This Singapore Grip review was prompted by the announcement of a new six-part adaptation for ITV of J. G. Farrell’s book, which met with decidedly mixed reactions. The brief teaser trailer shows colonial-era Singapore and an almost exclusively white cast, period costumes and Japanese bombers sweeping overhead. Oh no, came the understandable response, here we go again. Where are the Singaporeans? There was major concern as to whether this story needed to be told now for a Sunday night audience. For fans of J. G. Farrell like me, it was also distressing. Given that I learnt next to nothing about the British Empire in school history lessons, my attempts to fill in the gaps have come via books, both non-fiction and fiction. The Singapore Grip was probably my first reckoning with that history, and I remembered it as a lively, well-researched gallop through British miscalculations as the Japanese Army invaded. To have it written off as a ‘colonial narrative’ stung. Yes, I wanted more people to read his books and for J. G. Farrell to be a name on everyone’s lips, but not like this!
J. G. Farrell was born in Liverpool and ended his days in Ireland. He wrote a number of books before his untimely death at the age of 44, but it is his Empire Trilogy: Troubles, The Singapore Grip and The Siege of Krishnapur, set in Ireland, Singapore and India respectively, that are the best-known. Siege won the Booker Prize in 1973 and Troubles was awarded it in 2010, as ‘the Lost Booker,’ making up for a year with no award in 1970. Farrell uncompromisingly dissects the myths the British tell themselves about Empire and, while I haven’t read Troubles (yet!) my love for the other two meant I was more than ready to defend him against accusations of writing anything that glorifies what he satirised so mercilessly. But first, as it had been over a decade (there’s a picture of me reading in Singapore here!), I decided to reread The Singapore Grip with a more balanced eye.
The story starts with a rich, white, British family that part-own Blackett and Webb, one of the oldest Singapore trading houses, dealing in rubber among other commodities. Walter Blackett, the father, is an upright, upper middle-class Englishman, convinced of his own superiority and ability to manipulate events and people alike. This type of man experiencing an unravelling of all he holds deal as chaos takes hold is a theme of the Empire Trilogy. But for now, Walter – alongside ailing business partner Mr Webb – is boss of almost all he surveys, while his wife Sylvia maintains her social position and oldest daughter Joan toys with the hearts of the young men of Singapore, both suitable and unsuitable. Son Monty is described as ‘erratic’ by his father. It is clear he has zero brains for business and is out for a good time, while teenager Kate is the baby of the family, watching events unfold around her.
Real people like General Percival, Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, Australian general Gordon Bennett and Governor Sir Shenton Thomas mingle with created characters like Captain James Ehrendorf, an American military attaché who gets a glass of champagne thrown over him by Joan, or François Dupigny, a French diplomat who escaped from Indochina and is one of the few to anticipate the approaching danger. Major Archer is an English bachelor who lodges with Mr Webb, while Solomon Langfield is Walter’s main business rival and the other Langfields their social rivals. Matthew Webb is the son of Walter’s partner, recently arrived from Geneva where he has been working with the League of Nations, having been educated according to some of his father’s more offbeat educational theories. The keen reader will have noticed that there is a certain race that all those characters have in common and, while the book also follows Vera Chiang, a Russian-Chinese woman who keeps crossing paths with the Blacketts, a soldier with the invading Japanese Army called Kikuchi, and includes Walter’s servant Cheong’s family history, this reread showed me that passages written from their points of view are briefer than I remembered.
Although Farrell emphasises the mixing of communities in Singapore and both Matthew and Walter muse upon whether this is a strength or a weakness as the disparate groups have no common feeling when set against the invading forces, those diverse communities rarely do more than provide a colourful background for the white characters. Attempts to render the unique language of Singapore, the Major’s difficulties in translating Matthew’s memories of speeches at the League into it and reference to the ‘jabbering’ of a group of Indian soldiers speaking amongst themselves are cringeworthy. The Major’s friend Mr Wu is incomprehensible to Matthew because he mixes up Ls and Rs and Vera’s conversations sprinkle in English idioms at strange points. Meanwhile Walter remarks that American Ehrendorf speaks English, ‘like a civilised person.’
The way the female characters are portrayed is another flaw. While it is fun to see Vera interfering with Joan’s dominance of every man around her, when the chips are down, it is still a one-sided fight. Vera’s history is a source of mystery and gossip to all who know her – having grown up in Harbin in China after her mother ‘a Russian princess’ escaped from the Revolution – but this is never explored further. Vera only tells snippets of her story in her own words. Joan first encounters her as a possible Communist agent while on a trip to Shanghai, before Mr Webb is enlisted to help her stay in Singapore. Eyebrows are raised about what she might be doing for him in return. Vera has brief moments shown from her point of view, but readers will almost wish they aren’t included as they further the cliché of the exotic, sexually available woman. It is evidently an attempt to make her free spirited and sex-positive, in contrast to Joan’s frigidity, but it detracts from what could have been a far more interesting character who raises more questions than are answered. The threads of her past life and possible wartime role all remain loose.
There are other asides that grate, as when Ehrendorf compares the Chettiars (Tamil moneylenders) to alligators. A fire is like an oriental dragon. Mr Wu’s friend is ‘taciturn,’ which is almost a relief as it means not having to read about how he mixes up his words. Monty is by far the worst, although he is supposed to be an entitled layabout, moaning about civil servants, taunting beggars with money and imitating the disabled, or dragging a reluctant Matthew all over town looking for girls, the younger the better. Matthew means well, but his lecturing goes nowhere, and he is ultimately a white saviour who can’t deliver.
To return to what is good about The Singapore Grip, the book taught me more about the British Empire than I ever learnt in school. Farrell’s research was obviously thorough as shown by the biography he provides and in the sections that detail how Singapore was built up and how Walter conducts his business. That the British weren’t cleverer than anyone else, but had everything weighted heavily in their favour via means like the Restriction Committee which divided up quotas for exporting rubber, should not be a surprise to anyone, nor should it be something learnt from reading a novel. There are some lovely, quite meta scenes, as we sit with the author in the streets as he writes notes, or see what happened to grown up Kate – plus the final, charming line of the book. Apart from those, the military scenes are probably the best bits, but we lose track of the background characters who are involved in the fighting – Mrs Blackett’s brother Charlie and Joan’s friend Sinclair on one side, Matsushita and Kikuchi on the other – as soon as the tanks break through.
Whatever the feelings evoked by the TV show, throughout the book it is obvious where Farrell’s sympathies lie, and it isn’t with the Blacketts:
When the bombs fall, as they will in a few moments, it will not be on the soldiers in their tents or barracks, who might in some measure be prepared to consider them as part of their duties, nor even on black-dreaming Walter whose tremendous commercial struggles over the past decade have at least played some tiny part in building up the pressures whose sudden bursting-out is to be symbolised by a few tons of high explosive released over a sleeping city, but on Chinatown where a few luckless families or individuals, floated this way by fate across the South China Sea, sucked in by the vortex of British capital invested in Malaya, are now to be eclipsed.
But no Asian character manages to be more than a caricature. The British characters have a comical indifference to events that might affect them, as even when the Japanese invasion begins, they don’t believe it can happen, so it can’t be happening, even when it is. Walter is already nostalgic for the old Singapore of his youth, before labour strikes and its development into a military base, ‘when business had been an adventure,’ and becomes more so as his current city burns down around his ears. Brooke-Popham is literally reliving the Great War, daydreaming through the days of planning with his mind back on the Western Front in 1914, as the Japanese make any decisive actions he might take moot.
Compared to other 1970s British literature about Empire, The Singapore Grip might have seemed revolutionary and irreverent, poking fun at what was largely still held up as a benign history of bringing trains and hospitals to the world. Then, it seemed that readers preferred their colonial era novels to focus on the white people and mostly to be written by them too, with Anthony Burgess’s Malayan Trilogy and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala’s works being popular in the 60s and 70s. That may also reflect who was commissioning the books. Although V. S. Naipaul was published earlier, works by Salman Rushdie, Amitar Ghosh and others seeking to counter Empire nostalgia wouldn’t appear until long after Farrell’s death. (Burgess’s work also has elements of farce while Jhabvala casts a satirical eye over India after independence: as if grappling with the Empire is best done with a raised eyebrow.)
It raises the question of why this book has been adapted for TV and why now? Using the colonial setting as little more than a colourful background, focussing on the white characters and making the locals play servants may have worked when The Raj Quartet was onscreen in 1984, but what can an adaptation of The Singapore Grip add to the long-overdue conversation about the British Empire and its legacy? If the TV show is going to annoy fans of the book, people seeking better representation in TV – in front of the camera and behind the scenes – AND wind up everyone who thought the Empire was great at the same time, why bother? The better course of action might have been to commission a new work by a local production.
I still hope that J. G. Farrell will pick up some new readers via the TV show, although with the caveat that while he may start readers off down the road of learning more about the colonial period, the Empire Trilogy should be the first step, not the whole journey. If all you’ve read is Farrell, you know a bit more than most, but you still don’t know Singapore.
I am grateful to everyone who chatted to me over Twitter while The Singapore Grip review and reread was on my mind and who helped me add works by Jeremy Tiang, Suchen Christine Lim, Tan Twan Eng and Mohamed Latiff Mohamed to my to read list. I recommend following Epigram Books for more Singaporean novels and will be continuing to search out as many different perspectives on this period of history as possible.
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