20 March 2012

Woman of the World

The Bolter
by Frances Osborne 

My interest in the white colony that sprang up in the Kenyan highlands  between the world wars was first triggered by reading Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen, and grew stronger after I discovered, many years later, the photography of a later resident of the locale, Peter Beard. However, it wasn’t till I read about the hijinks of Happy Valley as recounted in Felipe Fernández-Armesto’s Millennium that I grew fascinated with the place. It was a purely literary fascination, but none the weaker for that.

Since then I've read James Fox’s White Mischief and quite a few other things written about the place. They all contained glancing references to the wicked Idina. Her exploits were only ever hinted at in these accounts, which suggested that they were too outrageous to recount in full. This, of course, only served to inflame my curiosity. As you may imagine, I snapped The Bolter up as soon as I saw it.

It kept me reading, certainly. But although I did stay up until the wee hours yesterday finishing it, the reading was sometimes an effort. Considering the story it has to tell, this is a book that should never be boring, yet parts of it are. The first half, which deals with Idina’s early life and her marriage to Euan Wallace, the first of her five husbands, is a farrago of parties and adulteries among the British aristocracy and plutocracy of the Edwardian era – booze and bed-hopping against a background of balls, race-meetings, country-house parties and neglected, almost forgotten children shunted about from one stately home to another while their parents cavorted in London and the fashionable capitals of Europe. The Bright Young Things seem utterly superficial and tedious, and the lives they led make one want to turn Socialist out of sheer revulsion. The second part of the book, which covers the Happy Valley portion of Idina’s story, is much better, with more depth to the narrative and more detail in the portrait of Idina herself.

Frances Osborne’s writing is adequate but frequently marred by personal sentiment, hackneyed pop psychology and cliché turns of phrase. However, the subject matter overcomes the author’s inadequacies, and some of the latter half of the book is genuinely affecting.

Osborne’s personal relationship to Idina (who was purportedly the model for the Bolter in Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love) is both a strength and a weakness of this book; on the one hand, it has given the author access to much material that is unavailable to others, and created an emotional connexion that adds intimacy and immediacy to her portrait of her great-grandmother; yet it also places the book in a funny generic location, halfway between history and memoir. The balance between the two is repeatedly upset in the final chapters, not always with the most convincing of results.

As for my prurient curiosity regarding Idina's exploits, it was partly satisfied, though I have a feeling that the full story of the goings-on in Happy Valley will never now emerge.

06 March 2012

Man of the World

The Travels of Ibn Battutah
Edited by Tim Mackintosh-Smith

Most Ceylonese have heard of Ibn Battutah, a Moroccan Arab traveller of the fourteenth century who visited our island around the year 1344 and climbed Adam’s Peak under the protection of the Tamil ruler of Puttalam. Ibn Battutah made Marco Polo look like a stay-at home; he not only visited China and East Asia, as Marco did, but also took in the Levant, India, the Maldives, Indonesia, the Sahara, Mali and the Niger basin, the coast of East Africa and Arab-occupied Spain. Unlike Marco, he tended to travel first-class – more often than not as an honoured guest and counsellor to the various rulers, mostly Muslim, he met along the way.

Ibn Battutah had this advantage over Marco Polo: the world he travelled was a largely Muslim one, and he was more or less at home in it. Even on the few occasions when he went beyond the borders of Dar-ul-Islam (such as his visit to Serendib), it was to places where Muslim power was recognized, Muslims were treated with respect, and a speaker of Arabic or Farsi could nearly always be found to act as translator. As a specialist in Islamic jurisprudence, his abilities were everywhere in demand, and he was often given positions of high authority (as Marco also was, in China). Indeed, he often had trouble detaching himself from the retinues of the various sultans and amirs who befriended him.

He was not, by our standards, a nice man. A sexual hypocrite who condemned the ‘debaucheries’ of others but himself travelled with sex slaves whom he acquired and dispensed with at will, he also frequently contracted marriages with women whom he would ruthlessly divorce when it was time to move on. He was a staunch Islamic conservative who delighted in applying the strictures of religious sanction to others. He boasts of humiliating a respected Jewish doctor at the court of a minor Turkish potentate, calling the man a ‘god-damned son of a god-damned father’, and speaks of trying (without success) to force the women of the Maldives to cover up their bosoms; he observes disapprovingly that when he ordered the hand of a thief in that country to be cut off, ‘many of those present fainted.’ There is also a faint odour of cowardice arising from the text from time to time, particular with regard to sea voyages and shipwrecks, though our narrator always conducts himself worthily in the end.

In other words, he was a man of his time, that time being the late Islamic Middle Ages. This mediaeval world had little of the crudity, filth and squalor of contemporary Europe. The light and intelligence of a refined, world-spanning high civilization – Islamic civilization – illuminated daily life in places as far apart as Granada and Sumatra, and Ibn Battutah himself is one of its brightest flowers. Though not ill-read in these matters, I was repeatedly surprised by how ‘modern’ and civilized were the ways of this great, pan-Islamic culture – more so than its European contemporaries and most of the ‘infidel’ cultures the narrator encounters in Asia and Africa. Only China presents Ibn Battutah with a cultural challenge beyond his ability to surmount, and he recoils from it as from an alien environment in which life is not long sustainable.

Of course, not everything is enlightened and refined in Ibn Battutah’s world. He tells of much cruelty, to animals as well as people and particularly towards women. At one point he recounts, as a fact worthy of remark but not, apparently, of disapproval, that the punishment meted out to adulterous women among the Arrakanese is that ‘the sultan orders all his household attendants to copulate with her, one after another till she dies, in his presence. Then they throw her into the sea.’ There is also a great deal of superstitious nonsense in his account, and in this regard he shows himself an eagerly credulous witness, especially when it comes to the spurious or fortuitous ‘miracles’ of various shaikhs (Muslim holy men) he encounters on his journeys. Still, modern travellers (especially travellers of the internet) are often as gullible as he in such matters, with far less excuse.

Though certain chapters and specific details of chronology or place are questionable, Ibn Battutah’s account of his journeys appears largely accurate. Most of the places he visited can be identified, even though they no longer have the same names. In this he is again superior to Marco Polo, whose adventures contain a large admixture of fantasy.

Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s redaction, which condenses a very long and much worked-over original, has been widely praised; it is sensitive to nuance and very readable. The end-notes are not copious, but they are informative and add a valuable extra dimension of perspective to the text (although I disagree with his tentative identification of ‘the seat of the principal sultan’ of Serendib; this, at the time, was probably Kurunegala, though Battutah’s description fits Ratnapura better).

Best of all, Mackintosh-Smith lets Ibn Battutah’s attitudes and personality shine through. This is a brilliant book, a modern, readable version of one of the prime sources for the geography of the mediaeval world, and particularly of that great empire of Islam which was even then in decline, but whose greatness was still acknowledged wherever it was known. It is also a wonderful read, and I recommend it highly.