In the summer a fellow blogger gave me a book called The Man Who  Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing [1968] by Peter Van Greenaway [not to be confused with Peter Greenaway the film director].

It is a fantastic read.

An army captain called Wyatt organises and pulls off a more or less bloodless [one person is injured] coup in the United Kingdom. He achieves this by kidnapping the royal family and imprisoning them in the tower of London with the threat that if anyone attempts to reverse the coup then they will begin executing them.

By this method the organisers of the coup manage to hold power for a short time.

The book uses a style that we are quite familiar with now – using pieces of conversations, excerpts from newspapers and trial transcripts and so on from before and after the fact and bringing it all together at the end. At the time this book was written I imagine that this style was something of a novelty.

One of the things I liked about the book is that although big alarm bells are rightly ringing about the idea of a military coup, we are constantly kept uncomfortable by the fact that Wyatt talks a lot of sense and begins to put in place policies that a lot of people would support.

For example, he asks the US army to leave the UK, withdraws UK troops from Germany and places them under the control of the UN to act as a peacekeeping force [this move also forces the UN to recognise his new government]. He starts reforms of the criminal justice system some of which people might find a little strange but he is not the stereotypical military dictator and allows the press to say whatever they wish and there are no curfews and such like. His stated intention is to prepare the country for real democracy instead of the puppet show that we have at the moment.

The best passages in the book however are not when Wyatt and the other coup leaders are putting policies in place but rather when Wyatt is speaking to those who were [nominally at least] in control before him and explaining the problems with the previous regime. Take this example from when he dismisses the parliament…

“There’s no doubt that the system has benefited property speculators, building tycoons, bookmakers and organised crime; there’s no doubt that under the system both parties have succeeded in running the country into the ground with the gay abandon of two frustrated spinsters daring their all in a cosy game of Monopoly.

“That you act with a cynical disregard for those you represent is the measure of your dishonesty. That you assume public apathy to your actions is total shows a blindness to reality suggesting outright stupidity.

“I am here to tell you that the country refuses to be led by the nose from the Right, by the hand from the Left. It is prepared to march forward in step with the times with whoever is prepared to give effective leadership. The House is no longer an effective instrument of government. Consequently it is my pleasurable duty to inform you that from this moment you no longer exist. You are free to leave.”

He also takes a great shot at some trade union leaders who are more interested in their upcoming peerages than helping their members and the leaders of both parties are made to seem like absurd cowards and puppets.

In some ways it is similar to the drama A Very British Coup that I wrote about before but in others no. In both cases there is a group of people in the shadows… the people that really pull the strings…waiting for the chance and scheming to ensure the downfall of the new regime. In this book however, unlike the drama,  we know from the first few pages that the coup is doomed to fail but that doesn’t detract from the story as it unfolds.


  1. Great review there. It would be nice to see Van Greenaway revived; most of his books aren’t all that difficult or expensive to get hold of, and at his best he really is very good.

  2. Thanks.

    I would quite like to get hold of more of them. Some rummaging in 2nd hand bookshops is required but that is something of a hobby of mine anyway.

    I also particularly like the word ‘rummage’.

    1. The easiest to find is probably The Medusa Touch, since it was made into a film (and a rather fine one, at that). Definitely worth a look, especially if you have a taste for vitriol.

  3. My dad was a Customs and Excise drugs prevention officer. For him, rummaging usually meant digging around in the manky bowels of a ship. He didnae dig it much. This book looks worth a peek though.

  4. Yes – it would be good to see PVanG getting some wider recognition. I picked up a spare copy of ‘Judas!’ in a charity shop last year, and have been lending it around friends, who have been very positive about it/him. Funny how spare copies always get returned…!

  5. Van Greenaway certainly deserves attention. He has an entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction which states that he wrote in an increasingly ‘side of the mouth’ manner. I found his later novels – Manrissa Man, Lazarus Lie etc – to be unreadable because of this. It’s as though they were printed with acid for ink; everything and everyone comes in for a tongue-lashing.

    He wrote a number of outstanding novels which deserve to remain in permanent print: The Crucified City describes a nuclear attack on London and the survivors’ doomed march to Aldermaston; The Evening Fool finds a group of hand-picked dropouts fleeing England to live on a tropical island, one which the Americans have chosen for a nuclear test; Take the War to Washington – New York and Washington laid waste by a rogue US army company (this one is so prescient in its imagery that its frightening; the UK first edition shows an illustration of the White House in flames); The Medusa Touch is not only a story of telekinesis but of censorship and repression. As Morlar’s publisher explains, and it could be as true of Van Greenaway as of Morlar, copies always sold, but somehow they never got reviewed; The Dissident is a wonderful, satirical novel about the dissident phenomenon in the USSR and a KGB plot to unpick the West’s abuse of dissent; lastly Graffiti returns to the territory of The Crucifed City; – after a nuclear attack on England, the crazed surviving population locate and lay siege to the bunker housing the functioning government.

    As you can see, Van Greenaway had a talent for fantastical scenarios punctured with barbed wit and sordid events. His work veers between fantasy, science fiction and weird. It’s possible he damaged the staying power of his novels by attempting to introduce the recurring character of Inspector Cherry – the Morse approach was never going to work with material that does not sit comfortably in drawing rooms.

    Added to all of this is the mystery concerning the novelist himself – it appear his publisher (Gollancz) has destroyed all files relating to him, that Van Greenaway may not be his real name, and that his family refuse any communication regarding him, even inquiries concerning reprints. There are few official documents relating to his actual existence. It sounds very much as though Van Greenaway was the unfinished plot of his own weird novel.

    1. Thanks very much for that – most intriguingly Morlarian about the Gollancz files, and nice to know someone else feels the way I do about the recrudescence of Inspector Cherry. I’ve never yet got around to The Evening Fool or Take the War to Washington, but I agree wholeheartedly that The Medusa Touch and The Crucified City deserve to be far better known. I’m also fond of The Dissident (it isn’t every day you read a story featuring a philosophical and psychologically acute senior KGB officer) and I like Manrissa Man better than you do – my taste runs to books where everyone gets sprayed with acid in preference to books like Suffer! Little Children, which is undoubtedly touching but where the good guys are a bit too good and the British Secretary for Ulster a good deal too good to be believed.

      If Van Greenaway’s family is colluding in the suppression of his work, that is most annoying. Even if they’re acting according to his wishes, he’s been dead long enough to be forgiving. It would be comforting to think that he banned re-publication out of anti-patriotic bile, like Thomas Bernhard, and went off to Mexico for a chat with Ambrose Bierce.

  6. Philip

    I very much suspect his family, publisher and agent are acting according to his wishes; just the hunch of a longtime reader who has grown accustomed to second-guessing this particular author. I find it interesting that none of Van Greenaway’s novels issued beyond The Destiny Man (or Scavener, whichever was last) were optioned by mass-paperback publishers, and those Gollancz 1sts were left to languish on library bookshelves before being discarded – I wonder if this accounts for at least some of the tenor of his later books.

    Suffer Little Children is a curious one, doubly so for me, as I grew up in Belfast during the 70s/80s. It was only when the peace process came into being that the book began to make sense for me: it is really a debunking of the ‘across the barricades’ literature so prevalent at that time. In this book, Protestant and Catholic teachers unite to strong purpose for the sake of their charges; but Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries unite to stronger purpose against them. The rest is tragedy. In Troubles literature, as funded by the NI Arts Council and the NIO, cross-community action can only be for the ‘good’, just as sectarianism can only be for the ‘bad’. No wonder Suffer Little Children exists apart from Troubles literature; or should that be in spite of it?

    Poor Cherry. I take it you haven’t met Mrs Claxton?

    I will have another look at Manrissa Man (did you know both that and Graffiti recently surfaced as audio books?) I would urge you to read Take the War to Washington, one of his best books for any number of reasons, including John Wayne’s, err, intervention.

    Incidentally, I have been over to your blog where I noted you had entries on Robert Aickman and L.P, Davies, also two favourites of mine. I am looking forward to reading them in a little more detail over the weekend.

  7. ugh, this comment has been bothering me all day as I expressed myself very badly. If you remove the word sectarianism altogether it might be better. What I meant was that there exists in NI an ideological position that all evils are due to the divide and that any action across the divide can only be to the good; but Van Greenaway throws into the mix the fact of paramilitaries acting across the divide to commit a terrible crime, something not acceptable in the across the barricades literature of the time. The end of the book is genuinely shocking and upsetting.


  8. Thank you for the debate you are putting on here. I am enjoying it greatly, it is just that for the last week i have been travelling then starting a new temporary job and haven’t had time to respond. I will, and soon.

  9. If this is the book I read many years ago there is a fantastic reference on how to treat criminals and troublemakers by public humiliation. The idea being to cage them in cages like circus cages with no clothes and facilities, and allowing the general public in to view these criminals. Gets very humiliating when you need “to go”. Seems a good idea in view of the recent scumbags in London.

  10. Just a couple of small points: 1) The public humiliation was to be followed by a supervised exile with a strong emphasis on rehabilitation, and 2) The criminal who received that particular treatment was a murderer, which is not true of many scumbags in either the Metropolitan Police or the House of Commons.

  11. Well, in our Americanised, sold, neo-liberal Britain, Van Greenaway had many social ideas which would no doubt be regarded as quaint. He saw driving as something of an evil; road deaths being a particularly bug-bear, as I can well understand as the carnage on our roads is appalling. He also railed against the rentier class in The Evening Fool – I think he would have a very low opinion of a nation of buy-to-let landlords, which we seem to have become. There is also some interesting ‘rough justice’ meted out to the Catholic lady herione of that novel, for daring to take her faith to a desert island commune where everyone has curiously paired off in a very traditional way. As for the usury currently so beloved of our banks and financial overlords… well…

    He also seems to have been very keen on smoking, or maybe that was just Morlar; sometimes it’s hard to seperate the two.

    Apologies, I’ve been out of circulation for a while while attempting to set up some sort of a blog of my own, none too successfully.

  12. Nice to see more comments! Decided to do a trawl of Amazon to pick up some second hand copies – sadly discarded unloved by libraries in the main! Have “The Killing Cup” on the go just now. An Inspector Cherry, but OK for all that. “War to Washington” would have been one of the better options for filming in a world before Twin Towers, but post-Iraq. The trick isn’t to see them as a manifesto, more as food for thought I think?

  13. I too tried to contact Gollancz and the estate of Van Greenaway via his old agent Genne & Heaton, in the hope of putting out a little critical monograph and renewing interest in these extraordinary novels =received no response!

    Another blogger who went into the Van Greenaway Mystery recieved this (typically and annoyingly anonymous) response:

    “Peter Greenaway was born to Arthur and Florence(nee Hyde) Van was not a given name, he was born in Plaistow, but his parents moved outside of Brighton. He married Ursula but they divorced. He had a partner later and I believe two children.”

    He is also described as a young man in the autobiography of actor Patrick Myhardt, apparently they were good friends in the 50’s. Well, Mynhardt had died just a month before I deiscovered his book so I was not able to contact him for more information.

    Van Greenaway is such a facinating figure that I just wish I knew more about the mind and personality behind the books. His short story The Immortal Coil is possibly semi-autobiographical, and The Medusa Touch is without a doubt self-parody. The author’s photo on the back of The Man Who Held The Queen To Ransom seems to confirm his desire for secrecy!

    The hatred of cars and television, which crops up in about every book he ever wrote, is amusing but does get wearying when you read a few of his books all at once. Not all the later books are that unreasonably acid =Manrissa Man is the worst in my opinion but the later Mutants! is excellent and truly horrifying.

    His two books of short stories from the 80’s, the brilliantly titled Edgar Allan Who-? and The Immortal Coil (I must say PVG was a master of book titles up there with Philip K. Dick) are also very good, the former very dark, perhaps his bleakest book.

    Whether or not it was a good idea to continue the Inspector Cherry cases was a good idea or not I really can’t say, mainly because I enjoyed Medusa Touch’s immediate sequel Doppelganger, which has to be one of the most bizarre crime novels ever written.

    A Man Called Scavener from the late 70’s is also one of his finest, in fact as a modern-day gothic novel it is unsurpassed.

    Since I’m in my mid-twenties I have a habit of asking older readers if they remember Van Greenaway and hardly anyone does, except for vague memories of The Medusa Touch or Judas! perhaps. Was he really a bestseller? His style always seems too recondite and eccentric for mass appeal. Also astonishing that he isn’t even ‘cult’ (although in the last few years there’s been more frequent mentions of his name for instance on the Mastermind quiz show not long ago, and an article about his work in The Independent).

    Also found a signed copy of Suffer! Little Children in a bargain bin once! I’ll see if I can find a scan of it somewhere.

    =I’ve dug up a few other facts about him if anyone is interested in continuing my abandoned biographical quest.

  14. A bit late for this particular party, but it’s worth noting that PVG was also writing for television – both adapatations and original work – between the late 1950s and 1970. Most of this was for ITV companies, with a couple of BBC productions. Only a small number survive.

  15. I have read several of the scripts and they are of the same high quality stuff as the novels. There’s a particularly creative adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart. The only one I have ever actually seen is his adaptation of Wilkie Collins’ “The Policeman and the Cook” (a.k.a. Who Killed Zebedee) which starred Michael Crawford and added at certain emotional depth to Collins’ slight novella.

    Someone needs to write the “Quest for Van Greenaway”.

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