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The African Queen, C.S. Forester (1935)

Sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and start hunting down more material by the same author. And sometimes you read a book, like it a lot, and don’t do that.

At least, that happens to me. I’ve liked The African Queen a lot every time I’ve read it, but I’ve never hunted down anything else by Forester. I think I came across one of his Hornblower books once, set on the high seas during the Napoleonic wars. But I didn’t like it, so I was confirmed in my disinclination to try anything else. I think I’m wrong, because I doubt that The African Queen is a one-off. It’s the excellent and engrossing story of two nobodies, a “Cockney engineer” called Charlie Allnutt and a missionary’s sister called Rose Sayer, who pull off an extraordinary feat by navigating an old steam launch down an unnavigable river in tropical Africa during the First World War.

The book takes its name from the launch. So did the film, a cinematic classic starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. I think the film may explain why I’ve never hunted down more of Forester’s work. It was entirely self-contained and I’m pretty sure I saw it before reading the book, so it might have influenced my idea of the book. But the book would have been sui generis anyway and it’s better than the film. Books usually are and in some ways they can’t be beaten. There’s a magic in mere words that is intensified when words become silent, sitting as static black ink on white paper. An ancient part of biology, the eyes, collaborates with an ancient piece of technology, the book, to create a world inside the head.

Film is superficial, literature is submarine. It dives beneath the surface, entering the inner worlds of its characters, exploring their psychology, motives and history in a way that film can’t. But action can be important in literature too and Forester, like H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson, can make the real world grow dim while you read. And this book dives beneath the surface in more ways than one. When the propeller and shaft of the launch are damaged in some dangerous rapids, Allnutt has to remove them for repairs:

The African Queen was moored in moderately still water in the eddy below the rock, but only a yard or two away there was a racing seven-knot current tearing downstream, and occasionally some whim of the water expressed itself in a fierce under-water swirl, which swung the launch about and usually turned Allnutt upsidedown, holding on like grim death in case the eddy should take him out into the main current from which there would be no escape alive. It was in one of these swirls that Allnutt dropped a screw, which was naturally irreplaceable and must be recovered – it took a good deal of groping among the rocks beneath the boat before he found it again. (ch. 8)

If he’d been by himself, he would never have attempted the job. He knows too much about machines, you see, and Rose knows too little: “He sighed with the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” But Rose’s ignorance gets them through. She’s the stronger character of the two and persuades Allnutt to try the repairs. To his surprise, he succeeds. Rose is an African Queen in her way and Forester is only partly ironic in naming her after England’s national flower, because she’s attractive in her way too.

But her attractions were fading, worn down by drudgery and subordination to her brother, when the war broke in on their remote African mission in a German colony. Her brother dies of fever, shattered when the German army requisitions goods and labour from the mission, so Rose wants to strike a blow for England in revenge. But how can she, a “weak, feeble woman”, do anything against the might of Germany? The arrival of the African Queen and Allnutt, “the Cockney engineer employed by the Belgian gold-mining company two hundred miles up the river”, gives her an idea. The two of them will take the launch downstream to “the Lake” and sink another African Queen, the “police steamer” Königin Luise that allows Germany to rule those inland waves.

Allnutt laughs at the idea of sailing down the river, but Rose persuades him to try and he agrees, thinking that he can easily sabotage the mission before it gets dangerous. But he’s caught up in the powerful current of Rose’s now unrepressed personality, and decides to do what she wants. He’ll do his best to get to the Lake. And here Forester becomes like one of his characters: he has “the difficulty of explaining mechanics to an unmechanical person.” It’s the mechanics of boating, navigation and hydrography. The African Queen is a quest-story, like the Lord of the Rings, and the best quest-stories read easy but feel tough. Forester has to write well to convey the hardships that his questing characters face: the rapids, the broken propeller, the ugly leeches that lurk beneath beautiful water-lilies, and the hot, stinking, malaria-ridden mangrove swamp that is the last and almost insurmountable obstacle before the Lake. Charlie and Rose have to pole and pull their way through the swamp.

Then they reach the Lake and the hardest part of the quest begins: sinking the Königin Luise. Forester has set up a grand finale and even threatens his characters with extinction, because the Queen will have to ram the Königin with high explosives in her bow. Charlie says that he’ll do it alone, but Rose refuses to leave him: “It all ended, as was inevitable, in their agreeing that they would both go. There was no denying that their best chance of success lay in having one person to steer and one to tend the engine” (ch. 14). And so they’ll both be close at hand when the high explosive goes off. In other words, they’ll both be killed. By then, that prospect will matter to you: you’ve suffered and sweated with Charlie and Rose, so you want them to succeed. The film brings you close to its characters too, but the film had to alter Forester’s ending. What works on cellulose doesn’t always work on celluloid. Literature is subtler, slyer, more sinuous, rather like a river.

And did Forester take the seed for this book from the sly and subtle W. Somerset Maugham? There’s a missionary’s sister, a working-class man, and a steam launch in Maugham’s short story “The Vessel of Wrath” (1931). And, just like Rose, the missionary’s sister in Maugham’s story is neurotically worried about rape, before she and the working-class man fall in love. The similarities are suggestive, but if Forester was influenced by Maugham’s story, he only took the seed from it. The African Queen has grander themes and is more exciting. And Maugham can’t write about action the way Forester can. Maugham was interested in psychology, not steam-launches. Forester was interested in both and a lot more beside. His wider interests make for richer reading and enhanced excitement.

And The African Queen is historically and sociologically interesting too. Forester was born in 1899 and his Victorian roots were still showing in 1935, when the African Queen was published. But he’s candid about sex in a way no respectable Victorian novelist could have been. There’s nothing explicit here, but his unmarried questers are lovers long before the climax of their quest. It all seems plausible: a novel is a kind of machine too and Forester was an excellent literary mechanic. If you’ve seen the film, try the book. It’s better and bigger and I really do need to hunt down more by Forester.

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Extreme Eiger by Peter and Leni GillmanExtreme Eiger: The Race to Climb the Direct Route up the North Face of the Eiger, Peter and Leni Gillman, with Jochen Hemmleb (Simon & Schuster 2015)

A book that’s easy to read about a climb that’s hard to imagine: the north face of the Eiger by the direttissima, the most direct route. That first attempt in 1966 was like taking the Ogre by his throat and daring him to bite. For John Harlin, the “blond Greek god” who led the English-speaking half of the climb, the dare didn’t come off. He died when a rope snapped and he fell hundreds of feet to his death.

For the other climbers, the tragedy either strengthened or shattered their resolve. Harlin’s team had consisted of Layton Kor, a fellow American, and the Scot Dougal Haston. Kor abandoned the climb; Haston joined forces with the larger German team also making the attempt. He made it to the top, but he too could easily have died. In mountaineering, skill is no guarantee of survival. Nothing is a guarantee: you need luck when you pit yourself against stone, snow and ice. Haston’s luck ran out in 1977, when he was killed by an avalanche while skiing.

He was only thirty-six, but he had taken a lot out of his time on earth. When you risk your life, you experience it more intensely. On level ground, fetching a portable stove that’s a hundred metres off isn’t a memorable event. Half-way up a mountain, it can be very memorable:

Their trials were not over. So far they had brought over two rucksacks, which meant that two were at the far end of the 100-metre traverse. The missing equipment included their stove. Neither [Chris] Bonington nor Kor appeared keen to fetch it. Bonington pointed out that he was there to take photographs; Kor said his feet were cold and he was worried about frostbite. Without saying a word, Haston departed into the snowstorm with the one functioning head torch. (ch. 10, “Parallel Lines”, pg. 202)

Next comes one of the moments that will make you hold your breath: Haston “lost his footing and slid on his back towards the drop above the second icefield, only too aware how insecure the rope anchors were.” The ropes held and he made it back with the stove:

He had been gone for more than an hour and his colleagues’ relief was clear when he arrived. He later described the traverse as the wildest he had ever done, all the more memorable for taking place on the North Face of the Eiger in darkness and a storm. ‘As an experience it was total.’ (Ibid.)

If Chris Bonington declined to take a risk over a stove, he took big risks elsewhere. He was indeed only there to take photographs, but he ended up leading part of the climb when Kor, expert on rock but inexperienced with ice, was defeated by an icy gully leading to the top of the Central Pillar. Bonington took over, made good progress and then got worried: the “veneer of ice” became “ever thinner” and he “imagined it shearing away, most likely carrying both him and Kor to the bottom of the face” (ch. 12, “The Turning Point”, pg. 232). His judgment in 2014 was: “It is the hairiest thing I have ever done.” (pg. 233)

Peter Gilman covered the climb in 1966 for the Daily Telegraph, but has re-interviewed the surviving members of both teams for this re-assessment of one of the most famous stories in mountaineering. Harlin is still a controversial figure. “Complex” is one way of summing him up. He was a poseur and fantasist, but he could inspire love, loyalty and respect too. Not in Don Whillans, though. The Mancunian maestro thought Harlin was a bullshitter.

Whillans also had a complex personality. Alcoholics often do. He doesn’t play much part in this book, but as one of the great figures of post-war mountaineering it’s appropriate that he appears. The war itself has an important part, because it was one of the obstacles that the German team had to overcome. Men like Peter Haag, Jörg Lehne and Günther Strobel were too young to have fought in the war, but they all experienced the poverty that followed Germany’s defeat. Mountaineering was not the cheapest or safest sport and by the time they set out to challenge the Eiger they had all proved their dedication and determination.

And while they were the bigger team, they also had the poorer equipment. Not that anyone in 1966 had good equipment by today’s standards: “The climbing equipment historians Mike Parsons and Mary Rose offered a startling metaphor for the comparison between the two eras: it was as if the 1966 climbers were in a ‘bare-knuckle fight’.” (ch. 8, “The Opposition Has Started”, pg. 154) Clothing got wet and didn’t dry; ice axes and boots were primitive; ropes frayed and broke. The direttissima still isn’t easy, but it was a lot harder in 1966.

There was also the psychological barrier: it had never been done before. Harlin hadn’t expected competition, but his own smaller team might not have succeeded without German help, even if he had survived. But “German” isn’t the most exact word. Apart from Lehne, Haag and Co were from the distinct region of Swabia, whose inhabitants were typecast by the rest of Germany as “penny-pinching Scrooges who needed to get a life”. In response:

They are given to a self-deprecating humour that mocks the stereotypes, referring to Swabian intelligence, Swabian humour and Swabian workmanship. They delight in confusing non-Swabians with the formulation ‘Janoi’, which means ‘yes’ and ‘no’ at the same time. In 2009 the world ‘Muggeseggele’ was chosen by a group of Stuttgart newspaper readers as the most beautiful Swabian word. It denotes a tiny unit of measurement and means, literally, the scrotum of a male housefly. (ch. 7, “The Unknowns”, pg. 123)

There is much more than mountaineering in this book: it’s about a confrontation not just between men and mountain, but between different cultures, nationalities and personalities. And it follows the climbers not just up the Eiger, but into the rest of their lives, which were sometimes cut short. Like bikers and drug-addicts, mountaineers tend to know a lot of people who died young.

Haston died young and so did some of the German team, pursuing the same thing: adventure in high places. The Nordwand – “north wall” – of the Eiger has been the scene of some of the greatest adventures of all and has claimed more than its share of young lives. As the Gillmans explain, Eiger doesn’t really mean “Ogre” in German (pg. 20), but the urban legend is easy to understand. The Eiger can fling you or freeze you to death. It never sleeps and never gives up and the Mordwand – “murder wall” – was still trying to kill Dougal Haston during the last few metres of the climb:

Below him, Hupfauer and Votteler were watching in trepidation, as aware as Haston that they had only a poor belay and one slip by Haston could kill them all. ‘He scraped his way up,’ Votteler said in 2014. ‘It was more than a masterpiece.’ (pg. 306)

By then, Haston didn’t have an “ice axe or functioning crampons”, and, to reach a rope, he had to set up on a “tension traverse” by driving an ice dagger into hard ice. As he himself put it in his book Eiger Direct, co-written with Peter Gillman, it was “Three lives on an inch of metal.”

Life itself is like climbing a mountain and we all fall off in the end. Mountaineers risk falling off sooner than most, but they play with high stakes for great rewards. This is a book about extraordinary men, extraordinary experiences and an extraordinary achievement. If you want to understand mountains and the men who challenge them, it’s an excellent place to start.

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Dream Cars by Sam PhilipDream Cars: The Hot 100, Sam Philip (BBC Books 2014)

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The UK would be much better off without the Three C’s: cars, canines and coos (i.e., pigeons*). I don’t like cars and I’m not interested in them. But I’m interested in why I’m not interested.

One reason is that I don’t find cars attractive. For me an attractive make of car is like an attractive breed of dog: it’s unusual. Ugliness is the rule with cars and dogs, not the exception. Planes are more like cats: ugliness is the exception, not the rule. But I can still find an ugly plane (like the A-10) interesting. And I like tanks, which are much more brutish than cars. However, tanks can be elegant too and they do something interesting: kill people and blow things up. And they have tracks, not large and obvious wheels like cars. The wheels on a car put me off. I think part of it is the way they contradict the chassis. A chassis points somewhere and looks purposeful. A wheel doesn’t, because it’s circular.

A-10 Thunderbolt

A-10 Thunderbolt


So this book did nowt for me. I don’t find cars attractive or interesting, I never have and I hope I never will. For me, the best thing in this book was linguistic, not locomotive: the two words “Lamborghini Murciélago”. They’re almost incantatory. But I have to admit that the car lives up to them: a “bewinged, four-wheel-drive beast capable of hauling from nought to 60mph in 3.2 seconds and running all the way to 212 mph” (pg. 139). I think “hauling” should be “howling”, though. That’s what beasts do, after all, and in their “promotional bumf, Lamborghini proudly boasts” that the car “emits a range of noises from ‘the trumpeting of mighty elephants to the roar of a raging lion’”.
Lamborghini Murciélago

Lamborghini Murciélago


But men make the beast. Italians, in this case. They’re one of four nations whose cars get sections to themselves: Great Britain, Germany, Italy, USA. Everyone else, from Sweden to Japan, is filed under “Rest of the World”. Like guns, cars demonstrate the importance of genetics for technology. Light-skinned races living at high latitudes are the only ones that matter, because they have the necessary intelligence. But the invention and innovation come from Europe. Within Europe, the art comes from Italy. I don’t feel it much myself, but I recognize that cars can be works of art. Lamborghini would make good use of Leonardo if he came back to life.

So I don’t agree with the claim that “when it comes to cars, Britannia still rules the waves” (pg. 7). But this book is aimed at fans of Top Gear and provocative opinioneering is part of TG’s USP. And it later notes that: “Top Gear has long maintained that you can’t be a true petrolhead until you own an Alfa [Romeo].” Being a petrolhead isn’t one of my ambitions, but that’s an interesting observation for a British programme to make. The presenters don’t write here, but there are constant references to “Clarkson” and his sidekicks Phil Hammond and James May. Sam Philip successfully mimics their slangy, ironic/hyperbolic, public-schoolboy style, presumably because he has the same background. And again I have to admit: though I hope I never see it again, Top Gear is an entertaining programme and I enjoy Jeremy Clarkson’s political incorrectness.

But he’s still a yob and an example of something I do find interesting about cars: their effect on human psychology. The late great Peter Simple prophesied Clarkson long ago when he invented J. Bonington Jagworth, who leads the militant Motorists’ Liberation Front and defends “the basic right of every motorist to drive as fast as he pleases, how he pleases and over what or whom he pleases”. Jagworth would have liked Dream Cars, although even he might have thought the cardboard 3-D glasses and blurry 3-D double-spreads were a bit undignified.

The 3-D photos didn’t work for me when I tried the glasses, so they went well with the glossy normal photos, which didn’t work for me either. Sleek shiny machines for driving fast in. Yawn. Give me planes any day. Or tanks. Or cats. But petrolheads will feel differently. As the introduction says: “If you love cars – and if you don’t, what are you doing here? – there’s never been a better time to be alive.” What was I doing here? Trying to understand better why I don’t love cars. I’ve succeeded.


*No, seriously.

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Trench by Stephen BullTrench: A History of Trench Warfare on the Western Front, Stephen Bull (Osprey Publishing 2010)

This is a detailed history of trench warfare in World War One, from the early days of improvisation and error to the later sophistication of flame-throwers, phosgene and tanks. One thing that stayed constant was slaughter: the war involved hundreds of highly intelligent men devising ever better ways of mincing, mashing and maiming bodies and minds. Hundreds of thousands of men in the trenches then put those ideas into operation:

The infantry battalion soon included grenades of many types, new machine guns and snipers, catapults and light mortars. The Engineers adopted gas, flame and other examples of frightfulness. … For some this was the start of a new age, when, as Ernst Jünger put it, “the spirit of the machine” took possession of the battlefield and new leaders were born. (Conclusion, pg. 255)

But artillery was the biggest killer, responsible for “two-thirds of all deaths and injuries on the Western Front”, Stephen Bull concludes in chapter one, which examines “The Armies of 1914 and the Problem of Attack”. That problem arose from an important and overlooked point he makes in the introduction: “trenches were designed to, and did, save lives” (pg. 8). Wars are won more by ending lives, not saving them, so each side sought to overcome the protection offered by trenches to the other side. Gas was one solution; tunnelling to lay explosives was another. And the tank was, in a way, a mobile trench. It wasn’t decisive in this war, but it was indirectly responsible for one of the war’s most memorable photographs: New Zealand troops “holding a German ‘T-Gewehr’ anti-tank rifle” in a “captured German emplacement near Grévillers, 25 August 1918” (ch. 9, “The Tank”, pg. 215).

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle

New Zealanders with T-Gewehr anti-tank rifle


The grins and the gun are included here with many other photos and illustrations: churned mud, stagnant pools and tree-stumps (pg. 99); a “male Mark IV tank ‘Hyacinth’” stuck in a ditch (pg. 201); a “German NCO and his Soldatenkunst [trench-art]” on brass shell cases (pg. 88); laughing British troops wearing captured German helmets (pp. 146-7); a “louse hunt” conducted by “Württembergers of the 123rd Grenadier Regiment ‘König Karl’” (pg. 189); a “bullet-riddled steel loophole plate” (pg. 155); a canvas-and-steel “dummy tree” used for artillery observation (pg. 198); and gas-masks for horses and dogs and a “gas-proof pigeon box incorporating air filters” (pg. 137). Bull discusses the Western Front from all three perspectives – Anglophone, Francophone, Teutophone – and describes how the three groups both fought and thought in distinct ways:

Interestingly many pictures of German soldiers in the latrines exist, whilst British sensibilities make this subject something of a rarity. George Coppard of the Machine Gun Corps – no stranger to hardship or death – professed himself shocked by such exhibitions. (ch. 1, “Trenchtown”, pp. 76-7)

The three groups looked distinct too: the faces and expressions differ both between the big nations and within them. But one photo could be of any nationality and from almost any war of the past hundred years: “Snipers of the US 168th Infantry” wearing camouflage hoods and garments “in May 1918” (pg. 163). They look both anonymous and ominous and though the photo is black-and-white, it might have been taken in the Second World War or in Iraq or Afghanistan in the twenty-first century. What happened in the First World War carries on now and learning about any war tells you something about all wars. But trench-warfare will probably never return on this scale and if you want to understand what it was like, this is a good guide.

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