Remote People by Evelyn Waugh (1931)

How wrong I was, as it turned out, in all my preconceived notions about this journey.
(Remote People, page 97)

After weeks of reading heavy factual and often horrifying history about Africa, it was like getting into a warm bubble bath to read some Evelyn Waugh. He is a wonderful writer, clear and smooth – admittedly with occasional old-fashioned locutions and sometimes antiquated word order which makes you realise he was closer to the Victorians than to us – but he is nonetheless a deep pleasure to read because of his calm, clear, quietly cynical, drily humorous attitude. For his sophistication and style. For his combination of super-civilised manners and bright heartlessness. For his permanent alertness to the absurdity of life.

We sat in the open under an orange-tree and drank chianti and gossiped about the coronation, while many hundreds of small red ants overran the table and fell onto our heads from above. (p.72)

We saw a bridge being built under the supervision, apparently, of a single small boy in gumboots. (p.153)

[Jinja golf course] is, I believe, the only course in the world which posts a special rule that the player may remove his ball by hand from hippopotamus footprints. (p.156)

Temporary correspondent

Waugh establishes his a) posh, country house party persona and b) all-important membership of the network of posh public schoolboys who ran everything in 1930s England, by telling us that he was travelling by train back to London from a splendid country house in Wales when he bumped into an old chum who worked for The Times and, by the time the train journey had ended, his chum had promised him a job as a temporary correspondent to cover the upcoming coronation of the new emperor of Ethiopia, scheduled for November 1930.

So that’s why the reader opens the book to discover Waugh aboard a steamship, the Azay le Rideau, which has sailed from Marseilles across the Mediterranean, through the Suez Canal and is now docking at Djibouti on the coast of French Somalia. The ship is packed with dignitaries, royal guests, diplomats, journalists and cameramen, plus a unit from the Foreign Legion down in 4th class, and even military bands, all heading for the coronation.

There is ample Carry On comedy about the behaviour of guests on the ship, fuss about porters and baggage, and endless complications about who’s going to get priority places on the very occasional train service which runs from Djibouti up to the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.

Haile Selassie

A few words about Haile Selassie. He didn’t inherit the ancient throne of Ethiopia in a straightforward manner, by being the eldest son of the previous emperor, it was much more complicated than that. His most notable forebear was the emperor Menelik II (ruled 1889 to 1913) who extended and consolidated Ethiopia’s imperial rule over its neighbouring territories and defeated the invading Italian forces at the Battle of Adowa in 1896. Menelik left no immediate male heir and was succeeded on his death in 1913 by young Lij Iyasu (Lej Yasu, in Waugh’s spelling), who was the son of Menelik’s eldest daughter.

However, Lij Iyasu quickly alienated the powerful Ethiopian aristocracy with his erratic behaviour and the last straw came when he abandoned the millenium-old Ethiopian Christianity for Islam. He was dethroned and replaced by his aunt, his mother’s half-sister, Zewditu (or Zauditu as Waugh spells it). (Waugh also mentions that many of Lij’s Muslim followers were massacred at the town of Harar, p.18.)

Zewditu is an interesting figure in her own right, the first female ruler of Ethiopia in its history, she ruled as empress till her death in 1930. However, long before that, she had appointed young Ras Tafari Makonnen her heir.

Ras is a traditional title in Ethiopia. It translates somewhere between ‘duke’ and ‘prince’, which explains why accounts of its history are full of people with ras in their names. Tafari is a personal name which means ‘one who is respected or feared’. Makonnen was his family name.

Tension arose between Empress Zewditu and Ras Tafari because she was a deeply conservative and devout Christian whereas the young Tafari though Ethiopia needed to modernise.  In 1928 conservative elements in the court tried to overthrow Tafari and have him exiled, but they were defeated by a majority of the more progressive aristocracy. Zewditu was forced to confer on him the title of Negus or king, confirming his position as regent and heir to the throne.

Renewing the feud, in 1930, Zewditu’s own husband Ras Gugsa Welle led a rebellion against Negus Tafari in Begemder, hoping to end the regency in spite of his wife’s repeated pleas and orders to desist. But Gugsa was defeated and killed in battle by the Ethiopian which Tafari had devoted the previous decade to modernising, at the Battle of Anchem in March 1930.

A few days later the empress died, whether as a result of long-term illness or from shock at the death of her husband remains a subject of speculation to this day. Either way the path was now clear for Ras Tafari to inherit the throne and he was officially recognised by his peers as Negusa Nagast which translates as ‘King of Kings’. It is this title which is usually translated into English as ‘Emperor’.

It took 6 months to arrange for the actual coronation to be organised. It took place on 2 November 1930. It was traditional that, upon his coronation, the emperor choose a regnal name and Tafari chose to retain the name given to him at his baptism, Selassie, and incorporate it into his full imperial name – Haile Selassie. In the ancient Ethiopian language of Ge’ez, Haile means ‘power of’ and ‘Selassie’ means Trinity – so Haile Selassie means ‘Power of the Trinity’.

So much for his names. They’re just one aspect of the way that, the more you study it, the more the history of Ethiopia and Selassie’s place in it, become complicated and flavoursome.

Waugh at the coronation

Ethiopia was, at the time, more or less Africa’s only independent country, untainted by colonial rule. Italy had tried to colonise it in the 1890s but the Italian army was massacred at the Battle of Adowa in 1896 and signed a peace treaty with Ethiopia recognising its borders and independence.

Once news of this grand imperial coronation became known, the European countries sent their own princes and dukes to attend the ceremony of a fellow royal. There were also ambassadors quietly jostling for position, and the Americans sent business representatives to try and do deals with the new ruler. Hence the presence of the Duke of Gloucester (King George V’s son), Marshal Louis Franchet d’Espèrey of France, Prince of Udine representing King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and representatives of the United States, Egypt, Turkey, Sweden, Belgium and Japan.

This all explains the atmosphere of colourful and confused diplomatic parties and Ethiopian  ceremonies which were held during the official week of celebrations leading up to the coronation and which Waugh reports with glee and satire.

He emphasises the surreal atmosphere of posh Westerners in top hats and monocles walking through streets full of white-robed locals riding mules and wearing bandoleers and antiquated rifles.

Every man in Abyssinia carries arms; that is to say, he wears a dagger and bandolier of cartridges around his waist and has a slave boy walking behind with a rifle.

The nearest thing he can compare the ‘galvanised and translated reality’ of Addis Ababa in coronation week to is Alice in Wonderland. In fact surreal details crop up throughout the narrative, making the reader gasp. I was particularly struck when, later in the story he goes for a stroll round the shabby town of Harar and discovers that a lion in a wooden cage is kept behind the courthouse (p.83).

The text continually teeters on the edge of fiction. I mean it is continually turning into a novel. Presumably most of what he reports actually happened but Waugh’s account dwells on characters and incidents which feel like they’re from a fiction. Thus (characteristically showing off his intimacy with the  aristocratic Bright Young Things of his generation) he falls in with ‘old friend’ Irene Ravensdale, the fantastically posh Mary Irene Curzon, 2nd Baroness Ravensdale, Baroness Ravensdale of Kedleston, and they go on trips together to local attractions. They spend an afternoon scrambling through the forest of Jemjem ‘in hopeless pursuit of black-and-white monkeys’ (p.71).

He also becomes friendly with an American professor – Professor W. – who is depicted as a comic character because he is supposedly an expert on Ethiopian history and culture yet doesn’t speak the language and consistently misunderstands what is going on – particularly at the coronation service itself where he gives a running commentary on proceedings which turns out to be wrong in every detail.

Despite this Waugh decides to go on a mini expedition with the professor, to Debra Lebanos, a remote monastery which has for four centuries been at the heart of Ethiopia’s spiritual life. The chapter describing this little jaunt exemplifies many of Waugh’s strengths as a traveller, observer, writer and, dare one say it, thinker.

First of all there are the colourful characters: the Armenian taxi driver they hire to take them on the long, gruelling desert journey, with his no-nonsense attitude and catchphrase, repeated at every crisis: ‘Ça n’a pas d’importance.’ The professor, who’s brought along a crate of empty Vichy water bottles to fill with holy water from the sacred spring but which keep rolling underfoot or falling out the car every time they stop. Then, once they get to the ‘monastery’ there are extended descriptions of the priests who turn out to be a pretty shabby lot, though not as shabby as many of the ‘monks’ who are, in reality, the sick and the halt and the lame who came on pilgrimages and stayed on to populate the place.

One aspect of these blunt descriptions is Waugh’s lack of pretence. About two things he has sentimental blind spots – the Catholic faith and a shamelessly sentimental, William Rees-Mogg-style fantasy about an Old England of enlightened paternalistic squires. But about everything else he is pitilessly, inexorably accurate.

Thus he doesn’t hesitate to describe the sacred monastery as a filthy dump, full of shabby undisciplined ‘monks. Even when they deign to take him and the professor up to the sacred stream, their guide gives a good indication of their general level of piety by pausing the walk to shuffle off into the nearby rocks and have a crap.

The chapter makes a more general point about travelling, or about the kind of travelling Waugh is doing, to very out of the way places – which is he doesn’t hesitate to show that a lot of these ‘legendary’ places turn out to be nothing like they’re cracked up to be. It is refreshingly not the tourist brochure or movie version, but a pitiless gaze at the impoverished, scrappy reality. Same goes for the various coronation scenes and religious ceremonies he witnesses which are often chaotic and shabby.

Then there’s broad comedy, epitomised by the honey scene. Waugh and the professor have brought with them a hamper full of choice Western delicacies (jars of olives, tins of foie gras, crackers), but when the priests offer them food they can’t, of course, refuse.

At first the priests insist that they sacrifice a beast, either a sheep or a goat, despite our heroes’ protestations. It takes the Armenian driver to make them understand that the priests exist on a very scanty diet and so killing a goat for visitors is a big treat for them, the priests. It is typical sly satire that, even when he knows this, Professor W.’s high-minded Boston principles – he is a vegetarian – make him refuse the gift, to the priest’s obvious disappointment.

But what happens next is brilliant. The priests offer to put them up in the only spare room they have, which they describe as a great honour, so Waugh and the professor are horrified to discover it is a filthy shack full of lumber and junk and pullulating with fleas.

Worse is to follow for the priest then returns with some traditional food, namely some rounds of disgusting local soggy grey ‘bread’ and, worse still, a jar of local ‘honey’. This is not the honey you buy at Harrods; it is authentic Ethiopian honey collected the traditional way, scraped off the trees where wild bees have their nests. And so the jar of translucent gloop visibly contains bits of bark, dead insects and bird poo.

Our heroes are horrified but the priest hunkers down and then looks on expectantly, evidently waiting for his honoured visitors to tuck into the monks’ bounty. Stymied and refusing to touch the poisonous viands, our heroes are at a pass, until the professor overcomes his scruples and feigns an attack of severe stomach upset, holding his tummy, pretending to be faint, mimicking throwing up.

Suddenly all attentive, the priest goes to fetch some water, then makes sure they are comfortable for the night, condoling with the poor professor. As soon as he’s left the squalid little hut, our starving heroes tear open their hamper, pull out tins of grouse and bottles of beer and have a feast – being very careful to tidy every scrap of evidence back into the suitcase before the priest returns a few hours later (pages 63 to 64).

And the last point to be drawn from this chapter, is that on occasion Waugh rises to the level of really serious insight. Not allowed into the inner sanctum of the monastery to watch the priests perform their hidden rituals, Waugh has an epiphany. He realises the enormous contrast between the obscure, secret and hidden rites of the pagan East and the bright, open, public ceremonies of Western Christianity. He spends a page explaining how Roman Christianity performs its rituals in the open, in the light, for all to see and participate in and, the corollary of this, how its liturgies and theology give clear, hard-edged verbal definition to the hazy, murky intuitions, the holy terrors and ecstasies of the East.

Obviously whether this is precisely true is debatable, but it’s a big, thought-provoking idea and it arises naturally from the bed of pitiless observation and dry comedy which he creates for it. The unflinching gaze, the comedy and satire, are all based on deeper ideas, which you may or may not agree with, but which provide a serious, substantial foundation for the comedy.

Gentlemen of the press

Waugh is well aware he is masquerading as a foreign correspondent aware that he has no experience of such a role and nothing to qualify him except the self confidence inculcated at a jolly good public school and Oxford. He is alert to the ridiculousness of his own position but also to the farcical aspects of the job. For example, the assembled press cohort realise that the coronation itself is going to take place too late for their copy to make the first editions. Waugh gives a comic survey of the way the entire press corps responds by deciding to make up descriptions of the coronation and gives us choice excerpts of detailed descriptions of the exotic ceremony which were published in various British newspapers and which were entirely fictional. There are also grace notes, as it were, describing the unruly pushing and jostling of the cameramen, especially the one and only film crew in attendance (from America, of course).

The point for Waugh fans is this sets the tone for the even more farcical description of the press and foreign correspondents which he gives in the book’s sequel, Waugh in Abyssinia (1936) and which formed the basis for what is often described as the funniest satire ever written about the British press, the magnificent comic novel Scoop (1938).

Harar

The assignment to cover Selassie’s coronation forms the first part of the book but it is only the start of an odyssey in which Waugh takes the opportunity to visit a number of British colonies in East Africa. All in all, the trip was to take 6 months (p.84) and take in an impressive list of countries, namely Aden, Kenya, Zanzibar, the Belgian Congo and South Africa.

He explains how, once he had filed the requisite number of reports via telegraph back to The Times his contract came to an end and he was a free man. In London he had booked passage by boat from Djibouti to Zanzibar, but now finds he has ten days to kill and is uncertain what to do. Until, that is, the British Consul in Harar, Mr Plowman, kindly invites him to come and stay.

In fact the consul has to remain a few more days in Addis, so Waugh decides to make his own way overland to Harar, travelling by train and taxi. Harar was the first Ethiopian town visited by the famous Victorian explorer Sir Richard Burton and one of the first territories conquered by the warrior emperor Menelik II. It was the town where the caravans met between highlands and coastal lowlands; where Galla, Somali and Arab interbred to produce women of outstanding beauty.

Or so Waugh fantasised. In reality, he finds it to be a dingy medieval town. He is visited by the bishop of Harar and quizzes him about the French poet, the boy wonder Arthur Rimbaud, who lived here after he fled France and became a gun runner to the emperor Menelik II. He is disappointed to learn that the bishop remembers him only as a solemnly serious man, who took a native wife and had a gammy leg (p.79).

The owner of the hotel where he stays, the Leon d’Or, is ‘an Armenian of rare character’, Mr Bergebedgian, who has a wonderfully relaxed attitude to life. The Armenian takes him to all the shops in the town, where he incites himself in, has a coffee and chat with the owner, moves on, telling Waugh all the gossip of the town, shows him the town prison and courthouse (the one with a lion in a wooden cage behind it).

In an aside Waugh says he grew to really admire this man’s character: he thinks he is the most tolerant man he has ever met. Bergebedgian takes him to a hilarious local party at the governor’s house, and then on to a wedding party, which he only dares visit when fully armed and accompanied by two armed police.

Slavery

Last point about Ethiopia. When Haile Selassie ascended the throne, slavery was still legal and common in Ethiopia. An estimated 2 million of the population were slaves. As a modernising ruler the King of Kings moved quickly to abolish it but, inevitably, it lingered on in remote rural areas for decades.

First nightmare

This is the name Waugh gives a short 6-page section describing his unbearable tedium at missing a train connection and so being marooned in the dull dusty town of Dirre-Dowa and then, when he did manage to get a train to the coast, just missing the steamship to Zanzibar and so being marooned in Djibouti.

It is a dithyramb on the excruciating dullness of being stuck in a tropical town with nothing to do and no-one to visit. His attempts to alleviate the boredom are accurate and funny, including a painstaking  attempt at reading the complete works of Alexander Pope which he has (for some reason) brought with him. When he gives up Pope, he is reduced to reading through a small French dictionary in alphabetical order. Then he sits staring out the window in a state of stupefaction. As he accurately notes, most travel books don’t honestly recount the amount of time that is spent in boredom and inanition and frustration and, occasional, depression.

This short chapter certainly rang a bell with me, reminding me of many moments of boredom and loneliness on my various foreign travels. It’s another aspect of Waugh’s unflinching truthfulness.

Aden

It is very surprising to discover the importance which politics assume the moment one begins to travel. (p.120)

His description of Aden as a shabby rundown dump is a masterpiece with many laugh-out-loud moments. He meets the usual cast of eccentrics, or people who, in his novelist’s hands, become eccentrics, such as the two enterprising young German engineers who are working their way round the world. He finds the bachelor world of chaps dining at their clubs very congenial. After all, he says, it’s the womenfolk who ruin colonies, insisting their menfolk stay at home in the evenings, indulging in ferocious snobbery and pooh-poohing the natives.

Waugh describes going to the open air cinema where, a few minutes into the black and white comedy he realises almost everyone around him has fallen fast asleep. He attends a scout meeting where the patient British scoutmaster hopelessly tries to teach Arab youths how to build a fire or the ten rules of scout law.

He attends a council of local Arab chiefs and goes into great detail about the social and political situation of Yemen and southern Arabia. It was barely ten years since the entire area was taken over by the British after the fall of the Ottoman Empire which had run it for centuries. There is a detailed analysis of the complicated rivalries among the tribes, exacerbated by Ottoman rule and now complicated by British attempts to bring peace between internecine feuds. The council is a jurga hosted by the Sultan of Lahej and attended by Sir Stewart Symes, Resident at Aden from 1928 to 1931. He gives detailed insight into the challenges of trying to manage such a fissiparous people.

The tendency of Arab communities is always towards the multiplication of political units.

Disintegration, tribalism, feuding, rivalry, enmity and war. Britain withdrew from South Yemen in 1967. Since September 2014 (seven years and 2 months) Yemen has been torn apart by a brutal civil war in which about 380,000 people have died, including some 85,000 children who have died of starvation. Still. Independent of the ghastly British.

Zanzibar

Zanzibar turns out to be an ordeal. Sweltering oppressive heat and the subterranean prevalence of black magic. December is the worst time of year to visit. He spends all day sweating, only achieving peace a few times a day for a few minutes under a cold shower.

The general point he makes about Zanzibar is that it was taken over by the British with the express aim of abolishing the long-standing East African slave trade run by Arabs, which had increased in volume after the Sultan of Oman relocated his court to Zanzibar in 1840.

Now, in 1930, Waugh sees all around him evidence of the decay of Arab rule and ownership and the steady buying up of everything by merchants and businessmen from India. Waugh overtly likes the old aristocratic Arab culture and deprecates the ascension of what he sees as the ‘mean and dirty’, lower middle class merchant culture of the Indians (p.128) (but then he dislikes the sharp-elbowed middle classes of every race).

Kenya

He has an unpleasant experience with two officious British passport control officials at Mombasa on arriving at the Kenya coast, but once he gets to Nairobi he starts to have a wonderful time. It is Race Week and he has letters of introduction to top chaps, such as the Governor’s aide-de-camp, and spots various chaps and chapesses he knows from school and London (the benefits of being part of that network of public schoolboys and their sisters, wives and girlfriends), and so is swept away in a whirl of race meetings, parties, gambling, cocktails and nightclubs. It is London’s Bright Young Things nightclub society recreated on the equator.

This chapter contains a long serious section about the race issue in Kenya, about race and imperialism and the problems of the white settlers. It is fascinating to read an account from the period, as he grapples with what, to him, are recent developments, such as the government White Paper on the future of Kenya published in 1923.

Basically, Waugh comes out strongly in favour of the colonial settlers. He thinks they acquired the land legitimately, by buying it at fair auction. He thinks most of the land was waste and uncultivated before white farmers invested their life savings to buy it, then reinvested their profits to develop it. He accepts at face value the idea that the whites have a special ‘love’ for the country and its people.

He brings in the broader argument that all of human history has been a record of mass migrations and so the white settlement of the best parts of Africa is just another form of migration and time will tell whether it works out or not.

And finally, he makes the case that many of the white settlers represent a model of the traditional English squirearchy which has died out in the motherland, that they represent something fine and noble, with a patriarchal concern for the natives who they are slowly lifting out of savagery and into civilisation.

More than that, he thinks the way the mindset of the white settlers is so at odds with the socialising ideology of the modern they live in that they have a sort of special connection with the figure of The Writer, who is also at odds with his time.

Hmm. He’s wrong and the settlers were wrong. They might have had legal right on their side, but it was a system of law imposed by the conquering empire, a system which, notoriously, took no account of the African natives.

Waugh’s account is valuable and interesting because it isn’t an out-and-out racist, white supremacist argument, it’s much more mixed and nuanced than that. He happily criticises the whites, saying Anglo-Saxons are peculiarly prone to paranoid fears of other races. He says the appropriation of Masai land was a great injustice. He dislikes incidents of overt anti-black racism when he sees them. But, at the same time, his depiction of the white settlers as country-loving squirearchy is laughably sentimental and rose-tinted.

His account is valuable because it takes you into the complex dynamic of the situation circa 1930. There are:

  • the hard-working white settlers and farmers
  • the white professionals living in Nairobi and the towns who have made a killing out of property speculation
  • the distant government and civil service in Whitehall who all the settlers think don’t understand them and are gagging to sell them out
  • the colonial government on the ground in Nairobi which tries to mediate between London and the settlers, while also taking into account the interests of the natives
  • the native Africans who remain almost completely invisible and silent in Waugh’s account
  • much more visible and vocal are the Indians, successful businessmen who outnumber the whites, are often richer and more successful than them, but are infuriated at the way they are excluded from all aspects of white colonial life by a solid colour bar

In this account it is the Indians who are subject to pronounced racist attitudes. Waugh gives a tendentious account of three Indians he has a conversation with in Mombassa who get very heated. They are angry that they have no rights in Kenya, no legal or political rights and are discriminated against. Then they get angry about Indian independence. Waugh clearly dislikes them.

But they’re in the right. And he acknowledges the fact when he spends half a page dwelling on the hysteria which perfectly ordinary Anglo-Saxon people are driven into when abroad, when part of this absurd empire and their white privilege is threatened. He finds it incredible that the merest speculation that the governor might amend the law to allow Indians a vote in the Kenyan government has hot-headed whites muttering in their clubs about kidnapping the Governor and staging an anti-London protest similar to the Boston Tea Party.

He concludes the 4 or 5 pages he devotes to the subject by saying the entire colonial thing is an experiment. It’s perfectly possible that in the next 25 years the whole thing will be swept away. And, of course, eerily enough, that is just what happened. The entire ants nest of squabbling interest groups was swept away in the great tide of African independence which reached Kenya just 30 years later in 1963, to be replaced by an entirely new dynamic of tribally based political parties and much more severe problems.

Race and class

It comes as no surprise that a public schoolboy travelling the British Empire in 1930 occasionally betrays a condescending and patronising tone towards the ‘natives’. The two obvious things to go on to say are:

1. That he regularly expresses more or less the same condescending criticism towards Europeans, royalty, the English middle classes, colonists and so on, in fact about the entire enterprise of Empire which, like so many of his generation, he finds endlessly ridiculous. When he has dinner with a Quaker doctor and his wife there was ‘no nonsense about stiff shirts and mess jackets’; they eat dinner outside in their pyjamas.

2. For every negative comment about this or that group or tribe, there are plenty of positive remarks about other groups or nations or races or tribes.

For example, he goes out of his way to remark that the two most impressive and congenial people he met in his entire 6-month trip were Armenians and gives extended descriptions of their characters.

When I came to consider the question I was surprised to realise that the two most accomplished men I met during this six months I was abroad, the chauffeur who took us to Debra Labanos and Mr Bergebedgian, should both have been Armenians. A race of rare competence and the most delicate sensibility. (p.84)

No white supremacy there. He is full of admiration for the beauty of the women of Harar. And what prompted me to write this little section was a remark he makes à propos of his time in Zanzibar.

The Arabs are by nature a hospitable and generous race… (p.128)

He very much enjoys the company of a Turk he met on the boat to Zanzibar, enjoys discussing history and hearing history from an intelligent man born and bred entirely from the Mohammedan point of view (p.124).

The dividing line for Waugh isn’t race, as such: it is the line between civilisation and barbarism. Black men who can read and write, are educated, or maybe neither but still have manners and decorum are, for him, civilised. The Arabs demonstrate tremendous courtesy and hospitality. His two favourites among the hundreds of people he met were Armenians for their tolerance and capability. So it’s not to do with race, it’s to do with culture and civilisation.

On the other side of the line are what he calls the savages, the uneducated, illiterate, filthy and threatening natives, the ‘savages with filed teeth’ with long hair glued together by rancid butter dressed in rags. And then the homicidal behaviour of natives remote from all townships, who murder strangers on sight, sometimes eating them. For Waugh it’s not about skin colour as such, but behaviour and values, and these can be shared by anyone regardless of skin colour or ethnicity.

There is a third category which is the pushy, angry, Indian merchants and the occasional Jewish entrepreneur he encounters, and who he takes an instinctive dislike to. But again this isn’t necessarily about race. He just dislikes money-minded merchants of any culture: he is reliably contemptuous of British businessmen, especially lower-middle-class shopkeepers, and deprecates the commercially minded Yanks who hang round the emperor’s coronation. It’s not racism, it’s snobbery.

Alert and malicious

One contemporary described the young Waugh as having the appearance of ‘an alert and malicious faun’. Exactly. He is always alert. He notices (or invents) details which give his descriptions and accounts a tremendous specificity.

But this alertness of observation only ‘exists’ because of the way it is embodied within the text by the preciseness of his vocabulary and the timing of his phrasing, which themselves enact the aloof, scrupulous, alertness of attitude.

After a profoundly indigestible dinner, Mr Bergebedgian joined us – the unsmiling clerk and myself – in a glass of a disturbing liqueur labelled ‘Koniak’. (p.80)

I’m not claiming Shakespearian mastery of the language for Waugh, but pointing out the accuracy of observation and description. The way he casually mentions that the dinner was ‘profoundly indigestible’ is funny, continuing a theme about the general poverty and dirtiness of most of the places he stayed in, indeed the hotel kept by the affable Armenian Mr Bergebedgian is described in the only travel book of the region as one to be avoided at all costs.

But it’s the placement of the adjective ‘disturbing’ which made me burst out laughing. The unexpectedness but preciseness of the word. And then it is also part of the stylised vocabulary of the public school Bright Young Things. It is part of the pose they are trained in to underplay disasters and setbacks. ‘Oh I say, how unfortunate / how regrettable / how simply ghastly’ they say as their plane falls out of the sky, canoe goes over the falls, or the roast beef is a trifle overdone. ‘Disturbing’ is typical of that public school understatement: why say something as crudely explicit as ‘disgusting’ or ‘unpalatable’ when you can achieve humour and mastery of the situation with English understatement? So this one word raises a host of connotations. It is a complex effect delivered with immaculate timing, and it is the combination of a) surreal detail described with b) English understatement c) with perfect timing, which are a key part of Waugh’s reliably entertaining style.

On other occasions it is just the sheer beauty of his descriptions. On the ferry across Lake Tanganyika he is forced to make a rough bed on the deck, all the cabins having gone to the savvy passengers who had bribed the captain:

As we got up steam, brilliant showers of wood sparks rose from the funnel; soon after midnight we sailed into the lake; a gentle murmur of singing came from the bows. In a few minutes I was asleep. (p.170)

It’s not the most dramatic scene, but he describes it with such smoothness and style, having taken a few overnight ferries I recognise the mood, I felt I was there. When it is appropriate to be simple and descriptive, he is.

At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes it is the extended caricatures of the people he meets.

Soon after five the captain appeared. No one looking at him would have connected him in any way with a ship; a very fat, very dirty man, a stained tunic open to his throat, unshaven, with a straggling moustache, crimson-faced, gummy-eyed, flat-footed. He would have seemed more at home as the proprietor of an estaminet. (p.168)

Variety and innocence

This leads into my last point which is that the book contains a great diversity of characters. Alright, there aren’t any speaking parts for Africans once he’s left Ethiopia; but this large caveat aside, I found it wonderful that wherever he went, there was this diversity of races and nationalities: the two Armenians stick out, but plenty of Italians, French, Belgians, Germans, the Indians in Zanzibar, the Arabs and Jews in Aden.

And it’s not just nationalities, but a florid variety of characters and types, ranging from the shabby ship’s captain mentioned above to the most correctly dressed Governors and ambassadors, via Quaker missionaries in pyjamas, the monks of Debra Labanos in their filthy tunics, Kikuyu serving ‘boys’, Abyssinian bandits dressed in white gowns and riding donkeys, the historically-minded Turk, any number of demoralised Greek hotel keepers.

It has the same abundant mix of nationalities and types all rubbing along together which you get in the Tintin books of the 1930s and 40s. One of the things I loved about Tintin when I was a boy was the way all the characters are so colourful, come from different countries, speak different languages, cook different cuisines, are so wonderfully varied. The argumentative sea captain, the dotty professor, the dignified butler, the unstoppable opera singer, her timid assistant, the piratical South American dictator, the nitwit detectives – how unlike the very boring, samey suburban English people I grew up among, what a wonderful escape into a realm where everyone is a vivid and distinct character.

The same variety is evident right from the opening scenes of this book on the cruise ship bringing Waugh to Djibouti with its colourful cast of passengers, from princes to Foreign Legionaries.

I’ve just read half a dozen books about African countries where, at independence, almost the entire European population fled (Congo, Angola) or, soon afterwards, was expelled and all their businesses nationalised (Zaire, Uganda).

Buried in the chaos of the Second World War were huge ethnic cleansings and attempted genocides. The Cold War saw ideological differences stop being entertaining and become murderous. In Africa (and South America and South-East Asia) communist guerrillas kidnapped and murdered foreigners, dictatorships ran death squads, the world became a much more dangerous place. In Africa, specifically, successive nationalist regimes nationalised all foreign businesses and expelled their owners. The Greek hotel owners, the Armenian taxi drivers, the Russian who runs a hide company in Addis Ababa, the other European oddballs who’d fetched up in remote corners and, of course, the large Indian business communities in many African countries – all expelled, all banished, all swept away. Replaced by much more homogeneous societies, 100% black, 100% African.

I think that’s what happened. By the time I went a-travelling in the late 1970s it felt like the colourful bricolage or personalities you regularly encounter in Tintin or pre-war travel books had vanished: in Egypt I met only Egyptians, in Thailand only Thais, in Turkey only Turks, in Greece only Greeks.

The colourful world in which you pulled into an Ethiopian or Ugandan town to find the only hotel run by a morose Greek and the only taxi in town driven by a cheerful Armenian taxi driver and got chatting with a jolly Turk happy to explain the Mohammedan view of history – that colourful world of real variety and diversity had gone for good.


Credit

Remote People by Evelyn Waugh was published in 1931. All references are to the 1985 Penguin paperback edition.

Evelyn Waugh reviews

Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions, memoirs and travel writing set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

Mushrooms: The art, design and future of fungi @ Somerset House

Without fungi all ecosystems would fail.

If you enter Somerset House from the terrace facing the River Thames, then immediately on your right is a set of three long consecutive rooms which Somerset House uses to house left-field and intriguing exhibitions. In the past I’ve come to see exhibitions about Tintin, Beards, and Mary Sibald here.

Continuing this tradition is the current exhibition, three long rooms packed with Victorian, 20th century, and contemporary art works all on the theme of mushrooms and fungi.

The show brings together the work of over 40 leading artists, designers and musicians to present an overview of fungi’s colourful cultural legacy, as well as some optimistic ideas about our fungus future.

Mindful Mushroom by Seana Gavin

Fungus facts

Printed around the walls are some of the fungus facts which we all need to know:

  • It was fungi that allowed plants to colonise the earth by mining rocks for mineral nourishment, slowly turning them into what would become soil
  • 90% of living plant species depend on fungi to provide basic nutrients through their roots
  • the largest organism on earth is Armillaria ostoyae which covers 2,385 acres and is at least 2,400 years old
  • mushrooms have hundreds of ‘sexes’ and reproduce by fusing together

Victorians and fungus

Lewis Carroll was partly reflecting the Victorian growth in interest in the natural world, with decades of collectors having amassed mountains of information about the natural world, here in the British Isles and all around the Empire. In Alice In Wonderland Carroll has Alice encounter a caterpillar sitting smoking an elaborate waterpipe on a fly agaric mushroom. He tells her that eating one side of it will make her grow, while eating the other side will make her shrink. And so the exhibition contains a display case showing volumes of Alice open at this scene and illustrated by different illustrators including the original by Sir John Tenniel and a slender Edwardian Alice by Arthur Rackham.

Alice and the caterpillar by Arthur Rackham (1907)

When his intrepid explorers landed in the moon, H.G. Wells had them discover that it was covered in fast-growing fungi. A whole wall is devoted to a dozen or so watercolours of fungi made by children’s author Beatrix Potter, who painted more than 300 watercolours of fungi between 1888 and 1897.

Hygrophorus puniceus by Beatrix Potter (1894)

Twentieth century fungus

The twentieth century is represented by a wall of collages by American artist Cy Twombly – to be precise, No.I – No.X 91974), combining images from the human world with mushroom images, random crayon marks, bits of print and so on. I’ve never liked Cy Twombly.

In a display case is a record of John Cage’s mushroom music and a rare copy of the limited edition Mushroom Book made by the avant-garde composer, John Cage, who was also a dedicated and serious mycologist. The label tells us that Cage helped found the New York Mycological Society with artist Lois Long, and made a living partly by selling luxury mushrooms which he foraged in upstate New York to the city’s top restaurants.

Cochlea Brick Tuft by Hamish Pearch

A dominant theme of this, the second room, is DRUGS, namely the hallucinogenic effects of the chemical psilocybin, a naturally occurring psychedelic prodrug produced by more than 200 species of mushrooms, collectively known as psilocybin mushrooms.

There’s a display case of various literary and counter-culture books and magazines which register the growing interest in mind-altering drugs through the 1950s and into the psychedelic 60s, sparked off by Aldous Huxley’s Doors of Perception, through Timothy Leary, and on into other pop culture references.

As well as these pop culture references, the exhibition tells us that:

  • psilocybin evolved in mushrooms 10 to 20 million years ago, apparently as a way to dampen insect appetites – it is a defence mechanism

Contemporary mushroom art

This is the core of the exhibition, a large number of artworks by over 20 contemporary artists on the subject of fungi, which include paintings, collage, assemblies, installations, video, films, clothes and household ornaments about, with or made from fungi.

Take the jokey film, Fly Amanita by David Fenster, in which he dresses up as a mushroom and shares the thoughts of an Amanita muscaria (also known as Fly Agaric or Fly Amanita) mushroom on his species’ relationship with humans.

British artist Simon Popper has been collecting postage stamps from around the world which depict mushrooms. The result is a large collection of sheets of paper to which the stamps are pinned and titled Mycology Philately.

There’s a video by Egyptian video artist Adham Faramawy showing him and two others doing contemporary dance in a room coloured green with superimposed graphic mushrooms appearing in various corners symbolising, apparently, a break through cultural boundaries’.

There’s a Mushroom Suitcase by Carsten Höller, who trained as a scientist before becoming an artist and plays with the intersection of games, mind tricks, scientific experiments, and scientific research.

Pilzkoffer (Mushroom Suitcase) 2008 by Carsten Holler. Photo by Mark Blower

There are some wall cases containing amazingly realistic, life-sized sculptures of various fungi, done with utter scientific accuracy even down to the trailing roots at the bottom, actually made of silk but designed to look as if each one has been freshly pulled from the soil.

Mushroom sculptures by Amanda Cobbett

Artist Alex Morrison combines arts and crafts patterning with colours and layouts inspired by graffiti found in his native Vancouver.  The result is a mildly subversive trippy wallpaper.

Mushroom motif, black and ochre by Alex Morrison (2017)

I liked the work of Laurence Owen who:

draws parallels between humanly-constructed grid systems and modes of connectivity within fungal network systems… [exploring] the innate need within both human and fungal organisms to co-exist and thrive.

In practice this amounted to three large-ish (two foot across) ceramic works hung on the wall which looked like fungus-inspired futuristic cities.

Network by Laurence Owen. Photo © Laurence Owen

And they are hung to quite a few other exhibits by many more contemporary artists, including:

  • Hannah Collins
  • Cody Hudson
  • Jae Rhim Lee
  • Graham Little
  • Mae-ling Lokko
  • Perks and Mini
  • Haroon Mirza
  • Takashi Murakami
  • Hamish Pearch
  • Annie Ratti

Fungi futures

As to the fungi futures, it is estimated that there may be as many as five million fungi species in the world of which we have identified as little as 1%. Considering that penicillin was an accidental discovery made from fungi and has gone on to save more human lives than any other discovery in history, it’s reasonable to wonder how many other wonder-drugs and super-substances may be out there in the Mycological Kingdom.

Some fungi are already used to combat pollution and waste, in rehabilitating oil spills and recolonising the sites of radioactive accidents. And so the third and final room of the exhibition displays examples of the ways fungus material may be turned into more sustainable products that metal and oil-based artefacts. Thus:

  • Sebastian Cox and Ninela Ivanova have produced a series of lamp shades made of mycelium (“Mycelium is the vegetative part of a fungus or fungus-like bacterial colony, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae.”)
  • Mae-Ling Lokko works on the upcycling of agro-waste and biopolymer materials into building materials, including blocks built from mycelium
  • there’s a life size ‘burial suit’ by Korean-American artist Jae Rhim Lee, made of biomaterials including mushroom, and designed to prevent the more toxic chemicals from human bodies leeching into the soil
  • another film, this one by Australian director Jason Evans, documenting foragers of the Pacific North-West collecting matsutake mushrooms which only grow in human-disturbed forest.

And clothes. There’s a display case containing a t-shirt, a handbag and what looks like a bra made out of fungus material, the obvious idea being these are more sustainable and less polluting materials than most traditional fabrics let alone plastics.

And some works by Belgian footwear designer Kristel Peters who now focuses on sustainable shoe design. Her focus is on the use of mycelium as a material with little or no environmental impact, so that the samples of her ‘mycoshoes’ on display here demonstrate experiments at the intersection of bio-technology and fashion.

Mycoshoen by Kristel Peters

Curator

The exhibition was curated by writer and curator of contemporary art Francesca Gavin.

This may explain why, after Alice and Beatrix displays, the show cruises briskly through the twentieth century (Cage and Twombly) before arriving very firmly in the absolute present: most of the artworks on display here are bang up to date, with a number of the pieces dating from as recently as 2019.

With the result that, by the end, you realise that this isn’t an exhibition about mushrooms or fungi: an exhibition like that would have to include vastly more botany and science in it, explaining how fungi have evolved, grow, spore, reproduce, exactly how they break down organic waste, and are vital in helping almost all plants and trees to survive.

As an example, there were several references in the wall labels to fungi’s ability to create vast fibrous underground networks and to communicate along them somehow, along with speculation that these networks could be developed in the future to a) transmit electricity b) to form some kind of artificial intelligence network. But then there was no further explanation of any of these mind-blowing notions. I wanted more.

No, this is an exhibition of contemporary art – an impressive selection of videos, installations, clothes and household goods, ceramics, collages and paintings – which happens to be on the subject of fungi. You learn a few factoids about fungi (some of which the average interested person might well already have known), but what is undeniably new and distinctive is the cross-section of little-known contemporary artists which Gavin has assembled.

Taken as an exhibition about fungi, this show is disappointing.

Taken as a wide-ranging exhibition of contemporary art which just happens to have chosen fungi as a subject, this show is a fascinating insight into the contemporary art scene.


Related links

Reviews of other Somerset House exhibitions

Marvellous and Mischievous: Literature’s Young Rebels @ the British Library

Next to the big Buddhism exhibition at the British Library (admission £14 for adults) is a smaller FREE exhibition for children titled Marvellous and Mischievous.

The British Library has a vast collection of children’s literature with examples from the distant past right up to the present day, and they’ve created this bright, inventive, fun exhibition to present a vivid selection of some of the more rebellious or naughty children’s characters from the past three hundred years or so, from a Latin textbook from 1680 containing doodles made by disgruntled schoolboys to The Boy at the Back of the Class, a story about a boy refugee which was winner of best story at the Blue Peter Book Awards 2019.

The exhibition has two elements:

1. A sequence of wall labels giving information about some 40 different heroes and heroines from children’s literature, from the Bash Street Kids to Angry Arthur via Oliver Twist, Matilda, Lizzie Dripping, Pippi Longstocking and many more. Each wall label is accompanied by one or two illustrations from the books the characters appear in, giving a vivid sense of how important good illustration is to the success of children’s books, and showcasing some masters and mistresses of the art, including Axel Scheffler (Zog), Quentin Blake (Matilda), Nick Sharratt (Tracy Beaker), Judith Kerr (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) and many more.

© Zog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Axel Scheffler 2010 (Alison Green Books)

So the main experience of the show is strolling past a series of deeply evocative pictures of children’s book ‘rebels’ old and new, each with an interesting and diverting factual accompaniment.

2. And there are three Activity Areas:

  • a reading corner where some mums were reading to small children
  • a wall mirror and some clothes and props where kids can dress up as a rebel character and take selfies in the modern style
  • and a table and chairs with loads of paper and pens, where slightly older children (8?) were creating their own comics, which can then be left on the string lines above for other visitors to read

Leo Baxendales of the future creating their own comics in the Marvellous and Mischievous exhibition at the British Library

So which characters from children’s literature are in included in the exhibition? (The sentences in speech marks are direct quotes from the exhibition wall labels.)

Rebel girls (23)

  • Tilly and the Bookwanderers – One day Tilly realises that the characters in her favourite books are encouraging her to enter the pages of the books and join with them to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance.
  • Zog by Julia Donaldson – a dragon with a sore throat is treated by Pearl, a princess who lives in a castle but wants to escape and become a doctor! – ‘Pearl is heroic because she defies expectations and dares to be herself’
  • Northern Lights by Philip Pullman – ‘mischievous and disobedient Lyra’; ‘Lyra’s rebellious nature leads her to question her place in the world’
  • Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki – In the land of Ingary, oldest children are destined to be least successful but Sophie rebels against her destiny, and sets off to have adventures
  • Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen – not only is Billy a girl, she is a ‘brown’ girl (as The Bookseller puts it) and she has to stand up to the Terrible Beast who is gathering ingredients for his Terrible Soup. ‘Have you ever confronted someone scary to stand up for what’s right?’
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carrol – ‘Alice isn’t daunted: she’s forthright, inquisitive, courageous and truthful’.
  • Azzi in Between by Sarah Garland – the daughter of refugees, Azzi is ‘resilient and imaginative’
  • Mulan – in ancient China girls rarely went out in public but Mulan challenged convention. ‘Mulan was a courageous young girl who concealed her gender for 12 years in order to serve in the army. ‘Have you ever dreamt of being a storybook hero?’
  • When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr – the rise of the Nazis through the eyes of young Anna – ‘The story shows the importance of family’
  • The Rebel of the School by L.T. Meades – Kathleen finds the rules at Great Shirley School stifling and struggles to regain the freedom she had before starting school and refuses to conform
  • Matilda by Roald Dahl – strong, independent schoolgirl who stands up against bullies, namely the headteacher, the Trunchbull
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë – young Jane rebels against her strict schooling, refusing to be afraid and ‘her defiance is a lesson for her schoolmates, and the reader’
  • Jane, The Fox and me by Isabelle Arsenault – Hélène is bullied at school but finds inspiration in the character of Jane Eyre, which gives her hope and confidence
  • The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnet – Mary Lennox is a spoilt orphan who’s been raised in India and finds moving back to England difficult, but keeps her rebellious, rule-breaking nature
  • Witchfairy by Brigitte Minne – Rosemary doesn’t want to be a stupid fairy, she wants to be a witch so she goes and builds a new home in the forest, and makes friends with witches. ‘A story about growing up, accepting yourself and finding a place in the world.’
  • The Jolly Postman by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. ‘Is Goldilocks the most outrageous rule-breaker in fairy tales?… Here the Jolly Postman delivers Goldilocks’ apologies to the three bears.’
  • Wild by Emily Hughes – A little girl grows up wild in the woods, but is then captured and taken to the city where she she can’t understand manners and politeness. ‘Three cheers for misfits and outsiders!’
  • Dare by Lorna Gutierrez (Author), Polly Noakes (Illustrator) – ‘Taking risks, spotting the things others don’t see, supporting those in need, expressing yourself, speaking up for what is right’ – makes her sound like a Young Communist Youth Pioneer.
  • I Am Thunder by Muhammad Khan – Muzna dreams of becoming a writer but her controlling parents won’t let her. ‘This coming-of-age novel moves from everyday teenage rebellion to Muzna’s choice between protecting the person she cares about most, or betraying her beliefs.’
  • Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren has a healthy disrespect for unreasonable adults. ‘A powerful character who uses her strength for good and is often found protecting children from bullies.’
  • Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson – Tracy is a ten-year-old girl living in a children’s residential care home nicknamed the ‘Dumping Ground’. but is ‘determined to change her life and isn’t going to compromise!’
  • Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery – ‘an imaginative, impulsive character who changes those around her with the force of her personality’
  • What planet are you from, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child – Clarice ‘navigates the complex ethical and social questions children deal with at school and at home’

What Planet Are You From, Clarice Bean? by Lauren Child © Lauren Child (Orchard Books, 2001)

Rebel boys (8)

  • Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak – sent to bed without his supper, Max imagines a wild island full of fierce beasts – ‘a celebration of mischief, anarchy and imaginative play’
  • Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie – ran away from his parents to a land where children never grow up. There he lives with the mischievous Lost Boys and has thrilling adventures.
  • The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q. Raúf – Ahmet is a refugee who’s become separated from his family. The children at his new school befriend him and ask the queen for her help – an adventure which shows ‘the power of friendship, standing up to bullies, and a little bit of bravery’
  • Angry Arthur by Hiawyn Oram – Arthur gets angry when his mum insists it’s time to turn the TV off and go to bed, so angry that he blows up the universe!
  • Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens – Oliver asks for more gruel in the poorhouse.
  • Wicked Walter by Catherine Storr – steals a cake from his mother only to discover it contains salt and pepper rather than sugar!
  • Dirty Bertie by David Roberts – Bertie is a likeable boy who tried very hard, generally without success!
  • Julian is a Mermaid by Jessica Love – young Julian wants to dress up as a mermaid. ‘An inspirational picture book that celebrates individuality, self-discovery, acceptance, gender identity, beauty and love.’

Julian Is a Mermaid by Jessica Love © 2018 Jessica Love

Rebel groups (4)

  • The Bash Street Kids from The Beano drawn by Leo Baxendale – ‘Easily one of the naughtiest groups of children in comic book history’
  • Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman – young adult book about race, set in a society where dark-skinned people have power and the friendship-love between a boy and girl across the colour divide
  • The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier – a group of older children are thrown together by the Nazi invasion of Poland – ‘The characters are brave and resilient’
  • The Midnight Gang by David Walliams – patients living in an unusual hospital with a terrifying matron and a porter who helps them live out their dreams.

1. What is a rebel?

Several trains of thought arise from carefully reading all these wall labels:

First, what is a rebel? The dictionary definition is:

a person who rises in opposition or armed resistance against an established government or leader

Well, not many of the characters in this exhibition are taking up arms against an oppressive government. Most of them are refusing to tidy their room or do their homework. And what emerges as you progress around the displays is that most of the ‘rebels’ who are featured represent values which the modern-day curators thoroughly endorse – standing up for yourself, being true to your beliefs, bucking convention, protecting the weak and vulnerable.

After all, what parent wants to read bedtime stories to their little children which actively encourage them to disobey their parents, smash up the furniture and torture the cat? Clearly the notion of ‘rebellion’, as applied to children, exists in a carefully delimited sense. Good children’s books must acknowledge every child’s wayward impulses, but subtly channel them into forms which are acceptable to adults, in which the characters are ‘naughty’ – but stay just this side of the really serious boundaries.

Thus (I’m suggesting) children’s fiction plays a role in indulging rebel impulses, but carefully controlling them and reshaping them into socially acceptable forms.

Matilda and Miss Trunchbull from Matilda by Roald Dahl 1988 © Roald Dahl Story Company Quentin Blake 2019

And it’s likely that children have a psychological need to read or hear about other children being naughty, misbehaving, getting into trouble but deep down being kind and wanting the best — so that the readers can identify with these naughty children, not feel they are lost, not feel they are alone, not feel they are the only ones who keep getting into trouble and that no-one understands them.

Children need to be shown that these kinds of tantrums, rule-breaking, misunderstandings or conscious disobediences have happened to generations of children before them who turned out alright. It is OK to get into trouble now and then, to be told off by parents or teachers. It is not the end of the world.

So in a way all these books redeem bad behaviour, or show that adults do understand naughtiness. The message is a fundamentally comforting, reassuring one: You can be naughty, break some of the rules – and still be a good person.

Lastly, there is the obvious point that – it’s just more fun reading about naughty characters, whether you’re a child or an adult.

The reading area at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

2. What about boys?

The second thing which became fairly obvious as I read my way round the exhibition was the surprising under-representation of rebel boys.

The exhibition contains nearly three times as many books for girls as for boys, and it became increasingly clear that the curators (three women: Lucy Evans, Anna Lobbenberg, Nicola Pomery) are promoting a heavily feminist view of what a rebel is – namely a heroic girl who bucks society’s expectations and escapes from gender stereotypes, but is, deep down, kind and helpful to the weak and bullied – in other words, a feminist paragon.

It’s a narrative which is very on-trend and comfortably sits alongside the great tsunami of girl-supporting books and films and government initiatives which currently flood our culture. A quick search on Amazon suggests there is no shortage of books on the subject:

  • Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls
  • I Am a Rebel Girl: A Journal to Start Revolutions
  • Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls
  • Rebel Colouring For Girls: Motivating Messages & Marvellous Mantras To Colour & Create
  • ‘Rebel Girls Say…’ Positive Colouring For Girls age 7-10
  • Star Wars Feminist Princess Leia T-Shirt for Rebel Little Girls
  • Bad Girls: A History of Rebels and Renegades

I suppose all schoolchildren need help and support and encouragement – that’s a core element of education, in fact almost a definition of education. Pondering the obvious bias in this exhibition, though, I couldn’t help wondering why girls seem to need so much more encouragement than boys, especially in light of three well-known facts:

1. Boys read less than girls

2. Girls now outperform boys at every level of education

Girls are outperforming boys at every stage of the educational system. They do better than boys in National curriculum SAT tests.

Girls are more successful than boys in virtually every GCSE subject at 16 including traditional ‘male’ subjects like Maths and Physics.

In 2018 the gap in attainment between girls and boys at grades 4/C and above was 13.3%, with 73.8% of girls getting these grades compared to 64.6% of boys.

This pattern was repeated among the top grades (grade 7/A and above), where the gap was 30.4% with 24.6% of entries by girls compared to 18.1% for boys.

Girls also outperformed boys at the top grade 9 – Ofqual figures show 732 pupils who sat seven or more reformed GCSEs have managed to get straight 9s across those subjects – 68% of this group were female and 32% male.

In 2017 young women maintained a clear lead over young men despite the new linear exams. The gender gap of 10 percentage points – was wider than the 9% recorded in summer of 2016, despite the downgrading of coursework and a decisive move towards end-of-course exams.

A higher number of women stay on at school or go to college.

This year more women than men have been accepted for university than men.

Six out of 10 graduates today are women. 30 years ago, seven out 10 graduates were men.

And female students are more likely to get top degrees too.

(Further Education news)

3. White working class boys are the worst performing group in the UK

In the comprehensive list of books featured in the exhibition, where are the realistic role models for young boys? Peter Pan? Oliver Twist? Angry Arthur?

Why are there so many positive role models for girls and hardly any for boys? (In the press images for the exhibition, there are six images of rebel girls and none of rebel boys [with the exception of transgender Julian]. Why?)

In this exhibition, as in so much of British cultural life, white working class boys are written out of the story.

So it seemed to me that in so heavily promoting reading for girls this exhibition was pushing at an open door but, at the same time, sadly missing an opportunity to reach out to notoriously reluctant-to-read boys.

© Billy and the Beast by Nadia Shireen (2019) Jonathan Cape, Penguin Random House Children’s

3. Can children’s fiction ever be value-free?

And, finally, this exhibition made me wonder whether it’s possible to write a children’s story without filling it with positive, uplifting, socially approved messages.

Modern curators and academics tend to mock the Victorians and Edwardians for producing literature with ‘improving’ messages, or which crudely promoted the values needed to support the now-utterly-discredited British Empire – ‘Play up, play up, and play the game!’ etc.

But is the children’s literature of our day so very different, with its barrage of socially aware, woke messaging – with its gentle but persistent insistence that we must help girls break free of their gendered roles, and we must understand boys like Julian who want to dress up as mermaids, and we must be supportive of refugees like Ahmet?

I’m not querying these values. I’m just wondering whether modern children’s fiction isn’t every bit as nakedly propagandist for our contemporary social values as Victorian children’s books were for theirs. We live in our age and so find our values natural and inevitable. But then, so did the Victorians, and the Georgians, and every generation before them…

The merchandise

Lastly, all the books referenced in the exhibition are on sale in the bookshop by the exit. ‘Rebel as much as you like – so long as you keep on buying our products!’ The ultimate rebellion – the extinction rebellion – to cease consuming, to opt out of the planet-destroying compulsion to buy, buy, buy – is mentioned by the curators in their introduction but nowhere (surprisingly) by any of the authors they’ve chosen.

Children’s books on sale at Marvellous and Mischievous at the British Library

Summary

I’m vastly over-thinking an exhibition which is, after all, designed for infant and junior school-age children, designed to give them a selection of interesting characters to inspire them and get them reading, and asking interesting questions about fictional characters and about themselves.

The show is obviously designed to showcase highlights from the Library’s huge collection, to serve as a book-filled venue for school trips, and also just to provide an opportunity for kids to dress up and make their own comics. It’s meant to be fun and is predominantly aimed at the very young, as the introductory text clearly indicates:

In our exhibition you’ll meet all kinds of storybook rebels from the last 300 years – in their homes, at school, or on a journey.

Who’s your favourite and what would you stand up for?

And after all, these are valid questions: Who is your favourite children’s book character – and what would you stand up for?


Related links

Reviews of other British Library exhibitions

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