Homage to catatonia

By Benjamin Massey · January 28th, 2017 · 1 comment

The Americans had an election, meaning four more years of badly-microwaved Nineteen Eighty-Four metaphors. Colby Cosh just dealt with this (probably helping spur the Twitter reply that jogged this post), but the Donald can console himself knowing that Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton got this treatment too. If you could persevere through enough Noam Chomsky, and I cannot, you could probably find examples going back to Lyndon Johnson. It’s an easy political trope because Nineteen Eighty-Four is probably the only overtly political story whose plot every English-speaker broadly knows, in the same sense as Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter. (Incidentally this is not because of its wisdom: plenty of anti-totalitarians had that. It’s because Nineteen Eighty-Four is, secretly, a very good novel.)

Orwell, who died seven sickly months after completing Nineteen Eighty-Four, never got to see it so mistreated. But he would have known how to deal with it if he had. His “Politics and the English Language” probably holds more insight per hundred words than any other work of English prose, and along with important political thoughts offers plenty of sound stylistic advice, the sort that takes conscious effort to apply and is therefore often ignored by people who should know better. One of his nemeses is the use of metaphors that are worthless for illustrating concepts but arise out of laziness. These are “dying metaphors;” he adds more under the heading of “pretentious diction” but his criticism of the former applies equally to the latter. How many of us actually know what makes a boot into a jackboot, and how few of us avoid the metaphor as a result?

This essay is more than seventy years old and most of those dying metaphors still hang on despite Orwell’s do-not-resuscitate order. Google any of them along with the word “Trump,” even Britishisms like “ring the changes,” and enjoy recent results from professional writers. Try it yourself. “Fishing in troubled waters,” which may actually be dead in most of the Anglosphere, appears only as a quote in a Charleston Gazette-Mail editorial but the writer likes it for the Trump campaign, so it counts. Perhaps it is a resurrected metaphor, breathing tubes shoved down its windpipe even as the doctors insist on its total brain death.

The entire essay could be aimed at modern political writing with a precision as far from Nostradamus as jackboots from tridents. “The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies ‘something not desirable’;” bloody hell, that’s on the nose. “In our time it is broadly true that political writing is bad writing. Where it is not true, it will generally be found that the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions and not a ‘party line’. Orthodoxy, of whatever colour, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style.” Well, quite. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” Apply that to whichever politician you hate most; it’s just as true for all of them.

Today, as in 1946, none of his critiques should offend your own politics. Orwell was a devout Socialist, with the capital “S,” for all his adult life, and his uninterest in the United States is infamous. It is impossible to imagine him having a millisecond for Donald Trump the celebrity/businessman, let alone Donald Trump the head of state1, but a Socialist who can be evenhanded with both Soviet Russia and Oswald Mosley would have been big enough to handle him. Orwell hated fascists enough to go to Spain and get shot through the throat by one, and by the way if you haven’t read Homage to Catalonia put your computer in the fridge and go do that. But he also had the maybe the most remarkable sense of perspective ever used in the service of literature, which is why he can survive, not only as a stylist but as a polemicist, decades after every man and every creed he inveigled against has turned to ash.

And so Nineteen Eighty-Four itself has become a dying metaphor. Big Brother in the novel is a specific kind of evil, but in your newspaper he’s anything vaguely authoritarian covering not only Trump and Obama but Google and Apple. Any metaphor that means so much really means very little. The fact that alt-rightists aren’t using Emmanuel Goldstein as a metaphor for controlled opposition must prove the book is no longer consciously mined for ideas but rather jabbed to out of reflex, the same as Orwell’s other bugbears. (What, incidentally, is a bugbear? Christ, sorry, George.) The number of people who use Nineteen Eighty-Four to make a contemporary political point and display fresh insight may actually be zero. There are writers who, perhaps, have the originality and the knowledge of Orwell to do it, but they also have the wisdom not to try.

If the rest of Orwell’s dying metaphors are any sign, this process will not get better in our lifetimes. Therefore Cosh is tilting at a windmill. Come to think of it, Don Quixote is 400 years old and that literary jousting metaphor is still dying. So Orwell isn’t special, but unlike Cervantes at least he left instructions on what to do with a metaphorical invalid.

Author in embryo

By Benjamin Massey · June 29th, 2016 · No comments

You don’t often open a book to an introduction like this:

A book such as Captain in Calico would probably be even less likely to find a publisher today than sixty years ago – not because it isn’t excellently written, but because ripping yarns are hardly fashionable now – and we do not want readers to be deceived into thinking it is vintage George MacDonald Fraser, and of the standard of the Flashman novels or the McAuslan short stories. Indeed, we thought long and hard before allowing it to be published, and are only doing so because we believe that, as an early work, Captain in Calico is a delightful curiosity, one which we hope will provide fans of GMF with a fascinating insight into the inspirations and creative impulses that turned him into such a fine novelist.

No danger of that being quoted in the promotional material. Still less because that tantalizing leader was written by George MacDonald Fraser’s own children, filial piety overcome by the demands of honesty and taste1. Just to rub salt into the wound, Caro Fraser concludes the book by reproducing two letters from a literary agent who rejected the novel at the time, with unstinting criticism of why the thing was frankly unpublishable.

Maybe the Fraser clan can afford to be forthright. As that paragraph should have told you, Captain in Calico was the first (or at least the first surviving) attempt by ex-soldier, ex-door-to-door-encyclopedia-salesman, and then-journalist George MacDonald Fraser to write and publish a historical novel. Written, rejected, heavily revised, and rejected again, the manuscript was sealed up in a safe until his children, cataloging his library for a sale in 2014, came across both work and letters. The reason the novel can be published today is that, between those rejections and his death in 2008, Fraser wrote the twelve-volume Flashman series and established himself forever as one of the twentieth century’s cultural gems, even before you count his screenplays, his other novels, his two volumes of autobiography, the rollicking McAuslan short stories based on his life in the post-war British Army, or God so much else2.

It was all built atop bedrock of solid research from a breadth of sources no professional scholar could sneer at, and one of the chief joys of the Flashman Papers is the sheaf of footnotes providing a cornucopia of historical context, clarification, and even “corrections” to the “errors” of the fictional chronicler. Fraser was a journalist but he did his research all the same. Captain in Calico doesn’t show the same knack for bringing the distant past to life as his later work. The setting is the Caribbean in generic ol’ 17-some-odd, and despite era-appropriate set pieces there is little in the atmosphere to convince us this is really another time and another place.

Captain in Calico is also not funny. We get a couple good jokes but as the plot thickens the tone darkens. The titular Jack Rackham, a famous pirate of the 18th century known as “Calico Jack” for his flamboyant dress, starts out well enough but gets himself deep into the soup with, and thanks to, the ravishing and dangerous but inconstant Anne Bonney. To anybody who knows the story of Rackham and Bonney their fall is preordained, and there’s no swashbuckling fun about it. The denouement tries to reverse things but it is explained to the reader like a child, lest it look like too much. Much of the plot is maritime, inevitably for a pirate thriller, and Fraser was never, ever, a Patrick O’Brian in his ability to turn shipboard routine into something both engrossing and enthralling.

So what we have here is a historically uninteresting, serious novel by a man who came to fame for his hilarious, and historically brilliant, work. It is also, as the 50-year-old editor’s notes at the end agree, overwritten for what plot it tries to carry. There are two major episodes of betrayal, one telegraphed a hundred miles off and the other disposable. Unusually for a “ripping yarn” there is far more darkness than light; Flashman would always have that moment where he would stand at the top of a bluff watching the remains of the British army get pounded into pulp, and the horror of it would be brought to bear on the reader, but his is ultimately a happy existence—for Flashy, anyway. Neither Calico Jack Rackham, nor any of his friends, get that much.

So the surprise is that it’s still so likable. It turns out the one constant of George MacDonald Fraser is that he can write. Rackham is a classic anti-hero, bad but not wicked, rash but not stupid, vengeful but not malicious, and well worth following. Bonney could have been drawn more sharply but in her we get an early glimpse of Fraser’s power to create compelling women. Most of the secondary characters were bought off the rack which, in context, is no problem. The plot may not be classic stuff but, with Fraser’s nascent but charismatic prose, it works.

It’s more fun than another “serious” Fraser novel, The Candlemass Road, written in 1993. Like Captain in Calico, The Candlemass Road drew upon a setting that consistently fascinated Fraser: the Scottish Borders in the Elizabethan age, when tribes of English and Scottish reivers ceaselessly pillaged across (and along) the frontier despite the gallant efforts of a few lawful men, and with the active connivance of many who should have been lawful. It was an age of peace indistinguishable at times from war, when even the good guys were villains yet savagery was inhibited by unwritten rules and a perverse code of honour. The Candlemass Road can be a drag, written with an awkward combination of modern grammar in an Elizabethan mode, its main character too-obviously there to record what other, more interesting people are doing. The characters win their battles and it hardly matters an inch. Calico‘s Rackham has an unexpected chance to preserve his life, if not his fortune; Candlemass‘s Waitabout Noble gets a break, rejects it, and may live to regret it. It was that sort of place. Those borderlands were too big for one novel to change, and Fraser was too scrupulous to deny it. The Candlemass Road sags under the weight of authenticity. Fraser’s straight history of the border reivers, The Steel Bonnets, twenty-two years earlier, turned out to be a much better read.

He made up for that gloom in the end, though. Fraser’s last publication was The Reavers, essentially an adaptation of The Candlemass Road with the fun dial cranked up to eleven. Some characters appear nearly unchanged, others are given a quick makeover. The plot echoes The Candlemass Road for the first act then lurches off into wizards, warlocks, Spanish schemes, and ravishing bombshells taunting each other about their wardrobes. The Reavers knows exactly what sort of novel it is and includes stage directions, music cues, and enough deliberate anachronism to fill St Mary’s Loch. You could never make it into a movie, because no movie would be sufficiently movie-like. It’s an uninhibited entertainment and it succeeds because Fraser was such a good entertainer.

Though we couldn’t have known at the time, it wasn’t his first such adaptation. 1983’s The Pyrates has less in common plotwise with Captain in Calico than The Reavers with The Candlemass Road, but the two piratical books share a zest for swashbuckling that veered towards pathos in Calico and towards farce in Pyrates. Calico Jack Rackham is not a primary character in The Pyrates, but the good captain appears as the astute, brave, undisputed leader of the novel’s preposterous pirate gang, a sober gallant that seems to have come out of a completely different story. Well, now we know why. Anne Bonney is also there, with the sex drive of a small city, and late in the story the two share a quietly poignant parting that doesn’t really belong between two such secondary characters in such a goofy story. After reading Captain in Calico that, too, makes a lot of sense. Trust George MacDonald Fraser to get sentimental in a satire, particularly sentiment for something that, until now, no more than a dozen people had ever read.

Money, money, money / Must be funny / In the rich man’s world.

By Benjamin Massey · January 20th, 2016 · 1 comment

Thanks to Laura Payton via Twitter I find myself on a website, womenonbanknotes.ca, doing exactly what it says on the label: finding nominees for Canadian women on our banknotes. This is an argument many years old, but with Justin Trudeau in office advocating gestures of tokenism because it’s $CURRENT_YEAR the time is ripe for a revival. (Yes, the Queen has been on the money for the life of everybody reading this, but merely being the much-loved Canadian head of state for decades and maybe the world’s most famous living woman doesn’t count1. That’s the rule, don’t ask me.)

It’s true, Canada has no women except the Queen on our money, which is exactly what you should expect when you think about it. In this country public life was a predominantly male preserve until well into living memory, and apart from Her Majesty our nearest contemporary on a Canadian note is William Lyon Mackenzie King (died 1950). If we expect the people on our currency to have survived the passing of their own era with a certain timelessness, a completely random drawing of notable Canadians from fifty years ago or earlier would create an almost entirely male lineup. In practice, since the Bank of Canada has only ever put deceased prime ministers or reigning monarchs on our money, no Canadian-born woman has been eligible. Kim Campbell, prime minister for a few months before being blown up by Brian Mulroney’s grenades, will get there eventually, but admitting Campbell to the pantheon is rather too overt an admission of “the only thing that matters is her genitals.”2 Our history, where the public sphere was so overwhelmingly masculine for so long, means that a male lineup on the currency should not be viewed as a sign that present-day Canadian women are second-class. Yesterday’s feminists worked hard to change that, and the process is still on-going, but it’s too much to expect even the greatest revolution to apply retroactively.

But of course that’s the way some people do view it, or at least pretend to view it while making it quite clear they manage to overcome the pernicious messages allegedly drilled into the heads of the dwindling few who still use cash regularly. Anyway, what’s the harm? There’s no reason why prime ministers should dominate the currency, even if you’re going to have a hard time picking one to get rid of. King and Borden helped win world wars and the latter extended the vote to women into the bargain. Macdonald founded the country, and as the first francophone prime minister Laurier is considered almost an honourary co-founder, not to mention the patron saint of the Liberal Party. I can pick a prime minister who I’d happily drop for a worthy, non-political woman3. Probably so can you. But I think most of us would pick different people for very different reasons. We could get rid of Elizabeth… you know, the woman. Or sit around waiting for King Charles III, though I sense a greater degree of impatience than that.

Such a problem could be resolved if we could unite around a worthy figure of Canadian history. Agnes Macphail, a pacifist kook who advocated compulsory sterilization of the mentally unfit, is often suggested because she was the first woman elected to Parliament and appeared in a Canadian Heritage Minute on penal reform. Right behind her come the Famous Five, who won the right for women to be considered full “persons” in the political and judicial sense. Two of them, Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy, went on to minor post-Persons Case political careers, although not the sort you’d want to brag about in hindsight. That’s not necessarily a problem. Macdonald took bribes, King was an amoral schemer who was probably literally insane, people are products of their time. But with such light public achievements the case for Macphail, or any of the Famous Five, rests disproportionately on being moral exemplars. Otherwise we’re back to picking people purely because of their gender, and at least Kim Campbell actually was head of the government.

So we go back to womenonbanknotes.ca, and see how far into the depths of Canadian history our people can plunge at need. Macphail and the Five are there, of course, God love ’em. So is Campbell. We have assorted aboriginal and black women whose popular knowledge and impact on history was nil but became convenient rallying points as identity politics two-fers. We have the joke entries, the accidental joke entries, current politicians, the randoms who no doubt led interesting and worthy lives but hardly qualify for what is, in practical terms, the highest honour a country can bestow unto one of its sons or daughters. Singers, actresses, ballerinas, “the first woman to” do something uninteresting. Les grandes dames of Canadian arts are well-represented: Margaret Laurence, Emily Carr, Alice Munro, my god even Atwood. Imagine that if you dare4.

Oh, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. If we must have a woman of Canadian history other than one of the Queens on the money, she would be my pick. Significant in her day while standing the test of time; remarkable, given how seldom juvenile fiction does. YTV thinks there are viewers to be wrung out of Anne of Green Gables even today. She even passes the formidable “has a single non-Canadian ever heard of her” test. Without a doubt Montgomery is the most recognition-worthy of any Canadian artist, living or dead, male or female. Yet I can’t totally sell myself on her importance, not more than William Lyon Mackenzie King’s, not even more than Pierre Trudeau’s. One of Montgomery’s online supporters asks “the UK will honour author Jane Austen on bank notes, shouldn’t we celebrate the author of the famous Anne of Green Gables series?” On a couple levels, that seems to answer itself.

It’s so easy to condescend, to say of a woman like (for example) Mona Louise Parsons, “oh, what an example she is!” with complete truth, but implicitly lowering our standards, judging the women by a lower bar than we do the men. We are not looking for good stories. We are looking for History with a capital H. It doesn’t have to be military or political history, but it has to register. If we play the game, if we divy up these honours according to whichever group of identity politicians thinks they need “recognition” in this specific form, it will cease to be an honour at all.

To be frank, if the nature of our society means that no qualifying Canadian woman exists yet, we should wait for her. Be in no doubt, she’ll come. She’s come elsewhere, in countries close to ours. Give it a few decades and Margaret Thatcher will be on the pound. History is in no rush, so don’t cheapen this honour for the woman who earns it.

Looking for the bear necessities

By Benjamin Massey · October 28th, 2015 · No comments

On Sunday my very occasional soccer co-blogger suggested I discuss Marian Engel’s seminal novel Bear, about an archivist who gets into bestiality on an otherwise-uninhabited island.

I won’t bother trying to shock you with the book’s content, or its winning the 1976 Governor-General’s Award for English-Language Fiction. Last year Bear became a meme, was reprinted by McClelland and Stewart, and was discussed in our newspapers. Your amazement is doubtless exhausted. While the CanLit shelves of my local used bookstores groan under unsaleable Engel doorstops, I had to buy Bear new. Dodgy though the story looks, there were reasons to take the trouble.

For one, the problems with Bear may reflect the Canadian literary establishment rather than the work. A smutty novella won the country’s highest literary honour and is still talked up by the bastards who got Margaret Atwood a career. Insulting to be sure, but a reflection of its environment. We can’t get so caught up hating the CanLit circlejerk that we miss who’s doing the jerking.

The cardinal sin of the Munros, the Margarets, the Couplands, the prize-winners in this country more-or-less generally, is tedium. Chapters of drivel, lapsing into simple illiteracy that relieves the horrified mind like acid rain in Hell. Tortured symbolism, banal internal conflicts for characters you want to die, the pathetic fallacy turning an afternoon steel-grey. The phrase “coming-of-age” becomes the torturer’s jackboot outside your cell door. Say what you like about a graphic account of bear sex but it’s unlikely to be boring.

For two, the book is quite short.


So is it good? No, of course it isn’t. Structurally it feels under-revised and tossed together, giving the impression Engel made it up as she went along. Actual bear sex comes only two-thirds of the way in, and (unforgivably) there’s some human sex in the middle, not the sort of thing I was after at all. The main character, Lou, is an archivist representing an institute which has inherited an out-of-place Victorian house, boasting a potentially magnificent library and a bear, on an island in Ontario cottage country. The house comes from a family of colonels, and we learn mid-way through that the most recent was a woman. This twist is not foreshadowed and does not become important. It also introduces minor plot holes, worth only a footnote1. We also learn late that Lou’s only recent sexual experiences were joyless sessions with her boss. The boss appears in the first pages and there is nothing of lovers between them; after this revelation his letters abruptly have a lonely, even jealous tone.

Then the sentences. Sometimes short, punchy. A barrage of full stops. Denoting breathless intensity. Meaningless. Professionals should catch this in editing, but Bear is not thought through.

Apart from the bear sex the plot could be standard computer-generated CanLit horribleness. Lou is a Frustrated City Girl in a Life Crisis resolved by Introspection in the Wild. It is a Coming-of-Age Story (screams, thrashes against restraints). There are long descriptions of scenery and flora. We traipse through the protagonist’s preposterous mind, and Engel shows off her knowledge of books. It is a frank, revealing reflection of the ennui of modern living, quintessentially Canadian because it has some lakes in it, etc. etc. etc. ad nauseum ad nauseum forever.

Anyway, Lou falls in love with the bear. She tries to have sex with the bear. She finds this difficult, because he is a bear, but he’s enthusiastic enough about cunnilingus and doesn’t object to lips around his genitals. She catalogues the library, and oddly-relevant notes about bears written by the previous owner contrive to fall out of books at convenient moments.

Engel was a second-wave feminist. Lou works at length to arouse the bear sexually, and when she finally succeeds the bear quite literally tears a strip off her. I would love to take this as symbolism for how if a woman looks to her own pleasure she will be happy and safe, but turning a man on is how you get the claws. Unfortunately she also has sex with an actual man who fails to satisfy but doesn’t kill her even a little bit, so I’m not sure that works. The clawing seems like another improvised development, an excuse to get Lou off the island with a new appreciation for life and her belatedly blossoming womanhood. No, if this is sincerely about anything it is a woman who, blaming her unsatisfying life on unsatisfying surroundings, loses her mind in self-imposed isolation and is brought back to reality months later by pain slashing through her delusion.

It’s not sincerely about anything, though, is it? The nature scenes. The banal plot. The characters who are cardboard cutouts of human beings2. The dreary internal drama. The preposterous details of the premise, from those serendipitous slips full of bear lore to the very idea, acknowledged in the text, that there’s a tame grizzly on an island in northern Ontario at all. The digressions – you’d be stunned how many irrelevancies you can pack into a short book about sex with animals. Even the sloppy writing. This is satire, surely. Mockery of the nature-obsessed emptily-introspective call-of-the-wild empty-life literary nightmare that made celebrities out of Engel’s peers. “You think you love the wilderness…” I can hear her muttering behind the typewriter.

This is not an original theory. John Semley hit the mark in The Globe and Mail last August (and got badly blurbed on the back of the new edition for his trouble). I read his review only after reading the novel, and our conclusions were independent. Maybe the satirical effect is unintentional; it’s very dry, apart from when Lou wants the bear to rip her head off obviously, and forty years after publication we must be missing something of the Zeitgeist. But start thinking of the book in that way and the slim chance of taking it seriously evaporates. Even as a satire Bear‘s not great, but suddenly it has a point besides proving how broad-minded you are.

One passage, as Lou reads the autobiography of Victorian mountebank and hanger-on of poets Edward Trelawny, amounts almost to a declaration:

She began to read, enthralled. She had never read this book before, though the subject interested her. Why? Someone, some scholar, had told her it was a pile of rubbish. Most autobiography is rubbish, she thought. People remember things all wrong. But what amusing rubbish this is! What a man! Big. Abusive. A giant. A real descendant of the real Trelawny, the one about the twenty thousand Cornishmen. Oh, I’ll believe he’s a liar.

Look at the bear, dozing and drowsing there, thinking his own thoughts. Like a dog, like a groundhog, like a man: big.

Trelawny’s good. He speaks in his own voice. He is unfair, but he speaks in his own voice.

The small caps are in the original. Perhaps Engel, bless her, genuinely thought that writing a ludicrous, contrived book then adding especially weird sex was a unique contribution to literature. Or maybe she knew exactly what she was doing. In these death-of-the-author days, it doesn’t really matter.

If Bear is satire, what else is? Margaret Atwood on the cover calls it “plausible as kitchens,” which is the kind of phrase a hostile critic would make up to mock her. The late Margaret Laurence provided praise so generic it could apply to anything3. Atwood, Laurence, and Engel were contemporaries in Toronto; if anyone was in on a joke, it was them. Laurence, by the way, was on the Governor-General’s Award panel that year with Mordecai Richler, who knew a troll when he saw one. The joke would have been somewhat at Laurence’s expense4, as well as fellow-panelist Alice Munro’s, but this disproves nothing.

After all, who is the joke really on? The National Post‘s Emily Keeler, who’s never written about a Canadian author she didn’t adore, called Bearthe best Canadian novel of all time” and “funny and sweet.” Did we read different books? At PEN Canada Andrew Pyper mostly praises Bear for being “inappropriate” but does mention that it’s “convincing.” Is… is he okay? CBC called it one of “100 novels that make you proud to be Canadian;” there’s a thought to keep you up at night. Other readers take this story of a dull woman on a dull island reading dull books and intermittently trying to suck off a grizzly as farce, which if anything is worse. It’s that horrible CanLit circlejerk again. This is the major work of an Official Canadian Writer, a Torontonian academic who won prizes and had prizes named after her. Moreover, it is daring, and bold, and what with all the bestiality is unappealing to ordinary readers and other uncultured squares. Therefore it must be great, somehow.

Now that’s funny.

The novel that lost its argument

By Benjamin Massey · October 5th, 2015 · No comments

Nicholas Monsarrat, a hobby sailor who became a naval reserve officer on corvettes during the Second World War, is best known for his novel The Cruel Sea, about a hobby sailor who became a naval reserve officer on corvettes during the Second World War. After the war Monsarrat joined the British civil service and served in various far-flung African posts1, then turned to writing. One of his novels was 1956’s The Tribe That Lost Its Head, about a far-flung African post which the British civil service inadvertently helps into chaos2.

My God, you’re never going to see this book in a university class. Even for me it is wrong-headedly reactionary. Monsarrat’s narrative defends, among other things, a cultural prohibition on racially mixed marriages and barring black men from a hotel bar. The essential tone of the novel is that the British are quite justified remaining in colonial Africa as masters and commanders, and that the black natives in some of these places are presently incapable of self-rule and must be guided to that point (only some, since another important point is that “Africa” isn’t the land of one-size-fits-all). The phrase “white man’s burden” is used only mockingly, but the attitude is embraced sincerely.

A modern reader will see a lot of racism portrayed favourably (seriously, a whites-only bar?!). You’ll never acquit the novel of that charge, though it’s fairly good all the same. However, in Monsarrat’s day the term “racialism” was more common, and associated with overt notions of white supremacy. Saying that a given people weren’t ready for the trials of self-government could be quite common among people who would never think about snubbing a black visitor or using a slur even behind his back. The modern idea of racism, which encompasses many paternalistic and cultural notions that were popular in living memory as well as the idea that one skin colour is biologically superior, is a different thing. In that light, as well as in light of how we’ve come to think in the past sixty years, how nasty is Monsarrat’s fictional perspective?

For sure, the American publishers of my cheap 1976 copy did Monsarrat no favours.


I’d be embarrassed to look somebody in the eye while buying a book like that. That is pornographic; undiluted black-savages-white-maidens torture porn for furtive reading alone on a Tuesday night. Monsarrat liked to spice up his books &emdash; The Cruel Sea contains one of literature’s more flagrant romantic plot tumours, and The Tribe That Lost Its Head has plenty of unerotic sex &emdash; but that cover is too much. Monsarrat’s literary sex is faintly absurd, coming a disastrous 60% of the way down the road of euphemism. It will not turn anybody on. That cover will arouse people I have no desire to meet.

It’s also unrepresentative. The “quote” on the back cover does not appear anywhere in the book. While it describes something like a plot point, the actual events are different and the lip-licking relish entirely absent. The gurning close-cropped generic savage on the front wielding his badly-drawn blade has no resemblance to any character, and as for the dead, naked white woman, fictional reality is far more horrifying. This novel was written during the Mau Mau rising in Kenya, an eight-year campaign of butchery and atrocity, and the connection would have been clear to contemporary readers. A decade and a half later, such a novel apparently had to be marketed to the sadist.

Anybody opening The Tribe That Lost Its Head looking for delicious shivers of barbarian pleasure would be disappointed. The novel is rather long and slow-paced. Rebellion and horror come, but not until two-thirds of the way in. The meat of the novel is preparing for a nightmare that we can all anticipate, establishing the mistakes, bad faith, and flawed personalities that would lead to disaster for everyone concerned. That, not a publisher’s lewd embellishments, is where The Tribe That Lost Its Head becomes reactionary.

Monsarrat’s was a fast-dying point of view even in 1956, and like many reactionaries he carefully shows what he isn’t. The action is set on the fictional African island of Pharmamaul, a British colony off the west coast of South Africa, and a few South African characters appear. They are authentic racialists of the era, freely using slurs in the hearing of their targets and viewing the black natives as fit only for servitude, interchangeable kaffirs worth no more consideration than a not-very-favoured dog. There’s a line and the South Africans cross it. Apartheid is bad, treating people as animals is bad.

Gotwels, chief of the U-Maulas3, is a revolting creature, but the entire point of him is that he is far from representative, a dark man to bring on dark times. He is spurred into action by Zuva Katsaula, a native Pharmamaulan educated and ruined at Oxford; addicted not to pleasure but power and self-righteousness. Each loathes the other and will betray him as soon as they have driven off the white man. They are bound together only by lust for power and a sexual, pagan oath Zuva swears midway through the book, the only real ooga-booga-darkest-Africa moment in the novel and as usual with Monsarrat’s sex described so semi-opaquely it becomes goofy rather than mystical or arousing.

Zuva and Gotwels get their chance because of weakness and malice that crosses racial lines. Dinamaula, the new chief of the dominant Maulas, is another young Oxford-educated man flying home to take his inheritance. He is progressive, and not quite entirely good, and if he obstructs white authority as it tries to maintain order it is only because white authority, in the person of British administrator Andrew Macmillan, was so obstructive to him. Dinamaula gives an off-the-cuff interview on the plane stating his plans for his country, the putrid yellow journalist torques his words for maximum effect, and his first meeting with Macmillan, the man whose cooperation is essential, is a harshly-worded lecture from an adult to a child when Dinamaula did nothing really wrong. It gets worse from there.

Macmillan is a perfect Monsarrat character; the old, infinitely experienced, underpaid, overworked colonial administrator, loving and beloved by his servant, the man who knows every man and every twig on his beat… but that knowledge amounts to less than he thinks, and his good intentions pave the road to Hell. He favours progress, but on his terms, and even if his terms amount to progress at the pace he thinks the Maulas can stand that rigidity ruins everything he worked for. Dinamaula, immediately under Macmillan’s heel, reacts by getting closer to the media that caused the whole mess, withdrawing his cooperation with the British authorities. He speculates that he might marry a white woman, which would go against all custom4. Half-begrudgingly, he helps that aforementioned yellow journalist make a scene by marching into the bar where he knows black people are not welcome. Again, the argument comes down to “custom” versus the Western ideal of racial justice and self-determination. Macmillan’s insistence on the former proves fatal.

Nor is Macmillan the only white man responsible for trouble. Some are basically stupid, like the plantation owner Oosthuizen. Some, like the Governor, are competent men who underestimate key details. The out-and-out villains of the piece are Zuva, Gotwels, and the vast, all-white press gallery: first the old-fashioned, brilliant, and utterly amoral Tulbach Browne, then the varied but equally cretinous members of the fifth estate his rabble-rousing brings in his wake. Men and women who would make Waugh’s Daily Brute run for cover; if I say that there is a tabloid sex-maniac named Raper, whose (consensual, thank God) liaisons provide most of the comedy of the later chapters, you will get the idea. Gotwels would have been stuck as a disgusting minor power, and Zuva a demagogic non-entity, if Browne and the newspapers hadn’t roused England (and therefore the colonial administration) and Dinamaula purely for the sake of sales. If you think Stephen Harper is hard on the media, try Nicholas Monsarrat on for size.

Yet this is no argument for black self-rule. The would-be rulers are debauched, power-mad, or simply savage. There are wise men among the Maulas but little group wisdom. The Maulas and U-Maulas are not generic black villains waiting to rape white women, and we are shown the internal struggle and oppression it takes to bring about barbarism, but the barbarism does come and is ultimately put down by force. Macmillan is catastrophically wrong in detail, but he is not wrong in principle, and by novel’s end our bright-eyed protagonist, new to the country, is acknowledging it. Even Dinamaula comes to understand, if he does not necessarily agree. The day will come for Pharmamaul self-rule, but it is not today or even tomorrow, and until then the British must guide the natives as best as fallible humans can.

Monsarrat was an intelligent man who served in and around colonial governments of the era, but we have the advantage of sixty years’ more experience. In the last chapter, he lays out some editorial in the form of the chief of the (fictional) Scheduled Territories Office, telling our returned protagonist the facts of life. They have not aged gracefully. The Central African Federation5 is cited as, hopefully, a model for the future. Five years after The Tribe That Lost Its Head‘s publication the Federation had broken up. One of the constituent countries, Zambia, had 19 years of single-party rule but is in pretty good shape for the region. Another, Malawi, had the brutal Hastings Banda as President-for-Life for 28 years and is currently both destitute and semi-oppressed. The third was Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe, and no more need be said. Monsarrat was right when he condemned the excesses of apartheid-style exploitation and said they could not last, but he failed to foresee the excesses that would be required to round off the fatherly education of peoples he thought necessary.

It’s true that many a post-colonial African country has collapsed into just the type of failed state Monsarrat warns against, but even the strongest European determination didn’t stop that. Four years after Monsarrat’s book was published France finally gave up on Algeria, allegedly an integral part of the Republic, after hundreds of thousands of deaths and one of the most brutal “counter-insurgencies” of the post-1945 epoch. Many other African countries, some as cherished as Algeria and some less, went the same way, and then we spin our eyes to Vietnam and the butcher’s bill for such paternalism starts to turn the stomach. For Monsarrat these were current events, for us it is history, and history has not been kind.

In the book, the Pharmamaul rebellion is more-or-less crushed in a day. In reality, it was never, ever so easy, and the price not nearly so cheap. It was a price government after government decided they could not pay, and for that matter one they could not levy on a native population with no say in the matter. Sure, The Tribe That Lost Its Head is reactionary, but it’s not rubbish, because it gives us a look back at the thoughts of a well-informed man at a time when modern conclusions weren’t yet obvious.

The more things change…

By Benjamin Massey · September 22nd, 2015 · No comments

The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like. It is this habit of mind, among other things, that has made political prediction in our time so remarkably unsuccessful.

— George Orwell, “As I Please” #51, Tribune, December 8, 1944

This post contains spoilers that may surprise readers unfamiliar with my opinions

By Benjamin Massey · September 14th, 2015 · No comments

Once, civilised people knew not to mention the ending of the hot new movie to the person standing in the ticket line, and that was fine. Then we were asked not to tell sports results to people who might have taped the game, and it was a little absurd, with its “here come the EPL scores so TURN AWAY NOW!” rituals, but ultimately a very minor problem. If you know a friend is reading a book, don’t volunteer the ending; common courtesy1. Who could argue with it?

Just watch me.

In the era of the PVR, Netflix, and centuries of literature on demand in your pocket, the spoiler alert has become a social leviathan. What was once a targeted act of minor politeness has become a general obligation. Talk about a popular TV show that aired the night, hell, the week, before, and the odds are good one of your companions will grimace and say “I haven’t seen it yet,” as if his virginal ears may not be defiled by knowledge of the future. Online communities devoted to a work enforce strict “no spoilers!” rules about it. Websites and blog posts, even ones like this where the drift of the conversation is obvious even to the illiterate, feel obliged to put up “spoiler alert!” just to stave off complaints from moronic Googling undergraduates. I’m doing just that in the next paragraph and I’m an asshole. And we go to all this effort, all this inconvenience, all this deliberate obfuscation of perfectly good conversation for, as near as makes no difference, no reason beyond inane superstition.

Take Kingsley Amis’s Ending Up, which most recently brought this to mind. The novel is, as usual for Kingsley, quite funny. The five main characters, three old men and two old women living together on account of indigence and the lack of any other human connections, are irritating. No, more than irritating, they are Irritation, in Terry Pratchett small caps. Laid low by living long lives of little consequence, turned almost inhuman by caring either too little or too much, with nothing to live for beyond penny-ante feuds and acts of meaningless selfishness (and even the self-martyrdom of one character is selfishness of a sort). In the hands of the master they are a pleasure to read about, but their company would be unbearable in less time than it took you to finish this sentence. The few family members who put up with the old bastards count the hours until they pass, and so vividly does Amis draw them up that such callousness seems reasonable. And (spoilers for 40-year-old novels, chum) in a couple pages at the end, all five accidentally and individually kill themselves in perfectly suitable manners.

It’s cruel in a way that beats kindness. First, most importantly, it’s funny, even if the humour’s black as pitch. Second, one character was already dying with neither haste nor dignity. Another, as demonstrated in a completely straight and heart-touching paragraph that shows why Kingsley Amis was a great writer rather than merely a great comic writer, was plunging down an unstoppable decline that makes her sudden death look pleasant. Not one of the five has any life in the ordinary sense, no joys, no consolations, just a useless existence drawing none-too-rapidly to a close. Their deaths are miserable and squalid to an extreme, and that’s the joke, but they still beat the alternative. All five are, apart from the litany of their other sins, such bores, such unpleasant people on so low a level, that between the shortness of the book and the abrupt climax, one suspects the author dispatched his characters so brutally because he couldn’t kill the vices that made them.

Funny, yes. But unexpected, like a punch to the solar plexus. Primo spoiler bait. Yet far from laughing in sudden shock, it took me an embarrassingly long time to enjoy that most conclusive of conclusions. Would knowing about it in advance have hurt that moment? On the contrary, forewarned, I would have been less surprised and better-equipped to handle a beautifully-constructed finale that deserves more than the rhetorical blunt force trauma of a twist ending.

Ending Up is a notable novel by a major twentieth-century author, was recently reprinted, and yet if I specifically search the Web for people openly discussing its ending I come up empty. Reviews galore saying how the book’s conclusion made the reader laugh aloud, but the cult of the spoiler keeps us from mentioning what we actually read, and actually liked, about the final pages of a book published in nineteen-seventy-fucking-three. Every plot element in a tale anybody hasn’t yet read is bound to bring up a cry of “omg spoilers!”, whereas there are hardly any cases where it would make a difference and a few where foreknowledge would positively help.

The twist to Martin Amis’s hit Money, to stick with a theme, was spoiled for me when I was hardly into the book. Yet the part where the shocking swerve was “revealed” was also one of the few altogether enjoyable scenes in a novel I didn’t much care for. Perhaps, had I been genuinely shocked, I would have liked the book better, but given my opinion of other times Martin Amis acts like he’s cleverer than he is, I doubt it. It stood, or in this case fell, independently. Certainly surprise plays a role in fiction, and there is a place for discretion, but “discretion” doesn’t jive with “spoiler avoidance as a universal imperative.” How shallow would a work be if the most important thing about it was its unexpectedness?

Of course these things are personal but they can be personal to a lot of people. In 1999, when professional wrestling’s WWF and WCW were locked in a TV ratings war, WCW obtained the results to a WWF title fight2 and announcer Tony Schiavone read the result on air. “We understand that Mick Foley, who wrestled here one time as Cactus Jack, is going to win their world title. Ha! That’s gonna put some butts in the seats.” It did, too. Thousands of viewers, spoilered to death, flipped over to WWF to watch the popular Foley. WCW’s own title fight that evening featured a shocking swerve nobody saw coming, a surprise so complete that it is still discussed today. That swerve helped destroy the entire company. (Spoiler alert for the destiny of incompetent late-’90s wrestling companies who thought the sanctity of spoilers could override entertainment.)

We must be ruthless with those who insist upon the fetish of the spoiler. Discuss that Game of Thrones episode at the water cooler with the pitiless efficiency of a Bolshevik executioner. Twitter away about Benedict Cumberbatch playing Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness, and when someone says “omg spoilers!” tell him to fuck off. Do not police cultural conversation for the benefit of the tardy. Edit the ending of a novel into its Wikipedia article, and when somebody objects laugh in his figurative face3. This is the only way people will learn. Eventually they’ll pick up that book or watch that movie anyway, and discover how little a difference it actually made.