England & The Tropics
For an author who is continually associated with London, I’m desirous of leaving it a lot. The city is perfectly pitched at a central point for travelling, and as it’s possible to reach anywhere in Europe by simply catching a train at a station just a 10 minute walk from my front door, the temptation to stay on the move is strong.
I’ve been in Marrakech all this week, where the world is evidently shrinking; it’s disturbing to see an elderly Berber woman selling Spongebob Squarepants knockoffs. I arrived just after a freak heatwave apparently brought temperatures of 48C to the streets – but there are more English here than ever.
Writers have strong traditional attachments to tropical climes. Right now I’m reading JG Farrell’s ‘The Singapore Grip’ and Somerset Maughan’s ‘The Painted Veil’, and I’m once again struck by the school of British writing that explores other lands from perspective forever clouded by colonial interference.
As a child my tropical reading began with ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’ and ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’. One of my favourites was ‘A High Wind In Jamaica’, published in 1929, an adventure about children, but not aimed at them. The prose sweeps away a century of Victorian sentimentality and replaces it with something darker, more clear-eyed and modern. The first page sets the tone when it casually mentions that twin sisters were starved and fed ground glass until they died. It’s a book about growing up and recognising the casual cruelties that allow the young to survive.
Are we attracted to tropical material because our own London lives are so sedate and colourless? In the summer, the British countryside is a dazzling green array that feels the very antithesis of tropical countryside, but the duel images frequently come together in novels; ‘A Handful of Dust’, Evelyn Waugh’s most quintessential English novel, concludes horrifically in the jungle, an image that is pointed up in the film version, which juxtaposes the two environments.
These twin landscapes emerge from our history of colonisation and ‘going troppo’, with tales of cruelty, decadence and madness set in India, Africa and the West Indies. In Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ we have a colonial prequel to ‘Jane Eyre’, in a the novel which deals with the themes of racial inequality and the pain of displacement. Life in the tropics is more brutal and polarised than in our own culture, which is too suffused with complex semiotics.
Just as writers like Cormac McCarthy uses the pioneer West to expose the brutality of life, British writers use the tropics to explore themes which polite society covers up. Best examples of tropical novels, anyone?