The British Empire Library

Dust Suspended

by Sir Francis Kennedy, KCMG, CBE, DL

Courtesy of OSPA

Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
Diplomatic memoirs have long been a staple of British autobiographical literature. On the other hand, the Colonial Service memoir is largely, apart from the seemingly de rigueur gubernatorial autobiography, a newcomer on the scene, as Terry Barringer demonstrates in her useful guide Administering Empire: an annotated checklist of personal memoirs (2004). Despite the admonition of one colonial governor who should really have known better, Malcolm Macdonald, on colonial officers' autobiographies "which a lot of pompous asses have written about themselves", in the aftermath of decolonisation and the advancing end of HMOCS some two hundred mostly middle-ranking officers from most of the Service's departments - albeit predominantly from the Administration - have valuably published their memoirs.

In terms of 'second careers' (still an absorbing aspect of HMOCS history, deserving further study), a number of such officers succeeded, often despite what appeared to be a built-in, even prejudiced, negativity towards them from the CRO and FO over admission into the new FCO. The subsequent autobiographical literature has taken on a new dimension of interest where the DO turned diplomat comparatively reflects on the attractions and drawback of both his careers. Kennedy soon learned that the fundamental difference between the colonial and diplomatic services was that "the latter exercise no executive responsibility themselves but try to influence the people who do". In his own case the move was even bumpier. "I had assumed [in 1964] that I would be posted to the Commonwealth Service, but to my surprise and irritation the Civil Service Commission posted me to the Ministry of Labour... It was a far cry from Itchi Native Court". Intellectually he found the FO work more challenging than that in the Colonial Service. After a couple of years the FO suddenly offered him the post of First Secretary in Sarawak (he kept it quiet that he thought Kuching must be in China), but on learning that it was a colony he initially turned it down on the grounds that he did not want to go to another colony and be tagged a Colonial Service retread. In the end he accepted Kuching as Head of Post; Kennedy's distinguished FCO career had started.

The first - and by far the longest - part of this memoir is a splendid narrative of his years as an administrative officer in Eastern Nigeria in the 1950s, along with his wife Anne. Memorable vignettes include his views on the Devonshire Course ("it may have tried to cover too wide a ground, we did a bit of this and a bit of that"); his "lamentable" performance in his written Igbo examination, followed by the equally disastrous lower standard oral examination in Enugu some months later; and his down-sizing reception together with other cadets, by the Lagos Director of Customs in 1952, "Christ! They aren't still sending them out, are they?" I also enjoyed his sharp encounters (in the 1980s) with his landlady in London, who turned out to be none other than the widow of Sir Ralph Purse. Two of the best chapters are on his life as a DO, one on his 'famous' bridge project in Awgu in 1955 and the other on his experiences in Ahoada, during the severe 'Universal Primary Education' disturbances in 1957/58. For Kennedy's action during the riots he was made an MBE.

Among Kennedy's subsequent diplomatic postings, the one of greatest interest to OSPA readers will be his posting to the British High Commission in Lagos during the sensitive years following the Nigerian civil war, when "relations between the two countries sank to rock bottom". What is of critical interest (and importance) is how the one-time DO, now a senior member of the UK Commission staff, was able to engage with Nigerians in the government, both socially and officially, in a way and with a success that no 'regular' diplomat could ever expect to achieve and which constantly surprised (startled?) many of them. The episode of Kennedy's personal call on Shehu Yar 'Adua at his home in the middle of the night and its consequences ranks as highly significant in any wider evaluation of the capabilities of one-time DOs who returned a decade or so later to the same country in a senior diplomatic role. They were often, in local eyes, an inimitable success at the personal - and hence official - level.

Among all the friendships that Kennedy made in his time as a DO in Nigeria and was often able to refresh during his diplomatic days in Lagos, there are few stories to equal that of Clara Jack, first met as a violent anti-government rabble-rouser ("that DO Kanada [Kennedy]...what de white boy says, I spit on um"). She eventually became a dear friend of the whole Kennedy family. At the public level, there is the famous offer of Oputa Udoji, who comforted Kennedy when he left Nigeria in 1964 that if things did not work out in London there would always be a job for him in Eastern Nigeria as long as he was Chief Secretary, and of course General Obasanjo, to whose home in Abeokuta and on whose famous farm Kennedy was a welcome visitor and who now writes such a noble Foreword to this memoir. Nor should the reader overlook the warm testimonies cited at the back of the dust jacket.

If for many of us the attraction of Kennedy's book is its recollection of his two principal careers, he has in fact enjoyed no less than five careers, culminating in his appointment as the first Chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire. In writing this enthusiastic review of a brilliant and absorbing memoir (what Kennedy himself prefers to look on as not the story of his life "but a selection of stories that are typical of a Diplomat's life and were typical of a District Officer's"), I could happily quote a dozen supporting stories from those recounted so well and so graphically by the author. For reasons of space I restrict myself to two. One is the way in which the head clerk in the Resident's Office at Onitsha took the very new cadet in hand in 1954; "This, Mr Kennedy, we call a file". The other is how, one day in late 1963, a distraught doctor friend burst into Kennedy's house in the late evening and, arms up-stretched, shouted out with obvious relief "Thank God!", having just heard on the radio the news of [President] Kennedy's assassination. Writing, as I do, during the annual Wimbledon fortnight, may I be excused if I adopt the current idiom be predicting that in any future Wimbledon draw of Colonial Service memoirs the player Frank Kennedy will be ranked as a sure bet for immediate seeding.

British Empire Book
Sir Francis Kennedy, KCMG, CBE, DL
The Memoir Club
1 84104 109 2


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by Stephen Luscombe