Knowing one's place - Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts

Tony Cunnane's Afterthoughts
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Knowing one's place

Written on 09 July 2011

Before you read this post, please accept my assurance that my use of the word ‘native’ is not in any way ‘racist’; I have used it in the sense of being native to, ie born in, a country other than my native England.
Now, in July 2011, I am halfway through watching the 14 episodes of Granada TV’s Jewel in the Crown based on the Raj Quartet books by Paul Scott. The TV series is currently being re-run on Sky Arts 2 TV. I watched the original transmissions in 1985 and then I read the four books, but this is the first time in 26 years that I’ve come back to them. I can’t remember what I thought of them first time around, but this time I’ve seen the TV episodes in an entirely new light. They're embarrassingly detailed in revealing the truly awful British attitudes towards class and status in India in the 1940s. I’m not really enjoying the re-runs, but they do make compelling viewing.

My early education was at Church of England Primary and Junior Schools in Wakefield in those same 1940s where, apart from religion, reading and writing, the main aim of the teachers seems to have been to introduce us to the British Empire. As a six and seven year old I knew why many of our British coins had the inscriptions ‘fid def, ind imp’ engraved on them and why the maps and atlases we used showed all British 'possessions' in red. I remember learning about Dr Livingstone and missionaries, the various African and Indian peoples and, curiously, the 'pygmy' people of the Belgian Congo. (Pygmy is another word now deemed to be racist.) The indigenous peoples, that is anyone who was not British-born, were always referred to as 'natives'.  It was made clear from our teachers that we were superior to all natives because we were Christians. Dr Livingstone, we learned, was "a very good man" because he was trying to convert them all to Christianity.

NB If you are too young to know, "fid def ind imp" was abbreviated Latin for Defender of the Faith; Emperor of India".

I met my very first foreigners and my first non-white folk, when I stopped overnight at RAF Idris, Tripoli, in 1954 en route to Ceylon. In my diary that day when describing my first meeting with the local people, I wrote the word 'natives' several times. On my second day in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), I wandered off on my own on foot, dressed in my new T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, through the RAF gate and across the main road into Negombo village in the heat of the early afternoon. (I learned later that the RAF didn't work after 1300hrs!) I was appalled at the smells and the squalor – and I was alarmed at the curiosity and hostility that my presence caused. No-one had taught me about that at school! All the villagers could tell that I was just out of UK because my face, arms and legs were pasty white. New arrivals from UK were referred to by servicemen who had been in country more than a week or two as ‘Moon-men’.

When I got back into the safety of the RAF camp, I urgently needed a toilet and it was still a long way to the airmen's accommodation. I soon came across one, or to be precise three, toilet huts on the side of the camp main road. The signs outside each indicated clearly that there were different categories of males (and toilets): British Officers; BORs; Natives. I had to ask a passing airman what BOR meant (British Other Ranks). There was no provision for females, British or otherwise, as far as I could see. I did, however, quickly learn that even in 1954 there were importance differences between the indigenous Sinhalese and Tamils: the latter cleaned toilets, the former certainly did not!

What has all this to do with The Jewel in the Crown? Paul Scott painted a picture of the British Raj that my 1940s teachers, who almost certainly had never travelled beyond Yorkshire, would not have believed. Even the British running the Indian Police were considered inferior to the pukka sahibs and memsahibs. The only satisfaction I've got out of watching the TV series again is that the British living in India were themselves deemed inferior by those who lived ‘at home’ in UK. Everyone had to know their place!

There used to be a 'joke' when I first joined the RAF that officers had ladies, senior NCOs had wives, and other ranks had women!!  Some RAF officers’ wives could be very status conscious when speaking to those whom they considered their inferiors. On one occasion in the early 1970s, a very posh wife announced in a loud voice to a small group of us junior officers attending a social function in the Officers’ Mess, “As I was saying to the wing commander in bed last night. . . . ." One of the officers in our group was about to interrupt with one of his cutting quips for which he was well-known, but seeing warning glances from the rest of us, he remained silent. I cannot now remember what the lady said to the wing commander on the previous night.

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