Book Reviews

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A Modern de Quincey:

Autobiography of an Opium Addict

H. R. Robinson

2nd edition 2004. 152 pp., 5 b & w plates, 1 map, 215 x 152, Softcover

ISBN-10: 974-524-038-9 $23.00
ISBN-13: 978-974-524-038-4

Blissed out in Burma

Reviewed by Michael Smithies,

(The Nation - Sunday, 11 July 2004 )

A former colonial soldier describes how he descended into addiction in a Mandalay opium den.

How many people these days read De Quincey’s essays or his “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”, which first appeared in 1821? Very few, I suspect. He studied the effect of opium on an addict (himself), as does HR Robinson in this volume first published during the war in 1942, and which seemed to have largely disappeared without trace.
   De Quincey wrote in an age when opium was a commonly used painkiller, regularly administered to fractious children as well as adults. Robinson, lost in upper Burma, similarly joined the opium eaters who were simply part of the society around him, and used the drug to escape reality and daily toil, but it was not accepted behavior, particularly for a gentleman and an officer.
   Robinson, though, broke ranks. A British public (read: “private”) school product, he enlisted at the outset of World War I in the Royal Fusiliers, and in 1915 was shipped to Mandalay. At the end of the year he became an assistant commandant of the Burma Military Police and assistant superintendent of the northeast Burmese frontier with China.
   The conditions were tough, the trekking arduous, his administration of justice summary. He was assisted by local Lisu and Kachin and imported Gurkhas, whom he obviously admired.
   But by 1923, the military were winding down and he “retired”, still quite young, to Mandalay, where he first tried opium with a Chinese, and then became a regular at a Chinese-run den, the House of the Deer, in the company of the elegant young Burmese addict Ba Ohn. He tried to shake off the drug by becoming a Buddhist monk. That lasted all of one week, and he was then back in his den.
   He wasted a year on businesses ventures that failed. He decided to return to England and try to escape the web of the drug. That too, predictably, failed. Within three months he was back on a ship heading for Burma and the House of the Deer again. His recurring dream involved an important message for him from an old priest, the recall of which always escaped him once he woke from his induced sleep. He made one final effort to write it down. The message was ridiculous: “The banana is great, but the skin is greater.”
   He considered suicide, but decided against the trouble he would cause his neighbours. His only friends were a little boy, Ba Set (who later brought freshly cut flowers to him in hospital every day but was refused admittance because he was a “native”), and the boy’s mother. On March 18, 1925, he really did try to shoot his brains out when the last penny was spent and dunning creditors came. A rotten shot, he only succeeded in blowing out his eyeballs, and was blind for the rest of his life.
   Thereafter, we learn that he was sent back to England and entered the massage school of the National Institute for the Blind. The book ends in irony: to do this he had to supply a birth certificate, and he learned that he was born in a house on Burma Road in a London suburb. Destiny fulfilled, he wondered?
   But readers may wonder a little more. How did the book come to be assembled? Did Robinson dictate his text (this might account for some of its failings) or did someone assemble a text from the notes we know he kept? Who introduced the manuscript to the reputable Harrap, the original publishers, and what was its fate once published? Gerry Abbott, in his introduction, doesn’t tell us, perhaps because he doesn’t know. Certainly the book was noticed by The Observer in September 1942, when it was reviewed by George Orwell (Eric Blair), who knew Robinson slightly from his Burmese days. His review rightly comments that “a great deal is unexplained” and, somewhat harshly, that it was “amateurishly written”.
   Abbott’s postscript tells us that Robinson “became a hospital physiotherapist in south London and worked until his retirement in the 1960s. In March 1965, however, 40 years after his first attempt in Burma, he finally killed himself.” One would like to know much more. As Robinson is sparing with facts about himself, so is his presenter here.
   The volume is most interesting in describing the rough life on the frontier, and the dreadful withdrawal pangs of the addict. That Robinson was a weak character there can be no doubt. He was a misfit in his own society, but revelled in his Mandalay life, howsoever plagued it was by addiction. He needed a good editor to lick his text into shape, but Harrap did not apparently extend its charity during World War II to that extent. The text then, is flawed, as Orwell noted, but it is a “not valueless contribution to the literature of opium”. That is, perhaps, to “damn with faint praise” (with a double negative), in Pope’s immortal words.
   But we today would view it in a different context: the life of a young inexperienced colonial administrator, transfixed by the grace and beauty of the East around him, and all too weak when confronted with its illicit pleasures.

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