by Daniel Cooper
Untamed Travel Magazine, February 2005
"The banana is great, but the skin is greater." So writes H R Robinson in A Modern De Quincey (Orchid Press, 2004), his autobiographical account of his time in the Burma Military Police and descent into opium addiction. This slim volume has an interesting story itself, being first published in 1942, and previously only being available second hand at extortionate rates*. Indeed, Gerry Abbott, who published the second edition, was offered one copy for £900. The other interesting aspect of the book is that it may, or may not, feature George Orwell, back when he was called Eric Blair and working as a military policeman in Burma. Robinson was certainly serving at the same time, refers to a friend only called “The Poet”, and Orwell reviewed the book.
The book begins with Robinson's commission in the Indian Army although the war ends before he sees active duty. He is seconded to the Burma Military Police and posted to a remote corner of the empire in north Burma, where he acts as magistrate and His Majesty George VI’s representative. His adventures in this distant outpost form the first part of the book where we get to know Robinson as a humorous, gentle and just administrator of the provence, four day's walk from the nearest remnants of British civilisation. It is after his discharge, probably due to a scandalous relationship with a woman guilty of murdering her elderly husband, that he moves to Mandalay in 1923.
While walking the streets with two friends one night he stumbles upon an opium den. After one night's smoking he acquires a fascination for opium and fellow lotus-eater Maung Ba Ohn. Robinson writes, "Occasionally I had met men upon whom it was good to look. At school there had been boys whose faces had been a source of perpetual disquiet to me, but never had I met a man whose fascination could compare with that of Ba Ohn. Nevertheless it was the fascination of the orchid, the fascination of the painted lady, the fascination of something too good to be true”.
Ba Ohn accompanies Robinson for the rest of book, to the opium den, through cancelled journeys home and down the slippery slope of addiction. Eventually, Robinson discovers he is hooked and makes several efforts to give up, becoming a Buddhist monk at one point. However, his decline is too advanced and other historical accounts identify him as the scoundrel of Mandalay and by the end of the book he is a broken man.
Orwell describes the book as “a small but not valueless contribution to the literature of opium. It is amateurishly written, but its facts are truthful”. The story is well-crafted and ends on an appropriately dramatic climax. Although it may be hubris for Robinson to compare himself to De Quincey, he shares the great writer's smoking habits, and is definitely a romantic.
December 2005 Update
The price for an original 1942 edition of A Modern De Quincey remains exorbitant. A London bookseller has a copy without a dustjacket, with faded boards and spine, a cracked front hinge and end papers that have been replaced. The cost: £395.
Note: The copyright for this article is held by the original content creator.