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the Complete Review
the complete review - travel

The Trouser People

Andrew Marshall

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To purchase The Trouser People

Title: The Trouser People
Author: Andrew Marshall
Genre: Travel
Written: 2002
Length: 258 pages
Availability: The Trouser People - US
The Trouser People - UK
The Trouser People - Canada
  • UK subtitle: The Quest For The Victorian Footballer Who Made Burma Play The Empire's Game
  • US subtitle: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire
  • Original US subtitle: Colonial Shadows in Modern-Day Burma
  • US subtitle at Amazon.com: A Modern-Day Explorer Tracks the Victorian Adventurer Who Taught Burma to Play the Empire's Game

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Our Assessment:

B- : some interesting parts, but fairly muddled as a whole

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Far Eastern Econ. Rev. A 6/6/2002 Bertil Lintner
Foreign Affairs . 3-4/2002 Lucian W. Pye
The Guardian A 16/3/2002 Harriet O'Brien
The Independent B 19/2/2002 David Goldblatt
The NY Times Book Rev. A 9/6/2002 Elizabeth Becker
The Observer C- 20/1/2002 Will Buckley
The Spectator B 16/2/2002 Philip Glazebrook
Sunday Telegraph . 27/1/2002 Russell Davies
The Washington Post . 21/4/2002 Wendy Law-Yone

  Review Consensus:

  No consensus

  From the Reviews:
  • "Andrew Marshall's The Trouser People towers above all other contemporary books on Burma (.....) Marshall's book is personal without being egocentric, beautifully written, and tells us more about Burma's past and present troubles than most academic writings." - Bertil Lintner, Far Eastern Economic Review

  • "Marshall provides a vivid firsthand account of conditions in contemporary Burma." - Lucian W. Pye, Foreign Affairs

  • "Marshall has produced an immensely readable book, offering a different perspective to other recent Burma travelogues (.....) He makes light of his own escapades and provides, above all, an unsentimental exposé of the craziness and cruelty that is Burma today." - Harriet O'Brien, The Guardian

  • "Marshall has travelled bravely, and his Brit-gonzo journalism made me laugh, think and look very hard at places and peoples that disappear off our mental and media maps. (...) However, I can't help but wonder whether, on occasion, more sober political reportage was called for." - David Goldblatt, The Independent

  • "Nostalgia for the sensibilities of Scott and his world seeps into the book, especially around the central theme of the Burmese hill tribes. In Marshall's hands, they are alluring even in the most mundane setting." - Elizabeth Becker , The New York Times Book Review

  • "(T)ravel stories are dependent on who is doing the telling, and reading Marshall is like being locked in a youth hostel vaguely near Vienna with a new age Canadian who has taken a long vacation in Europe to ponder over the many options open to him in the still fluid dotcom industry back home in Ottawa. (...) Marshall, his copious 'thanks' inform us, has written for the mid-market men's magazines. His book reads like a very extended feature in one of those products, the one the editor and marketing men can point to when trying to con people that it's not all tits and celebs." - Will Buckley, The Observer

  • "Marshall describes the country vividly and succeeds in making his misty little lake sufficiently magical for the journey to have been worthwhile (...) (I)t is not with his own travels or his own experiences in Burma that Marshall is in trouble, it is with his hero, George Scott, that his book falters. (...) Scott resists all Marshall’s efforts to draw him out and display him as an interesting man." - Philip Glazebrook, The Spectator

  • "(R)emarkably good-humoured (.....) This is not one of those foreign-correspondent memoirs where you suspect most of the work has been done in the bar of some Intercontinental Hotel. Marshall has been to places where you simply don't know who may come at you out of the shrubbery, how heavily armed he will be, how fearful of foreigners, and indeed how stoned on whatever local intoxicant is most plentiful." - Russell Davies, Sunday Telegraph

  • "Inevitably, Marshall comes across the usual traces of state-sanctioned violence for which the Burmese military regime is renowned: persecution, murder, torture and rapacity on a scale that beggars belief. But appalling as these facts appear in the recounting, they leave less of an impression than the funnier, sunnier aspects of the author's encounters" - Wendy Law-Yone, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Author Andrew Marshall doesn't seem very sure what he wants The Trouser People to be. The confusion begins with the title. The "trouser people" were the "white colonialists" that invaded and took over Burma -- so-called because only the foreigners wore trousers; the natives all wore sarongs (or lungis) as, indeed, they largely still do. The British imperialists were the first trouser people, and Marshall decides that the current odious regime governing what is now called Myanmar is their modern counterpart: "Burma's generals were the new colonialists -- the new Trouser People." It is something of a stretch, but one might grant him it -- if that was truly the focus of the book. But it isn't.
       More confusion arises from the the subtitles. The British edition suggests the book is: The Quest For The Victorian Footballer Who Made Burma Play The Empire's Game. (Already quite a shift from the trouser-people focus, no ?) The American edition completely inaccurately describes the book as: A Story of Burma in the Shadow of the Empire (a revision of the slightly more accurate originally proposed subtitle for the American edition, Colonial Shadows in Modern-Day Burma). And, just for the fun of it, Amazon.com offers yet another subtitle: A Modern-Day Explorer Tracks the Victorian Adventurer Who Taught Burma to Play the Empire's Game.
       The Trouser People is a book that describes Andrew Marshall's travels and experiences in contemporary Burma. But, unfortunately, Marshall also insists on making more of it.
       It turns out that in the days of Empire there was a pretty interesting Richard Burton-like character, "a natural imperialist who was instrumental in imposing British colonial rule in Upper Burma." His name was George Scott (later: Sir George). And he does sound like a fairly interesting character. He had many talents and did some impressive things. Andrew Marshall spent many hours in the British Library "poring" over Scott's diaries and he -- sort of -- frames his Burmese travels as a quest for Scott and his legacy.
       As if that weren't enough, it turns out Scott is apparently the man that introduced football (soccer) to Burma, and so Marshall harps on that too, going to some Burmese football matches and describing some historic games, etc.
       There are three reasonably good book-ideas here: Marshall's travels through Burma, some sort of attempt to go 'in the footsteps' of Scott (and contrast and compare Burma under the Brits and under the current corrupt regime), and 'football in Burma' as a reflection of the state of the country from Scott's times to the present. Unfortunately, Marshall makes a single book out of these three disparate strands -- and a mighty mess that turns out to be.

       The Scott background is fairly interesting, but it only crops up occasionally, and Marshall never manages to really draw a full, convincing portrait of the man and his deeds. There are small successes, but on the whole the man remains an enigma.
       The football is fun -- Marshall describes some interesting matches in modern-day Burma and uses football convincingly to comment on the current regime. He is less convincing with the historic matches from Scott's times -- and he ignores the brief period when Burmese football flourished. (Indeed, Burmese history between Scott's time and the military takeover in 1962 is largely glossed over.)
       The travelogue makes up most of the book -- though sometimes Marshall is on the trail of Scott and sometimes he is watching some football. Usually, however, he is just travelling. But he does go to some interesting places (especially in Upper Burma, generally off-limits to foreigners).
       It is a selective account. Rangoon, Mandalay, bizarre Mongla, and other places are described in depth (and often quite well and amusingly), but others are missing -- none more notably so than Pagan. Still, Marshall's account is a useful one: he has seen more of Burma than most and he does give a very good impression of life under one of the most abhorrent regimes in the world. As Burma (and its sad fate) are largely unfamiliar to Western audiences, Marshall's book serves, in some ways, as a good introduction to the very troubling situations there.
       Marshall is rightly shocked over how the regime in Burma treats its citizens (and especially its many minority groups), but his indignation often splutters across the page, uneasily mixed with a sardonic humour that often just isn't very funny. His examples are strong enough by themselves; his editorializing rarely helps.
       There are quite a few entertaining bits in the book. The unlikely Chinese tourist buses in Mongla and what they come to see is a fine piece (though he claims that "10,000 Chinese tourists visit Mongla every day" which seems far too high an estimate). His trek into Wa-country is also an entertaining little adventure story. And throughout there are nicely captured scenes -- museum visits, encounters with the locals, etc.
       Much of the writing -- like the travelling, apparently -- is fairly roughshod and makeshift. Perhaps he wants to imitate Scott: he quotes him early on as complaining about the Wa, saying they are fine enough people, "were it not for the one foible of cutting strangers' heads off and neglecting ever to wash themselves." Scott obviously couldn't afford an editor either: no matter how you cut it, that is definitely two foibles, not one. Marshall's writing is similarly careless and frustratingly imprecise and incomplete.
       Fun titbits are mentioned: Scott, for example, bequeathed a tattoo he had to the Royal College of Surgeons, "to be removed when I am dead and kept as a sample." But Marshall leaves it at that: we don't know whether the Royal College ever collected, and Marshall seems to have made no effort to seek the sample out. Very disappointing !
       Marshall's moralizing can also be a bit much:

If you have been on holiday in Thailand, and have bought a bootleg CD from a street vendor, then you have unwittingly made the tycoon druglords of the USWA a little bit richer
       Except, as he then notes, it turns out "these CDs are believed to be manufactured in Wa-occupied areas of Burma." Believed to be. Here he is laying a guilt-trip on his readers, and he can't even be sure that the CDs are made by the crooks he claims get richer when you buy them. Unwittingly indeed. (If you bought this book you unwittingly made a careless author and a careless publishing house a little bit richer. Shame on you for that too.)
       Some of the writing also leaves something to be desired. Marshall is a journalist and should recognize his limitations. Waxing eloquently doesn't suit him or his book. He writes, for example, of: "Mandalay shimmering mythically in the heat haze far below". (Somebody has to explain to us how a city can shimmer mythically. Or, on the other hand: thank you, no, we don't want to know.) Or he writes of some caged animals in a circus: "the tiger and the lion were asleep, dreaming of jungle and savannah." This from a journalist -- one whose talents apparently include reading the dreams of animals. Drivel like this just undermines his many valid and important observations.

       Marshall does offer, beneath all this, a striking portrait of a horrendous regime. It is not a well-laid out indictment -- just bits and pieces, with Scott and football mixed in to keep things confused -- but perhaps it will help open some readers' eyes to the plight of this sad, forgotten country.
       Entertaining in fits (and maddening too), The Trouser People is among the few contemporary non-scholarly accounts of the current situation in Burma. There are fascinating stories here, but the presentation is too much of a muddle. This fascinating country and its fascinating cultures (old and new) are worth knowing. Unfortunately Marshall isn't a very impressive guide.

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The Trouser People: Reviews: Andrew Marshall: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Andrew Marshall is a journalist. He lives in Bangkok.

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© 2002-2021 the complete review

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