A sprawl­ing epic of loy­alty and love in a cold cli­mate

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - BOOKS - EILIS O’HAN­LON

Chatto & Win­dus, hard­back, 384 pages, €31.40

While WH Au­den and Stephen Spender were mak­ing waves as mem­bers of the lit­er­ary group known as the “Thir­ties poets”, their older broth­ers, re­spec­tively John and Michael, were in In­dia, jock­ey­ing for a place on what would even­tu­ally be­come the first suc­cess­ful ex­pe­di­tion to climb Mount Ever­est.

In the in­tro­duc­tion to her new book de­tail­ing the swirling pas­sions and pol­i­tics of that pe­riod, Pulitzer Prize-short­listed au­thor Deb­o­rah Baker de­scribes the first time she en­coun­tered the pa­pers of John Bick­nell Au­den. She was look­ing for “a way to write about In­dia dur­ing World War II”. Th­ese men ev­i­dently suited her pur­poses ad­mirably.

They were of a post-Great War gen­er­a­tion strug­gling to un­der­stand its place in a chang­ing world, as the Bri­tish Em­pire dragged to its in­evitable end and a ris­ing tide of fas­cism in Europe challenged their youth­ful ide­al­ism.

Both found their way even­tu­ally to In­dia, where they be­came em­broiled in the febrile pol­i­tics of in­de­pen­dence, while also shar­ing the se­questered lives of other priv­i­leged Bri­tish­ers of the time.

Michael Spender was a sur­veyor and map­maker who would end up cat­a­logu­ing more than two dozen of the high­est peaks in the Hi­malayas. John Au­den had writ­ten some po­etry at univer­sity, but it was the moun­tains which de­fined him.

It was an age when na­tions strove to prove their su­pe­ri­or­ity over one another by be­ing first to sur­mount hith­erto unimag­in­able chal­lenges and he “seemed to be­lieve that the higher one climbed, the purer grade of man one be­came”.

Af­ter all, as Baker puts it: “Why climb Ever­est if not to as­sert the power of an English­man over the power of na­ture?”

Both men even fell in love with the same woman, a bo­hemian artist by the name of Nancy Sharp, but it was Spender who won her in the end. Both di­vorced their spouses in or­der to marry one another, only for him to die in the fi­nal week of the war.

He’d been drawn back to Bri­tain at the coun­try’s time of great­est need to join the RAF, know­ing with ev­ery mis­sion that “the maths and the num­bers were against him”.

Nancy would live for another five decades, teach­ing and paint­ing. John Bick­nell Au­den mar­ried the grand­daugh­ter of a found­ing mem­ber of the In­dian Na­tional Congress, and en­joyed a dis­tin­guished ca­reer as a ge­ol­o­gist. Baker ob­serves gen­er­ously: “Though he never suc­ceeded in be­ing the first to climb the high­est peaks, no other ex­plorer of his time looked as closely at the moun­tains of the Hi­malayas and the rocks they were made of as John Au­den.”

With such a rich cast of char­ac­ters, The Last English­men: Love, War and the End of Em­pire couldn’t help but be an in­trigu­ing propo­si­tion. Baker’s prose style is rich and flow­ing, am­ple with de­scrip­tive­ness, ac­tion, and sly hu­mour. It’s also bru­tally even-handed in its assess­ment of English rule in In­dia as it edged to­wards free­dom. Win­ston Churchill even wished that he could spare some bombers from the war to put this “foul race”, who “breed like rab­bits”, in their place. More than three mil­lion Ben­galis died in the wartime famine.

The only reser­va­tion is that, as his­to­ri­ans in­creas­ingly take on the tools of the novelist, with con­ver­sa­tions re­pro­duced at length and ver­ba­tim, how is it pos­si­ble to know what’s true and what’s merely spec­u­la­tion, em­bel­lish­ment?

The book be­gins with a list headed ‘Cast of Char­ac­ters’. This drama­tis per­sonae

The book is bru­tally even-handed in its assess­ment of English rule in In­dia as it edged to­wards free­dom

al­most chal­lenges the reader to en­gage with what fol­lows ex­actly as one would a work of fic­tion. An ex­ten­sive bib­li­og­ra­phy in­cludes un­pub­lished pri­mary sources, in­clud­ing John Au­den’s pri­vate jour­nals, and other note­books and type­scripts by var­i­ous par­tic­i­pants and ob­servers to the events re­counted in the nar­ra­tive, some per­son­ally trans­lated for the au­thor. But ac­knowl­edge­ments are largely seg­re­gated to the notes at the end, rather than be­ing in­cor­po­rated into the text, so it’s not im­me­di­ately clear where the sources end and the book based on them be­gins.

That is prob­lem­atic on many lev­els. Quot­ing di­rectly from th­ese orig­i­nal sources, with con­cur­rent ac­cred­i­ta­tion, en­riched by some ed­i­to­rial com­men­tary from the au­thor to ex­plain the prove­nance, would have been more sat­is­fy­ing. It would also have avoided some un­nec­es­sary con­fu­sion along the way. Many read­ers will surely start this book with the best and most en­thu­si­as­tic of in­ten­tions, be­fore sadly giv­ing up some­where along the jour­ney, frus­trated by its dawdling, neb­u­lous longueurs.

Rich cast of char­ac­ters: Baker

HIS­TORY The Last English­men Deb­o­rah Baker

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