Downhill all the way: the decline of the British Empire after 1923

The British Empire, the East African Chronicle wrote in 1921, was a ‘wonderful conglomeration of races and creeds and nations’. It offered ‘the only solution to the great problem of mankind – the problem of brotherhood. If the British Empire fails, then all else fails.’ Stirring words – and not those of some sentimental Colonel Blimp back in London. They were written by the newspaper’s editor, Manilal A. Desai, a young Nairobi-based lawyer and a prominent figure in the large Indian community in Kenya. But, as Matthew Parker observes in One Fine Day, an ambitious account of the empire at the moment of its territorial zenith on 29 September 1923,

The astonishing truth about 007

The novel as a form is a fundamentally capitalist enterprise. It was invented at the same time as capitalism – Robinson Crusoe tots up his situation in the form of double-entry bookkeeping. Its interests dwell on the disparate and unequal natures of human beings and feed off rivalry, social transformation, moneymaking, profit and loss. No rigid feudal society has managed to create an effective school of novelists; and having once struggled through Cement, Fyodor Gladkov’s classic of socialist Soviet literature, I would say that systems dedicated to forcible equality also struggle.   Evident, astonishingly, is just how much in the novels is based on events Fleming had witnessed or engineered

Brutality rules in paradise – a memoir of Jamaican childhood

The blue-skied, hibiscus-clad ‘postcard’ beauty of Montego Bay, where the seasons shift with the rhythm of the sea breeze, veils the terrifying reality of Safiya Sinclair’s life at home. Until the age of five, Safiya lived in a small Jamaican hamlet on the white sand close to the endless beaches that attract the tourists, many of whose ancestors, ‘the white enslavers’, stole Jamaicans’ freedom and left behind their unforgettable, unforgiveable legacy. But for a while, as music and the sweet scent of ganja fill the salt air, Safiya, born in 1984, remains convinced that her country has given her all the blessings she could ask for. In language as richly

A tale of cruelty and imposture: The Fraud, by Zadie Smith, reviewed

‘Is this all that these modern ladies’ novels are to be about? People?’ So asks the bewildered author of Old St Paul’s, The Lancashire Witches, The Tower of London and three dozen other forgotten blockbusters stacked with costumed folderol. In Zadie Smith’s sixth novel, William Harrison Ainsworth disapproves, in 1871, of hiscousin-housekeeper, Eliza Touchet, reading a nameless story of dull village folk with ‘no adventure, no drama, no murder’. It can only be George Eliot’s Middlemarch. The Fraud alights briefly on this quarrel, as it does on many Victorian topics. Yet Smith’s triple-pronged tale of imposture and masquerade, public lies and secret truths, often reverts to fiction’s role either as

The fuss over Mary Seacole’s statue has obscured the real person

Who would have thought that a statue of a West Indian-born nurse in south London has a role in today’s culture wars? Unveiled in 2016, it stands three metres tall outside the great teaching hospital, St Thomas’, and depicts Mary Seacole, an extraordinary Creole woman who was loved and renowned for giving succour to British troops, first in her native Jamaica and then in Crimea during the bloody and prolonged war with Russia of 1853-6. It is controversial on two main counts. First, it stands on hallowed ground at the hospital where Florence Nightingale pioneered nursing as a profession after returning from Crimea. Critics deemed it wrong to site a

Should we blame our ancestors for slavery when we’re equally culpable?

The premise of White Debt is that the author’s ancestors ran a business selling a product grown by slaves. Therefore he wants to investigate Britain’s role in slavery — which is a rather odd framing, since his family’s tobacco firm wasn’t started until decades after slavery in British colonies was abolished. But Thomas Harding apparently only recently learned that slavery happened in the British Empire. He goes as far as to ask: ‘How could I not have known this?’ Well, truly, I don’t know. I don’t recall the time when I wasn’t aware that slavery was the reason that people of African descent live in the Caribbean today. Some of

The debt I owe to cannabis

Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt have all admitted that they tried cannabis as young adults. Neither the admission nor the THC psychoactive component of the drug, which makes you high, seem to have done them much harm in their pathways to successful careers in parliament. But a new governmental war on drugs is afoot which some fear may lead to unexpected consequences, and not just for those who ply their trade on street corners or draw up on Deliveroo-type scooters to supply cannabis as if it were a takeaway curry. I wouldn’t bet on everyone getting caught up in judicial dragnets, though; I imagine that middle-class consumers will

How Trojan Records conquered the world

When Trojan Records attempted to break into the United States music market in the early 1970s, it hit an insurmountable barrier: the company shared its name with America’s most popular brand of condom. ‘It was a case of commercial coitus interruptus,’ says Rob Bell, at the time the label’s production manager. In America, Trojan signified rubber, not vinyl. The label proved to have greater staying power in the UK, where it was at the forefront of popularising Jamaican music. Founded in 1968 as a joint venture between Chris Blackwell’s Island Records and Lee Gopthal’s Beat & Commercial, from a Willesden warehouse Trojan introduced the music of Desmond Dekker, Lee Perry,

Why a whole new generation of young Europeans are turning to old-school reggae

A camera sweeps across the verdant, shimmering beauty of Jamaica before descending on to a raffishly charming wooden house built into the hills. We’re at a music studio where four of the pioneers who gave birth to reggae are congregated to record a new album. ‘It’s tranquil, a real feeling of nature, just birds, trees and the wind,’ says 71-year-old Ken Boothe, whose seductive voice is smooth as rum, just as it was in 1974 when ‘Everything I Own’ stormed the British charts. Boothe is one of the stars of a beguiling new documentary, Inna De Yard, about the rise and fall of roots reggae, which reached its peak in

End of an era

There’s been a Dimbleby on air since before I was born but last Friday saw the end of that era when Jonathan retired as chairman of Radio 4’s Any Questions after 32 years. It’s a bit like imagining life in Britain once the Queen dies. The Dimbleby family has been intertwined with the history of the BBC, and major national events, since the second world war when Richard, the father, carved out his career as a war reporter, most famously from Belsen in 1945. Mere mention of the name conjures up those Reithian values — clear reportage, an intelligent and fair-minded assessment of what’s going on, and access to that

A tainted paradise

Ian Fleming’s voodoo extravaganza Live and Let Die finds James Bond in rapt consultation of The Traveller’s Tree by Patrick Leigh Fermor. ‘This, one of the great travel books, is published by John Murray at 25s’, proclaims a footnote in the first edition. Fleming was a friend of Leigh Fermor, so this is to be expected. Published in 1950, The Traveller’s Tree may still be the best non-fiction account of the West Indies. ‘It’s by a chap who knows what he’s talking about’, M tells 007, knowingly. But Paul Morand’s 1929 Hiver caraïbe comes a close second. The question is: why has it taken 90 years for this masterwork to

The very thing keeping tourists safe in Jamaica? Crime

Are you looking at your tickets to Jamaica and thinking: why on earth did I decide to go there, with its army curfew, state of emergency and spiralling homicide rate? The Jamaican government has just extended its state of emergency until May and has advised tourists not to leave their hotels unaccompanied. But don’t go online just yet to see if you can scrabble some money back on your flight. I am writing this while sipping a rum and listening to laughter and reggae in my local bar a few miles from the picturesque parish of St James, where in the past six months 335 people have been murdered, and

Amazing Grace

In the first scene of this distinctly odd documentary, Grace Jones meets a group of fans, who squeal with delight at the sight of her and nearly pass out with excitement when they hear her speak. And that, I suspect, is the effect which the film confidently expects to have on the rest of us. OK, it seems to be saying, so you’re not going to learn how Jones got from the Jamaican childhood we see her revisiting to the globetrotting life we see her living now. OK, so there’s no structure, sometimes no clue as to where scenes are taking place or who the other people in them might

Redcoats and runaways

Much romantic nonsense has been written about the runaway slaves or Maroons of the West Indies. In 1970s Jamaica, during President Michael Manley’s socialist experiment, Maroons were hailed as forerunners of Black Power. Rastafari militants and back-to-Africa ideologues saw a nobility in Maroon descent. The Jamaican black nationalist Marcus Garvey had claimed Maroon ancestry for himself; as has, more recently, the British Jamaican hip-hop singer Ms Dynamite (whose debut album, A Little Deeper, remains a UK drum and bass masterwork). In Jamaica, at any rate, Maroons fought exclusively for their own liberty, not for the overall liberty of the island’s enslaved Africans. As a condition of their freedom (and in

Making sense of an unjust world

These three timely works of creative nonfiction explore the question of race: chronicling histories of colonialism and migration; examining the institutionalisation of prejudice; and charting movements of change and the resistance to change. Maxine Beneba Clarke’s memoir, The Hate Race, tempers a tale of schoolyard trauma with gentle humour; Reni Eddo-Lodge’s debut, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, is a broadside, a roar of outrage; while Eula Biss’s elegantly structured essays in Notes from No Man’s Land are delivered with a deceptively quiet insistence that nevertheless leaves the reader shaken. They focus, respectively, on Australia, Britain and the United States. ‘Racism is a shortcoming of the

A man with an agenda

What’s this? An autobiography by Stuart Hall? Wasn’t he one of the guys who put the Eng. Lit. departments out to grass by arguing that it was senseless to talk about fictional characters as if they were real people when the truth was that real people were fictional constructs? Indeed he was; but don’t go thinking that just because Hall embarked, shortly before his death in 2014, on writing his life story, that he’d given up on the decentred subject. As he remarks early on in Familiar Stranger, despite our need to grasp our inner being, ‘we’ll never be ourselves’. It’s a nice line. It’s also a rare moment of

The fount of all knowledge

Somewhere around the middle of the 17th century our modern concept of the museum began to take shape. Until then the cabinet of curiosities formed by a prince or a dilettante was on show solely to his friends or to scholars deemed worthy of having it unlocked. Nothing in the way of a systematic catalogue existed to help them navigate the gallimaufry of odd objects filling its shelves and cupboards. A Japanese netsuke button, an Arawak headdress and a handkerchief soaked in the blood of Charles I could be found nestling beside a stuffed alligator or a bezoar stone, calculus from an animal’s stomach held to possess magical curative powers.

A hellish paradise

‘Short of writing a thesis in many volumes,’ Patrick Leigh Fermor wrote in his preface to The Traveller’s Tree, ‘only a haphazard, almost a picaresque, approach can suggest the peculiar mood and tempo of the Caribbean and the turbulent past from which they spring.’ Island People, Joshua Jelly-Schapiro’s first book, is an academic picaresque. This unlikely hybrid might be the ideal vehicle for a trip around the ‘American lake’; the Caribbean’s cultures and peoples are also hybrids, legacies of unlikely crossings. The masters, slaves, indentured labourers and merchant middlemen of the Caribbean were the first truly modern societies, drawn and dragged to a hellish paradise solely to serve a global

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

Diary – 5 May 2016

I am no admirer of Donald Trump — not because he is a doomsayer and professional patriot but because he is a fake and, worse, he owes me money. A few years back I was telephoned by a friend. ‘I have to give a dinner for Donald Trump,’ he said, dolorously. ‘He entertained me in Palm Beach and now he’s over here.’ The dinner was in a bijou Mayfair restaurant and we were a party of about eight. Let me say one thing for Trump: he isn’t stupid. We had never met, but he spotted me for an Englishwoman right away. The other guests were various members of the London ton,