Winter by Len Deighton (1987)

‘And how would Himmler benefit?’
‘If Fritsch went, the Reihsführer-SS would also take the opportunity to extend his powers.’
‘Himmler, extend his powers? My God, the fellow has taken over all the police forces in Germany. And now he’s expanded this SS army of his to two regiments, plus a combat-engineer company and a communications unit.’ (Winter p.339)

‘I like diagrams.’ (Len Deighton, interview January 2014)

The Deighton Dossier seems to be the main site on the internet dedicated to Len and his work and contains lots of fascinating material, including a bunch of interviews from recent years. Reading through these one thing comes over loud and clear, which is Len’s fascination with technology. Whether it’s the early computers and word processors he wrote his novels on (an interest crystallised in Billion Dollar Brainwhich is about a vast super-computer), or the technical histories of tanks and warplanes which are at the heart of his two classic history books (Blitzkrieg and Fighter), Len is warmly sympathetic to the designers and engineers who overcame practical obstacles with inventiveness and creativity (and often critical of the politicians and senior civil servants who frequently made a complete shambles of deploying these wonderful machines).

This knowledge of Len’s profound interest in engineering, design, diagrams, maps, charts and technical details coloured my reading of Winter. This is by far Len’s longest book, an ‘epic’ novel describing the lives, loves and destinies of several German families – the wealthy parents, the sons and daughters, the husbands and wives, the friends and relations – from 1899 to 1945 ie through the Great War, the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and World War Two.

Winter is very readable, being written in Len’s characteristic no-nonsense, factual style. It is packed to the gills with eye-witness accounts of world important historical moments and never misses an opportunity to reference the key technical, military, political and cultural events at each stage of the story. And this is part of the problem. It feels too schematic. Information trumps character.

Plot

Prosperous German industrialist Harry Winter has an American wife, Victoria Rensselaer, a mistress in Vienna and two blonde sons, Peter (b.1896) and Paul, born on the first day of the new century. The text jumps briskly between snapshots of key events in their lives, the chapters simply named after the relevant years (1899, 1900, 1906, 1908 etc).

We read about their privileged childhood in the Edwardian years and move swiftly to the outbreak of the Great War and their differing careers as soldiers. While slim elegant Peter remains an aloof officer, stocky clumsy Pauli serves in the trenches and, on one fateful occasion, breaks the rules to visit his brother behind the lines. This breach of discipline could be punished by death but instead he is consigned to a punishment battalion, then to a stormtrooper unit, which turns him a hardened fighter.

In the chaos of post-war Germany Paul finds himself drawn into the Freikorps, the anarchic militias of generally right-wing soldiers, formed to combat the communists in the street battles which shook many German cities. We meet Pauli’s friend Alex Horner; their tough bastard NCO, Brand, who helps get Pauli punished and then becomes a rising star in the Nazi movement; another tough soldier, Graf, who goes on to become a power in the Sturmabteilung.

We also meet Victoria’s American family, her father Cyrus and her adventurous brother, Glenn. One summer, back when the boys were still small the dinghy they were learning to sail in was blown out to sea, they both pitched over board and were likely to drown until saved by the rough, crude, son of a local pig farmer, Fritz Esser. Their paths are to cross and cross again as Esser also becomes a power in the Nazi Party, rising to become a senior adviser to Heinrich Himmler.

We meet the three pretty daughters of Frau Wisliceny: Inge worships Peter but Peter loves Lisl but Lisl marries Erich Hennig, the smarmy boy who rivals Peter at their shared skill of piano playing. Peter then breaks Inge’s heart by marrying an American woman (like his mother), Lottie Danziger, daughter of an American Jewish businessman. Inge, after years of mourning this decision, to everyone’s surprise abruptly marries the other brother, Pauli, in a whirlwind romance. Her support helps Pauli through his training as a lawyer and then as his early contacts with the Nazis evolve into full-time employment as a senior Nazi lawyer. Much later, disillusioned and cynical, she has a prolonged adulterous affair with Fritz Esser.

Problems

There is no denying the range of characters and the cleverness of the network of relationships Deighton builds up between them. It is a phenomenal feat of planning to map out the lives not only of the main players but of the thirty or so minor characters whose paths cross and recross the central narrative, and to dovetail all of them with the complex political events of these fraught years.

There is no denying Deighton’s extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the period, his grasp of the political, military and technological developments year by year, the sheer depth of  his research. If Len says the weather was terrible on Sunday April 10 1932, the day of the second presidential election, with pelting rain in Berlin (p.271), then you can bet the house this was the case and that Len has checked and double checked it. But:

a) Overfamiliarity I did the rise of Hitler for O-Level 40 years ago. My son did it for GCSE 3 years ago. My daughter is doing it this year. We are in the middle of the 100 year commemorations of the Great War, with the BBC and umpteen other outlets following the events day by day. A month ago was the 70th anniversary of VE Day, with ceremonies involving the Queen, and all autumn there are shows around the country involving flypasts of the remaining World War Two planes. All these events are marked by TV, radio, newspaper and magazine coverage. In other words – the political and military events surrounding the build up to, and the prosecution of, the First and Second World Wars, must be the most intensively written-about and repeatedly dramatised, described, raked over and discussed historical period in our culture. It is a very very familiar story.

b) Overschematic This tends to give the entire narrative an inevitable, predictable character. It is 1908, so the characters are at the Baltic Sea watching the Kaiser’s fleet of Dreadnoughts and wondering about German’s naval rivalry with Britain. July 1914? The characters are feeling tense about Russia’s mobilisation; surely this Balkan nonsense will blow over. Spring 1918? Could the two boys in different parts of the German Army be about to be swept up in the German Spring Offensive? Yep. Christmas 1918? Is it all over, and our boys are eye witnesses to German society collapsing into chaos with the Army fighting communist insurgents on the street. 1924? Are we going to learn how the Winter family has survived the appalling hyperinflation (very well) and their views on Hitler’s 1923 Munich Putsch? Yes. 1929, could one of the characters be directly involved in the Wall Street Crash (yes, old man Danziger (Peter’s father-in-law) who commits suicide when he loses everything).

The new trends and fashions sweeping Europe? Let’s give Pauli a glitzy birthday party featuring young women sporting the new ‘flapper’ look and a band playing the new ‘jazz’ music. Does the novel need insight into the extraordinary cultural turmoil and creativity of the era? Let’s have Peter the piano-playing Army officer very unexpectedly get a job playing piano for Bertolt Brecht’s theatre company, so he can tell stories about Brecht’s genius at directing and play the latest numbers written by Kurt Weill. Hey, here’s a new one called Mack the Knife!

And so it goes on in a rather inevitable way, perilously close to a dramatisation of the BBC Bitesize guide to German history. 1930 election giving the Nazis 100 seats in the Reichstag? The characters express their various levels of disbelief. 1933 election of Hitler as Chancellor? In various conversations the characters react. Pauli is an eye-witness to the Night of the Long Knives in July 1934: he personally accompanies Hitler, Goebbels and others to the hotel where Röhm and the other SA leaders are hiding out; he gives legal advice about how the sentencing and execution can be speeded up and then he watches his old colleague from the War, Graf, be shot by firing squad.

Indeed the two brothers, Peter and Paul, have an uncanny knack for being in exactly the right place at the right time. When the Army is ordered to storm the Kaiser’s Palace in Berlin to evict the drunken sailors who have taken it over (1919), Pauli is at hand to persuade big, bear-like Fritz Esser to leave the sailors who he’s spent most of the war promoting communist propaganda among, and to join Pauli and his fellow officer Alex Horner, in the new right-wing Freikorps.

This latter incident is typical of the way you feel the characters are manipulated to fit the events. I found it frankly unbelievable that Esser, the angry, illiterate son of the village pig man who’s spent most of the war as a communist agent provocateur, could be persuaded to abandon his comrades at the moment of their greatest peril to go on a Berlin pub crawl with Pauli and then, what the hell, join the proto-Fascist Freikorps. Once the deed is done he swiftly rises to become the Adjutant and admin to the Berlin Freikorps commander and, further down the line, right hand man to Heinrich Himmler.

This is phenomenally convenient to the narrative because it means Fritz can drop into Pauli’s apartment at will for the rest of the novel and tell him the latest about senior Nazi machinations, for example Himmler’s consolidation of power via the SS. Much later it allows him to spell out the tentative peace feelers Himmler puts out towards the end of the war, and the various unsuccessful conspiracies to assassinate the Führer.

Fitz’s repeated visits are given the fictional pretext of him having a long-running affair with Pauli’s wife, Inge. Maybe so. The affair is fairly well portrayed or repeatedly described – but I didn’t believe in it half as much as I believed Fritz’s insights into political and historical events, which seemed immediate and convincing. Information trumps character.

No doubt people’s beliefs were fluid in this chaotic period and real people did make astonishing and unexpected changes of belief and loyalty. But you expect a novel to explore the psychology of these characters, of their allegiances and beliefs. You could argue that a novel is useful insofar as it sheds light on the minds of others. This novel doesn’t do that so much. The characters are dexterously moved and manipulated to allow us to be eye witnesses to key events, and to witness the changing political currents of the period. Their motivation, their psychology, comes second.

Early in the novel we see how the brothers’ father, Harald Winter the banker, gains a parcel of land in Bavaria after the suicide of a Jew who owed the bank money. Anybody who knows about the subject will smile when they read it is near the pretty village of Berchesgarten, because we know this is where Hitler was to build his rural Bavarian hideaway. And sure enough, 300 pages later, Pauli and Peter are invited, along with his other neighbours, for an audience at Hitler’s house, after the Nazi Party has gained its first big election victory. Paul and Inge go so we can get a first-hand account of Hitler’s rambling speeches and compulsive mannerisms. But – true to the schematic, diagrammatic nature of the narrative – Peter refuses to go on the insistence of his Jewish wife, Lottie.

One brother has married Jew, one has married Aryan, with predictable divergence of destinies: German Inge insists Hitler’s speeches are all hot air designed to appeal to the sentimental German soul; Lottie the Jewess says, ‘But can’t you hear the genuine hatred of the Jews in his speeches?’ It is a problem that the different views don’t have the same imaginative weight: we overwhelmingly know which one was right, there is no imaginative freedom to choose between characters, the weight of history presses us down on one side.

Schematic conversations

Thus too many conversations relate schematically to the timeline and bear little relation to either the characters or to how people actually talk. ‘Have you heard about the Munich Beerhall Putsch?’ ‘You mean the attempt by the crazy man Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party to take over the regional government by force? Thank goodness it failed and he and all his colleagues were arrested!’ ‘Yes, but did you hear he wasn’t sentenced to hard labour, the judge gave him a six month sentence in good conditions and I hear he is dictating his masterwork, Mein Kampf which will set out his core beliefs and ideas for a Nazi-run Germany!’ That’s a caricature but lots of the conversations veer in that direction:

‘Pauli couldn’t come. Pauli’s packing to go off to Vienna…’
‘Vienna? So the Anschluss is happening?’
‘At dawn tomorrow, our troops cross the border. Please God the Austrians don’t start shooting.’ (p.342)

Or sound like Wikipedia articles rewritten into dialogue.

‘They’re not tanks at all,’ complained von Kleindorf, thumping the thin steel of the PzKw IA with his fist. ‘Five metres long, and armed with nothing better than a couple of machine guns. The damned thing only weighs six tons!’ (p.346)

Moral development

Literature courses teach that the classic novel deals with ‘morality’ and this long novel shows in detail how people lived under the Nazis and came to accommodations with them or thrived. One aspect of the novel is to suggest to the reader how any of us would continue to live, seek promotion or take opportunities under a regime which leads us step by step into horror.

The main vehicle for this ‘moral’ thread is Paul, initially the hesitant, clumsy, younger son, who ends up becoming a proficient lawyer and, when his lay clients dry up a bit, takes on work for the local Nazi office in Berlin and finds himself becoming more and more indispensable.

It is Paul who suggests how Hitler can concentrate power in his hands after the death of President Hindenburg by leaving the office of President permanently vacant and superseding it with office of Führer. It is Pauli who devises a short form of sentencing for the SS executioners to quickly mutter before they murder the top brass of the SA in the Night of The Long Knives. And then, very casually, it is mentioned that it is the quiet, patient lawyer Pauli who writes a paper suggesting that the newly formed concentration camps could and should become economically self-sufficient – which helps spur the organisational structure and purpose of the camps right across Europe.

And, in the only really chilling moment of the novel (I have read too many books and seen too many movies about the Holocaust or the fighting in Russia to be shocked by many of this book’s revolting details) Pauli admits that he was only able to prevent Peter’s Jewish wife Lottie being sent to a concentration camp by swapping her identity papers with his father – Harald’s – Jewish mistress in Vienna, Martha. In an electrifying scene Pauli is forced to admit what he has done to his own father who, with hatred in his voice, bans him for the family house or from ever visiting him again.

In such a vast and compendious novel other readers may well find scenes which horrify and move them, but that one did it for me.

Narrative voice

Deighton’s Bernard Samson spy novels are so enjoyable because they are told in the first person in a voice which is persuasively warm and human (lots of stuff about his wife and kids and sister-in-law etc), ironic and questioning (about his espionage work) and, from time to time, dryly funny (especially about his dim Oxbridge bosses). The convoluted plots are – for me – secondary to this very readable voice and to the reassuringly familiar, sitcom-ish quality of the small group of bickering characters who crop up in each book. If the novels are sometimes rather dry and lacking in emotion and depth, well, that can be put down to the narrator’s costive character.

It is in novels told in the third person that Deighton’s lack of interest in the subtlety of human psychology becomes a bit more obvious. In Goodbye, Mickey Mouse, whereas the technical descriptions of the American fighter pilots, procedures and planes are totally convincing, the main emotional relationships – between Jamie Farebrother and his father, and Jamie and his lover – are contrived and unconvincing, and Deighton’s attempts to bring them out, to describe them and extract from them generalisations about human nature, a little trite and superficial.

This novel, Winter, falls into the second camp, the factually super-researched, emotionally underpowered third-person narratives: fascinating in their skilled retelling of technical and historical detail, reassuringly familiar in ticking off all those GCSE Important Dates – often weak in terms of human psychology and characterisation.

Characters from the Bernard Samson books

Winter has the added attraction for Deighton fans of being the fourth in the series of novels about jaded spy Bernard Samson. As the story unfolds we read, with a thrill of recognition, names of characters we have come to know very well in the first trilogy of Samson novels, because we are reading about their parents.

Thus Harald Winter has married into the Rensselaer family, which makes Veronica’s brother, Glenn, Peter and Paul’s uncle. But it is another branch of the family we’re interested in, for when Glenn and Veronica’s mother dies, their father marries again, and it is one of the step-mother’s three children who has a child who will become the Bret Rensselaer who features so prominently in the Samson novels.

It is a thunderbolt when Samson’s father, Brian, makes his first appearance as an enthusiastic young intelligence officer on page 275. He goes on to play a more and more prominent role in the story as he is put in charge of Peter Winter. Peter had been visiting America at the outbreak of the war, is marooned there for years but, at the prompting of his uncle Glenn Rensselaer, agrees to work for the Allies and so is parachuted back into Germany just before the end of the war as an agent for British Intelligence, supervised by Bernard’s dad!

Similarly, as soon as the character Erich Hennig is introduced and becomes an item with Lisl Wisliceny, I realised she is the old lady, Tante Lisl, who Samson stays with whenever he’s visiting Berlin (in the spy trilogy), because it is in her house that his father set up shop immediately at war’s end, was married and raised young Bernard. The scenes of elegant salons, parties and piano recitals which we witness in this novel are her backstory which is referred to in the trilogy.

Another major character in the Samson stories is the German Jew, Werner Volkmann, Samson’s oldest friend. In Winter we follow the tribulations of his father, a fashionable dentist, who sees his practice destroyed by the Nazi boycott and who only survives by the slenderest of margins, becoming a gravedigger in Berlin’s Jewish cemetery, a job no Gentile will do, which ensures his survival.

In fact, it is through old man Volkmann’s eyes that we see the final Russian push into the heart of Berlin, and the terrifying arbitrariness of total war, as his colleagues decide to walk towards the advancing Russian infantry waving a home-made red flag – and are promptly machine gunned and run over by the advancing communists – whereas Volkmann simply sets off home to his wife and young children and himself only escapes an encounter with one of the last-minute SS execution squads because their officer happened to have his teeth fixed by Volkmann 20 years earlier, in the peaceful Weimar days. In increasingly horrifying examples, the novel powerfully demonstrates that it is by such slender threads that our fragile destinies dangle.

Unlike the rather heavy inevitability of the Political Chronology, these touches and flashing insights into the back stories of characters from the Samson novels are unexpected and delightful, giving a distinct layer of pleasure and enjoyment to what is a very enjoyable but very long and too-often wooden narrative.

Conclusion

It’s a challenging book – long, complex, historical – and not really quite a novel if novels are meant to be concerned with character, psychology and motivation. But as a fictionalised account of the disaster years of German history, as a gripping, comprehensive, awe-inspiring and very readable history lesson, and as a storming backgrounder to the Samson spy novels, Winter is a huge and hugely enjoyable read.

Related links

Paperback cover of Winter

Paperback cover of Winter

Len Deighton’s novels

1962 The IPCRESS File Through the thickets of bureaucracy and confusing misinformation which surround him, an unnamed British intelligence agent discovers that his boss, Dalby, is in cahoots with a racketeer who kidnaps and brainwashes British scientists.
1963 Horse Under Water Perplexing plot which is initially about diving into a wrecked U-boat off the Portuguese coast for Nazi counterfeit money, then changes into the exposure of an illegal heroin manufacturing operation, then touches on a top secret technology which can change ice to water instantly (ie useful for firing missiles from submarines under Arctic ice) and finally turns out to be about a list – the Weiss List – of powerful British people who offered to help run a Nazi government when the Germans invaded, and who are now being blackmailed. After numerous adventures, the Unnamed Narrator retrieves the list and consigns it to the Intelligence archive.
1964 Funeral in Berlin The Unnamed Narrator is in charge of smuggling a Russian scientist through the Berlin Wall, all managed by a Berlin middle-man Johnnie Vulkan who turns out to be a crook only interested in getting fake identity papers to claim the fortune of a long-dead concentration camp victim. The Russians double-cross the British by not smuggling the scientist; Vulkan double-crosses the British by selling the (non-existent) scientist on to Israeli Intelligence; the Narrator double-crosses the Israelis by giving them the corpse of Vulkan (who he has killed) instead of the scientist; and is himself almost double-crossed by a Home Office official who tries to assassinate him in the closing scenes, in order to retrieve the valuable documents. But our Teflon hero survives and laughs it all off with his boss.
1966 Billion-Dollar Brain The Unnamed Narrator is recruited into a potty organisation funded by an American billionaire, General Midwinter, and dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet Union. A character from Funeral In Berlin, Harvey Newbegin, inducts him into the organisation and shows him the Brain, the vast computer which is running everything, before absconding with loot and information, and then meeting a sticky end in Leningrad.
1967 An Expensive Place to Die A new departure, abandoning all the characters and much of the style of the first four novels for a more straightforward account of a secret agent in Paris who gets involved with a Monsieur Datt and his clinic-cum-brothel. After many diversions, including an induced LSD trip, he is ordered to hand over US nuclear secrets to a Chinese scientist, with a view to emphasising to the Chinese just how destructive a nuclear war would be and therefore discouraging them from even contemplating one.
1968 Only When I Larf Another departure, this is a comedy following the adventures of three con artists, Silas, Bob and Liz and their shifting, larky relationships as they manage (or fail) to pull off large-scale stings in New York, London and the Middle East.
1970 Bomber A drastic change of direction for Deighton, dropping spies and comedy to focus on 24 hours in the lives of British and German airmen, soldiers and civilians involved in a massive bombing raid on the Ruhr valley. 550 pages, enormous cast, documentary prose, terrifying death and destruction – a really devastating indictment of the horrors of war.
1971 Declarations of War Thirteen short stories, all about wars, mainly the first and second world wars, with a few detours to Vietnam, the American Civil war and Hannibal crossing the Alps. Three or four genuinely powerful ones.
1972 Close-Up Odd departure into Jackie Collins territory describing the trials and tribulations of fictional movie star Marshall Stone as he betrays his wife and early lovers to ‘make it’ in tinseltown, and the plight he currently finds himself in: embroiled in a loss-making production and under pressure from the scheming studio head to sign a lucrative but career-threatening TV deal.
1974 Spy Story The Unnamed Narrator of the Ipcress spy novels returns, in much tamer prose, to describe how, after escaping from the ‘Service’ to a steady job in a MoD war games unit, he is dragged back into ‘active service’ via a conspiracy of rogue right-wingers to help a Soviet Admiral defect. Our man nearly gets shot by the right-wingers and killed by Russians in the Arctic, before realising the whole thing was an elaborate scam by his old boss, Dawlish, and his new boss, the American marine General Schlegel, to scupper German reunification talks.
1975 Yesterday’s Spy Another first-person spy story wherein a different agent – though also working for the American Colonel Schlegel, introduced in Spy Story – is persuaded to spy on Steve Champion, the man who ran a successful spy ring in Nazi-occupied France, who recruited him to the agency and who saved his life back during the war. Via old contacts the narrator realises Champion is active again, but working for Arabs who are planning some kind of attack on Israel and which the narrator must foil.
1976 Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Spy (aka Catch a Falling Spy) The narrator and his CIA partner manage the defection of a Soviet scientist, only for a string of murder attempts and investigations to reveal that a senior US official they know is in fact a KGB agent, leading to a messy shootout at Washington airport, and then to an unlikely showdown in the Algerian desert.
1977 Fighter: The True Story of the Battle of Britain Abandoning fiction altogether, Deighton published this comprehensive, in-depth and compelling history, lavishly illustrated with photos and technical diagrams of the famous planes involved.
1978 SS-GB A storming return to fiction with a gripping alternative history thriller in which the Germans succeeded in invading and conquering England in 1941. We follow a senior detective at Scotland Yard, Douglas Archer, living in defeated dingy London, coping with his new Nazi superiors, and solving a murder mystery which unravels to reveal not one but several enormous conspiracies.
1979 Blitzkrieg: From the Rise of Hitler to the Fall of Dunkirk Another factual history of WWII: Deighton moves quickly over Hitler’s rise to power and the diplomatic bullying of the 1930s, to arrive at the core of the book: an analysis of the precise meaning of ‘Blitzkrieg’, complete with detailed notes on all the weapons, tanks, artillery and hardware involved, as well as the evolution of German strategic thinking; and then its application in the crucial battle for the river Meuse which determined the May 1940 Battle for France.
1980 Battle of Britain
1981 XPD SIS agent Boyd Stuart is one of about 20 characters caught up in the quest for the ‘Hitler Minutes’, records of a top secret meeting between Hitler and Churchill in May 1940 in which the latter was (shockingly) on the verge of capitulating, and which were ‘liberated’ by US soldiers, along with a load of Nazi gold, at the very end of the war. Convoluted, intermittently fascinating and sometimes moving, but not very gripping.
1982 Goodbye, Mickey Mouse Six months in the life of the 220th Fighter Group, an American Air Force group flying Mustangs in support of heavy bombers, based in East Anglia, from winter 1943 through spring 1944, as we get to know 20 or so officers and men, as well as the two women at the centre of the two ill-fated love affairs which dominate the story.
1983 Berlin Game First of the Bernard Samson spy novels in which this forty-something British Intelligence agent uses his detailed knowledge of Berlin and its spy networks to ascertain who is the high-level mole within his Department. With devastating consequences.
1984 Mexico Set Second of the first Bernard Samson trilogy (there are three trilogies ie 9 Samson books), in which our hero manages the defection of KGB agent Erich Stinnes from Mexico City, despite KGB attempts to frame him for the murder of one of his own operatives and a German businessman. All that is designed to make Bernard defect East and were probably masterminded by his traitor wife, Fiona.
1985 London Match Third of the first Bernard Samson spy trilogy in which a series of clues – not least information from the defector Erich Stinnes who was the central figure of the previous novel – suggest to Samson that there is another KGB mole in the Department – and all the evidence points towards smooth-talking American, Bret Rensselaer.
1987 Winter An epic (ie very long and dense) fictionalised account of German history from 1900 to 1945, focusing on the two Winter brothers, Peter and Paul, along with a large supporting cast of wives, friends, colleagues and enemies, following their fortunes through the Great War, the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler and on into the ruinous Second World War. It provides vital background information about nearly all of the characters who appear in the Bernard Samson novels, so is really part of that series.
1988 Spy Hook First of the second trilogy of Bernard Samson spy novels in which Bernie slowly uncovers what he thinks is a secret slush fund of millions run by his defector wife with Bret Rensaeller (thought to be dead, but who turns up recuperating in a California ranch). The plot involves reacquaintance with familiar characters like Werner Volkmann, Frau Lisl (and her sister), old Frank Harrington, tricky Dicky Cruyer, Bernie’s 23-year-old girlfriend Gloria Kent, and so on.
1989 Spy Line Through a typically tangled web of incidents and conversations Samson’s suspicions are confirmed: his wife is a double agent, she has been working for us all along, she only pretended to defect to the East. After numerous encounters with various old friends of his father and retired agents, Samson finds himself swept up in the brutal, bloody plan to secure Fiona’s escape from the East.
1990 Spy Sinker In the third of the second trilogy of Samson novels, Deighton switches from a first-person narrative by Samson himself, to an objective third-person narrator and systematically retells the entire sequence of events portrayed in the previous five Samson novels from an external point of view, shedding new and sometimes devastating light on almost everything we’ve read. The final impression is of a harrowing world where everyone is deceiving everyone else, on multiple levels.
1991 MAMista A complete departure from the Cold War and even from Europe. Australian doctor and ex-Vietnam War veteran Ralph Lucas finds himself caught up with Marxist guerrillas fighting the ruling government in the (fictional) South American country of Spanish Guiana and, after various violent escapades, inveigled into joining the long, gruelling and futile trek through the nightmareish jungle which dominates the second half of the novel.
1992 City of Gold A complex web of storylines set in wartime Cairo, as the city is threatened by Rommel’s advancing Afrika Korps forces in 1942. We meet crooks, gangsters, spies, émigrés, soldiers, detectives, nurses, deserters and heroes as they get caught up in gun smuggling, black marketeering and much more, in trying to track down the elusive ‘Rommel spy’ and, oh yes, fighting the Germans.
1993 Violent Ward Very entertaining, boisterous first-person narrative by Los Angeles shyster lawyer Mickey Murphy who gets bought out by his biggest client, menacing billionaire Zach Petrovitch, only to find himself caught up in Big Pete’s complex criminal activities and turbulent personal life. The novel comes to a climax against the violent backdrop of the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in April 1992.
1993 Blood, Tears and Folly: An Objective Look at World War II
1994 Faith Return to Bernard Samson, the 40-something SIS agent, and the world of his friends and family, familiar to us from the previous six Samson novels. Most of the characters (and readers) are still reeling from the bloody shootout when his wife returned from her undercover mission to East Germany at the climax of the previous novel. This book re-acquaints us with all the well-loved characters from the previous stories, in a plot ostensibly about smuggling a KGB colonel out from the East, but is really about who knows the truth – and who is trying to cover up – the real cause of the Fiona-escape debacle.
1995 Hope 40-something SIS agent Bernard Samson continues trying to get to the bottom of the death of his sister-in-law, Tessa Kosinski and is soon on the trail of her husband, George, who has gone missing back in his native Poland.
1996 Charity Ninth and final Bernard Samson novel in which it takes Bernard 300 pages to piece together the mystery which we readers learned all about in the sixth novel of the series, ie that the plot to murder Fiona’s sister, Tessa, was concocted by Silas Gaunt. Silas commissioned Jim Prettyman to be the middle-man and instructed him to murder the actual assassin, Thurkettle. Now that is is openly acknowledged by the Department’s senior staff, the most striking thing about the whole event – its sheer amateurish cack-handedness – is dismissed by one and all as being due to Gaunt’s (conveniently sudden) mental illness. As for family affairs: It is Bret who ends up marrying Bernard’s one-time lover, the glamorous Gloria; Bernard is finally promised the job of running the Berlin Office, which everyone has always said he should have: and the novel ends with a promise of reconciliation with his beautiful, high-flying and loving wife, Fiona.

Truth and Memory @ Imperial War Museum

The Imperial War Museum London re-opened in July after a £40 million refurbishment. Part of the new layout is a FREE permanent exhibition of some of the best British art works from the Great War. In fact the IMW claims it is ‘The largest exhibition of British First World War art for almost 100 years.’ The display is titled Truth and Memory and it turns out to be divided into two separate galleries on the third floor, each addressing one of these concepts.

Truth

What is artistic truth? In 1914 various forms of artistic Modernism were only just stirring in Britain, against a long Victorian tradition of noble and dignified realism. The rooms in the Truth gallery highlight the new young artists, often dismissed as artistic Bolsheviks but they and their supporters argued that the grotesque and unprecedented conditions of the War required new means of expression.

Many of these paintings were familiar to me both because I’m a fan of this kind of art and because I saw a number of them at the recent exhibition A Crisis of Brilliance at Dulwich Picture Gallery and read about them in the related book, which I reviewed here. In addition, I recently saw some of them or paintings by the same artists at the National Portrait Gallery’s recent show, The Great War In Portraits.

So I enjoyed seeing again the familiar and thrillingly ‘modern’ works by Nevinson, Nash, Spencer and Wyndham Lewis – but I was specially pleased to encounter works of people I’d never heard of before – Delf Smith, Spare, Clausen, Lamb and the two women artists, Norah Neilson-Gray and Anna Airy.

CRW Nevinson, the enfant terrible who was displaying his wonderfully stylish Futirust paintings and drawings within a year of the start of the War.

Paths of Glory (1917) by CRW Nevinson © IWM

Paths of Glory (1917) by CRW Nevinson © IWM

Paul Nash preferred landscapes to people and transferred the technique he’d developed for English pastoral to the blasted landscapes of the Western Front.

We Are Making a New World (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

We Are Making a New World (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

William Orpen was an older, established artist and developed an approach which used motifs from the Western tradition – he also did a number of lush traditional portraits, on show here are some spiffing fighter pilots – but also strange and haunting images of civilians, including the Mad Women of Douai.

Percy Delf Smith is so obscure he doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry. He is represented here by a set of engravings titled The Dance of Death, powerful, haunting realistic images of soldiers in various plights, all accompanied by the shrouding figure of death, including Death marches.

Austin Spare, a strange and haunting symbolist painter, represented by an image of one Tommy helping another.

Gilbert Rogers has several paintings, including Gassed.

Gassed. 'In Arduis Fidelis' (1919) by Gilbert Rogers © IWM

Gassed. ‘In Arduis Fidelis’ (1919) by Gilbert Rogers © IWM

Memory

How did people remember and commemorate the Great War – in its immediate aftermath, in the generations that followed and now, 100 years later? The Imperial War Museum itself has played a role in the shaping of perceptions, as it was founded in 1917 to collect and house artefacts relating to the War while it was still ongoing.

I’m not sure the arrangement of paintings makes perfect sense, as there is a room here dedicated to the Vorticists, who I’d have thought should have been over with the young Turk Modernist painters in the Truth wing. there are half a dozen wonderful Wyndham Lewis’s including the surprisingly enormous A Battery Shelled, covering a whole wall.

A Battery Shelled (1919) by Percy Wyndham Lewis ©IWM

A Battery Shelled (1919) by Percy Wyndham Lewis ©IWM

There was also a room devoted to Stanley Spenser, including Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916. I’m not sure these have much to do with memory, or only as much as any other painting or sketch does.

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer ©IWM

Travoys Arriving with Wounded at a Dressing-Station at Smol, Macedonia, September 1916 (1919) by Stanley Spencer ©IWM

Hung next to the Spensers were works by Henry Lamb, who I’d never heard of but worked in a similarly naive style. the standout piece is Irish Troops in the Judean Hills Surprised by a Turkish Bombardment.

Arguably Lewis and Bomberg, Spenser and Lamb should have been over in the Truth gallery. I think this gallery makes its point about Memory when it a) shows works by much older artists, people too old to fight in the War, works which therefore try to find symbols to convey the suffering such as George Clausen’s enigmatic, symbolist-style Youth Mourning…

Youth Mourning (1916) by George Clausen © IWM

Youth Mourning (1916) by George Clausen © IWM

… Or b) shows  the larger number of works which follow directly on from late Victorian realist paintings and sculptures, using the established and traditional vocabulary, the epitome of which is probably William Orpen’s To the Unknown Soldier in France. Are institutional, formal and ‘official’ paintings like this somehow a betrayal of the rawer, horrendous experiences of the troops? Or do they accurately reflect the, after all, military training and mindset of the majority of the  soldiers who fought?

To the Unknown Soldier in France (1921-1928) by William Orpen ©IWM

To the Unknown Soldier in France (1921-1928) by William Orpen © IWM

Factories and Women

Though included in the Memory gallery this room struck me as being a massive subject in its won right: it contains ten or so paintings about the vast industrial effort that went on to supply the troops with everything they needed and, strikingly, some good, strong paintings by women artists I’d never heard of. Again, female artists of the Great War is a subject crying out for its own dedicated exhibition, certainly I’d like to see more by, and learn more about, about these two women artists.

Anna Airy

©IWM ART 2271 Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow (1918) Anna Airy Oil on canvas

Shop for Machining 15-inch Shells: Singer Manufacturing Company, Clydebank, Glasgow (1918) by Anna Airy. ©IWM

Norah Neilson-Gray, represented by a large painting The Scottish Women’s Hospital.

The assertion of tradition

Off to one side is a room which contains the traditional stuff, by the traditional artists of the day. Lots of busts of the military leaders, maquettes for formal war memorials and, dominating a whole wall, John Singer Sargent’s enormous and very moving  Gassed.

©IWM ART 1460 Gassed (1919) John Singer Sargent Oil on canvas

Gassed (1919) by John Singer Sargent © IWM

The information panel on the wall explains that much of the modern modern art acquired or commissioned by the IMW was lent to Tate Britain, a move which tended to leave the IW Museum with the more traditional, the more Imperial, the more jingoistic and paternalistic works.

This room gives a good impression of how technically good and effective these paintings and busts are, but also – how stifling, how conformist and so, ultimately, how untrue to the unique and horrifying experience so many millions of men and helpless civilians were forced to undergo during those nightmare years.

Related links


Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

Greenmantle by John Buchan (1916)

This is the second of Buchan’s five thrillers told in the first person by the bluff, straight-talking South African mining engineer-cum posh chap Richard Hannay. Whereas the Thirty-Nine Steps which is about foiling a German plot to smuggle military secrets out of England, is set just before the outbreak of the Great War, this sequel was written between February and June 1916 and is very much set during the Great War: the  plot starts in November 1915 and goes on into early 1916. (NB In June 1916 Buchan joined the intelligence department of the Foreign Office and in July the first installment of the Greennmantle appeared in Land and Water magazine. Buchan’s role working for British propaganda is worth bearing in mind when reading any of his books, and I will discuss more fully in the next blog post, about Mr Standfast.)

The plot

Hannay is joined in his adventure by three friends: Sandy Arbuthnot, a dashing hero who is blood brother to half the tribes of bedouin and gypsies throughout the Middle East (‘He rode through Yemen, which no white man ever did before.’); Peter Pienaar, a grizzled old big game hunter friend of Hannay’s from South Africa; John S. Blenkiron, a tubby and extremely knowledgeable American on our side.

Sir Walter Bullivant, the senior intelligence man who came to Hannay’s aid in the Steps, now informs them there is a dastardly German plot to cause a muslim uprising against the British in the Middle East and beyond, down the east coast of Africa. Our heroes are tasked with finding out who’s organising it and stopping it.

This rather vague commission leads them to plan to journey via separate routes to Istanbul to find out everything  they can along the way, rendezvous, and come up with a plan. While Blenkiron travels in style through Germany posing as an outspoken opponent of the War and of the Allies and Sandy plans his own mysterious journey via the Med, Hannay poses as a disgruntled South African Boer ready to throw in his lot with the Germans, and this leads him to be presented to the sinister Hun General von Stumm, to overhear vital conversations, and then to escape and go on the run through the winter snows of Germany, involving extremes of physical endurance, car chases, fake identities and so on.

Plot shift – a volta?

In the Alistair MacLean novels I identified the frequent use of an abrupt volta or shift, whereby the hero reveals he is something completely different from what he’d led us to believe for the first half of the text. Something similiar though less calculating happens in the Thirty-Nine Steps: the first half of the plot is driven by Hannay’s need to hide from the German spy organisation until he can get news to the authorities about their plot to assassinate the Greek Prime Minister on a state visit to London. But in the last chapter or so, the Greek PM is assassinated and, suddenly, it doesn’t matter because it has become a much more chamber affair of a German spy impersonating the First Sea Lord – an incident Hannay happens to witness through incredible coincidence as he happens to be waiting outside the meeting to see Bullivant, the head of British intelligence. It is only by the slenderest of accidents that Hannay spots this and realises the true meaning of the fragmentary message about the 39 steps ie they are steps down to the sea from a coastal house for a German spy to escape taking the information the imposter has learned at this high-level meeting.

Well, the same thing happens in Greenmantle. The first half or more relates Hannay’s dashing adventures in wintry Germany, before he finally makes it to Istanbul where our heroes meet up and establish that a new muslim prophet has arisen and is being steered and managed by a fiendish German mastermind. BUT then the book’s focus changes. Whereas the uprising had formerly been a general jihad of all muslims in the Middle East, now it becomes focused on the battle around the eastern city of Erzerum where the Russians are besieging the Turkish Army, bolstered by German forces – and then, in exactly the kind of slender coincidence on which the Steps turned, Hannay – escaping over rooftops from pursuing soldiers – accidentally sees the General poring over plans before leaving the room, so – in a typical moment of dash and pluck – Hannay opens the window, nips across the room and snaffles the plans, returns to the window, and completes his rooftop escape. The plans turn out to be the enemy deployments around Erzerum and, in a further adventure, our heroes smuggle them through enemy lines to the Russians who, thus informed, are able to storm the city and capture that front.

(Incidentally, it’s worth mentioning that the final scene, the climax of the book, where the attacking Cossacks not only rescue Hannay and pals from being shelled by the wicked von Stumm, but also lend them horses so they can lead the cavalry charge into Erzerum, is genuinely exciting and thrilling.)

A small world of toffs

The upper class world Hannay inhabits is small: everyone of importance in England knows everyone else or has heard of them via the public school network; and similarly, everyone abroad is connected with that network somehow, creating an international matrix of acquaintances. For example, when Peter Pienaar arrives after perilously crossing the front line between the Turkish and Russian armies, it is absolutely classic that the Russian general he is presented to turns out to be a decent feller who he once went wild game shooting with in Matabeleland. Of course.  In this world there are only two or three hundred people of note who all went to school together or are related to each other or a few foreigners who one has had scrapes with.

This small world is, to quote Auden, ‘everso comfy’. It is part of the childishness of these thrillers not only that our chaps will get out of their scrapes, but that their and our values are correct, the only decent ones – and shared by all good-hearted people everywhere ie all the upper crust people or chaps who’ve knocked about and done a bit of hunting. There is none of the anxiety or alienation which has struck most writers as characteristic of the 20th century world. This uber-confidence is most apparent in Buchan’s amazing prose style.

Style

People say Buchan’s adventures are fast-paced. Sure, things happen and, after a generally slow start, at an accelerating rate – but I suggest the sense of ‘pace’ is created by his amazingly crisp and no-nonsense style. By pacy I mean his ability to describe a person, place or situation in a minimum of words, with precise, well-turned phrases. This lack of dawdling, no hesitation or doubt, this ability to say things fast, creates a sense of speed even when not much is actually happening. The opening sentences are:

I had just finished breakfast and was filling my pipe when I got Bullivant’s telegram. It was at Furling, the big country house in Hampshire where I had come to convalesce after Loos, and Sandy, who was in the same case, was hunting for the marmalade. I flung him the flimsy with the blue strip pasted down on it, and he whistled. (Chapter 1)

Setting: breakfast, pipe, marmalade. the same super-English atmosphere of cosy domesticity that characterises Sherlock and Watson. Actions: flung, whistled; aristocratic gestures of nonchalance, calm, confident, urbane. This is the tone throughout, the unflustered Englishman. When they meet to plan it is in Claridges, the Savoy, their club.

There was a motor-car waiting—one of the grey military kind—and we started at a terrific pace over bad forest roads. Stumm had put away his papers in a portfolio, and flung me a few sentences on the journey. (Ch 5)

Pace, speed, flung. Cars were relatively new and almost as soon as they were invented they were being stolen and involved in high speed chases: Hannay steals one in Germany and then another in Turkey. Here he is ditching his stolen car, sounding like Raymond Chandler 20 years later.

Presently I came on a bit of rough heath, with a slope away from the road and here and there a patch of black which I took to be a sandpit. Opposite one of these I slewed the car to the edge, got out, started it again and saw it pitch head-foremost into the darkness. There was a splash of water and then silence. Craning over I could see nothing but murk, and the marks at the lip where the wheels had passed. (Ch 7)

Pen portraits and memorable scenes

The precision and briskness of his style lends itself to acute pen portraits and memorable scenes, written with verve and clarity. Probably the most tremendous is when he is accompanying von Stumm as a potential helper and ally, and finds himself being presented to the Kaiser himself!

At the far side of the station a train had drawn up, a train consisting of three big coaches, chocolate-coloured and picked out with gold. On the platform beside it stood a small group of officers, tall men in long grey-blue cloaks. They seemed to be mostly elderly, and one or two of the faces I thought I remembered from photographs in the picture papers.

As we approached they drew apart, and left us face to face with one man. He was a little below middle height, and all muffled in a thick coat with a fur collar. He wore a silver helmet with an eagle atop of it, and kept his left hand resting on his sword. Below the helmet was a face the colour of grey paper, from which shone curious sombre restless eyes with dark pouches beneath them. There was no fear of my mistaking him. These were the features which, since Napoleon, have been best known to the world.

I stood as stiff as a ramrod and saluted. I was perfectly cool and most desperately interested. For such a moment I would have gone through fire and water.

‘Majesty, this is the Dutchman I spoke of,’ I heard Stumm say.

‘What language does he speak?’ the Emperor asked.

‘Dutch,’ was the reply; ‘but being a South African he also speaks English.’

A spasm of pain seemed to flit over the face before me. Then he addressed me in English.

‘You have come from a land which will yet be our ally to offer your sword to our service? I accept the gift and hail it as a good omen. I would have given your race its freedom, but there were fools and traitors among you who misjudged me. But that freedom I shall yet give you in spite of yourselves. Are there many like you in your country?’

‘There are thousands, sire,’ I said, lying cheerfully. ‘I am one of many who think that my race’s life lies in your victory. And I think that that victory must be won not in Europe alone. In South Africa for the moment there is no chance, so we look to other parts of the continent. You will win in Europe. You have won in the East, and it now remains to strike the English where they cannot fend the blow. If we take Uganda, Egypt will fall. By your permission I go there to make trouble for your enemies.’

A flicker of a smile passed over the worn face. It was the face of one who slept little and whose thoughts rode him like a nightmare. ‘That is well,’ he said. ‘Some Englishman once said that he would call in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. We Germans will summon the whole earth to suppress the infamies of England. Serve us well, and you will not be forgotten.’

Then he suddenly asked: ‘Did you fight in the last South African War?’

‘Yes, Sir,’ I said. ‘I was in the commando of that Smuts who has now been bought by England.’

‘What were your countrymen’s losses?’ he asked eagerly.

I did not know, but I hazarded a guess. ‘In the field some twenty thousand. But many more by sickness and in the accursed prison-camps of the English.’

Again a spasm of pain crossed his face.

‘Twenty thousand,’ he repeated huskily. ‘A mere handful. Today we lose as many in a skirmish in the Polish marshes.’

Then he broke out fiercely.

‘I did not seek the war … It was forced on me … I laboured for peace … The blood of millions is on the heads of England and Russia, but England most of all. God will yet avenge it. He that takes the sword will perish by the sword. Mine was forced from the scabbard in self-defence, and I am guiltless. Do they know that among your people?’

‘All the world knows it, sire,’ I said.

He gave his hand to Stumm and turned away. The last I saw of him was a figure moving like a sleep-walker, with no spring in his step, amid his tall suite. I felt that I was looking on at a far bigger tragedy than any I had seen in action. Here was one that had loosed Hell, and the furies of Hell had got hold of him. He was no common man, for in his presence I felt an attraction which was not merely the mastery of one used to command. That would not have impressed me, for I had never owned a master. But here was a human being who, unlike Stumm and his kind, had the power of laying himself alongside other men. That was the irony of it. Stumm would not have cared a tinker’s curse for all the massacres in history. But this man, the chief of a nation of Stumms, paid the price in war for the gifts that had made him successful in peace. He had imagination and nerves, and the one was white hot and the others were quivering. I would not have been in his shoes for the throne of the Universe … (ch 6)

Similarly, he meets the leader of Turkey, Ismail Enver Pasha, a leader of the 1908 Young Turk Revolution and effective leader of the Ottoman Empire in both Balkan Wars and World War I.

But the great event was the sight of Enver. He was a slim fellow of Rasta’s build, very foppish and precise in his dress, with a smooth oval face like a girl’s, and rather fine straight black eyebrows. He spoke perfect German, and had the best kind of manners, neither pert nor overbearing. He had a pleasant trick, too, of appealing all round the table for confirmation, and so bringing everybody into the talk. Not that he spoke a great deal, but all he said was good sense, and he had a smiling way of saying it. Once or twice he ran counter to Moellendorff, and I could see there was no love lost between these two. I didn’t think I wanted him as a friend—he was too cold-blooded and artificial; and I was pretty certain that I didn’t want those steady black eyes as an enemy. But it was no good denying his quality. The little fellow was all cold courage, like the fine polished blue steel of a sword. (ch 13)

Racism

Anti-semitism No point denying it. Hannay is given to quick stereotypes of all sorts of races and nationalities – it’s part of the speedy summing-up of people and places which is an aspect of his upper-class English confidence and of his style. Nonetheless, his comments about Jews go above and beyond this stereotyping to have an unpleasant, vengeful flavour.

In Germany only the Jew can get outside himself, and that is why, if you look into the matter, you will find that the Jew is at the back of most German enterprises. (Ch 6)

Poor old Peter had no greatcoat, so we went into a Jew’s shop and bought a ready-made abomination, which looked as if it might have been meant for a dissenting parson… Peter and I sat down modestly in the nearest corner, where old Kuprasso saw us and sent us coffee. A girl who looked like a Jewess came over to us and talked French, but I shook my head and she went off again. (Ch 11)

Blacks There is one stunning reference to blacks which recalls Hannay’s character as a man who’s spent a lot of time in South Africa based, of course, on Buchan’s own time as assistant to the High Commissioner in South Africa from 1901 to 1903.

He liked the way I kept the men up to their work, for I hadn’t been a nigger-driver for nothing. (Ch 9)

Whites the corollary of these stereotypes of other races is, if you like, a stereotype of the good white man, phrases which assume his unquestioned place at the top of the racial pyramid. In particular I was startled to read the phrase ‘like a white man’ used to denote, well, being a sound chap.

That fellow gave me the best ‘feel’ of any German I had yet met. He was a white man and I could have worked with him. I liked his stiff chin and steady blue eyes. (Ch 4)

Gaudian was clearly a good fellow, a white man and a gentleman. I could have worked with him for he belonged to my own totem. (Ch 5)

Still the ride did us good and shook up our livers, and by the time we turned for home I was feeling more like a white man. (Ch 14)

Good Germans

But Buchan is wise enough not to belabour the stereotypes: in the race across Germany section of the book he goes to great lengths to describe good Germans: the engineer Gaudian is honest and open. There is a maybe sentimental but nonetheless moving account of the poor woman who takes Hannay in in the depths of winter and allows him to have his malaria bout in her quiet attic room and in return Hannay carves toys for her poor children. And there’s a long sequence where Hannay manages to get a berth on a set of barges from Essen which is chugging south through Austria and, as he does so, gets to know the captain and crew and gets, as usual, to like them.

It is one of Hannay’s endearing qualities that he is quick to see the good side of people, or to admire them, even if he disagrees with them or they are sworn enemies.

Gynophobia

As with She, Rider Haggard’s classic boys adventure story about the Eternal Woman, Greenmantle suggests the English public school boy has made little or no progress in being able to accept or understand women as women. Buchan’s Hilda von Einem must run Ayesha a close second in the stakes of being a shocking collection of feminine (and sexist?) clichés.

Although she’s meant to be the wicked mastermind behind the whole uprising plan, the entire new prophet-von Einem-muslim uprising part of the plot doesn’t come alive for me. It is the monstrous General von Stumm and the intense period Hannay spends with him in Germany, and then the long escape through the snow, and the long barge ride down the Danube, and then von Stumm’s magical reappearance in Erzerum to chase and corner Hannay and chums on an isolated hilltop, it is these elements of the book which have real life because they are the physical tests and tribulations which are the core of the good thriller – the sense of a fit man pushed to the physical and mental limit – and are described with such vividness.

I must have run miles before the hot fit passed, and I stopped from sheer bodily weakness. There was no sound except the crush of falling snow, the wind seemed to have gone, and the place was very solemn and quiet. But Heavens! how the snow fell! It was partly screened by the branches, but all the same it was piling itself up deep everywhere. My legs seemed made of lead, my head burned, and there were fiery pains over all my body. I stumbled on blindly, without a notion of any direction, determined only to keep going to the last. For I knew that if I once lay down I would never rise again. (Ch 7)

Jihad and the muslim world

A hundred years after this novel speculated about a muslim uprising in the Middle East against the Western powers, the forces of ISIS are storming through Iraq and claiming Syria as part of the Caliphate. Is it a topical subject, or just a subject which never goes away in the muslim world, a world which seems to permanently long to return to the imagined purity of some fictional middle ages. What is a bit more characteristic is Buchan/Hannay’s assumption that this is a world only Brits can really understand – unlike the blundering Germans and – later – Americans.

Buchan knows his and Hannay’s limits, so he gives the role of special insight into the Arab mind, and into the muslim prophet who is called Greenmantle, to fellow hero Sandy Arbuthnot:

‘I never saw such a man. He is the greatest gentleman you can picture, with a dignity like a high mountain. He is a dreamer and a poet, too – a genius if I can judge these things. I think I can assess him rightly, for I know something of the soul of the East, but it would be too long a story to tell now. The West knows nothing of the true Oriental. It pictures him as lapped in colour and idleness and luxury and gorgeous dreams. But it is all wrong. The Kaf he yearns for is an austere thing. It is the austerity of the East that is its beauty and its terror…  It always wants the same things at the back of its head. The Turk and the Arab came out of big spaces, and they have the desire of them in their bones. They settle down and stagnate, and by the by they degenerate into that appalling subtlety which is their ruling passion gone crooked. And then comes a new revelation and a great simplifying. They want to live face to face with God without a screen of ritual and images and priestcraft. They want to prune life of its foolish fringes and get back to the noble bareness of the desert. Remember, it is always the empty desert and the empty sky that cast their spell over them – these, and the hot, strong, antiseptic sunlight which burns up all rot and decay. It isn’t inhuman. It’s the humanity of one part of the human race. It isn’t ours, it isn’t as good as ours, but it’s jolly good all the same. There are times when it grips me so hard that I’m inclined to forswear the gods of my fathers!

Probably critics would damn this and Buchan’s entire approach as Orientalist ie assuming Western superiority to a stereotype of the corrupt, lazy East. But it feels to me an accurate enough dramatisation of that mentality, of the mentality of the jolly rugger captain whose soul is captured by the simplicity and purity of bedouin life and becomes a devotee of Arab culture, from Sir Richard Burton to the TE Lawrence who was making a name for himself among the Arabs just as Greenmantle was published.

Related links

Cover of Greenmantle, 1916

Book cover of Greenmantle, 1916

The Thirty-nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Famous ripping yarn, the first novel to feature the dashing hero Richard Hannay, I’d forgotten it is set in the last months of peace before the outbreak of World War I, with Germany the enemy and the threat of war hanging over every sentence. Buchan wrote it in bed while suffering from the duodenal ulcer which was to plague him all his life. It was serialised in Blackwood’s Magazine in August and September 1915 before being published in book form in October that year.

Plot

Richard Hannay is 37 and bored. He’s back from South Africa where he made his pile as an engineer and has returned to the old country. His neighbour Franklin Scudder accosts him with a cock and bull story about some kind of conspiracy to assassinate the visiting Greek premier which intrigues Hannay enough to let him stay in his flat for safety but, returning a day later, he finds Scudder dead. Hannay takes his pocket book and escapes to King’s Cross and thence by train to the Dumfries and Galloway region of Scotland, with a view of staying at liberty till he can return to London and warn the authorities.

This begins a long drawn-out chase and pursuit across Scotland countryside which sees Hannay sleeping rough, stealing cars, incongruously roped into giving election speeches, donning multiple disguises, getting captured by the baddies – who happen to have a Scottish base – and escaping by dynamiting his way out of his prison, before escaping back to London to warn the authorities and then leading them to the south coast resort which turns out to be the location of the thirty nine steps and foiling the enemies’ plans at the last moment.

The plot doesn’t bear too much examining. It’s not at all clear why he has to go to Scotland of all places to lie low. And it’s a whopping coincidence that the baddies happen to have their base in just the part of Scotland he decides to go hide in and that, in all the hundreds of square miles of heather to choose from, he happens to stumble straight into it.

And the initial mainspring of the plot – preventing the assassination of the Greek Prime Minister – which drives the flight to Scotland and all sorts of complications, not only fails but is casually cast aside (his assassination is mentioned in one throwaway line towards the end) to be replaced by a completely new thread: Now a member of the Black Stone gang impersonates the First Sea Lord in order to attend a high level meeting about Britain’s sea defences and it is only because Hannay happens by almighty coincidence to be sitting outside that very meeting, that he recognises the imposter as a member of the baddy gang (even though none of his erstwhile colleagues do!) which sets in motion the final chase to the villa on the south coast.

The Thirty-Nine Steps

The Hitchcock movie completely rewrites the plot, not least to lumber Hannay with an attractive female co-star for most of the film (no women at all in the original). In the movie the Thirty-Nine Steps is a secret organisation of spies dedicated to overthrowing Britain etc. In the novel they are the steps from a coastal holiday house down to the beach where, at high tide, 10.17pm, the German spy carrying plans of Britain’s war preparations will be picked up by boat and spirited off to the Fatherland. In the book the climax comes when Hannay captures the spies as they try to descend the steps; in the movie it comes in a crowded theatre in the West End.

The shilling shocker

Buchan is candid in his preface to friend about the genre he was writing in:

You and I have long cherished an affection for that elemental type of tale which Americans call the ‘dime novel’ and which we know as the ‘shocker’—the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible. (Preface)

And the characters are well aware of the type of text they’re appearing in (just as Philip Marlowe feels he’s in a dime novel and Alistair MacLean’s characters refer to Hollywood dialogue and ham acting of the baddies they’re up against):

”The Black Stone,’ he repeated. ‘Der Schwarze Stein. It’s like a penny novelette. (Ch 7)

I wonder when this genre was named, when it became known: were Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novels ‘shockers’ and ‘dime novels’ in 1888? [No. See Wikipedia link below.] And who created, who were the godfathers of the mythos of glamorous travel and adventure? [Stevenson, Haggard, Kipling.]

The novel includes an innkeeper with frustrated literary ambitions bemoaning his boring life and wishing he saw more of the world – a character which allows Buchan to situate the text relative to its forebears.

‘Nothing comes here but motor-cars full of fat women, who stop for lunch, and a fisherman or two in the spring, and the shooting tenants in August. There is not much material to be got out of that. I want to see life, to travel the world, and write things like Kipling and Conrad. But the most I’ve done yet is to get some verses printed in Chambers’s Journal.’  (Chapter 3)

By God!’ he whispered, drawing his breath in sharply, ‘it is all pure Rider Haggard and Conan Doyle.’ (Ch 3)

All this was very loose guessing, and I don’t pretend it was ingenious or scientific. I wasn’t any kind of Sherlock Holmes. But I have always fancied I had a kind of instinct about questions like this. (Ch 9)

Local colour

The novel is as interesting for the insights it gives into life at the time as for the ‘plot’: London, as so often, as at the start of the Sherlock Holmes stories, for example, is portrayed negatively:

I returned from the City about three o’clock on that May afternoon pretty well disgusted with life. I had been three months in the Old Country, and was fed up with it. If anyone had told me a year ago that I would have been feeling like that I should have laughed at him; but there was the fact. The weather made me liverish, the talk of the ordinary Englishman made me sick. I couldn’t get enough exercise, and the amusements of London seemed as flat as soda-water that has been standing in the sun. (Ch 1)

Anti-semitism The text contains some shockingly anti-semitic comments. They aren’t incidental but intrinsic to Buchan and Hannay’s ideology, the casualness with which they sum up and categorise nations, whether the Germans or Boers or, as here, Jews.

When I asked why, he said that the anarchist lot thought it would give them their chance. Everything would be in the melting-pot, and they looked to see a new world emerge. The capitalists would rake in the shekels, and make fortunes by buying up wreckage. Capital, he said, had no conscience and no fatherland. Besides, the Jew was behind it, and the Jew hated Russia worse than hell.

‘Do you wonder?’ he cried. ‘For three hundred years they have been persecuted, and this is the return match for the pogroms. The Jew is everywhere, but you have to go far down the backstairs to find him. Take any big Teutonic business concern. If you have dealings with it the first man you meet is Prince von und Zu Something, an elegant young man who talks Eton-and-Harrow English. But he cuts no ice. If your business is big, you get behind him and find a prognathous Westphalian with a retreating brow and the manners of a hog. He is the German business man that gives your English papers the shakes. But if you’re on the biggest kind of job and are bound to get to the real boss, ten to one you are brought up against a little white-faced Jew in a bath-chair with an eye like a rattlesnake. Yes, Sir, he is the man who is ruling the world just now, and he has his knife in the Empire of the Tzar, because his aunt was outraged and his father flogged in some one-horse location on the Volga.’ (Ch 1)

Casual racism which none of us would dream of today.

It rang desperately true, and the first yarn, if you understand me, had been in a queer way true also in spirit. The fifteenth day of June was going to be a day of destiny, a bigger destiny than the killing of a Dago. (Ch 4)

No sex please we’re British No women characters. The word ‘woman’ occurs just six times in the text: there’s a fat woman in the 3rd class railway carriage to Scotland, then a few women shopkeepers. This is emphatically a man’s world.

Style

As you can see Buchan’s prose style is perfect for the job, clear and crisp and unhesitating (compare and contrast the hesitancies and infelicities which mar almost all Alistair MacLean’s books).

Natural scenery It is easy to overlook but Buchan describes natural scenery with a quick practised eye which the setting of rural Scotland gives him plenty of opportunity to do.

If I had not had such an anxious heart I would have enjoyed that time. It was shining blue weather, with a constantly changing prospect of brown hills and far green meadows, and a continual sound of larks and curlews and falling streams. (Ch 7)

And since a good deal of the novel amounts to a prolonged chase across the Dumfries & Galloway region of Scotland, there is page after page of wonderful nature description.

Pukka His style is not only clear and lucid and swift. It is larded with the attitude and vocabulary of the upper-class public school chap of the day, revealed by the pukka, posh phraseology of almost every sentence.

It was about the beastliest moment of my life, for I’m no good at these cold-blooded resolutions. Still I managed to rake up the pluck to set my teeth and choke back the horrid doubts that flooded in on me. I simply shut off my mind and pretended I was doing an experiment as simple as Guy Fawkes fireworks. (Ch 6)

Nostalgia The combination of pukka phraseology and crisp confident description, often of a kind of rural idyll for which we 21st century city dwellers pine, along with his depiction of a simpler, more innocent world, drenches the novel with nostalgic appeal, over and above the supposed thriller elements.

I found a pretty cottage with a lawn running down to the stream, and a perfect jungle of guelder-rose and lilac flanking the path. (Ch 7)

I think it’s the clarity and evocativeness of these descriptions, along with the Antiques Roadshow innocence, which overcome our qualms about his racism and misogyny, and help conceal the wild coincidences of the plot. Above all it’s his flashing swift style which makes the books still so readable a century after their first publication.

The road led through a wood of great beeches and then into a shallow valley, with the green backs of downs peeping over the distant trees. After Scotland the air smelt heavy and flat, but infinitely sweet, for the limes and chestnuts and lilac bushes were domes of blossom. Presently I came to a bridge, below which a clear slow stream flowed between snowy beds of water-buttercups. A little above it was a mill; and the lasher made a pleasant cool sound in the scented dusk. (Ch 7)

Related links

Cover for the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Cover the first edition of The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan (1915)

Frank Brangwyn and the First World War @ William Morris Gallery

Frank Brangwyn

Frank Brangwyn was born of English parents in 1867 in Bruges, where he grew up and acquired a strong feel for the local people and culture, before his parents moved back to England in 1874.

Brangwyn had no formal training as an artist, though his father, an architect, encouraged his artistic leanings. When he was still in his teens he was ‘discovered’ by the artist Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo, who recommended him to the William Morris workshops. Here he proved a keen student and absorbed Morris’s gospel that an artist should seek to beautify all aspects of life.

Brangwyn was a prodigiously talented jack-of-all-trades and began winning competitions and exhibiting as young as 17, going on to build a reputation as not only a painter but the creator and decorator of stained glass, furniture, ceramics, table glassware, buildings and interiors, as a lithographer and book illustrator.

The Great War

At the start of the First World War, more than a million Belgian refugees fled the advancing German armies and some 250,000 came to England – one of the largest groups of refugees this country has ever received. Local relief committees formed all over the country, raising funds for the exiles.

‘Britain’s Call to Arms’ by Frank Branwyn

War posters

Brangwyn almost immediately joined in this relief effort by designing posters aimed at publicising the plight of the refugees and raising money for them. This small exhibition at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, north London, takes its title from a poster he made for the Belgian & Allies Aid League titled, ‘Will you help these sufferers from the war to start a new home: Help is better than sympathy’.

'The Retreat from Antwerp' poster by Frank Brangwyn, lithograph 1915-1916: copyright David Brangwyn

‘The Retreat from Antwerp’ poster by Frank Brangwyn, lithograph 1915-1916: copyright David Brangwyn

Civilian suffering

Brangwyn was so prolific that the style and design of his posters became virtually synonymous with First World War propaganda. Though patriotic in tone they aren’t as sanitised or simplistic as many other WWI posters. The figures aren’t heroic, if anything they are often rather grotesque and gargoyle-like.

As with much popular art of the period the images are made of strong, thick lines, confidently sketched in a bold extrovert style but with an unusual intensity of light and shade, of chiaroscuro, which gives them a tremendous dramatic immediacy.

Brangwyn didn’t become an official War Artist when that scheme was set up, and so never actually visited the Front; his subject was the destruction war wreaked on Belgium’s historic buildings and the suffering of innocent civilians.

The zeppelin raids: the vow of vengeance’, drawn for The Daily Chronicle by Frank Brangwyn

The final blow

Wars tend to get more violent and more pitiless the longer they go on and the longer your enemy stubbornly refuses to give in and surrender. Who, at the start of World War II, would have believed the virtuous Allies capable of firebombing Hamburg or dropping atom bombs on Hiroshima? The Great War is one of the horrible proofs of this rule – by the fourth and final year the mood on both sides was bitter and unforgiving.

This is the background to the most notorious poster, Put strength into the final blow, which depicts an Allied soldier bayoneting a German in the neck. Legend has it that the image was so incendiary that the German Kaiser put a price on Brangwyn’s head – but it was also criticised here in Blighty for its bloodthirstiness.

‘Put strength in the final blow’ by Frank Brangwyn (1918)

Frank Brangwyn at the William Morris Gallery

The exhibition is being held here at the William Morris Gallery because Brangwyn never forgot his debt to the Morris workshop for starting his career. He sympathised with Morris’s visionary aims, that the artist should be a craftsman capable in multiple mediums and should make art to beautify all aspects of life. Thus, when Brangwyn heard that the museum was being set up to promote Morris’s life and work, he donated a number of works to help it get started. As a result the WMG holds the second largest collection of Brangwyn’s work in England, after the British Museum. This explains why numerous other, non-war-related works of his, are hung in other rooms and corridors around the museum, including the wonderful Swans (1921).

Related links

Reviews of William Morris

A Crisis of Brilliance @ Dulwich Picture Gallery

To the small and beautifully formed Dulwich Picture Gallery for a typically petite and poignant exhibition, “A Crisis of Brilliance“, bringing together 70 or so paintings by C.R.W. Nevinson, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler, Dora Carrington, David Bomberg and Paul Nash who all studied at the Slade in the years leading up to the Great War. The exhibition stems from a book, David Boyd Haycock’s group biography of these artists, ‘A Crisis of Brilliance‘, published in 2009, so this is the exhibition of the book:

Mark Gertler developed a stylised way with chunky figures (eg the strange and wonderful The Fruit Sorters) and blocky landscapes (The Pool at Garsington) – though he’s probably best known for the highly stylised Merry-go-round, currently hanging in Tate Britain. Paintings by Mark Gertler on Google images.

Dora Carrington is the most elusive of the bunch: a note on the exhibition wall claims the patriarchal sexism of the Georgian art world undermined her confidence. It is telling that the images Google images bring together for her are a) not particularly distinctive b) feature lots of photos of her with men including the Love of her Life, Lytton Strachey. The show features some striking pencil drawings of heads and wonderful female nudes (the powerful Female Figure Lying on Her Back, 1912) testament to Slade’s insistence on teaching its students draughtmanship. She married the writer Lytton Strachey and moved to rural Berkshire, where she painted local scenery eg The River Pang above Tidmarsh, in stark contrast to the urban and/or modernist approach of the five men.

David Bomberg was, apparently, one of the first painters to experiment with pure abstraction in 1913 and 1914, in paintings like The Mud Bath or In The Hold (1914), below, painted when he was just 22!

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

David Bomberg, In the Hold, 1913-14, oil on canvas, 196.2 x 231.1 cm, © Tate, London 2012

But Bomberg seems to have capitalised on this breakthrough in relatively few paintings and after the War relapsed into a sub-Cezanne murkiness. He became a respected teacher but was erased from art history.”He was in his lifetime the most brutally excluded artist in Britain. Having lived for years on the earnings of his second wife Lilian Holt and remittances from his sister Kitty, he died in absolute poverty.” (Wikipedia)

Paul Nash had a long and successful career developing his early knack for landscape into a particularly surreal vision of an essentially quiet pastoral England. Throughout his career he produced vivid and strange images, of the Great War (The Menin Road), of the South Downs in the 30s (Landscape from a Dream), and then haunting depictions of the Second World War in the 1940s (Totes Meer). Paintings by Paul Nash on Google images.

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

Paul Nash, The Void, 1918, Oil on canvas, 75 x 95.7 cm, Photo © MBAC

C.R.W. Nevinson quickly took to the Futurist/Vorticist style in with its dynamic angles, bright colours and sense of boundless energy bursting out the confines of the picture frame. I liked The Towpath, an early example of industrial impressionism which reminded me of the Paul Valette painting I saw at the Lowry exhibition: it was done in 1912 but only a year later he had moved beyond this into the modernism of Dance Hall Scene, below, or the Le Vieux Port, both 1913.

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

C.R.W. Nevinson, Dance Hall Scene, c.1913-14, chalk, gouache and watercolour, 22.2 x 19.7 cm, ©Tate, London 2012

Nevinson found the subject to match his angular, vibrant style in the Great War, working in the Ambulance Corps and producing unforgettable images of which maybe the most famous is La Mitrailleuse. Everything Nevinson did in these few hectic years is excellent, virile, lucid, alive, like the darkly vivid Column on the March, or the grim scene in a field hospital,La Patrie. He did a series of paintings of airplanes in the Great War and there is a perfect, exquisite example here – Spiral descent – a sliver of blue heaven with a tiny matchstick airplane swooping down the metal curve of the sky – breathtaking. Paintings by CRW Nevinson on Google images.

Stanley Spencer was to become the most successful of the group, going on to fame and a knighthood, all very odd for the shy visionary from Cookham. The early works in the exhibition show the quirky naive style Spencer was developing, the Christian subject matter embedded in his native Berkshire village and the awkward angular handling of the human figure (John Donne arriving in heaven) – but they seem like apprentice works, none of them have the finished, oiled richness of his amazing shipbuilding paintings from the Second World War or the mature Cookham paintings. Paintings by Stanley Spencer on Google images.

The last room, detailing the fates of the six artists after the Great War, is sad: Nevinson never recovered the swashbuckling style or intense subject matter of the War, reverting to a more figurative style, sinking into despair by the mid-20s and dying unknown in the 1940s. Gertler gassed himself in 1936. Dora Carrington shot herself in 1932 shortly after Lytton Strachey died. Bomberg, though a brilliant teacher, sank into critical obscurity. Only Nash and Spencer went on to unquestioned success.

This is a wonderfully intimate exhibition, showing early and minor and experimental works from six very interesting artists, as they found their feet and navigated through the hectic style wars of the experimental 1910s and the brutal War Years.

The exhibition continues until 22 September at Dulwich Picture Gallery.

List of Crisis of Brilliance artworks (PDF)

Books

Reviews


Other Dulwich Picture Gallery exhibitions

TV: War Horse: The Real Story (Channel 4)

4 March 2012

Watched with Daisy this Channel 4 documentary about British horses during WW1: focusing on the story of ‘Warrior’, owned & ridden by racing commentator Brough Scott’s grandfather, General Jack Seely. General Jack led the last allied cavalry charge at the Battle of Moreuil Wood in March 1918 which helped to bring the Germans’ great Spring Offensive to a halt.

The British used nearly 1 million horses during the war. All those horses. The heartfelt anger of Elgar and so many of his countrymen at the suffering of so many mute beasts, trusting their human masters.

War Horse: The Real Story

Under Fire by Henri Barbusse (1917)

Le Feu – or Under Fire in its English translation – Henri Barbusse’s novel about life in the French trenches during the Great War, has the distinction of being the earliest published Great War novel, finished in December 1916, and published in Spring 1917.

It mostly consists of dialogue between a ragbag bunch of squaddies and must pose real problems for any translator trying to convert 1916 French army slang and banter into another language. Robin Buss does his best but there are infelicities on every page. ‘Innit’ and ‘old bean’ occur in the same sentences in a way unlikely to be spoken by any actual English speakers.

The first 200 pages consist of anecdotes and short scenes depicting a company at rest behind the lines, scenes of varying interest and acuity. But the last 100 pages contain by far the most searing description of an infantry attack and its aftermath through a landscape from hell which I’ve ever read and are not only horrifying but terrifying, drawing the reader into a dizzying abyss of terror and despair.

Related links

Great War-related blog posts

The Imperial War Museum Book of 1918: Year of Victory by Malcolm Brown (1999)

6 February 2012

Picked up for a pound in a second hand shop, ‘The Imperial War Museum Book of 1918: Year of Victory’ is every bit as cumbersome as its title.

I was looking for some context for Mikhail Bulgakov’s marvellous novel, ‘The White Guard’, set in Kiev in the latter part of 1918 – but this book has only cursory references to any front apart from the Western one, over-familiar to us Brits from so many books and films. Lacking much analysis or strategy, the book’s USP is its extensive quoting from the letters, diaries and memoirs of scores of soldiers, sailors, airmen, nurses, and politicians, harvested from the vast archives of the War Museum.

Very moving, very good human interest but not, ultimately, very illuminating.

‘The Imperial War Museum Book of 1918: Year of Victory’ on Amazon

Elgar’s Great War music

2 February, 2012

Radio 3’s composer of the week is Elgar, focusing on his compositions during the Great War. I’m helping my son with his homework project about the battle of the Somme. I’ve been reading extensively around the Russian Revolution which was a direct result of the Great War. And on my walks I’m reading the poetry of Edward Thomas who only started writing poetry in 1914 and was killed by a German shell at Arras in 1917.

All these thoughts, poems, stories and impressions I bring to each of the war memorials by the churches in the villages I walk through, many still bearing their November poppy wreaths, worn and tattered. They’re partly what shadowed, haunted and spooked me in the empty grey woods outside Capel, and especially in one long desolate clay muddy field which I had to trudge across as the mud sucked and pulled at my boots and the puddles spread out on all sides and the winter air burned my cheeks and I became almost afraid. A tiny tiny echo of what other men saw and felt in four long murderous years, and then in the many ruinous wars which followed the Armistice.

Unfortunately, none of these fascinating programmes can be listened to again (presumably for copyright reasons), but the BBC web pages still have the track listings for Elgar’s compositions during the Great War – The Elgar page on the BBC’s composer of the week website. Well worth tracking down on YouTube, or even buying. Over the week the BBC explained and played all the tracks on this rather obscure CD – Elgar: War music.

A muddy field near Capel in Surrey

A muddy field near Capel in Surrey

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