Friday, 21 August 2015

Mi Buenos Aires querido

Something different again this week. Every now and then, I like to post something completely random on my blog. A couple of weeks ago it was opera. The thing I'm most likely to slide off-topic for, though, is tango. Weirdly, posts I've made about tango often prove to be the most popular. This week's post started off as a book review, but seems to have become a mini-essay on Buenos Aires. Like it says in the title (if you speak Spanish) this is "My Buenos Aires that I love." It's not a place I can be dispassionate about (much like the people who live there). Here's my take on Miranda France's take on Mi Buenos Aires querido. I hope you find it interesting.

Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France

Borges wrote that “You never leave [Buenos Aires] entirely, you keep rebuilding it through the faded snapshots that your memory throws up."

Buenos Aires is, in some ways, the ultimate city. It was built as a port, but over time the river has silted up. The original grand frontage of the city is now well inland and even the more modern port facilities are hardly used: big ships simply can't get into them any more.

Building in the old port area
It grew at a time when Argentina's agricultural produce – mainly beef – was exported all over the world, but the world has changed and Argentina is no longer the fantastically rich country that it was early in the 20th century. The city, with its opera house, its grand buildings, its elegant boulevards, and its air of self-importance, lives on as a memory of a city that time and geography have left behind. Buenos Aires exists because it is there. People like to live in cities and for thousands of miles there are no cities as splendid as the capital of Argentina, so people flock to it, even though it has no purpose.

The poor, discovering that their dream of Buenos Aires does not exist, live in vast shanty-towns or sleep on the streets in shelters that appear like piles of rubbish, The shelters and their inhabitants are, in turn, invisible in the alternative dream of the Argentine bourgeoisie hurrying between shopping malls and coffee shops.

Street dwellers in front of the Congress building

Buenos Aires is a city of fantasy. Everywhere you go – not even just the tourist areas – you hear tango, often thought of as the soul of Argentina, but – though it is taught in schools – not that many people actually dance

it. Emphatically proud of their city and their nation the Portenos, as the locals call themselves, still yearn to be European. With its Italian food, its English post boxes, its French architecture and its Spanish language, Argentina embodies Europe in a way that no European country does. Buenos Aires should replace Brussels as the natural home of the administration of the EU.

Every resident, every visitor, every passing tourist sees a different Buenos Aires and every travel book written about the place describes a different city. Miranda France’s Bad Times in Buenos Aires is no exception. Living there in the 1990s, Ms France inhabits a city defined by the Dirty War. I almost wrote “the after-effects of the Dirty War” but she argues powerfully that the War was unfinished business. The murderers still walked the streets; parents still searched for their lost children; the country was still cloaked in a pervasive gloom. The Buenos Aires that France lived in was an unhappy place and she describes an unhappy stay, but she does so with flashes of real understanding and an easy writing style.

Memorial to some of the victims of the Dirty War

I first visited Buenos Aires soon after she was there and I recognise the city she describes. But I also recognise the city of the tango (a dance she admits to struggling with, and which she never comes close to understanding), a friendly, chaotic, vibrant and exciting city where I have always felt immediately at home. Although I have rented an apartment and coped, as she did, with the electrical blackouts, the water that fails to come from the shower or refill toilets, the pickpockets, the dirt, the inability of airlines to get passenger and baggage to the same destination, and the general messiness of life in this sprawling metropolis, I have not lived there for any length of time and I have, inevitably, seen a different place. For example, I have always taken care to visit Buenos Aires in the spring and have avoided the horrors of the long, hot, humid summers. Ms France dwells a lot on weather, yet most of her descriptions are of the summer. Her memory of Buenos Aires is, in its way, as selective as mine.

Bad Times in Buenos Aires is one view of the city. Long After Midnight at the NinoBien (surely almost a definition of good times in Buenos Aires) is another book by a journalist who spent some time there and he (Brian Winter, if you want to buy a copy) describes a different city. Winter’s book is flawed and partial too. All books about Buenos Aires ultimately fail to capture the place. If I had to recommend just one it would be The Tango Singer by Tomás Eloy Martínez. His Buenos Aires is a fictional city in which his hero moves about an almost magical capital, searching for an elusive tango singer. On one visit, we used it as a guidebook. To our astonishment, it took us to some amazing places, for in Buenos Aires, a work of fiction is as good a guide to the city as anything else.

Friday, 14 August 2015

The Strangler Vine

Back to history and books this week, with a review of The Strangler Vine.

Published at the beginning of last year, The Strangler Vine has been extremely well received. It's on the shortlist for the Historical Writers' Association Debut Crown. I'm in the HWA, so I'm excited about this book.

It's set in India in 1837, earlier than my own Cawnpore or Paul Collard's Maharajah's General, but recognisably the same country. In fact, one of the pleasures of the book for me was to meet people I had read about in my own background research - notably the redoubtable Fanny Parks. MJ Carter is an academic historian and her knowledge of the period and its characters shines through the story. My only quibble was with the swearing: bad language is very culturally specific and the 21st-century obscenities of some of the characters did not quite carry conviction.

The Strangler Vine is not an academic book. It combines an old-fashioned adventure story with a convincing political thriller. Mountstuart, the poet, is missing and the Thugs are proving difficult to eliminate, despite the sterling efforts of Major Sleeman. The naive Lieutenant Avery is on a mission to rescue Mountstuart under the command of old India hand Blake, but Blake seems to have a mission of his own. Why is Mountstuart so important to the British? What is Sleeman hiding about the Thugs? And why has the Secret and Political Department chosen Avery for this mission?

Carter has peopled a dramatic plot with fully developed characters. While the heroes are heroic, they are, at the same time, fallible and the villains have their redeeming features. The prose is easy on the eye. Carter uses words with care and her descriptive passages carry you to 19th century India, whilst avoiding the breathless over-writing that this period encourages.

This is not a book that will change your life or make you a better person. I think that Carter has set out to do much the same as me: to entertain the reader for a few hours very pleasantly and, as a bonus, to give them some understanding of the practical and political realities of life in India under Company rule. The reason that she is up for the Debut Crown and I'm not is that (he says through gritted teeth) she does it better than me.

[Other books on British India are also available. They may not be quite as good as The Strangler Vine, but they're still worth your time and the pitiful amount of small change they cost to buy on Kindle.]

Thursday, 6 August 2015


Every so often, I like to post something here that’s a little bit different. So, after weeks of posts about wars in India and wars in France, let’s take some time off and go to the opera.

Last night OperaUpClose opened Carmen at Soho Theatre. Like so many shows nowadays, Carmen is opening with a run of "previews". I'm happy to judge the show on its opening preview, though, because it seemed a complete and polished performance. There was one point where an impressively pitched note from Flora McIntosh blew the filter out of one of the lamps, convincing me that she could easily break glasses if she wanted to, but otherwise I suspect that the main difference between seeing the show now and seeing it next week is that now is substantially cheaper.

I will admit straight away to being an OperaUpClose fan. Regular operatic productions put so much effort into using music and spectacle to make an immediate emotional impact and then the effect is almost completely destroyed by the distancing that comes from the proscenium arch, the orchestra pit and the social mores of the opera house. With OperaUpClose a tiny orchestra (here just a quartet whose magnificent efforts effectively translate Bizet’s score) sits to the side of the stage and performances are generally in fringe venues with no proscenium arch at all. The result is that you are both physically and emotionally closer to the singers. The productions also emphasise acting as well as singing and, despite the artificiality of opera as an art form, it is surprisingly easy to find yourself totally involved with the characters. There's no doubt, too, that the experience of watching something on bench seats in the Soho Theatre (or over a pub, which is where I first saw them) at £15 is inevitably different from the experience of a visit to the Royal Opera House. In the Soho Theatre, people have come to see the opera, rather than just for an evening out, and the production has to deliver without any help from the less than sumptuous surroundings.

Deliver it does. Robin Norton-Hale has attacked the libretto to come up with a harsher, earthier approach than most Carmens. The programme notes assure us that “this is not a love story”. No: it is a story of lust and obsession; power and control. The story, as with all OperaUpClose productions, is important. Not only do the singers act well, but they sing clearly. The opera is in English and almost every word is beautifully enunciated, making it easy to follow the action, even without the libretto. As an aside, it's worth mentioning that, containing the full libretto, the program is worth every penny of the £5 it is sold for.

Carmen is not presented as a young, conventionally pretty woman. Instead Flora McIntosh plays her as a woman who has been round the block a few times and enjoyed the ride. She brings a disturbing lithe sexuality to the role, easily entrancing a naïve José (Anthony Flaum). José’s descent from upright soldier, to young lover, to obsessive killer is convincingly played. Louisa Tee has the thankless task of making Michaëla into the girl any man would want to run from, her appallingly Pollyanna-ish approach to life easing José’s slip from the path of good intentions.

I'm never convinced by the toreador in Carmen. I always feel that Bizet felt that if he was writing a Spanish opera, it had to have a bullfighter in it. Richard Immergluck sings Escamillo’s part well, but still comes over as a contrived character. The clash between him and José as they fight over Carmen is convincing, but Escamillo is a bit-part, incidental to José’s obsession and Carmen’s fight to control her own life and destiny. In a way, this production makes him much less significant than the other singers in this cast of nine. The others, Carmen’s adopted family, are a tight unit, convincing as they drink, brawl, flirt and bicker. Escamillo is the outsider, the man whose presence finally brings the tension between Carmen and José to a head.

We all know the plot. It’s going to end in tears. Even so, it comes as a shock, the violence not at all stylised. Carmen’s end and José’s final descent into hell make a huge emotional impact.

I didn't mention the singing much, did I? That’s because the performers use the music in the service of the plot, rather than using the plot as a framework to show off their singing. For me, that’s the way it should be: the goal of opera is to highlight your emotions, not to showcase the fat lady’s technique. (Yes, Mozart fans, there are exceptions.) With the very best opera, the music is so good that you don’t even notice it. On this basis, OperaUpClose have produced a very good opera indeed.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

'The Maharajah's General' at the V&A

Having written my blog post about The Maharajah's General on Thursday, I was, by pure coincidence, at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Friday.

The V&A have a wonderful collection of exhibits from the time when The Maharajah's General (and Cawnpore) were written. The best known item is probably 'Tipoo's Tiger', a full-size model tiger with an organ inside which, when operated, produced sounds supposed to represent the cries of the dying soldier. Tipu Sultan, we can reasonably conclude, was no fan of the East India Company, whose soldiers killed him and looted the tiger in 1799.

The wealth of Tipu Sultan gave rise to the picture of Indian rulers living in the midst of massive displays of ostentatious luxury, such as Jack Lark sees in the Maharajah's palace. I think the tiger shows, though, that this wealth sometimes resulted in severe lapses of taste! At Saturday House, the Nana Sahib spent some of his money importing paintings from Europe which were hung randomly alongside portraits of himself. Outside of the grand State Rooms, European visitors often reported the homes of Indian rulers as shabby and dirty. By contrast, the State Rooms could be very grand indeed. Also at the V&A, you can see the throne of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the first Sikh ruler of Punjab. It was made of gold in the first half of the 19th century and taken by the British when they annexed Punjab in 1849.

The State Rooms were designed to awe and many visitors returned to England with tales about the riches of the Indian rulers and the splendour of their palaces, as did Jack Lark.

The sword that Jack Lark is given in the story, richly ornamented with precious stones, is also no fantasy. This is from the treasury of Maharaja Holka, defeated at the Battle of Mehidpur in 1817. The stones are diamonds, emeralds and rubies.

If you're interested in India in the last days of East India Company rule, I strongly recommend a visit to the V&A. If you go before 11 October, you'll be able to see the stunning photographs of Captain Linnaeus Tripe, who documented India and Burma in photographs from 1852 to 1860. Unfortunately, I can't reproduce these on the blog, but you can see examples and read more about the exhibition HERE.  

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Maharajah's General

Paul Fraser Collard’s second book, The Maharajah’s General, finds Jack Lark, the hero of The Scarlet Thief in India. He’s gone there straight after recovering from the Battle of Alma, so it must be around 1855. This means he is arriving in India at almost exactly the same time John Williamson gets there in my book, Cawnpore. This made reading The Maharajah’s General particularly interesting for me, as I could compare Jack Lark’s India with John Williamson’s and see how an author I admire had tackled a similar subject.

Williamson is a civilian, so he sees a rather different side of East India Company rule from the soldier, Lark. Even so, Lark has to grasp the political realities of life in India, just as Williamson is sucked into the military. India was a colony in the most traditional sense: it was controlled by the British by the direct exercise of military power. The military and the political were inextricably intertwined. That said, Lark (partly because he is in a very remote part of the country) does not see many of the benefits that British rule brought. Native rule was often corrupt as well as inefficient. Lark is in the fictional kingdom of Sawadh, ruled by a Maharajah whose vast wealth had to come from somewhere, and it came mainly by exploiting the poor, a point that Lark does not dwell on. The British exploited the poor too, but, at least arguably, a little less than many native rulers. The British took steps to stop some of the nastier local customs, such as sati (widow burning). The British were, in this period, building railways, which revolutionised the Indian economy. They worked on flood control and brought in medical advances too. None of these developments are making much difference in Sawadh.

Despite the benefits that British rule did bring to India, nowadays we are, quite reasonably, concerned about the morality of conquest. Both Lark and Williamson end up with enormous sympathy for the Indian people, both having spent time living at the court of the local ruler. I was interested to see how Collard and I, with very different stories and very different approaches, both felt that we had to have our protagonist ‘go native’ if we were to honestly represent the times.

I enjoyed reading about Lark’s time in the Maharajah’s palace, though I did feel I was reading about a ‘Arabian Nights’ fantasy. The descriptions appear to be based on the kind of thing that travellers wrote about at the time, and they were often dazzled by the lavish displays of wealth. Jack Lark is a simple London kid who is seeing this sort of thing for the first time and we see it through his eyes. Certainly the jewelled swords, splendid fortresses and astonishing decorations did exist and Jack’s response is credible. By contrast, John Williamson has been around the Far East for a while and he is more sceptical when he visits Nana Sahib’s Saturday House. I think the Nana’s palace does reflect the reality of many of these places, its jewels and splendour existing alongside dirt and squalor. The eccentric display of clocks, the paintings, the random crockery: all these details of life at Saturday House showed how one of the most important Indian princes lived. That said, there may have been some who lived like the Maharajah and, certainly, many European visitors came away as over-awed as Lark.

The Maharajah’s country is about to be taken over by the British using the Doctrine of Lapse, a particularly dishonest bit of colonial unpleasantness. Collard summarises the cruel realities of the doctrine well. His British Political Officer is a dyed-in-the-wool villain, while many such men were doing their best in difficult conditions. Even so, his naked ambition and the ruthlessness of his political dealings seemed utterly credible.

The Jack Lark books, unlike mine, are really full-on stories of military history and Collard’s descriptions of both the British and Indian forces are convincing. (I am reminded, yet again, that my dismissal of the military value of the lance is probably the biggest blooper in Cawnpore.) The battle scenes are gripping and the sheer awfulness of hand-to-hand combat is depicted with gruesome enthusiasm. The final rout of the vast Indian force by a tiny detachment of Native Cavalry (small enough to fight under the command of a lieutenant) is not convincing but, ‘Then the British were over-run and Lark died,’ would have made an unsatisfactory ending. The defeat might have been less overwhelming, though. Two years later the Mutiny was to put the future of British India at real risk. It was the decision of many local rulers like the Maharajah to throw their lot in with the mutineers that nearly brought down British rule, and I would have liked to have finished the book with the Maharajah building his forces and waiting for another opportunity to destroy the British once and for all. Perhaps the name of the Maharajah’s daughter, Lakshmi, is a nod towards the great Indian warrior princess, Rani Lakshmi Bai, who was to lead her people against the British in that revolt.

Jack Lark, for all his inner angst, is a basically more optimistic character than Williamson. He can see the things that are wrong with British rule but, like many a soldier today, he considers that worrying about them is beyond his pay grade. He will fight and kill because, as he reluctantly accepts, that is his job and he’s very good at it. He will love and lose women along the way (it’s the law in books like this: my James Burke is the same) but the end will see him moving on, bloody but unbowed, to his next adventure.

There are several Jack Lark books already available and more in the pipeline. I’m looking forward to reading them. Paul Collard writes fast-paced adventure stories that bring the reality of 19th century warfare home with brutal immediacy. At the same time, the military detail shows a love of historical tactics and weaponry while the backgrounds evidence a lot of research, without bogging down in displays of superfluous historicity. They are great reads and I wholeheartedly recommend them.

Thursday, 23 July 2015

The Aftermath of Cawnpore

Although we always talk about the Cawnpore massacre, there were actually two separate massacres: the massacre at the boats and the massacre of the women and children at the Bibighar. At the time, there were no formal laws of war but there were tacit understandings of what was and was not acceptable behaviour. Massacre of troops who had been promised safe conduct was, of course, outside of these. It was the massacre of the women and children, though, that truly horrified the British.

How Europe viewed the killings at the Bibighar
(not a terribly accurate representation)

In any rebellion in the 19th century, those on the losing side could expect to suffer, but after news of the Cawnpore massacre spread, the suffering of Indians was on a horrific scale. A relief column reached Cawnpore only days after the women and children had been killed and immediately took vengeance on any men who were (or might have been) involved. Prisoners were forced to clean the blood off the floor and walls of the house where the murders had taken place. Many were ordered to lick it off. Muslim prisoners were forced to eat pork and Hindus to eat beef. Then they were executed.

The scale of British reprisals was almost unbelievable. British columns delayed reaching their objectives to take the time to annihilate the adult male populations of entire villages. Trees along the line of march were decorated with the hanged bodies of any men who couldn't conclusively prove that they had had no involvement with the insurrection.

The bloodletting went on for months, largely supported by people in Britain. This cartoon by Tenniel (from Punch magazine) reflects the popular mood.

No one knows how many people died in the reprisals, referred to as 'The Devil's Wind' by Indians. It was a wind that probably cut down 100,000 Indian soldiers but there are no records of civilian casualties, which probably exceeded this figure.

It was not until July 1859 that Lord Canning finally issued a proclamation officially declaring peace in India.
"War is at an end; Rebellion is put down; the Noise of Arms is no longer heard where the enemies of the State have persisted in their last Struggle; the Presence of large Forces in the Field has ceased to be necessary; Order is re-established and peaceful Pursuits have everywhere been resumed."

Friday, 17 July 2015


A hundred and fifty-eight years ago British forces in India were fighting an insurrection which became known in British history as the Indian Mutiny.

The mutiny started at Meerut on 10 May 1857, rapidly spreading to nearby Delhi. Mutinies of Indian troops and outbreaks of rebellion by local leaders soon spread across the whole of north-west India.

In June, the rebellion reached Cawnpore. The events that followed are the subject of what was my second novel, Cawnpore, which was republished by Accent Press earlier this year.

The tiny British force stationed in the town was commanded by General Wheeler, a man coming to the end of a long military career. He had not seriously considered the possibility of the Indian troops and the local leader, Nana Sahib, turning on them. They had made totally inadequate provision for defence. Wheeler’s force consisted of around sixty European artillery men with six guns, eighty-four infantrymen, and about two hundred unattached officers and civilians and forty musicians from the native regiments. In addition, he had seventy invalids who were convalescing in the barracks hospital and around three hundred and seventy-five women and children. They were surrounded by hugely bigger Indian force, supported with cavalry and artillery from 6th to 25th June, the British forces were under continual bombardment by day and sometimes by night. They nevertheless managed to hold out until they were offered safe passage in return for their surrender.

The Indian forces, under Nana Sahib, reneged on the terms of the surrender and attacked the British as they boarded the boats they had been promised would take them to safety. The massacre (and massacre it was, as almost all the soldiers who had survived the siege were killed at the boats) was bad enough, but terrible things happen in war. It was what came next that made Cawnpore a byword for horror for almost a century and was used to justify appalling acts of retribution by the British after the real fighting in India was over.

The European civilians had taken shelter with the army when mutiny broke out at Cawnpore. The men fought alongside the soldiers and were massacred with them. There were, though, around 375 women and children who were also trapped in the siege. It was concern about the safety of these civilians which was a principal reason for the surrender. Many of the women and children were killed at the boats, but after the initial bloodshed, those who survived were taken prisoner. They were kept in a private house. The house was said to have once belonged to the mistress (or 'bibi') of a British officer, and it was therefore called the Bibighar. Around 180 women and children were imprisoned there.

Conditions in the Bibighar were, to put it mildly, poor, but some effort was made to ensure that the prisoners received food and medical attention. They were even occasionally allowed to take the air outside the house – an important concession in a jam-packed building in the summer heat.

It seems likely that Nana Sahib didn't really know what to do with his prisoners. There were those in his court (notably his adoptive father's widows), who demanded that he show mercy to the women and children. Others, though, had a different agenda. As the British forces sent to relieve Cawnpore drew close to the city, the latter group gained the upper hand.

A little before 5.30 in the evening of 15 July, the women of the Bibighar were told that Nana Sahib "had sent orders for their immediate destruction". The soldiers ordered to do the killing refused, most firing instead into the ceilings.

In the end, five men (two of them butchers) went into the Bibighar with swords and cleavers and set about hacking all those within to death. Their leader hacked with such a combination of enthusiasm and incompetence that he twice broke his sword and had to send out for new ones.

The next morning, the bodies were removed and thrown down a nearby well. It emerged that not all of them were dead, but the wounded were thrown in anyway. Three or four children, who had survived uninjured, ran helplessly around as the bodies were disposed of. Once the adults were all in the well, the children were killed and tossed in after them.

Cawnpore looks at the historical facts from the perspective of a European who finds himself fighting alongside the Indians. He sees the horrors committed by both sides. Decent people are doing terrible things as they are caught in a clash of cultures and civilisations. It is a story without heroes and where there is little chance of a happy ending. Unsurprisingly, it is not my best selling book, though it is the one I am most proud of (and it has had some lovely reviews).

A hundred and fifty-eight years after the massacre, it is worth reminding ourselves of where the ideals of British colonialism (and there were idealists amongst the colonisers) could all too easily end up.