The British Empire Library

Feeling the Stones: Reminiscences

by David Akers-Jones

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Gillian Bickley (Author on Hong Kong Subjects, Ret'd Associate Professor from Hong Kong Baptist University)
Sir David Akers-Jones's descriptions of rural and urban Hong Kong, of journeys in a constantly changing China, including observations and conclusions on people, events and trends, are interesting, valuable and well-described. So are his accounts of early experiences in Malaya and Thailand, and travel in Bolivia and Peru. Members of OSPA will be particularly interested in this colonial official - for a while Chief Secretary of Hong Kong - who "stayed on" after retirement in 1987, who rejects whispers of having "gone native" (p 75) and bravely puts on record having been called "traitor" (p 252). They will also be attentive to the incident when former colleagues circulated a letter calling for his pension to be withdrawn (p 233).

For China-watchers and those concerned with the recent history of Hong Kong in particular, other elements multiply the interest of these well-written and readable Reminiscences', the writer's perception of having been different in experience, knowledge, opportunity and outlook from most of his government colleagues; his frank narrative of criticisms received for his views on China and his friendship and association with the Chinese; and the very clear indications he gives of those whom he liked and did not like among the Hong Kong Governors whom he served. Sir David directs particular attention to his observations about the future of Hong Kong and the need he perceives for Hong Kong to change its focus, away from the wider world, to consider its position within China itself.

Sir David notes (but restrainedly does not correct) "some irritating inaccuracy" in each of three mentions of himself in Jonathan Dimbleby's book on Christopher Patten, The Last Governor (p 256). Given the likely authority that a book by Sir David will carry, your reviewer feels she cannot follow this lead and must correct some comments in Sir David's own book, on the Hong Kong education system (p 265). It was not left to the post-1997 Hong Kong administration to target improvements in the extent and level of acquisition of English language skills. The first native English teacher was appointed by the Hong Kong Government to be the founding headmaster of the first wholly government-funded Hong Kong school (the Central School, now Queen's College) over a century earlier, in 1862. More recently, the Government's Institute of Language in Education was established in 1982, to target language proficiency, with in-service teacher training for teachers of English as well as of Chinese. Later in the 1980s a government scheme for bringing native English-speaking teachers into local Hong Kong schools was instituted and it is a revision of this (mentioned in the book), which is currently in operation in Hong Kong.

The book has no bibliography and the writer mentions in passing only a handful of books, all modern. Sir David mentions his own notes once or twice (pp 88, 139) but he also states that he destroyed "cabinets of personal papers... including years of speeches", when moving from the New Territories in 1985 (p 157). Although Sir David makes no claim to be familiar with the carefully researched modern writing about the early history of Hong Kong, the book nevertheless contains interesting comments about earlier periods.

As the writer himself states, this book "is a personal account of years of excitement, interest and enjoyment, of struggle and challenge in an extraordinary place" (p 273). The personality of the writer emerges strongly and the strength of his relationship with his late wife, Jane, who died before the book was published, is clear from the reticence of his comments on her and their life together.

The value of a book like this includes the interesting details about persons, places and events that it provides beyond the main subjects discussed. The sketchy, occasionally inaccurate and often quixotic Index does the book much less than justice. (For example. Pierce Brosnan is listed, but not Lord Asa Briggs, Lord Carrington, Confucius, Edmund Blunden, Robert Hart, Dr Johnson, or A de O Sales, and many other interesting and significant persons, all mentioned in the text.)

Another stage of proofing and editing could have removed a few dozen obvious typographical or reading errors as well as some ambiguities.

British Empire Book
David Akers-Jones
Hong Kong University Press


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