Philip Woodruff

(Philip Mason)

In This Collection

Other Works

  • The Men Who Ruled India
  • A Matter of Honour
  • The English Gentleman: The Rise and Fall of an Ideal
  • Niagara Falls and the Daredevils
  • Kipling: The Glass, the Shadow, and the Fire
  • Patterns of Dominance
  • A Shaft of Sunlight: Memories of a Varied Life
  • Skinner’s Horse
  • Would You Believe It?
  • The Dove in Harness
  • Of Strong October
  • The Hammered Dulcimer’s Companion
  • Since I Last Wrote

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Philip Mason, CIE, OBE, colonial servant and author, died on January 25 aged 92. He was born on March 19, 1906.

Philip Mason will be remembered as the historian of British India, particularly in its last days; as the author of a wide variety of books; as a powerful advocate for tolerance and understanding in race relations; as a voice of reason in often irrational circumstances; and , perhaps above all, as the repository of much accumulated knowledge of a world that no longer exists, who managed to transcend its limitations and find a new outlook on the contemporary world.

One of the great scholar administrators produced by the Indian Civil Service , Mason found himself on the spot when Independence ended the careers of ICS officers like himself in 1947. In a brief period before the transfer of power, he had what sounds like the romantic job of tutor and governor to the Princes of Hyderabad. But before that he seemed destined for great things in India, if Independence had not put paid to such ambitions. He had just the right combination of tact and firmness, of sympathetic understanding of the aspirations of the people and a thorough grasp of what the administration could and could not do. He knew how Indian Army officers felt because he had lived with them, and how civil servants worked because he had been one of them and understood from inside the way the system functioned.

A Derbyshire doctor’s son, Philip Mason was educated at Sedbergh and Balliol, where, a high-flyer from the start, he took a first in Modern Greats, joined the ICS in 1928 and was posted to the United Provinces for five years. After that he was Under-Secretary of the Indian Government War Department in New Delhi, and then returned to the United Provinces as Deputy Commissioner of Garhwal, a sub-Himalayan district covering more than 5,000 square miles almost untouched by the outside world, where his happiest time in India was spent. When war broke out he returned to Delhi and then spent the last three years before Independence as Joint Secretary of the War Department.

After retirement from India his life was just as full and useful. One of his interests was race relations, a prickly matter for which, with his background, he was well qualified to deal. He served on the Commission of Inquiry examining problems of minorities in Nigeria, which involved many visits to Africa. As director of studies in race relations at Chatham House, and as the first director of the Institute of Race Relations, he was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing the problems involved to the attention of the authorities and ensured more enlightened policies than would probably have resulted without him. He combined idealism with practicality, administrative competence with a crusading spirit, and his humane, liberal attitude to the often sensitive matters he dealt with had a beneficent effect on those who expected, from a man in his position, rhetoric and confrontation.

His other great interest was the history of British India and in the years after Independence he worked on the two-volume book that has become a classic, The Men who Ruled India published as a single volume in 1985 but appearing as The Founders and The Guardians in 1953 and 1954. He decided to write the history by examining the work of outstanding men in the ICS, and through their lives to show the administration in action and the changes in relations between India and the British.

This was his best-known memorial to the Indian years but other books of his reflect Indian life and landscapes. In Who’s Who he described himself as “writer”, but in the early years colleagues considered his writing as a hobby rather than a profession. His first novel, Call the Next Witness, a detective story set in India, was published in 1945. His fiction and some other books appeared under the name of Philip Woodruff, others under his own. The Wild Sweet Witch (1947) probably his best known novel, was set in the foothills of the Himalayas, and The Island of Chamba (1950) also had an Indian background.

With the years writing took over more and more, sometimes linked to the work he was doing (several books on race relations appeared) sometimes to his interests and his past, as with A Matter of Honour (1974) about the Indian Army, Skinner of Skinner’s Horse (1979), or his much admired study of a writer unfashionable and underrated when the book appeared in 1975, Kipling, the Glass, the Shadow and the Fire. Of all his books, this was Philip Mason’s most directly literary one, a brilliantly intuitive study of a baffling genius whose mysteries have never been solved. There were children’s books, too, books on history, memoirs, autobiography, occasional studies like The English Gentleman, books edited or contributed to, and the final one, published as recently as 1996, a collection of essays contributed over the years to The Tablet, with the title Since I Last Wrote.

In public work he was busy, too: chairman of the National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, trustee and sometime president of the South African Church Development Trust, first chairman of the UK Council for Overseas Student Affairs, vice-president of the Kipling Society. He was made an honorary DSc of Bristol University, was an honorary Fellow of the School of Oriental and African Studies and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 1978 he became a Roman Catholic. He was respected, liked and admired by his peers, colleagues and many younger people for his probity, intellect, friendliness and charm. His wife, Mary, two sons and two daughters survive him.

The Times. Monday, Feb. 1, 1999. p. 23.

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Philip Mason (Wikipedia)