Slaughter Commissions: Crime Films and the Italian Crisis

Mario Imperoli’s 1976 film Like Rabid Dogs opens with a brutal armed robbery that takes place in the bowels of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico in the middle of a football match. The footage used to frame this scene is taken from a real game: the ‘76 play-off between Lazio and Sampdoria, a relegation fixture that ended in a 1-1 draw. As the film historian Fabio Mehelli noted in a recent interview about the movie, this was the first Italian football match to be patrolled by police with German shepherd dogs, largely due to the fear of hostile pitch invasions by rival fans. On the field that day was Lazio centre Luciano Re Cecconi, who would be shot dead one year later by the owner of a jewellery store in Rome, a victim of “the same violence we see in the movie,” as Mehelli puts it. Re Cecconi’s blonde mop is briefly captured on film, as are the police dogs circling the perimeter of the stadium, and with these details on screen the immediacy of the moment becomes palpable. Reality and fiction overlap, as Imperoli disrupts the boundaries that normally separate them: you can feel a sense of febrile tension and arbitrary violence burning off the screen as the football match and robbery progress. To add to this overlap, Imperoli’s story of three rich middle class students who get their kicks from robbery, rape and murder echoes a case that had shocked Italy the year before the film was made; the lurid nature of these crimes is reflected in the gratuitous set pieces and sleazy atmosphere of the film itself. Like Rabid Dogs is the product of an imploding society; it depicts it, represents it and is part of it. 

Due to budgetary limitations and aesthetic choices the Italian poliziotteschi movies of the 1970s have a closer proximity to period reality than most genre movies made before or since. The recent Arrow box set Years of Lead — which includes a pristine restoration of Like Rabid Dogs — makes this explicit by directly linking five disparate crime movies to the crisis of the First Republic that opened with the Hot Autumn of 1969 and climaxed with the murder of Aldo Moro. This linkage is completely appropriate and it is also smart marketing. Not only are these films intensely parochial, they are also raw expressions of national dislocation, anxiety and violence; this is their strength and the reason for their enduring appeal. In an essay commissioned by Arrow, Troy Howarth roots the poliziotteschi in the 1960s crime films of Carlo Lizzani, a former assistant to Roberto Rossellini, and while the links between the poliziotteschi and neorealism are not obvious or even defining, they do share certain practical techniques and aesthetic sensibilities that enhance this overlap between fiction and reality. The appropriation of real football footage by Imperoli is one example of this, and the habit of filming car chases without permission in the middle of live traffic in large Italian cities is another: Like Rabid Dogs is filled with spectacular and completely illegal chases, partly because Imperoli was able to hire one of the top specialist stunt drivers working in Italy at the time, Sergio Mioni. In the same year, Ruggero Deodato also shot an infamous chase sequence in the middle of the Roman rush hour for his own poliziotteschi Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man; to do this he had to film quickly and recklessly before the carabinieri could mobilise and shut down his operation, but the result was visceral and unhinged, crackling with real danger and adrenaline. Like Lizzani, Deodato cut his teeth working as an assistant for Rossellini and he would later combine the tricks of neorealism with the excesses of the mondo documentary to explosive effect in Cannibal Holocaust. The blur between reality and fiction that Deodato perfected in these films and Imperoli exploited in Like Rabid Dogs was key to the success and impact of the poliziotteschi. As a result, you can still learn a lot about the death spiral of the First Republic by watching them. 

So, for example, Vittorio Salerno’s 1975 Savage Three takes some basic cues from A Clockwork Orange, as Imperoli does in Like Rabid Dogs, but both films strip away the literary pretensions and replace them with parochial concerns and pathologies. The location of Salerno’s movie is key: set in Turin, the city symbolises Italy’s industrial salvation and decline, from the Economic Miracle of the 1950s to the crisis of the 1970s. Turin always had this role, and all the major exhibitions held to commemorate the centenary of Italian unification in 1961 had taken place in the city of Fiat, an icon of the nation’s consumer and export boom. For the same reason, Fiat factories also saw the most important strikes of 1969 and Fiat’s middle managers became prime targets for terrorist kneecappings and assassinations throughout the 1970s. So the city also provided a symbol for Italian disunity — or, as Emilio Gentile described it, the fragility of the myth of the nation. Turin had been the first capital of Italy and unification had been led by the Piedmontese: their King became the King of Italy and their army imposed the laws and institutions of Piedmont on the rest of the country. The south, in particular, rebelled against ‘Piedmontization’ from the beginning and this historic resentment was exacerbated by mass immigration to the industrial north during the postwar boom: southern immigrants felt out of place and openly despised here, human cattle filling the factories of a northern oligarchy. So Turin — the historic capital of Italian unification and home of the largest company in Italy — was packed tight with highly combustible human material, its imperious and fading streets and piazzas providing a primary platform for slaughter. 

In Savage Three, Turin is the stage for an outburst of nihilistic violence perpetrated by a gang of three friends who work in technical jobs at a computer processing plant on the outskirts of the city; Ovidio Mainardi (Joe Dallesandro) is their unofficial leader and a slowly unravelling psychopath who instigates an escalating cycle of destruction. Pepe (Guido de Carle) is from the south and lives with his extended family in a cramped apartment; like the protagonists in Visconti’s Rocco and his Brothers he is dangerously alienated and adrift in this new urban environment, and like the Sicilians and Calabresi who joined the assembly lines of Fiat’s Mirafiori plant he is treated as a foreign imposter, mocked even by his friends. In fact, in Salerno’s movie, Turin is awash with anti-southern prejudice and racism: the extreme crimes the gang commit are immediately blamed on southern immigrants, even though only Pepe is a southerner and he is the least savage of the three. Southerners are considered an inferior and ethnically polluted race prone to irrational violence, an attitude hardwired into the city by one hundred years of codified racism. When the gang murder a pimp and a prostitute they leave their bodies prostrate and hanging from the scaffolding surrounding the Monumento al Conte Verde; the corpses are discovered by Inspector Santagà (Enrico Maria Salerno), a southerner demoted for violent conduct who describes the gruesome tableaux ironically to his northern colleague as “a defamation and offence to the sacred legacy of the nation”. Santagà is alert to the racism of his colleagues and their desperation to ascribe ideological motivations to the offenses: the crime wave is, for them, a result of an influx of violent aliens and the political disintegration of the nation. Santagà is shrewder than this and quickly sees the crimes for what they are: not the result of genetics or beliefs, but blank expressions of boredom, disaffection and alienation, common reactions to modern urban conditions taken to an extreme point. 

In Savage Three, Turin looks like a city that has been defeated: the football stadium, the streets and the buildings all visibly broken, exhausted, unclean, crumbling. This is not the Turin celebrated for its elegance and ceremony, but a 1970s urban sprawl which Salerno depicts as a human trap: citizens packed into tight living and working spaces that create the conditions for tension, intolerance and murder. And this is not just the city: everything looks depressed and drained, in line with the common visual tone of the poliziotteschi. In these films, the sky is invariably blank and grey, a featureless ceiling of drab cloud that creates a simultaneously flat and oppressive atmosphere; the saturated colours of the gialli and the seductive monochrome of neorealism are replaced by an ugly, washed-out tonal range of murky landscapes filled with broken down cars. The poliziotteschi city is a bleak, malignant place, where all human relations are negative and most human interactions are violent. Turin has unique divisions caused by southern immigration and its racist reaction, but the general malaise is shared across the country. Fernando di Leo’s Milan is not defined by beautiful arcades or the Duomo di Milano, but by rotting ghettos that run alongside the canals, grey rain-swept piazza tiles and warehouses where corpses wait a long time to be discovered. Umberto Lenzi’s Rome is not the Rome of romantic weekends and ancient ruins, but a dirty and congested labyrinth of squalid flats, dank alleys, damp staircases, bleak wasteland and scrappy tenement rooftops, settings for various acts of torture, rape and murder. Enzo G. Castellari’s Genoa is perhaps the most desperate of them all: a terrifying, feral, decadent city festering on the edge of the Ligurian sea, rotten with vice and corruption and collapsing in on itself like the face of a syphilitic. The fate of Italy’s cities in the 1970s is encapsulated by some of the most famous crime titles: Fernando di Leo’s Milano Calibro 9 (1972), Marino Girolami’s Violent Rome (1975), Lenzi’s Gang War in Milan (1973), Rome Armed to the Teeth (1976) and Violent Naples (1976). The cities are the focal point of Italy’s crisis: the piazzas and train stations are bombed and the banks are robbed, while criminal gangs and rogue policemen rule the streets and citizens are terrorised by random acts of slaughter. Perhaps the definitive Italian crime title is the one that Sergio Sollima gave his 1970 hit man melodrama Città violenta, even though that film is set in New Orleans. The cities are violent places that condition their inhabitants to commit more violence: an endless, animalistic cycle that Salerno depicts so well in Savage Three.

Lucio Fulci once declared that “violence is Italian art” and the art of the poliziotteschi is a very Italian aestheticization of violence. Even the ugliness has style. This is why these films always tread a fine line between exploitation and art, nihilism and responsibility. The films of Imperoli and Salerno are perfect examples of this: they can be hard to watch, but they are impossible to dismiss. The violence is extreme, but makes its point for this reason. The question of motive is always present — but it always remains a question without a satisfactory answer, or even an answer, and this is what makes these films products of the Italian crisis. In Savage Three, Santagà is the only one who realises that there is no reason behind the brutal acts instigated by Mainardi, that they are simply a result of the unnatural and damaging conditions of contemporary Turin. In Massimo Dallamano’s Colt 38 Special Squad (1976) the motivation for the crime is key, but also ambiguous. At first the operation planned by the Marseillaise (Ivan Rassimov) seems like a simple case of common theft, albeit conducted on a grand scale, but as Rachael Nisbet shrewdly points out in her accompanying essay to the Years of Lead presentation, there is something more sinister at work:

While the motivations of the common criminal are clear, the Marseillaise is a more complex individual; a man driven by a certain sense of madness and anarchic glee…his perverse sadism and disregard for life suggest that his actions are motivated by something far darker than the driving factors of vengeance and retribution…

Mainardi and the Marseillaise are similar in their psychopathic nihilism, but the Marseillaise’s plan is more gratuitously grandiose and cruel than the small and terminal spasm of violence unleashed by Mainardi. He wants to inflict a grievous wound on Turin and live to see it; the motivation of wealth does not adequately explain this instinct. This is more than simply a plot point, or an absence of one: it taps into the atmosphere of uncertainty that defined the atrocities of this period, and was never adequately resolved.

Italian political culture is so opaque, convoluted and secretive that when Henry Kissinger claimed that he did not understand Italian politics in the 1970s nobody thought he was joking. In 1988, the Italian state set up the Commissione Stragi (‘The Slaughter Commission’) tasked with uncovering the truth behind the bombings that occurred between 1969-88 and had been variously attributed to the Red Brigades, anarchists, neofascists and the CIA; predictably, it failed to remove the opacity of the period or provide any real psychological closure. The scenes of carnage that follow the bombings of Turin railway station and market in Colt 38 Special Squad stand out for their graphic brutality and emotional poignancy. Dallamano shot the film only four years after the Piazza Fontana bomb and these scenes pierce his own movie like unmediated expressions of national post-traumatic stress: the scenes are not shot for thrills, but carry a lot of psychological weight and evoke still raw memories. What can’t be answered in the film, and what could never be effectively answered in real life, is the reason for all of this destruction and cruelty: the Slaughter Commision could not solve it and Dallamano refuses to provide a neat conclusion in the character of the Marseillaise. The ambiguity of the violence and the veil that fell over the most extreme events that ripped through Italy in the 1970s are a central part of the poliziotteschi world view: if nobody can fully account for this violence, then perhaps it is simply endemic to the fragile and conflicted Italian nation, something that can never be solved. 

But Colt 38 Special Squad also fulfills another function common to these films: it provides a psychological outlet, a form of mass catharsis. The volatility and opacity of Italian society was increased by the growth of organised crime, black markets and corruption in a free falling economy. The Italian crime films give voice to the pervasive feeling that the Italian authorities had fallen behind the criminal gangs, even if they were not already hopelessly compromised by them. Fear and helplessness combined with anger; the films responded with bleak cynicism and tales of rough justice. Quite often the stories revolve around detectives or special units within the police force going rogue, using unorthodox and even illegal methods in order to catch or destroy criminal antagonists. The Special Squad in Dallamano’s film is put together to crush the crime wave that has tipped Turin into near anarchy; they are given licence to use Colt 38 revolvers and pursue their targets with freedom that stops short of murder, or is supposed to. It is only by going beyond the bounds of their authority that the Marseillaise is finally stopped. Deodato’s Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man depicts a two man ‘special unit’ who act outside the law in order to enforce the law, in this case with a cavalier brutality that outdoes some of the criminals, gleefully crossing numerous moral and ethical lines. Stelvio Massi’s 1977 Highway Racer (another film in the Arrow box) pays homage to Armando Spatafora, a member of Rome’s Squadra Mobile whose 1960s exploits were legendary; the exceptional car chases choreographed by Remy Julienne for Massi played on and added to this legend, even recreating the mythical day Spatafora chased a crook down the Spanish Steps of the Trinità dei Monti. In the film the young Squadra Mobile driver Marco Palma (Maurizio Merli) soups up a boxy Alfa Romeo and demands a Ferrari from his boss, the Spatafora doppelganger Tagliaferri (Giancarlo Sbragia), because “I don’t want to lose before I begin”: retaking the advantage is key, and requires special measures. Merli excelled at playing rogue cops like Inspector Tanzi in Umberto Lenzi’s frantic and stylish films Rome Armed to the Teeth and The Cynic, the Rat and the Fist (1977), characters that pushed their job description beyond law enforcement into the realms of vigilantism. These were cops who had not been given any special license, but had simply gone off the rails, driven to rage and despair by inability to deliver justice. By the 1970s, many Italians had lost all faith in the police as an effective force: they were seen as corrupt and incompetent, outspent and outgunned by gangs, syndicates and even lone psychopaths. The poliziotteschi, with their special squads and vigilantes, gave Italians an alternative reality in which this imbalance was finally redressed and Italian society redeemed, however morally questionable that redemption really was.

But they also provided a troubling critique and quite often without any release or redemption. Italy in the 1970s was paralysed by corruption and this was more insidious than terrorism and crime because it undermined all sense of security and trust in state and local authority and, even, any trust in the reality of appearances. Vittorio Salerno’s 1973 film No, the Case is Happily Resolved is the one entry in the Arrow set that focuses on this total breakdown in trust, with a narrative so pure in its inexorable and dire logic that it almost presents a parable for the Italian crisis. The corruption in this case is psychological and sexual: at the opening of the film Professor Eduardo Ranieri (Riccardo Cucciolla), a quiet and respectable maths and physics teacher, brutally beats a Roman prostitute to death in a reed bed outside of the city. Fabio Santamaria (Enzo Cerusico), a young working class man who witnesses the murder, eventually finds himself framed, arrested and jailed for the crime after a remorseless and unstoppable series of mistakes and misjudgments that recall the fate of Richard Blaney in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972). Santamaria makes the fatal decision not to report this crime and to try to cover up his presence at the scene, largely because he distrusts and even fears the police; his instinct proves correct, as the police believe Ranieri because of his position and his appearance, while jailing Santamaria with only a cursory investigation. Murderous and possibly perverse impulses are veiled by the Professor’s exterior presentation and this is compounded by an official corruption that renders the police ineffective and even dangerous to defenceless citizens. All the authority figures in this film either conceal their true identity or cannot be trusted to do their jobs safely: all certainty is therefore undermined and Italian society is shown to be based on deception and illusion, a place where reality is inverted and nobody is secure.

The key to the success and durability of the Italian crime films of the 1970s is that they did not just reflect their own society, but made an active contribution to the atmosphere and dynamics of the Italian crisis. The poliziotteschi cycle played out in the shadow of real and relentless atrocities committed by political and criminal groups and state actors; the films did not always or necessarily comment on any of this, but political violence and social degeneration was part of their visual and thematic fabric. To take one small pocket of time, as an example: Robert Bianchi Montero’s The Sewer Rats — a kind of Eurocrime Bad Day at Black Rock — was released in June 1974, in the days after a bomb was set off in Brescia’s Piazza della Loggia by Ordine Nuovo, a mystical, SS-styled terrorist sect, rumoured to be in the pay of the CIA. In the following weeks, the Red Brigades assassinated two members of Italy’s largest neo-fascist party, Movimento Sociale Italiano, and Umberto Lenzi unleashed Almost Human, a film that depicted the rampage of a psychopathic criminal gang with a sadistic depravity notable even for the genre. Montero and Lenzi’s films were apolitical, but exhibited a visceral connection to the society they were designed to serve, with every scene on the edge of either sex or slaughter. These were products that bore the scars of a fragmented and volatile society that was, in the summer of 1974, braced for a military coup and primed for revolutionary violence, but there is the possibility that they also added to the sense of national degeneration and moral pollution. 

The Italian peninsula was tense, fragile and paranoid, its social and moral fabric torn by the rise of cities, consumerism and the cultural influence of America; as Emilio Gentile noted, this occurred in the ruins of the myth of the nation, at a time when “Italians were experiencing a mass anthropological revolution in their attitudes and behaviours” and the state was being contested by the existential opposition of Catholicism and Communism. In this context, popular culture had a crucial role to play in shaping narratives, ideas and emotions on a mass scale: Italian artists, steeped in visual culture and speaking the language of Mussolini and Gramsci, seemed to instinctively grasp this. This is not to assign responsibility for any specific events to these films, but to accord them their due social and cultural power, even at the low level of the regional cinema circuit. It so happened that the Italian crime films of the 1970s had a more profound and immediate relationship with their world than any of the more fêted artistic products of that time. The importance of Arrow’s Years of Lead set is that it recognises this and therefore values the films at their true worth.

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‘Everyone Middle East is here’: The British in Iraq

The real difficulty here is that we don’t know exactly what we intend to do in this country. Can you persuade people to take your side when you are not sure in the end whether you’ll be there to take theirs? No wonder they hesitate; and it would take a good deal of potent persuasion to make them think that your side and theirs are compatible. 
Gertrude Bell, Basra, 1916

Britain is a high-maintenance ally.
I. Lewis ‘Scooter’ Libby, Chief of Staff to the Vice President of the United States, 2003

I: The Cairo Conference

When T. E. Lawrence met the Iraqi delegation of Gertrude Bell, Sir Percy Cox, Jafar Pasha al-Askari and Sasun Effendi Eskail at Cairo train station on March 11th, 1921, he could have expected a frosty reception. Bell, in particular, had been furious with Lawrence for his harsh criticism of the post-war British occupation of Mesopotamia under Arnold T. Wilson. “Things have been far worse than we have been told,” Lawrence wrote in The Sunday Times, “our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows” (1). “Tosh…pure nonsense,” Bell had responded defensively, but by the time they met again in Cairo this disagreement had faded into insignificance. They had important work to do. “Dear boy,” Bell warmly greeted her old Orientalist comrade. “Gertie,” Lawrence replied, scanning the colonial delegates stepping off the train, “everyone Middle East is here” (2). “We arrived yesterday,” wrote Bell in her diary, “T. E. Lawrence and others met us at the station — I was glad to see him. We retired at once to my bedroom at the Semiramis and had an hour’s talk…” (3). Here they discussed their joint strategy, in preparation for the conference called by the Colonial Secretary Winston Churchill. Both had the same objective: to convince Churchill to adopt the principle of Arab self-determination in Mesopotamia and appoint Faisal — the third son of Sharif Hussein of Mecca — King of Iraq.

Even when they argued, Lawrence and Bell were in accord. Bell sympathised with Lawrence’s criticisms of Wilson because she basically agreed with them. Wilson was a colonialist who believed that Mesopotamia should be absorbed into the British Empire under the direct authority of the British crown. He was not alone: his staff in Baghdad agreed with him and, following his example, froze Bell out of all the social and professional engagements that they could, dismissing her as a female dilettante and pro-Arab adventurer. The fate of Iraq under the British had been caught between the parochial ambitions of two British institutions: the government in India wanted to annex the Iraqi state and keep control of Arabia, while the British administration in Egypt aimed to incorporate the former Turkish vilayets of Mesopotamia into an Arab Kingdom that Britain would influence but not directly rule. The Cairo Arabists were willing to cede more autonomy to local clients than the Indian government, who reacted with fury to this challenge: “I devoutly hope that this proposed Arab State will fall to pieces, if it is ever created,” Viceroy Hardinge wrote in a letter to the Foreign Office, “It simply means misgovernment, chaos and corruption, since there never can be and never has been consistency among the Arab tribes” (4). This rage was partly due to a sense in India that their power and influence over the tribes had been lost, particularly after the propaganda triumph of the Arab Revolt led by Faisal and orchestrated by Cairo. Bell had been highly influential in the conception and execution of this campaign — as Lawrence acknowledged in a radio interview in 1927 — her geographical, cultural, linguistic and political knowledge of the territory and its tribes providing unrivalled intelligence for British officials.

Both Lawrence and Bell were British imperialists who believed in Arab self-determination under the tutelage of British administrators such as Cox, Bell’s main ally in Baghdad. They blamed Wilson for stoking anti-British sentiment that culminated in a nationalist revolt among the Arab and Kurdish tribes in 1920, and considered his brutal response — bombing villages and Shia shrines, machine-gunning insurgents and burning down their homes — to be counterproductive, or “bloody and inefficient” as Lawrence wrote in the Times. Wilson’s preference was for colonial subjugation: he did not see any prospect for successful local rule and he did not want it anyway. Wilson was a complex character: after leaving the Middle East and entering parliament he became a vocal supporter of Hitler and Mussolini, but then died in a plane crash in Dunkirk in 1940 after enlisting with the R.A.F. volunteer reserve (he would later be a model for Sir George Corbett in Powell and Pressburger’s One of Our Aircraft is Missing). 

Meanwhile, Lawrence and Bell both worked towards Arab self-rule, but against British withdrawal from Iraq. Having outmaneuvered Wilson and convinced the Indian government of their case, the prospect of abandoning the nascent Iraqi state remained the gravest threat hanging over the Cairo conference. Churchill summoned the key Middle East administrators and Orientalists to help resolve a number of outstanding and interrelated political issues in the British mandates, but he also wanted to save money. The British public, in the midst of post-war depression and strikes, had protested against the cost of pursuing British ambitions in the Middle East, and a lead article in the Times had asked a question that would haunt later occupiers: “how much longer are valuable lives to be sacrificed in the vain endeavour to impose upon the Arab population an elaborate and expensive administration which they never asked for and do not want?” (5) Churchill was himself inclined to pull out of Iraq, leaving only a controlling presence in the strategically critical vilayet of Basra — “I’m going to save you millions,”  he crowed to the press. Bell, Lawrence and Cox were aghast at the possibility of abandoning their Arab allies, which they saw as a recipe for territorial disintegration rather than independence.

For Bell the conference was a success because it avoided this outcome, although she didn’t know that the key decisions had already been made in London. As Bell later wrote, somewhat surprised, “Sir Percy and I, coming out with a definite programme, found when we came to open our packet that it coincided exactly” with Churchill’s proposals (6). The Iraqi borders that she had drawn up in Baghdad were reinforced, incorporating the vilayet of Mosul, home of the Kurdish tribes. Churchill was sceptical of its place in the new Iraqi state and favored their independence, but Bell and Cox insisted on it as a way to counter the imbalance between the urban Sunni minority and the rural Shia majority, and he had finally agreed. Furthermore, the principle of self-determination under her own preferred ruler, Faisal, was affirmed, while his brother Abdullah was chosen to rule Transjordan as a temporary governor. Despite her own modest disavowals, Bell returned to Baghdad as a state builder and a kingmaker. For the rest of her short life, her influence over the creation of modern Iraq was unrivaled and her identity intimately woven into the elite cultural and administrative structures of the new state. Faisal considered her to be an honorary Iraqi. She loved the country and felt responsible for its fate, although by the end of her life she was troubled by the course of its development and the behaviour of the King, her old friend and confidant.

Following the end of their mandate in 1932, the British handed control to Iraq’s parliamentary government, while protecting their own political and business interests in the country they had just created. The result was a cultural and economic boom in the cities of Basra and Baghdad, but also resentment of the British that permeated all sections of the Iraqi population, even those identified closely with them, like the monarchy, the governments of Nuri al-Said and the Jews of Baghdad. Despite his desire for independence and the end of de facto occupation, al-Said believed that it was in the best interests of Iraq to work with the British rather than to expel them, but this position was compromised by the economic and military priorities of the British themselves, as exposure of the Anglo-Iraqi Treaty of 1930 made clear to all Iraqis. This fed into the atmosphere that led to the 1958 military coup which effectively terminated British colonialism in Iraq. The revolutionary officers and their Baghdad mobs butchered the royal family in their Palace, while anybody identified with the ancien régime faced a choice of incarceration or slaughter.

Tamara Chalabi’s family memoir Late for Tea at the Deer Palace paints a vivid picture of the terror and chaos of that day, when families associated with the monarchy and the government fled in desperation to safe houses and, eventually, the country. “Whether it was as a direct result of the Suez debacle which Britain had suffered a few years earlier, or a calculated plan to sell out their friends,” Chalabi writes, “it was unclear what lay behind the apparent indifference of the British. There had been a subtle shift of attitude amongst the British in Baghdad, who were clearly aware that propaganda against the monarchy had reached immense proportions within Arab circles” (7). To the horror of aristocratic families like the Chalabis (who fled to London) the British did nothing to stop or reverse the coup, even when their Embassy residence was burnt down and a British staff member was shot dead. They had made their own calculations and abandoned their Iraqi allies with ruthless expediency. 

After 1958, British engagement with Iraq was more fractured and distant. During the years of the Ba’ath regime the British tried to intervene in different ways, each ultimately unsuccessful and simply reinforcing the broken link with the Iraqi state that they had created. This essay is about those interventions. It is a tangled tale of exile and opposition, political strategy and foreign policy, invasion and occupation; a story haunted by Britain’s imperial past and the events set in motion by Churchill, Lawrence, Bell, Cox and Wilson.

II: Someone must keep track of these things

On March 18th 2003, the day that Parliament voted to approve the invasion of Iraq, Ann Clwyd wrote a combative op-ed for the Times that made graphic claims about the methods of torture and execution being used in Saddam’s prisons (8). This included details of screaming prisoners being fed into huge plastic shredders, a claim that was dismissed as simplistic propaganda by opponents of the war but which caught the attention of the U.S. Deputy Security of Defence, Paul Wolfowitz. There followed a unique tête-à-tête in Washington between the Labour member for the Cynon Valley and the neoconservative Pentagon civilian that typified the complexities and controversies of the 2003 intervention.

It turned out that they had more in common than she had expected. “Surprisingly, we hit it off,” Clwyd recalled, “it emerged that he had a long-standing association with human rights issues, dating back to his time as ambassador to Indonesia” (9). She was not the only person that Wolfowitz surprised in this way, but Clwyd also had a tendency to surprise people. Her support for intervention in Iraq did not go down well with former friends, allies and colleagues. “At Swansea, while attending a Welsh Labour conference, I was openly jeered and called ‘Bradwr’, ‘Traitor’. Somehow it sounded so much worse in Welsh” (10). Clwyd’s pragmatic approach to politics awarded her diverse allies, from Wolfowitz on Iraq to Jeremy Corbyn on East Timor. “In general, when weighing up whether or not to lend my support to causes and campaigns, I have learnt to make decisions based on what I believe is the right thing to do rather than the personalities involved” (11), she wrote in her 2017 memoir Rebel With a Cause. The cause of human rights in Iraq eventually left her isolated within her own party.

During their meeting Wolfowitz asked Clwyd who she thought would be the best candidate for the role of interim Iraqi president. She had acquired many contacts and friends over decades working with the Iraqi opposition, particularly within Ahmad Chalabi’s Iraqi National Congress (INC), Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Masoud Barzani’s Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), but her choice was unequivocal: 

I spoke strongly in support of Jalal Talabani, since I felt he had the ability to draw the factions together, in other words he would provide the glue. At that point Donald Rumsfeld came into the room, and Wolfowitz said, “Tell him what you just told me.” We discussed why I was against some of the names he had mentioned and why Talabani would be such a strong candidate, and I was delighted when Talabani did indeed land the job as interim President of Iraq. (12)

Clwyd had credibility with the Iraqis and her opinions were taken seriously in London and Washington. During the years of Saddam’s genocidal Anfal campaign she had publicised the plight of the Kurds in parliament and the media, while the British government tried to consolidate their own covert trading relationship with the Ba’ath regime. Following the Gulf War she travelled into the Zagros mountain range to meet Kurdish refugees, taking personal and political risks in order to witness and record their suffering. She was instrumental in lobbying for no-fly zones and could take some credit for the designation of Iraqi Kurdistan as a safe haven. During the 1996 Kurdish civil war, she facilitated a delicate prisoner exchange between the PUK and KDP, negotiating an agreement between Talabani and Barzani that foreshadowed their eventual political settlement.

In her memoir Clwyd is vague about the details of the intra-Kurdish conflict but it was a key moment, not simply for the political course of Iraqi Kurdistan but for the Iraqi opposition as a whole. The civil war had its origins in the INC-Kurdish military offensive of March 1995, an operation that drove a wedge between the Kurdish parties after the KDP pulled out at the final moment, while the PUK and INC pushed on to crushing defeat at the hands of the Republican Guards. In the factional scramble that followed the KDP sought protection from Saddam, a desperate and catastrophic move that invited the reinvasion of the northern safe haven by Iraqi troops in August 1996. Saddam used this opportunity to wipe out the INC: Republican Guard divisions occupied Erbil, executed all the INC personnel they could find and seized their computers. The CIA airlifted the remaining INC members to Guam and evacuated Iraq, leaving the Kurds to their fate. Clwyd was present in northern Iraq when the INC was crushed in Erbil, taking desperate calls from Ahmad Chalabi who implored her “tell the world” (13) what was happening, which she did (or tried to). “It was a tragedy for us,” Chalabi later reflected, “‘Twas a devastating blow” (14).

This outcome seemed to confirm Churchill’s early misgivings about Bell’s plan to incorporate the Kurds into the Iraqi state: he had wanted to establish an independent Kurdish home in the north “to protect the Kurds from some future bully in Iraq” but had been overruled by the Foreign Office (15). However, by the 1990s, the Kurds carried the hopes of a democratic and unified post-Saddam Iraq on their shoulders, an outcome the PUK was far more committed to than the KDP. For this reason, the Kurdish collapse into open war and Saddam’s cunning exploitation of the division between the Kurdish parties was a bitter blow for their supporters, and Clwyd did not try to hide her own despair. “I pulled no punches in my conversations, even using emotional blackmail to remind them of my long-standing commitment to the Kurdish cause,” she writes, “I was blunt in telling them of the pain they were now causing their own people” (16). It was a low point for the exiles and their allies. The northern safe haven had been penetrated by Saddam’s army while British and American warplanes watched and did nothing. More importantly, the linchpin of the opposition and the supplier of its most effective existing fighting units, the Kurdish Peshmerga, had disintegrated as a united force. But for Chalabi — always the most resourceful and ruthless of the Iraqi exiles — this was only the beginning of a new, and more successful, phase in the war against Saddam.

To understand the origins of Clwyd’s role in all of this it is crucial to understand Britain’s status as a haven for Iraqi exiles. After 1958 a number of surviving members from the constitutional government fled to London, among them Chalabi’s father Hadi, who had been head of the Iraqi senate before the coup. They would later be joined by émigrés from successive purges until, by the end of the 1980s, London hosted a large and prestigious community of Iraqi refugees. This was partly explained by the close links that remained between the British state and the old Iraqi elites. These ancien régime survivors retained their anglophone sensibilities and a powerful nostalgia for pre-coup Baghdad having benefited from the prosperous and liberal society of the Hashemites and their British sponsors; for some later additions, there were MI6 links. Then, during the years of the Ba’ath, the genteel elegance of their lives in Mayfair, Bloomsbury and Surrey had been overshadowed by the threat of Saddam’s assassins: famously, Chalabi’s rival Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord had been attacked by an axe-wielding intruder in his Kingston-Upon-Thames home and left for dead by the side of his swimming pool. The escalating brutality and depravity of the Ba’ath regime, as well as Saddam’s willingness to murder his enemies on foreign soil, focussed minds among the opposition groups, although they remained too fractious and scattered to pose any real threat to the dictator. 

London remained a key base for Chalabi, who kept his Knightsbridge office as an operational hub for the INC until the eve of the 2003 invasion. The Chalabis were, in many ways, the epitome of the elite Iraqi exile families: wealthy, cultured, well-connected and determined to return to Iraq to reclaim their stolen inheritance and identity. While he shuttled between Washington and Tehran for the INC, Chalabi kept his family in an opulent Mayfair apartment overlooking Green Park, replete with silk Persian rugs, European and Middle Eastern paintings and a resident maid. When he relocated to northern Iraq in the 1990s, he recreated this refined environment in his house in Salahuddin, decorating it with local sculptures and paintings, hardwood and walnut furniture carved in the style of Frank Lloyd Wright, a state-of-the-art stereo system and a library of imported cookery books from which he taught his Kurdish cooks French cuisine.  One of his favorite relaxations in Kurdistan was to rewatch videos of his favorite TV programme: the 1981 BBC production of Brideshead Revisited, a work with great personal and atmospheric resonance for him. “Fighting Saddam does not mean you have to eat bad food or live in shabby surroundings,” he insisted (17).

Clwyd had worked closely with Chalabi as chair of the Campaign Against Repression and for Democratic Rights in Iraq (CARDRI) and its successor INDICT, in the effort to archive evidence of Saddam’s crimes against humanity. In her memoir, Clwyd recalls the time Chalabi visited her in Cardiff on INDICT business and requested a visit to the National Museum of Wales to see the Davies Sisters’ celebrated collection of Impressionist paintings: “as we walked past the renowned Brangwyn Panels, Ahmad pointed at them and said casually: ‘I bid for those at auction’” (18). For Chalabi, European culture was simply part of the human inheritance that he absorbed without compromising his Iraqi or Shia identity. For his allies, he was the living embodiment of the possibility of a new Iraq, even a new Middle East: proof that a viable alternative to the totalitarianism of the Ba’ath regime or the medieval recidivism of Shia and Sunni fundamentalism actually existed. But for Clwyd’s comrades on the Labour left this was suspicious company, a feeling only confirmed by her subsequent meeting with Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. Even before the Iraq war, INDICT had received negative coverage or been treated with passive indifference, a fact that dismayed Clwyd, who wrote: “we knew people in Iraq were being tortured and killed in large numbers and could not understand why others did not feel the same sense of outrage” (19). This feeling of anger and futility in the face of ongoing barbarity culminated in her stark declaration during the February 2003 parliamentary debate on UNSCR 1441: “I believe in regime change. I say that without hesitation, and I will support the government tonight because I think that they are doing a brave thing” (20). On the subject of Iraq, Clwyd had become Blair’s most committed ally.

There was a postscript for the Cynon Valley MP that capped all of the work she had done with the Iraqi opposition since the 1970s. In May 2003, a grateful Blair appointed her Special Envoy on Human Rights to Iraq and in this role she witnessed the excavation of the mass graves of Shia victims of Saddam in Al-Hillah. In later years evidence collected by INDICT was finally put to use in the Baghdad trials of Saddam and his captive inner circle, while the Free Prisoners Association, founded by widows of prisoners who had died in Saddam’s jails, would vindicate the work of CARDRI and INDICT and engage Clwyd long after the overthrow of the regime. In her 2017 memoir she summed up this work with a statement that she could have easily made in 1988: “I still keep an eye on the plight of the widows…even though there are other enormous geopolitical challenges and crises, someone must keep track of these things” (21). 

III: A leader of nations or nothing 

“Ann Clwyd was absolutely terrific and we needed to hear more of her” wrote Alistair Campbell in his diary following the February vote, which otherwise delivered a backbench rebuke to the Prime Minister (22). Iraq proved to be the definitive test of a foreign policy doctrine Blair had originally formulated against a background of amoral Conservative realpolitik that had reached a low point during the Bosnian war. The Prime Minister presented his ideas in full at the Chicago Economic Club in April 1999 with a speech titled ‘The Doctrine of the International Community’ — a text partly written by KCL Professor of War Studies Lawrence Freedman, who would later be appointed to the Iraq Inquiry by Sir John Chilcot. The speech was delivered in the shadow of Kosovo, but the implications were very different for Iraq. Blair, in his statement to parliament on 18th March, 2003, tried his best to separate them: “I have never put the justification for action as regime change. We have to act within the terms set out in Resolution 1441 — that is our legal base” (23). Nevertheless, the moral argument for regime change did come within the scope of the Chicago speech and was effectively covered for Blair by Clwyd. This is why she became important to him, particularly once the WMD argument had disintegrated.

To trace the arc of this journey in British politics it is useful to return to the Conservative Party’s policy towards Iraq in the late 1980s. This policy had its roots in the Import, Export and Customs Powers (Defence) Act of 1939, an emergency war measure that gave governments the power to control import and export licenses, and proved far too useful to be repealed. In 1984, at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe had set out guidelines that prohibited exports that would “significantly enhance the capability of either side to prolong or exacerbate the conflict” (24), but by the end of the war he had secretly revised his own guidelines in order to establish “a more liberal policy” towards exports to Iraq’s lucrative weapons market. Parliament was not informed (as it did not need to be under the existing 1939 act) because, as Howe recognised, “it could look very cynical if, soon after expressing outrage about the treatment of the Kurds, we adopt a more flexible approach to arms sales” (25). The “treatment of the Kurds” referred to by the British Foreign Secretary was the chemical weapons attack on Halabja, which had been dismissed to Clwyd’s face by FCO Minister William Waldergrave, who told her, “‘There is no proof.’” (“I told him bluntly to get it,” she writes, 26). Clwyd recalls with disgust seeing photographs of FCO Minister David Mellor shaking hands with members of the Iraqi regime at the Baghdad trade fair months after Halabja. Waldergrave succinctly clarified the cynicism of government policy in the aftermath of the execution of Observer journalist Farzad Bazoft in Abu Ghraib prison: “the priority of Iraq in our policy should be very high: in commercial terms, comparable to South Africa…a few more Bazofts or another bout of internal repression would make this more difficult” (27).

From this point on the government relaxed restrictions on exports to Iraq that were clearly, if not openly, destined for Saddam’s weapons programmes. Trade Minister Alan Clark was accused of advising companies on how to tailor export licences to satisfy official guidelines and approving contracts on a “nod and wink” basis. When Customs took Matrix Churchill to court after intercepting a consignment of dual use machine tools destined for Iraq, the government used all the legal methods at its disposal to disguise complicity in the case. The trial finally collapsed when Clark admitted to being “economical…with the actualité” concerning his advice to Matrix Churchill and other implicated firms: “there was nothing misleading or dishonest to make a formal introductory comment that the Iraqis would be using current orders for general engineering purposes. All I didn’t say was, ‘and for making munitions…’” (28). Clwyd, one of the few opposition MPs who doggedly pursued the case in parliament, noted that Clark “summed up the arrogance of ministers when he dared to suggest that Labour MPs were a bit dim not to understand that, from 1987 onwards, they were being misled by the government and that we should have known Britain was selling arms to Iraq. We did suspect it, we did try to expose it, but he and his colleagues lied to cover it up” (29).

Blair would later be accused of many things, but arming Iraq was not among them. Blair, it is fair to say, was one of the more vigilant disarmers of Saddam — or, at least, he would have been, if Saddam had actually had any WMDs left to destroy. He was worrying about the dictator’s procurement as early as 1997, telling Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown,

I have seen some of the stuff on this. It really is pretty scary. He is very close to some appalling weapons of mass destruction. I don’t understand why the French and others don’t understand this. We cannot let him get away with it. (30)

Operation Desert Fox was launched in response to Saddam’s expulsion of UNSCOM inspectors in 1998 and set a number of precedents for Blair. In his own memoir he dismissed it as “a limited success…the general feeling was that Saddam had got away with it again” (31), but the operation was significant for different reasons. It was Blair’s first military intervention and demonstrated that he was prepared to confront Saddam directly. It also provided, in miniature, a model for the run up to the 2003 war. The reason for bombing Iraq was WMD rather than human rights but Blair did not even try to disguise his contempt for the dictator and his regime. Ignoring the advice of Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, he did not seek further UN authorisation, but acted on separate advice that Resolution 687 provided sufficient legal cover for action. To prepare public opinion for the bombing campaign Blair and Campbell produced a briefing note for MPs titled Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, a tactic they would revive to disastrous effect in 2003. Chirac, already pursuing French commercial interests and seeking the end of sanctions, was furiously opposed, as he would be later on. And, in his speeches to parliament, Blair was uncompromising, refining the rhetoric he would later recycle and expand:

Our quarrel is not with the Iraqi people….our quarrel is with [Saddam] alone and the evil regime he represents. There is no realistic alternative to military force. We are taking military action with real regret, but also with real determination. We have exhausted all other avenues. We act because we must. (32)

The American alliance was a priority for Blair in 1998 and 2003, and it may well have played a part in the decisions of any Tory administration that had been in place at the same time. Nevertheless, Blair’s policy towards Iraq directly repudiated the cynicism of the Thatcher and Major administrations. Characters that appeared in the Scott Report into Arms to Iraq — like Howe, Douglas Hurd and Malcolm Rifkind — also played a role in the sacrifice of Bosnia to geopolitical calculation: again, the practical result was British complicity in the cover-up of genocide. Blair’s Chicago speech was an attempt to define an ethic of intervention that would bury this school of realism forever. It had been morally repugnant but also strategically damaging: Major’s Balkans policy had led to fracture with Clinton, who detested Britain’s pro-Serb stance. Blair would eventually irritate Clinton for the opposite reason: the Chicago speech was delivered at the precise moment Blair was pushing for military intervention against Milosevic and Clinton was vacillating. From this perspective it looked like a very public form of moral blackmail. In fact, Blair’s speech was shaped by the immediate political priorities of Kosovo but its scope was far broader. In some ways it suffered from being too broad — while superficially detailed, the doctrine sketched out was largely untested and full of holes, qualifications and contradictions. But for Blair personally, it was a key political moment.

Blair’s first significant foreign policy speech was in some ways as ambitious as Chicago: in Manchester in April 1997 he had called for the eastwards expansion of the EU, reform of the UN, and a larger British role in NATO, proclaiming, “we are a leader of nations or nothing” (33). Two years and two military campaigns later, he was now attempting to define a new foreign policy ethic and era, not just for Britain but for the entire world. “We have to establish a new framework,” he declared: 

No longer is our existence as states under threat. Now our actions are guided by a more subtle blend of mutual self interest and moral purpose in defending the values we cherish. In the end values and interests merge. If we can establish and spread the values of liberty, the rule of law, human rights and an open society then that is in our national interests too. The spread of our values makes us safer. (34) 

Blair began with the premise that the age of power politics had been superseded by globalisation: the Chicago speech was, in part, a funeral oration for the Westphalian system of state sovereignty and non-interference. Underpinning this was the assumption that Western liberal democratic values are universal values that transcend religion, culture, tradition and ethnicity. In this sense, Blair’s speech was not only against protectionism and isolationism, but also against relativism. This is the point at which Blair’s version of humanitarian intervention overlapped with the moral interventionism of the American neoconservatives. Echoing Blair, Paul Wolfowitz reaffirmed the point in a 2005 interview, as Iraq was unravelling: 

The contradiction is to say that allowing people to choose their government freely is to impose our ideas on them. There was a wonderful moment at a conference here in Washington where someone said it’s arrogant of us to impose our values on the Arab world, and an Arab got up and said it’s arrogant of you to say these are your values because they are universal values. (35)

In many ways the Iraq War was an application of the principles outlined in the Chicago speech and they did not survive the experience intact. Conservative critics of Blair’s doctrine proved to be correct in one crucial aspect: the abstract principles of human rights and democracy could not account for or contain religious, national and ethnic rivalries. In 2003, specifically because of Iraq, the international community was so fractured that it barely existed, as Russia, Germany and France positioned themselves in hostile opposition to Britain and America. Later on, the disintegration of Iraq would expose the limits of both American neoconservatism and liberal interventionism by opening a new era of raw power politics stripped of all progressive and democratic illusions. 

IV: The theatre of power

In the introduction to his 1964 account of his travels among the Marsh Arabs of Southern Iraq, Wilfred Thesiger made a gloomy prediction: “soon the Marshes will probably be drained; when this happens, a way of life that has lasted for thousands of years will disappear” (36). Thesiger was not an Orientalist in the style of Bell and Lawrence, but an English explorer in the Victorian mold. In The Marsh Arabs he complained that during his travels in Iraqi Kurdistan he kept coming up against national borders he could not traverse. Travelling through Iraqi towns and cities he was bored and dissatisfied with the urban Arabs who, he felt, were “ashamed of their background and anxious to forget it. A suburbia covering the length and breadth of Iraq was the Utopia of which they dreamed” (37). Like Bell, Thesiger sought escape from “drab modernity” and found it in the Arabian desert and, between 1951-8, among the Arabs of the Iraqi marshes. This small, self-enclosed tribal world in which he tried to forget his own background was, indeed, ancient and fragile: a pastoral existence defined by flood water and reed beds, wildfowl and pig hunting and the milking of buffalo. For the tribes who welcomed him, Thesiger retained the residual authority of the English and was used as a doctor and surgeon despite his lack of formal medical training. “In Iraq, at that time,” he noted,

the British still had a considerable legacy of good will, the result of our close association with the county between the two world wars when Englishmen worked there as administrative officers and advisers. Many of the older inhabitants continued to feel respect and affection for individuals. Tribesmen were, on the whole, too courteous to embarrass a quest, but I was sometimes bitterly attacked by townsmen of Government officials over British policy — Palestine or Suez, for example. On such occasions, the mention of an Englishman they had known could turn bitterness to friendly reminiscence. (38)

During the First World War the shelter provided by the marshes allowed the tribes to attack and loot both British and Turkish forces with relative impunity. During the mandate they were largely left alone and their link to Iraqi nationalism and to the ruling administrations of Baghdad remained tenuous. Despised by the urban Iraqis and desert Arabs alike, the Marsh Arabs maintained their own society and used their natural environment for protection as well as insurrection. “The Marshes themselves,” wrote Thesiger, “with their baffling maze of reed beds where men could only move by boat, must have afforded a refuge to remnants of defeated people, and been a centre for lawlessness and rebellion, from earliest times” (39). 

In the end, Thesiger’s prediction did not come true until the 1990s, when Saddam drained the marshes in response to the 1991 Shia revolt that had been encouraged by the Bush administration. Saddam had a pressing strategic aim here: following defeat in the uprising, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and their paramilitary unit Badr Corps used the thick cover of the reeds to regroup and organise the next phase of their campaign against the regime. “Accordingly,” wrote SCIRI representative Hamid al-Bayati in his 2011 memoir From Dictatorship to Democracy, “Saddam began to target the Marshes with planes, tanks and artillery” (40) and commenced work on a vast project to divide the major wetlands and divert the River Euphrates with enormous dams, barriers and dykes. This was a double assault of heavy weaponry and civil engineering designed to destroy the environment of the marshes and the rebellious tribes that populated them. As the SCIRI spokesman based in London and a board member of INDICT, al-Bayati had the desperate task of publicising this carnage in Europe and found allies in Foreign Office mandarin Julian Walker, Conservative MP Emma Nicholson and Ann Clwyd. But this was not a popular cause in 1995 and the plight of the Marsh Arabs gained no traction. Saddam succeeded in destroying a unique part of Iraq’s natural landscape and cultural heritage in a combined programme of genocide and ecocide that attracted no significant international response. 

This was the environment in which Rory Stewart arrived in August 2003 as a provincial administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Amara and Nasiriyah. Stewart was one of five British civilians appointed by the Foreign Office to support coalition troops and American officials in the immediate post-Saddam period. But he was no zealot for regime change, writing in his 2006 memoir Occupational Hazards:

Ten years in the Islamic world and in other places that had recently emerged from conflict had left me very suspicious of theories produced in seminars in Western capitals and of foreigners in a hurry. The best kind of international development seemed to be done by people who directly absorbed themselves in rural culture and politics, focused on traditional structures, and understood that change would often be slow. I believed that politicians often misled others and themselves when they started wars and that there were dubious reasons for our invasions of Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan. (41)

Once in post, Stewart quickly learned that Iraqi civil society had been destroyed by the lethal combination of Saddam and UN sanctions. The post-Ba’ath vacuum was filled by what had always existed underneath the political superstructure: tribal allegiance, foreign agents and religious movements. The liberal middle class professionals that the CPA assumed, or hoped, would emerge to lead reconstruction had either voluntarily vanished from the scene or been intimidated into silence. This was a constituency without power in the new Iraq: there was no mass liberal party, no liberal movement and, more importantly, no liberal militia. What actually emerged from the wreckage of tyranny, sanctions and war was not liberal or secular or democratic. In Maysan, Stewart had to contend with a local tribal warlord, Iranian-backed Shia militias and a branch of the Sadrist movement, a triangle of enmity that sidelined all other constituencies and kept the province on the brink of civil war. And this wasn’t unique to Maysan: similar struggles and rivalries were emerging all over Iraq.

As the messy transitional administration under Jay Garner moved into full CPA occupation under Paul Bremer, all of these local rivalries and conflicts intensified and accelerated, feeding a national insurgency. By the autumn of 2003 the CPA was no longer a resource to be exploited but an occupying power to be resisted. This was compounded by the strategic chaos of the occupation. CPA civilians and military personnel tripped over each other constantly, unable to clarify or distentagle their respective duties or areas of responsibility. The CPA in Baghdad devised ambitious nation building schemes that included “programmes on human rights, the free market, feminism, federalism, and constitutional reform” when, as Stewart put it, “people in Maysan talked about almost none of these things. They talked about security” (42). After a year of occupation, “Coalition governors were inventing different political structures in different provinces because Baghdad had not yet defined the legal powers or budgets for local officials” (43). Perhaps most importantly, in the end, “we could not define the conditions under which we were prepared to kill Iraqis or have our own soldiers killed” (44), which sounds harsh, but proved fundamental. Once the governor of Amara realised that the British would not give him the level of protection they gave themselves, Stewart writes, “almost any hope of cooperation was lost” (45).

The point, after all, was power. The financial and military power of the CPA was defeated by the complexity of Iraqi society and by the confusion of an occupying mission that could produce both gender quotas on local elected bodies and the abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib. Stewart would often be forced to project an authority that he did not really feel like he possessed: 

In an ad-hoc organisation in a war zone, most power is the theatre of power. It is not enough to do things, you must be seen to do things. I needed to promise change to give Iraqis some belief in us and in the future. I needed to claim authority and bluff people into falling in step. (46)

The problem was the Iraqis saw right through this and treated Stewart’s “theatre of power” precisely as that: theatre. The occupiers were seen as a source of money to be tapped and, potentially, a way to neutralise or eliminate rivals and enemies. But the real source of authority lay in local constituencies and external backers, a shadow power structure that the CPA could do nothing to influence or defeat. In the south, the SCIRI and Badr brigades and their affiliates and proxies extended Iranian influence into the province, using elections to take control of the regional security apparatus and infiltrate the police forces, as they would do across Iraq. Their main Shia rival was the Sadrist movement, whose local proxies stoked anti-Coalition insurrections and whose constituency grew exponentially during the occupation. As Stewart details, the Sadrists were a new and expanding element in Iraqi and Shia society: a populist movement that appealed to the young and the poor in rural backwaters and city slums and found apotheosis in the fiery sermons of Friday prayers. These were two components of the coming civil war that was, in 2003, merely a threat on the lips of petitioners who did not get what they wanted from CPA officials. As Stewart records, he and his colleagues in the CPA and British army were helpless to contain or control any of this. Even if it was possible, they did not have the real power to do so, because the occupation could not clarify its own purpose or limits. Their authority was an empty performance that was soon exposed.

There is one coda to this story of the marshes. In the aftermath of the war, international aid agencies poured money into projects to reflood the Marshlands. As Stewart travelled around the province he noted the effects of Saddam’s ecological destruction: the near-extinction of the buffalo, the depleted fish stocks and bird flocks, ruined huts and broken islands. In Maysan, the Beni Hashim tribe that had been dispossessed and dispersed into the desert and the Shia ghettos and slums of Basra and Baghdad by Saddam was finally able to return to the Marshes, although many didn’t. Slowly the wetlands recovered and some of the old communities resettled. But this was only partial: a mere fraction of the population and a sample of the biodiversity that had existed before Saddam’s original campaign of destruction. 

V: Strategic failure

In 2006, after completing a tour with the International Security Assistance Forces in Afghanistan, Emma Sky spent some time with Stewart in a compound in Kabul working at his Turquoise Mountain Foundation. “I first met Rory in Iraq, after he had walked across Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban,” Sky recalled in her 2015 memoir The Unravelling

He was so scarred by his experience of working with the Coalition Provisional Authority that he had come to believe that grandiose nation-building schemes could never succeed in societies such as Iraq and Afghanistan. He was now focused on helping to restore historic parts of Kabul and to resuscitate Afghan traditions of arts and crafts. (47)

Stewart was familiar with the culture and the divisions of the British army: his father was a decorated soldier and senior SIS officer and Stewart had joined the Black Watch during his gap year. Yet his memoir reveals tensions between the CPA civilians and the military in Maysan and Nasiriyah: relationships with the colonels and majors he dealt with often seemed strained, even hostile. In contrast, Sky — the liberal, anti-war NGO veteran and British Council project manager who worked in the Occupied Territories before 2001 — would eventually form a close bond with the two most powerful generals in the U.S. army, Petraeus and Odierno. 

Unlike Stewart, Sky had unambiguously opposed the invasion of Iraq before she volunteered to join the CPA. She was eventually sent to Kirkuk in the role of Governorate Coordinator and worked so effectively with Colonel Bill Mayville of the 173rd Airborne Brigade that General Ray Odierno would later ask her to return to Iraq to be his political adviser. Sky was fully aware of her unique, even strange, position: the self-declared “peacenik” who had volunteered to be a human shield during the Gulf War was now the closest political confidant of a general notorious for his aggressive combat methods in Fallujah. Odierno had featured heavily in Tom Ricks’ 2006 best seller Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, which, Sky commented, “was particularly harsh…accusing him of causing the insurgency through his harsh tactics of breaking down doors and mass arrests. The allegations had hurt. It was an exaggerated portrayal which had tarnished his reputation” (48). Sky, on the other hand, remained loyal to the generals she worked for and was impressed by their soldiers. She would later contrast the performance of the American army in Iraq with the British, candidly telling Foreign Minister David Miliband: 

in the mid ranks of the U.S. military the criticisms that Brits had made about the Americans in the early years had rankled. The British military had been very arrogant, believing they knew the ultimate truth about counterinsurgency from Malaya and Northern Ireland. Every situation, however, was different. And the American military had proved themselves faster learners than the Brits. (49)

As Sky knew, reports being sent from Basra to London were politically censored, creating a false sense of optimism in Whitehall. This optimism had been abruptly dispelled by the global publication of a photograph of British soldiers jumping from their Warrior jeep, consumed by flames, following a stand-off with Sadrists at Jamait police station in September 2005. Blair was shocked, but he should not have been. A month before Jamait, the American journalist Steven Vincent had been kidnapped and executed in Basra after uncovering links between the Iraqi police, Shia militias, Iranian agents and oil smugglers, a network that the British had both enabled and ignored. “The fact that the British are in effect strengthening the hand of Shiite organizations is not lost on Basra’s residents,” Vincent wrote in his July 31 New York Times op-ed, the final article he would live to see published:

Fearing to appear like colonial occupiers, they avoid any hint of ideological indoctrination: in my time with them, not once did I see an instructor explain such basics of democracy as the politically neutral role of the police in a civil society. Nor did I see anyone question the alarming number of religious posters on the walls of Basran police stations. When I asked British troops if the security sector reform strategy included measures to encourage cadets to identify with the national government rather than their neighborhood mosque, I received polite shrugs: not our job, mate. (50) 

The fear of appearing to be colonial occupiers was deep-rooted and historical, but history could also make this look like dissembling: Sir Mark Sykes had also told the Iraqis that the British were “liberators” rather than occupiers in 1917. The return to Basra was full of historical echoes that were consciously downplayed by British diplomats and the army without, however, being lost on the Iraqis. To pick just one example: from 2006-7 the British ambassador to Iraq was Dominic Asquith, whose great-grandfather had sent the first British troops to Basra in 1914. Once a month Sky and Odierno would dine in his embassy villa and Sky enjoyed his company:

He was tall and handsome, with the most wonderful manners and dry wit…I loved those evenings. They were our monthly treat. We would fly in from some trip to the battlefield, dirty and tired. But in the ambassador’s residence we relaxed on comfortable chairs, surrounded by paintings and photos and various artefacts of culture and life away from war. I always started with gin and tonic before proceeding to red wine…we were served a three-course meal, seated around a table that had once belonged to Gertrude Bell. Never had food tasted so good. We ate off china with metal cutlery, a welcome change from plastic and Styrofoam. (51)

Meanwhile, outside of Asquith’s diplomatic sanctuary with its fading traces of past imperial elegance, the British mission in the south of Iraq was falling apart. American irritation at British arrogance eventually turned to open contempt as the south spiralled into chaos. This feeling was shared by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who tried to confront the southern  Sadrists himself in his abortive Charge of the Knights raid, an operation that simply exposed how unprepared the British were for offensive combat and how dependent the Iraqis were on U.S. military support. The illogicality and profound failure of British strategy was summarised by a soldier in Basra Palace, in a lament that could have been scripted by Joseph Heller: “It’s going round in circles. People are getting killed for us to resupply ourselves, and if we weren’t resupplying ourselves, people wouldn’t be getting killed” (52). The British mission was finally terminated in 2009 with the evacuation of Basra Airport under a heavy barrage of Sadrist rockets. Blair redeployed a demoralised and under-equipped army to fight an equally disastrous campaign in Afghanistan, but to the Americans it looked like the British were running away from Iraq. The Americans were correct. Both the British military and politicians, including Blair, felt defeated and exhausted by Basra, and carried this palpable sense of humiliation and fatigue into Helmand, where the British mission had to be rescued once again by the Americans. As Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E Trainer wrote in their chronicle of post-war Iraq:

The British military had begun the war as the reputed masters of counterinsurgency…by the end of the Basra fight that reputation was in tatters. The British had ceded control of one of Iraq’s major cities and lost the trust of the Iraqi prime minister. (53)

For Sky the disintegration of Basra province was on the periphery of her work with Odierno in Anbar and Baghdad. In fact, Sky’s memoir reveals her distance and alienation from British institutions inside and outside Iraq: she remarks that her colleagues at the British Council took no interest in her work in Iraq; that both Blair and Miliband had no idea who she was or why she was working for the U.S. army; and her comments on the comparative cultures of the U.S. and British military are much more complimentary to her American employers. Her final judgement of the British in Basra is succinct: “it had not been the most glorious chapter in British history” (54). Nevertheless, she was no American lackey and maintained her position that the Iraq War was a strategic failure of historical distinction. By the time she returned to Kurdistan in 2012 the outcome was clear: the Iraq War had been won by Iran. The key moment turned out to be the 2010 election, which Ayad Allawi’s party won with a slim majority but was effectively handed to Maliki by Obama and Biden who, like the British before them, simply wanted to get America out of Iraq as quickly as possible. This proved to be the final victory for Iranian Quds Force Commander General Suleimani who could now fully penetrate Iraqi political space without any resistance. By the time that Sistani issued a fatwa calling on all Shia to join the Iraqi security forces to fight ISIS, Suleimani was in effective command of those forces and able to personally direct the offensive from inside Iraq. 

The truth is that neither the British nor the Obama administration were prepared to challenge the Iranians in Iraq, despite the clear Iranian effort to kill coalition soldiers and ensure that the Iraqi state remained within the Shia rather than the Arab orbit. As early as May 2004, Foreign Secretary Jack Straw intervened to stop a CIA initiative to attack Iranian agents and training camps in Iraq because the FCO did not want to jeopardise negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons programme, a pattern repeated on a grander scale by the Obama administration. The extent of the Iranian triumph was so great that Sky faced accusations of a secret deal between Iran and America and in Kirkuk a local Sunni Sheikh told her, “They handed Iraq to Iran on a silver platter” (55). But there was no deal. In Kirkuk in 2003-4 Sky had caught a fleeting glimpse of “a city of four ethnicities who speak each other’s languages and love each other’s cultures” (56) — a rich patchwork of Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen who might, one day, coexist in a secure country called Iraq. But at the same time, to Sky’s frustration, the Kurds relentlessly pursued Kirkuk as their own, seeking to reverse the Arabisation of the city that had been engineered by Saddam and secure its oil as the foundation of a future independent Kurdistan. Pluralism collapsed into ethnic and sectarian rivalry as group identities were politicised and fatally embedded in an electoral system that the Americans designed. This gave Iran — one of the great sectarian actors in the region — the perfect opportunity to divide and rule Iraq, and they took it.

VI: British ghosts

We were surrounded by half-forgotten history.
Rory Stewart, Occupational Hazards

Gertrude Bell spent her last days in Baghdad — the last days of her life — collecting and cataloging historical artifacts for her Archaeological Museum. Following the coronation of King Faisal and the dissolution of the British administration, Bell found herself isolated and increasingly adrift in the new Iraqi capital. She had helped to shape and found the modern Iraqi state, but the course of its development had not quite gone the way she wanted and she no longer had any influence over events. Her friends were leaving the city and, back in England, the family business had been fatally damaged by the coal strike. On June 16, 1926, King Faisal opened the first room of the museum and Bell wrote in her diary: 

Except for the museum, I am not enjoying life at all. One has the sharp sense of being near the end of things with no certainty as to what, if anything, one will do next. It is also very dull, but for the work. I don’t know what to with myself of an afternoon…It is a very lonely business living here right now. (57)

Bell’s focus on the museum consumed her and she spent all of her time and energy fixing up the building that was given to her and arranging all of her antiquities. When her father implored her to return home, she refused:

I do understand that things are looking very discouraging and I am dreadfully sorry and unhappy about you. But I don’t see for the moment what I can do. You see I have undertaken this very grave responsibility of the museum…(58)

In reality, the responsibility was self-imposed: the museum was the result of her own archaeological discoveries and her commitment to preserve the rich history of Mesopotamia for the new citizens of Iraq, a gift to the country that she truly loved. It was also a way to stave off her own sense of despair, grief and depression, until the point it no longer could. Bell died on July 11, 1926, after taking an overdose of sedatives. Her death was noted across the British empire and also among the tribes of Iraq, who flocked to Baghdad and lined the streets as her cortege travelled to the Anglican cemetery, her coffin decorated with the Union Jack and the new flag of Iraq that she had helped to design. 

Nearly eighty years later the descendant of Bell’s museum was looted by organised gangs who stole artifacts from the heart of her collection. The U.S. army failed to secure the building and it was left to returning museum staff to fend off the looters for four days. This was a significant and symbolic event: a presage of the anarchy and corruption to come. Rumsfeld’s infamous response to the looting exposed the vacuum at the heart of post-war planning in a manner that chilled both opponents and supporters of the war alike: “Freedom’s untidy,” he said, “stuff happens.” With this event, Bell’s archaeological legacy evaporated; her geographic legacy also seemed to be finished in 2015 when ISIS erased the borders she had drawn in the 1920s. In the early years of the monarchy, Bell had been friendly with Iraq’s Education Minister Abdul Hussein Chalabi and she often visited and enjoyed the gardens of Chalabi’s residence, The Deer Palace. In 2006, Abdul Hussein’s great granddaughter (and Ahmad’s daughter) Tamara tracked down Bell’s rarely visited, half-forgotten grave in “a barren spot” of the Anglican cemetery; having developed a fascination with the old family friend and looking at the withered flowers and dusty ground of the memorial, she decided to restore and maintain it. For Tamara, Bell’s grave stood for something more than one life: it represented the lost world of her family and an entire generation of exiles, “buried underground and in memories, almost as if it never existed” (59). But for anybody British who knew or cared about it, Bell’s grave was simply a relic from an expired empire.

The ghosts of British lives haunted the land: the traces of their lives and deaths strewn across Iraq, in graves, plaques, buildings and some living memories. In Maysan in 2003, Stewart met a man who remembered a day of duck shooting with Thesiger in 1953; he also noted the lingering memory of Colonel Leachmen, the Amara-based British political officer whose murder in Fallujah remained the great symbol of the 1920 uprising. Amara cemetery, which Stewart visited, was filled with the bones of British and Indian soldiers who had been killed during the siege of Kut in 1915-6. During the 2006 civil war, when other reporters were too afraid to leave the Green Zone, Dexter Filkins visited the British war cemetery in Baghdad; he found it derelict, with tombstones “toppled and crumbling” and grass growing up to his chest. “When an American died in this war,” he wrote,

he was flown home in a black bag, zippered at the top; the British, killed long ago, were buried across the realm from here to Trincomalee. There hadn’t been any refrigeration then, and the ships had been too slow. The British were buried where they fell. (60)

Symbols of lost power and responsibility surrounded British personnel in Iraq in 2003, but the imperial legacy was almost completely disavowed. Power and responsibility now belonged to America, a nation still changing the course of world history; the British played only minor roles as participants and spectators in an American and Iraqi narrative. Stewart and Sky would often hear praise for their imperial predecessors but only ever offered as a way to criticise their American successors and therefore serve to highlight the historic transfer of power. In the era of the CPA, the original British occupiers were lauded for their diplomacy and their knowledge of the tribes (which itself owed much to Bell’s 1920 masterpiece Review of the Civil Administration of Mesopotamia), while the existing British occupiers tended to be treated as conduits for American money and influence. In contrast to the approach of earlier British imperialists, Bremer and his advisers had no desire to perpetuate the ancient tribal divisions of Mesopotamia and wanted to construct a modern, secular democratic nation out of the wreckage of dictatorship. The tragedy was that their method of achieving this — minority representation — had the effect of hard-wiring sectarianism into the new political institutions that they created. As Sky wrote later: “the focus on subnational identities was at the expense of building an inclusive Iraqi identity. No one at the time seemed to have any foreboding of the disaster this would bring upon the country” (61).

For many reasons, the relationship between the Iraqis and the British had been complicated. As Elie Kedourie noted — in a book written in the shadow of brutal Ba’ath reprisals after the first Gulf War — it was the British who were ultimately responsible for the descent of Iraq into factional bloodshed and military dictatorship, precisely because of the sectarian political settlement they had designed and upheld:

The newly-invented polity was…fragmented from the very beginning. The original fault lines have become, if anything, more pronounced with every change of regime. The Kurdish and Shi’a uprisings in the aftermath of the Iraqi defeat at the hands of the U.S. in 1991 eloquently show the abiding disaffection of the majority of the population towards rule from Baghdad. (62) 

Kedouri argued that an Iraqi state headed by a foreign King and governed by urban Sunni officers and officials “could not, parliament or no parliament, be governed constitutionally or within the rule of law” (63). The state established by Churchill, Cox and Bell therefore contained the seeds of its own destruction and the descent of Iraqi nationalism into genocide and totalitarianism also had its roots in British policy. Because Iraq was never fully annexed by the empire, British power was wielded in back rooms and through proxies, which simply created a different kind of resentment that festered and then exploded. Inspired by fascism and Nazism, Iraqi nationalism was, from birth, authoritarian, militaristic, antisemitic and anti-British. In her memoir, Tamara Chalabi describes the darkness and brutality that consumed Baghdad during the Second World War, inspired by Hitler who briefly courted the Iraqi nationalists. This set the scene for the execution of the royal family in 1958, the destruction of constitutional government and the slow suffocation of the Jewish community of Baghdad. In each case, British power and anybody associated with it was the target of violence and revolution. 

The interesting thing about the British engagement with Iraq during the Ba’ath era was how ahistorical it was. Modern Iraq was a British creation but all sense of ownership or responsibility had long vanished. Ann Clwyd’s campaigns on behalf of the Kurds and the Iraqi exiles were conducted in the context of international human rights, but without any real sense of the link between British imperial history and the tragic progress of Iraqi nationalism. Conservative trade policy with Iraq in the late 1980s was not even an attempt to revive old historical ties, it was simply a very modern, very grubby tale of cynicism and avarice. The Gulf War, Desert Fox and the Iraq War all occurred within a context defined by America and any British policy in Iraq was therefore almost identical to that of the U.S. Blair understood this to be the existential basis of British foreign policy and acted accordingly. The British occupation of Basra turned into a transactional commitment that, ultimately, proved too costly. The echoes of Britain’s past were nothing more than a liability during this mission: a source of tension, a provocation, a reproach. But they also taunted the British, cruelly exposing decline and fall relative to new global powers and forces, so they were best ignored. The British story in Iraq ended, finally, with Blair’s own epitaph, delivered in the form of the Chilcot Report.

As David Fromkin wrote in his account of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, “the shadows that accompanied the British rulers wherever they went in the Middle East were in fact their own” (64). This remained as true in 2003 as it had been in 1916.

  1. Quoted in Janet Wallach, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia (Phoenix Giant, 1999), p.296
  2. Quoted in Wallach, p.295
  3. Gertrude Bell, A Woman in Arabia: The Writings of the Queen of the Desert, ed. Georgina Howell (Penguin, 2015), p.165
  4. Quoted in Wallach, p.154
  5. Quoted in David Fromkin, A Peace to End All Peace: the Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East (Holt, 1989), p.453
  6. Quoted in Fromkin, p.503
  7. Tamara Chalabi,  Late for Tea at the Deer Palace: The Lost Dreams of My Iraqi Family (HarperPress, 2011), p.274
  8. Ann Clwyd, ‘See men shredded, then say you don’t back war’, The Times, March 18, 2003
  9. Ann Clwyd, Rebel With a Cause (Biteback, 2017), p.274
  10. Clwyd, p.264
  11. Clwyd, p.255
  12. Clwyd, p.274
  13. Clwyd, p.241
  14. Quoted in Richard Bonin, Arrows of the Night: Ahmad Chalabi and the Selling of the Iraq War (Anchor Books, 2011), p.114
  15. Andrew Roberts, Churchill: Walking With Destiny (Allen Lane, 2018), p.283
  16. Clwyd, p.248
  17. Quoted in Bonin, p.81. 
  18. Clwyd, p.255
  19. Clwyd, p.261
  20. See Hansard: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200203/cmhansrd/vo030226/debtext/30226-22.htm
  21. Clwyd, p.279
  22. Alistair Campbell, The Alastair Campbell Diaries, Volume 4: The Burden of Power — Countdown to Iraq (Arrow, 2013), p.469
  23. Quoted in Tony Blair, A Journey (Arrow, 2011), p.439
  24. Quoted in Richard Norton-Taylor, Mark Lloyd and Stephen Cook, Knee Deep in Dishonour: the Scott Report and its Aftermath (Gollancz, 1996), p.48
  25. Quoted in Norton-Taylor et al., p.19
  26. Clwyd, p.227
  27. Quoted in Norton-Taylor et al., p.13
  28. Quoted in Norton-Taylor et al., pps.140-1
  29. Clwyd, pps. 175-6
  30. Quoted in Anthony Seldon, Blair (The Free Press, 2005), p.387
  31. Blair, p.222
  32. See BBC News, Texts and Transcripts, December 17, 1998: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/events/crisis_in_the_gulf/texts_and_transcripts/236932.stm
  33. Steve Boggan, ‘Election 97: Patriotic Blair sets out global vision’, Independent, April 21, 1997: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/election-97-patriotic-blair-sets-out-global-vision-1268592.html
  34. Tony Blair, ‘The Doctrine of the International Community’ in The Neocon Reader, ed. Irwin Stelzer (Grove Atlantic, 2004), p.112
  35. Radek Sikorski, ‘Interview with Paul Wolfowitz’, Prospect, December 2004
  36. Wilfred Thesiger, The Marsh Arabs (Penguin, 1964), p.14
  37. Thesiger, p.59
  38. Thesiger, p.61
  39. Thesiger, p.99
  40. Hamid al-Bayati, From Dictatorship to Democracy: An Insider’s Account of the Iraqi Opposition to Saddam (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), p.30
  41. Rory Stewart, Occupational Hazards (Picador, 2007), p.8
  42. Stewart, p.82
  43. Stewart, p.276
  44. Stewart, p.296
  45. Stewart, p.297
  46. Stewart, p.35
  47. Emma Sky, The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq (Atlantic, 2015), p.136
  48. Sky, p.148
  49. Sky, p.281
  50. Steve Vincent, ‘Switched Off in Basra’, New York Times, July 31 2005: https://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/31/opinion/switched-off-in-basra.html
  51. Sky, p.167
  52. Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor, The Endgame: the Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, From George W. Bush to Barack Obama (Vintage, 2013), p.466
  53. Gordon and Trainor, p.481
  54. Sky, p.281
  55. Sky, p.352
  56. Sky, p.70
  57. Bell, p.248
  58. Bell, p.249
  59. Chalabi, p.185
  60. Dexter Filkins, The Forever War (Vintage, 2009), pps. 332-3
  61. Sky, p.50
  62. Elie Kedourie, Democracy and Arab Political Culture (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1992), p.31
  63. Kedourie, p.32
  64. Fromkin, p.468

 

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The Writing Racket: Balzac’s ‘Lost Illusions’

During his lifetime, Balzac’s debts were as famous as his novels and more widely discussed than his love affairs. Money was the great unifying subject of La Comédie humaine and the legal and moral dimensions of debt were an important subcategory that he treated with great care and attention. In his novel Les Souffrances de l’inventeur — the third book of Illusions perdues — the provincial printer David Sechard is financially ruined by three promissory notes forged by his brother-in-law Lucien de Rubempré, a poet and journalist driven to desperation by the carnivorous world of literary Paris. The book details various aspects of debt collection: the extortionate fees added by creditors and their lawyers to increase the sum total owed; the character and methods of their ruthless bailiffs; the lengths taken and tricks required by debtors to avoid losing their possessions and even their liberty. This was a subject, like most others, that Balzac knew a lot about, in this case through personal experience. Balzac owed money to practically everybody he knew: friends, family members, bankers and other writers; his greatest money lenders included Baron James de Rothschild, his Polish lover Eveline Hanska and his own mother (who he also accused of ruining his life). For Balzac, borrowing and owing money was an expression of love and friendship, but to his friends and lovers it was a consistent source of irritation and despair. In 1838, Théophile Gautier noticed a black-bound book on Balzac’s shelf titled Comptes melancoliques and asked what it was. “You can keep it,” Balzac replied, “It’s an unpublished work, but it has its value” (1): the book was a record of unpaid bills and summonses. Returning from one of his periodic trips to Italy, where he was consistently and gratifyingly fêted by local aristocracy, he visited his financial advisers in Paris to review the situation: each one told him that his best course of action was to flee the city immediately, which he did. Balzac’s debts multiplied throughout his life, pushing him to artistic immortality and an early grave: the ferocious creative energy that produced La Comédie humaine and destroyed his health was generated by the desperate need to pay off his creditors as much as any of his other motivations (although he rarely paid them anyway). Whether consciously or not, owing large sums of money to lots of people gave Balzac focus by providing an immediate material need for his prodigious, coffee-fueled writing bouts. 

As Balzac shows us in Illusions perdues, debt was the common lot of the Parisian writer without independent means during the venal and materialistic years of the second Bourbon Restoration and the July Monarchy. For the parasitic hacks of the petits journaux, popular commercial novelists and playwrights like Eugene Sue and contemporary masters like Victor Hugo, spending money was the only way to establish a career as any kind of writer in Paris. As the publisher Dauriat explains bluntly to Lucien when negotiating the purchase of his first book of poems Les Marguerites, “fame costs twelve thousand francs in reviews and three thousand francs in dinners” (2). This was partly reality, and partly a philosophy, and one that Balzac practiced fully: he borrowed money he did not have, to spend money that he had not yet earned in order to increase his prospects of artistic and commercial success through expensive social climbing, thereby earning the money he needed to pay back his creditors. As Eugène de Rastignac tells Raphaël de Valentin in La Peau de chagrin, “When a man spends his time squandering his fortune, he’s very often on to a good thing: he is investing his capital in friends, pleasure, protectors and acquaintances” (3). The problem was that Balzac’s extravagant instincts always outran his earning capacity and his speculations invariably led to losses and ruin, often through bad luck and unfortunate timing rather than any inherent flaw in his schemes. (It is striking that his fictional speculators such as Baron de Nucingen invariably made better financial decisions than Balzac ever did in his own life, but also how often his real life ventures led to success for others at a later stage.)

Balzac always tried to make a distinction between purely commercial hack work written to pay the bills, and serious artistic production — a distinction marked in his own life by the early medieval romance and Gothic horror stories published under the pseudonyms Lord R’Hoone and Horace de Saint Aubin and the novels published under his own name, starting with Les Chouans in 1829. The two worlds of commerce and art are segregated morally and aesthetically in Illusions perdues by the dramatic contrast drawn between the cynical journalistic milieu of Etienne Lousteau and the ascetic circle of Daniel D’Arthez and the ‘Cenacle’. But for Balzac this distinction was never so clear in practice: all of his work, including his greatest novels, was driven by commercial considerations and pressing financial needs. When Balzac described himself as “a natural accountant” to Eve Hanska she responded with justifiable scorn, having just seen a large chunk of her own money squandered on his railway investments and his purchase and lavish decoration of a house on the Champs-Élysées that she did not ask for or want, but in one way he was correct: he could exactly calibrate the material return on writing words and paid extremely close attention to his own earning potential. The journalists and publishers of Un Grand homme de province à Paris — the second volume of Illusions perdues — quantify books and magazine columns, lines and words, in precise remunerative and temporal detail, in exactly the same way that Balzac did in his own life. When Lucien first enters the offices of a Paris newspaper he watches an unnamed writer register a complaint to the editor about his pay: “Look here, Giroudeau…my count is eleven columns, and at five francs each that makes fifty-five francs. I’ve only had forty, therefore you still owe me fifteen francs…” (4). Later, the literary shark Finot offers Lousteau a position on a liberal newspaper he has just gained control of in the following terms: “You’ll get paid for all the articles at a rate of five francs a column: in this way you can reap a bonus of fifteen francs a day by only paying three francs a column and by saving on unpaid articles” (5). Lousteau also schools Lucien in the critics’ art of selling complementary theatre seats and review copies of books for extra spending money, a practice close to the heart of all freelance critics. Because of the precarious and highly competitive position of the professional writer, each word is measured in money, energy and time, and life is a desperate scramble for new sources of income, however small.

In Balzac’s own life as well as the corrupt world of Lousteau, a mercenary attitude to creation was necessary for success if not survival — but where Balzac resembled D’Arthez is that he was also willing to work for it. As early as 1819, before he had written a novel and when he was planning his abortive verse drama Cromwell, Balzac could already reason: “a tragedy is normally supposed to contain 2000 lines. That means having between 8 and 10,000 thoughts, without counting all the other thoughts needed for the ideas, the plan, the characters, the customs of the time…” (6). A list of projects scribbled on a note from 1822 is headed, “ORDER OF THE DAY. Make 3000 francs or it’s Dishonour, Destitution and Co.” (7). Despite his veneration of D’Arthez, Balzac himself could be stung by the misplaced purism of part of the Parisian literary elite:

He felt it to be hypocrisy when a writer like Astolphe de Custine, whose inherited fortune permitted him to disdain the one he might have gained by his pen, spoke in praise of asceticism and the pride of Rousseau as opposed to the writers who commercialised their talents. Balzac replied that Rousseau’s Confessions contain a lengthy account of the negotiations which finally brought him an income of 600 francs, and that Racine, like Moliere and Boileau, had not been above accepting royal patronage. A writer in 1837, if he wished to earn a living, was obliged to take account of popular taste and the bookseller’s convenience. (8)

The world of writers is divided by the high ideals of art and the low reality of making a living and this divide spawns hypocrisy, duplicity, treachery and corruption. Un Grand homme de province à Paris is an unsparing exposé of “the writing racket”: “how publishers pull their strings and how literary reputations are concocted…the play of wheels within wheels in Parisian life, the machinery behind it all” (9). In Balzac’s world money determines human agency, and the composition of the first volume of Illusions perdues — titled Les Deux poètes and published in 1837 — was a good example of the material demands of the book trade that Balzac describes. In 1836, the publisher Madame Bechet filed an injunction that required him to deliver the final two volumes he owed her within twenty-four days, or face a fine of fifty francs for each day’s delay. In response, Balzac left Paris and wrote Les Deux poètes — a rich portrait of the social mores, class relations, provincial bigotry and romantic dreams of the inhabitants of Angoulême, all drawn in precise historic and geographical detail — within twenty days. As Balzac’s biographer Andre Maurois wrote, “he had never written anything better. Misfortune lent an edge to his gifts…” (10).

If the first volume of Illusions perdues, completed in such circumstances, was fueled by “bitter melancholy” then the second volume seemed to be driven by deeper furies: the romantic illusions of poetry and the literary life, shared by Lucien and his mentor and lover Madame de Bargeton in the provincial isolation of Angoulême, are systematically dismantled by the hard, materialistic reality of Paris. But this ruthless destruction of illusions is experienced not just by Lucien, but also any reader who shares his idealised assumptions: literature is reduced to a product and writing is exposed as a trade that, on its wilder fringes, shares overlaps with the criminal underworld (as Lousteau demonstrates, to Lucien’s horror, blackmail is an important weapon in a journalist’s arsenal). Balzac takes care to describe the different types of publishers active in Paris in the 1820s but they are all united by their lack of scruples and hostility to any work that does not sell: poetry, in particular, is treated with mockery and disdain because, just like now, hardly anybody buys it. Lucien’s illusions about the material, rather than aesthetic, worth of his debut volume Les Marguerites do not last beyond his first exposure to the publishers of the Galeries de Bois, who also operate as booksellers and wholesalers: “‘I shouldn’t have gone there,’ he told himself; but he was nonetheless struck by the brutally materialistic aspect that literature could assume” (11). (It is worth noting here that Lucien’s sonnets were actually written by and purchased from Charles Laissally and Théophile Gautier for unattributed use in the novel.) Publishers are “speculators in literature” and, like newspaper editors, exploit their considerable positions of power over writers. The worth of literature is defined by the volumes sold, and by this calculation poetry has no value at all. 

The reality of power in the literary marketplace and its relation to both money and social prestige is the key to Balzac’s savage portrayal of the trade of journalism, to which Lucien succumbs and which totally corrupts him. Balzac’s enmity for the press is ferocious (“an inferno, a bottomless pit of iniquity, falsehood and treachery,” 12) and so it is worth remembering that all of the corrupt and cynical practices and attitudes he portrays are ones that he had himself used and held as a newspaper critic. The fact that by the time he came to write Un grand homme de province à Paris he had also been the victim of a coordinated critical assault partly explains the fury of his exposé. The book was a brave and reckless attack on the press from which Balzac suffered for the rest of his life. However, like Milton, who he read carefully, Balzac could not contain the allure of evil. In Paris Lucien is caught between two mentors, D’Arthez and his “system of resigned poverty” and dedication to art, and Lousteau’s “militant doctrine” of money, intrigue, immediate gratification and temporary fame. The austere scribe in his dank garret is no competition for Lousteau’s dark energy and dangerous wit and Lucien is easy prey. The journalist’s Satanic soliloquy in the Luxembourg Gardens, directly inspired by Lucien’s guileless recital of his sonnets, is the triumphant, bleak, black heart of the novel, a tour de force of applied cynicism and ferocious materialism. “I soon discovered the hard facts of the writer’s trade, the difficulty of getting into print and the brutal reality of poverty,” Lousteau begins, “underneath your beautiful dream-world is the turmoil of men, passions and needs” (13). Literature is a world of “systematic warfare” and “ignoble conflicts”, where success and failure is decided “behind the scenes”; for Lousteau, as for Lucien, the effort is impossible to sustain without the material benefits of journalism, a system of conditional alliance, commercial opportunism, bribery, plagiarism and targeted polemic. Lousteau, like Lucien, has followed the flight from the provinces to the capital in search of literary fame, only to “fall into the pit of misery, the mire of journalism, the morass of the book-trade.” In the face of such disappointment, journalism becomes a method of survival and a weapon to be used: “at this trade,” Lousteau explains, “as a hired assassin of ideas, industrial, literary and dramatic reputations — I make fifty francs a week.” Fame costs money, but also depends on the courage to take chances and the ability to create luck: 

outside the literary world…there’s not a single person who knows what a fearful Odyssey one has to pass through in order to acquire what one must call, according to the diversity of talents, popularity, vogue, reputation, renown, celebrity, public favour, the successive rungs of the ladder leading to fame…the attainment of this brilliant zenith depends on so many and so rapidly varying chances that no example has occurred of any two men reaching it by the same route. 

The force of this exposition came from Balzac’s own bitter struggle for success and its truth can be confirmed by any writer working today who is prepared to be honest about their own success or their failure.

What Balzac registers in the characters of Lousteau and the other editors and critics he creates in Illusions perdues (Finot, Blondet, Lucien himself) is the simple power of the press to make or destroy reputations, whether among the aristocrats of the Faubourg Saint-Germain or the playwrights and actresses of the Parisian stages. This power is both seductive and absolute so long as you do not become its target, from which few are safe. Lousteau illustrates this power and its attractions to Lucien, as the poet prepares to write his first theatre review and seal the stage reputation of his future lover, Coralie:

Be hard and witty for a month or two, you’ll be swamped with invitations and actresses’ parties; you’ll be courted by their lovers…At five o’clock this evening, at the Luxembourg, you didn’t know what to do with yourself: now you’re about to become one of the hundred privileged persons who foist their opinions on the French public. In three days’ time, if we succeed, by printing thirty bon mots at the rate of three per diem you can make a man curse the day he was born; you can draw a regular income — in sensual pleasure — from all the actresses in your theatre; you can make a good play fall flat and send the whole of Paris flocking to a bad one. (14)

For Lucien, like Balzac and like any writer, the temptations and satisfactions are multiple and overlapping: they include desire, revenge, influence, intrigue and fame, with money and art somewhere on the list too. Lucien is quickly seduced by the well-dressed, hard-drinking, fast-spending, sharp-witted journalists of the theatre boxes, admiring and then emulating “the damascene armour of their vices and the glittering helmet of their cold analysis…the atrocious power they wielded” (15).

The practice of journalism in Restoration Paris is unavoidably and enjoyably corrupting: writing, for Lousteau, Finot, Blondet and Lucien, serves political ends that exist apart from principles. Opinions are formulated in line with immediate circumstances, as Finot declares when launching his liberal magazine: “although my opinions are undergoing a necessary transformation so that I can take over the editorship of the Review of whose destinies you are aware, my convictions remain the same…Circumstances vary, principles don’t change” (16). In this atmosphere, art is also closely linked, and even subordinated, to politics: Balzac takes care to elucidate the connections between the literary movements and political parties of the Restoration era. During Finot’s magazine launch, Lousteau even drags Lucien’s sonnets into the conflict, exploiting their aesthetic properties as a political weapon: 

We want to be useful to our new comrade. Lucien has two books to publish: a collection of sonnets and a novel. The power of the paragraph must make him a great poet within three months! We’ll use his Marguerites in order to decry Odes, Ballads and Meditations, in fact all Romantic poetry. (17)

In the 1820s — the time period of Illusions perdues — French literary romanticism was influenced by Walter Scott and medievalism and aligned with the Catholicism and monarchism of the Bourbon restoration. Louis XVIII was a patron of poetry and helped establish the career of Victor Hugo by giving him a pension of 1000 francs. For the arts, the atmosphere of Restoration France was a relief after the austere and censored years of the Empire. In this context, then, liberalism and republicanism stood in opposition to romanticism, a situation that would reverse in the years preceding the revolution of 1830 and the July Monarchy. After Lucien has recited his first sonnet in the Luxembourg Gardens, Lousteau’s immediate response is: “Are you a classicist or a romantic?” The significance of this question has to be explained to Lucien:

My friend you are coming into the thick of a fierce battle and must make a prompt decision. Literature is primarily divided into several zones; but our great men are divided into two camps. The royalists are romantics, the liberals are classicists. Divergence in literary opinion is added to divergence in political opinion: hence war between fading and budding reputations, a war in which no weapons are barred: ink spilt in torrents, cutting epigrams, stinging calumnies, unrestrained abuse…If you stand aloof you will stand alone. Which side will you take? (18)

Lucien’s answer is the correct one and reveals his future development before he has even taken one first step in that direction: “Which is the stronger party?” Political and aesthetic territory is clearly demarcated and determines the decisions made about literary success and failure. Book reviews do not describe the relative worth of the work: they are used as the starting point for a political polemic, and aesthetic merit is therefore decided by political utility. There is, of course, no guarantee that the reviewer even shares the political opinions that he is espousing in order to make or break a reputation. This, then, is the art of criticism that Lucien, under Lousteau’s tutelage, masters. 

If art is subordinated to politics then the literary world is also a world of political alliance and rivalry. As Lousteau tells Lucien early on, success requires influential friends and powerful allies: networking is key. “Today, in order to succeed, one needs to be in with such people. It’s all a matter of chance, you see. The most dangerous thing is to churn out wit all alone in the corner” (19). Lucien’s career is destroyed when he switches literary and political allegiance too abruptly: he does not prepare the ground in order to retain the subterranean loyalty of his former allies and so finds himself isolated. Balzac draws a sharp distinction between the conditional and parasitic alliances between journalists and the true bond of friendship and mutual esteem that exists between artists, idealised in Balzac’s group portrait of the Cenacle. The world of journalism is defined by competition and riven by jealousy, and Balzac, a keen observer of human types, has a lot to say about the special quality of envy that exists between writers. When Lucien recites one of his better sonnets, he is chilled by Lousteau’s “inscrutable calm”:

Had he had more experience of literary life, he would have known that, with writers, silence and curtness in such circumstances betoken the jealousy aroused by a fine work, just as their admiration denotes the pleasure they feel on listening to a mediocre work which confirms them in their self-esteem. (20)

Lousteau enlightens Lucien to the behaviour that results from this professional rivalry: “believe me, the author in fashion is harder and more insolent towards newcomers than the most brutal publisher: the one shows you out, the other tramples on you” (21). Vanity is also key to the psychology of writers: “no words, no description can depict the fury of writers when their amour-propre is wounded, nor the energy they can tap when they feel the prick of the poisoned darts of mockery” (22). In 1825, Balzac’s friend Jean Thomassy had written to warn him that “the whole-time man of letters is always tainted with envy; whereas those with other resources are only light-heartedly envious, having achieved other things” (23). When Balzac received this letter he had already reached the point of exhaustion and disgust with the machinations and intrigues of literary Paris. He knew the savage resentment that talent and success bred in this milieu having experienced an intense critical backlash caused by the jealousy of his contemporaries. His friends tried very hard to destroy him. Lucien, who matches good looks with a flair for elegant polemic, has an immediate impact with his first theatre review to a degree that sets up his downfall, as Balzac hints early on:

Looking at Lousteau, he thought: ‘There’s a friend!’ without suspecting that Lousteau already feared him as a dangerous rival. Lucien had made the mistake of expending too much wit: a dull article would have served him admirably. Blondet counterbalanced the envy that was gnawing at Lousteau by telling Finot that one had to surrender to such forceful talent. This verdict determined Lousteau’s conduct: he resolved to remain friendly with Lucien and come to an understanding with Finot in order to exploit so dangerous a newcomer by keeping him in a state of need. (24)

Thus begins Lucien’s sensual corruption and descent into debt, partly orchestrated by his friends and rivals in order to neutralise him and destroy him if necessary (it proves necessary). 

This network of alliance and rivalry underpins the rise and fall of reputations. Critical reviews are not to be taken at face value: in Balzac’s Paris they do not necessarily describe or evaluate a work of art, but serve a function in a social and professional matrix. Balzac knew this because he was part of it: he had written many rave reviews about his own books under pseudonyms in journals that were friendly to him. He had also seen his best novels consistently attacked by his rivals despite, and usually because of, his success and fame across Europe. According to Balzac, the literary world of the 1820s was a world of fabricated reviews, paid applause, reputational sabotage and professional treachery. In this environment, it was necessary for a writer to trade in duality and duplicity in order to succeed. Artistic principles and professional integrity are among the illusions that Lucien loses. The work of journalism is the creation of illusion: opinions do not reflect real convictions but temporary tactical positions that remain invisible to the readers. In Restoration Paris, journalists and writers were closely tied to the theatre and the underworld of prostitution and in Balzac’s novel theatre and prostitution also function as metaphors for writers and writing. Lucien, unable to resist the pleasures of the theatre, its actresses and artists, as well as the aristocrats who form the theatre-going elite, glimpses the unreality of this world on his first visit backstage with Lousteau: 

The magic of the scenery, the spectacle of pretty women filling the boxes, the blazing lights, the resplendent enchantment of back-cloths and new costumes gave place to coldness, desolation, darkness, emptiness. Everything looked hideous. Lucien’s surprise was indescribable. (25) 

It is in the end no more alluring than the garret, but more likely to lead to defeat and decadence and destitution. The young, hungry writer, dazzled by his own power, fueled by vanity and the need to pay for his place in the dance, is unable to see the reality or the danger of his position.

Reading Illusions perdues now it is easy to see it simply as a cautionary tale of a writer trying to make it in the big city, or to defuse it in the way that contemporary critics did as “a satirical view of the Parisian book trade” — or, perhaps worst of all, to enervate it using the jargon of critical theory as a “reflexive novel” (26). I mean, it is all of these things, but the energy and relevance of the book resides in its violently offensive qualities and Balzac’s willingness to expose the vanities and delusions of his own world. This is fissile material because the rivalries, motivations and the conditions of writing and publishing that Balzac describes still exist, but with updated variations and innovations. Balzac’s social networking among the literary and aristocratic elites of Paris, the control he attempted to maintain over his own image, the money he spent on champagne, tailored clothes and elaborate canes “of gold or rhinoceros-horn gleaming with precious stones” (27) foreshadow the marketing demands made of writers today: the need to publicise yourself on social media, to develop and protect your brand on behalf of publishing agents, in order to secure future work. Meanwhile, and miraculously, writers remain infatuated with their own profile, a situation intensified and limited by the very social media platforms they depend upon for success. In the same way that Lucien discovers, too late, that he is not really free to write what he thinks, writers today find themselves captured by the social and rhetorical limits and expectations of their niche publics. They must be careful what they write or say on all occasions and across all platforms to avoid losing their constituency of readers and allies and, indeed, prospects of work. At the same time they also need to provide a consistent  stream of topical commentary, however unnecessary or perfunctory, in order to maintain visibility; ideas and opinions, in this context, do not really exist for their own sake, but to advertise and protect the position of a writer within a social and professional network, just like Restoration Paris. Finally, payment remains precarious, with writers being exposed to  similar exploitations and temptations as Lucien in 1821, and being forced to find income streams anywhere they can like Balzac throughout his own career. Over this whole pitiless landscape hovers the grey clouds of publishing schedules, portfolios and KPIs. 

So Balzac was not sitting in splendid isolation composing a philosophical construction: Un Grand homme de province à Paris was not La Peau de chagrin, it was a declaration of total war on the literary elite of Paris and the nascent world of commercial publishing, gestating in the 1820s and still present now. Balzac took the material reality of professional writing apart piece by piece — from the production of paper to the economics of printing to the critical stratagems that make or break careers, and everything in between — laying it all out for his readers to look upon and, presumably, recoil from. This was not a literary experiment, or a joke: it had serious implications for him, both personally and professionally. Aside from the fact that he didn’t really write very good plays, Balzac did not stand a chance on the Parisian stage after Illusions perdues: the critics not only demolished him in their theatre reviews, but, in the manner outlined in his book, they paid for hostile audiences. “They want to scalp me,” he commented after The Princess of Modena opened to a carefully arranged empty house, “and I want to drink out of their skulls” (28).

The novel, then, both portrayed and embodied the mixed motivations of writers and writing: in the case of Balzac and his cast of hacks and geniuses in Illusions perdues that included the pursuit of money and fame, basic creative and erotic needs, the desire to dominate society and catalogue all its aspects, and the hunger for revenge. Here, vengeance overwhelmed material self-interest as he laid waste to the reputations of an entire class of Parisian writers. In this way, Illusions perdues displays the same reckless, spiteful, self-destructive aggression later seen in Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir Making It. Like Balzac, Podhoretz had the bad taste to reveal the dirty secrets of his contemporaries: in this case, the fact that American writers in the 1960s, despite their bohemian pretensions, pursued wealth and prestige as ruthlessly as the despised business classes, but were just more hypocritical about it. For his intellectual honesty and Brooklyn brashness, Podhoretz was ostracised by the New York literary elites and the reviews of Making It effectively ended his career as a fêted liberal intellectual, in the same way Balzac faced the injured pride and petulant rage of the Parisian critics for the rest of his life. But the attraction of Balzac’s and Podhoretz’s ugly books was that they ruthlessly stripped away hypocritical illusions by exposing the material relations and personal ambitions that underpin the world of writers and writing. To this end they functioned as valuable correctives to the colossal self-regard of the literary world. 

  1. Quoted in André Maurois, Prometheus: The Life of Balzac, trans. Norman Denny (Pelican, 1971), p.404
  2. Honoré de Balzac, Lost Illusions, trans. Herbert J. Hunt (Penguin, 1971), p.275
  3. Honoré de Balzac, The Wild Ass’s Skin, trans. Herbet J. Hunt (Penguin, 1977), pp.118-19
  4. Lost Illusions, pp.231-2
  5. Lost Illusions, p.287
  6. Quoted in Graham Robb, Balzac (Picador, 1994), p.58
  7. Quoted in Robb, p.90
  8. Maurois, p.409
  9. Lost Illusions, p.409
  10. Maurois, p.336
  11. Lost Illusions, p.202
  12. Lost Illusions, p.229
  13. Lost Illusions, p.245
  14. Lost Illusions, p.290
  15. Lost Illusions, pp.317-18
  16. Lost Illusions, p.346
  17. Lost Illusions, p.348
  18. Lost Illusions, p.240
  19. Lost Illusions, p.277
  20. Lost Illusions, p.242
  21. Lost Illusions, p.250
  22. Lost Illusions, p.440
  23. Quoted in Maurois, p.128
  24. Lost Illusions, pp.311-12
  25. Lost Illusions, p.300
  26. See Sotirios Paraschas, ‘Illusions perdues: Writers, Artists and the Reflexive Novel’ in The Cambridge Companion to Balzac (Cambridge University Press, 2017)
  27. Maurois, p.305
  28. Quoted in Maurois, p.490
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On Marvin Gaye’s ‘Midnight Love’

In February 1981 Marvin Gaye moved to the seaside town of Ostend in Belgium, as a guest of the concert promoter Freddy Cousaert. This was a rescue mission for Cousaert, as well as an unmissable opportunity: a fan of Gaye, he had found him holed up in the Britannia Hotel in London, depressed, physically ill, freebasing cocaine, surrounded by prostitutes and drug dealers. Running from one acrimonious divorce, a second collapsing marriage, record company conflict and enormous IRS debts, Gaye’s global route took him from L.A. to Hawaii to London and finally the cold shore of Belgium. Here, immersed in North Sea air and coastal tranquility, he got comparatively healthy: he liked the old world of Europe, so far from his family and Motown, the federal authorities and tax collectors, and in this unlikely haven took up physical exercise again, cycling along the seafront and running along the beaches. He also started to play and produce new music at European gigs arranged by Cousaert and recording sessions with Odell Brown and Gordon Banks at Katy Recording Studios in Ohain. What eventually came out of this was a hit record for CBS that was trashy and banal but also struggled to hide the scars of deeper conflict and unhealthy impulses.  

Midnight Love is in a lot of ways a bad record and is considered a sad (if lucrative) coda to the Motown run. But it is also a fascinating album that documents the closing stages of emotional and physical dissolution even as it aims for uncomplicated mainstream appeal. All of this conflict and contradiction is distilled on ‘Sexual Healing’ — the global, immortal smash hit that barely conceals the wreckage beneath its shining, fragile surface. Forty years later the disconnect between this song and the reality of its creation is complete, which was maybe the intention: the overall effect is like a disguise or a cover-up, smothering anguish between the sheets. So symbolic and ubiquitous, it is difficult to remember a world in which this song didn’t exist to talk about sex in the most obvious way possible: it created a cliche. But the poison and anguish underlying it was only partially obscured by the exquisite exterior: if you listen carefully to the details and the context of its composition then you get something different altogether. 

There is some debate about the origin of the lyric. In April 1982, Rolling Stone sent David Ritz to Ostend to interview Gaye and, as Ritz later wrote in his biography A Divided Soul, “the song was born out of our conversation concerning pornography. Gaye’s apartment was filled with sadomasochistic magazines and books by George Pichard, a European cartoonist in whose drawings women were sexually brutalised. I suggested that Marvin needed sexual healing, a concept which broke his creative block.” Ritz claimed a lot for this conversation and sued for royalties, eventually receiving credit after settling out of court with the Gaye family, but a lot of other people who were there (including all the musicians involved) disputed the extent and details of his contribution. Whatever the case, the story makes as much sense as anything else because ‘Sexual Healing’ does not truly drag Gaye out of the dirt even though it superficially aspires to.

One of the interesting things about Gaye as a singer, writer and producer is his interest in sex. This side of his work is sometimes considered to be a decline from the socially committed peak of What’s Going On, but the personal drama of his 1970s opened up vast psychological and sexual terrain for Gaye to explore and resulted in his greatest records. Let’s Get It On (1973) was an uncomplicated carnal statement compared to the sumptuous, symphonic masterpiece I Want You. On this later album — recorded in 1976 in Gaye’s newly built recording studio that was partly modeled on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy pad — the ego was fractured in layers of multi-tracked vocals and overdubbed strings, horns, ARP synthesizer and percussion assembled by Leon Ware and Gaye. It was a lush, expansive sound that existed on the edge of desire: dissolving agency in erotic reverie, seeking spiritual transcendence, yet racked with self-loathing and insecurity. On the other side stood Here, My Dear, the 1978 album that formed part of his divorce settlement to Anna Gordy. This financial arrangement provided Gaye with unexpected artistic inspiration, driven by a combination of resentment and regret: he composed an elongated address to Gordy that was part paean and part assault and would leave her threatening to sue for invasion of privacy. It was a massive monument to spite and petulance, but also an exceptionally beautiful album about the painful knot of love, sex and money.  Gaye relished the idea of Gordy listening to the likes of ‘Anna’s Song’, ‘You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You’ and ‘When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You’ but didn’t particularly want to be in the room when she did. Gordy later said, “I think he did it deliberately for the joy of seeing how hurt I could become.” Gaye replied, “all’s fair in love and war.”

Covering the same sort of territory as Let’s Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear, Midnight Love had a lot to live up to lyrically and sonically, and in the circumstances and on those terms it never stood a chance. But, unless you are a rock critic, that doesn’t matter at all: the album did different things, some successfully and some with real aesthetic aftershocks and thematic shadows in the unfolding decade. The creative core of the project was Gaye and the multi-instrumentalist and producer Gordon Banks, who recalled that “it was basically him and I in the studio. Columbia Records gave him some new toys to play with. They gave him two drum machines, a synthesizer called a Roland TR-808 and a Jupiter 8. Marvin didn’t know too much about technology so it was my job to figure out how to get the stuff working. He kind of liked the sounds that came from it and he went from there.” The album sounds just like this, too: a weird mix of casual lo-fi synthesizer experiments and complex guitar and vocal overdubs, with additional expenses such as the horn sections added by Harvey Fuqua back in L.A. The sound that Gaye and Banks got out of the Jupiter and the 808 had its own place in the world of New York Boogie, post-disco, Rick James and Prince; CBS executive producer Larkin Arnold also recalled that Gaye had been listening to a lot of reggae and Kraftwerk since his extended stay in London. Unlike his ARP-inflected 1970s work, Midnight Love was almost entirely synthetic and would help to ignite the era of electronic soul: Mtume’s 1983 smash ‘Juicy Fruit’, for example, was a direct descendant of ‘Sexual Healing’ (and another Arnold executive production). 

There is no doubt that ‘Sexual Healing’ is the outstanding product of this phase – nothing else Gaye did in what remained of his 1980s comes close. Strip away the years of radio rotation and descent into parody, strip away the lyrics, and you are left with beautifully layered, reggae-inflected synth-pop: there is a detailed poignancy to the track, with an undertow of pure melancholy, a sound texture that creates switches of tone and shards of melody, an effect verging on Pointillism. Add the lyrics back onto this and it becomes something else again: something much weirder than the lingerie and flowers clichés we now respond to or recoil from. The song is born out of sickness and despair, that much is clear (“I think I’m capsizing, the waves are rising and rising”) and the immediate remedy is to pick up the phone for “sexual healing” from a girlfriend — or even, the song suggests, a prostitute (“if you don’t know the thing you’re dealing…”). I’m “sick” Gaye declares (down the phone) and you are “my medicine”: “open up and let me in” he implores, “I can’t wait for you to operate.” He extends the medical metaphor and it’s just off, unpleasant: the sexuality is diseased but can be cured by sex as medication or a surgical operation, basically reducing to his default treatments of the time: drugs, pornography, prostitutes.

This kind of clinical and damaged approach to sensuality and seduction is the undertone of the entire album. ‘Til Tomorrow’ is a good example of this, a ballad made out of analogue synths and a saxophone worn like a rented tuxedo. Gaye somehow makes this combination sound as flat and queasy as possible, thereby capturing a certain congealed romantic ideal: rose petals scattered over black satin sheets; red lace underwear over taut, toned skin; champagne in crystal flutes and lines of coke chopped out on glass table tops in rooms decorated with pastel stucco and Art Deco panels. It sounds horrible, sleazy, ill, creepy, like something out of The New York Ripper. It’s a conceptualization of sex that matches the most obvious ideals and routines of the time, but exposes their corrupt instincts and damaged impulses. ‘Midnight Lady’ is a rushed ‘Super Freak’ rerun that simply exists to evoke the crepuscular underworld of nightclubbing: “They tell me something’s going on in the backroom,” Marvin sings, “did you save a line for the ladies?” The multilayered vocal on ‘Rockin’ After Midnight’ tries to revive the carnal reveries of I Want You but sounds thin, flat and empty over the fizzing electro-funk track, terribly brittle in comparison to its luxurious predecessor. Midnight Love was conceived as a cynical party record, a stab at commercial rather than spiritual resurrection, but the psychological ill-health and physical fatigue could not be concealed: it is evident in the sound and the edges of the words, not only on the skeletal synth experiments but also the exquisitely detailed hit single. In one way, it worked: CBS got their hit and Gaye returned in triumph to America, but the record also triggered the final unraveling of his entire life.

After Midnight Love things got even worse: hard to look at and to listen to, but still fascinating. Forced back on the type of tour he hated, Gaye resorted to tawdry stripteases at the end of his show: backing dancers ripped silk gowns off his back to reveal the former prince of Motown standing defeated in black underpants.  He had been obsessed with two apocalyptic scenarios since the conception of his final Motown album In Our Lifetime?: nuclear war and the rise of Teddy Pendergrass. The former, at least, was not exactly far-fetched around the time of Able Archer and KAL007, but it led to drug-fueled Messianic delusions: his mission, he informed a stupefied music journalist who interviewed him in London, was to “tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all those of higher consciousness who can be saved.” In the meantime, he remained surrounded by drug dealers, prostitutes, guns and thugs, arranged in a ring of steel to protect him from the assassination attempts he was convinced were coming. Living in this febrile, feverish atmosphere and still addicted to cocaine and porn, the relative health and stability of Ostend was a quickly receding memory by 1983. Locked in his sister’s apartment with Banks and a 4-track recorder, he continued further down the path set by Midnight Love but with added doses of paranoia, despair and disillusionment. ‘Masochistic Beauty’ was more low-voltage synthetic funk over which Gaye took the role of a sexual dominatrix, rapping in a mannered and slightly fey English accent, thereby uniting two things he loved: the British aristocracy and sadomasochistic pornography. ‘Sanctified Lady’ — originally titled ‘Sanctified Pussy’ — was Gaye’s final, obscene attempt to combine the carnal with the spiritual: the song, inevitably, communicated fatigue, sickness and contempt for the world, a vocoder-led provocation. He told Ritz: “It says: boyfriend here, girlfriend there. Herpes germs everywhere. Some girls do, some girls don’t. Some girls will, some girls won’t. I want a sanctified pussy.”

Hanging over Midnight Love and ‘Sexual Healing’ is the future, then, and this is where the poignancy and excess becomes unbearable: not just in terms of what happened next to Gaye, but what happened to everyone. In 1991, in ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders’, Camille Paglia wrote: “Everyone of my generation who preached free love is responsible for AIDS. The Sixties revolution in America collapsed because of its own excesses. It followed and fulfilled its own inner historical pattern, a fall from Romanticism into Decadence.” What Paglia directly addressed and what was often missing in Gaye’s own life was responsibility: for ideas and actions, their implications and outcomes. The ideals he sought in love and sex were purity, sweetness, monogamy and spiritual transcendence, but what he often courted or collapsed into was promiscuity, decadence, physical dissolution, emotional torment. From the healthy shag pile of Let’s Get It On to the sensual deluge of I Want You to the corrupt seduction of Midnight Love, Gaye’s aesthetic of sexual freedom — complex and conflicted in his case but essentially acting on and exploiting the libertarian impulse of the 1960s — would be damaged irreparably by HIV and AIDS. When Gaye released Midnight Love in 1982, the epidemic was only beginning to spread in San Francisco, New York and L.A., but its shadow falls back over the album and makes the sexual statements on it even bleaker. Through a retrospective lens and in this context, the medical metaphor of ‘Sexual Healing’ suddenly sounds darkly ironic and gruesomely articulate. 

 

 

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The Queen of Condé Nast

 

FACE_EVU_Anna-Wintour

I: Condé Nasties

On the surface, Anna Wintour took public humiliation well. It was easier when The Devil Wears Prada was just a book, even if it was a New York Times bestseller and progenitor of an entire literary micro-genre, the “Boss Betrayal” roman à clef. Lauren Weisberger’s 2003 debut was easy to dismiss as an extended employment grievance aired in public after the fact. It was bitter, entitled, devoid of wit and, crucially, insight into the character and the industry it took aim at. However painful for Wintour personally or professionally, the novel was, in all the important ways, a failure. The real threat came from Hollywood: specifically 20th Century Fox, who quickly brought the rights to adapt the story and scooped Meryl Streep for the role of Runway editor Miranda Priestly. To Wintour’s horror, Weisberger would join Peter Benchley and Mario Puzo as one of a select group of novelists whose most famous work would be made into far better blockbuster movies. The feared Vogue “editrix” was doomed to be parodied by a respected and loved Hollywood actress and she had no option but to put a brave face on it. Later she told Barbara Walters, “I thought the film was really entertaining. Anything that makes fashion entertaining and glamorous and interesting is wonderful for our industry. So, I was 100 percent behind it” (1). At the time, in order to make the point as sharply as possible, like an ice pick aimed directly at Weisberger’s skull, she attended an advanced screening of the film wearing Prada

Nobody doubted Wintour’s power. She warned every designer and fashion label beholden to Vogue to avoid collaborating with the film or face the consequences (in the event only Valentino dared to show his face on screen). While publicising the movie, Streep made sure that everybody knew that she had modeled her performance on somebody else entirely — somebody male, for good measure. Weisberger never publicly admitted that Miranda Priestly was based on Wintour and, in fact, gave the real life editor a cameo role towards the end of the novel (albeit one that made snide reference to the time Wintour was spotted crying at a fashion show after the death of her father). All of this dissembling was transparent, but not futile: it was necessary to avoid a lawsuit. The portrait of Priestly very closely resembled Wintour, except for the working class East End Jewish background which was the novelists’ main fictional embellishment (“from Jewish peasant to secular socialite” was her story, for whatever reason, 2). Priestly’s Runway office, put together for the film by Jess Gonchor’s attentive and mischievous production designers, looked almost identical to its real life model at Condé Nast HQ. As soon as the film came out, Wintour had her own office redesigned and refurbished. 

This was a public humiliation for Wintour: a high profile trashing of the industry she represented, her management style and her personal relationships. The vindictive nature of Weisberger’s creation resided in its intimacy: the physical similarities between Priestly and Wintour (“willowy…perfect posture…casual but supremely neat,” 3) serving to reinforce a more damaging psychological portrait:

How many girls had no idea that the object of their worship was a lonely, deeply unhappy, and oftentimes cruel woman who didn’t deserve the briefest moment of their innocent affection and attention? (4)

According to Vogue’s creative director Grace Coddington the book did hurt her boss, despite Wintour’s public steel and bravado. It was “the bane of Anna’s life” and never quite left her personally or professionally: 

Even ex-President Sarkozy mentioned it semi-jokingly in his speech at the official Elysee Palace ceremony in Paris before awarding her the Legion d’Honneur in 2011. But it’s not a joke. (5)

Plenty of people thought she deserved this, and it did not exactly backfire for Weisberger, who burned all of her fashion bridges with the act of writing, but did not get sued, got paid for the movie rights and launched her own writing career off the back of the scandal. But if her aim had been to diminish or even destroy Wintour’s reputation then her failure was, in the end, total. Weisbeger started a process that created a mass media icon out of a powerful magazine editor. The fact that you could reduce Wintour’s profile to a cartoon helmet bob and Chanel sunglasses, or a scenery-chewing Meryl Streep caricature, didn’t undermine her reputation or standing at all: in the event, it elevated it. 

Wintour, as a true Machiavellian, was perfectly able to retake control of the narrative, manipulating the post-Devil fall-out to serve her own ends. In 2007, she invited a film crew into the Vogue offices to make a documentary about her. Again, this could have, and in one way actually did, backfire: chilly, imperious, poised and distant, Wintour proved less interesting for the filmmakers than Coddington, who provided them with a perfect, flame-haired, Romantic foil, stomping around the corridors complaining about her pictures being axed by the boss. C.J. Cutler’s The September Issue, released in 2009, was enjoyable, then, for this voyeuristic portrayal of a fascinating professional relationship, although it didn’t really have anything more interesting to say about Wintour herself or the fashion industry than The Devil Wears Prada did. But as a record of the creation of one of the most important magazine issues in the world, the film excelled. In the thick of this process, Wintour was supreme: decisive, focused, in control of all elements, balancing the competing interests of business and art. Coddington had the grace to concede this in her memoir: “while I am often approached in the street as a kind of heroine of the film about Vogue, to my mind the point of it was to show the creative push and pull of the way Anna and I work together” (6). Or, as Tina Brown wrote of her one-time rival within the Condé Nast empire:

Wintour’s computation — which was shrewd — was that after living through (and pretending to love) Meryl Streep’s queen bitch parody of her in The Devil Wears Prada, she had nothing to lose. She would embrace her inner vampire. Let the public see in Cutler’s movie how she daily massacres the muse of Grace Coddington, Vogue’s inspirational creative director, and sails around looking aloof in the back of her sleek black limo. At least they would also see how hard she works…(7)

In fact, watching beyond the vampire revealed more than this: despite the arguments, tears and corridor-stomping, the final September issue of 2007 was a visual triumph, and, in the end, dominated by the editorial work of Coddington. So the point was: Wintour’s control of the final product, in line with her strict directives and decision-making process, was the result of her ability to encourage, to bully, to inspire and to discipline the creative teams that she had put together in the first place. Like the other great Condé Nast editors of her time — Diana Vreeland, Beatrix Miller, Tina Brown, Liz Tilberis and Franca Sozzani — Wintour was dominant and sublime in the role, a rare combination of curator, director, producer and businesswoman. At the apex of two deadly and competitive industries — fashion and magazines — Wintour not only survived, she thrived. The spare white spines of all her Vogue editions collected together on the shelves of her Long Island home amounted to a formidable body of work, for which she was primarily responsible. 

So, maybe that didn’t make her a very nice person to work for.

II: Use Your Elbows

I’m the Condé Nast hit man. I love coming in and changing magazines. 
Anna Wintour (8)

If the old world of magazines was a state of war, then New York was the main battleground. Magazine warfare was intimate and intense because of the similarities between the combatants and the limited territory which they contested. The quintessential New York conflict was fought between the New York Intellectuals of Partisan Review, Commentary, Dissent and the New York Review of Books, “a feisty, battling community”(9) who would eviscerate each other in their magazines and at each others cocktail parties all over the Upper West Side during the 1950s and 60s. The political and cultural distinctions being contested were so subtle and arcane that they could look absurd to the uninitiated (“I heard that Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery,” quipped Alvy Singer in Annie Hall), but this only made the fighting more fierce. In the world of fashion magazines and related glossies, the battles were equally intense and parochial: Vogue at war with Elle and Harper’s Bazaar; Condé Nast magazines at war with Hearst magazines; Condé Nast magazines at war with each other. Fashion editors fought vicious battles over clothes, models, and photographers. No prisoners were taken. During the Wintour-Tilberis hostilities of the early 1990s, for example, the photographer Patrick Demarchelier signed his Vogue death warrant by joining Tilberis to revive Harper’s Bazaar. (Coddington had to tread very carefully in this battle as Anna’s key fashion editor and Liz’s best friend.)

As cultural artifacts, magazines — particularly fashion magazines — are often ignored, dismissed or simply forgotten, but that is a mistake. Unlike a book or a painting, magazines are not designed for posterity: their life is in the immediate world, responsive to rapidly shifting trends, alive to the intricacies and intrigues of the moment. They reflect the world as it is — or thinks it should be, or dreams it will be — at the time of their production and consumption. Their impact has a limited life-span and is driven by the competing demands of culture and commerce. For this reason magazines age very well: old editions reveal details that are otherwise lost or written out of history. In particular, prestigious fashion titles like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar now provide an unparalleled visual history of the twentieth century, bordering the world of fine art and architecture and directly presenting the clothes, interiors, locations, photographic styles and beauty ideals of each year of each decade to the month. In an interview with the Guardian in 2006, Wintour proclaimed, “if you look at any great fashion photograph out of context, it will tell you as much about what is going on in the world as a headline in the New York Times” (10). She then lamely illustrated this by adding, “the clothes this season are very militant and urban, and have a sense of going into battle,” to the amusement of the interviewer. But she did have a point: Vogue presents the aspirations, desires and visual ideals of affluent global societies, and whether anyone likes it or not this is as relevant as the conflicts and poverty of failed states. 

The fashion magazines prosecuted a war to define the moment: as Tina Brown might have put it in her Vanity Fair pomp, to divine and to decide “what’s hot.” Capture the month and you can define an era. The skill of the editor is to arbitrate this, to make the decisions about what will define both the present and the future. The rivalries are built on deadlines and the time limit of trends: the pressure of the fashion timetable simply compounds this. This is the environment in which Anna Wintour thrived. Her artistic and commercial instincts — and her intense personal focus on leading American Vogue — drove her through Harpers & Queen, Harper’s Bazaar, the defunct Bob Guccioni title Viva, New York magazine and finally into the arms of Condé Nast. This took twenty years but the pace of work was ferocious and the ambition fierce. Each time she caused mayhem in the magazine offices in which she landed and then abandoned, carving out and defending her turf by attacking the established traditions and expectations (in other words, her colleagues). Her success, however, has been driven by her basic ability to drag all of her magazines into the contemporary world, capturing the zeitgeist if not quite leading the vanguard (her commercial instinct always remained too strong for this). Unlike Tina Brown or even Liz Tilberis, Wintour is notorious for her inability to translate ideas into words and has never written anything for her magazines; her editorial talent is almost entirely visual and conceptual, linking together clothes, photography, graphics, layout and (later on) celebrity culture.  

For Si Newhouse and Alexander Liberman, the owner and the creative director of Condé Nast respectively, Wintour’s primary asset was her own unique style of creative destruction. At British Vogue, House & Garden and finally American Vogue, they used her to revitalise aging titles, relying on her ruthless personnel management and design instincts to finish off their strategic dirty work. When Wintour arrived back in London to clean out and refresh British Vogue, the Times reported that Liberman had “instructed her to ‘use her elbows.’ A minister without portfolio, she sized up the situation and rather quickly became the jewel in the Condé Nast crown” (11). In the process, existing staff were sacked or quit and Wintour clashed with her two most important fashion editors: Coddington left to work for Calvin Klein on Seventh Avenue, while Tilberis bit her lip and submitted to Wintour’s directives (under Beatrix Miller both had enjoyed considerable artistic freedom). At American Vogue, working as creative director under Grace Mirabella, Wintour had tried to bring some of the experimentation and edgy energy that she had pioneered at Harper’s, Viva and New York to Mirabella’s rather tired, timid title; returning to British Vogue, she came to bring the bright, clean, commercial aesthetic and working habits of American Vogue to the formerly arty, ethereal, European fantasy world created by Miller, Coddington and Tilberis. (Private Eye reported that Wintour had telephoned managing editor Georgina Boosey to ask if “she knew of a gym that opened at 6 A.M. A little shaken, Boosey said no. ‘Well where do you all go?’ demanded La Wintour incredulously,” 12)

Meanwhile, looking at their stagnating American Vogue and spooked by the arrival of the young and experimental French Elle on U.S. shores (its sales quickly eclipsed Harper’s Bazaar), Newhouse and Liberman had already decided to dethrone Mirabella to make way for Wintour. This was the infamous July Fourth Massacre which also took out society editor Margaret Case, a Vogue veteran who had worked for the magazine since 1926 — so devastated by the manner in which she was axed, Case committed suicide by jumping out of her apartment window. (Condé Nast would become notorious for brutal, badly-handled dismissals.) In her new role — the one she had always dreamed of — Wintour was as ruthless as she needed to be, as was expected of her.  Her first cover swept away the Mirabella era, replacing the formal, high-gloss parade of full-face profiles with a loose Elle-like snap of Israeli model Michaela Bercu wearing faded jeans, a Christian Lacroix T-shirt, tousled hair and a big grin (see above). Within the carefully calibrated visual lexicon of fashion magazines this was a grand statement of intent. “I wanted the covers to show gorgeous real girls looking the way they looked out on the street rather than the plastic kind of retouched look that had been the Vogue face for such a long time,” Wintour declared, thereby consigning Mirabella to oblivion (13). Gradually, and to the amazement and consternation of Mirabella, Coddington and Tilberis, Wintour began re-importing an experimental European sensibility into the mainstream commercial arena of American Vogue. This is where she excelled: she adapted to the demands of the moment and transformed the magazines that she took over (House & Garden, renamed HG under her reign, was her one notable failure), bringing them forward into the modern world and making money for the men who paid her. She was a well-rewarded assassin. 

But this was not all about money. 

III: The Appearance of Things 

My mind is full of pictures, not words.
Liz Tilberis (14)

Before fashion, I love images.
Franca Sozzani (15)

In his 1972 book Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy Micheal Baxandall reprints a contract drawn up by the Prior of the Spedale degli Innocenti at Florence for a painting of the Adoration of the Magi that was completed in 1488 by the Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio. The document details precise specifications for the work, including the exact monetary worth of the ultramarine paint to be used. As Baxandall explains, ultramarine was the most valuable colour after gold and silver, but was often substituted for cheaper blues, hence the anxiety felt by patrons and clients who wanted to display their wealth and power in public:

To avoid being let down about blues, clients specified ultramarine; more prudent clients stipulated a particular grade — ultramarine at one or two or four florins an ounce. The painters and their public were alert to all this and the exotic and dangerous character of ultramarine was a means of accent that we, for whom dark blue is probably no more striking than scarlet or vermilion, are liable to miss. (16)

This was a matter of prestige and utility. Painters participated in a commercial enterprise, with the content and materials chosen in advance by the purchasing party. The paintings that resulted are among the most famous and valuable works of art in world history: nobody doubts their value. Their commercial origin and social function add to their power, rather than detract from it. As Baxandall wrote: “paintings are among other things fossils of economic life” (17).

Fashion photography retains this productive overlap between commerce and aesthetics; in some ways, it is the best contemporary example of the condition. For this reason, and because of a dismissive cultural attitude to clothes more generally, fashion photography and haute couture have only intermittently been examined as art. Grace Coddington, one of the greatest fashion editors and stylists of her time, had no time for such pretensions in her world, writing:

I certainly don’t think fashion photography is art, because if it is art, it’s probably not doing its job. Obviously, there is photography that sets out to be art, but that’s another story altogether. In fashion photography, rule number one is to make the picture beautiful and lyrical or provocative and intellectual — but you still have to see the dress. (18)

Unlike Italian painters of the fifteenth century, who produced bespoke paintings to order, Coddington was loyal to a late Romantic ideal of art cut off from any commercial role or public utility, based solely on the primacy and purity of the vision of the artist. But there has always been a fine line, if any, between the output of the visual artist and the commercial image maker, and from this perspective Guy Bourdin, Helmut Newton, Norman Parkinson, Cecil Beaton, Horst P. Horst, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn and Steven Meisel should be considered among the most important visual artists of the twentieth century. In different ways, their work seeped into and shaped the public imagination. Whether delivered by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for a Harper’s Bazaar cover in 1942 or by Guy Bourdin for a Charles Jourdan shoe advert in French Vogue in 1975, commercial magazines became the prime delivery channel for innovative visual aesthetics and new ideas of physical beauty. Fluxus had nothing on Vogue

Fashion magazines are about visual communication in the service of a commercial industry.  Their basic purpose, as Coddington noted, is to sell frocks. But on this basis a rich world of imagery was created with its own language and tradition, from the Helen Dryden illustrations decorating the earliest Vogue editions to the saturated panels of Mario Testino or the sexually subversive sittings of Ellen Von Unwerth. It was the magazine editors and artistic directors who created the space for this visual tradition to develop and thrive, often vicariously fulfilling their own artistic ambitions in the process. The key figure in this role for Condé Nast was Wintour’s own mentor Alexander Liberman, the White Russian emigre appointed to Vogue by Nast himself in 1941 and promoted to editorial director of all Condé Nast publications by Si Newhouse in 1962. Described by his friend and biographer Barbara Rose as “a Dostoevskian character…a larger-than-life gambler, adventurer and mystic” (19), Liberman was also a practising painter and sculptor throughout his Condé Nast career, creating enormous geometric steel sculptures and Hard Edge minimalist canvases that never quite received the critical recognition he yearned for. In 1962 he poached Diana Vreeland from Harper’s Bazaar, later saying, “she was the first editor to say to me, ‘You know this is entertainment’…In many ways she acted as a brilliant theatrical producer. She visualised Vogue as theatre” (20). The combination of Vreeland’s dramatic flair, Liberman’s highbrow pretensions and the photographic innovations of Irving Penn and Richard Avedon propelled American Vogue into its most visually creative and influential period, only terminated when the magazine began to hemorrhage money in the 1970s. 

By this point, Liberman had grown more cynical about the idea of fashion magazines becoming enduring cultural products in their own right: “It’s a business after all. I’m not interested in the fashion magazine as masterpiece. We are not making magazines to be preciously saved. I like the discardable quality of life” (21). At the same time, Vreeland’s work at Harper’s and Vogue presented a model to be emulated by other ambitious and experimental editors, including Liz Tilberis and Franca Sozzani. Unlike Wintour — who despite her English upbringing was temperamentally and culturally an American editor, deploying her talents to the service of the commercial imperative — Tilberis and Sozzani stayed loyal to their European sensibilities, curating their magazines like galleries, elevating fashion to the realm of dream and fantasy. Taking over British Vogue after Wintour returned to America, Tilberis pointedly rebuilt her editorial teams on the principle of collaboration rather than dictation, trusting the instincts of her photographers and editors. Her first key editorial decision was to rescue a David Bailey portrait of Christy Turlington wearing a white Calvin Klein shirt loosely askew — a picture Wintour hated so much she had literally thrown it in the bin. This became Tilberis’ debut Vogue cover. In fact, the quality of British Vogue covers improved dramatically under her reign, as she let the dramatic or simply gorgeous images speak for themselves:

Sometimes, if a picture was strong enough, we’d ignore all commercial wisdom and use it with a single coverline, unwilling to intrude on the beauty of the image with hard-selling text. Our record low was two words: Helena Christensen in a long white dress leading a white horse through the desert, against a backdrop of bluest skies and the words “International Collections.” That would be unthinkable now. (22)

I also recall Sante D’Orazio’s stately cover portrait of Tatjana Patitz for the March 1989 edition, similarly unadorned by text, although my personal favorite Tilberis-era cover remains Patrick Demarchelier’s sumptuous, pouting portrait of Christy Turlington for the April 1988 edition (see above). Tilberis set out to revive the subtle experimention nestled inside Bea Miller’s Vogue, pushing the boundaries of beauty and fashion:

I wanted to make my own statement with more cutting-edge clothes and smarter fashion writing — real explication about how things were changing and what the reader should do about it…I wanted a return to glamour. Anna liked the normal, and I liked the cutting edge. I felt what was lacking was the element of fantasy — the fancier, flashier, sometimes trashier, more extravagant, and even eccentric clothes. (23)

In a reversal of Liberman snatching Vreeland in 1962, the publishers at Hearst had paid close attention to the post-Wintour direction of Vogue and offered Tilberis the unprecedented opportunity to relaunch Harper’s Bazaar as editor-in-chief in 1991. Wintour considered this to be a major threat to her own status and to American Vogue, especially because Tilberis was offering something she refused to: a large measure of artistic freedom to her editors and photographers. The challenge attracted Patrick Demarchelier sufficiently to sign on exclusively with Tilberis and the supermodels followed him. Tilberis’ approach carried over from her time working with Coddington under Miller and her own tenure as Vogue editor, but was also directly inspired by the revolutionary work of Carmel Snow, Vreeland and Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s between 1932-62: 

Harper’s Bazaar was a laboratory, constantly reexamining and reinventing the magazine medium, using photographers like Hiro and Man Ray and launching the careers of Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, of whom Brodovitch would demand, “Astonish me.” (24)

Vreeland, Tilberis, Coddington, Sozzani and Wintour too, in her own way, all understood the importance of their photographers and jealousy protected their relationships (and contracts) with them. Wintour had built her own career on discovering, employing and cultivating the loyalty of the best photographers available. As the fashion editor of Viva, for example — a magazine she was so ashamed to work for that she erased it from her own résumé  — Wintour published the work of Demarchelier, Newton, Deborah Turbeville, André Carrara and Shig Ikeda (25). She fully understood the power of images and, therefore, the power of the image-makers; she pushed them to produce their best work for her, which, of course, burnished her own reputation and advanced her own career. 

Fashion magazines are a complex collaboration of clothes designers, retail advertisers, graphic artists, writers and critics, stylists and copy editors, but the key to their ultimate success is the production of the right image. In this dynamic, the editor as artist, or curator, is central to the history of design and fashion imagery. Vreeland and Tilberis have their place in this pantheon, but the greatest of them all was Franca Sozzani, editor of Italian Vogue from 1988 until her death in 2016. The key to Sozzani’s success was her purely artistic ambition. She knew that her Vogue would be limited to the readership of the Italian peninsula unless it could excel in a different way: that is, through images. In a visual culture like Italy’s, this made perfect sense anyway. While Wintour began her tenure at Vogue searching for the perfect synthesis of art and commerce, ultimately breaking into the broader culture of celebrity and politics, Sozzani’s aim was different: she wanted to create the most visually beautiful and artistically experimental magazine of them all. She established an unbreakable bond with Steven Meisel and gave him every single cover of Italian Vogue until she died. She allowed photographers such as Bruce Weber and Peter Lindbergh licence to experiment, sometimes at the expense of the clothes. Within her corner of the Condé Nast empire she took the avant garde European aesthetic to its logical conclusion. She created something perfect and self-enclosed. Her magazines were works of art. You couldn’t always see the dress, but that didn’t really matter. 

IV: The Fashion Conspiracy

In the spring of 1975 Guy Bourdin produced an advert for Charles Jourdan that pushed the conflict between editorial and commercial demands of fashion to the point of mutual destruction. His image depicted a sidewalk murder scene with the female victim’s silhouette outlined in chalk surrounded by pools of fresh blood. The shoes being advertised — a pair of pink wedges — were left scattered on the pavement, the glamorous detritus of homicide. Apart from all of the symbolism packed into the image itself — the links between voyeurism, consumerism, compulsion and violence — the advert presented in extreme form the tension between producing art and flogging clothes. In the work of Bourdin, this reached a rich and conceptual horizon later “critiqued” in Irvin Kershner’s 1978 thriller The Eyes of Laura Mars, in which a model declares: “we’ll use murder to sell deodorant, so you’ll just get bored with murder, right?” (Kershner hired Helmut Newton to shoot parody Bourdin pictures as props for the film.) In his introduction to the 2001 Bourdin monograph Exhibit A, Michel Guerrin wrote: 

In Charles Jourdan, he finds his Lorenzo de Medici, and sticks with the label that is the leader in sexy, top-of-the-line shoes. Jourdan’s fame allows Bourdin to stray from strict promotion to produce revolutionary ad campaigns. Up to this point, no brand name has been so closely identified with a photographer — even though the photographer in this case is apparently “abusing” the product…In his conviction that the image is stronger than the motive behind it, Bourdin forms a visual ethic that allows him to remove the nuts and bolts that hold together frivolity, glamour, ornament. (26)

Bourdin’s relationship with French Vogue editor Francine Crescent was the 1970s equivalent of the bond between Sozzani and Meisel: “[by] the time Crescent was named editor-in-chief in 1967, every single issue of Vogue featured an average of twenty pages of Bourdin’s pictures” (27). The freedom  that Crescent and Jourdan gave Bourdin allowed him to push fashion imagery to the point of implosion: not only could you not see the dress, but the dress was often being, in the words of Guerre, abused. Like the Sozzani era of Italian Vogue, in Bourdin’s work the editorial eclipsed the commercial. 

However, as Diana Vreeland discovered, this kind of freedom was rare and finite. In the 1970s, as sales of American Vogue sank and the cultural moment moved beyond the theatrical escapism of the Vreeland era, Newhouse and Liberman wielded the axe. Grace Mirabella supplanted Vreeland as the most pliant vessel for the Newhouse Concept, a doctrine that prescribed the production of magazines in line with market research, circulation figures and the demands of advertisers. This became the model for all Condé Nast publications, leading to an ambiguous overlap between advertising and editorial that culminated in the “outsert” — expensively produced advertising supplements that used elite photographers, designers and models to mimick editorial content and thereby disguise commercial intent. This was a development that undermined the integrity of Vogue under Wintour and was mirrored at Vanity Fair under Tina Brown, who faced similar ethical questions over subservience to Hollywood moguls in the eternal quest for A-list access. The Newhouse Concept was patented at American Vogue under Mirabella, who dutifully created a magazine that catered to mainstreams interests and tastes: a commercial product designed to sell merchandise and advertising space. This was the period of Liberman’s newly acquired cynicism: the Vreeland years were no longer seen as an artistic triumph, but as a commercial failure, a wrong turn. Wintour’s place in this strategic drama was unique: she came to rest at American Vogue in a space that existed between Grace Mirabella and Franca Sozzani.

One of the key scenes in The September Issue shows Wintour hosting the Vogue Retailers Breakfast at the Paris Ritz, an annual forum that she established and which allows representatives of the major American retail outlets to meet the Vogue editorial team. In the scene, Burton Tanksy, CEO of Neiman Marcus Stores, speaks on behalf of all the retailers present when he asks Wintour to request that designers make smaller collections, to allow faster delivery times and speed up the entire supply chain. Wintour agrees. This is the scene that partially exposes the machinery of the fashion industry — the supply chains beneath the surface of Grace Coddingon’s sittings — and Wintour is completely at ease and in control of all the details. The brilliant Cerulean Sweater monologue in The Devil Wears Prada (actually written by Aline Brosh McKenna, not Weisberger) also touches upon the commercial networks that underpin fashion fantasy, providing the film’s transcendent Gordon Gecko ‘Greed is Good’ moment as she takes apart the pretensions of her assistant, Andrea: 

This “stuff”? Oh, okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you.

You go to your closet and you select, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean.

You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic “casual corner” where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room. From a pile of “stuff.”

This put a glossy spin on a process that Nicholas Coleridge first detailed in his 1988 book The Fashion Conspiracy and which has since accelerated to the point of environmental and social meltdown. Coleridge’s book is now out of print and virtually forgotten, but it is one of the best books on fashion ever written: in luxurious if slightly snooty prose, Coleridge meticulously opened up every corner of the fashion industry as it existed in 1988, from sweatshops in Seoul and Brick Lane to Seventh Avenue design titans, the fashion victims of Manhattan society, the influx of avant garde Japanese fashion and the ongoing supremacy of Paris Couture. Coleridge wrote:

[T]he fashion conspiracy is not simply a conspiracy of expensive clothes being marked up around the world, it is a conspiracy of taste and compromise: the prerogative of the international fashion editors in determining how the world dresses, and how their objectivity can be undermined, the despotic vanity of the designers and ruthlessness of the store buyers in distributing their immense ‘open to buy’ budget. (28)

(Coleridge would go on to become the Editorial Director of Condé Nast’s UK division in 1989: Tilberis hated him, although she never mentions whether The Fashion Conspiracy influenced her opinion in any way.) If the word ‘conspiracy’ seemed to be a stretch for the world that Coleridge described in 1988, then he was writing on the cusp of developments that would fully befit the description. The rise of post-NAFTA outsourcing, fast fashion and internet retail would all follow in the 1990s, breaking up production and supply chains across continents and destroying or transforming established names and norms across fashion. Mobile technology and social media further accelerated the process, speeding up the transmission of new looks and offering fresh opportunities for theft and piracy. The trickle-down process that Miranda Priestly outlines does exist, but her description elides the real costs: offshoring production to China and Mexico and the destruction of jobs following NAFTA; horrific conditions inside sweatshops in L.A., Honduras, Vietnam and Bangladesh; the pollution of cotton production and the industrial scale waste of the ‘instant fashion’ system invented by Zara and copied across the globe. This is the underbelly of the industry detailed by Dana Thomas in Fashionopolis, which is like a late and at times apocalyptic update of The Fashion Conspiracy. Who knows how many borders the unfortunate cerulean sweater crossed, or in what conditions it was made? 

But for Wintour, like Miranda Priestly, this is a positive story: “the more people who can have fashion, the better” (29). Wintour presides over this world of production and consumption with imperial impunity, at the apex of haute couture and the apparel supply chains. Equally aware of the cultural impact of a powerful image and the economic reality of retail logistics, Wintour is in this sense the perfect leader for Vogue and by extension the entire fashion industry. Apart from her personal Machiavellian qualities, Wintour’s rise and longevity at the top can be explained by her ability to understand and accommodate both the editorial and the commercial without necessarily sacrificing one for the other. A creature of industry, society, aesthetics and magazines, she also retains a vast blind spot, whether by intention, necessity or temperament. The more people who can have fashion, the better: fine. But the more fashion produced on the old supply chains, through the traditional methods, to the seasonal rhythms of the established industry means, in reality, depletion of resources, pollution and death. The old fashion industry combined with current levels of supply and consumption is, simply put, a death trap. In this context, Bourdin’s 1975 Charles Jourdan murder scene aquires a new and existential dimension. 

V: Machiavelli in Manhattan 

It should be observed here that men should either be caressed or crushed.
Machiavelli, The Prince (30)

When I say that Anna Wintour is a Machiavellian I don’t really mean it in the way that the term is generally understood, as shorthand for deviousness or cynicism, or facilitation of tyranny: I am talking about the ruthless use of power for virtuous ends and the art of leadership in a world where man is more inclined to do evil than good. Wintour’s own stated goals have always been consistent: to democratise fashion and increase the prestige of the industry while maintaining the position of Vogue and Condé Nast at the top of the magazine pile. Since she has been a major factor in the achievement of all of these goals during the course of her career, it only seems fair to grant her motivations at face value. Of course, during that career, and in pursuit of these goals, she has acquired enormous power within the Condé Nast empire and over the whole of the fashion industry. She is sometimes called the most powerful woman in America. To reach this peak she has essentially practiced a form of Machiavellian statecraft. Bodies lie everywhere, and her methods have not always been attractive or even successful. If the result of your personnel management is as damaging as The Devil Wears Prada then something has, after all, gone awry.

Yet, even a crisis like this can be turned into an advantage by a cunning and pragmatic leader in the Machiavellian mould and, as we have seen, this is precisely what Wintour did. Her Machiavellian response was The September Issue, a risky move that relied on converting a piece of luck (Cutler’s offer) into a successful counter-tactic dedicated to an ultimate strategic aim: consolidating her position at Condé Nast. The momentum of Wintour’s career has been maintained by her ability to both crush and caress competitors and collaborators and by her unfailing ability to capitalise on good fortune. This can be seen in the course of her working relationships with Tilberis, Coddington, Newhouse and Liberman and the way that she took every opportunity offered at Harpers & Queen, Viva, New York magazine and Condé Nast to move towards her ultimate goal of American Vogue. Of her two major rivals, neither remain in the field: Tina Brown imploded, flouncing out of Condé Nast to found the ill-fated Talk magazine with Harvey Weinstein and never really recovering her touch; Liz Tilberis died of ovarian cancer in 1999, without seeing her revolution at Harper’s through to its conclusion. Wintour used her wiles with Newhouse to influence the selection of Graydon Carter — by this point an unthreatening Wintour ally — to helm Vanity Fair as Brown moved on to the safe pastures of The New Yorker. This piece of internal turf war was the culmination of the larger Condé Nast war that had raged between the “power booths” at the Royalton restaurant — the fabled ‘Condé Nast cafe’ (31) — throughout the 1980s and 90s.

The ultimate goal for both Brown and Wintour beyond the magazines they ran was Alexander Liberman’s job. Where Brown lost patience and made ultimatums, Wintour kept her ego in check, used her influence discreetly and with the correct people, neutralising threats by ensuring allies got promotions. When she did, finally, start to lose patience, she expertly leveraged a rumour that Barack Obama was going to make her his Ambassador in London. This ploy terrified the bosses: in 2013 Wintour was offered the bespoke position of Artistic Director of  Condé Nast, a role combining the oversight and responsibilities once held by Newhouse and Liberman. This was her ultimate victory in the magazine wars: as Brown conceded at the end of her memoir, “Oh, and yes: Anna Wintour reigns forever as queen of Condé Nast” (32). But having reached the summit, Wintour now faces a world in which Condé Nast has been ruthlessly cut down to size, as magazines have lost lustre, influence and sales to digital platforms and social media. The Condé Nast website no longer lists its diminished roster of titles as magazines but as “brands” — intellectuals no longer write essays for The New Yorker magazine, they contribute content to The New Yorker brand (incidentally, the only Condé Nast title now making a profit). As Reeves Wierdeman noted in a 2019 New York magazine profile, Wintour is still seen as the one indispensable person at Condé Nast (“someone whose eventual departure…will spell the company’s doom”) despite presiding over a steep and consistent commercial decline. As always, on the surface, she puts on a brave face and provides a positive spin, like the distinctively busy, beaming, leaping models of her 1980s Vogue magazine editorials: “How joyous to think about the future and what’s new and what’s next” (33). But, for once, her timing is off: Wintour reached the top of the Condé Nast empire at the precise moment it began to fall apart.

  1. Wintour interviewed on Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of 2006: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EEkmKyBzDOE
  2. Lauren Weisberger, The Devil Wears Prada (Harpercollins, 2003), p.40
  3. Weisberger, p.21
  4. Weisberger, p.266
  5. Grace Coddington, Grace: A Memoir (Chatto & Windus, 2012), p.259
  6. Coddington, p.243
  7. Tina Brown, ‘How Anna Turned It ‘Round’, The Daily Beast, September 11, 2009: https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-anna-turned-it-round
  8. Wintour quoted in Thomas Maier, All That Glitters: Anna Wintour, Tina Brown, and the Rivalry Inside America’s Richest Media Empire (Skyhorse Publishing, 2019), p.84
  9. Alexander Bloom, Prodigal Sons — The New York Intellectuals & their World (Oxford University Press, 1986), pps. 4-5
  10. Emma Brockes, ‘What Lies Beneath’, The Guardian Weekend, May 27, 2006
  11. Quoted in Jerry Oppenheimer, Front Row: Anna Wintour (St Martin’s Press, 2005), p.231
  12. Quoted in Oppenheimer, pps. 238-9
  13. Quoted in Oppenheimer, p.288
  14. Liz Tilberis, No Time To Die (Orion, 1998), p.172
  15. ‘Franca Sozzani, Editor in Chief of Italian Vogue, Dies at 66’, Vogue obituary: https://www.vogue.com/article/franca-sozzani-obituary
  16. Michael Baxandall, Painting and Experience in Fifteenth-Century Italy (Oxford University Press, 1974), p.11
  17. Baxandall, p.2
  18. Coddington, p.260
  19. Rose quoted in Maier, p.26
  20. Liberman quoted in Maier, p.32
  21. Liberman quoted in Maier, p.46
  22. Tilberis, p.154
  23. Tilberis, pps.147-152
  24. Tilberis, p. 169
  25. Oppenheimer, p.130
  26. Michel Guerrin, ‘An Image by Guy Bourdin is Never Serene’ in Guy Bourdin, Exhibit A (Bullfinch Press, 2001)
  27. Alison M. Gingeras, Guy Bourdin (Phaidon, 2006)
  28. Nicholas Coleridge, The Fashion Conspiracy — A Remarkable Journey through the Empires of Fashion (Heinemann, 1988), p.4
  29. Wintour quoted in Dana Thomas, Fashionopolis — The Price of Fast Fashion and the Future of Clothes (Apollo, 2019), p.35
  30. Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. Russell Price (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p.9 
  31. Meier, p.115
  32. Brown quoted in Meier, p.234
  33. Reeves Wiedeman, ‘What’s Left of Conde Nast’, New York Magazine, 28 Oct, 2019: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/10/conde-nast-anna-wintour-roger-lynch.html

 

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American Carnage: Sarah Palin’s Revolution

 

5.3.10SarahPalinByDavidShankbone (1)

I: Family 

Sarah Palin was like a comet zooming across the American sky: out of Alaska, a blazing vision of the republic’s future. In the thick of this current political era, it is worth re-watching the first national speech that she ever made, flanking John McCain as his Vice Presidential candidate in 2008. The cliche goes that when America sneezes, the world catches a cold, and so it was that the central characters of that electoral drama (Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Palin herself) attracted the attention of a global audience that considered this to be their own contest, too. At the time, it seemed obvious to quite a lot of people that Sarah Palin’s opinions on birth control and the origin of the world had a direct link to their futures, wherever, on earth, they actually happened to be. But despite this immediate global response, nobody, not even her direct political opponents or McCain himself, quite understood the importance of her national impact in that election. Once it was over, and Obama triumphed, most observers thought Palin was finished on the national stage, sufficiently humiliated and destined to see out the rest of her Governorship safely back in her office in Anchorage. They were wrong. 

That first speech took place on August 29 in Dayton, Ohio. It was the moment McCain revealed the big secret that he had been keeping for less than a week, such was the instinctive and impetuous nature of the decision to pick the “little known” (1) Governor of Alaska to be his running mate. The point of the pick was that Palin was not just any governor: she was chosen by McCain’s key advisers to revitalise a stagnating campaign and to energise unenthusiastic party supporters and activists. That was her function, which was reductive in its objective, as Palin soon realised. In fact, McCain’s team miscalculated, because Palin did not turn out to be the pliant or professional political drone they expected to mould and to exploit. She was both unwilling and unable to meet their expectations or play their game. They found themselves managing a political candidate with an emotional and ideological connection to the activists they wanted to mobilise, but also a stubborn tendency to go rogue. The tie that she had with grassroots Republicans was, it turned out, both deep and dangerous for the GOP establishment, and would eventually ruin them. For the moment, the first and only clue to this future was the undeniable and overwhelming enthusiasm of the crowd for her, which disrupted McCain’s introduction. Watching the video, it is quite hard to read his facial expression when this happens: it may be easy, in retrospect, to notice that he doesn’t look entirely happy, but for anybody who remembers it, and I do, this was a big shot of adrenaline for his team. It just wasn’t, in the end, meant for them. 

The key thing that McCain did not grasp about Palin is that she really would come to Washington as an outsider. This wasn’t a pose, or a studied, tactical position: it was the only way she knew how to operate. It would be a central theme for the rest of her career and would eventually be a threat to McCain, who was, despite his brand reputation as a maverick, a consummate Washington insider like Biden and Hillary Clinton. The nightmare they would all eventually face in the form of Trump had its genesis in the contemporary political character that Palin patented. This first national speech was embryonic in many ways, but also remarkably self-assured, briskly recalling the major accomplishments of her career to date and anticipating some of her future themes. She was confident, almost serene, and at ease with an audience that she instinctively knew was on her side (more than for McCain, which perhaps she realised). She was fearless in identifying, on a national stage, the enemies she had fought in her home state: the special interest lobbies, Big Oil and “the good ol’ boys network” that had included Alaska’s most powerful Republican leaders. Her world view at this point was still parochial, formed by and focused on her family, her town and battles she fought against the local political and business elites. But she was already starting to connect the details of her regional experience to the country at large: Washington D.C. would be her new Juneau. She was mocked, early and then relentlessly, for her ‘folksy’ mannerisms and her parochial worldview, but even in this very first speech she was light years ahead of McCain and the Republican hierarchy as it existed then. She was already tapping into populist rhetoric and, therefore, signalling to a Republican grassroots movement that had been leveraged before but never effectively represented by anybody in the way that Palin would. She was their future.

For Palin, like her heroine Thatcher, the foundation of society was not the state, but the family. So the first thing she did, in the first big national speech of her career, was to introduce every single member of her family to the world. On top of this, there were the larger ‘families’ that she would court. First came those Republican activists, who immediately and instinctively took her as their champion, their Hockey Mom and Mama Grizzly, a role which she relished, to the increasing fury of the McCain campaign staff. Second was the ultimate family: the people, that quasi-mythical mass of ordinary Americans, who were being screwed over and oppressed by the political and business and media elites that she would, increasingly, take aim at, to the fury (again) of the McCain campaign staff. In fact, Palin’s political character made perfect sense for anybody familiar with Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. The key themes that Palin hit upon, straight away, without prompting, and relentlessly, were the key themes identified by Tocqueville in 1831 as the foundations of the republic: family, religion, free association, limits on federal government and the sovereignty of the people. This was Palin’s platform and not one part of it was studied, artificial or an affectation. She was a natural politician not because she could make deals in corridors, cultivate networks, or leak to the media, but because she could translate her own values into a political package and communicate it to a core constituency. McCain could never do the last part. No one could do it in the way that Palin would in 2008, and from this moment she became a transformative figure: a national representative without office who unleashed and focused the full power and potential of grassroots Republican activists. 

Three central stages marked this journey, which terminated with Trump: the Alaska Governorship, the 2008 presidential election campaign and the emergence of the Tea Party movement. Each stage helps to understand what Palin did and why she did it. 

II: Corruption

Policy, not politics.
Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (2)

There was a twist in this first speech: a record that Palin refused to obscure. As Governor of Alaska she had been a success, and her success had been based on pragmatism, reform and bipartisan collaboration. She was proud of what she achieved, and how she achieved it: it was, at that point, her whole political story, so she was happy to present it. But, to achieve what she did, she had to take on the Republican establishment of Alaska and the three oil companies that had effectively controlled the Alaskan legislature since 1981: BP, ExxonMobile and ConocoPhillips. She also had to work with her ideological opponents. 

To understand what happened here it is useful to go back to her own account of this time, as narrated in her 2010 autobiography Going Rogue. Palin was a child of the Last Frontier, growing up with the mindset of a colonial pioneer: her parents had moved from Idaho in 1964 to build a new life in the northern wilderness, settling in the ‘Gateway to the Klondike’, Skagway. Alaska is a huge territory, covering one fifth of the American landmass, and its social and economic viability rests on vast and only partly tapped energy resources. 1968 was a defining year for the 49th State, but this had nothing to do with student protests or the counterculture: it was the year that oil deposits were discovered at Prudhoe Bay on the Northern Slope. This transformed the economic prospects of Alaska, but also its political reality, which became increasingly dependent on Big Oil. This reached a climax in 1981, when the oil companies mobilised their allies in the Statehouse to revoke the existing Corporate Income Tax. From that point on they successfully lobbied and bribed both Republicans and Democrats to ensure that taxes remained low and regulation remained light. The remote nature of Juneau, which can only be accessed by boat or plane, encouraged corruption by creating a febrile, insular, secretive, sleazy political culture that Palin would later compare to Washington D.C. The symbolic scandal of this era unfolded in 2007, when an FBI sting operation uncovered key Republican legislators accepting bribes from the CEO of VECO Corporation (a major oil field services company) in his own personal suite at the infamous Baranof Hotel. The Corrupt Bastards Club, as these Republicans laughingly called themselves, would be found guilty of conspiracy, extortion, bribery and fraud. Some went to prison, no longer laughing.

This was corruption and conspiracy that went to the very top. In her role as chairman of the Alaska and Gas Conservation Commission between 2003-4, Palin filed an ethics complaint against Randy Reudrich, a fellow commission member and GOP chair for Alaska. Reudrich was closely allied to State Governor Frank Murkowski, who was also closely connected to Big Oil. Murkowski had alienated Alaskans by arranging for his daughter to replace him in the Senate and buying an expensive private jet on state funds which, it turned out, couldn’t even operate properly on Alaskan terrain. (“That darn jet,” Palin fumed in Going Rogue, “After I was elected, I listed the thing on eBay and an agent finally sold it,” 3). But the Governor’s big error proved to be a deal he cut exclusively with the oil companies to build a new gas pipeline, which he announced in October 2005. This was a deal that was negotiated in secret and mired in corruption; it gave almost everything to the oil companies and nothing to Alaskans. The unraveling of this appalling fix was the making of Palin, who annihilated Murkowski in the Republican primary for Governor, running on a platform of ethical reform, fiscal conservatism and resource development. In office, she put the gas-line out for private tender and replaced Murkowski’s oil tax with Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share (ACES), a scheme which reaped rich financial rewards for the state. In 2008, when the Lower 48 ran massive budget deficits and were forced to make huge spending cuts, Alaska recorded a $12 billion surplus as a direct result of Palin’s act. She had directly challenged her own party leaders, which necessitated a temporary alliance with Democrats and Independents, and seemed almost certain to terminate her political ascent within the GOP. In fact, she had created a narrative that would eventually propel her onto the national stage and capture the political imagination of Republican activists across the country. She had proven to be a pragmatic, bipartisan, reforming politician, and this was attractive to McCain and his team. But she had also proven willing, and very able, to take on the political and party establishment, and to do it, crucially, on behalf of the people of Alaska.

In Going Rogue, Palin cites the Tenth Amendment and Thomas Jefferson in defence of her own belief in the primacy of local and state government against federal administration, a principle that would endear her to the emergent Tea Party movement in 2009. All of this fed into the image she began to create of an independent-minded maverick, an outsider opposed to “infernal” political machines and “politics-as-usual” (4). Michael Ledeen was the most perceptive commentator of all when he wrote, “for the first time in memory, we have a major candidate who comes from the frontier […] a world that’s almost totally unknown to the pundits, which is why the commentary has been so unhelpful” (5). The idea — the ideal — of the Last Frontier is the key to Palin’s career. Her political imagination was formed in its small, independent frontier towns and the northern wilderness, far from the reach of national politics, yet also partly owned by and dependent on the federal government (a source of resentment in itself). Some of the best passages in Going Rogue are her descriptions of life in Alaska: the practicalities of living in remote territory; the vivid landscapes of volcanoes, mountain ranges, forests, glaciers and lakes; the short summers and the Northern Lights; the abundance of caribou, moose, beluga and killer whales, bears, ospreys and eagles. Underlying all of this are all the Alaskans, united by the state constitution:

Our state constitution stipulates that the citizens actually own our natural resources. Oil companies would partner with Alaskans to develop our resources, and the corporations would make decisions based on the best interests of their shareholders, and that was fine. But in fulfillment of my oath, I would make decisions based on the best interests of our shareholders, the people of Alaska. (6)

This, alongside her Tocquevillian understanding of American character, explains her success as Governor of Alaska and her subsequent bond with grassroots Republican activists across America. For Palin, it all builds from the bottom: individuals, the family, private associations and local government are the practical and moral foundation of the republic. At the top, the Constitution is its framework, and safeguard: in 2020, she still felt able to call herself “a hardcore Constitutional conservative” (7), despite the distractions of Trump. In between, the federal and state governments pose the gravest threat to individual liberty and prosperity: in Going Rogue she called Juneau a “swamp”, and the 2008 election schooled her in the Washington party machines. Her personal political philosophy — a mélange of evangelical Christianity, Jeffersonian republicanism, Jacksonian democracy and free-market Reaganism, all mixed together in Skagway, Wasilla and Anchorage — would later help to define the Tea Party and place her at the vanguard of a grassroots revolution against the party elites.

III: Elites 

Opposition makes humanitarians forget the liberal virtues they claim to uphold.
Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites (8)

On August 19, 2020, Palin appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight and was asked by the smirking host to comment on the endorsement of Joe Biden by former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. Palin did not hold back. She wasn’t surprised by this development at all, she said: Schmidt was “a piece of work” who, along with Nicole Wallace, the other senior McCain adviser, had “jumped ship early” and sabotaged their own campaign in 2008. They were “wolves in sheeps clothing,” she continued, “and for those of us who are victims of what they are capable of, it’s kind of a vindication. They were not on our side to begin with” (9). 

The irony is that Steve Schmidt was instrumental in convincing McCain to pick Palin in the first place. Clearly, he quickly came to regret this decision, which was made without serious vetting and put his professional reputation at risk. But Palin’s accusations have always been specific: both Schmidt and Wallace set up interviews for which she was left deliberately unprepared, in order to undermine her credibility and, ultimately, the chances of the McCain-Palin ticket winning. The Katie Couric interview, in particular, was a searing experience for her, a national humiliation, the stuff of nightmares, that she was led into by Wallace for reasons that appeared to be incidental to the campaign strategy itself. Then, to pile on the pain, Schmidt and Wallace’s version of events, and their opinions of her, were presented as the factual record in John Heilemann and Mark Halperin’s anonymously sourced, gossipy bestseller Race of a Lifetime. Palin hated Race of a Lifetime, although she was not the only one: the Clintons, the McCains, Biden and John Edwards also had plenty to complain about. Her portrayal in it was only slightly more nuanced than Tina Fey’s caricture of her as a dumb hick on Saturday Night Live. The language used by Heilemann and Halperin all served to build a picture of a psychologically damaged liability: Palin was “a big-time control freak”, “maniacal”; she “shouted”, “screamed”, “fumed”; her eyes were “glassy and dead”; she seemed to be “suffering from postpartum depression or thwarted maternal need”; she was “mentally unstable” and “irrational”, “a hick on a high wire” (10). This was information being fed by participants and other interested parties, allied to the creative license of professional writers: either way, the character assassination was brutal and bordered on misogyny. The McCain campaign had collapsed for a number of reasons, which included an inability to prepare Palin properly or allow her to play to her strengths, but McCain’s advisers were very quick to frame a narrative in which Palin was assigned all blame for the loss to deflect from their own failures. This narrative was fed directly to media contacts and capped by the portrait in Race of a Lifetime, although even Heilemann and Halperin could not go all the way with it. “The truth was,” they wrote 

the McCain people did fail Palin. They had, as promised, made her one of the most famous people in the world overnight. But they allowed her no time to plant her feet to absorb such a seismic shift. They were unprepared when they picked her, which made her look even more unready than she was. They banked on the force of her magnetism to compensate for their disarray. They amassed polling points and dollars off of her fiery charisma, and then left her to burn up in the inferno of public opinion. (11)

From Palin’s perspective, she was the victim of the Washington D.C. elite: the party machines, the political culture of advisers and strategists, linked to their allies in the media. In Going Rogue, Schmidt is accorded some respect as a ruthless political operator, fulfilling his brief the only way he knew how, but it is Wallace whose betrayal is presented as more personal and wounding. Palin, writing in 2009, said she had been set up by Wallace, who was friends with Couric and was doing her a professional favour by landing a scoop. But “the scoop” was to stitch Palin up: in a rolling ambush, the interviews were framed, conducted and (crucially) edited to hurt her and to boost Couric. “The sin of omission,” wrote Palin afterwards, “was glaring” (12). The Couric interviews, in combination with Fey’s SNL caricature, trashed the reputation of a Governor who had left Alaska with the only state surplus in the country during a global economic crash. Heilemann and Halperin wrote, revealingly:  

there had never been anything quite like the Fey-Couric double act: two uptown New York ladies working independently but in tandem, one engaged in eviscerating satire, the other in even handed journalism. The composite portrait they drew of Palin was viral and omnipresent. The sparkle of celebrity made it irresistible, and devastating. (13)

Palin’s recollection of this would harden, and by the time she appeared on Tucker Carlson Tonight she viewed the actions of Wallace as deliberate sabotage, orchestrated in a professional pact with Couric. The underlying dynamic, however, was implicit, and toxic, as Palin clearly recognised:

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to – or as some have ludicrously suggested, couldn’t – answer her question; it was that her condescension irritated me. It was as though she had suddenly stumbled on a primitive newcomer from an undiscovered tribe. (14)

In a way, from the perspective of Couric, she had. The attitude of the media and political class of Washington D.C. to the Republican activists who Palin represented, and more widely the populations of the South and the Midwest and Alaska, was one of condescension: they did, actually, consider these people to be primitive and tribal. Palin’s supporters inside the GOP could see this very clearly, and very early: already, by the time of the Republican Convention in Minnesota, they were turning their anger on the press boxes precisely because of the way that Palin had been treated by them. This was the divide that would eventually save Palin and fuel the Tea Party and the populist takeover of the GOP. 

This wasn’t simply instinctive or nativist, but linked back to the practical political foundations of the republic as well as the original division between the East Coast urban elites and the frontier pioneers of the nineteenth century. For Palin this divide persisted in contemporary form, between “small town America” and Washington D.C. It wasn’t just political: it was philosophical, psychological, even moral. The soul of the country, and its legacy of freedom, could be found in local government and private associations, as Tocqueville had discovered in 1831. “In the township, as well as everywhere else” he wrote, “the people are the source of power; but nowhere do they exercise their power more immediately. In America the people form a master who must be obeyed to the utmost limits of possibility” (15). Tocqueville recognised that the local autonomy of the townships was crucial to upholding the principle of the sovereignty of the people: “without power and independence a town may contain good subjects, but it can have no active citizens” (16). While recognising the necessity of centralised government, Tocqueville saw centralised administration as a danger to the “active citizen” and, therefore, American democracy: “I am of the opinion that a centralized administration is fit only to  enervate the nations in which it exists, by incessantly diminishing their local spirit” (17). But this was not simply a dry administrative formula, for if that was all it was it would not survive: “patriotism and religion,” Tocqueville argued, “are the only two motives in the world that can long urge all the people towards the same end” (18). This was Palin’s world, too. She built her political ideal from the bottom up: active citizens, to towns, to cities, to states, to the nation. For Palin, the city politics of Wasilla was a “swamp” (19), but still superior because more local and therefore closer to the people than the corrupt sink of Juneau, itself a colonial replication of Washington D.C. “I believe that national leaders have a responsibility to respect the Tenth Amendment and keep their hands off the states,” Palin wrote in Going Rogue. “It’s that old Jeffersonian view that the affairs of the citizens are best left in their own hands” (20). And, as Tocqueville noted in 1831, and Palin confirmed in 2009, that American instinct, represented in its administrative structures, rests on a foundation of religion and patriotism.

For Schmidt, Wallace, Fey and Couric this was simply a worldview held by provincial subjects who only really existed to be mobilised, patronised, ridiculed or erased. Palin was a resource to be exploited by Schmidt and Wallace for immediate political gain in the 2008 election, a way to rally the support of a large group of people they basically despised. For Fey and Couric, representing their entertainment and media caste, the values that Palin espoused made her the primary target: it was both an easy job and an urgent task to neutralise her political potency by humiliating and trashing her. The problem was, a lot of people noticed that by doing this to Palin, Fey and Couric were, by extension, doing it to them too. It was this feeling, allied to the destruction of local communities and jobs, that would eventually contribute to the election of Trump. It turned out that the most pertinent and perceptive text of the Trump era had been written back in 1995: the analysis contained in Christopher Lasch’s The Revolt of the Elites had not been modified by the passage of time, but intensified. The new elites that Lasch identified were, by 2016, exerting even greater influence and control than ever before, amplified by the progress of digital technologies and the increasing mobility of work and capital. The cosmopolitan, transnational, secular, liberal value system of this elite had achieved successful saturation across the educational, media, corporate and federal government sectors, their key power centres. In the 2008 election Schmidt, Wallace, Fey and Couric were its representatives and agents. Palin — as the most visible and potent representative of ‘small town America’, of local community, self-reliance, religion, patriotism, and conservative social principles — became the focus and subject of a wider culture war. From out of the wreckage of this conflict, in which the 2008 election can be seen as a battle she lost, Palin emerged at the head of a world-changing counter-revolution: a new revolt against the elites.

1200px-Gadsden_flag.svg

IV: Revolution

The elitists who denounce this movement, they just don’t want to hear the message.
Sarah Palin, ‘Speech to the Tea Party Convention’ (21)

Palin delivered the keynote address to the first Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, on February 26 2010. This was a speech she considered important enough to reprint in full as the afterword to the paperback edition of Going Rogue. Written down as it was delivered the text is disordered, random, rambling. It lacks the structure and precision of the speech she made at the 2008 Republican Convention in Minnesota, a sophisticated combination of partisan attack and statement of principle that thrilled the Republican grassroots. From the perspective of the GOP establishment this remained the high point of her professional political career, but she was probably correct to judge that the Nashville address was more consequential for the conservative movement as a whole. This was the speech that connected her own story to the Tea Party and in making this connection she was summarising the movement’s key themes and defining it on the national stage at an early point of development. Palin described the Tea Party as “a ground-up call to action that is forcing both parties to change the way they’re doing business,” (22)  as she had done in Alaska. Her own priorities were all there: the Constitution, the Tenth Amendment, “a pro-market agenda”, “lower taxes, smaller government, transparency, energy independence and strong national security” (23). The heroes were Washington, Lincoln, Reagan (Palin held her own candle for Calvin Coolidge), but the enemies were even more clearly identified: the “politicos”, “Beltway professionals”, the federal government, “big government and big business”, the mainstream media and the “elites”. Palin understood exactly what was happening, and was not afraid to call it out and lead it: “America is ready for another revolution,” she told the Tea Party, “and you are part of this” (24). 

Palin grasped the fact that the Tea Party was a heterogeneous social movement and not an organised political party, and so she had no illusions about personally leading it. Nevertheless, however dispersed and chaotic the movement was, it shared underlying political principles rooted in the founding texts of the republic. For this reason, the best book on the phenomenon was not a social history, but a slim volume of legal theory written by a teacher of constitutional law. The value of Elizabeth Price Foley’s The Tea Party: Three Principles is that it avoided partisan rhetoric and analysed the Tea Party on its own terms. As Foley wrote (in 2012, when it was still in existence), “there’s no Tea party, but there is a Tea Party movement” (25). What made the movement cohere was not a central leader or an organizing committee, but three central principles: limited government, a defence of U.S. sovereignty, and constitutional originalism. The movement that emerged was not solely aligned to the Republican party at this early stage, although the GOP assiduously courted its votes in order to win back control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections, a decision which decisively changed the power dynamic between the party establishment and grassroots activists. What Palin noticed, when she embarked on her Tea Party Express tour in 2009, was an intense focus on the founding texts of the republic: 

the thing that gets the most enthusiastic response — the words that get people on their feet and cheering — is when I talk about America’s founding ideas and documents. Just one mention of the Constitution and audiences go wild with appreciation for our Charter of Liberty. (26)

The speech that Palin delivered in Nashville, to a Tea Party audience waving Gadsden flags, was a defining moment for Palin and the movement itself. Like 1765, it was a conservative revolution: in fact, the Tea Partiers considered themselves to be conserving the American revolution. Palin’s love letter to the Tea Party, almost its manifesto and an essential companion piece to Foley’s text, was her second memoir America by Heart. At its core was the Tenth Amendment, that key limitation to federal power: “nothing could be more simple and straightforward,” Palin wrote:

There, in a single sentence, is the entire spirit of the U.S. Constitution: The federal government’s powers are limited to those listed in the Constitution. Everything else belongs to the states and the people. We give you the power; you don’t give us the power. We are sovereign. (27)

The Tea Party, as Foley detailed, considered Obamacare a violation of the Tenth Amendment. For Palin, in Alaska, the encroachment of federal taxes and spending programmes threatened the Tenth Amendment. The Tenth Amendment was the expression and guarantor of her entire political philosophy, uniting Jefferson, Jackson, Tocqueville, Reagan, the small town representatives of America and the Tea Party. “We serve notice,” she declared, “that we will resist Washington, D.C. adopting us” (28). James Madison had anticipated this divide in The Federalist No. 45, written in 1788 and titled ‘The Alleged Danger From the Powers of the Union to the State Governments Considered’

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the Federal Government, are few and defined. Those which are to remain in the State Governments are numerous and indefinite… [t]he powers reserved to the several States will extend to all the objects, which, in the ordinary course of human affairs, concern the lives, liberties and properties of the people[.] (29)

Foley summarised the importance of Madison’s text for the modern Tea Party position:

It’s critically important that Americans get this distinction: the federal government doesn’t have the power to do anything it wants to do. It’s a government of limited and enumerated powers only…(30)

This was the key to Palin’s own revolt against those seeking to extend the federal administration, a revolt embodied by the Tea Party with Palin as their most prominent and effective spokeswoman. In fact, this was a revival: the passions that produced the Tea Party had always been part of the conservative coalition, drawn upon and patronised by Republican officials during the patrician Bush and insurgent Gingrich eras, yet also at odds with the party establishment and its neoconservative fellow travelers. It is important to remember that when the Tea Party revolted it revolted against Bush’s 2008 Emergency Economic Stabilization Act as well as Obamacare and the ARRA. The original Tea Party protests convened around these specific acts, with a focus on economic and constitutional questions, and avoided divisive social issues, although these would eventually become more prominent as the movement folded back into the wider Republican right. 

The route to power, then, was complex and corrupting. The Tea Party rallies had desperately wanted Palin to run for president in 2012, and it remains historically significant that she chose not to. The actual 2012 electoral ticket was an ambivalent result for the movement: Mitt Romney was the ultimate establishment candidate, and he ran and lost as one; Paul Ryan, Romney’s running mate, was a Tea Party favorite, but generated none of the electricity that Palin had in the same position. The second Obama win dissipated the collective energy and cohesion of the mocked and sidelined ‘Teabaggers’, and yet their influence on GOP selections continued to grow. Nikki Haley, Rick Perry, Rick Santorum, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Carly Fiorina and Michelle Bachmann were all Tea Party candidates and would go on to achieve national prominence (and in Haley’s case, international stature). Establishment Republicans, the RINOs, found themselves beaten by candidates backed by grassroots activists, a groundswell that spread out from the original Tea Party to absorb every conservative movement issue, from gun rights, to same-sex marriage, to immigration, to God. Eventually, somehow, all of this energy and resentment would overwhelm the strict principles that Foley had identified at the origin of the Tea Party, and the movement would find its ultimate avatar in a property tycoon from New York with zero interest in the Charters of Liberty. This choice was not simply extreme, it was illogical in all but one aspect: as a revolt against the elites. Once again, Sarah Palin led the way. 

V: Power 

The truth is, the American Dream is dead. 
Donald J. Trump (31)

Palin was the first major Republican to publicly endorse Trump, on the eve of the Iowa Caucus, which Trump lost to Ted Cruz. At this point, Trump was thrilled to have Palin on his side, and stood behind her on the stage, grinning and gesticulating while she delivered her endorsement speech. For years, Palin had been swinging Republican primaries with her endorsement, boosting Nikki Haley from last place to victory in South Carolina or sinking GOP chances when she backed Christine O’Donnell in Delaware (a candidate who was forced to open her first TV campaign advert with the declaration: “I am not a witch…”). Even before the arrival of Trump, Tea Party candidates had caused mayhem for the traditional GOP establishment. Trump accelerated and deepened this fratricide: in 2016 Palin dumped former Tea Party darling Paul Ryan in the primary race to endorse Paul Nehlen, an antisemitic, white supremacist no-hoper, simply because Ryan had refused to support Trump. Trump annihilated the establishment candidate, Jeb Bush, while trashing the legacy of the Bush dynasty for good measure: the grassroots loved it, a significant indication of how far they had moved against their own party managers. But it got even worse: when Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, both former Tea Party candidates, made final desperate attacks on the new Republican primaries front runner, they were humiliated (as Rick Perry had been earlier). By May both had left the race. Newt Gingrich bowed to the inevitable and, following Palin’s early example, endorsed a Trump candidacy. From this internecine carnage Trump had emerged unscathed, surrounded by casualties from all sections of the GOP, most of whom would, eventually, crawl back to his side. More importantly, the Tea Party had remained loyal to him all along, despite the opposition of most of their old flames (Perry, Santorum, Fiorina, Ryan, Rubio, Cruz). 

Palin’s endorsement speech was not notably different in content from her Nashville address: the themes and catchphrases were part of the old repertoire (“If you value your freedom, think on it!”), albeit mixed in with new Trump slogans (“Make America Great Again”). The style however, had declined — or matured, depending on your perspective. She apparently had a script, but it seemed to be only vaguely related to what actually came out of her mouth, as she rode the emotion of the crowd and diverged into random attacks on the reporters present. The speech contained little policy or politics in the traditional sense: it was a pure outburst of emotion and resentment that occasionally turned lyrical in its bitterness and suppressed fury. The similarity in rhetorical style between Palin and Trump was clear, but it was instinctive, not imitative. It stemmed from the need that they both shared for direct contact with their supporters, the only thing that kept them politically alive in a world ruled by their enemies. The endorsement had been fixed by Trump’s political director (a former Palin aide), but the match made sense from an emotional point of view: both felt victimised by the media and political elites and considered themselves outsiders in Washington D.C. The event that seemed to give Trump the grisly determination to get to the presidency at whatever cost, including the incitement of racism and violence, had been his public humiliation by Obama at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Obama remained his primary fixation until deep into the presidential term. Palin and Trump shared an experience of humiliation at the hands of these people, which fueled their thirst for revenge. 

For Palin the actual policies and beliefs that Trump held were not really the point, and this was the same for the Tea Party and other Republicans who lumped all of their special interests under the simple slogans that Trump was peddling: Make America Great Again, America First, Build the Wall, Drain the Swamp. Palin’s political philosophy was fundamentally optimistic: she consistently demonstrated a faith in humanity that was founded on her religion and the American republic as the best guarantor of individual liberty. Trump, on the other, had a cynical view of America and of humanity more generally. “Man is the most vicious of all animals, and life is a series of battles ending in victory or defeat,” Trump had said after the premature death of his brother in 1981, adding: “You just can’t let people make a sucker out of you” (32). He had a higher regard for The Art of the Deal than he did for The Holy Bible. His inaugural address, delivered on January 27, 2017, was a masterpiece of dystopian expressionism, in which he depicted a nation scarred by poverty, crime, gangs, drugs, failing schools, corrupt politics, damaged children and “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape” (33). The speech made repeated appeals to ‘the people’ in order align Trump with the legacies of Jefferson and Jackson, and struck an aspirational note that verged on science fiction (“we stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the earth from the miseries of disease…”). But it was the dark, authoritarian tone that truly defined the address: an inchoate combination of protectionism, isolationism and nativism, guided by the brutal will of a new president who did not seem to understand the limitations of his role in the constitutional arrangement of the United States, and didn’t care about it anyway. “This American carnage stops right here and stops right now,” he thundered, in the most vivid phrase of the speech. Once he had finished speaking, George W. Bush turned to Hillary Clinton and said, “well, that was some weird shit” (34). 

This was quite a long way from America by Heart. You could see aspects of it foreshadowed in the book, but Palin’s patriotic populism seemed very bland and, well, conservative by comparison. In truth, Palin was not a revolutionary: her heroes and her ideas were recognisably part of mainstream American culture and politics. Her disdain for the urban elites and machine politics had antecedents throughout American history, and figured in the rhetoric of Jefferson, Jackson and Reagan. The revolution she headed after 2008 was a revolt against the elites and a revival of democratic populism within the conservative movement. However, emotions overtook ideas. The traditional Republican party was felled by the passions and discontents of its grassroots supporters, who found their true representative in Trump: a wrecking ball to smash the globalised world order. For a number of reasons, politically prosaic as well as instinctive and emotional, Palin joined a cynical and corrupt political platform that promised nothing but power and revenge on the political advisers and media hacks who had tried to destroy her. In the end, it gave her nothing tangible but the satisfaction of watching the establishment reel in anguish and confusion. Despite the speculation, she was offered no major post in the Trump administration. Her marriage collapsed as she pursued her vendetta against the ‘mainstream media’; she described 2019 as being “a lull”, although she remained engaged in her defamation suit against the New York Times. On social media her war against the elites raged on, but she seemed adrift, cut out of the narrative, cut off from her own history: an empty caricature of herself. She had foreseen a political revolution, she had articulated and defined its early stages, and she had played a significant part in promoting its true leader, Donald Trump. But what Trump represented, finally, was an authoritarian personality cult that fundamentally perverted the kind of revolution Palin had once stood for. 

  1. ‘McCain Chooses Palin as Running Mate’, New York Times, August 29, 2008
  2. Sarah Palin, Going Rogue (Harper, 2010), p.156
  3. Going Rogue, p.147
  4. Going Rogue, p.3
  5. Michael Ledeen, ‘The Frontierswoman’, National Review, September 3, 2008
  6. Going Rogue, p.126
  7. Palin on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, August 19, 2020
  8. Christopher Lasch, The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (Norton, 1995), p.28
  9. Palin on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News, August 19, 2020
  10. John Heilemann and Mark Halpernin, Race of a Lifetime (Penguin, 2010), all quotes taken from Chapter 22, ‘Seconds in Command’
  11. Heilemann and Halpernin, p.415
  12. Going Rogue, p.272
  13. Heilemann and Halpernin, p.410
  14. Going Rogue, p.276
  15. Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Henry Reeve (Everyman’s Library, 1994), p.62
  16. Tocqueville, p.67
  17. Tocqueville, p.87
  18. Tocqueville, p.93
  19. Going Rogue, p.64
  20. Going Rogue, p.85
  21. Going Rogue, p.425
  22. Going Rogue, p.416
  23. Going Rogue, p.424
  24. Going Rogue, p.414
  25. Elizabeth Foley, The Tea Party: Three Principles (Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.xiii
  26. Sarah Palin, America by Heart (HarperCollins, 2010), p.xvii
  27. America by Heart, p.72
  28. America by Heart, p.80
  29. The Federalist, ed. Terence Ball (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p.227
  30. Foley, p.38
  31. Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher, Trump Revealed – The Definitive Biography of the 45th President (Simon & Schuster, 2016), p.9
  32. Kranish and Fisher, p.94
  33. Donald J. Trump, ‘Inaugural Address’, January 20, 2017: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/the-inaugural-address/
  34. Hillary Clinton on The Howard Stern Show, December 4, 2019
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Alliance of Nations: Powell and Pressburger on Great Britain

archers-arrows-powell-pressburger-logo

Great Britain, as it emerged in the years between the Act of Union and the accession of Queen Victoria, and as it exists today, must be seen both as one relatively new nation, and as an alliance of several older nations — with the precise relationship between these old and new alignments still changing even as I write.
Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (1)

The capacity for love or friendship always indicates a superior and generous nature, and when we see them in life or art, they always engage our sympathies. They are witness to an expansive being that can in the pursuit of his own happiness encompass the happiness of another. In such a person the perennial tension between the pleasant and the noble seems to disappear. The lover or friend does what he most passionately wants to do and in doing so benefits the friend or the beloved.
Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (2)

I: Partners

In 1938, Alexander Korda had a problem. Having led the British film industry out of the dead-end of the 1920s “quota quickies” with his ambitious production company London films — with some help from his inspired young director, Michael Powell — he proceeded to build the most advanced studio in Britain at Denham in Buckinghamshire, opening it in 1936. Korda was a flamboyant and ruthless operator: a Hungarian immigrant who combined a studied appreciation of English society with the perspective of a cosmopolitan European outsider. He could, according to the film critic Ian Christie, “be credited with inventing — or at least importing — the idea of cinema as a cultural enterprise of national importance for his adopted country” (3). But by 1938, London films had lost so much money that Denham had been handed over to Pinewood mogul Arthur J Rank by Korda’s primary financial backer. Not only this, but his latest production, the First World War espionage thriller The Spy in Black, was a mess: Powell had been assigned to the project, but hated the script and could not work out a way to film it. Korda’s solution was to draft in one of his fellow Hungarian émigrés — the scriptwriter Emeric Pressburger — to help Powell fix the problem. This was, to say the least, an inspired choice.

Powell and Pressburger worked beautifully together: the immediate result was a nuanced and tense spy movie that hit the zeitgeist in the early months of the Second World War and was a smash hit at the box office. Their partnership was, in more ways than one, an international partnership. Powell had launched his film career in Nice, working as mop boy for the Hollywood crew of Rex Ingram, a job that exposed him to the craft of script-writing and film-editing and meant that he briefly “belonged to a versatile and cosmopolitan company which regularly entertained the great names of European and American cinema” (4), as Christie wrote in his monograph Arrows of Desire. Pressburger had also left home to start his career, moving to Berlin in the 1920s to work at Germany’s mighty UFA studios, until the rise of the Nazi regime forced him to leave for Paris and then London, where he joined Korda’s émigré network. Like Korda, Pressburger became an expert Anglophile, with a continental perspective that included practical experience of competing nationalisms and their imagery, fantasies and propaganda.

At the heart of Powell and Pressburger’s work together was the idea of the nation and its relation to their basic preoccupations, summarised by Dr. Frank Reeves in A Matter of Life and Death as “love and truth and friendship.” This was rooted in their own biographies, but functioned at a more universal level than that: it was an attitude to life and living clarified during the darkest moments of the Second World War. Their early collaboration on propaganda films was made easier by the understanding that Nazism stood for everything that they stood against: human identity defined by division, exclusion, violence and conquest. This was articulated in the two great anti-Nazi speeches penned by Pressburger and performed by the Austrian émigré Anton Walbrook as Hutterite community leader Peter in 49th Parallel and the exiled German exile Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp — speeches given powerful eloquence by Pressburger and Walbrook’s own experiences of Nazism in Berlin and Vienna. 

In contrast to the Nazi’s genocidal ideology, Powell and Pressburger presented a British identity informed by its own history and landscapes and enriched through partnership with other nations. In all of their films, the theme of partnership — whether through wartime alliance, cultural collaboration, personal friendship, or love — provided them with the most important tool in their construction of national identity. The portrait that they created did not reduce to racial propaganda or political revisionism, but was subtle and intelligent enough to register historical ironies, errors and even crimes. It was, ultimately, positive, an affirmation: the end credit of the international ballet production Tales of Hoffman was defiantly stamped ‘Made in England’; the Archers logo itself combined a visual echo of the RAF roundel with reference to that crucial tool of Medieval nation-building, the long-bow. But it was also a constructive project that emphasised alliance and common destiny, and had this much in common with the later work of Linda Colley who wrote in the preface to Britons:

English, Welsh and Scottish history have more often than not been taught and interpreted separately…quarantining these societies from each other, and concentrating only on what is distinctive about their respective pasts, quickly results in distorted and shrunken history. There are important separate stories that need prising open, to be sure, but there are also shared, interlinked and over-arching stories. (5)

Like Colley, Powell and Pressburger took a “broad-angled vision” in their presentation of the British and their countries, a vision that found focus across their filmography in the central themes of love and friendship. 

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II: War             

Powell and Pressburger’s own partnership was consolidated during the early years of the Second World War and their films from this period had a thematic purpose specific to British war aims. 49th Parallel, for example, highlighted the vulnerability of the Canadian border in the effort to undermine isolationist sentiment in America. From this government instruction and upon the basic plot of a stranded German U-Boat crew attempting to escape Canadian territory, Powell and Pressburger created a portrait of Canadian society drawn in sharp contrast to the narrow insularity and violent intolerance of Nazi ideals. From the film’s opening dedication to “Canada and Canadians all over the Dominion who helped us to make it” the theme of cooperation and fraternity is made explicit — as is Canada’s key role as a dominion within the British Empire. The complexity of this position is not hidden: Laurence Olivier plays a French Canadian trapper who is initially indifferent to the British defence of Poland but also dismisses the attempt by Nazi Lieutenant Hirth (Eric Portman) to play off the French Canadian national interest against British imperialism. Within Canadian borders and given prominence in the film are communities of Inuits and Native Indians who live peacefully alongside a modern, urbanised Anglo-Saxon class glimpsed in Banff, Alberta. This is idealised representation of coexistence serves to distinguish Canadian parliamentary democracy from the Nazi’s pseudo-biological racism and totalitarianism, a contrast clarified by Hirth’s dismissal of “Eskimos and Negros, only one degree above Jews” moments before he coldly orders the massacre of a boatload of Inuits. This is further underlined by the Nazi crew’s interaction with a Hutterite community they encounter: Hirth believes he can appeal to their ethnic German instincts, but his sub-Hilerite oration is met with stunned and chilly silence by the pacifistic Anabaptist settlers. 

The contrast drawn between the Nazis and the heterogeneous Canadian communities they interact with is not crude or simple. The scale and diversity of the territory and its inhabitants multiplies the political, economic and social power of the Canadian state and by extension the empire. The message is that difference can be an advantage when contained in a free society, although this is not without its own ironies and contradictions. Towards the end of their escape, the two surviving Germans Hirth and Lorhman receive the hospitality of the writer and anthropologist Philip Armstrong Scott, who is studying native Indian tribes in the Rockies. Scott’s otherworldly, cultivated and slightly camp English persona — played to perfection by Leslie Howard — provokes another violent rant from Hirth. Scott’s  avoidance of conflict, aristocratic self-possession and interest in modern art is enough to stir the ideological prejudices and nationalist instincts of the indoctrinated Nazis. The ensuing fight serves to reinforce Scott’s own identity as a British subject and representative of its multiracial empire as he finally traps and kills Lorhman with the help of the Indian tribesmen he lives with and a contingent of Mounties. For this reason, the casting of Howard was inspired and possibly unavoidable: the son of a Hungarian Jew, he specialised in playing the ideal English gentleman on screen, a role which made him as popular in America and Canada as Britain (less than two years after 49th Parallel he was dead, shot down by the Luftwaffe over the Atlantic). As Krishan Kumar wrote,

[Howard] made it clear in all his lectures and broadcasts that what was at stake was ‘the destiny of Britain’, and indeed of all English-speaking peoples. It was ‘the British soul’, he told Americans, that responded in sympathy with the principle of American freedom. In his documentary film From the Four Corners, soldiers from Australia, New Zealand and Canada are shown the sights of London, culminating in Westminster, the mother of parliaments. The sights and what they symbolize celebrate their shared heritage as Britons. It was this breadth of vision that might explain why…Howard had a fervent following not just in North America but all over the British Empire. (6) 

Howard literally embodies this breadth of vision and it is the role of Scott — the phlegmatic explorer seeking to understand the most extreme margins of British territory — to articulate this cooperative ideal of democratic internationalism from a British perspective. 

In 49th Parallel, the Nazis pursue their escape through robbery, trickery, violence and murder; they are unable to cooperate with anybody, even when they try to convert other ethnic Germans, not only because they are on enemy territory, but because their ideology cannot allow it. Powell and Pressburger’s next film reversed the formula: in One of Our Aircraft is Missing a British bomber crew is forced to bail out over Nazi-occupied Netherlands and escape back to England. The film opens by paying tribute to Dutch assistance in both production of the film and prosecution of the war; this has  propaganda value but also underlines the themes of cooperation and collaboration. The crew of B for Bertie is itself a cross-section of English society — a heterogeneous mix of Northerners and Southerners, old and young, classes and professions — and individual differences are foregrounded immediately in order to emphasize their cohesion as a team (when the crew regroups on the ground, they have to decide whether to “go it alone or stick together” and choose the latter). Unlike the U-Boat crew in 49th Parallel, the progress of the B for Bertie crew is only made possible by the assistance of the Dutch resistance within a tightly controlled Nazi occupation, here led by women: school teacher Else Meertens (Pamela Brown) and the businesswoman Jo de Vries (Googie Withers). As Ian Christie notes, “[t]he Dutch are seen to draw on their historic tradition of independence, and to counter the German forces by understanding their psychology and playing upon it” (7). Dutch national identity therefore provides the foundation upon which to resist not just German occupation but also subjugation to the aggressive and alien ideology of Nazism.

In this underground struggle, the Dutch pretend to collaborate with the Germans, while secretly collaborating with the British who can only offer “love, gratitude and admiration” in return, at least for the moment. (The feeling was mutual, in the end: at Churchill’s funeral, the Dutch formed part of a one hundred flag salute by European resistance fighters as his cortege passed through Whitehall, 8.)  In her key speech, de Vries describes the air raid blackouts as a source of hope and courage for the entire occupied continent:

You see. That’s what you’re doing for us. Can you hear them running for shelter? Can you understand what that means to all the occupied countries? To enslaved people, having it drummed into their ears that the Germans are masters of the Earth. Seeing these masters running for shelter. Seeing them crouching under tables. And hearing that steady hum night after night. That noise which is oil for the burning fire in our hearts.

This minor masterpiece of tension and economy is also a magnificent tribute to the Dutch resistance which reflects back on the varied but coherent national character of the English crew, who prove resourceful, pragmatic, humorous and polite in all interactions with their Dutch helpers. This is nationalism — in both British and Dutch iterations — that is confident and at ease with  itself and consequently able to treat alliances with equanimity and grace, in contrast to German nationalism which is shown in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp to be fatally driven by a crisis of legitimacy and lack of achievement. Here, Powell and Pressburger also begin to portray an Englishness that is inherently diverse and therefore, at crucial moments, open to difference and outside influences, a principle which is expanded to incorporate the complexities of Great Britain and the British Empire as a whole.

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III: Empire

If you go calmly and look English, there is no particular danger.
Walter Bagehot 

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is Powell and Pressburger’s national epic. The sudden leap in artistic ambition and technical execution from the preceding films is startling: not simply because of the transition to radiant Technicolour but also because of the complex structure, thematic depth, scope of time, daring depiction of British flaws and German honour in the time of war and, maybe most of all, the film’s infinitely rich and moving portrayal of love and friendship. The film begins with a series of stereotypes that are gradually undermined and complicated: the haughty, punctilious German officers; Deborah Kerr’s series of female love ideals; and the Blimp himself, Major General Clive Wynne-Candy. Through Roger Livsey’s sensitive performance, Candy develops from a one-dimensional David Low doppelganger to a multi-layered composite of the flaws and strengths of the late Victorian ruling class, but with his own characteristics: romantic, bullish, gentle, ebullient, melancholy, stoically cheerful, yet quietly tragic.

The time frame of the film stretches from the Boer War to the middle of the Second World War (when it was made). Candy’s generational experience is very close to Churchill and it is hard to avoid the impression that the Prime Minister’s open hostility to the film was influenced by a suspicion that the whole thing was aimed directly at him. He shouldn’t have worried. One of the key concerns of the film is how late Victorian codes of behaviour left Britain vulnerable to more ruthless Nazi methods, while the adoption of these methods risked undermining the ethical foundation of Anglo-Saxon civilisation. This is the same problem Churchill had been grappling with since 1914, although he probably found it gratuitous to say out loud in 1943; nevertheless, he was always ready to sack Generals for lacking the ingenuity, ruthlessness and foresight demanded by Lieutenant “Spud” Wilson in the film’s framing skit. Churchill also took exception to the neutral treatment of Germans in the film, but the sympathetic portrayal of Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff is a penetrating condemnation of the ideology that estranged Theo from his two fanatical Nazi children, invading his home with a chauvinism and brutality he detests and denounces in a quietly ferocious soliloquy. If anything, this is the perfect propaganda film for the precise conflict at hand. 

The context for all of this — the background that informs every aspect of the film without being its principal subject — is Great Britain’s own national epic, the second British Empire. Candy is the ultimate product of his time: the peak of British imperial power in the Victorian and Edwardian era, with the empire perpetuated as an end in itself, celebrated in what existed of mass culture, considered a birthright and inheritance by the aristocratic and administrative classes and, as in its earliest periods, an opportunity for ambitious Britons of all nationalities seeking glory, fortune and distinction. Candy’s portrait opens with the aftermath of his VC-winning heroics in the Boer War, itself the first major reversal in Great Britain’s Victorian triumph. The war has made Candy’s career but also damaged the global reputation of Britain, delivering a propaganda coup for German agents who gleefully distribute stories of British atrocities and concentration camps. As Lawrence James wrote in his account of the British Empire, the Boer war met its ultimate aim “in international terms, a demonstration of Britain’s imperial will and determination to regain global power, whatever the cost” (9), although the financial cost was high and the damage to British morale incalculable. None of this particularly registers with Candy who leaves the war with a memory of adventure and military honour and travels to Berlin ostensibly to rebut German propaganda, but also on a jaunt to diffidently woo Edith Hunter (Deborah Kerr), the woman he loses honorably to Theo but whose image haunts him for the rest of his life. Candy sublimates heartbreak through an orgy of big-game hunting, represented by the appearance of animal busts on the walls of his London home, collected in a succession of British African colonies. This is Candy’s world, a vast imperial playground, open and available on a whim. 

It is upon this inheritance, however brutally maintained in Southern Africa, that the confidence and manners of the British elite rests. This is encapsulated by the British government ministers sat around Candy’s dinner table after the conclusion of the First World War: representatives of a global power with cosmopolitan aspirations, heirs to Alexander the Great and the Roman emperors, living proof of Great Britain’s providential destiny (10).  These high-ranking men dress in the dark and sober tailoring of the Victorian era, a specifically British style that developed after the French Revolution, according to Colley: 

[B]y the early 1800s, superbly cut but essentially subdued and understated London tailoring had not only become fashionable throughout the western world, but had spawned its own powerful etiquette at home. The apparently unwritten rules…were, in fact, promulgated in a spate of dress-guides issued in the early nineteenth century. However formal the occasion, patrician males now dressed in British fashions – and like men with work to do. (11)

This male patrician class, with its self-conscious, cultivated manners of reserve, cynicism and moderation, is beautifully depicted in Powell and Pressburger’s recreation of the 1902 Berlin Embassy staff and their interaction with German military representatives: the bombast and pretension of the Germans undercut by British indifference to their military code and barely disguised contempt for the arcane etiquette of German dueling. This is not simply a portrait of national characteristics, but a contrast of self-image and comparative global prestige: even after the Boer experience, Britain was an enormous territorial power built on military victory and economic conquest, which can account for the complacent attitude of British administrators. Germany, in comparison, was a relatively new state, forging a coherent identity and looking for national myths upon which to do so, conscious of its potential strength but missing the colonial spoils to represent this on the world stage. As Theo admits to Candy as they recover from the wounds of their duel and establish their friendship, he envies Candy and the British their imperial wars and wishes he had one to fight in; but the fragility of German nationalism, compounded by defeat in 1918, leads directly to its virulent deformation in Nazism, from which Theo eventually flees. 

As can be seen in 49th Parallel, the empire is present in some form in all of the Powell and Pressburger films of the 1930s and 1940s: it is the backdrop and atmosphere upon which these films proceed. But it is only in Black Narcissus that they locate a film in the heart of that empire: India. The film was produced and released in 1947, the year that Mountbatten was fatally botching Britain’s exit from the subcontinent (by the end of the year even Mountbatten’s promoter Churchill had been moved to point out that “at least half a million Indians have already perished at each other’s hands by violent means and now some seven or eight millions are homeless fugitives,” because of the Viceroy’s vanity and incompetence, 12). The Himalayan backdrop was entirely fabricated in Pinewood Studios and on location at Leonardslee Gardens, West Sussex, with visual wonders being worked by cinematographer Jack Cardiff, art director Alfred Junge and painter W. Percy Day. Despite this, incidental details linked the making of the film directly into the dissolving empire: Indian cast members were recruited from war-time immigrant communities congregated in the London docklands, while Leonardslee Gardens was chosen for its selection of Himalayan cedars and azaleas imported from India under imperial auspices by the plant collector Sir Edmund Loder (13). 

At Pinewood, Percy Day composed enormous matte paintings of the wild Himalayan edges of a princely state in which the Anglican Order of the Servants of Mary set up their convent, led by Sister Clodagh (Deborah Kerr). This represented the other side of British imperialism: a spiritual colonialism led by missionaries. The convent is located in a reclaimed seraglio, the abandoned quarters of the royal harem that is still decorated with erotic frescoes on crumbling walls. This undertone of exotic sensuality is heightened by the arrival of Kanchi, a beautiful peasant girl who seduces the local prince’s young general (Sabu). Played by Jean Simmons against type in every sense (it would be politically impossible now), her brief irruption onto the screen is fraught with an eroticism that prompted an incredulous Laurence Olivier, then directing her in Hamlet, to ask Powell, “what have you done to my Ophelia?” The other source of sensual breakdown is Mr Dean (David Farrar), the general’s British agent who considers the ‘civilising’ mission of the sisters to be futile and inadvertently causes Sister Ruth’s (Kathleen Byron) psychosexual unraveling. Dean’s roles encapsulates the ambiguities of empire: a local administrator caught between the authority of his position as an imperial representative technically subordinate to the local ruler. His attitude combines patrician cynicism with an awareness of his exposure in a foreign landscape and culture. He “translates” this ultimately hostile environment for Sister Clodagh, who does not fully heed his warnings until her final retreat from the monastery in pouring monsoon rain. This finale has been interpreted as a symbolic representation of British withdrawal from India, and the attitude to empire in Black Narcissus is ultimately critical: the imperial project, in its local administrative manifestations, has become illogical, cynical and doomed to failure. 

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IV: Landscape

A Canterbury Tale (1944) opens with an extract from Chaucer’s Prologue to The Canterbury Tales, described by Adrian Hastings as “the best literary expression of national maturity to be found in the fourteenth-century English renaissance” (14) and a triumph for English as a language of poetry to rival medieval French and Italian. For Hastings, the emergence of a vernacular literature is a key component in the construction of nations:

The more a vernacular develops a literature with a popular impact, particularly a religious and legal literature, the more it seems to push its speakers from the category of an ethnicity towards that of a nation. (15)

Or, in other words, “texts can produce peoples,” a point at least partly applicable to the way in which British wartime propaganda films, including those of Powell and Pressburger, produced a British image that fostered national cohesion in the service of international alliances and military victory. According to Hastings, English national identity can be traced back to the time of King Alfred partly on the basis of this development of a vernacular literature, a tradition triumphantly reaffirmed in the fourteenth century by Chaucer’s Prologue. However, as Krishan Kumar points out in his own study of English identity, Chaucer’s achievement was not simply parochial but “a distinctly European project whose aim was the creation of vernacular literatures as the common property of all the educated classes of Europe” (16). The world of The Canterbury Tales is defined, then, by the relationship between local identities (towns, counties, nation) and a cosmopolitan European circuit of court and pilgrimage — or, to quote Thomas Wyatt, “Kent and Christendom” (17). 

The entwining of local detail with international connections is delicately portrayed in the rambling episodes of Powell and Pressburger’s film. The basic narrative frame is as simple as Chaucer’s — a chance assembly of strangers making their individual pilgrimage to Canterbury — but in 1944 the reason for being in Kent is to prepare for the Allied invasion of Normandy. There is, therefore, an international cooperative enterprise at the heart of the film’s narrative. The selection from Chaucer’s Prologue draws attention to the landscape on which this plays out: the Kent countryside in spring, when “shoures soote…bathed every veyne in swich licuor”, and  

…Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heath
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages) (18)

For Powell and Pressburger this Kent landscape is precisely woven into the thematic and visual fabric of the film: cloud-watching; the cycle of sunlight; bluebells and wild thyme; the sound of horses, church bells, lute and hedgerow birds. This connects the pilgrims across 600 years: the natural and atmospheric details are, in this sense, everything.

In the summer of 1944, Alison Smith (Sheila Sim) meets Acting Sgt. Bob Johnson from Oregon (played by a real Sgt., John Sweet) when their train stops at the fictional town of Chillingbourne: she is going to start work as a Land Girl, while he is on furlough, travelling to meet a friend at Canterbury Cathedral. The Kent they encounter is a heightened portrait of rural Southern county society, a landscape shaped by modern agriculture and artisan industries. This is also a specific English ideal, developed in counterpoint to the Romantic sublime found in the Scottish Highlands and islands that Powell and Pressburger would explore in their 1945 film I Know Where I’m Going! The old Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the South would provide, in the late 19th century, a pastoral image for poets and writers that Powell and Pressburger draw upon: a lush prospect of downland, woodland, enclosed fields, meadows and farmsteads; parish churches, public houses and Tudor cottages; ironmongers, oast houses, cart horses and hay-bales. Cinematographer Erwin Hillier drenches this landscape in translucent washes of sunlight that become, at certain moments, transcendent, timeless, mystical. As in the narrative of Chaucer, the spiritual infuses the more earthy reality of work and human agency. For Powell and Pressburger this reality transcends time, connecting individual human activities, aspirations and emotions across hundreds of years — an idea articulated by Thomas Colpeper (Eric Portman), an obsessive amateur historian with a mystical view of the Kent landscape transfigured, but not haunted, by its own history. This particular interpretation of time and human experience is captured in the opening scenes of the film, when a tranquil view of the pilgrims’ trail is suddenly interrupted by a tank crashing across the screen and the transformation of a kestrel into a Spitfire. Even by 1944, the fields of Kent had acquired national resonance as the stage for military salvation in the victorious air battles of August and September 1940, a key part of their memorial power here.

Powell and Pressburger’s modern pilgrims follow the same route as Chaucer’s to the same historic destination: Canterbury Cathedral remains at the centre of this quest, while other parts of the town have been flattened by the Baedeker raids. Canterbury, itself, plays a central role in English nation-building through Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English, as Hastings notes: 

the ecclesiastical unity maintained by Canterbury was effectively the unity of the churches of the English. That is the point at which Bede’s ecclesiastical history becomes almost necessarily a national history, an account of the ‘gens Anglorum’. (19)

The ultimate journey in A Canterbury Tale is Normandy: the Cathedral organist allows Sgt. Peter Gibbs (a London cinema organist, played by Dennis Price) to play the organ during the thanksgiving service after asking the unadorned question, “you going too?” (he continues, “if you’re one of them, it’s only right that you should play it”). Filmed just before and during the D-Day landings, Operation Overlord is peripheral to all action and dialogue in the film, but is its central fact (it is worth remembering that the outcome, at this point, was still unknown). In contrast to the Kent idyll depicted by Powell and Pressburger lie the imagined and experienced killing fields of Nazi Europe. The English countryside is a spiritual reservoir for the Allied invading force. In this sense, the figure of Chaucer is  a symbol of cosmopolitan European culture, tolerant of diversity and hostile to irrational authority, set against a new Teutonic pagan barbarism. Chaucer — multilingual and with personal and professional connections to France — is very close to the kind of ideal English identity that Powell and Pressburger construct: an England open to partnership, influence, alliance and fraternity with other nations and cultures. To this end, the intensely localised and intricately detailed landscape depicted in A Canterbury Tale is not used for narrow nationalist aims, but is rich with connections across borders and time. The mix of localism and internationalism that Powell and Pressburger present is something distinct from the ethnic mass nationalism that finds its ultimate manifestation in Nazism.

In Gone to Earth (1950) the Shropshire landscape has a similar thematic function, but the human connection is as destructive and sensual as it is in Black Narcissus. As in A Canterbury Tale the film is enriched by Powell’s own familiarity with the landscape he chooses to portray (he went to school in Canterbury and both of his parents had roots in Shropshire). Gone to Earth is set in 1897 at an earlier stage of  agricultural production and social demarcation than 1944, in a landscape precisely defined by class structure and its attendant roles and pursuits. The central metaphor of the film is the fox hunt: the gypsy peasant Hazel (Jennifer Jones) is associated with her half-tame pet fox (who she names Foxy) and is pursued by Jack Reddin (David Farrar), the local squire and leader of the hunt who is always flanked by his bloodhound (“he’s got the blood of little foxes on him, Foxy” Hazel exclaims, caught between horror and arousal). Hazel’s spirit is elemental, supernatural, pantheistic: she carries a book of spells inherited from her mother and shares an instinctual connection to the natural world. Reddin owns the land and, effectively, controls nature.

Shot on location, the agricultural demarcations of Much Wenlock are on full display in Gone to Earth and form part of its rich symbolic economy. As W. G. Hoskins detailed in The Making of the English Landscape, the countryside produced by the enclosures was a landscape stripped of trees and woodland, arranged for specific human needs. In the neighbouring Midlands,

the enclosure of heaths and commons reduced the extent of natural gorse patches where a fox could hide…to get more foxes and to get them distributed more evenly over the country, gorse covers and spinneys were started by hunting landlords in well chose spots. (20)

The landscape was organised, partly, for the requirements of the hunt which had a specific social function, as Colley described it: 

Fox-hunting attracted a broad spectrum of rural society, but the main expense of breeding and feeding hounds and hunters fell to the great landowners, who thereby reaffirmed their prominence in the local community…Hunting enabled a gentleman to flaunt his leisure without seeming in the process to be idle or effete…Foxes were vermin. By hunting them to death – and thereby safeguarding their smallholder’s chickens or lambs – elite males proclaimed their social utility, while at the same time enjoying themselves enormously. (21)

Reddin dominates and shapes this landscape, whether through the agricultural or industrial activities of his tenants or his own sporting pursuits. He is the stereotypical embodiment of the English squirearchy as it had developed by 1897, focused on the landed estate with its rental income and its attendant rural pursuits: breeding horses, training hounds, hunting foxes, shooting game and catching salmon. This sense of entitlement is embedded deep in his psyche, and extends to Hazel: his domination is not just economic, but also physical and sexual. 

Samm Deighan, in her essay on the “pagan pastoral” in Gone to Earth, identifies the film’s roots in a Gothic literary tradition as well as its anticipation of the British ‘folk horror’ cycle of the 1970s:

Reddin…can be seen as a pagan lord of the Wild Hunt, while [Hazel’s husband] Edward is a Christian civilizer. A ritual from [Hazel’s] mother’s magic book drove her to Reddin, even though she professed not to want to go, and in the concluding scenes of the film he takes on a hellish aspect…When [he] enters the room, he’s shot through the flames in his own fireplace, sealing his symbolic link to sex, fire, and death, just as Marston is repeatedly connected to purity, water, and rebirth… (22)

Hazel’s connection with nature is implicitly supernatural, although her book of spells is an heirloom and superstition rather than actual witchcraft. The film is a Gothic melodrama, but not a supernatural tale: it is firmly rooted in the realities of the landscape and rural society. Hazel keeps Foxy close at all times and crows in her home, rescues a rabbit from a trap, mimics birds and believes animals have souls. She is half-wild herself and her erotic energy is untamed, violating the Christian moral codes of the local Shropshire town. This is inexplicable and ultimately ruinous for her husband, the Baptist minister Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack), but it is a source of compulsive attraction for Reddin. The wild landscape, untameable nature and eros are linked in the dangerous but authentic physical and emotional connection he has with Hazel. This attraction undermines Reddin’s rational control of the landscape while he also captures and corrupts Hazel within the bounds of his own world. In this story, the layers of country life that define the Shropshire landscape are torn apart, and the wildness of that landscape overwhelms the human actors who destroy themselves within it. 

The power of the wild landscape, and the relationship between human agency and the natural world, also defined Powell and Pressburger’s portrayal of another, more marginal, British landscape: the remote Scottish Highlands and islands. Before he met Pressburger, Powell had already depicted this relationship in his 1937 film The Edge of the World, a fictionalised account of the evacuation of St. Kilda in the Outer Hebrides. In this drama the tensions between island and mainland, tradition and modernity, explode in the struggle between different factions of the island population. The island can no longer sustain a living, isolated from the mainland and superseded by a modern fishing industry. The struggle of this marginal community to accept their inevitable assimilation is precisely about the meaning and limits of national identity — in this case Scottish and British. The more recalcitrant elements on the island, represented by the shepherd Peter Manson (John Laurie), dismiss any connection to Scottish identity: the spirit, in this case, is independent, isolated, defined by the geographical and cultural limits of the archipelago. But for those advocating evacuation, led by Peter’s son Robbie (Eric Berry), the decision to leave is a positive choice: explicit identification with a national unit and with all of the opportunities of a wider world. The film beautifully conveys the balance between these two perspectives without advocating for one or the other: the sublime shots of island cliffs and sea life drenched in shafts of sunlight or menaced by broiling storms add depth to this emotional and psychological bind. For Powell, the island community represents the cultural diversity of the ‘internal’ empire of Great Britain, as well as the complexity and underlying drama of cultural and economic assimilation (a reality shared by the Highlanders, only fully subdued by central state violence in 1746 and thereafter enthusiastic participants in global empire, 23). 

Powell and Pressburger returned to the Hebridean margins in I Know Where I’m Going! Here, the landscape fully serves the story of Joan Webster’s (Wendy Hiller) journey from her Manchester home to join her new husband, a wealthy industrialist who is leasing the Isle of Kiloran. The ‘Highland economics’ that underpin this arrangement are made clear when Joan meets, and eventually falls for, the Laird of Kiloran Torquil MacNeal (Roger Livesey) while waiting out bad weather on the Isle of Mull. Joan is now caught between two realities of land use. Her husband’s life on Kiloran is a pursuit of leisure: he imports salmon to his house and is building a swimming pool. In contrast, the life of the Laird and the local tenants of Mull and Kiloran is a life of hunting, fishing, and farming; the sea is used for travel, food and commerce and is treated with caution (as Joan discovers when she encounters the legendary whirlpool of Kiloran in her desperate attempt to reach the island). They cannot comprehend why somebody would live on the island and import salmon rather than catch it. Nevertheless, they also fully understand the separation of values that distinguishes them for the Southern lowlands and English cities. As MacNeal explains to Joan, whose marriage is almost reducible to a financial arrangement, the locals are “not poor, they just have no money.” They are aware of their difference to her, and draw attention to it, reveling in the obscure Highland and island traditions and the cruelty of the natural world in which they participate. They live in a landscape in which eagles carry off lambs so farmers shoot eagles, a pragmatic and unromantic relationship with nature that is, in turn, incomprehensible to Joan. She is fundamentally alienated from this world, and the empty luxury which her husband offers; MacNeal — Laird and Royal Navy Officer — is also caught between two extremes. 

The resolution is love. 

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V: Decline

The Archers partnership of Powell and Pressburger spanned the key years of British decline, from the outbreak of war (The Spy in Black, 1938) to the immediate aftermath of the Suez Crisis (Ill Met by Moonlight, 1957). During that time, as I have tried to show in this essay, they created a rich and broad national portrait, an assertion of national values and character that was self-confident enough to be ironic and critical when necessary. Elements of eroticism, luxury, decadence, melodrama and the macabre revealed a European sensibility fundamental to their work, which often jarred with the sober and decorous mores and expectations of British critics. In their films, style and substance were intimately fused, without one being subordinate to the other. The English critical preference for realism was not treated as a cinematic value to be respected, but a tool to be used among a range of others. This explosive proposition could meet with triumph (The Red Shoes) or disaster (Gone to Earth) and sometimes both at once (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp). It was a daring partnership, supported by an extended company of artistic collaborators, that was often misunderstood and sometimes censored or dismissed. Despite this, their work was an affirmation of a society that treated them with suspicion and even contempt. 

By 1946, Great Britain was shrinking. There was no money left to maintain tangible commitments and what remained was image, fantasy and cultural influence. This seeped into the fabric of Powell and Pressburger’s films. Black Narcissus was a meditation on imperial collapse and Gone to Earth presented an image of society undermined by its own moral and social strictures. The finale of Powell and Pressburger’s gorgeous existential fantasy A Matter of Life and Death (1946) served as an explicit recognition of the eclipse of British power relative to America’s rise. In the film, a celestial tribunal is established to decide the fate of British pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) and Bostonian radio operator June (Kim Hunter) whose love affair hangs in the balance following a clerical error by Heaven’s Recording Angel (Kathleen Byron). The legal arguments presented by English doctor Frank Reeves (Roger Livesey) and American revolutionary martyr Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey) drift from the case at hand to the relative merits of British and American democracy and culture. The thrusts and counter thrusts are tart and telling: Farlan recounts the crimes of the British Empire, Reeves enlists the glories of English literature; Farlan plays a listless English test match commentary, Reeves replies with a raucous swing band. Nobody wins this exchange: it is only resolved by love. The propaganda purpose of this film was to foster Anglo-American partnership, but in the process it betrayed the insecurity felt by the British in their post-war relationship with America.

The radiant triumph of The Red Shoes in 1948 — a distraction, if anything, from bankruptcy, rationing and crumbling prestige, and a profoundly European film anyway —  was followed by the insular and pessimistic drama The Small Back Room (1950). The story of Sammy Rice (David Farrar) — a scientist who wears an artificial foot following a failed bomb disposal operation and battles physical and psychological pain with whiskey — is shot in brooding monochrome, and largely takes place in dark, constricted lodgings, jazz clubs, dingy laboratories, tube trains, bare offices that desperately need decorating and Whitehall meeting rooms disturbed by the noise of building work. The tone is insular, claustrophobic and anguished: a world of breakdown, decadence, paranoia and dissolution. As a post-war war film it is startling in its cynicism and lack of illusions: key decisions about weapons programmes are ensnared in departmental vendettas and petty personality clashes fought out in hostile committee meetings (a world Churchill would have recognised). Rice’s relationship with his secretary Susan (Kathleen Byron) is fraught with misunderstanding, alienation, jealousy and suppressed violence. On the edge of this is the new cultural climate of post-war urban Britain, gestating during war-time but fully forming by 1950, a world framed by Kray Twins ultra-violence, Tony Hancock dankness and Diana Dors orgies. The Small Back Room is subtly suffused with this emerging atmosphere, a compelling and modern mire of existential despair and imported kicks, suicidal drinking and promiscuous nightlife, a world that would finally find apotheosis and implosion in Powell’s own 1960 horror masterpiece Peeping Tom

When Powell and Pressburger returned to the war at the end of their Archers partnership, the balance between art and propaganda was still in perfect accord, but the purpose was very different. The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) were both tales of British style and courage made at a time of political trauma: the administration of Eden, culminating in Suez, represented a moment of insecurity and malaise, with Britain’s declining power visible to all. In this context, it is not hard to understand the box office success of The Battle of the River Plate, or the assistance provided by the Royal Navy in its production (HMNZS Achilles and HMS Cumberland were both loaned to reprise their original battle roles). In contrast to their earlier war films, this was a straightforward presentation of the first Allied naval victory of the war and a handsome portrayal of imperial naval discipline and daring. The scale of the film was grand and the final shot of the battle group in formation against the Atlantic sunset made explicit its elegiac nature. Ill Met By Moonlight takes this same instinct into the covert operations of W. Stanley Moss (David Oxley) and Patrick Leigh Furmer (Dirk Bogarde). Based on Moss’ memoir, the film recounts the abduction of the German Commander Heinrich Kreipe (Marius Goring) on Crete: Powell and Pressburger re-stage this as a tale of British ingenuity and (in the hands of Oxley and Bogarde) English upper class dash and panache: an attempt to boost rapidly collapsing national self-esteem. It also foregrounds the themes that underpinned the early war films and makes it, in a sense, a resurrection of those first collaborations: the British can only succeed in their enterprise by establishing a bond of fraternity with the Cretans and collaborating with them as equal partners, if only temporarily. As Furmer reminds Kreipe, who considers the Cretans to be savages and protests at being left in their charge: “we are all in the hands of Cretans here.” From the professional collaboration of the Royal Navy and the Royal New Zealand Navy to the British alliance with the Cretan resistance, both films replay the key themes of cooperation and friendship in Powell and Pressburger’s portrayal of the British at the twilight of their global power. 

After this, everything got smaller. The partnership of Powell and Pressburger broke up, the Archers wound down, and their next films met with respective ill fortune: the Pressburger-scripted Miracle in Soho simply sank, while Peeping Tom sank Powell’s career. The world that Peeping Tom portrayed was the same dank, constricted London depicted in The Small Back Room, but with the focus on the underworld of Soho prostitution and seedy book stores, back street photo studios, film sets, theatres and lodgings. This was an underground, urban landscape filled with hidden, exploited lives and enlivened by an encroaching American pop and club culture that was slowly seeping into the fabric of English society. In the film this is not an optimistic cultural development but a corruption, and the context of photographer Mark Lewis’ own morbid psychosis and homicidal sexual obsession. For 1960, Peeping Tom is sexually graphic, but it is not an erotic movie: even more than Psycho (from the same year) it is the embryonic slasher movie, already deconstructing the psychological mechanics of the genre in the same way that Dario Argento would with Tenebrae in 1982. Even though the protagonist is foreign (Mark was played by the Austrian actor Carl Boehm), the film plays on the hypocrisy and prurience of the British attitude to sex — an under-the-counter mentality that literally feeds the world in which Mark makes his living and stalks his victims. This depiction of the post-war London underworld and British sexual psychology are only two of the many thematic layers in the film and not the most important ones, but the descent from the deck of HMS Ajax to the lodgings of a murdered Soho prostitute was steep and shocking. British critics did not forgive Powell for it. This was a particular portrait of Britain — corrupt, hypocritical, violent, voyeuristic — they did not wish to look at in 1960.

In fact nobody had done more — in aesthetic terms — to create a rich portrait of the British during the Second World War and its aftermath. This portrait was a positive, if complex, contribution to the national mythos. As Linda Colley wrote in the conclusion to Britons:

We need to stop confusing patriotism with simple conservatism, or smothering it with damning and dismissive references to chauvinism and jingoism. Quite as much as any other human activity, the patriotism of the past requires flexible, sensitive and above all, imaginative reconstruction. (24)

Powell and Pressburger avoided chauvinism and jingoism by linking patriotism to their key themes of love, friendship and cooperation, themes that connected all of their movies, even those that did not necessarily focus on the British or Great Britain. Their theory of a total cinema found its apotheosis in the visual-musical productions The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman, and both of these films were outstanding examples of multinational artistic collaborations, ensemble pieces that recalled the Ballet Russes productions that Nijinsky vividly described in his autobiography (Korda had himself planned a biopic of Nijinsky in 1934, and, of course, the character of Boris Lermontov is partly drawn from Diaghilev, as well as Korda himself). It is precisely because Powell and Pressburger broke out of the parochial limitations and aesthetic confines of British cinema that they received a suspicious, uncomprehending and even hostile critical reception during the lifetime of The Archers. But it is this extensive vision, which incorporated their representation of Great Britain and the British as well as their theory of film, that would secure their final legacy. As Ian Christie wrote in 1985, in a revised version of a book written to accompany the 1978 British Film Institute retrospective, among the first high profile reappraisals of their oeuvre in Britain: 

English cinema, like English literature, is in perpetual danger of being seen within a parochial perspective. The Archers aimed beyond Margate, at the world’s screens, and in doing so helped revive the nineteenth century dream of a total cinema that would transcend the traditional arts. (25) 

In pursuit of this dream, Powell and Pressburger also presented the British with an image of themselves and their countries to counter the narrow ethnic nationalisms that would aim at division and dissolution. Whatever utility or relevance this portrayal had, it was, at least, expansive and open, built on the principles of cooperation, alliance and solidarity. The films of Powell and Pressburger tell us that national character and tradition remain real and insoluble, but will always be transcended by love and friendship: with this understanding at the heart of things, they had no problem putting the Nazis in their place in the 1930s. Despite their sometimes morbid, spectral or horrific shades, at the centre of all of these films was that basic concern of the soul: the connection between people.

  1. Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 2005), p.373
  2. Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship (Simon and Schuster, 1993), p.548
  3. Ian Christie, Arrows of Desire – The Films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (Faber & Faber, 1994), p.27
  4. Christie, p. 12 
  5. Colley, p.xii
  6. Krishan Kumar, The Making of English National Identity (Cambridge University Press, 2003), pps. 234-5            
  7. Christie, p.40              
  8. Andrew Roberts, Churchill – Walking with Destiny (Allen Lane, 2018), p 963      
  9. Lawrence James, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire (Abacus, 1998), p.268  
  10. See Kumar, p186; Colley, p.368
  11. Colley, pps. 187-8        
  12. Quoted in Andrew Roberts, Eminent Churchillians (Phoenix, 1994), p.131      
  13. These details are provided by Powell himself, in his 1991 commentary on the film available on the ITV blu-ray restoration. 
  14. Adrian Hastings, The Construction of Nationhood: Ethnicity, Religion and Nationalism (Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.47
  15. Hastings, p.20
  16. Kumar, p.57
  17. Sir Thomas Wyatt, ‘Mine own John Poyntz…’, The Collected Poems (Penguin, 1978), p.189    
  18. The Riverside Chaucer, ed. Larry D. Benson (Oxford University Press, 1987), p23   
  19. Hastings, p.37          
  20. W. G. Hoskins, The Making of the English Landscape (Penguin, 1985), p.197      
  21. Colley, pps. 171-2 
  22. Samm Deighan, ‘Gone to Earth: The Pagan Pastoral in Powell and Pressburger’, Senses of Cinema website:  http://sensesofcinema.com/2017/feature-articles/pagan-pastoral-in-powell-and-pressburger/
  23. Colley, p.144, “a major share in the work (and the profits) of constructing Greater Britain would for a long time be sufficient for Scottish ambition.” 
  24. Colley, p.372          
  25. Christie, p.8                     

 

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‘The Town Blazing Scarlet’: Swansea’s Blitz

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They take you up on Townhill at night to see the furnaces in the pit of the town blazing scarlet, and the parallel crossing lines of lamps…If it is always a city of dreadful day, it is for the moment at that distance a city of wondrous night.
Edward Thomas, ‘Swansea Village’

I: The Bombing

In 1914, when The English Review published Edward Thomas’ essay ‘Swansea Village’, the town was at the peak of its industrial wealth and prestige, a position that would be temporarily damaged by the First World War (a war Thomas would not survive: he was killed in action in Arras on Easter Monday, 1917). Thomas’ portrait was debated by the Swansea Council Library Committee, with angry objections raised to descriptions of the town as “a dirty witch” and “compared to Cardiff…a slattern” (1, although in response to Thomas’ judgement that “many of its dark-haired and pale skinned women are beautiful,” Mr Moy Evans objected, “he is all wrong about the women”). In fact, as at least one person present noticed, Thomas had successfully conveyed the paradoxical qualities of the town. It was left to Mr Crocker of the Committee to explain, with bracing common sense: “I beg your pardon, he says the town is witchingly attractive…nobody ever said that Dickens ruined London when he painted Bill Sykes.” As Thomas recognised, and Dylan Thomas would later immortalise, Swansea is a town of insoluble contradictions, inspiring mixed emotions that amount to something more than mere hometown ambivalence. Part of this has always been due to despair at the scars of industry and urban disrepair, a despair equally matched by delight in the natural beauty of the bay. Although the comparison was never as exact as later claimed, in 1826 Walter Savage Landor did write: “The Gulf of Salerno, I hear, is much finer than Naples; but give me Swansea for scenery and climate. I prefer good apples to bad peaches” (2). There also remains, dating from its failure to become a famous Georgian seaside resort, a sense of unfulfilled potential that persists despite a rich industrial history and city status. It is probably impossible to write well about Swansea without running the risk of offending somebody from there, although most will recognise this conflict of feeling.

This conflict was intensified by the destruction of the town during the Second World War. Swansea was one of many major Blitz targets in Britain and while the bombing did not equal the tonnage dropped on cities like London, Liverpool or Birmingham, the concentration of the attack was as ferocious. Swansea and Gower had been subject to random, individual bombing since June 1940, with the first significant air raids taking place in September and the following January, but it was the devastating three night raid of the 19th-21st February 1941 that was subsequently remembered as the Swansea Blitz. In concentration and effect, this attack resembled Coventry: Swansea’s commercial centre was almost completely destroyed, causing a profound historical, physical and psychological rupture for the town.

This was the result of a change of strategy by the Luftwaffe. In early 1941, Luftflotte 3 began to target the west coast seaports that served Allied shipping routes in the Atlantic, switching to night raids following heavy losses during previous day time bombing campaigns. Like Coventry, whose fate was sealed by unusually bright November moonlight, the success of the Swansea Blitz was the result of atmospheric luck: the nights of the raids were cloudless, with moonlight bouncing back off a fresh layer of February snow, creating conditions of exceptional visibility. The first night set the pattern: pathfinders lit up the town with parachute flares and incendiary bombs, illuminating key targets for the main bomber force that saturated the town with thousands of incendiaries and high explosives. By the third night, huge fires consumed the centre. The water mains had been severed by the previous bombing; hoses stretched from the North and South Docks in a desperate attempt to stop the fires, but were continuously destroyed by explosions (3). Neath, Port Talbot and Llanelli dispatched rescue parties which struggled to get in due to bomb-cratered roads and the debris of collapsed buildings. The glow in the night sky caused by the fires could be seen from the far end of the Gower Peninsula. 

After three nights of bombing seven thousand people had been made homeless and the commercial district almost entirely razed. Social cohesion remained and the town was not abandoned, but the Evening Post quoted an eyewitness who succinctly articulated the emotional impact of the raids, stating simply: “Swansea is dead”. The scale of the destruction was an existential event: the industrial infrastructure had survived, but the ruthless immolation of the old town defined the postwar development and identity of the city.

II: The Rest of the World

What made this identity, and what happened to it? The key to these questions lies in the relationship between the town and everything outside of it: both the international contacts which made Swansea a key industrial port, but also its relation to Welsh nationalism and the construction of a ‘Welsh’ identity that took form in the Twentieth Century. 

Swansea was established by Norse raiders who first settled at the mouth of the River Tawe during the tenth century and gave the town its name. Following the Norman Conquest, Henry I transferred the commute of Gwyr to his trusted vassal Henry de Newburgh, the Earl of Warwick, who, recognising the natural advantages of the Tawe, made Swansea his headquarters and built a castle. Exercising the rights of a Marcher Lord, Warwick founded a borough originally populated by non-Welsh settlers who established a successful agricultural market centre and port community of merchants, fishermen, mariners and boatbuilders. For Swansea, modern history began with the Acts of Union, which proved a mixed blessing: the town was absorbed into the new county of Glamorgan, losing its caput status to Cardiff but also tying it into an administrative system facing East towards English markets. From this point, because of the Union settlement and its commercial and political benefits, Swansea thrived. During the Tudor period, the town was able to exploit government policies to capitalise on existing trading contacts and geographical advantages. As a result of rapid population growth that stimulated the economies of all existing Welsh towns after 1540, Swansea’s identity as market destination, international port and centre for crafts and services was enhanced. This had been achieved by immigration, settlement and external investments; through integration into the wider Tudor economy, and exploitation of the international trading links that could be accommodated by the Tawe harbour. It is worth noting that the Act of Union effectively gave the Welsh equal legal status to the English, thereby encouraging local migration from the Welsh-speaking rural communities into English-speaking towns. Like other South Wales towns, therefore, the administration and culture of the Swansea elite remained English, but Welsh-speaking settlers started to become part of the linguistic and social mix. 

Swansea, therefore, was more than ready for the Industrial Revolution. As Glanmore Williams wrote: “[t]he foundations of the future industrial greatness of Swansea and its environs were already being laid in Tudor and Stuart times and the way being prepared” (4) for the era of coal and metal. In fact, the town was an early exporter of coal: shallow outcrops had been mined in the Swansea valley and North Gower from the Elizabethan era, finding ready markets in Somerset, Devon, Cornwall, the South Coast of England and France. By the early eighteenth century Swansea was a busy coal port with hungry export custom in France and Ireland and a population swollen by the large influx of workers from the surrounding countryside and Ireland. The next stage in the town’s evolution was once again driven by outsiders: English entrepreneurs with the necessary wealth and expertise established a thriving metal-smelting industry, importing copper and zinc ores from Bristol, Cornwall and London and strengthening links between Swansea and the West Country. By the end of the nineteenth century, the growth of tinplate manufacturing fed a hungry American market, opening long-lasting trade links and migration routes to the new continent. 

The construction of a great system of docks accelerated the political and cultural development of the town, linking it into a global network of import and export trading partners. Copper, zinc and iron ore imports landed from South America, Cuba, Australia, and later South Africa, Algeria, Chile, Venezuela, California, Italy, Spain, Norway and Sweden. The American tinplate market dwindled following the 1890 McKinley Tariff, but new customers were found in South America, China, Japan and Europe. Coal and patent fuel exports reached France, Italy, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Brazil, Algeria and America. As industry grew and wealth accumulated, the middle classes moved away from the social and ecological furnace by the Tawe: as Victorian suburbs spread west, to the uplands and higher, the townscape became more refined, with the building of Georgian-style villas like Belgrave Gardens and elegant, tree-lined terraces like Walter Road. In the gardens and parks, such as Cwmdonkin, the air was clear, the view back over the town decorated with the red glare of the furnace and the winking rhythm of Mumbles Lighthouse. These years before the First World War, the precise moment captured in Edward Thomas’ essay, represented a peak in Swansea’s industrial history. This was emphatically not a provincial story: in 1913, with a record six million tons of global exports, Swansea was a town with much more than parochial interests. 

In fact, the First World War led to a slump in Swansea’s productivity: the copper and tin plate works ossified before the war and lost out to external competitors after it; hostilities meant the temporary loss of important markets in Germany, Austria and Belgium; while conscription gutted the mines of their workforce, thereby limiting exports from the South Wales coalfield. However, Swansea was revitalized during the interwar period by two strokes of fortune: the decision of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company to open a refinery at Llandarcy, and the sale of the entire port to the Great Western Railway Company which linked the town into the world’s largest dock system. By the Second World War, Swansea was importing crude oil from the Persian Gulf, with 10,000 ton tankers discharging cargoes from Abadan, Haifa and Tripoli (5), while exporting refined petroleum, coal, iron and steel products to Europe, America, Canada and Argentina. This was the town Dylan Thomas grew up in, watching “the dock-bound ships or the ships steaming away into wonder and India, magic and China, countries bright with oranges and loud with lions” (6), a place to be reckoned with and closely connected to the rest of the world. The port expanded and modernised, and was there to be converted to wartime purposes when required: after 1939, the docks took war production orders, handled weapons and the transit of troop reinforcements. The sheer scale of Swansea’s productivity and prestige made it a target for the Luftwaffe in 1941, but the irony is that through strategic confusion and apart from one early, isolated attack on the King’s Dock in July 1940, the Germans left the port facilities intact, while destroying the rest of the town. With the centre in flames and water mains severed, it was the hose pipes stretching out from the docks that came closest to saving Swansea’s old heart.

III: ‘The Broken Sea’

blake

The burning of an age.

Vernon Watkins composed a powerful epitaph for this erased town in his long poem ‘The Broken Sea’. This may not be obvious at first, because the poem is a very broad canvas, clotted with Gnostic imagery, in which Swansea plays one part. A cycle of twenty shorter poems, formally separate yet thematically entwined, it is dedicated and partially addressed to Watkins’ Godchild, “Danielle Dufau-Labeyrie, born in Paris, May 1940”: this birth, and its date, is the foundation for a sprawling meditation on destruction and creation, darkness and light, their cycles and interdependence, obscurely rendered through esoteric Christian symbolism and neo-Romantic imagery. It is, in its way, potent, poignant, even epic, despite numerous flaws and limitations, and places the Swansea Blitz within a wider international and even cosmic context: “the burning of an age.”

The poem opens with an invocation of “the visions of Blake,” the first in a series of reference points that provide their own specific, personal associations (a habit that Watkins indulged throughout his work, dismissed by William Wootten as “paying minor homage to major talents,” 6): Dante, the Books of Job and Kings (“Elijah was fed by ravens”), Hans Christian Anderson, Hölderlin and Kierkegaard. This referential texture provides clues to the coordinates of a rarefied and singular cosmology that seeks, in the grand sweep of the poem, to make sense of the birth of a child within the context of the invasion of France, the bombing of Paris and the destruction of Swansea. The network of symbols used by Blake is crucial to this poem and its imaginative root in dualism and antithesis, the opposition of darkness and light with all of their spiritual associations and implications. The second poem of the cycle is set in Paris after the opening of the Nazi offensive in May 1940, with the city making preparations for the bombing raid that would finally come in June. Plunged into darkness (“‘Put out the lamps! Put out the lamps!’”) but for “a long shaft of moonlight” the City of Light is shut down in anticipation of night attack: people walk in darkness, “moving in ghostly ritual”, “the shroud descending” over Notre-Dame and the Sorbonne, while “singular lives” are “found in the deeper dark…the restive weariness and writhing cramps/of sleepers underground.” Light is a threat in this atmosphere, and people live in shadows or hide in darkness; Paris, crepuscular, cowering, scared of the future (like the new born child, “bursting with terrors to be”) presages the blackouts and Underground station shelters of the London Blitz and the destruction of Swansea: “Perishing in a moment, in a night,/A wave running over the Earth”. These dark shadows both contrast and are entwined in the imagery of light that shrouds the newborn child in her cradle, portrayed by Watkins as a vivid transfiguration:

A cradle in darkness, white.
It must be heavenly. Light

Must stream from it, that white sheet

A pavilion of wonder…

But also a violent conflagration:

...meteors; thunderbolts hurled
From clouds; coil upon coil of spiral flame.
(8)

The child becomes a symbol of the future, of hope and light, but in the shadow of a portent: a future of fire, violence and fear that Paris will face within a month and Swansea within a year. The date that Watkins names (“I remember the tenth of May”) also contains this duality: it is the date that Hitler unleashed his blitzkrieg on the West and, though Watkins does not allude to this, the day that Churchill became Prime Minister.

The ninth poem of the cycle is Watkins’ epitaph for Swansea. It is also the section that caves into rage and despair, listing landmarks that have been obliterated, leaving memories suspended in a void. It is the most vivid part of the poem, and the part that was anthologised by Kenneth Allott in his 1951 Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse. This is possibly because the emotions that the destruction of Swansea stirred in Watkins are more elemental, crude, raw, unprocessed; the most effective lines not rarefied with theological symbolism or literary allusions, but seared onto the page with a furious clarity. “You were born when memory was shattered” Watkins writes, to his Godchild, in the most bitter line of the entire cycle: the ninth poem (“My lamp that was lit every night has burnt a hole in the shade”) is an act of memorial for this lost town, a cry of anguish against shattered memories, the violent erasure of a past now recalled with precision: 

The burnt-out clock of St. Mary’s has come to a stop,
And the hand still points to the figure that beckons the house-stoned dead.

Child Shades of my ignorant darkness, I mourn that moment alive
Near the glow-lamped Eumenides’ house, overlooking the ships in flight,

Where Pearl White focused our childhood, near the foot of Cwmdonkin Drive,

To a figment of crime stampeding in the posters’ wind-blown blight.
 

I regret the broken Past, its prompt and punctilious cares,
All the villainies of the fire-and-brimstone-visited town. 

I miss the painter of limbo at the top of the fragrant stairs,

The extravagant hero of night, his iconoclastic frown.

Through the criminal thumb-prints of soot, in the swaddling-bands of a shroud,
I pace the familiar street, and the wall repeats my pace,

Alone in the blown-up city, lost in a bird-voiced crowd,

Murdered where shattering breakers at your pillow’s head leave lace.
(9)

Watkins continues to address his Godchild in her cradle: “Listen” he says, “below me crashes the bay.” The imagery of the sea is as central to this poem’s symbolic economy as light and darkness. Swansea, burnt out in the arc of the bay, is soothed by the rhythms of the water: everybody who grows up in Swansea understands, innately and unconsciously, the importance of the sea to the phenomenology of the town. In Watkins’ poem it is an all-consuming symbol of destruction and regeneration, and permeates every single part of the piece in a way that is as repetitious and as varied as the tides. The sea is “a wave running over the Earth”, a hurling “sea-mass” “of pitiless history”, “the engulfed, Gargantuan tide” and “the magnificent, quiet, sinister, terrible sea”: an elemental force that is unpredictable, threatening and destructive. But it is also “that eternal Genesis”, “regenerate”, a “resurrection-blast” that “gave back a sigh”: an eternal source of renewal, comfort and vitality. 

For Watkins, destruction contains renewal. Memories are classified in (for him) explicit detail: the clock stopped dead at the time of the bombing on St Mary’s Church (the roof had collapsed following fire damage); the Uplands Cinema (“Eumenides’ House”) in which he watched his childhood heroine Pearl White; his image of the artist Alfred Janes who lived above a College Street florist (“the painter of limbo at the top of the fragrant stairs”); and Cwmdonkin Drive, the childhood home of “the extravagant hero of night”, Dylan Thomas (10). Not every one of these memory traces was destroyed by the Luftwaffe, but like the eyewitness who declared “Swansea is dead” Watkins articulates a broader truth: the old, historic town with its delicate fabric of memory and association, its layers of time and experience, had been irrevocably eradicated by the fires that raged unchecked after three nights of bombing. 

The wave runs over the earth, and also regenerates. Watkins returned to Swansea to recover from a nervous breakdown triggered while working in Cardiff: the town, in a very literal sense, became a place of refuge for him. For most of his life he lived a regular, repetitious, comfortable (and comforting) existence as a cashier in the St Helen’s Road branch of Lloyds Bank, commuting every day from the clifftop village of Pennard (my mother would see him on the Number 64 bus when she got on at Bishopston in the 1960s). Watkins’ imagination was captured by this wider idea of Swansea: an expansive area incorporating the limestone and gorse cliffs of the Gower peninsula, with its gorgeous suite of sandy beaches and expensive and secluded houses (his childhood home was one of these: Redcliffe, a Victorian house at the head of Caswell Bay that was demolished in the 1960s and replaced with a concrete apartment block). This was a town and a peninsula defined by the sea, and its regenerative effect was the dominant reality: both for his personal health, and for the post-war rebuilding of a modern port. 

His 1962 ‘Ode to Swansea’ is a tribute to this vision of Swansea: a “bright town” (11) that emerges from the ruins of war: 

Leaning Ark of the world, dense-windowed, perched
High on the slope of morning,

Taking fire from the kindling East: 

This is the Swansea of light and water: a view down over the bay from the Victorian suburbs of the Uplands and the coiling streets and sprawling estates of Sketty and Townhill, over the 

…shell-brittle sands where children play, 
Shielded from hammering dockyards

Launching strange, equatorial ships.

The renewal of industry in the docks through the oil refinery which attracted the vast tankers that my grandfather would have known in some detail, working as a ship broker for Burgess & Co in 1962, provides, for Watkins, an image of the vitality of the town and its participation in the global pursuit of wealth and power. The poem is also infused with the perspective of a man of the Gower: gulls, pigeons, starlings, shags and cormorants all populate the picture, alongside the Mumbles Lighthouse, limestone rocks, Lundy and the fishing nets dropped off the coast. For Vernon Watkins, unlike Dylan Thomas, Swansea became a “loitering marvel” that contained multitudes: a lovely window onto a wide and teeming world, rather than a narrow, small, provincial place. “Prouder cities rise through the haze of time,” he wrote, “Yet, unenvious, all men have found is here.” 

IV: ‘Return Journey’

In 1947 Dylan Thomas was commissioned to write a radio feature for the Home Service series ‘Return Journey’. At this time he was tempted to move to America, encouraged by his publisher James Laughlin who promised to look for a suitable house near New York, and very actively discouraged by his friend Edith Sitwell who tried to convince him to consider Switzerland instead, or Italy. This was an unlikely move: Thomas once told Laurence Durrell, “the highest hymns of the sun are written in the dark…If I went to the sun I’d just sit in the sun” (12). In February 1947, he went instead to a very cold and dark Swansea yet to be rebuilt and with the clock of St Mary’s still stopped dead at the moment of attack. This was the brutal winter that led to huge snow drifts and power cuts and shortages; broadcasting was limited, exposed cattle froze to death and the presiding Labour administration fatally damaged (they lost to the Conservatives in 1950). February, in particular, was the coldest month on record; the ruins of the town froze under layers of snow in conditions that recalled the nights of the Blitz six years before. Thomas was not exactly yearning for home at this time, but had been around Swansea in 1941, and the impact of the destruction on him was profound. Bert Trick met Dylan and Caitlin in the town centre the morning after the final raid and later wrote: “The air was acrid with smoke, and the hoses of the firemen snaked among the blackened entrails of what had once been Swansea market. As we parted, Dylan said with tears in his eyes, “Our Swansea is dead”” (13). Even more than the anonymous Evening Post eyewitness, the emphasis was highly personal: “Our” Swansea had been destroyed, a site of shared experience assumed to be universal but certainly not collective. The Nazis had destroyed his memories, the imaginative and emotional contours of his town; it was almost as if Hitler had aimed his bombs directly at Dylan Thomas. This was not the burning of an age: it was the razing of his youth. But as the ‘Return Journey’ script revealed, there was value in this perspective.

The recollections of ‘Return Journey’ go wider and deeper than the Blitz, although this event gives the script focus and also overshadows everything in it. The narrative perspective is suspended in time and space, a voice from the unconscious interrogating apparitions from Swansea past and present, drifting in and out of “the snow and ruin” (14). A barmaid, some Evening Post reporters, a Minister, a School Master, a Park Keeper, among others, collectively piece together impressions of Young Thomas chasing girls, drinking too much, filing useless newspaper reports, mooching around the promenade and sand dunes, climbing trees and cutting off branches in Cwmdonkin Park. Like Under Milk Wood, the medium allows a form that is fluid and overlapping, not bound by any conventional narrative devices or visual or spatial limitations. The texture of memory is key: shifting perspectives and dialogic cacophony; chaotic and vivid visual traces, triggers and clues. This drift of voices is filtered through Thomas’ dense poetic mannerisms: a barrage of alliteration and assonance; adjectives and verbs piled on top of each other or promiscuously modified (“he could smudge, hedge, smirk, wriggle, wince, whimper, blarney, badger, blush, deceive, be devious, stammer, improvise…” etc. 15). Memory is heightened with a poetic luster that conveys the distortions and poignancy of nostalgia. 

This is punctuated by another technique that has a  crucial and specific purpose: the careful recording of the names of vanished streets and shops and people dead and alive (“Mrs Ferguson, who kept the sweet-shop in the Uplands where he used to raid wine gums, heard her name in the programme, and wrote to say, ‘Fancy remembering the gob-stoppers’”, 16). Cecil Price later asked Thomas how he remembered all the lost shops that he lists: “‘It was quite easy,’ he answered. ‘I wrote to the Borough Estate Agent and he supplied me with the names’” (17). Like the scattered memories that Watkins crystallizes momentarily in ‘The Broken Sea’, this recording is a deliberate act of memorial, a motivation made explicit, and tragic, by a roll call of dead school contemporaries (“The names of the dead in the living heart and head remain forever. Of all the dead whom did he know?”, 18). The whole script is permeated with death, but the act of writing and the reading of names is an attempt to cheat it: to immortalise a lost world, at least partially. The inevitable failure of this attempt, for Vernon Watkins and Dylan Thomas, provides the emotional core of their acts of memorial.  

Thomas had a more complicated relationship with this dead town than Watkins, for whom Swansea became a revitalising landscape and a refuge. For Thomas the town was a source of material inspiration that was the springboard for his flight out to the rest of the world. His recollection of the Kardomah Cafe gang through a litany of conversation topics and shared obsessions and references makes this point: “Einstein and Epstein, Stravinsky and Greta Garbo…Communism, symbolism, Bradman, Braque, the Watch Committee, free love, free beer, murder, Michelangelo, ping-pong, ambition, Sibelius, and girls” (19). The excitement of discovery and ambition that contact with the world ignites goes beyond the narrow confines of the locality in which you grow: for Thomas, Swansea is not necessarily enriched by this external world, but he is enriched by it despite the dampening provincialism of the town. The plan, like so many before and after, is to get out: “Dan Jones was going to compose the most prodigious symphony, Fred Janes paint the most miraculously meticulous picture, Charlie Fisher catch the poshest trout, Vernon Watkins and Young Thomas write the most broiling poems, how they would ring the bells of London and paint it like a tart.” The strain of nostalgia evident in ‘Return Journey’ is partly the affection of the escapee, looking back on what has been left behind, with all small town frustrations exorcised. But it is also a reaction to the violent eradication of the landscape of his youth, which robs him of an immediate physical environment upon which to reminisce. So much of such worth is easily lost: “The Kardomah Cafe was razed to the snow, the voices of the coffee-drinkers – poets, painters, and musicians in their beginnings – lost in the willy nilly flying of the years and the flakes.” For Dylan Thomas, in ‘Return Journey’, the Blitz was simply a more definitive, and cruel, expression of time. 

V: The Anglo-Welsh

They went outside and stood where a sign used to say Taxi and now said Taxi/Tacsi for the benefit of Welsh people who had never seen a letter X before.
Kingsley Amis,
The Old Devils

To have high esteem for a language you don’t actually use, while holding the one you do use in low esteem, is to be in a parlous mental and moral condition.
Conor Cruise O’Brien,
Ancestral Voices

The Kardomah gang eulogised by Thomas and Watkins represented a creative sensibility that was part of an outward-looking, modern, anglicised urban and industrial culture clustered around the ports and coalfields of South Wales with related pockets in the Medieval Anglo-Norman enclaves of South Pembrokeshire and Gower. The productivity and the money that flowed from and into these areas was the source of a cultural and commercial dynamism that was noticed, momentarily, by the rest of the world. This was a crucial and even central component in the political and economic development of the principality and, therefore, any notion of Welsh identity and ‘nationhood’.  It was a Welsh identity that was located in Swansea, Barry, Cardiff and Newport, with their commercial and mercantile character and their international links and contacts. It was also the Welsh identity of the Valley communities, English-speaking and with their own internationalist links and aspirations fostered by the trade unions, the Labour party, Communist, Trotskyist and Syndicalist organisations, all traditions with no use or respect for Welsh nationalism. As John Davies pointed out in his history of Wales, the most influential exponent of this world view, progressive from its own perspective, was Aneurin Bevan:

As he was convinced of the virtues of central planning, Bevan saw no necessity for that strategy to have a Welsh dimension. In his speech on 17 October 1944, he mocked the notion that Wales had problems unique to itself…Peter Stead has argued that, in the 1940s, it was Bevan specifically who frustrated any significant advance in the recognition of Wales; furthermore, he maintains that in subsequent decades every scheme for devolution would have to wrestle with Bevan’s notion of political priorities. (20)

The star poet of Wales and international exponent of Anglo-Welsh literature, woven well into the fabric of the contemporary Welsh heritage industry, was also hostile to Welsh nationalism and, even, the very confines of a Welsh identity. As Paul Ferris notes, for Dylan Thomas,

Wales was incidental. Thomas had no intention of being regarded as a provincial poet, and there was no substitute for living in London. It was only later that the question of Thomas as a specifically ‘Welsh’ poet arose; and when it did arise, he decried it…In 1952, in a letter to Stephen Spender, thanking him for his review of Collected Poems, he wrote, ‘Oh, & I forgot. I’m not influenced by Welsh bardic poetry. I can’t read Welsh’. (21)

Ferris qualifies this stark declaration by arguing for the Celtic character and technical influence of Welsh verse on Thomas’ strictly monolingual output. What cannot be argued is that, in common with other Anglo-Welsh writers, Thomas derived the bulk of his subject matter and inspiration from Welsh communities and characters and landscapes. This was a tendency dismissed savagely by Kingsley Amis, who met the poet in Swansea and considered him to be

a pernicious figure, one who has helped to get Wales and Welsh poetry a bad name and generally done lasting harm to both. The general picture he draws of the place and the people, in Under Milk Wood and elsewhere, is false, sentimentalising, melodramatising, sensationalising, ingratiating. (22)

The case against this tendency in Anglo-Welsh literature was given more measured and biting articulation in fictional form in The Old Devils, out of the mouth of Charlie: “Write about your own people by all means, don’t be soft on them, turn them into figures of fun if you must, but don’t patronize them, don’t sell them short and above all don’t lay them out on display like quaint objects in a souvenir shop” (23). From the scathing portraits of Caradoc Evans to the socialist ballads of Idris Davies and the pastoral mysticism of Vernon Watkins, this rootedness in the subject of Wales was both weakness and strength: but, more than anything, it helped to articulate the culture and aspirations of English-speaking Welsh communities, the most powerful, productive and progressive in the principality. Swansea — or Abertawe, as we never call it —  was a central connection in this Anglo-Welsh artistic community, with its own creative cluster around Thomas, Watkins, Dan Jones and Alfred Janes, with flourishing satellites like the Swansea School of Art which produced the Surrealist painter Ceri Richards. 

The Welsh nationalism that eventually found political form in Plaid Cymru defined itself in conscious opposition to this tradition. From inception, the focus of Welsh nationalism was language: this came to be the basic element of Welsh identity, and its legal and cultural resurrection the foundation of independent nationhood. The significance of this fact lies in the nature of the English-speaking regions of Wales, as described above. Welsh nationalism was at root a vision of Wales centred on the Welsh-speaking, rural communities idealised as uncontaminated by the external and foreign influence of the modern industrial world. It was, basically, nativism, with a reactionary right-wing tendency at its core. This is difficult to recall now, as Plaid Cymru eventually followed the liberal path of D.J. Davies, but the unadulterated, authentic heart of Welsh nationalism was, at this stage, personified by Saunders Lewis. 

This vision of Welsh identity was regressive and insular, based on an artificial aesthetic of ruralism, provincialism, a cult of the past augmented by Welsh folktales and Celtic legends, Bardic traditions and peasant superstitions. Lewis was a Roman Catholic and brought to Plaid Cymru the influence of French Catholic conservatism, Charles Maurras and Action française (his ally Ambrose Webb wrote, “It is a Mussolini that Wales needs!”, 24). By the Second World War, this Plaid faction was propounding an anti-democratic, extra-parliamentary platform that called for abstention from the ‘Imperial War’ against Hitler and a form of direct action that led to an arson attack on RAF Penrhos in 1936. Lewis was incarcerated in Wormwood Scrubs for this adventure and became a  martyr for the Welsh cause, electrifying activist sentiment within the more militant Welsh-language communities (although many couldn’t have cared less). Welsh nationalism never took this radical course but did reframe the idea of Welsh nationality along the lines of language rights and a rural aesthetic that found expression in, for example, the Welsh Language Act of 1993 and the professional regeneration of the Eisteddfod. This retrogressive and insular notion of Welsh identity found home in a ‘liberal’ nationalism formulated by a primarily middle class milieu attached to Plaid Cymru, the Church, the University of Wales and the provincial BBC. For these people, language became a political weapon in a culture war.  

This had an indirect effect on Swansea, which had no remaining Welsh-language enclaves like Cardiff, and maintained a residual, resolutely anglicised culture which had been the basis for its civic and cultural identity during the years of industry. In reaction to the new cultural and political definition, or ideal, of ‘Welshness’, Swansea’s sense of self-identity crumbled alongside its vanishing industries in the 1980s and 90s. It had no clear way to orientate itself in this new, post-industrial Wales of the Assembly and the Language Act. Its major industrial history, like that of the Valleys, was reduced to perfunctory heritage trails and unenthusiastic school trips, or dismissed as a legacy of ecological disaster in the case of the Tawe and Swansea Valley. Swansea’s greatest cultural achievement — the outward-facing, expansive, experimental, anglicised coterie of the 1930s-50s — was eclipsed by the capture of Dylan Thomas for the Welsh cause, despite his own antipathy to nationalist sentiment and his own conflict with Welsh identity that both animated and distorted his work. Swansea, itself, was reduced by this new idea of the nation: both the complexities of the “two-tongued” city characterised by the anglicisation of its rural, Welsh-speaking settlers, and the Anglo-Welsh culture of its elite and middle classes that found literary expression in the work of Dylan Thomas and Vernon Watkins, were downplayed and even erased by this political project. This was a large part of the reason why, despite the apparent health of the Dylan Thomas industry, Swansea struggled to capitalise on or communicate the full significance of its own past: that past was now debased currency in Wales. Swansea, like Newport and Barry, was shortchanged by Welsh nationalism: nationalism was not interested in Swansea, or in its interests. 

VI: The City

Swansea’s postwar history is a story of temporary renewal followed by steep decline. Following the Blitz, the local authority was faced with the task of rebuilding the entire central commercial area, a project which did not begin until 1947, in the months after the writing of ‘Return Journey’. In some ways, reconstruction never ended. The town centre was rebuilt in the clean concrete style of the New Town: the Kingsway became the wide central thoroughfare, a grey wind tunnel capped by a monolithic, Brutalist Odeon cinema. The town was, in a way, rebuilt in a manner befitting a modern city: a status finally bestowed by the Queen in 1969, by which time Swansea was rapidly losing all the elements that gave it national and even international prominence to begin with. Slowly the traditional industries were dismantled or relocated: the Llandarcy refinery was reduced to a specialist lubricating oil producer in the late 1980s, fully closing in 1998; Landore steelworks was converted into a small engineering factory in 1980; the Velindre tinplate works closed in 1989; finally, the Baglan petrochemical plant began to disappear from the Eastern horizon in 1994 and was gone by 2004. I grew up in the city from 1982, watching oil tankers lumbering impressively across the bay; by the time I left for university in 1996, they had, almost imperceptibly, completely disappeared from the channel. For the majority of people in Swansea, by this time, the change hardly registered at all. 

So, the city redefined itself, reverting to an earlier ambition to create a glamorous seaside resort. “From the 1780s to the 1830s,” wrote J.R. Alban,

Swansea had great pretensions to becoming a seaside resort of some standing. ‘The Brighton of Wales’ or a ‘Welsh Weymouth’ were some of the comparisons made by contemporaries. During this period, the town was provided with bathing houses, bathing machines, public gardens, circulating libraries, public assembly rooms, theatres and a newspaper; in fact, all the accoutrements needed to make it a genteel and fashionable place or resort. (25)

Swansea did not become the Brighton of Wales. But, in 1982, the South Dock was transformed into a yacht marina, with hotels, cafes, bars and restaurants added throughout the decade. This was one of the first such post-industrial redevelopment projects in Britain and was, initially, a success, chiming with a new (definitely not parochial or Welsh at all) consumer and enterprise culture, ruthlessly mocked by Kingsley Amis in The Old Devils. Swansea, in this new world of services, leisure and tourism, stripped of its industrial identity, was more closely tied to the Gower than ever: one part became an adjunct of the other. The middle class commuter worked in Swansea but lived in Langland or Bishopston; tourists stayed at Oxwich or Llangennith but brought supplies or spent rainy days in the city. There was a new enterprise zone with a tropical hothouse, a multiplex cinema, and Toys-R-Us. The memory of Dylan Thomas was absorbed, mobilised, sold: the Swansea Year of Literature in 1995 was the apotheosis of this process. This redefinition of the city and its identity still stopped short at the border of Welshness and the politics of Welsh identity. This had not been an issue, or even at stake, in the city I grew up in, and it struggled to adapt to the new criteria of nationality. Like everywhere else at this time, the primary cultural influence was American: Dallas, Dynasty and Miami Vice could tell you more about the mores and imagination of the city of Swansea than the Mabinogion. Even as this self-image and those aspirations — dreams of Marbella or Miami played out on the set of the Maritime Quarter — dissipated in the ruin of recession, the imagination of everybody in my school still happened to be shaped by Beverly Hills 90210 and Baywatch rather than the medieval bards.  This was the reality of the time and the location: there was no longing, or need, for a fabricated rural tradition. Swansea remained a modern city: open to outside influence, looking forward. As I wanted to show when I started to write this essay, if the city actually, fully, embraced this tradition it would find plenty to be proud of and even to feel confident about. It would, in fact, find something deeper and wider than the Dylan trail or constricting contours of Welsh identity: it would find the history of a town that let in and went out to the whole world. 

  1. See Andrew Green’s blog post ‘Edward Thomas in Swansea’ for details of this meeting, with quotes taken from the Cambrian Post: https://gwallter.com/books/edward-thomas-in-swansea.htm
  2. Quoted in James A. Davies, ‘‘Under a Rainbow’: Literary History’ in Swansea – An Illustrated History, ed. Glanmore Williams (Christopher Davies, 1990) p. 221
  3. Nigel Arthur, Swansea at War – A Pictorial Account 1939-45, (Archive Publications, 1988), p.27 and pp. 34-5. This book has extensive details on all bombing raids on Swansea.
  4. Quoted in ‘Before the Industrial Revolution’ by Glanmore Williams, in Swansea – An Illustrated History, p.16
  5. David Boorman, ‘The Port and its Worldwide Trade’ in Swansea – An Illustrated History, p.77
  6. Dylan Thomas, ‘Reminiscences of Childhood (Second Version)’ in Selected Writings (Heinemann, 1970), p.3
  7. William Wootten, ‘In the Graveyard of Verse’, London Review of Books, August 9th 2001
  8. Vernon Watkins, ‘The Broken Sea’, The Collected Poems of Vernon Watkins (Golgonooza Press, 1986), pp.80-1
  9. Watkins, p.86
  10. James A. Davies, ‘‘Under a Rainbow’: Literary History’, p. 237
  11. Watkins, ‘Ode to Swansea’, p.285
  12. Quoted in Paul Ferris, Dylan Thomas (Penguin, 1978), p.223
  13. Ferris, p.184
  14. Dylan Thomas, ‘Return Journey’ in Dylan Thomas – The Broadcasts, ed. Ralph Maud (J.M.Dent & Sons, Ltd., 1991), p.183
  15. Thomas, ‘Return Journey’, p.185
  16. Ferris, pp.223-4
  17. Quoted in editorial note to ‘Return Journey’ by Ralph Maud, p.178
  18. Thomas, ‘Return Journey’, p.186
  19. Thomas, ‘Return Journey, p.183
  20. John Davies, A History of Wales (Penguin, 2007), pps. 592-602
  21. Ferris, p.115
  22. Kingsley Amis, Memoirs (Penguin, 1992), pps.132-3
  23. Kingsley Amis, The Old Devils (Penguin, 1987), p.28
  24. Kenneth O. Morgan, Rebirth of a Nation: Wales 1880-1980 (Oxford University Press, 1982), p.256
  25. J.R. Alban, ‘Local Government, Administration and Politics, 1700 to the 1830s’ in Swansea – An Illustrated History, p.110
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The Letwin Amendment

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His political ideas are already as antiquated as Noah’s ark. I do not know a single one of the younger men in England who is influenced by them in the slightest degree, though one hears of one occasionally, just as one hears of a freak in a dime museum. (1)

I: The Letwin Amendments

During the May and Johnson administrations of 2019 an unlikely Tory rebel emerged. As MP for West Dorset, Sir Oliver Letwin had been a central figure in the modernisation of the Conservative Party after the election of David Cameron as party leader, but over the course of the year he confounded many Tory colleagues by joining opposition MPs to both delay and limit the passage of Brexit. A series of specific parliamentary interventions confirmed his new role as an enemy of the European Research Group and the Tory Whips:

  • On 25th March, the First Letwin Amendment passed, securing a series of indicative votes on Parliament’s preferred Brexit options, although none achieved a majority;
  • On 3rd April, the Cooper-Letwin Bill obliged the government to seek parliamentary consent for any extension to the date of withdrawal from the EU (the final approval of this played a major part in May’s downfall);
  • On 3rd September, Letwin submitted a motion that secured an emergency debate on the Benn Bill which sought to rule out a No Deal Brexit (all the Tory MPs who voted for this motion lost the Conservative whip);
  • Finally, on 19th October, the Second Letwin Amendment forced Johnson to request a further Brexit delay, effectively cancelling the vote on his deal.

This rebellion against former colleagues was not really a rebellion at all but a series of tactical moves designed to represent and defend parliament against an aggressive executive — the ultimate objective of this was to provide a conservative bulwark against the revolutionary purism of ideological factions that captured May and drove Johnson. His break from the party was visceral — a government source, widely believed to be Dominic Cummings, leaked a story to the Mail on Sunday accusing Letwin of collaboration with “foreign agents” — and had a dynamic wrecking effect on the strategy of Boris Johnson. 

This outcome had not been obvious at the start of the Brexit process, or inevitable: in his 2017 memoir, Hearts and Minds: the Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present, Letwin described his inability to secure the support of Johnson and Michael Gove for the Remain camp as “one of the biggest failures of my political life” (2). Gove, in particular, had been a close ally during the ‘modernisation’ project of the Cameron years. Before the psychodrama of Brexit, they were all on the same political wing of the party, although there had been personal rivalries and fall outs (these became important). More pertinently, Letwin was an early Eurosceptic: he recounts his Alpine summer holiday in 1987, spent digesting an exhaustive pile of books on European law and EC institutions, from which emerged his pamphlet Drift to Union. This study presaged Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech, but neither of these nascent Eurosceptic texts actually argued for full withdrawal. Letwin had concluded that the interests of Britain lay in a pluralist system within the EU: “a Europe of concentric circles with an emerging federal state at the centre and a free trade single market around it” (3). This was an early argument for an alternative to the full federalist project associated with Jacques Delor. Letwin never actually advocated leaving altogether, but then neither did any of his Conservative colleagues at the time, including the boss (“Mrs T.” as he calls her). Indeed, Charles Moore argues that Thatcher’s own speech was 

careful to accept everything the EC had done to date, and genuine in calling for Europe to make a more active contribution to the advance of political and economic liberty. Mrs Thatcher never believed, while in office, that Britain would be ‘better off out’, as the saying went. The Bruges speech was delivered, in good faith, as her suggestions for a better Europe. (4)

The revolution that Letwin documents occurred later, outflanking his position on the Right while he stayed in roughly the same place: “[v]iews that once caused me to be classified as a dangerous Eurosceptic now cause me to be classified as an establishmentarian” (5). His account of the political evolution of Bill Cash, for years the most dedicated foe of European federalism, is illuminating. As Letwin points out, Cash remained an advocate of the Single Market until Maastricht and continued to support membership until Lisbon, only then calling for associate membership and, by the time of the Referendum, a clean break. Others took an even more extreme route, including “the arch-Machiavelli of our generation of Conservative politicians” (6) David Davis, who traveled from the whips office that ushered Maastricht through parliament to the post of Brexit Secretary under May. From A8 and Lisbon to the Referendum, the political landscape changed completely. Letwin argues that he stayed still, but as his memoir otherwise reveals there were more subtle shifts at work here, both in his own career and globally. 

II: Shirley and Bill

You don’t understand. Keynes is dead. Dead.
Alfred Sherman

There is a sense in which Europe snuck up on the Conservatives while they were engaged in a different battle. This is borne out in Hearts and Minds, which briskly recounts this battle from inception to conclusion. In the third chapter of the book (‘The Intellectual Origins of Thatcherism’) Letwin characterises the practical application of Thatcher’s ideology as a fight over the size of the state: 

[t]he question was not how far the state could intervene to rescue the least advantaged from the conditions that destroyed their life chances. The question was, instead, how far the state should intervene to support (or, those on our side of the argument insisted, to fail to support and to succeed only in constraining) the majority of the population.” (7)

If this reduction of the economic and political debates of the 1970s and 1980s seems glib in isolation, it rests on an elegant foundation of economists and philosophers that included among its number Letwin’s own parents. As his old school friend Charles Moore described it, the Letwin household in Regents Park was a salon for a generation of conservative intellectuals and writers:

Kingsley Amis, A.J. Ayer, Keith Joseph, Friedrich von Hayek, Sybille Bedford, Peregrine Worsthone, Elie Kedourie, John Gross, V.S Pritchett, Frank Johnson, Irving Kristol, Maurice Cowling, Ferdinand Mount, Michael Oakeshott, Colin Welch and Daniel Bell were all people I met for the first time at 3, Kent Terrace…[w]ith little money, excellent cooking (Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking was the Bible), Shirley and Bill, two American academics in London, created something tremendous. (8) 

The Letwins met at the University of Chicago in the late 1930s while studying under Milton Friedman, before migrating to London after the war to continue their doctoral studies at the London School of Economics (LSE) alongside Hayek, Karl Popper and Oakeshott, who would all become personal friends. Bill was eventually appointed Professor of Political Science at LSE, while Shirley taught political philosophy at LSE and Cambridge. This was the milieu in which Oliver grew up and took part, as he recalls: “[f]rom a ridiculously early age, I was allowed (perhaps even encouraged) to participate in the lively discussions that characterised their dinner table. It was a sort of university of free market thought, right there on your plate” (9). His parents held a central position in an intellectual and social circle drawn from Chicago, LSE and the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA, “[f]ounded in 1952…to promulgate the kind of free market economics being propounded by Hayek and Friedman…[i]t had the great good luck to be led in this by three friends of my parents…”, 10). These three institutions formed the intellectual pillars of Thatcherism, market leaders in a ferment of political thought and academic activity with only one real precedent in modern British politics: the Fabian Society and its offspring, the Labour Planners of the 1930s.

By the middle of the 1970s, all of the political energy and innovation was on the Right, as David Collard had foreseen in Fabian tract 387, The New Right: A Critique. Writing in 1968, Collard argued that the ideas coming out of the IEA provided a coherent and powerful critique of the postwar consensus and a programme for radical change, and prophetically warned that the Left would be “successfully outflanked” (11) if it did not take this challenge seriously. The Fabian Society was not only the historic enemy of the IEA and its politically operational progeny the Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), it was also their model. The intellectual enterprise at IEA and CPS and their orbit reflected the industry and influence of the Fabians, although their real precedent was more precisely the Left think tanks of the 1930s, in particular the XYZ Group and the New Fabian Research Group. Under the coordinating influence of Hugh Dalton (as chairman of the Labour Party Finance and Trade Committee) their impact during the first Attlee administration reset political and economic reality. As Kenneth O. Morgan put it, “they set the parameters of postwar Britain…[t]he experience of war made theirs the conventional orthodoxy after 1945 and for two generations to come” (12). Founder Antony Fisher explicitly modeled the IEA on the Fabians and took careful note of the method and impact of Harold Laski and Hugh Dalton at LSE. His original intention, as he told Hayek during their first conversation in 1947, was to found an “anti-Fabian society” (13). Fisher would use the Fabian blueprint to reverse the political and economic reality they had created: “Socialism was spread in this way and it is time we started to reverse the process,” he declared (14). When Hayek had convened the first Mont Pelerin Society conferences in the 1930s, economic liberalism was relegated to the political margins, effectively sidelined by Keynes and the socialists as he noted in a 1933 LSE lecture:

the people who call for a further extension of government controls of economic life have certainly ceased to be in any way intellectual path-breakers – they are most definitely the spirit of the age, the ultimate product of the revolutionary thinking of an earlier generation – the Fabian Generation. (15)

The fight that ensued between the economic liberals at LSE and Keynes with his Cambridge allies led through the IEA to the success of Thatcher and, ultimately, the defeat of Soviet Communism. As Richard Cockett described it: 

the academic debate between the ‘Keynesians’ and the economic liberals during the 1930s…was, it could be said, the crucial intellectual debate of the century in the Democratic West. It clearly divided economists – and ultimately politicians – into two distinct camps; the borders set down between these two camps were to run through British politics, across Party boundaries, and out into the wider democratic world, as the century unravelled…(16)

By the 1970s the political stagnation of the Labour party and the moral bankruptcy of the trade unions, in combination with the intellectual activity at LSE, IEA and CPS, inspired a steady stream of conversions and defections from the Left, among them former New Statesman editor Paul Johnson, historian Hugh Thomas and the Labour MPs Reg Prentice and Brian Walden. For this expanding circle of conservative intellectuals, politicians and journalists, the Letwins’ Kent Terrace dinners provided an informal space to link economic liberals with social conservatives and socialist converts. This connection could not be taken for granted, as many of the key thinkers at IEA identified their ideas with the Liberal Party rather than a Conservative Party still largely associated with paternalistic One Nation Toryism and the Butskellite consensus. There had been early Tory champions of Monetarism, but these were isolated figures, and in the case of Enoch Powell politically toxic. In this context, therefore, the adoption of IEA texts and personnel by Keith Joseph and Margaret Thatcher represented the beginning of a fundamental change of course for the Tories: a turn towards ideology that led, in Letwin’s recollection, to a “mood of revolutionary zeal (the fear of not appearing to be ‘one of us’)” (17).

Labour was left without any effective defence to this determined assault on its historic assumptions and scelortic structures. From the very beginning, the economic liberals had taken their opponents seriously: Ludwig von Mises, for example, attacked Marx on his own terms thereby doing much to discredit the core Marxist texts. The tragedy of the Labour movement is that it did not respond in kind, or in time: the definitions and dismissals of ‘neoliberalism’ it chose to adopt were distorted and conspiratorial and largely remain so (recent examples of this include David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism and Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine). In 1932, von Mises described a dominant rhetorical tendency inherited from Marx: “instead of refuting he tends to abuse…[H]is disciples…have faithfully imitated the master’s example, reviling their opponents but never attempting to refute their arguments” (18). This legacy was not only theoretical, but tactical and stylistic; in this vein, the Left counterattack on Thatcher was purely tactical and stylistic. As Collard warned in 1968, any response that ignored the economic critique of socialism and the ideas of the IEA would not be credible, and would therefore fail. It did. The Left was exposed intellectually, morally and strategically as Thatcher dismantled the collectivist state and legally impaired the trade unions. There was no conspiracy: this was a credible and ambitious use of power that proved popular, as the 1945 Labour programme had been.

It was a victory the Left could not credit because it did not understand it, or even try to. Even Thatcher’s supporters struggled to fully grasp the scope of her success. Economic theory was only one, important but limited, aspect of it. Perhaps the most interesting and effective attempt to define the appeal of Thatcherism was made by Shirley Letwin in her 1991 study The Anatomy of Thatcherism, an analysis that captured the pragmatic and historical reality of Thatcherism as well as its broader philosophical impulse. According to Letwin, the key to Thatcherism was its emphasis on a particular set of attributes that she called “the vigorous virtues”: “self-sufficiency, independence, energy and adventurousness in individuals” (19).  Linked to this was a defence of the family as the core of social cohesion, rather than the state: a self-organising, independent unit transmitting moral qualities and individual virtues from generation to generation. This, in turn, established the basis for the Thatcherite ideal of the nation, which Letwin described as a vision of post-imperial modernity: “a country in which the interplay of vigorous individuality is supposed to form the basis of a self-sufficient and respected island power” (20). In order to realise this vision Thatcherism created, necessitated, a “paradigm shift”, both in “the relationship between government and economy” (21) and in the relationship between government and the different pillars of the establishment, from the old City networks to the trade unions. In this analysis, then, Thatcherism was “not a political theory, but a historically specific and ruthlessly practical project” (22) that still had, at its core, a philosophical conception of the individual, the family and the nation. 

Oliver contributed to this project at a junior level working for Keith Joseph at the Department of Education and at the Number 10 Policy Unit under the directorship of John Redwood. At the Policy Unit he took on the the brief of local government, an issue framed at this time by the budgetary abuses of Liverpool and the GLC. Following his time at the Policy Unit, and at the height of the Thatcher revolution, Letwin was employed at NM Rothschild, where he advised governments of every type from every continent on the methods and benefits of privatization. From this perch he wrote a book called Privatising the World which, as Charles Moore remarked, “sounds absurdly hyperbolic, but it is notable that Letwin’s expectations in his book of the spread of the creed were considerably more modest than what actually happened” (23). This journey would have an ambiguous end: his work in local government fed into the Poll Tax debacle that undermined Thatcher’s political position; “the creed” would be damaged by the global financial crash of 2008, a direct consequence of deregulated financial institutions operating unchecked. This stoked the illiberal, populist politics that would find its British expression in UKIP, Brexit and the Johnson administration, all of which Letwin would try, in his own way, to contain and curtail. 

III. The Anguish of Keith Joseph 

He told the anecdote at the age of seventy: about the beggar who was in the street every day; how the small boy decided to feed the beggar; how, day after day, he surreptitiously purloined food from the breakfast-table to do so. “End of anecdote,” he concluded. (24)

In Ken Loach’s panegyric Spirit of ‘45 the real hero of his narrative is not Clement Attlee, but Nye Bevan; as the film progresses, it becomes clear that it is not simply a tribute to the 1945 Labour administration, but a sectarian statement on behalf of the Bennite Labour Left. In Letwin’s memoir, Keith Joseph occupies a similar position. The book is not about Joseph, nor does he dominate the narrative or even take up much space, but he is Letwin’s occluded hero. His core argument rests on the sensibility and insights of Joseph, belatedly incorporated into his own amended political persuasion.

Letwin’s first government job after Cambridge and Princeton was at the Department of Education under Joseph, hired to help design a school voucher scheme proposed by Milton Friedman in his television series Free to Choose and added to the Thatcher wish list. Although “intellectually attracted” to the idea, in practice Joseph found every reason to avoid actually implementing it, encouraged by skeptical and ingenious civil servants. From this position Letwin watched Joseph struggle temperamentally to implement ideas he espoused. This is often portrayed as an internal conflict, an inability to face the real world implications of his own prescriptions, but Joseph was also a victim of his emotional and intellectual disposition: a tendency to concede both sides of the argument and defer to expertise. As his first biographer Morris Halcrow noted, “a word constantly applied to Joseph was anguish; and, indeed, he devoted immense quantities of nervous energy to decision-making and squaring his conscience” (25). In 1974, after Joseph wrecked his own campaign to be Tory leader, Barbara Castle observed: “He certainly seems a tortured personality…I believe he is consumed with ambition as well as self-doubt” (26). This was also Letwin’s impression at Education, but in Hearts and Minds he amends this with retrospective appreciation of Joseph’s nuanced position:

I came progressively to understand the profundity of Keith’s point and to see that the free market economy is not sufficient, sustainable or defensible unless it also becomes a social market economy in which the prosperity engendered by free enterprise is harnessed in the service of promoting the life chances of the least advantaged. (27)

Although Joseph understood this connection in theory, in the arena of practical politics he was being pulled in different directions, which contributed to his tortured and contradictory ministerial style. In a 1971 speech to the Playgroups Association he introduced the concept of the “cycle of deprivation” which would become one of his principal themes in subsequent years. Joseph had taken the idea from Frank Field’s Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG), a major influence on his own thinking; as an acknowledgment of this, he “was to become the first and probably the last social security minister to win a standing ovation from a CPAG conference” (28). Joseph saw their work “as a challenge to the Welfare State, a challenge not only to break the cycle but also to arouse the public conscience” (29) and brought this into his own texts and speeches on the subject. His attitude to welfare had two primary roots: early social work in the East End of London and later conversion to economic liberalism. His actual record as Secretary of State for Social Services under Ted Heath was mixed: the Family Income Scheme was abortive and he considered his own reform of the NHS bureaucracy to be disastrous, but he was also responsible for introducing a series of new benefits to support the disabled, long term sick and elderly (Attendance Allowance, for example, dates from his tenure). The full implications of Joseph’s subtle proposition would find more serious application under New Labour with Frank Field at DSS, but at the time he occupied an anomalous position which would become even sharper in opposition after 1974.

Joseph considered his interests in economic liberalism and social policy to be complementary, but others saw them as conflicting and dismissed his preoccupation with welfare as a charming eccentricity. It was certainly not what Sherman had in mind when he had mentored Joseph as the primary vessel for the IEA in government. As Halcrow put it, “what he did was not to destroy the Attlee welfare provisions but to try to bring them up to date,” (30) but as far as Sherman was concerned Joseph had been eaten alive by his civil servants, writing him off as “a lion in opposition, a lamb in government” (31). However, it was not over: Joseph’s conversion to economic liberalism was faltering, but eventually decisive. It was Joseph, more than anybody else, who connected the academic economists of the IEA to the Conservative Party and was instrumental in setting up the CPS with Sherman at the helm. The speeches that Sherman wrote for Joseph, in particular the 1974 Preston speech with its ruthless critique of the economic policy of Heath and the case for Monetarism, effectively prepared the ground for Thatcherism. For Joseph, his liberal social policy was strengthened by his economic views: enterprise, wealth and job creation an essential prerequisite to the provision of effective social services, housing and health care. In a speech delivered at LSE in 1975, echoing Hayek’s own concept of “competitive order” (32), he dismissed the accusation of laissez faire:

I am not defending a free-for-all. The State must act to make and enforce rules to ensure the security of human life, protection against force and fraud and protection of those values and standards – social, economic, ecological – which represent the accumulated and current aspirations of our community. (33) 

The two phrases that became closely associated with Joseph were ‘wealth creation’ and the ‘cycle of deprivation’. The link that he made between the two was not then considered obvious, and remains contested. It was, in fact, seen as a contradiction in Joseph himself, and the inability to balance or connect them a personal failure. Concluding his biography in 1989, Morris Halcrow picked up on this theme: “It might be fair to say that Lord Joseph, given his prestige, could have been doing more to turn the eyes of the new Conservative Party to the challenge of how some of the wealth created by the Thatcherite enterprise culture ought to find its way to the underprivileged” (34). Letwin, one target of the sting in this statement, is retrospectively more generous to his old boss:

Keith…was making the arguments that needed to be made, back then in the 1980s – and by doing so, he was helping to shape the future course of British politics, not only in the Conservative Party itself but also in what emerged out of the Labour Party in the 1990s. (35)

IV: Drift to the Centre

Letwin finally became an MP in 1997. By now, the new reality created by Thatcher had been accepted by Labour under Blair and Brown, who hollowed out the Conservatives at the election, leaving them without purpose or drive. Looking back on his roles during the Thatcher administrations, having spent the Major years at Rothschilds, Letwin strikes a rueful note:

We were locked not only in a battle for freedom and free markets in Britain but in a global battle of ideas. And this, too, I feel sure on reflection, was part of what made us so keen to keep focused on that battle, in a way that had the destructive side effect of making us far less interested in life chances and social justice than we should have been, or than Keith Joseph would have liked us to be. (36)

At its core, Letwin’s book is a subtle critique of Thatcherism, which sets a platform to defend the record of the Conservative Party programme of David Cameron. For Letwin, the mix of social and economic liberalism developed by the Cameroons was the logical response to the “Blair-induced existential crisis” (37) the Tories suffered in 1997 (he describes sitting listlessly in front of his computer screen after the election, staring at an empty word document titled: ‘What is the present purpose of the Conservative Party?’). This is given an added dimension by the recognition that this answer had been close at hand all along. It had been provided by Keith Joseph, who had been disregarded on this very point throughout the Thatcher decade:

Blair had spotted the defect in the purist version of Thatcherism that the Conservative Party had mistakenly believed itself to have inherited. Like Keith Joseph and the ‘wets,’ he had sensed that, to make free market economics attractive and acceptable, they had to be balanced by a real focus on social justice. In Blair’s hands, the free market of 1997 was to be a social market of the kind envisaged by Keith. (38)

There are many strands of historical truth and irony in this observation. For example: Joseph’s early social policy speeches had been influenced by Frank Field and CPAG; Field, during his own run at the DSS under Blair, heavily influenced the ideas of Iain Duncan Smith, whose directorship of the Centre for Social Justice laid the intellectual groundwork for the 2012 Welfare Reform Act, itself built on the foundational concept of the cycle of deprivation. IDS was, like Joseph, a more nuanced proposition: “a thorough-going Eurosceptic and unabashed free marketeer,” as Letwin observes:

He felt he had the moral authority to lead the party into social reform and the capacity to take the right of the party with him. In addition, he was able to carry social liberals like David Willetts and me – because he saw that his programme would at last enable the party to slay the dragon of social justice that we had so clearly failed to slay since the days when David and I had been in Mrs. Thatcher’s Policy Unit. (39)

Letwin’s argument in Hearts and Minds is that the political contract offered by New Labour, the Orange Book Liberal Democrats and his faction of the Tories provided an electorally attractive and effective synthesis with the potential to resolve the needs of modern British society. However, as his account of the Tory civil war of the 1990s suggests and the subsequent history of both Labour and the Conservatives proves, this contract was less secure and final than it seemed at the time. 

The struggle between the social liberals (led by Michael Portillo and Francis Maude) and social conservatives (led by Ann Widdecombe) squandered the leaderships of Hague, IDS and Howard. The rise of Cameron was therefore, for Letwin, the Conservative version of the End of History, and he still cannot countenance the failure of this project as anything other than a temporary aberration. In Letwin’s account, liberal Conservatism, like ‘Blairism’ or the Third Way and like the Coalition compact with the Orange Book Liberals, had a dialectical solidity and conviction. It amended the historical errors of Thatcherism and made peace with the mores of contemporary Britain: the answer to everything turned out to be “the free market and the focus on social justice that was its necessary counterpart” (40). Keith Joseph was right all along, Blair was right too, and once they realised it, he was right and so were his allies, Cameron, Gove and Osborne. Letwin candidly admits that “I certainly had more in common with some of my closest Liberal Democrat coalition colleagues than I did with some of my most ideologically distant fellow Conservatives” (41) and pays admiring tribute to Blair throughout the book (but not to tribal Brown). 

In fact, in all of these political coalitions, the unresolved tensions remained dangerously close to the surface. The new creed was surprisingly shallow and stubbornly cosmetic: this was revealed over and over again, in the exposure of the Third Way as an empty slogan or the abject failure of the Big Society to win the Tories an election. As Edmund Dell pointedly observed towards the end of the first Blair administration, big political ideas are very rare and impossible to manufacture. During the early 1990s, as Labour policy thinking began to move and open up, a new generation of centre-left think tanks appeared, explicitly modelled on IEA and CPS. Taking a lead from the New Democrats and the election of Clinton, the Institute for Public Policy Research, Demos and the Social Market Foundation were all in the market for new and iconoclastic ideas to reset the democtratic Left proposition in Britain. They all failed to offer anything other than a synthesis built on smooth words and chimerical concepts, as Dell predicted:

The probability must be that when the third-way travellers set out on their journey they did not know where they would arrive and that it has been a surprise to them as well as to others that, having circled the world of political thought, they have arrived back at social democracy…the Third Way may turn out to be what a New Labour government is prepared to do, anything that it is prepared to do. (42)

New Labour consummated the marketing of policy and abuse of the adjective ‘radical’ to foster an impression of dynamism, a tendency fully absorbed by the Cameron and Orange Book teams. But this was also self-defeating, because once the structures of the liberal order began to fall apart, the rhetorical techniques and media strategies became more transparent, and therefore ineffective. As Letwin admits towards the end of his book, “the happy continuity of social market liberalism in Britain is now under threat from many quarters”: principly, the new strains of “illiberal demagoguery” and “state socialism tinged with expansive theories of human rights” (43). Letwin’s analysis of this onslaught is both precise and complacent, ascribing it to “latent feelings…given real force” by the 2008 Crash, demographics and globalisation. Therefore, he suggests, the current “illiberal politics of right and left” is “historically contingent – a temporary reaction to a set of economic events” (44). 

This assumption is an optimistic one, and is maybe a result of Letwin’s own political evolution: he is not a convert from the free market economics of his youth, but through painful experience has amended his ideas, finding answers and solace in the wisdom of his old boss, Keith Joseph. A careful and compassionate thinker, raised in a world of sophisticated ideas and civilized debate, the atmosphere of the political salon and a European, American and Jewish intellectual tradition, he eventually learnt the political art of compromise rather than purism and zealotry. It is as if he found peace in dialectical resolution and is therefore unable to countenance the scale of the damage done to the postwar economic and political settlement. Hearts and Minds was written before his showdown with the Johnson administration, but it is useful to place Letwin’s 2019 amendments in the context of his broader political story. He was fighting to safeguard not only the position of Parliament and the national interest, but also the bipartisan, socially liberal, free market political order that he helped to establish but failed to protect. 

  1. Fabian activist William Clarke on the libertarian political philosopher Herbet Spencer in 1894, quoted in Richard Cockett, Thinking the Unthinkable – Think-Tanks and the Economic Counter-Revolution, 1931-1983 (Fontana Press, 1995), p.15
  2. Oliver Letwin, Hearts and Minds – The Battle for the Conservative Party from Thatcher to the Present (Biteback Publishing, 2017), p.24
  3. Oliver Letwin, p.7
  4. Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher – The Authorized Biography, Volume Three: Herself Alone (Allen Lane, 2019), p.149
  5. Oliver Letwin, p.27
  6. Oliver Letwin, p.13
  7. Oliver Letwin, p.84
  8. Charles Moore, ‘At home with the Letwins’ salon’, Standpoint, May 2013, p.55
  9. Oliver Letwin, p.72
  10. Oliver Letwin, p.72
  11. Collard quoted in Cockett, p. 157
  12. Kenneth O. Morgan, Labour People – Hardie to Kinnock (Oxford University Press, 1992), ‘The Planners’, p.113-7. After those generations came Thatcherism. 
  13. Fisher quoted in Cockett, p.134
  14. Fisher quoted in Cockett, p.131
  15. Hayek quoted in Cockett, p.32
  16. Cockett, p.34
  17. Oliver Letwin, p.90. Interestingly, this was not the opinion of his mother, who considered Thatcherism to be a non-ideological phenomenon.
  18. Ludwig von Mises, Socialism – An Economic and Sociological Analysis (Liberty Fund, 1981), p.416 
  19. Shirley Letwin, The Anatomy of Thatcherism (Fontana, 1992), p.112
  20. Shirley Letwin, p.37
  21. Shirley Letwin, p.126
  22. Shirley Letwin, pp.44-5
  23. Charles Moore, Margaret Thatcher – The Authorized Biography, Volume Two: Everything She Wants (Allen Lane, 2015), p.219
  24. Morrison Halcrow, Keith Joseph – A Single Mind (Macmillan, 1989), p.3
  25. Halcrow, p.37
  26. Castle quoted in Halcrow, p.94
  27. Oliver Letwin, pp.41-2
  28. Nicholas Timmins, The Five Giants – A Biography of the Welfare State (Harpercollins, 2001), p.289
  29. Halcrow, p.51
  30. Halcrow, p.47
  31. Sherman quoted in Halcrow, p.157
  32. Hayek quoted in Cockett, p.113
  33. Joseph quoted in Halcrow, p.105
  34. Halcrow, p.193
  35. Oliver Letwin, p.40 
  36. Oliver Letwin, p.89
  37. Oliver Letwin, p.101
  38. Oliver Letwin, p.95
  39. Oliver Letwin, p.122
  40. Oliver Letwin, p.96
  41. Oliver Letwin, p.213
  42. Edmund Dell, A Strange Eventful History – Democratic Socialism in Britain (Harpercollins, 1999), pp. 568-9
  43. Oliver Letwin, pp. 273-74
  44. Oliver Letwin, p.279

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The Art of the Italian Peplum

In the forward to his revised edition of The Greek Myths, written in Deya, Majorca, in 1960, Robert Graves sketched a theory:

 I have had second thoughts about the drunken god Dionysus, about the Centaurs with their contradictory reputation for wisdom and misdemeanor, and about the nature of divine ambrosia and nectar. These subjects are closely related, because the Centaurs worshiped Dionysus, whose wild autumnal feast was called ‘the Ambrosia’. I no longer believe that when his Maenads ran raging around the countryside, tearing animals or children in pieces and boasted afterwards of travelling to India and back, they had intoxicated themselves solely on wine or ivy-ale. The evidence […] suggests that Satyrs, Centaurs, and their Maenad womenfolk, used these brews to wash down mouthfuls of a far stronger drug: namely a raw mushroom, amanita muscaria, which induces hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, and remarkable muscular strength. (1)

Graves had experimented with magic mushrooms throughout the 1950s, stimulating ideas about the origins of Greek mythology which he later set out in his essay  ‘Centaur’s Food’ (2). Dismissed as spurious by classical scholars, his theories were nevertheless tantalising and suggestive, recapturing the primeval strangeness and tribal traces of the original stories.  Hallucinations, senseless rioting, prophetic sight, erotic energy, remarkable muscular strength: such behavioral extremes had been largely purged from modern representations of the ancient world, and when Hollywood got hold of the Classics they had a fairly safe set of tales to ransack. It took the Italians, literally picking up leftover American sets and costumes at Cinecitta studios, to put some strangeness and savagery back into the stories. 

I suppose that Graves would have disdained the Italian pepla had he ever watched one, an event that seems unlikely in his Majorca retreat. Even among Italian film enthusiasts they tend to be considered camp crap: Sixties kitsch dumped on YouTube channels for the nostalgic or those looking for a laugh. Yet, when Tim Lucas described Mario Bava’s Hercules in the Haunted World (Ercole al centro della terra, 1961) as the first psychedelic movie he wasn’t being lazy or flippant at all. Bava’s peplum followed his 1960 Gothic chiller Black Sunday, in which he defined his visual style in pure form for the first time, balancing and manipulating light and shade to evoke and elicit extreme states of fear and eroticism. In Hercules in the Haunted World he did the same thing, but in deep, bold Technicolor. Presented as a mythical yarn, Bava’s Hercules was a visionary spectacle: a fever-dream in which action was secondary to visual concepts and the exploration of hypnotic states, spells and hallucinations. By this point the lines between his pepla and horror films had blurred, so that Christopher Lee could play villainous King Lico as if he was Count Dracula. The closing World of the Dead sequence effectively laid the groundwork for the visual assaults of the early 80s Italian zombie cycle: Bava’s Living Dead rising from their crumbling crypts foreshadowed Lucio Fulci’s own underground uprising at the end of City of the Living Dead. (This kind of slippage also happened in his science fiction nightmare, Planet of the Vampires.) Bava’s film showed that the Italians, at this time, had the ability and licence to do things that Hollywood could barely imagine, let alone execute. 

In his overview of the cycle Jon Solomon usefully summarised the basic template of the Italian peplum: “at its nucleus was always the heroic male bodybuilder protagonist performing feats of strength while righting wrongs, originally and predominantly within the mythological and historical parameters of the Greco-Roman world” (3). This provides a neat starting point that is basically accurate for most pepla churned out between 1958-65, but also shows how far the Italians took the formula, not just in terms of geography and history, but thematically and aesthetically. Solomon details plot excursions to Ancient Egypt, Carthage, Atlantis and Mongol Central Asia, but there was no fidelity to period detail, literary integrity or historical accuracy in these films: each setting simply provided a stage for the most extreme spectacle possible. As Solomon notes, for many producers and directors the innate exoticism of the genre provided an opportunity to accentuate “villainy in the tyrants and sensuality in the femmes fatales” (4): in other words, to maximise the sex and the violence. Italian directors were encouraged to mine story and history books for salacious material which was then spliced together and given lavish visual attention by local film crews, triggering an explosion of energy and creativity that fueled Italian genre cycles until the late 1970s. In his foundational Hercules (Le fatiche di Ercole, 1958) and its sequel Hercules Unchained (Ercole e la regina di Lidia, 1959) director Pietro Francisci promiscuously adapted elements from Apollonius of Rhodes, Sophocles, Aeschylus and the legends of Hercules and Omphale to present an anarchic remix of mythology and history even more frantic and audacious than opera: stories and characters conflated, condensed and recombined in pursuit of rapid, non-stop sensation. The effect was surprising, often thrilling, sometimes hilarious. There was liberty in this lurid mess. 

As the cycle developed, the need to generate novelty produced a kind of aesthetic delirium: constant escalations spawned increasingly strange hybrids. Riccardo Freda’s The Witch’s Curse (Maciste all’inferno, 1962) is an example of the apparently accidental Surrealism that could result. Freda’s film opens as an atmospheric period chiller about witch trials in 16th Century Scotland, but is quickly disrupted by the entrance of Maciste from another time and realm altogether, bursting into the dark and frigid landscape of Protestant Loch Laird on horseback and wearing only a loincloth. There is no explanation for this temporal irruption, certainly no logic, but it sets up the sudden descent into a feverish subterranean landscape drawn from Hieronymus Bosch, a vision of hell crowded with bestial subhumans and writhing demons, rivers of fire and fluorescent spumes of flame. The overall effect is Gothic, discordant, searing, unhinged; a dizzy rush of wild pyrotechnics and vivid streams of colour creating similar effects to the horror films that Freda was directing alongside Mario Bava at exactly the same time. This is something altogether different from a hammy Hercules tale, and it is as hallucinatory and unsettling as the Greek myths presented in Graves’ own translation.

This was a fast and experimental creative environment with no scruples and no respect for the auteur theory of film or conventional notions of good taste. In this atmosphere, limits could be exceeded quickly, for sometimes large profits. The films, after all, were cheap, and the talented crews fully up to the task of producing ingenious and dazzling spectacle from practically nothing. Everything was thrown into the mix, and genres blurred: at times, even now, it can be hard to know what you are watching: a mythological epic, a science fiction fantasy, or a Gothic nightmare. The process was chaotic, even random. The resulting products were impure, contaminated; sometimes a magical spell, a lavish confection, at other times barely holding together at all. As Howard Hughes put it in his compendium Cinema Italiano, “the central theme of pepla is man’s freedom” (5), but the means of expression were unhinged. Mario Bava, in particular, excelled at pushing the limits of physical spectacle and moral license with limited resources. In Hercules in the Haunted World and the Viking saga Erik the Conqueror (Gil invasori, 1961) he decorated his tales with lavish, over-saturated images of sadism and sexuality, creating minor period epics that fitted into the visual and thematic world he was conjuring up in Baroque horrors like Black Sabbath and The Whip and the Body

This impurity was perhaps the defining feature of Italian products. It could be glimpsed in the haunting vision of Queen Lydia’s crypt in which former lovers become petrified statues in Hercules Unchained or the gruesome fate of the sacrificial victims to Proteus in Vittorio Cottafavi’s Hercules Conquers Atlantis (Ercole alla conquista di Atlantide, 1961), visually rich and uncanny set pieces that defy categorization. In Sergio Corbucci’s Goliath and the Vampires (Maciste contra il vampiro, 1961) the Oriental Kingdom of Salmanac is terrorised by a shape-shifting, blood-sucking apparition that materialises in wrathes of red mist, floating in mid air, fangs and talons poised to feast on the blood of virgins. Kobrak (‘the vampire’) is capable of changing his form at will: during the film’s climax he morphs into Goliath himself so that at the final moment, courtesy of some crafty special effects, Goliath appears to grapple with Goliath. The film is suffused with an atmosphere of spooky sadism and exotic sensuality, decorated with a bone-strewn desert, a depraved Oriental court and a frozen underground lair that conceals an army of blue humanoids. Goliath and the Vampires is a period adventure that exceeds every other production of the time by gleefully raiding adjacent genres (horror, science fiction). Corbucci, like Bava, had the talent and temperament as a director to take these things to their logical conclusion: his Roman epic Son of Spartacus (Il figlio di Spartacus, 1962) and Spaghetti Westerns Django and The Great Silence stand out for their handsome scale and pitiless brutality. Goliath and the Vampires made the peplum frightening and cosmic, within its own frivolous boundaries: in the process it shredded conventions and invented something stupid, new and unrepeatable. 

This wildness, this lack of decorum and taste, a refusal to acknowledge any aesthetic boundaries and push at both moral and legal limits, became a basic driving force of Italian genre cinema, taken to extreme horizons by directors like Lucio Fulci and Ruggero Deodato. It pushed the peplum cycle through to its bitter end and ushered in the amorality, violence and eroticism of the Spaghetti Westerns, horror movies and gialli of the later 1960s. The brutality of the pepla set a precedent for the aesthetics of Italian film by depicting violence with more felicity and imagination than the American models. Movies like Goliath and the Vampires or Carlo Compagalliano’s ruthless romp Goliath and the Barbarians (Il terrore dei barbari, 1959) and his voluptuous, savage Son of Samson (Maciste nella valle dei re, 1960) opened with whole villages and towns being massacred in surprising, gory detail: the innocent burnt or  buried alive, stabbed or impaled, with no mercy for women or children. In later pepla like Son of Spartacus or Ferdinando Baldi’s Son of Cleopatra (Il figlio di Cleopatra, 1964) the brutal, parched landscape, visual motifs and pessimism of the Spaghetti Western had started to be sketched out: pitiless bursts of violence perpetrated by desperate, amoral men on horseback in barren desert wastelands. 

The violence was balanced by an extravagant sensuality that was often, and deliberately, decadent and provocative, a central trait of Italian cinema. There is a retrospective tendency to focus on the supposedly homoerotic presentation of the lead actors in the pepla: bodybuilders like Steve Reeves and Reg Parks romping around in skimpy loincloths, flexing oily torsos and wrestling wild beasts. But this is misleading, ahistorical and misses a key point: the pepla often revolve around the motivations, machinations and sexual allure of their women. The female characters were not just sex objects in these films: their erotic charisma often suffused the entire narrative and propelled it. If the central protagonist was invariably the muscular and moral hero, a Hercules or a Maciste, then his real nemesis was more often than not a dynamic and seductive queen or courtesan. Occasionally controlled by a larger, more malevolent force (Kobrak in Goliath and the Vampires; a race of rock-headed, be-caped aliens in Giacomo Gentilomo’s legitimately camp and demented Hercules Against the Moon Men), they almost always stole the show from everybody else. 

Hercules Unchained, for example, belonged to Sylvia Lopez, the tragic starlet who died of leukemia one year after the film was released. Her Queen Omphale is an outstandingly lurid and febrile creation: decked in gossamer suits and diaphanous gowns with eyes like steel daggers and lips like lava, she is eventually driven mad by desire and immolates herself in her own cave of horrors like a Technicolor Barbara Steele. In Son of Samson and Goliath and the Barbarians, Chelo Alonso (“the Cuban H-Bomb”) provided a lethal sexual charge by deploying seductive dance routines learnt at the Folies Bergere in Paris (6), vamping and murdering her way through the Mongols of Central Asia and the dangerous schemers of Pharaonic Egypt in luxurious and only vaguely period-appropriate couture mini dresses. As Queen of the Amazons in Hercules, a wily courtesan in Goliath and the Vampires or a corrupt and lusty aristocrat in Son of Spartacus, Gianna Maria Canale exuded a graceful and intelligent menace that finely balanced the outré sexuality of Alonso and Lopez. Lydia Alfonsi excelled at the role of Prophetess often key to the mythological mini-epics, adding mystery and dignity to such roles as the Sybil in Hercules and Cassandra in Giorgio Ferroni’s The Trojan Horse (La guerra di troia, 1961). In their original context these films pushed the boundaries of female agency and sexual aesthetics to produce some of the most memorable yet forgotten lead performances by any Italian actresses.  

The peplum provided a perfect vehicle for the visual sensibility of the Italians, and an important opportunity to develop their talent and expertise in special effects, set and costume design. If there is one thing that distinguished the best Italian productions from their American models, it is their rich visual texture. The Italians presented their stories in dynamic, saturated Technicolor. Caves, grottoes and crypts were drenched in shimmering colour palettes: jarring blues and livid reds, piercing golden shafts and aquamarine washes. Pioneered and inspired by Bava, the lighting did a lot of work: cheap tricks devised to conjure vivid and unnatural dream states and hallucinatory nightmares. In fact, the visual signature of Mario Bava is all over the most effective and beautiful-looking pepla, even those without his direct involvement like Hercules Conquers Atlantis (a visual and thematic wonder), or Goliath and the Dragon (Le vendetta di Ercole, 1960) in which Cotaffavi painted a broiling volcanic landscape that was only let down by the ridiculous fire-breathing rubber puppet that Mark Forest wrestled at the climax of the film. Most productions required a dance sequence, both an obligation and a chance to show off: in the hands of Bava these became extreme candy-coloured confections, inserts of exotica that enhanced the dreamy delirium, like budget versions of the Powell and Pressburger ballet extravaganzas in The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffman. The nature of Italian productions, the studio combination of outrageous talent and motivated hacks, led to this uneven balance of virtuosity and abject failure, often in the same film, even the same scene. But this is precisely why the Italians excelled at the low-brow: apart from an upper crust of Marxist or moralising neorealists, the Italian film industry was refreshingly mercenary and anarchic, and within that precarious, venal infrastructure the likes of Bava and Corbucci could refine their own style and deliver it, in a commercial package, to hungry regional cinemas. 

The tendency towards extreme stylistic mannerism established during the peplum period would be fully developed in the Gothic horrors and gialli that followed: the thread can be traced all the way through to the visual assaults of Dario Argento and Lucio Fulci. The escalations and deviations of the pepla also established the pattern for subsequent film cycles. This was the first filone, and set a commercial and stylistic template for the Spaghetti Westerns, spy capers, Gothic horrors, gialli and poliziotteschi. Some of Italian cinema’s great genre exponents started here, notably Freda, Bava, Leone and Corbucci. Furthermore, with their big, bold themes (freedom, tyranny, the nature of good and evil, love, sex, power) and however moronic the approach, the pepla wore the scars of Italian society in the heat of industrial and cultural revolution. Like the Gothic horrors and Spaghetti Westerns, they did not, in general, try to preach or convert. Like the best Hollywood genre products, the ideas they explored were not delivered as programmes or slogans, but as symptoms of fear and desire, aspiration and dislocation (7). Their achievements were accidental, but not insignificant. Ignored now, they are worth revisiting (and where possible, fully remastering, 8) for their visual and stylistic achievements but also as central and living documents of a country with unmatched cultural resources and abilities being transformed at every level, from every direction. They are waiting, still, to be rescued and rediscovered. 

  1. Robert Graves, The Greek Myths (Penguin, 1992), p.9
  2. ‘Centaur’s Food’ in Robert Graves, Food for Centaurs (Doubleday & Co., 1960). William Graves would partly blame use of psychedelics for his father’s late mental decline, see Joshua Hammer, ‘Robert Graves Found ‘Perfect Tranquility’ in Majorca’, New York Times, July 3, 2015
  3. Jon Solomon, ‘The Muscleman Peplum: From Le fatiche di Ercole (1958) to Hercules and the Princess of Troy (1965)’ in The Italian Cinema Book (ed. Peter Bondanella, BFI, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p.163
  4. Solomon, p.167
  5. Howard Hughes, Cinema Italiano – The Complete Guide from Classics to Cult (I.B. Taurus, 2011), p. 1
  6. Howard Hughes, p.13
  7. The best example of this is perhaps Hercules Conquers Atlantis, in some ways the most ridiculous of all the pepla but also the most interesting. In the film, Queen Antinea’s Atlantis is a technocratic tyranny with eugenic ambitions to “change men…create a new race.” The mythological setting tilts into science fiction and even exploitation, with its Futurist cityscapes and charged erotic apparel: the fetishistic black leather uniforms and weapons of Queen Antinea’s guards, as well as her own prowling, vicious performance, an Atlantean dominatrix. The thematic echoes of Mussolini’s own mad dreams of a fully aestheticised and pure totalitarian state are obvious and it is worth remembering that these films were being produced only fifteen years after the destruction of the Fascist regime.
  8. The model would be Arrow Films’ exquisite release of Erik the Conqueror: their 2K  restoration (with the original Italian vocal track) is a revelation. The reputation of films like Hercules, Hercules Unchained, Hercules in the Haunted World, Hercules Conquers Atlantis and Goliath and the Vampires would be transformed by similar treatment and presentation. Whether this will ever be possible, either technically or commercially, is another matter. 
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