A soul controlled by geography

Tuesday, 11 September 2012

"My dear young ladies, what a pleasure! Do come in and meet these delightful young men in search of wives.  This is Captian Johns, hasn't seen a woman since 1837, don't get downwind of him.  Reginald Blenkinsop is a keen tennis player and renowned Sodomite.  Hattie and Gertrude hate your guts already, you pretty little things.  And I'm usually pissed as a rat by 11am and likely to try unspeakable things at garden parties.  Tea?"

The day the Olympics started, we had a gluten-intolerant little friend to stay.  This pleased me on two counts - the bots and Edward would have someone to host and would therefore be less likely to notice that I had wiggled out of watching the Opening Ceremony; and if they did, it would be on the grounds that I was stuck in the kitchen making a gluten-free cake.  With Xanthan gum.  And Xanax.  And spelt flour and carob and chia seeds and Pritt Stick.  So I had an excellent excuse to miss it.

Old chums here will attest that I am far from sporty.  Also, and I am not proud of this, I could only too well imagine the mimsy little apologetic 'show' we would be inflicting on the rest of the world.  A bit of bad hip-hop to show how street and multicultural we are, some cliched old cock-and-bull all-inclusive watered-down inoffensive bollocks that would leave me yawning or apoplectic.

So when they all shouted excitedly at 7pm that it was starting, I enthusiastically yelled back that I would be through in a tick - fingers, covered in gluten-free stickiness, firmly crossed.  But they did a sort of Olympian intervention on me and I found myself standing, apron-ed and floury, in front of the most amazing sight I have seen in years.  Dark satanic mills, Windrush, Brunel, Poppins, Great Ormond Street and a little ordinary street.  I was utterly transfixed and to my profound astonishment, felt, for the first time in my globetrotting citizen-of-the-world life, extraordinarily proud to be British.

Thus it was with a slightly altered mind-set that I began reading The Fishing Fleet, a fascinating account of the women who have left these shores for India over the past couple of hundred years, to seek British husbands in far-flung corners of the Raj.

First the East India Company paid them £300 a year (a fortune in the 1700s) to travel to India, sight unseen and marry a British bachelor.  Then, as the word spread, and many marriage-age women were staring down the twin barrels of governessing or pitied spinsterhood, the women's fathers paid a 'bond' of £200 to get their daughters married off.

The politics of being sold (whether your pimp be the EIC or your own father) aside, this is a fascinating read.  Anne de Courcy is a cracking chronicler of women's lives in days gone by, and there are gems on every page - the empty cabin filled with your own furniture, the spectacularly mad dressing-up-and-games to pass the long voyages, the astonishing amounts of booze they sank and the squirming awfulness of the cattle market when they arrived.  There are funny, touching and downright tragic stories of the ladies of the fishing fleet, and Ms de Courcy has had very special access to original letters and photos which make this book a nosy parker's delight.  There are shocking bits of racism and snobbery too, even in historical context.

Jingoism and xenophobia are the shameful cousins of patriotism and I wonder sometimes if we British really know what to feel about our national inheritance.  A few short weeks ago, with teary eyes and dough atrophying in webs between my fingers, I know exactly how I felt and it was lovely.  In the morning, I bought a gluten-free chocolate cake from Waitrose.  I don't think anyone cared.


  1. What a coincidence (or not - Amazon marketing?), I'm in the process of reading this too. And a really good read it is! You sum it up perfectly. As a non-Brit, I must admit to having a less cheerfully positive view of the British Raj than Mrs Courcy though.

  2. Our little family watched the Olympic Opening Ceremony on a large double bed in our hotel room in the middle of Sweden. I was elbowed off onto a chair but was still unexpectedly overwhelmed by the ceremony. Even the Swedish commentators seemed to be pleasantly surprised too.

  3. Anon - how amazing! I was seduced by a great Radio 4 programme (story of my life) with A de C and some fabulous old bird who was a proper Raj relic and made the whole thing sound fascinating, terribly sad and gloriously good fun all at the same time.

    Trish - why does the image of you falling off a bed in Sweden not surprise me??

  4. I have a tiny wisp of connection to India thru family. Doesn't do much for me. Rather go to Umbria. But it's a lovely story. Do they have vineyards?

  5. As I was ambivalent about the Opening Ceremony, I was elsewhere in the house when it began and my wife started calling for me to come and watch. Reluctantly, I dragged myself away from the riveting task of organizing old catalogs and began to watch. It was simply the most interesting, humorous and memorable Opening Ceremony I think I've ever seen. If that was "patriotism", the world could use more of it. Great post.

  6. My-Reason-For-Living-In-France and I were wishing we could trace our linage back to a drop or two of British blood. Americans being the ultimate mixed breeds, surely I must have some.

    It was superb. Congratulations.

    Speaking of blood, don't forget: that of bats, chickens and poor little pigeons.

    You're back! You're back! And, the best part -- you didn't forget how to write during the cruel hiatus.


  7. Tintin - it's the real-life stories I love. And the utter lunacy. No vineyards, no. Umbria is gorgeous. I went a few weeks ago and didn't see anything BUT vineyards. Bliss.

    Tweed - I know, wasn't it spine-tingling. And all the better, I thought, for the absolute wet-towel-in-the-face shock of it. Superb secret-keeping!

    Lovely Tish - You're sure to have some British blood, but why would you wish for it? Surely French is better? Not sure about the chicken blood -it's many years since I've felt the need to voodoo anyone. Well, months maybe..

  8. I inadvertantly had several friends over for dinner the night of the opening ceremony and we all thought it was brilliant - even if i did have to translate some of it for them... "what's the NHS?".

    And the closing was great, too. Our own Sir Fopling was part of it, with the Spice Girls as his opening act. He got about 3 seconds of air time, and we could clearly see him, to much cheering.

    Of course, everything in between was more fabulous than I ever thought it could be. Well done!

    (and waitrose? i'd kill for some of their house-brand lemon curd yoghurt!)

  9. I've read The Viceroy's Daughters and it was excellent. Am looking forward to reading The Fishing Fleet.

  10. Have come over via Meg at Pigtown and love your writing. Can't wait for your next post.

  11. Meg - how on earth do you 'inadvertently' have friends over? What a calm and accomplished hostess you must be! Who is Sir Fopling and what was he doing with the Spice Girls?? Am with you on the yoghurt, in fact I don't think I'd tun my nose up at anything fro there. As our grocery bills attest.

    Shelley - isn't it? Also recommend The Last Season and Diana Moseley, do let me know what you think and how kind of you to pop by!

    AnneHH - thank you, I'm flattered to hear it. So glad you came!

  12. Thank you to Meg for the kind words. I was awestruck by the opening ceremony. My own modest contribution to the closing ceremony was in between the Spice Girls, the Welsh male voice choir, the band of the Coldstream Guards and the corps of the Royal Ballet. An incredible experience all round, even though I only got a brief moment of air time. I'm amazed at the power of the internet to receive the cheers of friends across the Atlantic.

  13. Dear girl, your blogs are extremely enjoyable, though at times it is like a wonderful old English novel. Enjoyed.

    Sel, from selfrun@aol.com ~ if you like.


Please leave a comment if you can be remotely bothered - anything you have to say is valuable and I absolutely love hearing from you all. Elizabeth