Mike Smith uncovers the wonders of the world of H.E Bates
Waiting for the computer to load I turned to the bookshelf and noticed my set of The Saturday Book. Thirty-five of the eclectic annual volumes were published between 1941 and 1975, with a ‘Best of’ following in the early 80s.
I needed a reading project and decided to start at the beginning of volume one. I accumulated the set over many years having been given two as birthday or perhaps Christmas presents in 1959 and 1960, but I’d never read them all from cover to cover. Long after discovering one of my favourite short stories (H.E.Bates’ The Little Farm), I found I’d had for years it in Volume One of The Saturday Book. What I hadn’t found was a second piece by Bates in the same volume, or rather, a first piece by him, for it opens the book and the whole series.
‘Sea Days, Sea Flowers’ begins with recollections of summer trips to the Sussex and Kentish coast ‘as far as the white dunes of Sandwich bay’, and to ‘the flat wide shores beyond the Dymchurch sea-wall’ or to ‘Hastings and Rye’. I assumed at first that I was reading the opening to another short story, though it did cross my mind as odd that he should get two in the same volume. There are many short stories that start with such descriptions of rural England. Du Maurier’s ‘The Old Man’, Coppard’s ‘Weep Not My Wanton’, and Gallico’s ‘The Snow Goose’, all play heavily on the landscape in which their tales are played out.
But here Bates’ description seemed to go on for so long and was in such detail. It was a journey such as that Kipling took in his opening to ‘They’: a drive through England, to England rather than a mere setting for a tale. As that journey entered its second page the penny began to drop that I was reading what we would now call, I suppose, a piece of creative non-fiction.
The detail is astonishing: about the landscape, the topography, the architecture of the towns and villages, the working lives of the fish-hawkers and the fishermen, and the tourists who drive down for the summer to buy their fish; of the “smoke-stacks of ships steaming up the Channel as they come in close at Dungeness”; of the “coast that is full of Napoleonic memories”; of “the toy passenger train that peeps and shrieks across the flat marsh”. And, throughout it all, those flowers: “the tall mauve-pink marshmallows, like delicate wild hollyhocks…the clusters of reed and willow-herb and purple loosestrife…”
It’s a luscious, artist’s eyeful of this southern corner of England, and it goes on for pages. How can you make such a tour, packed as it is with such detailed description, and no narrative, and the only real character a fish-seller with whom Bates’ reminiscing narrator banters, how can you make it work, and over some thirteen pages of text? For it does work.
Scotland has always been a foreign country to me, but I know most of it far better than I know any of the so-called Home Counties, and the country that Bates describes in this piece is totally alien to me. Yet it made me want to visit, to see it, to see how much of that 1941 landscape still lives and shines under his summer sky. Of course, Bates is a superlative writer, but there’s more to it than that. And he knows a lot: about the flowers, about those childhood holidays, about the lives of working people. The piece is jam-packed with detail and keen observation. But there’s more to it than that as well.
The clue is in the date, and in the three words that open the piece, which, at eighty years’ distance you might have missed: ‘IN PEACE TIME’, and yes, they are in capitals too. For this lush description, redolent with nostalgia, elegiac for a lost world, was published in 1941, when World War Two, for England, was already two years old, and the beaches were sealed off to casual visitors, barbed wired and mined for defence, prepared for an invasion that never came. A couple of pages in, Bates gives us a reminding nudge, repeating the phrase, this time in lower case: “it was always so easy, in peace time, to find a light excuse [to make the coast journeys]”.
By 1941 Bates was already at the top of his game. Stories like ‘The Mill, The Kimono, and The Boxer’, had been written, stories that by his own account were more fully developed than those prompted by what he called ‘the facile devil inside’. And he was a master of the descriptive. The sense of heat that pervades the deserted farmyard and surrounding farmland in the story ‘A Great Day for Bonzo’is palpable, and that same intensity is present in many others of his rural tales, not least the often dubbed ‘bucolic’ Kent of The Darling Buds of May (1958). He was already putting those talents to the National Service, most famously in the stories of Flying Officer X. And this piece too, no doubt, had its propaganda purpose, for Britain, like other nations, was fighting for the survival not only of its lives and infra-structures nor merely for its political systems, but for the narratives of its physical homelands. This was one of the notional as well as real England that the majority of the British were fighting for, and here Bates is summoning a sense of loss that could already be felt as war took that landscape, albeit temporarily, away from the people.
Towards the end of his piece Bates makes this context more explicit. “It is a year since I was down on the coast.” And he lets the war intrude more specifically: “A mine was tossing a little out to seaward…”, where the fish-hawkers “would talk to you of the dead Nazi airmen that were washed up every day…”. Not for nothing did the Kent coast, in the days of the Battle of Britain, become known as ‘Hell’s Corner’.
Bates does not end on the war though, but returns us to nostalgia, to the seashore, “the scream of gulls”, and the “toy train, penny plaices, sea-flowers, peace-time world”. He ends on a reflective note, and one, I think, that carries a whiff of English comic irony: “But it’s no use getting sentimental now.” There was, after all, still a war to fight.
Mike Smith lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays, usually on the short story form in which he writes as Brindley Hallam Dennis. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
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In exploring the question of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and alternative masculinities, it is important to keep in mind the multiple contexts and registers in which this question can be explored. One is obviously Tagore’s critique of and take on man-woman relationships in his books and stories throughout his life, which he had observed at close quarters in an extended/joint family context. Many of his short stories, like “The Exercise-Book”, and novels like, Chokhher Bali (A Grain of Sand), show a keen sympathy for women’s aspirations and the situation of that unaccommodated woman, the young widow. Tagore demonstrates his sympathy, even empathy, with the young widow, Binodini, while recognizing that she might pose a threat to social stability within the household of Mahendra and Asha, his girl-wife. The second register is the intertwining of creative writing and androgyny (the latter being a necessary attribute for an author, according to Virginia Woolf), and how Tagore in his capacity as a creative writer had qualities of empathy and sensitivity, which he drew upon to forge unusually close emotional bonds with women. This theme has been discussed by writers and critics under the rubric of Tagore and the feminine or Tagore and women. However, this article seeks not just to explore Tagore’s views on women but his search for a calibrated and balanced way of being in the world without falling into the binaries of imperial and colonized masculinities, and to shape the contours of a self which makes the world its home and is at home in the world.
In his novel Ghare Baire (The Home and the World), we come across a criticism of extremist politics and jingoistic nationalism. A tripartite narrative about the growing political consciousness of Bimala, her failure to understand her liberal husband, Nikhilesh, a landlord and his friend Sandip, a fiery nationalist and a turbulent petrel, who storms the bastions of their household and marriage. Sandip’s brand of militant nationalism appeals to Bimala, who had once harboured feelings of inferiority because of her birth in an ordinary family, and who feels elevated and special under Sandip’s scrutiny. Sandip singles her out for special attention and calls her the “Queen Bee’’ and his muse and inspiration leading her to ignore Nikhilesh’s more mature and balanced views. Early in the novel, Nikhilesh who often functions as a mouthpiece for Tagore’s views in the novel, says that though he loves his country/nation, he cannot place nationalism over humanity. Reflecting Tagore’s views, which espouses internationalism and humanitarianism, Nikhilesh is not understood by his politically immature wife and ignored by his self-serving and unscrupulous friend.
Central to the formation of Tagore’s political views and suspicion about nationalism was his ideological debate with his own niece, his sister, the novelist Swarnalata Debi’s daughter, Sarala Debi Chaudhurani. A keen and fiery nationalist and patriot, Sarala was deeply impressed by the physical culture of imperial masculinities. She was particularly enthused/motivated by the concept of uplifting the nation through encouraging the growth of a physical culture. A statement that resonated with her was the idea of national character and she quotes lines from the ‘Educationist’:
“Physical weakness is a crime-against yourself and those who depend on you. Weaklings are despised and a weakling nation is doomed. The decline of ancient Greece and Rome which fell rapidly from the pinnacle of supreme civilization was due to physical neglect and abuse of the inflexible laws of nature. A physically weak nation is drained out mentally, its feet are on the downward path and it will end upon the scrap-heap if it does not act before it is too late.”
She also quotes a proverb which pronounces that the“battles of England are fought and won in the fields of Eton” (Chapter 18,129). Her interest in and involvement with the politics of the freedom movement led her to initiate the celebration of Birashtami (festival of heroes to celebrate martial prowess, bravery and courage)) to mark courage and martial valour. Her belief in developing a physical culture and strengthening the national character made her revive certain traditions, re-invent rituals in order to paint a glorious version of India’s past. In doing so, she encouraged celebrations of Birashtami and invoked and revived the ‘braveheart’, Pratapditya, a landlord with questionable antecedents since he was also guilty of killing his father. In elevating such a figure to a status of a nationalist war-hero, she elicited mixed responses, particularly from her Brahmo family and her uncle, Rabindranath Tagore.
Rabindranath Tagore, among others, strongly objected to Sarala’s invocation of the figure of a parricide as a martial hero. Such a figure could act as a dangerous precedent since it would seem to encourage untrammeled and uncontrolled aggression and blur moral boundaries and ethical codes. This blunting of all moral and ethical codes and boundaries, the danger lurking in a militant and violent nationalism was, as indicated above, represented by Tagore in his novel, Ghare Baire but also in his essays on nationalism. In the novel, the conflict between a rational civic and humanitarian nationalism which eschews violence is embodied by the idealized figure of Nikhil and the primordial reactionary chauvinistic version of nationalism which endorses violence by his ‘friend’, Sandip. After casting a spell (metaphorically speaking) over the impressionable Bimala, whose affection he then misuses to drive a wedge between the couple and then to extract money from her to fund his terrorist activities.
Rabindranath’s indictment of Sandip could be viewed as his response, a sort of extended debate and dialogue with an ideological viewpoint diametrically different from his own, which was represented by his niece. The increasing rift and estrangement between the two — Rabindranath and Sarala — might explain the wistfulness and occasionally melancholic and autumnal tone of Jibaner Jharapata (The Scattered Leaves of My Life) Saraladebi’s autobiography. A proud and self-respecting person, Sarala was probably conscious of the slur or aspersion of effeminacy that the British had cast on the Bengali character. She felt the humiliation and indignity too keenly to accept such descriptions and attributions quietly.
Gandhi and the Crafting of Political Masculinity
One common threadthat runs through the work and writings both these towering personalities of Tagore and Gandhi, is a critique of existing, culturally prescribed and sanctioned models of masculinity as they prevailed in the eastern (Tagore) and western (Gandhi) extremities of India. Both these great men, as public personages, were conscious that they were thought leaders and role models and that examples set by them would be emulated.
In the case of M.K. Gandhi(1869-1948), a great national leader who was instrumental in India’s throwing off the yoke of colonialism in 1947, there is a conscious experimentation with the “truth’’, presumably of one’s inner self, to oppose certain culturally sanctioned models of masculinity. Interestingly, his great-niece, Manu Gandhi referred to the ageing Gandhi as “Gandhiji, my mother” in her diaries, which were translated into English in 2019. When we focus on his corporeal politics, we see in Gandhi’s “experiments with truth” a series of experiments to do with the body which express both a consciously crafted gender ambivalence and throws a challenge to the concept of the manly body of the colonizer. Here my point is that Gandhi was consciously deploying his self, his body identity/ies and attendant subjectivities, in order to make a political point. He used his body and body-politics to establish his difference from the colonially attributed native body and also to mark his distance from colonial models of masculinity. While in one sense, this fluid body seems almost gender ambivalent, it is also an invitation to re-imagine and revision stereotypical notions of gender which circulate in cultures.
Both of these thinkers were probably conscious of the import of the political masculinities espoused by them, particularly under the yoke of imperialism, at a specific historical conjuncture. This conjuncture is the first two decades of the twentieth century, when the models of masculinity available can be broadly conceptualized as imperial, colonial and ascetic masculinities.
The imperial masculinity model is based on the white imperial ‘master’, the civil servant, the ‘pukka saheb’, the kind extolled by Kipling and criticized by E. M.Forster. Coincidentally, this Kiplingesque masculinity, often caricatured, found its takers in people who extolled the muscular, strong masculinity of imperial cultures, like Sarala Debi, Tagore’s niece. The Forsterian view that the English public school culture shaped “well developed bodies, under-developed minds and undeveloped hearts’’ was not known to her, nor would it have found favour. This model also made its way into Indian discourses where it becomes linked with questions of national character and patriotism. In his book, The Intimate Enemy (1983) Ashis Nandy proffers the view that the Indian elite in the 19th century perceived the British as agents of progressive change and accepted the ethos of aggressive imperial masculinities.
According to historians and critics like Indira Chowdhury, Mrinalini Sinha and Chandrima Chakraborty, there was a developing discourse of de-masculinization and emasculation among the British, where they denigrated the Indian middle class and particularly the Bengali men as weak and effeminate and this also led some political leaders to move in the direction of defining and conscious crafting of alternative masculinities.
The third or ascetic model is available in Ananda Math by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and CharAdhay ( Four Chapters, 1933), the last and thirteenth novel by Tagore along with real life characters such as Swami Vivekanand (1863-1902) and Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), albeit delineated with some ambivalence. Chandrima Chakraborty in her book on Masculinity,Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India (2011), highlights the “conjunctural alignment of asceticism and masculinity in Indian political history,” in order for its transformation into a strident symbol of Indian nationalism.
Interestingly, there is a further dimension and addition to this narrative. Jibaner Jharapata is not the only source of Sarala’s life story. She is described in Rajmohan Gandhi’s biography as Gandhi’s “spiritual wife”, because he felt strongly drawn to her, seeing in her a woman who possessed a unique combination of education and emotional strength. To Gandhi, she was a woman whose love for the nation was equally strong as his, although it followed and developed along different trajectories. In a peculiar role-reversal, we find Sarala Debi, who spent her formative years in Tagore family mansion at Jorashanko, inverts the models of “colonized masculinity” to promote and propagate militant nationalism. Tagore and Gandhi, whose spheres of influence she existed in, do not seem to have brought about much of a change in her. The great men eschewed and turned away from existing models of masculinity and moved towards the crafting of new masculinities, drawing on asceticism and spiritualism to do so.
Chakraborty, Chandrima(2011)Masculinity,Asceticism, Hinduism: Past and Present Imaginings of India. Delhi: Permanent Black
Chattopadhyay, Bankimchandra, Anandamath or The Sacred Brotherhood.Trana Julius Lipner, New DelhiOUP
Chaudhurani, Sarala Debi(2007)Jibaner Jharapata, Calcutta, Dey’s Publishing.(Bengali) All references in the text are to this edition,with translations by the author of this paper
Gandhi, Rajmohan (2006) Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, his People and an Empire. New Delhi:Penguin/Viking.
Kumar, Radha (1993) The History of Doing: An Illustrated History of Doing. New Delhi, Kali for Women
Malhotra, Meenakshi (2018) A Dark Goddess for a Fallen World: Mapping Apocalypse in Some of Bankim C.Chatterjee’s Novels in Unveiling Desire: Fallen Women in Literature,Culture and Films of the East eds Devaleena das and Colette Morrow. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press
Ray, Sangeeta (2000) En-Gendering the Nation: Women and nation in Colonial and Postcolonial Narratives Duke UP
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor in English at Hansraj College, University of Delhi and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development at several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing theSelf and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender and/in literature and feminist theory.
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