Friday 19 October 2012

Commander-1: The Life and Death of Author Peter George, alias Peter Bryant / Bryan Peters, co-writer of Dr. Strangelove; inc. Bibliography

NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.

Last week I posted a review of a 1961 Cold War spy thriller by British author Bryan Peters, The Big H, noting that although it was Peters' second novel under that moniker, he published a number of other novels both prior to and following it under different names, including his own: Peter George. During the course of my research for that post, something about George struck a chord with me. Though he only left a relatively small body of work – he took his own life in 1966 at the age of forty-two,[1] which, that being my current age, and George's birthday being a day after mine, I guess on a subliminal level might have been part of the reason I became so interested in him – his influence has extended far and wide, primarily through his best-known novel, Two Hours to Doom (1958), alias Red Alert. Written under another nom de plume, Peter Bryant, it was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the screenplay of which George co-wrote (with Kubrick and Terry Southern).

George – born Peter Bryan George in Treorchy, Wales on 26 March, 1924 – published nine novels in his lifetime (insofar as I've been able to establish; the bibliography at the bottom of this post is as complete as I can make it), including crime fiction, at least one P.I. mystery – Cool Murder, 1958 – and a short series of spy novelsHong Kong Kill (also 1958) and the aforementioned The Big H. What's remarkable is that, of those nine novels, nearly half are preoccupied to a greater or lesser degree with nuclear conflict, whether it be The Big H – which, although ostensibly about heroin smuggling, actually has the threat of atomic war at its heart – or George's 1963 novelisation of his own screenplay for Dr. Strangelove. But it's the book that capped his career which is perhaps the most apposite as regards his life and, seemingly, his death: a long-out-of-print novel which I firmly believe is an overlooked post-apocalyptic classic, up there with the similarly realistic landmark dystopian likes of Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959) and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006).

Published by Heinemann in the UK in 1965 under a stark, photographic dust jacket designed by Paul Castell – the symbolic flower on the front of which predates by twenty years the more famous black flower from Troy Kennedy Martin's equally brilliant, also nuclear-themed Edge of Darkness Commander-1 is a bleak, unforgiving account of atomic war and its aftermath. An opening chapter set on Christmas Eve, 1965 juxtaposes a joyous shopping trip in New York with vignettes of interracial murder and rape in Johannesburg, Tibet and New York itself, along with glimpses of nuclear arsenals, climaxing with a blinding light in the sky. Subsequently, a flashback begins a subplot which reappears intermittently throughout the novel, relating the Chinese plan which instigates the conflagration; and then the action switches to the war room deep beneath the Pentagon, where the confusion of nuclear conflict unfolds in calm, and consequently horrific, fashion.

Thereafter, for a while at least, the novel takes the form of a journal, written by James Geraghty, the commander of an unarmed U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, on board which, along with the crew, are three men and three women – the "guinea pigs". Kept in isolation, the guinea pigs are the focus of an experiment to assess how human beings will cope with deep space travel and colonisation, the aim being to deposit them on a desert island. Despite the fact that the war has very likely brought humanity to the brink of extinction, and against the advice of one of the doctors overseeing the experiment, Geraghty elects to persist with it, and from here on out the story alternates between Geraghty's tale and that of the guinea pigs.

Right from the beginning of Commander-1 there are clues that the novel was written swiftly and out of a genuine belief that nuclear annihilation was imminent. The first of the Chinese interludes references both the ousting of Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev on 14 October, 1964 and China's inaugural nuclear weapons test, which took place on 16 October, 1964; given that Commander-1 was published in 1965, it seems clear that George was deeply concerned about these developments and was urgently driven to address them in his fiction. The shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis also looms large over the novel, and is referenced repeatedly; as recently as the 1980s, when I was a teenager, the threat and fear of nuclear war was very real, so it's easy for me to imagine how much more immediate that threat and fear must have felt to George in the 1960s, post-Cuban Missile Crisis, post-Chinese atomic weapons testing.

George weaves fact into fiction throughout the novel. He makes references to real life non-fiction works on the likelihood of nuclear war (and, obliquely, to his own Two Hours to Doom/Dr. Strangelove), while in a long conversation on the island the guinea pigs discuss the likely, scientifically deduced outcome of an all-out MAD nuclear exchange, bringing in bacteriological warfare to boot (there's a mention of Porton, near Salisbury). He even references real people in the narrative, such as the strategists Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling – the latter in fact a friend of George's.[2] That some of his fictional characters, including one or two of the guinea pigs, aren't terribly well-developed and are sometimes deployed as little more than mouthpieces to impart facts is, to my mind, the novel's only major flaw, and given what George is trying to achieve, forgivable.

As grim as all this is, however, astonishingly, the book becomes even grimmer as it draws to a close. George details the establishment of a quasi-fascistic system of government for the scant few survivors of the war, complete with drug-induced brainwashing and indoctrination and a nascent eugenics programme. This is driven by Commander Geraghty, a grotesquely compelling creation who will, ultimately, come to lend the novel its title. At the story's end there is at least a tiny glimmer of light, but even that is cruelly extinguished in the final two sentences.

Peter George died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his home in St Leonards – not far from where I live in Lewes – on 1 June, 1966;[3] his wife found him slumped in a chair with a discharged double-barreled shotgun between his knees.[4] It was reported at the time that he had been unwell and depressed;[5] later, the author Brian Aldiss, an acquaintance of George's, wrote that George "was a victim of the Demon Alcohol", that "He would start with a sip of whisky and wake up a fortnight later in a Glaswegian gutter, poor guy."[6] But Aldiss also stated that George was "suffering fear and pain about the threat of nuclear war", to the extent that it was believed by some that at the time of his death he was writing yet another book on the subject.[7]

That conjectured unfinished novel remains unpublished,* but Commander-1 certainly bears out Aldiss's hypothesis in its overwhelming sense of despair, hopelessness, and anger. But more than that, one event in particular in the novel acts as a chilling portent of George's fate. After finding his partner, Jane, dead of an overdose, one of the guinea pigs, Bill Evans – a man born, like George himself, in Treorchy – commits suicide by shooting himself in the head. Bill's haste to do the deed before he can be stopped presages the way George must have been similarly conscious of taking his own life before his wife could find him, but what's even more appalling is the way George describes the gruesome results – "the bloody pieces of bone and flesh and brain" that Bill's fellow guinea pigs, John and Arnie, have to bury, and this preceding passage: 

When they saw what was left of Bill's head they turned away. When they had recovered a little, but still not looking at the bodies, Arnie said, 'How did he do it?'

'Through the mouth,' John said. 'Oh my sweet Christ, though the mouth.'

The hurt and grief George's wife and three children must have felt at both his death and the manner of his demise is difficult to comprehend, especially in light of the fact that the Armageddon he dreaded never came to pass; but for me, this episode demonstrates not only how terrible, and terribly affecting, suicide is, but how powerful fiction in general, and Commander-1 in particular, can be.**

George was evidently – and justly – proud of Commander-1. He dedicated the book to Stanley Kubrick, and sent copies to his friends, as the author's bookplate affixed to the front endpaper of the Heinemann first edition I acquired shows:

The shame of it is that Commander-1 has been out of print for forty years, the last editions being Dell and Pan paperbacks in 1966. Doubtless there are many fine novels that over the decades have fallen through the cracks in our collective memory and slipped quietly out of print; indeed finding and spotlighting some of those books could be said to be the purpose of Existential Ennui. My hope, then, in writing this post, is that these words go some way towards rescuing one righteous, impassioned, often ferocious novel from semi-obscurity and raising it to its rightful position as a key work not only in Peter George's slight but fascinating canon, but in the wider pantheon of post-apocalyptic fiction.

. . . . .


As Peter George
Come Blonde, Came Murder (T. V. Boardman, 1952)
Pattern of Death (T. V. Boardman, 1954)
Cool Murder (T. V. Boardman, 1958); later reissued in paperback under Bryan Peters alias (Mayflower, 1965)
The Final Steal (T. V. Boardman, 1962)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Corgi/Transworld, 1963): novelisation of George's own screenplay/original story
Commander-1 (Heinemann, 1965)

As Peter Bryant
Two Hours to Doom (T. V. Boardman, 1958); published as Red Alert in US (Ace, 1958), later retitled as such in UK

As Bryan Peters
Hong Kong Kill (T. V. Boardman, 1958)
The Big H (T. V. Boardman, 1961)

According to this thread on the Golden Age Mysteries message board, Allen J. Hubin's Crime Fiction IV also credits Sons of Nippon, a 1961 war novel by Brian Peters – "i" instead of "y" in first name – to Peter George. However, George's son, David, told me that Sons of Nippon was not written by his father.


[1] Some reports, including those at the time of his death, put his age at forty-one; see Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, P. D. Smith, 2007; Associated Press, Yuma Daily Sun, Austin Daily Herald et al, 2 June, 1966
[2] Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays, Thomas C. Schelling, 2006
[3] Yuma Daily Sun, 2 June, 1966
[4] Waterloo Daily Courier, 2 June, 1966
[5] AP, 2 June, 1966
[6] "Kubrick – the Writer", Brian Aldiss, The Observer, 14 March, 1999
[7] Smith, 2007

Note: It appears that at one point Peter George's son had a website, on which was some memorabilia about his father (there's a broken link from George's Wikipedia page). Should Mr. George's son happen to read this post, I'd welcome any corrections, thoughts or additional information he might be willing to provide. 

* Addendum 1: Some months after I posted this essay, Peter George's son, David, did indeed contact me. Among other additional insights, which I hope to share at some point, David noted that there was no 'unfinished novel'; Commander-1 was Peter George's final work. Its original title was Nucleus of Survivors, leading to the belief in some quarters that George was working on another book bearing that title.

** Addendum 2: A year on from this essay's post date I was emailed by Madeline Weston, who was secretary to Tom "T.V." Boardman, not only the publisher of many of Peter George's books but his close friend too. Madeline still remembers "the morning [Boardman] came into the office severely shaken at the news of Peter's suicide. Peter had phoned him I think the evening before telling him he was going to take his life and there was nothing Tom could do to dissuade him." Shortly after that call George committed suicide. Madeline added: "The impression I got from my boss, Tom, was that Peter's time in the RAF had involved being in a job where he was one of those near the 'red button' that could start a nuclear attack, and I think this affected him greatly." My thanks to Madeline for these insights, and for granting me permission to publish them.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Book Review: Dance of the Dwarfs by Geoffrey Household (Michael Joseph, 1968): Michael Trevithick Cover; a Lewes Book Bargain

I've been chronicling the books I buy in Lewes, the East Sussex town in which I live and work (and from which I write tedious blog posts – like this one), for over three years now, introducing the catch-all headers Lewes Book Bargains and Lewes Bookshop Bargains around two years ago. In that time I've found some cracking books, mostly in the town's multitudinous charity shops, but this latest Lewes Book Bargain, which I nabbed in the Lewes branch of Oxfam just last week, may well be the biggest bargain yet:

A hardback first edition of Geoffrey Household's Dance of the Dwarfs, published by Michael Joseph in 1968. One of Household's scarcest books in first, the cheapest copy I've seen for sale in the UK is currently listed at £100, which is rather more than the £2.99 I paid for this one. Of course, I seriously doubt whether anyone would actually hand over £100 for a first edition of Dance of the Dwarfs – which is one of the reasons why I feel no guilt at having paid so little for this copy, the other reason being that, all told, over the past three years, I've paid out considerably more than £100 for books in Lewes' various charity shops – but even so: I was dead chuffed to find it, not least because I'm a great admirer of Household's work.

As it turns out, however, Dance of the Dwarfs is a decidedly strange kettle of fish. Written in the form of a diary by agriculturist Dr. Owen Dawnay, parts of it are compelling, notably those detailing Dawnay's hunt for the eponymous "dwarfs" – or "duendes" as they're also referred to, although they turn out to be neither (and nor are they lizards, as the book's bizarre-sounding 1983 film adaptation apparently reveals) – through the Colombian jungle – unsurprising really, since the theme of man stalking beast in the wilderness is one Household returned to repeatedly (see Rogue Male, A Rough Shoot, etc.). These passages in Dance of the Dwarfs are as vivid as any others in Household's books, but set against that is some rum business concerning Chucha, a young Indian girl Dawnay shacks up with. This street urchin is sent to him by a friend for Dawnay's use, which is distasteful enough; but then towards the end of the novel Dawnay writes that he's "nearly twenty years older than Chucha", which, given that he's thirty-three years old, would make her thirteen or fourteen! That he eventually falls in love with her is no excuse, especially since, ultimately, being with him also seals her fate.

The striking dust jacket design on the Joseph edition is by Michael Trevithick, an artist and illustrator with a distinctive style who worked for Punch magazine and created covers for Penguin (including some Richard Gordon novels), but who's best remembered these days for illustrating the sleeve of Nick Drake's third and final album, Pink Moon (1972). (Trevithick was either the friend or boyfriend – depending on which account you read – of Drake's sister, Gabrielle.) Trevithick's wraparound wrapper for Dance of the Dwarfs is the 97th addition to the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page, which means that there are just three covers to go before the page reaches the magic number of 100 dust jackets. And to get us there, it just so happens that I have three wrappers by one of my favourite cover artists waiting in the wings...

Monday 15 October 2012

Book Review: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury; Rupert Hart-Davis, 1952 (John Minton Cover); Corgi, 1955 (John Richards Cover)

Keep 'em peeled for that promised post on a special edition of the final novel by Peter George, co-writer of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove, but in the meantime, and continuing the quest to get the total number of covers on the Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s page up to 100 (currently it stands at 95), here's a book I bought at the last-but-one Lewes Book Fair, and which I also own in a paperback edition – the contents of which differ slightly from the hardback – purchased at last year's London Paperback and Pulp Bookfair:

The Illustrated Man, a collection of short stories by Ray Bradbury, first published in the UK by Rupert Hart-Davis in 1952. This is actually the third impression of the British first edition, dating from 1958, but since I only paid seven quid for it, and jacketed second or third impressions start at around the £50 mark online, I'm not complaining. That wrapper was designed by John Minton, a very well known painter and illustrator linked with the twentieth century British Neo-Romantic movement (a school of art I'm quite keen on myself), and a number of whose works are held by the Tate, the British Council, and now, of course, by that similarly venerable institution, the Existential Ennui Beautiful British Book Jacket Design of the 1950s and 1960s gallery. Ahem.

I was already pretty familiar with most of the stories in The Illustrated Man, having read them in various other Ray Bradbury anthologies over the years, but reading them again gathered together like this was quite instructive. For one thing, this time around I discovered new layers to some of them, such as "Kaleidoscope", which became less of a terrifying tale of being cast adrift in space and more of a meditation on mortality, regret and the importance of living life to the full. For another, I was struck by how Mars-centric many of the stories herein are. A number of them could have quite easily fitted into The Martian Chronicles – or The Silver Locusts, to give it its British title – Bradbury's second book, published just prior to The Illustrated Man – and indeed one of them originally did. Which brings me neatly to that other edition of The Illustrated Man:

The first British paperback edition, published by Corgi/Transworld in 1955 under a cover by John Richards. This version of the book was evidently printed using the US Bantam plates; not only is it set in American English – i.e. US spelling – but it contains eighteen stories, as opposed to the Hart-Davis hardback, which only contains sixteen:

Handily, the book's Wikipedia entry lists all the differences between editions, so I don't need to go into them here, except to note that anyone, like me, who owns the Rupert Hart-Davis edition of The Silver Locusts should be aware that "Usher II", which was omitted from that edition, can be found instead in the Hart-Davis edition of The Illustrated Man (but not in the Corgi paperback); and that not only is the table of contents in the Hart-Davis edition of The Illustrated Man different to the Corgi one, but the introductory prologue has been altered to account for having two fewer tales, changing

Eighteen Illustrations, eighteen tales. I counted them one by one.


Sixteen Illustration, sixteen tales. I counted them one by one.

So now you know.

So that was the 96th addition to Beautiful British Book Jackets – and as it turns out the 97th addition was also bought in Lewes; just last week, in fact, in one of this fair East Sussex town's many charity shops. And what's more, it may well have been the best Lewes Book Bargain yet...