With two prize-winning novels – Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur (see SF nos. 49 and 50) – behind him, J. G. Farrell felt sufficiently confident to paint his next exploration of the decline of the British Empire on a larger canvas. The Singapore Grip (1978), set in the build-up to Japan’s invasion of the colony in 1942, continues the theme of its predecessors in portraying a complacent élite teetering on the edge of an abyss and then tumbling to its fate. But while the events of Troubles and Siege are experienced by a limited cast of protagonists in isolated circumstances – a decaying hotel in Ireland after the First World War and a besieged British Residency during the Indian Mutiny – those of Grip explore a more disparate society fracturing under stress.
At the book’s heart are opposing notions about the exercise of power represented by the prosperous rubber trader and colonial diehard Walter Blackett and the idealistic son of Walter’s business partner, Matthew Webb. However, as the menace of invasion draws closer, Farrell broadens his vision to incorporate exploited Chinese and Malay workers, incompetent military commanders and invading Japanese troops. He wanted to do more than write about the collapse of power. He wanted to penetrate the darkness that lay behind the acquisition of that power: the rapacity of imperial greed and its corrupting effects.
Farrell displayed impressive zeal himself in researching what his biographer Lavinia Greacen calls his ‘personal War and Peace’. He buried himself in the colony’s commercial, social, political and military life between the wars and pinned a large-scale street map of Singapore over his desk. A bibliography – unusual for a work of fiction – lists fifty-one books from which he culled information. Later, he also visited Singapore and was struck by a powerful sensation of privilege surviving from earlier day
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With two prize-winning novels – Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur (see SF nos. 49 and 50) – behind him, J. G. Farrell felt sufficiently confident to paint his next exploration of the decline of the British Empire on a larger canvas. The Singapore Grip (1978), set in the build-up to Japan’s invasion of the colony in 1942, continues the theme of its predecessors in portraying a complacent élite teetering on the edge of an abyss and then tumbling to its fate. But while the events of Troubles and Siege are experienced by a limited cast of protagonists in isolated circumstances – a decaying hotel in Ireland after the First World War and a besieged British Residency during the Indian Mutiny – those of Grip explore a more disparate society fracturing under stress.At the book’s heart are opposing notions about the exercise of power represented by the prosperous rubber trader and colonial diehard Walter Blackett and the idealistic son of Walter’s business partner, Matthew Webb. However, as the menace of invasion draws closer, Farrell broadens his vision to incorporate exploited Chinese and Malay workers, incompetent military commanders and invading Japanese troops. He wanted to do more than write about the collapse of power. He wanted to penetrate the darkness that lay behind the acquisition of that power: the rapacity of imperial greed and its corrupting effects. Farrell displayed impressive zeal himself in researching what his biographer Lavinia Greacen calls his ‘personal War and Peace’. He buried himself in the colony’s commercial, social, political and military life between the wars and pinned a large-scale street map of Singapore over his desk. A bibliography – unusual for a work of fiction – lists fifty-one books from which he culled information. Later, he also visited Singapore and was struck by a powerful sensation of privilege surviving from earlier days. As ever, Farrell’s voice is ironic and his mischievously satirical observations on the absurdities of life are very funny. But unlike Troubles and Siege which generally treat the main characters with what might be called critical sympathy, behind Grip lies a rage at the injustice wreaked by the strong on the weak. Again, Farrell was writing as modern events reflected his interpretation of the past. Just as Troubles had been written when British troops were surging into Ulster, so Grip was begun as the Americans retreated from Saigon. Again, Farrell was unsettled by the coincidence. It is the late 1930s and Walter, the domineering head of the Singapore rubber trading house of Blackett and Webb, examines the state of his affairs. At one level, all seems well. Profits are healthy and life in the wealthy suburb of Tanglin continues, with its familiar round of drinks at the Club, tennis matches and cocktail parties, the cogs discreetly oiled by servants. But the old colonial buccaneer, an almost feral presence whose hairs on the ridge of his back rise when he is roused by rage or lust, cannot avoid the feeling that his world is rapidly crumbling. The Japanese puppet government in Peking is freezing out foreign trade. For the last decade, strikes have been breaking out among his previously docile workforce. Are they really on our side or have those bloody communists got to them? As for Singapore, the old days when a chap could drive forty miles to dinner in his pyjamas and everybody knew everybody are gone. Then there are the children. Walter’s brittle, flirtatious daughter Joan shows no sign of looking for a suitable husband, while his feckless son Monty seems more interested in drink and sex than the family business. Following the death of old Mr Webb, the company founder – who in his dotage had taken to pruning his roses in the nude – his son Matthew arrives to join the firm. Walter is immediately alert to the possibilities of a match with Joan. She cynically agrees to seduce the young man with a view to cementing the family fortunes. But is Matthew really such a sound choice? The young fellow has eccentric notions about the equality of man from his time working at the League of Nations, and he seems to think that the lot of the workforce, uprooted from their homes and living in squalid tenements, could bear improvement. This is not the Blackett and Webb view at all, for the firm is founded on exploitation and its profits are maintained by market rigging. Not that Walter would put it so bluntly. Recalling without shame how old Webb had once cheated Burmese peasants out of their land and turned them into dependent seasonal workers, he proudly declares that the early commercial pioneers ‘armed only with a little capital and great creative vision, set the mark of civilization, bringing prosperity to themselves and . . . a means of livelihood to unhappy millions of Asiatics who had been faced by misery and destitution until their coming!’ Matthew, suspicious of such assumptions but aware of his own ignorance, fears instead that Malaya is ‘a mere sweat shop for cheap labour operated in the interests of capitalism by cynical Western governments’. He believes in a fairer society for all. But his increasingly strident arguments are unheeded by a society fatally addicted to its own privileges. Walter is politely uncomprehending. Monty, selfish and insensitive, is mocking. Major Brendan Archer, last encountered in Troubles and now serving in Singapore, is fretfully aware that somehow the ruling clique has abused its power but he is too loyal to protest strongly. Spurning Julia’s attentions, Matthew forms a relationship with the Eurasian Vera Chiang who confirms his moral doubts by opening his eyes to the human price paid by the migrant hordes servicing the needs of Empire. She takes him to a Chinese ‘dying house’ where he is brought face to face with an old man, his health wrecked by work on the plantations, who describes how European inspectors cheated the rubber smallholders. Matthew is uncomfortably aware that through his stake in Blackett and Webb he is indirectly complicit in these excesses. As Matthew worries about society and Walter about his rubber supplies, the feared Japanese assault becomes a reality. Again mingling fiction with historical fact, Farrell charts the devastating invasion of Thailand and the Malayan peninsula through the eyes of the opposing armies. Young Private Kikuchi is fired by the Emperor’s call to deliver 100 million Asians from the tyranny of 300,000 whites ‘sucking their blood’. But even he, eager warrior that he is, is unsettled by the almost demonic Lieutenant Matushita, ‘an officer with strangely burning eyes’ who is as happy to hurl himself into action, ignoring bullets raining down ‘like a spring shower’, as he is to kill poisonous snakes and eat their livers so as to strengthen his martial spirit. In contrast to this unnerving zealotry, the Allied commanders Air Chief Marshal Sir Henry Robert Moore Brooke-Popham and Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival are plagued by agonies of indecision as defences once deemed invulnerable are swept aside. But Farrell is too clever to paint a caricature of bungling Blimps stumbling towards inevitable destruction. Instead, he quietly leads us to feel sympathy for these hapless relics from the First World War who are in charge of often untrained men armed with obsolete equipment, without naval or air support, and who watch with bewilderment the collapse of their plans. Meanwhile civil disorder and inter-racial strife spread before the advancing Japanese, opening British eyes to the alarming realization that the native population over whom they have held sway for so long has no respect for a master now brought low. To the accompaniment of violence and rape, looters descend on abandoned European properties like a cloud of locusts, stripping them of everything of value. With the first blackout, Singapore wakes to the prospect of imminent horror: ‘History had once more switched its points; this time most abruptly to send them careering along a track which curved away into a frightening darkness, beyond which lay their destination.’ Soon, silver-winged bombers, ‘slipping like fish through a sluice-gate’, unleash their cargo over the unprotected colony while shells crash in from the advancing troops. Fighter planes fly low, raking the panic-stricken streets with machine-gun fire. A once ordered society is as comprehensively levelled as the blazing buildings which crumple into rubble. Stoical as ever, Major Archer rises to heroic heights as a firefighter; the docks are packed with fleeing whites, Chinese, Malays and Indians; hierarchy is replaced by universal fear; demoralized troops drunkenly rampage out of control; roads are choked with abandoned possessions; Matthew tries to flee with his lover Vera but their boat is hijacked by Australian troops. To the strong, the spoils. Just as self-interest built Singapore, so it accompanies its fall. And Walter? Like Hitler denying reality in his bunker beneath the ruins of Berlin, he holes up in his warehouse to watch over his rubber supplies as the city burns about him. Even as he gazes from his godown at the destruction of all that once seemed so secure, his old instincts remain unquelled: ‘probably in a matter of months we’ll have to come to some understanding with Japan and everything will continue as before. Except that in this case it won’t happen as before . . . Why? Because a lot of self-righteous bloody fools will have destroyed our investments lock stock and barrel . . . and we shall have to start again from scratch!’ The Singapore Grip is a long book whose wide compass renders it less tightly controlled than Troubles and Siege, and it has been argued that some of the passages dealing with historical facts intrude on the narrative sweep. But they are never didactic and they add authority to Farrell’s indignant mission to expose the abuses by which empire was created and sustained. And then, above all, there is the sheer individuality of Farrell’s prose and his extraordinary ability to leaven the seriousness of his message with a wry sense of humour. Take for example Vera’s attempt to educate Matthew in the complexities of Eastern sex, an infinitely more sacred process than the Western manner ‘which to her resembled nothing so much as a pair of drunken rickshaw coolies colliding briefly at some foggy crossroads at dead of night’. After pointing out various important parts of the body (head of turtle, pearl on jade threshold, secret pouch), and touching on the Five Natural Moods, Five Revealing Signs, Hundred Anxious Feelings and Five Male Overstrainings, she could now begin to explain what he would need to know to bring to a successful conclusion their first and relatively simple manoeuvre known as Bamboo Swaying in Spring Wind. After that, they might have a go at Butterfly Hovering over Snow Peony and then later . . . she might wake up a girlfriend . . . and invite her to join them in Goldfish Mouthing in Crystal Tank if they were not too tired. But for the moment Matthew still had a few things to learn. Poor Matthew’s sexual ignorance includes the precise nature of the Singapore Grip itself, which he variously believes is a handshake, a tropical fever, a rattan suitcase and even a double-bladed hairpin. It is, in fact, a sexual technique employed by Singapore prostitutes. Finally enlightened just before he is marched off by the Japanese to Changi jail, he has his own definition: ‘I know what it is! It’s the grip of our Western culture and economy on the Far East . . . it’s the stranglehold of capital . . . the doing of things our way . . . the pursuit of self-interest rather than of the common interest.’ So Farrell believed – and reading Grip it is hard to disagree. By the time of his death Farrell had completed in draft about half of a further Empire novel, set in Victorian Simla and posthumously published under the title The Hill Station (1981). It is sobering to think what this writer of unmatched originality could have gone on to achieve. But let us be grateful for his completed trilogy. As we move from the decaying hotel of Troubles to the besieged Residency in The Siege of Krishnapur and then to colonial collapse in The Singapore Grip we see Farrell’s horizons and grand ambition expanding. In writing about people ‘undergoing history’ he examines the corrosive nature of power and cultural ‘superiority’, and the danger of settled ideas – dark themes still relevant today. But the overall tone is not so much pessimistic as compassionate. With a lightness of touch that belies the seriousness of his intent, Farrell charts our follies and perplexities with irony and laconic humour. Humans will always blunder. But there is ever hope of a better world.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 51 © Patrick Welland 2016
About the contributor
Patrick Welland is a former journalist caught in the Sussex Grip, in which victims stare at beautiful countryside for lengthy periods of time wondering what to do with the rest of their lives.