The importance of knowing one's place - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
Go to content

The importance of knowing one's place

This piece was written on 09 July 2011

Before you read this piece, please accept my assurance that my use of the word ‘native’ is not in any way ‘racist’; I have used it in the sense of being native to, ie born in, a country other than my native England.

I am halfway through watching the 14 episodes of Granada TV’s Jewel in the Crown based on the Raj Quartet books by Paul Scott. The 1985 TV series is currently being re-run on Sky Arts 2. I watched the original transmissions in 1985 and I read the four books then but this is the first time in 26 years that I’ve come back to them. I can’t remember what I thought of them first time around but this time I’ve seen the TV episodes in an entirely new light; they're embarrassingly detailed in revealing the truly awful British attitudes towards class and status in India in the 1940s. I’m not really enjoying the re-runs but they do make compelling viewing.

My own early education was at Church of England Primary and Junior Schools in Wakefield in those same 1940s where, apart from religion, reading, and writing, the main aim of the teachers seems to have been to introduce us to the British Empire. As a 6 or 7 year old I already knew why our British coins had the mysterious inscriptions ‘fid def, ind imp’ engraved on them. Maps and atlases, as is still well-known today, showed all British possessions in red. I remember learning about Dr Livingstone and missionaries, the various African and Indian peoples and, curiously, the pygmy people of the Belgian Congo. (I would not refer to them as pygmies these days.) The indigenous peoples were always referred to as 'natives' and men, women and children were usually clothed in little more than skimpy underwear because, we were told by our teachers, they lived in very hot climates. It was certainly made clear from what we were taught, that we were superior to all the natives because we were Christians. Dr Livingstone, we learned, was "a very good man" because he was trying to convert them all to Christianity.

I didn't meet any foreigners until I landed at RAF Idris, Tripoli, in 1954 at the end of my first flight en route to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In my diary that day I even wrote the word 'natives' – but not in a pejorative sense because, at the age of 18, I simply did not know how else to refer to the locals we came across. On my second day in Ceylon, I wandered off on my own on foot out of the main station entrance and across the main road into Negombo village in the heat of the early afternoon. (The RAF didn't work after 1300hrs.) I was appalled at the smells and the squalor – and I was alarmed at the curiosity and hostility that my presence caused. No-one had taught me about that at school. All the villagers knew that I was just out of UK because my face, arms and legs were pasty white – new arrivals from UK were referred to by servicemen who had been in country more than a week or two as ‘Moon-men’.

When I got back into the safety of the RAF camp I needed a toilet and I soon came across one, or to be precise three, on the side of one of the camp roads. The signs outside each indicated clearly that there were three categories of males (and toilets): British Officers; BORs; Natives. I had to ask a passing airman what BOR meant (British Other Ranks). There was no provision for females, British or otherwise, as far as I could see. I did, however, quickly learn that even in 1954 there were importance differences between the native Sinhalese and the Tamils: the latter cleaned toilets, the former certainly did not! (There is a sad, but true, story about the different status of Sinhalese and Tamils on my website here.) From that day forward, even after I had been commissioned, I never tried to be ‘superior’ to anyone. Years later I was reminded of that day in Ceylon when I watched, for the first time, the now famous Two Ronnies and John Cleese sketch about social status; “I look up to him but I look down on him”, said Ronnie Barker in the centre. Diminutive Ronnie Corbett on the end of the line merely said, “I know my place”.

What has all this to do with The Jewel in the Crown? Paul Scott painted a picture of the British Raj that my 1940s teachers, who almost certainly had never travelled beyond Yorkshire, would not have believed. The Two Ronnies would have needed dozens of people to help them if they wanted to depict the British Indian pecking order in their sketch. Even the British running the Indian Police (for example, Captain Merrick even after he left the police under dubious circumstances and joined the British Army) were considered inferior to the pukka sahibs and memsahibs. The only satisfaction I've got out of watching the TV series again is that the British living in India were themselves deemed inferior by those who lived ‘at home’ in UK. Everyone had to know their place!

There used to be a joke, I think it was meant to be a joke, when I first joined the RAF in 1953 that officers had ladies, senior NCOs had wives, and other ranks had women!! Some, but thankfully a small minority, of RAF officers’ wives could be very status conscious when speaking to those whom they considered their inferiors. On one occasion that I must not identify, but it was in the early 1970s, a very posh wife announced in a loud voice to a small group of us junior officers attending a social function in the Officers’ Mess: “As I was saying to the wing commander in bed last night. . . . ."  She was referring to her own husband! One of the young officers in our group was about to interrupt with one of his cutting quips for which he was well-known, but seeing warning glances from the rest of us, he remained silent. I still have no idea what the lady said to the wing commander on the previous night.

Back to content