All the courses I chose for my history degree related to empire. The first was a whistle-stop tour, one empire a week, starting with the Portuguese. A later course on decolonisation was so unpopular, the lectures were attended only by Prince Edward, his bodyguards and me. Studying the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya made the deepest impression. It all proved immensely useful background to draw on during my years as a Guardian columnist. In the 2011 Arab spring when I wrote about Bahrain, a reader emailed to point out that the police chief regarded as central in the suppression of Mau Mau went on to work for the Bahraini police.
These were the seeds of my novel Ceremony of Innocence which opens in Iran in the late 60s: the empire is over and the British establishment is searching to secure its future as the Shah’s regime indulges in absurd extravagance. Following the story of one British family, I trace how in the following decades, Britain built a global defence and security industry out of the remains of empire, and spawned a service sector of finance, law and public relations. Britain is the world’s fourth largest exporter of arms, yet the British are adept at averting their eyes from this legacy or its consequences.
The aftermath of empire has rightly spawned a huge literature, and I found it excruciating to choose just 10.
1. Imperial Intimacies by Hazel V Carby
This book instantly stood out as the winner of the British Academy Nayef Al-Rodhan prize last year when I was on the jury. Carby is a professor at Yale, but this book is deeply personal as she brings academic research and analysis to bear on her family history. In the 18th century, a Lincolnshire farmer’s lad left home to make his fortune as a plantation owner and gave his name, Carby, to generations of mixed-race Jamaicans. In the second world war, her father joined up to fight for the empire, and then married a white British woman. Carby’s account of how her family were pulled apart by the systemic racism and intolerance of mixed-race marriages in the 50s and 60s is utterly shocking; she poignantly portrays how her father, a man of great dignity, had believed in the promises and ideals proclaimed by the British. Carby moves the reader through every possible response to the complex patterns of family lineage under empire.
2. In the Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
It’s hard not to write in superlatives of this extraordinary novel; it combines great intelligence (digressions on mathematics and philosophy) with a global story of love, alienation and belonging which moves vividly between South Kensington, the tiny excruciating details of Oxford racism and snobbery to the breathtaking drama of a catastrophic train crash in Bangladesh and on to the frenzied world of NGOs in Kabul in the wake of the Afghanistan invasion. Every paragraph takes you somewhere different – challenging you intellectually and emotionally with a sharp elegance: ”Everything seen by the west is seen through the west,” writes Rahman. There is no better guide to how empires don’t always end, more often simply changing shape and strategy to ensure continued dominance.
3. Exterminate All the Brutes by Sven Lindqvist
This book’s slimness is deceptive, because its thesis is huge and painfully compelling. In a travel diary of a journey through the Sahara by bus, the Swedish author reflects on the Joseph Conrad quote he uses as the title. “The Germans have been made sole scapegoats of [ideas of] extermination that are actually a common European heritage,” he argues, and suggests that all westerners, not just Hitler, “were soaked in the conviction that imperialism was a biologically necessary process, which, according to the laws of nature, leads to the inevitable destruction of the lower races.”
4. An End to Suffering by Pankaj Mishra
Mishra weaves reflections on the teachings of Buddhism into an account of travelling and living in the Himalayas. Buddhism has been repeatedly distorted by the west since the Victorians first Christianised it – an achievement exemplified by books such as The Light of Asia. One of the most pernicious and lasting impacts of empire was how it appropriated, warped or dismissed the cultures it colonised (in the case of Buddhism: how and why do so many gilt Buddhas end up in garden centres?) and Mishra is a sharp analyst of how to challenge the dominance of western tropes.
5. The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
This is one of his best. Crisply plotted across continents and never losing tight control of a complex story which repeatedly switches between the intimacies of love and the global politics of corporate power – in this case, international big pharma and its dastard deeds. As relevant as ever.
6. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A capacious sweep of history and intimate relationships which also works as a speed read on some of the biggest debates on post-imperial Africa. Colonially imposed borders, fragile nation states, white supremacy all feature in the lives of her vivid characters. Arguably the most predictable of my list, it had to be included because all three of my children read and loved it.
7. Old Filth by Jane Gardam
This is the perfect beach read, riveting and ambitious. It resonates with that rich vein of stories about homesick imperial children from Rudyard Kipling to Frances Hodgson Burnett. Many were deeply damaged emotionally by being transplanted from their loving ayahs (nannies) to indifferent, cold boarding schools, and this is tragically true of central character Old Filth – Sir Edward Feathers’ nickname, short for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong” – as it plays out over the course of his life.
8. Till the Sun Grows Cold by Maggie McCune
This is the family story of Emma McCune, the wife of a South Sudanese warlord who was killed in 1993 at the age of 28. A childhood friend, I had watched her evolve from gawky teenager to charismatic adventurer. Her mother poured her grief into this remarkable book. Born in Assam, Maggie was banished to a Worthing boarding house at nine and returned to the India she loved at 20, where she was swept into a tragic marriage with a tea planter. The family’s subsequent life in England proved disastrous as her husband turned to drink and affairs to soothe his loss of status before committing suicide. Emma grew up steeped in the ruins of these dreams and delusions of empire, and moved to Africa to live out her own version of them, surviving ambushes and bombing raids with the man who later became the vice-president of the newly independent South Sudan.
9. Empireland by Sathnam Sanghera
This is the book I had long thought of writing. Sanghera has produced a terrific sweep through the legacy of empire and it should be required reading on every school history course. He achieves a good balance between ensuring the reader learns a lot and yet doesn’t get overwhelmed by the scale of the subject. This is the quick, deep dive.
10. Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee
Apartheid was the great cause of the 70s and 80s; students campaigned for divestment and for scholarships for black students, marched and set up a continuous vigil in Trafalgar Square outside South Africa House. I read this book while doing a comparative course on race relations in the US and South Africa while at Harvard in 1987. The seminars were tense. Coetzee brought a brilliance of language to the horror of injustice: “He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything, as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.”