Tag Archives: British Empire

Review: Under An English Heaven


An té nach bhfuil láidir, ní foláir dó bheith glic.  

If you are not strong, you had best be cunning (Old Gaelic Proverb)

There are many different versions of this story, but the way I heard it, an English biologist (probably J.B.S. Haldane, but not definitely) was asked what his studies of the natural world indicated regarding its Creator.   He replied that God must have a an ‘inordinate fondness’ for beetles since He’d created hundreds of thousands of different species (not to mention the most famous rock band of all time).

If we were to pose the same question of Donald E. Westlake (whose existence is not currently disputed, that I know of), we might easily deduce that he had a weak spot for independents of all stripes–individuals who fly their own flag, determine their own destiny, go their own way.  Individuals and also nations–he liked small nations so much that he ended up inventing them by the bunch.  Klastrava, Descalzo, Undurwa, Talabwo, Guerrero, Ilha Pombo Island, Tsergovia–that’s by no means a complete list.  He might also sometimes stick in a real small country like Belize, but that entailed more research.

These nonexistent republics of his could be found in Central Europe, Africa, South America, the Caribbean–he was bemused and delighted at the sheer variety of small nations around the world, and as I pointed out a few weeks back, my blog stats would tend to indicate he still has ardent readers in many if not most of the small nations out there today.  Call it a mutual admiration society.

He even had one of his characters, the inimitable J.C. Taylor, invent her own country, the island nation of ‘Maylohda’, and con various official personages into believing it truly existed–she’d learned that once you’re a country, all sorts of revenue streams (and schemes) are opened up to you, if you can learn how to navigate the bureaucracy.  The trick, of course, is to be the maker of schemes, as opposed to the object of them.  The fleecer, not the fleeced.

Westlake’s admiration for the independents didn’t blind him to the fact that small nations may have many crosses to bear; greedy oppressive dictators, corrupt ineffectual administrations, limited natural resources, and they very often have sad histories of being dominated and exploited by their larger, richer, more aggressive neighbors, or by distant colonial powers.  It’s a fine thing for a nation to be small, because that means its identity can be more focused, its people more united against common perils, but it’s never an unmixed blessing.  Life is simpler in a small nation–until the bigger nations insist on complicating it.

I don’t know when he first became interested in Anguilla, one of the Leeward Islands, which are in turn part of the Lesser Antilles Chain, way out in the Caribbean Sea (and mercifully free of pirates who look like Johnny Depp).  Certainly no later than the time he was doing research for I Gave At The Office, though the Caribbean island that book is partly set in bears no resemblance to Anguilla in its government or the immiserated condition of its people (I have a strong suspicion as to which Caribbean locale he did base Ilha Pombo Island upon, but we’ll get to that soon enough).

He was writing in Caribbean settings much earlier than that–in Who Stole Sassi Manoon?, for example–that might have been the genesis of his interest, since that book owes its existence to Westlake being tasked with writing a screenplay about a movie star kidnapped in Jamaica, and he’d have needed to study up a bit on the Caribbean (and probably do some traveling there, hopefully at studio expense).

But the fact is, Mr. Westlake had long demonstrated an inordinate fondness for tropical climates, as might anyone who was raised in upstate New York (it’s really cold).  He liked spending time in the Caribbean islands, notably Puerto Rico (much larger than Anguilla, with a similarly nebulous status with regards to its ‘mother country’), and he liked writing about them.  But it must be said, his best books were rarely set in them.  You can take the boy out of New York….

This is a different kind of book for him.  It’s not fiction.  Everything in it happened more or less the way he describes it, even if others might interpret those events differently.  It’s a work of history–one of the very few ever written specifically about Anguilla.  A British journalist named Colin Rickards, an old Caribbean hand, was working on a book that covered much of the same ground as this one, and was generous enough to share his research with Westlake.  It does not seem the late Mr. Rickards’ Anguilla book ever got finished.   I can’t find it anywhere, and working in a library, I know how to look.

So Westlake basically had this very specialized area of history all to himself–this is presumably why he’s cited as a reference in an article from the Spring ’85 issue of a Canadian quarterly bearing the rather generic name of International Journal.   The article is bleakly entitled Militarization of the Caribbean: Concerns For National And Regional Security.  And informs us in a comforting footnote that Anguilla presents absolutely no such concerns, that its secession movement was ‘somewhat peculiar’, and cites Westlake’s book as a source.  Well, he was one of the world’s leading authorities on peculiarity, as is well known.

It is not a scholarly work–Westlake was not a scholar, a trained historian.  As many authors of fiction had done before him (such as the Trinidad-born V.S. Naipaul, who Westlake quotes in this book), he was applying his talents as a storyteller to the field of nonfiction journalism.   He’d only done this at book length one time previously–writing a biography of Elizabeth Taylor under a pseudonym.  I may review that book sometime, but then again I may not.  I have read it.  It’s available for kindle as we speak (because Elizabeth Taylor).

This book we’re looking at today is not currently in print, nor is it available in electronic form (because no Elizabeth Taylor), but copies aren’t that hard to find.   I assume there’s still plenty in Anguilla itself.  They should probably set up some kind of depository, to make sure this vital record of their glorious victory over the British Empire is not lost to posterity.   Though one could argue this book had already been written back in the 1950’s, in novel form, only set in Europe and America, and there were longbows in it.  And in the movie, Peter Sellers.


The popularity of the 1955 novel and its sequels (one of which was published not long before Westlake wrote this book), along with the 1959 film and its sequel, may be one of the reasons Simon & Schuster agreed–I’d guess with some misgivings–to let Mr. Westlake publish a work of foreign affairs journalism/history in place of the crime novel they were doubtless expecting from him.  No question, people were drawing analogies, spurious though they might be, between Anguilla and the Duchy of Grand Fenwick (there were references in the papers at the time), because that’s what people do when faced with something they can’t understand–look about for a story they’ve already heard that somewhat resembles it.  The appropriate pigeonhole.

Westlake wasn’t out to make any such analogies–he was out to document what really happened, and he’d already had a good start, in a piece he wrote for the 5/23/71 edition of The New York Times Magazine–I believe the only article he ever got published there.  Entitled In Anguilla, It’s The Spirit of ’71, it’s basically an essay-length version of this book, which according to the little author squib at the bottom of its opening page was going to be called I Fear The Worst–a working title that somebody must have decided did not work.  The only other book of Mr. Westlake’s that is mentioned there is I Gave At The Office, which Simon & Schuster was just then trying to hawk in paperback form.   His far more substantial achievements in the mystery field were not considered relevant, I suppose.  Not in the Times magazine.

Now in The Mouse That Roared, you may recall, that grand little bit of Ruritania named Grand Fenwick was faced with an economic crisis, and determined to address it by invading the United States–in a Viking-style longboat, armed with swords and longbows and chain mail–in order to be conquered themselves, so they could then apply for aid money–this being how the United States tended to deal with defeated enemies.  But then there’s this business with a doomsday device, and the plan goes slightly awry.

The main point of Wibberley’s book was to extol the virtues of small nations, and to suggest that they should get more say in world affairs, which in this case was achieved by one of them getting an all-powerful nuclear device that would render the great powers more cooperative–with the Cold War in full swing, it seemed a whimsical alternative to the existing situation.  Perhaps not so amusing anymore, eh wot?

Anguilla’s situation was far more prosaic–having been colonized by the English centuries before (Westlake writes a brief engaging summary of its history up to that point), it was quite content to remain a crown colony forever.  A mere coral atoll,  three miles wide at its broadest point, and 16 miles long, it was simply too small and poor for the British government to ever pay it much mind–the Anguillans mainly ran their own affairs, employing a form of direct democracy (which you can do when you’re an island roughly the size and shape of Manhattan, with around six thousand people living on it), and the British simply provided a small amount of aid to bolster their meager economy, and handled their foreign policy, which was simple enough because they didn’t have any to speak of.

Here’s the thing about colonizers–they get very contrary.  If you want to leave, they insist you stay–particularly if you have resources they covet, or are strategically located.  But if you want to stay, and lack the aforementioned revenue sources, they may decide you’re not worth the bother, and try to fob you off on somebody else.  This is what happened with Anguilla, and with the deep cultural sensitivity for which it is world-renowned, the British bureaucracy wanted to make Anguilla part of an confederated grouping of former island colonies–which would be headed up by the island of St. Kitts–Anguilla’s most hated enemy.

About 70 miles away from Anguilla, St. Kitts was then led by one Colonel Robert Bradshaw–not quite exactly a dictator, but close enough until one came along.  He and many of his countrymen disliked Anguilla and Anguillans on general principle.  The two islands had incompatible cultures–St. Kitts had a plantation economy, and its people were mainly descended from former canecutters,  mingled in with a handful of the descendants of the people they were cutting cane for.  Anguilla was more racially mixed, and though slavery had existed there, it had been arranged differently, because of the different economy and society of Anguilla, which tended to encourage a more free-wheeling outlook on life.   They were, you might say, free in spirit before they were free in fact.

Westlake calls Anguilla a nation of petit bourgeois, and being no Marxist, he means that as a distinct compliment.  They were shipbuilders (far and away the best in the area), small land-owners, and confirmed egalitarians, with nothing much resembling a class or caste system.  They were all very much in the same tiny boat, and saw it that way.  You get the sense that in describing their society, he’s almost describing his own democratic ideal–neither socialist nor capitalist–perhaps a tinge of libertarianism but with an important codicil–they can be the way they are because they’re small.  And because Mother England is there in the distance, to keep them from getting swallowed up and dominated by the larger islands.  Their independence depends upon their dependence.  As perverse as that may sound.

Westlake spends much of the book rather relishing the perversity of the story he’s telling.  It’s like one of his comic capers come to life, only without the heists (though at one point the Anguillans did have to break into Her Majesty’s safe containing a small amount of money–with deep remorse–they needed the cash).  He also spends quite a bit of time looking at an odd phenomenon that occurred once the Anguillans more or less accidentally declared their independence from both Great Britain and St. Kitts.   It seems that the notion of a tiny island practicing direct Democracy–and being fundamentally a creole nation, therefore presumed to be somewhat childlike and easily molded–led to a number of people out there with big ideas figuring this was their chance to make history on a small scale.

There was the kilt-wearing, cigar-smoking Jewish Chinaman from the United States who wanted land for some sort of ill-defined “thousand-year-old European religious sect,” which the Anguillans decided translated into “free-love farm plus abortion clinic.”  There was the young American hippie couple who appeared on the island one day with nothing but a tent and a shotgun and began cadging food from the natives.  There was the American in a business suit who seemed impervious to heat and who promised to solve all the island’s economic problems in two weeks if he were simply given a free hand and the title “Economic Minister.”

(Donald?  The other Donald, I mean.  That you?  Oh never mind.  Continuing–)

Another American offered twenty-five thousand dollars a month for an indefinite period if the Anguillans would mortgage the island to him for security.  Another businessman said he was buying a floating hotel from Montreal’s Expo 67 and wanted permission to moor the thing offshore.  An Englishman wanted to dump his freeloading brother on Anguilla, and a Canadian offered to build the islanders a radio station if they would give him a couple of beaches.   A man named Dino Cellini, said to be a representative of Meyer Lansky, who in turn was said to be the head of the Mafia in Florida, dropped by either to chat about gambling casinos, or just to get a tan.

(Both Colonel Bradshaw and the Her Majesty’s government would later use this one-time visit from Mr. Cellini as a pretext to say the Anguillans needed to be protected from being turned into a wretched hive of scum and villainy, not that this reference would resonate for another five years or so, and where is Alec Guinness when you need him?  Organized crime was already well-established on many other Caribbean islands under British authority, and there was just not enough infrastructure–or electricity–or water–or interest–to support a casino there.  Oh and did I mention Colonel Bradshaw was already funneling basically all the British aid money for Anguilla to his own treasury?  They didn’t need any more bloodsucking gangsters than they already had.   Just one more paragraph and we’ll move on.)

A doctor from America wanted land on which to build a clinic for the machine he’d invented that cures all diseases.  A group from America–they were coming over in flocks after a while–wanted the Anguillans to join them in a partnership to make gold from sea water.  Yet another American wrote a letter saying he represented Aristotle Onassis, who was prepared to offer a million dollars a year for the use of the island as a flag of convenience for his shipping, in the style of Panama and Liberia.

As the saying goes, you can’t make this shit up.  Of course you can, but then they call you a comic novelist, and never take you seriously, and give all the major literary prizes to more sober-minded scribes.  Unless your name is John Kennedy Toole, and you’ve been dead for twelve years.

But surpassing all these hooligans, halfwits, and hucksters in sheer unbridled wackiness was The San Francisco Group, which Westlake devotes a great deal of space to in the book–the author of God Save The Mark would feel himself on very familiar ground here.  See, he must have realized as he went on that as fascinating as the subject was, a lot of the actual story which he was bound as quite possibly the only book-length chronicler of this historical episode to fairly and fully document, was bound up in governmental memos, and reports, and long boring conferences where absolutely nothing got accomplished, and the real story was happening on Anguilla itself, which he only visited after most of the really interesting stuff had already happened.

So he did indulge himself with several chapters largely about The San Francisco Group, an amalgram of (shall-we-say) enthusiasts, inspired by the writings of a Austrian-born professor of economics named Leopold Kohr.  There was, at this time, a movement based on the principle that “Small is Beautiful”, the title of a book by E.F. Schumacher.  Kohr was part of this movement, feeling like the essence of a happy well-run society is smallness, and that the big nation-states should be broken down into tiny regional units, or would just spontaneously break down into them, it’s a bit unclear.  You know, like with Marxism.  Well really, as with any idea anybody ever had about how to reorganize society along some radical new concept.  Devil in the details, don’t you know.

Now Westlake ought to be sympathetic to this.  As I said, he likes Anguilla precisely because it’s small, its people independent-minded and egalitarian, and nobody there has much use for big guvmint, except that they need financial assistance and protection from a larger state in order to go on living in Anguilla, and to protect them from those nasty Kittitians (actual word used in book).

This book is dedicated upfront “To anybody anywhere who has ever believed anything that any government ever said about anything…”  That would certainly seem to agree with Kohr’s notion of small local government–except isn’t a small local government still a government?  And therefore not to be trusted, no matter how small it gets?  Just because you can drown it in a bathtub doesn’t mean it can’t drown you first.

And who is easier to get around?  The huge distant impersonal bureaucracy, or your nosy overbearing neighbor who got himself elected mayor or sheriff or head of the local homeowners group, and thinks you don’t cut your grass often enough, or supervise your children properly, or maybe has stated in public that he will not rest until he has turned your home into a desert?  Which not coincidentally, is precisely what Robert Bradshaw said (in public) that he would do to Anguilla (and then denied it).  He made many similarly ominous statements about Anguilla that he later denied making.  Colonel Bradshaw might have gone far in American politics, methinks.  Or at the very least, talk radio.

You can’t say the leader of another tiny island 70 miles away from Anguilla represented big government, any more than you can say Bull Connor, his firehoses, and his badly socialized police dogs were representing it in Memphis, back in the early 60’s–they were vigorously fighting the ‘oppression’ of big government telling them what they could do with (and to) their minorities, and made no bones that they were doing so.  That’s the paradox, that Westlake is keenly aware of–the most oppressive abusive authority people face is usually local, not federal.  Sometimes big government, for all its undoubted failings, is the only friend the little people of the world can count on.   A necessary evil is, by definition, more necessary than evil.

So anyway, the Anguillans desperately needed ready capital to last out their stand-off with the Brits and St. Kitts–the latter of which had cut off all medical supplies (or supplies of any kind), and Her Majesty’s government, not recognizing Anguilla as an independent state, would only provide aid through St. Kitts.  The San Francisco Group really didn’t have much in the way of money, but they intimated that they did, or at least would.   The practicality of this organization can be gauged from the fact that their name derives from Kohr’s original goal of making San Francisco an independent city-state.  That did not work out as planned, you may be surprised to learn.  So Dr. Kohr’s ideas would be applied to Anguilla instead.

Dr. Kohr’s theories boiled down to a suggestion that Anguilla, having removed itself from St. Kitts, should now remove itself from the twentieth century.  Dr. Kohr is a fervent admirer of the Pennsylvania Amish; what he had in mind for Anguilla combined an Amish forswearing of machinery with a sort of feudalism-sans-barons.  He had no desire to make a profit out of the Anguillans–no, he wanted them to make a prophet out of him–which made him different from ost of the other people the Peacekeeping Committee met around that time.  They listened carefully to his suggestions before declining them with thanks.  Untroubled, Dr. Kohr went away to regroup his arguments and returned about a week later to start all over again.

He met some idealistic young Americans who were impressed by his ideas (::sigh::, of course they were), and they formed the San Francisco Group, which proceeded to try and create a currency for Anguilla, a flag with naked mermaids on it (it has dolphins on it now, fitting enough given that swimming with our cetacean siblings is a major attraction for tourists there now),  and many other ideas that could never possibly work in reality.

It must be said though, they did eventually raise some cash, and (somewhat grudgingly) give it to Anguilla, which spent it on various dull practical things like food and medicine, and that’s at least something, right?   The relationship between Anguilla and the Group eventually broke down entirely, with each accusing the other of bad faith, though as Westlake tells it, the real problem was mutual incomprehension.

See, Westlake himself says that the Anguillans practice something very close to Athenian direct Democracy–that’s what Kohr aspired to, so what was the problem?   That he was trying to impose his ideas on them–to reshape their identity into something that fitted a philosophical template in his head.

Everybody wanted the Anguillans to be something they weren’t.  The Brits wanted them to be part of St. Kitts and Nevis–they were all island wogs a few bloody miles apart, what’s the difference?  St. Kitts wanted them to accept permanent subordinate status, and whatever crumbs they might allow to fall Anguilla’s way from Her Majesty’s table.  The San Francisco Group wanted them to be some model city-state, with Dr. Kohr as their philosopher king.   America just wanted to be sure they wouldn’t turn commie like the Cubans.

But they just wanted to be themselves.  That was the one thing they all agreed upon, and they would accept no less.   And Westlake loves their guts for that.   He’s not even pretending to be objective about it.   He’s on Anguilla’s side, and all the other sides can go fuck themselves.  Anguilla for the Anguillans.

It took a small-scale military invasion by the British military (who were welcomed with open arms, and ended up having a lovely time there–absolutely nobody was killed as a result of Anguilla’s brief rebellion, which is a miracle in itself), but Anguilla won its victory.   Public opinion in the UK shifted their way, and Her Majesty’s government was forced to back down, and accept a compromise.   Technically, Angulla would remain part of the Federation with St. Kitts and Nevis, but it would go back to being directly governed as a crown colony (so their small but vital funding would no longer pass through Colonel Bradshaw’s sticky fingers).

I think they don’t even bother to pretend Anguilla is part of the St. Kitts Federation anymore.  Anguilla is, to this very day, ‘an internally self-governing overseas territory of the United Kingdom.’   They say heartfelt prayers for the Queen’s good health, have the Union Jack on their flag, and do exactly what they bloody well want, 99% of the time.   Hey, if you Brits had offered us that deal back in 1776–well, never mind.

And of course they still have problems.   Like for example, global warming–their island might be under water someday–just like the island I’m typing this on. There is apparently a problem with under-age sexual trafficking there, at least according to one source I found, but you know what I think Westlake would say to that?   He’d say they should see to it that the kids have something to sell besides their bodies.   God bless the child that’s got his own.

He spends a bit of time profiling Anguilla’s leaders during the crisis–and an admirable, if quirky bunch they were; Ronald Webster,  Peter Adams, Atlin Harrigan (the uncompromising publisher of Anguilla’s only newspaper, and how tickled Westlake must have been that he had an Irish name), and the just slightly Trump-ish (on an Anguillan scale) Jeremiah Gumbs, who being the richest Anguillan (actually living in New York., among the surprisingly large Anguillan immigrant community there), obviously comes off worst of the bunch, but he isn’t rich enough to fully trigger Westlake’s kneejerk hostility to the moneyed classes.  Still mainly sympathetic.

But the book isn’t about leaders, or followers–to him, the heroes of the piece are the Anguillans as a whole, who stuck to their guns (literally and figuratively, though they never did have many guns of the literal variety).  They may have chosen leaders, but they could never stomach a dictator.  They are the heroes of this book for the same reason anyone else in a Westlake book is a hero–for knowing who they are, and refusing to let anyone else define them.  Is Westlake, perhaps, also guilty of imposing his ideas and ideals on Anguilla?   Possibly. How the hell would I know?  If I ever get there, I’ll try to find out.  I suspect this is one time when the shoe fit pretty well.

You can’t hold a work of history to an overly high standard when it’s basically the only work in its field.  That being said, there’s a reason this isn’t one of his best-remembered books.   Lots of good writing in it–here’s a deliciously catty little aside–

After a summer as jampacked with incident as Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe, the fall and winter of 1967 passed with placid serenity on the island of Anguilla, as free from action as a Saul Bellow novel.

There are many other passages to savor, but the book as a whole is handicapped by its author’s lack of famliarity with this form of writing, and with the fact that he’s less interested in telling a good story than he is in telling the whole story, accurately and fairly.  Which is, after all, the most important thing for a book like this, not entertaining the masses.   Though Simon & Schuster might have disagreed.  Well, they and Westlake were on the verge of parting ways, anyhow.

This is a book to read if you 1)Are really interested in Caribbean politics and history, 2)Are interested in self-determination movements everywhere, or 3) Just have to read everything Donald E. Westlake ever wrote.   I fall into all three categories, and will thefore jealously guard my first edition to the last.  But perhaps, as my final years are upon me, and the New York City winters become too punishing for my aged bones, I shall take it with me to beautiful sunny Anguilla, and read it in the evening twilight, as the dolphins swim nearby.  And I hope to see a free and  happy people there.  Hopefully still above the waterline. Stay afloat, guys.  Don’t let those Kittitians keep you down.

But for the present time, here I remain, in New York City.   Setting of our next book, which for a change of pace is authored not by Donald E. Westlake but by the vibrant J. Morgan Cunningham.  Or so the cover of my first edition paperback says.  It bears a blurb from none other than Westlake himself–“I wish I had written this book!”    If you want to know why that is, this one you can get for Kindle, quite cheaply.   A surprisingly short read, for an airport novel.  Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go visit the restroom.  Who knows what adventures might await me there.


Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Under An English Heaven