Flying from Donald Trump to the beautiful ruins of another empire

Tucker Carlson’s diary: The aesthetic merits of British colonialism; Mumbai’s building boom; the ends of empires

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Just as the presidential race in America started to get really crazy, I left for India. On the morning of the South Carolina primary, I interviewed Donald Trump from a restaurant near the state capitol. By the next afternoon I was dodging mopeds in a traffic circle in Mumbai. I’d imagined the trip as a respite from the campaign, much needed after weeks of immersion in a world where Bernie Sanders is considered charming and Hillary Clinton is regarded as an intellectual. Yet I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about the race. If you’re brooding about the future of your country, a former British colony is the wrong place to do it. It suggests too much.

The first thing you notice about Mumbai is the first thing you notice about every place the British once occupied, which is how much of themselves they left there. The US spent over a decade and trillions of dollars in Iraq, and the only physical evidence that remains is a concrete embassy compound, some airstrips and a sea of steel shipping containers. Maybe because they never considered that they might leave, the British built entire cities out of stone, with railways to connect them. And they did it with reliably good taste. Too often lost in the hand-wringing over the evils of colonialism is the aesthetic contribution of the British empire. The Brits tended to colonise beautiful places and make them prettier. Bermuda, New Zealand, Fiji, Cape Town — notice a theme? Style wasn’t an ancillary benefit; it was part of the point. Behind every Gurkha regiment marched a battalion of interior designers.

English taste seemed to improve with distance. At home, 19th-century British architecture tended towards excess, layers of rococo baubles alternating with blocky overkill. Abroad, the form became more flexible, often incorporating local features like Moorish arches and minarets. (Contrast this with the French, to whom every colony was a chance to recreate an outer ring of Paris.) The average English customs house on a minor Bahamian island enhances its surroundings more than anything Frank Lloyd Wright ever built. More durable too. British colonial buildings were the most appealing structures in virtually every city the empire controlled. Fifty years later, they often still are. When he seized power in Pakistan, Pervaiz Musharraf never even pretended to settle in the new PM’s residence in Islamabad. He headed for the old British headquarters in Rawalpindi, where he sat beneath ceiling fans sipping Scotch and reading Flashman novels.

Nowhere is the architectural contrast starker and more jarring than in Mumbai. India is on its way to becoming a rich country, and Mumbai is its financial capital. Signs of wealth abound, from ubiquitous cranes to the mobile phones that every chai vendor carries. Fewer people seem to be living on the streets of downtown Mumbai than in midtown Manhattan. The good news is there’s a building boom under way. The bad news is, the results are appalling. Much of the new architecture is ugly, of course, straight from the Soviet-occupied-Poland school of design, but the construction is also shoddy. Buildings put up ten years ago are streaked with rust from exposed rebar, their concrete peeling apart in flakes. Even the newest blocks seem temporary or half-finished, as if nobody cared enough to complete the job. Not unlike post-invasion Baghdad, actually.

Meanwhile, at the south end of town, the Raj still dominates the skyline, and breathtakingly so. Is there a more attractive clock building outside Europe than the Rajabai Tower, completed in 1878? Does America have a single railway station that compares to the one Mumbai commuters have used since 1887? A single post office more impressive than the one the British built there in 1913? A more majestic municipal building than the Bombay High Court? The old section of Mumbai amounts to an open-air time capsule, substantially unchanged from the day Dickie and Edwina Mountbatten flew back to London. Unfortunately, nobody has cleaned up since. The old buildings are filthy and neglected, with broken shutters, missing windows and front lawns piled with rubbish. Just a block or two from the Taj Mahal Hotel, near the ocean in one of the priciest parts of the city, there’s a row of wooden Victorian houses, large and ornate and beautiful. It looks like a postcard, but walk closer. The roofs have been patched with blue nylon tarps. The porches sag where the support beams have rotted. Each one verges on collapse.

There’s something crushingly sad about all this, but also instructive. Empires end, usually more quickly than expected. They’re not always replaced by something better. Worth remembering at election time.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Tucker Carlson is a Fox News host and editor-in-chief of the Daily Caller.

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  • TrippingDwarves

    Compare photographs of almost any former empire city in the 1950s and 60s to today and you will a stark illustration of the total decline. It’s almost as though the people fought for independence, and then, as soon as they got it, stopped caring about their country altogether. You can blame corruption and indolence, but these are no excuses.

  • Mr. Carlson forgets that the British were in Iraq as well, where they left the memory of poison gas.

    • JingoJim

      The British never used poison gas in Iraq. General Aylmer Haldane recommended the use of gas to suppress an uprising in Iraq in 1920, Churchill – who at that time was Minister of War – sanctioned its use, but not a single gas canister ever reached the battlefield. So to claim that the British left the ‘memory of poison gas’ in Iraq is ridiculous.

      • According to Niall Ferguson, “”To end the Iraqi Insurgency of 1920 . . . the British relied on a combination of aerial bombardment and punitive village burning expeditions. Indeed, they even contemplated using mustard gas too, though supplies proved unavailable”.
        So I stand corrected. It wasn’t the smell of poison gas, it was the smell of burning flesh.

        • JingoJim

          So just the regular smell of a battle then, nothing the Iraqi people weren’t familiar with after 400 years of oppressive Ottoman rule. Btw, glad to see you’re a fan of Ferguson, his book ‘Empire’ is a throughly good read!

          • Brits = Ottomans? Classy! Not a fan of Niall, but I find it vastly entertaining that his beloved Scotland wants out of the UK. After Scotland leaves, Northern Ireland will decide that the Papists aren’t so bad after all. After the Irish, then the Welch. How the Empire doth dwindle!

          • JingoJim

            I didn’t say the Ottomans and the British were equal, not by a long shot. But as Ferguson points out, its interesting to compare British imperialism with its contemporaries as the British always come out on top. You really should give Niall a chance, he’s quite a good historian! My point was the continuation of war in Iraq wasn’t a new thing for the Iraqi people. Re. devolution in the UK; the Celts would do well to remember the part they played in building the ‘British’ Empire. If the UK succumbs to total devolution, over time it will be dominated by others who may not share our cultural values, and as this article points out: ‘Empires end…they’re not always replaced by something better’.

          • Oy, those crazy Celts! Thanks for not making fun of me for misspelling “Welsh”. Over here it’s a grape juice brand.

          • JingoJim

            No problem. I love Welch’s grape juice its fantastic stuff!

  • Bindar Dunit

    “You are all missing the point.
    We are not talking about the merits or the demerits of colonialism nor how good or evil the British or the French or whoever it be, were or were not. We are talking about architecture.
    And as one who has grown up in that world that Mr. Tucker is writing about, i must say that he is cent per cent right!
    The English colonial architecture was unique and had a charm its own using the local material and utilizing the local climate, the British architects left behind a rich legacy all over the world, specially in the Sub-Continent”./z

    • JingoJim

      I totally agree with you about the article, and about British architecture. I was just having a little chat with Mr Vanneman about historical inaccuracies. Its all good.