When the Sun Never Set

I am, give or take a few months, the same age as the British Prime Minister. I was born at the start of the New Elizabethan age in England, at the time of the Festival of Britain, which was a period of rejuvenation and renewal, a 20th century Renaissance, after a long and economically disastrous war.

I am, give or take a few months, the same age as the British Prime Minister. I was born at the start of the New Elizabethan age in England, at the time of the Festival of Britain, which was a period of rejuvenation and renewal, a 20th century Renaissance, after a long and economically disastrous war.

My friends and cohorts are middle-aged, middle-class professionals, mostly at the zenith of their powers and careers. What differentiates me from them is that I am a colonial child, or, more strictly speaking, a dominion child. I never saw primroses growing in an English lane; rather frangipani, orchids and flame lilies.

As a consequence, I am much more conscious about the British Empire and its demise. While the granting of citizenship rights back to about 150 000 people in the fragments of the empire has once again reminded the British of their history, there is the feeling with some politicians and members of the public that the sooner these dependent territories become independent the better and that all legacy of empire is forgotten.

Certainly, the scattering of tiny islands round the world contrasts starkly with the map of the world at the start of the war. A quarter of mankind was loyal to the King and cartographers needed a good deal of pink ink.

My friends are surprisingly ignorant about what was once ours. At dinner parties, I have tested them – accountants, lawyers, dons, merchant bankers. They simply had to answer “yes” or “no” when I listed (from memory) countries such as Botswana and Borneo, Singapore and Somaliland, Cyprus and the Cayman Islands, and asked them to guess which were once part of the British Empire. Most got less than 50% correct. Sometimes we had a colony for 80 years, only “giving it back” 20 years ago, but they had no memory of this.

For me it is, and was, the reverse. Perhaps because I was a child of the dominions – my mother a missionary, father a colonial administrator – that I am immensely proud to be British. We watched with great sadness as the Union Flag was lowered in Hong Kong in June of 1997. It really did mean the end of the British Empire after 200 years of benign pace Britannica.

I can hear my father now, echoing that scallywag Cecil John Rhodes: “Remember, my boy, that you are an Englishman and have subsequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

When I was born, in coronation year, Rhodes’ dream of having the map of Africa tinged colonial pink from Cape Town to Cairo had very nearly come true. One could march from the farthest Cape to the pyramids of Egypt on British territory through Bechuanaland, Northern and Southern Rhodesia, Tanganyika, Kenya, the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan to the very gates of Egypt itself. India, that jewel in the crown, was lost, but it was nearly a decade before the winds of change really blew through the dark continent, or even Asia.

At sunset, when the men talked of politics and the women of the servant problem, my father and his friends would frequently review the state of the world. He would sit on the wide verandah discussing African affairs in the cool of the perfumed evening. He would talk of Portuguese East (Mozambique), German South West (Namibia), the Belgian Congo (Zaire) and Francophone West Africa (Dahomey, Niger, Upper Volta), gesturing uncertainly to the poinsettia and the frangipani, which would represent the colonially carved and coloured map of sub-Saharan Africa. The rose bed, of course, always represented England.

My parents belonged to that last generation of imperial peripatetics who had striven to create small Englands in the corners of foreign fields. If one could not actually do it architecturally, as it had been done in Simla, then by one’s dress and habits, Englishness (always 20 years out of date) could be preserved. Paradoxically, then, for my parents, the natives were foreign. Being British, even after the war in tatty, hostile and underdeveloped parts of the Empire gave one a sort of cultural immunity from local ways. Englishness was omniscience, or so it seemed, and resolute monoglotism was taken for granted. At its worst, the arrogance and pomposity could be appalling and eventually caused much resentment and bitterness.

I remember the shock of hearing Africans speak Portuguese in Louren?o Marques and Afrikaans in Pretoria. Many even spoke to their animals in foreign tongues, apparently quite ignorant that there was no possibility of the poor creatures understanding any language but English.

The concept of imperial glory was reinforced at school, both primary and secondary. A fair proportion of the teachers were “when we” people who prefaced everything they said with “When we were in Malaya . . .” or “When we were in Burma . . .”.

At school, we learnt British history and English geography. We learnt that hats were made in Luton, cutlery in Sheffield and small arms in Birmingham. It was a point of honour to know all the kings and queens since the Tudors (in correct order) and 19th century British expansionism received particular attention. The Boer War, we learnt, was a triumph of liberalism over the tyrant boer Paul Kruger and the relief of Mafeking a wonderful vindication of justice. Baden-Powell (pronounced Barden Pole) was a hero.

In the sixties, when the map of Africa began to lose its pinkish hue, the old guard seemed to ignore the facts and live in the imperial past. My mother was unusually interested in pictures of the most obscure of the royal family handing over poor, no doubt well-bled, colonies back to the natives. It was a source of family speculation and amusement who was chosen. We were convinced that the worth, standing or importance of a colony in the eyes of the Colonial Office was reflected in the rank of the person who was chosen to give it away; a prince for a country with strategic minerals, a duke for a great sea port, etc.

A combination of dwelling on the past, being very cut off and being without television meant that the old colonials lived lives of quiet decay in an imperial twilight. Certainly, it gave me a rather unrealistic picture of the mother country.

I remember the shock of arriving in England for the first time, aged 21. It wasn’t that it was smaller or dirtier than I expected, or that the class differences were so apparent yet so fiercely denied by the English. Rather, it was the people’s lack of confidence in themselves and their country, and their failure to take pride in their imperial history that surprised me most. People of all ages seemed either hostile to, or ignorant about, their country’s past. Hence the dislike for Rudyard Kipling, who is mistakenly seen as a jingoistic, racist imperialist. It is only comparatively recently that the British have become nostalgic about India, particularly the Raj, but not, as yet, Africa.

There are, and were, I suppose, reasons for guilt about one’s forefathers’ racism, exploitation and ignorance. It is still fashionable to be anti-imperial; now and again it is even justifiable. But what I could not comprehend was ignorance and apathy. People of my age did not know or care about the world’s greatest empire, upon which the sun never set and which contained a quarter of all mankind. Perhaps because of the over-indulgence in jingoism, followed by the loss of Empire, it has become difficult for the British to openly express their patriotism.

But it may be more simply that the British do not have a designated time or place for it. Unlike most other countries, they have no great national day of celebration such as Independence Day or Republic Day. Even the Queen’s birthday is not a public holiday and they appear to celebrate banks being closed more than they do anything else. There are no sanctioned and accepted days for the expression of patriotic zeal, if, of course, there is any.

But there is evidence that the British are patriotic by the number of occasions when patriotism is manifest, such as royal weddings, as well as their reluctance, emotionally at least, to merge into a federated Europe. Apart from royal events, the expressing of patriotism seems to me to be subject to class distinctions. For the working classes (if there are any left), patriotism is revealed predominantly in the arena of sport, where one can be loudly, vulgarly, unrestrainedly loyal to one’s country.

For the middle classes, there are fewer occasions, even for devoted fans of sport. There are Twickers, Henley, etc, but by far the best occasion is the Last Night of the Proms. It is not so much that the songs and tunes are so traditional and familiar but that they are splendidly, unashamedly British.

The reason why English is the world language is, in large part, due to the British Empire. The Americans who filled Britain’s slot as superpower and keeper of world peace after the war, being an ex-colony themselves, of course spoke English and spread the mother tongue. Britain sat at the top table in the United Nations, punching above their weight, because of the Empire. The British taste in food, their many fee-paying foreign students and, of course, their victories in both wars are in large part due to the British Empire.

As British warships slipped away from the fragrant harbour in 1997 and glided into the steamy waters of the South China Sea, they heralded the end of a long sunset. Such a pity that so few people of my age or younger appreciated the significance of it all. One wonders whether those who know no history are indeed condemned to repeat it.