Deborah Baker opens The Last Englishmen with the admission that she was looking for a new way to write about WW2 India when she came across the papers of John Bicknell Auden, the older brother of the well-known British poet, WH Auden. In her explorations, she found another brother of another poet—Michael Spender. The fortuitous connections lead her to yet another man, this time no brother, but a poet himself, Louis MacNeice. The result is a book that is a detailed account of who was having an affair with whom, especially one Nancy Sharp, a painter, and when, and who climbed which mountain peak and when, and discovered what. The book is three books in one: loving, mountaineering, and Baker’s original ambition to write a book about India.
The personal journeys of John and Michael, the former a Himalayan geologist and the latter a cartographer, relate to India itself only when they mention the Indians they were friends or climbed different peaks with. In India to understand the origins of the Himalayas, they are embarrassed at how they exploit the locals in their mission. They also know that they are being used by the Geological Survey of India or the Royal Geographical Society in their mission for greater political control. Baker ingeniously brings India into the narrative while talking about these moments of interaction. The focus of the first two-thirds of the book falls on John and Michael obsessing over an ascent of Mount Everest (which is actually not in India), and exploring Indian terrain, making maps and perfecting the technology that will benefit the Allies during the World War Two.
The India of those days was cartographically as much fairy dust as it is today. Power and greed give rise to history and politics. It is geography that these “last Englishmen” cannot escape from.
To John’s eye the valley, with its arid wastes and rock spirals, was unquestionably Tibetan. But when had the character of a landscape ever determined the location of a border? Mapmakers drew the lines, boundary pillars marked them, and soldiers defended them.
The book is invaluable for moments like these ones when Baker registers the doubts that plagued these men. On the one hand, there was the search for glory, moral superiority and power that could justify British control over India. On the other, their consciences told them that a mountain was a mountain, and not a metaphor for anything else. Baker writes lucidly about what they must have felt braving the weather and resisting the hollow promise of virility:
Here, in the heart of the High Himalaya, there were no superior or inferior races. Here, in the deep time in which these mountains came into existence there was no such thing as British rule or God’s inscrutable wisdom, there was only the simultaneous feeling of pain and peace, of sound and suspended quiet. His heart was full. If luck is with him, an explorer will return home to tell his story and collect his laurels. Few will grasp the dangers he has faced or the knowledge he has brought back. Maps can’t convey what it is like to submit to a cold that grips a body at sunset or the hours spent under an unforgiving sun and a heavy pack. Even more difficult is the realisation that the man who has returned is little changed from the one who left and that soon the longing to go back will return. Maps will be taken out and an even more treacherous route plotted. In this way the explorer exists suspended between the longing for home and the longing for extinction.
These are beautiful words exploring what these last Englishmen—Deborah Baker last Englishmen of the Raj, obviously—thought, but they are still Baker’s. While it is refreshing to read text without any ominous numbers pointing to possibly informative endnotes, it also casts a shadow of doubt. How much comes from the private and public correspondence between the “cast of characters” and how much is reconstruction? While of the reconstruction, how much of it is speculation?
But such doubts, and the tabulation of the multiple and intersecting affairs aside, The Last Englishmen comes alive—at least for Indian readers—in the last fifty pages or so. Historians have tended to frame the 1947 independence and partition of India as a climax—an inevitable consequence of the failure of power brokering between Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. Their accounts work their way backwards—Direct Action Day, World War Two, failure of previous reform and legislation to arrive at an vision of greater autonomy for Indians, the rising popularity of two-nation theory, and the growing fear that Mahatma Gandhi’s vocabulary and vision of an independent India was categorically Hindu. Other interpretations expand the horizon of how these events could be seen while including forgotten players, or highlighting previously ignored circumstances. Seen against the background of these conventional analyses, the last pages of The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire are a moving account of the “bitter truth” about the Raj that these last Englishmen realised: that “it stinks of all that is worst in England, the dregs left behind for us to fight and get killed for”; that “compared to what Germany had undergone … London hadn’t been bombed at all”; that in India, the British army, with all their tanks, did nothing to contain the communal violence happening in front of them. There is also a moving account of the famine that Churchill did his best to do nothing about:
“The devil was loose here for three days,” John wrote to Wystan after the worst was over. He spent a day helping bury five hundred corpses. With the August heat it wasn’t long before the corpses were too putrid even for rats and vultures. They bloated into grotesque positions: legs splayed, buttocks thrust in the air, scrotums the size of footballs. The calloused soles of their feet, John couldn’t help but notice, peeled of like old carpet slippers. Those that were a week old were already skeletons. The perpetrators, he told Wystan, claimed Europeans would be next. They weren’t. Flare-ups continued for months. Special Branch incident files described Muslim bustees set aflame, bodies, pulled from man holes, found in gunnysacks, pumping stations and slaughterhouses.
This book must belong to war literature, if that were a genre, and not a thematic description. It is a species born out of a happy union between an impulse to record history and an urge to tell personal stories, but also out of a discord between finding a voice to talk about love stories and feeling muzzled by war reports. The last Englishmen whom Baker follows change in their being last. They had begun with seeing Everest being regarded as the symbol of ambition, as ways of overcoming their personal smallness but they end with another ambition, that of becoming better men. Michael died towards the end of the War, but John lived to see his loyalties being questioned in independent India:
he felt like a man out of his time, a fossil embedded in a catafalque of stone, never to be seen on earth again.
These might be men who went to India because they “couldn’t make it in England” but they also realized that “it was narrow-minded to think that England held the sole measure of success.”