This is a really delightful memoir of a member of the Colonial Education Service,
Geoffrey Webb, who worked in Nigeria from 1928 to 1933 - a period piece, maybe, in
literal terms, but nevertheless a first-class read for those of us who, years later, 'were also
there'. Skilfully edited and privately published by one of his sons (another son, Adrian, was
an ADO in N Nigeria in the 1950s), the text is derived from an earlier version written by
Geoffrey Webb and published serially in the Leicester Evening Mail over two weeks in
November 1936. Webb was by then very much a local sporting hero, as the secretary of
the Leicestershire County Cricket Club who had played for the county as well as,
earlier, for Nigeria against the Gold Coast. The book is richly enhanced by a number of
Geoffrey Webb's fascinating period-photographs (and one superb water-colour).
While the internal chronology of Webb's memoir follows the familiar pattern of the
voyage out followed by two or three closely described tours (in Webb's case, covering
postings to Bomu, Zaria, Kaduna, Bida and Ilorin), a special attraction for today's readers
will be the joy of reading such a graphic account from another, much older, generation.
Unusual among the Colonial Service memoirs which have become familiar reading since the
1980s, here is a classic of a much earlier Colonial Service era. This lively and valuable
memoir thus holds a special attraction for today's readers, many of whom will see and sense
echoes of their own experience many years later. It is the almost tangible intensity of personal
relations with Nigerians as much as the standard pleasures (and problems) of life and society
on a small station - people and pets, bush-touring, and one's colleagues and seniors - and a
wholly new kind of life in a wholly new kind of country, that will emerge with poignancy and
pleasure to grip many a reader.
For those who subsequently followed Webb to Northern Nigeria, there is already a
strong link. For Webb was the co-author, with F W Taylor, of Labarun AVadun Hausawa
(1932), the classic text on which all learners of the Hausa language were brought up.
I was also struck by how, now and again, reading a joke or an amusing story, some of the
seemingly standard examples of 'Nigerian' Colonial Service humour - for instance the
story at pl2 about the DO who used to instil anxiety into those who worked with him by
leaving his glass eye in the office to watch them when he was away - can be encountered
in East or Central African lore too, thereby perhaps suggesting the structural basics of
some kind of pan-African Colonial Service culture of humour. This may be found in
humorous verse as well as in common anecdotage.
Five Years is surely one of the most attractive, honest and readable personal memoirs of
Colonial Service work and life in an earlier Nigeria that I have had the pleasure of reading
since Martin Kisch's pre-WWI Letters and Sketches from Northern Nigeria
(1910, reprinted 1992). In the terms of both Colonial Service and Nigerian history of
'Those Were the Days' context, here is a truly enjoyable and valuable new source for us all.