Yesterday evening I raised my glass to Rosemary Sutcliff. It was an odd moment. I was sitting on my own in the restaurant on the sixth floor of the Leela Kempinski Hotel in Gurgaon, overlooking what my driver had proudly told me earlier in the week is the largest road toll in Asia (Ay-zee-a, he pronounced it), sixteen lanes of winking red tail lights, sixteen lanes of unblinking white headlights; and she had made me cry.
Here, in one of the most conspicuously modern cities of 21st century India, I was reading about Roman Britain. The young invalided former centurion Marcus and his freed slave Esca had made it back across Hadrian’s Wall having rescued the talismanic bronze eagle, lost by Marcus’s father and his few remaining comrades of the Ninth Legion in their heroic last stand against the tribes of the north.
Perhaps I’m getting sentimental as I get older, but their exhausted, quietly triumphant return to Marcus’s gruff old uncle’s villa at Colchester, and an ecstatic welcome from Marcus’s tame wolf cub, brought tears to my eyes. But then again, perhaps it’s not age. Rosemary Sutcliff was an exceptional writer and The Eagle of the Ninth her best-loved book. I had read it as a child and adored it. Prompted by the release of the current film (which I’ve deliberately avoided, though now I might see it), I bought a new copy for this trip and was not disappointed.
Like her character Marcus, Sutcliff herself endured disability, though his was acquired in battle whereas she was an invalid from infancy. A progressive wasting disease confined her to a wheelchair for most of her life. Yet she managed to evoke with the utmost plausibility events she could never possibly have experienced, for example a wild and terrifying manhunt through the hills and bogs of central and southern Scotland; and more remarkably still, a lyrical vision of landscape and a natural world that she was most unlikely ever to have seen.
‘Well, that’s the writer’s job,’ one might say, ‘to imagine.’ And one would be right. It just happened that, imprisoned in a frail body, she was particularly good at it. She died, heaped with honours, at the age of 72 in 1992.
She would certainly have been an inspiration to the young Indians I’m here to help with their writing and presentation skills. To communicate properly with your customers you have to be able to imagine you are them, I’ve been exhorting them. Tell the customers what they need to know, not what you want them to hear. And they try, because they value self-advancement highly and are eager to learn anything that will help them. They’re admirable people, these young Indians. Their working environment is ferociously competitive – I don’t think anything in the UK even begins to resemble it – and the rewards for success are almost incalculable in their terms, yet in the training room at least they’re serious (though by no means solemn), dignified, even self-effacing.
But they’re shackled by the language of their industry and the American provenance of their organisation. In their language, one doesn’t send people to do things, one deploys resources. But if you think of people as resources, I point out to them, it’s not long before you start treating them as such. I’ve been coaching three of them during the second part of the week, and they’ve all pledged never to use the word again when they mean people. It’s a small step but it’s a start. I’m sure Rosemary Sutcliff, wise and humane, would have approved.