I am late to the Paul Scott ‘Raj Quartet’ party! I remember the fuss around the television series in the 80s, the first time I heard about the series of novels, but I didn’t read them back then. It has taken many years to get around to starting them and over fifty years since the first novel was published. I am glad I did!
The novel is about the dying days of the British Empire rule of India and centres on Hari Kumar (or Harry Coomer as he once styled himself) a young Indian, brought up in England and sounding more English than the English, and Daphne Manners, a young British woman serving in India since the war back home took the lives of her immediate family. Their growing relationship causes many other people to notice, on both sides of the racial divide. There are other characters who exemplify the strict British code of living apart from the Indian people and Indians who are suspicious of anyone who gets close to the British. Then there is Miss Crane, deemed eccentric because of her willingness to treat Indians as people, and Ronald Merrick, the Chief of Police who believes that liberal attitudes will be the undoing of the Empire.
Told in a form of research gathered into a case of an attack on Daphne Manners and the aftermath, we have diary extracts, letters and interviews. There is an exploration of the back story of key characters, especially Hari Kumar and Daphne Manners and over the course of the novel we piece together the story of the attack. The book works well because it maintains interest in the central drama despite revealing this information on the first page.
The British rule in India in the early 40s was one of expectation that the people of India would support the war effort; why would they not be loyal to the throne in the time of need? Not every Indian understands why a war involving the British should involve them and the Japanese threat is less of a threat to fellow Asians.
With themes of identity, race and Empire, this book remains essential reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This exhibition in the Somerset town of Frome was planned to coincide with the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration in 1917. The interesting angle taken by the organisers was to place local history onto an international picture. The main part of the exhibition was actually called ‘Britain in Palestine’ and was displayed at SOAS in London a few years ago. This exhibition has a local element added with memories and photographs of Frome people who served in Palestine during the British Mandate in the police or the army or people who now live in Frome who had relatives or past connections with the country.
The photographs are black and white as you would expect and there is a large amount of writing to wade through but it is an important period. Once again, it seems, the ending of the British rule of part of the world ends in an ugly way; the complications of the promises made to both Jewish and Muslim leaders did not help matters.
The people included here were soldiers, policemen, refugees, clerics and people of faith, tourists and civil servants. Some went there because they were commanded to while others headed to the country for the heritage or the promise of a new life. The hopes of Jewish people, some desperate from the effects of war, were hard to reconcile with the hopes of the Arab inhabitants who lived there.
At the centre of the problem was a British politician who believed he had the right to make decisions about a part of the world his country ruled. Oh, the British Empire!
This 2007 novel by Elizabeth Laird is the type of adventure story I loved as a boy but with one difference: she tells the story from both sides of the crusade in which the forces of France and England attempted to take back control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Adam is an English boy whose mother dies leaving him to take work in the castle under his Lordship. He starts as a dog boy but finds himself on his way to war when his Lord joins the Holy Crusade. Salim is a son of a merchant but he has a deformity that sees him apprenticed to a Jewish doctor who is heading home to Jerusalem. What the boys have in common is displacement from their families followed by involuntary involvement in a war. What they also share is a conviction that their cause is just. They are, however, on other sides of the conflict so when they meet they do not see each other as allies or friends.
The strength of this novel is the parallel narrative. We know, or can presume, that they will meet but under what circumstances? Their journeys take them to Acre. Adam finds himself serving as a squire and Salim assists his doctor. They should not meet except in battle but they do.
Elizabeth Laird uses her characters to explore this historical event from both sides. With both sides believing their mission is a holy one, the idea of right and wrong is explored through the motivations of Salim and Adam. The Jewish doctor allows the author to show the Crusade in the context of greater complexity as one faith against another. There is reference to historical figures such as King Richard and Saladin but the action is centred on the younger characters and it is the better for it.
This novel by Jamila Gavin is called an epic on the front cover of the version I have and I do not think this is misplaced. I could see this story of spies and intrigue making a very good film or television series.
The story centres around young Filippo whose family is in dire straits after the disappearance of his father into India many years ago. Geronimo Veraneo is a jeweller in search of precious stones, hence the trip to India to find them. He never returns and the family fear he is a prisoner of an Afghan warlord. His wife refuses to believe he is dead even though her son-in-law wants to have him declared so and thereby inherit the family fortune. He believes the family holds a precious diamond, the Blood Stone of the title, and he wants to find it. He has spies among the servants but is unable to track it down.
When news reaches them that their father is still alive, it is decided that Filippo should be the one to travel to India to pay the diamond as ransom money. The blood stone is sewn into his head and the adventure begins.
It is unclear who to trust but young Filippo makes the journey across the Middle East from Italy to India.
There are sub-plots involving the daughter married to the unscrupulous son-in-law, Filippo’s friend and his family, and the brothers who are apprentice jewellers. Like other stories by Jamila Gavin, there is the crossing of borders, both physical and cultural but the main narrative is one of adventure and intrigue.
‘The Blood Stone’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
Jeremy Bowen is something of a BBC star as far as I am concerned. His level headed reporting from one of the world’s hottest regions is always worth listening to. He seems to get across complex ideas with clarity and he is not prone to that modern journalistic disease which rates feelings over facts and imagery over clarity.
This series of short (fifteen minute) radio programmes, broadcast by BBC Radio Four, allows him the opportunity to reflect on his twenty five years of reporting from the Middle East. I remember most of the stories the covered even if many of them were long forgotten to me. He carefully crafts a modern history of the region through returning to his news reports.
The series is not without feeling, how could it be, when as a journalist, he has seen some terrible things? Yet, while showing his humanity he never forgets that his job is to report the facts and get the stories out. There are brief glimpses behind the scene as well, though. He tells the story of his dinner party for fellow journalists on the night Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was murdered.
‘Our Man in the Middle East’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
I loved the novella by Amos Oz called ‘Panther in the Basement’. This film is based on that book and, even though the title is a touch too ‘cute’ for my taste, it is an interesting transposition of the story to film. The wonderful Alfred Molina is terrific as Sergeant Stephen Crabtree, the British soldier posted to Palestine during the British Mandate. He is a man fascinated by this land of the Bible and delighted to meet a young boy who looks able to help him understand the language. They strike up a friendship which is odd since the boy, Proffy to his friends, is brought up to hate the British and declares himself a sworn enemy.
The political is personal, though, and soon Proffy is conflicted by the difference between what he has been told about the British and what he likes about Sergeant Crabtree. The two spend time together, usually at the British mess, and Proffy helps the sergeant with Hebrew while Crabtree teaches Proffy English.
Proffy’s friendship with two friends of the same age as him is based on their sense of fighting back against the British Mandate. They plot ways of attacking the enemy as young boys do, oblivious to the dangers involved. Proffy sees an opportunity to use Crabtree as a source of military information to further their freedom fighting cause but things do not turn out that way and when he is followed by his friends his secret visits to the British mess are misinterpreted.
The resulting interrogation of Proffy by a Jewish group was confusing to me: who were they and on what authority did Proffy’s parents subject their son to such treatment? A sub-plot showing their involvement in the Haganah might explain this. In any case, Proffy is branded a traitor in his community and he questions the nature of friendship; learning too late that Sergeant Stephen Crabtree was more of a friend than he realised at the time. The final scene is worth waiting for since it brings a resolution not found in the book.
On balance, the book is far better than the film, even with the presence of Alfred Molina, but the location filming adds a dimension that I could not see in my mind’s eye when reading. The sense of Jerusalem in the 1940s is brought to life. For this reason, the film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
This novel by Tariq Ali is the first of his ‘Islam Quintet’. I have read several of his non-fiction works and his journalism; I have even heard him speak at a literary festival. This is the first time I have read any of his fiction. I was attracted to it by the subject matter of this first novel.
The story starts in Cordoba where a bonfire of books took place after the reconquest of Spain by the forces of Isabella and Ferdinand. From this we encounter characters of both sides of the religious divide but especially the Banu Hadyl family who are forced, like all Muslims to make a decision about their faith: convert, go into exile or die.
The ending is inevitable, especially to those who know the history, but the sense of loss from a time when different religions co-existed is huge. Instead, we see war and politics carried out as a form of religious devotion or maybe religion is used as the cover for the usual manipulations of states and monarchs.
In general, Tariq Ali’s non-fiction is more cohesive than his fiction but his passion for his subjects is still clear as if his determination to steer us away from a Eurocentric view of the world. In these times of religious intolerance, it is good to be reminded that there was, and is, a better way of living with each other. It is also important to realise that Islam is wider and more complex than it is often portrayed in our media.
‘Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree’ is worth reading. It is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?