Journey into guilt – Detour (1945)


Detour (1945)

The term film noir is loose and sometimes controversial, but for many people Detour could encapsulate the genre. It is American, it is shot in black-and-white, it is a thriller, and it focuses on a semi-criminal to criminal demimonde that is the obverse of American optimism – a seedy stratum of sweaty, unshaven men and over made-up shrews, slouching scruffily on wrong-side-of-town corners, downing too much bourbon, cohabiting in grotty dives, hating and fearing all authority, lying and scheming, preying on all others and being preyed on in their turn.

Films noir – the Italian critic Nino Frank is supposed to have coined the term in 1946, the year after Detour was made – cast a wholly unsentimental light on human nature, precisely opposed to the resolute cheeriness of Capra or, later, Disney. In this vivid but unappetizing universe, even the forces of ‘good’ are compromised, and the very places in which this yeast bubbles and swirls feel inimical – looming, low-lit blocks, dark docksides, wind-whipped boulevards, used car lots, nightclubs where the doormen pack Gats, big houses raised on dirty money.

When they first arrived in Europe, immediately after the war, these films were instantly popular, the prostrate continent looking for celluloid escape from privations, and maybe even taking a kind of comfort in the notion that America was somehow only semi-civilized, and that life there could be just as terrible and tenuous as in Europe. Audiences devoured the graphic violence, the fast-moving storylines, the relative sexual freedom, the atmospheric photography, and the vigorous language – so vigorous and to-the-point, in fact, that even saying please or thank you usually seems like too much trouble. Folk-memories of these films even now underlie European imaginings of America.

Detour was so deftly directed by Edgar G. Ulmer that the casual viewer would probably not guess that it was made in a hurry (1) and at minimal expense (2). There are certain errors of continuity, but few will spot these, or notice that the two leads, Tom Neal and Ann Savage, were, as one critic described them, “a man who can only pout and a woman who can only sneer”. There were many such films, and some of them featured Neal and Savage, but Detour is regarded as so definitive of its B-movie kind that it was granted preservation in the United States National Film Registry in 1992, and regularly attracts clichés like “cult” and “iconic”.

The film is based on the eponymous 1939 novel by Martin M. Goldsmith, who also wrote the screenplay. Tom Neal plays Al Roberts (3), a hard-boiled (to utilize another noir-ish cliché) nightclub pianist who hitchhikes from New York to join his singer girlfriend Sue (Claudia Drake) in California (4). He is given a lift by Charles Haskell (Edmund MacDonald). While Al is taking his turn driving, Haskell takes pills, and falls into a stupor. When Al cannot wake him, he pulls in and opens the passenger-side door. Haskell topples out and hits his head on the ground, which kills him. The panicky Al assumes – a classic film noir trope – that the police will frame him for the murder, so rather than simply reporting the mishap he decides to assume Haskell’s identity until he can get to Los Angeles and resume his own. He swops clothes and takes Haskell’s effects, including the car. He discovers that the apparently open-handed and frank-countenanced dead man had been in fact a kind of con-man – “a chiseller”, to use Al’s term. But we might already have guessed this by the fact that Haskell’s forearms were deeply scored by recent savage scratches from a female hitcher’s fingernails.

On the way, he gives a lift to a woman hitcher, Vera (Ann Savage), and his terrible run of luck continues when it transpires that it was she whom Haskell had tried to molest. (She had overtaken Al on the road, while he was dining.) She assumes that Al murdered Haskell and stole the car. This reinforces Al’s determination not to go to the police, but more importantly it also gives Vera a blackmailing hold over him, which she uses unscrupulously. From then on, he is almost totally under her control. The exchanges between them fizz with distrust and aggression hazed by cigarettes, and she starts to despise him when he rejects her sexual overtures. Her sharp face with its thickly pancaked make-up is like a mask, frozen in contempt for the pouting patsy by her side, and for a whole world that can and should be put upon. She relished the role because it gave the female lead a rare opportunity to dominate the story.

They eventually agree to sell the car, split the proceeds, then part company – but even as they are finalizing terms with the car dealer, Vera spots a news item saying that Haskell’s wealthy father is dying and wants to find his son, whom he had not seen in fifteen years. They withdraw the car from sale, and Vera argues angrily with Al, trying to inveigle him into assuming the role of the errant son and so get control of the dying man’s fortune. Al refuses, and they argue more and more bitterly. Then in an even unluckier mishap, Al inadvertently strangles the drunken Vera, and now finds himself in the position of having been the only other person present at two highly suspicious deaths.

He feels there is simply no way he could ever hope to explain or exculpate himself, so forsakes his plan of going to Sue and goes hopelessly back to the road, a stubbled, hag-ridden wanderer almost longing for the police to pick him up, which they obligingly do, immediately before THE END flashes up on the screen.

In reality, Ann Savage’s life was un-noirishly respectable, after a rather rackety start as a wartime pin-up and then in Detour and about twenty other films. After the 1950s, she more or less ceased acting, except for odd appearances on TV, and worked instead for various film producers. She was devastated when her husband died, and lived unobtrusively in Los Angeles, helping to run a small tool company, working as a clerk, flying planes as a hobby, and good-naturedly turning up to film conventions where Detour was to be featured. She also became deeply involved in campaigns to preserve Hollywood history. In 2007, the year before she died, she was cleverly cast as Guy Maddin’s mother in the acclaimed My Winnipeg.

Tom Neal, by contrast, lived a more suitably seedy life, despite holding a law degree from Harvard. He was a noted amateur boxer, and this stood him in good stead during a violent altercation with the actor Franchot Tone, a rival for the affections of the capricious actress Barbara Payton, at that time a beauty and a rising star who had worked with the likes of Gregory Peck. Neal inflicted on the easily outclassed Tone serious concussion, a broken cheekbone and a broken nose. Tone and Payton then married, and Neal found he was effectively blackballed from Hollywood, and had to work as a gardener to support himself. Seven weeks later, Tone and Payton’s marriage broke down, and she returned to Neal, with whom she remained for four years, before leaving him and spiralling down to an early death by way of alcoholism, passing dud cheques, public drunkenness, and prostitution. (The protesting-too-much title of her 1963 memoirs, I Am Not Ashamed, might almost have been the title for a noir production.)

Neal remarried and had a son – who would make his sole foray into the film business with a 1992 remake of Detour, which no-one has troubled to put onto a DVD. His wife died, and he married again in 1961. He cannot have been an easy man to live with, because four years later, he killed his wife with a bullet to the back of her head, and was charged with murder. He was lucky to be convicted only of manslaughter, and he was sentenced for ten years. After six years, he was released in December 1971, and died eight months afterwards, at just 59. As with his on-screen character, one gets an impression of ineffable meaninglessness.

Detour is a film with no likeable people, and no winners, where life is utterly random and pointless. The last lines in the novel read

Dramatics, buddy? No, sir. No dramatics. God or Fate or some mysterious force can put the finger on you or on me for no good reason at all.

In the film, these harrowing reflections are evoked by an unutterably desolate image of Al, standing in heavy rain at midnight, as the realization of his helplessness hits, and America stretches out all around him, a vast blackness of guilt. Rarely can a country have seemed so huge and cruel, or a film character so small and contemptible.


  1. Between four and twenty-eight days of filming
  2. Again, a matter of debate amongst film historians, with romantics insisting on a meagre $20,000, and others on a more realistic-sounding (but still far from lavish) $100,000
  3. The character is named Alexander Roth in the novel
  4. Sue has a much larger part in the novel, to the extent of being co-narrator


Modernity in a medieval city – “Modern Masters in Print” at Lincoln


Modern Masters in Print, Usher Gallery, Lincoln, until 30 March, admission free

Just down the hill from the superb Lincoln Cathedral is the Usher Gallery, the rather unlikely setting for this peripatetic V&A exhibition, which quit London last year in a flurry of hyperbole, and gave rise to a BBC TV series.

Endowed in 1921 by Lincoln jeweller James Ward Usher to house his private collection of ceramics, clocks, coins, silver, enamels and miniatures – and his own range of Lincoln Imp-bearing bijouterie – the Gallery opened in 1927, in a rather dour neo-classical building by the busy Blomfield. It has an echoey, institutional feel despite a major revamp several years ago, and a highly respectable collection, including works by Turner, Lowry and Stubbs, good 18th century porcelain, and sculpture by Nollekens and Epstein. There are also borrowings – a vase by Grayson Perry inspired by motorways and Walthamstow (more appealing than it probably sounds), and Kimathi Donkor’s ethnically outré Toussaint L’Ouverture at Bedourete, showing the Haitian hero spurring his horse and country into splendour (and squalor). There is a predictable, PC flavour to this and some of the other new pieces, as if the curators feel they need to nod to tiresome north London mores. Yet the abiding impression is still pleasantly provincial – limestone staircases, oils of Lincolnshire worthies (most famously Benjamin West’s imposing portrait of Sir Joseph Banks), cabinets where epergnes nuzzle orreries, and an odd, short corridor lined with stopped longcase clocks from Lincoln, Grimsby, Louth and Market Rasen.

This bastion of justifiable civic pride is now playing host to some fifty prints by Matisse, Picasso, Dalí and Warhol from the V&A’s collection, including some of the most familiar images of our time. The aim of the exhibition is never quite spelled out, but one supposes it is to cast light on the modern Western mind as a whole. While it is a worthwhile enterprise in itself to bring works by such titans to provincial audiences, focusing on prints simply because they are prints seems a little pointless. Visitors skimming the very brief introduction in the V&A booklet will probably not need to be told “Each artist used the print in his own way”. The four artists’ legacies were apparently examined in the TV series, but at Lincoln the only publicity material was a catalogue raisonné.

I confess to not relishing Warhol, although I acknowledge the interesting questions his work raises about how art is defined and created. So I drifted almost indifferently past his three Marilyn Monroes, images as over-exposed as their unhappy subject was during her life – although they were easily the three most colourful works in the exhibition’s subfusc space, dazzling out from the black walls and the adjacent examples of palette restraint.

Matisse is arguably not well-served by the exhibition’s focus on his monochromatic prints, because he was, after all, chiefly notable for his use of colour. His 1950 print Marie José in a yellow dress, featured here, is an exception; it was his only original etching in colour, but even that seems drained of vitality by the surrounding sombreness. Sans couleur, his odalisques seem insipid and almost un-sensual, and the textiles whose patterns and textures so intrigued him look like they have been subjected to too hot a wash.

As we move onto Picasso, whom the catalogue calls an “artistic chameleon” and who of those featured is probably the best known as printmaker, we are faced with more images we have all seen in books – The Frugal Repast, his Lescaux-inspired ecstasies, his bull-fights, The Dance of the Fauns, Skull of a Goat on a Table, and Minotaur, Drinker and Women. But howsoever casually familiar, seen up close for the first time one is brought up sharply with a new appreciation of the artist’s fluidity, wit and verve. And then there are his illustrations to Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, sketched so freely, and yet with consummate control – conveying perfectly the vitality of his subjects. (I must, however, take issue with the catalogue’s description of The Flea as being “sensual”; it shows a woman removing said invertebrate from an intimate part of her anatomy, and unsurprisingly was not used by the publisher.)

I had not previously seen – or if I had seen it, it had not registered – The Rape, from the Vollard Suite, a powerfully disturbing image full of what the catalogue calls “strained intensity” – distorted limbs and brutish energy, part-nightmare and part-corybantic fantasy. Nor, strange though it may seem, had I really thought of Picasso as portraitist, and yet my ignorance was partly rectified by the purity and poignancy of Profile Against a Black Background. These items alone made me glad I had come. The Picassos give the exhibition much of its heart and heft.

Few will like everything Picasso produced during his “chameleon” career, and it is rather common to meet people (especially conservative-oriented people) who reject him in toto as being somehow in opposition to the Western tradition. Yet his work was a necessary antidote to the conventions of his period; and not all of it is artistically unprecedented. His subject matter is often classical, and there are hints of many other artists in his work; for example, his Buffon illustration of The Cock is strongly reminiscent of Doré. As for him being in some way radical, what could be older or more ‘rooted’ than Bronze Age imagery? In any case, is not innovation part of what it means to be a Westerner?

An unexpected treat came in the shape of Dalí’s 1968 advertising posters for France’s S.N.C.F., which happily combine Surrealist imagery with Shell Guide-style iconography and colouring. There were apparently six of these, although only four seem to have made it into this exhibition – Paris, Normandie, Alsace and Roussillon. These wänderlust-eliciting items feature obviously evocative images – the Eiffel Tower, Mont St. Michel, and so forth – but also in-jokes and self-advertising, as you might also expect, with Dalí interposing segments of his own earlier paintings into the compositions.

The mustachioed japester also played around with printmaking, once apparently detonating a bomb filled with nails and keys beside an engraving plate, to see the scratchy results. On another occasion, he dipped snails (rather cruelly) in ink, and placed them on a lithographic stone to see what would happen.

Wide-eyed vivacity bubbles up from works like The Blue Owl, and (my favourite) Don Quixote, a dynamic Futuristic swirl in which the comic hidalgo’s ruff is seen to be made up of tiny armed soldiers. Phobias are discernible in Grasshopper Child – it seems he was terrified of locusts – and perhaps some of the disjointed illustrations he provided for what De Jonge called the “sustained sick joke” of the Comte de Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror.

How satisfying it is to find such strangeness among all the snuffboxes – and yet is it all that strange, when one considers the surrealism of the medieval minds that threw up the Cathedral and populated its highest places with angels and Imps?


Fortunate and unfortunate isles


Pocket Atlas of Remote Islands—Fifty Islands I Have Not Visited and Never Will

Judith Schalansky, London, New York: Penguin, 2012. 240 pp

The West is writing over all the world’s white spaces. The unrolling triumph of Occidental enlightenment and exploration has meant the near-complete charting of the planet—conquest of the tallest peaks, penetration into the remotest forests, sounding of the deepest submarine trenches, and attainment of the abstract Poles. We have stripped shadows from the world and bathed it in harshly antiseptic light. As we have driven back the frontiers of geography we have driven into extinction the many-headed monsters that once patrolled the edges of all atlases. Although there will never be an End of History, sometimes it feels as though we’ve come to the End of Adventure.

How ironic that such an anticlimax should be the outcome of the greatest adventure of all—those eager centuries when the little countries at the westernmost end of the Eurasian “world-island” sent out their best and bravest to find new trade routes, to spread the fame of their country and deity, and to seek knowledge and excitement. The resounding language of the King James Bible expresses something of the mixed motivations and restless romance of the great explorations:

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters;

These see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep.

The caravels, carracks, galleons, galleys, pinnacles, sloops, and whalers of the Europeans crept down perilous coasts and breached brooding horizons, often to die in the doing—bringing catastrophe (and civilization) to native nabobs, ancient insular cultures, and overly specialized ecosystems.

A desire to bring magic back to maps motivates Judith Schalansky—a German graphic designer who cannily combined her cartographic and typographic interests to produce a beautiful atlas-as-literature. “Now that it is possible to travel right round the globe,” she observes, “the real challenge lies in staying at home and discovering the world from there.”

Her Pocket Atlas, translated almost faultlessly into English this year, brings together depictions of some of the world’s loneliest rocks with whimsical or appalling tales from the islands’ past or present. It propels readers across thousands of miles of ocean until we are alongside the author, bobbing off some black-cliff behemoth in the banshee-winded south, or floating apparently on air in a white-sand-coconut-palm fringed lagoon while giant manta rays wing below.

Islands are paradoxical places where even evolution bends its rules, to make tortoises that can carry men, and pigeons that once bulged grotesquely into doomed dodos. They are places we approach in unlimited hope, where convicts can become kings. No man can be an island, but we project onto them our deepest desires. As Schalansky notes:

The island seems to be in its element, still in its natural state, unchanged since the beginning, paradise before the fall from grace, innocent and unblushing.…A land surrounded by water is perceived as the perfect place for utopian experiments and paradise upon earth.

I think of Stevenson’s Tahiti or Margaret Mead’s Samoa—or a thoughtful young girl growing up in East Berlin, flicking longingly through the People’s Democratic Atlas and ignoring the socially significant statistics in favor of tiny yellow blobs floating in fathomless reaches of azure. The Pocket Atlas is awash with accounts of incurable romantics and seekers after spiritual peace or fabulous treasures.

But islands can also be pointless places where convicts simply stay convicts, such as the notorious Norfolk Island penal colony north of New Zealand. Islands can even be pocket hells where kings become convicts, such as Napoleon on St. Helena—places of eternal exile from decency as well as society, where evil is amplified because there is no alternative or escape. As the author notes ruefully,

Human beings travelling far and wide have turned into the very monsters they chased off the maps.

We bring freight when we arrive at any island—rats in our luggage that race into the pristine paradise to lay waste the new land and replicate the troubles we have fled. Like the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies, we are imprisoned by inner-animal limitations as well as by logistics—and the open-eyed author duly brings us artfully imagined real-life horrors.

There is the dystopia of Tikopia, 700 miles to the east of Fiji, so small that even in the center of the island one can hear the waves’ maddening boom, home to 1,200 people who until recently practiced a ruthless euthanasia policy for all whom the island’s knife-edge ecology could not sustain. Only elder sons were permitted to reproduce, with superfluous newborns placed on their faces to suffocate.

There is the saga of Pitcairn Island, where Fletcher Christian’s fugitives landed on the run from Royal Naval retribution and literally burned their boats to become rulers for a time, only to fight murderously and eventually inbreed themselves into casual acceptance of systemic sexual abuse.

There are cast-up corpses on the Marshall Islands, murder mysteries from the Galapagos, rumors of Antarctic anthropophagy, and the melodramatic tale of Clipperton Atoll, a Mexican colony forgotten when Mexico dissolved into revolution and the rest of the world into World War I. The US Navy offered the residents evacuation in 1915, but the proud governor paraded his mound of ancient guano in Austrian-inspired parade uniform, arm-in-arm with his bejeweled wife, to reassure the governed that they could weather the world storm together, even on an island without grass and infested by millions of ravenous crabs.

But the ships from Acapulco stopped coming, their food ran down, and scurvy came calling to whisk one after the other away. The governor was drowned when he set out in a boat to get to a (possibly imaginary) passing ship, and soon the only man left was the lighthouse keeper/king, who raped and killed for two years before one of his victims beat him to death with a hammer. A providential US warship then took off the few women and children survivors, who recorded looking back at their receding prison and for a long time being able to see the orange of the crabs.

The author ranges across all atlases, strewing insular images across our mental maps. We see whaling charnel houses where jawbones jut from still-sticky sand…grass-covered shipwrecks surrounded by defensive penguins…the genetic color-blindness of the people of Pingelap…the bird-faced goddess of Banaba…the last radio message of Amelia Earhart…atom bombs on atolls…the sad tale of the trusting Steller’s sea cow, hunted to extinction…US Marines iconically raising the Stars and Stripes atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi…and dozens of other highly theatrical productions lent force and poignancy by the smallness of their stage.

Finally, she gives us some of the world’s last few untouched islands, still too difficult or dangerous to reach, or simply thought not worth visiting. Judging from the harm caused by human visitors and their forces of progress, such places are probably safer being ignored. Perhaps we have a psychic need to know that there are some islands still inviolate and that sometimes it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.

This article first appeared in in October 2012, and is reproduced with permission

The English Wändervögel


Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

Artemis Cooper, London: John Murray, 2010

On December 9th, 1933, an eighteen-year-old miscreant rushed through the rain at Tower Bridge to catch the Stadtholder Willem, about to hoist anchor and leave for Rotterdam. His luggage was light—a little money, a few letters of introduction, a knapsack, a sturdy pair of boots, an ash stick, some drawing materials, The Oxford Book of English Verse, and Horace’s Odes—all the more light because he did not intend to hang around in the Hook of Holland but to walk from there across Europe to the civilization-straddling metropolis that for him would always be Constantinople.

But deficiencies of kit or connection were amply compensated for by Patrick Leigh Fermor’s longing for picaresque adventure and a strong personality an exasperated former schoolteacher described as “a dangerous mixture of recklessness and sophistication.” He was also an instinctive antiquarian and amateur philologist—an unusual personality type, later summarized by one wondering journalist as “a blend of Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Graham Greene.”

His peregrination would take him through the intestines of a Europe on the verge of self-immolation into the most obscure corners of a continent where pre-feudal folkways had somehow persisted into the Art Deco era. He observed the lager-swollen, Lebensraum-thirsty stormtroopers spilling out of Munich’s Hofbräuhaus as a few years afterward they would spill over Germany’s frontiers. There were tanks on Vienna’s streets, and as he moved east he “became inoculated against Bolshevism.”

His wistful accounts of his walk would be suffused with sad awareness of what such manifestations of modernity meant for the Europe he had come to find. These classics of travel literature—A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water—were written decades later with the help of historical hindsight. They were the products of obsessive editing and some confabulation, but even the young Leigh Fermor could see that pre-modern Europe existed on borrowed time. Unlike his communist contemporary Laurie Lee, who poetically recorded the Gloucestershire and Spain he sought to turn into Soviets, Leigh Fermor traveled in the service of tradition, even taking part in a militarily insignificant but memorably evocative Greek Royalist cavalry charge.

He found old Europe just in time to write about its counter-temporal cultures in what Nicholas Shakespeare disdainfully terms “Manueline prose…overly crammed with truffles.” Yet Manueline style suits the subject in all its complexity and color, its crisscrossing connections and layers, lost landscapes, jealous identities, and ancient animosities. Leigh Fermor roots in a reverie amid history’s scattered fragments—giant catfish patrolling the untamed Danube, bears in the high woods, intoxicatingly empty seas of grass, shepherds in outlandish sheepskin overcoats with spiked-collared dogs to fend off wolves, churches still the centres of local cults, farmhands fervently reenacting pre-Christian rituals, eccentric polymaths with extensive libraries, relict ethnic groups left behind by long-retreated armies, crumbling cartouches, invalidated vexillography, and sailors who played musical instruments that would have been recognizable to Odysseus. He mingled with representatives of all the nationalities he encountered, whether peasants or princesses, dining in cafés or caves, sleeping in haystacks or great houses according to the hazards of the highway, with the accepting flexibility of youth. Small wonder that his reminiscences should have met with favor among postwar Europeans, for whom Europe is no longer an epic, but a synonym for the barbarizing activities of Brussels’s bore-acrats.

He augmented his Byronic life-legend by fighting with the Cretan resistance during the war and masterminding the 1944 abduction of a German general—an exploit commemorated in the 1957 Powell & Pressburger film Ill Met by Moonlight. Then he devoted the rest of his life to building his and his wife’s ideal house at Kardamyli on one of the Greek mainland’s southernmost tips. (John Betjeman swooned that the living room was “one of the rooms in the world.”) He also continued travelling.

Apart from the two European books (a third has just been published as The Broken Road, reworked by Artemis Cooper from an early draft), he wrote about Greece (Mani, Roumeli), the Caribbean (The Traveller’s Tree, The Violins of Saint Jacques), monasteries (A Time to Keep Silence), and South America (Three Letters From the Andes) and turned out impossibly elegant review-essays. His last publication was in 2008, a collection of his correspondence with the Duchess of Devonshire (In Tearing Haste).

A painfully slow, easily distracted writer who was often bumptious and careless with other people’s money, he nonetheless contrived to lead an extravagant existence, moving in glitteringly gifted circles. He made almost no enemies in the course of 96 years (he died in 2011) except for hardline communists who tried to kill him in 1979, and in England a few less dangerous but equally unappetizing reviewers who disapproved of his maleness, class, and intellectualism. He had a chivalric understanding even with the abducted General Kreipe, with whom he exchanged Horatian snippets as PLF’s party took their prize furtively through the Cretan uplands to rendezvous with a British boat. Even a blood feud that commenced when he killed a resistance fighter by accident was eventually resolved in a flurry of ouzo and embraces from the dead man’s nephew, mixed with kindly offers to dispatch anyone Leigh Fermor wanted dispatched.

Artemis Cooper is Leigh Fermor’s first biographer, and she is well-placed to offer insights. If anything, she may be too close to her subject. Her grandmother, Lady Diana Cooper, was a close friend of Leigh Fermor’s, and the author has halcyon memories of childhood visits to Kardamyli, stroking the Fermors’ pet dog while listening entranced to its master’s stories.

She has done an excellent job of narration, whether she is telling us about London’s literati, Moldavian manors, Irish venery, or PLF’s venereal disease. If at times the reader feels he is not really getting under PLF’s skin, it is almost certainly due to a paucity of confessional source material rather than Cooper’s shortcomings as researcher or collator. Leigh Fermor’s generation did not weary the world with self-analysis; they just did things, quietly or showily according to taste. As Stephen Spender once observed, PLF was clearly “not an empathizing introvert.” That is not to say there are no revelations or inspired guesses in what could have been hagiography – the author senses when her self-romancing subject was being economical with the actualité, such as when she discloses his ignoble interlude as hosiery hawker around west London.

It would have been fascinating to know whether he ever came to any conclusions about all the wonderful things he had seen that mostly disappeared within his lifetime. He may not have been an empathizing introvert, but he must surely have fretted about Greece, England, and Europe’s future. Just as Joan and all his friends fell away during his life, leaving him a lonely relic, so too his vibrant Europe has dried up and diminished under the pressures of centralization, communism, fascism, globalism, homogenization, immigration, internationalism, rationalism, and technology. We read him as raconteur and stylist rather than as oracle, yet had he written of these things many would have paid attention. As we close the book at the end of his epic adventure, we are left wondering whether at the end the winsome Wändervogel was really content.

This article first appeared at in December 2012, and is reproduced with permission

The once-weres and could-have-beens of Europe


Vanished Kingdoms—The History of Half-forgotten Europe
Norman Davies. London: Allen Lane, 2011. 800 pp, £30 hob

When I visited the Naval Museum in Madrid several years ago, I took away as a souvenir a facsimile of a coloured 1756 naval manual illustration entitled Banderas que las naciones arbolan en la mar. It shows ninety different flags that might conceivably be met with upon the high seas by Spanish sailors – ranging from the personal standard of the Hapsburgs and the banner of the Papal States to the presumably more frequently encountered flags of Brabant, Corsica, the English East India Company, Flanders, Pomerania, Riga, Stettin, Zeeland and many other names now relegated to history’s footnotes.

Almost none of these once brinily-billowing banderas would now be encountered on any seas by anyone. The illustration is a piquant evocation of a looser and more colourful Europe – a hint of all that has faded into dull desuetude in the two-and-a-half centuries since. But it is also a salutary reminder of the complex counter-narratives that underlie accepted realities, and seethe beneath the veneer of the nations we think we know.

My maritime metaphor echoes Norman Davies’s introduction to Vanished Kingdoms:

This book . . . garners the traces of ships of states that have sunk, and it invites the reader, if only on the page, to watch with delight as the stricken galleons straighten their fallen masts, draw up their anchors, fill their sails and reset their course across the ocean swell.

Sometimes the most compelling history is the kind that falls between the cracks of the chronicles and subverts fondly-held foundational myths. The ‘official’ history of Europe is variegated enough to give any number of historians lifetimes of employment, but now the 72 year old Slavonic specialist Davies has produced fifteen case studies dating from the fifth to the twentieth centuries to suggest that a great deal of what we take for granted about Europe’s past is “narrative colonization” which ought to be unlearned. He ends with a short chapter, “How states die”, which seeks to formulate “a typology of vanished kingdoms”.

This all makes for an engrossing, evocative and original contribution to European historiography. There will be few who will not unearth some new insight to challenge conventional, convenient versions of events – the flattering histories which Napoleon famously dismissed as “a fable agreed upon”. The “Europe of a hundred flags” wished for by the Breton nationalist Yann Fouéré is more like a Europe of a thousand flags. “The past is not only a foreign country that we half-knew existed” Davies observes –

…it is hiding another concealed country behind it, and behind that one, another, and another, like a set of Russian dolls

Davies is a melancholic and romantic, and his intellectual interests have been influenced by his Welshness, chapel-going and early encounters with Heraclitus and Gibbon. He also possesses a Polonism so pronounced that he has (unjustly) been accused of understating historical Polish anti-Semitism and downplaying Jewish suffering during World War Two. This may have cost him a tenured position at Stanford in 1986, something he clearly still broods upon, despite claiming on his website that

. . . he remembers the episode stoically – as evidence of academic small-mindedness and of [the] fate awaiting anyone who confronts entrenched opinions and prejudices.

It cannot have helped that he is strongly anti-communist. His website entry on his 2006 book Europe at War explains his view that communism was the moral equivalent of nazism:

[T]he war in Europe was dominated by two evil monsters, not by one . . . The liberators of Auschwitz were servants of a regime that ran still larger concentration camps than those they liberated . . . The outcome of the [war] was at best ambiguous. The victory of the West was only partial, its moral reputation was severely tarnished and, for the greater part of the continent of Europe, ‘liberation’ was only the beginning of more than fifty years of further totalitarian oppression.

The most recent of his shipwrecks of history is the Soviet Union itself. There were many factors responsible for the USSR’s dissolution, but the problems were fundamental:

[T]he Soviet system was based on extreme force and extreme fraud. Practically everything that Lenin and the Leninists did was accompanied by killing; practically everything they said was based on half-baked theories, a total lack of integrity and bare-faced lies.

He maintains that Gorbachev was probably taken by surprise by the events he expedited – and observes that glasnost, which was invariably rendered in the Western press as “openness”, actually means “publicity”. The subsequent inglorious events traumatized all Russians, and even now feed nationalistic dislike of the oligarchs and the Balt, Turkic, and Chechen separatists of Russia’s near abroad – and of course America. Putin’s rhetoric about the alleged glories of the USSR is coloured by “a strong sense of bafflement” and “pangs of corporate guilt” that he and other insiders did not forestall this degrading dissolution.

Davies leads the Western reader surefootedly across the little-known landscape of the eastern continent, making sense of entangled narratives and being fair to all. He commences each chapter with descriptions of these places as they look now, from their topography to the chief historical sites, before haling us back across the centuries with tales of ancient alarums, excursions, raiders, crusaders, forgotten wars, futile resistances, burned villages, slighted cities, and mounted tribes moving restlessly forever across that exhilarating vague vastness between Teutonia and Tartary, Europe and Asia. This area which has too few defensible frontiers for its own good has seen the most atrocious crimes, mountains upon mountains of skulls heaped up by successive tsunamis of Tartars, Mongols, Cossacks, Teutonic Knights, Communists, and Nazis powered by greed, ideology, religion, race-hatred, or sheer love of killing.

Other essays with an east European theme include one on Litva, the Polish-Lithuanian “Grand Duchy with Kings”, at one time the largest of all European states covering much of what is presently Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland, and that lasted more than five centuries. We are taken through Litva’s crepuscular chronicles from the time Viking (locally called Varangian) explorers started to hazard the region’s headwaters, pushing ever further inland through a primevally-forested country populated by wisent, konik, elk, and lynx, some of which still persist in a precious fragment of this forest along the Polish-Belarussian border. The Varangians conquered existing Slav settlements like Kiev or established new fortress-fords at places like Novgorod, and traded or fought all the way down to the Black Sea and eventually Byzantium, where for five centuries the Emperors of the East maintained an Anglo-Scandinavian Varangian Guard as both elite fighting regiment and personal corps.

Semi-legendary kings ruled over a huge, indeterminate territory – Ukraina means “On the Edge” in Slavonic, and these wild steppes needed to be protected by self-defence communities of Kozaks (a Turkic word meaning adventurer or freebooter) because they were so prone to incursions. Although Orthodoxy made rapid advances from the 9th century onwards, the ruling caste long remained pagan; Grand Duke Gedminas legendarily founded Vilnius after dreaming of an iron wolf howling from a hill overlooking three rivers, and when he died in 1342 his obsequies were entirely pagan, his body being incinerated along with his favourite servant, favourite horse and a group of German slaves. But they cleverly allied with Catholic or Orthodox dynasties according to the political winds, and this pragmatism, as well as Litva’s relative remoteness, helps to account for the Duchy’s durability. In 1386, Prince Jogaila was elected king by an assembly of barons on condition of accepting Christian baptism and permanent union with Poland, and for almost 200 years afterwards “Jagiellonians” steered their ship as a joint Polish-Lithuanian venture, now intermarried with the Angevin and Hapsburg European mainstream. Even after the Jagiellonians had gone, the Duchy was often fortunate in its statesmen, but by the early 17th century it was trapped between Muscovy pushing from east and south and Sweden from north and west, and the king-grand duke was forced to flee into exile.

There was time for one last great figure, in the shape of King John III Sobieski, whose hussars broke the Turks outside Vienna in 1683, but by then the Duchy was riven by internal disputes and weak leadership. The Great Northern War of 1700-21 between Russia and Sweden took place largely on the Duchy’s territory, and from then on it became the plaything of Russia, Prussia and Austria – the “international bandits” as Davies calls them, who carved it up between them while Voltaire and other “wisecrackers of the Enlightenment” chortled. There were last desperate attempts to assert independence and expel foreign troops, notably in 1794 in Warsaw. Russian forces under the leadership of Suvorov massacred the population of the Warsaw suburb of Praga, and the General sent a message to Catherine the Great reading simply “Hurrah. Praga. Suvorov”—to which she answered, equally laconically, “Bravo Fieldmarshal. Catherine”. On 25 November 1795, the last of the offices of state ceased functioning and the last king-grand duke, Stanlislaw-August, abdicated, after which he was exiled to captivity in St. Petersburg.

“The abrupt change of life / Into archaeology”

This sad ending has been reprised severally since thanks to the area’s unlucky proximity to Germany and Russia. Time after time, even more than other areas of Europe, this unhappy region has witnessed what Zbigniew Herbert would call “the abrupt change of life / Into archaeology”. Even now, the former provinces of Litva – now Poland, Belarus and Lithuania – all claim to be the legitimate heirs of the legacy, even arguing over Adam Mickiewicz, whose 1834 epic poem Pan Tadeusz commences:

O Litva, My homeland, you are like health

How to gauge your worth, only he can know

Who has lost you. Today I see your full beauty

And describe it, because I long for you.

Another equally engrossing east European-themed essay is “Borussia: Watery Land of the Prusai”, where we are introduced to previously unknown tribes emanating from what would one day become East Prussia, fleetingly recalled from the Mazovian memory-hole before sinking back into their immemorial lagoons, making us wish we knew them better – Varmians, Pomesgasanians, Natangians, Sambians, Skalovians, Nadruvians, Bartians, Sudovians, and Gallinians. We hear of the Wars of the Schmalkaldic League and the fate of the alchemist Conte de Ruggiero, hanged in a gilded gallows, wearing a toga made of gilt paper – and are tantalized by the possible fate of Konigsberg’s/Kaliningrad’s fabled Bernsteinzimmer (“Amber Room”), fifty-five gold and crystal-decorated amber panels weighing a total of six tons presented to Peter the Great, missing since 1944, according to assorted legends languishing in a Saxon mine, in a sunken German battleship, concealed in Moscow or concreted into the foundations of Soviet-era buildings. (German donations helped to pay for a new Amber Room opened in 2003 in St. Petersburg’s Catherine Palace.)

Then there is “Rusyn – The Republic of One Day”. That serio-comic “One Day” started at 5am on 15 March 1939 when the Wehrmacht rolled into the rump of Czechoslovakia and the Slovaks declared independence. The Ruthenian “Czechoslovaks” of Carpatho-Ukraine decided they might as well emulate the Slovaks, and by 6.30 pm they had declared a democratic republic, announced that the official language was Ukrainian, hoisted a flag of two horizontal blue and yellow bands and announced a touchingly vainglorious anthem, Shche ne vmerla Ukraina (“Ukraine has not yet perished”):

Ukraine has not yet perished, nor her glory, nor her freedom,

Upon us, fellow Ukrainians, fate shall smile once more.

Our enemies will vanish like dew in the sun,

And we too shall rule, brothers, in a free land of our own.

But the following morning, Hungarian troops had crossed the border and annexed the little country. Rusyn paramilitaries fought on for a few days in the mountains, with hundreds executed after capture, but geopolitics told against them. In 1944, the Hungarians were briefly replaced by the Germans before the Red Army swept through and incorporated Carpatho-Ukraine into the Ukrainian SSR, repressing its distinct culture (ironically, today’s Rusyn autonomy movement is sometimes said to be financed by Moscow).

Davies’ forays into western and southern Europe are equally diverting. We start with the myth-encrusted Visigoths of Tolosa (Toulouse), and are introduced to the minutely described 5th century King Theodoric II, whose knees were “the comeliest and least wrinkled in the world”, who “prays with assiduity…but one suspects more habit than conviction” and was married to Queen Pedauco (“Goose-foot” – whose knees were presumably more wrinkled than her spouse’s).

We go to Spain before Spain ever existed, to pay our historical respects to the now-subsumed Aragonese, led by aristocrats like “Wilfred the Hairy” who defied fellow “valley viscounts” and the Moors from fortified hilltops.

We follow the meteoric career of Burgundy’s Charles the Bold, from the 1466 “high” of murdering all the inhabitants of Dinant to his 1477 downfall in what is now Switzerland, his naked corpse “frozen into the ice of a pond . . . split to the chin by a Swiss halberd, the body many times pierced by Swiss pikes”.

In the chapter on Sabaudia (Savoy), we are told of the time when the present Savoyard (and therefore Italian) royal claimant Vittorio Emanuele endeared himself to his virtual subjects by fatally shooting a man after shouting at him Voi, italiani di merda (“you Italian shits”).

In the discussion of Napoleon’s client state of Etruria, it is gratifying to renew acquaintance with Talleyrand’s citric aperçu on the judicial murder of the Duc d’Enghien, last of the French Bourbons – C’était pire qu’un crime; c’était une faute (“It was worse than a crime; it was a mistake”).

We are taken to Rosenau in southern Germany, to be regaled with just a few of the multiple ironies of Anglo-German history; during World War I the Britain ruled by descendants of Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha underwent night bombing raids from giant Gothas planes named in honour of the selfsame dynasty. Like a pawkily proud Welshman, Davies takes mischievous pride in underscoring just how German is the “British” royal family, infinitely more closely related to the un-Home Counties-sounding Anhalt-Zerbsts or Pfalz-Zimmerns than to William the Conqueror, Henry VIII or even the Stuarts.

Still on a Cymric theme, there are anecdotes of Sinn Féin’s negotiator Eamon de Valera being humiliated by the British PM David Lloyd-George speaking to his secretary in Welsh more fluent than de Valera’s Irish—and a revisionist view of the history of Alt Clud, the “Kingdom of the Rock” in what is now south-eastern Scotland, which was much more Welsh than it was Scottish. Closest to home of all are his reflections on the future of the UK, which he suspects is destined to fail as all other states eventually fail—and perhaps fairly soon.

Criticisms could be made. Davies arguably makes too much of the Aragonese selling as slaves the Moorish population of Menorca in 1287, which he calls “a milestone in the grim history of European slavery”. But while this was clearly not an edifying event, it was merely one example of a trade that had always existed, and in which the Moors joined with at least equal enthusiasm (the luckless Menorcans were themselves sold in North Africa’s slave markets, which operated until the 19th century).

A few assertions seem over-confident, such as that Moors remained numerically predominant in much of Spain even after the Reconquista—but how can he, or anyone, know this for certain? The concluding chapter on “Why states die” feels curiously cursory after the richness and subtlety of the bulk of the book, just eleven occasionally banal pages that skim far too quickly over the musings of St. Augustine, Hobbes, Rousseau, and more recent theorists of state death. He cites “implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation and infant mortality” as causes of collapse, but scants over some other threats, such as the gradual loss of a previously unifying culture or population replacement through immigration (for example, a recent Scottish survey suggests that one fifth of Scotland’s population does not regard itself as “Scottish”, which has major implications for Scottish independence). There are some small typos and inconsistencies, but it is only fair to note that I worked from an uncorrected proof copy and doubtless most of these were later edited out.

Yet this highly original book is about editing in rather than editing out, and the effect is eminently addictive – revivifying Europe’s unquiet dead to walk and talk again for a time, salvaging their sunken vessels and sending them scudding briefly again across history’s charts, while we their inheritors plot our future course across a sea of troubles.

Land hunger, land anger

"Sloping Fields" by Liam Daly (

Land hunger, land anger

The Field (1990)

The Field opens in dramatic style. The setting is the rural west of Ireland, in 1965. A father and son are seen silhouetted at the top of a cliff, having dragged there a strange and heavy load – a dead donkey stallion – which they then precipitate over the cliff into the bay below. The two men are Thady “The Bull” McCabe (Richard Harris) and his son Tadhg (Sean Bean). It transpires that the latter has killed the animal for having entered his father’s fiercely treasured field, a highly fertile holding of just under four acres created over years of unremitting toil by McCabes, carting kelp up and down hill to lay down as manure (1), until it has become an almost acrylically verdant oasis amidst the adjoining dun bogland.

As his nickname suggests, “Bull” has an angry tunnel vision about this holding, fuelled by over-developed historical resentments about the Famine and even older and bitterer history – centuries of lands expropriated by foreigners, corrupt authorities and a Church uninterested in the plight of the poor. The field is his one bulwark against the hostile world, a kind of insurance policy for his family against poverty and the surrounding waste, and he has melded almost metaphysically with the handmade soil. His extreme practicality has become a sort of poetry. This is from John Keane’s original text –

I know every rib of grass and every thistle and every whitethorn bush that bounds it. There;s shamrock in the south-west corner. Shamrock, imagine! The north part is bound by forty sloe bushes. Some fool planted them once but they’re a good hedge. This is a sweet little field, this is an independent little field that wants eatin’

His moral claim to these acres is fully accepted by the locals, among whom he occupies a respected-feared position, as a man of great physical prowess, who is, moreover, related to many of them.

The problem is that he is not the actual owner of the field, and Maggie Butler, the widow (Frances Tomelty) who owns it, decides to sell by public auction. She will not sell directly to Bull because she blames him for years of harassment at the hands of Tadhg and a local drunk and camp-follower, “The Bird” O’Donnell (John Hurt). In fact, Bull had been unaware of the harassment, and when he finds out about it he is wrathful. In the ensuing auction, although no local will contest with him, he finds himself pitted against the much greater financial resources of an American (Tom Berenger) with roots in the region, who wishes to concrete over the precious field to allow access to a projected limestone quarry. In the original text –

A total stranger has come and he wants to bury my sweat and blood in concrete

The American is backed by the Gardaí and the local priest, and this feeds the Bull’s paranoia and feeling of powerlessness, giving rise to memorable orations – in which the aggrieved pride of the working man combines with a kind of ultra-nationalism and fear of the future. Disastrous events follow almost inevitably – a violent confrontation with the American which leads to his accidental death, the gradual disintegration of what remains of Bull’s patrimony and ideals, ending in the death of Tagdhg on the cliffs on which we met him, and the Bull’s descent into full-blown insanity, lashing the sea with his ashplant.

Although The Field is now regarded as a minor cinematic classic, it was not a commercial success. According to IMDB it earned just over US$1.4m in what should have been the highly lucrative US market (it had cost approximately IR£5m to make). This was notwithstanding that it was adapted from a 1965 play by the best-selling  John Brendan Keane (2) and that it was directed by Jim Sheridan, who had already directed My Left Foot, and would go on to direct In the Name of the Father and In America. Reviewers generally disliked the film, although they agreed that Harris was outstanding (his part earned him his second Academy Award nomination). Harris’s passionate commitment to the part must have been fuelled by his Irish nationalist sympathies (3). The film is admittedly melodramatic – but it is also possible that many reviewers simply could not relate to McCabe’s bullying persona, his distrust of ‘progress’, his contempt for the rule of law, and his premodern obsession with family and land.

McCabe’s exaggerated emotions are however driven partly by insecurity – knowledge of his own powerlessness in this new rationalist scheme of things where money means more than moral right, and the knowledge that Tadhg simply does not share his monocular commitment. In the film there is an enticing Traveller girl who has set her cap at Tadhg – for Bull, she symbolizes irresponsibility and impermanence.

Much deeper even than these motivations is guilt about his first son, Seamie, who killed himself (a mortal sin for Catholics) after the Bull had told him the field could only ever support one of the sons. (Since the suicide, some eighteen years before the story begins, the Bull and his wife – played by Brenda Fricker – had not spoken to each other.) So if he is an unsympathetic figure, he at least has some cause – and as he lurches inevitably from one cataclysmic error to another he accrues pathos, as if the viewer is watching some figure from legend, a Polyphemus blinded by passion and limited by his lack of imagination. Many seeing the film will also have a sneaking feeling that the Bull was right to try to thwart ‘progress’, at least when that progress involves the erasure of the earth in favour of concrete and quarries.

The film diverges from the play in many particulars, although many of the changes are understandable from a film-maker’s perspective. The most important change is that in the play the story ends unresolved, with the community united in a conspiracy of silence. In the play, there are no Travellers. There was no harassment of the widow. The story about Seamie was also wholly made up by screenwriters; the real cause of the eighteen year silence between the Bull and his wife was that he had shot a tinker’s pony (“a hang-gallows piebald pony, a runty get of a gluttonous knacker with one eye”). The notion that the Bull’s mother died while making hay in the field likewise has no textual basis. The would-be purchaser has come from England rather than America. The auctioneer Mick Flanagan, his wife Maimie and their son Leamy are all much more important in the original, with the auctioneer comical as well as corrupt, and a broad hint at the end that Leamy will tell the authorities what everybody knows. The Bull and Tadhg are even less admirable than in the film, the Bull readily threatening death to potential informants, even obliquely to the widow, Tadhg quite as fanatical as his father. (In an alienating aside, we learn that it took the two of them an hour to beat the donkey to death.) And it is the Bishop rather than the parish priest who lectures the complicit community and threatens them with interdiction –

This is a parish in which you understand hunger. But there are many hungers…There is a hunger for food – a natural hunger. There is the hunger of the flesh – a natural understandable hunger. There is a hunger for home, for love, for children.. These things are good…but there is also the hunger for land…how far are you prepared to go to satisfy this hunger?

Although the screenwriters managed to transmit some sense of Keane’s lyricism, little of his whimsy was translated to the screen, such as the surreal conversation between the Bull and his son while they are lying in wait for the stranger, in which they wonder whether crows think like men, and Tadhg avers with a superstitious shiver that “if the seed of man fails, the rats will take over the world”.

All this having been noted, The Field is nevertheless an engrossing and at times entrancing film, which casts a rare and unsentimental light on the pinched and precarious lives of tenant farmers, and one of mankind’s oldest and strongest emotions.


  1. Seaweed contains salt, but in small and easily soluble quantities, and it also contains such essential improvers as nitrogen, potassium, phosphate and magnesium. In the play, the field has been manured more conventionally, by the McCabes’ heifers
  2. Born in Listowel, County Kerry, in 1928, Keane lived in England from 1951 to 1953 and then returned to Listowel, where he ran a pub. In his spare time, he was a prolific playwright, short story writer and poet, although he may be best remembered for his humorous series Letters of…, supposed letters from a T.D., a priest, a Garda officer, etc. His work was popular but was long disregarded by critics, perhaps because of its perceived provincialism. In A Biographical Dictionary of Irish Writers (1985), Anne M. Brady and Brian Cleeve surmise, “A possible cause of critical unenthusiasm has been the excitement and poetry of his writing, presently unfashionable”. Keane died in 2002. His nephew is the well-known author and journalist Fergal Keane
  3. The Limerick-born actor was a notorious supporter of the IRA, although he recanted somewhat following the Harrods bombing of December 1983. Naturally, these views did not deter him from living in the enemy environs of Holland Park, or accepting starring roles in many British-made films – including, most ironically, Cromwell (1970)