Inner thoughts reveal a disturbing landscape when inadvertently released into public view. So it was with that crack in Jacob Rees Mogg’s impeccable public image of a man like a walking poker with a matching face. Would he have followed his own advice if trapped in such an unimaginable calamity as the fire in Grenfell Towers? Did he weigh up how he would have behaved in such a crisis before writing such condescending advice – just obey what the fire services were saying and stay put?
Not long ago, while rummaging around in the loft of our house, I happened on a dark green volume that I had found when a child in my father’s study. My father was born in Allahabad and there is still a Thornhill road there, a town partly planned by an ancestor. Long out of print is the account another ancestor, Mark Thornhill, wrote about his time as the Collector based in Muthura not far from Delhi, at the outbreak of the Indian Mutiny or, as it is called in India, the First War of Independence. The events he described were used in the novel that won the first Booker prize – The Siege of Krishnapur. As I turned the pages in that album, I found the images that haunted me as a child. One, in particular, I could not chase out of my mind: a man hanging, against a background of clouds, from the end of a very long pole. A hook pierced the flesh between his shoulders. Less frightening but equally haunting was another of a man with long matted hair and a beard sitting on something I first thought was a cushion, but was more likely his robe. He was playing a flute-like instrument to a snake coiled in front of him, its head upright, forked tongue out. It must have been swaying in front of him, trapped in the power of rhythm – even perhaps ravished by the melody. It clearly mesmerised performers and the crowd of onlookers alike. Years later I saw the very same scene on my way to the Ganges at Benares, now Varanasi. I still think of it as Benares because the large round engraved brass tray here in front of the fireplace in my study is made of ‘Benares brass’.
On my last visit to India some years ago I was invited into a house of a raj (I gathered this was some sort of honorific title) in Lucknow. A door opened from the dusty unpaved street into a room reminiscent of an Indian restaurant, lined from floor to ceiling with the deep crimson velvet that catches flavours and dust in its weave. It bore the weight of photos from floor to ceiling – family groups, ones of local dignitaries, portraits of Indian and international celebrities but with the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh in pride of place, so prominent that I was almost convinced that they had actually visited this velvety cube of a room peopled by photographic ghosts.
We had entered from the street. Opposite us was an inner door open to a symphony of whispers. Dishes appeared held by shadowy figures with light silk saris draped over the arms poking through it. The world of women was out there beyond the open door, not for our eyes but intriguing. We left through the same door on to the unpaved street parallel to the one that led to the monumental stone gate to the city. According to a note under the faded photo in my father’s album, to one side of the entrance gate and behind what I imagined were my host’s domestic quarters, there was a fountain, pouring water in the photo but now half-ruined and dry. On the other side of the jumble of buildings behind the fountain, the Raj, his brother and a servant stood outside the house to bid us farewell. They did not seem to notice what was right in front of their eyes on the other side of the unpaved street: the highest mound of rubbish I have ever seen. Over it, like beetles, crawled small children searching for anything of value to bargain with or sell, or even to eat. Our hosts stood yards away from these human ants, unperturbed, to wave us farewell.