Lilla’s greatest feat is to make us imagine the unimaginable
‘Iwas much surprised,’ wrote Anthony Trollope in 1873, ‘at the fortifications of Sydney Harbour. One would almost wish to be a gunner for the sake of being at one of these forts.’ He was right. Guarding the entrance to the city’s great inland harbour system at North Head and South Head are lookouts and fortifications in the most beautiful of situations.
The coincidence last week of the short walk to South Head, the long journey to Australia, and a book, led me to a curious sideways reflection on the fine old cannon still pointing across the harbour mouth. Which way to face? Who are the next enemy? Sitting near the lighthouse on the grassy promontory, to my left the skyline of Sydney itself, to my right the open Pacific, I studied the long explanatory plaque, and thought of the book I had just been reading.
The flight over from England had offered precious hours for a new paperback of something I’d been meaning for ages to read. Those hours slipped by unnoticed as I turned the pages. Frances Osborne’s Lilla’s Feast is a family history that reads like a novel — except it tells of a life so exotic, so packed with triumph, tragedy and adventure, that as fiction it might be thought fanciful. But it is the true story of Osborne’s great-grandmother. Beautifully narrated, it uses as a central thread the book of recipes and household hints that Lilla was working on through her darkest days (her three years in a Japanese concentration camp in China, for instance). Osborne has the gift of both explanation and evocation; and a story hardly taught here at home — that strange and disgraceful chapter of British imperial history, our 19thand 20thcentury exploitation of China — springs not just to life but to understanding.
Lilla spends much of her life in what was then called Chefoo, one of the northerly ‘Treaty Ports’ on the Chinese coast where, under duress, Peking had been forced to concede rights of settlement and trade to the West so that they became almost enclaves. From there, towards the end of the 19th century, we look out with the infant Lilla (who was born there in 1882) towards the Yellow Sea and the Pacific. Though she was to care little for international politics, they would shape her life. The Germans always friends in Chefoo where European traders were all allies — killed her first husband when they sank the ship on which he was sailing east from England in 1915.
In Chefoo the threat had at first come from Peking, shamed and angered by the entrenchment on her soil of opium-trading European nations. But as the century turned, the mysterious insurrectionists of the Boxer Rebellion became the threat. The Chinese Nationalist government which followed could at least be dealt with; but when, in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, Europeans in Chefoo were not bothered. Osborne includes a picture of Lilla’s family being genially entertained by Japanese businessmen in the late 1930s.
When Japan attacked again in 1937, European fears were not of Tokyo, but of Chinese looting as order broke down. There is a chilling photograph of the coat of arms of an ad hoc police force formed by expatriates in Tsingtao to protect them from the Chinese: a suited arm holds a baton across a shield composed of the Union Jack, the Nazi swastika, the American stars-and-stripes and the tricolour of White Russia. The arrival of the Japanese army was greeted with jubilation. Those who place their trust in the immutability of international alliances should study this image and shudder. By 1942, Lilla and her merchant trader husband Ernest were Japanese prisoners of war.
Lilla died (in 1982), just before the communism that hardly impinged on her pre1939 faded as a threat, and before a mystery enemy in the form of al-Qa’eda emerged. Al-Qa’eda might have reminded her of the shadowy, lethal and ultimately ephemeral Boxer Rebellion.
Scampering so fast through a century of alliances and wars may suggest a world where confusion reigned as to friend and foe. It will not necessarily have seemed so to Lilla. The decades passed slowly. The shape of the world will often have felt quite permanent. Chefoo seemed to go on forever.
Sit by the old gun emplacements at South Head on Sydney Harbour; read the explanatory plaque; and you will gain a similar sense of how deceptively flimsy are our forevers.
Australia’s world view was umbilically linked to Britain’s and it was fear of invasion by the French during the Napoleonic wars that began these fortifications in 1801. But in 1839 Sydney was shocked by the unannounced arrival of American warships: the growing muscle of the United States was the new nightmare. Defences against the Americans were built. In the Crimean war the French were allies and it was now towards the Russian fleet that the cannons were pointed.
Half a century later, defending Britain’s imperial interests against European rivals was still dominating Sydney’s thoughts. Then in 1941 Japan entered the war. New gun emplacements were set up along the coast. But the threat passed; and as memories faded Japan has been forgotten as an enemy. For the first half of my life (and the last part of Lilla’s) it has seemed that communism was the threat. Some of the tunnels dug as part of the Sydney Harbour fortifications were used to train Australia’s troops for Vietnam.
And slowly the view from Sydney Harbour has diverged from our view from Beachy Head. The automatic identification of Australia’s defence interests with those of the Old Country has gone. The new country asks itself whence, as a resource-rich and thinly populated continent in a burgeoning and overpopulated hemisphere, the next threat will come; and receives, I suppose, no very clear answer — except that from Europe neither the threat nor protection from the threat is likely to come. Were I in Australian politics, I should be attracted by the case for an independent nuclear weapon; otherwise Australia must throw in its lot fullheartedly with the United States. Canberra’s support for Washington over Iraq is easier to defend in terms of realpolitik than Britain’s.
And the view from England’s Beachy Head? Near the end of Lilla’s story, victorious American forces advance as she waits in the Japanese concentration camp among hundreds of Allied prisoners of many nationalities on starvation rations. A massive shipment of food parcels from the American Red Cross arrives. Jubilation is cut short as a contingent from the American prisoners demands of the bemused Japanese camp commandant that these parcels should only be given to US nationals. There was more than enough for everyone. The unexpected and brutal assertion of national muscle surprises and jars.
America, the next threat? I just wonder. ‘Unimaginable,’ you say. Yes, but many of the subterranean shifts in international relations which shook Lilla’s long life will not at first have seemed imaginable. Nor were imperial strategists ever once right about which country Australia was to be fortified against. Learning from them, and from Lilla, we should at least permit ourselves to wonder.