Recently we’ve been thinking about extending our love affair with South East Asia by organising a trip to Myanmar next year, especially as things are opening up and seem now to be on the road to reform.
This isn’t the first time we’ve thought about this – we did vaguely think about a trip to Yangon on the back of our last trip to Thailand but decided that it would be too short and too rushed, in much the same way as we had thought about a similar trip in 2006.
So, as part of my background reading I reread George Orwell’s Burmese Days followed by Emma Larkin’s Finding George Orwell in Burma.
And that was quite an interesting combination. Orwell went out to Burma quite the young British officer with no sign of his later radicalism but came back radicalised. he also came back with some magic Burmese tattoos to guard against gunshot injury – not quite what you’d expect from a pukka sahib. It’s even more interesting given Emma Larkin’s account of meeting people who remembered Orwell in Burma – basically he doesn’t seem to have been a particularly nice man, hitting boys who got in his way on a station platform with his stick.
Now what writers don’t imagine, or steal from stories that other people tell them they base on their own lives – which of course begs the question of how much of Burmese Days is autobiographical and does it give us a clue to Orwell’s later radicalism?
Burma in the 1920‘s was an interesting place – while it was governed as if it was part of India it of course wasn’t actually part of India culturally. From the mid nineteenth century the British had spread along the coast of Burma through Rangoon, Moulmein and Amherst, and trading with the Burmese interior, which they termed ‘Upper Burma’.
The British did not take over Upper Burma until 1885, and then in part to block French expansion via the north of Laos. (having been to the Golden Triangle, however briefly, it’s amazing both how close and how wild the borderlands are.)
Unlike the coastal strip it was never heavily colonised with no large British, Anglo-Indian or Anglo Burmese communities. When Burn-Murdoch visited in 1908, you get the feeling that it was still very much a traditional Burmese society and there is no reason to think it was much changed 20 years later when Orwell was stationed in Upper Burma.
And colonial society ? Not really, more a small, isolated, group of British people, bound together only by their proximity to each other, ritually eating British style meals at the club, surrounded by a local population whose attitude was at best one of mild contempt.
Unlike East Africa or Rhodesia the colonists were not colonists trying to build a life, they were government officials stationed there or else managers for a forestry company – none with a stake in the country and all longing for escape to somewhere else, be it England or somewhere more congenial in colonial India or Malaya.
Thinking about the protagonists, my first thought was that Orwell had based Ellis, the unpleasant racist, on his former self given Larkin’s discovery of the stick beating story, but that is too pat – while the story of Ellis blinding a boy with his stick may be based on his past behaviour, just as his story ‘Shooting an Elephant’ may be based on his life in Moulmein, I tend to the view that his characters are syntheses of people he’d met, rather than actual individuals – but in as small a society as up country Burma, the syntheses probably would be uncomfortably close to recognisable individuals.
I suspect that radicalisation was the result of a growing awareness – through the discovery that he possibly had Anglo Burmese relatives in Moulmein, through behaving badly over beating boys with a stick, and through perhaps having a Burmese concubine – certainly his magic tattoos speak of an immersion in Burmese culture at some point in his career – and Orwell was said to be particularly fluent in Burmese.
The tattoos are particularly interesting. Tattoos hurt and take time to do, even simple ones. To have one was not something upper class Englishmen did in the nineteen-twenties, and having a ‘native’ one definitely not so, pointing to some close involvement with Burmese culture, and perhaps a change of allegiance.
One question is, did Orwell have a Burmese mistress while stationed in Burma, and if so, did he treat her as badly as Flory treated his mistress in Burmese Days, and also, how much was the character of Elizabeth Lackersteen based on Jacintha Buddicom and Orwell’s bitterness over their relationship?
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