Magazine article The Spectator

Lilla's Greatest Feat Is to Make Us Imagine the Unimaginable

Magazine article The Spectator

Lilla's Greatest Feat Is to Make Us Imagine the Unimaginable

Article excerpt

'I was much surprised, ' wrote Anthony Trollope in 1873, 'at the fortifications of Sydney Harbour. One would almost wish to be a gunner for the sake of being at one of these forts.' He was right.

Guarding the entrance to the city's great inland harbour system at North Head and South Head are lookouts and fortifications in the most beautiful of situations.

The coincidence last week of the short walk to South Head, the long journey to Australia, and a book, led me to a curious sideways reflection on the fine old cannon still pointing across the harbour mouth.

Which way to face? Who are the next enemy? Sitting near the lighthouse on the grassy promontory, to my left the skyline of Sydney itself, to my right the open Pacific, I studied the long explanatory plaque, and thought of the book I had just been reading.

The flight over from England had offered precious hours for a new paperback of something I'd been meaning for ages to read.

Those hours slipped by unnoticed as I turned the pages. Frances Osborne's Lilla's Feast is a family history that reads like a novel -- except it tells of a life so exotic, so packed with triumph, tragedy and adventure, that as fiction it might be thought fanciful. But it is the true story of Osborne's great-grandmother.

Beautifully narrated, it uses as a central thread the book of recipes and household hints that Lilla was working on through her darkest days (her three years in a Japanese concentration camp in China, for instance).

Osborne has the gift of both explanation and evocation; and a story hardly taught here at home -- that strange and disgraceful chapter of British imperial history, our 19th- and 20thcentury exploitation of China -- springs not just to life but to understanding.

Lilla spends much of her life in what was then called Chefoo, one of the northerly 'Treaty Ports' on the Chinese coast where, under duress, Peking had been forced to concede rights of settlement and trade to the West so that they became almost enclaves. From there, towards the end of the 19th century, we look out with the infant Lilla (who was born there in 1882) towards the Yellow Sea and the Pacific. Though she was to care little for international politics, they would shape her life. The Germans -- always friends in Chefoo where European traders were all allies -- killed her first husband when they sank the ship on which he was sailing east from England in 1915.

In Chefoo the threat had at first come from Peking, shamed and angered by the entrenchment on her soil of opium-trading European nations. But as the century turned, the mysterious insurrectionists of the Boxer Rebellion became the threat. The Chinese Nationalist government which followed could at least be dealt with; but when, in 1931, Japan invaded Manchuria, Europeans in Chefoo were not bothered.

Osborne includes a picture of Lilla's family being genially entertained by Japanese businessmen in the late 1930s.

When Japan attacked again in 1937, European fears were not of Tokyo, but of Chinese looting as order broke down. There is a chilling photograph of the coat of arms of an ad hoc police force formed by expatriates in Tsingtao to protect them from the Chinese: a suited arm holds a baton across a shield composed of the Union Jack, the Nazi swastika, the American stars-and-stripes and the tricolour of White Russia. The arrival of the Japanese army was greeted with jubilation. Those who place their trust in the immutability of international alliances should study this image and shudder. By 1942, Lilla and her merchant trader husband Ernest were Japanese prisoners of war. …

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