Where is the Britain of Wodehouse and Waugh?

They never knew the effect their writing had on we Indians, the third worlders.

I went to university in a dusty tin shed in New Delhi. It was an off-campus Delhi University college meant for academic failures. The roof leaked shafts of searing hot sun in summers, showers in monsoons and the occasional wispy cotton-candy like fog drifted in during winters. Stray dogs would loiter outside the classroom and the principal had spent the money meant for the library on his backyard extension.

My fondest memories of that tin shed are of reading up on the adventures of the Famous Five in coves off the Cornish coast, Miss Marple’s acute understanding of the human nature in the village of St Mary Mead and Bertie Wooster’s dandyish escapades in the metropolis.

I wasn’t the exception. P G Wodehouse, often overlooked in Britain, sells like hot cakes in India. Societies dedicated to his work litter Indian cities and novellas are re-enacted in incongruous accents. Small railway stations in impoverished provinces of India sell Agatha Christie and Evelyn Waugh. Saki is quoted with relish over the afternoon chai. Blyton’s Malory Towers is read by girls in pigtails, off to school on rickshaws. Tamil and Kashmiri boys read Richmal Crompton and are on first terms with William, Ginger and Henry.

Connaught Place in New Delhi is the very centre of the decaying capital of an emerging economy. It is white-washed and modeled on the Royal Crescent in Bath. Little gypsy girls from Rajasthan, hair blonde from mineral deficiencies and stomachs bloated from kwashiorkor, wriggle their bodies through iron hoops for a rupee, a banana, or a piece of jaggery. This is the India I grew up in. Driving through the wide, sun-dappled avenues of Lutyens' Delhi, stopping for a spot of jamun from the roadwallah, a spot of roasted maize, deftly stepping over a bundle of rags with eyes gouged out, blinded and mutilated by parents to ensure begging revenues for the coming pensionless years.

Growing up in India, I, like other good middle class boys with oiled side-parted hair, servants and creases down the front of the trousers, kept ugliness at bay. The Indian middle class, like their counterparts elsewhere, excel at putting the blinkers on. And in a land filled with starving little Rajasthani gypsy girls, one could do with a set of top-notch pukka A1 grade blinkers. Blyton was at hand at the Delhi traffic-lights to keep away disturbing images of deformed beggars and widowed old hags.

What would Bertie Wooster do?  

Jeeves instructed me in the art of the stiff upper as the Yamuna stank in the monsoons. 

"Listen, Corky, old top! If you think I am going to face that uncle of yours without Jeeves's support, you're mistaken. I'd sooner go into a den of wild beasts and bite a lion on the back of the neck."

"Oh, all right," said Corky. Not cordially, but he said it; so I rang for Jeeves, and explained the situation.

"Very good, sir," said Jeeves.

That's the sort of chap he is. You can't rattle him.

In India, fine twentieth century British literature makes a very compelling means of escape from the daily drudgery. The British might have been the sunburned sahibs that cracked the whip over the sub-continent, but they wrote bloody well.

Everything was AOK. How could it not be? I thought that in a world where England existed all was tiptop. Ticketyboo! A  phantasmogoric England: of Richmal Crompton, of oak trees, Cottingley Fairies, mist and red bricks, of freshly baked bread, of ruddy cheeks, tweeds, pheasants, pipe tobacco, water-wheels, chukkas and jodhpurs, What ho! and I say!

I had decided I was going there to study. Post-haste!

I had no idea what it meant to be called to the Bar, but it sounded very good. Bahut accha! 

So I packed my bags. I took to Britain like I had taken to shaving; at the first sight of pubescent hair, I had shaved my upper lip; then the elbows, knees, the knuckles and lastly my toes. Britain, Albion, that Fair Sceptred Isle was dealt with the same enthusiastic fury as shaving was. I memorised county names and read up on her prime ministers. Radio 4 was an All-British institution, someone told me. I shook off my sing-song voice, copied the RP assiduously, took care of my Vs and Ws, unlearnt the Indian vocabulary. Bamboozle. Bombastic. Funtoosh! I moulded myself on a dandy, molted in my room listening to the radio all monsoon; Stephen Fry, Jeremy Paxman, read Flashman, watched Blackadder and came summer emerged as a cheap imitation of a substandard Englishman.

I was giddy on the flight to Britain. I had never been abroad. The plane flew over the mountains of Afghanistan, wrinkled and bare. Within the folds of those wrinkles, I wondered if strange bearded men were fighting the Green Jackets, the Royal Marines, and the Parachute Regiment... from England!

Those nine or so hours on the flight to London from New Delhi were spent masticating a Jeeves and Wooster Omnibus, spitting out the words in an appalling imitation of an Oxford drawl and dreaming of a country with no dust - just good honest moist sod.

The immigration lady at Heathrow looked at my passport and then at me. The soles of my feet kept sliding on a thin film of sweat as my palms wet the cold granite of the counter. Suddenly she jerked her head at me and asked me for a tuberculosis report. I didn't have one.

Outside, clutching my four pieces of luggage in the rain, Britain seemed harsh and alien.

And so began this search. This search for Britain of my books. Did it exist anymore? Did it ever exist? Was it all a con?

Five years of Private Eye, Jeremy Clarkson, Newsnight and Peter Hitchens have lanced the Waugh, the Greene, the Blyton out of me. It was all a con.

I wonder if the British ever realise what effect their writing has had on us, the third worlders. It inspired love. Love for a country that most of us had never visited, love for people that hold us in contempt, for an establishment that had raped us, then pontificated and left suddenly with scarcely a toodle pip. An incurable stench of disappointment hangs in the air.

How could something so beautiful be so untrue?

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

P G Wodehouse in 1928. Photograph: Getty Images

Ritwik Deo is currently working on his first novel, about an Indian butler in Britain.

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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood