England & The Tropics

Reading & Writing


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?


7 comments on “England & The Tropics”

  1. Chris Lancaster says:

    Putting to one side JG Ballard’s The Drowned World, which is set in tropical London rather than in the tropics, my favourite tropical novel is George Orwell’s Burmese Days. Whilst not all of Burma lies between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn, I think enough of it does for it to qualify as tropical.

    I first read it aged 13, when completely ignorant of the ins and outs of British colonialism in the region. At that point my knowledge of this was sort of thing was limited to what I’d picked up in Biggles books, and the like – books where on meeting a local in a warm part of the world, the local would end up being nicknamed “Fuzzy” or similar (and yes, this does happen).

    Burmese Days spoke to me on many levels. As well as offering Orwell’s views on British colonialism, it’s also a story about how some people (in this case Flory, the main protagonist) are unable to fit in or be happy in the lives they have chosen for themselves. I think this is something that at times we can all relate to.

    It’s not my favourite Orwell novel (that honour goes to the fantastic “Coming of Air”, which proves that going back to one’s childhood dreams is something that is impossible), but Burmese Days was the first book that made me realise fully that there was a world out there where everything wasn’t fair. It also opened my eyes to the fact inequality was not just suffered by people I knew nothing about; it was also something that was imposed by people like me – people who were white, English and middle class.

  2. Dave says:

    JG Farrell is one of my favourite authors …such a shame he died so young. The stories really resonate for me possibly because I spent a lot of time in Singapore, India and Ireland.

  3. Roger says:

    I don’t think Richard Hughes had ever been to the tropics when he wrote A High Wind In Jamaica, which makes it even more of an achievement.
    Two Australian novels, C.J.Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously – and the film by Peter Weir – and Randolph Stow’s Visitants, both give an impression of the effect of the tropics – the heat and climate – on people who aren’t used to them. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, of course: the reported scene of a warship shelling a continent with the crew dying of fever still chills me.

  4. Vivienne says:

    I grew up with The Coral Island, which was the very straight English version of Lord of the Flies, as the brave lads held it all together. But what about Conrad’s Lord Jim, when he is living with his sense of disgrace? There is The Poisonwood Bible if you want true madness and I only wish I could remember others – whose is the story of the mad man in the jungle who makes his ‘guests’ read Dickens to him?

  5. agatha hamilton says:

    ‘A Handful of Dust’, Evelyn Waugh.

  6. keith page says:

    Various offerings by Joseph Conrad, I think

  7. admin says:

    Thanks – I’ve got some summer reading there, although I do remember The Coral Island, although I was very young.

Comments are closed.