Monday, 14 July 2014

Beyond the Call of Duty

His Majesty's Confidential Agent has been written as the first of a series of books which will follow the adventures (initially real, but increasingly fictional as the series goes on) of James Burke. My hero owes more than a little to Flashman and, although it's not intended as primarily military history, you can't set a series of adventure stories around the Napoleonic wars without there being a lot of military stuff in them. So it was interesting for me to read Fred Lilley's book Beyond The Call Of Duty. His hero, Charles Sherrington Bagshott, has been at all the most exciting British military engagements from Burma in 1853 to Sudan in 1883, bravely fighting for Queen and country.

I really, really wanted to hate this book. Any book which starts (apparently without any irony) with the famous aphorism Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, is alien to our modern way of thinking. Surely people rejected this notion once Wilfred Owen had thoroughly discredited it in World War I? Lilley, though, seems to have missed modern attitudes to colonial warfare altogether. In a blog post of his, he claims, with an innocence that one almost has to admire, that British troops never took reprisals against civilian populations. Anybody who knows anything about the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny, to name just one example close to my heart, will know that that is rubbish.

Packing so many campaigns into one book, means that the book reads more like a series of very short stories than a single novel. It provides an instant summary of the British Army actions in the mid- 19th century and, somewhat my irritation, it proves to be very good.

Because I researched the Indian Mutiny quite carefully for my own book, Cawnpore, I read that bit with particular care, in order to see how historically accurate this novel is. The answer is that, like most people (probably including me in some of my books), Lilley gets quite a lot of the fine detail wrong. He does, however, have a good grasp of the general sweep of history and of the role that the British Army played. More importantly, in terms of reading pleasure, it's really rather well written. It's not a long book and it races from one thrill packed incident to another without too much time for the reader’s interest to flag. There are some attempts to make Bagshott into a rounded and credible figure (he's given an Indian wife and twin sons, for example) but he remains somewhat two-dimensional. This is probably inevitable, given the sort of book that it is, and not necessarily that much of a bad thing. Lilley sees the British Army as officered by brave, patriotic men who are convinced of the rightness of their cause and don't think too much about the politics of the situations they find themselves in. Bagshott epitomises these values to the point of caricature and any attempts to turn him into a "real" person with self-doubt and moral uncertainties would undermine the whole raison d'ĂȘtre of the book.

When I was born, Empire Day was still celebrated every 24th May. In my lifetime, the Empire has gone from being a source of pride to something that the British feel vaguely ashamed of. My books, The White Rajah and Cawnpore, both try to show that the relationship between colonisers and the people they colonised was less black-and-white than we tend to see it nowadays. To that extent, Beyond The Call Of Duty is a useful antidote to the contemporary view that British colonialism was a wholly bad thing that is best forgotten about. That doesn't make its underlying assumptions and attitudes right, but it does make an interesting read.

Buy it for a Guardian reader for Christmas.

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