by SRB

Volume 1 – Issue 4 – Reviews

October 28, 2009 | by SRB

Volume 1 Issue 4


The Ruling Caste
David Gilmour
JOHN MURRAY, £25
pp.400 ISBN 0719555345

REVIEWER: LAWRENCE JAMES

THE RULING CASTE is a timely book. Events in the Middle East have revived interest in the nature of imperialism and its moral justification. The world of British India and the mindset of its rulers are no longer remote, academic concerns. We are asking an old question: whether administration by enlightened and incorruptible foreigners is preferable to home-grown anarchy and fiscal chaos? As Anglo-American armies endeavour to pacify Afghanistan and Iraq, we wonder whether the effort and bloodshed can be vindicated. President Bush and Mr Blair sincerely believe they can and defend their policies in the language of Victorian imperialists; goodwill eventually prevails, in this case when both countries achieve national salvation through democracy. The medicine may be astringent and the therapy traumatic, but the patient will emerge stronger, richer, and happier.

Present preoccupations have encouraged a re-examination of the British Empire. Was it a good or bad thing? Jack Straw thought the latter, and blamed the British Empire for two of the world’s most intractable problems: Palestine and Kashmir. Maybe, but what is revealing is that he believed that the Empire possessed the will and wherewithal to conciliate all mutually hostile and religious groups. In fact it did in India until 1946, by which time its prestige and resources were diminished. Likewise, other critics of the British Empire concede that it was a potential for human betterment, but then blame it for not doing enough.

Behind these contentions was the assumption that an empire which straddled the world was omnipotent. Victorian Britain was not modern America. The façade of British imperial power may have appeared formidable, especially when seen from below, but it hid dispensations of power and structures which were often overstretched and fragile. Practical restraints, not least of which was public opinion, compelled it to govern humanely and with its subjects’ consent. In 1848 Lord Hardinge, governor-general of Ben-gal, perceptively observed that if every Indian picked up a handful of dust and threw it in the face of a European, then British hegemony would immediately dissolve.

Hardinge’s comment was made shortly before the conquest of the Punjab which consolidated British power in India. In an epitaph for his fallen comrades, a British sergeant insisted that their deaths had been worthwhile: They breath’d their last – in Britain’s cause! For Britain’s Empire! Britain’s laws!!!

The high-minded young men whom Gilmour describes moving into the Punjab were the architects of a new, just and stable order. Life would improve for the Punjabis, as it would for all Indians.

Lord Gough, the conqueror of the Punjab, was more triumphalist, telling his army that it had succeeded where Alexander the Great had failed. This boast would have struck chords with officials throughout India, for, as Gilmour shows, their minds had been shaped by a prolonged Classical education. In the words of Sir Alfred Lyall, who ended his career as Lieutenant-Governor of the North-Western Provinces, the British Empire like the Roman was a signal “illustration of the force with which a powerful and highly organised civilisation can mould the character and shape the destinies of many millions of people.”

Rome provided the vision, Greece the philosophy. Plato and Aristotle promoted the notion of rule by an enlightened and selfless elite. It mattered little that the thousand or so officials of the ICC were outsiders, since, as defenders of imperial government insisted, there was no sense of Indian national identity, only a conglomeration of potentially antipathetic religious, regional and racial groups. This changed slowly, largely in response to British educational reforms. Its early beneficiaries, largely professional men and women, formed the Indian Congress in 1885.

British rule not only protected Indians from themselves but from the Russians. With few exceptions, administrators and strategists convinced themselves that at some time the Russians would invade India. This collective nervousness triggered two invasions of Afghanistan and recurrent spasms of jitters in which, revealingly, extreme pessimists argued that the Indians might rise up to welcome the Cossacks as liberators. This was debateable; what was not were the logistical problems of an invasion and the fact that the Czar’s armies had more than enough on their hands subduing the Muslim states of Central Asia. Nevertheless, periodic alarms persuaded ministers in London and Calcutta to increase the military budget, which was probably the underlying aim of the so-called ‘Great Game.’

Its handful of players were a tiny section of the ICS. So too were the intrepid young men who by guile, patience and sheer strength of character endeavoured to keep the peace among the Muslim tribesmen on the North-Western Frontier. This was glamorous work, which caught the imagination of Kipling. He also admired the vocation of the bulk of the ICS men who undertook the myriad routine and often thankless tasks of the empire. They collected taxes, administered justice, supervised public works, compiled reports and kept proper files. Gilmour provides a vivid insight into their sometimes frustrating lives in an unkind climate.

Only the best minds were fitted for such work. Gilmour traces the evolution of selection procedures contrived to find men of outstanding intelligence, dedication and stamina. In general, they followed that principal dear to an increasingly influential middle class: open examinations. These were fair and, it was thought, revealed talent, although even the most intellectually eligible were scratched if they failed a medical test. Successful candidates tended to come from upper-middle class families, They had imbibed a sense of public duty in the post-Arnoldian public schools, knew how to play by the rules and live according to the code of a gentleman. It was a commonplace that Indians instinctively recognised a ‘sahib’ and respected him.

By 1900 the ideal choice was a Balliol graduate, inspired by the fervour of its master Benjamin Jowett who urged his young men to “do good and permanent good.” The ‘competition wallah’ then proceeded to study Indian languages. Jowett was keen for Indians (preferably Balliol men) to take the ICS examinations. Some old India hands objected. However bright he may be, a Balliol Bengali could never overawe warrior tribesmen in the same way as a Balliol rowing blue. Prejudices evaporated slowly and, by 1910, one in six successful ICS candidates was an Indian with a British degree.

There were courses for horses. The hard riding, former captain of the first eleven was a perfect mentor for young native princes, helping to transform them from often fey autocrats into benevolent English hunting squires. The political agent in Bholpawar encouraged the teenage Maharaja to go pig-sticking so that he could meet “manly British gentlemen” rather than fawning Indians. The process went awry in Central India where in 1888 an agent regretted that “English training; had produced two young princes who were ‘sodomites,’ a pair of ‘idiots’, one a drunkard and ‘a gentleman…prevented by chronic gonorrhoea from paying his respects on the Queen’s birthday’.”

The ICS men existed in a world of complementary hierarchies, one administrative, the other social. Each was rigid and bound by arcane rules. Solecisms could lead to exclusion from the society of the cantonment, as newcomers who neglected to deliver their visiting cards learned to their cost.

Exiles comforted themselves with what was reassuringly familiar. Gilmour draws a diverting picture of Anglo-Indian social life. There were cricket matches, tennis parties, shooting, hunting and, of course, polo. Jackals were substituted for foxes in some districts,

although some aficionados complained that they lacked the pace of a fox. Strange customs provided many shocks. One memsahib, distressed by her naked gardeners, gave them fig leaves in the form of male swimming drawers, which were immediately converted into turbans.

Gilmour concludes with a favourable verdict for the ICS. Its members aloofness was more than balanced by their impartiality, diligence and uprightness. They laid the foundations of modern India and set the standards for their successors. When the former Congress politician Sarwal Patel assumed office in 1947, a senior Indian ICS official offered him his resignation on the grounds that he had once ordered Patel’s arrest. “Splendid,” replied Patel, “You are just the man for me.” The new India needed men of his quality. Patel’s foresight has a resonance today when administrations in Whitehall and Edinburgh are being infiltrated by politically appointed advisors whose allegiance is partisan and their objective the perpetuation of their party’s power.

Parallel Worlds: Poems in Shetlandic and English
Christine De Luca
LUATH PRESS, £8.99
pp.128, ISBN 1905222130

REVIEWER: DOROTHY MCMILLAN

REVIEWING Christine De Luca’s second collection of poems, Robert Alan Jamieson, himself a Shet-lander and celebrator in his writing of his native culture, complains about the use of the term dialect to describe Shetlandic. The word, he feels, has been used to downgrade and marginalize linguistic differences that might better have been rejoiced in. Christine De Luca in the Introduction to her new collection, Parallel Universes, chooses, however, to use dialect and language interchangeably for the Shetlandic she employs for more than half of the poems. But the relaxed generosity of this usage goes along with a passionate belief in the value of the linguistic diversity that Shetlandic offers the poet. I think she is probably right to refuse the wrangling that has become customary over the language/dialect issue. The important thing is the vigour of the words not the debate over their status.

But the non-Shetlandic speaker may find written Shetlandic either exotic (good) or rebarbative (not so good). For such readers there is an accompanying CD: De Luca has an exceptionally pleasing voice which in itself seems to tap into the deepest veins of her native experience.

Reviewers tend to praise De Luca’s Shetlandic poems over her poems in English. But her Shetlandic and English poems share an attentive specificity of perception, a sacramental feel for the natural world in both its vast extents and its minute details, and in both languages she rejoices in the connection of the individual through family, friends and local community to the wider world. And both tongues are felicitously used: in one De Luca exploits the strangeness of ‘yarbent’ which means ‘a spell of cold, dry weather’ and ‘steekit stumbas’ (thick mist), but, in the other, the growth of a poem is figured in ‘click by click/ mouse on mouse-mat’ – this too is a happy choice and also a modern one.

De Luca’s modernity is rooted, however, in an understood past and in a number of poems this is signalled by a mixture of Shetlandic and English. She says that a poem’s words ‘mak space fur wis, yet rowe aroond wis ticht’: this simultaneous liberation and protection is effected by placing Latinate or neologistic English in the midst of Shetlandic – ‘symmetry’, ‘topography’, ‘keyboard’, ‘pixcel’– are assimilated and transformed by ‘a scud o snaa’ or ‘peerie-wyse’. The result is an unofficial linguistic crop, a bastard one even. The Shetland idiom for bastard is ‘een come up atween da raas’– De Luca’s poems enact the beauty and the hardiness of this unofficial crop.

The subjects of the poems, too, link past and present, from the early hardships and sad partings of hardy people on land and sea to the melancholy of a modern mother parting with her student child; and they travel from the local to the universal, from ‘nyepkins’ (hankies) of land in Shetland’s islands to Italy, Turkey, Canada and, in imagination, to the farthest and most oppressed places of the earth. Here the Shetlandic heritage does bring something more than Scots and English – that sense expressed through the old notion of the sea-road of life as a thrilling and perilous journey ‘oot dere,/I da hert-holl o aathin’.

The key words of the whole collection, however, are ‘sameness’ and ‘difference’ and De Luca insists that the love and solidarity that can be found in local community is what must sustain the wider love that will save the world, because we can all be defined through the basics of our lives and callings – our food (baccalá and tusk), our work (fishing or writing or painting), our clothes and our loves, our things (word-processors and kishies/straw baskets) – for all worlds ‘is jöst da sam, but different’. This confidence is moving and Shet-land does seem to have been able to cultivate openness to the new and apparently alien. The whole community vigorously defended two families settled there who were threatened with Home Office deportation in 2004 – ‘we belang dagidder’.

Yet I find De Luca’s belief in the sameness that underpins difference a little optimistic. She is not sentimental but it may be easier to see what Shetlanders and Squamish Indians had in common in 1900, or to identify the Wart o Bressa with Mount Fujii than to transfer the friendship found in a dolmus on ‘da rad ta Gemiler beach’ in Turkey to the seat of the European Parliament.

Decagon: Selected Poems 1995-2005
Walter Perrie
FRAS PUBLICATIONS: £6.50

REVIEWER: ALASDAIR MACRAE

IN A combative introduction to this collection, John Herdman opines that postmodernist academic critics, “caught in the grip of relativistic presuppositions will be [un]willing to raise their heads above the parapet to champion the under-valued.” He has a point, if, by “under-valued”, he means in terms of quality of writing. For all the grandiose claims about revising and enlarging the canon, the books which have been promoted during the last twenty years are works that reflect or represent social groups previously considered as excluded from the canon of high literature. And, as T.S.Eliot noted many years ago, representative literature is usually second-rate literature. John Herdman is right in thinking that Walter Perrie’s poetry is unlikely to be pushed by any practitioners of recent academic theoretical fashions: it does not speak for any obvious social group, it wrestles with the art of poetry, it is often difficult, and makes few concessions to the ordinary ignorances of the common reader.

Now in his mid-fifties, Perrie initially achieved some fame with A Lamentation for the Children in 1977, which won an Eric Gregory Award and a Scottish Arts Council Award. Like many of his early efforts, this was a longish poem in a self-consciously Modernist style after Eliot and Pound, showing a mixture of materials from the every day to the mythic, the present to the past, the demotic to high art. In part, it is a commemoration of the mining communities of his native Lanarkshire and his family there, in part, it is a disquisition on the state of Scottish culture, even incorporating a satirical or humorous element: “Stands Scotland still,/ foreskin in zip,/ afraid to move/in case we rip/ our dignities/ or nip some swelling/ in the blackened bud?” Since then, alongside essays and travel writings, and editing the cultural journal Margin, he has published a number of thin collections and pamphlets; in 1997, a more substantial volume, From Milady’s Wood, appeared from the Scottish Cultural Press, and the new collection continues this later phase.

The title Decagon not only refers to a ten-year period but suggests an angularity and edginess and hints at a prismatic symmetry. The poems included here are grouped in four sections and have been selected from longer sequences on which Perrie has been working during the past decade. Indeed, the sequence has emerged as his favoured mode of composition, in which he can explore an area of experience from different perspectives, in a variety of verse forms, but where the individual poems have overlapping thematic concerns, motifs, locations or strands of imagery. For example, in the section ‘Building St Serf’s’, he probes aspects of the village of Dunning in Perthshire where he lives, most especially in the poems describing the ancient church established by Saint Serf, but also tangentially in poems relating incidents or features of the parish to wider comparisons or considerations. The poem ‘Roebuck’, considerably revised since its first publication in a pamphlet in 2001, seems, on an initial reading, somewhat oblique to Dunning but the main location is again Milady’s Wood near the village. It works through the juxtaposition of descriptions of the skilful, delicate gralloching of a young deer and the shockingly violent death of Actaeon, turned into a stag by the goddess Diana and torn to pieces by his own hounds.

These poems are very ambitious, struggling to articulate thoughts and feelings, not just personal ones, but how Perrie, his family, his communities, his culture, fit (or do not fit) in a larger context of historical hinterland, anthropological and literary parallels, or, as he puts it in an elegy for his father: “Your part was played in a great tale/ no life is merely personal” and “No elegy is merely for the Dead.” Sometimes, the burden of allusions is too heavy, dulling the quick of actuality, of here and now. There is a whiff on occasions of Old Testament propheteering, particularly in the sequence of Wolf poems, although one of the strongest pieces in the whole collection is the opening poem called ‘Wolf’ with its haunting echoes of the last wolf to be hunted down, the werewolf of the psyche, a Nietzschean nemesis figure, the banished god.

The collection has little to do with poetry as public entertainment but there are some sharply drawn moments of sweetness and delight in the more general mood of disenchantment, and, at its best, it does engage with what makes poetry matter, what Eliot described as “the intolerable wrestle/ With words and meanings.”

Na Klondykers
Iain F. Macleoid
URSGEUL, £8.99 286
pp ISBN: 190090196

Gymnippers Diciadain
Martainn Mac an t-Saoir
URSGEUL, £8.99 350
pp ISBN: 19009011188

REVIEWER: AONGHAS MACNEACAIL

THE use of macaronics is a frequent indicator of language in transition: many examples of half-Gaelic half-English song can be found among the songs and poems of Highland migrants to the cities in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The effect was usually, intentionally, comical; a kind of defence mechanism, perhaps. But now we have two novels confidently adopting the macaronic form in their titles.

The intention of neither author is comical, or defensive, but rather a matter-of-fact acceptance that we live in a bilingual world. Each book is, if anything, a vigorous assertion that a marginalised language such as Gaelic can hold its own creatively in such a difficult environment. The world they inhabit is contemporary, Gymnippers Diciadain being set in 2004, while Na Klondykers weaves its plot around events, local and global, that place it clearly in 1989 (when its author was around six years old).

Of the two novels, Iain F Macleoid’s is the more conventional in structure, becoming what it sets out to be, a fine example of storytelling. What makes it particularly effective is the way it references, and occasionally draws directly on, a range of genres. A love story runs through it, for example, but this is no soft-centred romance. A shadowy figure, London, coupled with the presence of Soviet Russian klondykers in a West Highland loch, invests the story with elements of the thriller, political or procedural, though his targets are more local and mundane.

MacLeoid draws on actual events from the period, which saw the biggest drug bust ever, in the North West Highlands, the fall of the Berlin Wall and closure to the Cold War declared. The book is also set in the aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster: there’s a sense that the trauma Domhnall suffered in that accident informs the entire narrative. It undermines his marriage, and brings his brother Iain back home from university, with fateful consequences.

Stereotypes are effectively undermined – Skipper Vitali, and Helena who provides Iain’s love interest, for example, are no Soviet cyphers.

Where we might have had baddies from stock, those involved in criminality are given humanising back stories. There are rivalries – the football match between ship and shore, and enmities – John D’s quest for revenge on Sergei for raping his sister is complicated by the fact that she was selling her sexual favours. No parallel with Lars Von Trier’s ludicrous quasi-mysticism in Breaking the Waves should be cited here: Johan’s experience is real, her eventual redemption self-generated.

MacLeoid’s landscape is three-dimensional, you can almost map it. But his treatment of the sea and all its weathers is astonishing. It’s as if the cold air and salt spray rise off the page. There is no-one in this book who is not touched by the sea, for good or ill.

Martainn Mac an t-Saoir’s equally readable novel presents character and incident by very different means. There’s little in the way of fictional “action” here, but plenty of incident, presented with a subtlety that draws the reader entirely in.

A man and woman meet, regularly, in an Edinburgh sports centre cafeteria, while their respective infants attend “gymnippers”. DJ is a taxi-driver, Caroline a university-educated full-time parenting housewife. He lives on a council estate, she in a nearby leafy suburban villa. Hearing her speak Gaelic to her child, he engages her in conversation, thus beginning a process of self and mutual discovery which, while grounded in their everyday realities, has an epic dimension.

Structurally, the novel is a report on those encounters, across a period of eight months, spliced with “interludes” touching on the lives of parents, partners and siblings. The latter threads seem initially to have to have an independent existence, but they also are gradually woven into the subtle tapestry of DJ and Caroline’s story.

What we know about the characters, their attitudes and aspirations, unfolds more through what they say than what they do. Each sliver of information, each observation, whether about their lives, the Hut-ton Report, a Gaelic heavy metal band, or the snatches of history they introduce their kids to on a day trip to Linlithgow Palace, drops almost imperceptibly into the reader’s consciousness. The urge to know what’s next to be revealed gives each chapter the force of a cliff-hanger.

What does happen is seldom predictable. We see the relationship between DJ and Caroline develop into a flirtatious intimacy, that will, in due course, change their lives, though not the way we might expect. Both bring an undertow of personal dissatisfaction to their encounters: both are, to some degree, alienated, he from his family, she from her present life. The novel traces their journeys through those disjunctions with a powerful eloquence and scrupulous honesty.

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