Andrew O’Hagan (2015) The Illuminations.

I didn’t know Andrew O’Hagan had Scottish roots and writes about Scotland. That puts him in the fast-lane of must-read books. The plot for The Illuminations is simple. Anne, aged 82, is losing her marbles. She’s in a sheltered-housing complex in Saltcoats. Her neighbour Maureen, aged 68, keeps an eye out for her. They’re friends, but even Jackie, the warden admits there’s only so much they can do. They’ve taped off Anne’s cooker so she can’t use it, in case she burns herself, but she’ll need more care than they can give.

‘Anne was fine most days, but she was changing. The rules at Lochraza Court stated clearly that any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home…

Anne used to read lots of books. Somebody said that she was a well-known photographer years ago and Maureen could believe it. You know by the way Anne arranged her lamps…She had the kind of rugs you couldn’t buy in Saltcoats.’

O’Hagan uses indirect narration and follows the voice of his character, the nosey neighbour, Maureen, and tells the reader her thoughts (look at those rugs, they’re really something) without the attributable phrase, she thought or felt. The omniscient narrator of nineteenth-century fiction is given short-shrift. Maureen mediates the action, and in a screen-play this would be indicated by a voice-over. But without the limitations of a first-person narrator, who is supposed to be telling the story, because the baton of narration can pass to other characters. The language they use will reflect who they are and what they are.

Captain Luke Campbell, aged 29, is serving with a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan, and he is Anne’s grandson. When the point of view shift to the douchebags he serves with such as teenagers Privates Dooley and Lennox a more humorous tone is adopted. Far from home, the boys don’t talk in complete sentence or use proper English. They talk about their fucken cars and their birds. I’m not sure how true the dialect is, but it seems authentic enough.

Maureen is trying to decipher the mystery that is Anne. And Captain Luke Campbell faces existential problems of what he’s doing with his life and what’s he’s doing in the army, especially since he’s got artistic tendencies and reads books like his gran. His father was an officer killed in Northern Ireland, and he’s not sure if he joined up to prove a point. But he’s little doubt that despite all the government rhetoric of winning hearts and minds, there’s something shameful about being part of an occupying army in Afghanistan. He quotes Kim and Rudyard Kipling’s The Great Game.  

What brings Luke Campbell home to take his gran for one final fling at the Blackpool Illuminations of the title is a war crime. Major Scullion, Luke’s commanding officer, had gone rogue and off-track. While delivering a water turbine he’s organised a trip to see the remains of one of the great ancient civilisations. He’d taken a few of the army boys and Captain Jamal Rashid of the affiliated Afghanistan army to help translate. They’d been stoned by some local kids while attending a wedding and responded by opening fire. Rashid was killed after killing an Ayrshire soldier.  Mass murder was committed.

But under the latest legislation proposed by the Tory government this wouldn’t be a crime. The Geneva Convention null and void. Luke wouldn’t have anything much to worry about. And Major Scullion needn’t face court martial or need to commit suicide.

The commanding officer of C-Company, and his troops, an American Division of the United States army which entered the hamlet of My Lai in Vietnam on the 16th March 1968, on a ‘search and destroy’ mission which killed an estimated 500 women, children and old men, would not be prosecuted for murder. But since they also raped women and girls—before they murdered them—they could be prosecuted for that.  

Fact can be stranger than fiction. Luke, obviously, not a Tory, resigns from the army, as it’s the only honourable thing to do. He helps peace together his gran’s fractured past and bring closure. I must admit dementia scares me more that death. And I have been more forgetful than normal. If I ever say anything good about the Tory Party and the little Trump, Johnson—shoot me. Poor people don’t count.  

Rudyard Kipling (1901 [2010]) Kim.


Rudyard Kipling (1901 [2010]) Kim.

What can I tell you about Rudyard Kipling and Kim, you don’t already know? I’ll start at the beginning. No, I’ll start at the end and try and explain my beginnings. Kim is a work of art, a classic text that captured me completely from the first to the last, 306 pages later and roams through India, some of Afghanistan (I think) and takes in Tibet and China. It looks at the world through a lens of mysticism and secularism and politics and yet is a spy novel, where the Great Game is played abroad and a coming-of-age novel in which the protagonist, Kim must learn to be a man. Rudyard Kipling, like Kim, was a polymath and poet. If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream- -and not make dreams your master;
If you can think- -and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on! ‘

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings- -nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And- -which is more- -you’ll be a Man, my son!

So, here we have it. All the things I love. Kim is a holy book and a secular book. A must read and –yet- for me a must not read. Kimball O’Hara is Irish and British and most importantly his mother was as white as his father. When the reader meets him on the first pages he is an orphan,

O ye who tread the Narrow Way

By Tophet-flare to Judgement Day,

Be gentle with the heathen’ pray!

To Buddha, at Kamakura!

He sat, in defiance of municipal orders, astride the gun Zam-Zammah on the brick platform, opposite the old Ajaib-Gher – the Wonder House, as the natives call the Lahore Museum. Who holds Zim-Zammah that ‘fire-breathing dragon’, holds the Punjab…

Britain, of course, holds the Punjab and India and the world in its grip. Three-quarters of the known population paying political and economic homage to the island nation. All is right in the world as long as the empire holds firm and the local populace know their place. If…Kim, for example, had an Indian mother, he would no longer be that rare breed, just another ‘nigger’ to be kept in line. After the Indian Mutiny the Empire rocks and Kim’s part in the great game would have begun earlier.

Kim’s pedigree is established early. His role is to establish at home in Britain, all is well in the world when we have people like Kim batting for us.  Pedigree or caste is as important in India as class is in Britain. And Kim, ‘The Friend of All the World’ is of the lower class, but not the lowest caste, but the exalted and highest in India. The lowest in Britain, the kind of boy that blacks his master’s shoes and fetches his horse and gig.

The women who looked after him insisted with tears that he should wear European clothes –trousers, a shirt, a battered hat. Kim found it easier to slip into Hindu or Mohammedan garb when engaged on certain businesses.

The Friend of All the World had to be white for it to be right that his Anglo schooling need taken place. A coloured child was a small thing. Colonel Creighton admitted such, he could have begun work as a disposable thirteen-year-old child and not a man-of-many parts of sixteen, working ostensibly for the British Ethological Society, but spying on what the Russian are doing in the mountains, what allies they have made and what promises of money have been made to kings and Raj. The Great Game is the only game. The bedrock of society is the white man, the Sahib, the master and that more than anything stuck in my craw.

But Kipling may be jingoist but on the page the fools are the white man and wisdom comes from the East. Characters live not because they are stereotypes but through the arc of who they are and where they want to go.

The Friends of All the World is servant to a Tibetian Lama who seeks a river to wash his sins away from and from the first pages to the last there is love here. And great beauty, I cannot give justice to. No straight lines wander the many paths of Kipling and Kim’s journey to manhood and knowing and find insight through all the ages as you travel. Read on.