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 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?

Room 1900

In London at Tate Britain to see an exhibition so I took the opportunity to re-visit some of my favourite works of art on display in the ‘Walk Through British Art’ galleries.  The room I love most of all, in this chronological arrangement, is Room 1900 where the end of the Victorian and start of the Edwardian age is celebrated.

There are many works here that I admire but, on this occasion, I was keen to see a sculpture by James Havard Thomas, a sculptor active from the 1880s onwards until his death in 1921.  The particular work is called ‘Lycidas’. It is a life-sized nude sculpture of a young man.  His model was Antonio, his Italian servant from the time when the artist lived in Southern Italy.  The work was rejected in 1905 by the Royal Academy as being too life- like and ordinary.  What Antonio made of this rejection is not known!

Lycidas 1902-8 by James Havard Thomas 1854-1921

Theocritus: A Villanelle

I went through a phase, as a student, of trying to learn different poetic forms.  The villanelle was one part of this study and this poem by Oscar Wilde stuck in my mind.

Theocritus: A VillanelleBlogOscarWilde

O singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O Singer of Persephone!

Simaetha calls on Hecate
And hears the wild dogs at the gate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Still by the light and laughing sea
Poor Polypheme bemoans his fate;
O Singer of Persephone!

And still in boyish rivalry
Young Daphnis challenges his mate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Slim Lacon keeps a goat for thee,
For thee the jocund shepherds wait;
O Singer of Persephone!
Dost thou remember Sicily?

Oscar Wilde

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.





Mountains of the Moon

This film from 1990 tells the story of the Speke and Burton expedition to Africa to find the source of the Nile and the damage to the two men’s friendship that resulted.  I have long been fascinated by Richard Francis Burton and have read about his colourful life.  This dramatic version was based on a novel.  Directed by Bob Rafelson, the film showed the distinct personalities of Burton and John Hanning Speke.

Both men aimed to find the source of the Nile.  Burton was the more experienced adventurer but it was Speke who claimed to have found the source on the Nile when he reached Lake Victoria in 1863 and found its outlet.   Differences between the two men grew from this point.  Speke ventured off without Burton when the latter became sick at Lake Tanganyika. Had they gone together, the outcome for both men might have been different.  Instead, they issued separate reports to the Geographical section of the British Association and argued over the question of the source of the Nile.


Speke died from shotgun wounds the day before he was to debate with Burton in Bath. This, too, became a matter of speculation as some claim it was an accident but others that it was suicide.  This film includes this scene but allows space for the viewer to make up his or her own mind.

Patrick Bergin plays Burton, always the larger than life character, while Iain Glen plays Speke as the correct and proper son of Empire.  Fiona Shaw is terrific as the woman who loves and later married Burton.  Richard E Grant is the friend of Speke who spreads rumours about Burton’s intentions and lack of honour.  These machinations add drama but the history of the expeditions is dramatic in itself.  The African scenery is superb but the epic nature of this film comes from the course of the relationship between the two men rather than the background.

‘Mountains of the Moon’ is a story of ambition and envy.  Two men who could have achieved much more together destroyed each other instead.  The film is in my hinterland. What’s in yours?


Portland Place

I was in London so walked up from Oxford Street to Broadcasting House.  I often like to come here to see the Eric Gill sculpture of Prospero and Ariel. This time, however, I went further north, beyond Broadcasting House and along Portland Place towards Regent’s Park.  This is a street I haven’t walked in over thirty years.

I was on the hunt for two particular works of art.  First was the statue of Quentin Hogg on his pedestal flanked by two boys looking over his shoulder or up at him.  He made his fortune as a merchant in tea and sugar and then became a benefactor of good causes.  He was born in 1845 and died in 1903.  His statue includes references to the activities for which he is best remembered: he holds a book to represent education: he was the founder of what became the Royal Polytechnic Institution and is now the University of Westminster.  He opened ragged schools for the poor boys, which were later opened in the evening.  One of the boys holds a football, a reference to Hogg’s time as a player in what was developing as association football.


As with all the great Victorian philanthropists, the legacy can be seen today; the site of his polytechnic is still the site of the University of Westminster.  The statue was created by George Frampton and erected in 1906.  It also honours his wife, Alice, and the students and former students who died in two world wars.

Further up Portland Place is the statue of Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile during World War Two.  He was killed in a plane crash in 1943 when leaving Gibraltar.  This statue was erected in 2003 so was not here the last time I walked this street.  The artist was Faith Winter.


London sculpture is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?