As readers of this blog know, I enjoy reading books from other cultures as a way of learning more about the world and its peoples, but I have to tell you that reading Can a Duck Swim? by fellow Australian June Porter took me a very long way out of my comfort zone…
This autobiography, based on the diaries she kept while a lady-in-waiting to Lady Rutherford, wife of the Governor of Bihar in India during war, is about a culture that is as remote to me as the most far-flung peoples anywhere. The book so often had me gnashing my teeth with outrage that I almost had to buy a mouth-guard like those football players wear…
If the expression ‘lady-in-waiting’ hasn’t already set your teeth on edge, read on.
I have read heaps of books about the Second World War, and from the experiences of my parents and parents-in-law, I know something about its impact on people as individuals. To read about this woman and her husband using their privileged social position to cadge scarce places on planes and trains so that they could swan about in British India aping the aristocracy made me feel sick.
While your relations and mine were at risk of losing their lives, getting by under rationing and missing their loved ones, June Porter sailed off to India to meet up with hubby and have a grand old time at tiger hunts, at dances and at other social occasions, and – oh, poor dear! having to put up with boring visits to women in purdah. They couldn’t speak the local language, you see, and they didn’t have the wit to organise themselves an interpreter.
Porter’s (unpaid) ‘work’ was to manage Lady R’s diary, write some letters, and accompany her to her assorted social responsibilities. Her husband’s job as ADC was ‘special duties’ for the Governor of Bengal, Richard Casey, and his ‘work’ was ‘to accompany the Governor wherever he went and arrange his social and official diary‘ (p. 31).
This book drips with nostalgia for the days of the Raj. Porter never addresses the issues of Indian Independence and decolonisation, and barely mentions the poverty that was all around her. When not name-dropping or gushing about meeting assorted royals, she quotes from her own letters about her new frocks or complains about her scanty brushes with the real world.
After the war, when every available berth was needed to repatriate soldiers back to their loved ones, the Porters manage a holiday in Britain and Europe, and then come back to Adelaide where – eventually as lady mayoress – she eventually fills her days with tennis, garden parties, and fundraising for charity.
200 pages of this wears very thin.
Other reviews? Well, there’s a generally uncritical one at Flinders Ranges Research but that’s all I could access online.
Author: June Porter
Title: Can a Duck Swim?
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2013
Publisher: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press