1 November 2018

Deeper Than Indigo - Transcending Time

Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer
By Jenny Balfour Paul
(Medina, 2015)

I’d wager that most historians are hooked on history primarily for the thrill of research, leafing through archives, puzzling over old photographs, wandering down side-streets in obscure places in search of long forgotten buildings where the events or people we are researching once happened or inhabited. Publication in the form of articles or books, and presentations in the form of talks or conference papers can be rewarding, but, for me at any rate, they don’t come anywhere close to the feeling of actively being engaged in digging down to find the bedrock of research which belies all our work. It’s a thrill which we often discuss amongst ourselves. It’s quite common for historians on Twitter to post photographs of the doorways to libraries or archives they are about to enter, with a gleeful note of anticipation – saying they are entering for a day of trawling through the archives. “I maybe sometime …” No need to send a search party if I don’t emerge, because I’m happily immersed in my element. The past is a foreign country, and many of us would be more than happy to permanently emigrate there! 

In that sense archives can be addictive. Even if we have reached saturation point, thinking we’ve had enough of one particular project – more often than not we find a little overlooked thread which just needs pulling, and, more often than not, that little thread turns into a great unravelling which manages to consume us once again, and so the process starts all over afresh. This is exactly what happened to Jenny Balfour Paul, an academic specialising in the study of indigo, the natural blue dye derived from indigo plants, when a librarian introduced her to Thomas Machell and his travel journals. 

The initial link was the fact that Thomas Machell had worked for a time as an indigo planter in Bengal during the nineteenth century, overseeing the processing of the plant into solid blue bricks of dye which could be traded and shipped across the British Empire and to other parts of the globe. But Machell’s life and career was far more varied than that fact alone. Machell, like Jenny Balfour Paul, was also a traveller and an artist. Born the son of a country vicar in Yorkshire, his wanderlust struck early on when as young boys he and his brother ran away from home one night and travelled on foot to the south coast of England before returning home. In many respects that journey was a rite of passage for the globe wandering life he was to lead later on. From Yorkshire, via the Marquesas and South America, to Afghanistan and India. Making his way in the colonial world and all the while charting and recording his progress in colourful, illustrated journals which he wrote as extended letters home to his father (these journals now reside in the British Library, see here). He collected many trinkets and souvenirs along the way which he sent back home in order to form the basis of a small personal museum intended to entertain, amuse, and educate his family and friends. 

Jenny Balfour Paul connected with this creative side of Thomas Machell and finding him a kindred spirit she ended up falling for him in a big way. A traveller herself from an early age, she joined up with a band of friends to follow the hippy trail to India, after which she responded to a job advert that read simply: “Interesting job in a warm agreeable country. Applicant must be graduate with wide interests and a driving licence.” Her application was successful and so she found herself living and working in Jordan, where she met and later married the British diplomat, Glencairn Balfour Paul. The couple spent many happy years travelling the world together. In later years these journeys were to be very much influenced by Jenny’s inadvertent meeting with Thomas Machell. Indeed, the journals of Thomas Machell were more than enough to inspire her to follow in his footsteps in an attempt to track this man down and find out more about who he was and how his story ended. The itinerary was a broad one, ranging from Egypt and India to Patagonia and Polynesia, then back to Afghanistan and India again, with recurring visits to his family homes in Yorkshire and Cumbria as well. In all this travelling Machell became a kind of time-travelling intimate friend to Balfour Paul, always a couple of steps ahead of her, beckoning her onwards – follow me to find out more, he always seemed to be saying. And the connection ran so deep she found herself compelled to write letters to him, even going so far as to send him a fax on one occasion! … (How many historians wish we could invent a time-travelling steam punk telegraph which might enable us to talk directly to the denizens of the past?!)

A postcard to the past ...

But as with all such research, as the project expanded and one link lead to another the story of Machell’s life which Balfour Paul was amassing began to beg its own question – how was all of this going to come together in the end? – And when it did, what was she to do with it all? ... (It’s a question I can relate to intimately. When I first began researching the lives of my brother-in-law’s grandparents I had no idea that several years down the line it would turn out to be a little project which had somehow substantially transmuted through an MA dissertation into the starting point for a much larger theme for a full PhD thesis!) ... It occurred to Jenny that the project of tracing Machell’s life path kept crossing and intertwining with her own, such that she was finding it hard to pull the two apart when attempting to put it all down in words – so, as a friend suggested to her, why not go with that aspect of the research? Why not let the two stories permeate and saturate into one another as they were clearly indelibly linked? The result is a wonderfully hybrid work, titled Deeper Than Indigo – combining all the best aspects of lucidly described travel writing, grounded by narrative history, and carried along by an evocative retelling of the research process itself. It is a narrative in which the research itself becomes a kind of quest, lending the book a remarkably personal and pacy quality, almost like a thriller. Once engrossed in the first few pages I found it very hard to put this book down! – It reminded me of A. S. Byatt’s novel, Possession; skilfully capturing the thrill of the academic quest to unravel a mystery of a lost life story, yet (happily) without a baddie in hot pursuit, even though the quest itself was not without its perils – perhaps most notably in dealing with distinctly dodgy taxi drivers, suspiciously skeptical policemen, and even modern day Somali pirates!

Parallel pages from Thomas and Jenny's travel journals

One of the most magical sections of the book for me was when Machell and Balfour Paul visit the Marquesas; somewhere which I would deeply love to visit myself some day. Haunted by the shades of Paul Gauguin, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson (a distant relative of Jenny’s husband), Arthur Grimble, Thor Heyerdahl, and even the young boys in R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and Joseph Conrad’s Caspar Almayer and Axel Heist, I’ve often dreamed of visiting distant Pacific Islands (I’ve only managed to get to one so far, see here). As Balfour Paul relates it, Thomas Machell’s experience in the Marquesas, where he fell in love for the one and only time in his life (he never married) with the daughter of a local chieftain, gives a frank and clear voice through his journals to the kinds of boundary crossing which I suspect equally seduced other European travellers before him; men like Joseph Banks and Fletcher Christian in Tahiti, causing them to transgress the social norms of their own societies and experience the world through the cultural norms of another people entirely opposite to their own. An experience which I suspect can hardly be comprehended by us today, even though all instances of travel still to this day require this kind of openness and inquisitiveness in order to be fully appreciated, albeit perhaps to a lesser degree of removal. The world is still a vast and varied place, but our relative perceptions of it have perhaps narrowed in these present times given that all parts of the world are now seemingly connected and made similar by association. Yet if you strive to look that little bit deeper, there are still discoveries of your own to be made. Delving into the self there are often personal depths to plumb "full fathom five" beyond the reefs and familiar coastlines we are normally content to cling to, especially when travelling abroad.

Parallel pages from Thomas and Jenny's travel journals

Deeper Than Indigo is quite definitely one of the best books I’ve read, period. It joins my list of absolute favourites – the handful of books I’d take with me to my desert island, the books I want to spend the rest of my life with, revisiting them from time to time like reconnecting with an old friend, because that’s what the best books ultimately are. As a historian I found I could really connect with the way that at times, as Balfour Paul describes exquisitely well, how our research seems to take on a life-force of its own, in which it ends up guiding us according to its own ends. Those are the moments when research becomes almost magical. Often there are many instances within this process of a kind of ‘harmonic convergence’ – something which transcends a mere coincidence; something which is more akin almost to a shepherding at the behest of the Fates. It’s all about that moment when you feel like you are almost communing with your subject directly across time. Coincidences which are too uncanny to be merely coincidences, and the effects of which can sometimes seem seriously spooky. 

I’ve written about some of these instances which have occurred to me before on this blog. Often the deeper you get into a research project the more frequently these uncanny alignments seem to occur. I remember once when I’d spent ages searching a library catalogue for a register of missionaries who’d been sent to China in the nineteenth century. I didn’t have the full publication details of this register, and so, in repeatedly clicking the search box I tried every permutation of search terms I could think of in order to tease it out of the computer catalogue system (a skill you learn from working in museums and archives over many years!), but alas, on this particular occasion, it was all to no avail. I even went to the long section of bookshelves in the library which contained all the books on China missionaries and scanned the book spines one-by-one in a David and Goliath-like effort to find the register, yet once again this little David was ultimately defeated by the immense size of the library. In the end I gave up and so turned my attention to other things. I spent next few hours installed at a desk, working on other books, making notes, thinking of other things. Eventually, once I was finished for the evening and had packed up my things I decided to look up a different book on my way out – a book entirely unrelated to my research (it was actually Robert Drury’s journal, which I wrote about here). This book the computer told me was located several floors down in the Africa section; so on my way out of the library I stopped off at this different floor and found the relevant bookstacks, and began to peruse the shelves, following the classmarks until I came to the book I was looking for, and, as I reached out to take it from the shelf, my eye was caught by the title of the second spine to the right – it was the register of missionaries which I’d been looking for! … Unbeknownst to me this particular Mission had sent missionaries to China and Africa. Hence the register had been shelved here in what I suspect was a 50/50 coin flip of a chance between the China and the Africa sections. But what were the chances of that? Like a needle in a haystack, on this very same occasion of my searching for it, to find it in that huge labyrinth of a university library by a complete stroke of luck? – At such moments it’s hard not to feel like there is some sort of serendipitous hand guiding you sometimes ... Jenny Balfour Paul’s Deeper Than Indigo is the only book I’ve found which has come close to capturing this feeling. That almost preternatural sense of what it is like to be in the full flow of research, flying on an exhilarating ride, forging a deep connection to the past; when everything feels like it is simply falling into place for you.

The framing of Deeper Than Indigo also struck another chord with me too. Balfour Paul’s decision, as the researcher / writer, to actively include herself in the narrative to the extent she does is an unusual one. You sometimes find historians breaking that textual fourth wall to address the reader directly, for instance, by serendipitously regaling us with an anecdote about visiting a certain place which they are writing about. One thinks of William Dalrymple’s books which are masterworks of the historian as informed guide. But Jenny Balfour Paul has taken this device to another level in the writing of Deeper Than Indigo. And it is something I admire because it shows how the imagination is very necessarily an active part of the process of doing historical research. It’s impossible to write history without attempting to inhabit the people and the times we are writing about, empathy comes from an informed process of imagining. But the key is to always remain open to the infinite possibilities which exist until we find the evidence by which we can be certain of our facts, and even then to weigh them as to whether or not we feel they may have been dressed or couched towards a particular agenda.

This kind of analysis is what makes time-travel in such books possible. All too often though I’ve opened history books, mostly those published in the last few decades, which confidently assert that on such-and-such a day “Admiral so-and-so scratched his elbow and shifted from foot to foot on the deck of such-and-such a ship, his brow furrowed and deeply pensive …” Such descriptions aim at the evocative, but they always fall flat with me unless they come with a footnote to direct me to the source for those very facts. Who saw him looking pensive? Who saw him shifting uneasily from foot to foot? Who did he tell he was feeling pensive? Did he write it down himself in a letter or a journal? – Or is it completely made-up simply for dramatic effect? It’s not pathos, it is pretence. And it bugs me no end! And as a writerly technique it is so easily solved as well, i.e.: “It is easy to imagine Admiral Itchy Elbow shifting pensively from foot to foot on the deck of HMS Assumption on the eve of the great battle …”

For me this is Jenny Balfour Paul’s greatest skill. She is wholly open to the imaginative (and even the rather more unorthodox spiritual side) of her quest. She is able to present her fictional conjectures as part of, and alongside the genuine facts she has been able to ascertain without ever fully succumbing to the unknowable certainties of such suppositions. As any historian knows there’s an enormous and ever present hazard of becoming convinced of your own educated guesses sometimes, and if you let yourself this tendency can derail your entire endeavour. But in Deeper Than Indigo the two tales of Thomas Machell and Jenny Balfour Paul’s journeys are skilfully told, switching from Thomas Machell’s past to Jenny Balfour Paul’s present and back again; each time leaving you wanting to know more so that you are relieved to switch back to take up the initial thread again, but simultaneously sad to let go of the parallel story for a while. It is a gentle yet compelling alternation between warp and weft. Very neatly all these strands are drawn together in the end when the book reaches a joint sense of homecoming, both for Thomas and for Jenny. 

Putting this magical book down after turning the final page you are sure to feel glad you have come know Thomas Machell and Jenny Balfour Paul so intimately. It’s as if you too had been their anonymous travelling companion, experiencing the world through their eyes and their words. If the best history books bring the past evocatively to life, Deeper Than Indigo does more than this – it lends the past a soul. It is often said of such books that they are love letters to the past, this book is certainly that. It’s a love letter on more than one level. As multi-layered as the experiences of travelling slowly, seeing, recording, and reflecting on the passage from here to there and back again, from then to now, the past and its ties to the present. It’s exactly what history and travel is all about. “An odyssey, set on the edges of time.” It’s a book to be treasured.

Find out more about Jenny Balfour Paul and her work here