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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Peculiar Ground by Lucy Hughes-Hallett asks how we shape history and how much is beyond our control

In Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, the wealthy build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least they try to. 

The great cutting heads of the Crossrail tunnel-boring machines were engines of the future drilling into the past. The whole railway project entailed a crawl back into history as archaeologists worked hand in hand with engineers, preserving – as far as possible – the ancient treasures they discovered along the way. One of the most striking finds, relics of which are now on display at the Museum of London Docklands, was a batch of skeletons, unearthed near Liverpool Street Station, in which the bacteria responsible for the Great Plague of 1665 were identified for the first time. Past and present are never truly separable.

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s ambitious first novel ends in 1665 in the aftermath of that plague, and it, too, dances between past and present, history and modernity. Like those skeletons buried for centuries beneath Bishopsgate, it is rooted in the ground. The eponymous “peculiar ground” is Wychwood, a great house in Oxfordshire, a place where the wealthy can build walls around themselves to keep out ugliness, poverty, political change. Or at least that is what they believe they can do; it doesn’t spoil the intricacies of this novel to say that, in the end, they will not succeed.

It is a timely idea. No doubt Hughes-Hallett was working on her novel long before a certain presidential candidate announced that he would build a great wall, but this present-day undiplomatic reality can never be far from the reader’s mind, and nor will the questions of Britain’s connection to or breakage with our European neighbours. Hughes-Hallett’s last book, a biography of Gabriele d’Annunzio, “the John the Baptist of fascism”, won a slew of awards when it was published four years ago and demonstrated the author’s skill in weaving together the forces of culture and politics.

Peculiar Ground does not confine itself to a single wall. Like Tom Stoppard’s classic play Arcadia, it sets up a communication between centuries in the grounds at Wychwood. In the 17th century, John Norris is a landscape-maker, transforming natural countryside into artifice on behalf of the Earl of Woldingham, who has returned home from the depredations of the English Civil War. In the 20th century a new cast of characters inhabits Wychwood, but there are powerful resonances of the past in this place, not least because those who look after the estate – foresters, gardeners, overseers – appear to be essentially the same people. It is a kind of manifestation of what has been called the Stone Tape theory, after a 1972 television play by Nigel Kneale in which places carry an ineradicable echo of their history, causing ghostly lives to manifest themselves through the years.

But the new story in Peculiar Ground broadens, heading over to Germany as it is divided between East and West in 1961, and again as that division falls away in 1989. Characters’ lives cannot be divorced from their historical context. The English breakage of the civil war echoes through Europe’s fractures during the Cold War. The novel asks how much human actors shape history and how much is beyond their control.

At times these larger questions can overwhelm the narrative. As the book progresses we dance between a succession of many voices, and there are moments when their individual stories are less compelling than the political or historical situations that surround them. But perhaps that is the point. Nell, the daughter of the land agent who manages Wychwood in the 20th century, grows up to work in prison reform and ­observes those who live in confinement. “An enclosed community is toxic,” she says. “It festers. It stagnates. The wrong people thrive there. The sort of people who actually like being walled in.”

The inhabitants of this peculiar ground cannot see what is coming. The novel’s modern chapters end before the 21st century, but the future is foreshadowed in the person of Selim Malik, who finds himself hiding out at Wychwood in 1989 after he becomes involved in the publication of an unnamed author’s notorious book. “The story you’re all so worked up about is over,” he says to a journalist writing about the supposed end of the Cold War. “The story I’m part of is the one you need to think about.”

A little heavy handed, maybe – but we know Selim is right. No doubt, however, Wychwood will endure. The landscape of this novel – its grounds and waters and walls – is magically and movingly evoked, and remains in the imagination long after the reader passes beyond its gates. 

Erica Wagner’s “Chief Engineer: the Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge” is published by Bloomsbury

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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