Magazine article The Spectator

Only the Sloppy Leave a Trace

Magazine article The Spectator

Only the Sloppy Leave a Trace

Article excerpt

LAST POST: THE END OF EMPIRE IN THE FAR EAST by John Keay John Murray, L22, pp. 385

A book called The Last Post should not have to fill most of its first page explaining that ultra-British military dirge. But in Hong Kong, for whose imperial close-down Mr Keay has nicely timed his work, British residents are already outnumbered by Americans, who (the assumption presumably is) would not understand. Britain has moved out early from almost the last relic of her empire, employing as removal man an out-of-work politician whose main aim seems to be re-entry to the post-Major Conservative party. Mr Patten's gestures at death-bed democracy are typical of a system whose imperatives were usually more domestic than global.

But this is global history. Mr Keay bustles through the windings-up of the Far Eastern subsidiaries of four world-wide enterprises, the British, Dutch, French and American empires. The general collapse had two immediate causes. The imperial properties made scant profits in the slump of the 1930s, and the second world war distracted their proprietors. The damage would have been beyond repair even without the spread of nationalism (another Victorian invention) in the colonies themselves.

The author, though, extends his story backwards, starting in 1930, when Britain resigned, or retroceded, or in any case got out of Weihaiwei, a failed version of Hong Kong at the north end of the Yellow Sea. (You'll need a goodish atlas, and some knowledge of how to transliterate Chinese place-names.) His grand endeavour demands the masterful generalisations of a Hobsbawm, or the erudition-disguised-asgossip of a Jan Morris. He does not quite manage either. He knows his stuff all right, but couldn't cram it all into the space he sets himself.

Sadly, although he knows the places well in all their Conradian sultriness, he denies himself the pleasure of physical description. The coasts, the jungles, are mere settings for policies, not prime actors in his story. The only city he brings to life is the anomalous International Settlement of Shanghai, source of so many legitimate Chinese grievances.

If your taste is for the picturesque, you will crave for more about the `White Rajah' Brooke of Sarawak and his vulgar Rani Sylvia, self-styled `Queen of the Headhunters'. …

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