Monday, 9 February 2009

The Great Game and other adventures

I always find it an interesting experience to revisit literature with a greater knowledge of context. Kipling's Kim (Gutenberg EText-No. 2226) was set reading when I first was at secondary school, but even though it explicitly mentions "The Great Game", that part made little sense, and I don't recall any analysis or discussion.

For those who don't know it, Kim is the story of an Anglo-Irish orphan, Kimball O'Hara, who has grown up as a street urchin in Lahore and who (with various spiritual asides involving a kindly lama) is recruited and trained as a Secret Service agent - via exercises such as what's now called "Kim's Game" - to go undercover on missions to thwart Russians in the Himalayas. Only now that I know a bit more history, does Kim fit into the complex game of espionage and diplomacy played out in 19th century central Asia between the Russian and British empires. Nor was I aware of the sensitivity of Kipling's politics. Kim appears to be one of many books that has fallen into the "children's literature" slot by virtue of having a juvenile protagonist, but is really rather heavy in its demands on the modern reader in understanding cultural context.

A further level of complexity is that Kipling's stance - he has been called "prophet of Empire" - is not quite a simple as once thought: see, for instance, Artist of empire: Kipling and Kim (Clara Clairborne Park, The Hudson Review, Winter 2003). Although Kim doesn't fit this description, many of Kipling's works can be read as ironic commentary on imperialism. A prime example is the 1888 The Man Who Would Be King (Gutenberg EText-No. 8147), which is a story of the inevitable downfall from hubris when its protagonists go to Kafiristan - now Nuristan - to set up their own kingdom, but ultimately fail through lack of understanding of the local culture.

Nowadays The Man Who Would Be King is widely known from John Houston's film version, which manages to be largely faithful to the story while expanding it creatively: for instance, making Kipling himself part of the framing device, and building an aside about Alexander the Great into a central plot element. It's extremely well cast (I can't imagine without mentally - no, actually physically - wincing at the thought of Houston's various previous ideas for the pairing of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan: Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable, then Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, then Robert Redford and Paul Newman). However, the personas of Connery and Caine, good as they are, sanitize the activities of Daniel Dravot and Peachey Carnehan, making them into largely likable rogues. In the story, they achieve their aims with considerably more cynicism, brutality and cultural insensitivity, such as shooting their own followers to encourage the others; creating demeaning rituals such as demanding food but only accepting it when a chief brings it; and not bothering to learn locals' names, instead calling them English names after people they look like.

... he brings forward that same Chief that I left at Bashkai—Billy Fish we called him afterwards, because he was so like Billy Fish that drove the big tank-engine at Mach on the Bolan in the old days
We gave them names according as they was like men we had known in India—Billy Fish, Holly Dilworth, Pikky Kergan that was Bazar-master when I was at Mhow, and so on, and so on.

Nor does Dravot fall for a specific local woman as in the film (even there, it can scarcely be called love - just unreciprocated attraction combined with her role in slotting into Dravot's delusion of destiny). In the crowning and ultimately fatal cultural blunder, he just demands a wife, with menaces, until an unnamed woman is brought to him:

All that night there was a blowing of horns in a little dark temple half-way down the hill, and I heard a girl crying fit to die. One of the priests told us that she was being prepared to marry the King.

"'I'll have no nonsense of that kind,' says Dan. 'I don’t want to interfere with your customs, but I’ll take my own wife. 'The girl’s a little bit afraid,' says the priest. 'She thinks she’s going to die, and they are a-heartening of her up down in the temple.'

"'Hearten her very tender, then,' says Dravot, 'or I’ll hearten you with the butt of a gun so that you’ll never want to be heartened again.'
Up comes the girl, and a strapping wench she was, covered with silver and turquoises but white as death, and looking back every minute at the priests.

"'She’ll do,' said Dan, looking her over.

Charming fellow! The story includes a number of interesting regional details omitted in the film. Kipling is more or less correct about Kafiristan being pagan. Before its Islamization and renaming in 1896, it was an enclave of ethnic religions incorporating elements of animism, polytheism and shamanism. The Kafiristani in the story are also pale-skinned:

Then the Chiefs come round to shake hands, and they was so hairy and white and fair it was just shaking hands with old friends.

This has a large grain of truth: like some other ethnic groups in the region, such as the Pashtuns - recall the iconic image of Sharbat Gula - the Nuristani frequently have European-like colouring of light hair, eyes and skin (the consequence of multiple migrations into the region from the West). Kipling weaves this into a story of their descent from Alexander the Great's people. The primary influences for the overall scenario are generally cited as the careers of James Brooke, the "White Rajah of Sarawak", and Josiah Harlan, "Prince of Ghor". See also Rudyard Kipling and his Masonic Career for background on the Freemasonry aspects that are crucial to both Kim and The Man Who Would Be King.

Elements of Kim and The Man Who Would Be King impinge on a different piece of literature, Sir Henry Newbolt's melodramatic ballad He Fell Among Thieves (which appeared in Newbolt's 1898 anthology of jingoistic poetry The Island Race). Again, I remembered this from school minus context. The poem dramatises the murder in 1870 of the explorer George W Hayward in Darkot, Dardistan, on an expedition to reach the Pamirs region. At the time, accounts predictably took an un-nuanced view of events:

Thus, this intrepid and accomplished traveller, in the prime of his youth, was treacherously slain, and his body lies under a heap of stones in that inhospitable region
- The Times, Thursday, Nov 17, 1870

However, without diminishing an unpleasant death, Hayward must have known he was in very dangerous territory. An ex-soldier, he was first hired by the Royal Geographical Society to explore central Asia after approaching Sir Henry Rawlinson (and it's significant context that Rawlinson was a known Russophobe, and that geographical information was highly significant intelligence in the Great Game - as The Great Game, linked below says, "the dividing line at that time between exploration and intelligence-gathering was often extremely narrow"). The Great Game was not the gung-ho boy's game portrayed in Kim, but a deadly serious one. After one close shave - capture by Yaqub Beg, an Uzbek ruler who was negotiating with the Russians - he returned to India; then, after a harrowing winter trek to and from Gilgit via a warzone, had a letter published in a Calcutta newspaper about alleged atrocities committed by the Kashmiri in that region.

At this point, sense would suggest not returning, at least not immediately. However, even after having been told he'd get no help or protection from the Crown or Geographical Society (from which he resigned) Hayward went back to the region via Gilgit, and was killed en route to the Pamirs. Theories for the perpetrators and motive vary: the two main versions say a) he had argued publicly with the friend, Mir Wali, who had told him about the atrocities; or b) that Mir Wali was framed by the Maharajah of Kashmir, who had Hayward killed in revenge for the unfavourable newspaper exposure. Whatever, Hayward had put himself in astonishingly dangerous circumstances: maybe he was simply reckless, maybe a danger-lover, and maybe his geographical activities were serving the Great Game in some capacity (some sources actively say he was working for the British government 1, 2 - which would make his murder by agents or allies of the Russians a third and highly plausible option).

There's a very clear account of his career at Death in the Morning. The sources aren't cited, but it concurs largely with Chapter 26, The Feel of Cold Steel Across His Throat, The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia (Peter Hopkirk, Oxford University Press, 1991, ISBN 0192802321). This book has some fascinating details about espionage in the era that inspired Kim, such as details of the work of "Pundits", native explorer-spies who carried out clandestine surveying through artifices such as disguise as Buddhist pilgrims, carrying rosaries modified for tallying distances and various other equipment hidden in everyday gear. For more detail, see The Pundits: British Exploration of Tibet and Central Asia (Derek John Waller, University Press of Kentucky, 2004, ISBN 0813191009 - Google Books preview).

Apart from Kim, a number of other novels use a Great Game setting, such as John Buchan's The Half-Hearted and John Masters The Lotus and the Wind.

Addendum, Feb 10th 2009: We just had a very nice e-mail from Robert Middleton who comments: "Congratulations on posting interesting historical information on your website. The mystery surrounding Hayward's death will probably never be cleared to everyone's satisfaction". Robert is co-author of the recently-published Odyssey guidebook Tajikistan & The High Pamirs: the heart of the Great Game, this is the region that Hayward was trying to reach. Robert mentions that his research for the book included the little-known reports of the original Pundits: "one of these, 'The Havildar' 3, gives an account of an interview with Mir Wali a few weeks after the murder in which the latter provides some interesting additional information - see pp. 349 and 357 of my book!" Robert sent me a sampler, and I can highly recommend the book on its basis. For instance, one snippet I can give away as I've seen it elsewhere, online, is that the final scene of The Man Who Would Be King appears to have been based on a real event, when the head of the explorer Adolph Schlagintweit was brought back to colonial administrators (see Central Eurasia Experts Directory).

Robert runs a highly informative website about the Pamirs region, with a comprehensive bibliography. Aside from the more academic aspects of the region's uniqueness, my immediate impression is that its inhabitants are incredibly striking in appearance - a remarkable and varied mix from the distinctly Asiatic, via people that one wouldn't be surprised to see in Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and the Middle East, to many indistinguishable from Western Europeans - the result of the area's role as "a crossroads for the passage of the many different tribes and ethnic groups that controlled Central Asia over the past 3000 years".

Addendum 2, February 11th 2009. I've just been reading The Imitation of Alexander the Great in Afghanistan (Robert J Rabel, Helios, Volume 34, Number 1, Spring 2007, PDF format). In an extended analysis, the paper quotes the scene in the screenplay by John Huston and Gladys Hill, not in the Kipling story, where Dravot comes to a deluded realisation of his destiny:

Danny: I ain’t going, Peachy.

Peachy: What? ...Have you gone barmy?

Danny: No, I ain’t been drinking neither. I see things clear. It’s like bandages have been removed from my eyes. Have you ever walked into a strange room, and it’s like you’ve been there before? . . . This isn’t the first time I’ve worn a crown. There’s more to this than meets the eye. It all adds up . . . More than chance has been at work here . . . One more thing is needful for my destiny to be fulfilled. That I take her [Roxanne] to wife...A queen to breed a king’s son for the king . . . The contract only lasted until such time as we was kings, and king I’ve been these months past! The first king here since Alexander, the first to wear his crown in 2,200 and . . . 14 years. Him, and now me. They call me his son and I am, in spirit anyway. It’s a huge responsibility . . . It’s big, I tell you. It’s big.

Peachy: And, I tell you, you need a physic!

Compare and contrast:

LADY MARY (shivering). You hurt me. You say these things, but you say them like a king. To me it is the past that was not real.

CRICHTON (too grandly). A king! I sometimes feel--(For a moment the yellow light gleams in his green eyes. We remember suddenly what TREHERNE and ERNEST said about his regal look. He checks himself.) I say it harshly, it is so hard to say, and all the time there is another voice within me crying--(He stops.)

LADY MARY (trembling but not afraid). If it is the voice of nature--

CRICHTON (strongly). I know it to be the voice of nature.

LADY MARY (in a whisper). Then, if you want to say it very much, Gov., please say it to Polly Lasenby.

CRICHTON (again in the grip of an idea). A king! Polly, some people hold that the soul but leaves one human tenement for another, and so lives on through all the ages. I have occasionally thought of late that, in some past existence, I may have been a king. It has all come to me so naturally, not as if I had had to work it out, but-as-if-I-remembered. 'Or ever the knightly years were gone, With the old world to the grave, I was a king in Babylon, And you were a Christian slave.'4 It may have been; you hear me, it may have been.

The latter section comes from JM Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, the scene where the butler Crichton, having become effectively king of an island, declares similar feelings of destiny to Lady Mary. I wonder if Huston and Hill had this in mind.

1. "the British Government deputed Lt. George Hayward on reconnaissance purposes to the Pamirs" - British Policy Towards Kashmir, 1846-1921: Kashmir in Anglo-Russian Politics, FM Hassnain, Sterling Publishers, 1974
2. "George Hayward had become an ambitious and successful explorer-cum-agent", Chapter 6, Playing the Great Game, For a Pagan Song: Travels in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, Jonny Bealby, by William Heinemann, 1998
3. Pundits went by code names such as "The Pundit", "the Havildar" and "the Mirza".
4. Quote from William Ernest Henley's Echoes of Life and Death XXXVII. How exactly a King of Babylon, which was destroyed in the Hellenistic period at least a century BC, could have a Christian slave is not explained.

See update: The Great Game and other adventures #2.

- Ray


  1. Very interesting.

    I'm still pondering this bit about Hayward, from your linked description of his adventures:

    "He's survived starvation by eating, raw, his only yak". This while he was traveling "over the worst terrain in the world, with up to five feet of snow, he'd managed thirty miles a day," and "he'd slept out in the open, without tent or even fire, in temperatures as low as 20° below zero."

    It seems to me it would take a really long time to eat a frozen, raw yak (or a nicely cooked one with parsley, for that matter).

    Seriously, though, he must have been an amazingly tough fellow.

  2. I don't know: maybe he cut it into yak goujons before it froze. Big animal though, and could make quite varied eating. Suggested menu:

    Breakfast: Yak Frosties and Yakult.
    Lunch: Yak Glacée avec Cheveux.
    Tea: Yak avec Neige.
    Supper (for a change): Chilled Asiatic Bovine Surprise.

  3. [laughing]

    There once was a fellow named Hayward
    Whose plans always seemed to go wayward.
    He smelled really funny;
    His nose was often runny;
    When caught in the snow
    His hunger began to grow.
    He began to think
    That nothing propinks
    Like a big hairy beast
    Turned into a feast.
    Thus he acquired quite a knack
    For eating raw yak.

    Later, he wrote in his dispatches,
    "Next time, I'll bring some matches."

  4. You should not post these things late at night. I was awake thinking of yak recipes: suki yaki, yakhead potatoes ... Of course, frozen yak needs something to wash it down: Frosty Yak's Cider probably, or a shot of Conyak.

  5. At the end of the day
    I should think of poor Ray,
    Who needs to be sleeping,
    But who's mind just keeps leaping
    To thoughts of yak dishes
    So very delicious?

  6. And I thought Ms Heyward and Dr C were bizarre when they got together...

    My own line of thought on Hayward (perhaps excessively influenced by my own long ago implication in the consumption of a raw camel ... but that was in another country, and besides the beast is dead) is: having killed one's only yak, how does one then carry it (never mind the rest of one's stuff) thirty miles a day???

    I may have just set a record for the world's most unwieldy sentence...

    Oh yes ... I only came in here to say that the original post was engrossing, for which many thanks!

  7. On a glacier, faring afar,
    Dafydd said, of their yak, to his Pa:
    "Now we've eaten the lot,
    Let us pour out a tot,
    And drink to its health. Iechyd da!"

  8. Ray, you keep having unfrozen beverages. I am deeply suspicious that you have managed to smuggle a heater into your igloo.

    Felix asks, "how does one then carry it?"

    One word: Tupperware. Unless you are Ray and you also need to carry all that siverware and crystal.

    [winching the big poetry gun around (*squeak, squeak, squeak*) so it's pointed at Felix]

    Felix from Bristol
    Went out with a pistol
    To get himself something to eat.

    When he came back that night
    His face was all white:
    "From now on I'll only have beets!"

  9. I am deeply suspicious

    So, it's come to "Y'akkuse", has it?

    Alcoholic content depresses freezing point.

    you are Ray and you also need to carry all that silverware and crystal.

    Well, I take my cue from the Franklin expedition. They had their priorities right in those days.

  10. "Y'akkuse"

    Calm down. You're over-reyakting.

    I looked up Franklin in Wikipedia and it says (among other things) that they had to mount an expedition to find him and his wife when they got lost camping.

    So they turn around and let him lead lots of men into the unknown. Makes perfect sense ...

  11. JH> Felix from Bristol
    JH> ...with a pistol
    JH> ... ... ...
    JH> ... face was all white...

    Anyone who has ever seen me attempting to use a pistol will themselves be white faced at the very thought of it. The great game would be Russian roulette, with only the camel relatively safe...

  12. Ah, folks, he didn't eat the whole yak; he shared it with two Ladakhis...

    Honestly. Well, they ate some of it anyway. One of the Ladakhis later fell ill. Hayward felt he had brought it upon himself by eating the yak meat raw when they were unable to find fuel for a fire; it seems more likely to me that what made the Ladakhi ill was being forced to march as far as 50 miles in 24 hours in temperatures that remained below zero all day...

    In the name of shameless self interest I would like to draw attention to my forthcoming book about Hayward, "Murder in the Hindu Kush - George Hayward and the Great Game", out in April from the History Press. It's already on Amazon.
    It's very much in the Peter Hopkirk/John Keay manner, namely ripping yarns rendered from actual archival research. The yak features (though without recipes, alas)...

    With less shameless self interest I'd also like to draw attention to John Keay's Great Game Books. He very much prefigured Peter Hopkirk with the magnificent duo "The Gilgit Game" and "When Men and Mountains Meet". Originally published in the 70s they have since reappeared in one volume as "The Explorers of the Western Himalayas".
    They are absolutely magnificent books, and while they don't have quite the same grand sweep or mastery of "the big picture" which Hopkirk brings to his books on the Great Game, John Keay is a much snappier, much funnier writer with a much sharper sense of character.
    His account of Hayward's travels, which spans these two books, is excellent (though - signing off with that shameless self interest once more - not as comprehensive as mine)...

    A nice blog you have here, by the way, Ray...