‘Thank You Mr Crombie’ memoir by Mihir Bose – Review

‘Lessons in Guilt and Gratitude to the British’

Mihir’s memoir Thank You Mr Crombie is a unique take on what it is like to have grown up in privilege in post-independence India, to have come to Britain and been subjected to racism and yet to have succeeded in following one’s dreams.

From an inauspicious start in Britain, Mihir Bose has become one of our most successful and distinguished journalists.

As BBC journalist Clive Myrie says:

‘This is a memoir of a life transformed and a nation reinvented. Eye opening, funny and revealing …
A beautifully written person account of the birth of modern Britain’

Thank You Mr Crombie reads in the early part a bit like an Indian Cider with Rosie – the fond recollections of family life in a bygone era, before life got complicated.

As the books goes on the reader travels with him to the Britain of the 1960s, following his career as a journalist, writing for most of our national papers, including long stints at the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph, authoring more than 50 books and becoming the BBC’s first Sports News editor.

It ends with some thoughts on Britishness and Empire and how multicultural Britain has changed from the days when he was spat on and chased, in fear for his life, as a rookie reporter, the only brown face in the press box and sometimes the whole sports stadium.

Image: Mihir talking to Matt Frei on Channel 4 News as a cricket pundit

Emulating the British

The Mr Crombie of the title was the Home Office official who wrote to him in 1975 telling him he was free to remain permanently in the United Kingdom.

‘That letter means so much to me that ever since I received it, I have taken great care to preserve it. As I write, it is spread before my computer, frayed at the edges but the paper still a lovely, light beige colour and the typing in very clear black letters.

‘I have kept it in a plastic cover and have carried it with me wherever I have gone.’

It is an anathema to later generations of Indians and second and third generation descendants of Indian immigrants to Britain, that someone like Mihir should so desperately have wanted to succeed in Britain.

He came after all from a privileged, wealthy family, growing up with a hierarchy of servants whose job was to ensure his childhood was like that of a little prince. He says, with irony:

‘It has always intrigued me that all the talk of immigration to the United Kingdom , which has been going on since I arrived here in 1969, is of people coming here to make money. In my case I sacrificed money and lived in a Maida Vale bedsit because of the intellectual riches this country provides.’

He could have made millions, as heir apparent to his father’s business, as India developed and prospered.

He trained initially as an engineer and then as an accountant, but really wanted to be a journalist, to fulfil the prediction of his teacher at St. Xavier’s Jesuit college in Mumbai and rub shoulders with the writers whose work he read as a teenager when he snuck into the library of the British Deputy High Commissioner, opposite his parental home, where the English broadsheet newspapers were laid out like an intellectual feast.

Images above: Some of Mihir’s many books

Midnight’s Children

He tries to explain why even though India had fought hard to throw off colonialism, as a teenager he tried desperately to be as British as he could:

‘We were part of the first generation of free Indians for two hundred years. It was 1961, only fourteen years since the British had left India, yet we craved things and ideas from Britain and desperately wanted British acceptance.”

The way they received news goes some way to explaining it:

‘In the summer, even the Times of India easily, effortlessly, allowed English sports like cricket and tennis to take over its sports pages. In general, foreign news always took precedence over domestic news – 500 deaths from cholera a small news item, 16 miners killed in Belgium meriting big headlines.

‘V.S. Naipaul has seen this as a sign of the displacement of Indians in their own land, people trying to mimic more mature societies. But this was an expression of our searching for what we considered best. And the best was in England.’

Mihir’s schooling was in English and he remembers having to learn how to set out a formal invitation to a dinner party – “Mr & Mrs So-and-so request the pleasure of Mr & Mrs So-and-so” and recite it by heart.

‘We despised those who did not speak English. Not all of the non-English speakers were poor, indeed some were very rich, and in despising them, we were proclaiming what we saw as civilised society.’

Though he speaks several Indian languages, it was decades before his English wife Caroline managed to persuade him he was actually multilingual and he should value the ability to speak them.

Images above: More of Mihir’s many books

Mihir, like Salman Rushdie, was one of ‘Midnight’s Children’, born not long before the Indian Independence Act came into force on 15 August 1947. He explains the significance of midnight. The date proposed for independence was considered inauspicious, but as the British day started at midnight and the Hindu day started at sunrise it was ok, because as far as Indians were concerned, independence was implemented the day after.

His childhood was governed by superstitions. He describes the lengths his mother went to appease the travel gods, and their annual holidays, taking a train journey that lasted two nights and a day, from Mumbai to his mother’s home in Kolkata, evoking the sights, the sounds and the smells of the land they passed through, observed from their private carriage, their ‘little house on wheels.’

He disappointed his parents by not choosing to stay in India and take over the family business. His father never understood his choice and there is a very moving chapter in which he describes how he felt that he was not there when he died, an experience many expats, exiled by their choices, will recognise.

Hence the subtitle to the book: ‘Lessons in Guilt and Gratitude to the British‘.

Learning about Britain the hard way

Part two of the story begins on a cold, wet day in January 1969 when Mihir arrived in London ‘wearing a three-piece suit, under which I had woolly long johns but with the bottom ends visible underneath my trousers.’

His father had also sewn a special pouch into his clothes so he could illegally export £800, more cash than was allowed by the Indian government at the time, and sufficient to keep him afloat in England for a while.

His arrival was six months after Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. He found landladies wouldn’t rent him a room, white women would not have relationships for fear of having mixed race babies, and the bully boy skinheads of the National Front presented a physical threat.

Studying engineering at Loughborough University, he experienced working in an English factory and found himself doing the work of an untouchable – cleaning toilets – in London, to make ends meet.

When Mohammed Ali lost to Joe Frazier in 1971 he writes:

‘By losing to Frazier, Ali had dealt us a mortal blow, almost as if he had personally decided to cripple us…

‘In my final year at St Xavier’s, when Floyd Patterson, a black American, had fought Ingemar Johansson, a Swedish boxer, all of us wanted Johnsson to win. Now, after two years in England, I instinctively identified with people of colour.’

Images: Mihir writes on the history of India and the history of sport

Finding his tribe

Things began to look up when he fell in with a theatre crowd and he started writing and staging plays, then got his first break as a journalist with the new radio station LBC, who hired him to report on an Indian cricket tour of England.

If sport reporting was a passion, another area of expertise, his knowledge of accountancy, paid off in getting him jobs on the City pages. He got to know David Smith, now Economics Editor of the Sunday Times, and Nigel Dudley, now a political analyst, with whom he now makes the Three Old Hacks podcast.

As three young hacks they worked for Financial Weekly, where Mihir quickly became City editor and gave Peter Oborne his first job as a journalist. Though he has proved himself since in a stellar journalism career, all it took then for Peter to get a job in journalism (she says, grinding her teeth bitterly) was for him to have gone to school with Nigel Dudley at Sherborne and to have been a keen cricketer.

Others who have benefitted from Mihir’s managerial choices are the cartoonist Martin Rowson, whom he employed, and Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor whose “Alex” cartoons are to be found in the City pages of the Daily Telegraph. Mihir gave them their first start on the Daily London News, where he was City Features editor.

Once he had found his tribe in British journalism, who accepted him, Mihir was off and running. A prolific freelance, he persuaded editors to take his stories and, not only that, but to carve out a niche for him to write about sports business news. He persuaded the sports editor at the Telegraph, David Welch, to create an Inside Sports column which looked at sports stories in depth.

He later prevailed on the BBC to create the role of Sports News editor for the same reason. The world of sport was changing, becoming big business, and he was perfectly placed to seek out, and crucially to understand the stories which were emerging.

He made his name with a succession of stories about football bungs and how the decision-making process behind events such as the Olympics and the World Cup really worked. He always got his best scoops, he says, from the lawyers and administrators who were party to the big deals.

In the process he rubbed quite a few important people up the wrong way – Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson for one, Labour Sports Minister Tony Banks another. The latter refused to speak to Mihir because he had predicted, on good information, that England would not get to host the 2006 football World Cup. Banks responded by calling him “a little shit.”

‘Years later he was proposed for membership of the Reform Club,’ writes Mihir. ‘I could have blackballed him but I did not.’

Never one to miss an opportunity, he also enjoyed being the Indian food critic for Time Out magazine.

The memoir reflects Mihhir’s journey towards acceptance of himself as an Indian, and an Anglophile, and the curious double identity that has entailed for someone who has come to Britain as immigrant and found success here on his own terms. The account is candid and unvarnished, colourful and humorous, with some interesting home truths for Indian and British people.

Mihir will be talking about his book Thank You Mr CrombieLessons in Guilt and Gratitude to the British on Wednesday 29 May with Peter Oborne, in an event at George IV for The Chiswick Calendar’s Media Club.

Book tickets: eventbrite.co.uk