Excerpt from The Trouser People by Andrew Marshall, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Trouser People

A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire

by Andrew Marshall

The Trouser People
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2002, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Jul 2003, 320 pages

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The celebrations started up again. The deer reappeared, wilder this time, twitching, pouncing, pestered into a whirling frenzy by boy soldiers. A monster cheroot was put in my mouth and lit, and in the fragrant burst of light-headedness that followed I found myself dancing around the deer too.

On the stage, a couple in Shan national dress began to dance, and the bamboo floor trampolined gently beneath them. They were accompanied by traditional Shan music, pre-recorded and played back through a scratchy sound system at a volume that made my internal organs vibrate. I was shown to a raised bamboo sleeping area reserved for honoured guests –- right next to the loudspeakers. The Associated Press photographer lay beside me and groaned.

'It sounds like a poor defenceless animal being slammed over and over and over in car door,' he said. Then he wrapped a blanket around his head and, to my great envy, fell fast asleep.

* * *

It was the diaries that had brought me here. Only a few months before, but a world away, I had sat in the pin-drop silence of the British Library in London poring over a collection of nineteenth-century notebooks. Only a handful of determined scholars had ever dusted them off before me, and I could understand why. Blotched with jungle mould, and unimproved by later decades in a damp Sussex attic, the diaries were virtually illegible. But I read them with growing excitement.

They had belonged to Sir J. George Scott, an unsung Victorian adventurer, war correspondent, photographer and sportsman with a fondness for gargantuan pith helmets and a bluffness of expression that bordered on the Pythonesque. 'Stepped on something soft and wobbly,' he recorded in his diary one dark night. 'Struck match, found it was a dead Chinaman.' Born in 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, George Scott was a natural imperialist who was instrumental in imposing British colonial rule in Upper Burma. Armed with nothing more than the moral force of the Raj, this diminutive preacher's son from Fife hacked, bullied and charmed his way through the uncharted Burmese highlands. The diaries noted jungle firefights with angry natives, bullets flying everywhere, and as Scott strode unarmed into a hail of spears and buckshot there were manly exchanges like this:

'Have revolver if you are going on,' called out the Colonel.

'Send me box of matches, my pipe's out,' returned Scott.

Part of Scott's job was to map the lawless frontiers of this 'geographical nowhere' with China, and for years the Indian Empire's easternmost land border was marked by something called the 'Scott Line'. But he also widened the imperial goalposts in another way: he introduced football to Burma, where today it is the national sport. The boisterous Burmese loved the game, Scott noted, 'because it's just like fighting'.

Reading the diaries, I formed an impression of Scott as bluff, mouthy and artless -- a kind of Victorian-era New Lad larging it through the imperial hinterlands. But that was only half the story. Scott was also a pioneering photographer, as well as a gifted and prolific writer. His masterpiece, The Burman (1882), still in print today, was an unrivalled authority on everything Burmese, from ear-boring and exorcism to monastery construction and the funeral requirements of sacred white elephants. Two genres he spectacularly failed to master were adventure yarns –- he penned strikingly bad novels -– and Foreign Office dispatches. 'Truly Indian in its prolixity,' remarked a shattered British official who read one of his epic reports.

Scott spent most of his working life in the mountains that now brooded massively in the darkness all around me. Ancient migration routes between India, China, Tibet and Assam had seeded this wilderness with a baffling array of ethnic groups, each evolving outlandish customs quite distinct from those of the majority Burman people who populated the lowlands. Some tribes ruled mountain fiefdoms half the size of England; others occupied a single, remote hilltop and spoke a language unintelligible to their neighbours in the valley below. Scott plunged into this great unknown to record tribal customs and photograph a way of life that had remained unchanged for centuries. One of these tribes was the ferocious Wild Wa – headhunters with betel-blackened teeth who lived in skull-ringed mud fortresses and, rather incongruously considering their savage reputation, claimed to be descended from tadpoles. Negotiating jungle paths strewn with decapitated corpses, Scott became the first European to study them in depth. Cunningly, he once disarmed a party of headhunters by telling a joke so funny that it survived being translated through four separate tribal languages before reaching the Wa tongue. Though unbelievably dirty and permanently drunk, the Wa made a favourable impression on Scott. 'They are an exceedingly well-behaved, industrious, and estimable race,' he concluded, 'were it not for the one foible of cutting strangers' heads off and neglecting ever to wash themselves.'

Copyright Andrew Marshall, 2002. All rights reserved.

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