Sue Arnold: Burma, bastards - and my grandmother Ma Nu

Why my grandfather didn't keep schtum about his second family, I'll never know
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Curiously I was not aware of the glitch in my father's provenance (my parents were divorced when I was seven) until my mother let slip one day that my grandfather's wife, Evelyn Ireland, was the daughter of General Sir Robert Ireland, a veteran of Mafeking and Lucknow. This made him a big noise in my mother's eyes. She likes big noises.

So did he divorce Evelyn to marry my beautiful Burmese grandmother, Ma Nu Miss Tender? I asked. People didn't get divorced in those days, said my mother. Hang on, I persisted, if my paternal grandfather William Thomas Townley McHarg already had a wife when he married Ma Nu, that makes him a bigamist. Of course he wasn't, Susan, said my mother irritably. People didn't get married in Burma, especially people who left England to spend their working lives in the colonies.

I think my grandfather met Evelyn in Rangoon. She had probably come out with the fishing fleet to find a suitable husband. But Burma lacked the social infrastructure enjoyed by expats in neighbouring India. My grandfather supervised the extraction of timber with elephants from the teak forests of Upper Burma, where tea parties and costume balls were thin on the ground. The upshot was that the new Mrs McHarg found life in the Burmese jungle less attractive than life with her parents in Hampshire. Shortly after her marriage she took ship for England, where their first son, Neville, was born some two months later. Three years later, when my grandfather came home on leave, their second son, Robert, was conceived.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, my grandfather had come across this tall, beautiful Burmese maiden, Miss Tender, and set up house with her. Now this was highly unusual. Most expats had native mistresses, read George Orwell's Burmese Days, but they didn't live with them. They visited them in the early evening in the native quarter, and then returned to their colonial bungalows in time for a hot bath and a couple of stiff Harry Squeezers before dinner. WTTM broke the mould. He moved Ma Nu into his residence, where they proceeded to have six children, May, my father, Jimmy, Peter, Johnny and George.

While I appreciate that being a royal bastard has its own peculiar problems (see Edmund in King Lear), if Prince Albert treats his as handsomely as my grandfather treated his five surviving Burmese bastards, that little Monegasque-Somali interloper will be well provided for. My grandfather infinitely preferred his illegitimate Burmese brood to his pukka English sons.

I know this having spent a painful afternoon talking to my ersatz Uncle Neville. When WTTM retired and came home to England, he left Ma Nu the equivalent of a pension provided the children wrote to him regularly. Whenever a letter arrived from Burma, Uncle Neville told me, his father would lock himself in his study and emerge hours later looking sad. It couldn't have been much fun for Neville and his brother knowing that the real objects of their father's love were thousands of miles away in the Land of the Pagodas.

Why he didn't keep schtum about his second family, I'll never know. Apparently it was his wife, Evelyn, who suffered most. She found out about the Burmese whelps, as she called them, at around the same time as her father, the general, missed his footing, fell off the platform at Portsmouth station and was run over by a train.

Life's a bitch. You do everything by the book, marry in church, provide your husband with two sons, and what do you get? A nervous breakdown.

By contrast, my Burmese grandmother, who could neither read nor write, was a kept woman for 15 years and within a month of her benefactor's departure had moved in with the local taxi driver, was a thoroughly contented woman. There's a moral in there somewhere.