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tv   Deborah Baker The Last Englishmen  CSPAN  December 23, 2018 9:30am-10:16am EST

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[inaudible conversations] >> thank you for coming today. my name is ken buddk an author and writer and a member of the board of directors for fall for the book, so we're very happy to see you all here. the festival is, information's available on fall for the, and it's entirely supported through donations, so if you would like to become a friend for the fall for the book, go to fall for the and i am required by state and federal law to ask you to the, please, silence your cell phones. and also if you can fill out the surveyings that would be great, because we use that to determine programming for the festival. and also deborah will be signing
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books in the lobby outside once her talk is finished. let me introduce you to deborah baker,. >> she is the author of making a farm and in extreme miswhich was a finalist for the pulitzer prize for biography. she's also the author of the convert which was a finalist for the national book award. her pulitzer prize and national book award finalist, the last enlightenment: love, war and the end of empire, uncovers the -- the book takes readers on a journey through the indian subcontinent at the closing of the british empire seemingly covering disparate topics, baker covers them all with sharp descriptions of ther the area and a clear -- of the terrain. please, help me welcome derek rah baker -- deborah baker. [applause] >> thank you, ken. thank you all for being here. it's nice and cozy. so i'm going to give a talk, and
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i'm going to have, luckily, some pictures. and there's a brief, little film clip in the middle of recently discovered footage from 1937. so a writer between projects faces a question, what story do i need to tell next? this dilemma is not unlike one asked by a reader between books or a movie goer on a friday night. in unsettled times such as ours, this question takes on an added urgency as if our choice might provide a remedy for whatever keeps us awake at night. the 1930s were another decade when illiberal or portents were everywhere, and it's hard not to resist noting the omnipresent parallels to our own days. the english writers stephen spender and christopherisherwood were the most politically
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outspoken, framing the most urgent threats in ways that provide a distant mirror to our own concerns and evolving sense of alarm. collectively, they and their cohort were known as the auden generation. that's a picture of them. steven's the tall one. auden's in the chair -- no, on the bench. so these writers came of age in a time of an increasingly assertive working class. in our times we decalculate income inequality -- debate income inequality. we live in the shadow of 9/11 and the endless war on terror. soon after they left university, many of the justifications for the great war and how it was conducted fell apart. we learned there was never any link between al-qaeda and saddam hussein, nor any weapons of mass destruction in iraq.
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all of them witnessed firsthand the rise of hitler in germany and fascism in europe. we are seeing similarly ominous developments. auden declared in 1937 a writer's duty is to make action urgent and its nature clear. what duty or urgent action did they take? what action do we, as writers and citizens? steven spender became a communist and went to madrid to, fighting a proxy war against hitler and mussolini. before auden left for madrid, he wrote the poem spain, identifying that conflict as the critical the struggle of his generation. but neither of them stayed long. auden later repudiated the poem and never spoke of what he witnessed in spain.
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with the benefit of mind sight -- hindsight we have asked of this generation hour work did their precious yens, who of them was the most courageous, who the most naive? where were they in september 1939 when england declared war on germany? hindsight has imposed a simple plot on that the decade, one that contrives to set the stage for world war ii with its unspeakable genocides, the aerial bombardment of european cities, millions of stateless refugees and the dropping of the first atomic bombs. where military strength and ironclad conviction were required to meet the threat of hitler and fascism. in the end it seems that the 1930s english writers, much like the 1930s english statesmen, equivocated. this has been the postwar consensus.
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the war against nazi germany still holds center stage in the west's popular imagination. for decades american and english filmmakers have packaged and repackaged the narrative art from the 1930s confusion to the clarity that suddenly arrived in 1940 when winston churchill was appointed wartime prime minister. this is the backdrop to the cinematic spectacles of dunkirk and d-day. in a similar fashion, novelists have set their war romances in london during the blitz, their spy thrillers in occupied paris and wartime berlin. every generation since has been treated to new and compelling variations on this morality play. in these dramas the leaders of the atlantic alliance, the anti-appeaser winston churchill and later his ally fdr, are the uncontested heroes, and hitler and his ss minions for needs --
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i need hardly mention, villains. until very recently, this has also been the underlying ethos of the western political consensus. invoking the holocaust and never again, we congratulate ourselves on our victory over nazi germany's particular horror. this victory forged shared value system and not, incidentally, enhanced america's global power. we have used the memory of the holocaust to shame not just the purveyors of anti-semitism, but also the perpetrators of genocides. yet this consensus no longer seems to be holding. we are compelled to ask, can this bear a rethinking before it disappears altogether? if we don't find a way to remessage the central -- reimagine the central drama of the 20th century, others will.
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in his war memoirs, winston churchill portrayed himself standing in front of maps on the wall, reading intelligence cables and dictating memorandums. aerial photographs laid out on tables provided him with the next installment in the game of ships, submarines, armies and aircraft which he moved like chess pieces oh -- over a vast board of land and water. this was the war as seen from above, the view from the imperial summit. churchill himself has become a character of shakespearean dimensions, incorrigible, impossible but always screen-ready. that's richard burton as churchill. john lithgow as churchill and gary oldman as churchill. he used charm, wit to bring america into england's solitary
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fight against naziism, boasting in his memoirs about how he played fdr by staging a tantrum. for churchill's ministry of information, there was no better propaganda for a visiting american dignitary questioning the legitimacy of the british empire than a night of the blitz in the company of plucky londoners prepared to meet an invasion with hand-to-hand fighting. in this way, we are left with a global empire masquerading as a tiny, national eye hand and a diehard imperialist posing as a pugnacious defender of democracy. in times of stress, cruder or more sentimental understandings of history tend to prevail. to truly reckon with our desire to see the war and our part in it on only in the most favorable
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light, we must look at the war outside occupied europe, the war as it was experienced on other home fronts. the fall of rangoon and hong kong and the disastrous surrender at singapore have yet to receive wide screen treatment. these were not the victories not from jaws of defeat, they were routs. the absence here is partly due to the fact that the soldiers on these fronts as well as on the deserts of north africa, syria and the oil fields of persian were in good part colonial subjects. and though colonial soldiers could also be found at dun k, d-day and occupied europe, to avoid even subliminal cognitive dissonance they have been written out of our scripts. we do not see them. that's north africa.
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the mere existence of these troops complicates the simple idea that world war ii was a war against totaltarianism. unless you're ready to believe that indian, african and malayan troops all volunteered in a burst of democratic outrage of germany's invasion of poland. two novels, the english patient and the glass palace, explored the war partly through the eyes of indian soldiers. for those english-speaking peoples weaned on world war ii as a struggle between liberal democracies and totalitarianism -- and i count myself among them -- these works, along with recent histories documenting india's financial and military contributions to allied cause are a reminder that for many millions of colonial subjects the defeat of hitler and mussolini and japan was not the most hoped-for outcome of the war. the end of british imperialism was.
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how does viewing the war from the perspective of an indian change how we see ourselves in the ?rsm before i address this, i want to the first give you a little background on the economic impact of the war on india. later, i'll try and capture the lived experience, but i promise i'll only show one graph. [laughter] first of all, for six years india was forced to advance to great britain a good part of the cost of its wartime needs. this included the defense of its colonial territories, the policing of civil unrest and the wages of two and a half million indian soldiers and support personnel. exported to fronts in europe and elsewhere. india also supplied boots, uniforms, balloon kepts, parachutes, ammunitions to fronts in north africa, the middle east and china. later it supplied fighter planes. the understanding was that india
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would recoup these monies after the war. what did this mean for india? it meant, first, that india became a japanese military target. more important but less dramatic was that by 1943 inflation rose to 400%. having no means to raise the money to fund a war economy, the government of india simply printed it. in the first three years of the war, the repatriation of india's long-term debt to england had kept england's own debts to india in check. but in mid 1943, england's sterling balances exploded reaching 800 million pounds sterling. here comes the graph. by then, england had extracted for many india -- more from
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indian than thought possible. but the mere idea that the british empire might owe india money was inconceivable to winston churchill. just as an allied victory seemed to be within his sights, he became nearly unhinged before the subject of sterling balances arose. his first instinct was to demand that india be charged back that 800 million for having been saved by britain from the japanese. though india actually paid for its own defense, such as it was. while churchill considered india a jewel in the crown of the empire, he considered indians the beastliest people in the world next to the germans. and in long and rambling harangues in the war cabinet, churchill described how the british working man would become enslaved to fill rich indian merchants were the deficit in sterling balances to be honored. with john maynard keynes telling
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him that the crown might repudiate the debt or arrivedded at some scaled-down number during the war, what makes these rants and rages historically significant is their timing. it must be said that churchill's greatest gift was his prescience. and as a former chancellor of the exchequer, he knew that with the end of the war england's debts to india would come due, and the end was coming. it is the waning power that turns most readily to violence. in response to beganty's call for great britain to quit india, churchill said that if he could have spared the bombers, he would have done to india what he'd done to hamburg. in mid 1943 just as those sterling balances were exploding and just when churchill began accusing i could ya of starving
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england -- india of starving england, the province of bengal was six month into a famine that the city's newspapers had yet to acknowledge. a famine that hadn't even been declared. by thing india's -- by then, australian wheat shipments were diverted to europe. requests for additional shipments even when demanded by the viceroy of india were stonewalled by churchill and the war cabinet. the bengal famine would eventually take the lives of an estimated 3.5 million people. this was power in the shad toe of its end -- shadow of its end. so to sum up all of this about india as a long sort of thing to, you know, introduction to talking about my book, india paid a steep price to help win a war it really had no stake in. a war on nations it had no argument with. but it was also the cost of putting an end to british rule.
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this were other contributing factors including a british public exhausted by six years of war. but it's critical to realize that india's independence in 1947 came about not because his majesty's government had decided to uphold the principles laid out in the atlanta charter, it came out because at the end of the day great britain was forced to honor its debts against india, and as churchill had foreseen, it was thereby brought to an end. so the revelation of india's wartime role invites a rereading of the war and its long after effects not only in our politics, but in our imaginations. how do we do this? this was the first question i wanted to answer when i first began the research for what became my book, "the last englishmen."
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to dramatize the dissonance between the west's perceived view of the war and india's experience of it, i decided to set my book partly in london, the first city of empire, and partly in calcutta once known as the second city of empire. i chose london because we are generally familiar with its experience during the war. and i chose calcutta because i had lived there and because that is where the british empire had its beginnings in 1793. but calcutta was also where the impact and direct experience of the war was the most profound. now, if i were a novelist, i would simply invent characters and contrive a plot that would bring them together in the 1930 and then have the war drive them apart. but since i am not a novelist, i had the find them. i am drawn to men and women on the edges of history, summoning them from the images, optics and
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writings they leave behind. my last book drew on letters that i found at the rare books and manuscript reading room at the new york public library. that's what that looks like. and i also found the only niche shens employed by biographers and historians limiting. i want my readers to draw on their own understanding of human nature. so for the last englishmen, i decided to relate my subjects -- whenever i found them -- speak for themselves. my part would be if directing their entrances and exits from the story, providing scene setting and context from backstage the when necessary. by triangulating a view of the war from calcutta and a competing view from london, i hoped to convey a more nuanced understanding of the power politics underlying the war and the decade leading up to it. i like the idea of capturing conflicting viewpoints unfiltered by hindsight, by the
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history that we think we know. there's, i think, an inherent drama in witnessing real human beings struggling to make sense of their moment in time without knowing how it'll all turn out. as i think we are all now struggling. so that was my theory. so for the fist two years -- first two years of the war, a blow by blow at of the battlefield developments in the middle east. soon after pearl harbor, calcutta became the staging ground for the war against japan. after the fall of burma in march 1942, streams of refugees poured into the city, all of them bearing horrific tales of aerial bombardments and of the long death march hundreds of miles over mountains and through jungles to calcutta. then the fleet of japanese aircraft carriers carrying the
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planes that had bombed pearl harbor appeared in the bay bay f bengal. i don't know if you can see that clearly, but it's over there on the edge. i think. threatening to, ap invasion like those that had taken place in hong kong and singapore. over christmas 1942, calcutta was bombed. and then in 1943 and '44 were the years of the famine. then in august 1946, two years after the famine finally came to an end and a year after the surrender of japan, a horrific massacre took place in calcutta. with the prospect of independence finally their grasp, nehru of the congress party and the muslim league were unable to come to an agreement. in response to the call for direct action to further his plan to divide india and create a muslim majority state of pakistan the, muslim protests
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turned violent. for four days and nights, hindus and muslims attacked each other's neighborhoods and shops while the police, politicians and british military officials looked the other way. by the time the massacre was over, over 5,000 corpses littered calcutta's streets. and you can see the vultures on the rooftops. and this is a bus with burned bodies in it. so this event, called the great calcutta killing, put an end to the idea of an undivided india and foreshadowed the violence that would follow the 1947 partition of the subcontinent one year later. so those were the major events of the war and its aftermath in calcutta. aerial bombardment by the japanese, massive famine if, a horrific massacre and finally, in 1947, the end of imperial rule. but india doesn't have the
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equivalent of a british library or an imperial war museum or the new york public library. but as the bengalis of calcutta have distinguished themselves as writers, i was counting on them to have kept records of their wartime thoughts and experiences. any diaries and letters that survived the war would either be in private hands or exist as intercepted letters in the intelligence branch files at the local police museum in calcutta. but after weeks spent reading file after file of intercepted letter, i found little of use. most of them scarcely mentioned current events, perhaps because their writers knew that their letters were being opened. so i turned to memoirs published after the war in the '50s, '60s and '70s. but these books were largely focused on an byerly different front -- entirely different front, india's struggle to free itself from british rule.
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for these memoirists, mind sight was formed by india's independence in 1947. freedom was the event that determined the plot of their lives. the war, hover devastating, was -- however devastating, was a side show. so i was stymied. finally, in the burr collection of perform english and american literature at the new york public library w i came across the papers of the older brother of the poet auden, a noted explorer of the himalayas, and my first character. he went to work for the geological survey of india based in calcutta. the gs, i's primary mission was to survey and map streams of coal and minerals and write up engineering reports for large public worths. that -- works. that's the gsi. now, as a boy john had attended a reckture by the mountain climber named george mallory.
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at this lecture mallory screened footage from the first-ever expedition to mount everest. i found this pamphlet among auden's professional papers. so he became a himalayan explorer in part because he wanted to escape the oppressive philistinism of calcutta and partly because he wanted to understand the tectonic forces that had raised the himalaya to their formidable heights. but it was the dream of reaching the summit that brought him first to india. two years after his talk at a auden's school, george mallory that had fuelen to his death -- fallen to his death. auden wanted to succeed where mallory had failed. rather like the space race of the cold war, in those years every major european if power wanted to claim an ascent on a peak over 8,000 meters. in the western himalaya, it was
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germany's mountain of destiny. and, of course, everest -- the highest mountain in the world -- was reserved for great britain. indeed, why climb everest if not to assert great britain if's power over the power of nature to raise a mountain beyond its reach? in this way the himalayas became a proxy stage where the power and virility of a nation could be broadcast to the world. and in the case of germany, its national honor reclaimed from the indignity of its great war defeat. this is a nazi flag. but the british fantasy of conquering everest had a flipside. failure might unman the nation, strip the king emperor naked for all to see. there were four efforts to reach the summit in the 1930s, all
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failed. among john auden's papers, i found a letter from another himalayan explorer, the older brother of the poet steven spender. .. i'm sorry this is so blurry. this is the north, everest as seen from the north, and that's the north face. like the mineral surveys, surveying and mapmaking were critical tools of imperial rule, extending territorial claims with an invading army but with
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surveying equipment. in 1937 they extend the northernmost border of india in the area around k2, the second highest mountain in the world come down to the river in chinese turkestan. so here is a recently unearthed lip of that expedition that will give you an idea of the scale and audacity of these kinds of undertakings. this is their approach still below the tree level and because to be cut off from civilization they had to hire like 100 porters to carry all the food and equipment they would need over these humongous passes and put them down on the glacier. this is the approach and then they would send them back because they couldn't feed 100
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porters for more than a day. so they had to send them back. this was in the archives into last and someone found it was taken by john auden, presumably he sent the equipment back with some porters because they would never have been able to carry camera equipment into that area around k2. this is just the approach. you can see the above the sea level. some of these porters, usually when everest expeditions you read a lot about sherpas who were sort of tibetan the sick and lived in the region around everest. but these were local borders, muslim, not buddhist and there were totally unequipped for this kind of terrain. some of them were barefoot. most of the more wearing shoes
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made out of i think goat skin and obviously they don't have very good traction on the ice. you can see them all resting before, the meat being prepared. if you look closely you can see michael. they went with two very famous ever stirrers and you can see the difference between the sherpas and the baltic. the sherpas to and were a lot of real english hand-me-down mountaineering clothing whereas the others were in more traditional native dress.
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this pride would've been the last inhabited area before they got up into the highest malay is. there's a great himalayas. in the few moments of them crossing this river which gives you a sense of just how powerful these rivers were. they were fed by glaciers and it is known for its glaciers. it has more glaciers than any other part of the world outside the arctic circle. it's just an extraordinary landscape. here they are climbing up the last bit. time for a smoke.
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that is eric next to the guy with the pipe. he was on all four everest expeditions of the 1930s and was slated to lead the expedition in 1953 where they finally reached the summit, and he was fired at the last minute because they didn't feel he had the killer instinct. so this is them making their way across. it's just an amazing landscape, i think your very hard to imagine it. the sherpas hated the rivers. they hated the river crossing. they were really petrified of
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the rivers. they didn't have any problem with the rivers. they hated climbing. you can see this raft. those are goat skins. you know, he's blowing it up with air, that they filled with air like balloons. it looks like an ocean, that river. really dangerous, very powerful. really cold. this is getting towards the end. he sent the camera back across the river. they would have to build these ladders to make the weight of because nobody had been across these passes in 50 years.
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the last person to cross this particular pass was 50 years before. okay, that's pretty much it. in the attics and closets of michael's son in john's daughter i found it expedition journals and other photographs, all of which shall be understood of the discipline of geology and mapmaking shaped their understanding of the world and their place in it of empire builders. also begin to understand the ways in which the skills they acquired in exploration, the technologies they use in geological survey and mapmaking could and would be repurposed for war. so on september 1, 1939, a decade-long question was finally upon them and the auden generation.
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what would they do if there was a war? auden was in new york when war was declared. john was in calcutta and michael and stephen were in london. did they sign up to fight for the little england of their school holidays in the lake district, or to defend the british empire? before he left for america, w.r. promised his friends he would come back if war broke out but in the end he didn't. i 1939 his famous such the questions were raised in parliament and was talk of forced repatriation turkey was publicly shame by stephen spender. why didn't he returned? was the hipper was he a hypocrite? with the man who won to be the first to summit everest fight only half of the empire he served? before i answer this question i want to introduce one last character. among john's papers i found a
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letter from a poet and with this and i found that calcutta story i've been looking for. he was the first indian with whom john shared anything of himself. he also introduced him to an entirely different calcutta from english one he knew. out of this friendship grew awareness of living subject to foreign rule felt like. finally it was student and his circle of intellectuals who provide me with perspective of the war as they saw and experienced it. every friday night these men would meat and drink tea and eat sweets to consummate argument literature and politics on the parlor floor of the joint family home. in calcutta such conversations are -- among the members whose man who kept a diary. unfortunately the diary was lost. fortunately before it was lost, parts were translated and published. so i translate them back into english and from then sketched my storyline of calcutta.
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many of the younger members that attended oxford colleges alongside the auden generation. during the '30s they argued about many of the same political questions. suden represented a less lucite generation. so how did their view of the war differ? he was alone in support of great britain. he was certain as it would be freed after was over. when great britain refuse to grant any such assurance, even after the fall of paris when he was fighting for its very existence, he was undone. in 1940 1940 he fell into a dep depression. most of the younger auden members have become communist at oxford much like a number of english writers but unlike their english counterparts, they had expected the war would bring down both germany and great britain, enabling the workers of the world unite and rise up.
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others admired adolf hitler and eagerly followed his triumphs on the battlefields of europe and north africa. whatever they stood, these younger bengalis were entirely dismissive of the political bearings of the auden generation. for all the handwringing, hitler's treatment of the jews were even the cutthroat greed of capital, store as the retelling of british rule in india was concerned they saw a clear a conspiracy among writers to maintain a deadly science. auden and spend it might dither over whether to become common is a socialist but in the end they were captives to british financial interest. these writers were convinced these excursions were financed with indian dividends. follow the money they said. and they were right. for all the auden generations much vaunted political engagement this seems a been little direct grappling with their countries empire in asia and africa.
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as the auden members pointedly noted, the idea that england even had an empire barely registered in their published work. there was one notable exception, the essence of f6 by w.r. auden. not only did this play capture jockeying a power of proxy wars but it neatly -- project its imperial power over restless and patient india. though the play was dedicated to john auden, the hero at its center was based on michael spender. one thing calcutta writers did have in common with her london cohort was there far more focus on what was going on in europe than next door, namely, japan's war on china. what was japan up to, they wondered? it wasn't until the attack on pearl harbor that everyone had an answer. japan wanted an empire. the bombs started falling on
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calcutta a year later. if there is anything to be learned from the blind blind spot of the auden generation it is have the stories we tell ourselves are changed when the perspective of those on the other end of unchecked power are taken into account, when they find us on the england even extremist would not loosen its grip on india, he threw himself into the work of defending the city he loved. as director of every precaution he oversaw the construction of bomb shelters and when calcutta begin to fill up with thousands of starving peasants, he turned though shelters into relief centers. the only witness impressment of thousands of leaders and sober through aerial bombardment and famine and massacre, he remained loyal to the liberal and democratic ideals he believes great britain had abandoned. so why the last englishman is about the end of the british empire it is also much effort to reflect on the power that rose up to take its place and reveal how the hidden structures of an imperialist worldview can
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replicate like a malignant strand of dna. in america and our perpetual search for the next hitler to vanquish and her egotist to strike a pose, has often undermined just those ideals we tell ourselves we are fighting a poll. to whom does a much larger liberal international rules-based order apply? certainly not to the vietnamese or cambodians, the iraqis, afghans and libyans. not to mention the countless latin american countries where we made our subversive presence felt. how much of iraq mythical world war ii as a good war cost is how much of the cost those at the wrong end of our power who hold us to account? like great britons civilizing mission, america's moral exceptionalism morphed into an ideology of supremacy. hitler was a great admirer of the british raj and the american
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neo-nazis clearly grasps the connection between race and power. just as the spanish civil war became a way of that the empire for the writers of the 1930s, we change the subject to darfur or syria or some other humanitarian crisis to which we are not directly complicit if we mistake forgetfulness, for innocence. so in choosing the stores we want to hear or an figure out how best to tell them, we must clear space for those stories and perspectives that will up in the ones we have so blindly inherited. thanks a lot. [applause] >> will i'm sorry, i didn't get any time for questions but maybe you can meet me in the lobby. [inaudible conversations]
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