Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 21, 2020

A Train of Powder (1955), by Rebecca West

Rebecca West is one of the most stimulating and brilliant writers living today.  Nothing that she writes can be ignored or treated other than as a major pronouncement on its particular subject.  Wit is characteristic of her style; her mind is richly stacked with ideas; she seems to have at her fingertips a wealth of historical allusion; to the reader she appears an expert on politics, sociology, and all the humanities.  She is a novelist, poet, critic, historian, political commentator; and above all, a shrewd and lively judge of human nature.  (Author profile, from the dustjacket of my 1955 edition of A Train of Powder).

Rebecca West (1892-1983) was indeed an extraordinary writer.  Her first novel was The Return of the Soldier (1918, see my review) and she went on to write prolifically in both fiction and non-fiction.  A Train of Powder — a collection of major essays on the nature of evil — was her ninth book of non-fiction and its account of the Nuremburg Trials is justly famous. ‘Greenhouse with Cyclamens’, I, II and III was originally written for the New Yorker, and it is magnificent.

But there’s also a quietly devastating report called ‘Opera in Greenville’, about a trial of a lynch mob in the American South, and how for reasons we all now know, there was no hope of a conviction.  She delivers a powerful analysis of proceedings, without a word of anger and looking at everything from everyone’s point-of-view, to expose the appalling racism on public display almost as if to say, well, it can’t be helped, this is how it is.  And that is shocking, as it is meant to be.

But then — having exposed the violence and the extreme cruelty of the crime, committed by otherwise unexceptional men, mostly taxi-drivers of varying ages — she concludes that this public exposure has served a purpose despite the acquittals.  The men in the dock were seen to feel extremely uncomfortable when confronted with the details of their crime.  The exposure of their vicious cruelty was so shameful to them that, at the time of writing this essay, there had been a change:

The lynching trial in South Carolina and its sequels were symptoms of an abating disease.  The history of the acquitted men during the following year shows that the germ was failing.  Some of them were happy and had no history: and Mr John Marchant appears in the record only as serving the graces of life as an usher at two weddings. [Marchant was the driver of the ‘civilian car’ that followed the taxis to the lynching. He joined the expedition out of curiosity and was only an observer who did not dare to leave.] Six, however, saw trouble.  But it is worth noting the kind of trouble it was.  One was charged with transporting moonshine whisky.  Two more were sent to the Federal penitentiary for violating terms of probation.  Another attacked a female friend and tried to cut his throat when arrested.  Another was obliged to ask the police for permission to carry a gun because his life had been threatened.  But only one was accused of an offence against coloured people.  He had fired a gun into an automobile filled with Negroes.  Nobody was hit, and it is possible it was only a boorish joke, though certainly the Negroes must have seen it in a different light.  He was fined a hundred dollars, which in view of his particular circumstances was severe enough, and probably less to his taste than a term of imprisonment.  But he was cultivating an obsolescent interest.  There was a historic change in tempo to be felt at the Greenville Trial; wickedness itself had been aware of the slowing of its pulse.  The will of the South had made its decision, and by 1954 three years had gone by without a lynching in the United States. (p.123)

Well, I think her optimism was premature, and her attribution of the Greenville Trial as a catalyst for change was misplaced.  This 2018 article at The Guardian, triggered by the dedication of the first memorial to lynching victims in Alabama, says that lynching persisted into the 1960s, and it was driven by the Civil Rights movement and the migration of African Americans into urban areas to the north and west.  But as a piece of writing which exposes a moral issue ‘Opera in Greenville’ remains powerful, and it makes me wonder why we have seen nothing like it in the current context of #BlackLivesMatter.

You can read this whole essay online at The New Yorker but the conclusion is not quite the same.

Another essay called ‘The Better Mouse-Trap’ is about a very strange trial: a naïve young wireless operator in the British Diplomatic Service was accused of passing information to a senior operative of the Soviet embassy.  It turns out that contrary to all expectations he did indeed hand over some documents, though what they were was only revealed to a closed court by the security officers who conducted the surveillance.  The evidence was absurd in its entirety because the Soviet operative who was presumably experienced in the matter of spying made no attempt to hide his ongoing contacts with this foolish young man, and the prosecution did not prosecute him or call in his evidence.

Strange is the course travelled through the centuries by alien peoples; but as we went in and out of the court the case confronted us with another more disconcerting type of strangeness.  We saw a known routine reversed, and men who were adepts in a certain craft acting as if they were novices. (p. 291)

The young man was sentenced to five years and the ongoing dismay of his anti-communist parents, and the operative slipped out of England so promptly that he left his wife and child behind.   And Rebecca West comes to the conclusion that most of us would too, courtesy of a plethora of Cold War films…

For there could be only one reason why Soviet Intelligence should have wished to seduce the awkward and inept child, William Martin Marshall, put him on a salver and serve him up to British Intelligence: to divert its attention from another and more valuable agent, possibly not British at all, who was working on so nearly the same field as Marshall that the British and American Intelligence authorities would think, having arrested him, that they had stopped the leak which had been troubling them and could relax their vigilance. (p.326)

A Google search to find out more about Marshall came up blank.  You can read The Mousetrap at the New Yorker, and there are newspaper articles about it at Trove, but as to how he re-made his life after being convicted of treason, there is not a trace.  And he was only 24.

The other essay, Mr Setty and Mr Hume,  is also about a trial: an odd murder with some grisly details.  But West never just writes about a trial for curiosity’s sake.  It’s always an investigation of a more profound truth.

I think these essays should be required reading for students of journalism, though where journalism of this type would be published in Australia today is an interesting question…

Author: Rebecca West
Title: A Train of Powder
Publisher: Macmillan & Co, London, 1955
ISBN: none
Source: personal library

You can still buy A Train of Powder at Fishpond: A Train of Powder


  1. “Rebecca West is one of the most stimulating and brilliant writers living today”. I obviously wasn’t paying attention. It’s good to think race murderers (in Australia as well as the USA) are made to feel uncomfortable when they’re accused, you wouldn’t like to think of them getting away with it altogether, decade after decade.


    • Well, that was her point, of course. She was English, you remember, capable of using understatement to devastating effect.
      What was notable about this trial was that it took place at all. It reminded me of that book I reviewed about Denny Day, the first police magistrate to arrest and convict killers in an Australian massacre. (The Myall Creek Massacre). But that was in the 1830s, not the 1950s.


  2. Oh, lovely post Lisa. I have this in a nice Virago edition with another of her collections of non-fiction and I keep going to start them and getting distracted. She’s such a good and powerful writer. And as you say – where is proper journalism today? It certainly doesn’t exist in the UK any more….


    • We are lucky here that we have Quarterly Essay, and Australian Foreign Affairs but as the names imply, they come out just four times a year. And that’s the problem: for journalists to practise their craft as well as West did, there have to be enough opportunities for them to write well, about all kinds of topics, and often. Hardly any journos get to write at length about anything; the good ones are too busy lecturing in universities and the rest are writing rubbish for the tabloids.

      I used to get The Monthly which had quality journalism but then it acquired a new young editor, and, well, let’s just say that I found myself chucking it out unread and I stopped subscribing.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I’ve enjoyed several of her novels, but haven’t yet tried the non fiction. A copy of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – her book about the Balkans – sits on my shelves, its vast bulk putting me off. She was certainly versatile.


    • Now that would be interesting, in view of what came to pass in the Balkans.
      I’m currently reading In the Steps of St Peter by the great travel writer H V Morton, and it’s fascinating to be reading about the Middle East as it was in 1935…


  4. I was just reading about “Greenhouse with Cyclamens” in Philippe Sands’ East-West Street; it’s interesting to read about the other essays, especially the one about the lynching. According to Sands (but it’s probably a well-known fact), the American delegation at the Nuremberg trials was more than a little ambivalent about the word “genocide” because of its potential application to the treatment of black Americans in the USA. I wonder whether West makes the connection with “Opera in Greenville”?
    Like Tredynas Days I have Black Lamb and Grey Falcon waiting to be read.
    If you’re interested in interwar travel in/reporting on the Middle East and Central Asia, I recommend Ella Maillart’s books.


    • Hello, and thank you for your thoughtful comment.
      I agree about the lynching one: there was a gap in time between me reading the first ‘Greenhouse with Cyclamens’ and the rest of the book. (The Spouse appropriated the book for his own purposes!) I remember being quite shattered by Greenhouse, and so I approached Opera in Greenville with some trepidation though I’d never heard of it. I felt the same sense of horror as I read it, and I couldn’t help but make the same connections with Australia’s early history of massacre and failure to prosecute, failure to convict, failure to acknowledge it, failure to engage in some kind of reconciliation process. It is an open sore among those of us who would like a bipartisan approach to the Uluru Statement from the Heart: Australia’s indigenous people have never engaged in riots and violence, they have been astonishingly calm and reasonable in their demands for justice, and yet our government has been contemptuous in its approach because they are pandering to the racists among us instead of taking a not-negotiable leadership stance.
      Ella Maillart is a name new to me… I shall look her up. Thank you!
      I have signed up for your blog: another good way to practise my French!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] year I read West’s A Train of Powder (see my review) which is a collection of essays that includes her famous reportage of the Nuremburg Trials, and […]


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