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Review by Philip Plumb:
Lacquer work is based on the remarkable properties of the resin of a tree common in much of Southeast Asia, Gluta Usitata. The sap is harvested from the tree by tapping, and can be used as a coating on many surfaces: bamboo, wood, cane, palm-leaf, metal and leather. This lacquer work is found in many forms and for many uses, particularly as vessels. Inscriptions on Burmese lacquer are a most important source of folklore and legend as well as history. Today, Burma is a country which those who know it love and (partly) understand, but circumstances over the past fifty or so years have imposed a wall around it and it has become one of the most inaccessible areas of the world in terms of getting to know it better. There must be a warm welcome therefore for all attempts to make this attractive combination of art and usefulness more widely known and appreciated.
Visions from the Golden Land
by Ralph Isaacs and T Richard Blurton
11 inches by 8; 240 pages;
150 colour pictures, 50 bw
Order from The Marketing Executive,
British Museum Press,
46 Bloomsbury St,
London WC1B 3QQ
Visions from the Golden Land is ostensibly the catalogue of an exhibition held at the British Museum on 8th April to 13th August, 2000, but is really much more than that. The exhibition was inspired by the donation of the Ralph and Ruth Isaacs Collection of 269 items of Burmese lacquerware to the Museum. This generous gift transformed the holdings of the Museum, not only in the number of items but in the scope of their collection and the possibilities if increasing knowledge of this important art of a beautiful land.NB - a review by Anna Allott of the British Museum's exhibition, Burma and the Art of Lacquer is available to members of the Britain-Burma Society, in the members' area of this web site.
The collection was built up during the five years when Ralph was Director of the British Council in Rangoon (although for political reasons he was known as the Cultural Attachť) and he and his wife, Ruth, spent much time and effort in the study of Burmese art in many aspects. On a short tour visiting Burmese libraries in November 1992 I had the pleasure of visiting Ralph and Ruth in Rangoon and seeing some of the artefacts they had acquired.
T. Richard Blurton is a Curator in the Department of Oriental Antiquities at the British Museum and has given talks to the Society on Burmese art. The authors have given us a reference book on the subject which contains a historical sketch of the country, including the importance; of Buddhism to its people; an outline of the history of lacquer and the techniques of production (including photographs of work carried out in the Htun Lacquer Workshop in New ), a study of inscriptions on lacquerware; the betel chewing habit and the betel box; lacquerware makers and workshops; a glossary, and a very useful bibliography.
The exhibition catalogue, of course, forms the main substance of the book and because items were loaned by many other institutions such as the Victoria and Albert museum, the British Library, the Liverpool Museum and the Ipswich Museum as well as various individual collectors, the exhibition was a comprehensive guide to the subject. The generous acknowledgements show how many experts contributed to the scope of the information displayed (and how much hard work must be done to produce a publication of this value and authority).
Those who missed the Exhibition will have lost an opportunity to marvel at the glories of lacquer and the art of the Burmese nation. At least they can partly remedy this by reading Visions from the Golden Land.
by Shelby Tucker
Published by The Radcliffe Press,
UK add £1.95 p&p for first
book, 75p subsequent.
Overseas: £6.50 by air,
£2.95 by surface.
A full review
by Philip Plumb of Among Insurgents can be read in our members' area - here are some extracts from it.|
Shelby Tucker, an American who read law at Oxford, had made previous excursions into countries where life was not normal: Algeria at war; China in 1957 against a ban imposed by the State Department; Ethiopia when that country had closed its land border with the Sudan and so on - consequently the Burma venture described in Among Insurgents was not out of character.
One thing that his wife had insisted on what that he should take a companion, and he recruited a 23-year-old ex Swedish Army officer, Mats, who was some 6 ft 4 ins tall, a useful size in an emergency.
Tucker and Larsson (Mats) chose to enter Burma from the Chinese side. They were to regret the lack of a large scale map as they tried to take advice offered by various informants as to the best place to enter Burma somewhere in the area of Wanding. Various entry points were considered and discarded. At last they were in Burma. As members of various warring factions are encountered, Tucker introduces them by background historical information. For example, when they meet Generals Kyi Myint and Aung Gyi, the commanders of the Northern Bureau of the People's Army, Communist Party of Burma, he explains the CPB's formation and the massacres carried out by the Burma Independence Army on the Karens and on the Kachins. The Northern Bureau were not wholly hostile to their venture but decided to pass them over to the Kachin Independence Army at Pajau Bum. Here they heard the other side of the opium question: the Kachins could not understand the objections from the West as they used opium for veterinary and medical applications. It was the remedy for diarrhoea, dysentery and various fevers among other uses.
The Kachins proved a strong attraction to the author. Not a great deal had been written about them in post-Independence years and Tucker, in this stylishly written book, throws much light on their aspirations, activities and insouciance. On arriving at the KIA headquarters, Tucker asked, "Do I understand correctly that the Burma Army is just beyond that ridge, only five miles to the west of us?" "About a mile from us", corrected Zau Mai, Chief of Staff of the KIA. "But you are surrounded?" "They also are surrounded."
On foot, by car and on elephants the pair travelled to Hidden Valley, skirting Myitkyina and Sumprabum. On 2nd April, 1989, they reached the jutting peaks of the Patkai divide and Tucker had achieved his dream of 27 years. Whatever now lay in store for him he had walked across Burma. Quite a lot was in store as in Miau, the Indian Army arrested them and locked them in Circuit House in a room named Dawn Calm. But three months later they were able to leave.
Shelby Tucker had no financial backing when he set out on his journey and at the time had no intention of writing a book about the experience, indeed claiming that would have spoiled the adventure. The book he has now produced, with its maps, lists of dramatis personae, bibliography, chronological guide to the Burmese Civil War and interpolated explanations of much recent Burmese history, is a real contribution to understanding that currently sad, but fundamentally joyous, country.
The Glass Palace is a family saga set within a firm historical narrative. The story begins with the arrival of British troops in Mandalay in 1885 and ends in 1996, the action moving back and forth between Burma, India, Malaya and Singapore. One cannot but admire the author‚s knowledge of, and his control over, this time-span and geographical range, and in general the writing is of a high standard.
The Glass Palace
by Amitav Ghosh
Hardback, 552 pages
Published by HarperCollins Publishers,
77-85 Fulham Palace Road,
London W6 8JB
In the early chapters on Thibaw‚s exile in Ratnagiri, Ghosh uses his fertile imagination to embellish research by Desai (1967)*, though sometimes - as when he describes the closing years of Supayalat‚s life - his prose becomes somewhat history-book-ish. Period detail, though well-researched, sometimes becomes obtrusive. For example, whenever cars are mentioned (as on p.218) the model and its specifications are gratuitously provided. Although the action is well narrated, it gradually becomes overlaid with a jarring tone as the author grinds an axe about the disaffection of Indian troops before, during and after World War II. This is a valid theme integral to the plot, but it tends to become over-insistent.|
Well researched though the book is, it nevertheless contains a few startling inaccuracies. One cannot, for example, travel 'upriver, through Meiktila, past Mandalay to the tiny town of Mawlaik' (p.468); the particle la in Malaysian English is not an 'interrogative' (p.498); and a Burmese Buddhist nun does not wear 'a saffron robe' (p.530). I also have the impression that the book was finished in a hurry as several loose ends were not tied up, and it is a pity that (probably because of a misplaced word) the final line does not make sense.
Nevertheless, it would be churlish to end on such a negative note. I found this substantial and unusual novel not only instructive but also a good read.
Gerry Abbott October 2000
*Desai, W.A. 1967 Deposed King Thibaw of Burma in India, 1885-1916.
Through the Jungle of Death -
A Boy's Escape from Wartime Burma
by Stephen Brookes
Hardback, 272 pages
Published by John Murray,
50 Albemarle Street,
London W1X 4BD
Shop price: £16.99
Discounted price for
Society members: £14.00
(from Discounts web page)
Review by Maureen Baird-Murray, author of A World Overturned. Her own father lost his life after trekking from Burma into India in 1942, following the Japanese invasion of Burma.
Stephen Brookes was born in 1930 to British Army Surgeon Major William Lingfield Brookes and his very much younger Burmese wife Ma Sein (Miss Diamond). He was the youngest of eleven children, three of whom were from a previous marriage. The book opens with a nostalgic description of the tranquil paradise in Maymyo and his beloved Lingfield.
But the precious years of peace were soon to give way to a bewildering and horrifying time, as Japan bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941, and Britain and America as a result declared war on Japan. Finally the bombs were directed on Rangoon on December 23, and by January 1942 the Japanese entered Burma in strength.Maureen Baird-Murray
Young Stephen at 11 was scarcely aware of outside events until the death of his brother Richard in a bombing raid brought a frightening sense of reality. The family were now forced to leave, and arrangements for escape to China were made. The children, who were kept ignorant of the facts, were stricken with anxiety and fear. In April 1942 they reached Mangshih in China in a truck. Here the plan was to continue the journey to Kunming whence the family would fly to India while the Major (aged 70) returned to Burma to help the wounded and dying. But the mother stubbornly refused to be separated from her husband and objected strongly to the family being split up. Thus an ideal opportunity for escape was frittered away, and unbelievably, the decision was taken to return to Burma towards the advancing Japanese. Needless to say they did not encounter any traffic since everyone else was fleeing the Japanese, and they reached Myitkyina with only a spine-tingling lead over the advancing Japanese forces.
Now the urgent desire was to board one of the two Dakotas which would take them to India. Amid harrowing scenes of suffering caused by the inevitable stampede for a place, young Stephen could have made it on his own, for an airman with outstretched hand was about to haul him in. But at that very moment in the distance he heard the screams of his mother not to leave them and Stephen turned his back on individual self preservation. In fact it was a lucky thing that he did so, for in the next few minutes both Dakotas were shot down by a Japanese plane and Myitkyina airfield was closed. To all intents and purposes the Brookes family had lost their battle and there was nothing left but to join the stream of refugees fleeing in their thousands northward to the unknown.
And so began the ghastly trek, ill-prepared, without medicines, with all manner of transportation from barrows overladen with children to bicycles, army trucks, cattle and the occasional elephant. Early in May the monsoons began, turning rivers which in the dry season were hardly more than a trickle into raging torrents, and jungle paths into treacherous and slippery slopes. The sight of rotting corpses became such a familiar sight that young Stephen became inured to the process of death. In 13 days they had trekked 68 miles to reach the end of the Kumon range and descended into the Hukawng Valley, more than 100 miles wide, known as the Valley of Death because here in the previous year 150 inhabitants had been massacred by a Naga tribe.
By now, dead bodies numbered more than the trekkers. Only a prodigious will to survive kept them going until they reached Shingbwiyang, there to be met with the greatest disappointment of their trek. Incredibly the civil and military authorities had decided to close the route to the Pangsau pass until the rains had ended. To add to their troubles the administrator, Clive North, to whom they had given hospitality in the past, now refused them food and shelter, possibly because of his prejudice against the father's Burmese wife. Here they were to stay from May to October 1942, sharing a long house which was liked to Dante's Inferno, with rotting corpses all around them. Unsurprisingly the father, weakened by the hardships of the trek, succumbed to an attack of Blackwater Fever, and young Stephen found himself head of the family at the age of 12. It was not until late in September that they were allowed to continue their journey through the Pangsau pass. The end of the trek to safety in India finally came on 24th October 1942, totalling a distance of 421 miles.
Throughout the narrative the indomitable courage and spirit of the boy Stephen stands out. He writes movingly of his family, of his father loving but stern and at times misguided in the decisions he takes, who is prepared to do the unthinkable and shoot them all rather than let them fall into the hands of the Japanese. It is hard to keep back the tears when his sister with wrenching sobs is forced to throw her wedding dress overboard. The desolation is complete. Yet the boy adapts unconsciously to the new circumstances forced on him and develops complete self-reliance, and a remarkable will to survive.
Perhaps I had a stronger interest than most to read this account, for my own father Edward Rossiter with a large party had made a similar trek through the Chaukkan pass, further north into India. I had only a sketchy outline of the disasters he encountered until I read Stephen Brookes' story, which filled in most of the gaps and I am grateful to him for the new knowledge. Having read of his ordeals I am glad that I was left in the convent in Kalaw when the Japanese entered Burma. I shudder to think that it could nearly have been my fate also.
I almost wish the book had ended with their final escape into India, without the epilogue, for it is sad to know that the Brookes family never recovered from the terror of their escape and lost touch with each other altogether except with his sister Maisie for the purpose of writing this book. But often his spirit returns to the places of his enchanted childhood and this I hope brings him the peace he deserves.