Voyages through vanities

Gulliver’s New Travels: Lemuel Gulliver Collides with the 21st Century

Guy Walker, self-published, 2022, 140pp, £4.99

DEREK TURNER is entertained by a clever updating of a classic

Satire, often thought of today as a liberal genre, can also be a conservative art. Any writing that relies for its comical or scourging effects upon the discrepancies between fantasy and truth, hypocrisy and sincerity, can lend itself easily to a conservative sense of realism, and distrust of fine rhetoric. Cant, dishonesty and foolishness are perennial, and no respecters of parties.

Satire was practised by Aeschylus and Euripides amongst others, who wrote plays as jocular tragedies, wherein the actions and words of serious characters were constantly being undercut by drunken, foul-mouthed, priapic satyrs. Such contrasts have a recurring appeal to a certain type of person, who may be of either ‘Left’ or ‘Right’, depending on who is in power, and how badly they are abusing that trust.

Chaucer belaboured corrupt clerics, not on anti-clerical but on pro-Church grounds. Satire was also deployed by reforming humanists like Sebastian Brant, whose still-read 1494 Das Narrenschiff (‘Ship of Fools’) was just one of many similar salutary works – not to mention Thomas More’s Utopia (1516). Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel was officially condemned, but 16th century Cardinals kept copies in their cassocks. Juvenal’s withering satires of the Rome of the first and second centuries were of intrinsic appeal to the 18th/19th century writer William Gifford, editor of the Quarterly Review (the journal which coined the term ‘Conservative’), who became one of the poet’s most successful interpreter-translators. The contemporary comedian Andrew Doyle uses his avatar ‘Titania McGrath’ to lampoon the inconsistencies of ‘intersectionalism’, and prick the priggishness and pomposity of over-sensitive orthodoxies. 

Jonathan Swift was first a Whig and then a Tory, whose loathing of the Deist and mercantilist currents of his time led him into morally outraged vituperation, most famously his 1829 Modest Proposal to deal with Irish poverty by advocating anthropophagy, at a time when the English authorities seemed content to let the Irish starve – a phrase which has become shorthand for any straight-faced outrageous suggestion. Most lastingly, of course, he dreamed up the disingenuous Lemuel Gulliver – a supposedly simple mariner cast up by shipwreck into a parallel universe, where the assumptions, institutions and practises are oddly reminiscent of those of early 18th century Europe, with just a wicked twist to emphasise the essential ridiculousness of the originals.

Gulliver epitomises Swift’s ideal of the Englishman – brave, enterprising, inquisitive, resourceful and sturdily commonsensical, with a tincture of Protestant prejudice. Gulliver’s Travels was deservedly successful, even if at times Swift’s touch is too heavy, and the conceit is carried on too long. Two centuries on, the English writer Guy Walker has been inspired to follow this great unflagging example, and apply Swiftian lucidity and smiling scorn to some of the deceits and rodomontade of today.

Walker is notably widely read and a retired teacher of language, attributes made evident by the orthographical exactitude of his text (‘atchieve’, ‘Emmets’, ‘extream’, ‘Fanfaronade’, ‘smoak’), and his familiarity with the atmosphere and state of knowledge of the England of Swift’s time. An unwary reader could easily assume that the ‘real’ Gulliver did indeed visit the fantastical realms of Khiliastika, Obversia and Ypsilosia, especially as these are interponed on this itinerary with Swift’s Houyhnhnms and non-fiction’s St. Helena. The ‘authenticity’ of Walker’s style and vocabulary inescapably entails offensiveness to certain refined members of modern audiences, for whose delicate benefit he includes a prior ‘WARNING’ that is all part of his vigorous joke. But inside all his rumbustious humour, as inside Swift’s, is a swingeing critique of some of our prevailing reductive philosophies, a wonderfully witty appraisal of some of the ways we delude ourselves.

Khiliastika is a land of ostentatious self-abasement, whose inhabitants vie with each other in demonstrations of humility, even publicly classing themselves below animals. Inevitably, this so-public humility is really private pride, a neat inversion of the former worldview, when pride in being part of the hierarchical ‘Great Chain of Being’ had really been a kind of modesty, which acted as restraint. The present Khiliastikan elite is idly rich, existing parasitically on the fruits of former industry and responsibility, with rather too much time to adorn themselves and consider their own reflections in strategically placed mirrors. Domestic servants and other workers on Khiliastika (as elsewhere!) are largely disregarded as irrelevant, even as their masters and mistresses vie with each other in expressing egalitarian and internationalist sentiments, and loudly apologising for their very existence. Parallels with modern middle-class checking of privilege and virtue-signalling (a phrase Swift could almost have coined) hardly need to be adumbrated.

Wealthy Khiliastikans are also subscribers to an apocalyptic philosophy, which holds that the old industries had critically damaged the world through over-heating of the air, exacerbated by the ‘Flatus and Ructations’ of ‘Cattell’, horses, and the islanders themselves. People are ergo expected to abstain from meat-eating and leather- or wool-wearing, and await the coming of a braided young ‘Prophetess’ bearing a not wholly adventitious resemblance to Greta Thunberg.

Prestigious ‘Virtuosi’ and ‘Universal Artists’ are employed to find ways of storing the animals’ involuntary emissions, and even to plug an active volcano. Others are building vehicles powered by magnets, springs or wind, others metal domes to afford protection for when the sky falls in, yet others an Ark for the end of days. Those who diverge from any detail of the orthodoxy are pilloried, ridiculed and excluded even from employment. Even for readers less sceptical of anthropogenic climate-change than this author, the satirical strokes fall fast, and hard.

Onwards to Obversia, a black kingdom whose inhabitants treat the mariners with extraordinary condescension – because amazed ‘at the Miracle of Humans of a white Complexion shewing that they too could make Shift to build and navigate a Merchantman.’ Rich Obversians compete to offer accommodation to the pale barbarians, because they see this as an opportunity to demonstrate their non-racist charitableness. They are haunted by Obversia’s one-time prominence in the slave trade, which had long ago entailed the kidnapping of countless ‘white-Complexioned’ people to boost the economies of Africa.

Obversia’s impressive-looking Grand Academy is staffed by grave intellectuals, determined to upturn all assumptions (such as that men differ from women), and ultimately erase Nature. According to the Academy’s overarching theory, everyone is equal and interchangeable, and everything inherited from the past, including maths and science, is illegitimate. Politicians, including the rather ponderously-named ‘Sir Kirkley Streamer’, when not in power themselves, as a matter of both principle and policy always advocate the opposite of whatever the government is doing, irrespective of its merits. Poor and starving people are kept on a barren offshore island, so they can be inspected and publicly petted by wealthy mainlanders, who have themselves painted in such edifying poses. A whole ‘Œconomy’ has grown up around this practice, and when Gulliver asks why the poor are not allowed off this island, to settle in available fertile land on the mainland, he is laughed at for his simplicity – because they are more valuable to the exchequer (and public morality) where they are.

They leave this island gladly, and are then captured by the airborne ships of the powerful Ypsilosian Navy. All the Ypsilosians’ military might is dedicated ironically to the service of a state which advocates a universal language and ultimately universal peace. The savants and wealthy residents of the capital, Schro Dinga on the River Phrenos, float serenely above the ground, uplifted by the rarefaction of their reasoning, while earth-bound drudges toil below. Beautiful women in elegant salons condemn their Objectifycation and oppression by men, and bewail the squalid necessity of child-bearing. Prominent businessmen call for higher taxes, and condemn the common people for worrying about the price of food and value of their hovels. Senior military men espouse saccharine pacifism, and the country’s leading intellectual urges the severance of all connections to culture and nation – and biology and geography. At the Temple of Transcendence, a gorgeously attired celebrant preaches disbelief in deities, but foresees lifespans of a thousand years and in the meantime, the survival of intelligence by means of electricity.

Gulliver and his companion dislike all this vastly; ‘we had begun to find the Attempt to be and not be the same Thing at the same Time inimical to the Composure of our Brain and the Quietude of our Minds.’ They escape, and make sail to St Helena, a British colony and assumed safe haven – only to find that ideas like those prevailing in his recently-visited dystopias have made their way here too.

Under the rule of a party calling itself the Know-Alls, the common islanders have been discouraged from making up their own minds about anything until ‘This might extend to their not even being able to distinguish confidently between their Posteriors and their Elbows.’ Now called contemptuously Know-Nothings, ordinary people have been fenced out of old land-holdings by Projectors, enclosed out of ‘Common Sense’. Philosophers strive to reduce life on even this tiny outpost to rigid formulae, even trying to mathematize the arts, banning dangerous displays of spontaneity and enjoyment. This abhorrent state of affairs calls for outraged action, and Gulliver is just the kind of Englishman to act. Condign punishments ensue, and ancient arrangements are resumed, to general contentment.

Gulliver sails on eventually, the ever-restless Englishman, an Anglo-Saxon Everyman – but he leaves behind a better island, and real-life readers wishing real-life restorations could be quite so easy, or swift.

Modernism seen now

RICHARD GERSTL (1883–1908), Self-Portrait in front of a Stove, 1907. Oil on canvas on board. Neue Galerie New York

Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940

Renée Price (ed.), Prestel/Neue Galerie, 2021, 656pp, $75/£55

ALEXANDER ADAMS is transported to a thrilling time of artistic experimentation

The Neue Galerie in New York holds one of the world’s greatest collections of German and Austrian Modernist fine and applied art. It was founded by Ronald S. Lauder and conceived of in consultation with his friend Serge Sabarsky, who owned a fine selection of the best of Austrian Expressionism, particularly by Egon Schiele. Sabarsky died in 1996, before the museum opened. When the museum opened in 2001, the intention of Lauder and team of directors and curators was to correct the bias towards French art in the historical surveys of the development of Modernism in the visual arts. Modern Worlds: Austrian and German Art, 1890-1940 is the grand catalogue of an exhibition held to celebrate the first two decades of the gallery. This review is from that catalogue.

Neue Galerie was warmly received when it opened and became highly regarded for its scholarship and the quality of its holdings. The great success of the Neue Galerie, which I have visited several times and consider an essential stop on any tour of New York museums, has made German-Austrian Modernist art now a much better understood part of art history. Among specialists, there was always an appreciation of Expressionism and Secession art, but the condensed selection of masterpieces by the very best artists, housed in a handsome beaux-arts townhouse at 1048 Fifth Avenue (built in 1914) has provided an integrated story of Modernism in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  

Modern Worlds has essays on various topics relating the fine art and applied art in the collection. One by Olaf Peters discusses Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (1892), which became (posthumously) his most influential book. We should not see those opposed to degeneracy solely as representatives of traditionalism. Many critics of decadence were liberals, who took a progressive view of society. As a social Darwinist, Nordau saw degeneracy as an aspect of evolution, which would lead to the atrophying and extinction of those urban populations which succumbed to its lure, driven by circumstance and genetics towards behaviour that would not sustain reproduction of healthy individuals. He cited art as a symptom of the degeneration of culture and genetic stock.

Nordau imagined a dramatic result as the consequence of this evolutionary process for art. In his view, art would cease to exist, since those who support it would have to make room for an increasingly rational humanity for whom art would no longer be a relevant form of expression. For Nordau, art would become an atavism, and only women and children – the more intensely emotional members of the population – would still pursue it. He favoured science over art, which he judged to be an irrational symptom of psychological illness. It had to yield to the advancing process of rationalisation.[i]

Another essay by Peters discusses the splintering of arts organisations in Germany and Austria in the Jugendstil/Secession period, as artists sought to gain more control over the selection, exhibition, publication and sale of their art works. A proliferation of artists groups ran alongside the desire to distance the avant-garde from state- and royalty-sanctioned bodies, academies and established professional organisations. Opposing approaches to ornamentation within Modernism are exemplified by architect Adolf Loos (anti-ornamentation) and Gustav Klimt (pro-ornamentation). This shows that there were very different aesthetic criteria supported by members of the avant-garde, just as we find contrary strands within reactionary and traditionalist camps. The influence of collector Karl Ernst Osthaus is appraised (his collection of Expressionist art is housed at a dedicated museum in Hagen, Westphalia).

The various displays and fairs including applied art, decorative art and diorama/installations accelerated the acceptance of Modernism into daily life, as well as high culture. The influence of the Arts & Crafts movement paved the way for patrons and creators. Wiener Werkstätte was founded in 1903 and flourished as a company that produced high-quality, expensive furnishings, clothing and housewares until 1914. The advent of war severely impaired WW’s output. Limited by material and manpower shortages, and the unwillingness of the affluent to invest in luxuries during a period of upheaval, business slowed dramatically. It was revived in the inter-war period but never regained its pre-eminence, closing in 1932. WW is remembered now often in terms of the contribution of female creators and for the influence of female customers, who generally made decisions regarding the decoration of family homes. Interestingly, no less than Adolf Loos gave a lecture called “Das Wiener Weh: Die Wiener Werkstätte” (“The Viennese Woe: Wiener Werkstätte”) in 1927, condemning the decline of WW. The turn to super-luxury goods was attributed to the women who dominated the management and product design of WW in the post-1914 era.

JOSEPH URBAN (1872-1933). Mantelpiece clock for Paul Hopfner Restaurant, 1906. Private collection

The excellent collection of WW in the museum’s collection – surely the best collection outside Vienna – includes works by leading lights of the company. The extensiveness of the Vienna design scene is amply represented by a series of striking designs of silverware, glassware, furniture, clocks, jewellery and ceramics by Dagobert Peche, Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, (Belgian) Henry van de Velde and others. The designs range from the refreshingly simple and starkly unornamented to the ostentatiously impractical. Hoffmann’s cutlery services go beyond function into objets d’art. Geometrical patterns, plain checks, straight lines and elongated or square proportions are constants. Lines that echo Art Nouveau are found mainly in early, pre-war pieces. There is a silver coffer given by Klimt to the young Alma Schindler (later Mahler), when he was courting the young beauty in 1902. Another gift from Klimt is a necklace given to Emilie Flöge the following year. Both were made by Moser. Vintage photographs of other pieces in the collection show the furniture in trade shows or the homes of the original owners.  

One photograph shows the star of the museum’s collection, Klimt’s gilded Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I (1907). The painting was displayed at an exhibition of art and crafts in Mannheim in 1907, and appears to show the painting before the artist made minor modifications to it. The painting is once again displayed flanked by stone statues of kneeling youths made by George Minne, as it was in that Mannheim display. (There is a useful essay on Minne and the Germanic sculptors as precursors to the individualism of Schiele and Kokoschka’s art.) The Neue Galerie has a fine collection of Klimt drawings from all periods of the artist’s output. The square landscapes of Klimt are revolutionary. Not only is the square format (developed by Klimt in the 1890s) anti-traditional, Klimt’s flatness and decorative treatment of foliage was a radical departure from convention. Park at Kammer Castle (1909) is a typical late landscape, disorienting through the presentation of dappled surfaces that only minimally model trees, grass and water; sky is reduced to a few patches at the edges of the picture.

GUSTAV KLIMT (1862–1918), Park at Kammer Castle, 1909. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder
and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder

The rise of Expressionism is understandable as a reaction against the emphasis on style over substance present in the Secession. The preoccupation with distinctive visual branding – something that reached a high pitch with the opening of WW – and the targeting of the super-affluent by artists (who supposedly disdained the status-conscious administrators and participants of established salons and academies) became anathema to ambitious young artists. The prevarication of the Secession between serving the wealthy and wanting to change the lives of everyday people left little space for the emergence of the exceptional individual – the much-discussed Übermensch of Nietzsche – and the man of heroic will. What was the role of the genius under Secession? Neither designing clothing for rich heiresses nor chairs for factory refectories seemed the calling of the true artist. The development of Art Nouveau in Germany and Austria was just one manifestation with a relentless drive towards Modernist ways of living.

This development was flanked by the Lebensreform (life reform) movement, which along with the housing colony and garden city movement, the land reform movement, vegetarianism, the naturopathy movement, and the Freikörperkultur (free body culture) or nudist movement, was aimed less at the sphere of aesthetics than at everyday lifestyle. Taken together, they formulated a fundamental critique of the scarcely controllable consequences of the rapid industrialization of the German Empire in the last three decades of the nineteenth century.[ii]

In the face of the deracinating effect of modern urban life – identified by nascent social science and criminology – and the increasing artificiality and superficiality of Secession, young artists who formed the Expressionists sought authenticity and rawness. They were inspired by Edvard Munch, whose 1892 exhibition in Berlin was closed as an affront to the professionalism of the artists’ organisation that staged the exhibition. The artists association Brücke (“bridge”) was founded on 7 June 1905 in Dresden, comprising Fritz Bleyl, Erich Heckel, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. It later included Emil Nolde, Max Pechstein and Otto Mueller. The artists (some of them architecture students) were committed to make an art free of pretension and artifice. Their idols included Munch, Gauguin, Dostoevsky, Freud, Ibsen, Strindberg, Wedekind and Nietzsche. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that exponents of Expressionism later found points of commonality with National Socialism. The admiration was reciprocated by some senior Nazis. However, it was the supporters of traditionalism among the Nazis who won out, consigning Expressionism to the category of entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) when it came to the selection of official art styles after 1933.  

Brücke was dissolved in Berlin in 1913. Blaue Reiter (“blue rider”) functioned as a Munich-based avant-garde group from 1911 to 1914. The Great War shattered the utopian aspirations of these artists; in some cases, the artists were killed in combat. We find in the Neue Galerie collection the proto-abstraction of Franz Marc and the cross-over art of Vasily Kandinsky of the 1910-3, which blends symbolism and abstraction. Blaue Reiter is discussed in the light of theosophy and spiritualism, which would become a lesser-considered strand of art teaching in the Bauhaus, particularly under Johannes Itten. An essay assesses the responses of artists to the Great War. These varied greatly, ranging from absolute pacifism to militaristic chauvinism. The post-war art of George Grosz and Otto Dix blends fierce satire with a seeming appetite for degradation; the impact of their work comes from that combination, which betrays a crucial ambiguity. As more perceptive critics of the time noted, an artist could not lavish so much care and time on art that was wholly condemnatory.      

EGON SCHIELE (1890–1918), Stein on the Danube, Seen from the South (Large), 1913. Oil on canvas. Neue Galerie New York. This work is part of the collection of Estée Lauder and was made available through the generosity of Estée Lauder. Photo: Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York

Austrian Expressionism – in its best in Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl, all of whom are represented by good examples – are marked by their engagement with the psychology of the subject rather than meditations on urban life or the condition of primitive man. There are few extant paintings by Gerstl, because Gerstl destroyed most of his paintings and drawings before committing suicide. The Neue Galerie owns four canvases by Gerstl, two of which (a self-portrait and a portrait of a seated man) are very fine pieces. We should mourn the loss of an artist, at the age of 25, capable of such work. The multiple nails in the coffin of German Expressionism were the advent of Dada, Neue Sachlichkeit and the scientific abstraction of the Bauhaus. Dada and photo-montage is represented in less depth than other movements in the collection.

It is instructive to compare WW designs with those of the Bauhaus, founded in Germany in 1919. Bauhaus extended the line of stark Modernism but without the influence of Art Nouveau, substituting the influence of strong unmodulated colour forms found in De Stijl abstract art. Bauhaus sacrificed functionality for style sometimes. The seats are often cruelly uncompromising for the human anatomy. Although the director Walter Gropius sought to fuse architecture, fine art and applied art – including clothing – in a manner that would be harmonious and pleasing, the Bauhaus never managed to balance its stated aims. The subsequent director, Hannes Meyer, deliberately steered the Bauhaus towards a more overtly socialist end, citing “the needs of the people rather than the requirements of luxury”. Meyer later moved to the USSR to teach, putting his socialist views into practice. 

There are chapters covering Expressionist cinema, photo-montage, Klee teaching at the Bauhaus, the decline of artistic freedom in Germany and persecution of artists under the Nazis. This last includes the story of Felix Nussbaum, which is becoming better known over recent decades. Nussbaum was an artist of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement, who was imprisoned in France as an enemy alien in 1939. He later left the camp and went into hiding in Brussels, but he was ultimately captured by the occupying Germans and sent to a death camp. His wartime art portrays the artist in the French camp and gives an idea of what Jewish artists might have painted in the concentration camps, had they had access to materials.  

The collection is wonderful but incomplete. Without the work of some traditionalist, National Socialist and Communist artists, we get an uneven view of art of Germany and Austria from 1890 to 1940, even of Modernism. Art of National Socialism and (pre-war) Communism were reactions against Jugendstil and Weimar-era Modernism. The Neue Galerie is a private collection and therefore subject only to the taste of the owner, who determines what is part of his conception of this history, but the story of Germanic Modernism cannot be properly understood without the inclusion of art that has hitherto been dismissed, seemingly without due aesthetic and historical consideration.     

Preconceptions surface in the catalogue essays, mainly to do with the politics of today being applied to a period now a century past. The translation of völkisch as “racist-populist” is not accurate; it means “of the people or kinfolk”. Affinity for the company or culture of one’s own race does not necessarily imply sentiments of racial superiority, contrary to the translator’s assertion. Berating of individuals for sexism (as found in the essays by Janis Staggs) is unhelpful. The history of the operation and circumstances of WW and Bauhaus do have a sex dimension, but Staggs is not the author to apply a dispassionate eye. 

Modern Worlds is an excellent, serious and lavishly illustrated survey of Modernism in Germany and Austria, forming an ideal counterbalance to art histories that prioritise the French lineage of the Impressionism-Pointillism-Fauvism-Cubism line. This book is a fitting tribute to the vision and commitment of Ronald S. Lauder (and Serge Sabarsky) and provides a fascinating slice of cultural history.  

[i] Olaf Peters, “Degeneration and Empire”, p. 33

[ii] Olaf Peters, “Brücke”, p. 235

John Wyndham, genius and prophet

The Wyndham Collection

John Wyndham, three vols. (Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos, The Chrysalids), Folio Society, 2022, 704 pps, £125

ALEXANDER ADAMS finds 1950s classics have troublingly modern messages

The publication of a clothbound boxset containing the classic novels Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos and The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1903-1969) by the Folio Society, prompts the question, ‘How much is Wyndham a man of his time?’ In this review, we will look at the novels, these illustrated editions and how much 1950s England influenced these stories.

Wyndham had a difficult childhood. His parents were involved in a high-profile divorce case, at a time when divorces were rare, and must have been aware of the consequent press coverage. The family moved around the country, and the young Wyndham attended a number of schools, including the famously progressive Bedales School. He had a number of different professions before deciding to pursue fiction writing. While he had some success as a writer of science fiction and pastiching American detective stories during the inter-war era, he did not seem to have found his metier. Although he did not know it at the time, his background and writing had set him up for spectacular success in the post-war period.

It was the catalyst of the war which seemed to bring Wyndham new introspection and a wider view of human nature. He was attached to a corps which saw heavy fighting in the advances through western Germany. Seeing the effects of wartime barbarity first hand – and the related crimes, atrocities, despair and vengeance – gave his vivid thoughts immediacy. Seeing exceptional events occurring in ordinary towns and houses, and the tide of history demolishing the certainties that complacent lives generate, meant the clichés of science fiction and crime noire (however clever) no longer seemed adequate.

The result of this transformed – or perhaps condensed – outlook led to Day of the Triffids (1951), the first book in this set. It is set in an alternative 1951, where a bio-engineered plant has become cultivated across the world for its rich oil. This ‘triffid’ plant can eat meat, stings animals, and can walk. Possessing a rudimentary form of intelligence, this plant is kept under control by docking the stings in ornamental individual plants or by penning undocked crop plants. In this alternative timeline, weaponised satellites orbit the Earth. A shower of meteors arrives, or an accident triggers weapons satellites; whichever it is, the result is that lights in the night sky blind almost the entire human population. Survivors have to struggle against gang warfare, disease, starvation and the threat of the triffids, which come to dominate the land.

In Triffids, Wyndham’s interests and skills form a glorious combination in his most successful and popular book. His progressive schooling and multiple careers gave him insight into the problems of farming and food supply; his wartime experiences sharpened his imagery of social breakdown and casual brutality. Wyndham’s sci-fi-writing origins allowed him to think through the plot; his experience of writing detective thrillers gave his prose a clipped asperity and punchy impact. He wrote strong characters and a compelling plot, yet Triffids is actually more of a novel-of-ideas than it seems. The excitement of the plot, believability of the characters and emotional appeal of the situations combined to make Triffids an ideas book that gets readers to think about issues organically, as we see characters deliberating options or forced to live out the consequences of their circumstances. Added to which, the astonishing imagery and haunting atmosphere make Triffids one of the best novels of the century. It far transcends science fiction, thrillers, dystopias and sociologically oriented examinations of the human condition and – I would say – functions as literature of the highest level. For the issues-driven, it includes discussion of environmentalism, disarmament, geo-politics, ethics and self-sufficiency. It has elements of thriller, romance, dystopia and social commentary, blended in a manner that is seamless.

Well, almost. There is a single chapter that is devoted to the backstory of the development of the triffids, which, while necessary, is rather dry on first reading. It is an obligatory exposition dump. On subsequent readings, it answers some of thoughts of readers now familiar with the titular antagonists of humanity. This chapter is the creakiest in terms of prose. Palanguez, the South American intermediary who smuggles triffid seeds from their point of origin in USSR laboratories, has a ‘sleek, dark head’ and addresses his interlocutor as ‘señor’. Wyndham’s pulp-fiction apprenticeship shows through a little. We have to sit through a bit of global politics, which is something that mars Wyndham’s follow-up novel The Kraken Wakes (1953 – not included in this set). However, if you can make it through chapter 2, the rest of Triffids is a terrific read – gripping, memorable, moving, thought-provoking. The contemporary film version was a wretched traducement, as was an embarrassingly updated 2009 television mini-series. A television version, co-produced by BBC Television in 1981, is excellent and well worth seeking out. 

© Patrick Leger from The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection – The Midwich Cuckoos

Wisely, for its new edition, Folio Society commissioned illustrations by Patrick Leger that are firmly in the 1950s style. The limited colours, bold blocking and strong line work all point back to the classic illustrations of comics and pulp fiction from the 1920s-1950s era. The speckling and deliberately loose registration imitate the printing of the time. Leger brings a cinematic eye to scenes, viewing protagonist Bill and young Susan from an aerial viewpoint. My favourite is the view of Bill in his hospital bed, with a swatch of sunlight illuminating his sheets. Folio Society, because it markets directly, rather than through bookshops, does not have to put text on its cover to inform browsers. This gives Folio Society designers a freer hand than otherwise. (Producing volumes for a boxset also allows book covers to remain text free.) Leger has illustrated all three books, including the covers.

Like Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) is infused with Cold War anxiety. Midwich, a village in southern England (based on Midhurst, Sussex), is suddenly isolated by an inexplicable forcefield and the residents rendered unconscious. When the barrier is lifted and people revive, they soon discover that all the women are pregnant. The human-seeming babies turn out to be uncanny cuckoos, planted into the wombs of women by aliens. Once born, the cuckoo children develop fast, act in a disciplined collaborative way and have powers of telepathy and limited mind control. This makes them an inscrutable and dangerous enemy. The hosts find themselves being held hostage by the parasite children, who threaten to grow strong enough to destroy the community that (warily and fearfully) cares for them.

Wisely, Wyndham does not dilute his story by introducing the aliens as other than prime movers. He has no interest in aliens. The science-fiction premise is merely a device to allow Wyndham to explore how communities (and civilisations) respond to the knowledge that they have in their midst forces that wish to supplant them and that are ruthless. From inter-species rivalry, Wyndham has moved to in-species rivalry. Of course, what must have been obvious to more observant readers of the time, was how this was an allegory for Communist infiltration of the West. The Midwich cuckoo-children, like Communists, form a tightly knit group working in concert to overturn the current order and advance to the next level of development, using any means necessary to overcome opposition. What seems so troublingly prescient, is how this scenario could act as a parable of multiculturalism. When a foreign group cannot be integrated, conflict for resources and status arises. If the organised minority overcomes the disorganised majority – as Mosca’s Law tells us – the numerical inferiority of the foreigners is no bar to them consolidating themselves and even coming to rule the hosts. So, while Midwich may seem dated sci-fi tosh set in a rural England of the past – Brian Aldiss will be forever remembered as the writer who damned Wyndham’s novels as ‘cosy catastrophes’ – it is actually a novel of ideas that is vitally relevant in a multicultural society facing a crossroads.

Likewise, The Chrysalids (1957) gives us another brilliant novel with exciting action, suspense and vividly drawn characters in a unique world, and one with a deeply troubling ethical conundrum. Chrysalids is a coming-of-age story set in a post-nuclear-war rural community in Canada, where millenarian Christianity holds sway. The society is obsessed by genetic stability, considering it a moral issue, which they police by destroying produce and animals if they genetically deviate from the norm, and exiling abnormal children. David, the protagonist, becomes aware that he has the power of telepathy. Living in fear that his psychic deviancy will come to light and lead to his expulsion, David forms a bond with the few other children of his age who also have this rare power. Eventually discovered, David and his friends have to flee into the wilderness to escape torture and (potentially) sacrifice.

Perhaps inadvertently on the author’s part, Chrysalids presents us with a question that is even more pointed than the one in Midwich: How far would you go to preserve your values and culture? What would you do if your children joined an extremist political group, or converted to a radical religion? Would you exile (even kill) relatives or your own children, knowing that if you did not, their values would supplant your own? I cannot think of any novels of ideas that are more pertinent today. Engaging with the novel’s issues honestly will result in readers doing some painful self-assessment about his/her limitations and the robustness of his/her values.

Wyndham, like every author, wrote in and of his time. In Triffids, a character drains the petrol from a car’s reserve tank. I don’t think I have ever travelled in a car with a reserve tank, although the concept is decipherable enough from the name. Perhaps the youngest of readers might need a reminder of what a corkscrew is; the idea of vacuum-packed cigarettes is rather neat, although today’s cellophane wrappers perform an inferior but cheaper alternative.

The language and social mores are of their time – which is a strong recommendation to readers of today – and this is particularly so in Triffids. When Wyndham presents the debates between pragmatists and Christians about whether or not sighted men should have multiple blind wives (who could give birth to seeing children), we encounter a slice of 1950s Britain, the last time Christian traditionalism had social hegemony. Today, I suppose many people would consider the matter merely one of avoiding partner jealousy rather than the breaching of a moral commandment.

The illustrations have a strong period flavour, with clothes, interiors and vehicles in Triffids and Midwich being contemporary with the period within which they were written. The retro quality of the illustration style suits the texts. If I had to venture one minor reservation about the illustrations in the Folio Society Wyndham boxset, it is that Leger tends to place us close to the actions, with main figures reaching the page edges. That means we are immersed in an event depicted, rather than viewing a scene at a distance. We are inside a motif, rather than outside a picture. This has some advantages – immediacy, engagement, impact, energy – but also reduces detached artistry, complex composition and contemplative reserve. On balance, it is well that Leger remains stylistically consistent within each volume and across the set.

Designers have taken care to co-ordinate the cover colours with the front and end-papers. The production quality is high and the margins and bindings make reading easy. This boxset with pictorial slipcase and hardback books with cloth spines (a reissue of the editions originally published in 2010) is a handsome set, and an ideal way to enjoy key novels of one of the greatest post-war British novelists.

The Folio Society’s The Wyndham Collection, three-volume set, with three novels by John Wyndham, illustrated by Patrick Leger, is available exclusively from:

Taken from the riverbank – Millais’ missing vole

Photo: Andrew Dore
JO CARTMELL longs for the resurgence of one of Britain’s most charming mammals

A shy water vole (Arvicola amphibius, also known as A. terrestris) sits nearby on the bank, peering tentatively between garlic mustard stems which he is rapidly consuming, having finished dining on nettles with ease. Ever alert to the sounds of potential predators, or on this occasion, human voices (his hearing is sharp, his eyesight not so good), he dives into the brook with a resounding ‘Plop!’ to enter an underwater burrow, kicking up mud as he does so to prevent becoming prey. Water voles rarely stay around for long; although some become habituated to humans, any sudden movement or sound will alarm them. Motionless, they are difficult to spot as their brown fur blends into bare earth banks, or they are hidden amidst tall plants by mid-May, so are often missed by people.
Before vanishing, my chubby-faced, charismatic companion’s black, bright eyes momentarily met mine. My gaze and heart have been spellbound by them since my first encounter at the age of six, whilst standing on a bridge over the Letcombe Brook in Oxfordshire. I had excitedly asked my mother for the name of the small animal which had just swum across the crystal clear water, nipped a piece of water crowfoot and was sitting on the bank with it. ‘Oh, that’s just a water rat!’ she said. They were commonly seen in 1959, so it was an unremarkable encounter for her, yet life-changing for me. I loved to wander by my local brook in the hope of seeing a water rat to light up my heart and my life – especially as in the following year, I had mistaken my dear ‘Ratty’ for Hammy the Hamster, star of the children’s TV series Tales of the Riverbank. Their name was later changed to water vole to avoid confusion with brown rats (Rattus norvegicus), who were regarded as vermin and trapped.

It was a revelation in recent years to learn that John Everett Millais spent up to eleven hours a day, quietly studying and sketching on the banks of the Hogsmill River in Surrey for his painting of Ophelia (the tragic noblewoman of Hamlet). If you are going to see a water vole, sitting or standing in solitude for hours in a quiet spot besides a river, or stream, is the way to do it. Millais, having seen a water rat, included one swimming next to the floating noblewoman for the unveiling of the painting. For Pre-Raphaelites, the realistic depiction of nature was paramount, so Millais’ inclusion of the water rat was in keeping with their aims. To be absolutely sure he had a true representation of this small mammal, his assistant took a live specimen from the Hogsmill for his reference.

But now Millais’ story takes an interesting turn, when he notes a conversation with fellow Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt’s relatives in his diary:

Hunt’s uncle and aunt came, both of whom understood most gratifyingly every object except my water rat… The male relation, when invited to guess at it, eagerly pronounced it to be a hare. Perceiving by our smiles that he had made a mistake, a rabbit was next hazarded. After which I have a faint recollection of a dog or a cat being mentioned.

It was 1851 and Millais was showing his painting for the first time. As no one seemed to realise what the small rodent was, he decided to paint out the hapless water rat!
This is an important indication that even in 1851, water voles were not as widely known as we tend to think they were during that period. This is partly because many people were forced to leave the countryside to live and work in towns and cities after the Enclosure Acts of 1700-1801, mainly due to the abolition of the open field system of agriculture, and also the growing appeal of better-paying work in the nascent new industries. Although Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, published in 1908, evocatively helped to bring water rats back into the limelight as the beloved Ratty, some people must have assumed he was a brown rat, which can also swim excellently:

‘As he sat on the grass and looked across the river, a dark hole in the bank opposite, just above the water’s edge, caught his eye, and dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make for an animal with few wants and fond of a bijou riverside residence, above flood level and remote from noise and dust. As he gazed, something bright and small seemed to twinkle down in the heart of it, vanished, then twinkled once more like a tiny star. But it could hardly be a star in such an unlikely situation; and it was too glittering and small for a glow-worm. Then, as he looked, it winked at him, and so declared itself to be an eye; and a small face began gradually to grow up round it, like a frame round a picture. A brown little face with whiskers. A grave round face, with the same twinkle in its eye that had first attracted his notice. Small neat ears and thick silky hair. It was the Water Rat!

I have watched a water vole nimbly climbing along a willow branch to gnaw through branchlets, clutched in those dexterous hands, and have had to stifle a giggle as he loses balance and falls in, with an undignified splash. It felt like watching a scene from the book.
Even now water voles are still mistaken for the similarly sized rat. In Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights (2020), there is a story about a group of strangers clustered in a bird hide, and the embarrassment that fills the place when one of the men there confidently identifies an obvious rat as a water vole, and everybody else is too polite to correct him. There are easy ways to avoid this confusion: a water vole’s ears are almost hidden, not upright like a brown rat’s, and the muzzle is blunt, whereas a rat’s face is pointed.

A brown rat (Rattus norvegicus) for comparison

I have spoken to people of my generation, aged sixty or older, who look at me in astonishment, saying they have never heard of a water vole, or a water rat. I have also met people in their twenties and thirties, who have heard of water voles being at threat of extinction, but don’t know what they look like. Occasionally I have been given a quizzical look when I say ‘I’m looking for a water vole’, in response to a query, and they respond with: “A waterfall?” For a long time, I thought that it was my tendency to be softly spoken until Tom Moorhouse mentioned similar conversations in his brilliant 2021 book, Elegy for a River. All this inspired the creation of our website,  to help raise their profile nationally, along with a quick guide film.
In Glasgow, there is a population of land-dwelling (fossorial) water voles, some of which have black fur. They were discovered in 2008 by people living in nearby flats, who inevitably initially mistook them for rats. To have grassland water voles (they are not a separate species, or even subspecies) that are living a considerable distance away from water, and furthermore adjoining a busy motorway, is very unusual and rarely recorded anywhere else in the UK – although in some parts of mainland Europe they are so well known they are regarded as an agricultural pest because of their burrowing of farmland.
I feel privileged to still have water vole kin in some local villages. The latest population estimate for water voles, published in the Mammal Society’s Red List of British Mammals (2020) was 132,000 in Great Britain. This can be broken down as 77,200 estimated in England, 50,000 in Scotland, and 4,500 in Wales. They were formerly widespread and common across England, Scotland and Wales, ranging from Cornwall to the extreme north-east of Scotland, with an estimated population in 1900 of around eight million. But between 1970 and 2000, they underwent one of the most serious and catastrophic declines of any species in the UK. They are still widespread, but patchy. In the UK, sadly, the water vole is on the IUCN’s Red List as a threatened species, along with the hedgehog.
Taking Cornwall (where they became extinct in the 1990s) as a snapshot of the pattern of water vole decline across the UK, the major factors were habitat loss due to intensification of farming practices during the Second World War, such as drainage of wetlands, habitat degradation and fragmentation. Residential developments were and are often built too close to water courses; there is an increasing awareness of the harm caused by cat and dog disturbance, which although often non-lethal can lead voles to abandon an area.
Another primary cause is the introduced American mink; a breeding female is small enough to enter a vole’s burrow and will wipe out an entire colony in one breeding season. In contrast, native predators with whom voles have evolved, such as fox, otter, stoat, weasel, brown rat, owls, herons and pike, prey on them without causing serious decline. In the Scottish Highlands, even golden eagles will eat water voles.
But since 2001, Devon-based rewilder Derek Gow, who is noted for his work in reintroducing the beaver to Britain, has also been rearing captive bred water voles for release projects – up to 30,000 to date. Impressive, vital work! Beaver reintroductions help water voles to thrive, as they are crucial wetland ecosystem engineers who create ponds with interconnecting channels that voles can inhabit. In 2013, water voles were reintroduced to Bude in Cornwall (where the last 1990s sightings were made), and are slowly expanding their range, with some recent sightings near Maer Lake. Recently, Kernow Conservation’s water vole project raised enough funds to reintroduce more of them to Cornwall, which makes their future bright. They have also been reintroduced to Millais’ Hogsmill.

All water voles ask us to do is to provide habitat that will give them plenty of food and cover from their many predators, to enable them to populate territories and strengthen the gene pool. They need extensive wetland reed-beds where they weave rugby ball-sized nests made of reeds, or lakes and waterways with slow flowing water and steep earthen banks to make their burrows. If we provide wide buffer zones with lush riparian bankside vegetation, fringed with emergent rushes, sedges or reeds, they can return to these habitats and thrive. Water voles are not fussy eaters, and are known to eat 207 species of plant – but they do need a lot. They need to eat around 80% of their body weight in food each day, and a breeding female needs double that amount.
Water vole reintroduction projects are hugely important, because, as research by Rosalind L Bryce at the University of Aberdeen revealed, water voles are vital ecosystem engineers. Waterways with species-rich plant communities were found to have higher numbers of water voles. Their network of excavated tunnels helps move nutrients around, bringing some to the surface needed for specific plants to grow, including dormant seed. Their latrines are nutrient-rich, too. The burrows, lawn-making around them and felling of tall plants along runs, beneficially shape the ecosystem where they live.

Wetlands without water voles (and beavers) are bereft of biodiversity – and of beauty, and charm. They cannot come back soon enough, to help reverse the UK’s shameful position as one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. I hope soon to see them busily engaged in ecosystem engineering – and lifting spirits in this exquisite web of life – along everyones waterways.

Seas within seas

Bucentaur at the Molo, Ascension Day, by Giovanni Antonio Canal (Canaletto)

History of the Adriatic: A Sea and its Civilization

Egidio Ivetic, Cambridge: Polity, 2022, hb., 352 pps, £25

DEREK TURNER wallows in warm world-historical waters

The Mediterranean flows always through European awareness, Homer’s ‘wine-dark-sea’ and the Romans’ Mare Nostrum becoming ‘Our Sea’ too by ancient immersion. But within the world-historical susurrations of those waves can be heard the sounds of smaller waters, whole seas within seas. University of Padua historian Egidio Ivetic draws attentions to the oddly-overlooked Adriatic, a more intimate body of aqua but one with its own identity and importance, which he calls ‘the Mediterranean of the Mediterranean.’

As well as academic insights, Ivetic has personal connections around these shores, criss-crossed the Adriatic frequently while working on ships, and evinces unflagging interest in everything from sixth-century BC amphorae to twenty-first century ephemera. His book is not lushly impressionistic in the style of many northern European writers, but it is deeply affectionate, and his subject intrinsically poetic. It is not free from ‘academese’, but it is vastly informative, helping fill a surprisingly blank space in the expanding area of thalassography – the history of seas, as opposed to history in or on seas.

The Adriatic was historically considered a discrete region of the Mediterranean, a third branch that was neither the Levant (east) nor the Ponent (west). It was where the Latin West encountered the Orthodox East and later Islam, and where numerous empires had their farthest frontiers – the Carolingian, the Byzantine, the Holy Roman, the Hapsburg, the Ottoman, and the Napoleonic. It was strategic too to the Spanish crown, and always a corridor of concern to Popes, especially after the fall of Constantinople allowed the Turks to subjugate much of the Balkans. The area was both recognizably European and exotically Near Eastern; Saracens captured Bari as early as 847, into the 1920s camel caravans travelled as far west as Sarajevo, and Al Jazeera broadcasts in Bosnian-Croat-Serb. Albania, Croatia, Italy, Montenegro and Slovenia are the latest manifestations of infinitely older identities, rooted in both reality and romance. Bosnia-Herzegovina is also Adriatic although it does not have a coastline, because whatever transpired on the sea always made ripples far inland.

Reliable counter-clockwise currents, and the narrowness of the gulf, impelled Archaic then Classical Greeks northwards along the eastern shores then all the way back down the western ones, founding colonies and making myths as they came, alternately encountering transhumant pastoralists or sophisticated Etruscans, Gauls, and Italics.

Many Greek colonies became fought-for Roman provinces and towns – Hannibal prevailed at Cannae (Barletta), and Caesar’s Rubicon flows north of Rimini – then Avar, Frank, Hun and Ostrogoth conquests – and eventually celebrated market- and meeting-places. The twin-sailed bragozzi of fishermen timelessly ploughed the liquid plain between passing triremes, dromons, galleys, cogs and galleons and countless other craft of ambassadors, bishops, corsairs, crusaders, dukes, kings, mercenaries, merchants and pilgrims – constant interchanges often exploding in conflict.

Ancona, Apulia, Brindisi, Calabria, Dalmatia, Epirus, Istria, Picenum, Ragusa, Ravenna, San Marino, Trieste, Urbino, Venice… The names sound down centuries, magnetizing today’s tourists as they magnetized Greeks, Tudor Englishmen (Twelfth Night was set in Illyria), or eighteenth-century Grand Tourists. Later wanderers too were entranced – James Joyce, who decamped to Trieste in 1904, Gabriele D’Annunzio, the flamboyant future Fascist who took Fiume in 1919, or Lawrence Durrell, who joyfully swapped 1930s Bournemouth for balmier Corfu (where Alcinous hosted Odysseus).

Not all who live around the Adriatic have been sailorly, but Venice by herself made up for any regional maritime deficit. Centuries of daring, enterprise and ruthlessness are symbolized by the annual ceremony of ‘Marriage to the Sea’, when the city’s mayor is rowed out into the lagoon to do what Doges did – drop a consecrated ring into the water while intoning ‘Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini’ (‘We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination’). Venice’s Arsenal was probably the largest manufacturing facility in the pre-industrial world, experimenting with secret weapons and turning out ships on something resembling an assembly-line. When Napoleon’s troops took the Most Serene Republic in 1797, it was the shocking end of over 1,100 years of independent existence, but perpetuated the modern legend of the unique ‘Mistress of the Adriatic,’ the enigmatic, imperilled dream-city of commerce and Carnival.

Over the ensuing two centuries, the Adriatic was gradually “transformed from place to geography”, increasingly lined by new nation-states with ‘rational’ constitutions and industries, plied by steamships and overflown by aircraft, studied by scientists, and treated thematically by historians. The old empires imploded, buffeted by ethnic and liberal rebellions, then 1914-18, but leaving vestiges of vassalages that ultimately made Yugoslavia unviable, and still envenom regional relations.

Since the 1990s, bureaucrats have presented the fabled Adriatic as bathetic ‘Euroregion,’ an allegedly integrable socioeconomic zone suited to mass tourism and ‘multicultural’ connections, which perspective brings problems of its own. Ivetic applauds attempts at cooperation, but knows the Homo Adriaticus foreseen by certain fond theorists has yet to be born.For now, at least, he concludes shrewdly, ‘the Adriatic is first and foremost history.’

This review first appeared in issue 31 of Bournbrook Magazine ( and is reproduced with permission

Fifty years of Exile on Main Street

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a basement-born, band-defining album

According to most accounts of the genesis of the Rolling Stones’ iconic album Exile on Main Street, there was a richly symbolic moment early in the recording process.

One of the group’s satellite members, in most versions the pianist Nicky Hopkins, reported for duty in the Stygian bunker-studio in the south of France where the Stones found themselves in the summer months of 1971, along with an extended cast of friends, hangers-on and others of a more narrowly entrepreneurial mien, perhaps most prominently the great country-rock pioneer and one-man cocaine industry Gram Parsons, who was eventually evicted for having come to assume he was a de facto member of the band.

More specifically they were in the cellar of Keith Richards’s rented house named Villa Nellcote, which stood perched on a clifftop overlooking the sparkling Cap Ferrat. The other Stones – Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor – were similarly domiciled, in varying degrees of luxury, with no immediate plans to return to their native land, hence the evocative eventual title of their new album.

To this day some disparity exists as to the reasons for their French sojourn. Keith himself insists that it was the logical result of a vindictive British ‘establishment’ campaign to rid itself of the Stones, while others saw it as a prosaic reaction to certain more material matters concerning the Inland Revenue. During the winter of 1970-71, the group’s newly appointed financial adviser, the portly, Mozart-loving Prince Rupert Loewenstein of the bankers Leopold Joseph, had hammered out a deal whereby the Stones would collectively spend between £150,000 and £200,000, or roughly £3 million in today’s money, each year of their chosen exile, and that the French government in return would waive any claim it might have to tax the band’s corporate earnings. So much for the anarchic spirit of rock and roll.

Anyway, working on the basis that it was easier to bring the band and its accessories to Keith Richards than it was to ask Keith to assume the vertical position long enough to report to a commercial studio, everyone went downstairs into the Nellcote cellar and plugged in their instruments, leaving Exile to become the greatest and most profitable record ever to emerge from a basement. And it was in this grim, chthonian spot that Hopkins, or whomever it was, had his sudden moment of insight into the uniquely troubled history of his present working environment. ‘I looked around me that first night we were down there,’ this individual reported, ‘and there were actual swastikas carved on the walls. The place had been local Nazi headquarters during the war. Somehow that really set the tone for me.

It’s a good story, with an almost theatrical quality to it: as in a stylised Hollywood film, a young man stands gazing up at the symbol that brings a frisson midway between horror and a strange exhilaration at the task that lies ahead of him. Keith Richards’s own abiding memory of the recording sessions might be said to display something of the same spirit. ‘It was a sick scene, man’, he recalled.

The basic vibe was like Hitler’s bunker. It was about 110* down there, no air conditioning, sweat pouring off the walls, people crashed out, shirtless, out of their minds. Hazy blue light, crappy equipment, everyone zonked, and yet somehow out of this chaos came maybe the greatest moment in Stones history.

Again, there’s a sort of cinematic vividness to the scene. Rock music’s own Boris Karloff figure lurches around in the sinister old Nazi redoubt – a cell or even torture chamber of some sort, he later theorised – conducting his similarly dead-eyed accomplices through the most gloriously debauched weeks of even their career. It seems an almost churlish technicality to note that the Germans occupied that particular part of France only from May 1943 to June 1944, and that Nellcote itself remained in private hands throughout the war, or that, for all the undoubted privations of the subterranean workplace, the estate itself was one of the loveliest on that stretch of the Riviera, with spacious formal salons decorated with antique brocade chairs, their floors inlaid with purple and white tile, and white silk curtains flowing from the windows, which offered a commanding view of hills almost obscenely bright with bougainvillea. But, anyway, there you have the enduring and pervasive legend of Exile‘s birthplace – a grim Nazi dungeon bathed in candlelight.

Even so, we can perhaps take Keith’s point. The album we know as Exile on Main Street, then going by the somehow fitting working title of ‘Tropical Disease’, was largely recorded by distinctly low-fi means, at the home of a musician then as legendary for his chemical intake as for his songwriting, in the last non-air-conditioned studio the Stones would ever inhabit, where the group sat around in their underwear bathed in a ghastly grotto-blue light, keeping their customary vampiric hours, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the work that ensued tended to be a bit on the dark and sludgy side as a result.

In fact, many of Exile’s best tracks worked in close connection with the chaotic and increasingly paranoid atmosphere at Nellcote, which the local police, alerted by the nightly arrival there of men in dark suits wearing sunglasses with briefcases chained to their wrists, kept under constant supervision that hot Riviera summer. ‘Rip this Joint’, to give one example, was comfortably the fastest thing the Stones had ever recorded, sounding as if they were in a collective race to finish it before the gendarmes kicked down the door. Sometimes it seemed the band were happy even to live with their mistakes, such as that heard in the guitar intro to ‘All Down the Line’, which was shrill, nutty and out of tune – if also perfect for the song. By the time it came to ‘Casino Boogie’, Keith himself once informed me, ‘Jagger and I had run ourselves ragged’ and resorted to William Burroughs’s cut-up technique for the lyrics, which perhaps helps explain lines like: ‘Sky diver inside her, skip rope, stunt flyer/wounded lover, got no time on hand.’ Friends could almost hear the banished Gram Parsons on the countryfied ‘Sweet Virginia’, like a musical phantom limb after an amputation. Likewise, ‘Soul Survivor’ seethed with subversive energy and a riff that lingered long after it was over. According to Keith’s inamorata Anita Pallenberg, the final part of Exile was recorded with power diverted from the French railway system. Mostly, though, it drew its electrical charge from an interior source, the tension between Jagger and Richards.

Apart from the central issue of drugs (Keith enthusiastically pro, Mick broadly anti), the Stones’s venerable songwriting firm faced a number of other creative and logistical challenges during the making of Exile. Agreeing to work in one of their own homes was no guarantee that the band members would actually all be present at the same time. Jagger particularly disliked the communal vibe – ‘you didn’t know whether you [were] recording or having dinner’, he later complained – and he also had his heavily pregnant and vocally unhappy wife, the former Bianca Perez-Mora Macias, to consider. Before long, Bianca decamped to Paris, effectively forcing Mick to commute across France for the remaining sessions. More than once, she threatened to leave him for good. The band sometimes called her ‘Bianca the Wanker’ behind her back. The drummer Charlie Watts was his normal congenial self, but his rhythm-section partner Bill Wyman was unhappy both about money and being forced to leave England in the first place (‘You’re getting up my nose’, Keith would remark to his lugubrious colleague, if so by no means the only substance to do so), although Wyman would at least go on to find that the Riviera was the ideal spot to indulge his hobby of photographing topless women. More than once, Bill sat in a boat anchored off the nude beach at St Tropez, aiming his camera at the obliging sunbathers, although often even this mild ruse wasn’t necessary. According to the journalist Robert Greenfield, who visited the Stones in exile, Wyman would ‘simply ask the most attractive woman at the dinner table to slip in to another room for a moment and remove her blouse so he could snap a quick photo to add to his collection.’

Mick Jagger for his part had now exchanged cheek for chic, dressing like a Frenchman in a beret and tight suede maxicoat, also the subject of some in-house chafing around Nellcote in his absence. His sometime host Keith was meanwhile living up, or down, to his most gloriously debauched 1970s rock star image. By the autumn Nellcote was beset on every front. The local flics were making their interest in the house and its hollow-eyed tenants more obvious by the day. Burglars walked in one morning while everyone was sleeping off the previous night’s session and walked out again with most of Richards’s prize guitars. The resident cook somehow managed to blow the kitchen up. The men in sunglasses began dropping by with generous offerings of what the musicians called ‘cotton candy’, otherwise known as pure Thai heroin. A stoned Anita duly set her and Keith’s bed on fire. One of the band’s chauffeurs broke down the door to find them lying there, comatose, with the mattress in flames all around them. ‘A wake-up call,’ Keith later ruefully admitted, in every sense of the term.

Shortly after that, Jagger, Richards and their immediate families and entourage deemed it expedient to catch a midnight flight from Nice to Paris, and then on to Los Angeles, where in time they were joined by the rest of the band. In their haste to decamp, they abandoned most of Keith’s sizable record collection, his two boats, and his E-type Jaguar. Some doubt exists about the exact nature of the mass breakout. In one version, the French authorities had let, perhaps even invited, Keith to leave the country on condition that he continue to rent the house while abroad, as proof that he meant to return. In another popular account, the local force was unaware that its wrecked-looking prey had moved on. In either case, neither Richards nor anyone else in the Stones would ever see Nellcote again.

Exactly two weeks later, on 14 December 1971, a squad of twelve policemen rammed open the gate and poured in to Nellcote through the doors and windows. According to published reports, they turned up enough heroin, coke and hash to throw the book at the home’s principal tenant. A maid told them that everybody had suddenly left one night, taking their mysterious cannisters of tape with them. A year later, a court in Nice charged Richards and Pallenberg with possession, tried them in absentia, and imposed a sizable fine.

Mick, Keith and the technicians spent most of the winter of 1971-72 at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, turning ‘Tropical Disease’ into Exile on Main Street. The album may have had an underlying note of film-noir in its conception, but it still got its Hollywood ending. Horns and washes of pop-blues hollering would flesh out tracks like the ever-popular ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Shine a Light’ got the full gospel-organ treatment, while ‘Let it Loose’ was subjected to a week-long revision by the Stones’ friend Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, and a soul-sister chorus. Bill Wyman wanted nothing to do with any overdubbing, and would appear on only eight of Exile’s eighteen finished tracks. In his absence, the Indo-jazz pioneer Bill Plummer came in to play upright bass. ‘The Stones weren’t exactly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’, Plummer later confirmed.

There was a lot of lubricating going on, and of course it’s always a thrill to be asked to play on a song called “Turd on the Run”. But they also knew exactly what they wanted. I did four tracks in about four hours, shook everyone’s hand, went home. There was a big crowd at the back door, I remember, and people were worried it was the Hell’s Angels. Mick and Keith were being hassled by them.

Plummer’s rollicking bass helped make Exile a major hit in Britain, the US and twenty-four other markets. He was paid his standard session fee of $125, or about $2000 in today’s money. Thirty years later, someone in the Stones organisation thought to send him a commemorative gold disc, which arrived snapped in half in the mail.

Wrapped in an arresting cover designed by the Swiss filmmaker Robert Frank showing a collage of circus performers and freaks, Exile on Main Street was released on the world in May 1972. The album’s legacy would loom large over both the Stones legend and the whole subsequent history of rock and roll, ushering in several decades’ worth of lo-fi tributes and parodies. It did a brisk enough business, if judged a failure by some of the reviewers – one of those ‘honourable’ failures, however, that rather endear a band to its critics, who noted that among other flaws the record sounded a touch murky, a discordant note coming at a time when studio technology was already aiming for the crisp, digitally-sharp result we expect of our music today. Although time has been kind to Exile, now one of those official classic-rock double albums, like Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, whose reputation ought to be sealed up in an eternal amber of chart and sales statistics, it initially flummoxed some of the same sages who had flocked to its more accessible predecessor Sticky Fingers, and who were left scratching their heads, not nodding them.

Writing in Rolling Stone, the journalist and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye said, ‘There are songs that are better, songs that are worse, there are songs that will become your favorites and others you’ll probably lift the needle for when their time is due … You can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past.’

Other critical assessments were that Exile was an ‘hour of bluesy clatter’, sounding  as if ‘recorded down a pit’ (not far off the mark), with an ‘overall vibe [like] a gang-fight inside a rusty trash-can’, while some of the era’s moral guardians, among them the venerable Mary Whitehouse of the UK’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, had more specific reservations about the likes of ‘Turd on the Run’, or for that matter the jaunty chorus of ‘Sweet Virginia’ which remarked on the need, in reference to low-grade heroin, to ‘scrape that shit right off your shoes.’ The album itself was a summer number one and spent six months on the chart before returning to the top on its re-release thirty-eight years later. You could do worse than listen to the song ‘Loving Cup’ as a brief taster of the insinuatingly loose-limbed feel of the record as a whole. Sticky Fingers may have been more organic, it’s true, but Exile was a flawed, sprawling masterpiece, and the last great extreme work the Stones have ever done.


An older New Romantic

RICHARD DOVE drops back into the Eighties with one of the era’s great singers

Anthony Patrick Hadley has an MBE and a voice from the Gods. He has forged a forty-year career in the skittish world of pop music and, by last night’s (5 May) showing, is still going strong.

At Folkestone’s Leas Cliff Hall, there is a large audience of a certain era. Some ladies have gone to a lot of trouble with fresh hair dos and posh outfits. They want to see their Tony. He has always sung ‘True’ and ‘Gold” just for them. He greets seemingly everyone from the stalls to the upper tier as he arrives on stage with a band who are clearly long term mates. He has an easy charm and a sharp suit. And then the voice. He opens with some 1976 Chuck Berry rock n roll and we are off on a journey through his career. It is now a stretch to see this burly 61-years old as a pioneer of the New Romantics. 

After plentiful name changes, Hadley co-founded Spandau Ballet in 1976. They had the image of rather effete posh boys from the start and their first single ‘To Cut a Long Story Short’ reached number five in the pop charts. 

Tony took us back to the days when just 18 years old he would regularly attend gigs at the legendary Hope & Anchor pub in Islington. He told us of his enduring love for The Damned and, blimey, launched into ‘New Rose’.  The New Romantic plays Punk. For tribal, obsessive NME readers this would have been unthinkable in those heady days but at this place and at this time it just seemed right. This man has been around and experienced extraordinary triumphs and setbacks. 

He follows this with ‘Confused’, a punk song sung like Spandau, he explains. His seven piece band have hit their stride with flamboyant percussion matched by understated guitar and keyboard flourishes.  Tony keeps us entertained between songs with vignettes from his career. He tells us his first solo album, with LA musicians, was a “massive mistake”.  He wanted to emulate Jon Bon Jovi and John Mellencamp by growing his hair long and pouring himself into Spandex. It did not work and the sharp suit triumphed. However, he did deliver a song from the album ‘State of Play’, which clearly resonated with many in the audience. A new song, ‘Because of You’, recorded during lockdown has the potential to become a new Hadley classic. But when would we get to ‘True’ and ‘Gold’? 

We had a gentle interlude perched on stools with a Jim Croce song and even some jazz as he recalled a gig at Ronnie Scott’s in Birmingham. He told us of his love for Frank Sinatra, Jack Jones and Ella Fitzgerald.  

Many in the audience were shouting ‘Gold’ but he kept us waiting with a bit of Sinatra and then the piano struck up a familiar riff and we were singing.  “Huh huh huh hu-uh huh.  I know this much is true.” We all sailed back close on forty years – Top of the Pops with T. Blackburn presiding.

Tony told us he last played the Leas Cliff Hall around twenty years ago. Let’s hope he is back soon as the dancing in the aisles got a little more frenzied. We had all been transported back and forwards across a momentous career. Cheers, Tony. 

Four poems by Clarence Caddell

CLARENCE CADDELL lives with his wife and three children in western Victoria, Australia, where he works as a high school English and humanities teacher, and writes in spare time he doesn’t have. His first collection of poems, The True Gods Attend You, will be published by Bonfire books in 2022. 

Note. The first two poems are situated in the universe of gnostic Christology. The first explores the notion, found in The Second Treatise of the Great Seth, that Simon of Cyrene, who carried the cross for Jesus, was actually crucified in his stead while the Christ spirit watched in amusement from on high. The second, inspired by The Gospel of Judas, contrasts the materialistic consciousness of the other disciples with the superior understanding shown by Judas, who is represented as Jesus’ only faithful follower and receiver of his highest teachings.

I. Vicar of Christ

Fulfilment’s plenitude, the dénouement

Of life’s afflictions—how can one not crave it?

The Easter feast that ends those weeks of Lent,

Of joy postponed in order then to have it,

And more abundantly! What we deplore

Leads on to joy, as if thus to redeem

The one who died therein. The soldiers saw

The man beneath his cross stumble, or seem

To do so; therefore, with true man replaced

Deceptive God. The spark cannot have been

Within that unknown Simon of Cyrene,

Or else it came through his ordeal ungrazed

And rose in glory to the left-hand side

Of him who laughed as Sakla’s creature died.

II. Generations

Some only care for action—mystery

   They like, but wish to see resolved before

The light comes on and all’s decoded.

   Such stories have their law,

Broken sometimes just to be reinvented.

   They’re thrilled by an exciting murder plot,

Don’t see its flaws. Perhaps they envy

   The hero what he’s got,

And wish him dead, if not picture themselves

   His love-interest (or both, as might a few!).

But when it comes to horror, surely

   They would not wish it true!

In fact, some are ambitious to be burnt

   And flayed for their opinion of the dead,

While dreaming of the Day when others

   Shall suffer in their stead!—

Vicarious atonement! Make me laugh.

   But it grows egregoric, their belief

In tales the most permanent of which are

   Often, lengthwise, most brief.

True stories they like best (as if a thing

   That’s happened in this world were true at all!)

Confused, they look to good’s exemplar

   To render evil’s fall,

But should they fail to misidentify

   The two, black knight and white in that romance

Of many versions—check their eyesight,

   Then lay the blame on chance.

Both absolutes and shades are so opaque

   To them, that all are manifest before

Their opalescent eyes as shadows

   They feel as if they could paw.

A perfect audience, willing to suspend

   All disbelief in all absurdity—

But not so ideal on a jury,

   As their God would agree!

But there are those like us who, in our hearts

   Possess the answering light to recognise

The figure understood by Judas,

    Unseen by mundane eyes.

I. Passover Feasts of the New Covenant

Note. These next two poems engage with some intriguing parallels between Josephus’ account of the siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD and parts of the Gospels and traditions of the early Church. The first is set during the siege when the rebels are going from house to house requisitioning whatever scraps of food they can find. A woman named Mary, driven to insanity by hunger, has turned her infant son into a human Passover lamb (one of only two in the whole of literature, according to Joseph Atwill). In the second, a Jewish rebel leader named Simon plays a part that can be read as a parody of the Apostle Simon Peter’s career. After Jerusalem’s fall, having tried to escape by tunnelling beneath the ruined temple, he is caught, taken to Rome and crucified.

A pair of lambs, each of them Mary’s son;

The second, not the world-upending one

We think of first, was born in time to see,

Not understand, the truth of prophecy!

He was to be a byword till the end,

His mother said. Nothing would ever mend

For her, except, for now, the pain of hunger.

Take what you will! She cried and no doubt flung her

Compliments on their heels as they backed out,

Those demoniac rebels put to rout

Along with Moses’ Law and Abraham’s

Old Covenant by the power of these two lambs,

The younger surely side-by-side with Jesus,

Who’d warned: To Caesar render what is Caesar’s.

Then which did Mary mean, or Joseph muse

Would seal up the calamities of the Jews?

II. The Other Peter

Simon the cutthroat—you had sought to hide

In stolen robes here where no stone’s liaison

With stone remains. Were you not petrified,

Impersonating high priest and stonemason?

Obdurate as stone, in history’s next minute

Buried beneath an unknown myth’s foundation,

You’d sought to carve out on the earth, then in it,

While stones were crying out that here he comes,

This son of man, and, as they soon would spin it,

Of God, a god himself—a place where Rome’s

Dominion would end. But it was lysed,

Your empery of messianic coxcombs,

And unlike him who would be canonised

Despite denying three times his own master,

Your own post-mortem shadow would be life-sized,

Your master not denied, and Rome would cast her

Anchor, dolphin wrapped, where ebb and flow

Would not dislodge, though Goths and Vandals blast her.

Hands bound to Caesar’s chariot, in tow,

Who lived by the sword but had not sense to die

By it, dragged where you had no wish to go!

And this would take place so that prophecy

Might be fulfilled, the city’s inanition

Avenged and, as at the lake of Galilee

Where your namesake was wont to do his fishing,

Might come to rule the Holy Trinity:

Vespasian, then Titus, then Domitian.

The Salad Course, and The Hottest Ticket

P & J Poetics, LLC, published MIKE ALEXANDER’s first full-length collection, RETROgrade, in 2013. His most recent chapbook, We Internet in Different Voices (Modern Metrics), was released by EXOT books. His poems have appeared in Rattle, River Styx, Borderlands, Bateau, Abridged, Measure, Shit Creek Review, Raintown Review & other journals.

The Salad Course

Single-handed, Don Miguel clears the dinner table,

sets his papers in order. The lone inkpot covers

where his wine spilled.

            Fragments of a telling

grind in his mill, like giants in a bad novel.

Start where real people start:

                        An olla rather more beef

than mutton, a salad on most nights,

the scratching of the ink, all the missing…

There’s an aftertaste left on his tongue.

The failed Crusades.

                                    Pirates, all the king’s

enemies, the king, all sit down to the same slop,

scraps on Saturdays, lentils on Fridays,

a pigeon or so extra on Sundays,

lunatics, all, but the heroes are the worst.

Let there be Victories, but food comes first.

Gustave, striving to put all that pretty style aside,

lingers in the shadow of a bistro, studying

how others eat, keeps inventory:

making his way across fields, drinking

milk at farms, dancing with village girls,

finding out about the harvests, carrying back

stalks of greenery in his handkerchief.

                                                Jots down:

handing a lady his handkerchief, like some

gallant in an insipid romance.

                                    While the courses

followed, poule au jus, crawfish, mushrooms,

vegetables tossed in a salad, roasted larks,

many subjects were discussed: the best system

of taxes, agricultural advances, abolition of

the death penalty –

            Let the killing begin.

The Don, having finished off his meager repas,

dons his chamber pot casquette, retrieves

his antique lance from the mantelpiece –

& at length, salutes a damsel,

                                    whose breadth,

which no doubt smelt of yesterday’s salad,

seemed to him to diffuse an aromatic fragrance.

Many scratchings later, the Captive recounts

how he had asked for some herbs to make a salad.

Then, he affected his escape.

                                    By such affectations,

we digest the meat of our daily ergot.

In his Dictionary of Received Notions, Gustave

defines an émigré as one who makes a living

giving guitar lessons or by making salad.

Emma, undressing, adds the dressing.

The Hottest Ticket


          in the tophat

topcoat centuries   it was

the thing        to take

the ladies          to the Specola

to see

what they were made of         the body

parts   the kitchen bones    utensils   condiments

essences     the muscle mass

                       after the glass eyed

hair suits    of mammalian strata

the fish the flesh the foul        remainders

from tape worm to madonna with child

dissected twelve ways to Sunday;

                         bring the smelling salts.


                       if she survives

the nerve net                       offal truth

blood batter                       embrace of the body

corridors of display cases                        latinate names

                       there is one

more test                       of your lady’s heart

in the last room                       (just as she thinks

you are going                        to collect her wrap;)

                       the last room

forces her to look                       on homunculi of dead

mothers with children                        of the plague

(we are civilized                        enough to think it

                       a colossal joke,

that the anonymous                       die in such numbers)

refuse heaps blanched                        white with lime,

pockets full of poesy.                       The dead, the dying

                       litter the streets like

a plague of locust-husks,             while the angel

of waxwork swings                       his palette knife

through foetid air.                                 The artist

                       follows stories

of the outbreak spreading                       through all the cities

of Cartesian Europe                       to see first-hand, to show

the blotches, the scars,                       the tell-tale signature.

On First Concert at the Bradley Symphony Center, Milwaukee

JACOB RIYEFF (@riyeff) is a translator, teacher, and poet. His work focuses on the Western contemplative tradition and the natural world. Jacob lives in the Upper Midwestern U.S. with his wife and three growing children.

”A man’s attitude to life.” (Feb 20, 2022)

O Edward Elgar, did you see our faces
rapt in darkness, hearts attuned to your cello
As you lay upon your deathbed, traces
Of joy accompanying the low and mellow
Tones the strings invite our ears to hear
Amid glissando runs to keep the mind
And body clear? You cursed its weak premiere
But here a hundred years past you find
A willing crowd to celebrate your movements
As you lay in Worcester gasping for air‚
From lyric to rondo, fulfillment
In sonic pattern, virtuosic fare.
Could you see, in your final agony,
Our festival of superfluity?