SIMON MATTHEWS on the Empire Trilogy of novelist JG Farrell (1935-79).
Odd decade, the 1970s. After forty years, in many ways we still haven’t left it. The politics and mythology of Margaret Thatcher from 1975 (main theme: ‘we couldn’t carry on with the country being run the way it was’), the abandonment of consensus and, post 1979, the political settlement she enforced. As Andy Beckett notes in Promised You a Miracle, his 2015 study of the period from the year Thatcher was elected to 1983, the UK continues to go down the road clearly marked out by the changes enacted at that point. In summary, the SDP launch, with its theatrics, failure and consequences (for the Labour Party), followed by the triumphalism of Britain’s victory in the brief war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands led to the imposition of the economic architecture that still dominates our everyday life.
Culturally too the 1970s still resonate. Musically, it brought punk (notably the rebirth of the classic guitar-band sound, cut back to 2-3 minutes long; the Jam, Buzzcocks, the Clash), electronic disco (Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer) and hard urban funk (Parliament), all of which remain contemporary decades later.
In literature and theatre, Martin Amis, David Hare, David Edgar and Tom Stoppard are still with us. Others left powerful legacies, even if the authors themselves are now deceased. J.G. Ballard’s trilogy of Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise, with its emphasis on gated communities for the ultra-rich, celebrities and transgression, remains relevant, as confirmed by the critical and audience response to High-Rise when a film adaptation finally appeared (after forty-one years) in 2016.
And, of course, there was the other J.G. – J.G. Farrell. (Has any other decade produced two eminent writers with the same initials?) Like Ballard, his trilogy, Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip appeared in the 1970s. Hugely significant literary events when published, they remain in print and are still widely read.
A product of the 1930s, Farrell was born in Liverpool, moved back to Ireland with his family as a child and grew up in the cold, austere Catholic Dublin of the 1940s and 1950s. He found solace, as had Joyce and Beckett (and Wilde), in Paris from 1960, where he taught, tutored and wrote. A debut novel appeared in 1963 and two more in the following four years. Reviews were reasonable, but sales modest and their impact minimal. The latter of these A Girl in the Head (1967) contains the seeds of ideas that he would later explore: set in a down-at-heel English seaside town, its central character, supposedly a Polish Count, turns out to be Mick Slattery from Limerick, and the plot focuses on shabby gentility, decaying buildings and people who are ludicrous and not quite what they seem.
Hugely reworked, these themes re-emerged in Troubles (1970), the book where Farrell found his voice and made his reputation. He was thirty-five. It seems that sometime in the late ‘60s he became aware of how suddenly the British Empire had ended. Whereas his earlier books described the interior world of feelings, day dreams and small personal events, he suddenly shifted gear into works that reflect the sweep of history. In one sense this was part of the zeitgeist.
Post-colonial fiction and post-colonial studies abounded at the time: Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth), Chinua Achibe (Things Fall Apart) and VS Naipaul, who won the Booker in ’71. The prevailing anti-imperialist (and anti-Vietnam) agenda also influenced many and for Farrell – writing, like Ballard, as an outsider to the events he describes – the civil rights protests in Northern Ireland were another factor.
In Troubles the events take place in a huge crumbling old hotel in Ireland in 1919, inhabited by elderly Anglo-Irish gentry. Reliant on the police, and increasingly the army, to secure the surrounding countryside, the setting is a metaphor for the power structures then prevailing in Ireland and the attitudes of the English, who emerge as class-obsessed, with no awareness of how others see them, not much knowledge of the circumstances caused by their rule locally, and very little common sense.
Farrell’s tone is ironic and satirical and his narrative, though fiction, is amplified by the inclusion of press articles that actually appeared in the UK press about Ireland in 1919-1921. The nature of these – relentlessly cheerful, complacent that nothing bad can ever happen, confident that everyone ‘sensible’ shares the view of the writer – is part-delusional and part deliberate misinformation, given that their upbeat tone is maintained until one week prior to Irish Independence. The book ends with the English residents, representing the long-established Protestant Ascendancy, and whose power turns out to have been largely illusory, vacating rather hurriedly – after which the decrepit and badly maintained structure is symbolically burnt down and collapses into ruin.
His second success came with The Siege of Krishnapur (1973). As with Troubles, this is rendered in a satirical and at times semi-comic fashion as we follow the fate of a group of English colonial types marooned in a town during the Indian Mutiny. Throughout the narrative they remain confident of their military and moral superiority, only for their true character to be revealed as the fighting intensifies – at once brutal, blundering, and dishonest.
Perhaps this debunking of Empire through a kind of comedy of circumstances owed some of its success to the Flashman franchise which appeared in 1969 and produced several sequels. The author of these, George MacDonald Fraser, portrayed the ruling class as immoral; part-chancers, part-predatory libertines, part-skivers, part-cowards. There are echoes too of Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet (from 1966) which explored the demeanour, racism and brutality of the English officer- and administrator-class (including the wives) during the end of British rule in India. Particularly the brutality, a feature that was ignored in the UK during the Empire itself, and indeed still is in some quarters.
Farrell seems to be pitched at a mid-point between these two contemporaries: he accurately records his characters as they were, with stiff upper lips until the very end – and all these accounts are in their own ways typical of the late ‘60s anti-heroic take on the Empire. Hailed as a masterpiece, Krishnapur won Farrell the Booker Prize. (In keeping with the tone of the book his acceptance speech attacked the awards sponsors for their role in agriculture in the Third World, possibly the ‘done thing’ at the time given that the previous winner, John Berger in ‘72, had donated his winnings to the British Black Panther Party.)
The parallels with the Raj Quartet lead us to the final part of Farrell’s trilogy: The Singapore Grip (1978) a massive panoramic account of the UK’s biggest military collapse, with many historical figures appearing in the text. Like Ballard’s later Empire of the Sun (1984) this deals with the delusional attitudes of the colonial and military class before, during and after their defeat. As with Troubles, the English are unaware of their impending fate, (which, incompetently, they in part bring on themselves), unaware of how others see them, and even largely unaware of their surroundings and the day-to-day lives of the local population. And like Troubles the book is punctuated by extracts from news reports published in local papers during the military collapse in the Far East in 1941-1942. These are consistently at odds with what actually happened and combine delusional, and often casually racist, wishful thinking with deliberate concealment of serious reverses.
Read today, one is struck by how Farrell writing in the ‘70s carefully avoids the clichés, disinformation and scapegoating that characterized British accounts of the campaign for decades. The ‘line’ post 1945 was that Singapore was lost because ‘the guns were all facing the wrong way’ (they weren’t), coupled with a sotto voce campaign targeting Arthur Percival as a useless commander (he wasn’t). Farrell avoids both of these caricatures.
We now know that Singapore was lost because no one on the ground was in overall control. The Colonial Governor and his administration remained in situ and if they wished could overrule all others; the Australian armed forces reported back to their own government in Canberra; the Navy often followed Admiralty instructions issued in London; and Winston Churchill, from time to time, interfered as well. Many of the players in the drama avoided responsibility and Percival was never fully in charge of events. On the technical side, there were no tanks in Malaya (the Japanese had about 100, not of great quality but sufficient to cause the British real difficulties), the RAF were outnumbered and had many novice pilots (official histories state that the aircraft available were obsolete, this is not necessarily true), and as the ground battles developed many Indian Army troops changed sides (one unit shooting their officers before they did so), while many more Australians deserted.
Most significantly of all, though, Singapore and Malaya were lost because of the psychological outlook of most of the English and Australian commanders: they lacked imagination. Brought up to fight textbook-type battles in a fairly leisurely fashion, they couldn’t cope with the standard Japanese tactics of working around any defensive position to attack it from the rear. In response they kept retreating – at increasing speed – whilst attempting to establish a ‘new’ front line, often of parade-ground straightness. After seventy days, this reached its logical conclusion with Percival and his men boxed into a cordon around Singapore itself.
In other words, Singapore fell primarily because of the incompetence of the colonial regime and in particular its officer class, not because of technical arguments about the types of aircraft, guns pointing the wrong way or the brilliance of the Japanese, however daring and accomplished they were. One is reminded of Orwell’s comment (then) that although the Battle of Waterloo might have been won on the playing fields of Eton, every subsequent battle had been lost there.
Farrell’s achievement in plotting and writing a complex narrative that hasn’t dated forty years later is remarkable, given that it was written at a time when relatively little about the loss of Malaya and Singapore to the Japanese was in the public domain, other than diaries, biographies, ‘official’ histories and the like. His account remains very fair. A contemporary review noted ‘the late Paul Scott’s readership should welcome this fanciful but raspingly valid account of the fall of Singapore’.
At nearly 700 pages – and with its huge cast of participants, parasitical Brits, downtrodden natives, Japanese, French, Americans, Malays and Chinese watching which way the wind blows – it reminds one in some ways of those sprawling ‘60s and ‘70s feature films that covered battles and campaigns of historical significance. The template might be The Longest Day (1962) though that lacks central civilian characters, and is about events that went well rather than badly. Dino de Laurentiis’s Waterloo (1970) makes for a better comparison since it was directed by Sergei Bondarchuk, whose prior work included an immense adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1967). Farrell once compared himself to Tolstoy, noting that he was thirty-five when Troubles appeared, whereas Tolstoy had finished his masterpiece at thirty-eight.
So was Farrell consciously trying to do something epic, something Tolstoyian in the ‘70s? Quite possibly. Except, it would not be either heroic or about national redemption. Instead it would portray the British Empire as it really was.
Enjoying his royalties, Farrell went to live in County Cork in April ’79, buying a house in a remote coastal area, the first property he had ever owned. On 11 August he slipped whilst casting a fishing line and was swept away and drowned in the rough Atlantic seas. He was only forty-four and his loss stunned contemporaries. Salman Rushdie’s comments (thirty years later) remain typical: ‘Had he not died so young, there is no question that he would today be one of the really major novelists of the English language’.
What else might he have written? He quit the UK a month before Thatcher became PM. Surely the events of her premiership would have been fertile soil for him. Would there have been a Falklands novel? Or later still one about Tony Blair and Iraq? Or even something about the follies of Brexit? (He would have been eighty-one when the referendum took place, so not impossible).
Instead, there were no hidden manuscripts, no posthumously published classics found locked away in study drawers. A belated TV adaptation of Troubles appeared in 1988. Originally intended as a starring project for Michael Palin, it had to be restarted and completed a year later with Ian Charleson in main role. The casting of Palin suggests an attempt to present the story as something more akin to an Ealing comedy, like Palin’s earlier hits The Missionary and A Private Function. Television will also be the forum for a Singapore Grip mini-series, due in 2020; like Ballard, Farrell seems to be reaching the screens after a delay of forty years. Directed by Tom Vaughan – whose prior credits include rom coms with Cameron Diaz and Miley Cyrus, as well as several stately episodes of Victoria – it is to be hoped that the tone will reflect the original narrative, rather than any attempt at presenting yet another elegant UK period drama.
When published, Farrell’s trilogy seemed an accurate, but largely historical, record of past social and cultural attitudes. Even in the case of Ireland, despite the horrors of the ‘70s, it was hard not to think that we had all moved on, and that the world of De Valera, Michael Collins and Kevin Barry was long past. We were wrong. For much of the forty years that followed Farrell’s death, the default mode, more often than not for UK fiction was irony and detached observation, rather than anything class-based.
The juggernaut of Brexit has changed everything, and the media reports and op-eds that have appeared daily since early 2016 – across many channels, publications and platforms – have given us an extensive library of assertions and opinions that faithfully replicate, in tone, those selected by Farrell for inclusion in Troubles and The Singapore Grip. Their delusional self-serving tone, indifference to consequences (indeed, ignorance even of what the consequences might be), hostility to reason and absurdly overblown optimism were all recorded by Farrell forty-plus years ago.
For anyone reading his work now, the conclusions are swift: the grim theatre of Brexit is our Singapore and the attitudes of Empire have come home with a vengeance.
also from Simon Matthews: