I first met Barry Weightman and his gifted artist wife Lesley in what was then the New
Hebrides in 1968. Sadly, at just about the time I was asked to undertake this review,
I learnt that he had died suddenly, aged seventy eight, at his summer home in France.
Entirely different in genre from his classic work on Agriculture in Vanuatu, this book is the absorbing autobiography of a gifted, witty and dynamic man which is packed with lively anecdotes and characters and set in an extraordinary assortment of countries. Amusing, often hilarious, in overall tone, it nevertheless has its moments of darkness and personal tragedy.
Never content to tread the path of conventionality, Barry left school early and took himself off to sample the realities of the world of work, characteristically falling into the service of various eccentric employers along the way. Eventually deciding that his future lay in agriculture, he set off to study at a college in Kenya, thus beginning a series of adventurous periods of service in various African territories. His African stories range from humorous anecdotes interspersed with the more mundane stuff of agricultural routine through tales of high adventure to the sombre recollections of his dark days of personal tragedy in Cameroon.
His experiences in Malaysia are similarly packed with incident, encounters with deranged rubber planters, vivid descriptions of the country and its inhabitants, racy (sometimes violent) stories and straightforward accounts of plantation life, but underlying it all one is conscious of his devotion to the study and well-being of all living things. Barry's African and Malaysian reminiscences will bring a pang of nostalgia to many an old overseas hand but there are also fascinating tales from many other countries including New Zealand, the Canaries, the Comores, New Guinea, the Solomons, Fiji and even China.
However, I suspect that the place where he felt most fulfilled was in the beautiful Pacific island territory of the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) where he spent eighteen years of his working life. It was an extraordinary country, jointly administered by the British and French until independence in 1980. They were extraordinary times too, for Barry served there throughout the difficult years in the run-up to independence when the British and the French, while ostensibly committed to a joint policy, often found themselves out of step in the pace of progress towards the handover. But for many of those years he revelled in a measure of autonomy, serving in a district as Senior Agricultural Officer and largely untroubled by the bureaucracy of the capital. These were halcyon days for him. Greatly esteemed by the islanders he was able to travel widely and throw himself into the extension work which was his true passion. In leisure time the talented Weightmans enlivened the community with theatrical productions of all kinds, fancy dress parties and practical jokes, sometimes on a hugely ambitious scale. Barry's devotion to these islands and their people becomes very evident throughout this lengthy chapter and his determination, while enjoying life to the full, to pass on as much of his skill and knowledge as he can wherever he finds himself serving is an underlying theme for the whole of the book.
This review cannot really do justice to such a scintillating parade of anecdotes, vignettes and memorable characters, but I would strongly recommend it to all who appreciate entertaining but informative writing and of course it will give particular pleasure to those of us who have had the good fortune to share in some way in the sort of life it portrays.