Imperial Ejaculations – Reflections on “Ten Books that Shaped Empire”: Dilip Menon

Guest Post by Dilip M. Menon

Unlike Salman Rushdie, I did not grow up kissing books, I merely collected them. From provision stores, sidewalks, and from booksellers who were eccentric enough to try and survive by selling second hand books, in the small towns and yet-to-become cities of post independent India. The books came with a fine patina of dust that no amount of smacking against one’s thigh or the flat of one’s palm could get rid of. Kissing them was out of the question. In what was called the mofussil, or the provinces, the detritus of empire and the war that ended it gathered, as the collections of effects of the British who departed, as much as those who stayed on and died, gathered in the auction houses and bookstores.

It was on a summer afternoon in 1973 that I cycled down to the local provision store in Pune and saw beside the sacks of rice, wheat and spices, a pile of books, periodicals and rather lurid posters of European women with very long legs and few clothes on. I had always imagined Europe to be a cold place. In the pile were old Penguins; books by Enid Blyton, Anthony Buckeridge, Capt. WE Johns, Rider Haggard; periodicals like Boys Own Weekly, Gem, and Magnet; and of course the war comics (the staple reading of Allied troops posted in India and South East Asia), from which I learnt my German. At school, during the break, we were always running through the corridors shouting Schnell, Schnell and calling our Kamerads Schweinhunds. But on that summer day, I found two authors that I had not heard of: George Orwell and Frank Richards. The former had written a book about some fat pigs and the latter, one about a fat boy, and being rather plump myself, I was favourably disposed.

{AC8E3D54-0D18-423F-A888-DAE1A6C73C6C}Img400I picked up a copy of the Magnet and realised that the book Billy Bunter of Greyfriars School, that I held in my hand, had previous avatars in not only Magnet, but as I was later to discover, in Gem as well. This idea of circulation and serialisation, part of the Victorian longue duree in the colonies, was an idea that stayed with me as lived experience but as I grew older and became an academic, I realised the turf wars that I had entered. There were those who studied periodicals; those, clad in imperial leather, who analysed texts (and increasingly read them like an American white policeman handling a black suspect); and those that did something called book history, treated with mild amusement by the well-muscled academic. What Isabel Hofmeyr and Antoinette Burton’s book (Ten Books that Shaped Empire, Duke University Press, 2015) does is to throw down the gauntlet and call out the lethargy of historians and literary critics in a call to move away from “the book as distinct from or superior to the varieties of imperial print cultures-in-common through which it circulated.” It asks us to be subtle, to explore a “variety of pathways between texts and power” and argues that books in Empire cannot be reduced to books of Empire, because they were sites of “deterritorialized subjectivities”: minds exceeded geographies, and pleasure seeped across border and fixity of meanings.

So back to the Owl of the Remove and the Bunter series which so unjustly has been excluded from consideration in this book, which I dare say, draws sustenance for every argument that it makes from the Magnet, Gem, and Bunter. As with Bunter, even groaning would not fully express my feeling. My feelings, in fact, are inexpressible. But, I shall try. Between 1908 and 1940, there were 1683 issues of Magnet, and Bunter appeared in 1670 of these (more words on him than his contemporaries Winston Spencer and Mohandas Karamchand). Charles Hamilton, the most prolific author ever, (writing as Frank Richards under one of his 25 pseudonyms) wrote over 100 million words in his lifetime between 1876 and 1961, when he died, and therefore could no longer write.

These periodicals and magazines circulated via the Amalgamated Press and DC Thompson and Co. in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Pacific Islands and Bunter himself travelled fictionally to places like Brazil, India and the South Seas. The stories elicited questions about the characters of the novels, their lifestyles, their smoking and romantic habits from across the Empire, from boys and girls and men and women of all races. Bunter was the Harry Potter of his time. And more. Bob Cherry, Frank Nugent, Harry Wharton, Lord Mauleverer and of course, the Nabob of Bhanipur, fondly called Dusky, Hurree Jamset Ram Singh (with his elegant charm, his wily bowling, penchant for chess and elegant manhandling of English) were read and loved wherever the sun never set.

Such was Bunters fame, and the threat that he posed to ideas of good taste and progress, that George Orwell finally had to weigh in with a long essay in 1940 in The Horizon, seeking to stem this tide of corruption threatening to overwhelm the British mind, even as the Nasties led by a man with a small moustache were trying to end Civilization as Europe knew it. Apart from righteous indignation about the tautological style peppered with Yaroohs and Crikeys, he mentioned the debasement of the Dickensian technique; plagiarism (and it is true that Hamilton plagiarised from his 25 pseudonyms); its snobbery (how many children indeed went to public schools, damn it!); the lack of an idea of revolutionary transformation of society, and the fact that it found foreigners funny. “The sentiment of school loyalty”, Orwell observed sententiously, “a thing almost unknown to the real working class, is still kept up”.

But his ire was reserved specially for the fact that sex is completely taboo. Now as George Mikes put it, the English do not have sex, they have hot water bottles, so really I don’t know what Orwell is going on about. But he is on to something here. Ronald Hyam in his work on Sexuality and Empire put forward a startling thesis, that empire happened because the British, as it were, were not getting enough at home. Empire was a huge ejaculation abroad, hence I suppose the number of books on the coming of Empire to distant parts. I strongly believe that it was not the much maligned Queen Victoria who was responsible, nor indeed the Viennese quack, but the man who wrote a 100 million words without mentioning sex.

Bunter and his comrades at Greyfriars were the engine driving the great enterprise of conquest and civilization, precisely because as Orwell put it prissily, “The major facts are not faced”.

Dilip Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

7 thoughts on “Imperial Ejaculations – Reflections on “Ten Books that Shaped Empire”: Dilip Menon

  1. Sajan

    Is it possible that sex, even “in the form that it actually arises in public schools” is absent in the Greyfrairs stories because it was largely absent in Charles Hamilton’s life? Like his contemporary, Orwell — whose life was littered with desultory liaisons and the occasional marriage — Hamilton didn’t get nearly enough. He seems to have had negligible relationships with women or men in his very long life, and he died a bachelor. Besides, Hamilton was writing for very young teens in a fairly prissy period of British history. Enid Blyton, another contemporary, wrote reams of prose about young children wandering about the English countryside — camping, cycling, sleeping in barns and frequently incarcerated in cellars and dungeons — without once being discommoded by bodily functions.

    Both the Famous Fives must have had bladders the size of footballs and no gonads to speak of.

    When Menon brings up Orwell’s specially reserved ‘ire’ at the lack of sex in the Bunter books, I think he overstates the case. St. George was mildly pissed off at the lack of any recognizable politics in the books, but he merely observes that, among other things absent in the stories, like religion, sex “simply does not exist as a problem”.

    Another fan of the Remove, Tharoor, writes in ‘Bookless in Baghdad’ that our post-colonial generation is not nearly as offended by Blyton and Richards (as we probably ought to be). We are, says Tharoor, “quite indulgent of her stereotypes. After two hundred years of the Raj, Indian children know instinctively how to filter the foreign — to appreciate the best in things British, and not to take the rest seriously.” I wish it was as simple as that. Blyton, Bunter, Biggles: they influenced generations of colonial and post-colonial children, right up to the 80s, in ways that I’d be loath to dismiss as trivial. As Menon rightly asks, how can one talk about books that shaped the empire and exclude Bunter? The dreadfulness is terrific.

    (By the way, the Nabob of Bhanipur is not called Dusky. He is sometimes referred to as the “dusky nabob”, but he is fondly called ‘Inky’).

  2. rochellepinto

    Question 1) If Dilip Menon tells us he rejected images of long-legged ladies in little clothing in favour of Bunter and Orwell in 1973, does that influence our reception of his belief that sexual repression was the true impetus for empire? Discuss.

    Maybe Indian children don’t know how to filter the foreign after all.

  3. Dilip Menon

    In reply to Rochelle, my rejection of long legged ladies should not be blamed on William George or Eric Blair; it was my own prissiness which I managed to triumph over later in life through a studious watching of art films by Fassbinder and Fellini. It is not my belief that sexual repression was the true impetus for empire; it was Ronald Hyam’s suggestion. And having known him (not literally) at Cambridge, I can say with some authority that it was a deeply felt argument for him.
    And Sajan, when I read Rider Haggard, on which Anne McClintock vents her spleen, I loved Umslopogaas and him alone: he of Nkosikaas, the axe called the Woodpecker with which he pecked holes in the cranium of opponents, whirling around them the while. I had little time for Allan Quatermain and the other imperial foraging ilk. The appreciation of books lie in their appropriations, misunderstandings and misrememberings by readers, as much as their landscape of reading. Every reader reads differently. Unlike a generation of white liberals who resolved their guilt about empire by excoriating children’s books’, since I had read my Blyton alongside my Haggard, Harold Robbins and Rajagopalachari’s Ramayana and Mahabharata (not to mention Amar Chitra Katha and Mandrake of the hypnotic gesture), I didn’t spend much time pondering on the inwardness of Blyton. And in Bunter, Hurree Ram Jamset SIngh was my hero, unlike the fops, bounders and Bunter himself, who were less than elegant, less than phlegmatic ( and I suspect that Frank had a shine for him much as Forster did for Indian royalty).
    And yes he was Inky, rather than Dusky. That I admit, and shall stay silent. For as Inky said “Speech is silvery, my esteemed Johnny, but silence is the bird in the bush that makes Jack a dull boy”.

  4. Aditya G

    Interesting read. But I cannot help but notice the lack of any reference to the people who read these books. The soldiers, who presumably were working class, seem to have been its target audience. Why did they love these books so much? Was it because it somehow justified their presence away from home, where they did horrendous things (although mostly just sat around doing nothing), and allowed them to imagine themselves as billy?
    Or did they like it because the hero endeared himself to them so much that it helped them overcome usual class anxieties and thence come to believe in a ‘One Nation’ where everyone no matter his class was equal to everyone else?

    Imperialism is a convenient cloak for hiding class conflict back home. Foreign conquest allows one to hold his head high no matter how miserable his real existence. Is the ‘Nation’ his surrogate unconscious and foreign conquest his wish fulfilment?

    Well all that presuming the readers were mainly working class. These are just some thoughts I had.Forgive me if they sound silly, I’m no literary expert!

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