Beware Falling Coconuts

The title of this book comes from signs nailed to countless trees all over Asia. A bit like terrorism, the warning is both necessary (hundreds die each year after being hit) and useless (because there is no time to get out of the way). No falling coconut hit Clapham on the head during his stints in India as a film-maker at the height of the BBC’s golden age. So he has no excuse for his starry-eyed affair with the country other than true love.

He more or less commuted between London and India in the 1970s and 80s, when India was always in the news and a major source for documentaries. Those were the days: budgets were generous, editorial control benevolent, crews large and expenses extravagant. BBC people were expected to stay at the best hotels and entertain royally. The Corporation’s reputation on the sub-Continent – in fact, around the world – was as a source of fair, accurate and interesting reporting second to none. In times of trouble in India, millions listened to the BBC to learn what was really happening in their own country.

Clapham loved his work, was good at it and was a loyal employee. He has saved until now snippets from Auntie’s dark underside. For instance, he tells us that at staff meetings when the appointment of someone new was discussed, the last act of one of the senior executives was to make a surreptitious phone call. Only after that call was the appointment confirmed. Clapham, intrigued, worked out from the dialling tones that it was an internal call. A little further detective work produced the answer: the recipient was the resident MI5 officer, whose remit included vetting job applicants and ruling out those considered to be politically unreliable – whatever that might mean. Clapham obligingly names him.

This isn’t an office history, and the most interesting parts are the author’s story of what he did when he retired. He had been captivated by the light and colours of India and decided to settle there. First he ruled out the big cities and the increasingly-crowded tourist areas like Goa.He drove determinedly south until he found what he wanted at Suratkal, near Mangalore, bought a house with a view of the ocean and a lighthouse for what in central London would have got him a garden shed. He now lives there with a cook, gardener, driver and an eccentric dog.

When the monsoon season comes, he heads back to London and catches up with his old BBC colleagues, whistle-stops  around relatives and friends and is ready for India again by mid-August. He says it is an ideal life and implies that he deserves it after all those years with the BBC. He probably does.

Reviewer: Phillip Knightley is the author of The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-Maker from the Crimea to Iraq.