The independent London newspaper

Asian odyssey changed the life of writer Charles Allen

Charles Allen wrote his own obituary in the weeks before his death. Here is his life written in his own words:

21 August, 2020

India-born and India-made, Charles Allen

THE writer and historian Charles Allen only learned that his first book, Plain Tales from the Raj, had reached the top of the Sunday Times bestseller list when thumbing through a back copy of the paper in the British Council Library in Rawalpindi, Pakistan.

It was typical that he should be out travelling in South Asia, researching his next book and quite out of contact, rather than being closer to home to bask in his literary success.

Charles, who has died in London, aged 80, always saw himself as India-born and India-made. He was born on January 2, 1940 in what was then Cawnpore (now Kanpur) into a family that had lived and worked in India for several generations. Seven happy if precarious years in the tropical jungles of Assam – where his father was a political officer – left him with an abiding love of India and its people.

That idyll ended in March 1948 when he left India for England and boarding school. He never shone at school and left aged 17 with few qualifications to become an apprentice tea-taster in the City. Two years later he had a Monday morning epiphany, handed in his notice and caught a train to Perugia in Italy. Eighteen months of study courtesy of the Italian government opened his eyes to a life of learning and scholarship.

He qualified as a teacher and in 1966 spent a year in Kathmandu with Voluntary Service Overseas – an immersion in the unique Hindu and Tibetan Buddhist culture of Nepal that profoundly influenced the rest of his career. It also introduced Charles to some of the more remote corners of the Himalayas and Tibet.

Charles Allen 

It was in Kathmandu that he met his future wife, Liz Gould, who had travelled out overland and stayed to teach and write. After meeting up again in 1968 Charles and Liz spent more than 50 years together as fellow travellers, making numerous forays into India, Pakistan, Tibet and beyond, often taking their three young children with them.

Charles’ work for the BBC as an oral historian led to a number of highly acclaimed radio and TV series and publications built around Britain’s colonial past, of which Plain Tales from the Raj was the first.

Charles and Liz set up home in Camden in1970, initially in Belsize Lane where their first two children were born, then in Roderick Road and, lastly, in a flat in Lissenden Gardens overlooking Parliament Hill. He loved the Camden community. School pick-up time was an opportunity to take a break from his desk and he made lifelong friends at the school gates, some of whom later travelled with him into India and Tibet.

The friendly baker on the Fleet Road, where he would stop by to collect tea-time doughnuts, liked to call him the local Clint Eastwood – he was a handsome man!

He was also an enthusiastic and active member of the Highgate Harriers for many years, continuing to help with events long after he stopped running.

Although beset by ill-health in recent years Charles never stopped writing and he had just completed the final draft of his 25th book before his death, titled ARYANS: the Search for a People, a Place and Myth.

It was Charles’ boast that over decades of travelling he and Liz had drunk chai in thousands of wayside tea-houses throughout India, Pakistan and Nepal and had never once met anything but kindness and had never once been struck down by the runs – something much more likely to happen in four or five-star hotels!

He leaves his wife Liz, children Poppy, George and Louise, and four beloved grandchildren, Thomas, Edie, Alastair and Mabel.


Share this story

Post a comment