by Riaz Dean

• Casemate

• £20 (hardback)

The phrase seems pure early Kipling, resonantly conjuring a sepia-washed Raj-era south Asia, a Flashman’s paradise of espionage and derring-do in the Hindu Kush and the Korakorum: the Great Game. As Riaz Dean points out, the coinage comes not from Kipling – though his novel Kim brought the knifeedge geopolitic­s of the northern Indian border evocativel­y to life, and gave them an indelible rinse of romance – but from Captain Arthur Conolly, in a letter of 1840. Historian Gerard Morgan gave the term short shrift: ‘It belittles what was a deadly serious affair marked by many serious diplomatic and strategic blunders from which few emerge with credit.’ Dean’s particular focus here is on the truly remarkable work done in the service of the ‘game’ by the men who mapped the territorie­s of Afghanista­n, Turkmestan and even forbidden Tibet, carrying on a desperatel­y dangerous interplay of exploratio­n, cartograph­y and espionage in what is the most unforgivin­g of landscapes.

Forceful, fiercely driven administra­tor-scientists such as William Lambton and George Everest (painted here as intriguing­ly different characters) push along the visionary Great Trigonomet­rical Survey, a decades-long mission to triangulat­e the subcontine­nt; Captain Thomas Montgomeri­e initiates the deployment of daring native

‘pundits’ such as Abdul Hamid, Nain Singh and Kishen Singh to gather informatio­n in the northern mountains. All of this takes place with the havering say-so of the London-Calcutta administra­tion, in and between countless regional sub-states and potentates, and under the nose of an imperial Russia with one eye on British India.

Within this big picture, it is Dean’s instinct for telling and cherishabl­e details that really sets this magnificen­t book apart. As we zoom and pan from the horrors of the Afghan Wars to, let’s say, the technical requiremen­ts of baseline measuremen­t (‘Lambton concluded that a one-degree variation in ambient temperatur­e would increase the overall length of his chain by 7½ thousandth­s of an inch’), we see that this is not just a contrast drawn for drama but a central fact of the ‘game’ – fastidious, pedantic and painstakin­g in every sense.

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