Writing fiction about the empire is hardly new: a great deal of apparently sober imperial history is quite creative. In fact, pretty well whatever we’ve been led to believe about the Empire, positive or negative, wasn’t the way it seems. It wasn’t one institution; it wasn’t ruled exclusively either by rapacious capitalists or high-minded do-gooders; it was neither universally loved nor hated. In short, ‘it’ is extremely hard to define.
I’ve rediscovered this to my cost. I’ve just written a novel set in the 1890s and with the British Empire as its backdrop (DISTANT THUNDER, by T.D.Griggs, Orion, 2012). It gave me a good deal of grief.
I’m a typical woolly minded middle class liberal and I don’t know anyone who’s prepared to say out loud that the British Empire was a Good Thing. I agree, more or less. But I am seduced by its glamour. I am dazzled by the confidence and courage of young men who were given power of life and death over remote territories the size of European countries. I’m drawn to the sheer thrill of a soldier’s life in the world’s wild places. I envy these people, their certainty, their clear sense of duty, their hardihood and resourcefulness.
At the same time, even as I wrote DISTANT THUNDER, I found myself asking whether one might make a case for admiring the Third Reich for the same things. This caused me a good deal of soul searching - and if you read the book, you’ll see that these questions torture my characters too, so I hope I’ve balanced the argument.
|Tim Griggs explores the merits of the British Empire|
In particular I found that the process of writing drew upon debates I’ve had with my Greek Cypriot sister-in-law on the subject of empire. These talks have altered my instinctively British reactions to the issue without my realizing it. She grew up with British soldiers on the streets of Nicosia: to her they were invaders, a hated army of occupation. I argued that the British never invaded Cyprus, that Cyprus had never been independent and therefore couldn’t aspire to winning back its ‘freedom’. She’d claim that the British deliberately held back Cypriot development, especially education, and she’d cite as proof the wealth and sophistication of the island now that we Brits have been gone for fifty years.
I answer that without British influence Cyprus would be an impoverished Turkish possession, and that generations of Cypriots - including her - would never have had a modern education at all. Cyprus’ present day wealth, I’d say, comes from the island being sold to the Russian mafia. She argued that the young men who died fighting to oust the British in the 1950s were heroic partisans; I’d say they were deluded testosterone-packed youths duped by cynical powerbrokers who saw that when the Brits left there would be a vacuum which they could exploit.
And so on.
|About to hit Australian in paperback format during March|
It says something that we’ve always managed to keep these discussions good humoured, but that’s not to say they’ve had no effect. As time has gone on, and as my research into Empire has deepened, I have swung towards her view. I find it harder and harder to convince myself that the Good Things of empire (the promotion of liberal values) could not have been achieved without a formal structure of domination, which often propped up the Bad Things (tyrannical local despots).
I still haven’t solved the problem of order. You need law and order to achieve anything, and some of the places the Brits took over didn’t have much of it until the redcoats arrived. Law and order inevitably involves control and force: you can’t get away from it. Even here in England’s green and pleasant land, your friendly village bobby in the Cotswolds is ultimately backed up by force, even deadly force. To what extent we have a right to impose this on other people ‘for their own good’ is of course debatable. Sometimes, the case seems unanswerable. We probably should have kicked Mugabe out of Zimbabwe, and the West as a whole probably should have intervened in Rwanda (it would have made more sense than Afghanistan). Other times, the arguments are less clear. Take Australia, for example….
But maybe that’s another book.
REDEMPTION BLUES (by T.D.Griggs) is now available for the first time as an e-book on http://tinyurl.com/cgpjhr9. A million sales in hard copies overseas - but it's hardly been read in UK. If you liked DISTANT THUNDER and THE WARNING BELL (by pen-name Tom Macaulay) then let me brighten your universe once again!.