Sunday, 23 February 2020

How to Skin a Crocodile—part 2


At dawn on June 23, 1757, as the world’s first global conflict raged across Europe, North and South America and West Africa, Robert Clive, a factor for the East India Company and a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army, stood thoughtfully on the banks of the Bhagirathi River some 150 kilometres north of Calcutta. On the face of it, Clive was doomed. His 3,000 British and Indian troops, 8 cannons and 2 howitzers were ranged against 50,000 infantry and cavalry and 300 pieces of artillery belonging to Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal. The Nawab was confident that morning, but what he didn’t know was that Clive had bribed the leader of a large portion of his forces to stand idle and not take part in the coming battle in exchange for becoming the new Nawab. The Battle of Plassey was a confused affair that lasted all day. It resulted in a victory for Clive and the British and marked the end of French colonial and commercial interest in India and the beginning of almost 200 years of British rule.
One hundred years to the day after Plassey and almost 1,000 kilometres to the northwest, another battle took place. This was part of a much smaller war, the Indian Rebellion or as it’s known in India the First War for Independence, but it was the turning point in the history of British rule in India. Prior to the mid-nineteenth  century India was administered as a commercial enterprise by the East India Company who maintained order and put down revolts using their own private army consisting of Indian soldiers under British officers. In the Bengal Army, disaffection over several political and religious issues boiled over into open rebellion in the spring of 1857. All across northern India, soldiers killed their officers and any British civilians they could find. They captured Delhi and proclaimed the aged Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last descendant of the Mughal dynasty, emperor. Many other smaller towns were overrun and the British residents fled, were killed or took refuge and were besieged. 
In Cawnpore (now Kanpur), the British officer in charge, General Wheeler, relied on his cordial relations with the local Indian leader, Nana Sahib, to protect the Europeans in the city, after all, he had lived in India for fifty years, was married to the daughter of a Hindu woman, spoke the local language fluently and was popular with his troops. Unfortunately, he miscalculated and Wheeler and around 1,000 Europeans and loyal Indians were forced to take refuge in a couple of hastily fortified buildings outside the city. 
General Wheeler's entrenchment after the siege.
Despite the unsuitability of the defensive position, shortages of food, water and ammunition, continuous shelling and attacks, and little chance of rescue, the dwindling number of defenders held out for three weeks. On June 23, encouraged by a prophecy that said British rule in India would end exactly 100 years after Plassey, Nana Sahib launched a series of major attacks on the entrenchment. The attacks were repelled, but it was obvious that the end was near. Two days after the attack, Nana Sahib sent a note to General Wheeler offering safe passage for the survivors downriver to Allahabad.
On the morning of June 27, General Wheeler led the 700 or so pitiful survivors of the siege, including many women and children, down to the Ganges River. On the way, the wounded who fell behind and the Indian soldiers who had remained loyal, were killed. 
The pathetic column reached the river at Sati Chaura Ghat where, inauspiciously, Indian widows had, as recently as thirty years before, been expected to immolate themselves on their husband’s funeral pyre. As promised, the boats to take them downriver had been provided, but they were stranded on the wide sandbanks exposed by the low water. As the survivors of the entrenchment struggled to clamber aboard, firing broke out from soldiers along the banks and several of the boats burst into flames. In the ensuing massacre, every man from the entrenchment was killed, with the exception of four who managed to escape down the river.
The massacre at the river.
After the massacre at Sati Chaura Ghat, about 120 women and children were taken into Cawnpore where they were joined by captives from nearby Fatehgarh. Around 200 women and children were imprisoned in a house called the Bibighar. Two and a half weeks later, on July 15, as the British relief force eventually fought its way to Cawnpore, butchers armed with cleavers and swords were ordered into the Bibighar where they slaughtered all the prisoners. The following day the bodies were dumped down a nearby well.
The atrocities at Cawnpore shocked British public opinion and triggered brutal reprisals that cost many thousands of Indian lives. It also meant the end of East India Company power and in 1858 jurisdiction was transferred to the British crown and the Raj (a Hindi word meaning rule), was created. It also gave me my favourite story.
“The Ganges crocodiles can live to be 100 years old,” Jim told me, “and they’re scavengers. They can drag a buffalo into the river, drown it and store it in their den until it rots a bit and is easy to eat, but they’ll take anything that floats along.
“They’re also very difficult to shoot. Most bullets will bounce off their armoured skin and if you only wound one, it goes back into the water and you lose it. You have to hit the brain. Do you know how big a crocodile’s brain is?”
This was not something I was being taught at a Scottish grammar school, so I shook my head and raised a speculative clenched fist.
“No,” my dad said and held up his thumb. “It’s about the size of a walnut, and you can’t shoot it from the front, skull’s too thick. You have shoot from the side or behind, so you need a very powerful gun and good aim.
“First thing you do when you shoot a crocodile is skin it. You do that by making a cut all around behind the head and then peeling the skin back towards the tail. It’s like removing a glove.”
Skinning a crocodile, probably a gharial.
I loved the way my dad told me things as if there was the remotest chance that this information would ever be of use in my late 20th century life. But I was riveted nonetheless.
“Crocodile skin’s tough. It can be made into bags and shoes, so it’s worth money. Do you know what you do next?”
Wide-eyed, I shook my head.
“You cut open the stomach.”
“But the stomach’s not worth anything,” I pointed out, struggling and failing to imagine what the inside of crocodile’s stomach was like.
“No,” my dad agreed, “but what’s inside might be. If a crocodile eats someone with a few rupees in their pocket, after a while there won’t be much left of the person but the rupees will stay in the stomach.”
“Did you find much money?”
“No but I’ll tell you what I did find one day. It was not long after I went to India. A friend took me crocodile hunting on the Ganges. We didn’t have much luck until we found a big old crocodile—it must have been nearly 20 feet long—laying on a sand bar. My friend shot it and we skinned it. It was hard work. Then we cut open the stomach.”
He paused. “What did you find?” I asked, totally absorbed.
“A watch,” he said with a smile. “Not a wrist watch, like the one that you have, but an old-fashioned pocket watch.”
“Did it still work?”
“No. It had been there a long time and the workings were very corroded, but the cover of the watch was gold and gold doesn’t rust. We cleaned it off.”
“and…”
“There was an engraving on the inside of the cover.‘To subaltern Thomas Atkins on his departure for India. January, 1857.’”
“That’s old,” I said, slightly disappointed that there was no secret code or treasure map. Then my dad said that he had been hunting downriver from Cawnpore and he told me the story of the massacre at the boats.
“His parents probably gave Thomas the watch as a parting gift as he boarded his ship for India. He was probably stationed in Cawnpore, survived the siege and was killed at Sati Chaura Ghat that day. His body floated downstream and a young crocodile found it. It ate him and the watch in his pocket, and the watch stayed there until we shot it all those years later.”
“Do you have the watch?” I asked hopefully.
My dad shook his head. “My friend took it. It was probably lost many years ago.”
I can’t begin to count the number of hours I spent, daydreaming at my school desk or in bed at night, making up stories about what might have happened to Thomas Atkins and how his watch ended up in the crocodile. I never wrote anything down, but I was already an author.
Cover painting by Luc Normandin
Were my Dad’s stories true? I doubt if they were in a strict sense and details were added to keep the flow going. For example, Thomas Atkins is generic slang name for a British soldier, so I very much doubt if that was the name on the watch. But all the tales were probably based on some real event that Jim had experienced or heard about. My dad was a great believer in Mark Twain’s advice to never let the truth get in the way of a good story. In any case, I don’t think the literal truth or lack of it is important. What is important to me is how my father’s life in India, or at least his retelling of it, encouraged a love of stories in his son. In fact, the watch-in-the-crocodile story and the historical events around the massacre at Cawnpore became, four decades later, the basis for a novel, Where Soldiers Lie.
So Jim’s tales contributed greatly to the creation of my storytelling life. But what of my mother? She too was born and lived much of her early life in India. She was also alone for many years in wartime and postwar Britain. What contribution did her experiences make to moulding her late-arriving son?

Monday, 17 February 2020

How to Skin a Crocodile—part 1

Daddy, what did YOU do in the Great War?
The death of a parent can throw what we don’t know about them into painfully sharp relief. My father, James Annan Wilson always known as Jim, died in March 1985 and, like many sons, I could fill a book with detailed, never-asked and probably unanswerable queries. Fortunately, Jim loved to tell stories of his life in India. Unfortunately, for much of my childhood there was only one question I wanted to ask. 
I was that eager kid in the First World War poster, steeped in stories from a later war and certain that my dad must have done brave and extraordinary things.
“What did you do in the war, Dad?” I eventually asked.
“Nothing much.”
“But you were a captain.”
“Acting captain,” he said, setting his book aside. “I was really only a lieutenant. Everybody on the railways had to join.” He smiled at me. “The Bengal and North Western Railway Battalion.”
“And you’ve got a gun,” I persisted, referring to the heavy oiled pistol in its metal box in the bottom of the wardrobe in my parent’s bedroom
“You mustn’t touch it.”
“I just look,” I lied. I loved how I could barely lift the gun and how cold its steel felt even on the hottest summer day.
“One day, when you’re older, I’ll show you how it works.”
The thought of that wonderful day-to-come distracted me for a while. Then I remembered something else I could use. “You won a medal.”
“It was just an MBE. Everybody got one.”
I have the medal in its velvet-lined case, and the scroll signed by the king, dated 12 June, 1947 and beginning, “George the Sixth by the Grace of God of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas, King, Defender of the Faith, Emperor of India and Sovereign of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire to Our trusty and well-beloved James Annan Wilson Esquire Greeting.…We have thought fit to nominate and appoint you to be a Member of the Civil Division of Our said Most Excellent Order of the British Empire…” etc. etc.
Years later, looking at the medal and the scroll, I thought, “No, Dad. Not everybody got one.” But if they were uncommon, what did James Annan Wilson Esquire do to become “trusty and well-beloved”?
I have some clues. I do know that the railway workshops Jim was in charge of were turned over to the production of munitions and the building of three ambulance trains. My sister told me that, in the spring of 1944, one of the trains needed to be driven as close as possible to Kohima and Imphal where desperate fighting was going on to halt the Japanese invasion. No one wanted to undertake the hazardous trip so Jim volunteered and took the train. 
Perhaps that journey was enough for the Most Excellent Order, but I have one other intriguing, isolated piece of information relating to that time. It is from the archives at Fettes College. Fettes keeps track of the activities and achievements of its old pupils after they have left and were very helpful in confirming several details that I already knew about Jim. However, their records added something startlingly new: “1939-45 War; Capt. Punjabis; POW”. Since I can find no confirmation from military records or family of his being either in the Punjabis or a prisoner of war, it is almost certainly an error, but…
As Jim told me, European engineers and administrators working on the railways of the Raj automatically became officers in the Auxiliary Forces of India. In another fancy document from the time of George VI’s dad, although this one’s not signed, Jim, already “trusty and well-beloved”, is made a 2nd Lieutenant in the Bengal and North Western Railway Battalion. He became a full Lieutenant two years later on 1st June, 1934 and was a Captain by the time the battalion was disbanded in 1947.
The job of the railway battalions was simple, keep the peace. The Bengal and North Western Railway Battalion, with a strength in 1939 of 110 Europeans and 180 Anglo-Indians (as the children of mixed Indian and British parentage were designated in those days), was tasked with “providing armoury guards during periods of civil unrest”, although as “civil unrest” increased in India during the 1930s and 40s, I suspect that many of the Auxiliary Forces were used for other purposes. What those other purposes might have been is suggested by one of the stories Jim told me about his military career in India.
Not the BNWRB,
but how they would have looked on formal occasions.
One evening, we were watching an old movie on television. I don’t remember the details but there was a scene where a small group of brave British lads were faced by an angry mob of locals in some far corner of the British Empire. The soldiers fire over the heads of the advancing crowd and are then overwhelmed by it.
“Nonsense,” my dad said. “That’s not how you handle a riot.”
“But how can you?” I asked. “There are a lot more rioters than soldiers.”
“Yes, but your squad is disciplined and armed. The idea is to use the least amount of force necessary to quell the riot. If you fire over the heads of the crowd the leaders will simply say ‘See, their bullets cannot harm us’ and you’re no better off. First you blow the bugle to get the crowd’s attention and then read the riot act.”
“Does that stop them?”
“Sometimes.”
“If it doesn’t stop them?” I asked, trying to tease out more of the story. 
“Every crowd has leaders: the man with the megaphone, the man leading the chanting. While the riot act is being read, you get the two or three best shots in the platoon and point out the major ringleaders in the crowd. If the crowd keeps coming, you order those men to fire at the targets you’ve given them. That beheads the crowd and without leaders to give it focus a crowd is much more easily dispersed.”
As I pondered this, Jim went on. “The problem was that permission to fire on a crowd had to be given in writing by the local magistrate. Local magistrates were Indian and could hardly ever be found when trouble was brewing.”
I loved the story of facing down an enraged mob but it was only years later and too late, that I wondered how my dad knew in so much detail what to do with a squad of soldiers amid the chaos of a riot, and regretted missing the opportunity to ask him.
I was told other stories to the soundtrack of clinking ice in a crystal glass. “I remember once in the rebellion of 1942, Jock MacIntosh was alone when he was faced in the railway yards by a hostile crowd. A young Indian in the crowd harangued him with, ‘Bloody Englishman. We don’t want you here.’ Jock shouted back, ‘I’m no an Englishman. I’m a Scotchman.’ While the mob wondered at this, Jock jumped onto a nearby train and escaped.”
Clink
"Troopers from the Bihar Light Horse were once paraded before a visiting senior officer. They were a scruffy bunch and the officer wasn't impressed by the lack of spit and polish. He gestured at the lined up men and pointedly asked the Sergeant Major, 'What is that?' Without missing a beat, the Sergeant Major replied, 'They’re a corps of gentleman, sir. They owns their own horses, don’t clean nothing and salutes nobody.’”
Clink
"I felt bloody helpless during the Bengal famine of 43/44. It was dreadful, bodies in the streets, no more than skeletons. And it was all made worse by the merchants stocking full granaries to drive up prices.”
Clink
“Explosions are strange things. One time in 1944 a munitions ship, the SS Fort Stikine, blew up in Bombay harbour. A man I knew, a railway man, Bob Scott, was walking along a street near the docks with a friend. The explosion knocked him out. When he came to, he was unharmed, but his friend was down the street, naked, without a mark on him, but stone dead."
Jim at Fettes,
training to be a soldier.
Not all Jim's stories were about the war. One day he returned to the bungalow to learn that the family dog, Mac, had been behaving oddly and had been locked in the shed. My dad peered through the window and saw Mac, tearing wildly around, snarling, foaming at the mouth and obviously rabid. He got his shotgun, opened the door a crack and pushed the gun through. In a frenzy, Mac seized the barrel and my dad pulled the trigger. When he withdrew the gun he noticed that the dog had left teeth marks on the tempered steel.
Much as I loved Jim's stories, I never made any attempt to fit them into a reconstruction of his pre-me life. It's impossible now but I have snippets of information from other sources.
My sister remembers our father being very drunk one night shortly after he came back from India for good. He was wildly waving a gun around and shouting, “They’re coming to get me.” Who?
Once, in the bookcase in Paisley, amidst the tomes on religion and philosophy, I unearthed a well-worn book in a stained brown paper cover. It dealt with living with alcoholism. 
On another occasion, shortly before I married, my fiancee and I went to visit my parents. My mom took my fiancee aside and advised her that I would have affairs and that she should ignore them. Do these three events suggest horrific war experiences, alcohol problems and affairs? Certainly, war time India was not calm, heavy drinking was a part of the colonial culture and Jim must have been excruciatingly lonely for long periods.
It’s tempting to build a story out of all this, but that would be mere speculation, and this is not a novel. All I can do is accept the stories for what they were, isolated anecdotes that were powerful enough to punch through my self-involved childhood. And that they certainly did. I loved all of Jim’s tales, but my absolute favourite was the one about the time he went crocodile hunting on the Ganges River.

Monday, 10 February 2020

Interlude 2—My Father's Gun

My Father’s Gun

My father's pistol lived in a metal box,
in the bottom of the wardrobe,
hidden from the children
beside the Christmas presents
in my favourite hiding place.

I loved that dark cave of musty smells and mothballs
on the borders of Narnia,
but mostly I loved the gun:
its weight that I could barely lift,
the blue-steel of its barrel,
the smell of its oil,
the roll of its name on my tongue
Webley Scott.

With that gun I shot countless burglars,
lions,
bad guys,
good guys,
and once, in an ecstasy of expectation,
we took it into a field and killed
a rotting tree stump.
For days afterwards my ears rang 
and the bad guys exploded like dead wood.

Then one day the wardrobe contained
only lifeless clothes.
For an age I wondered if my father was a spy 
who had to kill an enemy agent,
or if someone had stolen the gun 
to return and murder us all.
How would I protect everyone?

Eventually, I asked my mother,
“That old thing, your father sold it
I never liked having it around.”
So I went back to plastic guns,
but I knew I would never again 
stand a chance 
against the bad guys.

Monday, 3 February 2020

Schoolboys and a Dead Doctor—part 2

Life in the RAJ
In 1951, James Annan Wilson, or Jim as he was always known, after fathering four girls the oldest of whom was about to turn twenty-years-old, wasn’t prepared to entertain the possibility that number five would be a son, so, when my sister phoned to tell him of my arrival, at first he didn’t believe her. However, proof was forthcoming and, unaware of the confusion I had caused, I squalled my way back to my new home at 10 Duddingston Crescent in Portobello, equally unaware that a few minutes walk away on Duddingston Ave was the house where, almost exactly three years later, the infant who was to become my wife would also come home. Had I stayed, grown up and met and married the girl around the corner, this would not be remarkable, however my stay in the neighbourhood was brief and our meeting was in a very different time and place. Even if unintentional, the tangled webs we weave begin early.
Prior to my arrival, Jim had lived much of his life in India. He was born in Lucknow on January 20, 1905, but returned to Scotland around 1909 to live with his uncle, James, in Helensburgh. In 1915 he crossed the country to Edinburgh to attend boarding school at Fettes before, in 1921, beginning a five year apprenticeship in engineering at North British Locomotive's Hyde Park Works in Glasgow. North British mainly built steam engines and, among other projects, Jim would have worked on several Ab class 4-6-2 Pacific tender steam locomotives for New Zealand railways. One that he probably knew, Ab 745, crashed fifty feet down an embankment between Wanganui and New Plymouth in 1956 and lay buried until 2001 when it was purchased for a dollar. It now sits in a Rimutaka Incline Railway Heritage Trust shed in Maymorn, awaiting restoration.
Ab 745 after its last journey
In 1927 Jim returned to India to take up a post with the Bombay and North Western Railway where he rose to be a Chief Mechanical Engineer and acted occasionally as ‘Government Surveyor of inland steam vessels’ for the Government of Bihar. A few weeks leave in each of 1935, 1939 and 1945/46 were the only times he went back to Britain before his final return not long before my arrival. 
My father’s contribution to the jewel of the British imperial crown came to an end with partition and independence on August 15, 1947. On May 20, 1950—he stayed on to help with the transition to independence—he walked down the gangplank of the S.S. Stratheden in London. Jim’s wife, Eve, had travelled down from Edinburgh to meet him off the boat. It must have been a strange homecoming. They had not seen each other for four years and only for less than six months since September, 1939. In that time three of Jim and Eve’s daughters had grown up and the fourth had been born and died. Jim was forty-five years old, overweight and, although entering his profession as Government Official in the ship’s passenger list, he was unemployed and had precious little experience of living in the changing world of mid-twentieth century Britain. The train journey back up north must have been bleak. 
For my parents, after such long separation, the adjustment of recreating a life together in a dreary post-war Scotland, a land that they barely knew and that life had hardly prepared them for, must have been incredibly harsh and stressful. Into the middle of all of this and blissfully unaware, I arrived.
As I grew, I only had a vague sense of how difficult life was for my parents. I was aware that we had very little ‘Indian stuff’. All my relatives who had lived in India had houses filled with faded memorabilia: intricately inlaid tables, hammered brass bowls and trays, moth-eaten tiger skins, and, in one case, an elephant’s foot worked into a stool. It was only years later that I discovered the reason for this gap in the family history.
Like many refugees from the Raj, my parents brought with them trunks and tea chests filled with their most treasured possessions: silverware, crockery, cutlery, pictures, small favourite items of furniture, ornaments, pieces of Indian work that would always remind them of their lost past. After Jim came home, my parents’ Indian life was put into storage until the family became settled. The settling didn’t happen and there was never enough money to recover the possessions from storage. Eventually, everything was sold off to pay for the storage costs. 
I suspect that this cruel wrench from the life that she loved broke my mother’s heart and contributed to her dislike of the world I grew up in, but I was oblivious. All I remember from India were easily transportable things that had never gone into storage or had survived our many moves. There was old-fashioned bone-handled cutlery and increasingly chipped willow pattern cups, plates and bowls, but the things that fascinated me were the remnants of Jim’s life: the tusks of the wild boar that gored his horse, a kukri (a Gurkha knife), a selection of books riddled with silverfish holes, and a 1915 vintage, .455 calibre Webley Scott Mark 1 Self-Loading Pistol. All that remain are the kukri, the tusks and a 1924 edition of Lord Roberts’ Letters Written During the Indian Mutiny, but it was the pistol that occupied my young imagination the most.
A remnant of the Raj