18 JANUARY 1975, Page 19

Twilight of the gods

Jan Morris

The Long Afternoon: British India 1601-1947 William Golant (Hamish Hamilton £4.75)

Not another? I say it who shouldn't, as a contributor to the genre, but there really are too many books about the British Empire: books ponderous and books frivolous, books ornamental and austere, books for the public and books for the particular, thesis books, dogma books, books profitable and books Purposeful, books that know no wrong in the Empire, books that know no right, books one romps through in the Sunday bath, books one labours over in the Monday library, vital books, unnecessary books, derivative books, exploratory books, books by Jamaicans and books by Nigerians, marvellously eccentric books by Welsh actors, dismally orthodox books by red-brick researchers, dud books, dead books, books about the Literary Implications of Imperial Preference, about Leninism and the Groundnut Scheme, about My Sporting Life in Bechtianaland (in facsimile, £15 the set).

Mr Golant's contribution falls somewhere in the middle. It has a misleading title, for though it aPpears to be a discussion of the entire British Presence in India, "1601-1947", it is really about the last fifty years of the Raj — truly the long afternoon of Empire. It is a mish-mash book, in quality as in form. Mr Golant sneers somewhere that the young Winston Churchill "had the self-educated man's unspoiled enthusiasm" for finding clear patterns in history. Mr Golant, who is the very opposite of self-educated, certainly seems incapable of finding clear Patterns His book really is in rather a muddle, and if I were his tutor I would advise him to go back and do it all over again, running an eye first, for technical instruction, through The River War or The World Crisis.

It amuses me, slightly, when critics reviewing books of history by non-academics describe them as the works of "laymen" or "amateurs". ,,IlistorY, fortunately, is neither a closed shop "or a Mystery. We can all pursue it as we will, and the truest professionals in the field are not those who happen to be paid by universities for teaching or studying it, but those who interpret !It, with most clarity, judgement and originality. be most professional historians, for my Money, are those who turn history into art, or at least philosophy: the most amateur are those Who interpret it simply as a list of facts, intermittently relieved by second-hand opinions.

By these standards Mr Golant is a semi-pro'. He is far more than a mere Schoolman, certainly. Out of his vast bibliography, of Published as of unpublished works, he has extracted if not a work of revelation, or even a s .torY-line exactly, at least an original and Interesting collection of chapters. He does not teach us much that is new, but he does not bore u either. He deals with people as with policies. _tie has ideas of his own. If his book lacks shape 'Ind sequence, that is partly because Mr Golant eso. keen upon his subject, and so knowled%able, too, that he evidently cannot bear to ve things out. Sometime s he is wrong: it is wrong, for 1..useta.nce, to imply that the Indian Army was not d in overseas expeditions until 1914. Standard he is silly: even by Freudian e footling ndards it is pretty to analyse the som ns of the is n Possessing and dominating a dreamed-of Mother, India. ' Sometimes he .is illiterate: credulous does not mean believable, and in

ucated English "hopefully" is not yet used the German way. Sometimes he is simplistic, when for example he characterises Curzon as "a boisterous politician" or a "man of theatrical poses." Sometimes he is just American: it was not simply "one biographer" who called George V the Sailor King — in the 'thirties it was popular English parlance. On the other hand Mr Golant hints at other qualities between his lines. One of the perennial misconceptions of the academic life is the notion that a good scholar, or a good teacher, is likely to be a good writer. Seldom indeed do the gifts go together, and there is no reason why they should. Mr Golant is a poor writer really, but I can imagine that he might be a very good teacher indeed, and I suspect that the University of Exeter is lucky to have him. His enthusiasm is compelling, and at unexpected moments he brings a subject suddenly to life.

On constitution-making, for example, not an easily inspiring subject, he is excellent. He defines simply and sensibly what a constitution is, he applies the conception to the context of Empire, and he pursues it patiently through all the rebuffs and reprises of India in the 'thirties. On the relationship between socialism and Empire, too, he is very good, and he can respond sensitively to a complex character — Wavell, for instance, or Jinnah — and throw a personality into telling relief against the political backdrop. Mr Golant explains things very well, and he is both fair and thorough.

But bold, imaginative, intuitive, moving, no. This is a shame, for if there is one historical subject that requires a sensual involvement in its students, it is I think the subject of Empire — and especially of imperialism as a principle, from the ruling end rather than the ruled. What seems wicked to us seemed perfectly honourable to our forefathers, and one cannot properly present the story of the Raj without getting beneath the skins of the sahibs, trying to understand or even to share their attitudes, and seeing the Empire through imperial eyes. Right is not absolute — one cau be cruel to be kind — and the story of the British ,dominance loses not merely half its interest, but half its point, if one does not recognise what beauty, splendour and truth it held for many of its practitioners.

Mr Golant must leave that to the professionals, though. He is the born academic, for ever thinking on the edge. Empire evidently holds no glory for him, no terror either — evil perhaps in a statutory way, but not much good. He vies it dispassionately, modestly, and one can no more imagine him marching with Gandhi to the seashore than one can see him turbanned and murderous with Hodson's Horse. He is a historical scientist and probably a very good one: the blood of it all stands in the test-tube, the misery is in statistics, and all the passions are reduced to bibliography. Better by far, he seems to say, an age without a name!

Jan Morris is now writing the third volume of her imperial triology, Pax Britannica