The Return to Barbarism

in J.G. Farrell's Empire Trilogy


Jean Andrews
University of London


Este artigo examina as formas como Farrell, na sua Trilogia do Império: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur e The Singapore Grip, fornece imagens de seres humanos limitados que, no seu trabalho, propagam o Império, reduzidos a condições de barbarismo e ilumimnismo ocasional, temperado com a leviandade que, consistentemente, enfraquece a validade do empreendimento.

This article examines the ways in which Farrell in his Empire Trilogy: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip, serves up images of the rather limited human beings, who, in his work, propagate the Empire, reduced to conditions of barbarism and occasional enlightenment with a levity which consistently undermines the validity of their enterprise in the first place.

The Anglo-Irish novelist, J.G. Farrell, who died mysteriously and far too young in a fishing accident in Cork, in the South of Ireland in 1979, published, in the 1970s, a major trilogy of novels tracing the end of the British Empire. Brought up largely in England of Irish Protestant Ascendancy stock, a promising sportsman whose prowess was nipped in the bud by polio, Farrell was an outsider well positioned to dissect the process of disintegration of the British Empire on which, famously, the sun never set. In three novels: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973) and The Singapore Grip(1978) he alighted on what were, to him, the three most significant flashpoints in the history of the Empire: the Irish War of Independence [alternatively known as the Anglo-Irish War] of 1919-21, the Indian Mutiny [Indian War of Independence] of 1857-8 and the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in February 1942. Farrell's writing in each of these three works is detached, sardonic, subtly comic, laced with thoroughly researched information on the debates and news of the time, whether it be newspaper articles woven into the texture of Troubles, the Collector's visit to the Great Exhibition and his convictions about science and progress in The Siege of Krishnapur or detailed descriptions of the manoeuvres and mistakes of the British and Australian commanders in charge of Singapore in 1942 in The Singapore Grip.

Each of these novels is predicated on an initial opposition of the civilising force of the British Empire and the implied barbarism of the natives, which is then overturned. In Troubles the owner of the Majestic Hotel, that crumbling, sprawling former jewel in the crown of Ascendancy holidaymakers in the East Coast village of Kilnalough, spends his time patrolling the grounds against the threat of invisible, anonymous "Sinn Fein" terrorists yet the hotel, his family and its decaying residents later suffer just as much if not more at the hands of the motley British Army Auxiliaries, the infamous "Black and Tans", sent by the British government to restore order.[1] In The Siege of Krishnapur, the British residents in their determinedly European dwellings, surrounded by the best European taste, science, manners and administration can provide in an extreme climate, gradually degenerate into lice and disease-ridden, filthy, starved, desperate shreds of humanity, to the great amusement of the locals formerly despised by them as unhygienic and uncouth. As they face down day after day of relentless plague and carnage all the social taboos, divisions and niceties they have attempted to hold up as norms of civilisation to an alien culture gradually disintegrate to the extent that at the point of rescue, to the consternation of their rescuers, it is they who have become the savages:

Lieutenant Stapleton [...]could not help wondering why a rousing cheer had not gone up as soon as the garrison had spotted his red uniform. He understood it a little better when he saw what a state the survivors were in. They stared at him as you might stare at orange rats trying to get into bed with you. Lieutenant Stapleton realised with a shock of fear that he was lucky not to have been shot down by one of these tattered lunatics. [...] he also sent one of his aides to fetch blankets as well, for some of the ladies did not seem to be very decently attired and, although they did not look very enticing he still did not want then to give his men ideas. He had never seen Englishmen get themselves into such a state before; they looked more like untouchables.[2]

In The Singapore Grip, the ineptitude of the British and Australian military commanders, locked in a cloud-cuckoo land faith in the natural superiority of the British and Empire Armies, is mercilessly contrasted with the smooth efficiency of the Japanese advance down Southeast Asia. Here, Farrell takes deliberate pains to underplay, in the closing pages of the novel, the notorious severity of the conditions under which European prisoners in Changi Jail and Sime Road civilian camp were kept. He cannot, in this novel, afford to have his critique of the Western colonial presence in Southeast Asia to be undermined by the usual knee-jerk European response of revulsion at war crimes committed against Western armed forces personnel and civilians during the Second World by the Japanese military. He also means to lay emphasis on the initial superiority of the Japanese tactics and military organisation of the Japanese armed forces which brought about the fall of European dominion in Southeast Asia. Thus, though he skirts the issue of Japanese cruelty to Westerners, he does, briefly, highlight the atrocities visited on the Chinese population, largely unrecognised in the West:

Many of the Chinese who were killed were towed out to sea in lighters and made to jump overboard, still bound together in twos and threes. Others were machine-gunned wholesale on the beaches.[3]

By alluding to the fact that it was the Chinese and other Asians in Singapore and not their former imperial masters who suffered most under Japanese occupation and by crediting the Japanese military with better organisation, tactics and efficiency than anything the British Empire could offer at the time he deals a double blow to any legitimacy a Western imperial presence may have had in Singapore or anywhere else in Asia for that matter.
Quite apart from the careful research and sophisticated repertoire of plot and structural narrative devices he deploys throughout these novels, Farrell centres each condemnation of the enterprise of empire around a series of startling metaphors, each a mini-narrative in itself. In Troubles, the most opaque of the trilogy and the closest to his own family history, the crucial visual metaphors all involve Major Brendan Archer, a First World War survivor who, quite extraordinarily, appears to have spent almost the entire war in the trenches until he was hospitalised, probably for shell-shock, towards the end.[4] As the novel opens, he arrives in Kilnalough to claim a bride, Angela, whom he met and kissed fleetingly on leave in Brighton in 1916 and who thereafter considered herself engaged to him and corresponded dutifully. This combination of female skittishness and male confusion taking refuge in wry detachment is typical of the Farrellian love story. Leaving hospital in 1919 he comes to the hotel her father, Edward Spencer, bought on his return from service upholding the Empire in India and rapidly but inadvertently let fall to rack and ruin. Angela dies of a mysterious illness leaving Brendan, who promptly and before her demise becomes enamoured of a mysterious and temperamental Irish girl from the village, to while away his time aimlessly in the hotel while Edward steadily increases his vigilance against the Sinn Fein menace. Without a warm, damp-free room or a comfortable bed to sleep in Brendan, or the Major as he is habitually denominated by Farrell, as if to strip him of his individuality, eventually finds sanctuary while the world crumbles around him in the linen room. Here he can escape the old dears who have been living in the hotel since they were left on the shelf or widowed, Edward's increasing paranoia, the lawless and libidinous Spencer twin daughters who run wild about the place, and all manner of other minor complications and tacit obligations since he is perceived to be as much of a long-term resident as anyone else. The state in which the Major finds himself at the height of the austere winter in the freezing Majestic is nothing short of high, and typically dry, comedy:

It was a linen room, long and narrow and rather dark. Sheets and pillows lay in piles everywhere. Blankets, hundreds of them, were stacked to the ceiling against each wall; no doubt they had been there since the old days when every room in the place was in use. It was dry here, too, and rather warm, which was a great advantage now that the weather had turned chilly. At certain times of the day it became positively tropical because the master chimney from the kitchens passed along one wall. But the Major did not mind; he would simply take off all his clothes and lie naked on a pile of blankets, reading a magazine or sipping a whisky and soda requisitioned from the Imperial Bar. It was perfect. [...] In no time at all he had fashioned himself a huge, warm and slightly dusty nest of blankets and pillows.[5]

Still prone to failing nerves in the aftermath of his wartime experiences, apathetic, indecisive, unable to summon up the courage to tell the wayward, Republican-minded Sarah Devlin of his feelings for her, ridiculously naked and gently perspiring in solitude in the dusty linen room, the Major remains nonetheless the moral arbiter of the war between unionists, such as that hapless scion of Ascendancy, Edward Spencer, and republicans (Sinn Féin and the IRA), such as those who emerge from and recede invisibly back into the local Kilnalough community, ultimately becoming trapped in the crossfire himself. When Edward shoots a young republican encroacher dead and claims he had every right to commit this act of arbitrary slaughter in defence of his property and particularly the much venerated statue of Queen Victoria, the Major's initial and unvoiced response is condemnatory:

"It was perfectly fair!" Edward said for the third time and the Major thought: "No, it wasn't that at all. It was an act of revenge. Revenge for his piglets. Revenge for Angela, Revenge for a meaningless life. Revenge for the accelerating collapse of unionism. Revenge for the destruction of the sort of life he had been brought up to. Revenge for the loss of Ireland." He didn't see Sinn Feiners as human beings at all. And, after all, would the Sinn Feiners be any more likely to see Edward as a human being and take pity on him?[6]

Edward shot the young man as he laid explosives around the statue. Unfortunately for the young martyr, the late Empress of India was only slightly damaged, making both his act of rebellion and his death somewhat futile, but, even more telling is the fact that, in the Major's view, Edward's pot shot from the roof was also useless, since Ireland was lost anyway and nothing all the remaining Edward Spencers could do would alter that. Secondly, of course, Edward has descended to a level of arbitrary lawlessness motivated only by his own petty concerns, by implication a state to which the longsuffering Major was never brought by all his years in the trenches and which the he is therefore in a position implicitly to condemn as a breach of the codes of civilised behaviour for which the War was fought.

As the self-appointed arbiter of understanding between the village and the Majestic, the Major then takes it upon himself to go into the village and attempt to apologise to the boy's family for what happened while at the same time spinning it as an act of "private hatred and despair", not the martyrdom of an IRA volunteer at the hands of a rabid representative of Ascendancy unionism. In his extreme state of exhaustion, however, he rashly remarks to the understandably uncooperative local Catholic priest, irritated by the latter's refusal to accept his conciliatory interpretation of events, that the boy got what he deserved. Although it is never made explicit, it is probably as a result of this comment that the subsequent and rather colourful wrath of the IRA who come, at the end, to set fire to the Majestic descends on him. With Edward dispatched safely out of harm's way, the Major is captured by the IRA along with a hapless Black and Tan and buried up to his neck on the beach for the tide to come in and drown him not once but twice because the would-be executioners miscalculated the reach of the tide first time and placed him too far away from the water to drown. Only when he is on the brink of death and after the poor Black and Tan has perished is he, at last, rescued by the least likely posse in late twentieth century literature: the remaining and indomitable old pussies of the blazing Majestic, Miss Johnson, Miss Stavely, Miss Bagley and Mrs Rice. In the background, the crumbling Majestic, embodiment of the disintegrating Empire in Kilnalough, burns to the ground and British Rule in Ireland is brought to a symbolic end while the gallant Major who, in the earlier, defiant words of Edward Spencer fought to defend Ireland from the Kaiser while the Catholics stayed at home safe and sound [..] and then attacked the very lads who were giving their lives to save them lies wounded and up to his neck in sand.[7]

Whether it be naked and sweating in the linen room or bleeding and buried up to his neck on the beach, Brendan Archer, part Irish, part English, still affected by shell-shock from the Great War, semi-detached from the complex politics surrounding him in Kilnalough and yet wholly unable to drag himself away, is himself, in his bumbling ineffectualness and his paralysing hybridity, a metaphor for the failure of the British Empire in Ireland. Twenty years later, in The Singapore Grip, he will make his reappearance, having exiled himself to the Far East in his inability to fit in either in England or in Ireland in the wake of their painful divorce. Here too, he will find himself staying on to take the consequences of others' mistakes.
In the meantime, however, Farrell interested himself in the Indian Mutiny. Throughout Troubles he takes pains to incorporate items of Indian news into his narrative. Via his use of newspaper cuttings, in one crucial passage he manages to juxtapose a report of the outcome of the enquiry into the Amritsar massacre, an account of a riot between unionists and "Sinn Feiners" in Derry city and a digest of a Reuter's comuniqué on the resultant downing of arms by the Connaught Rangers in India on hearing of the trouble in Ireland:[8]

A Reuter's Simla message states that three quarters of the men of the Connaught Rangers at Jullandar refused duty and laid down their arms upon receipt of a mail giving news of Irish events...
The detachment at Jutogh, six miles from Simla, is perfectly quiet. The whole affair is regarded as being entirely due to political causes and the Sinn Fein agitation.

Atrocities committed by the British military in India, sectarian riots in Ireland and a quasi-mutiny by Irish troops back in India are all inextricably-linked harbingers of the end of Empire. In The Siege of Krishnapur, he goes back to the mutiny of Indian soldiers (sepoys) against the British Bengal Army in 1857-58.[9] It was a war of unparalleled ferocity and brutality on both sides, a war which shocked the sensibilities of a British public used to European wars conducted with a regard for the unwritten rules. One serving British officer noted, in memoirs published forty years later:

Asiatic campaigns have always been conducted in a more remorseless spirit than those between European nations, but the war of the Mutiny [...] was far worse than the usual type of even Asiatic fighting. It was something horrible and downright brutalising for an English Army to be involved in such a struggle [...] It was downright butchery.[10]

Farrell, as ever, researched the period thoroughly. In an `Afterword' to the second edition he cites the most important of the eye-witness accounts he cannibalised in his work, plus a couple of venerable tomes on the Victorian Church and religion in the nineteenth century.[11] He imagined himself into the mindset of the English residents in Krishnapur through the accounts of contemporaries of the army officer prepared to allow that Asiatics behave with greater ferocity in war and lament but not prevent the reactive European complicity in an escalation of brutality which Farrell describes in his `Afterword' as a reality [...] which constantly defies imagination.[12]

Though the causes of the Great Mutiny were many and complex, Farrell mentions only the two factors most pertinent to the everyday lives of ordinary Indians and serving soldiers and the two which would have impinged most on the consciousness of his cast of unexceptional English soldiers and Krishnapur residents. Both are, typically, highly graphic. Just before the insurrection there was an unexplained proliferation of chapattis (Indian flat bread) all over the area around Delhi. These would be mysteriously deposited in the most unexpected of places, and the local Indian population would treat them with the superstitious respect but no-one quite knew what they meant. In The Siege, the Collector, Mr Hopkins, alone takes them seriously as warnings and acts to fortify the Residency as soon as possible. To the rest of the British community they remain an inexplicable joke, tea party conversation and nothing more. The insurrection itself is sparked off by a rumour which spreads quickly among the mainly Hindu or Muslim sepoys that new-issue cartridges which they will have to put in their mouths while biting off the ends are greased with beef and/or pork fat, abhorrent to all Muslims or Hindus depending on which fat is involved and doubly abhorrent to high caste individuals, of which there were many in the British Armies in India, who would not dream of touching such base material under any circumstances. The sepoys perceive this as a culminating insult and, as the British do not move with anything like an appropriate level of despatch to defuse the situation, before they know it they have a mutiny on their hands. The British administration, increasingly less sensitive to the cultures of those who served in their armies are led into a vortex of military barbarism, a corollary to which, no doubt in Farrell's opinion, occurred over half a century later in the Amritsar massacre alluded to in Troubles.[13]

With these two images firmly installed in the mind of the reader, Farrell in this novel of ideas, transports the debate about the inextricability of scientific progress from the process of civilisation to Krishnapur.[14] It takes three forms: the accumulation of innovatory gadgets and representative mementoes the Collector brings with him from the Great Exhibition; the debate over the causes of cholera which erupts in the besieged compound between the warring doctors, the old timer Dunstaple and his junior Dr McNab; and the conflicting views of the Collector and the Magistrate, who take the part of western science and technology in the matter of how the annual and highly costly flooding to which the area around the cantonment of Krishnapur is prone should be dealt with, against the local zemindars or landowners, who adhere to age-old tradition.
Farrell's description of an encounter between the well-meaning Magistrate and the zemindars on the subject of the flooding points up, with well-placed irony, the incongruity of British engineering certainty attempting to overcome the immovable beliefs of people who have lived there all their lives and used the same incantational sacrificial methods of coping with annual natural disaster since time immemorial:

To stop the flooding by reinforcing the embankments was the great ambition of both the Collector and the Magistrate. While the Collector had been visiting the opium factory the Magistrate, accompanied by his bearer, Abdullah, had ridden out of Krishnapur to visit the embankments and consult the landowners whose coolies would be needed for the work of reinforcement. Why go to so much trouble when the river could be persuaded not to flood by the sacrifice of a black goat on its banks, the landowners wanted to know.
"But that doesn't work. You've tried it before. Every year the floods are worse."
The landowners remained silent out of polite amazement that anybody could be so stupid as to doubt the efficacy of a sacrifice when properly performed by Brahmins. They were torn between amusement and distress at such obtuseness.[15]

On a practical level, the Magistrate is inevitably right, but, in the year of the Mutiny, it is a source of immense glee to the landowners that Nature conspires against the Magistrate and apparently obeys their traditional call just in time. Indeed, by the time the rains and the flooding come, the Magistrate is imprisoned with the rest of the British contingent in the Residency, watched from the melon fields by picnicking and partying locals infinitely amused by the sight, through binoculars, of their British masters reduced to skeletal, boil-encrusted, cholera-ridden squalor. With the water almost licking their sandals the zemindars prepare the annual sacrifice:

Everyone was chuckling nostalgically at the thought of the Magistrate, who was very likely dead by now. One of them asked another if he remembered how the Magistrate Sahib had tried to make them strengthen the embankments and this caused such merriment that one of the landowners almost fell into the water. In due course the black goat was sacrificed with the appropriate ceremonies to appease the river and nobody was in the least surprised when, little by little, the river began to fall.[16]

Though the floods end the rain continues up to the end of August with dire consequences for the British contingent dug in behind earthen ramparts. The jungle outside becomes ever more lush, allowing better and better camouflage for the attacking sepoys and sowars (cavalry troopers) and the ramparts themselves begin to melt away. The only solution is to reinforce them with solid objects and it is thus that the most precious possessions of the Residency, the mementoes and identifiers of European civilisation, become embedded in the mud walls which separate the garrison and its women and children from the mutineers and the picnicking voyeurs in the melon fields. Even before this, heavier, suitably sized objects, mainly sculpture, were converted into cannon shot, but the ramparts gradually swallow all the fine furniture, ornaments, paintings and detachable fittings that the Residency has to offer. It devours bookcases full of elevating and instructional volumes and, when the Collector himself has ceased to care, even the gorse bruiser and the rest of the Collector's inventions met their doom.[17] In the end, all that is left is a few meagre vestiges of what the Residency once represented, including the prized electro-metal figures the Collector was so taken with at the Exhibition:

How naked the drawing room and the dining room seemed. Beneath the chandeliers only the Louis XVI table, the Queen in zinc (for patriotic reasons), a few objects in electro-metal such as Fame Scattering Petals on Shakespeare's Tomb, with the heads of certain men of letters, and a few stuffed birds in the rubble of plaster and brickwork brought down by the sepoy cannons, remained. I think that perhaps the snake in alcohol was left too. And only then, at long last, when almost everything was gone, did the terrible rain relent just enough for the ramparts to stop their melting.[18]

In this year of Mutiny, the flooding respects the rites of the Brahmins with their double black goat-sacrifice and retreats, but the rains continue unappeased until almost every last trace of Western civilisation in the Residency compound has been cast, to no avail, into the ramparts. With cruel irony, Farrell employs the rare first person to add the absurd detail of the pickled snake; a last, tongue-in-cheek, condemnation.

Concurrent with the material disintegration of all the artefacts and inventions contained in the Residency and salvaged from the other English houses in the cantonment is the physical attrition the garrison has to withstand, militarily from the various sepoy and sowar raids and shelling, and physiologically from the most invidious of disaster plagues, cholera. Here, Farrell takes the opportunity to air the controversy raging in the mid-nineteenth century between those who believed cholera, an affliction which also periodically ravaged English inner cities at the time, was transmitted by foul air and those who believed it was carried in contaminated water; between those who believed the cure was to apply mustard plasters and administer opium, brandy and calomel pills and those who realised that the answer was to rehydrate the body gently by injecting saline solution. Dr Dunstaple, infected towards the end of the siege, twice insists on his own erroneous treatment after the saline injection administered while he was unconscious by his rival Dr McNab has revived him. For Farrell, the tragedy of it Dr Dunstaple's obstinate death is summed up in the following paragraph in which he comments, with some asperity, on the continuing refusal of many of those who were still in danger to realise that by dying under his own treatment Dunstaple had conclusively proved McNab's point:

But still the notion that Dr Dunstaple had been right somehow persisted, independent of thought or reason, as insubstantial as the supposed `invisible cholera cloud' which Dr Dunstaple believed had once hung over Newcastle. But Dr McNab continued as he always had, grave and rather lugubrious, knowing that given time, the `cholera cloud' would move on, too, and that his own view would come to be accepted...but this would only happen imperceptibly and not, perhaps, like a cloud passing, but more in the way that sediment settles in a glass of water.[19]

Farrell's novel of ideas then leaves us with a view of the civilisers reduced to absolute destitution while the natives picnic and gloat at their ruin. It leaves us with a warning that science, technology and progress themselves may be linear and logical but their acceptance by ordinary people, whether European or Indian, will always be frustrated and distorted by subjective criteria, such as tradition and prejudice, and simple fear of the unknown.

By centring a lot of his narrative around the struggle between the modernisers propelled by their faith in scientific discovery and progress and those within and outside the British community who were resistant to these forces, Farrell takes into account the genuine belief of a handsome proportion of those engaged in the enterprise of empire at this, its high point, that they were performing a service for that part of humanity subjugated under their rule who were neither as fortunate nor as enlightened as themselves. They too, however, are seen to decline into hypocrisy and impotence in the years after the epiphanic experience of the Mutiny, when expansion gave way to economic exploitation. When Fleury, the once dreamy idealist, and the Collector, now known at his London club as the Hero of Krishnapur, meet by chance in Pall Mall twenty years later in the late seventies, Fleury has become an opinionated, somewhat overbearing intellectual snob who harangues his children, at every opportunity, with his now fatuous opinions and deceives Louise, now his wife, by having self-satisfied, casual affairs with young ladies of passionate disposition, while the Collector has taken taciturn refuge in eating and drinking too much. He informs Fleury that he has divested himself of all his paintings and artefacts, his faith in the civilising force of culture well and truly gone. This last of his utterances takes an almost epigrammatic form: Culture is a sham. It's a cosmetic painted on life by rich people to conceal its uglines. [20]

Farrell ends the novel by having the Collector speculate on the arbitrariness of national determination, an assessment on a par with McNab's fatalistic view on how the correct treatment for cholera would eventually become accepted like sediment settling, free will or active planing having very little to do with either in the end:

Perhaps by the very end of his life, in 1880, he had come to believe that a people, a nation, does not create itself according to its own best ideas, but is shaped by other forces, of which it has little knowledge.[21]

The Singapore Grip is Farrell's last completed novel. Predicated on a drawn-out joke about a sexual technique peculiar to Chinese prostitutes, also known as the Shanghai grip, it offers what might be termed a narrative of Tolstoyan amplitude centred on the ignominious defeat of the British Army in Singapore in 1942.[22] Here the major debate, along with the excoriation of military failure, relates to capitalism: the expansion of western capital in South East Asia over the first half of the twentieth century and the resultant exploitation of native populations. The resident Fleury in this world, albeit one with a greater sense of groundedness and sincerity, is Matthew Webb, the son born in advanced years to old Mr Webb of Blackett and Webb, the trading house at the heart of this narrative. Matthew was progressively educated, is left-leaning if not completely socialist, worked for the League of Nations before he comes out to Singapore after his father's death and never professes the least interest in inheriting his father's business interests. Towards the end of the novel his is the voice which ties together the typically dry joke in the title with the political thrust of Farrell's critique of the British Empire in the Far East. The ingenu American army captain Ehrendorf explains what the Singapore Grip is, having just found out from the Chinese girls sheltering with them in the Mayfair Building. However, Matthew, who used, up to then, to beg all and sundry to enlighten him, never once suspecting the answer was so far from political, arrives simultaneously, in his unworldly way, at a much more complex geopolitical conclusion:

`I know what it is! It's the grip of our Western culture and economy on the Far East... It's the stranglehold of capital on the traditional cultures of Malaya, China, Burma, Java, Indo-China and even India herself! It's the doing of things our way...I mean, it's the pursuit of self-interest rather than of the common interest.'[23]

However, no more than he would have let the young Fleury away with his overblown Romanticism, Farrell cannot let this, quite accurate, assessment of the forces at work stand for too long in the mouth of a young man as apparently callow as Matthew without letting him undermine himself at least a little

`But one day we shall have a new League of Nations to conduct the world's affairs with reason and justice and humanity! A League of Nations not made up of cynical power-brokers but of philosophers and philanthropists whose only desire will be to bind the nations and the races together!'
Ehrendorf sighed, thinking that in any case the Singapore Grip was about to be pried loose, if that was what it was. After some moments of hesitation and comparing of vintages, he selected the Lafite. Altogether it had been a hard day.[24]

Irony apart, this recognition that capitalism has been at the root of the British Empire's post-Krishnapur troubles is the central argument of The Singapore Grip. At the turn of the nineteenth into the twentieth century the British Empire covered 11.5 million square miles and incorporated 400 million inhabitants. If, in the mid-nineteenth century, those propelling expansionism were propelled as much by missionary zeal of the scientific as well as the religious kind and economic considerations vitally but only secondarily, during the period spanned by the Blackett and Webb company, from 1891 to 1942, prosperity had succeed progress as the motivation:

Webb and Company had been founded in Rangoon in 1891 and its first office in Singapore had been opened shortly afterwards. It was hoped that twelve months of rejoicing [..] would culminate at the New Year 1942 in one of those monster carnival parades so beloved of the Chinese in Singapore. The outbreak of the War in Europe had for a time thrown these festivities into question [...] It was felt that nothing could demonstrate the benefits of British rule than to recall fifty years of one of Singapore's great merchant houses and the vast increase of wealth which it had helped to generate in the community for the benef it of all.[25]

Naturally Matthew's outburst towards the end of the novel throws the entire value of the British commercial presence into a completely different light. All this is immeasurably reinforced by the portrait Farrell offers of the current managing director of the company, Walter Blackett. Walter rose through the ranks of Webb and Company powerfully enough to enable him to enter into partnership with old Mr Webb and take over the business on his own in 1930, at the height of the Great Depression. Old Mr Webb had started out in 1891 as a merchant in tropical produce, a largely non-exploitative operation, but as the complexity of the company gradually grew, and particularly as Walter Blackett came to prominence, respect for the local economies in South East Asia and the associated welfare of farmers, peasants and workers decreased at a vertiginous rate. Walter thought nothing, for example, of the way in which the Singapore merchants, his company among them, operating as a cartel, destroyed the trade of the independent, locally-run Burmese rice mills in 1920 plunging the people into destitution, and all for profit.[26] Most lucratively of all, Mr Webb expanded into rubber plantations and rubber production as the automobile boom began before the Great War and the firm, spreading its risks, gradually became the trading base for a plethora of different rubber companies, all of which it owned. As a result of the exponentially increasing power brought by its expanding base, it was also in a position to add significantly to its revenues and influence by becoming the South East Asia sole agent for a panoply of European concerns from shipping to insurance.

As the novel progresses it becomes obvious that Walter has two major preoccupations: the first to secure control of the company completely for himself by engineering a marriage between his minx-like elder daughter Joan, who later manifests a quite Machiavellian appetite for the chase, and the guileless Matthew Webb; and the second, to ensure that the New Year's parade provides a spectacle to celebrate Blackett and Webb such as Singapore has never seen for opulence and taste. Despite the war in Europe, the Government is insisting the parade goes ahead with a message which will counter the Japanese propaganda that the white man in Asia is there merely to exploit the natives and turn them into slaves. Walter sees no irony in attempting to produce a parade, with all the races of Singapore included, for these very propaganda purposes. The theme chosen, perfectly unselfconsciously by the board of Blackett and Webb, is `Continuity in Prosperity'. There is even a suggestion that if Europeans are reluctant to take part in a multi-racial event that Eurasians might be prevailed upon to apply chalk to their complexions and stand in their stead:

It was the [carnival parade], it seemed to Walter and his board, which offered most opportunity for doing something which people would remember in Singapore, and which would be, as it were, the apotheosis of trade and the British tradition in the Colony combining for the betterment of all races.[27]

Proud as he is of the British traditions which have made him so prosperous, as South East Asia is overrun by the Japanese, Walter does not hesitate to plan how he might best, from his base in Singapore, collaborate with them to preserve his rubber plantations and myriad trading interests in the region. He does not acknowledge, for an instant, the thrust of the anti-European Japanese propaganda, or perhaps he believes his firm to be so important as to be immune. As might be expected, Farrell plots a rather ridiculous dénouement for Walter. As the Japanese advance continues, as his trading interests suffer, as the bombing raids on the godowns which house his merchandise and that of the other major traders on the docks are bombed by the Japanese, Walter becomes a socially dysfunctional recluse. An order is issued for the destruction of all alcohol stored on the island, a prodigious amount since Singapore at the time was the distribution centre for South East Asia. Initially Walter goes along in order to have himself photographed by a local newspaper photographer patriotically leading the destruction to the Blackett and Webb bonded liquor stores, but the photographer does not show up and he becomes absorbed in the task, destroying the most frivolous manifestation of what his company has built up in terms of wealth and cultural dominion over fifty years, all thoughts of the Golden Jubilee of the firm in the dust with the smashed gin and whisky bottles:

Presently, in a sort of a daze from the heat and the noise of the ack-ack guns, that distant slamming of doors that followed you everywhere in the city, he too picked up some bottles and smashed them against the wall. And he went on doing so, despite the heat. Soon he was obliged to take off his jacket: the sweat fell in salty drops from his chin and his shirt clung to his back. The other men had stripped to the waist but this Walter could not do, because of the bristles on his spine.
The smashing of these bottles filled him with a strange exultation. He felt he could go on doing it forever.[28]

By the end of this adventure, Walter's shirt and trousers were black with smuts from the burning oil on the other side of the island, but he goes off in this state to a meeting with the directors of a rival firm with whom and Blackett and Webb has always had a relationship of mutual mistrust. This most proper of men, heretofore obsessed with civilising his bristle-spined body, by allowing himself the excuse that there was a war on, chooses not to wash and change before a visit to his old enemy.[29] It is the end of Walter's pretence of gentility, the end of his vast commercial empire, the end of his plans. The directors of the rival firm of Langfield and Bowser, with whose Langfield heir, Nigel, Joan Blackett has finally engineered an alternative dream dynastic marriage, are appalled at the vision that accosts them:

Instead of the brutal self-controlled ogre that they knew Walter to be, it was someone more resembling a down-and-out who now reeled through the door and stood gazing at them, wild-eyed.[30]

Walter is temporarily reduced here to the condition of the surviving British garrison in Krishnapur, returned to barbarism. Later, it is left to Matthew to persuade him to leave his rubber godown as it is bombed by the Japanese, unworldly Matthew who, in the end, had more practical sense and who remains in Singapore while Walter escapes with the directors of Langfield and Solomon to plan new empires and new take-overs when the war is over.

Of all the Europeans who populated the novel, only Matthew, Major Brendan Archer, anti-hero of Troubles, who comes to Singapore in the mid thirties because he has nothing better to do and because his broken heart might finally have mended, and François Dupigny, a former high functionary at the French Colonial Ministry in Indo-China are left on the long walk to Changi. They may be taken to represent the British and French colonial enterprises in the region, diplomatically, militarily and commercially, but each is startlingly atypical of his kind. Matthew may have inherited the Webb mantle but he is an unconventionally-educated, anti-capitalist idealist in love with a Japanese blacklisted, Eurasian former prostitute who remains because she cannot escape. Brendan Archer is castigated by Walter Blackett for his lack of ambition, respected by him for his air of gloomy integrity and, though harmless and anodyne for most of the novel, this much put upon survivor of the World War One trenches proves himself to be quietly resourceful and courageous once more when called upon. The fact that nobody considers him important enough to offer him a means of escape underlines the dearth of respect the money-grabbing, snobbish community in Singapore has for those who served in the previous world conflagration. François Dupigny may be a high-powered civil servant, he is also a somewhat diffident cynic, a dilettante with a detailed understanding of the issues surrounding Western colonisation of the region and its effect on the indigenous peoples. He understands better than anyone else how joyfully the dispossessed and exploited will one day attempt to take their revenge. When a group of Singapore Indians jeer the column of European prisoners on their way to Changi for the second time, Dupigny's response, as he lies wounded and exhausted in the stretcher the Major has made in anticipation of his inability to keep up, is to rouse himself from his suffering and offer them a twisted smile. He understands that, momentarily at least, until the Japanese repression takes over, the Asians of Singapore, the communities who were exploited to produce Walter Blackett's continuity in prosperity, finally feel they have the upper hand.

Matthew and the Major stretchering François Dupigny to Changi to the sound of jeering Indians; Walter Blackett smashing whisky bottles outside his bonded liquor warehouse and then, stripped of civilising appurtenance, appearing in the lair of his enemy as the dangerous ogre everyone always knew he was, no matter how carefully he hid the bristles on his back; the grasp of Western capital on South-east Asia finally equated to the grip of a prostitute's well-trained vaginal muscles on the penis of a client rendered helpless by its force, these are the images which sum up the apotheosis of Western Imperialism in Southeast Asia
The Britannia which ruled 400 million people and 11.5 square miles, which, in the guise of men such as the Collector of Krishnapur, tried to bring scientific progress and European civilisation to the colonies is reduced to tatters in Singapore by Japanese efficiency. It is hamstrung by its own greed and the decadent indolence of those who live off profits beaten and starved out of Southeast Asian coolies and is led finally to disaster by the complacency and ineptitude of the generals sent to defend it.

In this trilogy, Farrell offers a critique of what was wrong about the British colonial enterprise, but he does not leave it at that. He brings the critique right up to date in his epilogue to The Singapore Grip. In Chapter 75 he points out that, though the British Empire may be a shadow of its former self, the exploitation of weak and impoverished peoples goes on, it is simply the agencies who are different, and the playful but fatalistic note on which he ends the sequence accepts both this and the real gap that exists between the middle class, presumably British, reader he addresses at the end of the novel and the oppressed Third World peoples he has defended, particularly in the latter two novels.

In Kate Blackett's home, in a quiet street in Bayswater in December 1976, her husband reads his Times. In a moment of levity after the travails of Changi, Farrell teases the reader as to his identity. Whoever he is, his attention is caught by a depressing report on the harsh realities of current labour rights and rates of pay in Southeast Asia and it strikes him that, despite everything the region suffered in the War, despite the subsequent achievement of independence from colonial rule, little has actually altered on the ground. The ordinary workers in these now independent Third World countries continue to be exploited, but by a different, indigenous or multinational, elite. Farrell's implication, however lightly put, appears to be that human nature does not change and societies at macro level always evolve around the exploitation of the vulnerable by the strong. At the end of this vignette, thirty years after liberation, Farrell, as it were throws his hands up in the air and signs off, in supremely sardonic mode quoting that most notorious of plantation owners and war profiteers, Scarlett O'Hara for good measure:

In any case, there is really nothing more to be said. And so, if you have been reading in a deck-chair on the lawn, it is time to go inside and make the tea. And if you have been reading in bed, why, it is time to put out the light now and go to sleep. Tomorrow is another day, as they say, as they say. [31]

[1] The Ascendancy is a term for the relatively wealthy upper and upper middle class Protestants whose money usually derived from landed estates in Ireland granted to them by various English kings. Most were English colonisers in origin but some were descendants of Irish Catholic noble families who had surrendered their lands to Henry VIII as Catholics and then had them bestowed on them anew by the king once they had converted to his form of Protestantism and accepted his rule. This mechanism was called Surrender and Regrant.
For most of the novel the residents of the Majestic speak of the republican rebels as members of "Sinn Fein". At the time, Sinn Féin was the most important of the republican parties, in the wake of the 1916 Rising in Dublin many of the leaders who were also Sinn Féin party members were executed prompting a wave of public sympathy and outcry. Eamon de Valera who had been involved in the 1916 Rising and subsequently reprieved from the death penalty led the party to a landslide victory in the 1919 General Election. The British Government's refusal to accede to the democratic decision of the Irish electorate in preventing Sinn Féin to pursue its separatist agenda led to the 1919-21 War. Sinn Féin set up an alternative government in hiding. Many of its members, most notably Michael Collins, either were members of the Irish Republican Army at the time or collaborated with it in order to fight for independence. On the ground, those who fought the war were recruited to the IRA, and were not always concurrently members of the political party Sinn Féin although they would naturally vote Sinn Féin in an election. The British press and the British and Ascendancy public nonetheless rarely bothered to distinguish between the two entities. Thus, in the novel, Edward Spencer and his ilk are always on his guard against "Sinn Fein" (spelt without the accent) but Murphy, the Catholic hotel retainer, who would be expected to understand the difference is afraid of the IRA when it comes to rescuing the Major. (see note 7)
The Black and Tans were an Army Auxiliary Unit which deliberately recruited prisoners about to be released from gaol and soldiers with a history of violence as a terror tactic. Led by upper class officers with minimal experience of war, especially the guerilla warfare favoured by the IRA, a vast proportion of the natural officer class having perished on the Western Front, these auxiliaries, styled Black and Tans because of the ill-disciplined assortment of black and brown kit they wore, quite frequently ran amok and responded to each IRA coup with atrocities, often against the civilian population.
[2] . J.G. Farrell, The Siege of Krishnapur, London: Phoenix, 1996, pp. 208-9.
[3] . The Singapore Grip, London: Phoenix, 1992, pp. 595-6.
[4] . Ronald Binns observes: "Troubles is one of those texts which are grounded in a naturalistic world but which are open to numerous other dimensions and nuances of meaning". Ronald Binns, J.G. Farrell. London: Methuen, 1986, p.45.
[5] . Troubles, London: Penguin, 1982, p.236.
[6] . ibid., p. 384.
[7]. ibid., p.378. Edward speaks of all republicans as "Sinn Feiners"; Farrell mentions the IRA as being the force behind the burning of the Majestic (i.e. Murphy, the old retainer, is initially too afraid of them to help the old ladies to carry the Major to Dr Ryan's).
[8] . ibid., pp. 170-171.
[9] . The word sepoy is an Anglicisation of the Hindi word sipahi, meaning soldier. Although referred to at the time as the "Great Mutiny", there having been others in the British Army in India, most notably the outbreak at Vellore in 1806, and in postcolonial historiography as a "war of independence", the rebellion was actually confined to the Bengal Army, and to a relatively small area north and east of Delhi. It was put down by the loyal remnant of the Bengal Army and newly formed units containing large numbers Sikh and Gurkha troops loyal to the British. The Mutiny destroyed the Bengal Army and resulted in the handing over of the government of India from the British East India Company to the British Crown on August 2nd 1858. Peace was proclaimed officially on 8 July 1859. Philip J. Haythornthwaite, The Colonial Wars Source Book. London: Arms and Armour, 1995, pp. 98-106. Haythornthwaite's dismissal of the description of the Mutiny as a war of independence (p.100) is based on an assessment of criteria relating to military logistics strategy criteria; he does not attempt to offer ideological judgements.
[10] . W. Forbes-Mitchell, Reminiscences of the Great Mutiny, 18570-59. London, 1897, pp. 31, 177, quoted in Haythornthwaite, p.100.
[11] . The Siege of Krishnapur, p.314.
[12] . As Ronald Binns (op. cit.) observes of The Siege: "The Siege of Krishnapur is a kind of pastiche Victorian novel, written from an ironic twentieth-century perspective [...] using parody and pastiche to establish the ironic distance between nineteenth- and twentieth-century perceptions of both history and narrative." p.65.
[13] . While deserters were hanged, for example, mutineers were tied across the mouths of canon and then blown to pieces, an unspeakable punishment justified in contemporary accounts as a necessary response to curb the "Asiatic" temperament. (Haythornthwaite, p.106.)
[14] . See Michael C. Prusse, "Tomorrow is Another Day: The Fiction of James Gordon Farrell. Tübingen and Basel: A. Francke Verlag, 1997, p.133.
[15] . The Siege of Krishnapur, p.86.
[16] . ibid., p. 242.
[17] . ibid., p. 245.
[18] . ibid., p. 246.
[19] . ibid., p.273.
[20] . ibid., p.313.
[21] . ibid.
[22] . vide Prusse, p.156.
[23] . The Singapore Grip, p. 523.
[24] . ibid.
[25] . ibid., p. 29.
[26] . ibid., p. 41.
[27] . ibid., p. 37.
[28] . ibid., p.536.
[29] . ibid., p.537.
[30] . ibid., p.539.
[31] . ibid., p.598. Note that the quote from Gone with the Wind is used by Prusse as his title.

Jean Andrews is a lecturer in the Dept of European Languages, Goldsmiths, University of London. She has published on Irish Literature, Comparative Literature and Opera and is currently finishing a book on Spanish Operatic Icons.

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