The British Empire Library

Colonial Sunset - A Worm's Eye View

by Ralph Stephenson

Courtesy of OSPA

Gillian Bickley (Gillian Bickley has written and edited several published books on Hong Kong and has recently retired from the rank of Associate Professor in the Department of English Language & Literature, Hong Kong Baptist University, where she had a specialty in biography and autobiography.)
This modestly presented and valuable autobiography focuses on the writer's life during his first career as a member of the Colonial Audit Service, when he served tours in each of Hong Kong, The Seychelles, The Gold Coast and Sierra Leone. It is a well-written, readable book, of general interest, occasionally offering, in a conversational and pleasant manner, settled observations and reflections - and the occasional exclamation - on the world we live in, based on the ninety-four years that this practised writer has under his belt. Those with similar lives in the Colonial Service, or indeed any who have lived overseas away from home, will find poignant echoes, whether in routine or isolated experiences. For example, Stevenson's account of his final end-of-tour journey home, his first by air in the very early days of air travel, describes the excitement he felt at the sights seen: "a toy-size caravan of camels . . . crawling below"; "green savannah, forests, flights of storks", "a dazzling colour symphony of ethereal blue sea and intense gold sand" (p. 163). This mirrors the present writer's excitement at what she herself saw from the air, going out on her own first tour - to Nigeria - tracks appearing as scratches on the desert floor, round compounds of mud huts with thatched roofs, a man on a bicycle, robes billowing in the breeze he made. Readers will find their own points of strong convergence or interesting marked divergence.

Of particular interest to many will be Ralph Stephenson's account of the Battle for Hong Kong, the Japanese Occupation of Hong Kong, and his own experience as a Prisoner of War in Hong Kong: his narrative and comments add most interestingly to the continually emerging record of these years.

Stephenson is a New Zealander by birth. His description of his first sea voyage to London, for post-graduate study, and what he tells us he felt on arrival leave no doubt that the romance of place, for him, is strongly rooted in London, and that Europe is his chosen cultural milieu. It is from this perspective that he notes and regrets the lack of contact with the cultures and personal lives of local people in the countries he served, showing appreciation of a few rare contacts. He enjoys making connections, often between his reading and his experience, and shows a quiet sense of humour, not always self-censored. It is not very surprising, therefore, to be told that, on retiring from the Colonial Service, he became an administrator with the British Film Institute.

Stephenson is conscious of more recent attitudes towards Britain's colonial rule and quietly responds to some of these, particularly in the Epilogue. "To draw up a balance sheet of what we gave and what we got - I think we can come out on the credit side . . . we kept towns sanitised and fought some diseases . . . We introduced some European culture and learning via local schools, the British Council and . . . universities . . . But most important of all we supplied sound and honest administration, law and order, peace and stability." (pp. 165-166.) His description of what he personally missed and lost out on, and what he found limiting and inhibiting, during his Colonial Service career, is salutary.

An Index would have made this book even more accessible than it already is, and indicated in more detail than this review can the range of references to people, places, events, books and other topics with which Ralph Stevenson regales us.

British Empire Book
Ralph Stephenson
Pen Press Publishers
1 904754 58 9


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