Keith Arrowsmith has published two previous books. Bush Paths (Pentland
Press, 1991), a short anecdotal account of his time as an Administrative
Officer in Eastern Nigeria 1949-1957 and a full-length memoir The Changing
Scenes of Life: from the Colonial Service to the European Civil Service
(Radcliffe Press, 2014). He joined the Colonial Service after war service in
India and South East Asia, worked in Eastern Nigeria, Uganda and, his
birthplace. Hong Kong. His final post was with the Directorate General for
Agriculture of the European Commission. Both volumes were reviewed
enthusiastically by Anthony Kirk-Greene.
Now Arrowsmith has made available the collection of 50 letters he wrote home
to his parents in 1949-50 while on his first tour in Eastern Nigeria. He drew on this material for the earlier books but it is good to have the letters together in
this handy and readable compilation.
Arrowsmith emerges as a cheerful, adaptable, thoroughly decent young man
who wrote to his parents every week on air letter forms. I cannot help reflecting
that the speed and efficiency of postal communication between Britain and
Nigeria was better then than it is now. He played chess, bridge, hockey, tennis
and ping pong. He tried his hand at gardening and had some success with
sunflowers. He read when he had time especially during convalescence after
minor operation - magazines and an eclectic range of books which included
Agatha Christie, Evelyn Waugh, the New Testament and Sophocles in
translation. He appreciated his car "Dinah-the-Minor" and he really appreciated
his wireless, which kept him in touch with the rest of the world.
He tells his parents quite a lot about what he was eating and endearingly
confessed to a secret over-indulgence in ginger biscuits. A vicar's son, he went
to Evensong, got on well with missionaries of all stripes and helped out at the
CMS youth club.
When he started in the office at Port Harcourt there was not too much to do
and plenty of time to teach himself to type and learn Igbo. Duties and
responsibilities soon multiplied. Many of the letters describe reviewing native
court judgements and court work in general, supervision of prisons (inmates
and warders), and road building. There is a nice account of preparing the
estimates for the first time. Arrowsmith always acted with diligence even in
such tasks as inspecting insalubrious public latrines or supervising a flogging.
'Two warders gave them their 12 strokes each... it did not strike me as too bad
- I can remember frequently undergoing similar punishment myself, (p. 97)
was the comment of the public schoolboy. A more congenial duty was
conducting his first wedding under the Marriage Ordinance.
The letters are never dull or merely dutiful. I particularly enjoyed the account of
Empire Day in Ogoni (p.34) and the vignette of American Baptist ladies at
Joinkrama in the bush. They ran a clinic, maternity home and embryonic
hospital. They lived in a 'well-furnished' house with 'excellent' food, an
'impressive' refrigerator, a 'homey atmosphere'. 'In the evenings [they]
appeared in stylish new length frocks, beautifying themselves at the same time
with a discreet use of make-up...' The CMS ladies, on the other hand, were
kept on 'embarrassingly short commons' (p. 109).
Only once is there a sour note in his correspondence. Letter 34 contains some
very jaundiced comments about educated Nigerians especially Oxbridge
graduates, doctors, lawyers and gentlemen of the press.
"Our aim is to educate these people to our own ideals and beliefs, but
paradoxically the result is to make them less attractive as individuals and
hostile as subjects of the same crown." (p. 77)
He has few grumbles though he regrets the lack of unattached young women.
He's not in it for the money:
"There is not a lot of money in the job of assistant district officer. By the
time one has paid one's boys and cleared one's bills for food, which comes
to a fair sum - food being expensive, and put by for one's various
insurances there is not a great deal left out of one's pay packet -
particularly when one is paying off an advance, granted for the purchase of
a car, in 24 monthly instalments." (p. 74)
Arrowsmith worked hard and found satisfaction in his work.
"My wants are few... Each day has something attempted, something done.
Though in the heat of the day I am often irascible, in the evening when
work is over for the day I can usually feel that my labours have been
worthwhile - and I go fairly early to bed to be ready to be able to tackle to
my best whatever the morrow may bring forth." (p. 70)
In Letter 32, Arrowsmith writes,
"Well I wonder what news you would like to hear about this week. I should
be interested to be told whether these weekly letters I write make you feel
that you can to some extent picture my life as an assistant district officer
and the surroundings in which I work." (p. 72)
Whatever his parents felt (and surely they pored over them), the letters are a
wonderful resource for anyone who wants to know about the life, work, leisure
and attitudes of a young colonial officer.