Out Now!

Friday, 17 April 2020


I can think of no better tribute to this book than to recount one of its anecdotes in full, partly because it gives you the ‘voice’ of the man, partly because of the directness and simplicity of the language, the effortless way one image follows another, and partly because it reminds me of the stories my dad and uncles told when we were very small children. The final section of the anecdote comes with a hint of reproval accompanied perhaps by an ironic wink that belies it, and again you have the certainty of Victorian values with their lack of cultural relativism that pervades our culture today:

‘A few miles away from Karachi there is a very curious place called ‘Muggur Pir.’ It is a small pond of water surrounded with palm trees and jungle. A very pretty place . . . but you will at once exclaim, what are these curious looking animals I see in the water and on the banks?
‘Well, these are alligators, who inhabit this pool. They are held sacred by a certain class of natives and called Muggurs. Certain priests, as they call them reside close by who feed these animals with the offerings brought by devotees seeking help from some affliction. Goats, brought there alive, are the customary offerings. These are killed on the margin of the pool by the priest, who cuts the body of the victim up into small pieces. When this is done, at the top of his voice he calls out ‘Ow! Ow!’ which means ‘Come! Come!’ From the pool there issue the Muggurs, who approach the priest ranging themselves in a line at the water edge – with their enormous mouths wide open.

' The priest goes along the line, throwing into the open jaws of each as he passes a portion of the goat. The portion is immediately crushed between their very powerful jaws, and away each one scuttles back into the pool again to enjoy is repast.

‘I have seen the complete head of a goat, horns and all, thrown into the mouth of one of these Muggurs. One crunch and the whole head, horns and all are smashed. The old patriarch of these inhabitants of the pool is kept in an enclosed den separate from the rest. He is called the ‘King of the Muggurs’ and is fed separately as becomes his rank. He is kept painted red, he is of larger size than the rest and considered specially holy. What a fearful depth of superstition and ignorance!

‘Visitors to the place out of curiosity are particularly requested in no way to interfere with the animals. One day two larky young officers went there, armed with 2 soda bottles, full, but tied together with about 2 yards of cord.

‘When the priest began feeding at one end of the line of muggers, these two young men commenced at the other by each throwing a bottle into the open mouths of two adjacent animals. Crash went the bottle with an explosion, and into the pool went the muggurs each clutching its prize – great was the commotion underwater, each Muggur trying to swallow its portion but prevented by its neighbour at the other end of the cord, greatly to the amusement of the authors of this miserable trick. The priests complained to the authorities and a severe reprimand followed, I believe accompanied by a fine. I think your verdict would be that it served them right.

I’ll not be blogging for a fortnight as I’m taking a fortnight’s holiday into the C16th and the final book of Hilary Mantel’s trilogy – a worthy but not the preferred alternative to the American holiday we had planned. Preparing a blog – even a weekly one – takes some time and I’m a slow reader. Sunglasses on and goodbye for now.

Friday, 10 April 2020

Wuhan flu or Covid 19?

Covid 19 or Wuhan Flu. The former term boasts a degree of ‘neutral’ accuracy with its ‘CO’ for Coronavirus, its VI for Virus and D for Disease. At the same time its ‘neutrality’ is far from neutral. It deliberately obscures its origin as well as the historical record for the benefit of the Chinese state.

In the past, diseases were associated with their origins: Guinea Worm, West Nile Virus, German measles, Ross River Fever, Omsk Haemorrhagic Fever, Marburg Fever, Lassa Fever, Lyme Disease – the exception perhaps being Spanish Flu which had its origins elsewhere. To this day we use the term ‘Mexican Tummy’ and Delhi Belly for problems down under. So, when Trump was asked in a critical tone why he referred to the disease as ‘the Chinese Virus’ his answer reflected a long-standing pattern: ‘Because that is where it comes from.’

There are no doubt political reasons why he used the term, just as there are political reasons why the Chinese government are busy pushing the myth that the Italians or Americans are responsible for the disease. But ultimately that isn’t the point.

There is an argument that such terms as ‘Mexican Tummy’ or ‘Delhi Belly’ reflect not just knock-about humour but a past imperialist sense of superiority referenced in inferior hygiene; Now, that is a clear case of ‘punching down’. But associating Covid 19 with China is not in the same league. Are we really suggesting that we’re ‘punching down’ on one of the world’s super-powers? No, it’s the reverse. China is punching down on the rest of the world, denying any sense of responsibility for the pandemic.

When I read that China’s foreign ministry’s spokesman, Geng Shuang has condemned America’s use of the term: “We urge the U S to end this despicable practice. We are very angry and strongly oppose it,” my stomach turns. It turned even more when the all-but Chinese appointed Director-General of WHO, Tedros Ghebreyesus remarked that the term (the Chinese Virus’) is ‘painful to see’ and ‘more dangerous than the virus itself.’ What planet is he living on?

WHO/ UNESCO even published a pamphlet explaining how the term stigmatised a whole race of people, and then, in case we didn’t understand what stigmatise meant, went on to explain the term and how simple minded people confronted with the unknown might blame any and every Chinese person they met.

All I can say is, that when I was struck down with ‘Hong Kong’ flu in 1968, I didn’t go looking for a Chinese person to beat up. And yes, simple minded people exist, many of whom are well paid functionaries writing simple minded pamphlets.

I could argue that on many levels it deserves to be called the ‘Chinese Virus’ not just in its origins, but in the way the Chinese state made things far worse by its initial cover-up. Whistle-blowers were persecuted. upto the very last moment, the Chinese government denied the scale of the crisis, the Wuhan Municipal Health Commission declaring that ‘So far no infection has been found among medical staff, no proof of human-to-human transmission.’
The Chinese government only instituted a lockdown on January 23rd seven weeks after the virus first appeared and after more than 5 million people had already left Wuhan – many to Chinese textile factories in Northern Italy. Criminally, the same WHO that is now attempting to control our language passively connived in the deception by slavishly following the Chinese message that the infection was moderate until clearly it wasn’t. 

But I confess, beyond all this, there is a deeper reason for my bias towards   ‘Chinese virus’ rather than Covid 19.  When I’m told I shouldn’t do or say something by a clearly corrupt authority I’m impelled to do the reverse.

But on a sweeter note, a kindly person in our locality has left 'book boxes' here and there for those in lockdown with time on their hands. It's a lovely thought, but not perhaps a particularly safe option.

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Builders of Empire

My Grandfather was a full-blown Victorian, killed in action during Boer war. My dad, born in 1900 was a Victorian, too – just – and it’s a matter of great pride for me that my own children, who hopefully will live well into the C21st will be able to claim a Victorian grandfather. Such is history. 

Heritage and the longevity of Victorian values, I think, accounts for my own fascination with the C19th and empire. How else to explain: John Brunton’s Book found in a second-hand bookshop many years ago. I opened it earlier this week, the book having matured like fine cheese.

Brunton was a well-travelled engineer, who as a boy sat on the knee of the C18th engineer, Thomas Telford, began his working life in a Welsh coal valley ‘where the parson was afraid of the witch’ and worked with the Stephenson’s during the great railway boom that transformed Britain. He fought officialdom during the Crimean war, built the 120 mile Scinde Railway connecting Karachi to Kotri and died a well loved grandfather who told his doting grandchildren such snippets of worldly wisdom as My Goanese cook ‘was very black. . . but he was a Roman Catholic and therefore a Christian’. The simple self-confidence of Victorian man. Some might call it arrogance.

In building the 120 mile Scinde Railway connecting Karachi to Kotri, John Brunton had to negotiate with the manipulative and vicious Nawab of Bahawalpur, a notorious tyrant with a savage and unpredictable streak. In his journey through the Nawab’s state, Brunton was regaled every night by the growling of tigers prowling the camp. They were protected by the Nawab, only he being allowed to hunt them so much to Brunton’s regret, he didn’t dare shoot any but instead lit large fires around his camp each night to keep them at bay.

The Indus Railway Network

Brunton recounts how the Nawab was to be told immediately when a tiger established itself near a village. Being regularly harassed by a tiger, one unfortunate farmer informed the Nawab. Next day, in great state, the Nawab arrived at the farm, and when no tiger was to be found, the poor farmer had his ears and nose cut off. Knowing how much his subjects hated him, the Nawab had his drinking water brought in daily in specially sealed jars which had been filled across the Sutlej river in British territory.

Eventually the Nawab’s fears came true when an Ayah (nurse) responsible for one of the young princes not only poisoned the tyrant but also all the heirs but one:  her favourite child prince who would become the new Nawab. The crime shocked the British, but their response was pragmatic. In Brunton’s words

‘When this happened, our Indian Government stepped in, appointed an English officer as Regent – took the young prince in care, gave him a first-class education, and he now occupies the (throne) of Bahawalpur. I am told that he by no means follows in his father’s footsteps.’ He certainly didn’t.

The new Nawab was inculcated with ‘British values’ and proved a bastion of the empire in that area. The Romans taught us well two thousand years ago.

1900. The earliest photo we have

For those who'd like to read more on the Scinde Railway I strongly recommend this link. It has revealing snippets ref the process of building it and the cheerful arrogance of those who built it.