Fresh from Theresa May’s new “global Britain” — “a country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike” — Boris Johnson turned up last week in Kolkata. People seemed drawn to his size. His host, West Bengal’s chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, spoke of him as a “big man” in the British government. A Kolkata daily, the Telegraph, carried pictures of him playing cricket with the children of the Bournvita Cricket Academy and answering a question from students at Presidency University: “Boris big with bat & words” was the headline.
The reports were affectionate. Johnson may be many things — a fraud, a ruthless careerist, a mountebank — but the fact is that foreigners smile when they say his name — “Boris!” — even, or perhaps especially, the people of Bengal, or at least that fairly large section of them who grew up with PG Wodehouse, whose novels have delighted the Kolkata elite, the bhadralok, over several generations. (And here I don’t simply repeat a ready-made generalisation. I know it from experience. Some years ago we were having a household dispute about how long it would take to reach Shropshire by train. “About two hours 30 minutes from Paddington,” said a young Bengali visitor who had never been to England before. We asked how on earth he would know, to have the calm reply: “That’s how long it took to reach Blandings.”)
Boris, in other words, meets local expectations of a certain kind of Englishman: a large, untidy, sometimes florid personage with a gift for comic speech and the self-ironising trick, yet to be discovered by Indian politicians, of seeming not to take himself too seriously. Newspapers mentioned the staging posts in his career — Eton, Balliol, the Oxford Union — and noticed that as a “proud Oxonian” he referred to his alma mater more than once. But these things, too, made him attractive because Kolkata knows and appreciates these old names, which have been popping up in certain kinds of conversations for centuries in a city that reveres academic distinction, especially when won abroad. And in any case, which member of Wodehouse’s Drones Club could possibly have a degree from Birmingham?
I was staying in a club myself during Johnson’s visit and read about it in the morning papers after a white-liveried club servant delivered the breakfast omelette and toast. The Bengal Club is very old, the oldest institution of its kind in India, with a foundation date of 1827 that predates the Garrick and the Reform in London.
When Kolkata (then Calcutta) was the capital of British India and the second-largest city in the British Empire, the men who administered the Raj and ran its commerce came here to gossip and relax: governors-general, judges, senior army officers, the chairmen of jute and shipping companies — and all of them white until after independence, with the first Indian president installed as late as 1968 and the last British one departing in 1977. By which time, class and race exclusivity had shrunk the membership so much that to avoid bankruptcy the club sold off its magnificent main building, which in photographs looks as grand as the grandest seafront hotel, and downsized to an annex at the rear.
To many in the city, it was the demolition of the Bengal Club that symbolised the end of significant British influence in Bengal. Indian independence in 1947 had not brought that change. The big British companies and managing agencies survived for at least another 20 years. Imperial Tobacco, Brooke Bond, ICI, Shaw Wallace, MacKinnon Mackenzie, Andrew Yule: these and a dozen other once-powerful names went on employing staff sent out from Britain, so that in the 1960s Kolkata still contained a European population of several thousand, living cosseted lives in the southern suburbs pretty much as their imperial predecessors had done.
And yet by 1977, when I first visited the city, nearly every one of them had gone. It was possible to spend a week in Kolkata and, other than in the lobby of one or two hotels, never see a white face. Indian takeovers and the ‘Indianisation’ of staff explained some of this retreat, but the larger reason was the wider economic and social context. The industrial economies of both Britain and Bengal were in trouble; the city had struggled to cope with an influx of refugees from the Bangladesh war at the same time as facing down a violent Maoist insurrection. International airlines stopped calling. People wanted to get out.
In the 1970s, very little evidence could be found of the expatriate culture that had flourished as recently as the previous decade. An old-fashioned grocer’s called Great Eastern Stores contained the city’s last few bottles of Angostura bitters, which makes pink gin pink. Smokers at the Bengal Club had to wait until 2pm to light up in the dining room — 2pm had once been the hour of the loyal toast. Gothic and classical architecture, gravestones, street names, English-language newspapers, tramcars, the drift of smoke from a faraway jute mill: all spoke to the city’s imperial history (sometimes in the commercial centre you imagined yourself in Glasgow or Manchester) but the minds and behaviour of the people who had made these things were harder to grasp.
Last week I toured some of the same sites that I had on my first visit — St Paul’s Cathedral, St John’s Church, the bombastic Victoria Memorial — and on stone tablets and statues in each of them read chiselled inscriptions to duty and sacrifice, which were lauded as the key personal qualities in the success of the mid-to late empire.
The dead, typically, had discharged their duties with “firmness, rectitude and ability”; they had been equal to every emergency; their modest and unaffected bearing had won the love and respect of all who knew them. They had died in armed uprisings, monsoon floods, shipwrecks and from fever and disease, and reading their memorials had a lowering effect on me: I felt I was made of far inferior stuff.
There’s a good chance that this is true. On the other hand, where were the memorials to the East India Company traders who spent their nights pickled in Madeira and claret, who vomited from this excess in their swaying palanquins, who looted the Bengali economy to go home as “nabobs” to their fine English houses?
If we want a reflection of ourselves, the 18th century offers a better mirror than the 19th — just as the great diarist (and amorist) William Hickey seems closer to our own times than the prose of a Victorian headstone. Hickey, who lived in Kolkata in the 1780s, draws memorable vignettes of social decadence and mayhem. He sees a drunk army chaplain running about stark naked and “talking all sorts of bawdy and ribaldry”. He notices that the sport of flicking bread pellets at other dinner guests has become fashionable — and records how a Captain Morrison brings the fashion to an end when he throws a leg of lamb at someone who’s flicked bread at him, knocking him from his chair, and then wounding him in the subsequent duel.
Boris, Nigel and the lads would seem likely to have a feeling for such a society, supposing they weren’t perfectly at home in it. It may even represent the ideal of the swashbuckling, freebooting age to which we are bidden to return.
— Guardian News and Media Limited
Ian Jack writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He edited the Independent on Sunday from 1991 to 1995 and Granta magazine between 1995 and 2007. Three anthologies of his work have been published