MONUMENT

The tumult and shouting dies;
The captains and the kings depart.
Far-called, our navies melt away;
On dunes and headlands sinks the fire.
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday, is one with Nineveh and Tyre…

– Rudyard Kipling, Recessional.

And so I came, at last, to my final destination in India: the Victoria Memorial in Kolkata. I had wandered through the stone garden of the Park Street Cemetery, sat quietly in the grand neo-Gothic St. Paul’s Cathedral and walked along busy, crowded Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Road to the gardens of the Maidan.

The British loved to build. To them, as it was with most great empires, it was their buildings that spoke of their power, their cleverness, their capabilities. In the Victoria Memorial, the technology and vision that they had perfected over the previous century or so came together in what is, to me, one of the greatest buildings in the world.

Completed in 1926, the Victoria Memorial was commissioned by Baron Curzon, the Viceroy of India, as a monument to Queen Victoria, who had died in 1901. It was designed by the British architect William Emerson, who also designed the lovely blue-domed buildings at the University of Allahabad that I had loved so much ( see my earlier post The Blue Dome ), and its foundation stone was laid by the Prince of Wales, later King George V, on January 4th, 1906. A public subscription was opened to pay for the building’s construction and the entire project was financed by donations. 

It was designed to be not only a fitting monument to Queen Victoria but also a museum: a place where future generations could come and experience the history and power of the British Raj. To this end, its anti-chambers and rooms were filled with paintings depicting the great moments of Indian history; with weapons used in the great wars fought by its rulers; and with sculptures of the great men who forged the Empire. As Curzon had put it:

Let us, therefore, have a building, stately, spacious, monumental and grand, to which every newcomer in Calcutta will turn, to which all the resident population, European and Native, will flock, where all classes will learn the lessons of history, and see revived before their eyes the marvels of the past.

But nothing lasts forever. By the time the monument was completed, the Raj’s seat of power had been transferred to Delhi. For all its grand colonial buildings, Calcutta had become a provincial capital. And the world was changing. The Great War had wrought rifts in the Empire from which it would not recover. The Empire was beginning to fade, just as the Persian poet Omar Khayyam had prophesied in his oft-quoted Rubaiyat:

Think, in this batter’d Caravanserai,
Whose doorways are alternate night and day.
How Sultan after Sultan with is pomp,
Abode his hour or two, and went his way…

These were words that Kipling had echoed in his poem Recessional, written to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. He foresaw, just as Khayyam had, eight hundred years before, that all empires will eventually fall, leaving nothing behind but the buildings that the sultans, the emperors and the kings had built in their own names.

I walked slowly around the perimeter of the building to its grand front entrance. A marble bridge, designed by Emerson’s assistant, Vincent Jerome Esch, spanned a lake of reflective green water. Atop the bridge, a sculpture of Queen Victoria, resplendent in the ceremonial robes of the Star of India. I took out my phone and recorded a Snapchat of what I was seeing.

And here she is, Queen Victoria, Empress of India, sculpted in bronze towards the end of her life when she was fat, half mad and clinging to life. And you’ve gotta hand it to the Brits. When they built, they built big. They liked to build these massive edifices that said “look at us, look how fucking good we are.” Of course the Germans also tried that during the nineteen thirties with those square, box-like, blocky buildings of Nuremberg and Berlin. But they just ended up looking stupid, overdone and megalomaniacal. The Victorians combined Mughal architecture with their high-tech construction methods and sense of scale and proportion in order to create buildings like this which still look beautiful a hundred years later. 

Nearby, bas-relief panels of burnished brass told the tales of India; of Sepoys and servants, Nawabs and Kings. A sweep of vast marble steps cascaded from the memorial’s entrance like a pure white waterfall. I climbed to the door and words failed me. To my Snapchat audience I said:

You walk inside this memorial to Queen Victoria and it just leaves you speechless. So I’m not even going to try to describe it. I’m just going to show you…

Later, outside in the garden, I stood beside a fountain, that quintessentially Moghul ornament, and looked back at the Victoria Memorial, framed by arcing, crystal jets of water. Bright red flowers grew in colourful profusion around the fountain’s perimeter. Crows balanced on the green-painted railings. Women in bright saris promenaded along the nearby paths beneath groves of peepal and guava trees. 

I tried to think of some glib closing line to say: something pithy and intellectual to close off my broadcasts from India. But I had nothing. The monument had left me speechless. I took out my phone and launched Snapchat for the final time in India and said:

Well…I don’t think that I can top that, so I’m not going to try.
Goodnight everybody.

THE END

JAHANGIR’S GARDEN

…the tomb of Nithar, lies reflected in the shimmering pool. 

In Allahabad I find a secret garden. I have been walking for hours: exploring the parks of the city’s centre, the exquisite domed buildings of the University, the sad, barricaded, derelict cathedral. I have fallen asleep on a concrete bench beneath a shady tree in Prince Alfred Park, and followed back streets through leafy suburbs. Now, I stand before a high wall of betel-splattered stucco. Inside, under the high blue dome of the sky, lies Jahangir’s garden.  

Beyond the vaulted gateway, where vendors sell chai, puris and cold drinks, and a barber plies his blades on a worn wooden chair, a geometric pattern of flagstone pathways, lined with graceful palm trees leads towards a walled inner garden. Sprinklers shimmer in the midday sunlight. Families picnic on colourful blankets laid out in shady spots. Young men pose theatrically for photographs.

Inside the walls, three sandstone tombs, each of differing design, stand in a line flanked by gardens and flagstone paths. Begun in 1606, the tomb complex, known as the Khusrau Bagh, was designed by Aqa Reza, the court artist to the Mughal Emperor Jahangir. The first tomb to be constructed was that of Shah Begum, Jahangir’s wife, who had died by suicide in 1604. Distressed by the enmity between her husband and their son, Khusrau (who had tried to usurp his father’s throne), Shah Begum had swallowed an overdose of opium. Her three-tiered tomb, surmounted by a rectangular divan, draws its inspiration from Fatehpur Sikri, the Mughal’s capital city in Northern India built by the first Great Mughal Emperor, Akbar.

I follow a path along the outer wall of the garden. There are rows of pale roses planted along the edges.  Beyond the wall, in a grove of fig trees, goats graze on fallen leaves. Crows gurgle in the undergrowth. A couple of older men, the complex’s groundsmen perhaps, sit on a bench in the shade while a hose spills water onto a patch of lawn in front of them. The second tomb, the tomb of Nithar, Jahangir’s daughter, lies reflected in the shimmering pool. 

The tomb stands on an elevated platform recessed with alcoves decorated with fretted stonework. Its central dome is flanked by four delicate cupolas. Some of the alcoves are closed with heavy doors of dark red wood. A group of schoolgirls, clad in white saris with colourful sashes, sit in a semicircle on another patch of grass in front of the tomb of Nithar.

I climb a set of steps set into the plinth of Nithar’s tomb and sit on a sandstone ledge beside a carved wooden door inset with iron studs. Flights of pigeons circled the dome of the third and final tomb, the Tomb of Khusrau himself. Khusrau Mirza was the Emperor’s second son. He rebelled against his father in 1606 in a bid to succeed the Emperor Akbar as the ruler of the Moghul Empire but was defeated in the battle of Bhairowal. He fled to Kabul but he was captured and taken to Agra where he was imprisoned. 

In the Moghul world, succession wasn’t simply a matter of the eldest son inheriting the throne from his father. Rather, siblings competed against each other with intrigue, patronage and outright violence until a winner emerged. It was often the case that the sibling who gained the upper hand would have the rest of his family – brothers, sisters, cousins – put to death in order to guarantee that there was no one left to threaten his position.   

In 1607, Khusrau was blinded as a punishment for rebelling against his father. Then, in 1622, he was killed on the orders of his brother, Prince Khurram, who had succeeded the throne and taken the title of Shah Jahan: possibly the most famous of the Mughal rulers.

I sit on the cool stone of Nithar’s tomb writing my notes and watching the scene below. A group of young people chatter and run. Beside me, the heavy timber door is weathered and cracked. Graffiti has been scratched into its blackened and cracked surface. The iron hasps and bolts are rusted and bent. The slow, inexorable hand of time has worked on the tombs, etching the history of years into every surface. The flights of pigeons circle the tombs and settle, momentarily, on the domes and cupolas before erupting into flight again to circle, wheeling in the high blue sky above Jahangir’s garden.

JOHN COMPANY

On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.

It is sometimes said that Britain obtained its empire in a fit of absentmindedness. It wasn’t so much a desire to conquer and rule that motivated the British. Rather, it was more of a slow acquisition of territories by default: a kind of global game of pickup sticks where the sticks were colonies, countries and resources.  At its zenith, the British Empire extended over 25% of the globe and contained within it a similar percentage of the world’s population. In school atlases, the pale pink wash denoting the countries and territories of the Empire was familiar to every pupil for generations. The sun never set on the British Empire and it was always time for a G and T somewhere. And the jewel in the Empire’s crown was India.

The British never set out to conquer India. It was actually a small company, housed in a nondescript building on Leadenhall Street in London, that set in motion the events that would lead to the control of the Empire’s greatest asset. That institution was called The East India Company. 

On the 22nd of February, 1599, a group of merchants and financiers convened in a pub called the Nags Head Inn opposite the church of St. Botolph in Bishopsgate, London. Their aim was to establish a company to trade in spices from the East Indies, a trade dominated at that time by the Dutch and the Portuguese. Armed with a Royal Charter guaranteeing them exclusive access to all the seas and countries east of the Cape of Good Hope and west of the Straits of Magellan, the East India Company, as it came to be known, began trading with the kings and rulers of Asia.

The risks involved were huge. Many ships were lost, along with their crews and cargoes. Piracy, danger, hardship and violence were the only factors that could be relied upon. But the profits were enormous. As its trading links with the rest of the world expanded, the company began gradually to establish footholds on the continents and territories it traded with. In India, the company’s first trading post, or factory as such outposts came to be called, was established at Surat on an inlet of the Arabian Sea on the western coast of the subcontinent in 1612. Bombay (now Mumbai) was added in 1668 and further factories were established around the entire coastline of India. 

The company’s greatest factory was established on the Hooghly River, an exit tributary of the Ganges, in 1698. There were three villages in the area – Kalikata, Gobindapur and Sutanuti – and the town that grew up around them took its name from one of them: Kolkata. Initially, the company built a fort they named Fort William on the eastern bank of the Hooglhy at Kolkata.

There were frequent skirmishes with the French in the region and the fort and factories were sacked by the Nawab of Bengal, resulting in the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta incident, in 1756. But the town of Kolkata (or Calcutta as the British called it) survived and grew to become the seat of power for the company.     

At the Victoria Monument, a vast domed marble edifice surrounded by fountains and gardens in the centre of Kolkata, I came face to face with the East India Company in the form of a statue. The subject stood resolute on its marble plinth. His eyes, set in a strong face with a rigid jaw and a slight scowl, stared rigidly out into the distance. In his left hand, he held a half-rolled scroll of documents; his right hand rested lightly on his sword. On the square plinth beneath his booted feet was carved one word: CLIVE.

Robert Clive (1725-1774), First Baron Clive, KB, FRS was the man who took the East India Company from a predominantly commercial trading company to a full-fledged military power with suzerainty over the entire Indian subcontinent. Prior to the Battle of Plassey in 1757, in which the company’s forces under the command of Clive defeated the Nawab of Bengal, the East India Company (or John Company, as it was informally known) had concentrated on trade. For one hundred and fifty years the company had been content with buying goods – predominantly spices and cotton – for shipment back to England. But Clive changed all that.

By the time of the Battle of Plassey, the EIC already had a substantial army, composed mainly of Indian troops known as Sepoys. The troops were used to enforce the company’s often unpopular regulations, to protect its interests and assets and to generally ensure that what the company wanted, the company got. After Plassey, the company essentially became the rulers of India.

For the next ninety years the East India Company treated India like a cash cow, milking it of resources and establishing the highly dubious trade in opium which gave rise to the mid-century conflicts with China known as the Opium Wars. But all was not well in John Company. Since its zenith in the 18th century, the company’s  profits had steadily declined. Its increasingly patrician (and, in many cases, oppressive) rule of the subcontinent had grown more and more unpopular among Indians.     

In the aftermath of the Indian Mutiny of 1857, in which the sepoys rose up against their oppressors, the British Government took over control of the company. By then, the East India Company was in decline. Its assets were nationalised by the British Government. Its army, possessions and all of the machinery for administering and controlling India were ceded to the Crown. 

John Company was finally dissolved on June 1st 1877. In an editorial, The Times commented that:

It accomplished a work such as in the whole history of the human race no other trading Company ever attempted, and such as none, surely, is likely to attempt in the years to come.

In my travels across India I encountered the legacy of John Company, and its successor, the British Raj everywhere I went. In the buildings, the railways, the bureaucracy; in the vast self-indulgent monuments, in the cemeteries, in the layout of towns and in the place names.    

In the 1980s, a group of Indian entrepreneurs bought the rights to the name East India Company and established a clothing brand under that name. The company traded until the early 1990s when it too folded. In 2010, the moribund corporate name was once again acquired as the trading name for a clothing brand. Today, a British company trades under the name The East India Company, London. It sells tea, coffee, chocolates, nuts and spices. John Company still lives. It didn’t set out to create an empire. But it did.

CAPTAIN BLAKISTON’S WAR.

There is a simplicity and decency in a military burial, even in its plainest form…

I am not the first Blakiston in India. My ancestor, Major John Blakiston, served as an officer in both the British Army and with the East India Company from 1802 until 1814. His book Twelve Years Military Adventures in Three Quarters of the Globe gives a fascinating insight of life on the sub-continent as a soldier. Blakiston served under Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington, during the Second Anglo-Maratha War and the book is dedicated to the Duke with the following words:

My Lord Duke. There is no one to whom I can, with so much propriety, dedicate these memoirs, as your grace; first, as being the most distinguished ornament of the profession to which I belong; and next, because I began and ended my Military career under your grace. 

Blakiston had graduated from the Royal Military Academy in Woolwich, London, in 1802. According to his entry in Hart’s Military List (an annual publication that recorded army personnel and their service records) he “proceeded to India as a cadet of the East India Company’s service being then on half-pay as a lieutenant in HM Services.

“ In 1803 he served in the campaign against the Mahrattas [sic] and was engaged in the battles of Assaya [sic] and Argaum, and at the sieges and assaults of Ahmednuggur and Gawilghur. At the suppression of the mutiny at Vellore in 1805 he directed the guns by which the gate was blown open.”  

After his service in India, Blakiston spent almost a decade serving in military campaigns across the British Empire. When he left the army, he wrote several books, became a magistrate and, finally, a politician. He died on June 4th, 1867, aged 82 years (Blakistons are notoriously long-livers!) and is buried in the churchyard of St. Wilfred’s, Mobberly, Cheshire. His headstone bears the inscription:

IN MEMORY OF MAJOR JOHN BLAKISTON OF MOBBERLY
WHO DIED JUNE FORTH 1867 AGED 82 YEARS
IN YOUTH HE WAS A DISTINGUISHED SOLDIER
IN MIDDLE AGE AN ACTIVE POLITICIAN
THE PASSED THE EVENINGS OF THEIR DAYS IN RETIREMENT IN THIS PARISH
LOVED AND RESPECTED BY THEIR FAMILY AND NEIGHBOURS.

Walking among the tombs of the Park Street Cemetery I was struck by the tenderness of the inscriptions some of the tombs bore. Many of the graves were those of soldiers, mariners and men of business who had succumbed to disease, were lost at sea or who fell in battle.  As was often the case, a subscription had to be raised among the victim’s peers to pay for his burial and the tomb in which he would rest for eternity.

Many of these men died far from home and from their loved ones. So it was natural that their comrades became their family. In his book, Blakiston describes a scene where a comrade is borne to his last resting-place after succumbing to a disease of some kind.

“Among the victims who fell, a sacrifice to the hardships of this period, was Lieutenant Rowley of the Engineers, a young man of the most admirable qualities and of first-rate talents. He was about six years my elder, and had considerable experience in his profession.

“Poor fellow! He expired in my arms. To one so young as myself, and unaccustomed to such scenes, this could not but be a most painful circumstance; but independently of this, I have always viewed a soldier’s death, on any other than the bed of honour, as a most melancholy event. I could contemplate the havoc of battle with composure, for the field is a soldier’s natural death-bed: but to see that manly frame, the energies of which have been gladly executed in its country’s cause, wasting away by degrees; to see the soldier yielding by inches, and with painful reluctance, that life which he would have willingly surrender in the field of battle; to see death, which he had openly defied perhaps in many a bloody field, stealing upon him unawares, has always been to me a painful sight.

“ I followed my poor friend to the grave as chief mourner. There is a simplicity and decency in a military burial, even in its plainest form… The deceased soldier is borne to his last resting-place on the shoulders of his comrades; the flag, under which he has fought and died, is the pall which covers his remains; the sword and other emblems…speak more than the most eloquent funeral oration…and the last volley seems to announce the entrance of the immortal part into the portals of eternity.”

Shafts on sunlight fall through the screen of palms and peepal trees growing in lush profusion among the tombs. The roar of the city is muted to a low hum. I can hear the ever-present gurgle of crows – the spirit-keepers of India – and the chatter of the women who keep the paths swept. An artisan stone-mason’s hammer keeps up a gentle, staccato tapping somewhere deep among the tombs. As a last resting-place, this garden of stone is perfect.

Journey to the Centre of India

From the fretted edges of the sub-continent to the highest hills…

The British are great measurers. They have a sense of order. You can see it best in their maps. The Ordnance Survey maps are a perfect representation in two dimensions of every detail of the three dimensional world. Perhaps it’s their Roman heritage. The Romans, too, loved order, measurement and straight lines. It gave their empire a fixed sense of civilisation: of known boundaries. Once you have named a place, and fixed it on a map, its there for good. Incontrovertible. Unassailable.

The British in India were great measurers. The boundaries of their biggest possession, the jewel in the crown of their Queen’s empire, were constantly being mapped and measured and refined, then re-measured, re-mapped and re-defined with ever-increasing accuracy. And to do this effectively they needed a starting point: a set  location from which all subsequent measurements and distances could be calculated. So they measured and surveyed and computed. Through the heat and the dust and the monsoonal floods. From the fretted edges of the sub-continent to the highest hills and the lowest depressions. With theodolites and chains, they measured and calculated and mapped. Until they found the centre of India.

Surveying during the Victorian Era was nothing like it is today. There was no Global Positioning System to find a point on a landscape with a button’s push. There were no computers to crunch the numbers or laser range finders to measure distances. The Victorian surveyors mapped continents using theodolites (a type of small telescope), calibrated ranging rods, steel measuring tapes, Gunter’s Chains (66 feet long) and mathematics. These things are still in use today. A surveyor still has to be able triangulate. But the traditional tools are backed up by sophisticated technologies. 

Yet the Victorians, and their successors, the Edwardians, with endless patience and attention to detail, managed to find the centre of the Indian subcontinent and mark it with a stone. The Great Trigonometrical Survey of India was begun in 1802 under the auspices of the East India Company. Its first leader was a British Army officer, Lieutenant-Colonel William Lampton. He was succeed by his assistant, a civilian surveyor named George Everest who went on to become the Surveyor-General of India and after whom the world’s highest mountain is named.

It took more than a century of careful triangulation to complete the survey of India. In 1907, the Zero Mile Stone was established at Nagpur to mark the centre of the subcontinent. The British erected the sandstone tower next to the small marker stone which has a brass plaque affixed to its top which represents the exact centre point. It is from here that all distances in India are still computed.  

It took the British one hundred and five years to find the centre of the subcontinent. For me, the journey to the centre of India was nothing more than a ten minute walk from my favourite Nagpur cafe: Corridor Seven Coffee Roasters. I simply finished my latte, said “see you later” to my friends at the cafe, and walked out into the February sunlight. Guided by the gentle, comforting voice of my Google Maps girl, I walked along Temple Bazaar, the shady street behind the cafe, turned right onto Nagpur-Chandrapur Road, crossed beneath the Mass Transit Flyover and there I was.

The Centre of India is contained within a small garden beside the Zero Mile Metro Station. A wrought iron fence separates the garden from the maelstrom of cars swirling past on Sri Baba Street.  Four stucco horses rear from the ground beside the flagstone path leading to the tower. I walked into the garden through a small gate hanging ajar on rusty hinges, brushed past an overhanging peepal tree and put my hand on the warm, hexagonal stone of the tower. I imagined the vast lands surrounding me in all directions from this point. The towering Himalayas with their moraine-striped glaciers. The desserts of Rajasthan. The teeming Ganges Plain. The long, tropical coastlines of Kerala. The tea-clad hills of Assam and Himachal Pradesh. The stepped and colourful temples of hot, humid Tamil Nadu.

I sat for a while in the shade of the peepal tree and thought about my next move. From here I could go in any direction I chose. All of India lay before me. Anything was possible; any destination was reachable from here where I sat in the Centre of India. I could even, if I wanted to, go back to Corridor Seven and have another coffee.

The Indigo Revolt

I wish I had invented blue jeans…
Yves Saint Laurent

It was an uprising in blue. The Nil vidroha, or Indigo Revolt, was a peasant movement started by indigo farmers in Bengal in 1859. Tired of being exploited by landowners and money-lenders, the farmers went on a rampage, taking their cue from the recent Indian Mutiny. Atrocities were committed. Property was destroyed. The usual cycle. The Government sent in troops. 

Indigo is a colour that has always signified wealth. Because of its relative scarcity, the dyes made from indigo were used only for high quality textiles such as the tagelmust headscarves worn by the Tuareg of the Sahara and the garments worn by Japanese nobility during the Edo Period (1600-1868). Isaac Newton described indigo as one of the primary colours in Lectiones Opticae, his 1765 description of the rainbow. 

The indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, had been exported from India in small quantities along the Silk Route since antiquity. Pliny the Elder mentioned India as the source of indigo. Its name derives from the Greek word indikon, which moved to the Latin INDICUM and thence to Italian and English.

The planting of Indigofera tinctoria in the modern era began in the Indian state of Bengal in 1777 when a French farmer named Louis Bonnard began cultivating the plant at Taldanga and Goalpara, near present-day Kolkata. The demand for indigo in Europe, driven in part by its use in a new type of heavy-duty serge cloth being manufactured in the French town of Nimes, made it a highly profitable crop. 

A Bengal Indigo Factory circa 1800.

European planters (wealthy farmers who rented land from the land-owning Indian Zamindars) persuaded their small tenant farmers to plant indigo instead of food crops. They provided loans to the farmers for seed and equipment but charged such high interest rates that the farmers could never repay the loans. When the crops were harvested, the planters and their Indian dealers paid the farmers meagre prices: only 2.5% of the indigo’s true market value. When the farmers were unable to repay their loans the planters resorted to the destruction of the farmers’ houses and property. 

Abandoned Indigo Kuthi (warehouse), Bengal.

An Act of Government, passed in 1833 by the corrupt and easily-bought East India Company (who governed India until 1858) strengthened the position of the planters and the Zamindars. The Bengali middle-class, however, supported the peasant farmers in their plight. The play Nil Darpan, by the Indian playwright Dinabandhu Mitra was instrumental in garnering support for the farmers. The play was banned by the East India Company but has subsequently been seen as being an essential part in the development of theatre in Bengal.

The Indigo Revolt began in the towns of Gobindapur and Chowgacha (now in modern-day Bangladesh) and spread rapidly across Bengal. A number of planters were tried and executed by hastily-convened kangaroo courts. Indigo depots were burned down. The planters and their families fled. Many Zamindars were murdered.

After the initial surprise offensive by the farmers, the government collected itself and the revolt was ruthlessly suppressed. Large forces of government (ie East India Company) police and soldiers were dispatched to Bengal. The revolt’s leader, Biswanath Sardar (described by later historians as a “heroic, Robin Hood-like figure) was tried and hanged by the British. 

Despite atrocities committed by both sides, the revolt remained popular with the Bengali middle-class. Even some of the Zamindars supported the peasant farmers’ cause. When the violence died down, the Government set up The Indigo Commission in 1860. Its aim was to put an end to the planters’ oppression of the small farmers. Its report noted that, prior to the end of the revolt, “not a chest of indigo reached England without being stained with human blood.”

Nothing remains today of the Indian indigo industry. Indigo dye is produced synthetically and the old indigo warehouses of Bengal are all gone. But one thing remains. Those blue jeans you are wearing. They are made using a heavy cotton cloth woven from thread dyed with indigo. That cloth originated in the french town of Nimes. It’s called serge de Nimes. We call it denim.

Moonlight Encounter

The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle…

I was jumped on by a possum at Curio Bay. Now that’s not a sentence you’ll read very often. It was just after ten o’clock at night and I was standing on a headland overlooking the bay, with surf booming on the reefs below and a big, silver full moon lying on the horizon. The evening was, as yet, still warm, but the shimmering of the stars pointed to a hard frost to come, as the latent heat remaining from the day radiated out into space through the clear, empty air.

I’d left Slope Point as the sun sank below the western skyline and had driven east through a pink gloaming. It was as if the Earth was lit from within by some understated IMG_4974source of translucent light. Every rock and hillside seemed to glow. The inlets and coves, slotted into the coastline like notches on a sailor’s knife handle, lay gleaming under the pastel curtain of the sky. The trees, flaxes and reeds growing along the roadsides and dotting the hills, stood motionless in the twilight. It was as if I was driving through a different world, or another world altogether, suspended halfway between day and night.

Evening lasts a long time in these high southern latitudes so it was still light when I reached Curio Bay. The visitor center at the Curio Bay Camping Ground was still open so I went in to ask about the cost of a campsite for the night. With only ApplePay on my cellphone (I don’t have a bank account, let alone a bankcard) I was restricted by my merge supply of cash as to where I could stay and dine. Travelling around Southland I had found that the concept of contact-less payment was yet to gain widespread favour and I’d been forced to part with valuable cash on several occasions that would have merely been a matter of tap and go in a more technologically advanced part of the country.

I had forty-two dollars in notes and a handful of change left to my name so the campsite needed to be cheap if I was going to eat dinner as well.

“Mate for forty-two bucks you can get a campsite and a great dinner here in the restaurant,” Tom Robinson, the camp’s manager and tour guide told me when I explained the parlous state of my finances.

“And,” he continued, “you’ll have enough left over for breakfast in the morning too.”

With my truck parked on a grassy isthmus between the flax groves of the main campsite and the pyramidal bulk of Grayling Head, I’d walked up to the restaurant in the dark and eaten an expansive dinner of lasagna, chips and salad. Afterwards, feeling somewhat bloated, I had walked up to the top of the headland to shake things down and find some cellphone coverage. And it was here, while updating my social media that I encountered Percy Possum.

The possum, bless him, must have been shuffling around up there for the same reason as me: just chilin’ in the moonlight and taking in the view. Possums are the marsupial equivalent of stoner humans. They just do their own thing, man, y’know, clambering around in the trees eating billions of tonnes of foliage, staring down on-coming headlights, getting it on with the ladies, and pretty much just living the possum version Sc1M26vpQv6ph1MfV8j60Qof The Good Life.

And, of course, they just love weed. Anyone who has grown the green gold out in the bush will know that if the crop isn’t protected by wire netting, possums will eat the fuckin’ lot. They’re the Cheech and Chong of the animal kingdom. And even though they are filthy, disease-ridden little vermin cunts, responsible for spreading bovine tuberculosis, scoffing the eggs of native birds, and the annihilation of thousands of hectares of native forest every year, its hard not to like them, with their cute button noses, big goggly eyes and shambling gait.

I had sometimes heard people say that if a possum gets panicked it will run up the tallest thing in its vicinity. If the tallest thing happens to be a nearby human, well, up it will go, scratching the fuck out of you with is claws in the process. But I had never encountered a panicked possum.

Mostly, you encounter them at one remove, as they go under the wheels of your vehicle with a wet thud, knocking the alignment out of kilter as they do so. The roads of New Zealand are decorated with the gory remains of dead possums, in various stages of decomposition ranging from sad piles of fresh fur amid a reddish splatter of blood and entrails, to vague, black, desiccated outlines, melted into oblivion by the sun and mashed wafer-thin into the tarmac by dozens of passing cars.

However, as I wasn’t currently doing anything to send a possum into a state of panic, or, indeed, even expecting to encounter a marsupial of any kind on that high, moonlit promontory, the sight of a possum sitting on the ground beside me came as something of a surprise. Obviously, it came as something of a surprise to the possum as well because it promptly leapt onto my chest, its vicious little claws grasping the material of my puffer jacket for purchase.

At close range, a possum’s features quickly lose their cuteness. The creature’s little button nose housed the sort of wicked-looking teeth you would see on a church gargoyle. Its goggly eyes looked positively rabid. For a moment it peered up at me with a sort of dazed recognition, like a mountaineer spotting the route up a particularly difficult section of a crag.

But before it could begin its final ascent of my north face I slapped the little bastard hard across the mush and said “fuck off, Percy.” It fell to the ground with an indistinct thud and shuffled off down the seaward slope of the headland. For my part I just stood there blinking, like a possum in the headlights, I suppose, wonder what the hell had just happened.

It hadn’t been scary, just somewhat incongruous and as I walked back down the track to my truck I thought: “well that’ll make a great opening line for a chapter.”

extracted from The Greenstone Water

 

The Legend of Mackenzie.

But one thing is certain though: he was a tough bastard. You had to be to survive out in the hills.

On Sunday March 4, 1855, James Mackenzie made camp below the summit of a mountain pass.  Nearby, on a small flat where two streams met, a flock of 1000 sheep grazed, guarded by Mackenzie’s faithful sheepdog, Friday.  Mackenzie had stolen the sheep from a farm called The Levels, near Timaru, and had driven them over the remote pass that he had discovered three years before.  But as he ate his meagre supper of cold gruel, Mackenzie was unaware he was being watched.mac1

On the hillside above, John Sidebottom, manager of The Levels, and his two Maori shepherds Taiko and Seventeen, scrutinized the camp below.  They had pursued Mackenzie for two days through rugged, trackless hills, up the twisting bed of a stream, over the pass and, finally, down to the spot where they now hid.

Leaving the cover of the tussock, the three men crept up on Mackenzie.  The sheep-stealer had trained his dog not to bark so she gave no warning of the men’s approach.  After a struggle, they overpowered him and tied his hands. Mackenzie fought wildly at his bonds, so Sidebottom took away his boots and threatened to “apply a bark poultice to his head” if he did not settle down.  

Despite being barefoot, Mackenzie escaped from his captors during the night.  He turned up in Lyttelton six days later, intending to take a ship to Australia.  However no vessel was ready to leave and as he waited for one to depart he was arrested again on March 16.  

Convicted of sheep-stealing, Mackenzie was sentenced to five year’s gaol.  In the first year of his sentence Mackenzie escaped five times. On each occasion he was re-captured.  Eventually the authorities decided the easiest option was to set him free on the condition that he quit the country.  Mackenzie left New Zealand in 1856, bound for Australia, perhaps thinking his talents as a rustler would be more appreciated there.

James Mackenzie is one of New Zealand’s few folk-heroes: our own version of Ned Kellymac4 or Dick Turpin.  Little is known about him and even the spelling of his name (McKenzie or Mackenzie; James, John or Jock)  is open to conjecture. How many sheep he actually stole and how he managed to drive them so far with only one dog depends on which version of the legend you believe.  But one thing is certain though: he was a tough bastard. You had to be to survive out in the hills.

Fast forward one hundred and thirty years to nineteen eighty-five.   A young shepherd watches the last of a mob of one thousand merino ewes cross the Mackenzie Stream and climb the farther bank to a gate set into a ten wire fence.  The hills of the Mackenzie Pass are now part of Grampians Station; the shepherd is one of six single men employed to tend the station’s thirty thousand sheep. Six sheep dogs follow at his heels as he jumps the creek and follows the mob up to the gate.

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February 1983. 

The long-legged ewes, freshly blade-shorn, mill around a monument to James Mackenzie, which sits on the flat where his stolen flock grazed the evening he was captured.  Guided by whistled commands from the shepherd, the dogs keep the mob together while he opens the gate then leans on the monument as the sheep make their way through and climb in long lines out onto the hills beyond.

…I remember the day I crossed that mob of a thousand and put them out onto the Monument Block.    

Fast forward another thirty-three years.  West of Timaru, I turn off State Highway 8 at Albury onto Mackenzie Pass Road.  My SUV moves about on the loose gravel as the road undulates through rolling farmland towards the distant  brown hills. Fat sheep lounge in paddocks of rippling grass. Yellow smudges of gorse and broom stain the hillsides.

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The Mackenzie Pass.

As I draw closer to the looming Dalgety Range, the hillsides become steeper.  Spiky matagouri and fragrant, needle-sharp spaniards grow thickly on the slopes.  The sides of the valley draw in leaving just enough room for the road and a glittering creek.  The road crosses several narrow bridges and steps across a constantly shifting shingle scree.

The Mackenzie Pass occupies a narrow notch in the ranges.  A buffeting wind snatches at the snow tussocks growing beside the road.  The distant snow-capped Southern Alps lie blue/black in their veil of haze.  The road, a powder white scratch in a beige landscape, winds out from the hills and seems to lose itself in the vastness of the Mackenzie Basin.  

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The Monument.

The Mackenzie Monument stands on a corner where the road curves to cross the Mackenzie Stream.  The three-sided obelisk has an inscription in English, Maori and Gaelic which reads: “In this spot James Mackenzie, the freebooter, was captured by John Sidebottom and the Maoris Taiko and Seventeen and escaped from them the same night.”   

I sit on the ridge overlooking the monument.  It’s early afternoon. The wind shuffles a high overcast across the sky.  The creek chatters in its bed of stones. Looking down, I remember the day I crossed that mob of a thousand and put them out onto the Monument Block.  I remember the dogs I had with me that day – Mick, Bess, Jill, Torn, Dale and Tex – and how good it felt to be young and fit and alone in a mountain world.  I was a shepherd; nothing else mattered.

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Old Sheep Yards, Grampians Station.

The Mackenzie Pass today is a quiet, virtually forgotten part of the South Island.  A battalion of power pylons marches over the hills. The road hardly ever sees a car.  On easterly days, mist spills over the top of the Dalgety Range and cold winds whistle down the valley.  Rows of dark green pines shiver in the breeze: austere inhabitants of an austere landscape. Overhead, clouds polarize white against the cobalt blue sky.  

The discovery of  Burke’s Pass – an easier route into the Mackenzie Country – in 1858 left the Mackenzie Pass an almost unknown detour.  Mackenzie would have liked it that way. If his ghost walked through the pass today he would probably recognize all the landmarks he knew 150 years ago.

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The Mackenzie Country.

But memories are the only real ghosts.  And memories, like history itself, are open to re-interpretation, embellishment and exaggeration.  The truth should never get in the way of a good yarn. It is the hills, the glittering creeks, the golden snow tussocks rippling on the muscular hillsides that are the real things.  All the rest is just part of the Legend of James Mackenzie.

Sgt. Dan the Creamota Man

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. 

When I was a kid, back in the seventies, our wintertime breakfast of choice was Creamota, a sort of sweet, creamy, rolled oat porridge made at the Flemings mill in Gore. The Creamoata mascot was Sergeant Dan, a plucky amalgam of a boy scout and an ANZAC soldier. There was the Stirring Times Creamota Recipe Book, in which Sergeant Dan showed you how to cook all manner of yummy things using, of course, Creamoata as a base ingredient. You could get Sergeant Dan recipe cards, so mum could make such things as Sergeant Dan’s Sweetheart of Wheat Custard, and join a club called Sergeant Dan’s Creamota Corps. It was a simpler time back then, a time when you actually cooked your porridge on the stove, in an aluminium pot guaranteed to give you Alzheimer’s in later years. There was none of your thirty-seconds-in-the-microwave nonsense.

The old Flemings Mill, Gore.

The Flemings Mill still dominates the skyline of Gore. I could see it as I drove into town on State Highway One, past the giant statue of a leaping trout and the billboard advertising the Gold Guitar Awards. The wide main street had angle parking and the kind of deeply-verandahed shops typical of colonial towns, where the sun and the rain beats down and perambulating shoppers need shelter from the elements.

I parked in front of a solid, two-storey Victorian edifice with the legend H&J Smiths Progressive Stores emblazoned in plaster above its pedimented windows, and set off to find some lunch. Along the street there was the usual assortment of corporate frontages and local retailers, as well as a few empty shop, like missing teeth in a worn smile. Changes in retail patterns wrought by the likes of malls and online shopping have been hard on rural towns all over the South Island. But still, Gore’s main street had a cheerful, if somewhat tattered confidence, and in the bright, cold southern light it felt friendly and prosperous.  

And then I thought, “Well fuck this”…

I took a window table in Café Ambience and sat doodling over my notes as I watched the people passing by outside. The café was warm and crowded. The windows were a little steamed up, which added to the feeling of coziness, like a farmhouse on a winter’s day. My quiche and salad were superb and, in typical farming fashion, was a big enough meal to sustain a shearer through to afternoon smoko. The café had wifi, of course, so I checked out what was happening on Facebook and did a Google search for information about Sergeant Dan.

Back out on the Gore-Mataura Highway, the town’s unimaginatively-named main street, I walked up to the Railway Station, a solid two-storey Edwardian building of brick and limestone. A white-painted statue of a Romney ram stood on a plinth beside the station. The statue pays homage to the role played by the Romney sheep breed in the economy of Southland.

Originally bred in the Romney Marsh region of Kent, in South-east England, the first recorded shipment of Romneys to New Zealand was in 1853, when nineteen ewes and a ram were sent aboard the SS Cornwall to a stud in Wellington. A dual meat and wool breed, Romneys were soon recognised as a breed perfectly suited for New Zealand’s relatively cold and wet climate. Southland, with its boggy soils, cold winds and steep hills, was ideal Romney country and the breed became the  Southland

Stubborn, thick-willed and stupid, even by sheep standards, Romney’s are often referred to as “boof-heads” because of their woolley faces and obdurate attitude. As shepherds, working with the noble Merinoes, we looked down our noses at Romneys, considering them, and all other sheep breeds for that matter, as inferior. As my old boss Peter Kerr used to say, “There are only two kinds of sheep, Merinoes and others.”   

But regardless of whether or not we smug shepherds approved of them, by the nineteen eighties, Romneys made up fifty-five percent on the country’s flock.

Across the railway tracks from the Romney statue stood the imposing bulk of the Flemings Mill, a mural of Sergeant Dan adorning the front wall. With his wide-brimmed slouch hat, shouldered rifle and shining boots, Sergeant Dan stood to attention, peering out over the town. Originally created in 1915 by Charlotte Lawlor, who worked for the advertising agency that handled the Flemings account, it seemed to me now, with the cynicism of age, that Sergeant Dan’s protruding belly, large buttocks and rouged cheeks were a little at odds with the rugged, tractor-driving, can-do, soldierly farm boy persona we attributed to him as kids.

Sgt. Dan.

The past is, of course, another country. They do things differently there. As it happens, the Flemings mill, Creamota, and Sergeant Dan are all things from that foreign country known as the past. Flemings was taken over by the Australian food giant Goodman Fielder in 2006. Creamoata, along with several other Flemings products familiar to all Kiwis, Thistle Rolled Oats, and Sweet Heart-o Wheat, were absorbed into the Uncle Toby’s brand and disappeared. The Gore mill itself closed in 2008.

But, I was happy to see, the name of Sergeant Dan lives on in Sgt. Dan Stockfeeds. It was emblazoned on the side of a truck that was loading bulk pig food, or something, from an auger protruding from the front of the building.The mill that once produced the breakfasts of countless Kiwi kids now grinds up Primo Calf Meal, Porki Pig Complete Mash, Velvet Plus Deer Nuts (childish snigger) and something called Goat Pellets. There was some sort of neat symmetry in all of this.

Standing there beside the railway tracks, in the bright, cold Southland sunshine, I felt a brief pang of nostalgia. I thought of those long-ago winter days of hot breakfasts cooked by mum on the stove while she made our school lunches and we listened to 3ZC on the wireless. And then I thought, “Well fuck this”, walked back to my truck and headed west towards the uttermost end of the earth.

Extracted from The Greenstone Water, by fajB.

The Light Horse

With cold steel bayonets gleaming, in sodden seas of blood
They raced towards the stronghold, all in a crimson flood,
Such maddening surge of horses, such tumult and such roar
The Wells of old Beersheba had never seen before …
                                     – Edward Gerard, The Wells of Old Beersheba

One hundred and one years ago, on October 31st, 1917, my great-uncle, A.F. Blakiston, took part in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see. The Battle of Beersheba took place in Southern Palestine (now Israel) and saw the eventual capture of the high ground from which the approaches to Gaza were defended by a seasoned Ottoman (Turkish) garrison.

After a number of previous defeats, the allied commander, General Edmund Allenby, had called in the Australian Light Horse Brigade, ordering them to charge the defences of Beersheba. Armed only with bayonets (their rifles had to be slung over their shoulders while mounted), which they held out like swords in true cavalry style, the Aussies galloped across the open ground between the British lines and the Turks’ positions, jumped over the trenches, leapt from their horses and laid into the stunned Turks with enthusiastic abandon.

lighthorse

The Ottoman forces were routed, the Allied forces (which also comprised Australian and New Zealand foot soldiers) mopped up the remaining pockets of resistance, and then began the long march towards Jerusalem, which they captured six weeks later.  The Charge of the Light Horse went down in history and in Australian folklore. Amongst the young Australian horsemen, most of whom hailed from the vast cattle stations of the Outback, where horsemanship was prized over all things, was a scattering of men from other countries, including, quite by chance, my great-uncle, A. F. Blakiston.

“[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”

Arthur Frederick Blakiston was born in the English county of Derbyshire in 1892.  The son of a Baronet, he was educated at Bedford School and at Emmanuel College, Cambridge.  A fearless horseman, “Blakie” as he was nicknamed, rode furiously to hounds and was a fearsome rugby player.  Following his war exploits, he would go on the play rugby for England from 1920-1925 and tour South Africa with the British Lions, playing in all for of their test matches there.

I first encountered Blackie in early 1990, when my girlfriend Linda and I went to visit his widow, Lady Ann Blakiston, in the village of Corton, near Warminster, on the edge of the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.  We were working as live-in bar staff at a pub in Central London at the time, a couple of Kiwi kids out exploring the world. I knew of Lady Ann’s existence both through the well-researched Blakiston family tree, and through my cousin John Blakiston, a Colonel in the British Army with whom we had already stayed with on several occasions since arriving in England in March 1989.

Lady Ann’s neat cottage, whose address was simply 8a Corton, was a shrine to the memory of the beloved Blackie. Over tea and lardy cake (a traditional West Country dessert) Ann regaled us with tales of her late husband’s adventures. The old fellow obviously had no liking for those in authority and had often traded a safe comfortableafb life and income for penurious adventures that were their own reward.   

 

 

On the ship home from the British Lions’ rugby tour to South Africa, Blakiston and one of his team-mates were leaning on the rail of the afterdeck, discussing what their prospects would be when they landed back in England.

“How much money do you have?” asked Blakiston’s friend.  Rummaging through his pockets, Blakiston took out his last coin, a silver sixpence bearing the profile of King George V, surrounded by the legend GEORGIVS V DEI GRAS:BRITT:OMN:REX.

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Arthur Frederick Blakiston, England vs France.

“This is it,” he said, looking down at the gleaming coin in his hand.  “How much do you have?” His friend replied that he was penniless. With that, Blakiston hurled his last sixpence overboard.  It curled through the blue air, glinting momentarily in the sun, and disappeared into the ocean.

“Well,” said Blakiston, “we’ll both start from scratch when we get home.”

Having joined the Royal Field Artillery at the outbreak of World War One, Blakiston had been gassed at Ypres, won a Military Cross for gallantry at Verdun, and had been posted to Palestine with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force, now under the command of Allenby, in June 1917.

Bored with endless maneuvers and constant drilling, Blakiston decided to sneak away from his regiment and join the Australian Light Horse Brigade on their attack of Beersheba. By doing so he contravened a standing order that British soldiery did not mix or fraternize with “colonials.” However, Blakiston had no liking for regulations or those in command. To him, the opportunity for a pell-mell gallop across the desert was too good an opportunity to miss.

No record of Blakiston’s impressions of the charge exist. However, it is easy to imagine him in the thick of the fighting, spurring his horse on in the same headlong way he charged down hedges while hunting foxes on the downlands of England. A contemporary account of the the action, written by James McCarroll of the New Zealand Mounted Rifle Brigade, paints the scene: “[A] great sight suddenly sprung up on our left, lines and lines of horsemen moving. The Turks were on the run and the Aus. Div. was after them. We could see the horses jumping the trenches, dust everywhere.”     

LIght Horse charge at Beer Sheba
In everything he did throughout his life, Arthur Frederick Blakiston was the embodiment of the Blakiston family motto, Fac Bene Nec Dubitans: Do Well And Doubt Not. And in the charge of the Australian Light Horse Brigade, Blakiston took his place in the last cavalry charge the world would ever see.