Joanna Hodgkin

A Good(ish) Man in Burma

An enigma hiding in plain sight, Harold Fielding Hall has been the intermittent focus of my attention for forty years. Demanding to be explored, apparently easy to find out about, he is infinitely mysterious. 

So many unanswered questions. 

He made a walk-on appearance in Amateurs in Eden. In that book he was a paragraph; his story reveals the allure, the delusion and the tragedy of the imperial years and merits a proper study.

His book The Soul of a People is one of the best ever written about the Burmese. Olive Schreiner told a friend ‘It is the most beautiful book I ever read: it has been to me like rain falling on a dry thirsty ground to read it.’ Twenty years after publication the Manchester Guardian traced its unexpected success: ‘During the past ten years, among the houses of reflective folk, one has found “The Soul of a People” on the little table with the intimate books of companionship – with, let us say, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas a Kempis, Emerson’s Essays, Maeterlinck and later the poems of “AE” or Rabindranath Tagore.’ 

But his life ended with an act of random cruelty. Why?

 Harold Fielding Hall first went to Burma in 1885; lived and worked there for over twenty years. What has happened to the country and people he loved since the military coup in February 2021 would have broken his heart, and it can feel frivolous to explore his vanished world, when Myanmar today is suffering such horrors. 

What can we do? As individuals, nothing much. But we can support those working for the people of Myanmar. works for human rights, democracy and development in Burma. enables young Burmese to access higher education abroad. Their mission is ‘to offer hope – and practical, targeted support – to equip individuals and organisations with expertise to match their energy and dedication to build an alternative, peaceful future’.

A Good(ish) Man in Burma
March 30, 2023Advice for invaders: when planning to take over a sovereign state, it’s a good idea to frame it as a ‘rescue mission’. At the height of the imperial era, the British knew this well. By 1885, when they were getting ready to take over Upper Burma, a narrative was in place that provided a large enough fig leaf to justify what was in reality naked aggression. The Rangoon merchants in the south of Burma, which was already under British control, wanted free access to the teak forests and mines of the secret kingdom of Upper Burma, and there were fears that the French might step in first if the British delayed. The cover story was simple: King Thibaw was a ‘gin soaked tyrant’ straight out of the Arabian Nights and his ‘harridan queen’ was even worse. Every Burman ‘lived in the utmost abhorrence and terror’ (J George Scott). The young royals’ nadir of depravity was the massacre that took place soon after he came to the throne in 1878. As the 41st of the 48 sons of King Mindon, Thibaw’s legitimacy was far from certain: about 70 his rivals, male and female, were slaughtered in a night of utter savagery. Nearly 70 years later that cover story was still in place: ECV Foucar (They Reigned in Mandalay, 1946.) relished the gory details of Thibaw’s reign – ‘as bloodsmeared a page as any in the history of the human race, not excluding the troubled story of our own century.’ (Had he forgotten the massacre at Amritsar in 1919?) ‘The madness of the House of Alompra was at its height. It was almost as if Thibaw and his Queen Supayalat, who was also his step-sister, had come to realise that they were doomed, and with this foreknowledge entered upon a wild orgy of unbridled licence and bloodshed … (his dots)’ And much more of the same.  In fairness to Foucar, he admitted he had given his imagination free rein in writing this account. Whatever the errors of those staid Brits who ran the country after 1885 they paled into insignficance next to Thibaw and his ghastly bride.  And so it continues. The Kipling Society website offers the following on the last king of Burma: ‘the nonentity Theebaw, a shallow-brained alcoholic youth, dominated by his ignorant, greedy and vicious wife Soopaya-Lat, already his evil genius and soon to be a byword’. This vicious couple had 80 members of the royal family slaughtered though ‘to avoid the shedding of royal blood, these were clubbed or strangled, and thrown dead and alive into a trench which was then covered over and trampled by elephants. Theebaw and his court were surprised and resentful at the horror this aroused abroad, in the day of the electric telegraph.’ The legend has become fact. Until very recently, everyone was agreed in their condemnation.  Not quite everyone. Right from the first, Harold Fielding Hall was sceptical. He was exactly the same age as Thibaw – both born in 1859 – and he had been working in the teak forests of Upper Burma before the annexation. He heard the rumours. But he had his doubts: ‘As I got to know the people I became sure that these tales could not be true.’ He returned to Upper Burma the following year, this time as the lowliest of the low in the Indian civil Service, a position so low it did not even have an English name: for those first years he was a ‘myook’. Most myooks were Burmese natives. In the first two or three years after the annexation, he got to know the ordinary Burmese in a way that would soon be impossible. He kept trying to find out the truth about King Thibaw, Queen Supayalat and the night of the massacre. Eventually his persistance was rewarded. A young woman who had been an attendant to Queen Supayalat gradually told him all she could remember about her years in the famed palace of Mandalay. His conversations with Ma Thein Me gave Harold enough information to know what to ask those who remembered the night of the massacre.  It was a frequent topic of conversation among his companions while he was a lowly myook. ‘I have heard it spoken of many a time in the villages when work was over and cigars were lit in the warm dusk.’ The massacre was terrible, a violation of every Buddhist principle, but it prevented  a struggle in which many thousands would have died. Ma Thein Me said, ‘Have English queens never killed their rivals, or English kings allowed their wives to be executed?’ The consensus among the Burmese, and serious historians now, is that  the massacre was ordered by the last of King Mindon’s four principle queens: Sinpyumashin (Supayalat’s mother). When King Thibaw heard of the slaughter, he wept. As for that ‘gin-soaked’ accusation, there’s no evidence for it at all. Ma Thein Me said he only once tried alcohol, soon after coming to the throne. ‘One evening he was led away by some of his pages and drank some beer, and disgraced himself. But he only did it once, and he was dreadfully ashamed of himself that all the teaching of his days in the monastery were broken so quickly’. In all the long years of his exile there is no mention that he touched even beer. Harold never claims that Thibaw was a model king. How could he have been? He had been living in a monastery when he was catapulted onto the throne while still a teenager. A swift transition from dutiful obedience and study to great wealth and the trappings of power was disastrous. The picture that Ma Thein Me paints is of two young monarchs, much in love, who didn’t have the first idea how to rule, who never left the palace and were often badly advised. And the cruelty charge? Rivals to the queen might disappear suddenly and the maids of honour often had ‘frights’ but ‘when the danger was past, we quickly forgot about it’. This was not the British way. After the annexation, the imperial grip established a vast and complex machinery of ‘justice’ – a machinery that for the most part baffled the Burmese. ‘Perhaps he was a bad king,’ said Ma Thein Me, ‘but he was our own king, and we understood his ways, while those of the English Government are to us as strange as the ways of the gods, for no one can tell what they will do next, or why.’ Even so, the mud so merrily spattered over the last king, seems likely to stick for a while longer.   [...] Read more...
March 14, 2023The day Harold Fielding Hall died was not short on drama. Just hours before drawing his final breath, he wrote, or dictated, a new will which left everything to the four year old daughter of his cousin. His wife and children were to receive nothing. It’s a bit of a cliché in fiction, the deathbed altered will – I used it myself in my first psychological thriller, Dora’s Room – useful in a book, but horribly cruel in real life. His daughter Margaret was ten, his son just nine. Neither of them ever understood the reason for his decision, but the rejection hurt for the rest of their lives.  Harold died on 5th May 1917 at the Bell Inn, Brooke, a hamlet on the northern edge of the  New Forest. It’s a tranquil place now, and must have been even more sleepy then, the horror of the First World War and the recent turmoil in Russia for the most part far away. Its main claim to fame was its golf course, one of the oldest in the country, which had recently been extended to 18 holes. A photograph taken at about this time shows a solid, brick building which stands at the junction of three roads, with window boxes on the first floor, trimmed hedges and a sign advertising a tea garden at the back.  The main building remains little changed on the outside, though new buildings have been added to the side and the interior is much altered.  His will was clear, brief and uncompromising: once funeral expenses and debts have been paid, all the residue is to be placed ‘in trust for Nancy the daughter of my cousin … for her own use and benefit absolutely … ’ There’s no mention of his wife Evelyn or of their children. Harold and Evelyn were not divorced – she would never have countenanced that – but she had taken the children to live with her mother and sister a few years before, when it became impossible for them to continue living together as a family.  The will was witnessed by two people. One was H B Lawford, a solicitor whose address is given as 12 New Court Carey Street, London WC. Herbert Bowring Lawford had been born in 1864, so was five years younger than Harold. He was educated at Marlborough and at Trinity College Oxford. In 1915 he was listed in the London City Directory as a parliamentary agent with Sharpe, Prichard and co, 12 New Court. Like his father, he was a member of the Company of Drapers. Unlike Harold, who was almost entirely self taught and had begun his career in the colonial civil service at such a lowly level it had a Burmese name – myôok. For Harold, having such an eminent and established solicitor to draw up his new will was a sign of the progress he’d made in his life. The second witness was ‘A E Tyrell, Grosvenor House Southampton (Nurse)’. Grosvenor House in Southampton had recently been established as ‘a nursing home and private nurses’ institution’ by Julia Mocatta. It’s possible that Harold had been a patient there, as his health had been poor for many years. Or that he had been staying at the Bell Inn for some time and when his health deteriorated, a nurse was sent for.  Harold’s final will is unusual for another reason: he names ‘The Public Trustee’ as sole executor. The Public Trustee was to ‘sell call in collect and convert into money my said estate and effects in such a manner as he shall think fit’ and to invest the residue, after all necessary expenses had been met, ‘in trust’ for his cousin’s daughter.  The Public Trustee had been established in 1906, to provide for people who had difficulty finding a friend or relative to be executor. Generally the Public Trustee was appointed when the deceased had no known relatives. Harold had plenty, including a sister and Nancy’s father, his cousin, Thomas Myers. So why did a man well-provided with friends and relatives hand responsibility to the public trustee? Did he know that his friends and close relatives would disapprove of what he was doing so much they would refuse to act as executor? Or did he simply hope to spare them the controversy that was sure to follow? His death certificate is even more unusual. The cause of death is given as 1) Capillary Bronchitis and 2) Pulmonary Oedema, certified by Syer B White MB. That, and the fact that he is said to be a male of independent means are about the only sections that were correct in the original. The date was wrong: 4th May was written down – which was clearly impossible as his will was dated the following day. His age was given as 65 years; amended to ‘about 57’. His name was given as Harold Fielding Hall, but, the note beside in the margin stated it should have read ‘Harold Fielding Patrick Hall otherwise Harold Fielding-Hall’. All these corrections were made by ‘William Holloway Registrar’ who had drawn up the original document. His note reads, ‘corrected on 11th August 1917 by me W Holloway Registrar on production of Statutory Declarations made by Herbert Bowring Lawford and Amy Edith Tyrell’.  Someone familiar with these kind of records declared Harold’s to be the most amended death certificate she had ever seen.  All of which points to a degree of rush and confusion surrounding his death. It’s possible that in this third year of the war the Registrar was no longer competent, all the able younger men having been called up. It may be that when she learned what had happened Harold’s wife was threatening to contest the will, which given that it was dated the day after his apparent death, would indeed have been suspicious. It may be that the eminent HB Lawford, having witnessed the will, raced off to catch the last train back to London leaving the nurse to stay with the dying man and deal with the form filling that followed, and that she was over-hasty and got into a muddle. The details of that final day are both vivid and obscure. Trying to unravel them is critical to understanding much that went before. It’s a work in progress – and slow progress, at that.                             [...] Read more...
March 10, 2023In July 1905 a remarkable short story appeared in Temple Bar Magazine. Its author, Harold Fielding Hall, was well known for his book on Burmese society and religion, The Soul of a People, which was on the way to achieving almost cult status among Edwardian readers. It’s still in print – and still worth reading – more than 100 years later. He’s remembered now as the most sympathetic of the European observers of the Burmese.          He wrote several short stories, but ‘His Daughter’ is by far the most memorable. It concerns a middle-aged, former colonial civil servant, who goes in search of his illegitimate, mixed race daughter. The topic would have been challenging enough for his bourgeois readership, but the timing of its appearance is extraordinary.       In July, the month it was published, Harold Fielding Hall came back to England on the SS Staffordshire from Rangoon; he was planning to marry Margaret Evelyn Smith. He had served for twenty years as a colonial civil officer in Burma. Given the timing, publishing an account of a man’s desperate search for his missing child was not exactly tactful. What did she make of it? Did he persuade her, by changing the dates around, that it was something he’d heard from a colleague, nothing at all to do with him? ‘His Daughter’ was fiction, for sure, but she must have known that his fiction was almost always a way to deal with things that were troubling him. Like an abandoned daughter. All his life he fulminated against society’s hypocrisy around what he called ‘the flesh and the devil’, and advocated a more generous and realistic attitude to sexual arrangements. In the last years of his life he was still jotting down notes that reflected his obsession such as, ‘Almost all fathers adore their illegitimate children. If they abandon them it is because of the shame society attaches to it. If there was no shame the children would have a father and a name’.        ‘His Daughter’, the most vivid and heartfelt of all his stories, is surely based his own story.       It begins with an evocative description  of a bleak winter evening in London. ‘It rained a fine thin rain that floated in the air like mist. It hung upon the houses and closed in each street with dreary indistinctness, the lamps made red halos round them and dwindled in the distance to dim stars. The horses slipped on thee greasy roadway and those in the rank stood beneath their waterproofs with drooped heads.’      A man called simply Masterton turns with relief into the warmth of his club. ‘There was a feeling of ease, of comfort, of asylum that soothed him after the homeless desolation of the streets.’ The first friend he approaches is on his way to take ‘my girls’ to the theatre. Another who might have made up a rubber – four players were needed for a game of whist – is probably kept at home by his wife on account of the weather. ‘We aren’t all free men like you, Masterton,’ the friend says cheerfully. A young man he meets on the stairs and tries to persuade to stay with an offer of ‘fizz’ apologises, but he has just got engaged and is off to meet his fiancee. ‘Don’t wait talking to a stupid old man like me,’ Masterton tells him. ‘Run off, my boy. I am very glad. Good luck.’        Masterton finds two friends dining there and the three men talk over their meal ‘in the large room hung with pictures of soldiers and administrators famous in the East in their day’. The world they have left behind. ‘All the talk, all the names, all the stories were of the East where they had lived. Of the great city in which they had dined, of their own country, of Europe, there was never a word. It seemed as if they had ceased to live, and were only memories.’       One by one his companions leave him, but Masterton remains. ‘His rooms were near by, but of what use to go there? If one has to sit and smoke it is less lonely to do so by the fire in the club than in furnished chambers.’ Gloomily he imagines what the future might hold, how he might die with only a doctor and a nurse to keep him company, how news of his death might be received by his friends in the East, ‘Poor old Masterton! Not so old, either, only forty-eight!’ (In 1905 Harold Fielding Hall was 46.)        ‘And out of the fire rose memories of that other life where he had work, had friends, had an interest. Then he had a future. Now he had only a past.’       When he was working in the East he had mocked the men who married out there. It was no place for a wife, and most young wives left swiftly so married couples lived apart for years. But at least they had children. As Masterton reflects, ‘That was what man lived for, to have children – a daughter!’       At this thought, Masterton comes to a decision. He leaves the club, telling the porter he is going away, and doesn’t know when he will return. The scene now shifts abruptly to a town in Burma. Fielding Hall is unsparing as he describes Masterton’s response to the town he used to know so well. ‘The palms, the bamboo clumps, the thatched cottages, the brown people. He knew them all. At one time they had all spoken to him in a tongue he knew. Now they spoke no more. He even wondered if he did not hate them.’        He enters a convent; the Mother Superior and another nun receive him coolly. He has come about a girl who was given into their care, but the Mother Superior says she cannot give out information to just anyone. ‘I am her father,’ he tells her. Her response: She ‘bowed in cold acquiescence.’ All these years he has supported the girl, who goes by the name of Miss Jane Grey, anonymously, through a firm of solicitors. Now he wants to take her with him to England. He explains, ‘I have lived all my life out here, and there in England – it is lonely. My daughter will be someone to keep me company – even though her mother was Burmese.’        The nuns are surprised. He has come too late. The girl was eight when she came to the convent, but she had left three years before, when she was seventeen. For a while she had worked as a teacher. But at eighteen she married. A Burman. One final barb. The nun says:      ‘She never knew who her father was. You are late coming for her.’      ‘Too late,’ says Masterton.      ‘She often dreamed of her father,’ said the other sister. ‘She was my favourite. Poor little Jane.’      Masterton leaves with the name of his daughter’s husband, a clerk in a government office, and after several false attempts he finds someone who can direct him to her home. He goes down a lane which is bordered by hedges of oleander and hibiscus. On either side are neat houses in gardens gay with tropic flowers. Outside one house, ‘in the dust of the road were two naked babies who laughed and rolled’.      ‘But when they saw Masterton they ceased. They stared, and with a sudden puckering of little mouths they burst into a cry, and rising to their legs they staggered towards the gate. Warned by the cry, a woman came out of the house. She seemed like any other Burmese woman, somewhat untidy, bright, self-confident. Running to her babies she caught them in her arms. And as Masterton stood and watched he heard her soothing them and talking.    ‘ “ Tut, tut! Don’t cry. See, the ugly foreigner will go. Let’s hide.” And with a laugh Masterton’s daughter ran away from him with his grandchildren.      ‘He turned away. As he went there came upon him a despair, a loathing of himself, his life, of all about him. The setting glow in the sky, the great stars, the dusty streets, the houses, the people, the smells and sounds filled him with disgust. They were not his. He had given his life to them and he hated them. And the children hooted at him as he went.’                                            ‘His Daughter’ has a raw honesty unmatched in any of his other fiction. The evocation of the desperate loneliness of the man who has spent all his life in a distant culture and who, as his career draws to a close, returns ‘home’ only to discover that he belongs nowhere. The anguish of glimpsing his daughter, and the longed-for grandchildren – ‘that was what man lived for, to have children’ – only to find that he is now ‘the ugly foreigner’ and the gulf dividing them can never be bridged.        In 1905 Harold Fielding Hall must have thought he had escaped Masterton’s fate by marrying Margaret Evelyn. Perhaps his circumstances appeared so different that he was able to persuade his wife there was no resonance with his experience. They returned to Burma together. They had two children. He was at the peak of his career, both as a civil servant, and as a writer.       The marriage was not a success. He died estranged from wife and children – his English children.        And what of his Burmese family?        That is what I’ve been trying to discover.        [...] Read more...

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