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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Thursday, 28 November 2019

"A Pattern of Islands" by Arthur Grimble

A charming memoir by a man who became a cadet colonial officer for the Gilbert and Ellice Islands in early 1914. Pacific Islands, happy fishermen, sun, sea and surf: this is a memoir of a time in paradise. Of course, even paradise has its problems. Grimble's first post is on Ocean Island (now called Banaba Island in the Republic of Kiribati) which had become the centre of the phosphate mining industry; Grimble sees the actions of the nationalised company who mined virtually the entire island as wholly benevolent although there have been lawsuits from subsequently displaced Islanders and Grimble's account is therefore an unaware apologia for colonialism.

However, the tone of the memoir suggests that Grimble himself was a benevolent District Commisioner who became thoroughly enamoured of the islanders and was even adopted into one of their clans. The whole book is gentle and lyrical and the stories told suggest that, for all its faults, paradise was never far away.

But let us not be too cynical. It is clear that Grimble, for all his blindnesses, saw more than others before him had seen. The first paragraph introduces a gently self-mocking theme: “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 ... Dominion over palm and pine ... was the heaven-conferred privilege of the Bulldog Breed. Kipling had said so.” Grimble is doing the best he can, and he is probably aware that it is never quite good enough.

He starts as a cadet, which his boss in London defines thus: "A cadet washes bottles for those who are themselves merely junior bottle-washers." (C 1)

There are ghost stories, one involving communication by voices on the wind bearing news that is only afterwards checked and discovered to be correct, the other involving a walk on the road to heaven along which the ghosts walk in which Grimble encounters a traveller who turns out to be a man who has just died. There are stories of the sea: we learn the native way of killing a shark (a bit like the method of a matador) and their way of catching octopuses which involves human bait, a role which Grimble is persuaded to undertake. There is witchcraft (Grimble is cursed and becomes seriuously ill) and warfare (over land rights) and bravery (when a Roman Catholic priest braves lethal ocean currents to canoe to a neighbouring island to adminster Last Rites to a dying colleague). There is a king who shoots islanders from the palm trees because it amuses him to see how they sprawl on the way down and there is a gone-native trader-cum-administrator who knew Robert Louis Stevenson.

Hauntingly beautiful, wise, compassionate and softly humorous. One nice thing about the islanders is that they have many versions of the creation story and recognise that each version belongs to the teller. When Grimble’s wife added antenatal classes to the women’s gaol the number of expectant mothers convicted in the courts rose dramatically. “The ailing expectant mothers, surrounded by constantly renewed draughts of those interested and willing helpers, ailed so luxuriously that it was difficult to get rid of them, even when they ceased altogether to ail.” (C 9)

Great moments:
  • Pacific cockroaches eat feet ... the thick skin on the sole is insensitive, and the victim feels nothing until they have gnawed that down to the quick.” (Prologue)
  • The ... kinship that springs from the immutable constancy of man's need to share laughter and friendship, poetry and love in common. A man may travel a long road, and suffer much loneliness, before he makes that discovery. Some, groping along dark byways, never have the good fortune to stumble upon it.” (Prologue)
  • The accountant had to go on sick leave. According to him, the anxiety of having me near his books had a lot to do with his condition.” (C 1)
  • A chief of chiefs ... is recognised by his shape. He is fleshy from head to foot. But his greatest flesh is his middle; when he sits, he is based like a mountain upon his sitting-place; when he stands, he swells out in the middle, before and behind, like a porpoise.” (C 6)
  • Anaesthetics? ... I had six grand men to hold him down. You can't allow too many gymnastics in an operation like that.” (C 9)
November 2019; 245 pages.

Other memoirs reviewed in this blog include (in order of how much I enjoyed them, favourites first):

  • Memoir of the Bobotes: by Joyce Cary: a brilliantly written memoir of the author's time as a medical officer during the Balkan Wars (pre World War I): the writer became a novelist and his craft shows; full of humour and keen observation
  • My Family and Other Animals (and the sequels) by Gerald Durrell: Beautiful descriptions and hilarious accounts of an eccentric family living on the Greek Island of Corfu between WWI and WWII
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: a well-written, frequently humourous account of Pacific paradise
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: the account of three years spent on the remote and at the time unspoilt Greek island of Symi: well-written, charming and amusing
  • Surprised by Joy by C S Lewis: an account of the famous author's life, mostly from the perspective of his Christianity: beautifully written
  • A Death in the Family by Karl-Ove Knausgard: the first volume of a series in which the author, in the guise of writing novels, portrays real people with real names: the writing is brilliant
  • Beautiful People by Simon Doonan: The story of a young gay man: well-written with moments of marvellous humour
  • Teacher Man by Frank McCourt: the third volume in the series that started with Angela's Ashes
  • The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice by Polly Coles: a reasonably well-written account of a year spent living in Venice
  • A Detail on the Burma Front by Winifred Beaumont: a nurse's story from one of the theatres of World War II: more compassion and humour: reasonably well-written
  • Whatever Happened to Margo: Margaret Durrell's account of running a boarding house in Bournemouth: sometimes muddled but often funny
  • Rabbit Stew and a Penny or Two by Maggie Smith-Bendell: an interesting and reasonably well-written account of a Romani Gypsy childhood
  • Not for the faint-hearted by John Stevens: the autobiography of a senior police officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story
  • Forty Years Catching Smugglers by Malcolm Nelson: the memoirs of a senior customs officer; probably best for those most interested in this sort of story

My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:

  • Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
  • The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
  • The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
  • A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
  • Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
  • Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
  • A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
  • The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony

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