As all British eyes turn to Cumbria where floods have meant many homes have been deserted and thousands have gone without electricity for several days, but ours have been looking elsewhere. The floods caused by the worst and earliest monsoons for 100 years have led to 100s dying in Tamil Nadu. Chennai(aka Madras) airport has been closed for over a week and the whole area devastated.
After token resistance I agreed to cancel our three week trip starting next week. One of the reasons I wanted to go was that my grandfather, a colonel in the Bombay Grenadiers had run Madras harbour during the Second War. His brother my great uncle Douglas Gracey, was one of Britain’s most successful generals of the War. Their father was awarded a CBE for his work as District Commissioner in the then United Provinces.
My family and Empire was very much to mind when I visited the Artist and Empire show at Tate Britain. Although full of political correctness and a touch of guilt I was more interested in the glorious boys own last stands, the heroic deaths high on the mountain crag and the endless veldt. The pomp ,glory and power-the wonderful confidence of it all,of course all gone. But what larks
My grandfather loved his time in the Indian Army. Between the Wars, while he revelled in the polo, tiger shooting, regimental sports and flying that his photo album illustrate, but his wife my grandmother was bored stiff. My mother had fond memories of her privileged up bringing in Simla and other hill stations. But with the divorce she sided with her mother and I am sure this was an impetus for her life long socialism.
My grandfather had been with Allenby in the liberation of Jerusalem in 1917 and so was present at a key moment in the history of today’s Middle East turmoil. When I spent six months in Nepal teaching every morning the day started with the 200 children on the play/parade ground doing exercises and saying prayers. In the back ground the snow topped peaks of the high Himalaya. I could not but think of my ancestors facing their troops in a similar setting. I will never forget my last assembly with the cheers, garlands and silk scarf gifts of the children.
But Empire lurks elsewhere. Daughter Adelaide(William IV’s Queen) is now living in Sydney. Australia is surely the most amazing geo political achievement of the Empire. Last time I was there I enjoyed a drink with other Old Clayesmorians in the Lord Nelson pub by the harbour.
My brother is a professor in most loyal Kingston, Ontario by the lake. Here Martello towers remind that there was a time when these loyalists had to fight for their lives against Yankee aggressors. Elsewhere a large part of Vivien’s family live in South Africa. I have Canadian cousin who is living in London with her Australian partner. One of my greatest friends lives and works in Nairobi and has an Asian wife.
While at university doing a dissertation on my uncle in Vietnam (45-46),a retired senior officer looked me in the face. “I feel sorry for you” Why? “ What will you do?.You have no Empire to go to.” Somehow we struggled on!
Meawhile at the art show as well as the sound of trumpets blowing and the sight of flags flying I came across one of the great oddities of British history. William Blake’s “The Spiritual Form of Nelson Guiding Leviathan”. Here the hero is wearing only a loin cloth and a halo and wrestles successfully with Leviathan. At his feet is a freed negro slave.A couple of hours research on the internet shows that experts are as confused as any one else by this picture. Twas ever thus with our Billy.
Was this part of the general hero worshp?Was it part of the visionary’s views against war and the state? Was it part of a Hindu presence in British culture etc. Whatever, a real collectors item for this junior Nelson student. See link.