Books: The Revolt of the Pendulum — Starting with Sludge |
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Starting with Sludge

It was my third year at Sydney Technical High School, and our English class was being taken by a history teacher while our regular teacher was away ill. Though he conspicuously wore the first Hush Puppies I had ever seen, I can’t remember the history teacher’s name. But I can still remember everything he said. To keep us in order, he had been asking us what we read at home. I said that I had been reading the collected works of Erle Stanley Gardner. He said there was nothing wrong with that, but that the whole secret with what he called sludge fiction was to enjoy it while you built up the habit of reading, and then move on to something hard. The very idea that there might be something interesting further up the road had not occurred to me before that day. Many years later, I realised that he had chosen his words with care, so as not to crush.

Our knowledge of ourselves is that we are alone, and our dream of ourselves is that we are alone because we are unique. Sludge writers who can tap into that dream are off to a flying start, and the first sludge I knew in my life was flying sludge. It is still airborne in my mind’s eye: our house in Kogarah, my little room, and the narrow bed holding up the square squadron formation of my Biggles books, all laid out face up and edge to edge so that I could kneel and worship them as if they were household gods. It wasn’t a case of judging books by their covers, because when it came to these particular books I loved their contents, whole chunks of which I could recite by heart, especially when not asked. But my adoration for what was in them had made icons of their outward appearance.

My favourites were the covers with the green background against which, framed by his leather helmet and the heavy collar of his Sidcot flying suit, the features of Biggles loomed with a hieratic numinance which, I was to realise much later, exactly echoed the Nazi sculptures of Arno Breker, much admired by Hitler and his terrible friends as the ideal of Aryan manhood. All the green-covered books had the word ‘Biggles’ in the title except Spitfire Parade, which somehow I treasured even more than the others, perhaps because you had to know it was about Biggles — it was, as I explained to my mother on several occasions, secret information. The narrative paintings on the covers of the later books were a disappointment, as indeed were the books themselves: the post-World War II Biggles adventures had lost focus, not because their hero had aged — miraculously, he never did — but because his author, Captain W. E. Johns, still alive and writing, must have been older than Dr. W. G. Grace would have been if he had been still alive and batting. There was also the possibility that I myself, the ideal reader, was feeling the effects of the passing years, which were soon to propel me into long pants and the necessity to shave.

Bulldog Drummond arrived in my life like a descending testicle, a fair analogy for the size of his brain. By comparison, Sanders of the River was an intellectual. It never occurred to me — though it probably occurred to the author, Edgar Wallace — that Sanders, in demonstrating his mental superiority to all those benighted fuzzy-wuzzies, was the incarnation of the imperial principle. I just liked the way Sanders, having figured everything out in a flash, adjusted his pace so that lesser breeds could catch up. Bulldog had no such resources. But his capacity for ratiocination was never the attraction: it was his Caesarian speed of movement as he went into battle against the all-purpose international heavy Carl Petersen. (Surely it was no coincidence, as the academics say, that John le Carre chose the name Karla for the similarly globe-girdling eminence rouge who was later to haunt the squinting imagination of George Smiley.) Acutely potentiated by the hormonal stirrings of pubescence, my feelings for the even more evil Irma Petersen were a giddy cocktail of fear and desire — as, I now suspect, were those of Drummond. The bone-headed crusader would run, swim, drive or fly vast distances at incredible speeds specifically to place himself at her mercy. He always survived her perverted attentions, perhaps because (the thought scarcely entered my adolescent mind, for want, as it were, of a point of entry) she had a thing for him.

The relationship of Irma and Bulldog was duplicated three quarters of a century later in the classically awful British television SF series Blakes Seven: no apostrophe in the title, no sense in the plot. The depraved space queen Servelan, played by the slinky Jacqueline Pearce, could never quite bring herself to volatilise the dimly heroic Blake even when she had him square in the sights of her plasmatic spasm guns. The secret of Blake’s appeal, or Blakes appeal, for the otherwise infallibly fatale Servelan remained a mystery, like the actual wattage of light bulb on which the design of Blake’s space-ship, or Blakes space-ship, was plainly based. Drummond’s appeal for Irma was no secret at all. He was born to jack-boots as she was born to high heels. But the relationship was identical in its balance of forces. In sludge fiction there are only so many situations. It’s part of the charm, and part of the importance: these adventure stories by and for childish adults emanate from Jungian archetypes boiling deep below the brain, somewhere in the medulla oblongata. Their thematic templates are practically genetic.

But I didn’t know that yet. The Bulldog Drummond books belonged to the parents of my friend Graham Gilbert, down the street. His parents must have inherited them from their parents, because his parents never read anything, with the gratifying consequence that the books were in pristine condition, all lined up with yellow wrappers intact — the author’s sobriquet ‘Sapper’ stood out boldly on their spines — in a rosewood cabinet topped off with ferociously polished ornaments of brass and glass. One at a time, I borrowed every volume, immersing myself in their steaming bouillabaisse of dimwit derring-do and xenophobic snobbery. In retrospect, the jut-jawed, meat-headed Bulldog stands flagrantly revealed as a brawling anti-Semite to whom Julius Streicher would have been glad to extend a sweating paw, but at the time such considerations did not impinge. What counted was the hero’s Pavlovian readiness (Bulldog Drummond Attacks) to pit himself single-handed against a conspiratorial world. He did the same routines in every book — got tied up loosely by Irma, cut his way free, shot it out with Carl — but still I read them all. Sameness was part of the satisfaction.

Completism was part of the hunger: with print as with food, I was the kind of consumer who leaves nothing on his plate. When I graduated to Ellery Queen and Erle Stanley Gardner — the local lending library came in handy at this point, because there were so many titles by each author that I could never have afforded to own a tenth of them — I read everything by both, even though each repeated himself shamelessly and often verbatim. (Actually Ellery Queen was two people at the very least, but for inventiveness they barely added up to one: whereas Erle Stanley Gardner also wrote copiously under the name of A. A. Fair, thus engendering another few dozen titles to get through.) Nothing, however, could beat actually owning the stuff. Personally doing a lot for the royalties of Leslie Charteris, I bought every Saint book in print, usually in the big yellow Hodder and Stoughton trade paperbacks, although the Pan pocketbooks were more desirable, having the better cover paintings. (On the Pan covers, Simon Templar posed in black tie and pistol plus adoringly draped soignée women: surely the prototype for James Bond’s graphic image in later years.) There was no room to arrange all my Saint books on my bed, so I lined them up in rows on the lounge-room floor, in front of the Kosi stove: Enter the Saint, The Saint Steps In, The Saint Closes the Case and (wait for it: the title of the century) The Last Hero. Bliss! And boy, couldn’t Leslie Charteris write, I asked my mother rhetorically, quoting the evidence by the page while she dusted the wax fruit in the brass dish. For the first time in my career as a reader, here were sentences which, when you read them again, got better instead of worse.

Even more than Bulldog Drummond, the Saint was a model for James Bond: years later, I could tell from the first pages of Ian Fleming that he, too, had once thrilled to Simon Templar’s savoir faire, his Lobb shoes, his upmarket mistress and his mighty, hurtling Hirondel — a car that would have seen off Bond’s Bentley in nothing flat. Unlike Drummond, the Saint, though he packed a narcotic uppercut and could shoot the pips out of the six of diamonds after flicking it through the air, existed on the level of mentality: he was clever, he had wit. He didn’t just charge and shoot, he figured things out, like Sanders of the River but without the solar pith helmet. For someone like me — someone who was bringing exactly no sporting trophies home from school, and for whom a reasonable result in English was his sole academic distinction — the idea that brains could be adventurous was heady wine. It was a short step to the most adventurous brain of the lot. Ranging backwards in time but forwards in receptive scope, I submitted to the awe-inspiring intellect of Sherlock Holmes.

In the Sherlock Holmes novels, and even more so in the short stories, almost all the action was in the mind. Though the Saint could outwit his enemies and leave them chastened by his epigrams while they tied each other up and surrendered to the police, he was seldom relieved of the necessity to plug a few of them as well. For Sherlock to carry a pistol was a rare event. In every tenth story, he might discourage an attacking footpad by taking a swipe with his walking stick, but that was about it. Admittedly, and often without informing Watson in advance, Sherlock moved about a lot. Though his favourite posture was one of silent meditation, he was given to sudden disappearances. (This motif was later borrowed by John le Carré: ‘Then Smiley disappeared for three days.’) After Watson had duly added acute apprehension to his customary unflagging astonishment, Sherlock would just as suddenly turn up in other cities, other countries. But his manoeuvrings were seldom in order to position himself for an attack. They were in order for him to announce in the appropriate circumstances that he had the whole mystery figured out. From this and that he had deduced such and such. Watson, with the same access as Holmes to this and that — the facts in the case — had deduced exactly nothing.

Neither, of course, had the reader, who in this instance was myself, reading far into the night as part of my mental preparation for the mathematics examination next day. But Conan Doyle’s trick — a trick raised to the level of sorcery — was to make the reader identify with Holmes instead of Watson. Watson was the same well-meaning dumb-cluck as you were yourself, but Sherlock was your dream of yourself. As a powerful aid towards making the reader imagine himself striding across the moors or along fog-bound Limehouse alleyways in Sherlock’s long shoes, Conan Doyle made the master sleuth a bit of a shambles in every department except deduction. Hence his appeal to generations of adolescent boys who couldn’t keep their rooms tidy and whose laundry was done by their mothers — a point reinforced, rather than invalidated, by the large number of adult males who even today make a cult out of the Baker Street bohemian. Invariably the Sherlockologists are permanent adolescents retaining all the trainspotting tendencies of youth. When a youth myself and in pursuit of an obsession, there was no aspect of life I could not neglect down to and including personal hygiene. My chief obsession was reading, and for a long while there was nobody else I wanted to read about except Sherlock.

I didn’t try to ape his physical mannerisms. A long way from 221B Baker St. London, No. 6 Margaret St. Kogarah was scarcely a suitable dwelling in which to sit around in a dressing gown smoking a meerschaum while gazing into an open fire. I could gaze into the Kosi stove, and my clandestine smoking — ten Craven ‘A’s a day and sometimes more — was a pretty fair equivalent for Sherlock’s drug habit, but otherwise there was no mimetic urge. I never stood in front of the mirror with a deerstalker on my head pretending to be Sherlock, whereas, pretending to be the Saint, I had many times stood in front of the mirror with a sardonic smile, folded arms and a casually tilted Mauser P-38 replica plastic water pistol. For my resident interlocutor, namely my mother, there was no possibility of faulting my logic as I told her why it was necessary, rather than attending to my homework, to disappear suddenly that very evening in the direction of the public library so as to replace The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Sign of Four with A Study in Scarlet and The Speckled Band.

It was a phase, of course, and I bless it in retrospect, because Conan Doyle was a real writer providing a free immersion course in the fundamentals of evocation. Conan Doyle was my first case of following a writer along his side-tracks. Previously, not even the authoritative Captain W. E. Johns had been able to do that. Biggles led me to Worrals and Gimlet but not for long, because Worrals never shot anybody down and Gimlet didn’t even have a plane. With Conan Doyle it was different. Willing to try Professor Challenger because the same author had invented Sherlock Holmes, I was plunged irretrievably into The Lost World, and nowadays I can only pity a generation that gets its dinosaurs from Jurassic Park instead of from the magic plateau in whose steamy jungle the Prof and his friends spent so much time on the run. A Steven Spielberg dino is a stunning special effect. A Conan Doyle dino was a dino: it stank. The grunts, smells and yells of fear helped to offset the sneaking suspicion that Challenger was just Sherlock in a pith helmet — i.e. yet another lightning intellect condemned to loneliness among ordinary mortals with slowly churning primitive brains. And anyway, how bad was that?

Like Conan Doyle and Leslie Charteris, C. S. Forester was too good a technician to be classified as a sludge writer tout court, but his central character was that same sludge basic: Horatio Hornblower, the best strategic brain in the Royal Navy, was so brilliant that he could work his way to a just preferment only through penetrating the defences of the envious and mediocre. Pretty much like school, really. Saying the minimum like Gary Cooper in High Noon or Alan Ladd in Shane, resigned to being misunderstood like Christopher Tietjens in Ford Madox Ford’s great tetralogy Parade’s End (a sludge masterpiece daringly masquerading as literature), to whom else was Hornblower designed to appeal except an Australian schoolboy whose class marks were going steadily down the drain?

It was clear to me even at the time that Forester had based Hornblower solidly, not to say shamelessly, on the original of the heroic figure occupying the top of Nelson’s Column. Along with the leading character, everything in the Hornblower saga had its basis in historical reality. Forester knew the concrete detail of the period inside out. Years later I wrote myself a starring role in a Footlights sketch as a pirate captain who did nothing but lurch about shouting orders. (‘Belay the thwart bollocks and lash down the foreskin!’ etc.) I was congratulated afterwards by a yacht owner in the audience who kindly suggested that I must have known the authentic nautical terminology quite well in order to parody it so effectively. Actually my own nautical career had consisted of one terrified trip across Sydney harbour as the other half of the crew of my friend Graeme McDonald’s VJ, a journey during which the mere thought of the sharks cruising below froze my hands to the sheets. I got my technical talk from Forester. ‘Bumscuttle the larboard strakes, Mr Bush!’ I got it from him in full confidence that he got it from reality. But Forester’s painstaking verisimilitude should not be allowed to disguise the fact that Hornblower is a fantasy.

I hope I spotted that at the time. For a short while I might have attempted to address my classmates the way Hornblower addressed his first mate, Mr Bush — saying the minimum, asserting his authority, bridling at contradiction — but taciturnity was not my natural style, nor tolerance theirs, so the imposture could not have lasted long, and anyway it was obvious that in at least one vital respect Hornblower was a wish fulfilment. He could steer his ship into the massed broadsides of the whole French fleet and the enemy cannon-balls would hit everyone on board except him. They just curved around him. They had been manufactured in the same ordnance factory as the Hollywood bullets that swerved past John Wayne on Iwo Jima. When Hornblower did get hit, he got hit at the edge, leaving all the bits that mattered still working. The same could have been said of Nelson — it must certainly have been said by Lady Hamilton — but Nelson spent as little of his career as possible facing overwhelming odds, whereas for Hornblower the odds had to be overwhelming or he wouldn’t bother pointing his bowsprit at them. In recent years the indecently gifted Spanish writer Arturo Pérez-Reverte, taking a tip from Stendhal, has been turning out a wonderful series of novels and novellas about what war was really like in the Napoleonic period. His key trick is to build a central character you can’t help sympathising with and then kill him off at random. This is a cruel literary strategy — Tolstoy pioneered it in War and Peace when he aced out Nicolai Rostov just after the reader had learned to love him — but in the cruelty lies its truth. War was like that, is like that, and will always be like that, until the day when Full Spectrum Dominance, or whatever the nerds call it, allows a battle with no people in it at all. In reality, flying metal doesn’t care what it hits. Least of all can flying metal be staved off by moral stature. An invulnerable character is inviting you to join him in dreamland, the land of flying sludge.

As a war orphan myself, I don’t think I ever quite lost sight of the truth about the insouciant randomness of the Grim Reaper’s scythe, but there was perhaps an element of compensating for the absent father figure. I think it more likely, however, that I was just fantasising about the possibility of individual initiative and valour having some effect in a world which I already knew to be unjust. Some of my heroes were fascists in all but uniform. My adolescence had taken place after, and not before, the era in which the supermen had done their worst, but I didn’t spot the connection: perhaps because I was unusually obtuse, but more likely because adolescence takes place in its own time, and refuses to be pre-empted by history. Putting the best possible construction on it — something we ought not to do for ourselves, but there are times when it is necessary in the interests of justice — I think I admired my collection of superior beings for how they did their duty, not for how they indulged their eminence. From far off, beyond the walls of my bedroom, history had already reached me as a wave of shock. Clearly one was powerless, and yet here were these marvellous people who had power: not power over others — that never really appealed to me, a blessed blank spot on my crowded list of vices — but power over events. The only drawback was that my paragons were fictional.

In my next phase, I moved up to reality, but read about it as if it were sludge fiction. After World War I, the books that told the story of what the war had been really like did not start coming out until about 1928. After World War II, the flood of realistic accounts started almost immediately. In Australia, my generation of schoolboys grew up reading about British heroes: Guy Gibson in Paul Brickhill’s The Dam Busters and in Gibson’s own Enemy Coast Ahead, Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky (Brickhill again) and all those resourceful RAF types in The Great Escape (Brickhill yet again). Paul Brickhill was an Australian but he might as well have been working for the British Council. I took in all the factual detail but as far as the characters went I was still dealing with Biggles, Bulldog and Sherlock. In The Big Show and Flames in the Sky, Pierre Clostermann was the French Biggles. When I read Adolf Galland’s book The First and the Last I was almost sorry the Luftwaffe hadn’t won: clearly they would have, if only Hitler hadn’t been so stupid about the Me 262 jet fighter’s potential. Galland, if not precisely the German Biggles, had a lot in common with Erich von Stahlhein, the caddish but talented gentleman spy and ace pilot who had almost brought Biggles permanently down to earth in Biggles Flies East. When I read Desmond Young’s Rommel, I was overcome with grief that he hadn’t won in the desert: clearly he would have, if only Hitler hadn’t been so stupid about strategy. My three-colour drawing of Rommel, copied from the dust jacket of Young’s book, decorated the wall beside my bed. From my mother’s angle it might as well have been a drawing of General Yamashita, but she knew how to wait.

She had to wait quite a while. My hero worship was slow to fade, partly because the cast of characters in the war books had actually been pretty heroic. It hadn’t yet occurred to me that they had had the opportunity to cut a dash because their circumstances were favourable. But my voracious reading habit eventually led me to the uncomfortable truth. In The Scourge of the Swastika, by Lord Russell of Liverpool, I read my first accounts of another kind of prison camp from which no tunnels led out, and saw the kind of pictures I had no urge to copy. And when I read The Naked Island, by Russell Braddon, I got my first close-up of the war my father had been in, and they had all been in: a war to the death, a war in which men were very lucky indeed if they even got the chance to fight, and in which women and children had died by the million. Children like me. Time to grow up. After that, I continued to read everything that was real, and I still do. But I got the habit by reading everything that was false.

(TLS, December 16, 2005)


Any cultural commentator who lives to my age is bound to be reminded, many times a day, of how his tastes and interests, even at their most highly developed, began in his childhood enthusiasms, and of how those in their turn sprang from instinct. Thus the circle closes, and the mental life that we had thought was linear is revealed as having no end, because it is joined to the beginning. When I laid my first books out beside each other so that I could better love their covers, it was the start of the thrill I feel now, as I decorate my website with the covers of all the books I have come to favour. In my library, I see only their spines, but on the Web, they answer my first desire. Young, naive and knowing nothing, I had no idea, as I sat absorbed in Hans-Ulrich Rudel’s tank-busting adventures as recorded in Stuka Pilot, that Rudel, still alive at the time, was one of the bunch of unrepentant Nazis in Argentina who always knew where Adolf Eichmann was hiding. But my clueless fervour was the beginning of my later capacity to find such things out, and the thrill of reading was the first and most solid instalment of what Bruno Schultz called the iron capital of the adult brain. A critical capacity had already begun, even if it was only on the primitive level of knowing whether what I read excited me or not. Finally, because initially, that critical capacity must be innate. Samuel Johnson, who has been often in my mind during the assembly stage of this book, invented a worthless critic called Dick Minim. Rising to great prestige through no other gift but his sensitivity to the direction of the wind, Dick Minim was devoid of any genuine critical capacity, because he had not been born with it. Johnson, the most effectively learned man of his time, had taken in all that mattered of everything that had been written, but he was sure that his ability to judge it had started in his blood. ‘There is a vigilance of observation and accuracy of description which books and precepts cannot confer,’ he wrote. ‘From this almost all original and native excellence proceeds.’ He was talking primarily, at that point, about the scholars and their learned conjectures, but his wonderful Preface to Shakespeare is full of precepts equally pertinent for all critics, however general their approach. As he says here, however, the precepts will never mean enough unless we have it in our nature to recognize their truth. Yes, we must read. But first of all we must choose our parents wisely.