Books interview: Michael Farthing

The former Sussex vice-chancellor on coming late to reading, his long fascination with India and different interpretations of the colonial era 

December 5, 2019
Michael Farthing

What sort of books inspired you as a child?
I did not grow up surrounded by books: my parents were avid readers who usually borrowed books from our local public library. I was slow to read and close to illiterate before I went to university, but as a child I enjoyed the Railway Books by the Reverend W. Audry and The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling, and I recall a great sense of pride when I completed my first Famous Five story by Enid Blyton. When I was an adolescent, my mother succeeded in introducing me to Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and Joseph Conrad’s The Rover.


Your new book describes your experiences in India over half a century. Which books first piqued your interest in the country?
I knew little about India before my first visit in 1969 but around that time I read V.S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness and Ronald Segal’s Crisis of India, both in their way rather gruelling, despairing texts. Nevertheless, I remained undaunted. Soon after returning to the UK, I read E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown, followed a year or two later by James Cameron’s An Indian Summer.


What books would you recommend as good overviews of Indian history?
India after Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha is a succinct, readable introduction to India’s recent history and The Billionaire Raj: A Journey Through India’s New Gilded Age by James Crabtree brings us right up to the present day. It is impossible to think about India without reflecting on the several centuries before it gained independence in 1947. I was moved by the counterpoise between Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India and Kartar Lalvani’s The Making of India: The Untold Story of British Enterprise. They both debate, using somewhat different lenses, the impact of a long colonial history on India today.


What books have you found useful as models in producing your own account?
I am not aware of a single model text that guided me through the project but have borrowed from multiple sources, notably from William Dalrymple’s books – particularly The Age of Kali: Indian Travels and Encounters, in which he builds his stories by listening to the experiences of others – and interestingly from the rich array of literary and historical fiction such as Train to Pakistan by Khushwant Singh, the short stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala published as a collection in A Stronger Climate and Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. I sign up to Hilary Mantel’s mantra of the enhanced transparency of historical fiction.


What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
Tim Bouverie’s Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War. I gave it to a good friend, an ardent Brexiteer, to ensure that this element of recent European history had not fallen from view. It is a detailed, well-researched, humanised account of the many interactions between national leaders that took us into the Second World War.


What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
William Dalrymple’s The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire. I am preparing my next project, so many of the books in front of me relate to this, including Lynne Olson’s Citizens of London: The Americans Who Stood with Britain in Its Darkest, Finest Hour, Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown, Eric Vuillard’s The Order of the Day and Claire Langhamer’s The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution.


Michael Farthing, now an honorary professor at UCL, was vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex from 2007 to 2016. His latest book is Finding India: A Fifty Year Magical, Medical Odyssey (Unicorn).

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