Thursday, 6 August 2009

Staying On by Paul Scott

A sort of coda to the more famous Raj Quartet, Staying On describes the demise of Colonel ‘Tusker’ Smalley, who has remained in India with his wife Lucy after the end of British Rule. Narrated variously through the eyes of Lucy, Mr Bhoolabhoy – owner of the hotel where the Smalleys live – and Ibrahim, the Smalley’s manservant, it describes the final chapter in the story of a particular class and their way of life.

I’ve read the book twice now and it had the rare effect of making me laugh aloud several times while on the train, as well as making me distinctly misty eyed between Clapham Junction and Vauxhall. I also saw a stage version, which despite the best efforts of a cast including Prunella Scales and Saeed Jaffrey, I felt was not a roaring success.

Scott makes no attempt to disguise the British reputation in India for putting away a formidable amount of alcohol and there are many references to it in the book, from the Monday night drinks that Tusker enjoys with Mr Bhoolabhoy, where he often persuades ‘Billy-Boy to “Have another peg” to Ibrahim cleaning Lucy’s jewellery in gin. Then drinking the gin. “The Shadow of the disapproving Prophet fell on him. ‘Waste not want not,’ he said aloud.”

My favourite boozy vignette, however, comes from Ibrahim recollecting what his father told him about his previous employer, Colonel Moxon-Greife, and how he got drunk at Mess dinners:

“First, my son,” his father told him, “Colonel Sahib speaking with much vitality, but in a very discreet way, understand? Then towards end of dinner he stops speaking at random, and sits at attention. Speaking only when spoken to, but always speaking to the point. Hand always on glass. Glass always being refilled... After that immovable. We take him out in his chair. It is special chair with iron circular attachments, through which poles are passed so that it becomes like dooli. Some fellows come in with poles. The poles are passed through the rings. We carry him out and across the road to his bungalow. I put him to bed. At six o’clock next morning he is on parade. A real Burra Sahib.”

Apparently on Ladies’ nights at the Mess, the Colonel would only imbibe to the point where he could still escort the Memsahib back to the bungalow himself...

1 comment:

  1. Memory is a very unreliable faculty, but I seem to recall that Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard were reunited in a production of "Staying On" for the first time since "Brief Encounter".