A soul controlled by geography
Tuesday, 11 September 2012
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.