Deborah Baker has written an extremely engaging and stimulating book that covers a vast amount of ground of the first half of the twentieth century. It contains a huge cast of characters – political, literary, scientific, cultural, academic – including Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Muhammad Jinnah, Winston Churchill, Leo Amery, Stephen Spender, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, George Orwell, Bill Tilman (explorer and leader of the 1938 Everest expedition), Sir Francis Younghusband (explorer and soldier), Sudhin Datta (poet and intellectual) and Rabindranath Tagore (Nobel laureate). Many others come and go or crop up regularly throughout.
As the title suggests, the theme of this book concerns the end of the British Raj and the establishment of an independent India. This is set in the context of other major themes of this period: political struggles in Spain, the onset of World War Two, the literary, artistic and cultural establishment, the obsession with conquering Everest and the last throes of the British Empire in India. Two Englishmen, the older brothers of the poets Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden, play a leading role in the story. I didn’t even know about these brothers so this was fascinating material.
John Auden, whose interest in geology started on a holiday in Wales, got a First in Geology from Cambridge and his first experience of India was in Calcutta in 1926. He became a pioneering geologist of the Himalayas and developed a fascination with Everest after a school lecture given in 1922 by George Mallory about his expedition. Michael Spender was a qualified surveyor and mapmaker and was the first to draw a detailed map of the North Face of Mount Everest. Both of them competed for a place on an expedition to finally conquer Everest and they also competed in love: in 1938 they both fell in love with a painter of the London Art Crowd, one Nancy Sharp, whose portrait of Louis MacNeice hangs in the National Portrait Gallery.
Baker’s approach is to tell the story of a few men and women in intimate detail and the part they played on the world stage. It is a very absorbing narrative and one that repays close reading – there is a LOT of information here packed into its pages but Baker’s style is never dry and contains many flashes of wit and humour. I learned a lot from this book and would recommend it for its wide-ranging subject matter and its unique take on a much written about historical event of the twentieth century.
Ray Taylor 5*
The Last Englishmen: Love, War and the End of Empire by Deborah Baker
Vintage 9780099593157 pbk Jul 2019