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That Reminds Me: Our Man in the South Seas

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TOWARDS the end of 1913, a young Cambridge graduate named Arthur Grimble was nominated to a cadetship in the Colonial Office. This meant he would serve a three-year probation period which, if successful, would lead to his appointment as a permanent officer. The key was to show qualities of leadership. This filled him with dread.

‘I was a tallish, pinkish, long-nosed young man, fantastically thin-legged and dolefully mild of manner. Nobody could conceivably have looked, sounded or felt less like a leader of any sort than I did at the age of 25. I think the only positive things about me were a consuming hunger for sea travel and a disastrous determination to write sonnets.’

Following a halting interview with the head of a department which handled the affairs of Fiji and the Western Pacific, Grimble was appointed to a post in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands by dint of the fact that he was the only applicant. In March, 1914, he and his bride Olivia took a liner to Sydney, where they boarded a cockroach-infested tramp steamer for Ocean Island.

So began an adventure described in one of my favourite books, A Pattern of Islands, published in 1952 but still proudly in print. In it Grimble, later Sir Arthur, tells with great self-deprecation how he spent almost 20 years among the islanders, earning their love and respect.

His first colonial mentor was Stuartson Collard Methven, the Officer-in-Charge of Police. Things got off to a difficult start. ‘Water was a problem on Ocean Island, as everywhere else in that droughty group, and Methven was doing his best to deal with it. New 20,000-gallon storage tanks of concrete were being laid down all over the Government station as fast as they could be built. One of the first outdoor jobs I had to learn was how to blast twenty-foot pits for them in the rocky earth. The actual work was not difficult. You got someone to drill holes in several rocks; you pushed sticks of gelignite, with detonators and fuses attached, into the holes; then you tamped them in, lit the fuses and ran for your life.

‘I chose the Residency backyard for my first independent blasting operation. A cistern had been ordered for it, and I thought it would be a nice surprise for everyone to find a beautiful, big hole all ready for the concrete work. My only real mistakes were that I chose a Saturday afternoon, warned nobody, put down 100 per cent too many charges and used 100 per cent too much gelignite in each of them. The initial result was an aggregate explosion of volcanic force. The surface of the backyard rose bodily into the air, to overhang the Residency in the form of a black cloud. Boulders of gigantic size rained from the cloud and fell crashing through the roof into the dining-room. The Resident Commissioner and his lady were taking their siesta at the time. They addressed me both at once from the back verandah, in their underclothes. But they did not continue long, for this was not the end. One of the fuses had burned slower than the rest. A second explosion – trifling compared with the first yet still a thunder-blast – roared out. My Chief and his partner fled to cover and so did I, in the opposite direction.

‘The next morning, after an interview which need not be recorded, my Chief addressed the following minute to Methven:

O/C POLICE AND PRISONS, OCEAN ISLAND

Please note that I have today prayed Mr Cadet Grimble, in the interests of public safety, to abstain from indulgence in public works of any kind. Mr Grimble has kindly assented to my petition. You may accordingly regard his course of education in this direction as now concluded. As to his training in other outside duties, please be good enough to see that his genius is henceforward kept exclusively engaged in the boarding of ships under your most rigorous personal supervision.

‘Methven considered this document to be so educative in itself that he invited me to take a copy of the text before returning it to the Old Man, endorsed: Noted for immediate attention.’

There are innumerable captivating passages in this charming book but I shall limit myself to one more, in which the Grimbles, known to the islanders as ‘the man and woman of Matang’, have been posted to the island of Tarawa with their baby daughter Joan.

‘No white baby had ever been seen before on Tarawa. The villagers seemed never tired of looking at Joan’s blue eyes and golden hair. One evening, a small naked girl in the crowd mustered around the pram piped aloud, ‘Ai bia arau arante tei-n-aei (I would that this girl-child’s name could be my name)!

‘They hushed her and shushed her as if she had uttered an infamy. But creeping to Olivia’s side she clung to her hand and gazed up into her eyes repeating in an urgent whisper, ‘I would that her name could be mine!’ Olivia drew her close and I protested, “What’s all the fuss about? Why shouldn’t she take the name of Joan if she wants to? Would her parents mind?”

‘The crowd was silent. Then someone shouted, “Here is the mother!” and they all fell back a step or two. The mother stood forward in the ring, a tiny, vivid creature dressed only in a tight waistcloth of gay print. “Sir, is this true?” she cried, taking both my hands in hers. “Will the woman of Matang allow it? May my child take the name of her child?”

‘I turned to Olivia. “Of course she may,” she said. “What’s to stop it if the mother likes it?”

‘There was a shout of pleasure from the audience. The mother led her small girl to the side of the pram and, bending over it, addressed our sleeping Joan with a smile of tender courtesy: “Neiko (woman), I have thrown away the name of this my girl-child and taken your name for her instead. Your mother says I may. See, here is your name-sister and servant for evermore, who shall obey your word in all things”.’

The little girl approached Olivia and said: ‘Neiko, look you! I must go to school every day or the Father will be angry. But after school every day I will be ready to come to my sister, no matter when you call me.’

Grimble goes on: ‘And ready she always was, never intruding, never in the way, but infallibly on the spot with love and service for Joan or any one of us, for as long as we stayed on Tanawa.’

The author went on to become Governor, first of the Seychelles, then of the Windward Islands, before retiring from the Colonial Service in 1948 and becoming a writer and broadcaster, producing A Pattern of Islands and its companion volume Return to the Islands. In 1956 the first book was made into a film, Pacific Destiny, starring Denholm Elliott and Susan Stephen as the Grimbles.  Sir Arthur died that same year, aged 68. A treasure of the British Empire.

Old jokes’ home

I say, I say, I say. My wife went to the West Indies last week. ‘The Bahamas?’ No, she went of her own accord.

A PS from PG

As I put hat on hat-peg and umbrella in umbrella-stand, I was thinking that if God wasn’t in His heaven and all right with the world, these conditions prevailed as near as made no matter. Not the suspicion of an inkling, if you see what I mean, that round the corner lurked the bitter awakening, stuffed eelskin in hand, waiting to soak me on the occiput.

PG Wodehouse: The Mating Season

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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