British empire

Jan Morris’s ‘national treasure’ status is misleading

Almost two years after the death of Jan Morris, the jaunty travel writer and pioneer of modern gender transition, her first post-humous biography has arrived. (I follow Paul Clements in using the feminine pronoun throughout.) It is lively and well written, but it’s not the finished product. It lacks access to the private papers of its subject and her wife Elizabeth. That extra layer of insight into a fascinating but elusive personality must doubtless await the authorised life by Sara Wheeler. In the meantime, Clements deserves plaudits. He has worked his personal knowledge and existing sources well. We learn more than before about Morris’s modest if comfortable upbringing, with Welshness

Playing it safe | 5 October 2017

BBC1’s latest Sunday-night drama The Last Post, about a British military base in Aden in 1965, feels like a programme on a mission: that mission being to avoid getting shouted at by either the Guardian or the Daily Mail. To this (possibly doomed) end, it goes about its business very gingerly, with an almost pathological devotion to balance, and a safety-first reliance on the trusty methods of the well-made play, where each scene makes a single discrete point and the characters are as carefully differentiated as the members of a boy band. The first episode opened with the base’s new captain landing at Aden airport with his wife. ‘It must

The uncomfortable lessons of the new Fourth Plinth statues

The Revd John Chilembwe – whose statue now adorns Trafalgar Square – is notorious for the church service he conducted beneath the severed head of William Jervis Livingstone, a Scottish plantation manager with a reputation for mistreating his workers. The night before, Chilembwe’s followers had broken into his house and chased him from room to room as he tried to fend them off with an unloaded rifle. Eventually, they pinned him down and decapitated him in front of his wife and children. It was the most significant action in the 1915 Chilembwe rebellion, a small, short-lived affair in an obscure corner of the British Empire today known as Malawi. It

Cicero knew that we should study the past, not cancel it

Modern historians, excoriating the past evils of e.g. slavery and imperialism are taking the understanding of history back to its roots in the western world, when the past was used as a vehicle for moral lessons. Cicero said that study of the past ‘casts light on reality and is a guide to life (magistra vitae)’. Ancient historians lived up to this noble agenda. Livy (d. ad 17) said that history provided ‘examples of behaviour from which to choose what to imitate and avoid what is shameful’. The historian Tacitus (d. c. ad 120) said: ‘This I hold to be history’s highest function, to ensure that no worthy actions are passed

Does the curriculum really need ‘decolonising’?

Layla Moran, the Lib Dems’ education spokesman, has written to Gavin Williamson urging him to do something about ‘systemic racism’ in schools. ‘Changes to the history curriculum, such as learning about non-white historical figures and addressing the darker sides of British history honestly, are a vital first step to tackling racism in our education system,’ she wrote. ‘This chasm in information only serves to present students with a one-sided view of the events in history.’ I’m not sure Moran knows very much about how the education system works. For one thing, Williamson cannot dictate how history is taught in free schools and academies — they don’t have to follow the

We should build more memorials to controversial people

I have been making the best of lockdown by reading properly, from start to finish, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, in a seven-volume edition that is less daunting than it sounds, when you consider how addictive his rolling prose is. I have just reached the point, near the end of the great work, where Gibbon describes the sack of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The blind Doge of Venice had persuaded the crusaders to interrupt what was supposed to be an attack on Muslim Alexandria by diverting to the Byzantine capital, where Venetian merchants had a large number of grievances to

In defence of the British Empire

Is it my imagination, or are the whitened bones of the British Empire being yet again dug up and trampled underfoot? The latest Labour party manifesto promised ‘an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy to understand our contribution to the dynamics of violence and insecurity across regions previously under British colonial rule’. The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is redesigning its British galleries to link every statue and teapot to the Empire ‘with all of its systems of exploitation’. Jesus College Cambridge intends to return a bronze cockerel seized from Benin in a punitive expedition in 1897. Some Cambridge students and academics are pressing to ‘decolonise’ the

The forgotten masterpieces of Indian art

As late as the end of the 18th century, only a handful of Europeans had ever seen the legendary Mughal capital of Delhi, which, within living memory, had been the largest, richest and most spectacularly beautiful city on earth, twice the size of London and Paris combined. But after a century of anarchy, Delhi was not what it once was. By 1805, it lay half-ruined and sparsely populated, ruled by a blind Emperor from a crumbling palace. Delhi’s ruins bewitched the young artist James Baillie Fraser when he arrived in the 1810s from Calcutta. Fraser was already planning two series of aquatints, one on Calcutta, the other of the Himalayas.

This election will change Britain – and Europe – for good

This election campaign feels unreal. Commentators focus on spending plans and personal foibles, but what will make next week’s vote historic is something else, something so momentous that we draw back from discussing it seriously. The Lib Dems boast of Stopping Brexit, knowing that as things are now they will never have to try. Jeremy Corbyn pleads neutrality: the first leader not sure which side he was on since poor Henry VI in the Wars of the Roses. The Conservatives, whose hopes of office depend entirely on this issue, downplay its importance: ‘Get Brexit Done,’ ministers repeat, as if it were a tiresome distraction from real politics. Perhaps it is,

Just another Sunday soap

ITV’s new drama Beecham House is set in late 18th-century India where the British and French were still battling it out for supremacy. Its opening credits feature the east at its most exotic, with a montage of ceremonial elephants parading, sari-clad women gliding and lotus flowers opening. The hero is John Beecham (Tom Bateman), a hunky Englishman who proves honourable to the point of mild priggishness as he navigates his way through a world of dusky beauties, inscrutable orientals and treacherous Frenchies. If there were any Indians around at the time who weren’t gorgeously attired rich people, violent bandits or servants who took real pride in their work, we’ve yet

Teenage kicks | 8 November 2018

Lauren Gunderson’s play I and You opens in the scruffy bedroom of 17-year-old Caroline. Lonely, beautiful and furious, she’s unable to participate in school life owing to a chronic liver problem. Into her hideaway barges Anthony, a handsome geek, who wants her to help with a Walt Whitman project. Caroline tries to chase him off but resourceful Anthony charms her into accepting his presence. What follows is a hilarious and beautifully observed study of modern teenage romance. Parents will recognise details like this: Caroline offers her guest a Coke but instead of asking him to fetch it from the kitchen she sends the request to Mom by text. Five minutes

Imperial measures

It’s been a heavyweight week on Radio 4 with the start of the annual series of Reith Lectures and a talk on empire by Jan Morris, and thank heavens for that. We need serious, we need facts, we need to think in these trying times, beset as they are by Love Island and persistent presidential tweeting. As it happens, both talks were given by women, and I can’t help wondering whether their gender has something to do with the way neither of them plugged a definite line but instead suggested there are more ways than one of looking at things. On Wednesday morning Morris looked back at Britain’s imperial past

Time to lighten up

In parts of Africa and the West Indies women are so anxious to ‘whiten up’ that they use skin-lightening creams. The British writer and broadcaster Afua Hirsch sees this as a regrettable consequence of the aristocracy of skin colour as instituted by British merchant-capitalists during slavery. (Skin must first be bleached before it can be considered beautiful.) Of mixed Jewish-African parentage, the 36-year-old Hirsch is proud to call herself black. In this much-hyped book she sets out to question lingering obeisance to the idea of colonial Britain and to that ghost of the British Empire, the Commonwealth. Why does it persist so? Affection for Britain remains surprisingly strong in Commonwealth

Jaipur Notebook

Did Winston Churchill, like Donald Trump, also like to ‘grab them by the pussy?’ Last week at the Jaipur Literary Festival, I was on a panel discussion entitled ‘Churchill: Hero or Villain?’, where the Indian biographer Shrabani Basu told a large crowd that at a suffragettes’ demonstration outside Parliament in November 1910, Churchill, then home secretary, had ‘given instructions for police that they can batter the women and assault the women and sexually assault them as well’. He allegedly told policemen to ‘put their hands up their thighs, they can grope them and press their breasts’. ‘Can I just point out that that is completely untrue?’ I intervened. ‘He at

A shameful whitewash

I have been researching and writing about black British history for over 30 years but never before have I been fortunate enough to review a 600-page book on the subject, published to accompany a recent major BBC documentary. The book and the four-part series give some indication of the extent of a history which David Olusoga presents as ‘forgotten’: the subject, he argues, has been largely excluded from the mainstream narrative of British history. Why it should be forgotten, and who might have forgotten it should give us all pause for reflection, since the denial of black British history by those who should know better could be considered tantamount to

Port in any storm

Cometh the hour, cometh the book, and so Christmas brings us once again a tidal wave of titles relating to food and drink: cookbooks of seasonal dishes from around the world, never once to be consulted, and endless tomes of wine connoisseurship for all of us dedicated cheapskate consumers of Lidl and Aldi plonk. So the question is: are Thomas Tylston Greg’s Through a Glass Darkly and Henry Jeffreys’s Empire of Booze destined to last any longer than your turkey carcass and your festive case of supermarket Prosecco? Both books are undoubtedly charming. Through a Glass Darkly is one of those books in the London Library’s ‘Found on the Shelves’

Tormented genius

Married as I am to an antiquarian book dealer, and living in a house infested with books and manuscripts, I’m constantly having to edit my own little library so as to be able to breathe. But three volumes have survived successive culls — Pax Britannica, Heaven’s Command and Farewell the Trumpets — Jan (or James as she was when these books were written) Morris’s trilogy about the British empire. It is, Morris says, ‘the intellectual and artistic centrepiece of my life’, and it opens on the morning of 22 June 1897 with Queen Victoria visiting the telegraph room at Buckingham Palace on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee. She was,

Doctor who?

On 25 July 1865, during a heatwave, Dr James Barry died of dysentery in his London lodgings. A charwoman came in to ‘lay out’ the body. She had known the deceased gentleman: a strange-looking fellow, about five feet tall, slight and stooped and with a large nose and dyed red hair. But nothing had prepared her for what she found when she folded back the bedclothes. Barry’s whole body — ‘the genitals, the deflated breast and the hairless face’ — was unmistakably female. And as if that wasn’t shock enough, the charwoman’s eye was drawn to pronounced striations in the skin of the belly. As a mother of nine, she

Nuclear waste

Miss Atomic Bomb celebrates the sub-culture that grew up around nuclear tests in 1950s America. The citizens of Nevada would throw parties and stage barbecues to coincide with the latest nuclear detonation in the desert. This musical has a lot going for it. The melodies are strong, and well sung. The high-kicking chorus lines are easy on the eye and the show has a zippy, innocent spirit. But the storyline gets sidetracked in a mass of contradictory directions. The main theme follows a homesick farm girl who becomes involved with a runaway soldier whose brother runs a Vegas nightclub where a beauty contest is being held that the farm girl

‘Help the British anyhow’

The other day, some anti-imperialist students were questioning the presence in their institutions of statues of Cecil Rhodes, a West African cockerel and, very strangely in view of her conspicuously anti-racist convictions, Queen Victoria. In response, a Guardian columnist, who has probably made less effort to learn Hindi than Queen Victoria did, amusingly said that it was time to ‘start a debate’ about the British empire. I would have thought that we have spent much of the last century energetically examining the subject from topknot to shoesole. Nevertheless, there remain some large areas which haven’t been properly considered, and among them is the complex story of India’s role in the