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3 Had it not been for the sea, J.G. Farrell’s parents would never have met. It was aboard the SS Ranchi, cruising the North Sea off Norway in 1929, that they were introduced, and they became unofficially engaged before the liner docked. Josephine Russell was nineteen, optimistic and decisive. William Farrell, nine years her senior, was on the lookout for a wife; his masculine round of a shared bachelor chummery in India had palled and domesticity attracted him. He had begun his six-month leave hoping to lay down the foundations for a family life, and time was inexorably slipping past. Jo, as she was known, was reaping her reward for having returned home at short notice to hold the fort, enabling her parents to stay with a seriously ill aunt, who had since died. The cruise was recompense and holiday combined. She was the oldest of the family of four, and shared her father’s zest for travel, if not yet his awareness of the need to offset provincialism; a subtle widening of horizons accounted for her presence aboard. Jo’s inveterate companion was her sister Sheilah, and Bill, as his friends called him, had a colleague along; all four, being competitive, were drawn to the games on deck. On the day they met, Jo had uncharacteristically jibbed at taking part, but Sheilah overruled her and pointed to the two tanned, intriguing men. ‘Very broad and very quiet,’ she assessed as they got to know one another better. ‘He didn’t talk much, but he was very well-read and he had a wonderful sense of humour – ironic and quick.’ She thought him good-looking and was unworried by his receding hair, already showing signs of going grey. Her experience was limited to the orbit of the well-known surgeon who employed her, and close observation of medical students at work and play made Bill’s extra years an asset. It impressed her to learn that at her age he had taken charge of his life and joined the United Molasses Company in Java, deviating only for CHAPTER ONE At the Centre of a Vast Empire a language course in Holland on the way, and that he had taken the unfamiliar in his stride, choosing a billet with three Dutchmen to perfect his accent. His adventurous side was buttressed by a reassuringly conservative bent, borne out by hearing that he now managed the company’s most profitable factory in India, having trained in accountancy. United Molasses dealt in treacle throughout the Far East, but in India, where it was mixed with tobacco before smoking, it was in such demand that it was imported in bulk by tanker, to be pumped ashore, stored and sold in cans. Bill’s factory was in Chittagong, a port in northern Bengal, and fluency in Hindi as well as Dutch backed up the impact of brown skin and sunbleached hair. For Jo, however, it was his mastery of English that bridged the gap between them, although initially she set the pace. What drew them together, she would always say afterwards, was the fun they had in chatting. As they played quoits together and took turns about the deck it became plain that there was an inverse symmetry in their family histories. In the swirling crosscurrents of the nineteenth century the moves of the Farrells had directly counterbalanced those of the Russells. The Quaker O’Farrells had emigrated via Sligo by boat and dropped the prefix when settling in Liverpool, where through industry and acumen they had thrived. Meanwhile, the Russells had made a successful move in the opposite direction, going from Liverpool to Ireland. Irony makes its first appearance here. The Russells, who saw themselves as Irish and lived in Ireland, had an English surname and mainly English antecedents, while the Farrells, who saw themselves exclusively as English, had the Irish name and distant family connections. Tangled attitudes and insights would be an ideal preparation for novels about those potentially troublesome intricacies, transposed onto a greater Empire scale. Bill was born in 1900 and shaped by the red-bricked certainties of turn-of-the-century Liverpool, where his father, Thomas James Farrell, was a prominent wine and spirit merchant. Bill’s father concentrated on the present and looked towards the future. Sentiment and the past exerted little pull, as his choice of a wife demonstrated. Bill’s mother was tiny, fiery and proudly Welsh, and her disapproval encompassed all things Irish, with...


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MARC Record
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