The British Empire Library

An Element of Luck: To South Arabia and Beyond

by Michael Crouch

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by R. H. J. Thorne {Tanganyika and Aden 1946-1967)
Anthony Kirk-Greene in a foreword notes that "by 1990 the colonial memoir had begun to establish itself as a literary genre in its own right". This book is one of the best of that genre.

The main theme covers the nine short years (1958 to 1967) when the youthful Crouch was a colonial administrator in the Eastern Aden Protectorate, the Western Aden Protectorate and Aden Colony - an area where the administration was so dramatically different from that in more conventional British colonies.

Before I sing the book's praises, two minor criticisms. Crouch's observations on individual colleagues are acute, fair on the whole and entertaining. But now and then his judgements are over-hasty. Secondly, he has, in writing the book so long after the events, had sometimes to rely, in his own words, on "the selective recollections of antipodean middle age". This has led to the record of one or two incidents being factually inaccurate or suspect.

Now for the book's outstanding qualities. Crouch had exceptionally varied, responsible and interesting posts for a man in his twenties, some involving much danger, excitement and unpleasant violence - experiences which he brings vividly to life. The same gifts of observation, succinct description and skilful selectivity are apparent when he deals with gentler scenes. To this reader, at any rate, he has by a phrase or two brought back many a half-forgotten picture. Then too he shows an excellent balance in combining small things - with great, humour - with serious matters of policy, and domestic life with an often fearsome background.

His wisdom too was mature. Not just in retrospect, but at the time, he recognised the impossible mixture of contradictions which HMG was seeking to impose on South Arabia. He was involved to the bitter end, but what this reader has most enjoyed are the periods when Crouch was, within limits, his own master, rather than when he was a smaller participant in the chaos leading to Britain's shameful abandonment of South Arabia to a bloody void.

Two final points. First, the post-marital chapters provide a splendid example of the part played by the gallant body of colonial wives.

Second, as these words are being written troops from North Yemen are invading Aden. Britain has thus not been alone in seeking to enforce wildly foolish tribal and national marriages. Plus pa change'.

The book is a 'must' for those still alive who served post-war in South Arabia, and is of relevance to all who are worried by today's sad developments.

Second Edition

This account of Crouch's years in South Arabia as a member of HMOCS was first published in 1993 by the Radcliffe Press as a hardback and favourably reviewed in the Corona Club Bulletin for 1994, and in other publications that included the SAS journal Mars & Minerva, the reviewer commenting in part, "Good writing always carries the day. This is good writing".

An Element of Luck tells the powerful and poignant story of the last years of the British in South Arabia. After an account of his family background and his early adventurous life, Michael Crouch gives a full account of the struggle between the British-run administration, based on Aden, and the opposition groups. His account pulls no punches as he tells of the danger of assassination by radical nationalist groups, including the attempts on his own life and on those of his family.

Michael Crouch offers a unique perspective from the inside of those violent events leading to British withdrawal. Towards the end of the narrative he lays to rest the ghosts from the past, in his account of annual visits to modern Yemen. He has renewed old relationships with those who were former enemies (including the man who tried personally to kill him in 1967 and who is now a friend). Finally, he encourages would-be visitors to tour a fascinating country whose roots go back to the Queen of Sheba. The distinguished Australian journalist T A G Hungerford (a visitor to modern Yemen) has reviewed the 2nd edition at length for an Australian newspaper. He concludes as follows:

"Explorer-writers such as Stark, Thesiger and Lawrence....made real and familiar to the West so much of the perennial 'mystery of the East'. Crouch is of their genre."

British Empire Book
Michael Crouch
Rawlhouse Publishing Pty Ltd


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