Saturday, August 16, 2014

Toasted English by Marghanita Laski (The Riverside Press 1948)

It is difficult after the passage of years to recall the precise emotions with which the population of England switched on their radio sets one summer evening in 1945 and prepared to hear that the Tories had won the General Election. It is even harder to enter into the feelings of five British subjects marooned on an island in the inscrutable East awaiting news of the elected governors who were to lead the destinies of the distant nation, to which they hoped - with luck - soon to return.

They had all escaped together from Singapore. Chance had united them at the same quayside, had tumbled them into the same launch, had omitted to endow any of them with any sense of navigation. Chance had led them to the Swiss Family Robinson's island just off New Guinea; Father and Mother Robinson had long since died out, and the descendants of fritz, Ernest, Jack and Franz were running successful hotels in the Engadine, the Grindelwald, the Ticino, and one, indeed, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; but the far-seeing patriarch had so well and conveniently stocked his island before his demise at the age of one hundred and three that all amenities incumbent on comfortable living were to be found there. These included, fortunately, a store of tinned foods and a tin-opener; else, the other conveniences might have gone for nothing, for none of our party could cook.

This was composed as follows:

First, our hero, James Leigh-Smith. After reading for a Pass Degree at Oxford, James had, after some brief spells raising coffee in Brazil, sheep in Argentine, and nitrates in Chile, been sent to try his luck on an uncle's rubber plantation in Malaya. His enrolment in the local defence force had not served to stay the tragedy of 1941; nor had his knowledge of primary production processes stood him in much stead since.

Next, Martin Wetherall. Unlike James, Martin had taken a First at his university, and followed it up with a brilliant treatise on nuclear fission in the lesser molluscs. It was, then, inevitable that the exigencies of war should demand his presence in Singapore at the crucial moment, together with a party of fellow scientists all sent out at Government expense to study the effects of submarine blast on embryonic barnacle-geese.

Then Penelope Bosworth. Penelope was the eldest of the seven daughters of the Earl of Starveleigh. No one could say that she hadn't been given a fair chance. She had had her London season, her year in India, her six months in Cairo and Peking; but though her disposition was charming, her mousy appearance, exiguous wardrobe, and lack of any dowry, had so far failed to achieve results. Indeed, had it not been for the war, she would long since have been called home from the East to make way for her second sister Esmé.

Ughtred Thicknesse was descended from a cadet branch of the great Thicknesse family of Thorpnesse-in-Holdernesse. The power and plenty that had accrued to the family under the patronage of Ethelred and, later, Edward the Confessor, had long since been dissipated, and Ughtred, after a a lifetime of devoted service in Passport Control, had come to Singapore for his last post, being only three months from his retirement date when the avalanche overtook him.

None of them, even after five years on the island, knew anything of the background of Janice Brown. She was very blonde and very beautiful, and chance remarks she let fall seemed to indicate that at the time of the débâcle she had been staying at Raffles Hotel in a double room.