This book has been at the back of my mind for some reason, so I dug it out for a re-read after, what, 40 years or more. It is one of George Orwell’s most powerful and best novels. Let’s get it clear, I am one of those currently politically-incorrect people who believe the British Empire did far more good in the world than critics (who tend to concentrate on single events or themes) would have you believe. And in any case, as a historian, I would argue that it is absolutely impossible to set huge infrastructure improvements, educational and civilising influences, the keeping of the peace world-wide for long periods, etc etc against slavery in the early stages of the Empire, and various unjustifiable (in today’s terms) massacres and ill-treatment of subject nations. The Empire was of its time. It was what it was. However this novel by Orwell is a very, very powerful rebuke to people like me and an antidote to any positive reading of the ‘benefits’ of Empire. I was surprised to find out that this was Orwell’s first novel. It certainly doesn’t read like a first. Basically it tells the tale of a minor English player in Burma in the waning days of the Empire, how he lives and loves, how he reacts unsuccessfully to the embittered views of other members of the Club in the little town in Burma where the story is set. The story doesn’t have a happy ending, and the protagonist’s life and death are perhaps a metaphor for Empire itself. It is based actually on Orwell’s own experiences, he spent five years from 1922 to 1927 as a police officer in the Indian Imperial Police force in Burma. In a letter from 1946, Orwell said “I dare say it’s unfair in some ways and inaccurate in some details, but much of it is simply reporting what I have seen”. It was dynamite in its day and only published in the States at first, and it’s not hard to see why. In my opinion a great read.
We recently found a WHSmith’s remainder outlet in Plymouth. I have never seen one before. Anyhow it inevitably led to the buying of some books. We got a Peter James signed hardback ‘Dead Man’s Time’ for £6, not bad. It has been my bedtime reading. As always Peter has interesting characters including his protagonist DS Grace. But all the major and minor actors are well-drawn. And as always there is a slightly unusual story line. In this case a 95 year old wanting revenge for something that happened in his childhood, and revenge for the recent torture and murder of his elder sister. The plot is interesting and takes lots of turns. Brighton doesn’t feature quite as much as in some of his novels…a shame as I like a strong ‘Place’ element. But with the plot capturing you and lots of small chapters (ideal for bedtime reading) what’s not to like. Procedure, one assumes, is exemplary as Peter has intimate access to lots and lots of Police folk in Brighton and he makes full use of his detailed knowledge of how the Police work. All in all another thoroughly enjoyable novel by one of the creme de la creme in Crime writers.
We saw recently the Mike Leigh film ‘Peterloo’. Maxine Peak, one of my favourite actresses, is one of the main characters. A review I had read in The Times had slated it, mainly it seems on the grounds that there was too much dialogue in meetings etc and not enough action. How feeble critics are. What a world we live in where there has to be movement and action all the time! It was quite long at two and a half hours but I didn’t notice this ……unlike The Times critic I was absorbed. What it is about is the background to, and the events of, the Peterloo ‘massacre’ in 1819. The Guardian precises it nicely…’ On 16 August 1819, at what we would now call a pro-democracy demonstration in St Peter’s Field, Manchester, an excitable band of cavalry and yeomanry – whose commander had airily absented himself for a day at the races – charged with sabres drawn into a crowd of 60,000 unarmed people, many of whom were unable to escape the enclosed space. The troops killed 18 and injured hundreds more……It was Britain’s 19th-century mix of Sharpeville and Hillsborough. The government was entirely delighted with the result, and not displeased with the nickname “Peterloo”, as it felt like a rerun of its victory over Napoleon, the creature of something it continued to fear intensely: the French Revolution.’ But the thing is, it was in many ways a victory for democracy – for never again would any Government allow such dramatic military actions to be taken against people expressing their free will in a public meeting. And eventually the Great Reform Act and Anti-Corn Laws legislation would be passed. It also led The Times to take up, to some degree, the whole issue of Reform, and almost directly led to the founding of The Manchester Guardian ( a great newspaper, sadly since its move to London a shadow of its former self). So a film on very important issues with some relevance to today and a topic ‘Peterloo’ which is hardly on the syllabus in schools. Mike Leigh himself has said children should be taught about Peterloo. “They will know about 1066 and Magna Carta and Henry VIII and his six wives and they may be told about the French revolution and the battle of Waterloo … [The massacre] was a major, major event which resonated down the 19th century into the 20th century in the context of democracy and suffrage.” Manchester Histories, a charity, is leading the campaign for Peterloo to be taught in all schools. What I didn’t like about the film (this and many others!) was how unrealistic the settings and stages were. It’s all very well finding a great location but covering the streets with sand of all things in order to hide yellow parking lines just doesn’t cut the mustard. The same with the characters. The poor of Manchester were atrociously dirty and smelly. It’s no use just dressing them up in costumes Hollywood-style. And everywhere was so clean. In reality you couldn’t see a hand in front of you because of the smoke and the smog. All wrong, wrong wrong……..