In 2017, the then British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, paid a visit to the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. Approaching the giant Tharawaddy Min bell that hangs in the pavilion, Johnson began muttering lines from Rudyard Kipling’s classic imperial poem The Road to Mandalay:
For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:
“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”
In a scene worthy of TV political satires like Yes Minister the horrified British ambassador, accompanying Johnson, discretely intervened to remind the minister of the danger of offending his hosts: “You’re on mic … Probably not a good idea”.
The incident seems to capture something of the nostalgic spirit, the hold exerted by past imperial glories incongruously rehashed for the modern world, that characterises the contemporary political landscape. The Singapore Grip, the final volume of JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, is now being screened on ITV as a glossy period drama. The novel is built on an awareness of that same self-mythologising of imperial Britons and points up its absurdity.
Vainglorious imperialist attitudes
Farrell is interested in depicting what he called individuals undergoing history: his subject matter, the decline of the British empire. In The Singapore Grip, the focus is on the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in early 1942. The typical Farrellian protagonist – here, Matthew Webb the idealistic son of a deceased rubber magnate – is essentially a bystander to great events. The novel turns on the everyday and the mundane, paying attention to characters’ frantic, incongruous attempts to maintain normality in the face of encroaching chaos.
Although the novel’s celebrated humour is often wry, it sometimes works up to farcical set-pieces which encapsulate the vaingloriousness of the imperial attitudes on show. A high point comes with attempts to fire a female daredevil from a cannon at the Great World amusement park. It is a symbolic enactment of the defence of the colony, which ends with the human projectile missing her target and landing head first in a safety net. Safely captured: “she jumped and arched and flapped like a netted salmon”.
The main target of The Singapore Grip is economic imperialism. Farrell skewers self-serving justifications for indefensible economic practices, which ensure that Europeans cream off the lion’s share of profits from Singapore industries while keeping the local workforce in poverty. At one point, Matthew and his Eurasian girlfriend visit a dying house inhabited by ailing Malay labourers who one-by-one rise from their deathbeds to point an accusing finger at this son of British imperialism.
Early reactions to the ITV adaptation have called out “cultural colonialism” and erasure of Asian bodies. Yet, similar criticisms of the novel would be wide of the mark.
The personal tribulations of the Europeans do offer the main focus, but Farrell punctuates the book with other perspectives. He does so to remind us of those paying the heaviest price for imperial malpractice.
At one point the narrative pulls away from the pampered colonialists to take us into the experience of an elderly Chinese wharf-worker who inhabits a tiny cubicle in a decaying dockside tenement. On a starlit night he leaves the building to visit the privy, oblivious to the first bombing raid over the city by Japanese aircraft which is about to begin:
As he returns, stepping into the looming shadow of the tenement there is a white flash and the darkness drains like a liquid out of everything he can see. The building seems to hang over him for a moment and then slowly dissolves, engulfing him. Later, when official estimates are made of this first raid on Singapore (61 killed, 133 injured), there will be no mention of this old man for the simple reason that he, in common with so many others, has left no trace of ever having existed either in this part of the world or in any other.
Far from erasing marginal figures, Farrell reinserts them in a challenge to that very act of historical erasure.
Farrell’s novel is most notable, however, for its comic evisceration of a certain imperial style, a kind of bluster familiar once more as we live through a time in which the inequities of the past are downplayed and patriotic slogans replace a truthful reckoning with the challenges of the present. For us today, JG Farrell’s ability to prick the alluring delusions of the British Empire is more relevant than ever.