When Mrs Page first went to Vanuatu in the Western Pacific in 1964, it was called the
New Hebrides and was one of the world's anachronisms with British and French
colonial governments and a Condominium administration, three kinds of currency,
three sets of laws and - according to a 1944 guide - driving on the right (if French)
or left "as was British and proper!". (These days it's on the right!) All this for some
40,000 people (mainly Melanesians with a few hundred French and considerably less
British) in a land recorded by a post-war geographer as "one of the unhealthiest, wildest,
most mistreated and most mismanaged spots on earth".
But much has changed since Independence in 1980 and therefore Gwendoline Page's
account of her life in the New Hebrides thirty years ago when, with her three daughters,
she accompanied her husband just appointed to the recently opened British Teacher
Training College across the lagoon from Port Vila, the capital, gives a fascinating picture
of the past.
She records - sometimes in considerable detail, sometimes with gently critical comment
- the minutiae of colonial family life, people and events (such as the formalities of
the Queen's Birthday and the joie de vivre of Le Quatorze Juillet, with remarks on British and French colonial uniforms!). The result is a valuable picture of expatriate
(both British and French) life and contribution to this unique territory. Lots of names but
alas no index, though there are helpful chapter headings, maps and numerous photographs.
But her book provides much more than this, for she was not content with happy
domesticity at the college, but obtained a job with the British Works Department which
gave her the opportunity to make - literally - flying visits to other islands. This enabled
her, with the acknowledged help of islanders and other sources, to touch on many
subjects - custom and legend, natural history, geology, cookery, the original bungee
jumping... the list is long, but it is these inclusions that make the book of wider interest.
Unlike many who have written of their colonial life, Mrs Page was able to return 25
years later for a brief holiday, and her all too short final chapter describes the considerable
changes she found and the old friends, both expatriate and Ni-Vanuatu, she was able
to meet. Her own words as she departed in 1966 fittingly describe this delightful book -
a "look back with tender nostalgia".