The absurdity of empire in JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip

Peter Morey, University of Birmingham

In 2017, the then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson paid a visit to the sacred Shwedagon Pagoda in Myanmar. Approaching the giant Tharawaddy Min bell that hangs in the pavilion, Johnson began muttering lines from Rudyard Kipling’s classic imperial poem The Road to Mandalay:

For the wind is in the palm-trees, and the temple-bells they say:

“Come you back, you British soldier; come you back to Mandalay!”

In a scene worthy of TV political satires like Yes Minister the horrified British Ambassador, accompanying Johnson, discretely intervened to remind the minister of the danger of offending his hosts: “You’re on mic … Probably not a good idea”.

The incident seems to capture something of the nostalgic spirit, the hold exerted by past imperial glories incongruously rehashed for the modern world, that characterises the contemporary political landscape. The Singapore Grip, the final volume of JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy, is now being screened on ITV as a glossy period drama. The novel is built on an awareness of that same self-mythologising of imperial Britons and points up its absurdity.

Vainglorious imperialist attitudes

Farrell is interested in depicting what he called individuals undergoing history: his subject matter, the decline of the British empire. In The Singapore Grip, the focus is on the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in early 1942. The typical Farrellian protagonist – here, Matthew Webb the idealistic son of a deceased rubber magnate – is essentially a bystander to great events. The novel turns on the everyday and the mundane, paying attention to characters’ frantic, incongruous attempts to maintain normality in the face of encroaching chaos.

Man and woman in bed in pyjamas.
The Singapore Grip is built on the self-mythologising of imperial Briton.
Mammoth screen/ITV

Although the novel’s celebrated humour is often wry, it sometimes works up to farcical set-pieces which encapsulate the vaingloriousness of the imperial attitudes on show. A high point comes with attempts to fire a female daredevil from a cannon at the Great World amusement park. It is a symbolic enactment of the defence of the colony, which ends with the human projectile missing her target and landing head first in a safety net. Safely captured: “she jumped and arched and flapped like a netted salmon”.

The main target of The Singapore Grip is economic imperialism. Farrell skewers self-serving justifications for indefensible economic practices, which ensure that Europeans cream off the lion’s share of profits from Singapore industries while keeping the local workforce in poverty. At one point, Matthew and his Eurasian girlfriend visit a dying house inhabited by ailing Malay labourers who one-by-one rise from their deathbeds to point an accusing finger at this son of British imperialism.

Pampered colonialists

Early reactions to the ITV adaptation have called out “cultural colonialism” and erasure of Asian bodies. Yet, similar criticisms of the novel would be wide of the mark.

The personal tribulations of the Europeans do offer the main focus, but Farrell punctuates the book with other perspectives. He does so to remind us of those paying the heaviest price for imperial malpractice.

Woman stands with a suitcase next to an old fashioned car.
The TV show has been criticised for its erasure of Asians. The book, however, is pointed in its critique of the tendency of colonists to do the very same.
Mammoth screen/ITV

At one point the narrative pulls away from the pampered colonialists to take us into the experience of an elderly Chinese wharf-worker who inhabits a tiny cubicle in a decaying dockside tenement. On a starlit night he leaves the building to visit the privy, oblivious to the first bombing raid over the city by Japanese aircraft which is about to begin:

As he returns, stepping into the looming shadow of the tenement there is a white flash and the darkness drains like a liquid out of everything he can see. The building seems to hang over him for a moment and then slowly dissolves, engulfing him. Later, when official estimates are made of this first raid on Singapore (61 killed, 133 injured), there will be no mention of this old man for the simple reason that he, in common with so many others, has left no trace of ever having existed either in this part of the world or in any other.

Far from erasing marginal figures, Farrell reinserts them in a challenge to that very act of historical erasure.

Farrell’s novel is most notable, however, for its comic evisceration of a certain imperial style, a kind of bluster familiar once more as we live through a time in which the inequities of the past are downplayed and patriotic slogans replace a truthful reckoning with the challenges of the present. For us today, JG Farrell’s ability to prick the alluring delusions of the British Empire is more relevant than ever.The Conversation

Peter Morey, Professor of Twentieth-Century Literature, University of Birmingham

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

JG Farrell’s The Singapore Grip: new TV adaptation brings to life the final book by one of the UK’s finest novelists

SIngapore Grip: the final book in JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy.
ITV Pictures

John McLeod, University of Leeds

In March 2020, when it became clear that my university campus was about to close due to the coronavirus pandemic, I hastily grabbed from my office shelves my well-thumbed copies of JG Farrell’s Empire Trilogy: Troubles (1970), The Siege of Krishnapur (1973), and The Singapore Grip (1978). This was no sentimental choice on my part. I believed that Farrell could help me deal with my queasy feelings that everyday life as I knew it was dissolving frighteningly into incertitude.

As a writer, Farrell was concerned with those suddenly tipped into uncertainty, no doubt because of his own life being irreversibly turned upside down due to the sudden advent of sickness. Aged 21, he had become seriously ill after playing rugby at Oxford University in December 1956 and was diagnosed with polio. A spell in an iron lung was followed by a long and painful recovery. Farrell’s upper body was permanently affected by the disease. He never recovered full mobility.

Almost overnight, a young, healthy and ambitious undergraduate had become physically fragile and equipped with a keen sense of how quickly and unexpectedly all we take for granted is lost. Cruelly, his illness would play a part in his untimely death by drowning in August 1979, aged 44. While fishing near his new home in Ireland’s Bantry Bay, he was swept into the rough sea. Unable to swim strongly, he was soon lost to the water.

Middle-aged man in evening dresss photographed in profile.
Taken too young: JG Farrell.
Wikimedia Commons

Farrell’s early novels had often dwelt gloomily on the frailty of life. His second novel, The Lung (1965), in particular, sought to explore the dispiriting emotional and existential upset of his sudden illness. Yet, along with A Man From Elsewhere (1963) and A Girl in The Head (1967), it drew little attention – today, all three remain out of print.

Making it as a writer

His fortunes changed with the publication of Troubles, where he deployed more purposefully his consciousness of life’s latent fragility when depicting British colonial societies falling apart.

This turn to matters of Empire was not fanciful. Born to an Irish mother in Liverpool, Farrell had lived a modestly affluent childhood between England and Ireland before going up to Oxford. He knew the privileged social circles that were home to British colonialist attitudes but took a postcolonial position regarding the unhappy treatment of colonial subjects, such as the Irish.

Troubles imagines the lives of the Anglo-Irish Ascendency as the Irish War of Independence (1919-21) develops. Its often comical depiction of the Ascendency’s decline pokes fun at their arrogance and short-sightedness.

But Farrell’s sensitivity to the bewilderment and anxiety felt by all undergoing history also brings to the novel a measured sense of compassion for those whose worlds were at last evaporating. Indeed, the Empire Trilogy would uniquely combine the compassionate and condemnatory, the sensitive and the satirical, in its indulgent if unforgiving presentation of the colonial establishment. The novel established his critical reputation: it received the 1971 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, while in 2010 it was awarded the “Lost Booker Prize” after a public vote.

End of Empire

Farrell’s next novel, the Booker prize-winning The Siege of Krishnapur, depicted the ready collapse of British civility during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. Buoyed by its success, Farrell used part of his prize money to travel to south-east Asia to research his next – and, sadly, last – full-length novel, The Singapore Grip, which has just been adapted for television by Christopher Hampton.

Punctuated in turn by scenes of high comedy and historical solemnity, the novel portrays Singapore prior to its humiliating surrender to the Japanese in February 1942. At its heart is one of Farrell’s least likeable befuddled expatriates, the rubber magnate Walter Blackett, whose business empire exemplifies the unholy grip of capitalism and colonialism over the region’s impoverished workers.

Mustachioed man in linen suit on varandah.
Unpleasant and manipulative: David Morrissey as Walter Blackett in The Singapore Grip.
ITV Pictures

Keen to secure his firm’s future, Walter plots to marry his daughter Joan to Matthew Webb, the son of his geriatric business partner – a scheme all the more bizarre in an increasingly besieged and dangerous city.

An idealist at heart, Matthew’s progressive vision of a world where wealth and wisdom are equitably enjoyed soon becomes as battered as the bombed-out city. Events in Singapore appear instead to prove the “Second Law” often quoted by his American friend, James Ehrendorf:

In human affairs, things tend inevitably to go wrong. Things are slightly worse at any given moment than at any preceding moment.

Yet The Singapore Grip never loses faith in the capacity for survival and endurance. It mixes its unforgiving vision of colonialism’s absurdity and collapse with an unyielding and often warmly humorous embrace of human fellowship. And, while Matthew fails to flee in time, one important figure significantly escapes: an abandoned, diseased and distressed King Charles spaniel, sardonically named “The Human Condition” by one of Matthew’s friends, who is last seen bolting up the gangplank to safety on a soon-to-depart ship.

Young man with glasses, dirty uniform.
Captured: Luke Treadaway as Matthew Webb in The Singapore Grip.
ITV Pictures

Highly amusing and deeply penetrating by turns, Farrell’s fiction often renders the human condition as precarious and insubstantial as the ailing dog in The Singapore Grip. But it crucially recognises that people are as complicated as the changing historical circumstances into which they are mercilessly thrust. Farrell’s firm condemnation of Empire never stopped him trying to understand humanely those undergoing its decline.

In reaching for Farrell when lockdown commenced, I had hoped to deal less fearfully with the experience of sudden change. But he soon reminded me, too, of the humane resources we also need at life-changing moments: steadfast hope, a saving sense of humour, and – for those lucky to escape or recover from illness – the wisdom of survival.The Conversation

John McLeod, Professor of Postcolonial and Diaspora Literatures, University of Leeds

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘Quarantine envy’ could finally wake people up to the deep inequalities that pervade American life

Envy is one of the seven deadly sins – the worst of them all, according to the ‘Canterbury Tales.’
Richard Donaghue/EyeEm via Getty Images

Jessica Rosenfeld, Washington University in St Louis

In recent months, mental health experts have been drawing attention to what they’ve dubbed “quarantine envy.”

Many people, they note, have been sizing up the extent to which they’ve been affected by lockdowns and economic hardship. Who still has a job? Who gets to work from home? Whose home is spacious, light-filled and Instagram-worthy?

The start of the school year adds another layer of comparison. Parents stuck in a small apartment with two kids forced to learn remotely might feel pangs about the fact that their friend’s kids get to attend a private school in person.

What should we do with these unpleasant feelings? Should we repress them or reason them away? Are they too shameful to be shared?

Envy is one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins – the worst of them all, says the Parson in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” But my research into the long history of envy shows that the emotion has many sides to it.

Some are certainly destructive. But envy can also be useful. The “sin” can help us better understand ourselves and the world around us – and it can be a key driver of social change.

Tales of envy

Envy has a bad reputation. Everyone feels it at one point or another, although we often don’t want to admit to being truly envious of others – harboring the kind of envy that gnaws at us and makes us feel inferior.

One man – representing envy – stands with his palms out and one eye blinded. The other – greed – has both his eyes blinded.
A 15th-century illustration of a classic fable of envy and greed.
Morgan Library

Portraits of envy can show it as an astonishingly malicious emotion. One version of a popular fable tells the story of an envious man and a greedy man being given a single wish. The one condition is that the person who does not get to choose the reward will be given double what the other man wishes. The greedy man quickly asks that the envious man be given the choice; the envious man then wishes to be blinded in one eye.

In William Langland’s poem “Piers Plowman,” the personification of Envy confesses that all he wants is for his neighbor, “Gybbe,” to have something bad happen to him; he wants this even more than he wants cheese (which is saying a lot, if you ask me!).

In these stories, envy is typically defined as wanting misfortune for others, longing to feel superior in some way or at least making them just as miserable as you are.

Late medieval literature is also filled with stories that point to envy as a source of violence.

The chronicler Jean Froissart describes the social unrest associated with the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 as a consequence of the envy the commoners had toward the nobles and the rich.

Here – and elsewhere – envy is a label used to diminish the political claims of a particular group of people. In 2012, Mitt Romney accused Barack Obama of practicing the “bitter politics of envy.” In this way, criticism of the rich or powerful, or wanting the wealthy to be taxed more to fund public services, brings accusations of petty envy and resentment.

When envy spurs social change

Modern understandings of envy are also related to other kinds of negative feelings, like anger that someone has undeserved wealth or frustration that certain groups are hoarding money, power, or privileges.

Here is where envy can take a turn that can lead to better outcomes. Envy can be productive when it is not directed at one person in particular but is instead directed at the way society is structured.

Economists and political scientists increasingly recognize that reducing inequality can be an end in itself. Envy – even the kind of nakedly competitive envy that seeks to damage others for no personal gain – can work to regulate inequality that has grown too wide.

Political scientist Jeffrey Green defends policies driven by a “reasonable envy” that targets the well off, even if there is no expectation of gain for everyone else. For example, he says that capping wealth might lower the material welfare for all, but this would be worth the reduction in inequality, since excessive or unjust inequality can lead to instability and feelings of disempowerment among ordinary citizens.

Economist Robert Frank prefers taxing consumption to reduce “luxury fever,” in which competitive spending escalates wildly, especially among the super-rich, leaving less money for individuals and the government to spend on essential services.

Personification of envy, wearing a veil and green dress, sits on a bench with her arms folded.
An illustration of the personification of envy from a medieval manuscript.
The Morgan Library

In their new book, “The Economic Other,” political scientists Meghan Condon and Amber Wichowsky open with the line, “The human imagination is an engine of comparison.”

In their studies, they show that politics is driven by the social imagination – and Americans have fewer opportunities for comparison because of increasing class segregation in our society. Middle-class and poorer Americans see the wealthy online and on TV but not in everyday life. The authors believe policies might become more just if there were more opportunities for “upward comparison” – if everyday Americans could simply see, in their day-to-day lives, the extent to which the wealthy lead extravagant lives. Their research suggests that envious comparison would lead to more support for government spending on welfare, Social Security and education.

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Dwelling with envy

Aristotle has a much more specific – and negative – definition of envy. In his view, the emotion is directed toward our equals. We become envious when our neighbors have something we desire and believe we deserve, and when we feel it is our own fault that we do not have that good thing.

He distinguishes envy from other comparative feelings like emulation, indignation or pity. These kinds of distinctions are helpful, because thinking carefully about emotions can give us information about ourselves and our environment. Some philosophers describe emotions as reasoning tools, a shortcut to filter copious amounts of information.

In a time of quarantine – when comparisons often involve who has the best version of being alone – dwelling with envy can open our eyes to ourselves and the world.

Do these negative feelings say something about ourselves? Are they specific to another person? Or do they reflect an unjust system?

Can these disparities change? If so, what could bring that about?

Trying to manage or avoid envious feelings doesn’t allow us to answer – or even ask – those questions.The Conversation

Jessica Rosenfeld, Associate Professor of English Literature, Washington University in St Louis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.