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Return to the Islands


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In 1913, my main reason for wanting to join the Colonial Administrative Service was that it would enable Olivia and me to marry at once and set up house together in the remote, the romantic Gilbert Islands. But in 1921, when our first long leave in England was almost spent and we were up against my return to duty, the relationship between our private life and my service in strange lands did not look quite so happy. Our four daughters had come into the picture by then, and the climate of the Gilberts was cruel to growing children. If I went back to my district out there, it was clear I must go alone while Olivia stayed at home with the family.

The initial question was where 'at home' might best be. We naturally thought first of where we were at the moment, in a village of South Devon. But the Gilberts were anything from nine to twelve weeks away from England in those days, the variable factor being the time spent waiting for connections in Sydney. So, if the family stayed on at Newton Ferrers, the trip home to them for a three-months' stay, then back again to my job, was going to need a grant of something like nine months' leave of absence on full pay. The nice point about a grant of that kind and length was that you took six years to qualify for it.

Six years of separation seemed too much to pay for twelve page 2weeks of family reunion. We therefore turned to the alternative, a household exodus to Australia. With everyone in Sydney, less than two weeks away from Ocean Island, I could be sure of getting back to them on short leave for ten weeks at the end of every third year of service, and Olivia could visit me now and then for short spells, too. The only difficulty was that I would have to borrow about £ 800 to finance the move. Before plunging as deep as that on my pay of £ 600 a year I had to make sure of not being transferred out of the Pacific to a job on the other side of the world as soon as our migration was complete.

So I went up to the Colonial Office one day to collect that little assurance of stability we needed. Everything would have gone swimmingly, I'm sure, if my quiet and kindly opposite number, G. A. Jones, had been there as I expected. But he wasn't, and, as I had no appointment, it was in a way very courteous of whoever it was to see me at all. He was a smallish, sphinx-like person who sat very straight in his chair behind the enormous desk.

"Do you think I can count on being kept in the Gilbert Islands for three more years or, better still six," I asked him ingenuously, "if my service out there remains satisfactory?"

"Remains satisfactory?" he repeated with cutting emphasis. "Remains appears to stand for certain assumptions on your part. I wonder what they are?"

"Well," I faltered, "I thought my service … so far … I mean to say, I haven't earned any black marks so far, have I?"

"Haven't you?"

His question of course left me convinced on the spot that I had. My Resident Commissioner for six years, E. C. Eliot, had never been exactly reticent about my faults as an apprentice. I suddenly saw his confidential annual report (that sinister document never revealed in those days to the officer concerned) doing detailed justice to my every drivelling incompetence. But the shock of it made me argumentative. "If I've truly blotted my copybook," I urged, "why should I have been page 3appointed to act as resident commissioner for Mr. Eliot when he left for England?"

"I really can't say," he replied.

"But surely that was a mark of confidence," I insisted stupidly, "wasn't it?"

"Was it?"—his eyes were plainly gloating now, though his face was expressionless—"I couldn't possibly pretend to know."

I panicked on that line then and plunged panting back at the details of the family migration, the cost, the need of some kind of certainty, and so on. Looking back, I am horrified at the crudity of having tried to import personal emotions into Whitehall. But I still believed with all my heart in the idea of a paternally directed colonial service, and what I had to say meant so much to the family. The result was a babble of stumbling thoughts and stuttering words it still shames me to remember.

All that remained for him then was to finish me off neatly. "We know nothing officially of wives and families in the Colonial Office," he said. "We deal with officers in the field as officers, not husbands or fathers. And we never give guarantees not to move them from post to post, as and when we judge necessary."

The next day Olivia and I decided against the gamble of a migration. The question we had to answer then was: should I go back to the Pacific or resign and take a job in England? It was only up against this choice of ways that I learned for the first time how much our six years in the Gilbert Islands had put me in love, not with the people alone but, beyond them, with the colonial service as a way of life.

On the other hand, the way wasn't turning out very profitable for the family; also, there was a job waiting for Olivia and me in the West Country. A family friend, a director in a now famous hotel organization, was looking for couples like ourselves who might be put as learners in charge of small country inns and eventually promoted to bigger and better posts if they gave satisfaction.

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We hadn't a doubt we could give satisfaction; it would be hard going at first, but soft compared with the life we had led in the Gilberts. Sitting on a green bank, high over the glimmering peace of the Yealm estuary, one evening of that divine summer of 1921, we said to each other, "Here's our way through. All of us together in England. Isn't it wonderful!"

Perhaps—who knows?—it would have remained wonderful for ever and a day if I had posted my letter of resignation that night. But I didn't. I found I couldn't write it just then, and when I sat down to it the next day, Olivia said she had been thinking. "You know," she said, "they would never have let you act as resident commissioner out there if there truly had been any secret marks against you. Why can't you forget that horrid little man in Downing Street?"

"Very good," I snapped, "I've forgotten him … so then?"

"Well … I've worried it out … you're the only old hand left in the Gilberts now, and there's a new resident commissioner coming along. Pretty rough on him if you don't go back."

"Why should I give a tinker's curse for him? We don't even know his name yet and we certainly owe him nothing."

"All right, all right," said Olivia, "but what about the Gilbertese? Not a soul but you left who knows a thing about them. You know what you're really thinking."

The letter wasn't written. Another went instead, asking for a second interview at the Colonial Office. The idea this time was to see if there was any chance of my being moved to a job nearer home after two or three more years of the Pacific. There must be someone there—some great and gentle power at the top—we felt sure, who could see that we were helped at least to that extent. By heaven! I said to Olivia, I'd resign on the spot, I would, if I couldn't get through to whoever it was. I kept on repeating it to myself all the way up to London.

But it was J. F. N. Green, tall, silver-haired and gently courteous who received me this time. Young men of my generation didn't easily explode into resignations with seniors page 5of his calibre. I think he must have heard of my massacre by the other man, for he opened with masterly kindness, "I've been wanting to meet you, Grimble. We have it on record that you performed with credit as acting resident commissioner out there of late, and it looks as if we shall be asking you to hold the fort for us again, until Eliot's successor arrives. Now … tell me your troubles."

Gracious, sagacious, Mr. Green! That single pair of words, with credit,' was instant balm upon my mutilated vanity. I said my piece then without too many stumbles. He listened with care, helping me often. He minced no facts, though, in his answer.

Outside the 'closed' services of Malaya, Ceylon and Hong Kong, which were entered through the doorway of competitive examinations—he told me—promotions and transfers in the colonial field were largely a matter of chance. "They are being wretchedly mishandled here in London, there's the truth of it," he admitted. "They always have been. We of the geographical departments can't honestly guarantee anything to anyone. We try to look after our own men; I will see that your name goes forward; but—I'm sorry—I don't know when you can hope for a move, if ever, or where to."

As for wives and families, he went on, something was now being done to recognize their official existence in Africa. But the African colonies had the money; we in the Pacific were too poor to pay for improvements; we were the backwater territories—the Cinderellas of the Empire, as he put it.

"Then perhaps it would be best, after all, to borrow £ 800 and take the family to Sydney, sir," I said forlornly, when he had done.

He thought a long while before he answered. "No. I wouldn't say that. The whole tiling's a lottery … but you may be one of the lucky ones. Don't in any case load yourself with a big debt at this stage of your career, my boy."

I wish I could think that, even without that final, fatherly 'my boy,' his word of praise and crystal clear candour—too page 6kind to deceive me with any false hope—would have sufficed to hold me to my job. After all, it wasn't my service that had failed me, only my master, and the blame for whatever disappointment I felt on that score lay mostly at the door of my own romanticism. It simply wasn't possible for any official automaton like the Colonial Office to have the kind of collective heart I had expected of it. I did see that at last. But I had a doleful vision while he was laying such heavy emphasis on internal mismanagement.

I seemed to see, down the vista of the years ahead, an endless procession of forgotten servants trooping in to Downing Street from earth's far corners to ask, as I myself had asked that day, "What about me?" only to be answered with the courteous vagueness of kind men endlessly impotent: "Sorry … we know the fault's at this end … we do feel for you … but there it is … we can't do a thing about it."

The thought goaded me within an ace of leaping to my feet and throwing in the sponge before he had finished speaking. It was, in very truth, only that final 'my boy' of his, as friendly as a candle in a haunted room, that held me to my service.

Olivia and I decided to drop the idea of inn-keeping. The only money I borrowed was £ 150 to keep the family in funds until I got back to my post. I sailed for the Pacific, via Australia, alone in an emigrant ship, towards the end of September, 1921. It was to be seven years, not six, before I saw the children again but half-way through that time Olivia inherited a small legacy and splashed it on a fifteen-months' visit to me out there.

On the way out an A-deck passenger, a widowed lady who owned a public house in a Melbourne suburb, offered me a job as barman's assistant there. She said she had been keeping an eye and an ear on us emigrants below decks and fancied she could make something of me if only I could get rid of my lahdidah Pommy accent. I was ready to discuss practically any possibility by that time, but when I began bargaining for better page 7pay and perks than she had mentioned, she peremptorily withdrew her invitation, and a fellow-emigrant in No. 2 Hatch eventually got the job. From that time on to the end of my official career not a soul in the world of big business ever again showed the slightest inclination to tempt me with offers of employment away from the colonial service.

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