Monday, April 19, 2010

Black August (1934)


(NB: Page references refer to the Heron edition.).

Black August is an extraordinary novel that shows Wheatley still in that first flush of energy and invention that had made 1933 such a productive and successful year.
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His next book, The Fabulous Valley, would mark the first appearance of Wheatley the formula writer, able to coast on his reputation and skilled assembly of tried and tested ingredients, but Black August was another strikingly fresh direction for an author who, at this time, specialised in nothing but.
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The book is a political thriller - part warning, part satire and all adventure - as well as a work of futurism set, according to the author's preface, "many years hence."
Exactly when the events of the book take place is difficult to work out from the text itself, though in Drink and Ink Wheatley confirms:
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As a subject I chose the biggest canvas I could think of - red revolution in England in an unspecified future. Actually, I had in mind about 1960. Strangely enough, I referred to 'the mob burning all Queen Elizabeth's lovely furniture in Buckingham Palace' although as her present Majesty was then only a little girl and the daughter of King George V's second son, I could not possibly have supposed that she would become our Queen.
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In his recent biography The Devil is a Gentleman, Phil Baker traces a number of the book's ideas and, he suggests, its very inspiration to the General Strike of 1926, quoting Wheatley's claims in his autobiography that he volunteered to help the strike breakers, and was forced to fire a pistol in the air to disperse a mob that had threatened to lynch them.
Like Orwell's 1984, the book is far more a satire on contemporary trends than a genuine attempt at predictive futurism in the HG Wells tradition. This may be seen by Wheatley's complete disinterest in speculative detail in any sphere bar the political: the social structure, technology, transport, clothes, speech, morals and manners are all plainly and undisguisedly those of the nineteen-thirties. This of course raises the question of why he bothered to set it in the distant future at all, when he could have simply staged his revolution some time in the thirties. There's no obvious answer in the book itself, though it seems reasonable to conclude that the main inspiration was Huxley's Brave New World.
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Though Baker is of course right to link the book to the fears of revolution that the General Strike inspired in Wheatley and others, it is odd that he makes no mention of Huxley with reference to its themes and structure. Wheatley had name-dropped Huxley in his previous two books, and by this time the two men had in fact struck up, if not quite a friendship, certainly a very respectful acquaintance. (That it was an unequal relationship intellectually may have factored against its longevity, and certainly there is a surprising note of sycophancy in the letters Wheatley wrote to Huxley that Baker quotes in The Devil is a Gentlemen.)
Pace Huxley, the book is framed not as an impartial record of the imagined future but as a tract, a warning - this is where we're headed if we don't look out. And while it may have seemed to many - and today would probably seem to far more - that both the fears and the prescribed remedies of the two authors were likewise antithetical, wiser generations than our own may yet conclude that, on the issues that most mattered to them, Wheatley and Huxley are on the same side of the ideological fence. All that differs are the uniforms - or in their case, perhaps, the ties.
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The opening pages, which deal with the imagined interim period between the era in which the novel is set and that in which it was written, are fascinating speculation, especially when viewed in the light of what we now know about the causes, course and legacy of World War II, which hasn't happened here.
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As the young man glanced at her his quick blue eyes took in the headline of the paper lying at her side:
'FURTHER SABOTAGE BY POLES - MORE GERMAN GARRISONS WITHDRAWN'
and his mind leapt back to the previous summer. With superb generalship, the veteran officers of the German army had carried out a classic campaign, subduing the whole of Poland in the short space of ten weeks while the French army looked on, biting their nails with fury yet impotent to help their allies, being themselves in the throes of that revolution which terminated the nine months' reign of the Fascist puppet-king, Charles XI of France.
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The book makes reference to several real world developments, and mentions a few real people by name.
Lenin predictably gets Wheatley's pen in the neck, but Mussolini gets a clean bill of health: "Mussolini laid the foundations of the new Italy so well that they will pull through somehow," the hero explains at one stage, going on to describe him as "one of the few men who will survive when the history of this century comes to be written." (Interestingly, Hitler, who had taken power in Germany during Wheatley's emergence as a writer does not get a mention.)
Wheatley never did quite lose his enthusiasm for Benito, explaining in Drink and Ink:
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To my mind Mussolini had done a splendid job in cleaning up Italy, making his nation far more prosperous and introducing the beginnings of the first Welfare State; and that with very little persecution - no more than confining a few hundred really dangerous Communist agitators in a prison island. It was one of the greatest tragedies in history that later megalomania led him to throw in his lot with Hitler.
As for General Franco, he had my vote every time...
.(picture source)
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The book's nominal hero is Kenyon Wensleydale, aka Lord Fane, initially described by the heroine as a"pampered imbecile". Fane supports the monarchy, military and aristocracy ("They may consider us effete, but England wouldn't be England without a Burminster in the background," his father explains), and views the masses as a largely empty vessel capable of being led in any direction. He is standing for the anti-revolutionary 'United British Party', which "stands for everybody who has a stake - either by inheritance or personal gain - in this England our ancestors have made for us; and that applies to the tobacconist with the little shop, or the girl who has fifty quid in the bank, every bit as much as these titled people you seem to think so effete."
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It's worth remembering Wheatley's own views on democracy here, as outlined in Drink and Ink:
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This very sensible form of government has now degenerated into something very different from the original. Every male and female over the age of eighteen now has the right to vote in favour of the party which he or she thinks would govern the country best. But what are their qualifications for this? The standard of education of the vast majority is distressingly low. They do not read the serious papers, have little knowledge of what is happening in other countries, no knowledge at all of economics and have few interests outside local problems. How can it possibly be maintained that young fellows who tear up the seats of railway carriages or girls whose only thought is to have as much fun as possible without getting put in the family way should be allowed to have an equal right in electing a government as, let us say, a university Professor?
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Wheatley's solution, which he attributes to the novelist Nevil Shute:
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Everybody should have one vote, but (additional) qualifications should entitle anyone to extra votes... so that it would be possible for exceptional people to have up to six votes. This system would ensure a continuance of democracy, but give greater weight to the opinions of people really qualified to judge the issues.
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The heroine, Ann Croome, is perhaps the most half-hearted Marxist in literature, loudly proclaiming herself a class warrior in her first encounter with Fane and dining with him at the Savoy a dozen pages later. ("Ann reddened; somehow her Socialistic theories seemed rather futile and childish in the atmosphere of this luxury hotel.")
By the time they marry (the night before they expect to be executed by Communist revolutionaries) her former beliefs have been no so much recanted as simply forgotten. Fane puts it down to her youth: "... that was only stupid nonsense gleaned from the adolescent debating societies at Cambridge. One of half a dozen ways of blowing off excess of youthful stream."
Luckily, however, she's also a looker ("her figure was perfectly proportioned and her ankles were a joy") and so Fane is able to see beyond her troublesome preoccupations: "For a second he felt inclined to laugh at her bitter antagonism to the existing order, but it was growing upon him every moment what an unusual little person she was."
"What could Ann do against the enticements of these charming people?" Wheatley asks us on her behalf not long after.
What indeed.
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Far more entertaining than uppity Ann is Fane's sister Veronica, who converses on an almost constant level of slangy, Jazz Age triviality:
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Directly after the meal was over Veronica stood up. "Well, darlings," she declared, "I'm going to have an L. D. on the B. without my B. and C."
"What is the girl talking about?" muttered the Duke.
"A lie down on the bed without my bust bodice and corset," she laughed, kissing the bald spot on the back of his head. "Don't be rash and get yourself strung up to a lamp-post or anything while we're away."
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In Drink and Ink Wheatley tells us that Veronica, whom he tellingly misremembers as the novel's heroine, "was a portrait of Joan's closest friend, Betty Earle, later the Marquise de Chasseloup Laubat", so we must assume that Veronica's delightfully fizzy dialogue ("What rippling rot, Fiona. Everybody gets divorced after two years these days") was to some extent modelled on a real life version, described elsewhere by Wheatley as "one of the gayest people I have ever known."
Here she is in conversation with Fane on the subject of his growing infatuation with Ann, she of the awkward principles but joyful ankles:
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'What did you really think of her?' Kenyon asked.
'Oh, she's quite a sweet and too devastatingly bedworthy for words!'
'Veronica! Why must you always drag that in?'
Her eyes opened wide. 'Snakes and ladders! Why not, my poor fool. You don't want to discuss higher thought with the wench, do you?'
'Of course not... but...'
'But what?'
'Oh, nothing.'
Veronica put down her teacup with a deliberate bang.
'S'welp me Gawd, but I believe 'e is thinkin' of makin' an honest woman of 'er after all!'
'No,' said Kenyon, 'I'm old-fashioned enough to feel that I do owe something to the family and it would pretty well break old Herbert up.'
Veronica shook her head sadly. 'My dear, you are loopy, there's not a doubt about it. You don't want to marry the girl, you don't want to discuss the state of your soul with her, and you don't even want to play slap and tickle - at least you say you don't. What the devil do you want?'
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The first half of the novel exists in its highly Huxleyfied world of political-futurist polemic. But Wheatley being Wheatley he cannot sustain it, and in its second half the book becomes a full-blooded adventure romance, with the usual assortment of perils, clinches and cliffhangers. Ironically, however, this transition from ideas to action is effected via the introduction of probably the most subtle, unusual and effective of all Wheatley's fictional creations: Gregory Sallust.
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With practiced nonchalance, Wheatley records in Drink and Ink that "Gregory Sallust made his first appearance in this book as its hero. His physique and personality were based on those of my dear, unscrupulous friend of the First World War, Gordon Eric Gordon-Tombe."
In fact, the character is a loving tribute to Tombe, recasting him in the dimensions Wheatley felt his personality deserved, conceived perhaps even as a means of keeping alive the man who had been his best friend and the most important influence in his life.
Here's how Wheatley describes his mentor - and virtual hero - in Drink and Ink:
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He had a great sense of humour, was completely immoral and immensely knowledgeable. He weaned me from reading trash to books by the finest authors of all nations and to books about ancient civilizations and the occult.
Gordon Eric was also a crook of the first order. He never robbed people, but swindled insurance companies and the government out of considerable sums.
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The balance of their relationship is evident from the bookplate Wheatley commissioned, showing him imbibing wisdom at Tombe's cloven feet, a bottle of champers and a saxophone in the foreground reminding us of the Jazz Age hedonism through which Tombe's paganism was filtered:
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While Tombe was eventually murdered and his body concealed - a fittingly flamboyant end to a flamboyant life - Sallust would live on as Wheatley's recurring World War II hero, a counterpart to the Napoleonic Roger Brook.
Needless to say, this man is not the Sallust we first meet here, not least because the Second World War hasn't happened in Black August, and Sallust, many years after the forties, is of the age at which he participates in the war in future novels.
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On our first meeting with Sallust we are reminded not only that Wheatley likes to draw psychological inferences from the physical properties of his characters, but also that his heroes are frequently described in unflattering terms. (A point often forgotten by those who complain about the frequent ugliness and deformity of his villains.) Sallust has a "long, rather sallow face" made "queerly Satanic" - a fascinating adjective indeed! - by a long scar. By his own admission, he also mysteriously possesses "the sort of eyes which can see better in the dark than most people's".
One of the first things we learn about him is that he is an atheist, another direct nod to Tombe, but in the light of Wheatley's popular image of defender of all things traditional a somewhat shocking characteristic for a hero.
"Forty-minute sermons on Sundays when I was at prepatory school made me antagonistic to the Christian Church," Wheatley reminisces in Drink and Ink, "and as I grew older my reason confirmed this dislike." But it was Tombe who intellectualised his disinterest and impatience with the discipline of Christianity, introducing him to paganism and Eastern esoterica from which the author constructed his own faith piecemeal.
Interestingly, Sallust defends Christ against the iconoclasm of sensationalist modern art on the grounds that "Christ was a great man - and I hate to see Him mocked at by these filthy pseudo-artists." This could easily be a direct quote from Tombe, memorised, perhaps even jotted down, by his devoted acolyte.
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Sallust, like Tombe, is an outright villain rather than a rogue, with whom Wheatley asks us to sympathise on account of his invention and audacity rather than any explicitly or traditionally redeeming characteristics. It makes for a highly unusual kind of hero: not innovative, perhaps, but certainly very modern, with upright, uptight Fane offered almost as a security gesture, a kind of compensatory alternative if Sallust's outrages prove too rich for the reader's blood.
Oddly, though, the character became progressively more conventional and respectable as his adventures progressed.
Writing in Drink and Ink not long before his death, Wheatley stresses that Sallust was "physically at least" a portrait of Tombe, but "apart from ruthlessness, the characters of Gordon Eric and Gregory as he developed had little in common."
That's 'as he developed', you'll notice: the Sallust of Black August is an unprincipled opportunist and seems a far more than merely physical reproduction of Tombe: if he mellowed as his adventures progressed, perhaps that was Wheatley imagining the future mellowing of a friend who was denied the chance to do so in real life.
But for now at least, Sallust is all Tombe. "He's a proper blackguard, but I like the man; this sort of thing needs guts," one character explains, and Fane tells us: "He seems to be one of those exceptional egoists who really have the courage to throw all established ideas overboard and carry their theories into practice regardless of the cost."
And he's certainly unscrupulous, with self-preservation always his highest priority:
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Silas laughed suddenly. 'You'll be a Kommissar-General before we're through.'
'Well!' Gregory smiled back at him., 'I've no rooted objection to Kommissars providing I'm one myself. Care for a stroll, Veronica?'
She smothered a fake yawn. 'Why not, O reincarnated Vicar of Bray.'
.Predictably, Sallust's appeal (Wheatley speaks at one point of his "apparent misogyny", an interestingly ambivalent phrase) divides Ann and Veronica:
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'Really! Do you mean that you have fallen for him then?'
'No - not quite. But I always have been attracted by the type of blackguard who has brains and guts providing they have a sense of humour and the decencies.'
' I like to listen to him, but I should hate him physically.'
'Would you? Well, I'm afraid I'm a shameless hussy,' Veronica confessed. 'That wolfish look plays the devil with the back end of my brain. One might get hurt but I bet that man knows how to make love.'
'Yes, but not the kind of love that appeals to me. I'm a simple soul just liking to be cuddled and cuddle in return - fior ages and ages and ages. It's laziness, perhaps, but it's the sort of thing I'm always wanting from the right kind of man. '
'No, you're just deliciously normal, my sweet, and if I wore trousers I should be as crazy about you as Kenyon is - but I'm just a nasty vicious slut...'
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Sallust and Veronica seem destined to pair, and we watch Sallust's growing infatuation with her without surprise. What is surprising, then, is the late emergence of another character, Silas, as a rival for her hand, still more so his swift and final success in the matter (even after Wheatley has pragmatically informed us of Sallust's sexual conquest of her). Wheatley, who surely had no intention at this stage of reviving Sallust (in some series of futuristic adventures presumably) must have decided on purely literary grounds that it would have been a betrayal of Sallust's character to blithely pair him off with the first eligible female with whom fate presents him. Perhaps he felt he owed it to his extraordinary friend Tombe. Whatever, it is an an enigmatic loner that Sallust begins the book and in the same way he takes his leave: a most satisfying job of characterisation indeed by Wheatley.
Of course, he proved too good a character not to revive, but it was curious that Wheatley chose to do so by making him the hero of a series of WW2 novels, thus invalidating the events of Black August. In retrospect it seems odd that Wheatley didn't give this new character a different name - he could still have been inspired by Tombe - especially since Sallust Mark 2 is by necessity shorn of most of the cynicism and mercenary opportunism that was so central to his character as originally conceived.
Wheatley must have fallen for Sallust as much as he had for Tombe and it's not surprising: while his other regular characters are wonderful but one-dimensional heroes distilled from a lifetime's infatuation with boys' adventure literature, Sallust - especially in this debut adventure - is something altogether more. Pitched somewhere between Fleming's Bond and Conan Doyle's Holmes, he could be the most interesting, best conceived and developed character in the whole Wheatley canon.
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A few staples of Wheatley's later works make early appearances here. These include his advocacy of cross-class relationships (here, as invariably in his work, sexual in their engine, but emnating presumably from his own lower middle-class infatuation with the aristocracy) and also the matter-of-fact use of accurate occult predictions as a plot point.
Then, as usual, there is the casual interpolation of extensive research and facts gleaned from Wheatley's own experience: Wheatley the wine merchant tells us why the Navy can't take vintage wine to sea (page 129), and there's some clever and knowledgeable stuff about powering a ship from below decks and disabling the bridge (page 160).
I also liked the way the characters pack a picnic hamper before taking desperate flight, and the manner in which Wheatley cannot restrain himself from passing adverse judgement on decor and furnishings in even the most tense, hectic and action-packed sequences, such as when our awareness of Ann's discovery of the site of a grisly double murder is delayed by Wheatley's observation: "The furniture was in keeping with the house, an Edwardian mahogany dining-room suite, heavy and tasteless."
Later the characters arrive at "a cheap eating house... of the type usually run by Italians; polonies and tarts coverd with coarse coco-nut decked the window beside a water-bottle with a lemon stuck in the top."
What is especially notable about the last passage is that it is inserted in the very heart of one of the book's most suspenseful episodes, as the heroes are trapped by a murderous mob with little prospect of escape. In the subsequent fight for their lives Wheatley stops to tell us that Fane uses "a hideous china vase" to bludgeon his assailants; we later learn that a hotel bedroom is decorated with wallpaper of "a hideous shade of green", and that a "hideous pale bronze clock" adorns the mantelpiece of Ann's lodgings.
.And to anyone who had recently finished reading Old Rowley, Wheatley's resolution of the national emergency is as unsurprising as it is delightful: an army of ordinary folk shouting "Down with the reds!" enables the Prince Regent to take power.
"I have never sought a dictatorship," he proclaims, "and I give my assurance that as soon as law and order have been re-established throughout the country, I shall cease to act as a dictator." For the time being, however, the Commons is dissolved, and steps will be taken to see that such things cannot so easily happen again:
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'Parliament will reassemble in due course, for it is as much a part of the Constitution as the Sovereignty itself, and time has proved that a Constitutional Monarchy is the form of Government best suited to the British people.
'But, when it reassembles, it is my intention to urge upon it the passage of bills which will make it a different body to that which we have known for many generations. (...) There will be in future no Prime Minister. That office was created solely on account of the difficulty which William of Orange experienced in speaking and understanding the English language. It is the rightful prerogative of the Crown, and, should His Majesty's condition continue to improve, as we pray it may, he will once more assume the Sovereign's ancient position at the head of the Council table.'
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The book was another well deserved success.
"The advance copies sent to librarians and booksellers resulted in such staggering orders that the book had to be reprinted six times before it was published," the proud parent recalls in Drink and Ink:
"There was no question about it. I had gone to the top of the form and I was there to stay."