- The Golden Oriole: Childhood, Family and Friends in India by Raleigh Trevelyan
Secker, 536 pp, £16.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 436 53403 7
Some writers have an unfair start in life. ‘When I was born, in July 1923, my mother was carried on a litter or “dandy” to the hospital by two murderers. My first ayah was a Burmese murderess called Mimi. Our servants were murderers.’ I do not recall Raleigh Trevelyan slipping this information into the lunchtime conversation when he was my publisher (a very helpful and tolerant one – interest duly declared). He was born in the Andaman Islands, the penal settlement run by the Raj off the coast of Burma, where his father, Walter Raleigh Trevelyan, was an Army captain. There may have been chain-gangs clanking away on the roads, and predatory savages on the neighbouring isles, but gracious living was not excluded: Government House had a ballroom the floor of which was polished by two murderers who held a third by the arms and legs and swung him up and down.
The Golden Oriole is a book of travel conceived on a grand and complex scale. It describes five journeys to the Indian subcontinent, all undertaken in order to seek out the background of the writer’s childhood, his parents and his numerous forebears who served in India, either as civilians or soldiers. The least lucky of those kinsmen were the ten who were massacred at Cawnpore in the Mutiny. Numerous lesser trails, some sentimental, some literary, some downright whimsical, are traced out at leisure; and among them are those which lead to persons whose names were not to be mentioned in a child’s hearing and which therefore cry out for investigation. Other people’s obsessions with their roots can be the stuff of yawns, but this elaborately marshalled book – switching from present to past and back again – pulls in the reader resistlessly, as into a vast and many-splendoured souk. The narrative is alive with piquancies, sharp vignettes, comical exchanges, dollops of sense and sensibility, the whole spiced with delectable quotations. It draws not only on family documents, but on the writings of Macaulay, Emily Eden, Lady Canning, Bishop Heber, Kipling, Diana Cooper and Forster; and it comments, sometimes with disfavour, on films like Gandhi, The Far Pavilions and The Jewel in the Crown. If a book on this scale had been written by an American it would have carried acknowledgments to numerous funds and foundations for moneys received, but Raleigh Trevelyan appears to have been self-financing and to have mingled occasional privations with his pleasures (but drawing the line at the unalluring Hotel Decent in Peshawar). He suffered the predictable shocks and importunities of travel, like all those requests for copies of Playboy, along with prohibitions brought about by ‘the political situation’. It took him 14 months to obtain permission to visit his native isle.
Though born in the Andamans, his boyhood was spent in Gilgit, a spectacular version of Shangri-La, cut off most of the year by snow, on the borders of Sinkiang, Afghanistan and the Soviet Union. The Gilgit Agency, another appendage of the Raj, was well located for playing the Great Game and one of the duties of Captain Walter Trevelyan was to interrogate refugees from the Soviets. It took 90 ponies to transport the family there, in 1929, over the 14,000-foot Burzil Pass; en route, the young nanny (who left the author her diaries and albums) suffered ‘Bursilitis’, a severe blistering caused by sun on frosted flesh, and her facial appearance made her look, in her own words, like ‘an Egyptian mummy in specs’. Gilgit was the sort of place destined to see aircraft before it saw motor-cars; the three Wapiti biplanes which came in over the Nanga Parbat range were to be accused of bringing flu with them.
For a boy this wilderness was Paradise enow, yet English enough to sustain a pack of Wolf Cubs. How would it all look a lifetime later? The returning Wolf Cub met a dignitary whose proud visiting card said ‘Rajah Jan-Alam, Sherqulah Punial, Where Heaven and Earth Meet’. The old family bungalow in Gilgit was now occupied by a general but as he was absent there was no obstacle, other than two nervous guards, to prevent a quick snoop round. The same plants the Trevelyans had introduced still flourished in the garden and on the original rockery. Even the well-remembered golden oriole sang there still. On a mountain road the driver, high on hash, had to be restrained from discharging his catapult at a flock of hoopoes which his passengers admired; he had already been involved in a spirited exchange of stones with a madman. In these high places were evocative place-names: Swat, home of the mysterious Akond invoked in Lear’s poem; Malakand, where Churchill was a war correspondent; the pass where Alexander the Great met the naked Gymnosophists.
The other journeys took in Kashmir, Srinagar, the Khyber, Agra, Calcutta, Lucknow, Madras. Among the grimmest visions were those called up at Cawnpore/Kanpur, notably at the Satichaura Ghat where the Europeans sank in their boats which blazed like haystacks, ladies up to their chins in water trying to dodge the hail of bullets. ‘I knew too much,’ admits the author, who had read George Otto Trevelyan’s Cawnpore. (‘What ensues,’ wrote George Otto at one point, ‘an Englishman would willingly tell in phrases not his own,’ and quoted instead the words of ‘a native spy’. Quelle délicatesse!) After the Mutiny, sepoys were blown from guns, in the Moghul fashion: ‘Vultures became accustomed to these executions, and would hover overhead, skilfully catching lumps of flesh, as they flew into the air, “like bears taking buns at the zoo”.’
Some detours were made for intimate personal reasons, like that to the Galle Face Hotel in Sri Lanka, where the author, as his mother informed him, was conceived.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was trying to conjure up for myself there. Music from the ballroom drifting out amongst the Chinese lanterns? Planters and their lady wives dancing the Charleston? ... Perhaps I should have been musing on the creation of life itself.
The hotel sounds romantic enough, with frangipani flowers laid on the pillows and a basket of fruit ‘For Master’. In Lucknow he and his companions were predictably drenched in coloured dyes in the Holi festivities, a religious version of a students’ rag. In Jaipur they saw a bride who had to be fed because her arms were too weighted with jewellery. In Madras a beggar girl outside the hotel mimicked the reproving voice of Sir Angus Wilson, a newly departed guest. In Ootacamund (‘Ooty’), where Macaulay began to write his ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’, an old hand began to spill the sort of not-so-plain tales from the hills which would have delighted Evelyn Waugh: there had been a one-legged sportsman who took a piano stool into the marshes on duck shoots, there was a bossy lady called Mrs Thatcher, and so forth. Srinagar offered ‘the real tomb of Jesus’, but made only half-hearted efforts to exploit it. In Rangoon an old man in a Charles Addams sort of house said ‘Ta awfully’ and ‘See you later, alligator.’ Out of deference to his old Wolf Cub leader at Gilgit, the traveller went to see the tomb of her kinswoman Rose Aylmer, subject of Landor’s much-anthologised poem beginning: ‘Ah, what avails the sceptred race ...’ She was a peer’s sister and, according to William Hickey, died from eating too much pineapple.
Literary trails became spicily intertwined at Chhatarpur, whither E.M. Forster, Lowes Dickinson and R.C. Trevelyan, the poet (son of George Otto) had travelled in 1912, with the usual side-trip to Khajaraho to study erotic carvings. It was at Chhatarpur that, on Forster’s recommendation, J.R. Ackerley had entered the service of the decadent maharajah whom he mercilessly depicted in Hindoo Holiday, the name Chhatarpur being changed, by no means unrecognisably, to Chhokrapur. Chhatarpur was visited not only by the latest literary Trevelyan but by Francis King and Diana Petre, respectively literary executor and half-sister of Ackerley. Was this mass descent really a good idea? The whiff of scandal had subsided somewhat, but there was understandable apprehension as to how the visitors would be received. If Jeffery Farnol had been writing The Golden Oriole the heading to this chapter would have read: ‘Which Tells of a Rash and Perilous Pilgrimage, with some Ill-Assorted Adventurers bearing Propitiatory Gifts to a Palace of Ill Omen, and of a Great Danger Averted’. It has to be added that the scandalous maharajah’s son had his bride chosen for him by another Trevelyan, who happened to be the local Political Agent: Humphrey Trevelyan, later Sir Humphrey, later Lord. The reader will have gathered by now that this is no ordinary travelogue.
Running through the book is an account of the family’s chief pride: Sir Charles Trevelyan, that high-minded administrator who married Macaulay’s sister Hannah and did his best to lay the foundations of Christian democracy in India. This formidable young man, early in his Indian career, had the Resident of Delhi removed for corruption, an audacity which caused a tremendous stir. The victim, Sir Edward Colebrooke, thought that the whippersnapper’s conduct was such as would disgrace a Nero, to which Charles responded: ‘God befriended me and supported my conscience.’ His conscience never stopped him writing indiscreet letters to the papers on official matters, with signatures like ‘Indophilus’ and ‘Philalethes’. ‘The exercise of power seems to suit me’ was one of his sayings, but he was often in trouble for his overzealous attempts to promote the public welfare as he saw it. Income tax, in his view, was a plague worse than war. He had to be removed from the governorship of Madras after a massive indiscretion, but as this book shows, his memory is still highly regarded in that city. This is the same Sir Charles Trevelyan who administered relief work in Ireland during the great potato famine in the 1840s and who, we are here persuaded, was unfairly made chief scapegoat by Cecil Woodham-Smith, in The Great Hunger. He is a dominating figure – it is easy to see why Trollope cast him as Sir Gregory Hardlines in The Three Clerks – and one is grateful whenever the course of the book’s meanderings gives another excuse to appraise his career. Perhaps it is time he had a biography to himself. It was his grandson, G.M. Trevelyan, the historian, who gave Raleigh Trevelyan the excellent advice to trace out the family links with India (his books, up to now, have tended to focus on the Mediterranean).
He did not visit Amritsar, but he quotes from a family friend’s first-hand account of the events leading to the 1919 ‘massacre’ by General Dyer, which helps to alter the focus – to put it mildly – of the unsparing version of that event in the film Gandhi. Nor did he get round to visiting Quetta, where his parents had a narrow escape in the great earthquake of 1936 and worked mightily in the appalling aftermath. Their son wrote from school in England: ‘Dear Mummy and Daddy, I hear you had an earthquake. I am third this week. I have two tulips in my garden, and another in bud.’
This was often quoted back at him, but he makes amends with a suitable account of the ‘grand Apocalypse’, to round off the volume. It is a long book, and not to be rushed, told with refreshing modesty by one who is ready to feel pride in the family’s heritage of intellectual liberalism but finds it ‘a bit embarrassing’ to admit that those Walter Raleigh forenames in the family tree (he bears them too) are ‘a connection with the great Elizabethan’.