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CHAPTER SIXTEEN A Foot Wedged in the Door of Eternity 1971 255 Four years after confiding that his ambition was to match the achievement of Camus in La Peste, Jim’s chosen setting was taking shape, wafer-thin brick by brick. Bricks are undoubtedly an essential ingredient of civilization; one gets nowhere at all without them. But his original besieged town had dwindled to a British enclave under siege in the Indian Mutiny of 1857; a smaller community , but a much broader theme. Since Yale he had had a name for the unresolved idea, and he continued to refer to it privately as ‘his’ Robinson Crusoe. ‘I knew,’ he would reveal in an interview after publication, ‘I wanted an enclosed situation where it would be fairly easy to get my characters to meet each other.’ A siege – and this siege in particular – was ideal. India, like Ireland, evoked a possessive glint, because rapt attention in childhood to his father’s colourful stories had merged Bill’s experiences with his own. As the research for Troubles had stretched out he had made notes on the Amritsar massacre, the mutiny of the Connaught Rangers and Gandhi’s repeated calls to drive out the British. Each was a historical turning point, but none ultimately caught his imagination. And then, while idly glancing through a tome on Victorian social history in a public library, he had come across a love letter addressed to ‘Tony’, and instantly the mid-nineteenth century sharpened into focus. The subject selected itself. ‘Naturally I read it greedily,’ he recorded. ‘Actually it was only halfwritten – the unnamed girl was begging forgiveness for some unspecified unfaithfulness which had merely been “experimental” but that ever since “the first time on the camp bed” (!!!) she had really known that he was the only one.’ Jim returned to the period whenever he could, and a leaden day in the British Museum was lit by the discovery of a personal diary kept during the Indian Mutiny’s most sensational confrontation, the five-month siege of Lucknow, by a survivor, Maria Germon. ‘What really interested me,’ he would acknowledge, ‘was that it talked not about heroics and strategy but about how people were actually living, how they washed their clothes, what a nuisance the flies were, and so on.’ Authentic detail could now give strength to a suitably dramatic pivot, and the historical timing of the mutiny provided scope for a new and ambitious subplot. Contemporary newspaper reports of massacres of wives and children across northern India had shattered the widespread belief held by the Victorian home public in the happiness of grateful native servants. By assigning notions that were equally misguided to characters with whose thought processes modern readers would still identify, current ‘certainties’ could be questioned. ‘What I wanted to do,’ he revealed afterwards, ‘was to use this period of the past as a metaphor for today, because I believe that however much the superficial detail and customs of life may change over the years, basically life itself does not change very much, indeed all literature that survives must depend on this assumption.’ In this book he intended to examine the failure of nineteenth-century pragmatism and rationalism, palatably served up in a light satire of ideas. Putting aside less appealing options (one based upon de Gaulle’s period in England – ‘a gossipy popularised history explaining why he hates the Anglo-Saxons so much’ – and the other probing the exploitation by Father Fischer – ‘a diabolical priest’ – of Emperor Maximilian in Mexico), Jim set about assembling the background. He was unsurprised to learn that the spark for the mutiny had been bureaucratic penny pinching combined with scorn for other cultures, as a result of which the cartridges for the army’s new Lee-Enfield rifles were greased by a mix of cow’s fat and lard to save money, a source of defilement for Hindu and Moslem sepoys alike; complacency and rigid narrow-mindedness heralded an empire in decay. Victorian England was within walking distance of the Egerton Gardens flat. In the Science Museum Jim examined surgical and medical procedures of the period, and compassion rounded out respect. He prowled the Victoria & Albert Museum, hunting down individual items from the British Museum catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851, and studied costumes, making sketches. Afternoon walks took in the cemetery in the Old Brompton Road, winding between the headstones and vaults collecting inscriptions 256 J.G. Farrell that captured the...


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