The Singapore Grip: a struggle that became a triumph for JG Farrell

As an adaptation screens on ITV, the author’s biographer tells the story behind the novel

A promotional shot for ITV’s adaptation of The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell

A promotional shot for ITV’s adaptation of The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell

 

“I believe,” confided the novelist JG Farrell to a girlfriend once, “that however much superficial detail may change over the years, basically life itself does not change very much. All literature that survives must depend on this.”

The current ITV adaptation on Sunday evenings of The Singapore Grip, last in his Empire Trilogy, owes much to his observant eye, his humour and the delight he took in the eternal quirks of human nature.

Troubles had first brought him to public notice when it won the Faber Prize in 1971, followed by widespread acclaim when The Siege of Krishnapur was awarded the Booker Prize two years later. But until now The Singapore Grip has had much less recognition. It has not only survived, however, but ultimately it has triumphed.

JG Farrell: “Books seem to me, like children, to have their own destinies. All one can do is give them a good start in life.”
JG Farrell: “Books seem to me, like children, to have their own destinies. All one can do is give them a good start in life.”

“The things I like best because I feel they’re best written,” he admitted while it was taking shape, “are the usual small change of farcical seductions etc which are entirely without historical interest.” Set around the Fall of Singapore in 1941, though, it soon became clear to him that Big History could no longer be ignored. He researched widely in the British Museum, the Public Lending Office and the Liddell Hart Centre of Military Archives, pinning relevant notes to the curtains of his small Knightsbridge flat, where he could see them. A large-scale map of Singapore hung over his typewriter, more accessible still, and as his sense of pressure mounted he closed the curtains in daylight and soldiered on beneath a bleak overhead light.

He had stated in his Booker acceptance speech that his next novel would be a full-scale study of commercial exploitation, adding that his £5,000 prize would be used “ to document” it. But within nine months of beginning, that glib claim became a distinct hindrance. “I’m badly blocked,” he soon noted. “I keep writing and rewriting the first pages which get duller and duller. The more I cudgel my brains, the fewer ideas I get.” He had first thought of using the Fall as a plot in 1972, when the scale had deterred him. Now he felt “handcuffed” to too powerful a theme. The book began to feel like “a huge boulder on a beetle”.

In January 1975, despairing, he set off to reconnnoitre Singapore for himself. One night in Raffles was quite enough to justify moving to a $3 a night Chinese hotel, and he criss-crossed the city on foot, alert to possibility. Tanglin, the Blackett world – he went to the Cricket Club, watched rugby on the Padang – took promising but still hazy shape. Back at his desk in London, after additional research in Malaysia and Vietcong-threatened Saigon, it was members of the Blackett family circle who now fleshed out the harsh realities of wartime rubber commercial exploitation, as well as the military campaigns of Japan and Britain. Three more years of rewriting and worrying were in store before The Singapore Grip was published by Weidenfeld in 1978.

“It’s too early to call the book a success,” he corrected an old friend then with his characteristic light touch. “Many reviews were grudging, to put it mildly. But books seem to me, like children, to have their own destinies. All one can do is give them a good start in life. (Corn-pone philosophy no extra charge.)”

The cast of ITV’s adaptation of The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell
The cast of ITV’s adaptation of The Singapore Grip by JG Farrell

Farrell, too, had his own destiny to fulfil. Impelled by a growing awareness of being in a rut – by 1978 London held too many time-consuming friends, was too familiar at every turn for any hope of inspiration – and encouraged by a £20,000 advance for his next book, he began to house-hunt in Ireland. A remote cottage on the coast at Kilcrohane, near Bantry, caught his eye and soon was his; he did not look back at crowded Knightsbridge.

This was a new start, with entirely new opportunities. Previous frustrations vanished as he focused on necessary repairs to his first “own house”, and the task of beginning a fresh Indian book. And then he discovered the compelling – and, better still, unpredictable – sport of fishing in the sea nearby.

A reassuring routine took hold. As his latest book began to take gradual shape, freed of the tension and anxiety that had marked the emergence of The Singapore Grip, he would write each morning, stop when he was confident of being able to re-start next day, and place a blank A4 page on top of the work already completed; he would be using that page first the following day.

Pulling on his rubber boots, impatiently donning anorak and balaclava against the wind, grabbing rod and fishing bag and leaving the door unlocked, he would set off over the rocks to his favourite spot. On August 11th, 1979, however, he did not notice the gathering storm, not having experienced the danger signs before. And he was never to come back.
Lavinia Greacen is the author of JG Farrell: The Making of a Writer and JG Farrell in His Own Words: Selected Letters and Diaries (both Cork University Press). Her acclaimed biography Chink will be re-published by LUME on October 1st, and she is currently editing Military Maverick, Chink’s indiscreet letters and war diary.

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