the way that the central male figure keeps reappearing under different names made me realise that without much difficulty you could say that the characters aren’t carrying the plot, the obsessions are.

So that the book can really be seen as about the circulation, meeting, mingling, parting and interaction of certain obsessive ideas, images and phrases. It’s as if the obsessions are the real, rounded, multi-dimensional entities, the ones we get to know in detail, who feature in various adventures and permutations, while the so-called human ‘characters’ are just vectors or mediums through which the idées fixes are channelled.

Over and over, the same images, situations, ideas and phrases recur with a claustrophobic, obsessive repetition. Dominant are images of death, war, car crashes, apocalypse. They include:

  • World War III
  • the atom bomb and atomic test sites
  • cars and car crashes and the wounds car crashes create in soft human bodies
  • helicopters flying ominously overhead, Vietnam-style
  • utterly impersonal sexual congress conceived as a form of geometric investigation
  • images over-familiar film stars such as Elizabeth Taylor or Brigitte Bardot
  • newsreel footage of war atrocities, from Auschwitz to Vietnam via Biafra and the Congo
  • the Kennedy assassination (one character is described as obsessively trying to recreate the Kennedy assassination ‘in a way that makes sense’)
  • concrete motorways and multi-storey car parks

Each chapter contains a specific mix of these ingredients, but the same overall list of ingredients recurs across all 15, rotating in ever-changing combinations like a kaleidoscope.

Chapter one – The Atrocity Exhibition

Thus chapter one features characters named Travis, his wife Margaret Travis, Catherine Austen who he’s having an affair with, his psychiatrist Dr Nathan who is analysing Travis’s obsession with creating a kind of one-man, psychological World War III, and Captain Webster who is having an affair with Margaret.

Travis is collecting ‘terminal documents’ (just like Kaldren in the short story The Voices of Time). Travis dreams of starting World War III, if only in his head (‘For us, perhaps, World War III is now little more than a sinister pop art display…’). These terminal documents appear pleasingly random and in a note Ballard tells us they were the result of free association:

  1. A spectrohelion of the sun
  2. front elevation of balcony units, Hilton Hotel, London
  3. transverse section through a pre-Cambrian trilobite
  4. ‘chronograms’ by E.J. Marey
  5. photograph taken at noon 7 August 1945 in the Qattara Depression Egypt
  6. a reproduction of Max Ernst’s Garden Airplane Traps
  7. fusing sequences for ‘Little Boy’ and ‘Fat Boy’, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atom bombs

They’re actually quite a good cross-section of JG’s obsessions: the atom bomb, the alienating effect of modernist architecture, deep geological time (which Ballard had painted as returning to dominate the modern world with its dinosaurs and tropical swamps in The Drowned World or the short story Now Awakes The Sea), a Surrealist painting, the obsession with time indicated by the fictional ‘chronographs’.

And hotels, hotels are classic locations for alienation and ennui for Ballard, if they’re abandoned in one of his dystopian futures, surrounded by drained swimming pools, all the better.

So far, so sort-of reasonable, after all characters and themes occur in all novels. But it’s difficult to convey the chaotic and deliberately dissociative texture of the book.

Brachycephalic. They stopped beneath the half-painted bowl of the radio-telescope. As the blunt metal ear turned on its tracks, fumbling at the sky, he put his hands to his skull, feeling the still-open sutures. Beside him Quinton, the dapper pomaded Judas, was waving at the distant hedges where the three limousines were waiting. ‘If you like we can have a hundred cars – a complete motorcade.’ Ignoring Quinton, he took a piece of quartz from his flying jacket and laid it on the surf. From it poured the code-music of the quasars.

There is no joined-up, consecutive narrative. Each paragraph is genuinely a fragment in the sense that they don’t cohere into any kind of ‘story’. Instead they are snapshots of the characters’ obsessions. Certainly the ‘people’ in the stories meet, encounter each other, have sex, drive cars because we see this in individual paragraphs. But each consecutive paragraph charts a new scene. They are like fragments from a lot of different jigsaws all jumbled together.

At the end of ‘chapter’ one the bodies of Dr Nathan, Captain Webster and Catherine Austen form a small tableau by the bunker. Maybe they were killed in bombing of the target zone in the disused military zone which Travis seems to have organised.

But the second ‘chapter’ begins with these same ‘dead’ characters – Dr Nathan, Catherine Austen – brought back to life, in new scenes as if nothing had happened. Now they are taking part in a screenshow in a university organised by one ‘Talbot'( a sort of structural variation on Travis) and whose students are ostensibly studying World War III, inspired by the jealous student Koester. Talbot is having an affair with Catherine but sees her body chiefly as a ‘geometry’ of vents and clefts and is more interested in the sculpture he’s building on the roof, metal aerials constructed to hold glass faces to the sun. He is clearly cracking up.

And so it continues, tangling and rethreading a narrow and obsessive networks of themes and images…

Key words

If certain key ideas recur and repeat in endless permutations, so do key words. As so often, I find the words more interesting than the ‘ideas’:

geometry

  • her own body, with its endless familiar geometry…
  • in the postures they assumed, the contours of thigh and thorax, Travis explored the geometry and volumetric time of the bedroom
  • only an anatomist could have identified these fragments, each represented as a formal geometric pattern
  • his wife’s body with its familiar geometry
  • His room was filled with grotesque magazine photographs: the obsessive geometry of overpasses, like fragments of her own body; X-rays of unborn children; a series of genital deformations; a hundred close-ups of hands.
  • the concrete landscape of underpass and flyover mediated a more real presence, the geometry of a neural interval…
  • the obsessive geometry of flyovers, like fragments of her own body
  • the geometry of the plaza exercised a unique fascination upon Talbot’s mind
  • a crushed fender; in its broken geometry Talbot saw the dismembered body of Karen Novotny
  • the danger of an assassination attempt seems evident, one hypotenuse in this geometry of a murder
  • For Talbot the explosive collision of the two cars was a celebration of the unity of their soft geometries…

mimetised

  • he assumed the postures of the fragmented body of the film actress, mimetising his past dreams and anxieties in the dune-like fragments of her body
  • the mimetised disasters of Vietnam and the Congo
  • segments of his postures mimetised in the processes of time and space
  • our anxieties mimetised in the junction between wall and ceiling

terminal

  • A Terminal Posture. Lying on the worn concrete of the gunnery aisles, he assumed the postures of the film actress, assuaging his past dreams and anxieties in the dune-like fragments of her
    body.
  • Dr Nathan gazed at the display photographs of terminal syphilitics in the cinema foyer
  • He remembered the aloof, cerebral Kline, and their long discussions on this terminal concrete beach…
  • The Terminal Zone. He lay on the sand with the rusty bicycle wheel. Now and then he would cover some of the spokes with sand, neutralizing the radial geometry. The rim interested him. Hidden behind a dune, the hut no longer seemed a part of his world. The sky remained constant, the warm air touching the shreds of test papers sticking up from the sand. He continued to examine the wheel. Nothing happened.

neural

  • Overhead the glass curtain-walls of the apartment block presided over this first interval of neural calm.
  • The concrete landscape of underpass and overpass mediated a more real presence, the geometry of a neural interval, the identity latent within his own musculature.
  • Impressions of Africa. A low shoreline; air glazed like amber; derricks and jetties above brown water; the silver geometry of a petrochemical complex, a Vorticist assemblage of cylinders and cubes superimposed upon the distant plateau of mountains; a single Horton sphere – enigmatic balloon tethered to the fused sand by its steel cradles; the unique clarity of the African light: fluted tablelands and jigsaw bastions; the limitless neural geometry of the landscape.

planes

  • For some reason the planes of his face failed to intersect, as if their true resolution took place in some as yet invisible dimension, or required elements other than those provided by his own character and musculature.
  • The planes of their lives interlocked at oblique angles, fragments of personal myths fusing with the commercial cosmologies.
  • Her blanched skin revealed the hollow planes of her face.
  • His rigid face was held six inches from her own, his mouth like the pecking orifice of some unpleasant machine. The planes of his cheekbones and temples intersected with the slabs of rainwashed cement, together forming a strange sexual modulus.
  • The planes of her face seemed to lead towards some invisible focus, projecting an image that lingered on the walls, as if they were inhabiting her skull
  • The apartment was a box clock, a cubicular extrapolation of the facial planes of the yantra, the cheekbones of Marilyn Monroe.

This sketchy review of his key vocabulary establishes that what Ballard’s key words have in common is the way they are hard and technical, continually shifting the imagination away from soft human bodies to hard geometries, from sentimental ‘feelings’ towards impersonal, scientific and mathematical notions of ‘neural’ events, planes and geometries.

Art

Ballard made no secret of the immense influence on him of Surrealist painting. He mentions it in pretty much every interview he ever gave, lards his stories with the adjective ‘surrealist’, and frequently refers to specific Surrealist paintings. The Atrocity Exhibition contains references to the following works of art:

  • Max Ernst – Garden Airplane Traps
  • Max Ernst – Europe after the Rain (p.15)
  • Salvador Dali – Hypercubic Christ
  • Max Ernst – Silence (p.21)
  • Salvador Dali – The Persistence of Memory (p.22)
  • Magritte – The Annunciation (p.31)
  • Duchamp – The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even
  • Max Ernst, The Stolen Mirror (p.47)
  • Bellmer sculptures (p.54)
  • Duchamp – Nude descending a Staircase (p.55)
  • Tanguy – Jours de Lenteur (p.85)
  • Max Ernst – the Robing of the Bride (p.85)
  • de Chirico – The Dream of the Poet (p.85)

The art references tend to occur in contexts where they add, expand and complicate existing descriptions.

The ‘Soft’ Death of Marilyn Monroe. Standing in front of him as she dressed, Karen Novotny’s body seemed as smooth and annealed as those frozen planes. Yet a displacement of time would drain away the soft interstices, leaving walls like scraped clinkers. He remembered Ernst’s ‘Robing’: Marilyn’s pitted skin, breasts of carved pumice, volcanic thighs, a face of ash. The widowed bride of Vesuvius.

On reflection, I realise that you could see each of the individual paragraphs as the equivalent of free-standing paintings. That makes a lot of sense. Treating each paragraph as a painting treating a different mood, or angle, or perspective on similar events, covering similar subjects, but each from a different angle and approach – and yourself sauntering past them as they’re hung up on a gallery wall.

Sex and pornography

The text is soaked in sex and sexual perversions and pornography regarded as a clinically detached exercise.

This is justified, if needs be, by Ballard’s view that we are in a hyper-advanced technological society where all experience is mediated by a bombardment of media and advertising imagery to such an extent that naive notions of simple sentimental sex have been scorched out of existence.

The need for more polymorphic roles has been demonstrated by television and news media. Sexual intercourse can no longer be regarded as a personal and isolated activity, but is seen to be a vector in a public complex involving automobile styling, politics and mass communications

The satirical surveys

With a satire which is so straight-faced it’s hard to tell whether he’s laughing or not, the later chapters of The Atrocity Exhibition are notably different from the earlier ones.

They are still laid out as fragmented paragraphs but they more or less cease being (fragmented) narratives and consist of collections of pseudo-scientific surveys and reports.

And these focus relentlessly, obsessively on the conjunction of atrocity and sex, specifically the impact of viewing a) President Kennedy’s assassination b) Vietnam war footage c) general atrocity footage (Auschwitz, the Congo) on the sex lives of an amusingly random and surreal cross-section of audience types, including children, the mentally ill and housewives.

Satirically, the ‘research’ presents evidence that atrocity footage improves workplace efficiency and stimulates a healthy sex drive. Conclusion? Wars of the Vietnam type are good for society.

Using assembly kits of atrocity photographs, groups of housewives, students and psychotic patients selected the optimum child-torture victim. Rape and napalm burns remained constant preoccupations, and a wound profile of maximum arousal was constructed. Despite the revulsion expressed by the panels, follow-up surveys of work-proficiency and health patterns indicate substantial benefits. The effects of atrocity films on disturbed children were found to have positive results that indicate similar benefits for the TV public at large. These studies confirm that it is only in terms of a psychosexual module such as provided by the Vietnam war that the United States can enter into a relationship with the world generally characterized by the term ‘love.’

This fairly blunt satire – although presented in the same-chopped-up paragraphs each headed by a title in bold type as the earlier ‘stories’ – feels drastically different in intention from the earlier stories.

Maybe they reflect the quick escalation in protest against the war which took place in the last few years of the 1960s, and which prompted the equally savage satirical short story The Killing Ground of 1969.

Nuclear satire

Also: In one of his notes to the book, Ballard points out that from the late 1950s and early 1960s, the heyday of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the fact that the world was living under the shadow of impending nuclear holocaust meant that, to anybody who thought about it, everything was permissible. How could you believe in the fuddy-duddy old values of Church and State, all those crowns and gowns, if the world could be incinerated tomorrow?

Not only that, but how can you think about the end of the world and the destruction of the planet except via extremity and satire? As demonstrated by the Stanley Kubrick movie Dr Strangelove which was a) released in 1964 only 2 years before the first Atrocity story was published, and b) filmed at Shepperton studios just round the corner from Ballard’s house. Serendipities. Zeitgeist. Spirit of the Age.

Conclusion for philistines

If Ballard’s obsession with car crashes and clinical pornography seems sick, ask yourself who’s the sickest – novelists who write blistering porno-satire or generals who order napalm by the lakeful to be dropped on peasant villages?

That was the reality of the times Ballard was writing in, and for. Remember the American version of the book was titled Love and Napalm

  • The billboards multiplied around them, walling the streets with giant replicas of napalm bombings in Vietnam, the serial deaths of Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe terraced in the landscapes of Dien Bien Phu and the Mekong Delta.
  • Homage to Abraham Zapruder Each night, as Travers moved through the deserted auditorium, the films of simulated atrocities played above the rows of empty seats, images of napalm victims, crashing cars and motorcade attacks.
  • On the basis of viewers’ preferences an optimum torture and execution sequence was devised involving Governor Reagan, Madame Ky and an unidentifiable eight-year-old Vietnamese girl napalm victim.

Remember the photo of that little naked Vietnamese girl running down the road her skin flapping off her where the napalm had burned her? Those photos were all around in 1966, 67, 68. Atrocity Exhibition is Ballard’s response to the TV-mediated hyper-violence and psychic disturbance of the times.

Conclusion for Ballardians

I think it’s his best book. It’s an über-intense encyclopedia of Ballard’s distinctive obsessions and visions. Some people read it as an experimental depiction of the psyche of a man undergoing a nervous breakdown.

I think it’s bigger than that, it presents an (in)coherent way of verbalising a number of the visual, psychological and imaginative pressures anyone living in the modern era is subjected to. The constant, hammering pressure of the motorways, the thundering traffic, the massive planes grinding overhead, the aggressive billboard hoardings, the saturated mediascape, the faces of the same handful of celebrities dinned into our brains, and the deadening and at the same time hysterical impact that has on our imaginative lives, and emotional lives, and sex lives (if we have them).

Joy Division

Wrote a song based on the book, released on their 1980 album Closer, which is a fair attempt to capture the book’s weirdness in another medium.


Related links

Reviews of other Ballard books

Novels

Short story collections

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

1900s
1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1910s
1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s
1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover…

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

1940s
1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s
1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a breathless novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury

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

1970s
1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same shape, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that is dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced his is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions including the new that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prison at the gaol where Starbuck serves a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s
1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians – ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast, arid desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself President Manson, has revived an old nuclear power station in order to light up Las Vegas, and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap but is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster who’s sent her to London for safekeeping is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Charles Babbage’s early computer, instead of being left as a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (1984)

Like The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, this novel is sharply divided into seven distinct parts. Unlike that book it retreats a little from being a collection of fragmented stand-alone narratives, heavily interspersed with philosophical digressions, back towards something a bit more like a conventional novel, in that the same characters recur in every part.

That said, it is still not at all like a conventional novel. Conventional novels set scenes, paint locations, introduce characters, and explore them slowly by taking them through events, described in full, with plenty of dialogue.

Kundera’s novels feature characters, but they are more often than not presented through the author’s ideas about them. The ideas come first, and then the characters exist – or are invented – to flesh them out.

Thus the first two short sections of part one of this book present no characters or settings at all, but consist of a meditation on Nietzsche’s puzzling idea of Eternal Recurrence, an idea Nietzsche proposed in his last works before going mad. Kundera interprets to it to mean the notion that anything which happens only once barely happens at all. He quotes the German proverb: Einmal ist Keinmal: ‘once is nothing’. Only recurrence nails something down with weight and meaning. What occurs only once, has no weight, no meaning. Its lightness is unbearable.

And this dichotomy between lightness and weight will underpin much of the discussion which follows.

Part One – Lightness and Weight

Tomas is a surgeon. Since Tomas divorced his wife and abandoned his son (she was a rabid communist who gave him only very restricted access, and even then kept cancelling his dates to see his son – so Tomas eventually gave up trying), he’s had numerous lovers which he runs on a rule of three: Either three quick sex sessions, then never see them again; or a longer term relationship but scheduled at three-weekly intervals. (Putting it like this makes you realise how, well, crass a lot of Kundera’s male characters and their supposed sexual wisdom, can easily appear.)

And I’m afraid that the effect of reading five of his books in quick succession began to make me see through his plausible sounding words of wisdom.

Tomas came to this conclusion: Making love with a woman and sleeping with a woman are two separate passions, not merely different but opposite. Love does not make itself felt in the desire for copulation (a desire that extends to an infinite number of women) but in the desire for shared sleep (a desire limited to one woman). (p.15)

Tomas is sent to a sleepy provincial town by his hospital to perform a tricky operation on a patient who can’t be moved. Here, in a sleepy local restaurant, he meets Tereza who is a waitress. They have sex. Weeks later, she turns up on his doorstep. He takes her in, they sleep together, he gets her suitcase from the station. All this goes against his principles, such as hating having women sleep over, preferring to drive them home after sex. Anyway, Tereza comes down with flu and Tomas is forced to look after her and, as he does so, has the peculiar sensation that she is like Moses in the cradle and he is the pharaoh’s daughter. Some higher power has decreed he must protect her. And so he finds himself falling in love with her. He gets his mistress, Sabina, to wangle her a job as a dark room assistant with a magazine.

And so they settle in to living together. But then Tereza discovers that Tomas has lots of other lovers. She comes across a stash of letters. She begins to have panic dreams, which Kundera vividly describes, one in which Tereza is one among a group of naked women who walk around a swimming pool performing kneed bends and exercises and if any of them hesitates or stumbles, Tomas, who is in a basket suspended from the roof, shoots them dead with the gun in his hand. Those kinds of dreams. Anxiety dreams.

He loves her and wishes to calm her feverish dreams, but can’t stop seeing his lovers, but then can’t make love to them without feeling guilty, so needs to drink to mask the guilt, but then Tereza smells the booze on his breath when he gets home, and has another one of her anxiety attacks. In fact she tries to kill herself.

Then, in his anxiety, Tomas’s longest-term mistress, the artist Sabina, catches him looking at his watch while making love, and takes her revenge on him. Oh dear. Can the poor man do nothing right?

Years go by. Tomas marries Tereza. He buys her a mongrel puppy, they name Karenin after the hero of the Tolstoy novel.

Then the Russians invade Czechoslovakia in August 1968. Tereza is by now a staff photographer on the magazine and spends the days after the invasion roaming the streets taking photographs of the occupying army, then handing the film over to foreign journalists.

Sabina has left for Geneva, Switzerland. A hospital manager from Zurich Tomas knows phones up and offers him a job. After hesitation he takes it and they drive to Switzerland. For some months she is happy and confident. Taking photos during the occupation gave her confidence. Then he gets home one day and finds a farewell letter from her. She can’t hack life in the West. She’s gone back to Czechoslovakia and taken the dog.

Initially Tomas feels liberated. Seven years with her were, in the end, a burden. But it only takes a day or two and then the terrible power of compassion kicks in – Kundera gives us a disquisition on the etymology and meaning of ‘com’ [meaning with] ‘passion’ [from the Latin word meaning ‘suffering’] – and he imagines Tereza alone in their flat in Prague. So, with a heavy heart, he resigns from the Zurich hospital, quoting the motif from a late Beethoven string quartet – Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein. And drives back across the border to Prague, finding Teresa asleep in their old flat, and wondering if he’s just made the worst mistake of his life.

On this recording of Beethoven’s string quartet number 16, click to the final movement at 17:39. It’s here that Beethoven wrote the words Muss es sein? Ja, es muss sein before the music itself begins, indicating that the rhythm of the words was the basis of the musical motifs from which he then created the music. What do the words mean: ‘Must it be?’ ‘Yes. It must be.’ It seems like it should be a meditation on man’s fate, on whether we make real decisions or go along with a pre-determined fate. Except that the music itself is surprisingly light and airy.

Puzzling and teasing. And, in this, similar to Kundera’s texts which invoke all kinds of serious political and philosophical ideas, and reference well-known writers and musicians in order… to muse on the different types of philanderer (the epic or the lyric), or the four types of ‘look’, or why one character close their eyes during sex while another keeps them open, or to give a mock academic definition of the art of flirtation. Is the entire book a deliberate playing and toying with ideas of seriousness and triviality?

Part Two – Soul and Body

In which we learn a lot more about Tereza, namely her family background. Her mother married the least eligible of her nine suitors because he got her pregnant. After a few years of boring marriage, she ran off with another man, who turned out to be a loser. She took all this out on young Tereza, in the form of nudity. Tereza’s mother walks round the house naked, she refuses to have a lock on the lavatory, she parades her friends round the house and into Tereza’s room when she’s half dressed. For Tereza, nudity represents a concentration camp-style enforcement of loss of privacy.

Meeting Tomas was an escape. He had a book on the table of the restaurant where she served him on the occasion of him coming to the town to perform an operation. Books are symbolic of escape from narrow provincial life into a higher realm. (In this respect she reminds me of Kristyna the butcher’s wife who is enchanted with the higher learning and big city sophistication of ‘the student’ in part five of The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, or of nurse Ruzena who longs to escape the narrow confines of her boring provincial town in The Farewell Party. The uneducated young woman trapped in a provincial town until rescued by a much more educated, big city-dweller, is a recurring trope.)

We re-see the birth and development of her love affair with Tomas through her eyes, including the night she danced with another man and made him jealous, then her discovery at discovering all his letters from his lovers, particularly Sabina.

She has a brainwave to control her jealousy which is to try and co-opt his lovers into their sex life. She has the idea to visit Sabina the painter and take photos of her (by this time she is a staff photographer on the weekly magazine). Which progresses to suggesting she photograph Sabina nude. As a heterosexual man I found this couple of pages stimulating, as I think they’re intended, but as wildly improbable as a porn film. It doesn’t come off, there isn’t a lesbian scene, the two women collapse in laughter.

We see how her exile in Geneva comes to a head when she takes her best photos of the Russian occupation of Prague to a magazine editor, who says, ‘Yes, they’re wonderful, but things have moved on, Is she any good at photographing plants, cacti, for example? Very fashionable at the moment.’

She protests that the Russian tanks are still on the streets of Prague, Czechs are still being sent to prison by the thousand. The editor gets a woman staff photographer to take her to lunch and explain the facts of life in the capitalist West to her, but the more she does so, the more Tereza feels patronised and disgusted.

In both these sections Kundera describes the fate of Alexander Dubček, the Czech leader who allowed the widespread liberalisation of communism which became known as the Prague Spring, and who was arrested and flown to prison in Russia after the Russians invaded in August 1968.

Initially, Dubček was told he was going to be executed, like Imre Nagy, leader of rebel Hungary, had been in 1956. But then he was reprieved, bathed and shaved and given a new suit and taken to a meeting with Leonid Brezhnev, where he was offered his life if he agreed to roll back all his reforms. Within days he was flown back to Prague and forced to make a nationwide address on the radio explaining his change of strategy.

For Kundera, the significant thing was Dubček’s pitiful performance, his long pauses, his gasps for breath. During those pauses, he says, the entire nation heard their humiliation. And both Tomas and Tereza revert to this example of humiliation as they consider their own lives.

And it occurs to me that whereas traditional novelists use symbolism with a kind of subtlety, burying it in the narrative and descriptions, Kundera’s distinguishing feature is that he makes his ‘symbols’ front and foreground of the text. They are not subtly worked into the text but very visibly added into it and then commented on at length. Each time they recur Kundera himself does all the commentary and critique, explaining how Dubček’s silences became symbolic of all kinds of other silences, in apartments bugged by the secret police, or between lovers who can no longer talk to each other.

Tereza realises she is utterly alone in the West. She packs her bags, takes Karenin, and catches a train back to the Czech border. Five days later Tomas joins her.

Who is strong here, who is weak? Is weakness bad? Was Dubček weak? No. Anybody is weak when they are set against vastly stronger forces. Weakness has no intrinsic meaning.

Part Three – Words Misunderstood

Part three introduces us to Franz, who is happily set up with his docile wife, Marie-Claude, who runs a private art gallery, and (somewhat inevitably) enjoys the favours of his artist-mistress. Artist? Like Sabina? Her name is deliberately suppressed but as soon as the narrator mentions a bowler hat we know that it is Sabina, Tomas’s mistress Sabina, since the bowler is a prop she used to wear (with little else) for her erotic encounters with Tomas in Part One. In fact Kundera treats us to an entire digression about the bowler hat, which used to belong to her grandfather, the small-town mayor, and how her bringing it into exile in the West has now loaded it with multiple layers of symbolism.

But the real purpose of this section is to form an extended example of one of the central themes of Kundera’s fiction – which is the profound mutual misunderstandings which can occur between two people, even if they are lovers, especially if they are lovers.

And for the first time this is given a formal structure, in that Kundera shepherds the completely opposite ideas and principles of West-born Franz and Eastern émigré Sabina into a humorous format, a Short Dictionary of Misunderstood Words. This dictionary occurs in more than one of the sections and includes such subjects as: Woman, Fidelity & Betrayal, Music, Light & Darkness, the beauty of New York, Strength, Living In Truth, and so on – all areas where Kundera humorously shows us Franz thinking one thing and Sabina thinking the diametric opposite.

Take music. Franz would like to disappear inside a great orgasm of totally obliterating music. Whereas Sabina thought only under communism did musical barbarism reign until she came to the West and discovered the crudest pop music blaring and thumping from every public orifice. She hates its stifling omnipresence.

This is a clever, witty and funny idea – and another example of how Kundera pushes old fashioned ideas about ‘the novel’ to the limit. In your traditional novel these themes might have been embedded in fictional events, or maybe in dialogue, but to some extent dramatised. In Kundera, the narrative comes to a dead stop and the text comes close to becoming a Powerpoint presentation. At moments like this it comes close to being a collection of bullet points more than a narrative. The interesting thing is just how far Kundera can push all these tricks and experiments – and the book still feel like a novel, with a story and characters.

Parades For Franz, raised in the West, political parades are a release and a protest (and also, on a personal level, a relief to get out from the libraries and lecture halls where he spends his professional life). But Sabina was brought up in the communist East where, from earliest youth, she was forced to go on political marches and rallies, forced to march in rank with other Young Pioneers, forced to chant political slogans. Thus, he loves parades but she loathes them.

Lightness Franz feels that everything that happens in the West, and to him, is too boring trivial and easy. Too light. He was resigned to dissolving into the never-ending sea of words which is academic discourse. Which is why Sabina excites him so much as a mistress. In her country even the slightest phrase can be charged with superhuman weight, can consign one or more people to prison or execution. Now there’s meaning for you, drama and revolution and human adventure! Whereas for Sabina, of course, words like ‘revolution’, ‘struggle’ and ‘comrade’ are dirty, sordid, horrible reminders of the crushing of the human spirit.

Franz is worn out, psychologically and philosophically exhausted, by the West’s sheer profusion.

The endless vanity of speeches and words, the vanity of culture, the vanity of art. (p.110)

including the vanity of the endless pontificating about art which he hears on all sides at his wife’s press days and exhibition launches, and the insufferable loquacity of his cocktail-party-superficial daughter.

Franz finally plucks up the guts to tell his wife of 23 years that he has been seeing a mistress for nine months. He is horrified when Marie-Claude doesn’t buckle into tears (it turns out he had completely the wrong idea about her for this entire time – see the discussion in the Short Dictionary of his concept of ‘Woman’) but becomes very hard-faced. Becoming scared, Franz goes on to tell her the mistress is Sabina.

Next day he is on a flight to Amsterdam and feels wonderful light and airy and released from all guilt. He is living in truth. He has told Sabina, sitting beside him, that he’s told his wife everything about them, and so he feels light and breezy. But Sabina now is wracked with anxiety. No longer is she the free-spirited artist Sabina. Now she is ‘that painter who’s involved in the Franz and Marie-Claude divorce’. Now she’s going to have to decide how to play the role of ‘the mistress’. She feels weighted down.

This is just one of the many many ways the theme of ‘lightness’ is played out and dramatised throughout the book.

In fact during this trip to Amsterdam, while Franz feels lighter and lighter, Sabina feels so weighted down that she realises she can never see him again. They have a night of unbridled passion in Amsterdam, she giving herself up to physical ecstasy as never before. He thinks it’s because she is excited by their new life together and by the prospect of living in truth. But it is nothing of the sort. It is because she knows it is the last time. She knows she has to leave him. Thus they have completely opposed understandings and motivations. Complete misunderstanding, which is really Kundera’s central subject.

Back in Geneva, Franz shamefacedly packs a few things in front of his wife, then goes round to Sabina’s flat. The door is locked. There’s no-one home. He keeps going back like a lost puppy, no answer. After a few days removal men appear and empty it. She’s gone, and left no forwarding address. Initially he is devastated. When he goes back to his wife, she says ‘Don’t let me stop you moving out.’ On the face of it he’s lost everything. But in the event he takes a small flat in the old part of town. Moves in furniture which he, not his wife has chosen. Stuffs it full of books and becomes happy. One of his students falls in love with him and they start an affair. Deep in his heart he is grateful to Sabina for freeing him from the staleness of a 23-year marriage. Life is sweet. He is living in truth.

Meanwhile Sabina moves to Paris. She had hoped that the successive affairs and liaisons would weight her down and give her life significance. But she finds herself floating free and rootless in Paris. It is here that for the first time we read the title phrase of the book. She seems doomed to experience ‘the unbearable lightness of being’ (p.122).

One day she gets a letter telling her that Tomas and Tereza have died in a car crash in some remote mountain town in Czechoslovakia.

By this point I’m thinking that the way this novel has followed just a handful of characters through quite extensive twists and turns makes it unlike his previous works. It’s still stuffed full of soft philosophising about life, but… feels deeper, more deeply felt, simply from the old-fashioned device of letting us get to know the characters via a reasonably chronological narrative.

Part Four – Soul and Body

Part four picks up with Tomas and Tereza back in Czechoslovakia, after she fled from Geneva and the West, and he reluctantly followed her.

Tereza gets a job in a hotel bar. The receptionist is a former ambassador, who criticised the Soviet invasion. All the intelligentsia has been kicked out of their jobs. Tereza gets chatted up by various male customers, which prompts Kundera to give a typically pithy and pseudo-academic definition of the activity of ‘flirting’:

What is flirtation? One might say that it is behaviour leading another to believe that sexual intimacy is possible, while preventing that possibility from becoming a certainty. In other words, flirting is a promise of sexual intercourse without a guarantee. (p.142)

The men at the bar hit on her. One is a fat secret policeman who gets drunk and tries to blackmail her. He is being particularly obnoxious, when a tall stranger intervenes and tells him to shut his trap, she is immensely grateful. But with a kind of sinking inevitability this man then begins chatting her up in a friendly way.

Now a key thing to realise is that at the start of this section, Tomas had come back from window-cleaning and fallen into bed dog-tired just as Tereza was waking for her evening job but not before she smells… can it be… is it really?… yes, the smell of women’s privates in his hair. My God! What has he been up to? But alas, she knows only too well what he’s been up to.

And so her jealousy-anxiety dreams start to recur, especially a new one in which Tomas smilingly tells her to go up Petrin Hill, the big hill in the centre of Prague. She does so, finding it eerily empty. At the top are a few other lost souls like herself, and a suave gentleman with a rifle and several assistants. He politely informs her that he is there to execute them. But only of their own free will, if they want to. And she is so miserable at Tomas’s infidelities, that she lets herself be led to a tree by the assistants and the rifleman is lifting his gun to execute her, and she tries to steel herself but, at the last minute, she bursts out No No, she didn’t come of her own free will, and the rifleman sadly lowers his gun, and she turns to the tree and bursts into inconsolable tears (p.151).

This, like the dream of the naked woman walking round the swimming pool, has the eerie uncanniness of literary dreams (I dream a lot and remember my dreams and none of them are this well-rounded and pregnant with symbolism). And they add to the sense that this book somehow goes deeper than its predecessors. It includes just as much learnèd digression, but by portraying Tomas and Tereza and Sabina at such length, we feel like we’re ‘getting to know them’ much more than previous creations.

So Tereza lets the tall man, an engineer it turns out, invite her to his small apartment where, after the minimum of preamble, he begins unbuttoning her and then having sex with her.

All the way through the book Tereza is afflicted by a dichotomy between her body and her soul (hence the title of this part, Body and Soul) caused by her early experiences with her shameless mother. In many ways she wants to escape her body. She certainly has an ambivalent attitude towards it. Now, she lets herself be stripped bare and penetrated (‘penetrate’ is a verb which crops up regularly in Kundera’s descriptions of sex) but, like so many of his female protagonists, feels far distant from what is going on.

She becomes more disgusted the more he roots around in her body, eventually spitting in his face. Later she uses his horrible toilet with no toilet seat, perching precariously on the crude bit of cold plumbing. Tereza longs to escape from the crudity of bodies, the way Tomas seems able to have casual sex with more or less any woman. But it kills her.

Later, when the supposed engineer doesn’t get back in touch, she becomes paranoid. What if it was a set-up? What if she was somehow filmed or recorded having sex, compromising herself?

And her mind goes back to how, in the months following the Prague Spring, the new hardline communist authorities broadcast secret recordings made of émigrés and dissidents, obviously only the most shameful bits when, after a bottle of wine or so they were persuaded to turn on their colleagues or admit what a crappy country Czechoslovakia is, or admit to being wife-beaters or closet paedophiles or anything – anything the agents provocateurs could wheedle out of them which could then be carefully edited and broadcast on Radio Communism to destroy the images of all the would-be leaders of the people and cow the populace into even deeper passive stupor.

One of these was the well-known author Jan Prochazka, recorded slagging off his colleagues and then broadcast all over the airwaves. Tereza is horrified by this and all other examples of the complete lack of privacy under communism. For her it is tied to her mother’s insistence on going around naked and on parading her, Tereza, naked to her friends. The horror of it!

And the time when she was 14 and her mother found her secret diaries, recording her innermost adolescent secrets… and brought them out when friends were round for tea and insisted on reading out whole entries at which all the raddled middle-aged women cackled with hilarity and Tereza wanted to die.

For Tereza, the definition of a concentration camp is a place of absolutely no privacy, where privacy is abolished (p.137)

That’s why Tomas’s infidelity makes her want to die, and dream about ways of dying: because she thought with him, she had found something utterly private and safe and secure. She gives their love tremendous weight. And yet Tomas finds sex light and easy, no consequences, no angst. She cannot relate to the lightness of his attitude. His lightness is unbearable to her.

Part Five – Lightness and Weight

And now, Tomas’s experience of returning to occupied Czechoslovakia.

At first he is welcomed back to the hospital. He is the leading surgeon of his generation. But now we are told about an article he wrote a few years previously, during the general relaxing of censorship leading up to the Prague Spring. It took as its subject the Oedipus of Sophocles. When Oedipus realises what a terrible thing he has done, even though he did it in complete innocence, he blinds himself. Tomas writes a long essay accusing the Communist Party of having betrayed Czechoslovakia and, although many of them did it with good intentions, he compares their pleas for forgiveness and understanding, with Oedipus’s intensely tragic self-punishment. The article is accepted by an intellectual magazine, though Tomas is irritated that they severely cut it, making it seem much more harsh and aggressive than he’d intended.

Then came the Russian invasion. A year later the director of the hospital calls him in and says the communist authorities want him to write a note disclaiming the article and its criticism. This gives rise to some intense analysis by Kundera. He foresees his colleagues reacting in two ways: first the nods from all the others who have given in and signed; then the smug sneers of everyone who was too young to be implicated and so can take a moral high line with no risk. Tomas realises he will hate being the recipient of either kind of smile. He refuses to sign and is sacked.

He gets a job as a GP in a practice 50 k from Prague. One day the last patient is a smooth-talking and charming secret policeman. He takes Tomas for a glass of wine and sympathises with his plight, he never meant to write that article, the editors butchered it, of course the authorities want one of their leading surgeons to return to his métier. And he holds out another document for Tomas to sign, his one much harsher than the hospital one, this one declaring how much Tomas loves the Soviet Union and the Communist party.

I found this sequence fascinating, it has a John le Carré sense of the insinuating ways of power and corruption, for it took a while for innocent Tomas to realise he is being tempted. He refuses. More than that, he quits his job as a GP and finds work as a window cleaner. The authorities only make people of significance sign these disclaimers. Once you’ve reached rock bottom they lose interest. Tomas wants to reach rock bottom. He wants to be free (p.192).

The ensuing passages describe Tomas’s adventures as a window-cleaner in Prague. The underground grapevine goes before him and he often finds himself offered a glass of wine and assured he doesn’t have to do any work by former patients who happily sign the chit saying he’s done the work.

But, this being Kundera, there is of course sex. Quite a bit of sex. Because handsome saturnine Tomas is calling during the day on plenty of bored middle-aged, middle-class housewives. Kundera describes his sexual escapades, the one which drive Tereza to paroxysms of despair, as casual couplings which Tomas can barely remember by the weekend. And, being Kundera, there is a great deal of theorising about sex. Again.

Men who pursue a multitude of women fit neatly into two categories.  Some seek their own subjective and unchanging dream of a woman in all women. Others are prompted by a desire to possess the endless variety of the objective female world. (p.201)

and he goes on to call the obsession of the former lyrical, and of the latter, epical, and spends a couple of pages of entertaining theorising expanding on this premise. The lyricists seek an Ideal and are always disappointed. Some sentimental women are touched by their idealism. Epic womanisers garner no sympathy. They are interested in quantity not quality. And eventually they get bored and become interested in ever more specific quirks. They become collectors.

Kundera describes Tomas’s collector habits, and several encounters of great erotic intensity. However, after a few years the women begin to blur into one, he starts forgetting names. But the real purpose of all this is to make the distinction (and Kundera’s type of intellectuality is about making endless numbers of distinctions – heaviness and lightness, lyrical and epical, demonic and angelic laughter, and so on) between Tomas’s collector instinct when he’s out there, in the world, and his love for Teresa.

He doesn’t need to collect Teresa. She came to him. And her falling ill within an hour or so of arriving was a key moment, which is referred to again and again in the novel. It made her completely vulnerable and reliant on him, in a way none of his conquests are, in a way he’s careful to make sure they never are. Which is what makes her the Great Exception.

Anyway, all this merry philosophising about sex is bookended with another encounter with people who want him to sign something. One of the editors of the magazine where he sent his ill-fated article about Oedipus calls him to a surreptitious meeting at a borrowed flat where Tomas is unnerved to encounter his own son, the one he rejected and walked away from after his divorce nearly 20 years earlier,

Over the space of several pages they try to persuade him to sign a petition they’re getting up among intellectuals to protest against the maltreatment of prisoners in prison. Again we are in the world of politics and coercion, as when the secret policeman met him. Only now there is this weird personal element of his son coercing him. Initially Tomas is minded to sign, but when they remind him of the Oedipus article which screwed up his life, he is reminded of what prompted him to write it. It was looking down in Tereza, as she lay in bed with a fever from the flu that kicked in within hours of her arriving at his flat, and made him think of pharaoh’s daughter looking down on Moses in the basket made of bullrushes. And so he went to his book of ancient legends and came across Oedipus, another abandoned child who is rescued… and one thing led to another.

And in a moment of insight Tomas realises she is still the defenceless babe in the basket and he must do nothing to endanger her. And he looks at the two men facing him and realises that nothing he signs or says or does will make the slightest difference to political prisoners in Czechoslovakia – but it might endanger his beloved. And so Tomas tells them he will not sign. He knows they won’t understand. He gets up and returns to the only woman he cares for… But, at the same time, unbeknown to him, the one who he is torturing to death with his ceaseless infidelities…

The petition is duly published. The signers are rounded up. The communist press denounces them as wreckers and saboteurs. On it goes, the endless cycle of repression. Tomas reflects on the history of the Czechs, their apparently bottomless ability to screw up their lives and politics. He ponders how one decision (to stand up for themselves) led to total defeat in the Thirty Years War (1618-48) while the opposite decision (to be compliant to stronger powers, at Munich) led to total defeat by the Nazis. What is right? What is best to do? All alternatives seem to lead down to defeat.

If history were repeated multiple times we could try alternative answers and find out. But we can’t. Using these (not totally convincing arguments) Tomas concludes that History isn’t unbearable because of its crushing weight, but the opposite.

The history of the Czechs and of Europe is a pair of sketches from the pen of mankind’s fateful inexperience. History is as light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow. (p.223)

He’s been a windowcleaner for nearly three years, now. It’s gotten boring. The former patients no longer greet him with champagne and toasts. They just want their windows cleaned. The sight of intellectuals doing manual labour has become passé, and then embarrassing. And he is growing psychologically tired of all the sex. He can’t stop it, but it is wearing him out.

Tereza suggests they move to the countryside, get new jobs. She is obviously unhappy. He asks her why and she finally reveals that every day when he gets back from work she can smell other women’s private parts on his hair. Appalled, he makes to go and shower immediately but she says, It’s alright, she’s used to it and he is stricken with grief.

That night he wakes from a strange dream (lots of dreams in this book) about (alas) sex and the ideal woman, and wakens to find Tereza holding his hand, and vows to change.

Part Six – The Grand March

This is the shortest and the silliest part of the novel, in fact one of the worst things Kundera ever wrote. Although it is packed with serious themes it feels somehow the most superficial.

In a great hurry Kundera progresses through an anecdote about how Stalin’s son died, in a Second World War prisoner of war camp, arguing with British prisoners about his messy defecating habits. Then Kundera picks up this idea of human faeces and runs with it via references to various theologians and their ideas of the relation between the human body and its creator, the way they force a binary choice on us: that either man’s body is made in the image of God’s – in which case God has intestines, guts, and defecates – or it isn’t, in which case it isn’t perfect and godlike, and neither is creation.

This leads him on to a meditation on the meaning of kitsch, which he takes to be the belief that the world is perfect, that it is a world without shit. (The general drift of this definition reminds me of his definition of angelic laughter in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting i.e. that it is creepily unrealistic.)

Kundera then hurries on to rope in thoughts about ‘sentimentality’, defining sentimentality as The awareness of how much one is moved by the notion that the world is a perfect and beautiful world.

And then moves on to claim that this kitsch is universal among all politicians. All politicians want to be seen with babies because they identify with the kitsch notion that human life is an unmitigated blessing. This is demonstrated by the time when Sabina, by now a famous artist and living in America, is driven by a US senator to an ice rink, where kids are frolicking and makes an expansive gesture with his arm as if to incorporate everything that is Good In Life. But Sabina has had a tough life and sees in his rinky-dink smile exactly the cheesy smiles of the Communist Parties smiling down at the smiling masses of the Communist Faithful as they march past on a May Day Parade. Totalitarian kitsch is a world in which everyone is smiling all the time because everything is so perfect. Anyone who asks a question or expresses a doubt must immediately be shipped off to the gulag because kitsch admits of no imperfections.

Which brings us to Franz and his need to be seen. Which prompts Kundera to explain the four categories of ways we need to be seen.

  1. People who long for the look of an infinite number of anonymous eyes. Actors.
  2. People who have a need to be seen by many known eyes. Cocktail party hosts.
  3. People who need to be constantly before the eyes of the person they love.
  4. People who live in the imaginary eyes of those who are not present.

Franz is of this latter type and he undertakes the escapade which ends his life because of a futile sense that somehow, somewhere, Sabina the great love of his life is watching him.

This is a Mercy Mission to Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge ran Cambodia from 1975 to 1978 during which they managed to murder around a million of their fellow citizens, about a quarter of the population, in order to create their peasant-Marxist utopia. Communist Vietnam invaded in 1978 and expelled the Khmer Rouge, setting up their own puppet government.

In the novel a group of French doctors decide to mount a mercy mission by going to Thailand and marching to the Cambodian border and demanding admission. Soon the mission snowballs as a load of American intellectuals and actresses get involved. The French fall out with the Americans, the Americans are offended, can’t everyone see their motives are pure.

I think this entire episode is a rare example of Kundera striking a false note. The entire thing is meant to satirise the sentimentality of the liberal West and its obsession with Grand Marches and Noble Gestures, but… the horror of the Khmer Rouge seems, to me, too serious a setting for Kundera’s satire. It’s as if he was making facile or footling nit-picking pseudo-philosophical points in Auschwitz or Katyn. Don’t get me wrong. I believe you can laugh at more or less anything, I have no politically correct objection to universal mockery. But some things you can only laugh at if it’s a really, really, really good joke, sufficiently funny to outweigh your knowledge of the horror – and Kundera tying together the superficial narcissism of western protests, silly Hollywood actresses and snotty French intellectuals with…. the horrors of the Pol Pot regime – this strikes me as the first wrong step he’s taken in the five books of his I’ve read.

Kundera tries to redeem what even he may have suspected was forced material by piling in ‘tragic’ material about his characters. In particular we now learn that the son, Simon, who Tomas abandoned early on in the novel is now all grown up and is also working as a farm labourer. He starts writing letters to Tomas in which he explains that, in protest at the regime, he left an academic career and married a devout wife and became a Christian. Simon and Tomas exchange a few letters but remain (as all Kundera characters do) at cross-purposes. When he receives a letter that Tomas and Tereza have been killed in a car accident, crushed by a truck which rolled onto their car, Simon hurries to the funeral.

Hmm. I don’t mind Tomas and Tereza’s deaths being reported at one remove like this, and by a fairly new character, but… this ‘Simon’ feels like he’s been introduced too quickly to properly perform the task. We barely know him before he is carrying the freight of having the deaths of our two beloved central characters die.

Similarly, the Grand March of the French doctors and American celebrities to the Cambodian border descends into farce, that much was predictable. But there’s another oddly false note, when one of the hundreds of photographers accompanying the self-important marchers, steps off the road and onto a land mine and is blown to pieces, his body parts spattering all over one of the banners the Grand Marchers are carrying. Initially dazed, they look up and then… feel a surge of pride.

Then they timidly ventured a few more looks upwards and began to smile slightly. They were filled with a strange pride, a pride they had never known before: the flag they were carrying had been consecrated by blood. Once more they joined the march. (p.265)

That feels to me like bollocks. Satire has to have an element of truth to work, and this just feels to me like pure fantasy. Can you imagine a Hollywood actress being spattered by the blown-up body parts of a press photographer, then slowly breaking into a smile? It felt like Kundera was forcing his characters to fit his thesis and they snap.

Same with Franz. The Grand Marchers finally arrive at the border, and stand at one end of the slim bridge over the river which forms the border, staring across it into Cambodia. Everyone knows snipers are watching on the other side, and will shoot at the slightest provocation.

The interpreter calls out three times (as in a fairly tale) for the other side to let the doctors in, but each time there is only an ominous silence. Then the Marchers pack up and march back to their jumping off point, catch the bus back to Bangkok, and go off to restaurants or brothels as their tastes dictate.

It was a fiasco. But for me it doesn’t work as satire because it doesn’t contain any kernel of truth, it feels like contrived fantasy from start to finish. And then Franz is walking along a side street when he is mugged, smacked on the head and thrown into a deep hole where he breaks his back and blacks out. When he comes to, he is in hospital in Geneva unable to move his body or head and staring up into the benevolent eyes of the wife he abandoned. She is thrilled, because she is having her revenge, because

a husband’s funeral is a wife’s true wedding! The climax of her life’s work! The reward for her suffering! (p.275)

Maybe he’s just dramatising Marie-Claude’s feelings, here, but this still feels like utter bollocks. Contrived and glib. Franz wastes away and dies, full of hatred for his wife, and to her great delight.

It feels like this entire section was written by someone else, by someone parodying Kundera’s approach of throwing together historical, social cultural, psychological and philosophical elements and threading them together with fictional characters and who…. has somehow got it profoundly wrong.

Part Seven – Karenin’s Smile

Which is why the final part is a relief. It follows Tomas and Tereza’s life once they move out of Prague and become agricultural labourers. Admittedly communism has destroyed the old rural ties, closing the village hall, and banning church attendance and cancelling the traditional holidays. But Tomas and Tereza don’t mind and he takes to driving a tractor with gusto and she tends the cows and heifers with real affection.

At moments it’s almost like Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

This last section is very beautiful, quite sentimental and made me cry. Which is odd because it’s still packed to the gill with references to philosophers (we learn about Descartes’ theory that animals have no souls and no feelings, and are merely machines; and this view is compared with Nietzsche, who had his final nervous breakdown and collapse into madness, after he saw a man whipping a broken-down horse in the streets of Turin) along with plenty more philosophising on his own account:

We can never establish with certainty what part of our relations with others is the result of our emotions – love, antipathy, charity, or malice – and what part is predetermined by the constant power play among individuals. (p.289)

Comparing Adam and Karenin leads me to the thought that in Paradise man was not man, Or to be more precise, man had not yet been cast out on man’s path. Now we are long-time outcasts, flying through the emptiness of time in a straight line. Yet somewhere deep down a thin thread still ties us to that far-off misty Paradise, where Adam leans over a well and, unlike Narcissus, never even suspects that the pale yellow blotch appearing in it is he himself. The longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man. (p.296)

And much more in the same vein.

In among all these lugubrious lucubrations, some stuff actually happens, mainly that their beloved dog of ten years, Karenin, falls ill of cancer, and wastes away until Tomas -being a doctor – is forced to put him out of his misery with a lethal injection.

This event prompts a series of reflections about humanity and animals: that the measure of humanity is how it treats the absolutely helpless i.e. animals, and that in this respect humankind has undergone an absolutely catastrophic debacle. Our contact with animals was the last thread attaching us to Paradise, and look how we treat them. Factory chickens. Veal calves. Hormone-pumped cattle. Vivisection. How many rabbits have been blinded by mascara or beagles forced to smoke themselves to death?

So it’s no surprise how we treat each other. Kundera emerges from this final section as a vehement Animal Liberationist (reminding me of the South African novelist J.M. Coetzee).

This last section, about Karenin wasting away and dying, and how they eventually, finally, have to put him down and then jointly bury the little doggy corpse, is pretty obviously designed to be tear-jerking, the dog’s final hours and last whimpers, and then how they bury him in the garden in a plot chosen by Tereza, designed to wring the last drop of feeling from the sensitive reader.

But what made me cry was how, at long, long last, Tereza was finally reconciled with Tomas. She comes across him hiding letters and once again the old gnawing doubts bite into her. But then, one day, he reveals that they’re letters from his son who has become a Christian and works on the land not far away. Inevitably, they discuss his son more as an intellectual example of conversion to faith (given his mother was a rabid communist), than as a person – but the point is that Tereza finally realises that Tomas’s days of unfaithfulness are over. Finally, they are completely together. Finally her years of anxiety-jealousy nightmares can end.

And the book ends with them accompanying the jovial old director of the collective farm, and a young farm hand whose dislocated shoulder Tomas has fixed, to the nearest town where they get drunk and dance to the ludicrous accompaniment of an ageing pianist and equally old violinist, till they fall into bed together, finally, at last, HAPPY.

Thoughts

To read a Milan Kundera novel is to be bombarded with so many ideas about love and sex and marriage and fidelity and psychology and religion and politics that it’s difficult to keep them all in your head. Some will stick, some will go in one ear and out the other. Some kind of diagram would be needed to store them all and work out their web of interrelations.

They are dazzling, awesome intellectual feats of thinking, imagination and writing. But the downside is it can sometimes feel like you’re reading an encyclopedia; or a highly erudite author’s commonplace book where they’ve jotted down every thought and notion that’s ever occurred to them – and the concocted characters and a narrative which allows him to insert them at regular intervals.

I found it ultimately a very moving book, as mentioned above for the simple reason that we follow Tomas and Tereza’s story for longer, in more depth, and with more sympathy, than any of his previous characters. And because it ends with emotional closure, with them going to bed happy and contented so the reader can close the book with a big smile on their face.

But I also regularly experienced Idea Fatigue at quite a few places, where I just felt overwhelmed by yet another page of graceful and witty fancies and hypotheses, theories and thoughts, opinions and asides. It is possible to have too many postulates and paradoxes per page, in fact:

Questionable wisdom

Saul Bellow coined the term ‘reality instructor’ for people who take it upon themselves to explain what life is really like, what it really means. This kind of lecturing is a quintessential part of Kundera’s style. I think in small doses it can be very illuminating, but the more you read, the more you have the sense of being harassed.

An author can discuss philosophy without being a philosopher, psychology without being a psychologist. On the one hand it gives them the freedom to play with ideas and spin amusing and unusual insights. On the other hand, their little lessons risk lacking depth or evidence – of resting, ultimately, on assertion, often on rhetorical tricks, on paradox and wit, more than evidence. Here are some examples:

Dreaming is not merely an act of communication (or coded communication, if you like); it is also an aesthetic activity, a game of the imagination, a game that has a value in itself. Our dreams prove that to imagine – to dream about things that have not happened – is among mankind’s deepest needs. (p.59)

Is that true? Or does it just sound like it’s true?

The only serious questions are the ones that a child can formulate. Only the most naive of questions  are truly serious. They are the questions with no answers. A question with no answer is a barrier that cannot be breached. In other words, it is questions with no answers that set the limits of human possibilities, describe the boundaries of human existence. (p.139)

Is this deep? Or does it just sound deep?

An important point to make about all this intellectualising and philosophising is that… none of it is difficult. It’s clever… but none of it is hard to understand, if you pay attention.

If you think of the tradition of learnèd wit, epitomised by Tristram Shandy, in which the narrative is buried in spoof footnotes and fake academic papers and sermons and all sorts of other texts interrupting the story… Kundera is not like that. By intellectual, we don’t mean he literally references academic papers or abstruse findings. The opposite. Most of his reflections are very middle brow. Referencing the Garden of Eden or quoting Descartes’ opinion that animals are just machines, these are either part of common lore or only a little beyond it. Intelligent A-Level standard. An A-Level student should have heard of Don Juan. Or Beethoven. Or Adam. These are not really obscure intellectual references.

And his core subject – sexuality, love, fidelity and betrayal, affairs and mistresses – hardly high-brow, is it? Not difficult to grasp. The opposite, in many ways all-too-easy to grasp.

Similarly, he’s surprisingly un-hypertextual. His texts aren’t clever constructions pieced together from diaries and journals and letters and newspaper reports and eye-witness accounts and so on. They are just meandering musings, all spoken in the same voice, his characters all speak in much the same way, and they certainly stop and reflect about the meaning of fidelity or political marches or nudity or art or music in the identical, same manner as each other and as the narrator.

For long stretches they seem like extended essays with characters thrown in. At other moments the characters get the upper hand and for a moment you forget the ideas in reading about them sympathetically.

God, it’s just so full, so rich, like a Christmas pudding, so full of so many ingredients it’s difficult to get a real grasp of, or give an adequate review of, because it’s impossible to hold so many ideas, incidents and events in your head at once. Inevitably, some bits will appeal more to some readers than others – the politics or the philosophy.

Wisdom about men and woman

Sames goes, but that much more, for his sweeping generalisations about love and sex, men and women. Why that much more? Because the past forty years have seen a transformation in relationships between the sexes, and a massive shift in what is considered acceptable behaviour, especially around men and their speech and behaviour towards women. Sometimes, reading one of his countless reflections about ‘women’, it feels like a massive tide has gone a long way out and left a lot of what Kundera wrote about relations between the sexes seeming very dated.


Related links

Milan Kundera’s books

1967 The Joke
1969 Life Is Elsewhere
1969 Laughable Loves (short stories)

1972 The Farewell Party
1978 The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

1984 The Unbearable Lightness of Being
1986 The Art of the Novel (essays)

1990 Immortality
1995 Slowness
1998 Identity

2000 Ignorance
2014 The Festival of Insignificance

A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper: Making Sense of the Numbers in the Headlines by John Allen Paulos (1995)

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. (p.201)

Mathematics is not primarily a matter of plugging numbers into formulas and performing rote computations. It is a way of thinking and questioning that may be unfamiliar to many of us, but is available to almost all of us. (p.3)

John Allen Paulos

John Allen Paulos is an American professor of mathematics who came to wider fame with publication of his short (130-page) primer, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences, published in 1988.

It was followed by Beyond Numeracy: Ruminations of a Numbers Man in 1991 and this book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper in 1995.

Structure

The book is made up of about 50 short chapters. He explains that each one of them will take a topic in the news in 1993 and 1994 and show how it can be analysed and understood better using mathematical tools.

The subjects of the essays are laid out under the same broad headings that you’d encounter in a newspaper, with big political stories at the front, giving way to:

  • Local, business and social issues
  • Lifestyle, spin and soft news
  • Science, medicine and the environment
  • Food, book reviews, sports and obituaries

Response

The book is disappointing in all kinds of ways.

First and foremost, he does not look at specific stories. All the headlines are invented. Each 4 or 5-page essay may or may not call in aspects of various topics in the news, but they do not look at one major news story and carefully deconstruct how it has been created and publicised in disregard of basic mathematics and probability and statistics. (This alone is highly suggestive of the possibility that, despite all his complaints to the contrary, specific newspaper stories where specific mathematical howlers are made and can be corrected are, in fact surprisingly rare.)

The second disappointment is that, even though these essays are very short, they cannot stay focused on one idea or example for much more than a page. I hate to say it and I don’t mean to be rude, but Paulos’s text has some kind of attention deficit disorder: the essays skitter all over the place, quickly losing whatever thread they ever had in a blizzard of references to politics, baseball, pseudoscience and a steady stream of bad jokes. He is so fond of digressions, inserts, afterthoughts and tangents that it is often difficult to say what any given essay is about.

I was hoping that each essay would take a specific news story and show how journalists had misunderstood the relevant data and maths to get it wrong, and would then show the correct way to analyse and interpret it. I was hoping that the 50 or so examples would have been carefully chosen to build up for the reader an armoury of techniques of arithmetic, probability, calculus, logarithms and whatever else is necessary to immediately spot, deconstruct and correct articles with bad maths in them.

Nope. Not at all.

Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier

Take the very first piece, Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier. For a start he doesn’t tell us who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier is. I deduce from his introduction that she was President Clinton’s nomination for the post of assistant attorney general for civil rights. We can guess, then, that the nickname ‘quota queen’ implies she was a proponent of quotas, though whether for black people, women or what is not explained.

Why not?

Paulos introduces us to the Banzhaf power index, devised in 1965 by lawyer John F. Banzhaf.

The Banzhaf power index of a group, party or person is defined to be the number of ways in which that group, party or person can change a losing coalition into a winning coalition or vice versa. (p.10)

He gives examples of companies where three or four shareholders hold different percentages of voting rights and shows how some coalitions of shareholders will always have decisive voting rights, whereas others never will (these are called the dummy) while even quite small shareholders can hold disproportionate power. For example in a situation where three shareholders hold 45%, 45% and 10% of the shares, the 10% party can often have the decisive say. In 45%, 45%, 8% and 2% the 2% is the dummy.

He then moves on to consider voting systems in some American states, including: cumulative voting, systems where votes don’t count as 1 but are proportionate to population, Borda counts (where voters rank the candidates and award progressively more points to those higher up the rankings), approval voting (where voters have as many votes as they want and can vote for as many candidates as they approve of), before going on to conclude that all voting systems have their drawbacks.

The essay ends with a typical afterthought, one-paragraph coda suggesting how the Supreme Court could end up being run by a cabal of just three judges. There are nine judges on the U.S. Supreme Court. Imagine (key word for Paulos), imagine a group of five judges agree to always discuss issues among themselves first, before the vote of the entire nine, and imagine they decide to always vote according to whatever the majority (3) decide. Then imagine that a sub-group of just three judges go away and secretly decide, that in the group of five, they will always agree. Thus they will dictate the outcome of every Supreme Court decision.

So:

1. I had no idea who Lani ‘Quota Queen’ Guinier was or, more precisely, I had to do a bit of detective work to figure it out, and still wasn’t utterly sure.

2. This is a very sketchy introduction to the issue of democratic voting systems. This is a vast subject, which Paulos skates over quickly and thinly.

Thus, in these four and a bit pages you have the characteristic Paulos experience of feeling you are wandering all over the place, not quite at random, but certainly not in a carefully planned sequential way designed to explore a topic thoroughly and reach a conclusion. You are introduced to a number of interesting ideas, with some maths formulae, but not in enough detail or at sufficient length to really understand them. And because he’s not addressing any particular newspaper report or article, there are no particular misconceptions to clear up: the essay is a brief musing, a corralling of thoughts on an interesting topic.

This scattergun approach characterises the whole book.

Psychological availability and anchoring effects

The second essay is titled Psychological availability and anchoring effects. He explains what the availability error, the anchor effect and the halo effect are. If this is the first time you’ve come across these notions, they’re powerful new ideas. But I recently reread Irrationality by Stuart Sutherland which came out three years before Paulos’s book and spends over three hundred pages investigating these and all the other cognitive biases which afflict mankind in vastly more depth than Paulos, with many more examples. Next to it, Paulos’s three-minute essay seemed sketchy and superficial.

General points

Rather than take all 50 essays to pieces, here are notes on what I actually did learn. Note that almost none of it was about maths, but general-purpose cautions about how the news media work, and how to counter its errors of logic. In fact, all of it could have come from a media studies course without any maths at all:

  • almost all ‘news’ reinforces conventional wisdom
  • because they’re so brief, almost all headlines must rely on readers’ existing assumptions and prejudices
  • almost all news stories relate something new back to similar examples from the past, even when the comparison is inappropriate, again reinforcing conventional wisdom and failing to recognise the genuinely new
  • all economic forecasts are rubbish: this is because economics (like the weather and many other aspects of everyday life) is a non-linear system. Chaos theory shows that non-linear systems are highly sensitive to even minuscule differences in starting conditions, which has been translated into pop culture as the Butterfly Effect
  • and also with ‘futurologists’: the further ahead they look, the less reliable their predictions
  • the news is deeply biased by always assuming human agency is at work in any outcome: if any disaster happens anywhere the newspapers always go searching for a culprit; in the present Brexit crisis lots of news outlets are agreeing to blame Theresa May. But often things happen at random or as an accumulation of unpredictable factors. Humans are not good at acknowledging the role of chance and randomness.

There is a tendency to look primarily for culpability and conflicts of human will rather than at the dynamics of a natural process. (p.160)

  • Hence so many newspapers endlessly playing the blame game. The Grenfell Tower disaster was, first and foremost, an accident in the literal sense of ‘an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury’ – but you won’t find anybody who doesn’t fall in with the prevailing view that someone must be to blame. There is always someone to blame. We live in a Blame Society.
  • personalising beats stats, data or probability: nothing beats ‘the power of dramatic anecdote’ among the innumerate: ‘we all tend to be unduly swayed by the dramatic, the graphic, the visceral’ (p.82)
  • if you combine human beings’ tendency to personalise everything, and to look for someone to blame, you come up with Donald Trump, who dominates every day’s news
  • so much is happening all the time, in a world with more people and incidents than ever before, in which we are bombarded with more information via more media than ever before – that it would be extraordinary if all manner or extraordinary coincidences, correspondences and correlations didn’t happen all the time
  • random events can sometimes present a surprisingly ordered appearance
  • because people imbue meaning into absolutely everything, then the huge number of coincidences and correlations are wrongfully interpreted as meaningful

Tips and advice

I was dismayed at the poor quality of many of the little warnings which each chapter ends with. Although Paulos warns against truisms (on page 54) his book is full of them.

Local is not what it used to be, and we shouldn’t be surprised at how closely we’re linked. (p.55)

In the public realm, often the best we can do is to stand by and see how events unfold. (p.125)

Chapter three warns us that predictions about complex systems (the weather, the economy, big wars) are likely to be more reliable the simpler the system they’re predicting, and the shorter period they cover. Later he says we should be sceptical about all long-term predictions by politicians, economists and generals.

It didn’t need a mathematician to tell us that.

A lot of it just sounds like a grumpy old man complaining about society going to the dogs:

Our increasingly integrated and regimented society undermines our sense of self… Meaningless juxtapositions and coincidences replace conventional narratives and contribute to our dissociation… (pp.110-111)

News reports in general, and celebrity coverage in particular, are becoming ever-more self-referential. (p.113)

We need look no further than the perennial appeal of pseudoscientific garbage, now being presented in increasingly mainstream forums… (p.145)

The fashion pages have always puzzled me. In my smugly ignorant view, they appear to be so full of fluff and nonsense as to make the astrology columns insightful by comparison. (p.173)

Another aspect of articles in the society pages or in the stories about political and entertainment figures is the suggestion that ‘everybody’ knows everybody else. (p.189)

Sometimes his liberal earnestness topples into self-help book touchy-feeliness.

Achieving personal integration and a sense of self is for the benefit of ourselves and those we’re close to. (p.112)

But just occasionally he does say something unexpected:

The attention span created by television isn’t short; it’s long, but very, very shallow. (p.27)

That struck me as an interesting insight but, as with all his interesting comments, no maths was involved. You or I could have come up with it from general observation.

Complexity horizon

The notion that the interaction of human laws, conventions, events, politics, and general information overlap and interplay at ever-increasing speeds to eventually produce situations so complex as to appear unfathomable. Individuals, and groups and societies, have limits of complexity beyond which they cannot cope, but have to stand back and watch. Reading this made me think of Brexit.

He doesn’t mention it, but a logical spin-off would be that every individual has a complexity quotient like an intelligence quotient or IQ. Everyone could take a test in which they are faced with situations of slowly increasing complexity – or presented with increasingly complex sets of information – to find out where their understanding breaks off – which would become their CQ.

Social history

The book was published in 1995 and refers back to stories current in the news in 1993 and 1994. The run of domestic political subjects he covers in the book’s second quarter powerfully support my repeated conviction that it is surprising how little some issues have changed, how little movement there has been on them, and how they have just become a settled steady part of the social landscape of our era.

Thus Paulos has essays on:

  • gender bias in hiring
  • homophobia
  • accusations of racism arising from lack of ethnic minorities in top jobs (the problem of race crops up numerous times (pp.59-62, p.118)
  • the decline in educational standards
  • the appallingly high incidence of gun deaths, especially in black and minority communities
  • the fight over abortion

I feel increasingly disconnected from contemporary politics, not because it is addressing new issues I don’t understand, but for the opposite reason: it seems to be banging on about the same issues which I found old and tiresome twenty-five years ago.

The one topic which stood out as having changed is AIDS. In Innumeracy and in this book he mentions the prevalence or infection rates of AIDS and is obviously responding to numerous news stories which, he takes it for granted, report it in scary and alarmist terms. Reading these repeated references to AIDS made me realise how completely and utterly it has fallen off the news radar in the past decade or so.

In the section about political correctness he makes several good anti-PC points:

  • democracy is about individuals, the notion that everyone votes according to their conscience and best judgement; as soon as you start making it about groups (Muslims, blacks, women, gays) you start undermining democracy
  • racism and sexism and homophobia are common enough already without making them the standard go-to explanations for social phenomena which often have more complex causes; continually attributing all aspects of society to just a handful of inflammatory issues, keeps the issues inflammatory
  • members of groups often vie with each other to assert their loyalty, to proclaim their commitment to the party line and this suggests a powerful idea: that the more opinions are expressed, the more extreme these opinions will tend to become. This is a very relevant idea to our times when the ubiquity of social media has a) brought about a wonderful spirit of harmony and consensus, or b) divided society into evermore polarised and angry groupings

Something bad is coming

I learned to fear several phrases which indicate that a long, possibly incomprehensible and frivolously hypothetical example is about to appear:

‘Imagine…’

Imagine flipping a penny one thousand times in succession and obtaining some sequence of heads and tails… (p.75)

Imagine a supercomputer, the Delphic-Cray 1A, into which has been programmed the most complete and up-to-date scientific knowledge, the initial condition of all particles, and sophisticated mathematical techniques and formulas. Assume further that… Let’s assume for argument’s sake that… (p.115)

Imagine if a computer were able to generate a random sequence S more complex than itself. (p.124)

Imagine the toast moistened, folded, and compressed into a cubical piece of white dough… (p.174)

Imagine a factory that produces, say, diet food. Let’s suppose that it is run by a sadistic nutritionist… (p.179)

‘Assume that…’

Let’s assume that each of these sequences is a billion bits long… (p.121)

Assume the earth’s oceans contain pristinely pure water… (p.141)

Assume that there are three competing healthcare proposals before the senate… (p.155)

Assume that the probability of your winning the coin flip, thereby obtaining one point, is 25 percent. (p.177)

Assume that these packages come off the assembly line in random order and are packed in boxes of thirty-six. (p.179)

Jokes and Yanks

All the examples are taken from American politics (President Clinton), sports (baseball) and wars (Vietnam, First Gulf War) and from precisely 25 years ago (on page 77, he says he is writing in March 1994), both of which emphasise the sense of disconnect and irrelevance with a British reader in 2019.

As my kids know, I love corny, bad old jokes. But not as bad as the ones the book is littered with:

And then there was the man who answered a matchmaking company’s computerised personals ad in the paper. He expressed his desire for a partner who enjoys company, is comfortable in formal wear, likes winter sports, and is very short. The company matched him with a penguin. (pp.43-44)

The moronic inferno and the liberal fallacy

The net effect of reading this book carefully is something that the average person on the street knew long ago: don’t believe anything you read in the papers.

And especially don’t believe any story in a newspaper which involves numbers, statistics, percentages, data or probabilities. It will always be wrong.

More broadly his book simply fails to take account of the fact that most people are stupid and can’t think straight, even very, very educated people. All the bankers whose collective efforts brought about the 2008 crash. All the diplomats, strategists and military authorities who supported the Iraq War. All the well-meaning liberals who supported the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya and Syria. Everyone who voted Trump. Everyone who voted Brexit.

Most books of this genre predicate readers who are white, university-educated, liberal middle class and interested in news and current affairs, the arts etc and – in my opinion – grotesquely over-estimate both their value and their relevance to the rest of the population. Because this section of the population – the liberal, university-educated elite – is demonstrably in a minority.

Over half of Americans believe in ghosts, and a similar number believes in alien abductions. A third of Americans believe the earth is flat, and that the theory of evolution is a lie. About a fifth of British adults are functionally illiterate and innumerate. This is what Saul Bellow referred to as ‘the moronic inferno’.

On a recent Radio 4 documentary about Brexit, one contributor who worked in David Cameron’s Number Ten commented that he and colleagues went out to do focus groups around the country to ask people whether we should leave the EU and that most people didn’t know what they were talking about. Many people they spoke to had never heard of the European Union.

On page 175 he says the purpose of reading a newspaper is to stretch the mind, to help us envision distant events, different people and unusual situations, and broaden our mental landscape.

Is that really why he thinks people read newspapers? As opposed to checking the sports results, catching up with celebrity gossip, checking what’s happening in the soaps, reading interviews with movie and pop stars, looking at fashion spreads, reading about health fads and, if you’re one of the minority who bother with political news, having all your prejudices about how wicked and stupid the government, the poor, the rich or foreigners etc are, and despising everyone who disagrees with you (Guardian readers hating Daily Mail readers; Daily Mail readers hating Guardian readers; Times readers feeling smugly superior to both).

This is a fairly entertaining, if very dated, book – although all the genuinely useful bits are generalisations about human nature which could have come from any media studies course.

But if it was intended as any kind of attempt to tackle the illogical thinking and profound innumeracy of Western societies, it is pissing in the wind. The problem is vastly bigger than this chatty, scattergun and occasionally impenetrable book can hope to scratch. On page 165 he says that a proper understanding of mathematics is vital to the creation of ‘an informed and effective citizenry’.

‘An informed and effective citizenry’?


Related links

Reviews of other science books

Chemistry

Cosmology

The Environment

Genetics and life

Human evolution

Maths

Particle physics

Psychology

Don McCullin @ Tate Britain

This is an enormous exhibition of over 250 photos by famous war photographer Don McCullin. A working class lad who left school at 15 and got interested in cameras during his national service, the show opens with the first photograph he sold (in 1958 a policeman was stabbed by members of a gang in Finsbury Park – McCullin happened to have been at school with some of these young toughs and persuaded them to be photographed posing in a bombed-out house – people in his office saw the printed photo and said why don’t you try selling it to a newspaper? A newspaper bought it, and said have you got any more like that? And so a star was born).

The Guv'nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The Guv’nors in their Sunday suits, Finsbury Park (1958)

The exhibition then follows McCullin’s career as he visited one warzone, famine zone, disaster zone, after another from the early 1960s right through to the 2000s, in the process becoming one of the most famous photographers in the world. He began a long association with the Sunday Times which covered war zones and natural disasters around the world in a ground-breaking combination of photojournalism.

Each of these odysseys is accompanied by a wall label which gives you the historical background of the conflict in question, and then, separately, McCullin’s reactions and thoughts about it.

Not all of them are abroad. The Troubles in Northern Ireland, though mainland Brits often forget it, was, of course, a low-level war or civil conflict fought here in Britain. And McCullin also undertook trips with journalists to parts of Britain which were still very, very deprived in the 1960s and 70s, capturing images of the homeless and alcoholics in the East End, as well as sequences depicting the bleak late-industrial landscapes and cramped lifestyles of the North of England.

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

Homeless Irishman, Spitalfields, London (1970)

The featured locations and subjects are:

  • Early London i.e. variations on his gangs of Finsbury shots
  • 1961 a journey to Berlin just as the wall was going up
  • Republic of Congo descent into civil war
  • Cyprus – intercommunal assassinations between Greeks and Turks
  • Biafra, war and then famine in this breakaway state of Nigeria
  • Vietnam – McCullin went to Vietnam no fewer than eighteen times and shot some of the iconic images of the war: there’s a display case showing the passports he used and the actual combat helmet he wore
Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

Grenade thrower, Hue, Vietnam (1968)

  • Cambodia – as the Vietnam conflict spilled over into its neighbour setting the scene for the rise of the Khmer Rouge
  • the East End i.e. the homeless, tramps and derelicts around Spitalfields
  • Northern Ireland in the early years of the conflict 1970 showing youths throwing stones at British soldiers
  • Bradford and the North – McCullin has a special fondness for Bradford with its rugged stone architecture, and shot the working class amusements of the population (bingo, the pub) with the same harsh candour he brought to his war photos
  • British Summer Time – a smaller section about the activities of the British rich i.e. the season, Ascot etc
  • Bangladesh – the war followed by floods and famine as East Pakistan broke away from West Pakistan in 1971
  • Beirut – once the Paris of the Middle East descends into a three-way civil war, destabilised by neighbours Israel and Syria – there’s a famous sequence McCullin shot at a home for the mentally ill which had been abandoned by most of its carers: madness within madness
  • Iraq – among the Kurds in particular as the first Gulf War came to its tragic end (President Bush exhorted the Kurds and Marsh Arabs to rise up against Saddam Hussein but when they did, gave them no help, so that they were slaughtered in their thousands or fled to refugee camps
  • southern Ethiopia – amazingly colourful tribespeople holding kalashnikovs
  • India – one of McCullin’s favourite countries which he’s returned to again and again to capture the swirl and detail of life
  • the AIDS pandemic in Africa – pictures of the dying accompanied by McCullin’s harrowing description of the AIDS pandemic as the biggest disaster he’d covered

Finally, in the last big room, are displayed the photos from the last few decades of McCullin’s career (born in October 1935, he is now 83 years old), in which he has finally been persuaded to take it easy. These are in two big themes and a smaller one:

  • he has been undertaking trips to the ancient Roman ruins to be found in the Arab countries bordering the Mediterranean, leading up to the publication of the book Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across the Roman Empire
  • and his most recent book, The Landscape (2018), is a collection of stunning photos of the scenery near his home in the Somerset Levels
  • finally, right at the tippy-most end of this long exhausting exhibition are three or four still lifes, very deliberately composed to reference the tradition of the still life in art, featuring apples or flowers in a bowl, next to a cutting board
Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Woods near My House, Somerset (c.1991)

Black and white

All the 250 photos in the exhibition are in black and white. McCullin printed them himself by hand in the dark room at his Somerset home.

As I’ve remarked in reviews of umpteen other photography exhibitions, black and white photography is immediately more arty than colour, because it focuses your visual response on depth, shade, lines and composition.

A lot of the early war photography is obviously capturing the moment, often under gunfire (McCullin was himself hit by shrapnel and hospitalised in Cambodia). But many of the smokestack cityscapes of Bradford and the North, the images of swirling mist and muddy rivers in India, and then the bleak photos of the Somerset Levels, in winter, dotted by leafless trees, floodwater reflecting the huge mackerel cloudscapes – many of these also have a threatening, looming, menacing effect.

The wall labels and the quotes from McCullin himself make it explicit that he is still haunted by the horrors he has witnessed – of war and cruelty, but also of famine and death by epidemic disease. It is a fairly easy interpretation to find the trauma of war still directing the aesthetic of the later photos – whether of Roman ruins in the desert or lowering skies over bleak Somerset in winter – both looking as if some terrible cataclysm has overtaken them.

The magazine slideshow

The one exception to the black and white presentation is a big dark projection room which shows a loop of the magazine covers and articles where McCullin’s photos were first published, displays of how they actually looked when first used, covered with banner headlines, or next to pages of text, and accompanied by detailed captions, describing the scene, what had happened just before or was going to happen afterwards, quotes from the people pictured.

It is striking what a difference a) being in colour and b) being accompanied by text, makes to these images. You quite literally read them in a different way, namely that your eye is drawn first to the text, whether it be the splash headlines on the front covers, or the tiny lines of caption accompanying the images.

It makes you realise that they were almost all first intended to tell a story, to explain a situation and, in all of the rest of the rooms of the exhibition, where that story is told by, at most, a paragraph of text on the wall, the images become ‘orphaned’. They stand alone. they are more ominous, pregnant with meaning, imposing.

Here, in the magazine slideshow, pretty much the same images are contained, corralled to sizes and shapes dictated by magazine layout, and overwritten by text which immediately channels your aesthetic and emotional responses and underwritten by captions, explanations and quotes which lead you away from the image and into the world of words and information.

And because information is, at the end of the day, more entrancing than pictures, more addictive (you want to find out what happened next, who, where, what, why) in one way this was the most powerful room in the show. I stayed for the entire loop which must have lasted over ten minutes, incidentally conveying, yet again, the sheer volume of work McCullin produced.

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

Local Boys in Bradford (1972

One perspective

Which brings me to my concluding thought which is that, for all its breadth (some fifty countries visited) and variety (from traumatic photojournalistic immediacy of wounded soldiers or starving children, to the monumental beauty of the Roman ruin shots and the chilly vistas of Somerset in winter) there is nonetheless a kind of narrowness to the work, in at least two ways:

The louring images of Somerset could hardly be more bleak and abandoned and the commentary is not slow to make the obvious point that they can be interpreted as landscapes as portrayed by a deeply traumatised, harrowed survivor i.e. it is all the suffering he saw which makes McCullin’s photographs of Somerset so compelling.

Well, yes, but these are also landscapes which people travel a long way to go on holiday in, where people have barbecues in the summer, take their dogs for walks, cars drive across playing Radio One, which has a good cricket team and various tourist attractions.

None of that is here. None of the actual world in all its banality, traffic jams and Tesco superstores. The images have been very carefully composed, shot and printed in order to create a particular view of the world.

And this also goes for the war and disaster photos. Seeing so many brilliantly captured, framed and shot images of war and disaster and famine, as well as the images of wrecked human beings in Spitalsfield and the poverty of the North of England – all this is bleak and upsetting and creates the impression that McCullin was living, that we are all living, in a world in permanent crisis, permanent poverty, permanent devastation.

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

A Catholic youth threatening police, Londonderry, Northern Ireland (1971)

You would never guess from this exhibition that his career covers the heyday of the Beatles, Swinging London, hippies smoking dope in a thousand attic squats, Biba and new boutiques, that – in other words – while soldiers were torturing civilians in Congo or Bangladesh, lots of young people were partying, older people going to work, kids going to school, families going on package holidays to the Costa del Sol, trying out fondue sets and meal warmers and all the other fancy new consumer gadgets which the Sunday Times advertised in the same magazines where McCullin’s photos appeared.

In other words, that away from these warzones, and these areas of maximum deprivation, life was going on as usual, and life was actually sweet for many millions of Brits. Kids play and laugh, even in warzones, even in poor neighborhoods. No kids are playing or laughing in any of these photos.

McCullin’s photos build up into an amazing oeuvre, an incredible body of work. But it would be a mistake to use them as the basis for a history or political interpretation of the era. It is just one perspective, and a perspective paid for by editors who wanted him to seek out the most harrowing, the most gut-wrenching and the most conscience-wracking situations possible.

If the cumulative worldview which arises from all these 250 photos is violent and troubled that is because he was paid to take photos of violence and trouble. Other photographers were doing fashion and advertising and sport and pop music photos. Their work is just as valid.

None of McCullin’s work is untrue (obviously), and all of it is beautifully shot and luminously printed – but his photos need to be placed in a much wider, broader context to even begin to grasp the history and meaning of his complex and multi-faceted era.

The promotional video


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Reviews of other photography exhibitions

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne (1977)

The Algerian War was the long brutal conflict between the National Liberation Front (the Front de Libération Nationale or F.L.N.) fighting for Algerian independence from the French Empire, and the French Army tasked with repressing it.

The war lasted from 1954 to 1962. It brought down six French governments, led to the collapse of the French Fourth Republic and eventually forced General de Gaulle out of retirement to become President in 1958, solely in order to sort out a peace deal. As the violence committed by both the FLN and the army increased, as international opinion turned against the French, and as the Soviet bloc became friendlier with the Algerian revolutionaries, de Gaulle found himself reluctantly pushed towards the only logical solution – that France withdrew and granted Algeria its independence.

This was so unpopular among the 500,000 or so troops which France had by this time deployed to Algeria, and who had been fighting and dying in often inhospitable environments (the arid desert, the freezing mountains) that it prompted a military coup by the generals in Algeria. This collapsed in just four days, but the rebellion helped bring together a number of mid-ranking soldiers and psychopaths into an anti-de Gaulle, anti-independence paramilitary which called itself the Organisation armée secrète or O.A.S.

These (and other freelancers) planned and attempted some thirty (!) assassination attempts against de Gaulle as well as an escalating campaign of murder and terrorist outrages against liberal French in Algeria, against writers and thinkers in Paris (they bombed Jean-Paul Sartre’s flat and the homes of newspaper editors) as well as attacking Muslim bars, shops, schools, colleges and so on. IN February 1962 they killed over 550 people. The F.L.N. responded with their own tit-for-tat terrorist outrages. In March F.L.N. activists broke into the home of a pied noir nightwatchman, disembowelled his wife and smashed the heads of his two children, aged 5 and 6, against the wall (p.526). This book is packed with stories like that. Every day in Algiers was marked by the sound of explosions and gunfire.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1962 secret talks began between de Gaulle’s emissaries and F.L.N. representatives at a secret location in the Swiss border. Horne’s book – brilliant in every aspect – shows how right down to the wire the F.L.N. representatives refused to budge on the purity of their demands for complete independence and control of all Algeria’s territory (shrugging aside attempts by France to hang on to her naval bases or the vast areas of the Sahara to the south of the Atlas mountains where, ironically, in the last few years of French rule vast reserves of oil and even more of natural gas had been discovered). A peace treaty granting Algeria independence was signed in March 1962.

Brutality

Official French figures tally up to about 300,000 Algerians who lost their lives in the fighting, but even more in the terrorism and as victims of the extensive intra-Muslim fighting and vendettas. The Algerian state settled on the round number of one million Muslims and sticks to it to this day.

The F.L.N. used terrorist tactics, planting bombs, using drive-by shootings and chucking hand grenades into European cafes, bars etc, but mostly they set themselves to murder Algerians who had sold out to the French authorities e.g. native village constables and local caids, cutting off noses or lips as a first warning, slitting the throats of any ‘traitors’ who remained loyal to the French regime. The French efforts became steadily more indiscriminate, arresting all political suspects in the towns, bombing entire villages and, at the scenes of brutal murders of Europeans, running wild and shooting every Muslim in sight. All of which, of course, helped recruitment to the rebels.

Both sides used torture although the F.L.N. routinely used barbaric bloodthirstiness: on August 20, 1955 about 80 guerrillas descended on the town of Philippeville and went from house to house massacring all Europeans. Mothers were found with their throats slit and their bellies cut open by bill-hooks, babies had their brains beaten out against the walls. One women had her belly cut open and the corpse of her young baby – cut to ribbons by knives – stuffed back inside her (p.121). When French paratroopers arrived on the scene some hours later they went mad and machine gunned every Muslim in sight.

In this respect F.L.N. tactics worked: the native population was terrorised into abandoning the French and giving the guerrillas help; the atrocities sparked the French into harsh reprisals which further alienated both peasant and educated opinion. The F.L.N. strategy was to militarise the conflict and the whole country, and it worked.

The advent of the O.A.S. in the final period of the war raised the levels of wanton brutality to revolting new heights, as French fanatical right-wingers launched attacks in mainland France and in Paris. The French Secret Service attempts to penetrate the O.A.S. were eventually successful in rounding up the O.A.S. leaders but, ironically, this only increased the level of murder and terrorism because the psychopathic ordinary members were now headless and unchecked.

In another level of irony (and what is history except irony written in blood), Horne shows how the O.A.S. – fighting to keep Algeria French – probably did more than any other group to ensure Algeria became independent.

Their aim was to create such chaos that it would lead to the overthrow of de Gaulle the traitor and then… and then… something good would happen (like the coup plotters, they had no grasp of politics). But their way to achieve this chaos was through random outrages, mostly against moderate and educated Muslims – and this had the effect, in the final year of the conflict, of driving a huge wedge between the communities. And this had toe effect of destroying forever any hope that the pieds noirs would be able to live side-by-side in harmony with their Muslim neighbours.

Divisions on both sides

War suggests two monolithic sides, but in fact both ‘sides’ were deeply divided and riven by factions. Ever since the French Revolution back in the 1790s, the French political nation has been bitterly divided between a revolutionary Left and an authoritarian Catholic Right, with all kinds of ineffective liberals ranged in between. After the Second World War, France also had to contend with a large and powerful Stalinist Communist Party. This contributed to the chronic problem with French politics – its instability: there were no fewer than 21 different governments between 1945 and 1958! It was, thus, very difficult for ‘the French’ to formulate and stick to one policy.

On the other side, Horne explains the political situation at the start of the war among the Algerians: there was a communist party, a Muslim fundamentalist party, and a Liberal party representing the so-called évolués i.e. educated Algerians who were progressing along the state-approved path towards full ‘French-hood’.

All of these found themselves outflanked and outmoded by the violence and determination of the F.L.N. But there were also big divisions ethnically and culturally among the Algerians, and within the F.L.N. itself. For a start there were gulfs between the minority of urban, educated, literate Algerians and the majority of the nine million population which were illiterate peasants. Also between ethnic groups in Algeria, for a large percentage of the population were (and are) Kabyle, descended from the original Berber tribal occupants of the country who had their own language, culture and traditions and not all of whom were Muslim. Horne shows how the Kabyle-Arab divide was a permanent problem of the F.L.N. leadership and on the ground led to some appalling massacres perpetrated by each side.

A glaring example was the Massacre of Melouza, in late May early June, 1957, when FLN rebels massacred 300 Muslim inhabitants of the Melouza village because they supported the rival rebel group M.N.A. To be precise the F.L.N. rounded up every male over the age of fifteen, herded them into houses and the mosque and slaughtered them like animals with rifles, pick axes and knives (p.221).

There was also a long-burning division between the ‘insiders’, who stayed in the country to lead the armed struggle, and a cohort of ‘outsiders’ who a) acted as ambassadors, seeking political and financial support from other Arab states – especially Nasser’s nationalist Egypt and b) worked tirelessly at the United Nations in New York to lobby the Cold War blocs and the rising non-aligned movement to support the struggle.

As in every other aspect of this masterful book, Horne gives a thorough and insightful account of the changing personnel, changing relationships and evolving success of each of these factions.

Obstacles to a settlement

The successive French governments had a dual prong strategy: to completely suppress the armed revolt through military means, while simultaneously implementing ‘reforms’ to try and win over the majority of the population. These were stymied for a number of reasons.

  1. Too little, too late The government sent Liberal Jacques Soustelle as Governor-General of Algeria in 1955 to devise a reform package. He introduced the concept of ‘integration’, not altogether easy to distinguish from the previous policy of ‘assimilation’. He aimed to improve the crushing poverty and unemployment in which most rural Algerians lived. He declared he would make Arabic an obligatory language in Muslim schools, train peasants in modern agriculture, eliminate inequities in education alongside the creation of other public works. But the rebellion had already started and, as atrocity followed atrocity, Soustelle found his rational, sensible plans becoming irrelevant in the sea of blood.
  2. The pieds noirs Pieds noirs is French for ‘black feet’. It’s a slang expression the metropolitan (or mainland) French invented for the French who had settled in Algeria. In actual fact, a large proportion of the European settlers in Algeria were from Italy, Spain and other countries. But they all thought of themselves as 100% French and were led by some powerful men who owned huge businesses, rich from shipping, agriculture, vineyards, housing and so on. There were nearly a million pieds noirs and they dominated the Algerian Assembly. In theory Muslims could be elected to this, but in practice, through a system of double elections designed to prevent Muslims being elected, only a small number of Algerians were representatives, despite the natives outnumbering the settlers by about 9 to 1. Anyway, unlike the French government and Liberal opinion, pieds noirs sentiment was solid and consistent: it was anti any kind of further power or representation for Algerians, it wanted the war pursued with maximum aggression, it was against independence in any shape or form. Early on it held riots against ministers sent over from France and realised that it, too, could mobilise the street and threaten violence to foil any attempts at concession.
  3. Algeria was French The strangest element, the most fateful, tragic aspect of the whole bloody tragedy, was that the French government of 1848 made the fateful declaration that Algeria was an integral part of France, as much a part as Brittany or the Dordogne. At least Morocco and Tunisia to the west and east of it had only been French protectorates and so they could, relatively easily, be given their independence – both in 1956. (An unintended consequence was that F.L.N. fighters could use both countries as refuges and arms bases.) But French politicians were lumbered with the fateful situation that Algeria was legally – and all the pieds noirs took this absolutely literally – part of France and so could not be given independence because it was not legally or culturally perceived as a separate entity.

Thus for the French it was not a question of granting a colony independence: it was a case of losing part of France itself. This, to any outsider, is quite obviously insane and part of the experience of reading this long book is to be soaked in the ongoing insanity of the entire French political class. Looked at in this way, the F.L.N. struggle can be seen as the brutal attempt to make the French realise and admit that Algeria was a nation in its own right.

Indo-China and Algeria – one long war

If the year 1954 rings a bell it’s because that was the year the French Army lost the Battle of Dien Bien Phu and, as a result, began to withdraw from Vietnam (see my reviews of two classics on the subject, The Last Valley by Martin Windrow  and Embers of War by Frederik Logevall). The massive French base at Dien Bien Phu was overrun in May 1954 and the rebellion in Algeria began in November 1954. In fact Horne shows that the founding meeting of the umbrella group of revolutionary parties that formed the F.L.N. actually took place on the very day that news of Dien Bien Phu reached Algeria. Many of the same military units who had just been repatriated from Vietnam found themselves being sent on to North Africa to fight another insurgency.

Thus, although on opposite sides of the globe, the wars in Indochina and in Algeria can be seen as aspects of the same struggle of native peoples to free themselves from French rule. Taken together they meant that France was engaged in serious colonial wars from 1945 to 1962. Long time, isn’t it? A long time that it could have been devoting its money and energy to rebuilding its war-torn society back home. And, if it had agreed negotiated independence for both countries, how many lives would have been saved, and what a good reputation France would have enjoyed within those countries and around the world. It makes Britain’s withdrawal from India and Pakistan, though flawed, look like the wisdom of Solomon.

The French military record

In the 1950s the French Army had to look back 150 years, to the heyday of Napoleon, to be really sure of major military victories which they won by themselves.

Napoleon’s army had been finally, definitively, defeated at Waterloo in 1815. The conquest of Third World Algeria began promisingly in 1830, but the French faced stiffer opposition than they expected and the conquest dragged on for over 15 years. It’s true the French won the Crimean War (1853-56) but only  in alliance with the British, only just, and only after establishing a reputation for caution and delay and after losing huge numbers of troops to illness. A few years later the military suffered a humiliation when their attempt to install a Francophone Emperor in Mexico failed and the puppet Emperor was executed in 1867.

But none of this compared with the seismically crushing military defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After the Prussians had finished occupying and looting Paris, the city descended into a super-violent civil war as leftists declared a Commune and the French Army was sent in to defeat and annihilate them. The military defeat of the war and the deployment of Frenchmen to kill Frenchmen left a poisonous legacy which lasted a generation.

A generation later the French Army was the epicentre of the Dreyfus Affair which from 1894 to 1906 tore the country (again) into violently opposing factions either supporting or reviling a certain Captain Dreyfus, who was (wrongly) alleged to have sold military secrets to the Prussians. When he was, finally, exonerated, almost the entire army hierarchy looked like frauds and incompetents.

The French would have lost the Great War if the British Expeditionary Force had not helped to hold the line on the Marne in 1914. After three years of butchery, in 1917 the French Army was dishonoured to suffer widespread mutinies (the British didn’t).

Between the wars France was so divided that many thought the street riots which erupted across Paris in 1934 were the beginning of a civil war. The profound divisions between left, right and liberals encouraged the spirit of wholesale defeatism which led to the speedy French capitulation against invading Nazi Germany in 1940 (‘better the Germans than the reds’, was the cry of conservatives across the country).

France was finally liberated in 1945, with a large contribution from the British but mainly from the overwhelming might of the Americans, scores of thousands of whom died to liberate la patrie. Immediately, the French roared back into arrogant World Power mode and, in Indo-China, instead of taking Vietnamese nationalists seriously, spurned all talks and decided to beat them militarily (the tragic story so brilliantly told in Frederick Logevall’s Embers of War) to restore France’s gloire and grandeur and prestige around the world (it is telling that even in English, we use French words for these ideas).

The eight-year struggle to hang on to Indo-China climaxed in the international humiliation of defeat at Dien Bien Phu, when the French army’s heavily-defended citadel was crushed by the third world army of General Giap, leading the French Army and civilian administration to pack up and leave Vietnam.

(Some of the many, many soldiers, statesmen, civilians and eye witnesses quoted in this long book start the long track of France’s humiliations earlier, with the massive failure of the Seven Years War back in the 1760s, in which King Louis XV’s lack of financial and military commitment led the French to lose both Canada and India to the British Empire. Reflecting on this during the days it took to read this book, a simpler theory came to mind: in the Seven Years War Louis sacrificed the foreign colonies because his main focus was on maintaining France as the pre-eminent military power on the Continent, as his father had and as Napoleon would do. If we take this as the central aim of French foreign policy – to maintain French pre-eminence on the continent – then it was doomed to failure when it met the unstoppable rise of Prussia and Germany from the 1850s onwards. It took three bitter wars between the nations – in 1870, 1914 and 1940 – to prove beyond any doubt that Germany was (and remains) the top power in Europe. So a) France had wasted all those years, men and money in a project which turned out to be futile – while b) all the time their bitter rivals the British were by and large ignoring continental squabbles to focus on expanding their vast maritime empire).

Thus, at their elite academies (e.g. the famous École spéciale militaire de Saint-Cyr) each new generation of French officers was brought up on an unremitting diet of gloire and grandeur but had, embarrassingly, to look all the way back to the great battles of Napoleon 150 years earlier, to find the last real military victories, the last time the French had really won anything. The French were very aware that in the Great War (arguably) and in the Second War (definitely) its success was on the coat tails of the British and the Americans.

This long history of defeat and humiliation helps to explain the special bitterness and acrimoniousness of France’s relations with her colonies post-1945. She didn’t want to be humiliated yet again. According to the French historian, Raymond Aron:

that deep ingrained sense of past humiliations had to be exorcised. (p.331)

And yet, with bleak irony, it was the very doggedness with which she hung on in Indo-China and in Algeria that ended up guaranteeing the political and military humiliations she was striving so hard to avoid.

It’s important to grasp this sense of inferiority and grievance and bloody determination because it helps to explain the fundamental irrationality of the French military ending up declaring war on their own government, trying to assassinate the French head of state, taking France to the brink of civil war, and why a hard core of ‘ultras’ formed the O.A.S. which set out on a policy of murdering their fellow Frenchmen.

Suez

Horne pithily calls the Suez invasion ‘the shortest war in history and possibly the silliest’. (p.163). I hadn’t previously understood its connection with Algeria. The French were convinced that Nasser (leader of Egypt) was supplying the F.L.N. with arms and munitions (they and everyone else were given that impression by the fiery pan-Arab messages coming over on Radio Cairo). In fact, Nasser and the other Arabs were notably unhelpful in the early part of the war, refusing to supply the rebels anything – but the French didn’t know that. Thus when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal in 1956 – two years into the Algerian crisis – the French seized the opportunity to strike a blow against the (supposed) supplier of their enemy in Algeria. The Israelis already wanted to strike a blow against the strongest Arab state and both countries leaned on the British to get involved.

The Suez Crisis is remembered because only a day or so into the joint Israeli-French-British assault on the canal zone the Russians began to make loud warning noises and President Eisenhower threatened to ruin the British economy by selling the U.S. government’s sterling bonds unless the Brits desisted. British forces were stopped in their tracks and British political leaders, the army, informed public opinion, all realised – with a never-to-be-forgotten jolt – that it marked the end of Britain’s role as a Global Power.

Growing up in the 1970s and 80s my generation accepted all of this as a given and now, 60 years later, it seems like ancient history. But it is just one more of the many insights this wonderful book throws up, to revisit it from the Algerian perspective.

Scale

The Algerian War is important in its own right, as the largest and bloodiest of all decolonising wars. You occasionally read about:

  • Britain’s heavy-handed response to the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, but that eight-year conflict resulted in some 12,000 Kenyan dead (mostly killed by fellow Kenyans) and only 200 settlers dead.
  • The Malayan Emergency, when Chinese communists led an insurgency against British imperial forces over a 12-year period from 1948 to 1960, led to a total of about 2,000 Malay and British police and army killed, and some 6,000 communist insurgents dead.
  • The crisis in British-held Cyprus in the later 1950s which resulted in some 600 dead.

Together with other small conflicts, these ’emergencies’ and insurgencies routinely appeared on the front pages British newspapers during the 1950s, but they are quoted here to compare and contrast with the awesome scale and enormous casualties and the huge political turmoil of the Algerian War. It was a completely different order of magnitude and the sheer number of bombings and atrocities is impossible to imagine. In some months there were over 1,000 incidents, over thirty every day. At the peak of O.A.S. activities they would set off 20 or 30 plastic explosive devices every day. In all, the French authorities recorded some 42,090 acts of terrorism.

Horne’s book is long and immaculately detailed, giving a riveting military history of the entire conflict, peppered with accounts of just enough of the atrocities to make you feel continually sick, and tense at the scale of what was at stake. It is like one of the most gripping novels ever written.

Long-term

The Algerian War turned out to be a testing ground for the kind of urban terrorism which has become so common in the 21st century, a pioneer of the strategy of attacking ‘soft’ civilian targets – nightclubs and pop concerts – in order to militarise and polarise society: the worse the atrocity, the greater the success in creating the battle lines.

The only response to this kind of terrorism-to-divide is not to rise to the bait and not to let society become polarised. But the best way to prevent it is not to allow injustice and grievance to build up to such a pitch in the first place, by giving all parts of society a voice, a say, and by having mechanisms through which to confront and solve grievances.

The war was also a template for the kind of asymmetric warfare in a Muslim country between a Western-style army and irregular militia and terrorist units, which has also become common in the 21st century – Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. The cover has a blurb from Thomas E. Ricks, author of Fiasco – the damning account of America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq – which says this book has become compulsory reading for all U.S. military officers and counterinsurgency specialists, and Horne himself draws direct parallels with the Iraq invasion in his preface to the 2006 edition.

The war was such a long and convoluted conflict, with so many aspects, that it also contains examples of a whole range of political problems. In fact, it could almost be read as a sort of compendium of classic problems of statecraft.

  • How not to colonise a country and how not to ruinously hang on to it long after the time to go has come.
  • How not to stage a military coup, something the generals in fact attempted twice, failing both times.
  • How to return to a divided nation as a saviour, how to be all things to all men, and then how to steer a perilous course through violently opposing factions – as de Gaulle did.
  • How not to try and assassinate a head of state.
  • How to penetrate urban guerrilla organisations – Horne’s account of how the French penetrated the undercover F.L.N. network during the Battle of Algiers is brilliant.
  • Just as insightful, and impressive, is the account of how General Maurice Challe in 1959 instituted a whole new method to tackle attacks by smallish groups in remote desert areas – by using radio to call in helicopters carrying reinforcements to surround the armed bands, and by not giving up the chase or hunt until each one had been exterminated. Challe’s approach was showing real results, clearing entire areas of nationalists and reducing attacks, when his operation was overtaken by political developments and he was replaced by a general who never completed the process.
  • Building a wall. Like the Israelis were later to do, and Donald Trump threatens to do in our time, the French built a wall against their enemies. In their case it was an electrified fence stretching along 320 kilometres of Algeria’s border with Tunisia, the so-called Morice Line, because Tunisia in particular was a major bolthole for F.L.N. operatives, guns and money. The Morice Line formed a barbed-wire barrier lined with minefields and a sophisticated alarm system which alerted rapid response units to attempts to breach it, and who could be quickly helicoptered to the breach to intercept and kill F.L.N. fighters.
  • Urban uprisings. Both the pieds noirs and the Muslims staged mass uprisings in Algiers. The French one, starting in January 1960, was called ‘the week of barricades. Horne even-handedly shows how the pieds noirs students and activists organised it, and how the authorities tried to handle it.

There is just a whole host of war-related conflict and public order disturbances throughout the book. Not only Western armies but police forces could probably learn something about managing civil disturbance, disobedience and violent crowds.

Mass migration

The peace was signed with little agreement about the future of the pieds noirs. Seeing themselves as sold down the river, abandoned by their fatherland, and terrified of the reprisals in store once an F.L.N. government took over, the result was panic and a mass movement of people on a scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.

Over a million pieds noirs fled Algeria in a matter of weeks! There were many heart-breaking and panic-stricken scenes which Horne describes. Because of the demand on ships and planes, the pieds noirs were only allowed to take two suitcases of belongings with them. So they made bonfires of all their other goods, mementoes and belongings, then left their homes, which had often been the homes to families for many generations, abandoned to their new Arab owners. The refugees arrived in a France which was completely unprepared for them and which struggled to find homes and schools and jobs for them for many years to come.

Much worse, though, was the fate of the harkis, the native Muslims who had collaborated with the French Army and administration. Up to a quarter of a million Algerians worked with the French army, the ones who came under actual army discipline being called harkis. One of the (just) grievances of senior army figures was that the fate of the harkis wasn’t even addressed in the peace negotiations. Only about 15,000 managed to escape to France. The rest, over 200,000, were, in effect, left to the mercies of the F.L.N. which means that very many of thyem were tortured and murdered.

No-one knows for sure how many of these collaborators were murdered in the months that followed the French withdrawal in July 1962, but Horne quotes a few of the horror stories which later emerged. Hundreds were used to clear the minefields along the Morice Line by being forced to walk through them and get blown up. Many were tortured before being killed.

Army veterans were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut top pieces their flesh fed to the dogs. Many were out to death with their entire families, including young children. (p.537)

In some barracks French officers were ordered to take away the harki‘s weapons, promising them replacements, but then departing the next day, leaving the harkis completely unarmed and defenceless. Some French soldiers were ordered to stand impassively by while harkis were killed in front of them. As you’d expect, many French officers disobeyed orders and smuggled their Muslim comrades abroad, but nowhere near enough.

This book is absolutely packed with situations like this, cruel ironies of war and defeat, atrocities, torture and murder. 600 pages of horror – but reading it gives you an important – a vital – insight into contemporary France, into contemporary Algeria, and into contemporary conflicts between the West and Islam.

A Savage War of Peace

Sir Alistair Horne’s account was first published in 1977 and has long held the field as the definitive account, in English, of this awful conflict – although new studies have appeared throughout that period.

At 600 pages it is long, thorough and beautifully written. I’d read criticisms that it doesn’t give a proper account of the Algerian side, but there is page after page devoted to portraying and analysing the lead characters in the F.L.N. and to disentangling the hugely complex machinations both among the F.L.N. leadership, and between the F.L.N. and the other Muslim groups.

Horne quotes extensively from interviews he himself held with as many of the surviving F.L.N. leaders as he could track down. He explains in forensic detail the social, cultural, economic and political barriers put in the way of Algerians under French colonialism and the multiple unfairnesses of the French system, which led to so much poverty and grievance. When the violence gets going Horne is scrupulous in abominating the results of the terrorist attacks by all sides, and the execution of ‘traitors’ within the F.L.N. or to the civil war between Arab and Kabyle. But he accompanies these with clear-headed explanations of why each side adopted strategies of atrocity. It struck me as perfectly balanced.

Horne was a journalist in the lead-up to the war (working for the Daily Telegraph) and was in Paris researching his first book when the war broke out. He gives examples of the impact de Gaulle’s rousing speeches had on him and fellow journalists as they heard them. He was there. This gives him the invaluable advantage of being able to really convey the atmosphere and the mood, the psychology, the milieu, the feel of what is now a long-distant period.

As mentioned, Horne carried out extensive interviews with all the key players he could track down including – fascinatingly – surviving leaders of the F.L.N. and of the O.A.S. and the French coup leaders. He interviewed no fewer than five of the ex-premiers of France who governed during this stormy period. The text is littered with quotes from key players which shed invaluable light on the complex and long, long course of events. It also means he is able to give in-depth accounts by the main players of vital political and military decisions taken throughout the period.

Horne was himself a soldier who served during World War Two, and so manages to get inside the peculiar mindset of the soldiers in this war, from the foot soldiers on both sides to the higher ranks, the colonels and generals. He doesn’t view the conflict as an academic would (or as I would) as an abattoir, an unrelenting list of brutal murders and tortures – but rather as killings carried out in the name of understandable (if reprehensible) military and political strategies.

Speaking as a non-military man, as much more the liberal humanities student, from one angle the entire text – like the war – is a kind of exploration of the strange twisted notions of ‘honour’ which led men to throw hand grenades into dance halls, to assassinate schoolmasters, to slit the throats of gendarmes, to eviscerate pregnant women. You could make a list of the people – the generals and colonels – who pompously spout on about ‘honour’ and then correlate the massacres and murders committed by their troops. Something similar could maybe done to the F.L.N. who spoke about human dignity and smashed children’s heads against walls or slit open pregnant women.

I circled every mention of ‘honour’ and ‘glory’ I saw. So often they came just before or just after the description of yet more killing, bombing and knifing. Eventually I wished, as the narrator of Hemingway’s novel A Farewell To Arms does, that those old words – glory, honour, pride, dignity – could all be abolished, scrapped forever, thrown into the depths of the sea.

Horne’s style

I’m an English graduate. Words always interest me. Horne was very posh. The son of Sir Allan Horne, he was born in 1925 and sent to a series of public schools before serving in the RAF and the Coldstream Guards during the war. All things considered, it’s impressive that his prose isn’t more old-fashioned. It happily belongs to that post-war style of posh, correct English, grammatically correct but loosened up by the egalitarianism and the Americanism of the post-war years. His prose is a pleasure to read and to read aloud. As a tiny detail of this masterpiece of historical research & writing, I enjoyed the way he confidently uses rare and flavoursome words:

meridional Relating to or characteristic of the inhabitants of southern Europe, especially the South of France, in practice meaning hot-tempered

Says Jouhaud proudly [his disguise] gave him the air of ‘an austere professor, whom candidates would dread at exam time’, though, in fact, photographs reveal something resembling more the coarse features of a meridional peasant. (p.481)

contumelious – (of behaviour) scornful and insulting; insolent

[In the French National Assembly] one of Abbas’s fellow deputies had declared: ‘You showed us the way, you gave us the taste of liberty, and now when we say that we wish to be free, to be men – no more and no less – you deny us the right to take over your own formulas. You are Frenchmen, and yet you are surprised that some of us should seek independence.’ After this eloquent plea, he had been brought to order by the President of the Chamber in this contumelious fashion: ‘Monsieur Saadane, I have already reminded you that you are at the French tribune. I now invite you to speak in French there…’ (p.73)

Objurgation A harsh rebuke:

Through being in charge of the Cinquieme Bureau, with its potent functions of propaganda and psychological warfare [Colonel Jean] Gardes had a powerful weapon and he now used it unhesitatingly to further the cause of francisation – regardless of the objurgations of [Delegate-General] Delouvrier. (p.354)

The Islamic world

Horne has some blunt and simple things to say about the Islamic world. Writing in 2006 he says:

In many ways the horrors suffered in Algeria’s own civil war do read like a paradigm, a microcosm of present-day Islam’s frustrated inadequacy to meet the challenges of the modern world, the anger generated thereby finding itself directed into lashing out against the rich, successful West. (p.18)

This has not got any less true with the eruption in 2011 of the Arab Spring revolts which, in most cases, led to brutal suppression (as in Egypt) or the kind of chaotic civil war to be seen in contemporary Libya or Syria. If you include the under-reported civil war in Yemen, itself a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the recent ostracism of Qatar by the other Gulf states, it’s not difficult to see the entire Arab world as racked by conflicts and crises which its own political and cultural traditions don’t seem equipped to handle.

European nations themselves are fragile – until a generation ago half of Europe was part of the Soviet empire; in my lifetime Spain, Portugal and Greece were run by military dictatorships. And as Horne’s book brings out, just as I was born (in 1961) France nearly experienced a full-blown military coup which could have plunged the country into civil war. Democracy is extremely fragile, requires deep roots, requires the ability to disagree with your opponent without wanting to cut their throat.

Neo-Malthusianism

My son (19 and studying philosophy) calls me a neo-Malthusian. He means that whenever we discuss current affairs I always come back to the sheer scale of human population (and the related destruction of the natural environment). When France invaded, the population of Algeria was 1 million. When the insurrection broke out in 1954 it was 9 million. When Horne wrote his book in the mid-1970s it was 16 million. Today (2017) it is 41 million. The country is lucky enough to float on a vast reserve of natural gas which should underpin its budget for generations to come. But all across the Muslim world from Morocco to Pakistan, huge population increases have put pressure on governments to supply jobs to young men, while at the same time all those countries are reaching the limits of their agricultural and natural resources (of water, in particular).

I don’t think a ‘clash of civilisations’ is inevitable; but I do think an ever-expanding population will provide the motor for unending conflict, and this conflict will be channelled into well-worn channels of racial and religious conflict, invoking the well-worn vocabulary of grievance, victimhood and justification (this doesn’t mean just anti-western violence: the conflict between Sunni and Shia will just get worse and worse, the proxy wars between Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi will get worse; the plight of communities caught in the middle – the Kurds or the Egyptian Copts – will continue to deteriorate).

And various groups or individuals will accept the by-now traditional discourse that ‘It’s all the West’s fault’, that ‘There are no civilians; everyone is a warrior in the war against the infidel’, and so will be able to justify to themselves setting off bombs at pop concerts, driving a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, machine gunning sunbathers on a holiday beach, or storming into a popular market to stab everyone in sight.

All of these things happened during the Algerian War. And all of them are happening again. There are now five million Algerians living in France out of a total population of 67 million. Many of them descendants of the harkis who managed to flee in 1962, many are temporary migrant workers, and many are refugees from Algeria’s bloody civil war in the 1990s.

Many millions are crammed into squalid banlieus, suburbs of cheaply built high-rises and equally high unemployment, where periodic riots break out – the subject of Mathieu Kassovitz’s terrifying film, La Haine. France has been living under a state of emergency since the Bataclan attacks in November 2015. A massive deployment of troops and police was called up for the recent French elections. I shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a permanent state of emergency. Angry Muslims are here to stay.

The Algerian War has effectively crossed the Mediterranean to France… (p.17)


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Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beginnings

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

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

Wars

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

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

Personal life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Photography

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

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

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

Learnings

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

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

The point or purpose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Credit

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

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Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

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