Wednesday, July 25, 2012


A couple of unconnected recommendations lately led me to make a start on Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander, but I don’t know that it will become much more than a start. I liked the first chapter, in which the exuberant Aubrey irritates the restrained Maturin by bopping along to a string quartet, but as soon as they get anywhere near a boat, the text just explodes with obsolete sailing terms, and I got bored looking them all up. Here Stephen Maturin, high in the rigging of Jack Aubrey’s ship, and suspicious of his guide Mowett, tries to forestall any malicious intent:
        ‘Tell me,’ said Stephen, to keep the young man talking at any cost, ‘tell me, what is the purpose of this platform, and why is the mast doubled at this point? And what is this hammer for?’
        ‘The top, sir? Why, apart from the rigging and getting things up, it comes in handy for the small-arms men in a close action: they can fire down on the enemy’s deck and toss stink-pots and grenadoes. And then these futtock-plates at the rim here hold the dead-eyes for the topmast-shrouds – the top gives a wide base so that the shrouds have a purchase: the top is a little over ten foot wide. It is the same thing up above. There are the cross-trees, and they spread the topgallant-shrouds. You see them, sir? Up there, where the look-out is perched, beyond the topsail yard.’
        ‘You could not explain this maze of ropes and wood and canvas without using sea-terms, I suppose. No, it would not be possible.’
Possibly this kind of thing recedes as the reader becomes more familiar with the terminology, but it struck me as a clumsy (if self-aware) way to dramatise a technical explanation.

More to my taste is Olivia Manning’s The Great Fortune, the first book in her Fortunes of War series. In this scene the Western journalists of Bucharest are gathered together for a stern briefing by the authorities about the benign nature of the previous day’s assassination of the Romanian prime minister. Yakimov is a charming scrounger, masquerading as a journalist chiefly for the food and drink:
Inchcape sat askew, his legs crossed at the knee, an arm over his chairback and his cheek pressed back by his fingertips. He looked sourly at Yakimov, who took the chair beside him, and said: ‘Something fishy about all this.’
        Yakimov, seeing nothing wrong but fearing to betray again his inexperience in the cunning world of journalism, murmured, ‘Quite, dear boy, quite!’ His tone lacked conviction and caused Inchcape to wave an irritable hand at the buffet.
        ‘Roped off!’ he said. ‘Why? Never saw such a thing before at a public function. These people are nothing if not hospitable. And what are all these damned insolent flunkeys doing here? Are they on guard? Or what?’ In an excess of indignation, he jerked round his head and stared at the back rows.
All at once, the scene opens up, through the mechanism of character.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


By some margin, my least favourite moment as a blogger was the evening of 23rd December 2010. Packing to go home for Christmas, I was interrupted by a stream of comments on a recent post about Jay Griffiths’ Wild, apparently by the book’s author. The comments didn’t appear on the post, and at first I thought she must be deleting them too, but they later turned up in Blogger’s spam folder. And, in real time, in my email inbox. Five versions of Griffiths’ objections popped up during the course of the evening, here is a sample:
You are writing about Papua New Guinea. I am writing about West Papua. It’s a very, very common confusion, but West Papua is an entirely different country, invaded by Indonesia and suffering a genocide since the early 1960s, as my book relates. The Western world, in a way which is deeply racist, ignores this genocide of 100,000 people but does, however, show concern for the tiny number of Westerners who have been killed in West Papua. Your blog portrays West Papuans as killers rather than victims of a genocide. Further, the villagers killed in self-defence; the missionaries were invading people’s homes and in Britain when a householder has attacked an intruder, they have been treated with great sympathy. The same moral codes apply.
I was mortified, as you might imagine. My blog? Portraying genocide victims as killers? I hadn’t meant to do that. The book’s powerful polemic, which I distrusted stylistically, nevertheless convinced me morally; the section she objected to (which I removed in response to the comments) was intended to be in sympathy with the book’s message, and with the victims she mentioned.

There was a subtext, which might have contributed to the post’s failure. My family’s links to colonialism are not only a matter of record, but of current activity. At a fairly basic level, I struggle with that: it’s clearly wrong, I would have thought, to go to third world countries and practice religious indoctrination. But it’s also clearly wrong for oligarchies to appropriate a country’s mineral wealth without putting the profits back into infrastructure – and under those circumstances, having a first world religious organisation provide education and healthcare services which would otherwise be lacking, is clearly right. So right it makes the religious indoctrination OK? Well... If the exported Christian tradition is already many generations old, it’s not really indoctrination any more, so what’s the harm? Certainly it is far less than the harm that would be caused by withdrawing. This is the unsatisfactory kind of conclusion I tend to arrive at. Of course it’s complicated further (as it should be) by the fact that I am fond of my aunt, uncle and cousin, and they are doing good work, under harsh conditions, for scant reward.

This week I’ve been reading some family history, by my mother’s cousin, about my great-grandparents (his grandparents), and their time in the Belgian Congo, between 1906-16. They went with the Baptist Missionary Society: he ended up as the captain of a steamboat, she, a doctor, started a hospital. There is, to say the least, a disconnect between the information available about them (no letters survive, curiously; there are only photos and a handful of articles published in Baptist newsletters) and other sources which cover the period. In summary:
What happened in the Congo under Leopold’s regime, which lasted from 1885 to 1908, ranks as one of the worst holocausts in human history. Perhaps up to half the population died – between 5 and 10 million people. But this has remained an unknown part of colonial history except to the few who choose to study it. Unlike Jews and black South Africans, the Congolese have not been able to marshal the political clout to draw attention to the appalling things done to them and make this dark time part of human consciousness.
The ‘political clout’ remark echoes Jay Griffiths’ ‘deeply racist’ accusation. There’s no denying that deaths on such a scale are almost incomprehensible tragedies, nor that their lack of currency in general knowledge terms is anything but outrageous. Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Crime of the Congo, recommended as background reading, is very heavy going, a list of atrocities, of casual, institutionalised murders, leading to the de-population of a whole country.

The family history document concludes that the Baptist Missionary Society was complicit in this situation, but finds no reason to criticise my great-grandparents specifically. The organisation failed in its duty to speak out; they got on with the duty of their day-to-day work. Here is the Society’s ulterior motive:
Robert Arthington, who continued to provide funds for the expansion of the mission, was gripped by the belief that the Second Coming would not happen until ‘the Gospel had been preached in all the world’. The overriding purpose of the mission was to spread eastwards and to make converts. The determination to expand, to create a chain of Protestant mission stations across the breadth of Africa, was what impelled those who controlled the BMS.
They were there to expand, not to help people; and to – get to the Protestant Second Coming before the Catholic one happened? It’s nonsense. Healthcare is shown to be similarly suspect: it ‘attracted large numbers of local people […], providing audiences for evangelism’. Even when they were doing the right thing, they were doing it for the wrong reason.

If the missionaries’ target was expansion, King Leopold’s was profit. His entire administration appears to have been geared towards forcing the Congolese people to harvest red rubber, at first for token remuneration, later for the privilege of not being shot. Bullets were at a premium in this system, and the soldiers on the ground had to account for each one used with a severed hand. This led to the most grotesque form of statistical manipulation I’ve ever heard of. If a bullet was used to kill an animal for meat, a hand still had to be produced, so one would be cut from a living body.

And I don’t wish to reduce a humanitarian catastrophe to a quip.

But this is why.

And the missionary society’s complicity is why.

All targets.

All league-tables.

All economies of scale.

Are bad.

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