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Travel – Review of J.G. Farrell’s, The Hill Station (1981) : Shimla in India

May 12, 2012 3 comments

I’ve just finished reading J G Farrell’s half-completed novel, The Hill Station.  Farrell, a past Booker prize winner (1973) for The Siege of Krishnapur; recently picked out by UK Broadcaster, Jeremy Paxman as one of the nine books which have made him who he is, calling it a ‘stunning novel’. Farrell died in 1979 aged 44 after being washed away by a freak wave in a beach fishing accident in Ireland.

Between 1970 and 1978, Farrell wrote his Empire Trilogy: Troubles, The Siege of Krishnapur and The Singapore Grip. The Hill Station was supposed to be the final book of a quartet (similar to those of Paul Scott) but remained unfinished due to his untimely death.

Farrell had said in an Observer Magazine article,

‘The really interesting thing that’s happened during my lifetime has been the decline of the British Empire’.

In his writings, an absorbing collection of post-colonial fiction, he explored the economics and ethics of empire doing much to dismantle the staple elements of the British imperial story. This particular story is excellent in pointing up the hypocrisy and double-standards of the Raj, especially in a place like Simla, a cultural pressure cooker which many of those living there found ultimately unbearable.

For me, having visited Shimla (note post-independence name change) in northern India by hill railway from Kalka last year, this book brought back some wonderful memories. For the first three chapters I was back on the train: such marvellous detail and excellent descriptions for the journey up to Kalka; which was then the railhead for Simla. Anyone who’s travelled on a hill train in India will recognise it from this book. The remainder of the journey to Simla in those days was simply punishing. The 58 miles up into the hills were covered by Landau or by Kabul ponies pulling a ‘Tonga’.  

The novel evocatively recreates the Simla of the British Raj, something it shares with Kipling’s Kim.  If you’ve been to Shimla, you’ll recognise many of the places in the novel although interestingly Farrell never visited. He was due to go there in the autumn of 1979. Sadly, Farrell’s book finishes in mid-stream after just 150 wonderful pages, leaving one feeling bereft and a little short-changed. It ends just as it is getting into its stride but, thankfully, one of the author’s acquaintances has attempted to fill in the gaps and make sense of Farrell’s silence by developing the story further using his detailed research notes.

Not only is the book set in the India of the Victorian era but is one with a fascinating religious theme; the heated 19th century dispute between High Church Ritualism and Low Church Protestantism which led to the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874 (repealed in 1965).

The Hill Station is not kind to institutional Christianity. The Bishop of Simla goes not emerge from this very well, being as he is, more interested in maintaining the party line. However, Revd Kingston, the Anglican ritualist priest cast as the outsider, is given generous treatment by the author on account of the fact that his beliefs are actually central to the way he lives his life.

In the book, the arguments on both sides of this now ancient debate are superbly presented, predominately through the riveting dialogue given to the central characters. The characterisation is strong particularly in the case of the vaguely agnostic Scottish Doctor, McNabb. I loved the underlying tension developed by his longstanding attempt to write a treatise on Indian medicine when all along he was investigating the unexplained effects of religion on the human spirit.

These photographs of Shimla were taken on a visit to India in October 2011. The now fast fading Victorian architecture reflect something of Godalming High Street incongruously set 4,000 miles away in the Shivalik foothills of the Himalayas.

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Photography – Iconic images of India

November 5, 2011 1 comment

Iconic images of India from a visit to the Golden Triangle of Jaipur, Dehli and Agra plus Shimla in the Himalaya foothills.

Travel; Nice, Cote d’Azur – 10 things you should know

June 26, 2010 2 comments

1. Nice is the 5th largest city in France which owing to its earlier history exhibits more than just a few shades of its near-neighbour, Italy.  Situated in Provence on the Cote d’Azur, Nice is on the Mediterranean coast of France next door to Monaco and close to the Italian border.

2. If you can, it’s ideal to stay in the Old City which is also near to the Quartier du Port. That way, you’ll do far less walking – Nice is a big city and is fairly spread out. The old city (Vieille Ville) of Nice is a network of narrow alleys and tall buildings, often with Italian façades and beautiful wrought iron balconies. The city has a true café culture with bars and restaurants literally on every corner. It also felt a really safe place to walk in the evenings.

3. We can recommend the accommodation website www.yourniceapartment.com which offers good value, modern, self-catering accommodation and run by an English couple living in Nice.  It was a ‘nice’ touch to be met by Simon, the owner, right outside our apartment in the old city, having just got in from the train station via taxi (about 15mins to the old city).

4. Best travel guide? Try AA Citypack Guide to Nice with Foldout Map; ISBN 978-0-7495-5701-0

5. Here’s a suggestion for spending three days or a long week-end in Nice; First day – explore the Old City and the Port Area as there’s plenty to see and do.  Second day – take the local Bus (No. 112 from Gare Routiere) up to the spectacular ‘perched’ mountain village of Eze with stunning coastal views. (See https://eddieolliffe.wordpress.com/2010/04/06/photography-coastal-view-from-eze-village-cote-dazur-france) If you set out early, there is still time to catch the same bus on to spend time in Monaco Ville and Monte Carlo with its famous Casino (and unbelievably expensive cars), the Port area with its beautiful yachts’, the Palais Princier and some quite gorgeous public gardens! On your third day in Nice, why not walk the entire 4-mile length of the curving beachfront Promenade des Anglais and back again? – ideal for people-watching too! HereYou’ll see some superb architecture including the world-famous Hotel Negresco and the art deco styled Palais de la Mediterranee.

6. Make sure you find time during your stay to walk to the top of the Colline du Chateau (Castle Hill). This is a public park with marvellous views over the City, across to the airport and away to the Alps in the distance. It’s a good place to take a picnic as it also has high level views over the picturesque Port area with lots of boats and ferries coming and going.

7. When we visited (Spring 2010) France was no longer cheap for UK visitors as the GBP had seriously deteriorated against the Euro. Nice tends to be dearer than the rest of France anyway and the fruit and vegetable markets in particular seemed expensive.

8. How to save money? Eat from fixed price menus or choose ‘Plat du Jour’. Travel by bus along the Moyenne Corniche; particularly good value at 1-euro each way.  The new one-line tram system in Nice is also inexpensive at 1-euro per journey. These trams are quiet, look really sleek and are a quick way to get from the station into the old town. The best stop for the Old City is either Opera or Cathedrale.

9. Eating out in the Old City? If so, try Bar du Coin on Rue Droite for wonderful pizzas albeit in rather cramped conditions during their busy times; worth it for the food though! For an evening meal, how about Chez Juliette in Place Rossetti? – lots of atmosphere and very French’. The produce market in Cours Saleya is packed away in the evening and the Place becomes a great place to eat al fresco.

10. For details of overland rail travel to Nice from the UK, see my earlier blog entry; https://eddieolliffe.wordpress.com/2010/04/02/travel-by-eurostar-and-tgv-to-the-french-riviera/

Travel – By Eurostar and TGV to the French Riviera

April 2, 2010 1 comment

This is just the most wonderful trip. Just make sure that you treat the – very – long 12hr travel day as part of your holiday. It’s all extremely relaxing and you might never want to fly again! It probably takes longer than by air door-to-door but you’ll see so much more of France on the way. There is space to stretch out and breathe (unlike on the airlines) and plenty of time to just sit and ponder.

The best website for planning your rail trip to Europe is http://www.seat61.com. You can book your entire journey here online – for all Eurostar and French TGV services.

One money-saving secret gleaned from the Man-in-Seat-61 is the availability of low-price tickets for any UK connecting service to London International (CIV) at any time, even on those crowded early morning commuter trains. These tickets also include underground travel. Go to http://www.raileasy.co.uk for more info.

If you can afford it, book Leisure Class on Eurostar. An ‘at seat’ meal service is provided and the food is of very good quality – we enjoyed a cooked breakfast with champagne to celebrate the trip.  It’s good fun drinking bucks fizz and eating good ole Cumberland sausages 246ft under La Manche! You are in the Chunnel for just 20mins and it all seems slightly surreal, particularly if fish is on the menu.

It’s best to buy your Metro tickets at St Pancras before you leave. We didn’t and the queue in Paris for ticketing was really long and could be a bit of a concern if your time is short getting across Paris. BTW – the queue for taxis in Paris was even longer than for the Metro tickets!

Avoid going to Paris altogether by connecting to the SNCF TGV services at Lille Europe. We didn’t do this on the way south and had to cross a rather drizzly and busy French capital using its somewhat smelly Metro system.  Note – it can take a good 40mins to travel from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon.

Most TGV’s on this route are Duplex (double-deckers). When booking, try to sit upstairs as its lighter and the views are far better. If there are just two of you travelling, ask for ‘Duo’ (side by side) or ‘Club Duo’ (facing each other) seating.

Go first class on the TGV if you are able (some really good value tickets are available if you book ahead); the seats are wide and beautifully upholstered. It’s almost like sitting in your comfy armchair at home! The view is ever changing and you soon realise just how big a country France is to cross. After the TGV, the Eurostar seats and carpets felt ever so slightly tatty by contrast. However, the food service is better on Eurostar.

It’s quite acceptable to take your own picnic onto the TGV. After all, you’ll be on the train for a long while and the buffet car seemed expensive (especially with the present Euro exchange rate). However, this being France, the coffee on board is really good and the wine drinkable! We watched a number of French people unpacking some exciting goodies and eating a substantial meal – all carried on board in a variety of bags and boxes!

Oh – and make sure you ‘composte’ (validate) your ticket in the yellow or orange machines situated on the platform in French stations before you get on board. In the rush, we forgot – this is regarded as wholly unacceptable and could incur a fine. In our case, we survived the penalty but learnt the lesson!

To give some idea of how long the journey from the south of England to the south of France takes, here is our timetable (March 2010).

It was 12 hours door-to-door (including the one-hour clock change).

Out 06.40 – 08.15      Hampshire to London Waterloo, then via the underground

09.32 – 12.46      Eurostar – London St Pancras to Paris Gare du Nord

13.46 – 19.30      TGV Duplex – Paris Gare de Lyon to Nice, Cote d’Azur

Return 10.28 – 17.35      TGV Duplex – Nice, Cote d’Azur to Lille Europe

18.35 – 19.05      Eurostar – Lille Europe to London St Pancras

19.45 – 21.15      Via the underground to London Waterloo, then on to Hampshire

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