Master of artifice: Anton Chekhov pictured in Russia in 1897. Image: Corbis.
Show Hide image

My grandfather’s Chekhovian death in the deep blue sea

A seafaring Chekhov story dredges up some family history.

My grandad was born with a caul – a strange, papery bonnet, the remains of the amniotic sac. In those days there was a widely held superstition among sailors that if you were born “in caul” you could never drown. I never met him but I suppose that if you were, as he was, a sailor at war, it was comforting to believe that you weren’t going to drown. Having survived the Battle of Jutland, he got married. He was late arriving for his ship, the HMS Hampshire, which sailed without him, and he was thrown into the Bridewell. All but 12 of the Hampshire’s 600 hands were lost, including Lord Kitchener. Maybe Grandad thought his caul – his luck – had saved him.

He got safely through two world wars. In the end he died in peacetime. His ship – the Cydonia – was blown into an unexploded mine off the Pembrokshire coast. He was the stoker. His epic, sweaty, hellish job was to keep the fires going. He wasn’t supposed to be on duty at the time. He was covering for someone else. He didn’t drown when the engines blew. He was boiled alive.

I lived with my grandmother – his wife – when I was small, in a little flat on Stanley Road near the docks in Liverpool. Apart from the odd excursion to the city centre (two stops away), I don’t remember her ever straying beyond the little network of streets that was her parish. Yet there was a glass cupboard in the corner of the parlour that was stuffed with the fine, untouchable things that Grandad had brought back from his voyages in the South China Sea or across the Atlantic. A pale tea service so delicate it seemed to tremble like a sea creature behind the glass, a chunk of coral, a shell with Psalm 107 burned into it and a varnished porcupine fish.

That’s about all I know about my grandad.

My father barely knew him either – he was at sea for most of Dad’s childhood and then he was dead. So Dad didn’t talk about him much. My grandma didn’t talk about anyone much. So I hardly ever gave my grandad a second thought. One day I was at a film festival doing press for a film I’d written. In the interval between interviews, it looked rude to pick up a book, so I noodled around on my phone and found a short story by Anton Chekhov that I had not read before called “Gusev”. Technologically, sociologically, geographically and emotionally I was a solar system distant from my grandma’s flat. But one paragraph in, for the first time in my life, I saw in my imagination Grandad. Everything about the story lead me to think of him.

Gusev is an orderly heading home to Russia in the sickbay of a tramp steamer. Talkative and feverish, he annoys one of the other passengers – Pavel Ivanitch – by worrying that the ship will be broken on the back of a big fish, or that the wind will “break its chains”. As he slips in and out of consciousness, he has visions of life at home. Heartbreakingly, these visions feature a pond – a domestic, manageable version of the sea. Eventually, he dies and his body is sewn up in sailcloth and tipped overboard. It splashes into the sea and the foam makes it look as though he is wrapped in lace. He disappears beneath the waves. Then Chekhov produces his amazing ending, following Gusev’s corpse as it sinks to the sea floor, past startled pilot fish and a curious shark.

My grandad’s corpse, like Gusev’s, would have rolled around on the bottom of the ocean. There’s also the fact Gusev is returning from a war and that he is dreaming of home, that he didn’t belong out there on the sea. On top of all the parallels, though, Gusev seems like a real person and this seems like a real incident. This happens so often when you’re reading Chekhov – that feeling you’re reading about something that really happened. How does he do this?

Chekhov was out and about in the world with his eyes open. In 1890 he spent three months trekking across Siberia to get to the penal colony at Sakhalin. On the way, he wrote extraordinary, vivid letters to his sister. He came back on a steamer and there were two passengers on board who were extremely ill. The character of Gusev has the kind of oddity you feel comes from observation. He dislikes Chinese people intensely and gets into trouble for beating up four of them. When Pavel Ivanitch asks him why, he says, “Oh nothing. They came into the yard so I hit them.” When he is dead, trussed up in the sailcloth, Chekhov describes him with a vivid but undignified phrase. He looks like a carrot or a radish, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom. And, of course, he dies – what could be more “real” than that? Chekhov was a doctor. It’s a serious matter when a doctor lets a person die, even if that person is fictional.

The landscape, too, is drawn from observation. In another of the Siberian letters he describes crossing Lake Baikal and looking down into its crystal-clear waters. The first time I read it, I felt a shock of delight: this must have been the inspiration for Gusev’s watery descent.

The extraordinary thing about any Chekhov story is that when you begin to read one, you have no idea where it’s going to end up. You can easily imagine the story that Maupassant, for instance, would have made of my grandad’s life. The Macbethy irony of his believing that just because you couldn’t drown you wouldn’t die at sea and then – ha ha, cruel fate – he’s boiled instead. He should have known! But for me the most arresting thing about his life was how utterly unpredictable its consequences were. If he hadn’t jumped ship that night, been prepared to be locked up for an extra night with his wife, I wouldn’t be here writing. I wouldn’t exist. Nor would my children, my siblings, my cousins. Dozens of people are only alive because of his tipsy whim.

“Gusev” is unpredictable in the way that life is. It starts with a kind of comedy routine between the ignorant Gusev and the superior Ivanitch but ends up with that soaring, sacramental prose poem. Writers who try to imitate Chekhov sometimes mistake this unpredictability for randomness, a trudging “realism”, or worse, “honesty”. But Chekhov isn’t a journalist or a memoirist. He began as a hack, writing skits and sketches. “Oh with what trash I began,” he wrote later. He can write anywhere – for instance, on a tramp steamer; about anything – for instance, a garrulous sick passenger. These are the things that being a hack teaches you. He also has a hack’s repertoire of tricks and techniques. Chekhov’s unpredictability doesn’t come from rejecting artifice and contrivance. It comes from being an absolute master of artifice and contrivance.

If you go back through the story you will see that the unexpected ending is perfectly set up. In Gusev’s nonsense about wind and chains and giant fish, in his remembered pond, the sea is always threatening to overwhelm the story. This is also true tonally. Gusev and Ivanitch are convincing individual characters but as they bicker, they move further and further apart until each comes to stand for a different view of life. Ivanitch dismisses Gusev’s chances of ever grasping the point of life. “Foolish, pitiful man,” he says, “you don’t understand anything.” Yet Gusev reaches out for understanding:

A vague urge disturbs him. He drinks water, but that isn’t it. He stretches towards the port-hole and breathes in the hot, dank air, but that isn’t it either. He tries to think of home and frost – and it still isn’t right.

Chekhov’s great tenderness is that his story seems to be reaching out for a shape and an ending, just as Gusev tries to reach out through his fever for a meaning. They’re in this together.

Then there’s the ending. In one sense it shows us Gusev as nothing but a piece of meat, dumped over the side, sinking to the bottom. But we’re also overwhelmed by the sense of the grandeur and beauty of the food chain, of what a magnificent thing meat is. It’s impossible to read that section without being pulled up short by how ridiculous we are – like a carrot or a radish – but also how beautiful – wrapped in lace. It describes life reduced to its components but it also recalls, inevitably, Psalm 107 – the psalm that was inscribed on my grandad’s shell.

“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”

Frank Cottrell Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. He was the writer for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony This is an edited extract from “Morphologies: Short Story Writers on Short Story Writers”, published by Comma Press on 30 January (£9.99)

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis