The Exile

I first heard about the life of Duleep Singh in a television documentary a few years ago.  I wanted to know more as this seemed to be another of those hidden stories about Empire which were best forgotten.

BlogTheExileThis novel by Navtej Sarna takes the historical facts but weaves a story told by the elderly Duleep Singh as he nears death and several of the figures he encountered in his life.  The young Duleep Singh became the maharaja of the Punjab but was outmanoeuvered by the British.  As a boy he was sent to Britain to be brought up as a young gentleman.  Queen Victoria was fond of him and he was placed in the care of Dr John Login, a deeply committed Christian who was delighted when his charge converted from Sikhism as a young man.

It is a story of power and manipulation.  The young maharaja was separated from his mother at a young age to prevent son or parent from trying to regain the throne.  While the British royal family included him, they did so on their terms; the British government was keen to ensure he could not return to India.

For much of his life he was content to live the life of a country gentleman. He had estates in Scotland and Suffolk.  Later, after being reunited with his mother, he regained an interest in Sikhism and sought to return to India.  The British Empire did not let anyone kick against it and the might of the state was used to ensure he did not reach his homeland.  He turned instead to Russia in the hope that their enmity with Britain would lead to him regaining the Punjab.  International politics being what they are, he was unsuccessful and he died in a mid-range Paris hotel.

The story is worth telling and the author leads us through quite complex history by providing us with the fictional thoughts of the dying man.   The novel is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?

The Man Who Knew Infinity

This film, while not destined for classic status, reminded me of the Merchant Ivory films of the 80s when historical settings showed Britain as a good-looking country at the same time as reminding us that the views and standards of the time are best left in the past.  In this case, the story from the early part of the Twentieth Century is based on the real case of an Indian man whose genius with number leads him from his home to Cambridge where he studies with the famous G.H Hardy.

BlogManInfinity

Srinivasa Ramanujan was born into a poor family in Madras, India.  He performed menial tasks to earn a living but found beauty in mathematics.  His employers realised he had exceptional skills and used him for accounting purposes until they decided his personal journals on number should reach a wider public.  This led to Britain, Cambridge and Professor Hardy at Trinity College.

The stuffy and hierarchical nature of Cambridge is well portrayed along with the stereo-type that academics are not quite part of the real world.  Real enough, though, is the racism Ramanujan faces in pre- First World War Britain.  Not only are the dons suspicious of his ability but they also see him as an upstart for moving into their world without moving through the proper channels.

There is a sub-plot set against the First World War showing how academics split in terms of their support for the war.  Key figures from that time took different paths: Bertrand Russell to pacifism (and consequently to prison) and John Edensor Littlewood to the army (to help with ballistics).

Dev Patel played Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons played Hardy, the significant difference in their ages not reflected in the real story!  It works as a film, though, because it shows that some people will fight against racism and pursue their ambitions despite it.  It also shows that academic endeavour is worth the years of struggle.  For Ramanujan, the return to India, while in triumph as an accepted academic, was personally difficult and he did not have a long life.

Jeremy Irons is always worth watching and so, it seems, is Dev Patel.  This film is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Fishing Fleet

BlogFishingFleetThis book by Anne de Courcy is a study of the British in India through the particular prism of the women who travelled out to the Raj to marry.  In some cases, the journey was made with the sole purpose of finding a husband.

The history of the Empire is well documented and what makes this book stand out is its focus on amazing women, many from the ruling classes, who supported husbands in their governing roles, often in trying circumstances; not all women lived in Government House!

The pressures on family life were seen most of all by the women.  An example of the difficulties they faced is seen through the difficult decision needed when their children go back ‘home’ for school.  Should they stay in England or leave them to return to husbands in India?  In such ways did the British show their stiff upper lips!

For some women, the bachelors of India (mostly running the Indian Civil Service) were ideal since their working lives precluded marriage until they turned 30.  The fleet also proved handy for families who decided their daughters were too plain or too clever or both.

The story of the British in India is an interesting one but has been well covered by other historians.  This book works so well by exploring the history from a different angle but also because voices that might otherwise be forgotten are aired.

‘The Fishing Fleet’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

BlogMadDogsEnglishThis book is just right as a ‘coffee table’ book!  The pictures are amazing and the page layout uses the illustrations to good effect to give an overview of the British Empire over a hundred year period from 1850.  Each chapter has a theme exploring the century when the Empire was at its height.  Actually, the book does touch on the declining years as well, in part because Imperial attitudes continued long after the Empire had metamorphosed into the Commonwealth.  Sport, the role of British public schools, the military and trade all have chapters which show how the Empire was built and sustained.

I am fascinated by British Empire history, not just the idea of a small nation crossing the world and building countries in its own image but also the idea of a country that was influenced and altered because of its fascination with far away places.

Ashley Jackson has written a very good overview of the century when Empire was at its height. The sense of entitlement can be seen in the selection of images; advertisements, book covers and magazine articles all show that the Empire attitude felt itself to be beyond question.  It is striking to see the attitudes of some of the subject people who view Britain (or England) as a child views a parent.  Coffee table book by nature and probably design, the book is still worth reading in its entirety.  The text is as illuminating as the pictures.

My favourite chapter was the one that covered popular culture.  Many of the books were ones I read as I grew up with the imagery and messages of Empire even though I was born after the period covered here; the books were still here on the shelves in the London libraries I frequented in the 60s searching for a wider world I longed to visit.  It took a long time for Empire attitudes to fade away.

‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

The Lieutenant

bloglieutenantThis novel by Kate Grenville is another exploration of real events through fiction.  In this case, she has taken the first settlers of New South Wales and developed a story about the first encounters with aboriginal people. It is a wonderful story of how one man is changed by his encounter with another culture.

Daniel Rooke is a young man who has been out of place all his life.  At first, his gift for mathematics causes problems since it earns him a place at an academy where he does not fit in; all the other students are from wealthy families while he is a son of a clerk.  He loses himself in numbers and in the natural world.  When he grows up he joins the navy so that he can study navigation and the stars.  Once again he is out of place, surrounded now by the tough, military minded soldiers and sailors on the trip to the other side of the world.  His ship is full of prisoners sent to New South Wales as a punishment.

Once there, his gift for astronomy sets him apart and he is allowed to create a base of sorts away from the main camp, the better to study the stars and await an expected comet.  In this semi- detached state he meets aborigines in a closer encounter than is achieved in the main settlement of Botany Bay.  As the frequency of his meetings grow so does his desire to learn their language and develop understanding of their way of life.  Instrumental in this is a young girl whose inquisitiveness allows her to venture where others of her people fear to go.

Yet, the story must move towards the point where conflict arises; why would it not when the interests of the settlers and the aborigines are in opposition?  And so, Daniel Rooke, the accidental Lieutenant of the title finds his own conflict between serving His Majesty and serving science.  When he is given a direct order to carry out an act that offends his sense of humanity, he must decide which side of himself will triumph.

This is a wonderful recreation of period with a clear sense of the moral dilemmas that can be faced at any time, given the circumstances.  The ending shows what can happen to a man of integrity when the British Empire is in the way.

‘The Lieutenant’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

 

The Naming of Parts

At school when studying O Level English Literature, we had to read poems from ‘The Sheldon Book of Verse’.  This poem was one I remember so well, mostly because of the way it was read to us by the teacher.  We had to prepare for the lesson by reading it ourselves at home, which I did.  It left me cold and meant little to me but it came alive when, next day, our English teacher read it.  His reading brought out the essence of the poem, so much so that I cannot now read the poem without hearing him read it to us.  It proved that teachers really can open minds.

The Naming of Partsbloghenryreed

Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday, 
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning, 
We shall have what to do after firing. But today, 
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighbouring gardens, 
And today we have naming of parts.

This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see, 
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel, 
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures, 
Which in our case we have not got.

This is the safety-catch, which is always released
With an easy flick of the thumb. And please do not let me
See anyone using his finger. You can do it quite easy
If you have any strength in your thumb. The blossoms
Are fragile and motionless, never letting anyone see
Any of them using their finger.

And this you can see is the bolt. The purpose of this
Is to open the breech, as you see. We can slide it
Rapidly backwards and forwards: we call this
Easing the spring. And rapidly backwards and forwards
The early bees are assaulting and fumbling the flowers: 
They call it easing the Spring.

They call it easing the Spring: it is perfectly easy
If you have any strength in your thumb: like the bolt, 
And the breech, the cocking-piece, and the point of balance, 
Which in our case we have not got; and the almond blossom
Silent in all of the gardens and the bees going backwards and forwards, 
For today we have the naming of parts. 

Henry Reed

Lockwood Kipling

In London, so off to the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington to see the Lockwood Kipling exhibition.  I was particularly keen to see this as it celebrates a man who could easily be forgotten, or overshadowed in his case.  His son’s fame as a poet and author has endured while his work as a champion of India’s artistic heritage has been largely forgotten.  ‘Kim’ by Rudyard Kipling is a favourite book from my youth.  I reread it as an adult, and had conflicting thoughts about the place of the British Empire’s role in history, but the edition I read had illustrations by Lockwood Kipling.

The story is a fascinating one.  He attended the Great Exhibition in 1851 and was inspired by what he saw in the Indian galleries. He was a teenager but this was the start of a love affair with the arts and crafts of India. This alone makes me warm towards him; people who are inspired at an early age and go on to dedicate their careers in pursuit of their interests are always fascinating to me.

Lockwood Kipling is also connected with the Victoria and Albert Museum itself, although in its previous carnation as the South Kensington Museum.  It is fitting, then, that it is here that his work and influence is celebrated.  There are artefacts and images of India with an emphasis on the decorative arts that influenced him so much.  There are pictures of the Great Exhibition as well as an evocation of the cities of Mumbai and Lahore, both of which were important in Kipling’s life.  As the fame of his son spread, so Lockwood Kipling became involved in book illustration.  In the exhibition are samples of his work.  At the end was a ‘room’ with artefacts from Osborne House where he worked with Bai Ram Singh on the Durbar Room.  My favourite item was a painting called ‘A Peep at the Train’ by Rudolf Swoboda.