The British Empire Library

Footfalls Echo in the Memory: A life with the Colonial Education Service and the British Council in Asia

by Verner C. Bickley

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Mark Howard (Director, British Council, Singapore)
Footfalls Echo in the Memory (the title comes from a quote from T.S. Eliot) is Verner Bickley's account of his time in the Colonial Education Service and the British Council in Asia. He himself describes the book as something of a mixture. It is a memoir, in that it records moments in certain periods of his life. It is also an autobiography, in that it touches on social, cultural and historical issues, as well as on personal matters.

Dr Bickley offers the reader the choice of not following all the steps of his life, making each "Step" self sufficient, so it is easy to dip in and out of. He divides his story into nine steps, which start from his early years in Cheshire, then his navy days which lead to ever more exotic locations, ending up with his ninth step in Hong Kong. Singapore is his fifth step, and the one I was most interested in dipping into.

My interest derived from the fact that, as the current Director of the British Council in Singapore, I share certain things with Dr Bickley. We both work in education, and have the British Council and Singapore in common. There was of course the small matter of 50 years of history between us, but I was fascinated to get such a vivid glimpse of life in Singapore during such dramatic times. Dr Bickley is a brave man in disagreeing with the founder of modern Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew, taking him to task for what he considers to be the misleading title of his memoirs, 'From Third World to First' He maintains that "most of us who worked with the multi-racial peoples of Singapore would have been astonished if the territory had not prevailed". Third World it may not have been, but it was certainly a more insecure and dangerous place with numerous stories of riots and even the assassination of the then British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney. Dr Bickley's book covers the political and social events of the time in a very clear and concise way. However, it is the memoir aspect of his book which brings these events to life.

To say that Dr Bickley lived life to the full is rather an understatement. He recounts how in 1956 he was recruited as a part time continuity announcer for the BBC Ear Eastern Station (today's BBC World Service). This was on top of his full time job as Head of the English and Speech Training Department at the Singapore Teachers' Training College, and his other part-time job as newsreader and actor for Radio Malaya. For two or three nights a week he would work a 5pm to 8pm shift at Radio Malaya and then 8pm to midnight at the Far Eastern station. People were obviously made of sterner stuff in those days.

Singapore today is very proud of its racial harmony and its enlightened approach to language in which, although English is the official language, Tamil, Mandarin and Malay are recognised languages. Dr Bickley recounts how he had to learn and pass examinations in one of these three languages. From my perspective he seems to have done rather well in acquiring a reasonable level of Malay, although he owns up to the fact that he failed the oral exam after giving a colloquial word for library instead of the more formal Arabic version. Clearly language exams were also tougher in those days.

At this stage Dr Bickley was not working for the British Council, although it gets a couple of mentions, neither of which are particularly flattering. In the first he is standing outside the house of the then British Council representative, when he is caught up in a riot. The next reference is when he attends a conference organised by the British Council, stating that the conference itself was not particularly interesting but the conferees were. Well I can assure him that there are certainly no riots outside my residence and I hope that we have improved in our conference delivery!

All in all, the book gives a fascinating insight into Singapore during this tumultuous period in its history. The book achieves its aim of blending the big picture events with the personalised stories and range of characters that Dr Bickley encounters. It certainly left me hankering for some of the excitement and richness of the times. This excitement and richness is even reflected in the glorious names of the aircraft of the day in which Dr Bickley travelled. The Argonaut and the De Havilland Rapide certainly trump the A830 or 747 for romance (although maybe not for comfort). I would certainly recommend that you get on board with Dr Bickley for a fascinating flight through his varied and busy life to date.

British Empire Book
Verner C. Bickley
The Radcliffe Press


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