I would blush as a teenager each time my grandmother spoke of the Empire. Blushing may be part of the nervous condition of youth, but there was something symptomatic of the generational change of gear about those blushes. The horse-radish sauce was passed in silence; we would talk about the beef, mindful of a familial impasse.
More recently, I have begun to see that the British Empire has affected my generation as much as my grandmother’s although I was born in the Sixties after it had been all but dismantled. Brought up in India, she could remember the reaction to Queen Victoria’s death because her canary had died on the same day. My grandmother died aged 105 in 2000, after serving as a nurse in India, in Mesopotamia as it was called then, and in Africa. Her loyalty to the Empire was a loyalty to her youth and to what she saw as the philanthropic aspirations of her generation. My spontaneous shame was to do with the long shadow left by the Empire on subsequent uninvolved generations. The disjuncture between them was both jarring and formative at that time. Avoiding the subject of Empire seemed the only policy.
It is that attitude which has been so influential in post-war Britain. The cringe-factor associated with the imperial legacy lies only barely beneath the surface of the modern British sensibility. The concerted informality, the overloaded class-awareness, and the discomfort that many feel about the residual rituals of a pompous age, can all be traced to the retreat from Empire and the difficulty we have in discussing it. The Empire, after all, had breathed life into the class system by bringing new talent into the aristocracy; the experience of ruling imperially endowed the upper classes with a degree of ostentation and grandiosity that had, by the Seventies, come to seem absurd.
Because of our past, we associate old-fashioned formalities with such stuffy vainglory. Old-fashioned formality has no such connotation among, say, Spaniards or Italians who have no living memory of Empire. Small-time garage-owners in rural Umbria or young Madrileño clubbers observe a social etiquette that is far closer to the polite society of Edwardian London than anything one finds in Britain today. Manners are not so readily tainted with snobbery as they are in Britain.
Attitudes to Empire are also a subtle way of positioning oneself politically. However much the left may have believed in Empire when it existed (many campaigned for a more humanitarian Empire, but few were arguing in the Twenties that we should get out of India or Africa), it became a signature of the left to be against the memory of the Empire. (Memory is too easily associated with nostalgia perhaps.)
Jack Straw’s remarks about the iniquities of the Empire enabled him to re-inhabit the old British radical image that he may worry he is losing if we wage war on Iraq. And even though most of Tony Blair’s cabinet have grown up in a post-imperial age, the government is evidently constrained in its stance on Zimbabwe by the fact that Britain is the former colonial power and the white settlers now being forced out are mainly of British descent. Closer to home, a new museum about the Empire in Bristol that I am currently involved with met with an implacable opposition from Bristol city council when it was mooted in the Seventies and Eighties.
But there are signs — perhaps it is one more generational shift — that we may be coming to terms with a past that we had tried to avoid. There is certainly a new exposure of the subject in evidence. The opening of the museum in Bristol, which has been embraced by both the right and the left is one such sign. A swathe of books and films about the British Empire is another. In particular, Niall Ferguson’s book (and series on Channel 4), Empire, which makes the case for the relative benevolence of the British, is perhaps the great revisionist publishing opportunity — to jolt the Sixties baby-boomers into re-assessing their cringing embarrassment or one-sided hostility.
Whether or not he is right, these discussions are to be welcomed, if only to provoke an airing of our modern-day reflexes and of the facile judgments we make about our grandparents. These discussions are valuable, too, because they re-inscribe African and Asian history into the mainstream historical narrative of this country. To skirt around the subject is to avoid the recent history of millions of people — African, Indian, Anglo-Saxon and so on — in this country and elsewhere, whose lives were indelibly marked by the Empire, for good or evil.
I too have come to understand my grandmother’s outlook with greater sensitivity. Those who live into their nineties and beyond can live like refugees from another age. In her 100th year, my grandmother’s husband and all her contemporaries were dead; the most recognizable features of her youth had long disappeared. Because she was a child of the 19th century, she was immensely well-adjusted to modernity. But no wonder she had a few fixed stars. Her British Empire was quite different from the story of ruler and ruled, a story from which we shrink because of the racial hierarchies that seem implicit in it. As a nurse, she was one of the Empire’s footsoldiers. Her reasons for believing in it were to do with specific, marking experiences, which, for all anyone might point to the massacres in Amritsar or the brutal legacy in the Middle East, would not be so easily erased.
In a hospital camp near Basra, in the marsh-lands between the Euphrates and the Tigris, my grandmother spent two grim years as a young nurse during World War I. She saw thousands of soldiers die in make-shift wards. She treated hundreds of others from all over the British Empire: in particular west Africans, Indians, British, many of whom had been tortured on the Eastern Front, even after they had been wounded in battle.
Her memories eighty years later were vivid: the chilblains, the dysentery, the stench of death, the agony of the patients and the Spanish ’flu she nearly died of in a converted sports- hall in Bombay as the Armistice was eventually declared. But she retained intensely affectionate memories of the people she met at this time. For her, it was partly this experience of the community brought together in those camps that gave her such a strong belief in the humane mission of the British Empire.
Her version of the Empire was not very far from what people who work for Save the Children feel they are trying to do today. The humanitarian interventions of NGOs in war-torn countries are the heirs to both the contradictions and the high moralism of Victorian missionaries. We often have the oddest reasons for believing in things. But unless we broach the subject of Empire, we will never know the nerve-centres of modern Britain.