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J. G. Farrell: The Singapore Grip

This is the third, final and by far the longest of Farrell’s Empire trilogy. The title refers, at least in part to a sexual practice apparently used by the local prostitutes but Farrell uses it in other ways. Matthew Webb, who is fairly innocent and naive says It’s the grip of our Western culture and economy on the Far East… It’s the stranglehold of capital on the traditional cultures of Malaya, China, Burma, Java, Indo-China and even India herself! It’s the doing of things our way … I mean, it’s the pursuit of self-interest rather than of the common interest! Both are themes of this book – sex for money and the British colonial exploitation of Singapore and other Far East colonies. As this is something of a running joke, Singapore Grip is also used for an illness, for a type of bag and even a type of handshake. This is a long book so there are a lot of running jokes in it.

The novel is set in Singapore and as with Ireland in the first book of the trilogy the British colonial powers have not seen the writing on the wall. The book opens in 1937 but soon moves to 1941, the year of Pearl Harbour. We follow the Blackett family.

Walter Blackett is the head of Blackett and Webb, a successful trading company. He had joined Mr. Webb’s company (Mr.Webb is invariably called Mr. Webb; he does not seem to have a first name). Together they had done very well in fields such as rice and rubber, exploiting the natives and the markets. Mr Webb had since more or less retired but still owns a a good part of the company. Walter still gets on with him and admires him. He will die fairly early in the book.

Walter had hoped that Webb would leave the company to him, even though he had a son called Matthew. Webb had been married but his wife lived in England while he stayed in Singapore, so they saw each other rarely. Matthew stayed in Europe, went to Oxford and then seemed to move around. Kate Blackett, Walter’s youngest daughter, had met him briefly on a visit to London but no-one else had seen him for years. He reappears after his father’s death and after World War II has started in Europe.

Walter has an older son, Monty. Neither Walter nor we are impressed with him. He is not very bright, impetuous, racist and greedy. Walter’s older daughter, Joan, is the bright one. Initially, she is a trouble to her parents, as she has a succession of unsuitable boyfriends and will not be charmed by the few suitable prospects her mother trails in front of her but she does mature. Once he knew that Matthew was going to inherit, Walter tried to pimp her to him and she is not inherently opposed to the idea. Walter will continue to pimp her throughout the book.

Meanwhile, in the real world, the war is approaching, the Japanese are approaching, the workers are striking and Walter is worried about business. As he says, his familiar world is crumbling.

The remainder of this book (several hundred pages) is now taken up with the impending Japanese invasion. We know it is going to happen but the British cannot imagine that it is. The military (including the navy and RAF) seem woefully unprepared. Much of their squabbling is not with the Japanese but with one another. We also follow some of the Japanese as they prepare to die for the Emperor and they seem much more organised and efficient.

The British have had some jungle training but they are still very much lacking in appropriate resources (anti-tank weapons and RAF support, for example) and are caught unawares by the Japanese tactics. After Pearl Harbour and the sinking of the HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales, the Japanese essentially control the Pacific.

Back in Singapore, Walter is worried more about how he is going to ship his extensive stocks of rubber, about whether Matthew and Joan will marry and about the Jubilee celebrations his firm is preparing. Though there are regular air-raids and there is continued bad news from the military front, the British in Singapore are confident that the Japanese will be repulsed. Life more or less goes on as normal, apart from the air-raids.

Only towards the end of the book do the British finally realise that the game is up and, inevitably, mass panic ensures as it is every man for himself (most of the women have already gone).

As well as showing the incompetence, the hypocrisy, the self-satisfied approach, the exploitation of the native population and the greed of the British, Farrell also has a few characters to broaden the perspective. Matthew Webb is the conscience of the British, always berating them for their ruthless exploitation of the natives. The native masses are worse off than before. For them the coming of Capitalism has really been like the spreading of a disease. Their culture is gone, their food is worse and their communities have been broken up by the need to migrate for work on estates and in paddy fields. He had worked for an organisation connected to the League of Nations and he is also highly critical of the British hypocrisy and pragmatism in foreign affairs. He, too, is somewhat hypocritical, getting quite annoyed when a Chinese man criticises the British in the same way as he had criticised them. Interestingly, right at the very end, Matthew has one of the characters in 1976 point out that the natives are no better off under their own people after independence than they were under the British.

We also have a token French man, who has escaped from Indo-China, a token American, a decent man on the whole, even if it is not clear what he is doing in Singapore (Americans, thought Walter, are vulgar: but no one had better taste than Ehrendorf. They are loud: no one more soft-spoken. They have no culture: Walter had yet to meet anyone more cultured, better educated, better mannered, more tactful and well-informed. The fellow, amazing though it might seem to Walter’s jaundiced eye, was quite simply a gentleman) and Major Brendan Archer whom we first met in the first book, who turns up in Singapore and also represents the decent man. We also even meet various Japanese soldiers and see their perspective.

Farrell, though British himself, clearly recognises the many faults of the British. They are mocked throughout this book, as they had been in the previous books. Their adherence to norms of behaviour (the sudden collapse, which you could almost feel in the air, of normal standards of behaviour was the most frightening thing of all, more frightening even than the Japanese bombers) which are not everyone else’s norms is continually mocked. (One British soldier, for example, is particularly outraged when a Japanese vehicle used in the attack is criticised not for attacking the British but because it did not have its headlights on after dark.)

This is a very long book and I have to admit to enjoying long novels. We get to know the characters and we learn a lot about the conduct of the war, from both sides. It is funny but also very serious. It is a fitting end to Farrell’s damnation of British colonialism, particularly in its waning years. It is sad that he died prematurely, while writing another book on India. Had he lived, I am sure that he would have been hailed as one of the great English writers.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson