Is London street art dying?

Image: Frank K. Molloy
DAVID UPTON tries his hand at making his mark

Everyone knows about Banksy, who came to fame around 2000 for his cheeky anarchic spray paintings and stencils on walls in Bristol, and later all over the world.

His real name is still officially secret, though by now his works sell in the major art auction houses, and walls are removed so his paintings can be sold (see But it’s over twenty years since Banksy started, and the street art scene has changed completely. You don’t discover Banksy paintings any more: or if you do, somebody else has found them first and they soon disappear.

What we see these days, despite the continuing mists of spray paint propelled by greenhouse aerosol gases on to London’s walls, is mostly mediocrity, angling to sell itself through traditional art markets for the highest prices. Even the anti-establishment rebellion and lawbreaking has gone: artists today use spaces where graffiti are tolerated, sign their names, and sell clothing brands.

Banksy himself sets high standards of professionalism:

All artists are prepared to suffer for their work, but why are so few prepared to learn to draw?

Banksy, p.10

Banksy also has really original artistic ideas, that make you laugh and understand even when you had a different viewpoint to start with. Someone who can do that is rare. He broke with the traditional art market, sold prints his own way, and refused to go after the highest possible prices. For example, during a residency in New York he set up a stall selling real Banksy prints at $60, a fraction of their ‘retail value’ – only seven were bought.

It’s not like that any more.

Of course in any art movement there will only ever be one or two stars, followed by a lot of lesser figures, some drawn in by the hope of quick profit. Anyone these days can go out and paint a wall, and the rest of us have to walk by it until someone else paints it over.

Part of the problem is the confusion between graffiti and street art. In a serious legal study of the copyright issues involved, E. Bonadio says:

…what distinguishes graffiti writing from the broader concept of street art [is that] … by placing tags (as well as other letters-based pieces difficult to read to the everyday public) on walls and other surfaces, graffiti writers aim at speaking just to other taggers or crews, while street artists want to address a larger audience

E. Bonadio, p.8, footnote 60

Simple ‘tagging’ makes up most of the graffiti we see. It’s easy, a sort of logo meaningless except to insiders, rather like dogs peeing on lamp posts. Police operations, such as ‘Misfit’ in London and ‘Anderson’ in Bristol, and increased security measures in target areas such as London Underground, have cut down the amount of visible graffiti. Prison sentences were real: for example ‘Tox’ was sentenced in 2011 to 26 months imprisonment after allegedly causing over £200,000 worth of damage. 

Street artist Ben Flynn, aka Eino, says that these convictions have driven out serious art in favour of quick-and-dirty graffiti:

We would spend days drawing what we were going to paint that weekend. When I wrote graffiti, I knew I would have maybe an hour or an hour and a half to paint. Now, there is less time to do something nice. They have only five or ten minutes, so they are not going to spend their time in their bedrooms developing intricate graffiti. So graffiti has evolved into something that is less easy on the eye

Evening Standard

Even the more elaborate, larger, geometrical tag patterns, colourful though they sometimes are, tend to be stylised and repetitive. They may brighten up a dull corner but they don’t say anything to most of us, though this sort of design can be traced back to Jean Dubuffet in the 1960s.

A few might be described as ‘art’, though only a few I’ve seen recently seem to me to be witty and cheeky:

I saw some quite well drawn heads recently, for example:

This is a painterly achievement, and the drapes are amazing, considering they were done with an aerosol can, but it still reminds me of Tretchikov’s ‘Chinese girl’, which the Independent once described as the Mona Lisa of kitsch (Independent, 17 March 2013).

Sites such as the Stockwell Pen, or Leake Street near Waterloo, are provided by official or corporate bodies in the hope that they will confine or ‘pen’ graffiti to a small area (this has not worked in Stockwell!) or that they will provide nurseries for future Banksys, as John Nation’s site in Bristol is said to have nurtured Banksy. Street art is officially permitted there. London has incorporated them into its tourist trade.

The images above  are in the Stockwell Pen ‘approved’ area,  and in effect signed: you can quickly find the web sites of the two artists (Cat in bath: Large face Mono is Spanish and living in London; his site shows a lot of advertising and commissioned/ advertising work, and advertises his own clothing line. Woskerski’s site advertises prints of his works, selling at £70, and a full scale canvas selling at £1,400. These wall paintings give the artists, literally, ‘street cred’. It’s not that prospective clients come down to Stockwell to see them: it’s enough that these paintings are shown photographed ‘in situ’ on their web sites, and on social media such as Instagram. If they were painted over tomorrow, it would not matter once they are on social media.

The tourist industry boasts

London has one of the biggest and best collections of uncommissioned street art in the world. Local and international artists have decorated the streets of London with a staggering array of creative works, from miniature bronze statues to painted murals several storeys high

Visit London website

Websites advertise street art areas, guide books mention them. You can go on escorted tours, just as you can do tours of the Jack the Ripper murder sites. There are agencies that claim to help you find a street artist and commission work ( or to “offer a consulting service to both individuals and corporations to acquire and expand their art collections” ( There are galleries specialising in ‘street art’, conveniently transferred to prints you can take home. (See for example in Hoxton, or in the Portobello Road.)

But much of this now is street art with its heart ripped out. It’s people building a career as an artist/ designer, aping the style of the streets and painting in ‘permitted’ graffiti areas as a way of building credibility. It’s a thousand miles away from the furtive, athletic life of the original taggers, as shown in Crack and Shine videos (eg, ) It merges imperceptibly into advertising, it doesn’t say anything about the world, except ‘buy my clothing brand’. It just has a (dishonestly) more ‘raw’ or ‘edgy’ feel than if you said ‘here is an artist who mostly does prints in a studio’.

Graffiti artists have also specialised in painting out of the way places, which are often dangerous. As Banksy says:

People look at an oil painting and admire the use of brushstrokes to convey meaning. People look at a graffiti painting and admire the use of a drainpipe to gain access

Banksy, p. 237

At least one artist has died as the result of a fall, though apparently not whilst painting (see No-one wants artists to be at risk, but it’s annoying when they dishonestly imply that they are. Any street art is at its best when it relates to its context, and places like the Stockwell Pen are too bland, too half-heartedly municipal, to be a context for anything.

Some new ideas have come up, but often you can see from the internet how they have died out. Guerilla knitting, for example – covering street furniture with knitted cosies – had a vogue around 2005-2010. The web sites are still there, but haven’t had anything new added for ten years (see

However, if you look around Brick Lane, which as far as I know is not officially a permitted graffiti area, there are some signs of new ideas.

Small sculptures are now appearing, glued high up walls where they can’t easily be reached. (Broken vegetables in the next image are where people have tried to help themselves to a free art work.)

The orange balloon in the next image is a 3D object, made and signed by Tripsandpieces ( )

Other new ideas involve what used to be called ‘stickers’. Stickers were an easy equivalent of tagging with simple graffiti. You made a few copies of a design on pre-glued pages and stuck them on lamp-posts or doors. Often, like ‘tagging’, this was just an in-group communication. However, the sticker scene has grown up and there are currently some very interesting works in the Brick Lane area. Typical walls and doorways are crowded with overlapping stickers or mini-posters, some of them political, some satirical, some just weird. The process is known as ‘paste up’, or ‘wheat-pasting’ from the flour based glue used to do it. (See )

Of course, fly-posting goes back a long way. But fly-posting art for art’s sake does not. The result, similar to the leap graffiti ‘tagging’ took to become street art, is richer and more interesting walls.

Images can be larger and in different styles. Artists can take their time. Brick Lane currently houses  several paste-ups done in bold spray paint on old newspapers, for example, by ‘LT66’ –  . (LT66’s images can also be bought framed from . I liked them so much I’ve just bought one myself.) The use of newspaper reminds me of ‘arte povera’, and the style is bold but lyrical. And LT66 isn’t just in it for the money – his site says “Looking to exchange Paste ups DM me I can paste yours up around Brick Lane in exchange for mine going up in new areas”.

Some images use QR codes, which open up a whole area for interaction, but sadly many of these are blurred or damaged and wouldn’t read properly on my phone. So as an example, here is one I put up myself, in Centaur Street, Lambeth, near some mosaics about William Blake’s work.

Use the barcode reader on your phone; this will take you to an experimental animated page on my website. The animation uses .css, which gives a limited range of possibilities. However, it springs into life once you hit the web page, whereas if you use a video (for example) you need to authorise it separately to run, and this spoils any spontaneity.  But you don’t get the augmented reality (AR) effect, of placing the site page in the background you see through your camera.

Insa has made digital, moving works using an AR app, gif-iti, which you download to your phone. (Regolini 2020) When you point your phone camera at one of his works (or at an image of the work) it shows the work as a .gif, in motion. Typical screens involve laboriously painting layers by hand and then photographing each one, rather like drawing a cartoon. This is a great AR technology, but it only works for the few screens contained in the app; each time Insa makes a new work, he’ll have to issue a new app. However it does look good on mobile phones: if anyone ever markets a good AR viewer, this will revolutionise street art.

Another Insa project involves creating identical images at different places and producing a series of coordinated views in one .gif (see But this is not anti-capitalist rebellion: like the Duke and Duchess of Sussex, it was funded by Netflix. It takes in all the spectacular capitalist destinations – Paris, Manhattan, Taipei, like Michael Palin on E. Technically ingenious, but art monetising itself using the traditional market strategies.

Banksy too has taken the big money route. But one of the greatest triumphs of London street art, ironically, is the video of a Banksy art work shredding itself just after it had been sold for over £1 million at Sotheby’s in October 2018. (see ). The wealthy international connoisseur audience is visibly gob-smacked, mouths hang open, people jump to their feet: the anarchic spirit of the streets lives on.

There’s hope yet.

As a personal coda, I felt I could not write about street art until I had tried doing it. I prepared some modest stencils, of an eye and an apple, using three colours. Drawing and cutting out the stencils took an afternoon. Practising with paint on some Amazon cardboard boxes took another hour. As Banksy said, “Mindless vandalism can take a lot of thought” (Banksy p 237)

When I eventually left my studio and got out into the streets, the main lesson I learned is that even a simple stencil takes a lot of time and concentration to manipulate, and to spray properly.

As a result, you WILL NOT NOTICE the police officer coming up behind you.

Image: Frank K. Molloy

References and acknowledgements

Banksy – ‘Wall and Piece’, Century, London 2006.

Bonadio, E, Copyright Protection of Street Art and Graffiti under UK Law (4 April 2017). Intellectual Property Quarterly, Issue 2, 2017 , Available at SSRN:

Evening Standard, 18 July 2011, at

Independent – see


Visit London – official visitor guide’ see

Diary of a Somebody

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Diaries 1918-1938

Henry Channon, edited by Simon Heffer, Penguin, London, hb, 1,002 pages, £35

KEN BELL dives into an interwar atmosphere of complacency and privilege

The complete diaries of Sir Henry “Chips” Channon are now being published and the first volume will be required reading for anyone interested in the interwar period.

Channon was a handsome, wealthy American with an easy charm, who lived on the income provided by his shipping magnate father. He spent most of the 1920s assiduously courting the British upper class, and by the end of the 1920s he had become such a part of English high society that he married a Guinness heiress, and became a British national and a Tory MP. Given that he was born in 1897, it is amusing to realise that the first thing he ever had that approached work was when he became an MP at the age of 38. That was for a seat, by the way, that was in the gift of his wife’s family, as both her parents had represented it. Eventually, Paul Channon, Chip’s only son, would sit for that division as well – proof, I suppose, that the age of the rotten borough is not yet over.

His bisexualism probably also helped his rise, as it looks as if he tended more towards men than women. If my reading of his character is correct, then women would find him safe in taxis, so there was a charming, handsome, wealthy man who wasn’t going to jump on every woman he met, but might not be averse to an evening with one of their husbands, so long as it was all handled very discreetly. Indeed, his sex life is handled discreetly even in the diary. Prince Paul of Yugoslavia seems to have been the great love of Channon’s life, but we are never given any details about how they got it on. He seems to have mooned over the Prince, and it is quite possible that it remained unconsummated.

In the 1920s, he also became entranced by Viscount (George) Gage, and it is possible that his visits to a young prostitute called Josephine may have been partly due to the fact that she also counted Gage as one of her clients. One imagines that as part of the bedroom chitchat, he got her to prattle about what Gage was up to. He did have sex with Josephine, in spite of the fact that he found her Newcastle accent distasteful, but we are not treated to full accounts of their couplings. In fact, that is the way it is throughout the diary as when he visited three very expensive Parisian brothels he took the trouble to tell us their addresses, but not how he had pleasured himself. It may be that he kept his clothes on and only went there to be seen.

On the other hand, he did have a fling with Tallulah Bankhead, and was fairly open in his diary about that, including the hilarious account of playing a stripping card game with her and another girl. The other girl left the room at some point, leaving the naked Chips and Tallulah to enjoy each other, but the most entertaining section comes at the end when she returned and both girls got to watch as Chips slowly got dressed. He was convinced that his body was so perfect that the two girls would enjoy that spectacle, so much so that he dedicated more wordage to the act of getting dressed than to describing his bout with Miss Bankhead.

Before the mid-1930s, Channon seemed to have no interest at all in politics or the major events of the day and his diary is full of the parties he attended, along with quite tedious lists of the very important people who were also in attendance. His catty remarks about some of their personalities will bring a smile to the reader, and it is amusing to read that one woman “has a face like a well-rounded bottom,” or another was so weighed down with jewels that she “looks like a ferret that has got loose in Cartier’s,” but it does wear after a while.

The diary comes alive after 1935, with Channon in the House of Commons and war looming in Europe. His account of the 1936 Berlin Olympics is interesting for his admiration of Hitler and what he was doing in Germany. One suspects that he may also have been quite taken with all the tall, blond, Aryan gods in their tailored black uniforms that he saw, but by that time, Channon, who had been long terrified of the workers, then saw the USSR as the greatest threat to his position, with Hitler as a staunch bulwark against upheaval.

Two years later, his account of the Munich Crisis is desultory in the extreme, as he clearly just wished that the tiresome Czechs would give in to Germany’s demands. When they did, his admiration for Neville Chamberlain knew no bounds, along with his contempt for Churchill and the other doomsayers. Channon was probably in the majority at that time, but it is still interesting that he devoted more space to the 1936 Olympics than to Munich. Then again, Herman Goring had hosted a fine bash at which Channon had been a guest in 1936, and Munich did rather put a downer on the London season that year.

Channon was at his best, as well as his worst, with the abdication crisis of late 1936. As a friend of the future King Edward VIII he was not only aware of Mrs Simpson, but on good terms with her – yet he hardly mentioned her until the story began to break in November 1936. It is as if Channon did not realise the full implications of a foreign, divorced woman marrying a future King and becoming Queen-Consort. Indeed, his failure to even grasp the fact that as head of the Church of England, the King was caught up in a theological battle of his own making is quite incredible. For his part, Channon just saw it all as Stanley Baldwin pandering to the Dominions and the reactionary parts of middle-class Britain. Channon may have been afraid of the working-class, but his distaste for the middle class runs through the diary.

Chips Channon was also at his best as a diarist, politician and friend to the King once it all exploded in November and December that year. He tried to get the King to announce that he had no intention of marrying Wallis Simpson, and hold to that story until after his coronation. He wanted the King to lie, in other words, to buy time until he had been safely crowned; then he could have married Wallis and presented the government with a fait accompli. The King refused the entreaty so Wallis scuttled off to France and Chips came up with a Plan B. She would lie and tell the world that she had no intention of marrying the King, but that failed when Channon realised that the King would have gone to France had she made such an announcement. The thought of the King-Emperor abandoning the country for such a reason is what brought Channon to a realisation that an abdication was the likeliest outcome, but he continued to argue the King’s case right up until the final moment. “We can only combine to save the sovereign and can we?” he wrote in early December 1936, before doing what he was good at which was working the ‘phones, networking long into the evening, and trying his very best to keep the King on his throne.  Let us give credit where credit is due: Channon was quite magnificent in the defence of his friend during those weeks.

In the aftermath, Channon wrote two memoranda that aimed to make sense of the crisis and a diary entry which assessed the personalities of the King and Mrs Simpson. His view was that Edward “suffers from sexual repression of another nature”. He “surrounded himself with extremely attractive men… and even these he dropped as they aged”.  So, Channon, writing as a closet homosexual, saw King Edward VIII as a repressed one.

Chips was not a complete cad, as he also loved his son dearly. That comes through various entries when he will end something unrelated to his family with a sweet comment about his then baby son. Other pleasant aspects are also to be found. On one occasion his wife discovered a half-starved stray dog, which Channon took in and fed. He then looked at the mutt’s collar and found an address, and was able to track down the owner who was on holiday in a converted railway carriage on the coast. Channon, his wife and the dog then climbed into his car, and the dog was restored to his master, who broke down in tears at the sight of his companion. The Channons were invited in for tea and everyone sat around chatting amiably. Channon’s account of all this is respectful to the family and lacks all the malice he used when dismissing the middle-class and their mores.

The Channon diary, unexpurgated though it may be, represses far too much of the author’s private life, so it is not on a par with that of Alan Clark. Yet, he was a wonderful writer who captured the spirit of the twenties and thirties very well – at least, that part of it that involved his wealthy social circle.

However, his repeated failure to spot a looming crisis when it was right in front of his nose marks down his utility for most of the major events of the period, except, of course, for the abdication. His fear of the working class was such that it clouded his admittedly limited political judgement, so in his penultimate entry of this volume he wrote that if war was to come then “I am indifferent to precautions, for if there is a major war, nothing matters. I don’t care to survive in a Moscow world.” The following day, his final entry lauded the “gentlemen’s peace” that was the Munich Agreement. He went on: “The whole world rejoices whilst a few malcontents jeer.”

He got that wrong, but so did most of Britain at the time. It will be interesting to see in the next volume – due out later in 2021 – how he managed to get out of that particular fix when the war finally broke out a year later.

Giving it back

Image: Shutterstock
A story about the 21st century celebrity conscience, by NICK ARAGUA

 ‘I wanna give something back,’ said Maisie. ‘I dunno how though.’

‘There are plenty of ways to do that,’ said Anthony Parson, her accountant, vaguely. ‘We can talk about that some time.’ These kids, he thought. They have millions in the bank and all they want to do is throw their money away. ‘You don’t want to run at decisions like that.’

‘I don’t want to put it off, Anthony.’

Maisie de Sope had long ago reached and passed the stage when she visited her accountant: the bean counter came to her, up to her vast Spanish-style palace in Hollywood, to be served tea and ice-cold sandwiches filled with thin lines of mysterious, ethical, plant-derived paste. Grey-haired Parson, with his paunch and prostate worries, would marvel at the little army of gardeners, pool cleaners, stable lads and lasses, vineyard workers, garage attendants, assistants, under-assistants, stylists, colourists, personal trainers, advisers and social media editors who worked at Maisie’s place. Maisie’s place: boy, that was like calling Versailles Marie Antoinette’s place, he thought. People have spent lifetimes trying to get a tiny fraction of this kind of set-up. And here she is trying give half of it away.

They were in the Moorish lounge on the first floor. Back in the Twenties Charlie Chaplin had eyed up the junior talent in that very room, but Maisie was only vaguely aware of its fabulous past and its staggering art collection. ‘Just the three Matisses in the Moorish lounge,’ Parson would sometimes joke with his wife. ‘The Picassos are all in the Blue Room.’

A maid brought in some Earl Grey and vegan biscuits.

Maisie lit a joint: fine weed aged in Himalayan sea salt and eucalyptus honey. Parson sometimes got a contact high but never complained.

He tapped at his laptop. ‘Thing is,’ Maisie said flatly, ‘whatever I do it’s gotta be real. Everyone is doing endorsements, everyone is doing trans, race. I mean that’s where I wanna be – but it’s gotta be real. They’re like calling people out now for being remote, for just setting something up, for not being like properly engaged.’ She ended that sentence on a daffy note of up-speak. ‘You have to give something back, like, real, something that isn’t easy: you have to show that it kinda hurts almost.’

Parson said, ‘Isn’t this kind of a PR issue?’

‘No Anthony, it’s a cash issue; that makes it an issue for you.’ The daffiness was gone in a flash.

Time was, Parson reflected, when stars who wanted to do charity would be anxious to know how it might be made to work in their favour tax-wise. But the new crowd had gone one step further. The mania now was to demonstrate they were getting nothing from it or, better still, less than nothing. As Maisie said, they liked to show that it hurt. But savvy old Parson knew that the new advantage they all sought wasn’t money, at least not in the short term.

‘OK, how much do you want to set aside?’

Maisie’s beautiful but dead blue eyes, the eyes of the Dragongirl franchise, stared vacantly up at the ceiling and warbled: ‘I dunno, like a million?’

Parson looked up.

‘Is that too small? Should I say two? Three?’

Parson had a small coughing fit and reached for his tea. ‘You need to be more specific,’ he said.

‘I’ll give it some thought while I’m in New York.’

But she didn’t give it much thought. Maisie flew to New York the following day in her private jet. Bella, her main assistant, sat opposite her with Geraldo, Bella’s emotional support pet, on her lap. ‘The vet says he has asthma,’ she said of the tired-looking lapdog. This information had just garnered 16,000 weep emojis on Geraldo’s Twitter page.

With a glint of malice, suggestive of a Roman emperor at the games, Maisie’s dead eyes ranged over Bella and the dog. ‘I read,’ Maisie said, ‘a great piece somewhere that said that keeping dogs as pets is a form of imperialism. I myself would never do it – horses yes, but is a horse a pet? No. I mean I’d go further and say that the pet relationship is a kind of slavery for the animal. A pa – pa – para …’

‘Paradigm?’ said Bella.

‘That’s it, a paradigm of the master-slave relationship.’

This was a riff she had picked up from her second husband, the film star Tommy Bupp. In his addled-pated middle age he fancied himself an intellectual and so flipped through weighty books to divine the meaning of existence. From him Maisie had learned the word imperialism. Once at a party she used it in front of an old European film composer who asked her to define the term. It was an awkward moment rescued by Tommy Bupp.

Bella put Geraldo on the seat beside her. ‘I can see that,’ she said carefully.

Maisie stared out at the clouds over the Midwest. ‘Bella, I want you to draw me up a list of potential groups I can offer support to. Like in an activist sense: climate, sex or race – or any new angles on that. I wanna give something back.’

Geraldo coughed several times and then vomited in a slow way that reminded Maisie of when she’d once watched a rock star vomit at a party: it was unhurried and seemed to cause no alarm or discomfort. Bella cleaned it up with a wipe. ‘You will note,’ she said, ‘that I’m cleaning up the sick, me, the master, or should I say mistress?’

Maisie’s eyes narrowed and her jaw moved forward. The emperor’s thumb, so to say, twitched.

The next day in New York, after appearing on a TV show to promote Neck, about an empowered female vampire, she instructed Serena, another assistant, to sack Bella. Bella was having a good day as well: news of Geraldo’s vomiting had been received with many thousands more weep signs on Twitter. There were a lot of tears and hassles about Bella getting back to LA but Maisie didn’t have to deal with any of it, and moreover wouldn’t hear of Bella and Geraldo getting on her plane either, and that was that. Bella had drawn up the list Maisie asked for but that had been forgotten.

Once back in LA she got a call from Joey Twist, a former child pop star, originally from Canada.

‘’Sup, Maisie?’

‘You’re out of rehab, Joey.’

‘I like heard you’re flying to, like, South America. Can I tag along?’

‘This is work, Joey. I’m flying down there to work.’

But, she thought, there’s only one goddam reason you want to go to South America – and on my nickel!

She was standing in the cool shade of the Spanish palace’s vast Blue Room where dinner parties were supposed to be held. Fatty Arbuckle had done a backward somersault in it in 1920. Through French windows she looked down on the formal gardens towards a line of trees in the far distance where the paddock began.  She spotted one of the gardeners moving slowly in the heat. Joey could be fun, she thought. He was gabbling away about how well he felt, how he was ‘sub-ten per cent body fat’ and ‘like ready for anything’. ‘Jesus, I like wrote five hundred pages of rehab statements. I’m cured, I’m like there. No coke, no meth, no pills, no Xanax, not even weed – not even sugar, man. Please, Maisie, I need the trip. You’ll love me coming. I’m part activist now and I need some jungle action on Twitter. Joey with a tree kind of thing, maybe Joey with an alligator… Joey saves villagers from fascist logging company, you know?’

All right but don’t be a dick, Joey. Especially not on the plane or you’ll  spend the flight locked in the galley.’

She rang off and called up Mitzi Piccolo, the world famous model, and arranged to dine at Blowback, a rooftop bar specialising in mezcal.

They were mildly papped outside and shared a beetroot taco with flash-fried Brussel sprouts.

Mitzi, blonde, near-athletic, showed her perfect teeth in her perfect mouth. It was her idea of a smile. She said: ‘I’ve been made ambassadress for some pink wine called something rose.’ She reached into her bag and produced a bottle. With one eye shut she arranged it by the cruet and took a picture, and another one of her perfect hand grabbing its neck. She busied herself for a few moments on the phone. ‘Ping,’ she said. ‘Done. It’s on social media. My working day begins and ends.’

Then they got a bit trashed and summoned up all the news stories on their phones about Mitzi and Maisie alleging they were having a lesbian affair. They had discussed this several times. Maisie admitted that she would love to be a lesbian, and had ‘got up to stuff’ but only, she said, because, like, it was the thing to do. She had never had a lesbian impulse in her life. The lack of them made her sad. Her first husband, Mikey Devizes, the son of a billionaire who started the Hoof Onna Hoof beer and pattie chain, could attest to this, having initiated various drugged-up threesomes which were unsatisfactory due to Maisie’s reluctance.

Devizes crossed her mezcal-and-weed clouded mind now. His rages and threats, his manic, comic thrusting in bed, which was so fast and aggressive it seemed to Maisie like one of those old silent comedy movies where everyone moved, like, real fast. Devizes was a disaster area but the divorce court had made her, already a very rich young woman, even richer.

‘Hey, dreamy,’ said a slow, dull voice.

‘Hey, Jabbsy.’

Li’l Jabbsy, to give him his full name: one of the most prominent white mumblerappers on the West Coast. Legend had it that he couldn’t read and so couldn’t write his lyrics; he had to extemporise them into a mobile phone recorder and learn them back. This did not harm his success. Other gossip had it that he was the son of well off parents and could read and write. Maisie had never been able to get to the bottom of it.

Bitch sittin’ in my face

I’m like that fly in the hole

Hoe knows that fly

Hoe knows ever’ fly

Grindin’ poundin’ grindin’

Poundin’ grindin’ poundin’

The last line formed the title of Li’l Jabbsy’s first album, which had won a Grammy. Maisie had met him when she presented him with another industry award for best lyrics. There was excited talk that night that Li’l Jabbsy might soon win the Nobel Prize for Literature but that notion, Maisie had reflected, was ‘mis-sold’. Tonight, like every night, Li’l Jabbsy was dressed for unspecified competitive athletics but his bleary brown eyes and drug-loosened face appeared to militate against any rapid physical movement. He had a baseball cap on backwards and seemed to be dragging one foot behind him as if suffering from a neurological problem. Maisie briefly wondered how, in this state, he might manage the champion lovemaking he boasted of in song. She had never found him to be quite such a champ in the sheets as he made out in his art.

He stood still and looked at the pair of them, blinking slowly, as if trying to figure out whether something sexual was on offer. To Maisie he said: ‘Are you still livin’ in that old museum? I need brandy. Bitch just run over my foot outside. I heard you got the part in that jungle film. That looks like it’s gonna be el cool.’

Maisie took seriously what Jabbsy had to say. She valued his street-cred but their relationship was long over. Something had gone wrong. After he’d moved into Maisie’s palace the honeymoon period had been riotous, everyone in town talked about it: crazy parties that were heard on the other side of the valley; crack and crank, coke blizzards, goo parties, firework displays like the Fourth of July, golden guns, pussy like you wouldn’t believe, some said, armies of it; Maisie’s armour-plated golden Merc driven wildly around the grounds by a person or persons unknown, in the process wrecking the midget golf course and crashing into the lake in the Japanese garden, where it remained to this day in six feet of water. An artist friend of Maisie’s begged her to leave it rusting under the giant waterlilies. Once he pronounced it a work of art in its own right and named it The Wreck of Capital Maisie agreed to let it stay. Now its only passengers were expensive and highly coloured fish swimming sedately over its leather seats.

That was a fun time for her. But after a while, Jabbsy’s retinue became tiresome: there was too much stealing, too many drugs and too much loud music when Maisie was learning a script. ‘I have to concentrate on this, goddammit,’ she had screamed at him when reading Lost in the Supermarket, a retro tale about indie bands that bombed. ‘How the fuck did you ever think I’d look good in a beanie?’ she had yelled at her agent Freyja Bulk when the reviews landed. Somehow she managed to break it off with Jabbsy and, with even more effort by her retinue, managed to get Jabbsy and his crew out of the house.

Jabbsy joined Maisie and Mitzi’s table and they all drank until the three of them were feeling merry. They ended up back at Maisie’s palace where she agreed to let Jabbsy come to South America too.

Joey Twist behaved on Maisie’s jet to Ecuador, as did Li’l Jabbsy. They both hung around the galley trying and succeeding in attracting the two hostesses and then going on to have sex with them in the loo. Maisie mainly stayed in her cabin studying the script for Green Heaven. This, she had told Serena, was ‘the one’. ‘I don’t want to be typecast as a fuckin’ superhero all my life. I’m thirty in a couple of years and if I don’t transition to more serious roles I’m stuck and it’s over. This movie has Oscars written all over it.’

When she said that to Freyja Bulk, Bulk had drily observed that if the Oscars’ TV audience kept declining at its present rate, in five years no one at all would be tuning in. This did not deter Maisie.

After several weeks of watching Maisie filming in the jungle, Li’l Jabbsy and Joey were getting restless.

‘Man, I think we need a trip,’ said Joey, looking up to the dense forests.

‘Yep. I thought you were clean now?’

‘What happens in Ecuador stays in Ecuador.’

‘Damn right.’

‘I’ll speak to Maisie.’

Joey found that Maisie was also up for an adventure. The director and producers, who no doubt would forbid any trips to the interior on pain of injury and flouting of insurance policies, were not to be told. They and most of the crew were going into El Coca for the weekend.

Joey hired two guides and off they all went up a jungle road in a people carrier. It was not more of the gloomy, shrieking forest that Joey or Jabbsy wanted to see. Maisie knew this full well. Soon the car stopped at a small village of native Indians, overhung by a vast canopy of trees. Joey made enquiries for the local variety of witchdoctor. They were directed to a hut where they found the witchdoctor drinking beer and watching an English Premier League football match on television. Maisie stood outside and became aware of the villagers watching her. Even in jeans and a logger’s shirt she was a rare specimen of beauty. She smiled and, for want of any better way of communicating, pressed her hands together in an attitude of prayer and bowed, as if she were in Thailand. Her mind was still ranging over what her charitable work should be. Perhaps she could build these people a new village?

Inside his hut the witchdoctor, through one of the guides’ translation, was made to understand that his visitors were seeking the ancient hallucinogenic potation of the jungle people. He finished his beer, removed his trilby and replaced it with a headdress of lurid red and green feathers. He produced a much-thumbed plastic-covered price-list with several European languages on it. ‘With the full spiritual cleanse you will see all things and understand all things,’ said the guide. ‘You will see the before-life and the afterlife.’

‘I’m like really up for that,’ said Joey. They explained the deal to Maisie, who asked a lot of questions about additives and acid rain, then agreed. The trio paid the money and the witchdoctor spat water over each of them. This was, he said, the beginning of the ritual.

The trip was unlike anything the three of them had experienced, and they were all seasoned drug users. In any case Maisie had never been impressed or excited by the prospect of drugs. (She had first taken illegal narcotics as a child with her father, a car salesman from Iowa, who now ran a religious sect with a strong mail order arm. She kept him permanently at bay with an ongoing series of restraining orders. He it was who got her into catalogue clothes modelling – she was the Toledo Toddler. Her beauty rapidly carried her on from there.)  But this drug, with some unpronounceable name, was different.

They were shown to a ceremonial tent and spent a few hours being violently sick. ‘This barfing is like hard,’ Jabbsy remarked between retches. Joey said nothing. His eyes were wide, his face looked profoundly shocked and it shone with sweat. Whatever he was seeing was not in the tent.

In his hut, the shaman was watching a US television programme about competitive eating.

Maisie realised it was a mega trip and, just as with LSD in her teen years, knew that the most important thing she could do was accept it. ‘It’s a fairground ride,’ her father had said of lysergic acid when they’d dropped a tab each on a Sunday drive over to Grandma Quimby’s house in the early Noughties. What an afternoon that had been. ‘Sure,’ her father had added, ‘You might see God but that’s howdy doody.’ It seemed that eventually her father had indeed seen God, or a god, but Maisie never did.

In their drug-altered states Maisie, Joey and Jabbsy seemed to wander for years in a kind of underworld unique to each of them. This melted into new nightmares, at least for the men. Joey felt at one point that he had been trapped for 14 years in a McDonald’s burger box stuck at the back of a cupboard in his former mother-in-law’s house in Queens, New York. Demons and troglodytes, vast jaws and pitchy hells passed before his eyes.

Maisie was undisturbed by her experience. While Joey and Jabbsy rolled around in the hut screaming, she lay serenely, imagining she was flying over the jungle. She came to a lost city and found a ruined temple crowned with a gold Oscar statuette. The whiteness of the temple glowed in sunlight. It was then she remembered something that Jabbsy had said that night in Blowback: ‘Are you still living in that museum?’

A warm glow settled on her. She began to walk towards the temple, head held high. The problem was solved. In the gloom of the hut she smiled with her eyes shut.

Maisie was the first to recover, brought back to full consciousness via the thread of jungle noise. Jabbsy emerged next. His hair and clothes were filthy from the floor and the front of his track-suit was covered in dried vomit, like a baby’s bib. Joey, it turned out, was in a coma. The shaman was not overly concerned despite being unable to rouse him by spitting water in his face. ‘He’s resting,’ he said. After they got Joey back to town in the people-carrier he was admitted to hospital.

Jabbsy was greatly troubled by the development. ‘Like shit, Maisie, what are we going to do?’ he said, anxiety twanging his voice high.

‘We’re not going to do anything, are we,’ she said. ‘It’s not our job. Joey was very clean and took a big dose. How many people leave rehab and overdose on something? Could any of us stop him?’

‘Sposin’ he like dies?’

‘Then I’ll be all over the news, and the studio will be angry and everyone will be angry. I can’t help that. I need to make a call.’

She rang Parson. The accountant was in the middle of a dinner party which was by LA standards an old-fashioned affair involving meat, martinis and Frank Sinatra CDs. Parson’s wife watched him take the call in the kitchen. He rolled his eyes as he noted down Maisie’s instructions. Towards the end of the call he switched to speaker-phone and all his guests were beckoned in to hear the movie star saying: ‘I want it all done by the time I get back from South America, do you understand? I want it all done.’

Location shooting for Green Heaven wrapped two months later. Privately Maisie decided that green wasn’t so heavenly. ‘I never want to see another fuckin’ rainforest in my life,’ she thought on her jet back to LA. But she felt her role as a UN doctor exposing exploitation in the jungle was proper mature material. Jabbsy did himself some good PR-wise with further visits to the village, where he was photographed helping to install a water pump. Adversity and the enforced exile of a film set rekindled Maisie and Jabbsy’s old romance. He dumped the bitch who had driven over his foot that night outside Blowback. Maisie felt the need for some loving, as she put it. When I need something, she told Mitzi in an encrypted text, I don’t deny myself.

Joey had been flown back to the US still comatose. He’d woken up at long last. ‘But he ain’t making much sense,’ Jabbsy reported after calling the hospital. Joey’s misfortune had made news but because the director broke his arm and a stuntman drowned, Joey’s ‘mystery’ illness dissolved into a wider showbiz gossip narrative that the production was suffering from an Inca curse. The trip to the shaman went unreported.

When she got out of her chauffeur-driven car at home the first thing Maisie did was walk to the field where the old orangery had stood. It had been demolished, fenced off and a new road built for public access. Where the orangery had stood there was in its place a large building of several storeys in blinding white masonry and internationally postmodern design. A sign on the front in big sans serif letters said:


Maisie smiled her big Dragongirl smile. She had seen the building being constructed on all the TV news channels. It had played very well with a lot of the networks. Her PR team had done a wonderful job. She stood for a moment in the sunshine. She had done it, she thought. She walked slowly up the steps and went through heavy glass doors into a hushed interior.

Here and there in the huge lobby workmen were putting finishing touches to exhibits. She had told Parson to collect as many artefacts as were necessary to fill the building and make the point. Parson had consulted academics, historians and French philosophers before going on a tour of the world’s salesrooms and private collections. He did this sadly, mentally keeping an appalled eye on the bottom line.

Maisie stroked the barrel of a Civil War cannon in the foyer. Close by on a dais she noticed an ancient bell, which a card said came from some old cathedral in Europe. Behind that was a life-size model of slaves’ quarters from the antebellum South with a looped recording of field hollers playing. She moved on through galleries devoted to western art, western books and western religion. There were mock-ups of concentration camps, Fifties kitchens with waxworks of housewives cooking their husbands’ evening meals; a Vietnam section; a World War Two section with two fighter planes; sections on penal injustices, the British Empire, containing a papier-mâché statue of Queen Victoria and a recreation of Rorke’s Drift; there was an electric chair, a replica guillotine and a gallows from a British prison; there were sections on corporal punishment, healthcare, the CIA, Richard Nixon, police brutality, John Wayne, homosexuality, phallocentric design, climate change, acid rain, Elvis Presley, otherness, Queerness, gendering, a Shakespeare first folio and even an artful little waxwork of Gandhi (when she stood in front of it she activated a pressure switch under the floor and heard some of his obiter dicta).

Maisie reached the end of the exhibits and came back out into the sunlight. She punched the air then dropped her head and cried tears that felt sweet.

Once the private view and official opening of the Museum of Oppression – televised and star-studded – had occurred in the weeks that followed, visitor numbers fell off dramatically. Maisie was not overly concerned. The money she had spent was quite extraordinary, lunatic even, and it had not gone unnoticed. ‘A clear demonstration of commitment,’ some commentators said, having cherry-picked the phrase from the press pack released by Maisie’s PR firm. ‘Commitment yes,’ she thought, ‘but is it enough?’

Social media was divided along the usual lines. It didn’t matter what all the right-wing mockers and abusers said. It was the social justice warriors and pressure groups who counted. Maisie would sit stoned in the Moorish lounge until late at night, scrolling through social media while Jabbsy smoked bongs and laughed at what he called ‘crazy shit’ on the gigantic television. After an influential community organiser in LA had observed on social media that Maisie’s Museum of Oppression was ‘an expression of privilege and therefore a form of hierarchical and OPPRESSIVE action in and of itself’, the seed of doubt grew in her mind. The post got thousands and thousands of approval emojis. ‘Like,’ she thought, ‘what do you have to do?’ It depressed her as she learned lines for her fourth Dragongirl film.

Time passed. Green Heaven bombed on release and, far worse, Maisie did not make it into the Oscar shortlists. She heard that Joey had improved to a degree and now only needed a walking frame if tired. The museum averaged six visitors a week. It was quietly announced that henceforward it would only open on Mondays and Thursdays.

As the weather grew hotter Jabbsy had the idea of throwing a party to take Maisie’s mind off things. She had consulted her doctors complaining of depression and had been told to give up weed and take long walks. Not so long ago the party idea would not have appealed but now, in her low and restless state, Maisie agreed that it would be fun. She told Serena to throw everything at it: waiters, champagne, goo party, snow machine, waltzers, fire-eaters, vegan hot dogs, clowns, strippers, wrestlers, motorcycle stunt-riders, house DJs, a giant stage for Li’l Jabbsy to do his mumblerap on, everything. ‘It’s got to be something no one will ever forget,’ she told Serena.

That is just what it was.

The party became a festival, with hundreds of tents pitched in the paddock and spilling into the ornamental gardens and vineyard. There was pissing in the fountains and fucking on the midget golf course. Roadies built a massive stage in the paddock. The whole grounds were bathed in a diaphanous admixture of cannabis smoke and the smell of onions from vegan hot dog stands. Everyone who was anyone in the mid-ranks of the LA entertainment business dropped by and hordes of their employees had also got in on the act. An invite was Hollywood gold dust. Even Bella, the assistant Maisie sacked after the discussion about pet-keeping on the plane, was there using the invitation that was sent to her in error. Geraldo ran excitedly before her down the gravel paths of the gardens. The house was off limits – a brigade of hard-core security staff enforced the cordon sanitaire. Barbaric inhuman music came from gigantic speakers driven on to the estate on low-loaders.

In the gardens flower beds were trampled on and ornamental lawns pounded with tent pegs and ploughed by the traffic of the crowds. Bottles and beer cans rolled everywhere. A makeshift ashram had been constructed in the long herbaceous border and five DJs from Encino were micro-dosing and meditating inside it before playing their sets. The head gardener sat in his office in a rage, drinking heavily. And this was only 6pm!

Maisie surveyed the scene from the Moorish lounge balcony like a marshal before a battle, or a member of the British royal family. Jabbsy embraced her, his drug-addled eyes glittering in a kind of aspic. ‘See,’ he said in his lover voice, ‘ain’t it great?’ And it was. Maisie nodded. ‘Everybody loves Maisie,’ he added. He hugged her closer and took a drag on his blunt at the same time.

Inside, unnoticed, television news was showing pictures of a riot that had started over a man shot by police while robbing a liquor store. Cars were overturned and the reporter was wearing face protection. And this was only 7pm!

Hours later, just before Jabbsy – who was very high indeed – started his set, members of his coterie, Li’l Splod, Li’l Lol and Li’l Teenzy – to name but three – and indeed Mitzi Piccolo had tweeted that a big party was happening at Maisie’s and ‘the whole city was invited’. Thousands acted on the invitation. The grounds of Maisie’s place were mobbed with intruders. Cars jammed roads for a mile around.

Midway through Jabbsy’s set the house was breached by rampaging hordes and Maisie was forced to lock herself in the panic room with her domestic staff as rioters stormed through the house. It was comprehensively looted, though the Matisses and Picassos were left behind. It was unclear, the LA County Law Office later said, who set the fire but soon the old palace was ablaze.

The rioters did not stop with the house. Many on social media reasserted their disapproval of Maisie’s Museum of Oppression. A fuckin’ museum of oppression, they jabbed angrily into their devices. Nah, that won’t do. It’s just more oppression. This played well online. Before long the Museum of Oppression was also set on fire.

It was a long ghastly night of chaos, of sirens, police, riot squads, gunshots, TV news crews, ambulances, smoke and flames and fighting.

Dawn brought a dismal scene: two huge plumes of smoke rose from Maisie’s house and her museum. The grounds were wrecked. Even the maze was in ashes. Triages had been set up in the ornamental gardens and the vineyard. Most of the crowds had gone and firefighters hosed the ruins.

Li’l Jabbsy and his coterie plus Joey and Mitzi sat at a table in the grounds. No one was saying much. Ash fell around them like apocalyptic drizzle.

Maisie appeared with a sprightly step. ‘Morning people,’ she said brightly. Mitzi looked up, surprised at this bonhomie.

‘How are you so clean?’ asked Mitzi. Indeed, Maisie was clean: she was showered, primped, blow-dried, and freshly clothed. ‘I washed in the trailer – the garages never burned.’ Jabbsy, exhausted, hungover, stoned and bewildered, was leaning his head on his hand. His eyes flicked up to Maisie like a sullen child in class.

They heard a car and looked over to the gates across the immense, ruined lawns. A car had been allowed past the police lines. It came up the drive towards them and stopped. Parson got out. ‘Jesus,’ he kept saying. ‘I hope your insurance –’

‘Don’t start on all that crap, Anthony,’ said Maisie. She turned and looked at the prospect of smoking mansion and museum. ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ she said in her Californian warble. ‘Isn’t this just the most wonderful fucking thing that ever happened? I didn’t feel I was like there with things. I felt I’d fallen short. But now I feel like I’ve done it.’ She turned towards them. ‘I’ve given something back.

She started to laugh and this was a cue for the others to smile. ‘I am so happy!’ she said gaily and with not a hint of irony. Now they all laughed, some genuinely, some uneasily, some through suggestion, some through dope. A passing policeman looked at them. The only person who didn’t laugh was Parson. Maisie noticed this. ‘I’ve given something back, Anthony,’ she said. ‘I’ve paid my dues. What are you gonna do? Now crew, let’s go out for breakfast ‘cos, like, there’s no kitchen. I’m flying to Europe tomorrow, there’s a climate change conference in Oslo. I’m an ambassador. I was thinking that I could offset the fires and smoke by planting a forest upstate or maybe in, like, Brazil or something. Anthony? Thoughts?’

Parson did not answer. He stared at the smoking ruins. ‘Jesus,’ he said again in a small voice.

The noise of sirens across the city joined together in one vast and hideous wail. As they drove away from the ruins in a caravan of cars, the smoke from the wreck of Maisie’s house and museum wafted across LA and merged with the smoke from the looting and the rioting, and its smuts and ashes, the ashes of the museum’s contents, of furniture, paintings, artefacts, objects, books and parchments, of Gandhi’s waxwork and of the Shakespeare first folio fell on the city, on rich and poor alike.

Battles royal

The statue of King Alfred at Winchester Image: Shutterstock

Eþandun Epic Poem

William. G. Carpenter, Beaver’s Pond Press, 2021, 252pp

LIAM GUILAR finds much to admire in an ambitious new epic of Alfred, but fears it misses the mark

Eþandun1 is a narrative poem which tells the story of King Alfred’s actions between the Danish raid on Chippenham in midwinter 878 AD and his victory at the battle of Edington about six months later. It advertises itself on its cover as ‘Epic Poem’2.

The orthodox version of literary history is that since the 19th century there has been a ‘lyricization’ of poetry in English. At the beginning of that century poetry was still the main vehicle for narrative, but it was gradually supplanted by the prose novel, until fictional narrative in prose became so common that ‘prose novel’ sounds tautological and ‘lyric’ became the default mode for poetry.

Edgar Allan Poe wrote

I hold that a long poem does not exist. I maintain that the phrase, “a long poem,” is simply a flat contradiction in terms.

People who may not have read his argument and might have gagged on some of his examples of ‘true poetry’ accepted his claims.3 At the beginning of the twentieth century the most influential poets wrote long poems but avoided narrative. Despite the continuing popularity of narrative fiction in print and digital media, critics of the stature of Hugh Kenner and Marjorie Perloff were happy to announce that plot is obsolete (Kenner)4 and narrative is undesirable (Perloff).5 Post modernists, stuck up their theorised cul de sacs, invented ‘weak narrativity’ which stripped of its verbiage seems to mean telling a story by deliberately not telling a story.6 The idea that poetry is just another form of entertainment became a heresy.

There’s an element of truth in this potted narrative; it couldn’t be a critical orthodoxy if there weren’t, but poets have gone on writing book length narrative poems in blank verse, strict stanza forms, free verse, or sequences of diverse poems, and in doing so they have moved across most of the existing fictional genres.

One consequence of this historical development is that modern publishers often seem clueless when it comes to promoting a book-length, narrative poem. Eþandun is a good example. It’s an historical novel. The writer has done his research. He knows the period and he has invented a story full of incident and drama that fits within a fixed, historically accurate time frame. We might dispute the credibility of the story, but that’s part of the pleasure of reading historical fiction.

It seems highly unlikely that Alfred hid in Guthrum’s camp disguised as a Welsh bard,7 even less likely that he became his unofficial adviser, staged a fake séance and debated religion with him. Carpenter’s battle at Edington is a miraculous victory for a vastly outnumbered English army. It was not regarded as miraculous by contemporaries. Anglo-Saxon armies had been trashing Danish armies for decades; the men of Devon destroyed one that same winter and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, our major source for the battle, simply records both the raid on Chippenham and the victory at Edington. The personal combat between Alfred and Guthrum seems a definite mistake, historically implausible and anti-climactic, even if the end of Virgil’s epic is ghosting in the background.

But a reader could dispute those parts of the story while enjoying them, with the added pleasure of encountering incidents he or she wouldn’t have imagined. This is fiction, not history and fiction requires incident and drama. Carpenter’s story is full of both.

What percentage of the vast audience for Game of Thrones, Vikings, The Last Kingdom, Lord of the Rings etc. care about the quality of the prose they’re reading? Would they be put off if the lines didn’t go all the way to the right-hand margin? They could enjoy Eþandun and learn about the history of the period while they were doing it without worrying about the quality of the verse. There’s a vast audience out there, but the publisher sticks ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and that means the book will be shunted into the poetry section, if there is one, where its natural readership will not find it. Put ‘Epic Poem’ on the cover and the book is reviewed by poetry editors instead of fiction reviewers.

The dust jacket reflects the publisher’s confusion. What does it tell a prospective reader about the book?

The title, Ethandun, spelt Eþandun seems needlessly pedantic. It’s not a famous battle like Hastings. Since most potential readers haven’t heard of it, aren’t going to know the sound value of the thorn (þ) and are going to be confused by the similarity between the a and d in the chosen font, it also seems needlessly uninformative.

If you don’t know what an Eþandun is, the cover picture doesn’t help. It shows a generic ‘couple in the past’. If this is supposed to be Alfred and his wife, the latter is missing for most of the book, and when they do reunite, in the last chapter, Alfred’s loss of an eye has been stressed so often that the fact that he has two in the picture seems incongruous.  

Still seeking enlightenment, one reads the quotes on the back of the dust jacket. Typically, for a narrative poem, there is a failure to give an overview of the story. The only information states:

It is 878 AD. In the struggle between Christian Saxon and pagan Dane, whose endurance, loyalty, and strategy-whose God or gods-will prevail?

878 is not a well-known date. If you, reading this, know its significance, you belong to a very, very small group. If on the other hand you know the date, then you know Alfred won. Suggesting there’s any doubt seems counter-productive. Hidden away on the front flap of the dust jacket is a succinct summary of the book. It ends, however, with a piece of strange and highly inaccurate hyperbole: “Eþandun paints Western Christendom in its darkest hour”.

As so often, the choice of approving quotations is also strange. There are two:

Eþandun is a work of genius, of true poetry, and also a staggering piece of historical scholarship. It is utterly original in concept and execution

This tells a potential reader nothing about the poem. As a statement it relies on the reader’s unwillingness to stop and consider it. It’s hard enough to define ‘poetry’ but what is ‘true poetry’? Certainly not the same ‘true poetry’ Poe was promoting. The phrase turns up on a baffling variety of poetry books and should be banned, unless the user is willing to explain exactly what it is supposed to mean. Nor is this a “staggering piece of historical scholarship”. I can’t imagine many historians being staggered by a three-page bibliography.

The second quote is even stranger:

Carpenter’s Alfred is a wannabe medievalist’s delight. We don’t know much about the king who united Britain, but through Carpenter’s eyes, we imagine him.

If this is “a wannabe medievalist’s delight” should the genuine variety steer clear?

“We don’t know much about the King who united Britain.” This is very true. Surprisingly little is known about Athelstan who did ‘unite’ Britain, but he was Alfred’s grandson and this book is not about him, but about Alfred, who didn’t even unite England. We also know more about Alfred than about any other Anglo-Saxon king.

Carpenter knows most of what is known. One of the most striking aspects of this book is that Carpenter achieves that very rare thing: a story set in the ninth century, where the characters’ frame of reference is ninth century. It’s very impressive. It has nothing to do with ‘wannabe medievalists’. But the book’s main strength is also its major weakness. The research hasn’t been integrated into the fabric of the poem. It sits on top of it, calling attention to itself.

On the run from the Danes, Alfred and his retainers are watching them ransack a religious institution, spitting babies on spears and molesting the religious. Alfred’s companion, Octa, wants to leap to the defence of the weak and persecuted.

Can I behold such wickedness’ he murmured

as Athelred’s successor gripped his wrist.

‘You can behold’ said Alfred, ‘and you will’8

Alfred’s response is terse and dramatic and suits the situation. It’s also believable. But then Alfred, who is also Athelred’s successor, launches into a 41-line speech, referring Octa to a list of historical situations that may have been much worse than the one they are in. This is not an isolated example. It’s a major stylistic characteristic of the text. Carpenter’s Alfred, like his narrator, has the irritating habit of launching into an historical disquisition at every possible opportunity. The story stops. Alfred speaks. At length. He sounds like a boring pedant. His retainers could have been forgiven for shanking him just so they could eat their meals in peace.

Before the climactic battle, Alfred makes a speech to his gathered troops. In Carpenter’s version of events, this is a desperate moment. He only has 318 fighting men. The model for such speeches in English poetry is Shakespeare’s Henry V. As a piece of ruthless, self-serving rhetorical manipulation Henry’s speech before Agincourt is perfect. But not one of Henry’s imaginary bowmen would have failed to understand everything he said.9

Carpenter’s Alfred says all he needs to say in 16 lines and then launches into a history lesson, piling up the examples which include King Ahab’s levies, Matathias’ son, Oswy, Abraham, the council at Nicea, a piece of erudite Greek symbolism courtesy of the Venerable Bede, and some typological exegesis surrounding Melchizedek, with the Spartan Leonidas thrown in at the end for good measure. We don’t know much about the men who made up the Wessex levies at Edington, but they would have been baffled rather than inspired.

The ghost of G.K. Chesterton’s The Ballad of the White Horse haunts any poet who attempts the story of King Alfred. Chesterton didn’t claim his story was historically accurate, and he used various ballad-like forms to give his poem an incantatory, dream-like quality. Carpenter opts for blank verse and his handling of this is deft, providing him with an unobtrusive, sometimes elegant vehicle for his narrative. Unfortunately, he breaks this with heavily alliterating lines that sound like fake medieval verse. Perhaps this delights ‘wannabe medievalists’ who have never encountered the real version. It’s difficult to imagine any Anglo-Saxon composing the clumsy equivalent of “Begged to buy his butchered boardmate’s blood.” (p. 46)

Old and Middle English alliterative verse was a flexible and sophisticated way of organising a line and offered subtle possibilities in rhythm and emphasis.10 It’s very difficult to do in modern English for a variety of reasons. Carpenter has wisely decided not to use it. He opts instead for general alliteration, using it heavily at certain parts of the narrative. Imposed on blank verse this can be disastrous. The drummer is tapping ten or eleven beats and lightly stressing every second one, then suddenly the bass player has decided to stress any random combination of beats. The lines begin to sound ominously like tongue twisters.

Both bled, both blew, hearts hammered in both breasts

As cupbearers brought them bread and beer11

When the alliteration is linked to Carpenter’s habitual circumlocution12 and used to describe combat, the result is confused:

…and Wulf went in forthwith. Poor Wulf was fined

a foot, but soon the Somersetan swung

south of Sigewulf’s stroke, which, Sherbourne’s shield,

discerning, drove his troll wife down the troll road

cleared by the killer’s ward as careful Alfred

aimed his edge and nicked the bristled neck. Wulf

lobbed his limb at the snout, Sigewulf struck

brawn, and the bitch chomped the carl’s calf (p. 13)

It’s true that heroic poems from Y Gododdin to ‘The Battle of Maldon’ detail the deaths and deeds of individuals in combat. But the original audiences probably knew the participants, or had heard of them, and were familiar enough with combat to be fascinated by the blow by blow accounts. The descriptions are rarely, if ever, confusing. In the 21st century those conditions don’t apply. “Poor Wulf was fined a foot” sounds needlessly precious and unnecessarily vague: “lobbed his limb at the snout” bordering on parodic. I do not know what “discerning drove his troll wife down the troll road” means.  

Is Eþandun Epic Poem an epic poem? The answer depends on your definition of epic and defining epic is an entertaining critical game, if you enjoy such things. The arguments have produced a small library, like the larger one attempting to define lyric. The standard critical manoeuvre is to survey contending definitions of epic from Aristotle onwards, and then pick whichever one allows the critic or writer to do whatever they were always going to do. Like the attempts to define lyric, the game has little pragmatic value.

Eþandun is certainly a long poem that wants to be taken seriously but it raises the more interesting question of whether or not it is possible, in the 21st century, to write, “A war epic in the tradition of Homer and Virgil”, which is the claim on the inside of the dust jacket.

David Jones was probably the last person to achieve this, with In Parenthesis. He was describing a war his readers had fought in. Christopher’s Logue’s War Music is the positive answer to the ‘war poetry’ part of that question. But Logue wasn’t trying to out-Homer Homer. Then is not now, and he built this into his poem, using all the techniques available to a modern English poet.

Virgil’s audience were trained in the use of weapons, and accepted combat as a natural part of their lives. Martial skill was admirable. No one living today has fought in a Dark Age battle. That might be the crucial difference between a Roman aristocrat who has fought in the Empire’s wars listening to the final combat in the Aeneid, and a modern audience reading that passage or Carpenter’s imaginary combats.

For the original audiences of Homer and Virgil, the past was a very different place: gods interacted with humans while larger than life heroes stalked about the earth. In the 21st century we split history, which is (hopefully) evidence-based and factual, from a thing called fiction which is a culturally sanctioned form of lying. The split is very recent, certainly post-medieval. Today we dispute the ‘historicity’ of the Trojan war. If it happened, then it didn’t happen the way it does in the Iliad. We look for evidence it might have happened, framing its possible causes in terms of economics and expansionist politics.

Virgil and Homer were creating poems that sprung from a shared belief in the truth of their stories, built on a shared knowledge of the past. It’s almost impossible for a modern reader not to read the Aeneid as a form of historical fiction – a high-class Roman Marvel Comic with suited superheroes and bickering gods. The suspension of disbelief we’ve learnt from reading and watching fiction automatically takes over. For the original audience this was the foundation story of Rome.

A poem written in the tradition of Virgil would have to negotiate the fact that most people no longer believe gods walk on the earth.; or that victory in battle proves that God prefers your cause to your defeated enemy’s; or that sword swinging killers are sufficient role models for the problems of the world adults live in. Heroes of the superhuman stature of Aeneas or Achilles belong now in the world of fiction and are diminished by this. There was a King Alfred, and he was bound by all the contingent forces of his place and time and essential humanity. He was extra-ordinary. But if we admire Alfred as an historical figure, it’s not because he won a battle, but because of his reforms after Edington. They are hardly material for a dramatic war poem in the style of Virgil.

Carpenter’s Alfred is not the historical man. Nor is he a believable representation of that historical man. However, fiction has requirements history will not provide. Eþandun is historical fiction: entertaining and thought provoking even when it is at its most implausible. Virgil was not writing fiction.

  1. The title, with a modernised spelling would be Ethandun. The place of the battle is usually given as Edington []
  2. ‘Eþandun Epic poem’ on both dust jacket, copyright and title page. Eþandun on the book’s spine and cover []
  3. Poe, E.A. (1846) briefly in ‘The Philosophy of Composition’. and in more detail in (1850) ‘The Poetic Principle’. Poe’s attempt to define ‘True Poetry’ comes in the penultimate paragraph of this latter essay []
  4. Kenner, H. (1951) The poetry of Ezra Pound, p. 262 []
  5. Perloff, M. (1985) The dance of the intellect: studies in the poetry of the Pound tradition, p.161 []
  6. See for example Brian McHale’s (2004) The obligation toward the difficult whole. and the same writer’s contribution to the Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative the entry for ‘Narrative in Poetry []
  7. Like the story of the burnt cakes, the story of Alfred visiting the Danish camp as a harper first appears in the 12th century []
  8. p.51 []
  9. In Old English, Byrhtnoth’s speeches to the Viking messenger in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ is a less well known, but historically more appropriate, example of direct, effective, dramatic speech []
  10. Essentially a line with four stresses. Three of the beats are stitched together with alliteration. The last beat rarely carries alliteration []
  11. P.210 []
  12. I counted ten ways in which Alfred is named in the poem before I stopped counting []

Castro, Kennedy and Khrushchev – the nuclear option

Image: Shutterstock

Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane, 2021, 464 pages, £25

KEN BELL admires an unusually informed study of one of History’s nearest misses

Serhii Plokhy’s Nuclear Folly: A New History of the Cuban Missile Crisis is the first work to mine the KGB files that are stored in Ukraine. Out of this, Plokhy has synthesised a new understanding of the crisis which argues that neither side understood the other, and both operated on the basis of faulty intelligence.

Fidel Castro was a caudillo, rather than a Marxist, but he realised that if Paris is worth a mass then Cuba was certainly worth some Marxist rhetoric, so he decided to announce his conversion to the principles of Marxism-Leninism in the aftermath of his victory at the Bay of Pigs.

For Moscow, this was a dream come true, but it did create three issues that needed to be addressed quickly. The first was the need to keep Cuba communist, and the second was how to deter further American aggression against it. Finally, there was a need to keep Peking from seducing Havana into its version of communism.

The installation of medium range nuclear missiles, with the Soviet troops to man them, answered all those issues and gave Khrushchev the added bonus of finally being able to threaten the USA directly; the USSR in 1962 still lacked the intercontinental missiles that the USA had recently developed. Khrushchev remembered the way in which Kennedy had accepted the fact of a Berlin Wall and hoped that the Americans would do the same with Soviet missiles in Cuba, if they could be installed before the Americans discovered their presence.

Things began to go wrong almost immediately. The advance party that was sent to Cuba reported that the country was heavily wooded, and installing the missiles could be done under that forest canopy. When the missile troops arrived, they discovered that palm trees do not provide much cover and rain forests are too dense for large trucks to move through. The country lacked bridges that could stand the weight of the Soviet trucks, and even Soviet rations began to go bad in the tropical heat. The troops began to contract dysentery and the whole thing began to look like a farce before it had got off the ground.

Luckily for the Soviets, the decision was taken to install anti-aircraft missiles first. These were quickly discovered by the Americans, but they had expected them, so did not trouble themselves over the Soviet ships. This meant the strategic and tactical nuclear missiles could be set up courtesy of American misreading of what was actually going on.

When the Americans did find out, Kennedy’s reaction at first was hawkish. But he quickly realised that a nuclear world war was not in anyone’s interests so began to find a political solution. However, by then his aides and military were almost united in speaking for war, so the blockade of Cuban waters that he came up with seems to have been intended to buy time and keep the warmongers off his back until he learned exactly what Khrushchev was willing to concede. For his part, once Khrushchev realised that Cuba was far more important than Berlin to the Americans he was more than willing to reach an agreement, but the problem then became bringing that about against a backdrop of rising chaos.

For instance, an American U2 aircraft over Cuba was shot down seemingly against orders from Moscow. The commander of the unit was in his bed with dysentery, so a less senior officer, under extreme pressure as he and his men had not slept for days while they battled to get their antiaircraft missiles operational, gave the launch order.

At sea, a Soviet submarine had surfaced to recharge its batteries. It carried a nuclear torpedo, and control over that weapon was in the captain’s hands. It was the middle of the night when he went up to the conning tower to communicate with the American ships that surrounded him via a Morse lamp, and the USAF took the opportunity to ignore its orders not to do anything provocative and began to drop flares on the boat so photographs could be taken. The Russians thought that they were under attack, and the captain ordered a crash dive and the torpedo tubes to be flooded. Luckily, the man carrying the Morse lamp got stuck on the ladder and the captain was able to look back at the main American ship and read an apology from its captain. Had that man not been caught for a few seconds with his lamp, most of the American ships would have been destroyed by the nuclear weapon.

Back on land, Kennedy’s willingness to swap the Soviet missiles in Cuba for American ones in Turkey almost came to nothing when the Americans realised that the Turks might just object to a deal about their country that did not involve them, but Khrushchev agreed that part could be kept secret. Then Castro got in on the act and refused to allow American inspections of the Soviet missiles as they were loaded onto ships, so the Russians had to agree to inspections at sea. Both superpowers were quickly discovering that even junior partners could not be treated with that same indifference that the Americans used in central America and the Soviets in eastern Europe.

Yet, there was just enough to trade-off, and just enough willingness to do it, to allow Khrushchev to walk away with an American promise not to invade Cuba, which meant that it would remain a communist country. Awash with Soviet arms and subsidies, Cuba ignored Chinese entreaties and remained a reliable Soviet ally until the USSR finally ceased to exist in 1991.

However, as Plokhy shows, that peaceful end to the crisis was a matter of good luck rather than good management. His work takes us through this period with a lucidity that allows his readers to finally make sense of those autumn days in 1962 when the Cold War almost became a catastrophe.

England’s musical Shakespeare

Henry Purcell
STUART MILLSON gives a glimpse into the life of Henry Purcell

Henry Purcell (1659-95) is forever associated with the birth of opera (or masques) in England – works such as King Arthur and The Fairy Queen – the creation of semi-operatic scenic cantatas, like his music for The Tempest, and with expansive works for church and state, especially his odes for William and Mary and their ‘Glorious Revolution’ – and, later, funeral music of intense mourning for Queen Mary. Not all artists or musicians are celebrated in their lifetime, but Purcell was recognised as a great composer, ascending to the heights of achievement for his time – a reputation which enhanced the career of his younger brother, Daniel – also a composer. But it is in our own world that Purcell has truly come into his own: an unending stream of recordings, often in period-instrument form, from some of the greatest interpreters of baroque music, such as Sir John Eliot Gardiner and William Christie. For Denis Arnold, the renowned General Editor of The New Oxford Companion to Music, Purcell warranted not just a few paragraphs and a portrait, but three pages of musical description and discussion – another impressive measure of the man.

Jan van Kessel, ‘Personification of Music’

Purcell was the second of four brothers and followed an early career as a young chorister in the Chapel Royal of Charles II, enjoying the early Restoration flowering of art and music. By 1673, his angelic voice was no more, but his musical talents had made such an impression that he was appointed as the custodian of the King’s collection of instruments. He also became a composer-in-residence at Westminster Abbey, going on to succeed the great John Blow as organist.

Composers such as William Lawes wrote very much for the delight or diversion of the Stuart court; just half-a-century later, ‘serious’ music had emerged as a force to be reckoned with, especially in the theatre – as a form of art increasingly enjoyed by the wider society, with provocative political allegory never far from the surface. A perfect example is King Arthur (1691), with its libretto by John Dryden, which goes far beyond the boundaries of any conventional theatrical format – the story of the mythical warrior-king of the Britons, but with overtones of the contemporary struggle between the cause of James II (the rightful heir – but a Catholic) and the triumph of the Protestant succession, in the form of William of Orange. With its famous, ethereal patriotic air, ‘Fairest Isle’ – a slow, contemplative song sometimes extracted from the score and performed as a piece in its own right – Purcell emerges as a ‘composer-laureate’, long before the era of the national-composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with their oratorios of ‘Blood and State’ (Parry) or ‘Banners of St. George’ (Elgar).

Purcell’s English mysticism is something we tend to associate with musicians of an epoch much closer to our own, such as Vaughan Williams with his Flos Campi or Five Mystical Songs, and Holst’s unchanging, unforgiving Wessex landscape of Egdon Heath. Purcell brings us into a markedly supernatural country, of charms and prophecies, and the extraordinary presence of a ghostly character, the ‘Cold Genius’ – a singing spirit of frost, ice and wasteland, brought to stuttering life by a shivering bass singer, accompanied in a curious pre-echo of 20th-century music by the icy, scratchy, toneless, guttural bowing of string instruments. Purcell was ahead of his time in other ways too –with the rumble of wind and thunder machines in The Tempest, and waves of scurrying strings suggesting a rushing tide about to break across the land – a scene straight from Benjamin Britten’s 1945 Suffolk opera, Peter Grimes (credited as the first great English opera since Purcell).

As a concertgoer or buyer of recordings, it is worth remembering your first experience of a particular work – and often more fun to replay that memory (or vinyl disc) and compare it to the many other versions which have proliferated in the intervening years. I first encountered Purcell’s Chaconne on a record-buying expedition in 1981, the work appearing on a Decca LP collection entitled ‘English Music for Strings’ – a 1968 recording made at Snape Maltings, with Benjamin Britten conducting the English Chamber Orchestra.

The Chaconne, or ‘Chacony’ as it is sometimes written, is an old dance-form, made up of variations (in Purcell’s piece, 18 in number) which flow effortlessly into one another, and founded upon what musicians know as a ground-bass theme (the deeper, more sonorous theme or tune that seems to underpin or “anchor” the whole work). Britten, a great admirer of Purcell, and of older English music generally, was immediately attracted to the gently-noble, faintly melancholic melody of the Chaconne, which had been preserved in a collection of Purcell manuscripts, stored in the British Museum.

Even with Britten’s modern string instrumentation and the rich reverberation it creates, we are transported in the first moments of the work to an England of 300 years ago – of lute- and viol-playing ‘people of quality’ at courts and country houses, of misty deer parks and an adjoining countryside of ancient steadings – and yet, despite the clear antiquity of the style, there is a universal essence to this music (very much like Bach) which somehow defies time. Readers may also enjoy the more authentic version of the Chaconne, performed by Canada’s Aradia Baroque Ensemble, which appears on the Naxos label, an interpretation that brings us the delicate, glassy, crystal feel of authentic baroque-era strings. The CD catalogues and Youtube brim with Purcell recordings.

This remarkable man, in charge of England’s musical formalities, was also fond of the occasional joke: listen, for example, to his Ode for the Birthday of Queen MaryCome Ye Sons of Art – to the section entitled, ‘Sound the trumpet’ and the line, “… the listening shores…” Something to do with all England listening for the word of its monarch, perhaps? Or a joke at the expense of trumpet-players, with the surname Shore – who had nothing to do in that particular section!

Pier Francesco Cittadini, ‘Vanitas – Stillleben’

Timelessness seems the very essence of Purcell, that shaper of national myth in music, a ghost who still comes back to life as the cold genius of our isle. It was the cold which brought about the composer’s untimely death in 1695: returning home late at night during a bitterly-cold November, so the story goes, it seems that he found himself locked out of his Marsham Street home by his wife of 14 years. And curiously, from then on, his country began to forget about him. The musicians and choristers of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey honoured his passing in a great service of remembrance ; yet the decades and centuries that followed saw the virtual disappearance of his name. Perhaps it was only Britten’s rediscovery in the 1940s and ‘60s that brought Purcell back to life – a crusade assisted and added to by composer-conductor, Malcolm Arnold, conducting full-blown arrangements of the 17th-century composer’s works at a Proms concert in the late 1960s.1

What we can say with certainty is that the jibe made during the mid-19th century (principally by Germans), that England was “the land without music” was only partially true. We had simply forgotten about our own geniuses.

  1. Malcolm Arnold’s conducting of Purcell’s suite from Abdelazar is available via: []

The evolutions of revolutionary architecture

A 1934 competition project, Narkomtiazhprom – from Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism,1920-1980

Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930

Park Books, 2021, 624pp, illus., $65

Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital

Princeton University, 2021, 274pp + xii, illus., £34

Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980

Scheidegger & Spiess, 2020, 448pp, illus., £65

ALEXANDER ADAMS traces the neglected history of Soviet building design

The neologism is beloved of technocracies, cults and dictatorships; the regime of the USSR had traits of all three tendencies. The lexicon of the USSR sprouted neologisms like mushrooms: Cominform, Comintern, Glavlit, Gosplan, Komsomol, Proletkult, Sovnarkom. VKhUTEMAS was an abbreviation of Higher Art and Technical Studios, a Bolshevik-founded art training school founded in Moscow in 1920. It was set up alongside the even more shortlived INKhUK Institute of Artistic Culture(Institut Khudozhestvennoy Kultury/Институт Художественной Культуры), which only existed from 1920 until 1924, by IZO-Narkompros, the Department of Fine Arts of the People’s Commissariat for Education. Despite being backed by the state, it failed to survive as long as the Bauhaus.  

The new school combined eight departments (fakul’tey): painting, sculpture, architecture, woodworking, metalworking, ceramics, graphics (poligrafiya), and textiles1

There was a core curriculum which covered the basics of design and art, with additional topics: “Mathematics, Chemistry, Descriptive Geometry, Political Economy, History of Art, and Military Arts.”2. The school offered free education and encouraged applications from poor students, many of whom had part-time jobs to support themselves.

While similar to the Staatliche Bauhaus in its “communistic” spirit, Vkhutemas was over ten times larger than its German counterpart in terms of the student body. With an enrolment of more than 2,000 students, it was an unprecedented modern undertaking, rivalled only by the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, which counted well over 1,000 students in the 1920s3

VKhuTEMAS students with models

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a record of the school through its teaching material, archival sources and explanatory essays. It provides us with a fascinating insight into the thinking of the Soviet avant-garde in the brief window before Modernism was occluded by Socialist Realism. VKhUTEMAS was a cockpit of Constructivism and Functionalism. Constructivism was a Modernist movement which divided into two strands: a) a Cubist-inspired abstract school of art that deployed geometric forms and b) a utilitarian form of architecture favouring Euclidean forms and eschewing decoration. Functionalism is a principle that design must be ergonomic and pragmatic, subordinating aesthetics to function. There was a stress on modern materials, geometric forms and human psychology would aid design of structures, making them fully rational and determined by science. Architecture, unlike painting and sculpture, was not imitative and could thus be liberated from convention. Constructivism is avowedly Modernist in form; Functionalism is Modernist in form only by default. VKhUTEMAS taught both – inasmuch as they were distinguishable.

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space records school publications and course materials. These consist of montages, collages, photographs, diagrams and texts. These are reproduced photographically. The Russian text is partially translated into English for the first time. This large book reproduces pages from the archives at large size, most with translation facing. The syllabi are transcribed and translated. Some commentaries provide other information. Models in cardboard, wire, glass, plaster and string were made by students and were photographed as examples. The curriculum gives us information about the teaching methods, the ideas that were to be imparted and what students were expected to demonstrate. Examples are given of documents, fabric samples, clothing, furniture designs, posters, architectural plans and art work.

Although the foundations of the school’s teaching were doctrinal, the actual practice did allow for experimentation and personal expression. All tutors and students had to be members of the Party but it does not seem that the teachers were anything other than thoughtful, patient and responsive to their students. Teachers included serious artists already known in the West: Alexandra Ekster, Lyubov Popova and Alexander Rodchenko. 

Konstantin Melnikov Kurochkin, Gosplan Garage, 1930s

VKhUTEMAS was closed in 1930, victim of the political struggles and the Party’s declining approval for Modernism, which would soon be denounced as ‘bourgeois formalism’. The solution to the unsatisfactory performance was to split up the school into different, specialised institutions. The fates of the tutors mirror the fate of the avant-garde under the Stalinist regime. Rodchenko moved from avant-garde design to documentary photography. Ladovsky was purged under Stalin, a fate that also befell Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitzky and other Modernist artists. Aleksandr Drevin and Gustav Klutsis were executed in 1938 as part of a purge of Latvians (partly overseen by Lavrentii Beria).  Vladimir Baranov-Rossine (a Jew) died in a Nazi death camp.  

VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space is a fascinating insight into Soviet Modernism and design pedagogy. It is a somewhat specialised volume but a valuable addition to any extensive library on art education, design history and Soviet fine and applied arts.

The rivalry between the USSR and the USA dated back to the inception of the USSR. From the earliest days, ambitious Soviet officials and architects eyed the skyscrapers of New York with envy. For them, the logical development of the USSR would be to harness the capabilities of Soviet New Man, unleashed through the liberation of labour and freed from the shackles of bourgeois tradition, in order to build a new society that would surpass the USA’s lead. Socialism was a development of – and ultimately, replacement for – capitalism and this would be demonstrated through the creation of buildings grander than those of capitalism.

One of the great projects was Palace of the Soviets (designed 1931-3, head architect Boris Iofan). It would be a vast auditorium for conferences, with a giant library, served by 148 elevators, topped by the tallest building in the world, at 415 m (1,362 ft), with a 100 m tall statue of Lenin on the top of the tower. This would use techniques and materials innovated by the British, Germans and Americans to construct a palace dedicated to the people rather than to commerce. (Iofan led a delegation of engineers to New York to gain technical information.) It was seen as a direct riposte to the West, refuting the idea that Russia was technologically undeveloped and that Socialism could not match capitalist democracies. It had been barely started by the time the Great Patriotic War diverted the labour and materials into the war effort.

As Katherine Zubovich explains in Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital, in the immediate aftermath of the victory over Germany, Stalin planned a group of eight tower blocks and completion of the Palace to show that the USSR was ready to enter the modern age and rival the world capitals. These would accompany completion of the Palace of the Soviets. Although the ill-starred Palace would never progress – the alarming amount of ground water flooding the foundations indicated the unsuitability of the location for the world’s tallest building – the tower blocks would be constructed. It turned out there would only be seven, built over the period 1947-53.

In the late 1930s, Stalin had effectively halted Soviet Modernism in all areas. The social, educational and – in some respects – the economic sovietisation of the USSR proved highly disruptive, slow and counterproductive. The Revolution would have to be stopped and (purely in an unannounced manner) reversed in select areas. A good example is the rise of Socialist Realism, which replaced the experimental Modernism of Suprematism and Constructivism with academic painting and sculpture depicting workers and party officials. In architecture, Stalinism entailed curtailing the excesses of Modernism and Rationalism, in favour of Historicism made at inhumanly large size. As always in totalitarian states (past and present) words were redefined. “небоскреб/neboskreby” (“skyscrapers”) was redefined to mean Western capitalist tall buildings; “Высокое здание/vysotnye zdaniia” (“tall buildings”) was the preferred term for tower blocks in the USSR.

The heroic experimentalism of the early revolutionary period of the Modernist period had never materialised. Construction on the Palace of the Soviets had stalled. Although the city had suffered aerial bombardment, it had not suffered as much as Leningrad, not to mention Stalingrad. The project of boulevardisation and the new metro system from the inter-war period was intact. In January 1947, with the USSR still gradually recovering from the ravages of war, the decree was issued to construct eight new skyscrapers. The plans were initially fluid.

In the early months of 1947, Soviet officials, construction managers, and architects themselves had little notion of the shape the project would take over the following months and years. The skyscraper decree of January 13, 1947 was impressionistic at best. The document gave little indication of the outsized role the buildings would come to play in Soviet life4

The buildings were Hotel Ukrainia (the tallest building in the USSR), Kotelnicheskaya Embankment Apartments, Kudrinskaya Square Building, Hotel Leningradskaya, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Moscow State University headquarters and the Ministry of Construction of Heavy Industry. Construction was staggered due to the potential strain on labour, logistic and management. Zubovich outlines the internal politics of the bureaucracy and the shifting responsibility for the project as it came to life. The internal manoeuvring was not just a question of personal advancement but of survival by denouncing rivals as insufficiently Communist, as officials lived under the shadow of the KGB removing individuals due to counter-revolutionary subversion.

The ‘Seven Sisters’ displaced tens of thousands of Muscovites, who were evicted without compensation, although the Moscow government was obliged to find or build accommodation. The author tells the stories of some of the residents who were resettled to the outskirts of Moscow. The process was administered by Lavrentii Beria, former head of the NKVD. Rehousing the displaced population became a project in itself. The influx of construction workers required temporary housing, which would expand the city boundaries of Moscow.  

Construction became an opportunity for propaganda. The presence of women doing some of the lighter labour was heralded by the press as a triumph of communal co-operation in the world no longer encumbered by custom. Press coverage concealed problems:

Postwar shortages resulted in intense competition over materials, equipment, and labor between managers working across Moscow’s different construction sites. Building materials often arrived late or not at all, and construction equipment and gear were in short supply. Managers at all skyscrapers sites complained about a shortage of skilled workers5

Limitations in the conditions were obvious. Overcrowding in dormitories was commonplace. Internal Party reports noted

…workers’ housing was not only lacking mass-political activities and red [political] corners; living conditions in the material sense were abysmal6

Completion of the Seven Sisters coincided with the death of Stalin, soon followed by the era of the Great Thaw and de-Stalinisation of the USSR and Eastern Bloc. The untrammelled power and stylistic appropriation of the past were deemed indicative of the flaws of Stalin’s reign.

When Khrushchev spoke on the final day of the Builders’ Conference [in 1954], he called for greater efficiency in construction, increased use of industrialized and prefabricated materials, and an end to unnecessary decorations and embellishments in design that, as he stated, caused “unnecessary expenditures7

According to the new guard, Stalinism’s stylistic anachronism betokened a system-wide culture of deception. In terms of financial and human costs, monumentalism was indicative of inhumane excess that could no longer be supported.

Administrators and architects fell from favour but the undeniably impressive aspects of the project appealed to Communist regimes elsewhere. Soon structures typical of Stalinist Historicist architecture would spring up in the form of the buildings of Karl-Marx-Allee in Berlin, the Presidential Palace in Bucharest and buildings across the Eastern Bloc. 

A third book joins the space between the VKhUTEMAS and the Stalinist years, then brings the story up the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 seeks to place Soviet furniture, clothing, interior design and architecture in a continuum that integrates them within the ideals and reality of the USSR over almost its entire existence. Soviet design is relatively little known compared to other Modernist movements such as Secession, De Stijl, Bauhaus, Art Deco, Minimalism and Italian and Scandinavian Modernism. The reasons are that the USSR exported relatively little and (aside from political sympathetic states) it had little cultural and technological exchange with other states.

Due to its relative isolation, the USSR had to produce everything. This was a precursor to the creation of a new rational world suitable for Soviet Man, then, later, independence demonstrated the viability of self-sufficiency of the Communism-in-one-country doctrine. Soviet Design includes everything from teacups to underground stations. As with all areas of life in the USSR, the 1920s were full of bold experimentation and radical ideas.

Space was at a premium, so efficiency was prioritised. The drive to make furniture compact and multifunctional chimed with reappraisals of ways of living. Leading designer and theorist El Lissitzky declared,

Salons, halls, boudoirs, living-rooms […] everything has been swept away – only the bare living space is left8

New Soviet furniture could be folded away, rotated or reversed for different functions. Telyakovsky’s combination unit had a bookcase, desk and bed. Built-in storage was designed for new-build apartments. Soviet engineer-designers made a virtue of the limitations imposed by circumstances and, in doing so, their labours turned New Soviet Man’s domestic environment into something between factory cell, submarine berth and space-flight module.  

Soviet designs could be painfully uncompromising, with straight lines and flat planes more suited to showroom than living room – certainly not suited to human anatomy. Due to the severe restrictions (technical, material, financial, bureaucratic and political) many designs never went beyond drawing or prototype stage. Mismanagement, delays and lack of competition led to chronic shortages and compromises in all areas of Soviet life. Production targets were arbitrary and goods were often defective. Designers rarely saw their designs reach production in the quality they stipulated.

The earliest phase produced some attractive designs. A teacup and saucer from 1923 have spare geometric Suprematist forms on a white ceramic ground, crisp, dainty and assertively ant-traditional. The designer was Nikolai Suetin (1897-1954), a student of Malevich and one of the outstanding figures in Soviet ceramics. (Suetin designed Malevich’s coffin.) Some outstanding examples of suites or interiors were produced for public expositions.

The design of furniture models (in many cases never realized) taking their inspiration from Constructivist forms effectively ceased after 19349

By 1932, Stalinist policies decreed a return to order and convention – to a degree. Expressions of physical culture would become heavier, grander, more voluminous; traditional materials and forms would be adopted, although decoration would never become too elaborate. To give an impression of stability and continuity, the fine and applied arts would turn their backs upon “bourgeois formalism” of Modernism that distanced the proletariat from the products of their society.

This Historicism is evident in the submitted designs – reproduced in the book – of the Palace of the Soviets. Cinemas, theatres, department stores, hotels and other important spaces evoked the grandeur of the Romanov Empire period, complete with chandeliers, marble facing and dark lacquered-wood panelling. Rather than being challenged by Functionalist surroundings that asserted the dawn of a new age, Soviet citizens in the 1940s would be embraced by the stifling pomp of the belle époque, made available to all, not just the (now liquidated) capitalist class.    

Reverse engineering and copying formed part of Soviet design. The most notable example was the adoption of Art Deco for architecture, furniture and Metro stations. The use of crisp lines, simple forms, tubular metal supports and absence of ornamentation provided a counterpoint to the rival Stalinist Historicism. This Art Deco can be found in a showpiece ship that was used to ferry passengers to holiday resorts on the Black Sea.

All Union Competition entries, 1972 – from Soviet Design

Post-war reconstruction, advances in technology and the death of Stalin allowed moderate Modernist designs to reach production stage and dominate interiors from the late 1950s onwards. There was popular demand for domestic furniture that was informal and comfortable. We see curvilinear metal tubing, foam padding, slimline design and lightweight construction become commonplace – many of the products copied from Western examples. Electrical appliances became affordable. The communal canteens demanded by the communitarian ideals of the Revolutionary era – which had never been popular in domestic habitations – were abandoned in favour of fitted kitchens.

Significantly, the advent of the Eastern Bloc brought international trade on a large scale for the first time in Soviet history. Apparently, the USSR imported many interior fittings from Czechoslovakia. Despite advances, however, Soviet manufacturers were unresponsive to public demand, often unwilling to modify inferior designs. Lacking competition and the profit motive, manufacturing was deeply inefficient.

Soviet Design does much to familiarise readers with the origins, principles, limitations and unique circumstances that led to the designs produced in the USSR. The many large illustrations, explanatory narrative and concise biographies of major figures will make this book a primary introduction to one of the most neglected fields of design.

  1. Anna Bokov, VKhUTEMAS and the Pedagogy of Space, 1920-1930, p40 []
  2. Bokov, ibid, p132 []
  3. Bokov, ibid., p40 []
  4. Katherine Zubovich, Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life in Stalin’s Capital , p81 []
  5. Zubovich, ibid. , p150 []
  6. Zubovich, ibid., p154)

    Unrealistically high targets (motivated by arbitrary statistical ambition) pushed workers to breaking point. As with the pre-war metro construction, accidents were frequent. Pay was so low that there was even labour unrest. What was not made clear in the press was the amount of forced labour used. By 1950, 8,000 prisoners (including foreign nationals) were working on the Seven Sisters in zones segregated from the population and the (nominally) free workers.

    The buildings were well-appointed and the décor restrained. The public spaces at the lower levels were Historicist, pastiching Romanov-era state buildings, replete with marble cladding and columns. The Party elite scrambled to petition high officials to secure apartments. As it was, the number of apartments did not materially affect the housing crisis in the city. Although more generous than average Moscow apartments, the tower-block apartments were not large, especially when occupied by multi-person households.

    At the very moment Moscow’s skyscrapers were completed in the mid-1950s, they became symbols of Stalinist “excess” ((Zubovich, ibid., p5 []

  7. Zubovich, ibid., p201 []
  8. 1926. Quoted, p74, Kristina Krasnyanskaya, Alexander Semenov (eds.), Soviet Design From Constructivism to Modernism. 1920-1980 []
  9. Krasnyanskaya, Semenov, ibid., p174 []

Painting the pear orchard

NICHOLAS BOOTH captures a fleeting moment in Kent

I packed my battered little orchestra of colours in an old Fortnum’s bag along with some rolled up paper and a bottle of ginger beer and set off for the pear orchard which lies across a road at the back of the housing estate where my mother lives in Kent, in the fruit country not far from Faversham. Between us we had been keeping an eye on the progress of the blossom, waiting for it to become picture-worthy. After arriving from London the day before I took the dog on a recce and judged it ready.

After a weeks of cold weather today, Saturday, was set fair, the sky almost Mediterranean. More gloom was in the forecast for following days so it had to be now – rain and wind ruin blossom.

I had painted the orchard before, back in 2014 during dark days when my sister was dying. Then I portrayed it in a blue, moonlit night in early autumn, the trees looking rather monstrous and with dozens of pears lying discarded on the ground. My sister liked it and had it framed and hung in her house, which now belongs to my mother. In the intervening years, I had promised to paint a sort of sequel, or even a series: one for each season. Unfortunately, I am easily distracted, what with my work, other paintings and sundry writing projects. But of late the orchard had begun haunting my imagination again.

My father died earlier this year in the pandemic, not from Covid but after a chain of events that began with him getting Covid. In the four months that had passed since his death I’d had no urge to paint or draw, and scarcely any to write. This total artistic impotence was a new feeling for me. I was not distressed by it, grief making me indifferent.

Then towards the end of March in one of those magical, fiery sunset hours at that time of year, which herald spring and somehow reconnect you with earlier versions of yourself, I felt life and art stirring again.

Now here I was, with a slight feeling of trepidation that I sometimes get when painting en plein air: a feeling that the challenge has been laid down: there is no scope for the kind of pottering and evasion that can be indulged in the studio (or in my case, spare bedroom), except perhaps that if things go badly you can tell yourself that a later studio version will be far better. After all, open-air painting has had its illustrious detractors. Degas, one of my heroes back in the days when one had heroes, would not hear of it. Studies flung down in notebooks yes, but to set up shop out of doors was very wrong in his view:

You know what I think of people who work out in the open. If I were the government I would have a special brigade of gendarmes to keep an eye on artists who paint landscapes from nature. Oh, I don’t mean to kill anyone; just a little dose of bird-shot now and then as a warning

As it happens I could hear guns being fired for sport in the old quarry nearby. Was this a bad omen? Not especially: few things would please me more than to be accosted by the armed ghost of Degas, though why he would be skulking in a Kentish field is anybody’s guess.

In terms of inspiration for this painting Degas had not really figured but another favourite, Pissarro, had though somewhat vaguely. In the back of my mind I recalled Orchard in Bloom, Louveciennes from his great period in the early 1870s. Another fleeting thought was of Forties neo-romantics such as Johns Craxton and Minton. The dog days of the pandemic and dead winter vaguely reminding me of that postwar period when dreams of the Mediterranean seeped into visual culture. But in the end when you set hand to paper, you get what comes out, and that is the adventure of it.

I sat down to work on a small camping stool, which promptly collapsed. I chuckled, and began again in the lovely sunshine and luxurious peace, hearing nothing but birdsong and the odd gunshot from the quarry. On a dog walk earlier I had scouted my spot a few feet down a lane of mature pear trees. The blossom against the cloudless blue sky was a tonic after the long grey months.

‘You must find painting relaxing,’ someone said to me recently. Not really. I’m basically an amateur painter but dislike that prefix in this world where artists such as X and Y are considered the professionals: so, not pro yet fairly serious when I get going. Painting for me is half battle and half making love, and the doing of it usually stirs old passions and variances in me that I sometimes resolve on paper: form versus light, realism versus romanticism, abstract versus representation, English line versus French colour . . .

A charcoal drawing took shape. As I drew the blossom I thought, ‘You can’t draw them all, and then I heard Manet backing me up on the subject of detail: ‘One doesn’t want to be a bore . . .’

I thought of lucky old Monet, building his subject matter in his back garden at Giverny, getting as far into water lilies as anyone has got. Given the way the world is going, I thought, I could happily spend day after day in this kind of peace and beauty, making pictures – if I had the income . . .

With the sky blocked in – I was using French pastels of intense pigment – and warming me along with the hot sun, I started on the blossom in white. At this point in a painting the feeling of battle subsides and with colour the lovemaking part of the process begins. The blossoms in the orchard were lavish; I rolled the white pastel up and down the paper, trying to get that sparkling cascade, which now reminded me of champagne bubbles. I was getting thirsty and my ginger beer was gone.

I reached for the green. I don’t really like green, and I often toy with ways of dispensing with it. I was pleased to discover that Eric Ravilious, the lost hero of British art, felt the same way about the colour. I took a deep breath and plunged in, mitigating it where I could with orange and lemon yellow. As I moved down the paper I realised that the pastel would not last out and in a few moments the last crumb was gone. Still, I rather liked the effect of white paper to the right of the picture; it suggested the hot sunlight in reality. Perhaps I was making a virtue of necessity but it seemed a happy accident that I had run out of green.

At last, after a few dabs of yellow to indicate the intense colour of the dandelion, charming urchins that they are, I was finished. Walking back in something of an afterglow, I felt I’d done a good afternoon’s work.

The pear orchard occupies two fields separated by an overgrown public footpath. In a corner of the first field there is an incline which gives a good raised view of the rest of the field. Walking down the slope one evening as I had done many times with my father, I marked the spot down as a potential picture. Two days after my blossom painting I set up again on a windy afternoon with intermittent sun. Once again the orchard worked its magic on me and the struggle on paper resumed. This time it was more battle than loving, but even so the sheer beauty of the environs was a kind of medicine in itself. One of my mum’s neighbours out walking his dogs stopped and we passed the time of day.

As we talked I watched the late afternoon sun creep across the field, lengthening shadows and bringing an elusive and lovely blue into proceedings. We got on to the ugliness of architecture and lack of infrastructure to underpin hasty urban sprawl. ‘Still,’ I added, ‘isn’t it lovely to have this so close?’

‘The orchard?’ he said. ‘It’s earmarked for a new housing estate, wider road and a big roundabout.’

Marcus Clarke – novelist, journalist and bohemian

Convict flogging in Australia
MICHAEL WILDING remembers a foundational Australian writer

Marcus Clarke’s His Natural Life is one of the great novels of the nineteenth century. The classic indictment of the horrors of the English convict system established in Australia, it is the story of Richard Devine, transported for a crime he did not commit and transmuted into the convict Rufus Dawes. The world of the Tasmanian convict settlement he encounters is presented in unforgettable detail: the career criminal John Rex, the brutal officer Maurice Frere, the alcoholic clergyman Rev North, the young daughter of the camp commander, Sylvia, and the horrific episodes of floggings, homosexual rape, child suicide, cannibalism, escapes and recaptures. Retitled For the Term of His Natural Life after Clarke’s death, His Natural Life has never been out of print since it was first published in 1874. As well as Australian, British and American editions, it has been translated into German, Dutch, Russian and Chinese, and adapted for the stage, cinema, television and graphic novel.

Marcus Clarke was born in the London borough of Kensington on 24 April 1846. He was an only child and his mother Amelia died of tuberculosis just before his fourth birthday. He was educated at Highgate School, where his closest friends were the brothers Cyril and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Gerard described Marcus as a ‘Kaleidoscopic, Parti-coloured, Harlequinesque, Thaumatropic being’, and reinvented his surname as ‘Marcus Scrivener’ – which Clarke used as a pseudonym in his earliest writings1. Gerard wrote to Ernest Hartley Coleridge, grandson of the poet, ‘I must tell you that Clarke writes very good poetry. He and I compare notes and ideas.’2 They collaborated on various projects, noted in Gerard’s journals and in the biography of Marcus that Cyril was later to write.

In 1863, Clarke’s father, a barrister with a good London practice in chancery, suddenly fell ill, lost the power of speech, and was put into an asylum at Stoke Newington, where he died on 1 December. Marcus wrote to Cyril Hopkins:

I remember, when my father was first taken ill, his telling me that I should be well provided for. He worked too hard and too long; which produced his final and fatal attack of paralysis … My cousins thought that he was worth at least seventy thousand pounds … Judge then of our consternation at finding affairs in the greatest confusion, the house in Ireland (left him by his elder brother) sold, and only a certain sum at his banker’s. Records of nothing! His cheque books showing large sums of money drawn out of his banking account with no trace of where they went to.3

Poor Clarke is on the voyage out to Australia, his father having met with a paralysis of the brain,’ Gerard wrote to Ernest Hartley Coleridge4.

Three months before his father died Marcus was packed off to Australia where his uncle James was a judge in Victoria. Earlier, his uncle Andrew had been Governor of Western Australia and his cousin Andrew the first Surveyor-General and Chief Commissioner of Crown Lands for Victoria, and Member of Parliament for Emerald Hill. Marcus was found a job in a bank. Hamilton Mackinnon, in his biographical introduction to Clarke’s writings, records Clarke’s farewell encounter with the manager:

 Clarke: “I have come to ask, sir, whether you received my application for a few weeks’ leave of absence.”

‘The Manager: “I have, Mr Clarke.”

‘Clarke: “Will you grant it to me, sir?”

‘The Manager: “Certainly, Mr Clarke, and a longer leave, if you desire it.”

‘Clarke: “I feel very much obliged. How long may I extend it to, sir?”

‘The Manager: “Indefinitely, if you do not object!”5

Marcus Clarke at 20

Clarke worked on the Swinton and Ledcourt sheep stations in the Wimmera district of Western Victoria for a couple of years from 1865­ to 1867. Arthur Patchett Martin wrote of Clarke’s time there:

It is said that Mr Holt, the squatter, used to tell how he debauched the unsophisticated minds of his boundary-riders, by reading to them the too realistic pages of the great Balzac. He was in the habit of propounding theories as to the proprietorship of land resembling those of Mr Henry George, and which, it must be confessed, were not calculated to make those rude sons of toil contented with their lot.6

Returning to Melbourne, Clarke found work as a journalist with The Argus newspaper and its associated weekly, The Australasian. He did the usual things. He wrote a review of a concert performance that, unknown to him, the singer had cancelled through illness. It lost him his reporting job, but he still continued to contribute as a freelance, and retained a regular column, ‘The Peripatetic Philosopher’.

He remarked on the ‘instincts of monopoly of the parsimonious management of the Theatre Royal’ and warned about the production that ‘they have selected to mutilate’. The Theatre Royal sued for defamation and won a farthing’s damages on each of two counts7,  and Clarke, who had written and adapted a number of plays, got no further work in the theatre for the next five years.

When the Argus and the Age boycotted the Melbourne Cup over a dispute about free tickets, Marcus wrote a report of it for the Herald,allegedly obtained by camera obscura. It read like something out of a novel. It was. Marcus had recycled an account of a race from his first novel, Long Odds. Writing for the Herald lost him any further work with the Argus group.

Amidst it all he plunged into la vie Bohème. The Café de Paris of the Melbourne Theatre Royal was one of Clarke’s favourite hangouts. ‘Founded by a gentleman who had some difficulty in paying his bricklayers,’ Clarke wrote, it became the fashionable place for the Bohemians of the time. Theatre people, journalists, and others’. Especially others.

Clarke described his lifestyle at that time:

I was living then in Fig Tree Court with my friend Savage, and we dined at the Café daily. We were not rich, for we had both dissipated our incomes in the exact manner recorded of the Prodigal Son. I wrote for the Peacock, and Savage for the Screechowl.We made some four pounds sterling a week — and we were really thankful (not being grocers or drapers) to earn so much. The morning was spent in scribbling, the afternoon in tobacco, the evening in dinner, theatre, and gaslight. I fear we did not lead virtuous lives. I am sure that we were often out of bed after the small hours. I know that Madame Gogo and Lisette de Jambejolie assisted in the spending of the Peacock’s bounty.8

The journalist Charles Bright recalled meeting Clarke at the Café de Paris:

I noticed as a peculiarity of the newcomer that he partook of absinthe, a drink rarely called for by any but Frenchmen, and I asked if he liked it.

‘“Not particularly,” he said, “but I’m experimenting with it. They say it’ll drive a fellow mad in a month and I want to find out if that’s a fact. I’ve tried opium-smoking, and rather like that. There are a lot of lies told about these things, you know, and we have scriptural authority for proving all things and holding fast that which is good. I can’t say yet if absinthe be good, or not.”9

With the right family connections, Clarke joined the establishment Melbourne Club in 1868. In the same year he helped establish the more Bohemian and literary Yorick Club with Frederick Haddon, another young Englishman, who was editor of The Argus.

The Yorick Club provided a meeting ground for fellow writers and journalists. Initially the group moved to a café, but the regulars there objected to the noise they made, so a room was rented for £1 a week in the Punch office. The Argus office was next door. Mueller’s tavern was below. ‘In its early days Mueller catered for the club until two o’clock in the morning, after which it stayed open until four or five o’clock for members who were newspaper printers.’10

The first official meeting of the club was held 1 May 1868. Dr Patrick Moloney, a friend of Clarke’s and at this time an intern at Melbourne Hospital, gave Clarke a skull which Clarke brought to the club room and placed on the mantel-shelf with a pipe under its jaw. Clarke suggested the club should be called the ‘Golgotha’ because it was ‘the place of skulls’. According to the 1911 history, The Yorick Club: Its Origin and Development,he ‘hammered away at the idea all night’ but the club ended up being called the Yorick — an allusion not only to Hamlet but to Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

In the end Clarke got very huffy, took his skull and disappeared, not returning for some days. He gave the skull to the actor Walter Montgomery, who was playing Hamlet at the Theatre Royal, and used it in the famous ‘Alas, poor Yorick’ soliloquy.

Clarke himself wrote about the club in his ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ column in The Australasian, 2 May 1868, still calling it the Golgotha.

Everybody wants to know the secrets of the prison-house, and as Timmins, one of our number, incautiously told his wife that we keep a skull on the mantelshelf, there is much suspicion and terror around. I may briefly mention, however, that the story of the newspaper lad being scraped to death with oyster shells at a late supper, and buried in the back kitchen, is not absolutely true in all its details.11

It is a wonder that he could mention anything, since the first official meeting had occurred only the previous day; and the article would have had to have been written two days before that in order to meet The Australasian’s deadline.

The poet Henry Kendall, who moved to Melbourne from Sydney the following year, described his first visit to the club:

Facing the landing, an old door opened into an aromatic room, which, I was informed, did duty as ‘the reading, talking, and smoking-den’. The most remarkable items of its furniture were the spittoons — useful utensils in their way, no doubt, but distressingly plentiful and palpable at the Golgotha. Passing through a suggestive lavatory, we entered the library, where I found a stock-in-trade, consisting of a couple of desks, four or five chairs, a table, two shelves bristling with ancient magazines and effete blue-books, certain other sundries of a doubtful character, and a melancholy waiter. An apartment, called by courtesy the dining-room, and devoted principally to a brace of dissipated newspaper reporters, was the only other feature that arrested a somewhat disappointed stranger’s attention.12

Clarke provided an account of what the Yorick Club members did not do. But what exactly did they do? Haddon had originally hosted Saturday evening gatherings that used to offer a mixed bill of stories, songs and excellent brandy. The Yorick Club seems to have added a certain vociferousness to these occasions. The journalist and novelist, G. A. Walstab, was an early exponent of face-painting. He specialized in taking coals from the fire in the early morning, and blackening the faces of the members dozing in their chairs or beneath the tables13.  The official history, The Yorick Club,records that Adam Lindsay Gordon at times was wildly jovial, and one evening pitched Clarke up to very near the ceiling and caught him again coming down. There was nowhere to sit in comfort at first, anyway. At one stage they sat on bales of newspapers, at another on kerosene drums. Clarke denied that they drank the kerosene:

I may, without breaking faith, refute the accusation made by a friend, that the members sit on tubs round the room, smoke green tea, and drink neat kerosene out of pewter pots. More I cannot reveal.14

Though they certainly had pewter pots. ‘Not empty, gentle reader,’ records one member15. One unsubstantiated theory is that they passed round a skull with some opium-based mixture. And the green tea Clarke refers to might have been hyonskin tea, popular in the outback and reputed to drive you mad according to some doctors; or it might have been marijuana, sometimes colloquially referred to as tea. It was about this time that Clarke persuaded a Collins Street doctor to get him some hashish. The doctor agreed to on condition that he could watch and make notes while Clarke took it. He wouldn’t let Clarke see the notes and, the doctor records, Clarke ‘became sarcastic in his remarks’.16

After three and a half hours Clarke began to dictate a story. And he seems to have continued to use hashish. A Dr Cannabis appears in the ‘Noah’s Ark’ columns he contributed to The Australasian in 1872 and 1873.

The Yorick Club recalls that Clarke ‘was always ready for mischief night and day.’ The journalist Alfred Telo, Clarke’s former flatmate, is described as ‘one of the most outrageous of the practical jokers’. He brought back from the Pacific islands a collection of long spears and one night these were used in a piece of Dadaist street theatre to lift from their hooks the gilded hats hung out as signs by Melbourne hatters. Another favourite game was collecting brass doorknobs. Telo particularly prized one he had stolen from the theatre critic James Neild. Neild wrote a letter to The Argus denouncing the

…idiots who could find nothing better to do than to wrench off citizens’ knockers’ — ‘only to find, on the following morning, that his house had been visited afresh and ornamented with a fishing rod and a gilt fish, a pawnbroker’s sign, and an undertaker’s board.17

On 22 July 1869, Clarke married Marian Dunn, the youngest daughter of the Irish comedian and actor John Dunn. He had typically failed to look for lodgings for them both until the marriage ceremony had actually been concluded. She had been a popular actress before her marriage. Eleven years later she was back on the stage again to help out with the family cash crises, Clarke writing A Daughter of Eve and adapting a French comedy Forbidden Fruit, or the Custom of Caudubec with parts especially for her.

In 1870, according to Hamilton Mackinnon,

…overwork had told its tale upon the restless brain, and the doctors ordered change of air to the more salubrious climate of Tasmania. But as funds were, as usual with him, decidedly short, how was the change to be effected?18

The printer and publisher of the Australian Journal, A. H. Massina recalled the solution in an interview on his retirement forty years later:

Clarke came to me one day and said, “Massina, I want £50.”

‘“Oh”, I said, “You’ve had enough out of me. What more do you want?”

‘“£50,” replied Clarke, “I can write a story for your journal. I am going to Tasmania to write up the criminal records and I’ll do the story for one hundred pounds.”

‘We jumped at it.19

Clarke may already have arranged for the Argus group, with its associated weekly the Australasian, to help finance the holiday by a journalistic assignment ‘to write up the criminal records.’ Haddon, the editor of the Argus, had visited Tasmania the previous January. Now he went there again with Clarke.

On 21 January 1870 Clarke and Haddon arrived in Launceston, and on 26 January they visited Port Arthur. The trip is described in a series of articles Clarke wrote three years later when the closure of Port Arthur was announced. They were published in the Argus, on 3, 12 and 26 July 1873, and reprinted in the Australasian 26 July and 2 August20.

“You will find it difficult to get down to Port Arthur unless you’ve got friends there!” said the genial but imperative landlady of the Ark Hotel. “Of course, I mean friends in the Government,” she added, seeing that I looked askance.

‘We had friends in the Government, for Hacker, my companion, was a man of mark at the office of the Peacock and had hinted vaguely of columns of lead minion to be supplied by my eminent hand.

Clarke’s account of his visit captures the horror of the place.

To me, brooding over stories of misery and crime, sitting beside the ironed convicts, and shivering at the chill breeze which whitened the angry waters of the bay, there was no beauty in those desolate cliffs, no cheering picturesqueness in that frowning shore. I saw Port Arthur for the first time beneath a leaden and sullen sky; and as we sailed inwards past the ruins of Point Puer, and beheld barring our passage to the prison the low grey hummocks of the Island of the Dead, I felt that there was a grim propriety in the melancholy of nature.

He continues:

I know that I thought to myself that I should go mad were I condemned to such a life, and that I caught one of the men looking at me with a broad grin as I thought it. I know that there seemed to me to hang over the whole place a sort of horrible gloom, as though the sunlight had been withdrawn from it, and that I should have been ashamed to have suddenly met some high-minded friend, inasmuch as it seemed that in coming down to stare at these chained and degraded beings, we had all been guilty of an unmanly curiosity.

There were still some 574 inmates – convicts, invalids and insane at Port Arthur. Looking through the records Clarke asked to see one of them, transported for poaching when he was thirteen:

The warder drew aside a peep-hole in the barred door, and I saw a grizzled, gaunt and half-naked old man coiled in a corner. The peculiar wild-beast smell which belongs to some forms of furious madness exhaled from the cell. The gibbering animal within turned, and his malignant eyes met mine.

‘“Take care,” said the gaoler; ‘he has a habit of sticking his finger through the peep-hole to try and poke someone’s eye out!’

‘I drew back, and a nail-bitten hairy finger, like the toe of an ape, was thrust with rapid and simian neatness through the aperture.

‘“That is how he amuses himself,” said the good warder, forcing-to the iron slot; “he’d best be dead, I’m thinking.”

The experience was a horrifying one. The library researches Clarke made through the published records were no less so. He writes,

In out-of-the-way corners, in shepherds’ huts or roadside taverns, one meets “old hands” who relate terrible and true histories. In the folio reports of the House of Commons can be read statements which make one turn sick with disgust, and flush hot with indignation. Officialdom, with its crew of parasites and lickspittles, may try to palliate the enormities committed in the years gone by; may revile, with such powers of abuse as are given to it the writers who records the facts which it blushes for; but the sad grim truth remains. For half a century the law allowed the vagabonds and criminals of England to be subjected to a lingering torment, to a hideous debasement, to a monstrous system of punishment futile for good and horribly powerful for evil.

On 19 February 1870 the Australasian published the first of Clarke’s articles, under the series title ‘Old Stories Retold’. His Natural Life had been advertised in the Australian Journal in Januaryand the first instalment appeared in the March issue. The publisher A. H. Massina recalled:

Now Clarke was going to write that story in twelve monthly sections. At first he wrote enough for two months, then enough for one month, and got down to very little. In fact we had once to put it in pica type, instead of brevier to swell out the size of that month’s contribution. But on one occasion he had nothing ready and we had to go to press with an apology to our readers. Finally we had to lock him in a room to get his matter written.21

His Natural Life ultimately ran for twenty-seven episodes, instead of the originally agreed upon twelve. The ‘Old Stories Retold’ series appeared simultaneously, on and off, through fourteen tales, some in multiple parts over two or three weeks, concluding on 24 June 1871, and were collected as a book, Old Tales of a Young Country, in 1871.

His Natural Life first appeared as a serial in the Australian Journal from March 1870 to June 1872. Clarke then revised it considerably for book publication. The Irish nationalist politician Charles Gavan Duffy, at this time a member of the Victorian legislature, recalled in My Life in Two Hemispheres how Clarke had approached him for advice on revising the serial for book publication, and how he followed his ‘suggestions for vigorous cutting’, reducing the 370,000 word serial into a 200,000 word novel22. Clarke provided a new explanation and motivation for the protagonist’s transportation, removing the 40,000 word opening section that dealt with alchemical experiments in Europe, and the conclusion that fulfilled the alchemical theme by emerging from the Nigredo of imprisonment into the discovery of the Victorian goldfields.

George Robertson published the book in Melbourne. Two readers reported on the book to the London publisher Richard Bentley, Lady Charlotte Jackson who was unenthusiastic, and Geraldine Jewsbury who recommended publication: ‘an extremely powerful and well written work, and you will do well to accept it subject to one condition.’ The condition was that Rufus Dawes should survive. Clarke was willing to make the change, but in the end the English edition followed the Australian edition with Dawes drowned at sea. Geraldine Jewsbury was the long-standing and intimate friend of Jane Carlyle, and the Carlyles were long-standing friends of Gavan Duffy, who published his Conversations with Carlyle in 1892. Duffy, who was in Europe at the time, may have been an influence in achieving the novel’s publication, as well as helping in its revision. And he arranged for the proofs to be read by Frances Cashel Hoey, wife of Duffy’s associate editor on the Irish journal The Nation, who may also have been responsible for some of the stylistic changes made in the English edition23.

The revised book version was dedicated to Duffy. Clarke does not remark that Duffy himself had been twice imprisoned by the English for his involvement in Irish independence movements, and had more than twelve months’ experience in Ireland of the interior of ‘a house of correction’, to quote from the dedication. But the facts were well known. Clarke’s dedication of his great novel to Duffy can be seen as a proclamation of his own increasing alienation from English establishment values. In the serial version of the novel, Dawes finally returns to England. In the book version he drowns. There was no return.

In 1870, the year after his marriage, Clarke took a salaried job as Secretary to the Trustees of the Melbourne Public Library24. He wore his duties lightly. The moving spirit behind the establishment of the library and the chairman of its board of trustees was Sir Redmond Barry. Hamilton Mackinnon remarks on ‘the interest Sir Redmond Barry evinced in the rising littérateur, whom he took under his parental wing, when obtaining for him the secretaryship of the Public Library’ and records one characteristic vignette:

It was a hot summer’s day, and, as was his style in such weather, the librarian was dressed dandily in unspotted white flannel, with a genuine cabbage-tree hat stuck defiantly on the back of his head; and so clothed he was leisurely wending his way up the steps of the library when he met the President, looking more starched, if possible, than ever, and wearing the well-known, flat-rimmed, tapering bell-topper, which shone in the glare of the noonday sun: and the following brief dialogue ensued.

‘President: “Good morning, Mr Clarke.”

‘Librarian: “Good morning, sir.”

‘President: “I scarcely think your hat, however cool it may be, is exactly suited to the position you occupy in connection with this establishment, Mr Clarke — Good morning, Mr Clarke.

And with a stiff bend of the erect body the President took his departure with just a glimmer of a smile playing round the firmly closed haughty lips’25.

Clarke was fond of his cabbage-tree hat. It had been made for him by a convict in Pentridge Prison. In 1902 his third son, Rowley, took it with him when he sailed to South Africa with the 2nd Commonwealth contingent. It is preserved in the picture collection of the State Library of Victoria26.

Hugh McCrae recalled his father George Gordon McCrae’s friendship with Clarke:

George, who admired him, often pointed out a green metal lion half-way up the steps leading to the Melbourne Public Library. It was into the mouth of this lion that Marcus used to commit his unfinished cigar, before being manacled to the desk at his office. The lion, smoking the cigar, became a signal to his friends that Marcus was within.

Clarke coveted his freedom so much that he would rather scintillate outside than be earning his salary as sub-librarian locked up among books. Actually, in his own words, he preferred to “trinquer” at the “House-of-the-Light-Wine-of-the-Country” before his humdrum devoirs at the Bibliotheque

Marcus could never be found when he was wanted. Sir Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller once said he might go to the Botanic Gardens and be certain of seeing there an example of the native fuchsia tired to a stake from Monday to Monday — but Clarke was no native fuchsia; and that he carried his household with him wherever he went. At the beginning of the week, he might be in Coburg; and the middle of it in Essendon; and, at the end of it, in Brighton — or Moonee Ponds.27

‘I have sold my birthright of free speech for a mess of official pottage, and so to all intents and purposes my “Peripatetic” is dead …’ Clarke wrote in The Australasian,11 June 1870, announcing the end of his ‘Peripatetic Philosopher’ column. A public service position was deemed to preclude him from journalism that involved anything that might seem like political comment. Nonetheless, he continued to write and publish no less prolifically, not only the serial of His Natural Life, but also the historical ‘Old Tales Retold’ that became Old Tales of a Young Country, the novel Chidiock Tichborne, the stories collected in Holiday Peak and Other Tales  and Four Stories High, together with poems and articles, as well as the occasional theatrical venture. And the official pottage meant that his income was double the amount he had earned simply from writing. But it still wasn’t enough.

His Natural Life may have brought Clarke fame, but it didn’t bring fortune. In 1874, the year it was published in book form, he was declared bankrupt. His debts amounted to £2,186. 6s. 6d; his assets to £505. A catalogue was printed for the sale of his books, The Well-Selected Library of Mr Marcus Clarke28. He began a new column, ‘The Wicked World’ for the Melbourne Daily Telegraph’s weekend magazine, the Weekly Times. It shows Clarke at his most Balzacian, portraying the moneyed world of Melbourne in all its pretensions and dishonesties.

He had been hoping to be appointed the new Melbourne Librarian, but in November 1879 he wrote an essay for the Victorian Review on the irrelevancy of Christianity in the modern age29. The Bishop of Melbourne, Dr James Moorhouse, replied. Clarke responded with a second article exposing weaknesses in the bishop’s arguments which the Victorian Review refused to publish. The Melbourne Review accepted it, only to withdraw all copies from sale upon publication. The whole debate was collected in book form as Civilisation Without Delusion (1880) and sold rapidly.30

It made Clarke no friends with the Melbourne establishment, and didn’t help his chances of being appointed Librarian. Mackinnon records the reaction of the President of the Trustees of the Public Library, Sir Redmond Barry:

The President appeared one evening in the librarian’s office with a somewhat clouded countenance, and said, “Good evening, Mr Clarke.” The librarian with an intuitive feeling that a lecture was about to be administered, returned the salutation, when the President remarked: “Mr Clarke; you would oblige me greatly if you were to leave some things undone. For instance, that unfortunate article of yours — attacking so estimable a man as the bishop. Very indiscreet, Mr Clarke. I — think — I — should require — to — have — some — thousands a year of a private income before I would — venture — upon writing such an — article on — such a subject, and among so punctilious a community as exists here. Good evening, Mr Clarke.”31

Then Clarke helped adapt Gilbert A’Beckett’s burlesque The Happy Land, based on the play The Wicked World by W. S. Gilbert (under the pseudonym F. Tomline). It dealt with the visit of three politicians to Fairyland, where the benefits of popular government are explained to them. Clarke helped to adapt it from English to Australian conditions. The Victorian government immediately banned it and The Argus and The Age just as promptly printed the text. Clarke’s name was not specifically mentioned, but it was widely known that he had been involved in the adaptation. Clarke may have been surprised when he was not appointed Librarian. No one else was.

But he had little time to be surprised. He had borrowed money on the strength of being appointed. The money-lender, Aaron Waxman, pressed for payment. Clarke declared bankruptcy for a second time, and so was required to resign his library position. He became sick with pleurisy, Mackinnon records,

…and this developing into congestion of the liver, and finally into erysipelas, carried him off in the space of one short week…the end came upon him rapidly. Losing his speech, he beckoned for pencil and paper, and seizing hold of the sheets moved his hand over them as if writing. Shortly afterwards the mind began to wander, but still the hand continued moving with increasing velocity, and every now and then a futile attempt to speak was made.32  

He died at St Kilda at 4 p.m. on 2 August 1881. He was thirty-five, and left a wife and six children, the eldest only eleven.

  1. The Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume, ed. Hamilton Mackinnon, Cameron, Laing & Co, Melbourne, 1884, 15–16; The Austral Edition of the Selected Works of Marcus Clarke, ed. Hamilton Mackinnon, Fergusson and Mitchell, Melbourne, 1890, i–ii []
  2. Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, ed. C. C. Abbott, Oxford University Press, 1956, 14 []
  3. Cyril Hopkins’ Marcus Clarke, ed. Laurie Hergenhan, Ken Stewart and Michael Wilding, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2009, 44 []
  4. Further Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins, 16 []
  5. The Marcus Clarke Memorial Volume, 13; The Austral Edition, iv []
  6. Arthur Patchett Martin, ‘An Australian Novelist’, Temple Bar, 71, 1884, 96–110. Clarke’s views may have resembled George’s, though the 1860s are too early for a direct influence. Henry George’s Progress and Poverty was published in the USA in 1879 and he visited Australia in 1890 []
  7. The Argus reported the case, 21-26 August 1874 []
  8. ‘The Café Lutetia’, Weekly Times, 28 February 1874, 9, reprinted in L. T. Hergenhan, ed., A Colonial City, 337, 338, and in Marcus Clarke, ed. Michael Wilding, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1976, 667, 668 []
  9. Charles Bright, ‘Marcus Clarke’, Cosmos Magazine, 30 April 1895, 418–19 []
  10. Geoffrey Hutton, Adam Lindsay Gordon: the Man and the Myth, Faber and Faber, London, 1978; Melbourne University Press, 1996, 148 []
  11. ‘A Quiet Club’, Australasian, 9 May 1868, 593; reprinted in The Peripatetic Philosopher by ‘Q’,George Robertson, Melbourne, 1869, 48 []
  12. Henry Kendall, ‘A Colonial Literary Club, by a Wandering Bohemian’, Town and Country Journal, 18 February 1871, reprinted Henry Kendall: Poetry, Prose and Selected Correspondence,ed.Michael Ackland, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1993, 161 []
  13. Hugh McCrae, My Father and My Father’s Friends, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1935, reprinted in Hugh McCrae, Story Book Only, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1948 []
  14. Australasian, 9 May 1868, 593; reprinted in The Peripatetic Philosopher, 48 []
  15. Hamilton Mackinnon, Austral Edition, vi []
  16. ‘Cannabis Indica – a Psychological Experiment’, Colonial Monthly, 1, 6, February 1868, 454–68; reprinted Marcus Clarke, ed. Michael Wilding, University of Queensland Press, 1976, 545, and as ‘A Haschich Trance’, Austral Edition, 413, and Marcus Clarke, Stories,Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1983, 213 []
  17. Brian Elliott, Marcus Clarke,Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1958, 105 []
  18. Mackinnon, Memorial Volume, 37 []
  19. ‘A Master Printer. Fifty Years in Business. Mr A. H. Massina,’ Herald (Melbourne), 2 March 1909, 6 []
  20. Reprinted in Michael Wilding, ed, Marcus Clarke, 511-37 []
  21. Herald (Melbourne), 2 March 1909, 6 []
  22. Charles Gavan Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, T. Fisher Unwin, London, 1898, vol 2, 312-4 []
  23. P. D. Edwards, ‘The English Publication of His Natural Life’, Australian Literary Studies,10, 1982, 520–6 []
  24. John Arnold, ‘Marcus Clarke Joins the Public Library, Museum and National Gallery of Victoria’, Margin,40, 1996, 19–21; Sandra Burt, ‘Marcus Clarke at the Public Library’, La Trobe Library Journal, 67, 2001, 55–60 []
  25. Mackinnon, Memorial Volume, 43; slightly revised in Austral Edition, xi []
  26. Ian F. McLaren, Marcus Clarke: An Annotated Bibliography, Library Council of Victoria, Melbourne, 1982, items 3003, 2128 []
  27. Hugh McCrae, My Father and My Father’s Friends, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1935, 47 []
  28. Facsimile in Ian F. McLaren, Marcus Clarke: An Annotated Bibliography, Library Council of Victoria, Melbourne, 1982, 340–60 []
  29. ‘Civilization without Delusion’, Victorian Review, 1, 1, November 1879, 65–75, reprinted Marcus Clarke,ed. Wilding, 672–83 []
  30. Civilization without Delusion, F. F. Baillière, Melbourne, 1880, reprinted as What is Religion? Robert Barr, Fitzroy, 1895 []
  31. Hamilton Mackinnon, Austral Edition, xi []
  32. The Austral Edition, ed. Mackinnon, xvii–xviii []

Medical notes from underground

“Theodore Dalrymple”, anatomist of modernity (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
MARK GULLICK profiles the cultural commentator THEODORE DALRYMPLE

The English writer Theodore Dalrymple, whose real name is Dr. Anthony Daniels, spent much of his professional career as a hospital and prison psychiatrist. He has also written many books on a variety of subjects, and travelled the world extensively.

But, even given the breadth of Dr. Daniels’s voracious reading and the length of his journeying, his most memorable books report back from a place far bleaker than the many and often pitiful countries he has visited. These are the books and essays which deal with his experiences among Britain’s ‘underclass’, and his ruminations as to why these unfortunates are kept in their place by a society which is, by global standards, extremely wealthy. These are the writings I will concentrate on here.

To read Dalrymple’s accounts of the inhabitants of the prisons, hospitals and sink estates where he ministered to them is to enter a type of hell, but what is most frightening is not any inscription above the gate reading ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, but the simple four numerals at the end of many of the most appalling essays. For example, ‘1995’ and earlier. Does anyone believe things have improved in the quarter century since the good doctor painted his Bosch-like visions of Britain?

One of the most apparent aspects of Dalrymple’s talent is his ability to take the pulse of his own culture, and he is never more accurate in his many observations than when writing about his fellow Britons:

Gradually, but overwhelmingly, the culture and character of British restraint have changed into the exact opposite. Extravagance of gesture, vehemence of expression, vainglorious boastfulness, self-exposure, and absence of inhibition are what we tend to admire now – and the old modesty is scorned

Anything Goes

Although it is Dr. Daniels’s literary avatar Theodore Dalrymple (a pen-name which puts me in mind of some Dickensian notary public) who publishes these diagnoses of country, people, political regime, or seismic cultural shift, it is the doctor who really does know best. He is a hyper-realist and draws on professional experience, not on social theories that happen to be de rigueur, and he has the ability to bring analytical forensic skills as much to a society, culture or woeful institution as he would be to the body or mind of a patient.

The National Health Service (NHS) in particular presents unfavourable symptoms. There are many hustlers and grifters who have exploited Britain’s much-lauded health service for their own advancement and comfort, and at whom Dalrymple often takes aim:

Britain now has more educational bureaucrats than teachers, as well as more health-service administrators than hospital beds

Not with a Bang but with a Whimper

This in itself is a scandal and, having worked for the NHS in four different capacities myself, I can vouch for Dalrymple’s depiction of “a British bureaucratic zombie, for whom work is a painful interruption of entertainment” (If Symptoms Persist).

Dr. Daniels clearly sports the livery of old-fashioned Conservatism, which naturally earns him sneers and smears from the bien pensant class, displaying as they must their ‘woke’ insignia with misplaced pride. Dr. Daniels is everything ‘woke’ is not. He clearly feels for the British ‘underclass’, but is able both to state plainly that “I delighted in what my patients said” (Not with a Bang but with a Whimper), and to render them in miniature with merciless accuracy:

More flagrant injustices by far, worse physical conditions, greater exposure to violence, were of course to be encountered elsewhere: But for sheer apathy, for spiritual, emotional, educational and cultural nihilism and vacuity, you must go to an English slum

If Symptoms Persist

Anthony Malcolm Daniels was born in 1949 in London’s fashionable Kensington. Thus, he began his life in a recently bombed city in a district of which, the last time I visited it five years ago, seemed still to be a building site in perpetuity, but for more modern reasons of appreciating the value of property rather than rebuilding one of civilisation’s great conurbations.

His father, we are informed in an essay on the poverty of English post-war architecture, was a communist (and Dalrymple will have much to say on the subject of communism) and despised Victorian art and architecture, to the extent of destroying some quite valuable paintings from that era which he felt were taking up loft space. This may or may not be a Freudian moment which directed the course of Daniels Junior’s future beliefs. We will never know; Daniels is scathingly dismissive of Freud.

In 1980, Daniels, writing as ‘Theodore Dalrymple’, so impressed the editor of The Spectator, Charles Moore, that he began a regular column in that magazine on the strength of unsolicited submissions, a breaking of precedent by Mr. Moore. There followed a string of books – as well as regular writings in various periodicals online and off – which were mostly received with discreet critical approval without the usual attendant razzmatazz of press and television appearances. Dalrymple has always swum against the stream of what is now called the ‘narrative’, a sort of media-instituted and pre-fabricated substitute for the truth, and his profile in the mainstream media is concomitantly rather sparse.

For the British, at least, one of the most staggering allegations Dalrymple makes is that social services have absolutely no intention of helping those under their care. The NHS – at least at the level of management – are not overly interested in sick and injured people or their recovery, teachers are actively opposed to well-tried educational methods on ideological grounds, and the police would look askance at anyone suggesting they went out preventing crime by their presence as they used to do.

An example – from many candidates – concerns the British police. The ‘TICs’ mentioned here are ‘Taken into Considerations’, or crimes the defendant admits to in order to lessen the likely sentence for his present misdemeanour. A defence counsel will use these playing cards blatantly and the police will be all the more grateful for that, and for the following reason;

TICs are the means, roughly speaking, by which known criminals admit to offences they didn’t do, in order for the police to clear up crimes they can’t solve

Life at the Bottom

Criminals in one area tend to know each other, and these TICs serve as a kind of barter system. Added to this, the criminal serves less time for his act, and possibly none at all, while the police delight their masters by delivering improved statistics. Everyone, as they used to say at British fairgrounds, is a winner.

This wholly twisted version of policing is typical of Dalrymple’s dealings with the public sector in Britain, although many of his interactions provoke laughter as much as despair. Dalrymple is a comic writer in that he presents a lacklustre reality and invites the reader to find it grimly funny – Alan Bennett does something similar – while always gently reminding us that if we do find ourselves sniggering at this shabby round-dance of foolishness and ignorance, our laughter is very much in the dark, and we, like him, are whistling past the graveyard.

Although Dalrymple is an intellectual by definition, and one who indeed finds much compensatory delight in his studies of literature, we are fully aware of his ingrained attitude toward the intellectual class, “whose livelihood depends on ceaseless carping”. We recall Thomas Sowell, among others, when Dalrymple writes that:

[M]ost of the social pathology exhibited by the underclass has its origin in ideas that have filtered down from the intelligentsia

Life at the Bottom

It is no longer government that threatens social cohesion and culture, he writes, but “the universities and the intellectuals, or semi-intellectuals, that they turn out” (ibid).

Dalrymple is less an intellectual than a professional with both the life experience and the depth of reading to make him a perfectly capable philosopher. Indeed, he gives one of the finest mission statements for philosophy (my own subject) that I have come across:

The philosopher is an archaeologist of knowledge, rather than a builder of it: he strips away the misconceptions that have accreted since birth

In Praise of Prejudice

This definition is in bold contradistinction to the destructive, moth-like work of the intellectual, and bad ideas, when their time comes, can only lead to what modern sociologists term ‘bad outcomes’. One more than others.

Outside of the mainstream media, the dread realisation is taking place that the West is undergoing what I call ‘Sovietisation’ (although I am sure I am not the first to coin the phrase). It can scarcely be said that Britain, as one of the most egregious examples, is moving away from rather than towards the type of societal control around which the communist apparatus was constructed.

Writing from experience, Dalrymple has made many points concerning communism, but they have as their centre of gravity the same essential statement; the point of lying to the people, a practice inherent in the communist system, is not to persuade the populace of the truth of what is being said, but to humiliate them in the realisation that they must believe or, in many cases, die. This summation comes from The Wilder Shores of Marx:

Apart from the massacres, deaths and famines for which communism was responsible, the worst thing about the system was the official lying: that is to say the lying in which everyone was forced to take part, by repetition, assent or failure to contradict

Dalrymple still writes for several online magazines, and the closest he has to a mantra follows him there:

In my study of Communist societies, I came to the conclusion that the purpose of communist propaganda was not to persuade or convince, nor to inform, but to humiliate…

Interview with FrontPage Magazine

And, along the same lines: “[T]he purpose of political correctness is not to enunciate truth but to exercise power” (‘Rigid Diversity’, Taki’s Magazine).

A modern refusenik, then, but if Dalrymple is a contrarian, that should be placed in context. The British media has a rather cunning way of appearing to be in touch by occasionally feinting a blow at the clumsily named cultural phenomenon known as ‘political correctness’ (a chrysalis whose emerging creature is ‘woke’). But this is mere nose-thumbing for effect, and there is another aspect of modern cultural dysfunction that is sacred for the media – victimhood.

It is axiomatic for the British media class that, in a dreary revival of Marx’s misplaced dictum in The Communist Manifesto, everything must be viewed through the (distorting) lens of class conflict, and that battle to be further parsed into the constant war of oppressor and oppressed. This now has its new identity as racial/social justice. This is succinctly summed up by Dalrymple in his collection Farewell Fear. The author is describing the appeal of conversion to Islam to a woman named Lauren Booth, half-sister-in-law to ex-British Prime minister Tony Blair. Ms. Booth displayed, writes Dalrymple,

…the very characteristic thirst of modern people who have lived privileged lives for the safe psychological haven of victim status

Just as Dr. Johnson was of the opinion that patriotism (or the pretense of patriotism) was the last refuge of the scoundrel, now another doctor indicates that victimhood is the first refuge of scoundrels we must now call ‘woke’.

Here we are at the heart of cultural darkness, the blind spot that seems to affect Western governments. If whole generations of the ‘underclass’, along with ethnic minorities, and those of one non-heterosexual persuasion or another, are constantly told that they are neither culpable for their actions or, perhaps, in need of psychological care, and also that they are and have been somehow repressed by a supposedly dominant ethnic group, they will gladly accept the nomination.

And as victimhood is offered freely and for free, courtesy of the state in Britain, so too its status seems to absolve the victims of responsibility. Dalrymple makes a comparison between African countries (specifically Tanzania and Nigeria) and Great Britain:

Yet nothing I saw [in Africa] – neither the poverty nor the overt oppression – ever had the same devastating effect on the human personality as the undiscriminating welfare state. I never saw the loss of dignity, the self-centredness, the spiritual and emotional vacuity, or the sheer ignorance of how to live that I see daily in England

Life at the Bottom

You will emerge from the writings of Theodore Dalrymple enlightened and entertained, but also disgusted and with a stain on your soul, which admittedly doesn’t sound like an endorsement. It is a stain no soap could ever wash away – disgust with the weakness of people who could be helped by even a small show of strength on their part, disgust with the frankly wicked waste of money spent in the callow belief that it is a god who will answer the petition of prayer and provide for the meek and lowly, and disgust for the level to which British culture has been allowed, and even intentionally manipulated – to sink. Above all, you will feel a searing disgust with those ‘in charge’, those in well-remunerated positions of power who believe they are doing good when what they are in fact doing is misusing money to salve their negligible consciences and inflated egos, as well as adhere to political dogma which would disgrace a poor African nation, what Dalrymple calls “the baleful influence of mistaken ideas”.

The collected works of Theodore Dalrymple, advised as he is by his éminence grise, Dr. Anthony Daniels, should be read by every social worker and politician, every police officer and NHS manager, every journalist and every teacher in Great Britain, but of course they will not. Quite the opposite. They will be cast into the fire so that those people – many of whom Dalrymple describes as performing “makework” jobs – can return to the state-funded, well-sucked thumb of Critical Race Theory, or whatever name it has this month. As the good doctor himself quotes more than once from T S Eliot, “mankind cannot bear very much reality”.

Dr. Daniels was kind enough to answer a few brief questions for The Brazen Head…

BH: Is there any hope for the British public sector?

AD:  There are three main problems, it seems to me. First is centralisation. Second is the size and the number of the tasks it is expected to perform. The third is its corruption – moral, intellectual and increasingly financial. They are interconnected. In most cases, people have little idea what the purpose of their organisation is, and goals have been obscured by ideology and political entrepreneurs. As far as financial corruption, I am afraid it was Mrs. Thatcher who started the ball rolling. It is much worse than the offering of money under the table. Financial corruption has been legalised. 

BH: Do you see in the response of Western governments to the COVID pandemic reason and measure, or have they used it for a more sinister accumulation of power?

AD: I have some sympathy with governments that clearly had to do something. It is rarely, however, that governments relinquish powers willingly that they have taken in emergencies. Therefore, the return to the status quo ante will be difficult – and it wasn’t so very splendid to begin with.

BH: Do you see what I have called a ‘Sovietisation’ of the UK?

AD: I definitely see a Sovietisation of Britain – but not only of Britain. People are now afraid not only to voice opinions in public but (what is worse) not to subscribe publicly to opinions that they do not hold. They thereby lose their probity and therefore their locus standi to oppose the grossest absurdity and violation of common sense. As for Soviet-style langue de bois, it is everywhere: you can hear it uttered even in private. 

BH: I gather that you spend most if not all of your time in France. Do you ever feel a prophet without honour in your own land?

AD: I do not feel a prophet without honour because I do not feel a prophet. I often wonder whether I’m exaggerating things, whether I am too gloomy because of my personal experience, because gloom is easier to write about, at least interestingly, than success. I often ask myself how seriously people should take me, and I have no definitive answer, and certainly no tablets of stone to bring down from any mountain.