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Jo'Burg Days: Memories Of The Raj

Barbara Durlacher remembers the writer Iris Portal, the younger sister of "Rab'' Butler.

I downloaded the following obituary from the Daily Telegraph in 2010, and recently purchased from Amazon.co.uk for the amazing price of ONE PENCE, a 585 page hardcover by Harry Quetteville, published by the same newspaper, called Thinker, Failure, Soldier, Jailer - an anthology of great lives in 365 days. It makes a wonderful bedside book, but unfortunately I'm not getting very far with it, as within a few minutes I'm so sleepy that sustained reading becomes impossible and I switch off the light, and that's it for the day.

Sadly, Iris Portal's obit is not included in the selection, although the name of a man who may possibly have some slight connection to our family is. He was Private Harry Patch who died in 2009 aged 111. He was believed to be the last surviving British soldier to have gone into action on the Western Front, an experience about which he retained bitter memories.

His possible connection to our family is that my mother's sister was married to Alec Patch who was either wounded or gassed in the First World War, and sometime in the 1920s, he came out to South Africa - presumably to recuperate and make a new life. He subsequently fell ill and was hospitalised, I think in the 'old' Johannesburg General Hospital in Hillbrow. Here he met my Aunt Connie, then a young nurse, and married her. As Patch is an uncommon name, I must try to find out if there's any family connection, as I am increasingly interested in my family's early history, about which I have a considerable knowledge.

To return to Iris Portal, my first encounter with this fascinating woman was through a series of real-life stories I heard on the old BBC Radio many years ago while working in the UK. The program was called Plain Tales from the Raj and it was composed of a number of fascinating vignettes of life in India during the last days of the British Raj. From stories of the Grand Trunk Road, vividly recalled by Spike Milligan who had been born in India as the son of a serving soldier, to Iris Portal talking about her life as a young child and the daughter of a highly placed official of the British Administration, each one of these tales brought that extraordinary period of British history to sparkling life. I managed to record one or two of the programs on my transistor radio and still have the tapes, but sadly with the advances of technology, no longer have the means to play them.

I've spent hours trolling the archives of the BBC and Amazon trying to find the original series, but it seems that preserving stories of that time in the history of the Empire and the British Raj in India is unfashionable in today’s politically correct world, and as far as I can discover, all record of those programs has been lost.

At least I have the tapes, and maybe one day I can get them transferred to disc together with this obituary of Iris Portal; a tiny fragment of a memorable 300 years of the British occupation of the sub-continent as a reminder of the glory and squalor it must have been.


Obituary - Iris Portal Daily Telegraph – 22 November 2002

Iris Portal, the writer Iris Butler who has died aged 97, was the younger sister of "Rab" Butler and excelled as a biographer after a kaleidoscope of experiences in India.

Her best book was her third, The Eldest Brother: the Marquess Wellesley 1760-1842 (1973). Wellesley was Governor-General of India, Foreign Secretary and Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, yet was outshone at every turn by his younger brother, the Duke of Wellington. Perhaps as a consequence, he tended to view his own triumphs with distaste and bemoaned the fields he had never conquered.

The first full biography of Wellesley since 1895, Iris Butler's book was much praised by the critics. Its great strength, said Philip Ziegler, was that it laid bare Wellesley's private life and related it convincingly to the public image. Iris Butler had struck gold with a trunk full of unpublished letters written by the Marquess to his mistress Hyacinthe, who bore his children (the letters were lent to her by Field Marshal Lord Carver, who was a kinsman of Wellesley).

Choosing The Eldest Brother "without hesitation" as his Book of the Year, Correlli Barnett praised it for delivering Wellesley "from the colossal shadow of his brother" and for presenting him "as a fascinating blend of ability and vanity. The picture of late 18th-century British society in India is riveting and masterly, composed with the warmth and understanding of someone who knows and deeply loves India and its people."

Iris Mary Butler was born at Simla, India, on June 15 1905, the daughter of Monty (later Sir Montagu) Butler, who had passed top in the Indian Civil Service exams of 1896, and his wife Ann, whose Scotch Presbyterian family had Indian connections stretching back to the 17th century; Ann's father, George Smith, edited the Calcutta paper that became The Statesman.

Two and a half years younger than Rab, Iris later complained that while she was regularly smacked by their austere Aberdonian nanny "Rab never was". When they were small, their father was Settlement Officer at Kotah, which entailed camping throughout the cold weather, moving from village to village to assess the land.

His family went too, with a train of camels carrying tents, furniture and crockery, and Iris and Rab in a cart pulled by two ponies, Peter and Polly. Their parents rode everywhere on horseback, sometimes switching to elephants to cross rivers.
Each day at sunrise, Iris and Rab would be bundled into quilted Rajput dressing gowns, and taken to the next stopping place. "An advance party would have struck a few tents for us," Iris recalled, "and we would get there in time for a late breakfast. Then my father would set up his table for petitions and we would be turned out with our toys to play among the tents, with nanny keeping an eye on us."

In the evening, their father and mother would go out to shoot something extra for meals. Iris remembered her father once shooting a bear and she being made to stand by it, holding a rifle. "I was very frightened because I didn't feel quite sure that the bear was dead. The smell of the bear and the cordite of the rifle made a great impression on me. One had toy bears and it seemed so sad that the bear should be shot."

In his memoirs, Rab recalled how the Maharao of Kotah, a kindly figure known to his people as "the Breadgiver", had given him and Iris four splendid stuffed animals on wheels: Bear, Lion, Elley and Dog. "Lion had an apparatus on his back similar to an old-fashioned pull-up lavatory plug and, when you pulled it, Lion growled."

The camping stopped in 1909 when their father was posted to Lahore. Then it was parties with other English children, and picnics in formal Mogul gardens. Iris's sister Dor (the geographer and writer Dorothy Middleton) was born, then Jock (who was killed during the Second World War in the RAF).
In 1911 Iris, her siblings and their mother went to England to live at Bourton Manse, on the Butler family estate near Shrivenham in Berkshire. The girls went to a boarding school on the south coast, but although both showed marked ability, there was no suggestion that they should go to university, as all the money there was needed to send Rab, and later Jock, to Cambridge. Instead, after being presented at Court, Iris returned to a very social life in India.

During the next two summers at Simla, Iris Butler "never thought about anything but amusing myself. It was excessively gay. My record was 26 nights dancing running, at the end of which I had to attend an official dinner that my mother was giving and was severely reprimanded for falling asleep in the middle when talking to a very woolly old judge."
She rode everywhere (rickshaws being deemed too extravagant), her dress hitched around her waist, and was always meeting the same people. "Everyone knew rather too much about everyone else's affairs, and it was a staple topic of conversation - what was going on, who was going out with so-and-so."

In 1926 Gervas Portal, of Gardner's Horse, became ADC to her father, who was by then Governor of the Central Provinces of India, hoping to shoot tiger in the Seeone jungle immortalised by Kipling. He shot two and also fell in love with the Governor's daughter. He and Iris were married in 1927.
Their first four years of married life were spent at Meerut where the Sepoy Mutiny had first begun. Iris Portal recalled: "On the gates of the bungalows were plaques which said, 'Here Mrs So and So and her three children were killed and thrown down a well.' There was one bungalow nearby where they had taken their beds out into the garden, not because of the heat, but because things happened, like doors blowing open when there was no wind."

In the early 1930s Gervas Portal was appointed commanding officer of the governor's bodyguard in Bombay, where Iris Portal immersed herself in welfare work among the young soldiers' families, to the consternation of other memsahibs. Subsequent postings took them to Poona, Bihar, and Hyderabad, where he served as Comptroller of the Household of the younger son of the Nizam.

Iris Portal became fascinated by the stories surrounding this fabulously rich feudal aristocracy. One day she was taken by her great friend Princess Niloufer, the Nizam's younger son's wife, to the basement of the Nizam's palace. There stood rows of neglected lorries, their tyres almost all flat, but beneath their tarpaulins all of them were full of precious stones and gold coins. This was the Nizam's proposed way of getting some of his wealth out of the country in the event of a revolution, but he had then lost interest in the plan.

Around this time Iris Portal suffered a nasty accident in which she fell from a pony trap and fractured her skull. During her long convalescence, she was visited by another friend, the Begum Shah Nawaz, who sacrificed a black cockerel in her bedroom to speed her recovery.

After the outbreak of war, Iris Portal began nursing in Delhi, then followed her husband to Ranchi to work in a military hospital on the border with Burma. Working in the grimmest of conditions, only once did she leave the operating theatre - when the surgeon said: "Drop that leg in the bucket, nurse."
She finally left India in 1943 and had an adventurous trip home, dodging U-boats. When her husband came back in 1946, they settled in the wilds of north Norfolk, where she was active in the St John Ambulance, the Royal British Legion, as County Commissioner of the Guides, and on the county council's education committee. She also wrote and reviewed for the Eastern Daily Press.

At Christmas, there would often be Indian friends to stay; they loved coming, although in the unheated house, they would have gladly joined the family in taking it in turns to change in the airing cupboard.

Gervas Portal, who was 16 years Iris's senior, died in 1961. With her daughters grown up, Iris Portal now began to fill her time by researching her first book, Rule of Three (1967), a study of Queen Anne and her favourites, Sarah Churchill and Abigail Hill.

Considering she was a first-time author, the review by Nigel Dennis in The Daily Telegraph was peculiarly fierce, taking the author to task for her purple prose and "wonderfully confused passion for similes that are often funny but never quite exact" (he cited seven examples).

But the book sold well, and she was soon at work on The Viceroy's Wife: Letters of Alice, Countess of Reading, from India 1921-1925 (1969), which was far more favourably received. The Telegraph's critic praised Iris Butler's "admirable introduction" and her running commentary "which while skilfully interpolated is never intrusive".

Despite her limited formal education, Iris Portal had an encyclopaedic knowledge of English literature, and it was a brave person who sought to out-quote her on Shakespeare, Kipling, Thackeray or Shelley.

Religion also interested her deeply, particularly eastern theology - the discipline of the Church of England and Roman Catholicism was not her scene. But her most noticeable quality was her concern for others. She never forgot a birthday or a name and always wanted to rush to the support of anyone in trouble.

Into old age she was never less than fascinating about the Raj, sharing her vivid reminiscences with writers such as Charles Allen, for his book Plain Tales from the Raj (1975), and William Dalrymple.

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