‘The perennial lodestone of liberalism’ – BOOK REVIEW: Toby Manning’s “John Le Carré and the Cold War”

John Le Carré and the Cold War
Toby Manning

London: Bloomsbury, 2018

Toby Manning - JLC and the Cold War

le Carré’s position on communism was considerably closer to that of the British state than is critically acknowledged or popularly understood. (Manning, p.11)

This book is an important intervention in JLC studies, analysing six George Smiley-centric novels in considerable depth. Manning places the novels in historical context and employs rigorous close-reading in order to shed light on political ideology within the novels. He focuses not just on what is there, but is also what is not there; developing an argument that JLC fundamentally elides any deep discussion of communism as an ideology or cause.

Whether central or ancillary, Smiley has always embodied, contained and ‘resolved’ these novels’ ideological dilemmas: he is the perennial lodestone of liberalism. (Manning, p.183)

Where many writers in Britain ignore liberalism and capitalism as powerful ideological forces, Manning carefully defines and inteprets them. This is especially the case with liberalism: he teases out the contradictions between the individualist, imperialist and often authoritarian Hobbesian strain and milder, twentieth-century social liberalism. Indeed, he locates these as tensions in the ‘national ego’ which are embodied by George Smiley, who is contradictorily portrayed as sometimes a humanistic arbiter and at other times as a forceful, illiberal agent who brings victorious closure to the narratives. GS’s knowledge empiricism is also identified and placed in an intended binary with the unbending, ideological communist enemy, represented by Karla.

Manning makes a powerful argument that JLC’s Cold War fiction fundamentally backs the hegemonic Western Cold War position of ‘containment’, and does not, as many critics have argued, posit a moral equivalence between liberalism and communism. There is typically some acknowledgment of ‘our’ side having to do bad things, but these are invariably shown to be necessary to contain an ‘other’, alien communism. Where communism is mentioned, it is always with emotive language such as ‘evil’. Manning identifies this treatment of the communist enemy as Manichean and not all that far from Ian Fleming’s presentations of the eastern foe. In this argument, he builds on Andrew Hammond’s wide survey of British Cold War Fiction in 2013. As I have argued previously, one of the few writers to seriously question the West’s geopolitical position was Graham Greene. Manning locates Greene alongside Eric Ambler as being fundamentally influenced by their experience of the 1930s and the ‘Popular Front’.

Manning’s other advance is to find references in the texts to the contemporary domestic politics; while there is generally denigration of working-class geographies in the novels – such as the municipal blocks of flats in The Looking Glass War (1965) – Call for the Dead (1961) is said to differ. This occurs in its climactic action, where Smiley kills Dieter Frey and Smiley’s remorse is said to incorporate ideas of ‘home-grown radicalism’, with  textual quotations from an 1830 folk song. Manning describes JLC as usually endorsing ‘an essentially establishment England’ of public-school and Oxbridge; just for a brief moment, here in the first Smiley novel, are glimpses of the domestic political alternative of the Diggers, the Jacobins, John Ball, Williams Blake and Morris. This implicit alternative emerges when Smiley doubts his own ‘gentlemanly’ status, having carried out the brutal act of murdering Frey. Manning’s attention to detail has certainly made me want to go back and read this novel again; exactly what you want from any such academic study.

Manning also deftly interweaves Britain’s post-colonial angst with its Cold War geopolitics; explicitly avoiding the sort of compartmentalising that too many scholars engage in. The main novels where Britain’s colonial legacy features are Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).

This book is the culmination of wide reading, with skilful reference across a range of secondary texts used to place the six primary texts in a rich historical context. There’s a precision in dating the novels’ publication and in identifying the major world and UK events surrounding them. He also utilises contemporary UK and US book reviews to highlight how JLC has previously been denied canonical status by taste arbiters.

Manning is a le Carré enthusiast and scholar who has also written popular music journalism.* He astutely situates these novels in post-WW2 cultural context while elucidating their explicit and implicit politics. Even adherents of the view that these novels are ‘just’ exciting thrillers will be convinced by Manning’s comprehensive investigation of their politics. He convincingly establishes just how wedded to the ‘establishment’ status quo these novels are, always giving us Smiley’s or other upper-class characters’ perspective and barely ever allowing working-class or communist characters a hearing.

Manning places this ‘repression’ of other voices within the context of the mid-1970s. With developments in Vietnam, Portugal, Jamaica, Laos and Angola, the West’s Cold War ‘victory’ seemed far from assured. He also identifies just how anti-American The Honourable Schoolboy is, with JLC again endorsing Smiley’s urbane, traditional but muscular liberalism as the prefered way. The Circus’s intractable bureaucracy is analogised to the Russians’, with Smiley often criticising it, only to himself ultimately steer the UK state bureaucracy to notable victories.

The careful elision of the concept of social class only proves its very power within these fascinating novels, with JLC using a ‘mythic register’ in presenting Oxford, Cornwall and spies’ training centre Sarratt as the true England and Smiley’s liberal, gentlemanly habitus as justly leading to victory in the Cold War.

* I really hope Manning gets his planned ‘folk-spy hybrid’ novel Border Ballads published! He can be heard mentioning this and discussing his JLC book here.

Advertisements

David Edgar’s Play for Today DESTINY (1978) – 3-part essay on British Television Drama website

“An ideology red white and blue in tooth and claw”

I am delighted to announce that I have a three-part epic essay about David Edgar’s 1978 Play for Today, ‘Destiny’, currently being published on British Television Drama website. This is a significant TV play (currently viewable here) that dramatises the insurgent far-right and British national identity in the late 1970s. I have been researching this TV play for eight months and have included e-mail interviews with the writer and producer, as well as extensive use of the BBC WAC in Caversham (thanks to Matthew Chipping). I have strong memories of studying the original play during my English degree at Cambridge, supervised by John Lennard – among many texts on the Post-1970 unit, this was the one that fascinated me the most, and it has been wonderful to delve much deeper into how it was adapted for television.

Thanks go to David Edgar and Margaret Matheson for their detailed e-mails with their memories of the play and conscientious answers to my questions. Thanks also to David Rolinson for his tireless work in editing this juggernaut of a piece (originally 20,000 plus words!), as well as Mark Sinker*, Justin Lewis**, Ian Greaves and John Williams who have assisted with queries and research.

The essay can be read here:

Part 1 (David Edgar, the theatrical Destiny and British historical context) http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=7040

Part 2 (production of the TV play, its broadcast and its reception) http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=7043

Part 3 (analysis of the play and its afterlife and Edgar and Matheson’s subsequent careers)
http://www.britishtelevisiondrama.org.uk/?p=7046

*Who knows much more about English Baroque music than I.
**Who knows much more about UK chart history than I.

Tom May
Newcastle Upon Tyne

Conference paper: Not so ‘Special’ a Relationship? Cold War geopolitical history in the 1983 adaptation of Graham Greene’s “The Honorary Consul”

Go here to read and / or download my paper, which I delivered at Plymouth University three Sundays ago; it concerns the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s The Honorary Consul. This was part of the excellent Spies on British Screens inter-disciplinary conference, organised by Dr Nicholas Barnett and Dr Laura Crossley, which brought together many disciplines and ideas. I will be writing further reflections on this event here in the near future.

The contested politics of Graham Greene on film: the critical reception and context of The Honorary Consul (1983)

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

This article seeks to supplement my academic paper on the 1983 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s own favourite of his novels The Honorary Consul, giving more detailed attention to the critical reception it received, some further narrative history of its production and focusing on the contexts of the personnel involved.

  1. His own and others’ worst critic: Greene, cinema and adaptations

As Hand and Pursell state, Greene was one of the twentieth century’s ‘most emblematic writers’.[1] They also argue that Greene was ‘one of the first British authors to be influenced by cinema’.[2] He opened A Sort of Life (1971), his first volume of autobiography, with an amused recollection of his father’s allowing his senior boys to go to the cinema to see Tarzan, ‘under the false impression that it was an educational film of anthropological interest, and ever after he regarded the cinema with a sense of disillusion and suspicion.’[3] Unlike his father Greene was a committed cineaste and twentieth-century man par example, admiring cinema’s unique possibilities. However, as his views on films as critic and as viewer of adaptations of his own works attest, he was often aghast at the medium’s shortcomings.

The Third Man (1949) won the accolade of ‘greatest’ ever British film in the BFI’s 1999 poll.[4] While Greene liked that film – which hadn’t been an adaptation as he had written the novelisation after his inspired ad hoc creation of the script based on a visit to Vienna – it wasn’t quite his own favourite of his adaptations. In 1984, he stated this was The Fallen Idol (1948) and also expressed a liking for The Confidential Agent (1945), Brighton Rock (1947), The Heart of the Matter (1953; ‘good film, but I didn’t like the book much’!), the ‘not too bad’ Our Man in Havana (1960) and England Made Me (1972).[5] Most of these were British-made, or Carol Reed directed.

In the same live Q&A interview with Quentin Falk, Greene expressed hatred for many adaptations of his work: This Gun for Hire (1940) and its remake, the James Cagney-directed Short Cut to Hell (1957), The Ministry of Fear (1943), The Man Within (1947), The Fugitive (1947), The Quiet American (1958), Travels with My Aunt (1972; ‘no money at all’) and The Human Factor (1979).[6] There were films he quite liked but felt were spoiled by acting performances: Van Johnson in The End of the Affair (1955). He also amusingly discussed the dreadful 21 Days (1937), which he himself adapted from a John Galsworthy short story, which he even attacked himself in a review for the Spectator!

Thames’ television drama anthology series of adaptations Shades of Greene (1975-6) – to be the subject of further research and analysis – was well regarded by the writer; he only disliked four out of the eighteen episodes. He also said that three or four of these were among the very best of his adaptations, specifically naming ‘A Dream of a Strange Land’, ‘Two Gentle People’ and ‘Under the Garden’.[7]

  1. A tortuous genesis: bringing The Honorary Consul to screen

High Noon director Fred Zinnemann was the first to express an interest in directing a screen version of The Honorary Consul.[8] Peter Duffell spent five years (1973-8) trying to set up a film version.[9] In the September 1984 ‘Guardian Lecture’ at the National Film Theatre, secretly filmed by the BBC against Greene’s wishes, he expressed his admiration for the Duffell-directed England Made Me (1972) and claimed that Duffell’s first-draft script of The Honorary Consul was ‘very good’.[10] In June 1974, Greene had no objection to Robert Redford being cast as Plarr, ‘if you have to have an American’ and a year later suggested Jack Nicholson as ideal for the part.[11] Greene had even went so far as to suggest locations; however, Duffell ‘faced obstacles at every turn’, while the likes of Redford and Pacino shunned the chance to play Plarr, and, after five years’ labour, he had to give up.[12] Orson Welles, Zinnemann again and Louis Malle were linked with the project, before, at Richard Burton’s urging, Norma Heyman secured the rights in 1978, with Duffell as intermediary. Burton, prominent again following the success of Equus (1977), had been keen on playing Fortnum.[13] Duffell’s ‘literal’ script was then abandoned, in favour of a new one from playwright Christopher Hampton.[14] Heyman had thought Hampton’s play Savages ‘remarkable’ and allowed the playwright to be ‘rather radical’ with the novel.[15]

Peter Duffell (b.1937- ) – one of Britain’s most underrated directors, according to Christopher Lee.

Approached by Heyman at the end of 1981, John Mackenzie was best known for Play for Todays such as ‘Just a Boy’s Game’ and ‘Red Shift’, and films The Long Good Friday and A Sense of Freedom.[16] Some of this work can be characterised as displaying some of the popular vulgarity and politicisation that Greene wanted to see in cinema. Mackenzie had been scheduled in 1981-2 to direct the BBC’s adaptation of Smiley’s People, but for ‘various reasons’ didn’t. When profiled in the Daily Telegraph, Mackenzie mentioned The Comedians as ‘absolutely awful […] It must have been the worst’ Graham Greene film adaptation.[17]

Caine, interviewed in the New York Times to promote the film, was settled in Beverly Hills, newly-married and learning to drive.[18] Of his performance as the titular Charley Fortnum, Caine states: ‘I’m here to make you feel his humanity’, expounding upon his acting technique of listening intently to the other actors.[19] He is invariably aided in this by using his humanising ‘lizard-like peepers’, as Andrew Pulver has described them.[20]

Michael Caine1

Caine refers heavily to his working-class upbringing and puts forward the very 1980s Tory ideas of social mobility, arguing that the working-classes often instil an attitude of ‘knowing your place’, and also that ‘now, the Socialists are trying to do the same thing: You were born into the working class and you’re going to stay there.’[21] Caine is a symbolic figure in many ways: he did national service, fought in the dangerous ‘First Cold War’ conflagration, the Korean War, became the grammar-school hero Harry Palmer, became the old pro in legions of mediocre films, building up a fortune he didn’t want taxing so heavily. Thus, he moved to California; and, by 1983, he was the middle-aged ex-pat and Thatcher endorser. Educating Rita (1983) fits the narrative in terms of social mobility, though the Wilson-created Open University autodidact path isn’t so Thatcherite. Notably, Julie Walters has made recent comments criticising the dominance of public school over working-class talent, saying: ‘people like me wouldn’t get the chance today’.[22] Michael Caine hasn’t, and endorsed the Tories in the 2015 General Election; it is very easy to see Harry Brown as a UKIP and Brexit voter. Indeed, upon that film’s 2009 release, Caine suggested that Britain should ‘bring back national service to give young people a sense of belonging’ and also threatened to leave Britain again if Gordon Brown raised income tax any higher than 50%[23] While Greene himself was a tax exile in Antibes from 1966, it is difficult to see him agreeing with such views, as a more globally-minded, self-identified social democrat.

  1. Critical reception and analysis of The Honorary Consul (1983)

Reaction to the film was almost entirely negative. In America, ‘Beyond the Limit’ – as it was renamed – was seen as ‘literal’, slow paced and overly faithful to the original.[24] Variety and Boxoffice reviewers both saw it as unsubtle compared with the novel; for the former it is ‘dull’[25] and the latter questions whether the novel is too ‘internalised’ for a visual medium.[26] The exception in US criticism was Marjorie Bilbow, who generally liked it and praised good performances all around.[27] Paramount studio’s spokesman claimed to have been ‘very surprised’ when the film didn’t do well at the box office, following its extensive release as an attempted winter blockbuster.[28]

In the UK, Derek Malcolm was mixed, liking the ‘brooding atmosphere’ and raving about Caine’s performance, comparing him to Trevor Howard in earlier Greene adaptation The End of the Affair (1955) and Alec Guinness in Our Man in Havana (1960).[29] Patrick Gibbs, who’d slated the Burton-Taylor film of The Comedians sixteen years earlier, is generally negative. He liked Mackenzie’s ‘admirable clarity’ of Mackenzie’s way with the story but said it lacked ‘involvement’.[30] He opened his review by spotting a trend: Hampton and Dennis Potter, screenwriter of the simultaneously-released Gorky Park, were both ‘theatre playwrights’, untrue in Potter’s case, unless one accepts the conflation of TV drama with drama per se.

Nigel Andrews was negative about this ‘cod-Latin American adventure’ and deploys the scathing adjective ‘abysmal’. He is especially disappointed, as, in the context of early 1984, he sees cinema as his main cultural refuge from the ‘relentless flood of programmes on TV about George Orwell’.[31] David Robinson was generally negative: echoing US critics regarding its unsubtlety and drawing parallels again with Gorky Park with its director and writer coming from television. Philip French is the most wholly negative, assailing it as a ‘glum movie’, with Greene’s narrative ‘reduced to a triangular affair’.[32] He comments on the leisurely restructuring of the narrative – with the kidnapping occurring more than half-way through, proportionately far further on than in the novel. His review opens with a broadside against what he sees as the BFI’s absurd and self-defeating designating of 1984 as ‘The Year of Television’.

Castell was the most positive, praising a ‘lucid script’, Greene would like its ‘implosive’, not explosive nature. ‘The themes of religion and politics, courage and cowardice, spiritual and physical love, are adroitly woven together’. Yet, the vitriol returned in Barber’s piece, a withering diatribe against both Mackenzie and Gere: ‘“Efficient thriller” is, I believe, the phrase. Not quite so efficient, actually.’[33] In the excellent publication, the MFB, Tom Milne was generally very critical but with one or two caveats. For him, it is self-parodic ‘Greeneland’, with the climactic scene referred to as a ‘reductio ad absurdum of all Greene has ever written or stood for’. ‘Hampton’s script reduces the novel to a skeleton’.[34] Milne liked the very last scene with Fortnum and Clara, which he argued conveys some of the novel’s power.

Richard_Grenier
Neo-con critic, Richard Grenier (1933-2002)

The film of THC was accused by American novelist and critic Richard Grenier of being an ideological weapon. Grenier was notable for writing a review of Attenborough’s Gandhi, which savaged the reputation of the man Gandhi, and, in February 1984, wrote a stridently conservative piece in the Daily Telegraph, laying into what he describes as Hollywood’s preoccupation with ‘public affairs’ and political bias towards the left (or, in US terms, ‘liberalism’), criticising The Honorary Consul along with its fellow 1983 films Silkwood, Deal of the Century, Daniel , Testament and the Nicaragua-focused Under Fire.[35]

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film Posters

He characterises these films as preaching at audiences and unsuccessfully so, stating each film’s low chart placing in the Variety’s annual list of films that grossed over a million dollars as evidence and then saying these films had ‘been easily identified’ by the public as ‘anti-American.’[36] This review shows a kind of neo-conservative rhetoric that greatly influenced Thatcherite and Blairite neo-liberal cultural critics in the UK in their populist attacks on films, TV programmes and music that dealt explicitly with political issues.

Hampton and Mackenzie’s film fits Richard J. Hand’s formulation of the ‘Five Creative Strategies of Adaptation’ (2010).[37] It (1) omits Doctor Saavedra and all of the novel’s literary nature. There is the (2) addition of flashbacks to torture, which are given less context; as well as the specific naming of the setting as Argentina and Corrientes, in particular, which Greene had visited while researching the novel.[38] There is the (3) marginalisation of Sir Henry Belfrage and the British context, as discussed in my paper – despite the token efforts of Gere to speak in an English accent! There is the (4) expansion of violent and sexual scenes – the novel dwells more on the psychological aspect of love-making, not in describing its physical processes. There is the significant (5) alteration of responsibility for the torture, with Greene’s many references to the CIA’s implication made to seem a domestic South American matter. As Heyman said they wanted to suggest, but not spell out, the conditions of the Argentinian dictatorship that was in place during the film’s making in 1982-3.[39] The novel had been written when Argentina was theoretically a democracy, and its focus was on Paraguay being under the American thumb. As Falk comments, Hampton’s script has too linear and sequential a narrative, in contrast with Duffell’s more layered script which built up tension more successfully.[40] When it does manage to deviate from sequential order, this is via notably unsubtle and sensationalist flashbacks.

Perhaps Mackenzie learned from the experience of this film, with its occasionally sensationalist, watered-down politics, when he came to direct The Fourth Protocol (1987). In his paper at the September 2015 Spying on Spies Conference, Paul Lynch referred to Mackenzie’s contrary ideological take on Frederick Forsyth’s original text, angering the right-wing author. To conclude, critics found the ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing’ politics of The Honorary Consul either too pronounced or not emphasised enough; it was surely the Ed Miliband of Graham Greene film adaptations, trying to straddle an impossible line without the requisite skills.

[1] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) Adapting Graham Greene. London: Palgrave Macmillan, p.17

[2] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.134

[3] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader. London: Penguin, p.xi

[4] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.20

[5] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[6] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[7] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[8] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[9] Screen International (1984) ‘’Consul’ proves a box office draw’, Screen International, 21st January, p.8

[10] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[11] Falk, Q. (2014) Travels in Greeneland: The Cinema of Graham Greene. 4th edn. Dahlonega, GA: University Press of North Georgia, p.130-1

[12] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[13] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.131

[14] Greene, G; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.709

[15] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.132

[16] Hodges, A. (1983) ibid., p.15

[17] Stringer, R. (1984) ‘Profile: man who put Greene on the screen’, Daily Telegraph, 9th January, p.8

[18] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ‘Michael Caine at 50: Testing the Limits of the Actor’s Art’, New York Times, 16th October

[19] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[20] Pulver, A. & Clarke, P. (illustration) (1998) ‘Profile: Michael Caine – Now don’t mess abaht’, The Guardian, 23rd February, p.B4

[21] Kaplan, P.W. (1983) ibid.

[22] Cadwalladr, C. (2016) ‘Why working-class actors are a disappearing breed – Once we had gritty TV dramas such as Boys from the Blackstuff; now we have glossy thrillers with public school-educated stars. How did British screens become dominated by the privileged few? And does it matter?’ The Observer, 8th May, p.6

[23] Anthony, A. (2016) ‘Michael Caine: the class act who enjoys the political fray’, The Observer, 24th January, p.32

[24] Canby, V. (1983) ‘Film: ‘Beyond the Limit’, From Graham Greene’, New York Times, 30th September

[25] Cart. (1983) ‘Film Reviews: Beyond the Limit’, Variety, 5th October, p.24

[26] Summers, J. (1983) ‘Reviews: BEYOND THE LIMIT’, Boxoffice, 1st December, p.145

[27] Bilbow, M. (1983) ‘Reviews: THE HONORARY CONSUL’, Screen International 17th December, p.11

[28] Goodman, J. (1984) ‘Integrity in face of the unlovable’, The Times, 4th January, p.11

[29] Malcolm, D. (1984) ‘Our man in the savannah’, The Guardian, 5th January, p.9

[30] Gibbs, P. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, The Daily Telegraph, 6th January, p.13

[31] Andrews, N. (1984) ‘When only Caine is able’, Financial Times, 6th January, p.11

[32] French, P. (1984) ‘Murder in Moscow’, The Observer, 8th January, p.54

[33] Barber, L. (1984) ‘The Wrong Gere’, Melody Maker (59)3, 21st January, p.27

[34] Milne, T. (1984) ‘The Honorary Consul’, Monthly Film Bulletin (51)600, January, p.16

[35] Grenier, R. (1984) ‘Un-American activities’, Daily Telegraph, 11th February, p.16

[36] Grenier, R. (1984) ibid., p.16

[37] Hand, R.J. & Purssell, A. (2015) ibid., p.8

[38] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[39] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

[40] Falk, Q. (2014) ibid., p.133

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A question of values: Graham Greene, Britishness, Human Rights and communication

One_for_the_Road

This, the second of three Graham Greene-related pieces for this blog, concerns itself with national identity and what that might mean in terms of values. It will consider how Greene, in The Honorary Consul and elsewhere, treats issues of Britishness – or is that Englishness? The last piece addressed culture and political ideology, this will extend the discussion into areas of language and communication, and the growing 1970s focus on human rights. Recent Greene criticism from Crystal and Sinyard will be incorporated, alongside close textual analysis and historical contexts as various as: the execution of Robert Southwell, Lord Haw Haw, 1960s defence cut-backs, 1970s eurocommunism, Harold Pinter and ‘Uncle’ Ken Russell.

In The Honorary Consul (1973), Greene’s Catholic side comes out in his concern about meta-narratives of progress; after an outline of theological perspectives, Rivas assails the power of contemporary dictatorships: ‘But now people like the General make law and order. Electric shocks on the genitals. Aquino’s fingers. Keep the poor ill-fed, and they don’t have the energy to revolt. I prefer the detective. I prefer God.’[1] Plarr questions myths of meliorism and progress: ‘we managed to produce Hitler and Stalin in one generation.’[2] It is worth recalling again that the novel was received in the context of the Pinochet coup in Chile, that brutal lesson in brute power over democratic values.

Argentinian writer character Dr Saavedra outlines a credo that is relevant to Greene’s own approach with the novel: ‘Assassinations, kidnapping, the torture of prisoners – these things belong to our decade. But, I do not want to write merely for the Seventies.’[3] However, Greene’s novel is not universal in some detached sense; as Couto argues, it is specifically concerned with exploitation within the contemporary geopolitical world: ‘To say that the location of his fiction is Greeneland is to deny the reality of the post-colonial world, of political processes, and their consequences.’[4]

Plarr’s father locks his doors against ‘military police and official assassins’ of the Paraguayan regime.[5] He later becomes a ‘political prisoner’ of the General’s regime. Aquino mentions that, unlike himself, Plarr’s father has not been tortured due to being Anglo Saxon. Yet, ‘fifteen years in a police station is a long torture’.[6]

The Helsinki Accords of 1975. Erich Honecker and Helmut Schmidt.

Torture was a 1970s and 80s preoccupation for many, as Amnesty International and the Human Rights agenda emerged, due in part to the admittedly non-binding Helsinki accords, signed on 1 August 1975. As well as Pinter’s stark representations of brutality in his 1984 play One for the Road, there was Irish writer Brian Phelan’s Centre Play ‘Article Five’ in the mid-1970s, apparently not broadcast by BBC-2 due to not being up to standard. Yet, my recent viewing of this play revealed to have visceral impact and still-relevant representations of that British habit of keeping unpleasant practices out of sight and mind. Greene’s novel leavens the bleakness of torture with intricate use of popular and literary cultural references – from Perry Mason to John Buchan to Jorge Luis Borges; the tastes of Saavedra and Plarr inform their attitudes.

Perry Mason

The regime’s revolutionary opponents, who include the torture victim Aquino, are led by the elusive ‘El Tigre’. Aquino says to Rivas, of this shadowy figure: ‘He is not here, Father […] He is somewhere in safety eating well and drinking well […] Is he never going to risk his own life like he risks ours?’[7] This reflects a sharp critique of top-down, distant leadership styles in some revolutionary movements – for example, the adherence to ideas of a vanguard. But El Tigre doesn’t really seem to be that; he is directing actions and not to be disobeyed, yet is far from taking a clear lead: a passive figure, staying out of the way. The revolutionaries’ creeping realisation that ‘El Tigre’ has let them down is powerfully, subtly conveyed.

Che Guevara
El Tigre – less present than this fella…

The novel is infused with the British context of the early-70s, despite Greene having moved to France in the mid-1960s. This cultural connectedness may be down to him still reading The Listener at his Antibes home, as recorded in an August 1967 letter.[8] Belfrage refers to the ‘law and order’ agenda of the Heath government, reflecting its more authoritarian early trajectory, and also draws attention to how lurid and debased the likely newspaper stories about Fortnum and Clara would be. This reflects the ever increasing sensationalism of the tabloid press as evidenced earlier in reporting of the Profumo Scandal and Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun in 1969. The British Embassy even receives a telegram reporting how a Tory MP has criticised a film ‘by some man called Russell’, which was the British entry to the Mar del Plata film festival as ‘pornographic’.[9] Presumably this is Ken Russell’s The Devils, though the festival didn’t, in actuality, run from 1971, when the film was released, until 1996 when it returned.

THE DEVILS - UK Poster 1
“some man called Russell”…

A lack of flexibility comes across in the British characters. The hidebound British diplomat Sir Henry Belfrage, an orderly planner, is scornful of left-wing ideas, expressing materialist, worldly values: saying ‘Cooperatives! What can a Cooperative know about wine?’ following his hangover from drinking wine from a Cooperative in Mendoza region of Argentina.[10] There is a legalistic and detached response from the British Minister about Fortnum’s kidnapping: ‘you are aware that this Government is making every effort to economize in the Foreign Service.’[11] Crichton explains to Fortnum his decision to have him retired and not replace him: ‘Well, for more than a year, London has been pressing for economies.’[12]

Denis Healey

The patriotic Fortnum is critical of the ‘penny wise, pound foolish’ attitude of the politicians at home, who he sees as lacking in ‘national pride’ – ironic, considering he is Argentinian-born himself.[13] The ruffled and affronted resentments of this adoptive Briton are representative of deep concerns in the British right over the decline in national status and prestige, not just following US-implicated humiliations as Suez and Skybolt, but the immediate aftermath of Denis Healey’s cuts to Civil Defence and the ‘East of Suez’ military presence in Singapore and Malaysia. Healey was ‘proud’ of his new policy to put British military policy on a more realistic footing; while cutting 20% of the size of the forces, he proclaimed that Britain’s European responsibilities had not been affected, showing where the government thought Britain’s cold war responsibilities lay.[14] Healey faced significant opposition; for example, over the Civil Defence cuts, ending a ‘First Cold War’ product of the Attlee government. Mary Currie of Raynes Park, S.W.20, wrote to The Times in January 1968 to attack the disbanding of the Civil Defence Corps, not emphasising their usefulness in the aftermath of a nuclear war, but in helping after the Aberfan disaster and the Hither Green train crash.[15] She asked, voicing the sort of anger over loss of sovereignty all too prevalent in 2016 Britain: ‘Is “patriotism” a dirty word now? Is the saving of a few million pounds worth the loss of the ability to help ourselves?’ She doesn’t refer to the realities of European obligations or American power.

OBE

The film version removes the part-absurd, part-deserved OBE that Fortnum is awarded by the British government, given to him to placate his anger over the US-trained paramilitaries’ killings of Rivas and Platt being officially whitewashed: as he says to Crichton: ‘Colonel Perez is a bloody liar. It was the paras who shot Plarr’.[16]

The novel is often deeply concerned with language and communication. As in much of Greene’s work, communication can be suspect: the telephone is described with a simile of it as a ‘venomous object which would certainly strike again.’[17] David Crystal argues that a lack of shared language codes and understandings are a sign of trouble in Greene’s narratives.[18]

crystal2l

This can be seen, for example, in Clara’s confusion of tenses when speaking English.[19] Or, in how Plarr mentions his preference for Latin, as a dead language which has no room for misinterpretation or ambiguity and which he can exert control over.[20] Fortnum and Clara’s distant relationship after Plarr’s death is shown through a lack of dialogue between them; the ending, one of, has language at its heart: ‘At last a sort of communication between them and he tried hard to keep the thin thread intact’[21] While the adjective ‘thin’ adds an uncertain, provisional note, it is one of Greene’s happiest endings; in stark contrast, say, to ‘The News in English’ (1940), which evokes a similar sad romanticism to Brief Encounter (1945).

Fortnum acclaims English as ‘the tongue that Shakespeare spoke’.[22] Greene himself was deeply critical of Shakespeare in ‘The Virtue of Disloyalty’, a lecture he gave, ironically, upon receiving the Shakespeare Prize at the University of Hamburg in June 1969. In this, he uses John of Gaunt’s ‘This happy breed […]’ speech from Richard II as an example of complacency: written in 1597 when Robert Southwell had been disembowelled for ‘so-called treason’.[23] He refers to a composite character of ‘Timon-Caliban’ as the only characters voicing outrage in Shakespeare: ‘You taught me language; and my profit on’t / Is, I know how to curse.’ He argues that Shakespeare would have defected to the side of the ‘disloyal’ if he had lived a few more years, but is ultimately rueful of the path the ‘Bard’ took: ‘Perhaps the greatest tragedy Shakespeare lived was his own: the blind eye exchanged for the coat of arms, the prudent tongue for the friendships at Court and the great house at Stratford.’[24]

Robert Southwell

He develops an elegant argument of the writer being fundamentally a devil’s advocate, seeing the ‘virtues of the Capitalist in a Communist society, of the Communist in a Capitalist state.’[25] Disloyalty, Greene suggests, ‘encourages you to roam through any human mind: it gives the novelist an extra dimension of understanding.’[26] He attacks the simple utilitarianism of being ‘loyal’ to your immediate social surroundings. This can be related to how disapprovingly the abstract noun ‘duty’ figures in this key passage in his short-story, ‘The News in English’ (1940):

Duty, it seemed to Mary Bishop, was a disease you caught with age: you ceased to feel the tug-tug of personal ties; you gave yourself up to the great tides of patriotism and hate.[27]

This ultimately sad, minor tragedy of a short-story associates the RP public-school accent with untrustworthiness: ‘All over England a new voice was noticed; precise and rather lifeless, it was the voice of a typical English don.’[28]

Lord Haw Haw accents telegraph

But then, in typical Greene style, the narrative confounds the obvious expectations of treachery. The story becomes a critique of the ‘People’s War’, with ignorant, unquestioning attitudes to official propaganda being exposed. However, there is also an ambivalence about the necessity for states themselves to ‘keep mum’ about what is really going on in wartime. Greene shows how questionable the British myths of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and ‘keep calm and carry on’ are, while more strongly admiring the ingenuity of a double agent and his sophisticated, very human, coding.

N_Sinyard_3
Neil Sinyard

Greene was formed by Britain, but had no loyalty to it. He followed fellow underdog champion Chaplin to Europe: settling in France in the mid-60s – while Chaplin moved to Switzerland following his decision not to stay and fight the Un-American committee in the USA. Greene assisted Chaplin in writing his autobiography. Greene visited Chaplin during his Swiss exile in the late-1950s and he encouraged the film legend to write his autobiography, eventually published with the support of Greene by Bodley Head in 1964.[29] Sinyard compares the dark, early Cold War visions of Monsieur Verdoux (1947) and The Third Man (1949)[30]; as well as describing Greene and Chaplin in his introduction as ‘two of the most universal and cosmopolitan artists of the twentieth century’, who were curiously both buried in the same region of Switzerland.[31] In a 1984 interview, Martin Amis reported that ‘Greene’s accent is ‘now thoroughly European and the ‘R’s are candidly Gallic’.’[32]

He saw political Europeanism as having potential. Again, in the 1980s, Greene said: ‘I can only hope that Europe will be strong enough to stand between the two rather similar cultures – Russia and the United States.’[33] He went onto speak of wanting a ‘neutral’ Europe, which could stand up against and modify the imperialism of the US.[34] The Ostpolitik agenda of Willy Brandt in the 1970s and French departure from NATO were examples of independent moves within the détente era and there were hopes for the Western European anti-Soviet ‘Eurocommunism’ movement, as conveyed in the Conference of Communist and Workers Parties of Europe, held in East Berlin from 29-30 June 1976. This conference featured 29 of the European Communist parties from Europe apart from Iceland and Albania. TIME magazine included a rather alarmist lead news story, highlighting the Italian influence.

ITALY THE RED THREAT 14-06-76

In November 1988, using the discouraging example of the USA, Greene claims that ‘the United States of Europe (a whole Europe) can never exist’, criticising the EU’s French, German and UK-centric nature and lack of true unity, and also arguing that judicial systems are too diverse for a united Europe.[35] Despite these criticisms of the then-European Communities, it seems impossible that Greene would have ultimately sided with the Brexiteers, given their notably anti-cosmopolitan campaign and the ‘little England’ isolationism they ignited.

boris-johnson-vote-leave-campaigner
An “underdog” ‘against’ the establishment!

[1]  Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.208

[2] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.228

[3] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.57

[4] Couto, M. (1988) On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the novels of Graham Greene. London: Macmillan Press, p.149

[5] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.18

[6] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.248

[7] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.201

[8] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) A Life in Letters. London: Abacus, p.290

[9] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.133

[10] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.137

[11] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.214

[12] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.262

[13] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.44

[14] The Times (1968) ‘Mr Healey sees new realism in policy: proud to continue’, The Times, 26th January, p.6

[15] Currie, M. (1968) ‘Aftermath of defence cuts’, The Times, 23rd January, p.9

[16] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.261

[17] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.25

[18] Crystal, D. ‘Going Especially Careful: Language Reference in Graham Greene’ in: Gilvary, D. & Middleton, D.J.N. (2011) Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. London: Continuum, pp.128-48

[19] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., pp.91-2

[20] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.71

[21] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.267

[22] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.45

[23] Greene, G. (1990) Reflections. London: Reinhardt Press, p.268

[24] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.270

[25] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.269

[26] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.269

[27] Greene, G. (2005) Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, p.444

[28] Greene, G. (2005) ibid., p.443

[29] Sinyard, N. ‘Graham Greene and Charlie Chaplin’ in: Gilvary, D. & Middleton, D.J.N. (2011) Dangerous Edges of Graham Greene. London: Continuum, p.252

[30] Sinyard, N. (2011) ibid., p.252

[31] Sinyard, N. (2011) ibid., p.250

[32] Amis, M. (1984) ‘Graham Greene at eighty’, The Observer, 23rd September, p.7

[33] Couto, M. (1988) ibid.., p.211

[34] Couto, M. (1988) ibid.., p.211

[35] Greene, G. (1991) Yours Etc. Letters to the Press. London: Penguin, p.250

Our man in the cinema: Graham Greene, popular culture, underdogs and the Left

THC

In Graham Greene’s 1973 novel The Honorary Consul, Argentinian love-interest Clara knows ‘the latest dope about a woman called Elizabeth Taylor’, while the honorary consul Charley Fortnum shows his lack of popular cultural capital: ‘a fellow called Burton? I always thought Burton was a kind of beer.’[1] In addition, Clara is represented as vain and her attention is ‘bought’ by Dr Eduardo Plarr through a pair of sunglasses, an object signifying consumerist desires and also the act of watching. Popular writer Greene’s life and work has an ambivalent relation to popular culture, and his attitudes to the political Left were rarely fixed. One of the few common threads in his non-conformist life is a concern for the underdog.

Graham Greene was a ‘child of the cinema’: as a young man he had been a cineaste; from 1935-40, he reviewed hundreds of films, inspired by the serious film journal, Close Up, which he was reading in 1922 when he started at Oxford University.[2] His tastes were for the Grierson school of British documentary, European art cinema like Von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and the comedies of Chaplin, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy. These were examples of the relatively few films which lived up to his ideal of ‘poetic cinema’ that reflected life and had a visceral, popular appeal.

His views on British cinema were that it should depict the national character, as was observable in Will Hay films and the Grierson-style documentaries. This doesn’t necessarily clash with his status as a cosmopolitan internationalist. He tended to observe that British films were watered down by non-British influence and far less interesting or evocative of life than those which resisted this. Some of his pre-WW2 reviews seem like a cautious blueprint for Ealing’s Balcon-era output. As Matthew Sweet reminds us, Balcon’s Ealing was actually pretty left-wing – the sort of individual-respecting socialism that we can assign Orwell, Priestley and, indeed, Greene. Balcon was involved in the 1941 Committee who were lobbying for post-war opinion to be pro-Attlee instead of Churchill.[3] The Balcon children all speak of a home with a ‘political atmosphere’, infused by the ‘Left Book Club’. Sweet writes evocatively of Balcon’s protégé, Pen Tennyson, director of some earlier relatively class-conscious and politicised Ealing films: There Ain’t No Justice (1939) and The Proud Valley (1940). In his film reviewing days, Greene had seen potential in both films, but argued that it wasn’t realised; of the former, saying: ‘The etceteras – setting of bar rooms and coffee stalls – are admirable, but the whole picture breathes timidity and refinement.’[4] The latter he compared, unfavourably, with Carol Reed’s A.J. Cronin-adaptation The Stars Look Down (1940).[5] Cronin’s original novel had been loosely inspired by the March 1925 Montagu View Pit Disaster, in Scotswood, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Greene was regularly critical of and bemused by the British Board of Film Censors’ decisions: for example, to classify The Wizard of Oz (1939) as ‘for adults only’.[6] He argued, ‘Surely it is time that this absurd committee of elderly men and spinsters who feared, too, that Snow White was unsuitable for those under sixteen, was laughed out of existence?’[7] He felt it ridiculous that parents wouldn’t be able to take their children to see this ‘lavish’ film, which he liked in a pantomime vein, praising Margaret Hamilton’s performance as the ‘spinster-witch’. This shows a resistance to the wrong kind of paternalism: the BBFC’s stuffy partiality and bizarre prudery made them odd and damaging cultural gatekeepers.

BBFC

In his critic days, Greene was often scornful of ‘middlebrow’ British films preferred by the BBFC that lacked intellect or excitement and chased a form of intangible sophistication or spurious cultural cachet. He also attacked much of Hollywood as summarised by the insipid nature of a Bing Crosby song number in a film with its ‘mild self-pity, something soothing, something gently amusing’, but not much of life.[8] As opposed to the lively vulgarity he liked in British audiences, he disliked the materialistic vulgarity of Hollywood, as shown in his 1937 piece ‘Film Lunch’ where he attacked moguls like MGM’s Louis B. Mayer and a system in thrall to money, with the content of films lacking in either intelligence or vivacity: ‘money for no thought, for the banal situation and the inhuman romance: money for forgetting how people live.’[9] He speaks of American capitalism utilising ‘a touch of religion, a touch of the family’ to gain respectability and cultural hegemony.[10]

He was sued in 1938 by 20th Century Fox for critiquing the ironically anti-religion and anti-family sexualisation of child-star Shirley Temple in the film Wee Willie Winkie. The magazine who published his review, Night and Day, had to pay the studio and Temple damages that came to a total of £3500. Nearly £216000 in today’s money! In another 1937 review, Greene condemned US cultural imperialism that he discerned within the ostensibly Germany-focused The Road Back, referring to ‘the unformed, unlined faces and the well-fed bodies of American youth, clean limbed, prize cattle mooing into the microphone […] It would be funny if it wasn’t horrifying. This is America seeing the world in its own image.’[11]

THE ROAD BACK - 1937i

Fifteen years later, in 1952, when the House of Un-American Activities was in full swing, Greene wrote a letter to Charlie Chaplin that was published on 27th September in the New Statesman. He praises Chaplin as ‘a great liberal’, champion of the underdog whose films ‘have always punctured the bully’.[12] He suggests British personnel in Hollywood could boycott the films of those ‘friends of the witch-hunter’ Adolph Menjou and Louis B. Mayer. This letter even, as Neil Sinyard claims, partially inspired scenes in Chaplin’s anti-McCarthyist satire A King in New York from 1957. He suggests to Chaplin a scene where the tramp is resurrected and called before the House, which proposes an absurd range of indictments against supposedly politically-charged scenes from the tramp’s cinematic past. The letter shows a telling attempt by Greene to connect with the values he perceived in Chaplin’s cinematic work. Indeed, rare are the Greene texts which lack the underdog master-plot, as defined by H. Porter Abbot.

WENT THE DAY WELL

A clear example of this is Greene’s 1941 short-story ‘The Lieutenant Died Last’, which became the tremendous, ‘People’s War’ myth-building film, Went the Day Well? (dir. Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942). The short-story emphasises the working-class poacher, Purves, who is in the end imprisoned for his transgression of upper-class land, despite the ironic fact that this contravention enables him to pick off most of the German platoon threatening the village. Greene’s story focuses on this absurd, class-based injustice, while the film instead has the character die heroically, leaving a more or less united social tableau at the end. Greene represents ‘Old Purves’ as a plucky underdog, embittered due to his Boer war service, who succeeds due to his illicit knowledge of the Lord Drew’s land, but yet feels some revulsion at what he has done, when finding a baby-and-hearth photo on the person of the German lieutenant he had killed.[13] With Greene’s eye for the partiality and myth-making of official propaganda, he subtitles the story: ‘An Unrecorded Victory in 1940’.

In August 1956, US Democratic Presidential candidate and ‘egghead’ Adlai Stevenson had asked Greene to write a film script to support the United Nations. Greene drily declined, saying that the UN and ‘American materialism’ combined were the ‘chief threat’ to world peace.[14] Again, these are concerns which prefigure Chaplin’s A King in New York, which features a (sometimes overly verbose) series of verbal volleys against US culture, as Jim Jarmusch has identified. Chaplin critiques plastic surgery, product placement, advertisements and the sanitisation of popular music, in often very pungent visual terms – for example, the banal, crashing noise of the scene where his bonce is ‘drummed’ by a resident band’s drummer in a restaurant.

Chaplin4Chaplin2 Chaplin3

The attempt to make the child character (played by Chaplin’s son, Michael) the underdog doesn’t work like the universal Tramp, but very perceptive points indeed about monopoly and immigration are emitted from the precocious child’s gob. The sense of Chaplin as a champagne liberal or socialist is keenly felt – he plays a King, deposed via a communist revolution, but who finds US society no better. King Shadhoff has a Shavian or Wellsian belief in social progress, speaking not just against nuclear weapons but of a ‘Utopia’, which makes a mockery of Chaplin’s off-screen claims to be non-political: ‘I have never been political. I have no convictions. I am an individualist.’[15] Chaplin would have surely been quite well disposed towards Wells, who also had a turbulent London upbringing. Greene spoke in 1983 of admiring HGW’s work ‘enormously’ and preferring him to the more canonised Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.[16]

chaplin1

Individualism for Chaplin must be rather more about non-conformity than anything dangerously Ayn Rand or as ‘social mobility’ fixated as Michael Caine. This is shown in how the film encourages the audience to think and consider collective dreams like disarmament and devolved decision-making (with, admittedly, the paternalist King pointing the way).

Chaplin5

If Chaplin can be likened to Bertrand Russell’s left-humanism, Greene might be usefully located in the context of the post-WW2 British cultural elite, with his brother Hugh Carleton Greene’s 1960-68 tenure of BBC Director General and the Wilson government influencing an incrementally more liberal cultural climate and laws. In a 1971 interview, Greene is very critical of the puritanical didacticism of the otherwise liberal Home Secretary Rab Butler’s Street Offences Act of 1960 – which he refers to as the ‘Cleaning the Streets Act’.[17] Contrastingly, Greene consistently adheres to a more ‘enlightened’, relaxed-about-vice well-healed paternalism. This is in the context of Leavisite ascendency in literature study, Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy (1958) and seriously engaged documentaries in cinema and television from the likes of Denis Mitchell and John Krish. Politically, this aligned with Butskellism and the consensus politics deriving from the political economies of Beveridge and Titmuss; epitomised also by films such as A Diary for Timothy (1945), with its W.H. Auden script. Greene’s own focus on the ‘promise of socialism’ was first articulated in fiction via his 1934 novel, It’s a Battlefield.[18]

In 1993, Auberon Waugh referred to Greene as a ‘left-wing social democrat’, given to siding with the underdog and who had a ‘hatred’ of American culture for its ‘vulgarity and populism’.[19] There is a strong sense in which anti-Americanism runs through the middle and upper-class left in this era, seeing Hollywood and ‘mass culture’ as threatening to long-established ways of life – for example, Hoggart’s view on Leeds. However, Couto outlined what she saw as Greene’s nuanced attitude towards Americans in The Quiet American and The Comedians, arguing that Pyle and the Smiths represented the ‘courage and good intentions of individual Americans’, yet ‘also their misplaced, ill-judged and simplistic attitudes to life and the world.’[20] Couto discerns in the latter novel a critique of well-meaning charity, with aid money buttressing ‘imperialist activity’.[21] Ultimately, the benefit of the doubt never gets given to Americans in Greene’s work, though at least the Smiths are shown to be capable of learning and gaining more wisdom.

Perceptions of Greene’s hate-hate relationship with the US were strongly present in public discourse. Four days after Greene’s death, George Pitcher wrote a satirical piece for The Observer, wherein he has a ‘ghastly dream’ of the American secret-services responding to Greene’s persistent criticisms by blacklisting his works and which ends with Pitcher pointedly and sarcastically attacking on America’s ‘freedom, not money and business’ driven foreign policy.[22]

PITCHER

Greene also disliked the vast majority of the film adaptations of his work; with most American adaptations being, in his words from 1984: ‘outstandingly bad’.[23] He was particularly outraged by how Joseph L. Mankiewicz reversed the geopolitical argument of The Quiet American, making it into flag-waving, anti-Communist narrative; as Patterson argued, it might as well have been retitled ‘The Really Nice American’![24]

As well as Vietnam, many writers were radicalised by events in Chile, in the early 1970s; for example, Harold Pinter, whose turn to the left – a reverse-Kronstadt moment – was caused by the Pinochet coup d’état of 11 September 1973.[25] While writing THC, Greene wrote ‘Chile: The Dangerous Edge’ for the Observer Magazine, published on 2 January 1972, a ruefully pessimistic account of his travels around Chile and meetings with the increasingly besieged Salvador Allende. He sees Allende’s democratically-elected Popular Unity minority coalition government of six parties as an underdog ensemble, having to be wary of various threats: generals in Brazil and Bolivia and Robert Kendall Davis, American Ambassador to Santiago, who had links with the CIA in Guatemala; as well as the proud, moneyed miners of Chuqui and ex-President Frei ‘waiting in the wings.’[26]

Greene had been impressed by ‘the new class’ of Communist that he had met in Chile, who seemed to him very similar to those Czechs involved in the Prague Spring in being ‘open and experimental, with dogma as the ground of argument and not as an article of faith’.[27] In an October 1973 letter to Czech dissident writer Josef Skvorecky, he claimed that Allende was of the ‘school of Dubcek’ and expressed his horror at Pinochet’s putsch.[28] Andy Beckett has documented how Pinochet’s neo-liberal reforms – coupled with a repressive ‘authoritarian populist’ impulse, to use Stuart Hall’s terms – provided a template for Thatcherism in the UK.[29]

Greene and Torrijos

Greene moved left as he grew older, influenced by South American outlooks and his experiences visiting the continent, where liberals and social-democrats often worked with communists, uniting against the invariably US-backed domestic right-wing forces. He referred to American policy driving him ‘to be more friendly towards Communism’ than he would otherwise have been.[30] At the behest of the moderate General Torrijos of Panama, who became a personal friend, Greene was involved as a sort of maverick diplomat in many affairs in the region. For example, he attended the signing of a Panamanian treaty with the Carter-era USA, and, in 1979, he ‘helped to secure the release of British bankers kidnapped in El Salvador’.[31] His positive identification with Central and South American movements is also expressed in The Honorary Consul, as the reader is encouraged to like Leon Rivas, a former priest turned revolutionary who Greene loosely based on Father Camillo Torres, a priest who was shot along with guerrillas in Colombia.[32] Rivas quotes Che Guevara approvingly, to justify a pan-South American outlook.[33]

His support for countries faced by hostile US actions, like El Salvador and Nicaragua, became steadfast, and he refused to adopt a knee-jerk anti-communism: ‘constant economic and military aggression from the USA is the power that will drive these societies to hard-line Marxism’.[34]

In an April 1987 visit to Nicaragua, Greene acclaimed the Sandinistas as being on the frontline in a ‘war between civilisation and barbarism’, using language far more left-wing than he would have in 1950, when he visited Malaya, the one Cold War conflict zone where he found himself entirely aligned with conventional Western thinking.[35] Additionally, in a letter in early 1984 to his cousin Edward, he emphasised the Sandinista regime’s education programmes, which significantly reduced illiteracy and the productive nature of a government with Catholic priests and Jesuits working alongside Marxists like Tomas Borge.[36] For Greene, Margaret Thatcher’s giving Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua a frosty reception on his visit to the UK displayed a ‘complete ignorance of conditions in Nicaragua and Latin America.’[37] As with Chile, Greene saw Nicaragua as an underdog; Couto summarised his position: ‘every Government that seeks a degree of autonomy from American hegemony is branded a liability, its sovereignty given short shrift, its power destabilised’.[38] As Chris Mullin and Alan Plater showed with the novel and TV adaptation of A Very British Coup, a left-wing government in Britain would have faced much the same pressures. Harry Perkins is a left-wing underdog in the Greene mould, but with a Sheffield accent.

In the same year, Greene told Martin Amis: ‘I retain this sympathy for the dream of communism anyway, though I agree that the record is very discouraging.’[39] Indeed, in November 1967, before his protest efforts against the Vietnam War, Greene, along with Bertrand Russell and Herbert Read, was a signatory to the Belgian Defence of Human Rights’ letter to the Soviet Union protesting against the imprisonment of satirical writers Daniel and Sinyavsky.[40] Yet, he also told Amis: ‘I would rather end my days in the Gulag than in – than in California’, confirming comments he had originally made in the 1960s.[41] This clearly conveyed a clear preference, stopping short of support, for the Soviet side, representing a ‘lesser evil’-type judgement.

On 16th February 1987, impressed by Gorbachev’s leadership and feeling the Soviet Union was moving more towards his vision of it, Greene gave a speech to the Moscow Peace Forum, claiming Communists and Catholics were fighting together against the Death Squads in El Salvador, the Contras in Nicaragua and General Pinochet in Chile.[42] Greene often spoke of having no fixed attitude towards Communism, but it seemed, at that stage of Gorbachev’s liberalisation, as if ‘socialism with a human face’ could be realisable. It is only the sort of hindsight trafficked in by a Sandbrook or Gaddis that would claim there was an inevitability about Gorbachev’s ultimate failure to reform and transform communism.

Greene spoke of how he’d ‘rather romanticise the Left than romanticise the Right as Evelyn Waugh did’.[43] While he did show the limits of some left-wing organisations – such as the rebels in THC, who are shown to lack a seriously organised alliance with Catholicism – Greene in the détente and ‘second cold war’ eras showed his commitment to the struggles of the ‘new communism’ of Dubeck, Allende and the Sandinistas by including favourable representations of such ‘bottom-up’, underdog movements in his work.

[1] Greene, G. (1974) The Honorary Consul. London: Penguin, p.71

[2] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) Mornings in the Dark: The Graham Greene Film Reader. London: Penguin, p.xiii

[3] Sweet, M. (2006) Shepperton Babylon: The Lost Worlds of British Cinema. London: Faber and Faber, p.167

[4] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.323

[5] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.380

[6] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[7] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.371

[8] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.414-6

[9] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.421

[10] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.420

[11] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.227

[12] Greene, G.; Parkinson, D. (ed.) (1995) ibid., p.436

[13] Greene, G. (2005) Complete Short Stories. London: Penguin, pp.472-3

[14] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) A Life in Letters. London: Abacus, p.221

[15] Chaplin Today (Jerome de Missolz & Jim Jarmusch, 2003) – DVD: A King in New York

[16] Cunningham, J. (1983) ‘Plain thoughts of an Englishman abroad’, The Guardian, 19th December, p.11

[17] Hamilton, A. (1971) ‘GRAHAM GREENE’, The Guardian, 11th September, p.8

[18] Couto, M. (1988) On the Frontier: Politics and Religion in the novels of Graham Greene. London: Macmillan Press, p.167

[19] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 2: ‘The Dangerous Edge’, BBC, TX: 9th January 1993

[20] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[21] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.178

[22] Pitcher, G. (1991) Bottom Line: ‘Greene fingered’, The Observer, 7th April, p.30

[23] Arena: ‘They Shot Graham Greene at the NFT’, BBC-4, TX: 3rd October 2004

[24] Patterson, J. (1999) ‘Playing the Greene card’, The Guardian, 10th December, p.B27

[25] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[26] Greene, G. (1990) Reflections. London: Reinhardt Press, p.283

[27] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., p.281

[28] Greene, G.; Greene, R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.328

[29] Beckett, A. (2003) Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History. London: Faber and Faber

[30] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.209

[31] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ‘In life as in fiction, Greene’s taunts left Americans in a quiet fury’, The Guardian, 2nd December, p.3

[32] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[33] Greene, G. (1974) ibid., p.104

[34] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.160

[35] Arena: The Graham Green Trilogy 3: ‘A World of My Own’, BBC-2, TX: 10th January 1993

[36] Greene, G.; Greene R. (ed.) (2008) ibid., p.382

[37] Evans, R. & Hencke, D. (2002) ibid., p.3

[38] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.167

[39] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[40] The Guardian (1967) ‘Plea to free writers’, The Guardian, 28th November, p.17

[41] Amis, M. (1984) ibid., p.7

[42] Greene, G. (1990) ibid., pp.316-7

[43] Couto, M. (1988) ibid., p.212

“Spying on Spies” Day 1: Of conspiracies and compartmentalisation

20150903_103915

This article is the first of a series on what I saw at the Spying on Spies conference at the Warwick Business School on the seventeenth floor the Shard, London, 3rd-5th September – ably organised by Toby Manning and Joseph Oldham, who has written a far conciser conference report than myself here! Evidently, one human being can only gather so much of the total output of the conference, but the Facebook group is yielding many of the papers that I missed, which I may also comment on in time. I witnessed nineteen papers, plus three keynote speeches, making a total of 22. This was a mere 41.5% of the total number of 53 speakers at the conference. The articles intend to follow a chronological path, and aim to encapsulate what I learned about the Cold War through the voices of fellow SOS delegates.

My own paper, which I have previously linked to, is here.

THURSDAY

The opening remarks were brief and germane, setting out the conference’s remit to the 55-60 or so people in attendance at the beginning. The word ‘cross-disciplinary’ was mentioned; always, I feel crucial that supposedly ‘discrete’ disciplines are not placed in silos, but can intermingle. Important also, among these particulars, was mention of the later pint-meal convening in the George Inn, Borough Street, after Thursday’s panels. There was an allusion to a quiz and prizes by the end of the conference. Oldham’s making reference to Callan and The Sandbaggers was intriguing to me, having been captivated by the latter in recent viewings of Network’s DVDs. Unfortunately I was to be unable to see Oldham’s paper on the Cambridge Spies on TV, due to being on helper duties for my first panel of the conference… As ‘helper’, I assisted in a technical support role, and witnessed all Thursday’s papers in the Syndicate I-III, a non-Arthurian ‘round-table’.

The first panel I attended, then, was on ‘Postmodernism and the Spy Genre’… chaired by Oliver Buckton, who was to be part of my panel on Saturday.

EPO

Kyle Smith (University of Highlands and Islands, UK) began proceedings in animated style, comparing two literary works: E. Phillips Oppenheim’s Miss Brown of X. Y. O. (1927) and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973). There was reference to the ‘sleepy state’, ‘conspiracy’ and ‘apocalypse’ narratives’ presence in EPO’s novel, which revolved around a Communist plot against the British state.

There was mention of Duncan Sandys; I cannot recall the exact context from my vague notes! But I did recall that Sandys was responsible for the 1957 Defence White Paper which reduced conventional forces in the move towards the missile age, and also set in train the end of National Service. Smith linked Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with futuristic Seattle, with its early 1960s World’s Fair – Pynchon had worked in Seattle. He analysed the novel’s depiction of architecture as controlling and discussed the internationalism of transnational, bureaucratic states – the ‘rocket-state’, indeed. Gravity’s Rainbow’s protagonist Tyrone Slothrop was said to be unwilling to be an information machine – a concern ever more relevant with post-1973 economic shifts.

It is often very difficult to follow academic papers on novels you haven’t read, but I learned a lot and came away wanting to read both novels. Smith made a point that stayed with me: he quoted General Leslie R. Groves, military head of the Manhattan Project, on compartmentalisation of knowledge being good – and then linked this disturbing tendency with Pynchon’s text, citing the line: ‘Everything he needed to do his job and nothing else’.

AKUNIN

Eugenia Gresta (George Washington University, USA) was not in attendance, but Buckton read the paper. It focused on Boris Akunin’s writings, including The Turkish Gambit, with its postmodern shifting between the 1877-8 Turkish-Russian War and the Khrushchev era thaw; its focus is on de-Stalinization, ideology and propaganda. There was a mention of ‘Russians turning inwards’, towards ‘Mafia activities’, which put me in mind of the tremendous, bleak film Leviathan (2014). Akunin was said to have written epic political series’ of novels, set in 1931-83 and 1966-88.

There was reference to the narrative ‘fading into an artifice’; Gresta used phrases like ‘literary anarchy’ and ‘a postmodernist mosaic’ to describe Akunin’s approach. His novel has a Russian nobleman and civil servant as the hero and the Turkish spy as the villain. To the Soviets, ‘spy / spion’ had negative connotations, ‘secret agent’ had positive. The character Petrovich dresses like an English gentleman, linking somewhat with the portrayal of Adrian Harris in Dennis Potter’s Play for Today: Traitor (1971), which I was to analyse on Saturday.

HAPGOOD

Anna Suwalska-Kolecka (The State School of Higher Professional Education in Plock, Poland) gave a paper which was rare in the conference for its focus on drama. Her focus was Tom Stoppard’s 1988 play Hapgood, with its focus on twins, spies and quantum mechanics. Stoppard’s link between QM and espionage is said to reflect the intricacies of human identity. The play focuses on the British secret services and the CIA setting a trap for the mole who betrayed them to the KGB. Suwalska-Kolecka’s mentioned Stoppard’s creation of deliberate confusion with bizarre stage images; his evoking of the interrogative “What exactly is going on?” This somehow evoked in my noggin the recent re-viewings I’ve undertaken of that wonderfully absurdist dystopia of British television, The Prisoner (1967-68).

As with that series’ public tannoy announcements, there is an articulated meta-narrative, but this one doesn’t cheerily conceal: “In science this is understood: what is interesting is to know what is happening.” In contrast to Newtonian fixed laws dependant on ‘cause and effect’, QM theory has nothing as certain. Suwalska-Kolecka saw Stoppard as having linked this greater uncertainty and the (supposed) collapse of the metanarratives such as Marxism, and mentioned his utter distrust of binaries. There was a reference to the crisis in epistemology, and the typical postmodernism of ‘no one authoritative voice’.

Q&A:

When asked why he’d chosen that particular Oppenheim novel, Smith admitted there could have been good selections from John Buchan, Helen MacInnes and Geoffrey Household. However, he said its focus on a female protagonist – Miss Brown is a secretary – made it stand out, as well as its contrast to the 1970s with its view of ‘the worst thing that can happen is that the [British] Empire is destroyed’.

When asked about Pynchon’s use of third parties as ‘puppet-masters’, Smith stated that Pynchon didn’t like definite answers. He then mentioned the bizarre character who thinks he literally is World War II! Who then gets a temperature on D-Day… Returning to the Oppenheim novel, he said that the novel naively intimates the winding-up of MI5 at its close, once the threat has been defeated and a peace has been made with the Communists. I then mentioned Bernard Porter’s Plots and Paranoia, with its survey of the British reluctance to engage in espionage on any seriously wide, organised scale until WW1.[1] Therefore, the prospect may not have seemed entirely naïve at the time. Porter has commented that it was a mark of our confidence in the Victorian age that the British felt they didn’t need any organised spying. I then asked about whether there was any reference or link to the 1926 General Strike in Oppenheim’s novel. Smith said there wasn’t, it being primarily a romance rather than a ‘serious’ spy novel. He said there weren’t left-wing or communist villains in Bulldog Drummond and that Sapper claimed communist ideology didn’t exist! The villains tended to be pawns of industrialists, wanting revenge against Britain, reflecting a ‘motiveless malignity’.

THE BIG FOUR

I did vaguely think of Agatha Christie here, having read about The Big Four (1927), in which events such as the October Revolution have been steered by a shadowy gang most of whom are hiding out in the Dolomites: an American richer than Rockefeller, a French woman scientist, a spectral Chinese mastermind who never sets foot out of China and an obscure English actor and master of disguise known bizarrely as ‘The Destroyer’.  To quote from the novel: “There are people […] who know what they are talking about, and they say that there is a force behind the scenes”. … “A force which aims at nothing less than the disintegration of civilization. In Russia, you know, there were many signs that Lenin and Trotsky were mere puppets whose every action was dictated by another’s brain.”[2]

UNDERMIND3

This tendency interested me; it crops up enough in shadowy-conspiracy TV dramas like Undermind (1966), which is equally careful about precisely naming the ideology of its inscrutable conspirators. An intense ‘Yellow Peril’ politics can clearly be discerned in Christie’s positioning of Li Chang Yen as the Fu Manchu-style ‘mastermind’ behind the Big Four’s plan to create worldwide anarchy and then take over.[3]

Suwalska-Kolecka was asked about Hapgood’s staging in Poland and translation and said that much of Stoppard’s humour was lost when converted into Polish, but also that Polish TV broadcast a large amount of drama and theatre. She also mentioned Stoppard’s Jumpers (1972) exploiting detective fiction. She spoke seeing the Gdansk premiere of Arcadia and referred to TS’s frustration at the predictability of most novels; thus, he turned to modern science for what he saw as greater volatility. There was interesting mention of Shakespeare’s foreshadowing of unstable theatrical identities, with his comedies of misunderstanding and characters donning disguises. I am currently teaching King Lear at GCSE; a tragedy which has uncertain identity as a significant theme.

Next up, in the largest lecture theatre, was the first Keynote Speaker, Phyllis Lassner (Northwestern University, USA), who has had a distinguished academic career and has published two books on Elizabeth Bowen and one that I’d like to read some day: Women Writing the End of the British Empire. As Lassner states in her abstract, her Keynote aimed to ‘challenge the common assumption that the politics of spy fiction are only a pretext for adventure plots […] for Helen MacInnes and Ann Bridge, political crisis is the plot that drives the thrills and chills of spy fiction’.

above-suspicion

Lassner focuses on MacInnes’s novel Above Suspicion (1941), commenting on how the writer perceived critique and leadership as overly male dominated domains. She identifies radicalisms: at the centre of this novel is a woman’s voice, peoples’ right to self-determination is desired, instead of the sort of defence of Empire seen in Ian Fleming. There’s an interweaving of events in1939 and 1941 and a potent challenge to the Nazi representation of Jewish prisoners as ‘sub-human’: the novel’s protagonist Frances sees them as ‘civilised’. Lassner discusses the novel’s view that ‘if only the people of Germany had acted against the Nazis’, thus foreign involvement would not have been needed. She uses Haffner’s Defying Hitler memoir to explain how stacked the odds were against internal rebellion, given the appeasement tendency. Lassner summarises with a claim that MacInnes identified signs of the genocide to come.

ann bridge

She then analysed Ann Bridge’s 1953 novel, A Place to Stand. This was said to revolve around a portrait of 1940-1 Budapest, Hungary’s joining of the Axis and American isolationism. There is also mention of the Katyn Massacre of Poles by the Soviets during WW2; Lassner placed the number of Polish dead at 30,000. She then drew a link between the refugee situation and the Syrian crisis, dominating the news during the conference. There was discussion of motifs such as false identity papers and the nature of resistance, and how the novel was ‘politically and narratively’ caught between mourning a lost Europe and hopes for US and UK intervention.

Q&A:

Lassner discussed how Bridge critiques the place of women in narratives. A question regarding Fleming’s Casino Royale – which, it was noted, was published the same year as APTS – led to interesting discussion of how the character Vespa turns out to be far more complex than Bond suspects. This was said to be more complex than the ‘formulaic’ women of the early Bond films. A greater vulnerability was discerned in Skyfall (2012), which was said to be closer to Fleming’s Bond. Lassner mentioned how Bond is often a ‘hapless’ figure in the novels and regularly doesn’t win. She made strong final claims for MacInnes and Bridge’s work as reacting against the xenophobia of earlier writers, and avoiding the Oppenheim/Buchan binary of women as villainess or ‘help me’ figurine.

The early evening panel saw me back in Syndicate I-III. Surangama Datta (University of Delhi, India) gave a paper clearly influenced by Edward W. Said’s theory of ‘Orientalism’; she contrasted Herge’s Tintin and film director-writer Satyajit Ray’s Feluda, using binary terms. Tintin was placed as problematically imperialist in its ideology; having a ‘Eurocentric’ approach and seeing different cultures as “Other”. Red Rackham’s Treasure (1943) and Prisoners of the Sun (1946-48) were the two narratives analysed. The former was said to represent the native via a stereotypical cannibalism, signified through skulls and bones being strewn around the island.  Tintin and Haddock are portrayed as more idiosyncratic individuals in comparison to the uniform natives, whose story and perspective we never get. Haddock is even lionised in statue form: ‘Sir Francis Haddock’.

TINTIN - HADDOCK

It simply cannot be an academic conference without the verb ‘problematise’ showing up, and Master’s student Datta took the honours for the first such usage of SOS! I was also to partake of such lexis.

The Seven Crystal Balls (1946-48) was said to depict Tintin as a beacon of scientific knowhow, as opposed to the unreliable, superstitious Peruvian natives. Datta identified what she saw as a binary of EAST (Occult) : WEST (Scientific). She made a formal observation about the clear distinctions between the cartoon adventure’s panels reflecting the clear-cut content.  This was contrasted with the artwork of Tapas Guha, for Ray’s Bengal-set Feluda mysteries – Guha has the action burst across the panels: linked in the paper’s argument with the resistance of oppression. I would have appreciated more time allocated to Feluda; it was a little under-analysed in comparison to Tintin; but, still, clear points were communicated.

PAMUK

Doruk Tatar (University of Buffalo, USA), a third-year graduate student discussed the novels The Black Book (1994) and My Name is Red (2001), by Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk. For context, he discussed Kipling’s focus on the geopolitical ‘Great Game’ and Edward W. Said’s critique of Kim and its white fantasy of ‘going native’, as well as Arendt’s The Human Condition – regarding our fascination with numbers and letters showing our compulsion to feel part of something bigger. He also discussed Frederic Jameson’s distinction between the receding public sphere and the private sphere. Tatar located the conspiracy aesthetic as being of the twentieth century – while, in the nineteenth, espionage had been articulated as a ‘game played for its own sake among colonial secret agents’. Conspiracy was viewed in context of the enlargement of the private sphere. It begged the pertinent question: how does the withering of the welfare state in Western societies affect people’s private worlds?

He situated Pamuk’s portrayal of transnational corporations alongside David Harvey’s critique of neo-liberalism. He also very pertinently mentioned how the economic ideas of the ‘Chicago boys’ were first exported to Chile, and referred to this as a “laboratory of Thatcherism”, which the excellent Andy Beckett has written extensively about.[4]

In Tatar’s biography in the conference programme, he mentions how the term ‘conspiracy’ is used to posit affective connections between individuals and ruling elites and usually excludes ‘social antagonisms’ and thus paradoxically enforces ‘a sense of harmony within post-colonial societies’. He cited Walter Benjamin regarding how Pamuk views everyday objects as having ‘unconventional meanings’ and harbouring ‘conspirational agendas’. TBB has a flaneur-type detective investigating how seemingly innocuous objects are ‘essential in shaping the habits of the society in the most sinister way’. MNIR depicts the monetary coin as effectively having character, with the worker estranged and stripped of agency. I liked Tatar’s focus on ideologies and representations of everyday life.

casino-royale-pan-first-uk-paperback

Samuel Goodman (Bournemouth University), focused on James Bond and Popular Culture after Empire, mentioning in an aside how apt it was to present his paper in London, a centre of imperialism. Bond – Fleming’s, Amis’s and Boyd’s, among others – was seen as bound up with nationhood and Britishness. Goodman pertinently mentioned Danny Boyle’s usage of Craig’s Bond in the 2012 Olympics promotional film – with the signification of Bond as quintessentially English, the fictional spy appearing in shot alongside the serving monarch. The difference from the 1948 Olympics was clear to Goodman; then: world power status assertion, now: inclusiveness, as signified by the Parade of Nations. He persuasively described Elizabeth II and Bond as cut from the same cloth: both implicated in this status decline, both being born in the public consciousness in the 1950’s.

Unlike Dominic Sandbrook in his recent TV ‘history’ show Let Us Entertain You, Goodman avoided ducking the issue of American influence. He mentioned Dr No’s plan to disrupt US missile tests, and how Fleming saw British colonies as buffers against communism. Casino Royale focuses on Marshall Aid; Goodman mentions the irony that Lend Lease debt was finally paid off in 2006 – the year of the Craig version of the same novel!

He mentioned the ‘fiction of a civilising role’ and the ‘exotic mode of aesthetic experience’ in Bond’s consumer enjoyment. Two months later, on Saturday 7th November, I was to see Goodman deliver a talk as one of the ‘New Generation Thinkers’ at the BBC Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead, which entertainingly explored the British Empire’s influence on British consumption and production of beer.

Q&A:

Solo-William-Boyd-

A delegate mentioned how Fleming entirely avoids the middle-east – unlike, as is mentioned, Peter Cheyney. Philby was based in Beirut; Deighton features Beirut early in The Ipcress File (1962). Goodman explained how, in William Boyd’s Solo (2013), Bond makes his first visit to Africa. This novel also presents Bond in 1969 London, older and paunchy amid the changing, increasingly multicultural city. He waves away a copy of The Times bearing tidings of Vietnam. The Nigerian-born Boyd apes Fleming’s colonialist politics – describing a local woman’s nipples as perfectly round like coins and depicting an Africa of ‘cliché and stereotype’. This got me thinking that Solo would have been benefited by including some sort of Tiny Rowland figure – whose outrageous business ‘practices’ in Ghana have been dissected by Adam Curtis in episode 2 of The Mayfair Set (TX: 25/07/1999). Of course, for a Cameron, Johnson or Osborne, Rowland would be one of those archetypal British ‘buccaneering’ capitalists we should do everything to encourage.

Datta was asked about stereotyping; In Tintin narratives, the natives are often stereotyped – I have read Tintin in the Congo (1931), and yes, the blacks are depicted as eager, savage children in need of firm tutelage. Mentioned the natives as ‘subordinate’ to Tintin. There were fewer questions on Pamuk’s work. The general neglect of Africa was raised; it was mentioned that Graham Greene – The Heart of the Matter (1948) is set in Sierra Leone. Concerning North Africa, it was my thought that someone should write a Bond novel set during the Suez Crisis, and not straightforwardly mimic Fleming’s style…

Thursday’s literature-dominated proceedings over, relaxation began, in the non-shadowy environs of the George Inn.

[1] Porter, B. (1989) Plots and Paranoia: History of Political Espionage in Britain, 1790-1988. London: Routledge. 

[2] Christie, A. (1927) The Big Four. Glasgow: William Collins & Sons.

[3] Frayling, C. (2014) The Yellow Peril: Dr Fu Manchu & The Rise of Chinaphobia. London: Thames and Hudson Ltd.

[4] Beckett, A. (2003) Pinochet in Piccadilly: Britain and Chile’s Hidden History. London: Faber and Faber.

Spectres of Aberfan, Arthur and “Americanisation”: further notes on Dennis Potter, ‘Traitor’ and national identity

TRAITOR vi - by DENNIS POTTER - SOVIET MONTAGE

‘A writer may wish to confirm or strengthen the prevailing values of his society, or he may find that the movements of his imagination take him in the opposition direction. Usually, it is a bit of both, of course.’[1]

From Thursday 3rd-Saturday 5th September, I will be in London to chair, help and deliver a paper on Dennis Potter’s ‘Traitor’. This piece is an attempt to provide broader context for my paper – particularly regarding the issues of culture and national identities. For Adrian Harris, literature and journalism function as a stark binary, yet Potter himself was just as much the critic as the creator. His journalism provides a complement to his plays, and further clarifies his singular view of nationhood. Within the ambitious ‘Traitor’, Potter claimed he was “trying to pack a lot of things in that I’d been thinking about”.[2] His journalism reveals the gamut of his preoccupations in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

‘TRAITOR’ – BROADCASTING CONTEXT AND RECEPTION

‘Traitor’ was shown on 14th October 1971 on BBC-1. Television in 1971 concerned itself with spying; to add to ‘Traitor’ is ‘Act of Betrayal’ – a BBC Play of the Month broadcast in January. There was much questioning of power structures – a documentary on The Judges, whose veneer, argued Williams in The Listener, proved resistant to the probing. In the summer, LWT had broadcast a drama serial strongly engaged with ideas: The Guardians, a 13-part epic that dramatised clashing ideologies like liberalism, fascism and Marxism. In the same series of Play for Today there were some common themes to ‘Traitor’: alcoholism (Jeremy Sandford’s Edna, the Inebriate Woman) and, three weeks later, the cruelty of the prep-school system: ‘O Fat White Woman’, an exceptional adaptation of a William Trevor short-story. This latter is one of my favourite of all Plays for Today, with its sense of evocative brutality, its Delia Derbyshire soundscapes and acting from the outstanding Peter Jeffrey – present on BBC-2 in Trial on 14/10/71 and a standout in Potter’s later Lipstick on your Collar (1993) as the mentally crumbling old War Office cove.

‘Traitor’ was followed by an insightful interview with Potter on BBC-2 in Late Night Line Up at 11.10pm with Michael Dean, in which the playwright explored his motives in writing the play. Or, rather, this followed Milos Forman’s 1967 film The Firemen’s Ball, a 70-minute Czech comedy which started at 10.10pm, ten minutes before ‘Traitor’ finished. BBC-1 had in its schedules the repeat of an appositely archaeology-themed episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus from 1970 and coverage of the Tory Party conference. BBC-2 had an edition of Europa, focusing on gyspies’ changing way of life and an episode of the legal drama Trial, by future Sapphire and Steel creator P.J. Hammond.

The Firemen’s Ball is a tremendous, ambiguous film – cool, sardonically feminist, holding up an unforgiving mirror to masculine ways of seeing and leering. Forman makes a mockery of the sort of televisual spectacles that lingered on for decades in Britain; a different form of protest than the necessary sabotage at the 1970 Miss World contest. It can also be read as a satire of incompetent, corrupt communist rule in Czechoslovakia. Released internally at the end of 1967, it was only released in the UK in November 1968, following the crushing of the Prague Spring. This would have been its television debut and it surely made for pointed scheduling – overlapping with BBC-1’s Potter play, which contains explicit rebuke to the Soviet meddling. Committee and trade union ways in the town are shown as a corrupt mockery of true socialist values: “solidarity” is the loaded word used by committee leaders when on the platform and providing “help” to an old man who has ironically had his house – situated next door – burn down during this Firemen’s Ball.

THE FIREMAN'S BALL 3

The bored, listless ladies rightly do not embody any stereotypical ‘beauty’ and therefore represent an anarchic active human beauty when they scarper: an act of rebellion. They have been given a handful of words within the satirically patriarchal frame – and by the lecherous, officious committee men.

The brass-band present throughout would strike a chord with anyone aware of the annual July Durham Big Meeting – the Gala included a ‘Durham Coal Queen’, up until 1983. The section in the film where the competition prize is ‘claimed’ by a grandmotherly figure constitutes jubilant subversion and the band plays along raucously, with the committee desperately, haplessly, trying to coax the ‘contestants’ back to the stage.

Reactions in the press to ‘Traitor’ itself were mixed, tending towards positive. Dunkley in The Times was the most positive, praising a ‘tremendous’ use of the medium, the presentation of Harris as ‘wrong-headed’, but with understandable motives.[3] In The Guardian, Banks-Smith commended the use of newsreel and Potter’s blending of ‘strongly poetic’ and popular elements, seeing the contemporary scenes as like a ‘Cagney confrontation’.[4] While regarding it as one of Potter’s ‘best plays’, T.C. Worsley of The Financial Times had reservations, criticising the ending and noting the gap between the understandable turn to the left and actual defection.[5] Holland of The Observer was similarly lukewarm, saying that while the play was technically ‘riveting’, ‘dramatically the apparent coldness towards his hero leaves a chill in the viewer’.[6] Lawrence in The Stage and Television Today was the most critical, censuring its verbosity and dependence on literary quotation.[7]

‘Traitor’ was repeated on BBC-2 on Tuesday 27th February 1973 and again on 21st July 1987, just ten days before the publication of Peter Wright’s controversial memoir, Spycatcher.[8] In May 1980, there was a radio-play adaptation, featuring Denholm Elliott as Harris – the same year Elliott featured in Potter’s other treachery-related play, Blade on the Feather, broadcast in October by LWT. This arguably improves on the original by removing the television play’s ending, which had flashbacked to the start of events: conveying the needlessly obvious detail that Harris is being bugged by the KGB.

POTTER AND NATIONAL IDENTITY

?????????????

“An understanding of what class means is a politically motivating force” – Dennis Potter.[9]

 The previous year to ‘Traitor’ was Potter’s Lay Down Your Arms (LWT), which scathingly caricatured the officer class at the time of the Suez crisis. Potter had done his own National Service in the War Office in the early 1950s – pre-Suez – alongside future collaborator Kennith Trodd, who was from a similar working-class background. They shared a socialist outlook and both had witnessed ‘at first hand the Cold War antics of the upper-class majors and colonels under whom they served.’[10] When ‘Traitor’ was discussed in BBC Board of Management meeting, the following bullet point in the minutes discussed likely government criticism of a BBC schools’ pamphlet on the history of the ‘Suez episode’, demonstrating that the power and controversy surrounding Suez remained strong, fifteen years on.

The barbed attack-dog Potter of LDYA is well represented by its telling opening shot of, post-Trooping the Colour, ‘a man shovelling up horse-shit’.[11] The best scene in the play is where the grammar schooled Potter surrogate protagonist Lt. Hawk pretends to be Lev Yashin in a London pub, to impress some of its working-class punters.

Potter’s non-fiction, much of it collected in the superlative The Art of Invective (2015), distills a striking anger towards bourgeois indifference to the poor, and he displays scorn for the militaristic, nostalgic element in British culture. He denounces the unnaturalness of the Aberfan disaster of 21 October 1966, which had been caused by the bosses’ neglect of safety, and he derides Correlli Barnett’s ‘no-nonsense’ history tome, Britain and Her Army 1509-1970. Potter seems pleased that we have lost our ‘world role’ and avoided the ‘social gangrene’ of a standing army. He mocks military decline: ‘Recruiting for the British Army now takes place in the Natural Break: busy, bang-bang scraps of film sandwiched between more pacific (and more persuasive) advertisements for tinned dog food and biological stain-removers’.[12] He argues that ‘pomp and pride’ has dwindled to ‘narrow and hateful prejudice within our own small boundaries’, which can be linked his Till Death Do Us Part review where he criticises the public’s non-ironic love of Alf Garnett.[13] In contrast to what he perceived as Speight’s pandering, a July 1971 review for The Times, Potter praised David Caute’s experimental trilogy The Confrontation for its ‘deeply honest’ use of dialectical, Brechtian techniques and for making his ‘head ache’.[14]

In several journalistic pieces, he displays scepticism about the new, arty middle-class leftism. And, while he deplores the pomp and circumstance, he is somehow won over by one particular televisual spectacle of monarchy, conveying he is not so angry as to want to uproot all English traditions…

Potter was a conflicted rationalist – he adored the exacting critic Hazlitt, naming a collection of his essays as his book choice in his 1977 appearance on Radio-4’s Desert Island Discs. In a Times piece written a month before filming started on ‘Traitor’, he was critical of youths who were following post-structuralists’ lead in abandoning rational argument. [15] However, he was still more critical of older generations; who, he argues, caused this loss of faith with the aforementioned acts of war in 1968 and their construction of nuclear weapons. With ‘Traitor’ he attempted show the tension between rationalism and romanticism.[16]

Potter ‘sees this fantasy of the Past, this belief in a lost Eden, as a parallel with the communists’ hopes for a future Earthly paradise’.[17] He refers to a ‘shrivelling’ reason in contemporary society that is becoming more concerned with place than with rationalist ideas: this could be seen to anticipate such mid-1970s works as Play for Today: ‘Penda’s Fen’, Requiem for a Village and Akenfield.[18]

Potter refers to his childhood visions of Jesus Christ’s ‘presence’ on a road and King Arthur asleep in a cave in the woods. He forever associates these “gigantic, chapel-and-school taught figures” with the geographical locale of the Forest of Dean, that ‘complex tangle of woodland chimera and solidified memory between the Severn and the Wye; a place which is still to me the Holy Land and Camelot’.[19]

He refers to Arthurian myths as mourning a loss and glory that has gone, ‘yet which also convey the implicit promise of renewal, return […] the return of the dead king comes with the experience of adult love’.[20] He mentions that Ashe draws passionately on Blake, who may be seen as the poet best embodying English love. He refers to deep British antiquity as a ‘land that is in Europe yet not quite of it’.[21]

Potter’s political ideal for his “mythic England” is: “love mercy pity – peace –Blake’s Hammer like rhythm of what man is about”.[22] On LNLU, he contrasted this with the grasping individualism of Tory England, and vocally supported the miners’ calls for a strike at the recent NUM National Conference of 1971 – rejecting a 7-8% pay rise offer – and raged polemically at those he saw as the class enemy:

“Now I look at people like Mrs. Thatcher standing up in front of the cameras taking milk away from kids and saying – it’s up to parents to look after them you know, etc. etc. – all that spew that comes gushing out of these people from generations past, who are responsible for all the filth, and moral mental obscenity, of this country, as I’ve seen it and experienced it and escaped from it”.[23]

“AMERICANISATION”, MATERIALISM AND INDIVIDUALISM

Potter regarded American culture with nostalgia – film noir and much of its popular music, as evidenced in The Singing Detective and other texts – but was increasingly concerned, like Richard Hoggart and others, with its materialism and corrupting influence on local British customs and working-class solidarity. In a 1958 piece, he lauded a Forest of Dean teenager for sarcastically mocking the rock ‘n’ roll music coming from a cafe jukebox in Cinderford: ‘she showed that all was not lost, that the Brave New World had not yet won.’[24] In 1967, he bemoaned the ‘profit-driven […] horrors’ of American TV.[25] In 1974, he complained of US shows like Harry O and Ironside, in contrast to the film noirs of his youth: ‘Why don’t they write the crackling backtalk anymore?’[26] He argues that US influence has led to the British taking on ‘the mental inflections or infections of a provincial and colonialized people’.

In 1988, Hebdige commented on how cultural debates in the 1930s-60s ‘tended to revolve, often obsessively, around two key terms: “Americanisation” and the “levelling down process”.[27] He starts with discussing an example from Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen and discusses Waugh and Nancy Mitford as right-wing High Tory traditionalists recoiling from the culture’s leftwards movement during and post-WW2. However, he also identifies the liberal socialist Orwell and the social democrat Hoggart as sharing scepticism towards the ‘shiny’ ‘mass culture’ created in the UK by perceived ‘Americanisation’. Potter may also be identified in this lineage, and he refers approvingly to J.B. Priestley and Jacquetta Hawkes’ concept of ‘Admass’, coined in 1955 to describe the conjunction of advertising and mass communications.

The American is named ‘Blake’, perhaps to chide and goad Harris about the perceived cultural imperialism and political and economic dependency of Britain upon the USA. Harris describes American culture as “irredeemably vulgar”. As Potter said that he put some of his own thoughts about England into Harris’s mouth, it may be inferred that he shares his character’s resentment at the American influence – placing him closer to the writers literary academic Andrew Hammond describes as most seriously critical of US hegemony: the likes of Graham Greene and John Berger.

Much of Potter’s own loathing of materialism and consumerism finds vent in Harris. He describes the journalists’ use of the word “conscience” as “vulgar and adulterated” after they have criticised his views on “necessary murder”. He says they make “conscience” sound “like a peppermint with a hole in the middle”.

As well as its consumerist blandness, Adrian mocks Western culture’s central tenet of “individuality”. This powerful idea was forged through Cold War propaganda: from the more clear-cut, CIA-backed film of Animal Farm (1954) to a 1970s British TV dystopian series like 1990 (1977-78), which starred Edward Woodward as a crusading journalist hero, opposing a British that has degenerated into banal socialist bureaucracy. As Harris argues, Western claims of enshrining “freedom of speech” are undermined by the role of sub-editors; we can extend this to the Murdoch influence – Potter was writing this play just over a year after Murdoch’s takeover of The Sun, which he had previously written articles for. However, Potter undermines Harris in showing most of the journalists to be ethical and willing to speak against both the Vietnam War and the crushing of the Prague Spring. Through Harris, Potter voices many of his usual reservations about Western culture, but does not reject it outright. In his LNLU interview he explicitly yearns for a democratic socialist future – ideally fusing Blakean idealism with some Hazlitt-style rationalism – though hasn’t worked out how we might arrive at such a future.

ANALYSIS OF ‘TRAITOR’

Characters in the play – chiefly Harris’ Arthur and Adrian – posit dialectical binaries, clear divisions that give meaning to their lives and outlook. Interestingly, the play doesn’t establish any Burgess and Maclean style association of sexual deviancy with treachery – sexuality doesn’t feature in this play. (Nor do women, other than Harris’s mother in flashbacks) Potter makes clear the tension in some of the binaries that feature:

BINARIES TABLE

Harris associates Romantic poetry with twentieth century rebellion – “there was a time when poets exploded like bombs”- and his allusion to Auden evokes the active agency of poets in the Spanish Civil War. It is surprising that amid the many poets mentioned, Shelley is not included.

Another Blake can be brought into this story: the defector George Blake! His mystical Christian idealism was replaced by Communism as he felt only it could bring about ‘heaven on earth’.[28] Blake defected as he claimed that he felt he wasn’t on the right side when he fought in the Korean War and witnessed the brutality of the US-backed Rhee regime; he saw the Communists as stirred by the ‘same noble motives’ as Dutch and other freedom fighters in WW2.[29] When considering such ‘traitors’, Graham Greene’s critiqued the standard reflex moral judgements: ‘He sent men to their death’ is the kind of stock phrase which has been used against Philby and Blake. So does any military commander, but at least the cannon fodder of the espionage war are all volunteers.’[33] He has no sympathy for the defecting spy Volkov, but rather more for Philby. George Blake is different to Harris and Philby in being from a relatively lowly social class and a Jewish background. Potter can be said to have rejected GB’s path from Christianity to Communism, having strong faith in ‘gentle’, liberal and democratic socialism.

Arthur Harris, Adrian’s father in ‘Traitor’ compares strongly to Philby’s father: St John Philby. We get some sense in the play of Arthur’s eccentric martinet politics, which aren’t dissimilar to the Arabist adventurer St John. Perrott refers to his progress from being a ‘Socialist of a highly individual sort’[30] to becoming first candidate to stand for the far-right British People’s Party in the July 1939 by-election in Hythe, Kent, losing his deposit in this Tory-held seat with a pitiful 2.6% of the vote.[31] The British People’s Party was against war with Germany and its secretary John Beckett was interned in May 1940.[32] St John was interned himself briefly. The BPP had a strain of anti-semitism, which can be linked to when Harris refers to in the play, with a journalist quoting Hillaire Belloc, who Harris puts down as “a sweet, fey anti-semite”.

CONCLUSION

Overall, Potter’s view of the Cold War can be inferred as somewhere between critical friendship of the USA and outright non-alignment. His scorn for backward-looking patriotism very understandably knows no bounds. He is a writer whose views were partly informed by the Suez debacle and also had a contempt for Churchillian myths, which I will analyse in another blog post…

REFERENCES:

[1] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.211

[2] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.7, file 09151/2041

[3] Dunkley, C. (1971) ‘Traitor: BBC-1’, The Times, 15th October, p.12

[4] Banks-Smith, N. (1971) ‘TRAITOR on television’, The Guardian, 15th October, p.10

[5] Worsley, T.C. (1971) ‘Period Promises’, The Financial Times, 20th October, p.3

[6] Holland, M. (1971) ‘Coming back to class’, The Observer, 17th October, p.29

[7] Lawrence, J. (1971) ‘Play for Today: Traitor’, The Stage and Television Today, 21 October, p.14

[8] The Times (1973) Broadcasting, The Times, 27th February, p.27

[9] BBC WAC (1971) ‘Late Night Line Up’ transcript, 14th October, p.2 file 09151/2041

[10] Cook, J.R. (1995) Dennis Potter: A Life on Screen. Manchester: Manchester University Press, p.10

[11] Gilbert, W.S. (1996) Fight and Kick and Bite: The Life and Work of Dennis Potter. London: Spectre, p.183

[12] Potter, D. (1970) ‘Britain’s Natural Break Army’, The Times, 25th April, p.5

[13] Potter, D, Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.128-30

[14] Potter, D. (1971) ‘Busting the categories’, The Times, 22nd July, p.12

[15] Potter, D. (1971) ‘The perpetual awakening’, The Times, 4th March, p.12

[16] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.11, file 09151/2041

[17] Jones, D.A.N. (1971) ‘Playing Potter’s traitor: the best part I ever had on TV‘, Radio Times, 7th October, p.6

[18] Potter, D. (1971) ‘King Arthur and a vision of childhood country lost’, The Times, 18th January, p.8

[19] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[20] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[21] Potter, D. (1971) p.8

[22] BBC WAC (1971) ‘Late Night Line Up’ transcript, 14th October, p.11, file 09151/2041

[23] BBC WAC (1971) Late Night Line Up transcript, 14th October, p.8, file 09151/2041

[24] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.17

[25] Potter (1967) ‘TV literature and the two that got away’, The Times, 4th November, p.21

[26] Potter, D., Greaves, I., Rolinson, D. & Williams, J. (2015) The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953-94, London: Oberon, p.152

[27] Hebdige, D. (1988) Hiding in the Light: On Images and Things. London: Routledge/Comedia, p.47

[28] Storyville: Masterspy of Moscow – George Blake (2015) BBC Four, TX: 23rd March https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rutcvpJdyKE [accessed: 26/08/15]

[29] Hermiston, R. (2013) The Greatest Traitor: The Secret Lives of Agent George Blake, London: Aurum Press, p.89

[30] Perrott, R. (1963) ‘Philby: all we know’, The Observer, 7th July, p.17

[31] The Times (1939) The Times, 21st July, p.14

[32] The Times (1940) The Times, 24th May, p.6

[33] Greene, G. (1968) ‘Our man in Moscow’, The Observer, 18th February, p.26