BOOK REVIEW / Bearers, Blimps, and jungly fruits: 'India Served and Observed' - William & Mildred Archer: BACSA, 9 pounds. Jan Morris on the enthralling memoirs of two remarkably clever servants of the Raj

THE ECHOES of Empire grow fainter every year - and sweeter. Gone are the thunderous titles like Our Vice-Regal Life In India, or Fire and Sword in the Sudan: the last of the imperial memoirs are above all conciliatory, if not actually apologetic. For myself, as an aesthetic imperialist, I rather miss the old superbia, but I concede that the last generation of the Empire-builders probably included the best of the lot - the nearest to Santayana's 'sweet, just, boyish masters'.

William ('Bill') Archer and his wife Mildred ('Tim') were scarcely typical of the breed, but their joint reminiscences - some parts by him, some by her - fascinatingly illustrate the time when the imperial conviction faded and the imperial careers proceeded unmistakeably towards early repatriation. Both the children of teachers, both highly intellectual (he had a First from Cambridge; she was a scholar of St Hilda's), they shared liberal if not socialist sympathies, and went to India in the Thirties well aware that their purposes must be to ease the way to Indian independence.

The Archers were scathing of British postures out there - the club mentality, the aloofness, the snobbery - but as a member of the Indian Civil Service, Bill found himself, nevertheless, faithfully honouring its traditions. Not only was he a diligent and efficient administrator, performing all the legendary functions of the white man in the field - judging people, taking censuses, coping with natural calamities, calming disputes, codifying tribal laws, advising elders: there came a time when, like so many before him, he found himself obliged to use violence to sustain the rule of imperial law - eight students were killed when, in 1942, Bill Archer authorised the police to open fire upon a demonstration in Patna.

So for all his good intentions he became 'Butcher' Archer after all, just as his memsahib, though so ardent a member of the Oxford Labour Club, was attended by all the obligatory retinue of faithful nannies, courteous cooks and loyal bearers. One might almost be back in the pages of Forty-One Years In India, by Field-Marshal The Lord Roberts (1897), were it not for the fact that the Archers were extremely clever people: I doubt if they were really any sweeter or kinder than hundreds of their contemporaries pilloried as Blimps and reactionaries, but they were perceptive enough to see through the illusory conventions of racism and ideology, and to develop an intimate interest in the affairs of the Indians themselves.

Not that they were especially original in this, either. Countless British officers in India devoted themselves, in the Napoleonic way, to anthropology, archaeology, zoology, botany or geographical studies: books like Risley's Gazetteer of Sikhim (1894), dealing with everything from Jungly Fruits to the character of the noviciate in Sikkim monasteries, are familiar monuments of the Raj. The Archers were special because it was at the very end of the imperial story that they were to make themselves internationally famous authorities in Indian art: when the Indian Empire ended, in 1947, they returned reluctantly to England and spent the rest of their lives (Bill died in 1980, Tim is still active) studying, cataloguing, celebrating and explaining the artistic genius of their former subjects.

The list of their publications is formidable, ranging from an anthology of Indian marriage sermons to mighty catalogues of Punjabi paintings or Pahari miniatures. Between them they published more than 50 books, besides countless articles and reviews, and as scholars and collectors their knowledge of many aspects of Indian painting, from tribal murals of the north to courtly miniatures or portraiture under British patronage, became unrivalled in the world.

They never really left the Empire. Bill became Keeper of the Indian section of the Victoria and Albert, Tim spent 25 years at the India Office Library. It is statutory in such late memoirs to record affectionate re-visits to the former subject nations, but the Archers can justly claim not only to be happily remembered in India, but to be greatly admired: their work is honoured there, encouraging Indian scholars to pursue neglected paths of artistic research, and Bill was contributing essays to learned Indian journals almost until he died.

Theirs were grand and remarkable lives, but it would be unfair to think of them as altogether uncharacteristic of the old Empire, which inspired so many of its servants, in their several ways, to noble aspirations and works of usefulness.

Like it or not, William and Mildred Archer were people of the Raj: it is proper that all the proceeds from this lovable and enthralling little book should be going to the British Association for Cemeteries in South Asia, and will thus help to maintain the graves of imperialists of all sorts, snobs and saints, lofty administrators and brilliantined box-wallahs, who lie out there beneath the Eastern sun.