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?
In Winchester so I had to walk down through the city to the statue of King Alfred which I first saw on a boyhood visit. It is reassuring to see him still in place. The King of Wessex was a fifth son so was never expected to rule the kingdom; he became an active student instead and devoted his time to learning. He earned the title ‘great’ because he had a unique combination of statesmanship, scholarship and military skill.
The statue looking up the main street of the city shows him holding his sword in a gesture of victory or authority or both. He stands at 17 feet from the plinth so is an imposing figure. The artist Hamo Thorneycroft was a member of the Royal Academy. His statue of Alfred was erected in 1899 to mark a thousand years since his death.
Despite being clean shaven in most other depictions of Alfred, including coinage from his reign, this sculpture has him with a full beard; the type of beard those late Victorians thought befitted a King!
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!
In Manchester so off to find the sculpture called ‘Casuals’. It is on the canal side on land that used to be industrial when the Manchester Ship Canal was at its height. Designed by the artist Broadbent, it is a representation of the union cards dock workers needed to be able to gain employment. The conditions were harsh, though, and the men were not guaranteed work. They needed to line up every day to see if they would be taken on. The casual nature of this employment made it very difficult for people to know if they could support their families. It also led to conflict when the same group of men were competing for the places on a job.
Names and photographs of some of the workers are included in the artwork which now sits on the walkway along the canal near to the regenerated Salford Quays.
In Manchester on Armistice Day so I went to the Imperial War Museum North in time for the eleven o’clock two minutes’ silence. I am a frequent visitor to the IWM in London but this was my first visit to this northern version. I was impressed. It was the right place to be to mark the eleven o’clock silence.
I spent the time beforehand looking at the exhibits which focused on the effects of war on the innocents who got caught up in conflict through no fault of their own. The exhibits of the Kindertransport were particularly moving but so too were the artefacts of evacuees and the stories of families torn apart by wars of one sort or another.
The Cold War exhibit just seemed to serve as a reminder that the actions of politicians at these times lead to untold misery for so many. The museum is careful to stick to facts and not apportion blame but the inclusion of a ‘room’ specifically on the impact of war on people other than the military is a wise move.
In one corner of the museum, a doorway of suitcases acted as the perfect reminder that war always leads to upheaval and, for many, the loss of home and security.
The Imperial War Museum North is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?
As it is Thanksgiving in Canada today, it is a good time to remember the achievement of connecting Europe with North America through cable technology. The small Newfoundland town of Hearts’s Content was the location of the emergence of the cable from under the sea all the way across the Atlantic from Ireland.
The cable was laid in 1866 and in arriving in this small place on Bay de Verde, Newfoundland it turned the village into a unique community. Most places along the coast were fishing villages but the people who came to work and live here worked in communications. People came from across Canada and England to work in the hub on the route from Britain to the United States of America.
In 2017, artist Padraig Tarrant created twin sculptures, one for Valentia Island, Ireland where the cable entered the sea and the other for Heart’s Content in Newfoundland, Canada. I got to see the Canadian version weeks after it was unveiled but still need to make it to Valentia Island to see the companion piece.
I have long thought that Gertrude Bell’s life would make an amazing film. Not only did she tread a path that few women had in her time but she also was another Westerner who fell in love with the East. In the ways of the British Empire, she was in love with a part of the world that the British controlled and aware that there was a conflict in admiring the people who were subjugated to British rule. No matter how benevolent the rule was, it was rule nevertheless.
The documentary has Tilda Swinton reading extracts from her letters, usually to those ‘back home’ while archive footage and photographs of Bell are shown on-screen. That we never see Tilda Swinton ‘as’ Gertrude Bell is a wise move since the photographic image of her is not affected. Other people feature, people who knew her well, such as T. E. Lawrence, but these people are played by actors and we see them in black and white addressing the camera. Bell’s non- presence is all the more powerful because of this technique.
The story of the young woman who gained a First in History and who then turned East is a wonderful one. Her knowledge of the people and places of the Middle East made her a key figure in the peace conference following the First World War. Her role in setting up a country called Iraq before serving the government there in the field of archaeology illustrates well the way women were treated and viewed. In many cases, she was referred to as a ‘right hand man’. She understood she did not fit in when the social occasions were put on, organised as they were for the men and their wives. She was not really accepted in either group.
The film is in black and white throughout making the archive footage stand out. It is a very good introduction to the life of an amazing woman. ‘Letters from Baghdad’ is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?