London In The Tropics

Reading & Writing

The brutality of tropical life shocked the unprepared British

I’m not sure I can sustain the image of a rainswept London for much longer in my fiction. It’s rapidly ceasing to exist.

This year London has been hotter than Ibiza; nearly three months of blazing sun so far, crystal skies, birdsong and emerald fecundity. The 5:00am traffic sussurance is slowly building, like a slightly out-of-use machine being fired up. It seems that Londoners are calling the shots about lightening the Lockdown.

London is used to many things but not lassitude. We are a becalmed tropical state, the governor having an afternoon nap at his desk while the kingdom drifts in the lazy heat. The fans of industry are turning very slowly and the Grand Wazir has toddled off to play with his concubines. Or in English terms, those ‘working from home’ have gone sunbathing in Southend.

Writers have strong traditional attachments to tropical climes. With JG Farrell’s ‘The Singapore Grip’ and Somerset Maughan’s ‘The Painted Veil’, I’m once again struck by a school of writing that explores other lands from perspectives forever clouded by colonial interference. As a child my tropical reading began with ‘The Swiss Family Robinson’, ‘Coral Island’ and ‘20,000 Leagues Under The Sea’.  As an adult I enjoyed Norman Collons’ ‘Flames Coming Out Of The Top’ and ‘The Governor’s Wife’, Malcolm Lowry’s cruel and tragic ‘Under The Volcano’, the early African novels of William Boyd and David Pownall, Evelyn Waugh, Nick Harkaway. I’ve come across fewer female ‘exotic’ authors, although there are whodunnits like ‘A Crocodile on the Sandbank’ by Elizabeth Peters and Jean Rhys’s ‘Wide Sargasso Sea’ . For me, reading Toni Morrison’s ‘The Bluest Eye’ was as revelatory as any tropical novel because it dealt with a world as remote to me as say, Sri Lanka.

Rural Britain is the very antithesis of tropical countryside, but the duel images frequently blur in novels; ‘A Handful of Dust’, Evelyn Waugh’s most quintessential English novel, concludes horrifically in the jungle, an image that shockingly juxtaposes the two environments. Religious and moral hypocrisy finds a perfect metaphor in the lush, decadent fecundity of tropical life.

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.

When British company members moved to India they tried to recreated the hedgerows of English gardens, only for their ladies to pass out in the heat. Less account for climate was made than for their perceived harm caused by changes in morality, leading to theories of rape in the fictional Marabar Caves of ‘A Passage to India’. But Forster’s game was bigger; the caves represent an ancient emptiness, the more terrifying aspect of the universal oneness embraced by Hinduism, where Christianity cannot have a place.

Just as writers like Willa Cather and Cormac McCarthy used the pioneer West to expose the brutality of life, British writers used the tropics to explore themes which polite society had covered up from them. In the 1956 novel ‘Zama’ by the Argentinian author Antonio di Benedetto (beautifully filmed in 2018) an 18th-century administrator in the service of imperial Spain waits endlessly and desperately for news of the better posting he assumed would would reunite him with his wife and children, left behind in Buenos Aires. But in the morally supine world through which he now drifts nothing can be achieved.

Tropical characters cast adrift are surprisingly accepting of their fate, or even embrace it as inevitable. When you consider that colonialists with minimal experience were dropped off in jungles and told to build functioning, productive towns by the time the ship returned in four years, it’s hardly surprising the kettle wasn’t on when the captain came back.

Best examples of tropical novels, anyone?

27 comments on “London In The Tropics”

  1. The Beach by Alex Garland had a brief time in the sun and still stands up but The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles is better at the sheer strangeness and otherness of foreign lands. His travel writing is also excellent : try Their Heads Were Green and Their Hands Were Blue (2 points for recognising the quotation!)

  2. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    They went to sea in a sieve, I believe 😉

  3. Peter Dixon says:

    Put them both together and you get Ballard’s hypnotic ‘The Drowned World’, a London turned into a tropical swamp with lizards and pirates. It’ll probably be true by the end of the century.

  4. brooke says:

    One Hundred Years of Solitude comes to mind. What happens when, after several generations, the tropics overtake civilization?
    “I’ve come across fewer female ‘exotic’ authors..” yes and no. Women typically did not have the emotional, physical and/or financial wherewithal to adventure to the “tropics.” Unless engaged/married to/daughter of an enterprising man/government official/ missioner. But female novelists,e.g. Austen, the Bronte sisters, Shelley and so forth, portrayed the colonial tropics’ effect on English society and morals. Generally negatively but obliquely (wildness as metaphor)–you don’t criticize sources of wealth.
    Is concept of “tropics” and its moral ambiguity peculiar to European male authors? I think of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

  5. Jan says:

    Dunno if it’s properly a tropical novel Mr. F but them

    first few sentences of Michener’s “South Pacific” take a bit of beating.

    Hope u r doing ok having failed totally on the letter writing front have dispatched postcard!

    Better idea I reckon.

  6. Roger says:

    Conrad points out that London was once a heart of darkness, Brooke.
    In The engineer of Human Souls Joseph Skvorecky argues that Heart of Darkness’s “tropics” are a mask for Russian imperialism in Poland – like Kapuscinski’s The Emperor.

  7. snowy says:

    Interesting woman writers can be found but one must dig for them, Mary Henrietta Kingsley, niece of Charles ‘Water-Babies’ Kingsley, had a full and varied life.

    She got of to a rather late start, as a dutiful daughter she had to wait until she had tucked her parents into their boxes, but once that was done she was off! [The places she went would have certainly been regarded as very ‘exotic’ at the time].

    Her adventures are much too long to type but a glimpse can be found here

    Had she not died when she did, she would have changed history.

    But at the risk of straying worryingly close to being on-topic, there is a neglected sub-genre of ‘Raj Gothic’ written between 1840-1930 by people like: C.A. Kincaid, Alice Perrin, W. H. Sleeman, Bithia Mary Croker. Quite hard to find now, except in modern reprints.

  8. Debra Matheney says:

    Rumer Godden and Jon Godden are no longer read, I think, but I enjoyed their take on India when I read them as a teenager. Sisters, they spent a good part of their lives in India.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    “Quite hard to find now, except in modern reprints.” That would be the case with any reasonably long deceased author, unless you mean as opposed to having been in continuous publication.
    I have a feeling of having run into Mary Kingsley before and am furious at the circumstances of her death. Bloody wars and bloody imperialists.
    Rumer Godden. I will go away and look her up. (I can’t just minimize and resume any more.)

  10. Helen Martin says:

    Right. Yes, I read her fifty years ago. (sigh) Greengage Summer and In this House of Brede, which I cannot imagine as the product of a writer who lived much of her life in India. I don’t seem to remember the “India” novels. Apparently she didn’t like the film that was made of Black Narcissus.
    (aside. I hate few things as much as I hate Windows 10.)

  11. Jan says:

    I never knew Rumer Godden wrote “Black Narcissus” Wasn’t aware she had sister even
    I read “Greengage Summer” as it was on the C.S.E. English Lit list. I read so many good books cos of that list.

    Wasn’t Conrads “Heart of Darkness” one of the inspirations for “Apocolypse Now”?

    I really liked reading Conrad because it was like watching a film almost. I reckon Albert Hitchcock read Conrad it was like the same thing. They both sort of stretched time out in the same way. Very clever.

  12. Frances says:

    Two Under the Indian Sun was Rumer and Jon Godden’s account of their childhood in India. Worth a read. With obvious differences, it was a similar childhood to those who grew up on remote estancias in Argentina. The kernel for In This House of Brede was based on a visit to Stanbrook Abbey and conversations with my aunt who left a full and successful life to enter the convent in her 40s.

    Jungle stories, non-fiction. The Sea and the Jungle by H.M. Tomlinson (1912), a London journalist who goes off to the upper Amazon. The meeting of this London city dweller and a primitive jungle area make for an entertaining read.

  13. Jan says:

    That’s an interesting question Brooke as to whether the concept of the “tropics” and it’s moral ambiguities are peculiar to the European male.

    As in the main it was guys who were travelling to engage in work in these places I suppose it might be true in a sense. Their spouses if travelling with them to these new countries had rather more leisure time to fall victim to temptation though. I am well shaky on this subject no real in depth knowledge but doesn’t the bored wife syndrome fall into much of Somerset -Maughn(m)’s work? Or doesn’t his work count with him being a fella? I ‘m not taking the Mick just trying to work it out. Yes it is an interesting question.

  14. Ian Luck says:

    I always loved the movie version of ‘Black Narcissus’. It has a delicious, and creepy sense of impending dread and doom throughout, and features possibly THE most terrifying use of a glass painting – the bell over the abyss – used in a British movie.

  15. Jan says:

    Never knew that monster bell were a glass painting either!

  16. snowy says:

    The bell was real, but the stomach wrenching drop wasn’t, it was a trick as old as cinema.

    Pop over to:

  17. Ian Luck says:

    The impossible shot from above the bell gantry, looking down the sheer cliff. The bell, etc., were a set on the studio floor. My late mum suffered terribly from vertigo, and that view made her feel very uncomfortable indeed. I told her that it was a glass painting, but it never helped – similarly discomfiting for her was the original Star Wars movie, when Ben Kenobi disables the tractor beam on the Death Star, whilst standing on a tiny walkway over a seemingly miles-deep abyss – another glass painting, by one of the Ellenshaw brothers – in reality, Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness) was about 18″ off the floor.

  18. admin says:

    Quite how we drifted from colonialism to matte shots is immaterial – I expect it of these comments – but it’s worth pointing out the matte art of Albert Whitlock, who if memory serves last worked on Something Wicked This Way Comes, Jack Clayton’s underrated Bradbury film.

  19. Liz Thompson says:

    Non fiction, but fascinating , Mango Elephants in the Sun.

  20. Ian Luck says:

    ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’ – like ‘The Black Hole’, possibly the most un-Disney Disney film ever. When casting, they wanted Christopher Lee to play Mr Dark, the owner of a most peculiar carnival, which visits towns, and each town it visits is left with fewer people when it departs. Lee wasn’t available, though, so they cast a then relatively unknown Jonathan Pryce.
    He’s good in the role – very, very good indeed. Charming, witty, and urbane, in a manner similar to Roger Delgado’s charming but lethal Master in Doctor Who – you sense he’d be a superb dinner guest, but he’d kill everybody afterwards.
    There is a scene in a library, where Dark encounters the librarian, played with great warmth, by Jason Robards. Dark threatens him by tearing pages out of a book. And? In the context of the narrative, it’s frightening. It’s a brilliant, creepy movie directed by Jack Clayton, who also directed the deliciously chilly ‘The Innocents’. Mr Dark is a film villain who never appears on lists of great movie villains – this is a bloke covered in moving tattoos, and who can show faces of people he’s looking for on the palms of his hands. He’s a truly awesome evil bastard.

  21. Ian Luck says:

    My best mate Terry and I always sat, at the end of movies, reading the credits. There were names we’d always look for – Albert Whitlock was one, along with Wah Chang, the genius designer, who went on to design iconic props like the communicators for the original Star Trek series. Most movie credits nowadays are simply lists of people with computers. It’s rather sad, actually.

  22. Derek j Lewis says:

    Have you tried Robert Wilson’s ‘Bruce Medway’ crime novels set in post-colonial West Africa?

  23. Helen Martin says:

    The Poisonwood Bible just came to mind but I will be looking for Something Wicked… once the library is available again. How could I not have seen it?
    There is also Isaac Dineson and the wicked ex-pat life in Kenya.

  24. Ian Luck says:

    I remember my dad saying once, that English people abroad don’t picture themselves as being ‘Foreigners’. They are Englishmen abroad. I think he was right, and it was a big problem. Still is, sadly.

  25. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, Ian. Just look at the “English” gardens people tried to cultivate in India and all through the Empire and the way English people insisted on wearing “proper” clothing regardless of the climate. Those actions are not dangerous in themselves but are indicative of the attitude of the English toward the people and culture of the place where they are living. Since most of my DNA is British I figure I can say what I feel. (The remainder is German so I will say it bluntly.)

  26. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – I’m always amused by photographs of British Archaeologists in Egypt, in their linen suits (amusingly, sometimes Tweeds), with their chokingly stiff celluloid collars, topped off with maybe a straw boater, or Panama, or a ‘Solar Topee’ (pith helmet). I love how uncomfortable Howard Carter looks, when, in the stifling, airless heat of Tutankhamun’s tomb, he had to work with (gasp) no collar, and his top button open. Scandalous!

  27. Helen Martin says:

    It’s wonderful when someone gives in to the climate. It seems to be women who stick it the longest, probably because middle class women were over dressed in summer at home so they were used to feeling faint as a regular thing.

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