Market Drayton February 25th 1992
Where does a fascination start? – Is it an inspiration, or because of bait? How do you know? A quibble, – perhaps; except my interest of British India started because the two were intertwined on the day I found myself, by fate or by accident I know not, at Market Drayton. However, on that February day I aspired no further than to find myself a place for refreshment, and then continue the lengthy journey to the Scottish Highlands. Once arrived, Market Dayton, with an ageing maturity, gained the better of me, persuading an hour in fascination and admiration of this, a traditional market town.
And her facades had taken time’s well, wrinkle limping building they are, scared little with passing centuries. Time’s present was preserving her and I am sure will wear time’s future well.
The main street is a charm of England. It is in such towns one’s imagination can fold back layers of time’s past – to see time. And I admit I have an imagination and can do justice to the history silently lecturing from the town’s seasoned buildings. I am no deaf Rubberneck who can see only the visual. Yes, – I too can see – understand the architecture from the early Tudor’s; the Elizabethan old poor house; Jacobean law courts; the cattle market built during the reign of good Scottish kings, and too, the rich Hanoverian style above the market square shops.
However, I too can hear the town crier of centuries past, bellow ‘Oh Ye! – Oh Ye!’ in calling, as he tells tales of woe; I stand – listening to a cock crowing at a watchman – and shudder with him, as he clutches close his robes. I too can smell the dawn mist as the bellman calls the hour, on the hour, every hour; – on a day the sun is breaking the early morning cold frost.
I too can heed the nights blanket of snow, troubled by a gust that clears the church tower; her gargoyles drip, part frozen, – the irritation of a soft, slow thawing nose.
I too hear heavy flakes, compressed under the boot of a melancholy hastening Jacobite; – he in fleeing off to the border lands. I too can smell the burnt tallow oil from the fellows pale blazing lamp; – he pulling it close to his coat – as he, tight-lipped, raps, as is appropriate, on an inn keepers door.
And so I walk as they did walk, to seize or snatch, to capture, and to indulge in there, as is mine, need to unwittingly beckon history with my yearning to be tutored. Have I shown how so little is needed to chase a trail, become interested and indulge in what it may entomb?
At Market Drayton on that break February morning, as I become dispirited by the chilliness of the wind blowing snow along the closed narrow cobbled high street, I was not to know I would be subjected to conversation that would betray my ignorance.
I stopped to read a blue plaque. As I tugged around me my heavy wool chequered coat, the thickness of which still failed to keep the shivery cold from my bones, this plaque set in the wall above one of the oldest, with the strangest of peculiarities I had seen in a building, simply stated “Clive of India: 1725 to 1774: Founder of the British Indian Empire was born within this parish.”
This name is more that the name of a respected resident, for this name I was to learn shortly, still rouses the passion of certain patriotic Englishman. But it was to India my thoughts went on reading that plaque. India is the land to incite; a stimulant to arouse all passions in all men. Not indifference. It may be anger, or hatred, or provocation, or anguish, or intrigue; as it draws devotion, or is it affection, or amour, or adoration; or is it the entirety? Never does it allow complacency; never does it allow relationships of indifference or understanding. Understand it was not a man called Clive I thought of on reading the blue plaque.
I know something of Clive’s story; in brief the founding father of an Indian Empire. But without conception or understanding of Clive’s place in history. In Market Drayton I was, by agitation, forced to ask how important is Robert Clive to English history?
By now I had to stride to preserve warmth; I could no longer keep mother Jack’s son from biting under my coat, just as I could no longer defer the reason for my visit. At that I retired to the nearest inn, The Clive & Coffyne ordered a pint and intended to sit at the fireside table.
“I see this is Clive of India Country” I said to man keenly filling my glass.
“I’y. That ‘ll be right.” Was all he cared to reply. Then, as if in reflection, “Tell me, what’ll you know of Clive?” A question he posed and expected an ignorant answer. I did not disappoint.
“Well” I said in deliberation. “I know India quite well.” Then I added – for no stronger reason than conversation. “I try and visit India once every few years to learn and understand more. But of Clive I know little.’ I tightening my bottom lip in the hope a little amused smile might dampen his disappointed.
I was wrong. He pulled up a stool too support his weight, and with an empty glass he waved as a conductors baton, I judge with the same infatuation and arousement. He then chastising me for being ill informed. “Now listen ‘ear lad; England greatest son was that man. A man who had brought great honour for ‘is country; new lands and great victories and all. And when England was at it’s knees, he destroyed the plans of that Frenchman Dupleix.” At that he turned his balding ageing head towards the fire. If times were not now so polite, I could see he would have spat scorn at the naming of the Frenchman. Clive I had heard of – Dupleix to my ignominy I had not.
Turning back, to my astonishment his anger suddenly raged and burnt again; his glass dancing high, enwrapped by long pointed gangly figures. “Raped by his own people was he; dragged through court and Parliament to be Chastised and Victimised was he!” Then – his glass fell and his mood quieted; the deep lined face of sorrow was dispirited a little furthermore. “And for what crime?” I was the solitary audience and I pleaded ignorance. As I endured the silence he continued with an anger nearing infuriation. “How can we sit ‘ear proud to be Englishman? – Are you, lad?” he asked, prodding rudely the troubled air with a nailess finger, “not proud of our statesmen? Not proud of our forefathers?”
It was his anger that had shaken me. After all, time is a healer; why was a publican festering indignation?
“Your anger shocks me. But I know little of the man you mention. I ask because of the plaque. No, I know nothing of the man with ‘of India’ suffix.”
A mean smile was upon his lips as he replied. “Oh you should lad. If one person is to be taught in our schools, the great man of Robert Clive stands tall, as tall as any English son; Nelson, Churchill, Wellington; shouldn’t he be there? He was truly great!” A rousing finish – then a stare.
“You do express anger and disagreement. Why do you feel the name Clive has been so diluted? Or did Clive never raise himself to the height of your plinth?” I saw his anger rise like mercury. I had insulted when meaning to discuss. His face, I could see by the flames of the fire, was a sea faring face; deeply lined, old from salt water; darkened from the exposed sun of a tropical life. Then, unexpectedly, and slowly, he came level with me. He allowed time to gaze into my eyes and having taken grip of his anger replied. “These are politically correct times son. It is time, we are told, to forget such times.”
He was I was informed from the old school of seafarers; jumping ships in the days before passports; in the days of Empire before the great wars, political correctness and the embarrassment of English heroes. And furthermore, strange as it may seem, the people I have found with the greatest sense of Englishness are those who had lived away from these perceived mighty shores. One of the finest Englishmen gentlemen I recall, in the Reform Club tradition, lived in Rangoon. His name I cannot remember, of little importance, the point I make is he studied his English history like a scholar; had the manners of an Etonian; and could talk of English politics as a member of the Lords. He had been born, bred and will die in Burma. Incidentally, during the brief years of the war he went to India, as far as travel ever allowed. Such men have distorted views, graceful views, of their own mother country.
The inn keeper rose, his back to the light of the fire, throwing shadow. And having observed me again, he concluded with dark words, “Ye ignorant young man. Until you’d know the stories of Arni, Conjeverum, Kaveripak, Trichinopoly, and dare I to hope you know of – Arcot – think before you’d go call yourself an Englishman!”
The views the inn keeper portrayed, although not with malaise, were inflamed, – yes he was tender with a passion I had no understanding off. And may be for that reason I listen. Once he had aired this passion he returned to his work.
If you ever meet this unnamed inn keeper, be so kind as to thank him for me. For his passion, on a cold February, has been the inspiration to understand India better. His lively, vivid and inspired anger propelled my imagination and so I set out to understand the people, Clive, Duplex, Siraj ud-Daulah, Stinger Laurence, Hastings, better by visit their places of unknown history, – Arcot, Murshidabad, Plessey, Rajmahal, Calcutta – who all play a small part in Indian history called the Days of the Raj.