My novel, The Age of Elephants, began to take shape in my mind many years before I set it down on paper. Back in the fifties I was a young district reporter for the East Sussex Express and County Herald, based in Rye but covering the entire easternmost section of that fairly large English county from Winchelsea to Northiam. Puttering about on those winding roads aboard my Vespa scooter I was always bemused to see the profusion of name plates affixed to the entrances of intriguing looking country homes, set well back from the road.
These bore titles such as Suva Lodge, Singapore, Calcutta Cot, Mombasa Hall, suggesting that the landscape of East Sussex must be layered deep in the humus of long retired colonials, some perhaps still living. Here, amid these leafy lanes I had stumbled across the secret burial ground for those ‘grand old elephants of empire’. Migrating south from all over the British isles, they had eased their weary, sometimes battle scarred hides through the orchards of England’s patchwork counterpane of counties to settle their bones on some likely plot of ground, preferably with a view of that sea they would never cross again.
In the years of post-war withdrawal, the whole map of England had altered. No longer the hub of global dominions, Britain had became an archipelago unto itself. And when the social structures were shaken and stirred, the dregs of empire had settled to the bottom, all the way from Kent to Cornwall.
The idea sprang into my mind that perhaps just one of those old elephants—and this was surely the age of such elephants, all of them floundering in the wake of the fast splintering wreck of the once good ship Empire—happened to be a survivor from the greatest of all Britain’s imperial possessions, and the first to abandon ship at war’s end. I imagined him being the wealthy founder of Jones’ Imperial Emporia, with branches stretching from Delhi to Bombay and Calcutta to Mysore. He’d be rich enough to tackle the conceit of taking India with him when he left its shores. He’d build a palatial mansion that would encapsulate the very spirit of that disparately varied country, and call it Durbar Court.
I had to wait until I retired from my own colonial service in Malaya and Hong Kong before I tackled a fictional account I had conceived half a century earlier. The Age of Elephants wasn’t published until 2006. The following excerpts introduce the landscape in which Durbar Court evolved.
His first sight of Durbar Court was unsettling. A far glimpse of rambling, colonnaded bungalow built on palatial proportions and set on a rise backed by a shallow valley. Tentacles of covered walkway radiated from the rear, to ancillary buildings of various size and function.
He’d been struck immediately by the capricious architecture, the embellishments of turret, cupola and fretted gable. And he’d mistakenly assumed that these extravagances of style stemmed from a distinctly English eccentricity. Only at closer quarters did he recognise the provenance as that of Simla. Or at least similar to any one of half a dozen other Himalayan resorts that had sheltered the British Raj in its annual summer retreat from the Indian plains.
The unexpectedness of this conceit was accentuated by the backdrop of rolling Downs, where fat Sussex sheep grazed on green quilted hillsides stitched with edgings of elm and oak. The approach was through a coppice of eucalyptus, giving on to a large oval pond, carpeted with water lilies and red with bamboo and Japanese Angelica. Bordering this uninviting body of water was an embankment scattered with rockeries, each dominated by exotic ornamental shrubbery. A garden cultivated as much for geographical variety as for tone and contrast.
And its occupants! As multi-coloured in their sareed panoply as a fall of large and brilliant fruit that had ruptured on impact with the grass. With what delight had they observed his discomfort when Pamela insisted that he too was from India. He felt betrayed by his daughters; exhibited to perfect strangers as a fellow survivor of some ancient shipwreck.
Moti, who’d shown them to their rooms, was typical of the household retinue, all of them venerably Indian and attired in the leggings, long white tunics and waistbands familiar to Tom from his youth. The sort of extravagance that survived only in particularly expensive Indian restaurants. To further accentuate his incongruity, Moti sported a tall, lime green turban and a curled moustache to match his upturned slippers.
They were conducted to a converted summer house, set apart from the main building and reached by one of the covered walkways. After installing the girls in their room next door, Moti showed Tom into his, switching on the overhead fan which he suggested might be needed, since the summer was already showing signs of becoming unusually hot.
When the door closed behind this courteous, obliging and absurdly antiquated retainer, Tom had flopped on the bed, where he still lay, wondering how long it would take to satisfy his daughters’ curiosity so that they could move on again. He was stunned by the speed of developments. The afternoon had acquired a dream-like quality, wholly unreal, as if he’d slipped into a time warp.
Tom was with the girls in the dining room, waiting for breakfast, thinking What I’ll remember most about Durbar Court is the multiplicity of its mirrors. They were deployed to capture whatever stray sunbeams might penetrate parsimonious English skies and send them careening from room to room. Large mirrors, small mirrors, wide mirrors, tall mirrors, they leaned in perpetual disarray that would drive a compulsive straightener to diffraction. He imagined their alignments rearranged overnight to subtly alter the mesh of interlocking reflections. Wherever he turned to look, he could see himself duplicated, triplicated or reproduced fourfold, in endless series of mocking echoes. They reminded him uncomfortably of his incongruous presence in those surroundings.
Angela had told him she began to tire of their marriage when she discovered her husband was a fraud, a wooden soldier posing as a teddy bear. She said he went through life spying on it rather than participating. Perhaps she was right. Maybe he shunned mirrors because they reminded him of his vulnerability, exposing him as a component of the scene he observed.
Whatever their size and shape, the mirrors had one thing in common. They were old. Many were cracked, or had developed tiny storms of disturbed silver to trouble their pristine calms. And being old, they tended to be grand, their gilded frames hinting of palaces and ballrooms rather than the corridors of a country hotel. Within their elegant, art nouveau encasements lurked images that might spring to life the moment one turned away; the swish of a gown, the fall of a drape, the flash of a necklace.
Placed in the lobby by the entrance to the dining room was a particular curiosity, its oval shape bordered in a thick padding of glass mosaic, formed from hundreds if not thousands of tiny chips and slivers, green, red, yellow and blue. Mrs. Gupta had caught him this morning studying this specimen at close quarters, and had assumed—mistakenly—that he was admiring it.
‘Handsome, isn’t it?’ she challenged. ‘It comes from Rajputana.’
‘Incredible. That anyone should spend so much time on something of so little consequence.’
‘Ah but that is the parable of our country, isn’t it? All us little fragments of human being, each of us worthless in our own right, making up such an intricate whole.’
‘Yes, I see what you mean,’ he nodded. ‘A miscellany of misshapen bits and pieces, none of them fitting, none of them blending, pressed willy nilly into disharmonious contexts and expected to form a coherent pattern.’
‘But they do, don’t you see? If you stand back here it just looks like one glittering mass.’
He stepped back to join her. ‘Precisely. A dazzling illusion, blinding one to its myriad flaws and jagged imperfections.’
‘Ah Mr. Swain,’ she chided. ‘I can tell you are a tease.’ And she swept away, her green and orange saree trailing behind her like a careless afterthought.
The mirrors were concentrated to greatest effect here in the dining room. He speculated that, should all the tables be occupied, they would enhance the sense of occasion, turning a modicum of movement into a miracle of motion. The sarees of fellow diners would flutter like flags. Faces would fragment into replicated infinity. Gestures would reverberate in fields of soundless applause.
Padding about on slippered feet amidst this multitude would be the elderly retainers, all attired, like Moti, in the regulation white tunic and jodhpurs, condemned to constant confrontation and collision with themselves in the interstices of crystal.
But should one arrive too early or too late for such an assembly, the effect would be quite the opposite, especially late at night when the lights were dimmed. The mirrors then would drain the sparse illumination into reservoirs of darkness, multiplying a solitary, candlelit table into galleries of sacrificial altars set in a maze of catacombs. Where the approach of a single waiter was transformed into an invasion of incubi.