Leading Lights with Rani Singh : Sir David Gilmour Writes the First Account of the Everyday British in India

Thursday 23rd August 2018 07:43 EDT

Sir David Gilmour is one of Britain's most admired and accomplished historical writers and biographers. He has written prize-winning works on Kipling and Curzon. So why has he now turned his attention to that unique topic; the everyday British in India?

David Gilmour explains. “This is my fourth book on a British Indian subject. The first was about the most interesting viceroy (Lord Curzon), the second was about the finest British writer who lived in India (Rudyard Kipling), and the third was about the district officers and political agents of the Victorian Raj. After those I thought it was time to choose a less elitist subject and decided to write about the lives of every type of Briton who went to India: soldiers and planters, foresters and engineers, teachers, doctors and missionaries of both sexes. It is a big subject, but a serious social history of the British in India has not been written before, and I felt that it needed doing.”

The book is titled “The British in India, three centuries of ambition and experience,” and is an immersive portrait of the British in India from the seventh century to 1947.

David spent over four years researching and writing this book, but much of the necessary reading on the subject had already been done for previous books, he reveals.

“ I have been doing research in the archives of British India for nearly thirty years, since I started work on my biography of Lord Curzon. The most important place for documentary research on this subject is the old India Office Library, which is now part of the British Library, but I have also worked a good deal in the archives of, for example, the Centre for South Asian Studies in Cambridge, the National Army Museum, the Imperial War Museum and the National Library of Scotland. The most enjoyable places to do research, however, are private homes, where people have kept the letters and diaries of their ancestors.”

That last point shows the unique talent of Gilmour, for it is in those personal, private collections, as well as the hidden coffers of the British Library, that literary gold can be found.

The resulting text is fascinating, and the target audience is wide. Says David;

“As with my previous books, I hope that this one will appeal both to scholars and to anyone who is interested in history.”
The role of a good book is to reveal the unexpected, and David Gilmour himself was amazed by some of his research.
“One of the most surprising things I learnt was how small was the number of British people who lived in India. At the end of the nineteenth century millions of Britons emigrated to Australia and New Zealand, to Canada, South Africa and the United States, but in India the British population was never more than 155,000, about the size of the population of Nottingham at the time. And most of those did not choose to go there. Of course there were officers and officials and people who went out to have careers or to make money, but soldiers of the British Army were in India because their regiments were posted there, most women were in India because they married men with Indian careers, and of course their children had no choice but to be brought up where they were born.

As an author who struggles with discipline myself, I am always intrigued by the daily schedules of those who do it for a profession. So I asked David Gilmour about his daily routine and his take on the solitary aspects of authorship. He gave us a frank and slightly endearing answer.

"I have been writing books for nearly forty years, and my schedule has altered in that time. I write longer books now and I write them rather slowly. I have adopted Spanish hours, working long mornings and again in the late afternoon and evening. I live in the Oxfordshire countryside and if it’s a fine day I spend the afternoon gardening and walking the dogs; if it’s raining I might bake some bread or watch cricket on the television. Nowadays I read, plan, correct and type in the mornings, and I write from about 4.30 to 8pm. I still use a fountain pen, and only when I have corrected what I have written the following day do I type it out onto my computer. I don’t particularly enjoy the solitary aspects of the job, but I need them. I am not good at multi-tasking and I need to be myself in my study. Luckily my wife is very understanding."
"The British in India" by David Gilmour is published by Allen Lane on 6/9/18.
"It is a big subject, but a serious social history of the British in India has not been written before.

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