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A Pattern of Islands

Old Man of the Colonial Office

page 1

Old Man of the Colonial Office

I was nominated to a cadetship in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate at the end of 1913. The cult of the great god Jingo was as yet far from dead. Most English households of the day took it for granted that nobody could be always right, or ever quite right, except an Englishman. The Almighty was beyond doubt Anglo-Saxon, and the popular conception of Empire resultantly simple. Dominion over palm and pine (or whatever else happened to be noticeably far-flung) was the heaven-conferred privilege of the Bulldog Breed. Kipling had said so. The colonial possessions, as everyone so frankly called them, were properties to be administered, first and last, for the prestige of the little lazy isle where the trumpet-orchids blew. Kindly administered, naturally – nobody but the most frightful bounder could possibly question our sincerity about that – but firmly too, my boy, firmly too, lest the school-children of Empire forget who were the prefects and who the fags. Your uncles - meaning every man Jack of your father's generation, uncle or not, who cared to take you by the ear – all said you'd never be a leader if you weakened on that point. It was terrifying, the way they put it, for Stalky represented their ideal of dauntless youth, and you loathed Stalky with his Company as much as you feared him; but you were a docile young man, and, as his devotees talked, you felt the seeds of your unworthiness sprouting into shameful view through every crack in your character.

The Colonial Office spoke more guardedly than your uncles. It began by saying that, as a cadet officer, you were going to be on probation for three years. To win confirmation as a member of the permanent administrative staff, you would have to pass within that time certain field-examinations in law and native language. This seemed plain and fair enough, but then came the page 2rider. I forget how it was conveyed, whether in print or by word of mouth; but the gist of it was that you could hardly hope to be taken on as a permanent officer unless, over and above getting through your examinations, you could manage to convince your official chiefs overseas that you possessed qualities of leadership. The abysmal question left haunting you was – did the Colonial Office mean leadership in the same sense as Kipling and your uncles? If it did, and if you were anything like me, you were scuppered.

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 twenty-five. Apart from my dislike of the genus Stalky, I think the only positive things about me were a consuming hunger for sea-travel and a disastrous determination to write sonnets. The sonnet-writing had been encouraged by Arthur Christopher Benson at Cambridge; the wanderlust had started to gnaw at my vitals at school, when I read that essay of Froude's 'England's Forgotten Worthies' -especially the part of it that pictured how Humfrey Gilbert met his end in the ten-ton 'frigate' Squirrel, sitting abaft with a book in his hand, 'giving signs of joy' to his fellow-adventurers in the Golden Hinde and roaring at them through the wild Atlantic gale that engulfed him, 'We are as near heaven by sea as by land' so often as they approached within hearing. I tried at Cambridge to cram some of my feelings about that, and the sea's lure in general, into a sonnet of dubious form —

She called them with the voices of far lands
 And with the flute-like whispering of reeds,
 With scents of coral where the tide recedes,
With thunderous echoes of deserted strands.

She babbled the barbaric lilt of tongues
 Heard brokenly in dreams; she strung the light
 Of swarthy-smouldering gems across the night;
She wrung their hearts with haunting of strange songs.

She witched them with her ancient sorceries
 And lo! they knew the terrible joy of ships
page 3 Gone questing where the moon's last footstep is,
And stars hold passionless converse overhead
 While mariners are drawn with writhen lips
Down, down, deep down, among her voiceless dead.

Arthur Benson was pained at the rhyme-pattern of the octave, but said the thing sounded sincere and showed promise. I was unwise enough to bring his kindly letter to the notice of some of my uncles. They only said he ought to have known better; after all, he had had every chance, dammit, as the son of an archbishop! So, Benson, as a moral prop, was out. But I had acquired at school and Cambridge some kind of competence at cricket and other sports, which kept them always hoping for the best. When I became, first secretary, and then, in the normal course, captain of my college cricket XI, they began to believe I really might be on my way to vertebrate life. But they could not have been more deeply mistaken. As secretary, I invariably took orders from the captain; as captain, I invariably took orders from the secretary, while the team invariably played the game as if neither of us were there. The worst of it was, I loved it. If ever I had previously entertained a notion that I might enjoy ordering people around, that experience certainly disabused me of it.

The fear of being packed home from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in disgrace, after three years of probation, for having failed to become the kind of leader my uncles wanted me to be, began to give me nightmares. A moment came when I felt that the instant sack for some honest admission of my own ineptitude would be easier to bear than that long-drawn-out ignominy. In any case, I decided, someone at the top ought to be warned of my desperate resolve never to become like Stalky. It sounded rather fine, and lonely, and stubborn, put like that; but I fear I didn't live up to the height of it. I did, indeed, secure an interview at the Colonial Office, but my nearest approach to stubbornness with the quiet old gentleman who received me there was to confess, with a gulp in my throat, that the imaginary picture of myself in the act of meting out imperial kindness-but-firmness to anybody anywhere in the world, made me sweat with shame.

The quiet old gentleman was Mr. Johnson, a Chief Clerk in the page 4department which handled the affairs of Fiji and the Western Pacific High Commission. That discreet title òf his (abandoned today in favour of Principal and Secretary) gave no hint of the enormous penetrating power of his official word. In the Western and Central Pacific alone, his modest whisper from behind the throne of authority had power to affect the destinies of scores of races in hundreds of islands scattered over millions of square miles of ocean. I was led to him on a bleak afternoon of February, 1914, high up in the gloomy Downing Street warren that housed the whole Colonial Office staff of those days. The air of his cavernous room enfolded me with the chill of a mortuary as I entered. He was a spare little man with a tenuous sandy beard and heavily tufted eyebrows of the same colour. He stood before the fire, slightly bent in the middle like a monkey-nut, combing his beard with one fragile hand and elevating the tails of his cut-away coat with the other, as he listened to my story. I can see him still, considering me over his glasses with the owlish yet not unkindly stare of an undertaker considering a corpse. (Senior officials in the Colonial Office don't wear beards today, but they still cultivate that way of looking at you.) When I was done, he went on staring a hit; then he heaved a quiet sigh, ambled over to a bookcase, pottered there breathing hard for a long while (I think now he must have been laughing), and eventually hauled out a big atlas, which he carried to his desk.

'Let us see, now,' he murmured, settling into his chair 'Let us see … yes … let us go on a voyage of discovery together. Where … precisely … are the Gilbert and Ellice Islands? If you will believe me, I have often been curious to know.'

He started whipping over the pages of the atlas; I could do nothing but goggle at him while he pursued his humiliating research.

'Ah!' he chirruped at last, 'here we have them: five hundred miles of islands lost in the wide Pacific. Remote … I forbear, in tenderness for your feelings, from saying anything so Kiplingesque as far-flung. Do we agree to say remote and not far-flung?' He cocked his wicked little eye at me.

I made sounds in my throat, and he went on at once, 'Remote page 5… yes … and romantic … romantic! Eastwards as far as ship can sail … up against the gateways of the dawn … coconut-palms, but of course not pines, ha-ha! … the lagoon islands, the Line Islands, Stevenson's Islands! Do we accept palms, not pines? Do we stake our lives on Stevenson, not Kipling? Do we insist upon the dominion of romance, not the romance of dominion? I should appreciate your answer.'

I joyfully accepted Stevenson and ruled Kipling out (except, of course, for Puck of Pook's Hill and Kim, and the Long Trail, and others too numerous to mention); but my callowness squirmed shamefully at romance. He became suddenly acid at that: 'Come, come! You owe perhaps more to your romanticism than you imagine – your appointment as a cadet, for example.' The truth was, according to him, that I had been the only candidate to ask for the job in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. But for that … if, in fact, I had been up against the least competition … well … who could say? As I, for one, could not, he leaned back in his chair and fired a final question at me: 'I may take it, may I not, that, despite certain doubts which you entertain about the imperialism of Mr Kipling and … hm … a great many of your betters, you still nurse your laudable wish to go to the Central Pacific?'

I replied yes, sir, certainly, sir, but how was I going to tackle this thing about leadership, sir.

He peered at me incredulously, rose at once, and lifted his coat-tails again at the fire, as if I had chilled whatever it was. 'I had imagined,' he confided in a thin voice to the ceiling, 'that I had already — and with considerable finesse — managed to put all that in its right perspective for this queer young man.'

'However,' he continued, after a long and, to me, frightful silence, 'let us dot our i's and cross our t's. The deplorable thing about your romanticism is that you display it as a halo around your own head. You seem to think that, when you arrive in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, the entire population will forthwith stop work to stand with bated breath awaiting your apotheosis as a leader among them.'

The blend of venomous truth and ghastly unfairness in this bit deep into my young soul; I opened my mouth to protest, but page 6he overrode me: 'You permit me to proceed? Thank you. Now, believe me, your egocentric surmise is grotesquely incorrect. You will encounter out there a number of busy men interested primarily in only one thing about you, namely, your ability to learn and obey orders. These will severely deplore any premature motion of your own to order them–or, in fact, anybody else –about. They will expect you to do as you are told – neither more nor less – and to do it intelligently. In the process of learning how to obey orders with intelligence and good cheer, you may, we hope, succeed in picking up some first, crude notions about the true nature of leadership. I say "we hope" because that is the gamble we, in the Colonial Office, have taken on you. Kindly do your best to justify it.'

Though his tone had been as cutting as his words, the flicker of a smile had escaped once or twice, as if by permission, through his beard. I got the notion that the smiles meant, 'You incredible young ass! Can't you see this is the way round to put it to your uncles?' But when I gave him back a timid grin, he asked me sharply why. I answered sheepishly that he had eased my mind, because truly, truly I didn't want to go ordering anybody round any more than he wanted me to.

At that, his manner changed again to one of sprightly good humour. He began to tell me a whole lot of things about a cadet's training in the field (or, at least, the training he thought I was destined to get in the Central Pacific) that nobody else had ever hinted at. As I understood the burden of it, it was that I would serve my first year or so of probation on Ocean Island, the administrative capital of the Protectorate, where I would be passed from department to department of the public service to learn in successive order, from a series of rugged but benevolent Heads (all of whom quite possibly harboured a hidden passion for the writings of R.L.S.) the basic functions of the Secretariat, the Treasury, the Magistrate's Court, the Customs, the Works Department, the Police, the Post Office, and the Prisons organization. I don't know what magic he used – he certainly never spoke above a chirp; but he managed to make that arid list of departmental names roll from his lips like the shouting of golden trumpets upon my ear. I had a vision as he spoke: the page 7halo he had mentioned burst into sudden glory around my head …

… It was dawn. I was hurrying, loaded with papers of the utmost import, through the corridors of a vast white office building set on an eminence above a sapphire ocean. I had been toiling all night with the Chief Secretary, the Treasurer, the Magistrate, the Collector of Customs, the Commissioner of Works, the Chief of Police, the Postmaster General, and the Keeper of the Prisons. The job was done! I had pulled them all through. Just in time! There in the bay below lay a ship with steam up, waiting for final orders. I opened a door. A man with a face like a sword – my beloved Chief, the Resident Commissioner himself – sat tense and stern-eyed at his desk. His features softened swiftly as he saw me:'Ah … you, Grimble … at last!' He eagerly scanned my papers: 'Good man … good man! It's all there. I knew I could trust you. Where shall I sign? … God, how tired I am!' 'Sign here, sir … I'll see to everything else … leave it all to me.' My voice was very quiet, quiet but firm …

'… and remember this,' broke in the voice of Mr Johnson, 'a cadet is a nonentity.' The vision fled. The reedy voice persisted: 'A cadet washes bottles for those who are themselves merely junior bottle-washers. Or so he should assess his own importance, pending his confirmation as a permanent officer.'

He must have seen something die in my face, for he added at once, 'Not that this should unduly discourage you. All Civil Servants, of whatever seniority, are bottle-washers of one degree or another. They have to learn humility. Omar Khayyam doubtless had some over-ambitious official of his own epoch chiefly in mind when he wrote "and think that, while thou art, thou art but what thou shalt be, nothing: thou shalt not be less." Sane advice, especially for cadets! Nevertheless, you would do well to behave, in the presence of your seniors, with considerably less contempt for high office than Omar seems to have felt. Your approach to your Resident Commissioner, for example, should preferably suggest the attitude of one who humbly aspires to "pluck down, proud clod, the neck of God".'

Who was I, to question the rightness of this advice? I certainly page 8felt no disposition to do so then (I don't remember having felt any since) and, as he showed no further wish to pursue the topic, I passed to another that had been on my mind. A marriage had been arranged. My pay as a cadet would be £300 a year, plus free furnished quarters. Did he think a young married couple could live passably well on that at Ocean Island? I pulled out a written list of questions about the local cost of living. At the word 'marriage' he started forward with a charming smile, light-stepping as a faun, whisked the paper from my hand, laid it on the mantelpiece, and turned back to face me: 'Ah … romance … romance again,' he breathed, 'a young couple … hulldown on the trail of rapture … the islands of desire … but there is method, too … let us look before we leap … the cost of living! A business-like approach. Very proper. Well… now … hmm … yes … my personal conjecture is that you should find the emoluments adequate for your needs, provided always, of course, that you neither jointly nor severally acquire the habit of consuming vast daily quantities of champagne and caviare. Remember, for the rest … in your wilderness … how the ravens fed Elijah … or was it Elisha?'

And that was that about the cost of living. I was too timid to recover my list from the mantelpiece.

Thus finally primed in the Colonial Office for exploding as a bottle-washer upon the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, I sailed with Olivia from England on March 6th, 1914.