Saturday, April 27, 2024

Q&A with Matthew Parker




Matthew Parker is the author of the new book One Fine Day: Britain's Empire on the Brink, September 29, 1923. His other books include Goldeneye. He lives in London.


Q: What inspired you to focus on September 29, 1923, in your new book?


A: It was on this day that the Palestine Mandate became law and the British Empire reached what would turn out to be its maximum territorial extent - 14 million square miles – the largest empire in world history. It contained 460 million people, more than the populations of the United States, the Soviet Union and the French empire combined.


But unbeknownst to people at the time, it’s a turning point, the peak from which the only way was down. So, while charting the empire’s huge extent and power, I also look at the varied and fascinating factors – including the rise of Japan and the United States - that already point to the British empire’s rapid decline.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: I wanted to do something a bit different, so I focus on this one day, alighting on people and stories from contemporary newspapers, magazines, official documents, novels and much more.


So we discover a Rockefeller Foundation doctor, Sylvester Lambert, is in Tongo delivering hookworm medicines (and administering American soft power); Marcus Garvey has just been released on bail from a prison in New York; E.M. Forster is writing A Passage to India; Jawaharlal Nehru has just been arrested for the third time; George Orwell is working as a policeman in Burma in the middle of a crime wave; as well as many lesser known characters.


“One Day” was taken by a hit novel; “One Fine Day” sort of asks the question, was it? And, if so, fine for whom?


Q: A review of the book in The Guardian, by Christienna Fryar, says, “The choice to begin and end with Ocean Island works especially well, since it’s among the lesser-known tragedies explored.” Why did you choose Ocean Island as the starting and end point of the book?

A: Now part of Kiribati, Ocean Island – or Banaba – is close to the international date line so it is where the sun first rises on the empire, famously described as “where the sun never sets” (or, from another point of view, “where the blood never dries.”)


My method was to take the reader with the sun east to west around the globe. At the end, we return to Ocean Island to see what happens there subsequently.


The Ocean Island story also sets up many of the themes of the book. Because its soil is almost pure phosphate, a valuable ingredient of fertiliser, the actual physical body of the island is being shipped away, to the dismay of the island’s inhabitants. It is extractive colonialism at its most literal.


All the time, the British colonial officials, charged with protecting the inhabitants, are torn between their integrity and their careers. Across the empire, we see even well-meaning British officials causing more harm than good.


Q: As you said, One Fine Day covers the globe--how did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?


A: It did take an enormous amount of research, hence why the book took nearly eight years to put together!


For various reasons including Covid, expense and safety, I wasn’t able to travel everywhere I wrote about, so I employed researchers in New Zealand, Australia, Myanmar, Kenya, Nigeria and the Caribbean. They were for the most part university history teachers, familiar with their archives and able to give me valuable input on the local take on this history.


One of my most striking discoveries was the huge importance of the psychological aspect of colonialism.


Norman Manley, later the leader of the Jamaican independence movement, was fond of quoting a British official who admitted: “The British empire and British rule depends on a carefully nurtured sense of inferiority in the governed.”


The flip side of this is “white prestige,” an “invisible armour” more important than any guns or ships. But the “sense of inferiority” was fading fast, just as the British confidence in their imperial mission was crumbling.


One of the stories I tell is of Adelaide Casey Hayford, born in Sierra Leone but raised in Britain. She is opening a Technical School for Girls in Freetown, with a mission to teach pride in race and African art and culture, a million miles away from the Government schools where African children had to learn the Kings and Queens of England. To raise money for the school, she travelled around the United States.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m busy promoting the book. This has recently involved a trip to the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, where I learnt so much! In particular, reassessing their history, Indians have little affection for the British.


This seems part of a world-wide shift, where countries previously part of the British empire are leaving the Commonwealth, getting rid of King Charles from their constitutions, and seeking reparations for slavery and colonialism. No one wants to fund the Commonwealth Games!


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: On a happier note, I’ve just heard that the exiled Ocean Islanders have got hold of copies of my book, and are delighted that their story is being told for the first time in a general history.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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