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

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

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

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

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

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

Bert Smallways

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Butteridge inventor of the airplane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

Bert Smallways accidentally stumbles upon the vast German airship depot

With the German attack fleet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The battle of the North Atlantic

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

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

Attack on New York

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

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

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

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

A world at war

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

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

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

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

Camp Niagara

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

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

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

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

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

On Goat Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Among the Americans

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

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

The Battle of the Atlantic

The Battle of the Atlantic

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

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

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

The Great Collapse

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

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

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

And then came the great plague.

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

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

Utter devastation

Utter devastation

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

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

Bert sails back to Britain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

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

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

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

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


Wells’s vivid imagination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Political pamphleteering

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

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

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

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

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

Wells’s prefaces

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

1921 preface

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

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

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

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

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

1918 preface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wells’s underlying sense of futility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

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

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

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

Other science fiction reviews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heath Robinson’s War Effort @ the Heath Robinson Museum

To mark the centenary of the Armistice the Heath Robinson Museum is hosting this charming little micro-exhibition, which amounts to ten or so of the humorous cartoons which he drew during the Great War, along with a selection of the correspondence he received from front-line soldiers telling him how much pleasure they derived from his pictures and suggesting topics for future works.

(There are a further eight drawings to be found in the quiet room of the café situated next to the Museum, which also houses the Pinner Books of Remembrance.)

The wicked Hun

When the war began, British cartoonists, illustrators and poster-makers were pressed into service to depict the Germans as monsters, devils, baby-eaters, and the German army as an unstoppable force of terrifying Huns.

First World War anti-German propaganda poster

First World War anti-German propaganda poster

But after a while this came to be felt to be counter-productive to British morale. Many at home really began to think of the Germans army as an unstoppable horde of cruel killers, larger, better equipped and better led than the Allies.

The saintly Hun

Heath Robinson decided to take entirely the opposite approach and, building on the reputation for off-beat humour and absurdly complicated machines which he had developed in his advertising work of the Edwardian era, to draw cartoons making fun of the German army – using humour to cut them down to size, to make them appear daft or gormless, as ridiculous rather than frightening – and so beatable.

Stiff Necking our Tommies by creating a draught on the British trenches

Stiff Necking our Tommies by creating a draught on the British trenches

In fact Heath Robinson drew a surprising number and variety of humorous cartoons on the subject of the war throughout its duration. They were widely distributed via popular newspapers and magazines, and were sent directly to troops at the front. The pictures were gathered into books with titles like Hunlikely (1916) and The Saintly Hun: A Book of German Virtues (1917).

I particularly liked a picture which shows one of our lads charging a fleeing Hun in the pelting rain, when the German, to our chap’s surprise, turns round to offer our man an umbrella, the picture titled Unprecedented Gentlemanliness of a Prussian General to loan his umbrella to one of our Tommies during an advance in the rain.

Or the one showing an armed column of infantry marching from the far distance up towards the viewer but at the last minute making an unexplained detour – until you look very closely and understand the title of the picture – The soft-hearted Brandeburgs refusing to tread on a worm on their way to the trenches.

Or the cartoon of a German zeppelin floating past a rickety tower room in which a skinny spinster can be seen in a dressing gown as if about to have a bath – with the result that all the Germans in the zeppelin have gallantly averted their eyes in order to spare her maiden blushes.

The Saintly Hun by Heath Robinson

The Saintly Hun by Heath Robinson

Letters from the front

As well as comic drawings the exhibition also includes a box of facsimiles of the many letters which Heath Robinson received from soldiers both at the front and home on R&R. We visitors are invited to rummage among them and read them.

The letters express gratitude to the artist for keeping the soldiers’ spirits up in hard times, suggest comic scenarios for new pictures, or request pictures celebrating their particular regiment to hang in the mess or the trenches, to be included in regimental magazines or hung among Christmas decorations.

Letters to Heath Robinson from soldiers

Letters to Heath Robinson from First World War soldiers

Reading these letters is a humbling and moving experience. It’s hard to hold back the tears reading some of them. And they make you reflect that Heath Robinson’s pictures, in their modesty, humour and humanity, epitomised the English qualities which the soldiers were fighting for.


Related links

Other exhibitions at the Heath Robinson Museum

Lee Bul: Crashing @ Hayward Gallery

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

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

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

Oh for a life of Sensations rather than of Thoughts!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

KOREA

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

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

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

THE FAILURE OF UTOPIAS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ARCHITECTURE

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

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

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

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

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

POLITICAL CRITICISM

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

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

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

Thaw (2007) by Lee Bul

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WOMEN’S BODIES / DESIRE

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

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

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

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

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

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

The guide explains that

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

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

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

Or, as the press release puts it:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Via Negativa II

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

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

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

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

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

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

The international language of art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary

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

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

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


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