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Unequivocal Gent? Review of The Setting Sun by Bart Moore-Gilbert

8 Feb

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Bart Moore-Gilbert has argued of the Jamaican-British author Mary Seacole that she sought to gain greater self-understanding by blending autobiography and travel writing in her magnum opus, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. By reflecting on her lived experience of death, migration, racial prejudice and the excesses of imperialism she was able to make some sense of her own identity and how it had been shaped by the world. There are shades of Seacole’s approach in The Setting Sun, Moore-Gilbert’s own new book about a trip to India to investigate his late father’s conduct as a colonial policeman during the chaotic final days of the Raj. In the often painful process of learning about his father, Moore-Gilbert discovers much about himself, and he is forced at every turn to question his own values, theories and memories.

The thirteen-year-old Bart wakes up one night in the dormitory of his English public school, cringing at the cold as much as at the racist epithet a fellow pupil has just mouthed: ‘Get up, Nigger, quick.’ Having recently moved to Britain after a childhood spent in colonial Tanganyika, Bart sees himself as a ‘white African kid’ exiled to a country he can barely comprehend. Marginalised by his peers, he longs for the natural colour and boy’s own excitement of his life in East Africa, playing with his beloved boxer dog Tunney, defending chickens from assault by safari ants, and taking jaunts through the bush to find honey with his minder Kimwaga. Most of all, though, the young Bart misses his father Bill, a gentleman game warden with the debonair integrity of a John Mills or David Niven. That night, Bart is led from the dormitory to his housemaster, who nervously informs him that his father has died in a plane crash. As Bart breaks down, the housemaster’s wife offers him a caramel éclair, in a pathetic act of consolation.

Fast forward five decades to 2008 and the adult Bart Moore-Gilbert, now a professor of postcolonial studies at Goldsmiths College, receives an email from an Indian academic about Bill’s ‘significant role’ in suppressing nationalist rebels in Satara District, western India. Moore-Gilbert is shocked, as ‘this is the first independent reminder in ages that I once had a father.’ Questions start pinging around his head. What exactly was this ‘significant role’ his father played in this infamously dark chapter in British imperial history? What if, like the policeman characters in George Orwell’s Burmese Days and Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, Bill was guilty of intimidation, torture or worse? Moore-Gilbert decides he must fly to India and discover the ‘father I did not know’.

But the truth is fiendishly hard to pin down. Moore-Gilbert searches for it in police archives, university libraries, and takes testimonies both from Bill’s now-elderly colleagues and from some of his enemies, such as the stormy, self-described ‘freedom fighter’ Lad. ‘Gilbert was the terrorist in that campaign, not us,’ Lad blurts out during their interview, which understandably upsets Moore-Gilbert. But after hearing a condemnation of this sort, Moore-Gilbert’s research will throw up a source that suggests the opposite: that Bill was, by community standards, a good cop. This feeling of oscillation provides one of The Setting Sun’s many dramatic propellers.

The son’s mental picture of the father keeps altering as new facts come in and hitherto buried memories resurface. Earlier in the narrative, Moore-Gilbert remembers Bill in almost heroic terms: protecting a local woman from domestic violence, guarding the environment from poachers, or volunteering for a humanitarian mission to save beleaguered Tutsis in what has since become Rwanda (where his plane went down). However, the more he finds out about Bill in India, the more morally hazy his reminiscences of Bill in Tanganyika become, making him wonder, finally, whether his father was such an unequivocal gent after all. Amongst many other things, The Setting Sun is a penetrating comment on the ambiguity not only of subjective memory, but of other supposedly more “objective” forms of knowledge.

For a scholar with Moore-Gilbert’s interests, this very personal quest is bound to have wider political and intellectual dimensions. To his credit, though, the professor eschews theoretical abstraction, instead using his dramatic encounters with people and places as a device for examining complex issues, from the Kashmir crisis to the double standards inherent in Western attempts to define terrorism. In one chilling sequence, Moore-Gilbert visits a tree beside Shalini Lake from which Sepoy mutineers were hanged after the 1857 rebellion and their corpses left out for the crows. ‘I have an awful vision,’ he writes, ‘of tar-black silhouettes against the blinding sky, hands tied behind their backs, rotating slowly in the putrid breeze.’ While his ‘postcolonial political ethics’ are rightly offended by such atrocities of empire and their long-running consequences, he is also worried by vulgar brands of nationalist historiography that try to blame all of India’s contemporary problems on the Raj.

Another of Bill’s former adversaries, a cheerful old-timer named Nayakwadi, has a more nuanced perspective. Despite having been a committed nationalist, he praises the British for dismantling the caste system (even if their motives had more to do with realpolitik than egalitarianism) and argues that Indian independence still hasn’t delivered basic ‘education, health and justice’ to working people. His country’s current malaise is mainly the fault of ‘the capitalist classes’ and he feels ‘no bitterness’ towards the Raj now. To Moore-Gilbert’s relief, Nayakwadi holds no grudges against Bill either, and even seemed to enjoy escaping from the policeman once by dressing up as a woman.

As his journey wears on, Moore-Gilbert starts to accept the impossibility of constructing a full and fair picture of his father. However, what he does find out, what little he can claw back of the Bill he never knew, has a definite healing effect.

Originally published in The London Magazine, October 2014

Review of ‘A Month by the Sea: Encounters in Gaza’ by Dervla Murphy (originally published in the London Magazine)

21 Aug

When the great Palestinian intellectual Edward Said was asked about his hopes for justice for his people, he paraphrased Antonio Gramsci: ‘I’m a pessimist of the intellect but an optimist of the spirit.’ While it’s hard not to be pessimistic about the shattered landscapes and tragic encounters of Dervla Murphy’s remarkable new book about Gaza, there are reasons to be optimistic too.

Arriving in the shadow of Operation Cast Lead, in which the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) killed at least 700 civilians at the cost of 13 Israeli lives, Murphy’s worst fears about the plight of Gazans are confirmed. Wherever she turns are bombed-out ruins, shanty towns, desiccated lands, and malnourished and wheelchair-bound children. Shatti Refugee Camp has the worst human living conditions she has seen in seven decades of world travel. Everywhere on the Strip, the tap water is so contaminated that it can penetrate egg shells. The Israeli-Egyptian blockade has made ghost towns of once lively business districts.

The blockade is just one reason why Murphy comes to view Gaza as a prison, more literally than figuratively. Israeli soldiers make for sadistic wardens, brutalising and humiliating the inmates on the pretext of ‘collective punishment’. Farmers risk being shot by snipers from watchtowers as they walk through a free-fire zone to tend the crops their communities rely upon for survival. The enforced isolation of Gaza from the rest of the world has compelled its people to build a network of tunnels for the importation of essential food, medicine and equipment. Weapons are smuggled through “Tunnelopolis” too, but they are nowhere near as sophisticated or numerous as those at the IDF’s disposal.

Near the Israeli border, Murphy visits one particular family who personify this condition of national captivity. They are living a nightmare of perpetual harassment by jeeps, helicopter gunships, warning shots from snipers and taunts through megaphones. Seemingly for the IDF, it is not punishment enough that two of this family’s children have already been seriously injured by shelling.
A Month by the Sea skilfully segues between eyewitness travelogue and external analysis of the social, cultural and political complexities of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Murphy eloquently deflates the myths of Israeli hasbara (propaganda) and its ‘confusing misinformation that makes outsiders feel that they can’t really understand what’s going on – so they lose interest’ (37). While the United States and much of the rest of the world accepts Israel’s disingenuous casus belli – that its very existence is threatened by Palestinian terrorism – the reality on the ground, as Murphy sees, is exactly the opposite: ‘For decades they [the Israelis] have been attacking defenceless populations through curfews, closures, sieges, house demolitions, olive-grove bulldozing, well poisonings, shootings, bombings, torture and indefinite imprisonment without trial’ (162).

In considering the international response, she accuses ‘the duplicitous Tony Blair’ (107) – now Official Envoy to the Quartet on the Middle East (consisting of the UN, US, EU and Russia) – of personally enriching himself by brokering business deals between the Israeli government and the ‘quisling’ Palestinian Authority, whose collaboration with Zionism has driven so many Palestinians into the arms of Hamas and even more extreme factions. The Quartet is nominally committed to a two-state peace process but, so Murphy argues, this is in fact a smokescreen behind which Israeli settlers continue to steal land from the Palestinians.

While Murphy records the testimonies of many Gazans – including the erudite Hamas politician Dr Mahmoud Al-Zahar – it would have been interesting to have heard the opposing view in a close encounter with, say, a leading Zionist. All the same, she is even-handed enough to criticise those tendencies within Gazan society that inflame the conflict and inhibit international sympathy for the Palestinian cause. For Murphy, Hamas’s rule has a ‘flavour of dictatorship’ about it, buoyed by strong currents of Islamic fanaticism and anti-Semitism that have been flowing since the secular Egyptian occupation ended in 1967. However, such immoderation appears to be stoked by Israeli false flag operations intended to divide and rule the Palestinians. When an extremist Syrian imam blew himself up in a Gazan mosque in 2009, the police found Israeli-made explosive vests in the rubble.

Murphy is also concerned about the rights of local women, a quarter of whom are reported to be victims of physical violence. One of the most poignant encounters in the book is with Yara, a twenty-six-year-old who has suffered public ignominy after escaping from a forced marriage and losing custody of her children. One comes away with the sense that, for many Gazan women, there are other kinds of prisons within the prison.

It is a testament to Murphy’s character that she remains brave and upbeat in the face of all this danger and misery. This eighty-year-old grandmother has no qualms about accompanying a group of protestors into a free-fire zone because she has been told that, for PR reasons, the Israelis are less likely to open fire when they see a Western face. Her positivity is more than matched by that of the Gazans themselves, whose philosophy of samoud is a ‘quality not understood by the Zionists, comprised of courage, obstinacy and a calm sort of pride’ (52). The bright young activists whom Murphy meets on Gaza Port’s breakwater believe that a combination of samoud, binationalism and Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel (in the mould of the global campaign against South African Apartheid) will finally achieve freedom and justice for all Palestinians.

(Originally published in the London Magazine)

Travels in Old Asia review (originally published in the London Magazine)

14 May

Western travel writing on Southern Asia may have become a crowded market, but Eland Books has recently republished three of the finest titles in the canon. Dervla Murphy’s Where the Indus is Young is an arrestingly vivid account of one stoical woman and her even more stoical six-year-old daughter’s treks through the Karakorum Mountains of Baltistan, an under-explored province of northern Pakistan. Travels into Bokhara concerns the adventures of Alexander Burnes, the Scottish spy, polyglot and orientalist who is regarded as a prototype of both Lawrence of Arabia and Wilfred Thesiger. An altogether more humorous – but no less evocative – read is Travels on My Elephant, Mark Shand’s quest to discover India from the saddle of a flighty but affectionate elephant named Tara. Although these books differ in many ways, they share preoccupations with cross-cultural encounters, unlikely or unusual itineraries, and the impact of modernity on natural environments and ancient civilisations.

Originally published in 1991, Shand’s travelogue begins on the kind of whimsical note that one associates with the English gentleman traveller-writers of earlier that century: ‘I had decided on a quiet jaunt across India on an elephant.’ After failing to buy an elephant from the wife of one of India’s greatest actors, Shand promptly heads to a small town in Orissa, follows a trail of dung to a camp of saddhus (holy men) and finds Tara, a young and fit – if malnourished – female of the species. It is love at first sight: ‘I knew then that I had to have her’. Recruiting a rum-sodden mahout (elephant master), Shand sets off on a six hundred mile ride to an elephant mela (market) in Bihar. Despite the centrality of elephants to Indian civilisation (we are told that throughout the 13th and 14th centuries AD, epic wars were fought to secure ‘superior breeds’ in Orissa), the sight of one being ridden in the India of the late 1980s by a half-naked Englishman causes children to panic, moped riders to crash and men to literally collapse with laughter. Such scenes prompt one to wonder how Britons might react to a half-naked Indian man exploring their country on the back of a shire horse.

Thus Tara becomes a symbol of the old India in conflict with the new. Perhaps the funniest demonstration of this is when she, a representative of the most traditional form of transport in the Subcontinent, encounters a typically contemporary coach load of Russian tourists. Amid the cries of excitement, Tara proceeds to steal a bottle of vodka with her trunk and empty its entire contents into her mouth.

But there is a serious overtone to Shand’s story too, a real melancholy about the destruction of India’s heritage. He shares his brother-in-law Prince Charles’s distaste for modern architecture and is saddened to find the once-grand Maharaja’s palace of Kheonjar looted and stained with graffiti; ‘an opulence long gone’.

Similar themes permeate Where the Indus is Young. One of the remotest parts of Southern Asia, Baltistan in the late 1970s is a society resisting progress, and this is to author Dervla Murphy’s delight: ‘my reactionary heart throbs with love for Baltistan’. Lack of outside influence has kept Baltis scrupulously honest, as Murphy realises when she is trusted to pay for some bootlaces by simply putting her money in an unsupervised box. When she opens the box she finds out that 500 Rupees – a considerable sum – is inside and that no-one would think to pilfer it. Homes are left unlocked and there is no need for watchdogs, ‘local standards of honesty being so high’. Every village Murphy and daughter Rachel arrive at they are showered with hospitality, even when the inhabitants are in ill health and have only meagre food supplies.

However, this is not a state of affairs that can last, as an enlightening discussion with a local Raja reveals. He is concerned that the central government in Lahore’s road-building and tourism development schemes will bring ‘disease-carrying’ aeroplanes and jeeps. Indeed it is the sudden approach of a jeep – a rare glimpse of modernity on a ‘rocky wall rising sheer out of the [River] Shyok’ – that causes Rachel’s pony Hallam to rear up and almost throw her over the precipice. This chilling moment will forever be engraved on her mother’s memory.

Alexander Burnes also travelled in the Indus region, although he did so some 150 years before Murphy and in very different geopolitical circumstances. The ‘Great Game’ between Russian and British imperial interests in Asia is afoot and Burnes is sent by the Empire to chart ‘a route so unfrequented’: the course of the Indus River beyond the borders of British India. His knowledge of local languages and customs, his talent for disguise (so effective that Turkmenistanis mistake him for an Afghan) and his literary skills (his cousin was Robert Burns, even though the surname is spelt differently) make him the perfect man for the mission.

In an act of what the travel writing scholar Graham Huggan calls ‘shadowing’, Burnes compares his own experiences of these lands to those of his hero, Alexander the Great, some two thousand years previous. At first, the comparisons are unfavourable. With an almost Byronic nostalgia for the oriental civilisations of yesteryear, Burnes regrets the ‘gradual decay’ of the ‘celebrated’ ancient city of Tatta, its beguiling architecture, substantial silk industry, and fertile land having tragically ‘passed away’. Earlier on in the journey, such an attitude seems to go hand-in-hand with patronising judgements about contemporary Asians (‘the cringing servility of the Indians’/‘ignorant barbarians’), but the more Burnes sees of this part of the world, the more impressed with it he becomes. By the time he reaches Kabul he is moved to declare, ‘I do not wonder at the hearts of the people being captivated by this landscape’. To the erudite and open-minded Chief of Kabul he even goes as far as to admit that he has become something of a cultural hybrid: ‘I informed him … that I was an Englishman, and that my entire adoption of the habits of the people had added to my comfort.’

Much the same can be said of the other two writers. After seeing India astride his darling Tara, Mark Shand falls in love with Indian wildlife in general and with Indian elephants in particular. Of visiting the eccentric Eurasian enclave of McCluskiegunge, he writes, ‘perhaps the term Anglo-Indian represented what I was when I rode in’. Dervla Murphy starts integrating into Balti culture as soon as she arrives, embracing the ascetic lifestyle – dried apricot diet and all. Meanwhile, it takes Rachel several gruelling experiences – including a fall into a glacial torrent – before she is ‘completely adjusted to the oriental way of life’.

From great travel writers we should expect great powers of physical description, and this trio does not disappoint. Dervla Murphy is a little hard on herself when she claims that words cannot do justice to the sublime wonder of the Karakorums, as she consistently succeeds in rendering the otherworldly formations of the frozen landscape in the intensely detailed and lapidary style she is rightly famous for:

Much of the track was covered with thick sheets of ice, and

waterfalls had become towering, transparent columns,

surrounded by the bizarre elegance of giant bouquets

of icicles formed around clumps of thyme. Fantastically

convoluted masses of ice hung from roadside rocks…

 

In a similar vein, Mark Shand has a nature lover’s eye for the delicate balance of Southern Asian ecosystems, and how – at least for the time being and in certain locales – peasants in ‘bright lunghis of emerald green’ can live in harmony with ‘piebald and blue’ kingfishers and ‘clumps of bamboo and palm trees’.

Alexander Burnes’s cartographic expertise may have won him the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, but he is equally adept at bringing to life such sumptuous spectacles as Maharaja Runjeet Sing’s meeting with Lord Bentinck, the Governor-General of India. Burnes writes beautifully of gold and silver-clad noblemen, ‘a lofty arcade of yellow silk’, ‘the richest carpets and shawls of Cashmere’, and a velvet tent ‘glittering with every ornament’. The event concludes with the Maharaja offering the British fifty-one trays of lavish gifts, as well as the finest horses and elephants.

These three books may have been written in different historical moments, but their observations remain of interest today. Burnes, in particular, is sometimes prophetic. He discerns a kind of globalisation taking hold in the ‘commerce extending uninterruptedly over such vast and remote regions’ and upbraids both the African and Islamic slave trades for breaching ‘human rights’. His curiosity about Southern Asia’s melting pot of unique cultures and subcultures prefigures the work of modern travel writers such as William Dalrymple, who fittingly provides the prologue and epilogue to this edition of Burnes’s book. In the afterword to Travels on my Elephant, Mark Shand explains how he set up the Elephant Family, a charity that is still campaigning for the conservation of Asian elephants today. As for Murphy, it would seem that Baltistan has changed little in almost forty years, and its ‘diamond-brilliant summits’ and ‘fearsome peaks’ not at all.

(Originally published in the London Magazine Feb-Mar 2013)

Review of Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal

12 Apr

Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal

By Sherryl Vint (Liverpool University Press, 2010, 269 pp, £65.00)

Reviewed by Tom Sykes, Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth

In recent decades, intellectuals in various fields have felt the need to critique conventional thinking about the relationship between humans and animals. In Straw Dogs (2002) – tellingly subtitled Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals – John Gray argues that humans have tended to arrogantly assume that they rule supreme over all other forms of life on Earth, with environmental catastrophe being the most dangerous consequence of this fallacy. The Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer has called for the extension of the utilitarian imperative (‘the greatest good for the greatest number’) to any creature that is able to experience pain, while comparing the “speciesism” of Western thought to racism and sexism. In the area of literary studies, critics such as Carrie Rohman have turned their attention to “textual representations of animality, an animality that resides both in humans and in nonhumans, though humans have tended historically to repress and disavow their own animal being” (Rohman 16).

The stage has been set, then, for a critical re-examination of human-animal relations as they are constructed in sf, and Sherryl Vint’s Animal Alterity: Science Fiction and the Question of the Animal steps up to the role with brio, urgency and originality. Taking her theoretical cues from the discipline of Human-Animal Studies (HAS) and its project to interrogate the “human-animal boundary” that all too often justifies the exploitation and destruction of “non-humans with whom we share the planet” (2), Vint argues that a number of sf texts make a progressive contribution to this project by dint of their non-anthropocentric sentiments, their imaginings of ‘other’ subjectivities, and their inventions of alternative ecologies, societies and value systems.

Into this category of progressive sf Vint places Karen Traviss’s Wess’har War (2004-8) cycle of novels. Its setting, the planet Bezer’ej, is protected by the wess’har, an environmentally-aware alien species devoted to equality with all other beings, including a colony of humans known as gethes. Furthermore, Traviss’s empathetic depictions of the social relations of non-human creatures accords, so argues Vint, with ecocriticism’s aims to “improve behaviours and change minds” (149). Although it ends on a disquietingly ironical note, The Swarm (2004) by Frank Schatzing is commended for its representation of an animal rebellion against humans that is the direct consequence of mankind’s failure to understand the interconnectedness of all nature.

Other fictions try to bring human and animal subjectivities closer together in order to find some ethical and perceptual common ground. The Jonah Kit (1975) by Ian Watson concerns an experiment to project a human mind into a whale’s brain, while Roger Zelazny posits a “four-dimensional building” of combined human and animal consciousness in his tale of telepathy and dolphins, “Kjwalll’kje’k’koothailill’kje’k” (1973). However, Vint reminds us that such “thinking our way into the other” (7) is not a straightforward enterprise: “such communication is never … transparent and complete” (75).

To be sure, not all sf that engages with animal alterity can be termed progressive, and much of it is either ambivalent about the prospects of challenging the human-animal boundary or reinforces that boundary in deeply reactionary ways, though not without recognising “sites of anxiety” (27). In John W. Campbell’s 1938 novella Who Goes There?, the alien ‘thing’ that consumes the identities of humans appears to problematise any easy attempt to demarcate the category of the human, but, by the end of the story, it is clear that Campbell is promoting a strict ideological conception of the human that is dependent on violence, patriarchy and scientism.

Vint’s thesis draws upon a wide spectrum of issues and sub-issues related to the human-animal question. The first chapter, “Always-Already Meat”, shows us how sf has grappled with the ways in which human exceptionalism underpins the commodification of animals and their consumption as meat products, citing Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), Raccoona Sheldon’s 1985 short story “Morality Meat”, and H. G. Wells’ relativist rejoinder to the Martian invaders’ penchant for human blood in The War of the Worlds (1896): “we should remember how repulsive our carnivorous habits would seem to an intelligent rabbit” (26). Another chapter, “The Animal Responds”, disputes the tendency in Western philosophy to claim that capacity for language sets humans apart from beasts (Heidegger: “’animals lack man’s specific relation to language’”) with evidence from the cognitive psychologists William A. Hillix and Duane A. Rumbaugh, which Vint finds echoed and imaginatively explored in sf thought experiments by the likes of Ursula K. Le Guin in her “The Author of the Acacia Seeds” (1974).

Another strength of this study is its often revelatory affiliating of the question of the animal in sf with other critical concerns such as gender and postcolonialism. Chapter 4 outlines how, in our culture, the male-female binary has often been propped up with the human-animal binary, as indicated by misogynistic insults that liken females – and female sexuality – to animals or animal behaviour (‘dog’, ‘bitch’, ‘cow’ etc); it may be no accident, then, that women have tended to be at the forefront of animal rights activism. At the same time, bestial designations for men tend to positively evoke physical strength and sexual puissance (‘bull’, ‘stallion’ etc). Perhaps the text that most interests Vint here is Leigh Kennedy’s “Her Furry Face” which won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1983. In this offbeat yarn, a human male researcher’s carnal desire for a highly intelligent female orang-utan is rooted in a patriarchal fantasy of both women and animals as obedient, submissive and pleasure-giving beings.

In Chapter 5, Vint contends that animals “occupied an ambiguous and fluctuating third space” (113) in the European conquest of foreign lands and peoples. Wild and exotic creatures were brought from the colonies and displayed in zoos as representations of subjugated human cultures. Orientalists regarded the savagery of wild animals such as tigers as evidence of the savagery of humans native to the same regions; a preposterous excuse for colonial brutality if ever there was one. Returning to War of the Worlds, Vint finds the Martians showing the same indifference to the sanctity of British life as the British showed to the sanctity of oriental life – both animal and animalised human.

Throughout Animal Alterity are fascinating segues into real-world events that strongly affect how and what we think about animals. Biotechnological gene-splicing and diseases such as BSE that migrate from animals to humans are blurring the inter-species divide, though clearly not in the constructive ways HAS has in mind. Contemporary laboratory science denigrates the value of non-human life and turns the “animal subject” into a “product” (188). In “The Mirror Test”, a chapter, in part, about how humans construct animals according to their own expectations and standards, Vint relates the anecdote of Clever Hans, a horse in nineteenth century Germany who appeared to be able to do sums by tapping his feet, but was in fact responding to “subtle cues from his owner which informed him when he had reached the required count” (46). While the German board of education of the time refused to accept this as a valid demonstration of intelligence, Vint’s analysis is that Hans’s ability to follow the cues untrained and his “sensitivity to social interaction” (46) are proof of other kinds of intelligence, even if they are not defined as such by the anthropocentric mindset.

Some of Vint’s digressions away from sf and into critical theory may seem a little long-winded, although she does always take care to come back and ground the abstractions of scholars such as Nagel, Derrida, Agamben and Berger in close readings of the canon. Indeed, her concise précis of numerous novels and short stories work very well as reading recommendations for any sf fan. While we might question the practicality of HAS’s self-avowedly utopian political aims – chief amongst them the establishment of a posthuman society of absolute human-animal equality – there is no doubt that Animal Alterity palpably succeeds in showing us how, as Vint puts it herself, sf “can stage the problems that confront us in rich, concrete detail and thus potentially enable its readers to perceive the world and other species in new ways” (211).

(Originally published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction)

Review of Letters from the Empire

22 Dec

Review of Letters from the Empire: A Soldier’s Account of the Boer War and the Abor Campaign in India (The History Press Ltd)

Meet Allan Marriot Hutchins: gentleman, wit and soldier. At the height of the British Empire, he served in the Boer War and the Abor Campaign in South Asia. He kept the proverbial stiff upper lip at all times, even when sustaining serious wounds and losing comrades. Of repelling snipers at Oorlogspoort, he writes, almost casually, ‘We turned our attention to them and shut ‘em up.’ Even in the most exotic of places, Hutchins – in true English style – dreams of roast lamb and mint sauce and obsesses about the weather. On first glance, Hutchins’ life story evokes the boy’s own yarns of Rider Haggard or Kipling. The reality, however, is less romantic.

Assembled from a recently-discovered trove of Hutchins’ letters from the front line, Letters from the Empire tells the gritty truth about colonial warfare. The battles come thick and fast, but there’s more disease than distinguished service, more grime than gallantry. Hutchins must survive his own side’s field hospitals as well as the other side’s firepower. On other occasions, such as when he is first posted to India, the problem is how to kill time rather than how to kill people. Thus he dedicates himself to polo, gymkhanas, sergeant’s dances and heavy drinking (no one in the regiment is allowed to go to bed sober unless it’s a Thursday). Bored and having seen little action in South Africa, Hutchins starts to mythologise his war record: ‘Tell him how his Uncle Allen has slain many a Boer and marched from Bloemfontein to Pretoria dripping blood from every step.’

Although Hutchins is a lucid correspondent, amusing us with vernacular phrases (for ‘snaffling a mount’ read finding a reliable horse), some of his descriptions are a touch mathematical: ‘The garrison had 2 men killed and 5 or 6 wounded and the Boers admitted to having 23 wounded…’ Then again, he could not have predicted that his letters – written primarily to inform – would one day be turned into a book. Similarly, while the surfeit of names, ranks, regiments and makes of firearm will delight the military history buff, a few more explanatory notes would have helped the casual reader.

Unsurprisingly, Hutchins’ views on race and culture seem reactionary today, but as the narrative unfolds, so his cynicism about the imperial project grows. The poverty of the soldiery is a recurring bugbear. The learned editorial commentary also highlights the abuses of empire, its war crimes and – making their horrific debut in the Boer conflict – concentration camps.

All in all, Letters from the Empire is an engaging insight into both the minutiae of war and a complex yet charismatic man.

Originally published in the Bristol Review of Books, March 2012

Outsiders on the SEAN: Depictions of Southeast Asia in Western fiction

22 Mar

Southeast Asia has been inspiring Western writers for hundreds of years. As the region has changed socially and politically, so the themes and concerns of its fictions have altered. From John Dryden to Alex Garland, Joan Didion to Joseph Conrad, the canon is too diverse to sum up in the space of an article this length, but we shall try.

In the early modern period, Europeans had a false conception of Southeast Asia as a land of permissiveness, exoticism and extravagance. However, he Portuguese adventurer, Fernao Mendes Pinto, found the people of Malacca, Patani, Sumatra, Aceh and Siam (now Thailand) not to be like this. Instead, he decided they were more tolerant, charitable and respectful than his fellow Westerners whom he castigated for their greed and violence. Even so, after resisting pirates in the South China Sea, he became one himself. These experiences are fictionalised in Peregrinacao, published in 1614 after his death.

John Dryden’s 1699 play, Amboyna, concerns the real-life slaughter of English traders by Dutch soldiers on the Indonesian island of Ambon. Writing at the beginning of the colonial era, Dryden portrayed the indigenes less charitably than Pinto, as one-dimensional, animal-like beings. The play was poorly received.

Heinrich Anselm von Ziegler’s 1689 Baroque adventure, Banise the Asiatic, is set in southern Myanmar and uses travelogues written by Pinto as source material. In a rousing, happy ending, the hero, Banise, successfully defends the Pegu Empire from conquest by the evil tyrant Chaumigrem. In real life quite the opposite happened.

Dryden’s and Ziegler’s oversights are partly explained by the historians Robin W. Winks and James R. Rush’s observation that ‘no piece of South or East Asian fiction was available in a Western language until the eighteenth century’. This somewhat precluded Westerners from fully understanding and writing validly about Oriental culture.

By the late 1800s, novels were addressing Western colonialism’s ‘civilising mission’ rhetoric, albeit in contradictory ways. William Carlton Dawe’s Hong Kong-based potboilers The Mandarin (1899) and The Yellow Man (1900) may have been attacked by contemporary critics for being ‘unpatriotic’, but there’s an ethnocentric streak to his characterisations. The non-white men are amoral and vicious, the women exotic but unattainable. Dawe warns against interracial relationships (‘the love of the white for the yellow’) while salaciously describing it. Jack Curzon, or, Mysterious Manila (1898), by the American author Clavering Gunter, is also full of derring-do but set in The Philippines. Published in the same year that the United States wrested control of the islands from the Spanish, the novel has an undertone of American supremacism to it, not to say an unflattering take on the indigenes. As a contemporary reviewer put it, ‘an important part is also played by a semi-civilised Tagal native, who possesses in common with all his kind, so the writer assures us, a sense of smell equal to that of a bloodhound.’

The colonial adventure genre reaches its apotheosis in Joseph Conrad’s series of novels set in the Malay Archipelago. The first, Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895), is about a Dutch trader in Borneo whose marriage to a half-caste girl is as disastrous as his harebrained schemes to make money. Lord Jim (1900) begins with a young British sailor abandoning a ship full of Muslim pilgrims from the Malay states. Jim redeems himself as a raja-style ruler of a fictional island in the South Seas, winning the hearts and minds of the inhabitants by defeating the tribal king Tunku Allang. This may seem like a thinly-disguised celebration of colonialism, but Conrad’s outlook is more complex than that. Both Almayer and Jim are flawed antiheroes with questionable pasts and who symbolise misgivings about the legitimacy of the imperial project.

The twentieth century was perhaps the most eventful in the history of the SEAN. A World War, a Cold War, decolonisation and revolution all appear in Western novels of the era, many of which cast a sympathetic eye over their subject matter. Burmese Days (1934) by George Orwell tells of a British police officer in Myanmar with an affection for the native culture and a distaste for the colonial administration he works for. Just as Orwell learned the language during his time in Myanmar, so Anthony Burgess became fluent in Malay while working as a teacher during the Emergency. He conducted painstaking research into its history and culture for his Malayan Trilogy (1956-9), intending to become ‘the true fictional expert on Malaya’. Graham Greene’s early Vietnam novel The Quiet American (1955) seeks to understand the Vietminh while critiquing American CIA intervention in the country. Greene was appalled when a slushy Hollywood adaptation of the novel tried to graft a pro-American, anti-Communist message onto it. In a comparable vein, Joan Didion’s cleverly experimental Democracy (1984) exposes the profoundly anti-democratic policies of the US in Indochina from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Of all the Western novels about the Pacific World War II, James Clavell’s King Rat (1962) is perhaps the darkest. Based on the author’s incarceration in Singapore’s Changi Prison, the novel shocks with its representation of the squalid conditions, the barbarism of the Japanese guards and the Darwinian rivalry between the POWs themselves.

In recent years, Southeast Asia has come to occupy a different space in the Western psyche, as a tourist destination affording pleasures and experiences unavailable at home. The biggest-selling novel to engage with this is of course The Beach (1996) by Alex Garland. Richard is a seasoned backpacker in search of an authentic, off the beaten track experience in Thailand. His discovery of an idyllic beach commune comes at the price of his own descent into madness and murder. Described as ‘Generation X’s first great novel’, The Beach is ultimately a meditation on how our perception of reality is mediated by so many fictions, from videogames to movies to commercial tourism itself. Also set in Thailand, Michel Houellebecq’s controversial Platform (2001) addresses the behaviour of Western sex tourists in Pattaya and other such resorts.

Southeast Asian society has changed radically over the years. Western fiction has tried to keep up with those changes, sometimes getting its depictions right, sometimes wrong. We can’t predict what the novels of the future will be like, but we can be sure that the region will continue to feed the Western imagination.

First published in Quill, 2011

Review of Memoirs of a Black Englishman

7 Mar

The year is 1963: thousands march in protest at a bus company’s refusal to employ non-white staff. A handsome and charismatic young black man addresses the crowd about Martin Luther King and the global struggle against racism. But this isn’t taking place in pre-civil rights Alabama or Mississippi. It is happening in Bristol, and the young black man is Paul Stephenson. It is partly thanks to his work that Britain is a more tolerant and diverse nation today.

Stephenson’s remarkable life story is inextricably tied to the eventful history of Black Britain. He was born in London in 1937 to a West African man and a mixed race Englishwoman. As an evacuee in World War II, Stephenson fell in love with the English countryside, its cattle auctions and rolling cornfields. His return to the capital was less pleasant. Despite Britain having just defeated a racist dictatorship abroad, white bigots would hurl bricks and bottles at the young Stephenson as he walked down the Romford Road. A little later, the very first Jamaican immigrants to Britain were to arrive on the Empire Windrush.

By the time Stephenson was working as a youth leader in St Pauls in the early sixties, his personal experience of racism had evolved into a political mission to defend the 3,000 West Indians now living in Bristol: ‘I didn’t want them going through the nightmare I went through’. One organization responsible for that nightmare was the Bristol Bus Company and its ‘colour bar’ preventing the recruitment of blacks and Asians. Stephenson started a campaign to boycott the buses, earning the support of figures as wide-ranging as the then Bishop of Bristol, the High Commissioners of Trinidad and Jamaica, cricket legend Sir Learie Constantine and Tony Benn (who provides the rousing foreword to this book). Stephenson took everything that was thrown at him – physical assaults, threats to his family, defamation in the media – with astonishing good humour. Indeed, everywhere in this book the prose sparkles with Stephenson’s warmth, generosity and optimism.

The campaign succeeded in August 1963, and Raghbir Singh became the first non-white bus conductor in the city. Bristol and Britain had taken a vital step forward. Since then, Stephenson has been no less busy, taking up such causes as Apartheid, police brutality, and the ubiquity of slave trader Edward Colston’s name among Bristol landmarks.

Skilfully researched, these memoirs explode the myths that racists still trot out today. We are reminded of how Jamaicans and other colonial subjects were originally invited to Britain, how these non-white peoples constituted a tiny fraction of the total number of arrivals, and how the state has tended to demonize black immigrants while favouring whites.

Another strength of this book is its seamless transitioning between past and present, using the lessons of history to illuminate contemporary problems. While Stephenson shows how injustice was overcome yesterday, he warns against liberal complacency today; ‘in a world of poverty and prejudice, [black civil rights] have to be constantly fought for and improved.’

First published in the Bristol Review of Books, Winter 2011.

Westworld – Speculative Fiction in the Southwest

7 Mar

Tom Sykes explores the fecund roots and bright future of speculative fiction in the Southwest.

The South West has produced some of the finest writers in the English literary canon – from John Gay to Thomas Hardy, Arthur Quiller Couch to William Golding. Other greats, amongst them Poet Laureates and Booker Prize winners, have been influenced by the culture and geography of the region.

There are plenty of books and articles on ‘the literary Southwest’  but most ignore speculative fiction – an umbrella term that includes science fiction, fantasy and other fantastic genres. A pity, as several key figures in SpecFic (as it’s known) have close connections to the South West. Some, such as Arthur C Clarke and JK Rowling, were born and raised here. Others, like Angela Carter and JRR Tolkien, came from elsewhere to draw inspiration from our urban communities, ancient woodlands, and picturesque hills. Today, Bristol is home to a number of gifted writers in the mode; it has a vibrant fan scene and one of the largest conventions in the UK.

Best known for co-writing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Arthur C Clarke had a rare double talent. He was not only one of the ‘Big Three’ of twentieth-century science fiction but an able physicist whose research into satellite technology earned him a prize from the Franklin Institute in 1963. Born in Minehead in 1917, Clarke fell in love with both science and science fiction while a pupil at Huish’s Grammar School, Taunton. The young Clarke experimented with cameras, radios and rockets and devoured tales of space travel and alien invasion. According to the critic Andy Sawyer, ‘by the time he left Huish’s in 1936 for London and the Civil Service, he had contacted both SF fandom and the British Interplanetary Society’.

As a writer who spent only a brief time in the fantasy ghetto before leaping to global stardom, JK Rowling needs no introduction. It’s worth noting, however, that she was born in the Gloucestershire village of Yate and grew up in nearby Tutshill and Winterbourne. Aldus Dumbledore, a central character in the Harry Potter stories, was based on her real-life headmaster at St Michael’s Primary School in Winterbourne. Furthermore, the grounds of Hogwarts School were modelled on the Forest of Dean, a part of the world that fascinated Rowling throughout her childhood. In a 2009 interview she said, ‘I’m very drawn to the Forest … it used to be a place of shelter and safety to us.’

The godfather of Rowling’s genre, JRR Tolkien, was also a fan of the Forest. In the 1910s he made regular trips into Puzzlewood, a mile south of Coleford. There is definitely something of Middle Earth about this magical place of gnarled vines, moss-crested boulders and rickety rope bridges. Puzzlewood’s SpecFic pedigree was given a further boost when episodes of Doctor Who and Merlin were recently filmed there.

Although widely regarded as literary fiction, the novels of Angela Carter have strongly fantastic underpinnings. In 1965, Carter won a place at Bristol University and moved to Clifton, a once-plush Georgian suburb that had been half-destroyed by German bombs. In Shadow Dance, the first book in what Marc O’Day has termed her ‘Bristol Trilogy’, a rag-and-bones man scours ‘the deserted, condemned old houses which the city planned shortly to demolish’ while juvenile delinquents run amok due to the trauma of war.

It was something of a vogue for SpecFic writers of the 1960s to draw on the bleak, devastated landscapes of their youth as a metaphor for social upheaval and cultural crisis. The two best-known examples are JG Ballard, who spent his early teens in a Japanese internment camp and Michael Moorcock, who, as a toddler, played in the ruins of Blitz-torn London. As for Carter, the scholar Sarah Gamble explains, ‘it was her move to Bristol which motivated an enduring interest in the changing faces of ‘Englishness’, for as a symbol of decayed imperialism, Bristol could hardly be bettered’. After travelling in the Far East, Carter returned to the Southwest in 1972. She settled in Bath, a city she said was ‘writhing in the last gasp of flower power’. She was escaping from ‘a series of serio-comic mishaps involving a psychopath, the police and my father’s sudden desire to know where I was’. The psychopath in question was an ex-boyfriend who’d thrown a typewriter at her…

Terry Pratchett settled in the region in the early ’70s, long before he became Britain’s second most-read author. Oddly enough, the South West has come to imitate his fiction rather than the other way round.

In 2002, the Somerset town of Wincanton, not far from Pratchett’s home in Rowbotham, decided to twin itself with Ankh-Morpok, one of the locations of his hugely popular Discworld series. Things got even stranger when a new property development in the town named some of its streets after those created by Pratchett in the novels The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic. As Pratchett said at the time, ‘it makes my head spin to think of the books becoming a little closer to reality’. But also: ‘Personally, I’d pay good money to live somewhere called Treacle Mine Road!’

Lewis Carroll (the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) has influenced many a SpecFic writer, Terry Pratchett included. According to David Carroll’s A Literary Tour of Gloucestershire and Bristol, Dodgson often visited his friend Henry Liddell at Leckhampton Hill, south of Cheltenham. Dodgson loved to tell Liddell’s children, amongst them an eleven-year-old called Alice, tall tales that two years later would form the basis of Alice in Wonderland. It was while strolling around the hill in Easter 1863 that the character of the Red Queen (the antagonist of Through the Looking-Glass) suddenly came to him.

Various locations in the Southwest, from Cadbury Castle in Somerset to Camelford in Cornwall, claim to be the site of Camelot, and a sub-genre of SpecFic devoted to Arthurian legend has evolved over the years, highlights being T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon and Bernard Cornwell’s The Warlord Chronicles.

It’s not possible to write about speculative fiction in the South West without mention of Keith Roberts, author of the classic alternate history Pavane, who spent his latter years in Salisbury; Dianna Wynne Jones, long-time Bristol resident and winner of the Edward Wagner Award for a lifetime contribution to fantasy; Cornwall-born Nick Harkaway whose apocalyptic adventure The Gone-Away World earned him a £300,000 advance; Britain’s number one genre critic and vampire novelist Kim Newman, who spent his formative years in Aller, Somerset; Sidewise Award winner and co-founder of Venue magazine Eugene Byrne; Wiltshire-based fantast Sarah Singleton; Devon denizen HM Gordon, author of This One’s a Lemon and Joe Abercrombie, Bath’s master of the sword and sorcery bloodbath.

What of contemporary Bristol? In 2009, the Future Bristol anthology brought together the cream of local talent: Arthur C Clarke Award nominee Liz Williams, Doctor Who novelist Nick Walters and Gareth L Powell, author of the The Recollection. Editor Colin Harvey told me that he kept the concept behind the book simple. ‘All I actually said to the contributors was that I’d be interested to see stories that reflect Bristol. So one of the stories was openly about slavery and another impinged on it. Somebody else picked up on trams as the thing they wanted to write about.’ The SS Great Britain, the Clifton Suspension Bridge and even Brunel himself make cameos in the book.

Harvey, whose latest novel is Damage Time, is a co-founder of BristolCon, one of the top four SpecFic conventions in the UK. He is keen to dispel the prejudices that outsiders may have about such events.

‘I don’t think anyone at BristolCon had fancy dress on last year. I think one person turned up as a Goth, but they were a Goth anyway!’

Joanne Hall, another contributor to Future Bristol, has always been inspired by the regional capital. ‘I love the fact that you can turn a random corner off a twentieth -century street and find a square or a lane that seems really old and weird and lost. Those breathtaking moments sometimes end up in stories.’ She is positive about the local scene. ‘Bristol has two SF groups, and there are a lot of people, not just writing but doing art, blogging, podcasting, publishing ‘zines and generally rolling their sleeves up and getting involved.’

Published by local indie press Heartsown, the Haadri cycle of science fiction novels are directly influenced by the geography of Bristol. According to their author Joules Taylor, ‘the city of Brigstow is based on Bristol. More specifically, the landscape of Clifton Downs and the Avon Gorge feature largely in several of the upcoming books.’ The (allegedly) haunted Black Castle pub on Bath Road ‘sparked a major plot arc within the series’ and Taylor even arranged a Haadri-themed event  there.

For over a century the South West has occupied a special place in SpecFic, and today’s stars are set to burn even brighter in the future.

First published in the Bristol Review of Books, summer 2011.

Mat Sellahs with Typewriters: Malaysia in Western Fiction

3 Mar

Gu Hongming, Arena Wati, Usman Awung, Abdullah Hussain, Tash Aw, Preeta Samarasan, Rani Manicka, Shamini Flint. The roll call says it all: over the last few decades, Malaysian fiction has well and truly arrived on the world stage. Many critics have identified its unique tropes, sentiments and imagery. But fewer critics have examined those Western novelists who have taken Malaysia – and especially its political, military and colonial history – as subject matter.

The earliest books had a fixation with piracy. G.A. Henty’s In the Hands of the Malays (1905) tells of a dashing Dutch lieutenant who escapes from the clutches of a bloodthirsty buccaneer known only as ‘The Sea Tiger’. Although he sold 25 million books in his lifetime, Henty has since been castigated for his pro-imperialist stance and racist depictions of pretty much anyone not English. By contrast, in The Tigers of Mompracem (1900) by the Italian writer Emilio Salgari, the heroes are Malay pirates resisting the oppression of European empire builders. In a sequel, the protagonist Sandokan squares up to such real-life figures as James Brooke, the first White Raja of Sarawak.

It was around this time that Joseph Conrad was drawing inspiration from the region. Almayer’s Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (1895) concerns a Dutch merchant who sets up a disastrous trading venture in Borneo. In Lord Jim (1900), a young British seaman becomes a white raja, defending the orang asli from an evil chieftain. Although Conrad’s work is way more cerebral than Henty’s penny dreadful pot-boilers, the two men shared a fervent faith in the imperial project that is hard to swallow today. They were, after all, products of their time and place of origin.

Some years later, British expats such as Jessie A. Davidson, were penning such novels as Dawn: A Romance of Malaya (1926) about plantation life and colonial skulduggery. A granddaughter of Francis Light, founder of Penang, Davidson died an untimely death in 1928. The Straits Times reported that her passing ‘leaves a gap in the ranks of those few novelists who have chosen Malaya for their theme.’ Similarly, The Soul of Malaya (1930) by Henri Fauconnier focuses on the exploits of two morally-dubious Frenchmen trying to make their fortune with a Klang Valley rubber plantation. The novel won the Goncourt Award, France’s equivalent of the Booker Prize.

After 1940, World War II comes to dominate Western novels set in Malaysia. The wife of an agriculture official, Agnes Newton Keith was living in Sandakan when the Japanese invaded. Her novel Three Came Home (1947) was based on her traumatic experiences in an internment camp. On a similar tip, Nevil Shute’s A Town Like Alice is about a British secretary who survives the Japanese occupation of KL thanks largely to her integration with local tribeswomen. After the war, she donates her inheritance to a well-building project for her hostesses: ‘a gift by women, for women’.

Before stirring controversy with A Clockwork Orange (1962), Anthony Burgess taught at the prestigious Malay College during the Emergency. His Malayan Trilogy (1956-9) begins with Time for a Tiger (1956), the tale of a love triangle of colonials who get embroiled with Chinese terrorists. Learning fluent Malay and embeding himself in the culture, Burgess aimed to become the Western authority on British Malaya, as Rudyard Kipling had been on India and George Orwell had been on Burma.

In recent years, Western authors have tended to put a new spin on the old themes. The American author C. S. Godshalk began writing Kalimantaan: A Novel (1998) while living and working on the peninsula. Although ostensibly concerned with the life and times of James Brookes, Kalimantaan transcends the historical novel genre with its experimental fusion of factual research, mythology and the fantastical imaginings of its characters.

More recently, The Eloquence of Desire (2010) by Amanda Sington-Williams revisited the Emergency, using it as a backdrop to the emotional self-destruction of a British colonial family.

No matter how much Malaysian society changes, it seems that Western novelists like to return to the same events and personalities: pirates, James Brookes, the Emergency, the plantations, World War II, etc. Does there have to be this time lag? How long will it be before mat sellahs start setting their novels in, say, the sectarian tumult of 1969 or the prosperity years of the New Development Plan? Only time will tell.

First published in The Expat December 2011.