Anthony Powell – England’s Proust


A Dance to the Music of Time

Reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time can seem a formidable commitment. It is a series of twelve novels (totalling one million words) published between 1951 and 1975, following the lives of over 300 characters during seven decades of the 20th century, as observed by a narrator who is at once involved in the turbulent century and ironically detached from it. This may sound indigestible, but Powell’s roman à fleuve manages to be simultaneously captivating and consequential, witty and wise – leading acute critics to see Dance as the “greatest modern novel since Ulysses” (Clive James) and “one of English fiction’s few twentieth century master- pieces” (John Lanchester).

Powell (incidentally pronounced Pole) has been called “the English Proust”, and the comparison is appropriate. Like Proust, his themes are time, change, chance and regret, evoked by multitudinous closely observed details and characters whose traits somehow encapsulate whole ‘types’.

Powell was born in 1905, the son of an army officer and a mother distantly descended from the Dymoke family of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, who were and perhaps still are the hereditary King’s Champions, required to ride fully armoured into the hall during a king’s investiture and challenge any pretenders to a duel (a ritual sadly discontinued after George IV’s coronation). Powell’s childhood was spent in London, Aldershot and Sevenoaks, then he went to what he described as “well-deserved obscurity” at Eton (although he was graded ninth in the school in his final examinations). He read history at Balliol, Oxford (he got a third). He worked for the publishers Duckworth, and associated with the likes of Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, John Betjeman, Malcolm Muggeridge, Augustus John, Tallulah Bankhead, Nina Hamnett, Aleister Crowley and Constant Lambert. He wrote three novels – Afternoon Men (1931), Venusberg (1932) and From a View to a Death (1934), all of which were well received but sold unspectacularly. He married Lady Violet Pakenham in 1934 (they had two sons). He published his fourth novel, Agents and Patients, in 1936 and that year also visited the Soviet Union on holiday; the experience reinforced an emerging, if always understated, dislike of communism. He worked as a scriptwriter and reviewer, and brought out a fifth novel, What’s Become of Waring?, in 1939. That year, he was commissioned into the Welch Regiment, eventually transferring to the Intelligence Corps.

Upon leaving the army, he published a biography of John Aubrey, bought a run-down Regency house in Frome (where he lived for the rest of his life), wrote for the Times Literary Supplement, Daily Telegraph and Spectator, and became literary editor of Punch. He was created CBE in 1956, declined a knighthood in 1973 and became a Companion of Honour in 1988. He published two more stand-alone novels, O, How The Wheel Becomes It! (1983) and The Fisher King (1986), plus four volumes of memoirs, then became incapacitated and died in 2000.

Dance won immediate admiration, and the fourth volume in the series, At Lady Molly’s, won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1957. The 11th, Temporary Kings, won the W H Smith Prize. The sequence was adapted for TV in 1997 and shown on Channel 4 (starring Simon Russell Beale), while there were also radio adaptations in 1978-81 and 2008.

The title of the sequence is taken from the painting by Poussin that hangs in the Wallace Collection in London, which shows four dancers circling a measure to a tune played by Father Time.

An almost hypnotic spell seems cast by this masterpiece on the beholder. I knew all at once that Poussin had expressed at least one important aspect of what the novel must be

Powell recalled in his memoirs, To Keep the Ball Rolling.

Writing in the Guardian in 2000, an appreciative Norman Shrapnel called Powell a “fastidious satirist” – “reflective and often melancholic”, “clinically accurate and searching”, “comic in the least uproarious way imaginable”, unsentimental, interested in coincidences, and eccentric and ritualistic behaviour. Such stylistic qualities have compelled respect even from readers who do not share his small-c conservatism, and who are predisposed to dislike his real-life and novelistic habitats of public schools, Oxbridge, St James’s, the army and literary studies.

The parlour game of trying to work out on whom Powell based some of his best characters is also a fascinating one. For example, some have seen in the humourless leftwing publisher Quiggin a blend of C. P. Snow, F. R. Leavis and Harold Pinter – although the latter identification was always denied by the author, who was related to Pinter by marriage.

Some straightforward borrowings from real life were later admitted to by the author, such as the manic novelist X. Trapnel (based on Julian McLaren-Ross) and the tubercular composer Hugh Morland (Constant Lambert) – and of course Powell’s greatest creation, the unforgettable, unspeakable Kenneth Widmerpool, based apparently on the military bureaucrat Denis Capel-Dunn, under whom Powell had served briefly during the war.

The odd surname Widmerpool was derived from a real-life English Civil War soldier, a Parliamentarian cavalry captain. This selection of a Parliamentarian’s name for the buffoonish yet genuinely nasty central character of Dance implies Powell’s political inclinations. According to John Colvin, writing in the Daily Telegraph on 30 December 1991, Widmerpool is, like Capel-Dunn,

…a very fat, extremely boring, overwhelmingly ambitious arriviste. His conversations were hideously detailed and humourless

From Dance’s Etonian outset, Widmerpool is always there or always sensed, and always ridiculous – the oikish, shortsighted son of a fertilizer manufacturer (the father’s stock-in-trade hinting at his son’s essence), remembered chiefly by his acutely status-conscious schoolmates for having the “wrong kind of overcoat”, and ever afterwards cropping up everywhere in the narrator’s (Nicholas Jenkins) affairs, and usually to deftly comic effect. He is painfully aware of his physical and social shortcomings, and tries to over- compensate through constant work and by trying to foresee looming trends, so that he can steal a march on his envied, hated contemporaries. He is propelled utterly by ambition, and tries to make himself indispensable to whomsoever happens to be in a position of authority.

He trims his sails constantly to the prevailing winds – at different times, he is (or claims to be) a go-ahead man of business, an admirer of Hitler, a confidant of Mrs Simpson, a senior logistics officer during the war, a Labour MP under Attlee, a Soviet spy, a writer for a leftwing magazine, a life peer, a chancellor of one of the new universities, a supporter of the 1950s and 1960s counter-culture, rejecting his title and joining a New Age cult founded by a new kind of ‘anti-authority’ authority figure. He is quietly unpleasant, seeping Uriah Heep-like through the lives of all the other characters, and all of 20th century Britain, an ambitious and malignant force both following and setting the century’s tone. But whatever he tries fails.

Widmerpool is, as Norman Shrapnel noted, “a shade pathetic, a little absurd, more than a little sinister”. Whilst trying to impress his business boss (Sir Magnus Donner, based on Lord Beaverbrook) he drives into one of Donner’s garden statues; he has sugar poured over him in public by a girl he is trying to impress; his vaunted closeness to Wallis Simpson turns out to mean that he once saw her at a pheasant shoot; he is hated even by his parliamentary Labour colleagues; he makes a mess of espionage and falls foul of his KGB handlers; his writing is dreary; he is impotent and a voyeur; his wife hates him for allegedly being responsible for the death of her beloved uncle and has married him solely so that she can make his life a misery; the red-brick university of which he is chancellor is clearly a poor academical relation to the unattainable Oxbridge; he is publicly humiliated by having paint thrown at him; he grovels (possibly homo-erotically) before a charismatic hippie leader, eventually falling dead whilst running naked in the countryside. Whatever he does, it is ludicrous, misplaced and déclassé; his is a lifetime of always wearing the “wrong kind of overcoat”.

Yet this ridiculous personality comes to wield real power at times, even occasionally seeming like ‘the wave of the future’. He seems to Powell to have in some way personified everything that was wrong with the 20th century, and specifically the political Left during that period. In all his gaucherie, envy, resentment, sycophancy, intrusiveness, insensitivity, humourlessness, ruthlessness, condescension and lack of culture, Widmerpool is brilliantly funny but also loathsome (and slightly pitiable). It says much for Powell’s craft that most left-leaning litterateurs cannot resent this devastating caricature of the Leftist personality.

Widmerpool is surrounded by characters whose names conjure up obliterated times and places – Dicky Umfraville (spivvish, raffish, White Mischief set), Professor Sillery (precise, bitchy, gossipy academic), Ted Jeavons (chauffeur who took his titled wife’s surname but has retained his unpretentious kindness and practicality), St. John Clarke (verbose novelist with tediously of-the-moment political views), Mark Manners (Modernist poet, snob), “Books-do-Furnish-a-Room” Bagshaw (upper-class Philistine hearty) and Scorpio Mortlock (1960s pagan cult leader). Every name and every incident has been minutely considered, and none are redundant; this gives Dance its totally convincing and sinewy texture, whether Powell is describing Oxford studies, Jazz Age clubs, car crashes, homosexual artists, seedy boarding houses, Berkeley Square mansions, bombing raids, wartime billets or Venice in the 1950s.

It may sound as if Powell has a politico-historical agenda, but there is no evidence of this – the absence of any ‘grand narrative’ suggesting profound impatience with allegedly all-encompassing worldviews and ideologies. Nor is he trying to change anything. His chosen tactic is simply, as Nicholas Birns explained in 2005’s Understanding Anthony Powell, the “amused, reserved acceptance of what happens”.

Arguably, this sceptical stance is itself conservative. Powell tended to avoid discussing his own views, because he feared they might hurt his career, but as a young man he expressed concerns about democracy giving dominion to “the morally and intellectually deficient”, and once said that had he been compelled to choose a side in the Spanish Civil War he would (albeit reluctantly) have opted for Franco. He was an admirer of Margaret Thatcher, and was “broadly sympathetic” to Christian values. He was interested in genealogy and heredity, and aspired to live in a house “with a driveway”. But his philosophy is always kept thankfully well- trimmed and unobtrusive. He does not wish to make a point – but only to record what it felt like to be English, in England during those years.

One of Powell’s favourite books, and one which features largely in the latter parts of Dance, was Robert Burton’s outré 1621 classic, The Anatomy of Melancholy – that strange gentle compendium of depressiveness and madness hovering in the book’s background, like a Purcell ground heard from far away, as the dancers slow down and quit the stage. Soon, they will all have gone, as Powell has gone – but reading Powell reminds us that there will always be new dancers to tread the same steps in different ways, always to the beat and tempo of an always sardonic Father Time.

This article appeared in the Quarterly Review in Summer 2009

Nosferatu – Monster of Mitteleuropa

A street in Sighisoara (formerly Schassburg) – home town of Vlad “Dracul” Tepes, the 15th century Wallachian prince whose bloodthirsty reputation helped inspire Bram Stoker


The dreadful concept of the vampire is common to many cultures, but although there are vampire stories native to Britain (such as that surrounding Croglin Grange in Northumberland), the version that will be most familiar to readers is Dracula – Bram Stoker’s compelling conflation of central European folk beliefs, exaggerated stories about the mediæval Wallachian princeling Vlad Tepeş and 19th century obsessions with sex, science, Gothicism and occultism. The idea of a nocturnal, blood-drinking creature that is neither alive nor dead is terrifying even now – yet vampire-themed films have tended to be underwhelming.

It may be partly because we are so saturated with the story that we cannot take it seriously. Bela Lugosi was risible (although he was more innocently employed in Hollywood than he had been in his former incarnation as Hungarian Communist politician under the bloodthirsty Bela Kun regime), Hammer was just hammy, and even Francis Ford Coppola could not make us afraid of Gary Oldman’s Count. Some vampiric variations on the theme were more successful, but most film fans would probably agree that the genre leader in this admittedly small field is Prana Films’ 1922 Nosferatu: Eine Symphonie des Grauens (“Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror”).

Nosferatu is preeminent not just because it has the spontaneity of having been the first vampire film, but because of the carefully-constructed cinematography and the lyrical script, which we relish all the more because we are not distracted by absurd approximations of Romanian accents. Darkly Expressionist direction by F. W. Murnau ensures that every frame pulsates with feeling, like the human prey whose life-force Max Schreck’s cadaverous “Count Orlok” seeks so urgently. The distinct eccentricity of the film’s chief progenitors must also have contributed subtly to the film’s outré quality. Murnau was an occultist, a fanatic and an overt homosexual. Schreck was so reclusive that many thought he was not a real person; one of the few who knew him reported that he was always in “a remote and strange world” and enjoyed long, solitary walks in forests – a suitably Mitteleuropäisch fixation. (Coincidentally, the German verb schreck means to frighten.) In Shadow of the Vampire (2000), a film about the making of Nosferatu, John Malkovich camps it up believably as the unbalanced Murnau, so desperate to ensure authenticity that he employs a real vampire (Willem Dafoe) to take Shreck’s role.

Schreck’s character was dubbed “Count Orlok” because the film rights to Dracula could not be secured and so the names and many of the plot details had to be altered (eg, Jonathan Harker became Thomas Hutter). But the debt is clear – so clear that Stoker’s widow sued Prana and won, ensuring that the company filed for bankruptcy and never made another film. The court ordered all prints of the film to be destroyed, but luckily copies had already been distributed widely. (1)

Nevertheless, those seeing Nosferatu for the first time will find the vampire very different from, and probably much more frightening than, the over-familiar Lugosi/Lee/Oldman avatar (spoofed neatly by Leslie Nielsen in the 1995 Dead and Loving It!). The film is set in a different period (1830s rather than the 1890s) and the latter segments in Germany rather than England (although both agree on the vampire’s Carpathian homeland). The Germanic setting makes it look all the much more otherworldly to British viewers – especially when we bear in mind that many of the beautiful streets that were used as film sets, with their leaning, half-timbered mediæval houses, nail-studded doors and small-paned windows, are now themselves phantoms, obliterated by Allied bombing.

But it is Orlok who commands all eyes. Far from being the suave, handsome, aristocratic, lupine figure bequeathed to the popular imagination by Christopher Lee, Orlok is every incubus inch an emissary of evil – bald, blank-staring-eyed, with teeth that are too big for his mouth and clutching nails that curve around like scimitars. He is a rat-faced carrier of fear and infection, a creeping germ that lives only to gorge, a tick tortured by bloodlust, a thing of darkness, despair, dirt, disease and death. Unlike Dracula, he does not turn his victims into fellow bloodsuckers as if seeking company, but just kills them as efficiently as a snake. When the crew of the ship unknowingly transporting him to Germany open the crates, they are boiling over with vermin, and when the ship finally crashes unmanned in the quay wall at Bremen (its crew all vanished or murdered at their posts) Orlok glides ashore, a shadow in the shadows as unobtrusive as the bubonic plague, while thousands of frantic rats rush through the chocolate-box streets. His horrid presence permeates the city, towering up at the end of dismal alleyways, slinking around the edges of stricken squares, staring greedily in through windows, a hunched silhouette heart-stoppingly coming up the stairs.

Bremen’s ultimate saviour is Thomas Hutter’s wife Ellen (Greta Schröder) who discovers that only a woman “pure in heart” can distract the creature long enough to make him neglect the onset of sunrise – and so she offers up her soft sacrificial throat to his gnawing until a rooster crows outside like all the dawns that have ever lifted men out of feverish dreams. Orlok contorts and dissipates in smoke, and the camera goes back for one last smouldering shot of his castle, the monster’s simultaneous home and headstone.

Many of the other German masterpieces of that period – such as The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, Metropolis, M and Der Golem – still resonate with modern audiences, but Nosferatu retains a unique creepiness – partly because some of its imagery was hijacked to make the infamous Der Ewige Jude (“The Eternal Jew”) of 1940, a film which notoriously also contains scenes of scurrying rats, likening them to Jews. Such a borrowing would certainly not have been welcomed by the visionary makers of Nosferatu, but by then Murnau and Schreck were both dead  – Murnau in a car crash in 1931, which rumour has it was caused by his performing fellatio on his Filipino chauffeur, and Schreck in 1936 from a heart attack just after coming off stage.

The imagery and even the nomenclature have recurred more recently – Werner Herzog’s well-regarded 1979 remake starring Klaus Kinski (Nosferatu the Vampire). The repulsive “Kurt Barlow” in the 1979 film of Stephen King’s book Salem’s Lot, starring David Soul, was based physically on Orlok. Max Schreck was also the name of a Bond villain, and the title of the hugely successful Shrek cartoons is derived from the same German source. It would seem that the literally awful motif of the ichor-imbibing, shape-shifting beast from the lowest circles of our imagination clearly still has a dancing and flickering life-force of its own.

This article appeared in the Quarterly Review in Autumn 2009


1. The well-regarded 2007 Kino International version has just (October 2013) been superseded, but I have yet to see the new version. DT

Homage to suburbia – The Diary of a Nobody


The Diary of a Nobody

George & Weedon Grossmith

In a recent book, Freedoms of Suburbia, former New Society editor Paul Barker notes ruefully

To call anyone or anything ‘suburban’ is to utter a put-down, an anathema, a curse

For many (especially on the left), the word evokes a lazy, unfair cliché of Victorian terraces or Edwardian semis with gravelled-over gardens inhabited by hundreds of thousands of narrow- minded, Conservative-voting, muzak-listening, Stepford Wife-marrying, car-polishing, B&Q-going Pooterish automata – a universe teeming with petty secrets and anxieties concealed behind never-still net curtains.

London’s suburbs took off after the 1860s, when phenomenal economic growth, a proliferating and newly prosperous population and the advent of railways combined to make huge swathes of Middlesex, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Hertfordshire suddenly developable. By the time Diary of a Nobody was first published, as extracts in Punch in 1892, then appearing as a separate book in 1894, London suburbia had a frenetic life of its own, and the suburban ‘type’ was already a stock comic character.

George (1847-1912) Grossmith who wrote the text and his brother Weedon (1853-1919) who contributed the delightful illustrations, being of that class and living in Canonbury, were amply qualified to convey the texture of contemporary lower middle class domesticity. In so doing, they coined a useful new adjective, and left behind them an English comedic classic.

The Diary opens with the arrival of Charles and Carrie Pooter at their newly- built house, “The Laurels”, Brickfield Terrace, Holloway. It is a great moment for them, and Charles decides it merits his commencing a journal. Anticipating scorn, he enquires in a spiky introductory paragraph:

Why should I not publish my diary? I have often seen reminiscences of people I have never even heard of, and I fail to see – because I do not happen to be a ‘Somebody’ – why my diary should not be interesting

So he begins to chronicle the tiniest incidents in detail – and they are tiny incidents. Each section starts with a summary of events, for example:

Tradesmen and the scraper still troublesome. Gowing rather tiresome with his complaints of the paint. I make one of the best jokes of my life. Delights of gardening. Mr. Stillbrook, Gowing, Cummings, and I have a little misunderstanding. Sarah makes me look a fool before Cummings

Pooter’s complex personality merits a larger sphere, and he is aware of this. Yet paradoxically he is accepting of his ‘place’, and is supremely at home in the jerry- built convenience of his little man’s empire in London brick. He is pompous, precise, pedantic, proud, self-satisfied, thin-skinned, reserved, conventional, and concerned with appearances.

The Diary is fated to be a record of Pooter’s low-intensity (and usually losing) battle to assert himself against a horde of Holloway headaches – a son more interested in the theatre than in holding down his bank job, careless tradesmen, cheeky delivery boys, forgetful friends, firework-throwing neighbours, indifferent editors, disreputable theatrical types and products – most memorably red paint – that simply won’t do what they are supposed to. He finds almost everything worrying, irritating or socially embarrassing –

I went to town without a pocket-handkerchief. This is the second time I have done this during the last week

I was compelled to face a gang of roughs in a donkey-cart…who followed us for nearly a mile, bellowing, indulging in coarse jokes and laughter, to say nothing of occasionally pelting us with orange-peel

I would gladly give ten shillings to find out who sent me the insulting Christmas card…I find myself suspecting all my friends

I rather disapprove of his wearing a check suit on a Sunday

But with all his pettiness and vanity, Pooter is a kind and honourable Nobody, devoted to his family and fond of any respectable pleasures, like country walks (in Hampstead!), dances, party games or intellectual discussions –

Cummings read a most interesting article on the superiority of the bicycle to the horse

He is loyal to his friends; he works uncomplainingly, saves money and strives in his small way to improve society, whilst simultaneously standing up politely for his rights. The Diary of a Nobody is a perfectly judged and warmly witty portrait of a certain kind of English Everyman at an expansive time.

This first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Winter 2009


Monday night




The roundest moon was resting on our road,

Making of the lane a silver stream –

A chilly channel running from some Sea

To carry its Tranquillity to me.


I waded in those waters ‘til it rose,

Falling upwards, bringing its own blue.

It shook itself untangled from the trees –

Stone in space, only seeming to be free.


Meet Lee Pefley – sociopath (and sage)


Fields of Asphodel is the latest of Tito Perdue’s five critically acclaimed satires detailing the uproarious, curmudgeonly life of Leland (Lee) Pefley. It is impossible to review this book in isolation, so we need to know what has gone before – all the more necessary for a mostly British audience because, for some inexplicable reason, Perdue has never been published in the United Kingdom.

The first book was Lee, which appeared in 1991. This features Pefley as an old man who has gone back to his Alabama hometown to die and who beguiles the tedious time by hitting or fantasizing about hitting those he sees as ignorant or ugly, and generally making himself as disagreeable as possible. He is a man characterized by overweening arrogance and a generic loathing for the modern world, and gnawed by disillusion, loneliness (his deceased wife Judy is constantly in his thoughts) and a profound melancholia. Lee received rave reviews from just about everyone who read it, except for one or two journals which felt that surreal originality, a vigorous prose style, profound culture, mordant humour, marvellous characterization and moving evocations were all very well, but they couldn’t counterbalance Lee’s ‘snobbishness’. But astuter critics were united in their view that here was a Southern Samuel Beckett or James Joyce for the 1990s.

The New Austerities (1994) was a prequel, which showed Lee packing in his detested insurance job in New York, and driving back down to Dixie with Judy in a car on which he has only made one payment, drifting down an hallucinogenically-imagined east coast, believing that Alabama may be their Land of Potential Content. But he finds when he gets there that the bucolic, conservative, unregimented South of his memory or imagination has become ‘the New South’, an increasingly unfree and homogenized place, where pick-up trucks driven by hard-faced, self-reliant farmers are being replaced by nearly new cars driven by soft executives in suits.

Opportunities in Alabama Agriculture (also 1994) is a pre-prequel, leapfrogging two generations backwards to Lee’s grandfather Ben, born and raised in Alabama just after the Civil War. Ben is a dreamer (as Lee will be), the son of a dreamer and with brothers who are so impractical that they become alcoholics and die young. Unsuccessful as a shop assistant and as a farmer, yet gifted with a curious literary talent, he eventually lands a job as a rural postman, the area’s first – ironically heralding the start of the systematization his descendant will hate so much. Opportunities is filled with time elisions and sideslips, set in an Alabama that is part modern but also part prehistoric. It is also suffused with the essence of childhood – close observation of small things and acceptance of the status quo, blended with wonder at the strangeness and size of the world.

The fourth book in the series is The Sweet-Scented Manuscript (2004), which returns to Lee’s own life, following his journey at the age of 18 from Alabama to university in the North. He finds new books and peers, but most of all he finds Judy, his perfect mate, who thereafter becomes the lodestar of his life. Although all of Perdue’s books are partly autobiographical, this is perhaps the most obviously personal, conveying beautifully the bittersweet ardency that is the common lot of many young adults. It is redeemed from being saccharine by Lee’s ever-present knowledge that youth and health and optimism are highly perishable fruits. He is hauntingly aware that the fresh female face he strokes today will be furrowed tomorrow, and the day after that they will both be “tumbling forever among the stars”.

So we come to Fields of Asphodel – without a doubt the strangest of five very strange books. It is difficult to know how to do justice to a book that combines a comforting (and quite traditional Christian) faith with conversations with God about 1950s music, courtly archaisms with crude street slang, eldritch imagery with allusions to medieval theology, philosophical points (some a little ponderous) with haemorrhoid-related humour.

But it is safe to presume that it will be the last in the series, as now Lee is dead, yet still sentient, searching for Judy across a twilit landscape resembling a limbo dreamed up by a visionary painter. Far from being the Elysian place the title suggests, it is bleak and ugly, filled with ill-conditioned people of the sort Lee hoped he would have left behind on earth. Lee still has his bodily ailments and infirmities, to which are added wet, cold and hunger, and the discomfiture of meeting intellectual equals who are able to defeat him in verbal sparring matches, as they all shuffle or limp across a freezing and largely featureless landscape towards the hoped-for “higher domains”.

On the way, he is sometimes scourged – being pelted with cabbage, being interviewed by officials, working as a salesman, being threatened with death for ‘having no compassion’, having his shoes stolen and having everyone refusing his Canadian currency. But there are also compensations, such as warmer weather, caning officials and sales man- agers, meeting some of his revered Greek philosophers, being offered a job binding books by hand, seeing voluptuaries being eaten alive by pigs or having molten gold poured into their mouths while whole cities burn in the far distance. Eventually, he can see “mountains of royal blue where shepherds were harassing each other with trumpet calls”, and he knows he is nearing his apotheosis. Entering the personally customized village at the far side of the desert (architecture and society circa 1910, flora and vegetation circa Silurian), he knows that he has finally been “transported into a legendary person”.

It would be easy to dismiss Lee Pefley (and by extension his creator) as distastefully fundamentalist. But although Lee’s approach obviously goes too far, the Pefley/Perdue critique of modernity is of great importance, including such questions as – why are our countries increasingly characterized by angst, anger, alienation and anomie? Why do we produce no great art? Why does everything have to be so ugly? Why does nothing work properly? Why are our politicians so incompetent and untrustworthy?

We should remember that Lee is not naturally bitter; his admittedly sociopathic traits are the by-products of what he sees (correctly) as a toxic society. His chief hope has always been childishly simple – that people will try to live up to their potential, and that society should be as civilized as can be. That people and society always fall short is not his fault, but theirs; they (or we) have never really tried. They (or we) have unprecedented health, wealth and access to information and culture – yet the majority of us prefer to spend our time making and spending money, or reading about Kylie, or watching random agglomerations of men chasing after a ball.

Lee’s ideal appears on p231 –

Always he had wanted a small world getting smaller, a fine people getting finer, all of them dwelling far apart in hand-build cottages on a glebe getting gorgeouser

What he has always hated – and what we should likewise hate – is the contemporary cross-party concept of nations being economies with countries attached, instead of the other way around. The unlikeable, unforgettable character of Lee Pefley embodies a paradox – that some of those who seem by today’s standards to be the most acerbic, the most misanthropic, the most ‘irrelevant’ and ‘out of touch’ may secretly be the greatest idealists of all.

This review first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Spring 2008


Northern Soul


Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 The Seventh Seal has become so deeply ensconced in the cultural picture library that almost everyone hearing the title will conjure up instantly the film’s most memorable image – blanched-faced, black-cloaked Death playing chess with Antonius Block (Max von Sydow), a Swedish knight recently returned from the Crusades. At stake is not just the knight’s life, but his afterlife, because his faith has been deeply shaken by his experiences. Behind and above the game, there is a stripped-down Nordic landscape ravaged, like Block himself, by disease and despair. Von Sydow’s angular physique, bleached coloration and depressive personality are the perfect personification of hyperboreal manhood – now as much as then. He is no Block but a thoughtful and hag-ridden man, who wants desperately to believe that there is more to life than the merely mundane. At his core there chews a terrible emptiness, as if the chilliness of the septentrional zone has entered into his bone marrow.

With his practical esquire, Jöns (Gunnar Björnstrand), who still prays daily (although he is only going through the motions, as he has probably always done), Block zigzags across Scania towards his castle and his waiting wife, during the course of a single dreadful day. Wherever he goes, he cannot escape either Death or, what is much worse, Disillusion.

Along the corpse-strewn way, he comes across cynical churchmen, flagellants and a witch being burned by panicky soldiers – and makes confession to a priest who is really Death in disguise. He asks the ‘priest’,

Why must He hide in a midst of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me?

He also encounters Raval (Bertil Anderberg) the man who originally persuaded him to become a Crusader – but Raval is now a looter of bodies and a would-be rapist.

The only slight relief in the otherwise unrelieved misery is when Block and Jöns come across a family troupe of strolling players whose moral tales and religious tableaux are much in demand from a panic-stricken populace. The players are (for the moment at least) healthy, happy and with a young son, Mikael, who absorbs all their thoughts. Jof (Nils Poppe), a juggler who has visions of the Virgin, and his wife Mia (Bibi Andersson) represent for Block an innocence and beauty that are for him unrecoverable. He and Jöns rapidly develop a deep solicitude for them, with Jöns rescuing Jof from persecution by Raval, and the knight eating wild strawberries with them all in a glade, forget- ting his desolation for a sunlit moment. “I shall remember this hour of peace”, he says –

…the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk. Mikael asleep, Jof with his lute. I shall remember our words, and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign, and a great content.

On a generous impulse, he kicks over the chess board, enabling Jof, Mia and Mikael to make at least a temporary escape while Death is picking up the pieces. But it is too late for him, his wife, Jöns and many others. Death infiltrates the castle as Block entreats God for mercy and his lady recites Revelations.

The following morning, as he and his family jolt along the roads out of the plague district and out of danger, Jof has a different kind of vision – of the silhouetted knight and his followers being led away over the hills in a dance of death –

They move away from the dawn in a solemn dance away towards the dark lands while the rain cleanses their cheeks of the salt from their bitter tears.

Few films are so beautiful or literate, and fewer have so well captured a mood. Although anti-Church messages, irreligion and the fear of death have always been with us, the combination of these messages with newly fashionable existentialism and Bergman’s starkly arresting iconography crystallized the then emerging but now everywhere evident crisis of faith and confidence which has become a contagion coursing across all the countries of the North. For Westerners now, as for Block, the spectre of extinction has become a guest at our every feast – and our countries are becoming as strange and unwelcoming as Bergman’s sickness-strewn Sweden. But the losing game is not yet played out, and if we choose to, there is time for us to kick over the board and change the rules.

This article first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Autumn 2008


Sent from Coventry


Fragments of angels, segments of saints, pieces of people, broken birds, refracted sunbeams, tumbled landscapes, jumbled inscriptions, unidentifiable blocks of time-worn colour—I looked for a long time at the medieval glass so carefully but meaninglessly re-set in Holy Trinity church beside the Cathedral at Coventry.

These disjecta membra of former didactic decorations spoke of the violent iconoclasm of the Puritan revolution, when God’s self-appointed gatekeepers had smashed irreplaceable works of art in an orgy of ignorant glee. But because this was Coventry, it also hinted at much more recent ordeals—the Luftwaffe’s rawly-remembered raids of 1940-2, which killed 1,250 Coventrians, laid waste what had been a well-preserved medieval city, and gave rise to the dark slang “coventration” to signify indiscriminate eradication.

Seen in conjunction with the 15th century “Doom” painting that stretches superbly across Holy Trinity’s chancel arch, with the just entering the Celestial City on Christ’s right and the damned going down to perdition on His left, while a bare-breasted Virgin intercedes in pity, the crazed glass seemed emblematic of deep dislocation—as if all of Coventry were a study in interrupted histories and partial reconstructions.

Dissatisfied with its own suffering, Coventry is twinned with Dresden, Warsaw and Volgograd (Stalingrad) and commemorates Hiroshima Day every August, while in the centre of the city is Lidice Place, to commemorate the mass murders that followed the 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich. Even the radical rebuilds of the Fifties and Sixties that were supposed to refocus the city on the future look troubled to modern eyes—blank, brutalist cliffs as impersonal, impractical and impermanent as they are unpopular.

And beyond the tortured compactness of the city a ghostly hinterland unrolls to all sides. The ninth largest city in England is also the furthest from the sea, landlocked “far in the country of Arden”—the legendary super-forest of central England in which a squirrel could proverbially leap from tree to tree for the whole of Warwickshire’s length.

In England, woods once symbolized freedom, and their fastnesses are peopled by anti-establishment avatars—wodewoses, Wild Hunts, Queen Titania, Puck, Robin Goodfellow, Robin Hood and his Merry Men holding out for the return of the King. Medieval masons carved “Green Men” into thousands of ostensibly Christian churches—demonic faces forming capitals and roof-bosses, their eyes darting danger while their mouths vomit swags of oak, as if the forest was trying to break into the brash new buildings of this abstracter idol from the East.

Of all these archetypal forests, Arden was one of the greatest. Elm has the country-name of “Warwickshire weed” and into recent times the shire bore the soubriquet—part topographical description, part tourist attractant—of “Leafy Warwick”. Arboreal imagery even features in local heraldry, with the overreaching Earls of Warwick adopting the image of a bear supporting a tree as their armorial crest. This sparsely populated territory was attractive to opportunists as well as outlaws, and in 1540 John Leland found

…the ground in Arden is muche enclosyd, plentifull of gres . . . and woode, but no great plenty of corn

But despite economic depredations, Arden long remained a bosky wilderness evoked piquantly by Warwickshire writers Michael Drayton in his 1622 patriotic epic Poly-Olbion and his more famous contemporary William Shakespeare:

Under the greenwood tree

Who loves to lie with me,

And turn his merry note

Unto the sweet bird’s throat.

Come hither.

Shakespeare set As You Like It in the Ardennes (the Celtic word-root “high place” is the same), but he clearly had in mind the southern fringes of Arden around his home town of Stratford-upon-Avon 20 miles south of Coventry. His mother’s maiden name was Arden, and she belonged to one of only three English families which can trace themselves back directly in the male line to the Anglo-Saxons (1)—so the name is freighted with more than remembrance of a vanished landscape. In the 17th century, Arden was still at least partly forested; the antiquary William Dugdale recorded ruefully, presumably from personal experience of frustrated forwanderings, “the ways are not easy to hit”. The countryside surrounding Coventry—the name tellingly derived from “Cofa’s tree”—is therefore central not just to English geography but also the English imagination; it rustles not just with phantasmagorical foliage but also unnumbered dead. (2)

Warwickshire has existed as an entity since the tenth century, but it is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1016, as under attack by Canute’s Danish marauders. The county claims to contain the centre of England at Meriden, between Birmingham and Coventry (3), and the Mercian dialect that was spoken in Warwickshire is the one from which standard English is mostly derived. It spawned the Anglo-Norman romance (circa 1300) of Guy of Warwick, who fought in the Holy Land, and killed the Dun Cow of Dunsmore (near Coventry) and a dragon in Northumberland so he could marry the Earl’s daughter—only to die in poverty outside the castle gates, but acknowledged by her before he died.

In 1312, Piers Gaveston, homosexual lover of Edward II, was murdered just outside Warwick, and in the following century the then Earl Richard Neville—“Warwick the Kingmaker”—played a history-changing role during the Wars of the Roses. For all these reasons and others, Henry James dubbed Warwickshire “unmitigated England”, but this city that has hummed for so long at the county’s core has been—to put it mildly—very much mitigated.

A nunnery was founded on the site by St. Osburga in the 8th century, whose memory is perpetuated in the name of a local Catholic school. “St. Augustine’s arm” was presented to an unspecified local church in 1022, which hints at ecclesiastical importance. Then in 1043 Leofric, Earl of Mercia and one of England’s three most powerful nobles, and his wife Countess Godiva (Godgifu) founded a Benedictine priory whose walls were “enriched and beautified with so much gold and silver that the walls seemed too narrow to contain it.” (4) The Domesday Book (1086) only mentions agricultural holdings at Coventry, although there must have been a town because it became a bishopric in 1102.

The statue of Lady Godiva in the centre of the city

Leofric’s black eagle helps hold up the city’s coat of arms, but his wife’s naked ride on a white horse to protest her husband’s oppressive taxation of the poor has become one of the great traditionary tales of the Middle Ages. Whether it really happened is immaterial, because Godiva embodies ancient attributes and imagery and, like Boudicca before her, became a potent symbol of self-sacrifice and the liberties of the English. Roger of Wendover, whose Flores Historiarum is the earliest account (around 1230), believed the ride had occurred and in any case obviously enjoyed visualizing it:

The Countess, beloved of God, loosed her hair and let down her tresses, which covered the whole of her body like a veil, and then, mounting her horse and attended by two knights, she rode through the marketplace without being seen, except her fair legs, and having completed the journey, she returned with gladness to her astonished husband and obtained of him what she had asked.

In his treatment of the legend, Tennyson evoked the shuttered but watchful town with its frowning gables and worked in the moralistic accretion of the tempted tailor “Peeping Tom”:

And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,
The fatal byword of all years to come,
Boring a little auger-hole in fear,
Peep’d—but his eyes, before they had their will,
Were shrivel’d into darkness in his head,
And dropt before him.

In Hertford Street there is an early 19th century head and shoulders effigy supposedly of Tom, a writhing and agonized image, its mouth open as if shouting in pain, set incongruously on a modern wall facing a newsagents with the appropriate name of Peeping Tom News.

While successive earls made war on successive kings, economic life carried on. There were a dozen mills by the 12th century powered by the River Sherbourne that passes west to east through the basin of the city on its way to the Avon—now mostly gurgling sadly underground, although I found one exposed segment near Spon End that bursts with greenery, damselflies and yellow wagtails, crossed by a graceful 1850s iron bridge.

Wealthy trade guilds funded the building of Holy Trinity, St Michael’s (which became the Cathedral), St John the Baptist’s, Christchurch and St. Mary’s Guildhall. They sponsored the Coventry Mysteries, a cycle of miracle plays acted at Coventry for two centuries until suppressed by devout killjoys in 1591. The Pageant of the Shearsmen and Tailors, which recalled Herod’s “Massacre of the Innocents”, is the source of the Coventry Carol, one of the earliest extant pieces of English music, a lovely evocation of a mother’s love for her endangered infant:

Lully, lullay, Thou little tiny Child,

Bye, bye, lully, lullay.

The 13th century saw disputes between the “Prior’s Half” and the “Earl’s Half” of Coventry for control of the wool trade. (The expression “true blue” comes from the non-fading qualities of Coventry thread. In Michael Drayton’s 1593 Shepherd’s Garland, the pastoral hero wears “breech of Cointree blue” to symbolize his steadfastness.) In 1345, Coventry was freed from religious control to become the county’s first free city. The new Corporation promptly erected city walls in the local red sandstone—a small stretch of which still stand beside the Swanswell Gate, their eroded evocativeness marred by a recent foot-bridge that leaps arrogantly over, a wonder in structural steel sadly disfigured by blue glass panels.

The Bablake Free School for Boys was founded in the reign of Queen Isabella and, according to a believable tradition, endowed by an ironmonger who had ordered steel from Spain, but was sent by mistake a vastly more valuable cargo of cochineal and silver.

Chesleymore Manor House

Isabella’s grandson (Richard the Lionheart’s son) Edward, nicknamed the “Black Prince” because of his black cuirass, stayed frequently in Cheylesmore Manor House, part of which survives as the city’s register office, a touching relic unhappily blocked in by ugly offices and a car park, where old confetti swirls sadly around in eddies of exhaust from New Union Street nearby. The rooms that once housed princes of the blood royal are heaped with teetering boxes of stationery and broken computers. Yet so proud was the city once of the connection with the hero of Crecy that its motto is still Camera Principis (“chamber of the prince”) and Edward’s heraldic “cat-a-mountain” surmounts the city arms.

In the 15th century, Coventry acquired county status and even held parliaments—the Parliamentum Indoctorum in 1404, the “lack-learning parliament” which lawyers were forbidden to attend, and the Parliamentum Diabolicum of 1459, when the man who would become Edward IV two years afterwards was attainted.

Coventry’s loyalty to the Lancastrian cause persuaded Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou to set up court in the city during the Wars of the Roses—her strategic “secret harbour”, where her husband could manage the wars while she managed his mental breakdowns. Their sojourn here is marked by a stupendous piece of tapestry made in Tournai between 1495 and 1500 that still hangs on the wall for which it was designed in St. Mary’s Guildhall. Columns stitched in the tapestry align with real stone transoms behind, separating saints, symbols, monarchs and courtiers into six compartments patterned with interleaving diamonds, knots and leaves.

The Guildhall is one of England’s most miraculous medieval survivals, considering that is just a few feet away from the blasted Cathedral. When you go through its arched gateway, see the tapestry for the first time, stand in the Ante Room with its disturbingly sloping floor or look out of a leaded window into its courtyard you could be in Bavaria or Saxony. The Great Hall with its tapestry and oaken angels has seen three King Henrys and even played a joke on James II, who was splashed with custard when his table collapsed during a banquet. In an oriel window bay there is a 19th century plaster statue of Godiva being disapproved of by 16th century stone saints but surveyed with friendlier interest by a medieval glass man re-set in a strategic position, whose hand appears to be reaching out to take liberties.

The city dwindled and by 1520 the population had more than halved. Dissolution of the monasteries removed the principal employers, and John Leland recorded plangently, “The glory of the city decayeth”. Coventry had also long been a locus of Lollardism and this led to public burnings of those residents found guilty of the atrocious crime of having the scriptures in a language they could understand. Coventrians still take gloomy pride in this latitudinarian legacy.

Ironically, Warwickshire later developed a reputation for Catholic recusancy. Robert Catesby was an Arden as well as an ardent man, and in 1583 Edward Arden—distantly related to Shakespeare’s mother—was executed for plotting against Elizabeth I. Mary Queen of Scots killed time in Coventry in 1569 in comfortable confinement while Elizabeth wondered what to do with her inconveniently Catholic cousin.

Almshouses for the elderly poor were founded during the 16th century, and two still function in the buildings in which they were founded—Bond’s Hospital and Ford’s Hospital. Other small patches of the Middle Ages have also survived, especially in Spon Street where there are facing rows of handsome shops and houses supported by frames of local oak, but as everywhere in Coventry these sit uneasily with the postwar period’s often hideous heritage. These sturdy buildings, once so workaday with their large families and weavers’ lofts, now give room to prissier businesses—boutiques, wedding planners, financial consultants—while just behind them smile the broken teeth of Sixties office blocks.

In the Civil War Coventry sided with Parliament, and even the city’s women helped to fill in quarries to avoid them being used as cover by Cavaliers:

[T]hey assembled in companies, and marched in military array, with mattocks and spades, headed by an Amazon who carried an Herculean club on her shoulders (5)

With civic sinews bolstered by such sisters, in 1642 the city refused admittance to Charles I. The Coventrians treated Royalist prisoners of war so rudely that “being sent to Coventry” passed into the language as shorthand for being neglected (6). The prisoners were kept in St John the Baptist church, whose banked-up graveyard leans conveniently on the walls of Bond’s Hospital. Bulbs burn in busy rooms that abut tombs topping centuries of Coventrians. Coventry paid for its democratic zeal after the Restoration, when Charles II cast down the city walls so they could never again be held against a King.

Coventry re-built its reputation for skilful workmanship and by the 18th century it had become a centre for silk weaving and clockmaking. Textiles again became economically important, and the population more than quadrupled over the 19th century. There was a burgeoning middle-class, whose lives and modern mores were captured by Mary Ann Evans—better known as George Eliot. (Coventry is thought to have been the model for Middlemarch.)

Engineering came because of good coal and connections (just 95 miles to London, and convenient for Birmingham, Manchester, Leicester, Liverpool, Wales and Ireland). The city was reamalgamated into its historic county (in 1974, it was taken out again and crammed against the locals’ will into the insipid “West Midlands”.) Coventry became a proto-Silicon Valley, the ideal place for local boy James Starley to make his patented Rover Safety Bicycle to replace the more dangerous penny-farthing. His nephew then designed motorbikes and automobiles under the brand name Rover. He rapidly had rivals, ranging from the Great Horseless Carriage Co. to more serious contenders like Humber, Riley, Standard, Triumph, Daimler and Jaguar.

Coventry became Car City, clever with its hands, in love with wheels, dependent upon and devoted to rapid transit, with the 20th century even throwing up reports of spectral coaches and trucks to reflect modern superstitions, replacing the monks and nuns of the pre-engine past. Even in the pleasantest suburbs, or in attractive Green Belt meadows, one can always hear vehicles passing and re-passing endlessly on the ring-roads, roundabouts, bypasses and motorways. Because of the cars, there came aircraft and armaments factories—and because of them the Luftwaffe, dropping death and disaster on the high-tech city as the Royal Air Force would soon do in its turn on equally lovely cities in Germany.

Frank Whittle gazes into a bright future

An archetypal clever Coventrian was jet pioneer Frank Whittle, born in the suburb of Earlsdon in 1907 and captivated by seeing a plane on Hearsall Common in 1916. His bronze shades its eyes with an over-long arm below the Whittle Arch—a huge aluminium X in front of the Transport Museum, a suitable place to reflect on British car manufacturing then and now. Cars are still made here, but the last fully Coventry-made cars were the London black cabs made by LTI, who in March 2010 outsourced manufacturing to China. The last major machine tool manufacturer was also foreign-owned and went out with a bang—Matrix Churchill, secretly belonging to the Iraqi government, which was attempting to supply a “supergun” to Saddam Hussein notwithstanding UK sanctions.

There was a final flurry of hopeful innovation during the short-lived “New Elizabethan” period, which lasted for about a decade until the early 1960s—a period in which romanticists likened the young Queen to her iconic predecessor and predicted a similar efflorescence of Englishness, informed by technology taught in bright new schools just as the earlier Elizabethans had been informed by Reformed theology preached in clear-glassed churches.

Modern Coventry is a monument to their misplaced idealism. There is a list of the Redevelopment Committee on a building at Broadgate House, the first major building of the redevelopment, opened in 1953. It is slightly surreal to read Anglo-Saxon titles like Alderman and unvarnished surnames like Grindlay, Swain and Binks affixed to a dank office that has not resisted time half so well as Cheylesmore—and to imagine what utopian will o’ the wisp took hold of all these bowler-hatted Binkses. They were led by Donald Gibson, CBE, visionary author of the “Gibson Plan”, who combined the roles of Chief Architect and Planning Officer in what could be construed as a conflict of interest. Probably he saw himself as a chummy “Chris” Wren for the Britain of the beatniks.

The Council had been planning massive redevelopment even in the 1930s, and the Mayor said on the morning after the first raid:

We have always wanted a site for a new civic centre, and now we have it

Gibson’s chief innovation was to introduce large pedestrian precincts with cars diverted onto an inner ring road, which may make central Coventry more walkable but also encircles the centre in an unwelcoming envelope of steel railings, stained concrete and charging cars, with flyover supports co-opted for cringeworthy artworks and messages of solidarity from Tito’s Belgrade.

Gibson wanted to remove most of the surviving old buildings, leaving little except Coventry’s landmark “Three Spires”—but some of these were saved because of protests, doubtless to Gibson’s disgust at such sentimentality.

The compromise city is full of surprises and strange juxtapositions, with sudden views of huge Perpendicular spires along half-timbered and sandstone streets—these giving way without warning onto motorized mayhem or raddled rectangles of flaking concrete and tinted glass. The apparent attitude of the redevelopers reminded me of the name of a house I had noticed out in the suburbs—“Itlldo”.

An early Sixties film shown in the city museum shows BBC journalist Raymond Baxter interviewing one of these planners, perhaps Gibson himself—a stocky man in brown three-piece suit with a heavy moustache, like an Ealing Studios character actor. The film is a relic in itself, with its well-dressed and well-spoken participants looking at photos of new and nasty edifices while they shake their heads at the stuffiness of those “homesick for the overcrowded medieval city they knew” and nod approvingly at those who “thinking of their children, and the future, will say ‘It’s smashing!’” The results were indeed “smashing”, although not always in the way intended.

Some of Gibson’s schemes are now being put into reverse as the city undergoes another renovation, and some of this will be an improvement—because the council consulted the public, an approach the opposite of that which prevailed in the 1950s and 60s, when it was assumed that the man from Whitehall really did know best. The best idea is the re-opening of stretches of the Sherbourne right in the middle of the city. It is pleasant to think of the wrecking ball as possible liberator.

One building that will not be altered is Coventry’s most famous landmark—the Grade 1 listed St. Michael’s Cathedral, re-imagined by Sir Basil Spence to win a 1951 competition, filled with the products of some of the period’s finest craftsmen and consecrated in 1962 to the strains of Benjamin Britten’s specially-commissioned War Requiem.

Spence’s bold conception was to leave the 14th century shell standing as its own grave-marker, and build beside it at right angles a whole new cathedral, connected to its predecessor by a concrete canopy. This structural syncretism is not wholly successful, but the ensemble is both evocative of the period and extremely atmospheric. Occasionally, the local newspaper even carries stories of impressionable visitors who say they have heard the droning of aircraft over the old building—memories of the first great raid of 14 November 1940, which the Germans called with gallows humour “Operation Moonlight Sonata”—yet more motorized ghosts to make the city twitch and grumble in its sleep.

Post-modern pilgrims enter through the western porch into the roofless skeleton of the old St Michael’s, with the miraculously surviving tower rising up and up—at 300 feet “a sight to make one’s eyeballs turn about”, as John Russell put it in his 1942 Shakespeare’s Country, repining for this place “where the air is singed with the sudden denial of adoration”. All around are imprints of calcined chapels, and the glassless ghosts of windows—just enough to give some idea of what was lost. Office workers eat lunches on benches and sparrows hop around in hope as school field trippers roam through the remains on their way to the Brave New future as visualized by Sir Basil.

Coventry Cathedral, detail

If we follow them, we come into what feels like a 1980s conference centre, then past a desk where a cashier relieves each visitor of £7, and an indeterminate space of stacked chairs and vestment lockers. It is an inauspicious introduction, but then you climb stairs, passing the poignant crucifix of charred roof timbers that was placed defiantly on the high altar the morning after Moonlight Sonata, and pass into a 270 foot by 80 foot rectangle, crepuscular even by cathedral standards. The darkness is caused by the ‘saw-tooth’ shape of the walls and the abstract stained glass which transmutes even the strongest sun into subdued pulses and mood-zones. But at different times of day it is brighter, because almost the entire south wall, the one that looks out onto the ruins, is a huge window, the Screen of Saints and Angels, with engraved figures by John Hutton. With their ever changing background of sun and cloud beyond the old walls, these are ethereal but unconventional representations of heavenly beings, which the artist has made no attempt to render beautiful. With their empty eyes, gnarled hands and knuckles, and the sky shifting through them, they are striking and slightly troubling—ideal angels for an age of angst.

Chapel of Gethsemane, Coventry Cathedral

Facing them is the 75 foot high tapestry of “Christ in Glory” by Graham Sutherland that fills the opposite wall, a tiny and undifferentiated man standing straight but insignificant between Jesus’ colossal feet. Some of the fittings are bland or ugly, almost like shop fittings, but they are redeemed by reminders of suffering, like the iron “Crown of Thorns” made by the Royal Engineers that frames a giant silver-winged angel in the Chapel of Gethsemane. There are altar cloths embroidered with the names of World War 2 battles and thick books of remembrance, and the centerpiece on the High Altar has as its centerpiece a cross made of 15th century nails from the bombed building. Coventry is the centre of a global network called Communities of the Cross of Nails, all 160 of which display a cross made of old nails from Coventry—and whenever the Royal Navy has an HMS Coventry it carries an identical cross. The last ship of this name was sunk during the Falklands War, and Navy divers went down especially to salvage the cross—which has since been seconded to HMS Diamond, a ship with links to the city.

For a building concerned with conciliation, outside on the east wall there is a surprisingly martial touch in Jacob Epstein’s large 1958 bronze of St Michael standing skinny but strong, with a giant spear in his clenched fist and trampling down the naked and cloven-footed Lucifer.

Like their city, Coventrians themselves have also been in a state of flux in their recent history. In a slightly preposterous but revealing 1968 book called British Tastes, advertising agent D. Elliston Allen takes time out from discussing the beer-drinking habits of the north-east and the body-shapes of women in the Home Counties to remark,

In going out today into the streets of any central Midland town or city, the first reaction of any normally perceptive person can hardly fail to be one of momentary surprise, even shock. Almost everyone, it seems, looks remarkably similar.

If that was true then—he was relying largely on a 19th century book called Races of Britain, unlikely source material for an advertising executive even then—it is much less true now. Thanks first to industrial demand and more recently two universities (plus a higher birthrate) out of a total population of around 310,000 the city has an estimated ethnic minority population of over 25%—although some of these are members of easily assimilable white minorities. Coventry has a relatively low black population (just over 3%) and fewer Muslims than has become usual in English cities. Rather surprisingly, the largest non-Christian religion is Sikhism and I saw a Sikh road-mending crew, elderly men with long wagging beards and yellow turbans to complement their fluorescent safety tabards—although such anecdotal evidence is even less scientific than D. Elliston Allen’s saloon-bar sociology. It is not only bombs or wrecking balls that have changed the city; in a way, Coventry is all of England condensed and speeded up.

An atypical Coventrian was Philip Larkin, born here in 1922, whose father somehow rose to become City Treasurer, despite combining manic depression with literary sensitivity and an admiration for Hitler. The Larkins’ commodious family house in Manor Road (that name itself evoking vanished buildings and vanquished orders) was demolished in the 1960s to make way for some road ‘improvement’, and such casual vandalism could have coloured the poet’s controversial politics.

In “I Remember, I Remember”, he passes through Coventry in 1955 for the first time in years, on a train “coming up England by a different line”. At the station:

I leant far out, and squinnied for a sign
That this was still the town that had been ‘mine’
So long, but found I wasn’t even clear
Which side was which . . .

As the Binkses continued their ruthless work, in their way as zealous as the Luftwaffe or the Puritans, Larkin would probably have found it even harder to know “which side was which”. But then, as now, all such ‘judgemental’, ‘conservative’, ‘classist’, ‘reactionary’ concerns are generally dismissed as impossible, High Tory, quasi-fascistic fantasies of crowd control and ‘turning back the clock’.

Larkin’s poem ends on notes of self-deprecation and acceptance, with him settling back in his seat as the train pulls out of Coventry, smiling as he brushes off the subject with the mock-flippant line—

Nothing, like something, happens anywhere

The “nothing” Larkin pretended to discount was an intense early life lived in places now largely vanished, and that is also Coventry’s special “nothing”—a history that is simultaneously unique to the place and representative of the whole of England. Despite all the travails of her history, despite the Puritans, planes, planners, and other progressives, Coventry has narrowly succeeded in holding onto some segments of herself—precious particular pieces, a sense of being somewhere rather than just an abandoned “anywhere”.

Photos by the author


1. According to James Lees-Milne in the 18th edition of Burke’s Peerage, vol 1

2. Some historians have disputed the notion of huge expanses of unbroken ancient forest, pointing out that human habitation in Warwickshire go back at least 5,000 years and therefore there must have been extensive clearance early on. See, for example Terry Slater, The History of Warwickshire(1981). There is a commendable project to reunite central England’s relict tracts of forest with a scheme called the National Forest

3. Unhappily for Warwickshire loyalists, satellite mapping has identified the real centre of England as being near Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire

4. William of Malmesbury, writing circa 1130

5. Samuel Lewis, Topographical Dictionary of England, 1840

6. It has been surmised that the phrase, like so many others, has Shakepearean origins—cf. Falstaff on his scruffy foot-soldiers: “I’ll not march through Coventry with them, that’s flat” (Henry IV, Part 1)


Les Visiteurs – The ghosts who came as guests

Les Visiteurs – The ghosts who came as guests

If a film made as recently as 1993 can be said to be a ‘classic’, Les Visiteurs, the highest-grossing French-made film to date, is a classic in the making.

Directed by Jean-Marie Poiré, who is a scion of a French media dynasty, Les Visiteurs was co-written by him and Christian Clavier. The film starts in the France of 1123. A French knight, Godefroy de Papincourt, the Comte de Montmirail (played by “Jean Reno”, who is incidentally a Spaniard, Don Juan Moreno y Jederique Jimenez, and a friend of Nicolas Sarkozy – perhaps a hint of where his political sympathies may lie) saves the French king in battle. He is rewarded by being granted the hand in marriage of the beautiful Lady Frénégonde (Valérie Lemercier). But he is drugged by a witch, and accidentally shoots Lady Frénégonde’s father – after which, understandably enough, she declines to marry him. In desperation, he consults a sorcerer, who says he can send de Papincourt back in time to stop the fatal arrow. But the sorcerer makes a mistake, and instead sends de Papincourt and his squire, Jacquasse (played by Clavier) forward into the twentieth century.

This signals a rapid-fire series of vulgar, vastly amusing encounters with cars, fast-food ‘restaurants’, telephones, toilets, toothpaste, cling-film and light fittings – all of which prove that the French have just as much of a genius for slapstick as for Molièresque wit. One reviewer described the film justly as

…a lunatic blend of Time Bandits, Tati and Benny Hill

Accompanying the visual jokes, there are frantic encounters with modern French people a black postman (who is set upon immediately as a suspected Moor), clerics, policemen, the incompetent sorceror’s descendant and both Montmirail’s and Jacquasse’s own heirs. Understandably regarded as a dangerous madman by all the people he encounters (except, eventually, by his present-day relative, Béatrice de Montmirail, also played by Valérie Lemercier), Montmirail is desperate to escape from what he sees as an ugly and diminished future. He is also outraged to discover that the family castle is now a luxury hotel owned by Jacquard, a superficially gentrified descendant of Jacquasse (also played by Clavier).

Jacquasse, by contrast, finds the new world beguiling, and starts to realize the freedom he may have if he can stay. After many hilarious vicissitudes, eventually the Comte succeeds in finding his way back to the past – but inadvertently takes with him an unconscious Jacquard instead of the calculating Jacquasse. The final scene shows a frightened and bewildered Jaquard awakening in a dirty puddle back in 1123. A follow-up film, Les Visiteurs II (1998), was poorly-received, while an American version (Just Visiting, 2001) was universally panned.

Les Visiteurs works as well as it does not just because of the sparkling script and the sheer energy of all concerned, but because of the superb acting of the two male leads. Jean Reno, tall, dignified and suitably tonsured, is the very model of a medieval knight; one has seen hundreds of marble faces like his, staring up at chancel ceilings all across Europe, hands joined in perpetual marmoreal supplication, small stone dogs sleeping forever at their pointed feet, their Lady Frénégondes lying beside, frozen in their wimpled beauty.

Christian Clavier, on the other hand, is the stereotypical medieval peasant – a figure out of a Brueghel painting, small, dark, squat, snub-nosed and shrewd – onto whose essentially bucolic nature his more economically successful descendant has grafted on a veneer of sophistication and frantic snobbery (starting with his bowdlerisation of an obviously unhelpful surname) to disguise his lack of social surety. Clavier’s puzzled delight, as Jaquasse, in ‘replying’ to a telephone and pulling light fittings off walls, is complemented by Clavier’s amazed horror, as Jacquard, in coping with these manic forces which have erupted into his immaculate, brittle world.

While the visitors from 1123 are treated as objects of fun because of their ignorance of technology and their dirtiness (and the king for his lustfulness), the people of 1993 are at least equally the targets. With the partial exception of Béatrice de Montmirail, in whose veins some of the de Papincourt blood still flows and who can therefore respond partly intuitively (an interestingly hereditarian, conservative position) the men and women of 1993 are portrayed as neurotic, panicky, incapable and snobbish. These are people who think almost entirely of material things, and for whom everything is short term and contingent. They have little or no concept of continuity, of honour or of dignity. Their frenetic, high-pitched, hygienic, aimless lives are contrasted constantly with the time-travellers’ calm self-possession and capability, even when confronted by fearsome horseless chariots or being set upon by a gang of truncheon-wielding policemen.

For the people of 1993, children are seen as a kind of dispensable (and expensive) toy, whereas for the Comte, they are he himself, a vital link in a centuries-long chain stretching from the beginning of the world into an unsettling tomorrow. They give meaning to his life, and lend urgent impetus to his desire to travel back in time to marry, and so sow the seeds that eight centuries hence will flower into two small, sleeping tow-headed boys. Looking at his distant descendants, he softens and murmurs, “Ah, the lineage! The lineage!” The watching Béatrice is clearly jolted into an acuter consciousness of her children as bearers of a grand name, an ancient noble tradition, and a physical link with her own and her country’s past. Through Valérie Lemercier’s fine expressiveness, it is made abundantly clear that whatever happens, she will always view her children differently as a result of the visit of her unhygienic, unforgettable progenitor. Just as the Comte’s way back to the twelfth century is eventually found in a forgotten part of the former castle, so previous centuries loom behind our short and shallow lives, dark and secret passages behind the colourful arras.

This first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Winter 2007. Photo by Derek Turner


The Last Leopard – change and permanence in a haunted landscape

The Last Leopard – change and permanence in a haunted landscape

The Last Leopard– A Life of Giovanni Tomasi di Lampedusa

David Gilmour, Eland, London, 2007, pb, 27pps, £12.99

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was the last hereditary Prince of Lampedusa, a barren, seven-mile long island situated between Malta and the African coast but belonging to Italy – the last in a line of nobility extending back into Roman and Byzantine myth, surfacing clearly in Tuscany in the 12th century and one branch gradually migrating southwards, until it became established in Sicily in the late 16th century as barons of Montechiaro, dukes of Palma and princes of Lampedusa.

Over the sun-heavy centuries, the Sicilian Tomasis were noted consistently for their gloomy religious devotion, unworldliness and distaste for ostentation, except a certain pride in the family name and its crest of a rampant leopard. So strong was their religious devotion that the family almost became extinct many times, with many of its younger members opting to become priests or nuns (although Lampedusa’s great-grandfather was sufficiently irreligious to change the date of Easter one year when it was inconvenient for his household, and Giuseppe was an agnostic). So impractical were they that after the abolition of feudalism in 1812, successive Tomasi generations lived in increasingly straitened circumstances, without even its most intelligent representatives drawing the obvious conclusions and trying to earn some money.

But it is probably just as well that the last Lampedusa was as impractical as his forebears, because otherwise we might never have had The Leopard, his magnificent fictional evocation of the last days of the 630 year old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, rapidly being absorbed into the new Kingdom of Italy, as nationalism, egalitarianism and industrialism swept down from northern Europe, heralded by Garibaldi’s red-shirted democrats, the unsettling ideas accompanied by shabby compromises and shabbier functionaries. “We were the leopards, the lions”, says the novel’s chief protagonist, Don Fabrizio Salina.

Those who’ll take our places will be little jackals, hyenas.

The book was made into a deservedly famous 1963 film by Luchino Visconti, whose professed Marxism did not preclude strong sympathy for history’s Salinas, those who are left behind while great tides swirl around them. This film is now probably more often viewed than the book is read – yet it is a worthy introduction to Lampedusa’s evergreen book.

This biography, which is as deftly written, in its way, as The Leopard itself, and covers all the hoped-for ground thoroughly, will also help us to remember the perennial question of how sensitive and cultured men and women can cope (or fail to cope) with coarser times. In David Gilmour, Lampedusa has the elegant and cultivated biographer he deserves. Gilmour has teased out a rich and compelling life from the sparse details of the largely uneventful existence of a very private man, unearthing forgotten facts as he once literally unearthed family belongings and correspondence from the never-cleared ruins of the Palazzo Lampedusa as late as 1985.

After army service and some travel, for most of the rest of his life Lampedusa was of retiring disposition, spending his days reading in a Palermo café, and his evenings reading to or being read to by his Latvian princess wife, the distantly fond couple from opposite ends of Europe communicating morsels of their common civilization in a variety of languages. In conversation with other intellectuals, the short man with protuberant eyes tended to be quiet and self-effacing. During his life, he published merely a few articles in an obscure literary journal, and the MS of The Leopard was refused publication just a few days before he died, to his obvious chagrin.

Lampedusa was a devotee of Keats, and disliked the old Quarterly Review for what he called its “angelcide” of the poet. Yet he was also a strong admirer of Stendhal and Jane Austen, because of their lack of demonstrativeness and magra (lean) language, and sought to model his writing on their examples. Thankfully, he found his own style instead, and gave us a richly satisfying and inexpressibly Sicilian book that manages to be both classical and elegiac, that evokes a whole continent of satyrs cavorting with saints, manicured landscapes of urns and ha-has, coats-of- arms carved centuries ago into classical cornices, the smell of leather-bound books, men in tweeds and women in dresses, and panting spaniels lying under dolphin-ended marble benches in lost, sunlit gardens. He succeeded in his aim of being “more implicit than explicit”, as Gilmour puts it – and pulling aside a dust-heavy curtain to reveal a freeze-framed universe and a cynical conservative sensibility through scintillating dialogue and tightly-controlled descriptive details.

Upon publication in 1958, The Leopard was greeted with hostility by two usually differing camps – the Catholic church, which disliked its religious scepticism, and those newly rampant beasts in the Italian bestiary, the Marxist left, who disliked the author’s family background, real or imagined political views and The Leopard’s lack of “commitment”. Lampedusa, opines Gilmour, was always

…too sceptical and too disillusioned to be a genuine democrat or a liberal

– at least in the Italian context (he admired the British political system, but thought such a system could never work in a country which so loved the grandiloquence of opera).

But Lampedusa had many influential defenders, including big Italian guns like Luigi Barzini and Giorgio Bassani (whose 1962 Garden of the Finzi-Continis is also about mortality and the mercilessness of modernity). In any case, Lampedusa was probably destined to be, as Pietro Cetati put it in Le Monde earlier this year,

…le prince du crépuscule né dans un monde a l’agonie.

Quite apart from the family tendency towards melancholia, Lampedusa had a pervasive cynicism which made him suspect hidden motives in human actions, an abiding sense of personal failure and a deep well of loneliness. Much of his childhood was spent playing alone in the vast Palazzo Lampedusa in Palermo,

…a real kingdom for a boy alone, a kingdom either empty or sparsely populated by figures uniformly well-disposed

as he would recall. He lived in the house – in the same bedroom – until it was finally destroyed by Allied bombing in 1943 (he refused to speak for three days after it was destroyed).

Beyond the gates of the atmospheric Palazzo, where every room told a family story, was an area “crawling with hovels and wretchedness”, and the whole seething expanse of Palermo, with its potholed streets lined with scabrous townhouses, and blackened churches with Norman mosaics and baroque cartouches supported by leaping skeletons, its puppet theatres where Rolando still fought every night at Roncesvalles, and below street level, its Capuchin catacombs, where slack- jawed, rotting little girls in rotting communion dresses holding rotting posies line the walls beside their mummified mothers, and military uniforms and civic sashes fade into sere and colourless obscurity below eye-sockets that once flashed with intelligence (as Lampedusa’s eyes look warily out at us from the photographs in Gilmour’s book). As Lampedusa’s cousin Fulco di Verdura once wrote,

Death is at home in Sicily…[Sicilians are familiar] with the idea of death from early childhood.

And beyond Palermo, there was the whole time- and weather-blasted expanse of Sicily, where there were other dwindling Tomasi possessions (such as the beloved country estate of Santa Margherita, sold by his socialist uncle to pay off debts) – the whole island a crossroads and quicksand of cultures – the Sicanians, Siceli, Cretans, Myceneans, Athenians, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Goths, Byzantines, Saracens, Normans, Hohenstaufens, French, Aragonese, Spanish Bourbons all adding something, but all failing really to change anything, all being ultimately defeated by the climate, by local lassitude, obstinacy, sensuality and clannishness. More recently, Italy had gained nothing from her sacrifices of the world wars, Mussolini had been unable to effect lasting change (he had temporarily suppressed the Mafia, but they had returned after 1943) and the promises made by the Marxists were proving to be just as illusory as those made by all those others who had come ashore filled with grand plans. And Sicily was only one small part of a continent shattered by war (Lampedusa’s wife lost everything she possessed after 1945).

In such circumstances, the themes of loss and the impossibility of reform were almost inescapable. But paradoxically enough, Lampedusa’s understated genius has ensured that his family and his Sicily will ‘live’ on for generations to come. This would have pleased him. For Lampedusa, said his adopted son, writing was a means of avoiding extinction, and his book “a reconciliation between life and death”. Today, it is not just Sicilian aristocrats who need such a reconciliation, but all of history- haunted and increasingly history-hating Europe.

This review first appeared in the Quarterly Review in Autumn 2007. First photo by Derek Turner


Apocalypse Now – War in the era of love and peace

Apocalypse Now – War in the era of love and peace

The Vietnam War has been the inspiration for several fine films, but the best-known (and arguably the best) is probably Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Academy, Palme D’Or and Golden Globe-winning Apocalypse Now (the best version of which is 2001’s Apocalypse Now Redux). The film’s status was recognized in 2000, when it was selected by the US Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Apocalypse is one of the great cinematic experiences for all who have ever doubted the cults of progress; or wondered about the durability of civilization.

The production of Apocalypse was notoriously difficult and protracted (leading one commentator to ask “Apocalypse When?”), running grossly over budget—which in retrospect seems curiously appropriate for a film of its theme and scope. Martin Sheen plays Benjamin L. Willard, a traumatized but proficient US Special Forces captain. We meet him first in a seedy Saigon hotel, where he has been spending his R&R time getting drunk (during the filming, Sheen was a self-described alcoholic, and also suffered a near-fatal heart attack), in a vain attempt to erase the horrific images that are playing on constant loop in his head—women screaming in perpetuity, men forever falling dead, forests and villages eternally erupting in napalm Technicolor. He is dragged forcibly back into the present for another unorthodox, unacknowledged mission.

Colonel Walter E Kurtz (Marlon Brando) is a brilliant soldier who has gone permanently AWOL, not just from the US military but also from conventional morality, secreting himself in the remote jungle on the wrong side of the Cambodian border with a troop of fanatically loyal soldiers who apparently treat him as a demi-God. Like Conrad’s original (Apocalypse Now is based loosely on Heart of Darkness), Kurtz has set himself up as an absolutist arbiter, a man-who-would-be-king, earning a reputation for casual cruelty that has shocked even the Pentagon. The military establishment and the CIA have decided that Kurtz has become a liability and they want him “terminated with extreme prejudice.” A previously dispatched assassin has apparently thrown in his lot with Kurtz, so it is up to Willard to take a Navy boat up the Nung River into danger from more than just the Viet Cong. While Willard is receiving his orders, the camera dwells for a moment on a recent newspaper, with headlines about Charles Manson.

As they set off, the film’s soundtrack is The Doors’ song The End, which is reprised at the climax. And it is the end—the end of seeming normalcy, as the little boat chugs gallantly upstream into a maelstrom of savagery, to the incongruous soundtrack of the Rolling Stones and the rich aroma of cannabis. The boat has a beautifully realized crew of highly charged men of different ages, backgrounds and temperaments. There are two black men, George “Chief” Phillips (Albert Hall), the capable and conventional launch captain, and Tyrone “Mr. Clean” Miller (Laurence Fishburne), an irritatingly hyperactive 17 year old from the Bronx whom Phillips seeks vainly to protect. There is also Engineman Jay Hicks (Frederic Forrest), a chef from New Orleans, a fizzing bundle of nervous energy who seems to be always on the verge of breakdown, and Lance B. Johnson (Sam Bottoms), in peacetime a championship surfer, superficially more phlegmatic but like the rest of the crew concealing unsuspected depths and shallows of personality.

As they proceed, between alternately helicopter-strafed or tree-hung banks full of brooding malice (or, perhaps even worse, nothing but the indifferent emptiness of never disturbed forest), they bicker, remonstrate, jostle and joke inside and between themselves, ferreting out each other’s weak spots and plumbing each other’s depths, at times of danger finding a short-term solidarity, temporarily united against a uniformly dangerous country. The tiny boat is an ampoule of all America, in all its late Sixties existential confusion, alternately joining in with the wider military effort, or absorbedly pursuing its own murderous mission against a lush stage set of less focused murderousness.

The crew encounter others pursuing their own agendas, most notably Robert Duvall’s compelling Colonel Kilgore of an elite regiment, a charismatic, dynamic, effective officer adored by his men as much for his flamboyance (Stetson hat, surfboard always at the ready, The Ride of the Valkyries playing over loudspeakers as the choppers power in towards “Charlie” from out of the sun) as for his genuine concern with his soldiers’ welfare. (The Philippine Air Force helicopters used for filming were periodically taken off-set by President Marcos to deal with real-life rebels.) Kilgore is obviously off-base—“I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” he exults famously. “It smells like victory.”

Apart from Kilgore, there is also the nameless black soldier at an advanced US outpost, who alone amongst the pot-smoking GIs, the raucous, vacuous broadcast pop music, the pointless explosions and the blind machine-gunning into the vigilant darkness, has got control of himself—coolly placing his rifle grenades in just the right place, to silence satisfactorily taunting VC interlopers. There are the impresarios from States-side, who have shipped in American women to entertain the testosterone-laden troops and who use them essentially as prostitutes to obtain fuel and other favours from the military. And then there are the tough French colonialists, an islet of fine linen, imported wine and clean fingernails under the encroaching trees, grimly holding onto their ancestral plantations less for financial or even family reasons than as a means of forgetting the national and racial humiliation of Dien Bien Phu.

In times of total war, we are shown, all morals and all modes of life are thrown into permanent confusion. All the various combatants are at least slightly crazed—cauterized by circumstances none of them caused, trapped in a hellish here-and-now without point, and without any hope of “victory” (whatever that might mean). Their virtues—dutifulness, courage, self-reliance—are at odds with the new Soixante-huitard West. As he meets and marvels at these people, all focused but yet all also somehow adrift, Willard gradually realizes that he and they and even Kurtz have more in common than he would like to think. They are all susceptible to a Lord of the Flies-like reversion to the prehistoric, pre-moral mean, where only might can ever be indubitably right, and that only until something even mightier comes along. The launch’s journey towards the tree-concealed source of the Nung (the river’s monosyllabic name itself sounding like a primordial forest demon) is a journey into the tangled human past. Kurtz’s UDI is merely the logical conclusion of a process that is utterly without logic or meaning—a mere chapter in a war of all against all. It is in some ways a self-realization of everything’s senselessness.

The boat’s crew shoots up an innocent civilian boat in a fit of panic, and crew members are killed along the way. The crewmen find unsuspected strengths as well as weaknesses within themselves, as they are winnowed by war. If there is any comfort to be gleaned from the unrelieved bleakness, it is that the seemingly substandard may come good under fire, and that there can be a strange symmetrical beauty in simply following duty.

Eventually they get to their destination, only to find that in some respects they have been there all along. Kurtz may glory in displaying the heads of his enemies on pointed sticks, but is he much worse than the suited politicians back home who in what passes for their hearts care nothing for human collateral damage, and who have so coldly consigned a country to such a Day of Judgement in pursuit of an unattainable objective? Kurtz’s excesses are lovingly (and believably) chronicled by Dennis Hopper, as an awestruck American photojournalist, whose attitude towards Kurtz resembles Walter Duranty’s abasement before the Soviets, or the Guardian writers who queued up to pay homage to Robert Mugabe in the 1970s.

One of the surviving crew members throws in his lot with Kurtz’s “tribe,” while Willard is taken prisoner, and is compelled to listen to Kurtz’s memorable monologues in the darkness of his hut, the hairless Kurtz monstrous in the shadows like a bloated Nosferatu. Willard is totally powerless and without resource, as is horribly demonstrated when on another occasion he is tied to a stake in the unremitting rain, and a camouflaged Kurtz sneaks up to him out of the torrential night bearing the severed head of the only surviving trustworthy crew member.

Yet despite his omnipotence, for some unexplained reason Kurtz never orders Willard’s execution; instead, he seems to expect that Willard will kill him in due course, as if he wants to be killed. And so eventually Willard does; while Kurtz’s troops are ceremonially sacrificing a water buffalo (Coppola’s cameras captured a real ceremonial killing), the other once-powerful, now overpowered beast submits to the machete, saying at the end only “The horror . . . the horror”, in one of the few literal borrowings from Conrad.

Even as he leaves Kurtz’s hideout openly, “proved” right because he has proved to be physically stronger, Kurtz’s acolytes are suddenly silent, seemingly already drifting back to real life, their eyes suddenly clearer, shaking their puzzled heads as if wondering where they have been all this time. Willard gets back to the river, taking with him the sole, abashed survivor of the crew—heading back down, the viewer hopes but does not expect, towards survival and maybe even some semblance of peace. But even if he finds peace, he and we know it will be at best an armed truce—a respite before the next installment of apocalypse.

This article was first published at in March 2011