The British Empire Library

Footprints, the Memoirs of Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke

by Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by W. Hartston, M.D., F.R.C.P.
The autobiography of a doctor -- tropical medicine specialist, colonial Governor, and first war army surgeon, who experienced imprisonment, torture and sentence of death -- yet survived it all -- might well be expected to reveal a life of unique interest and this it does in full measure.

Moreover it is written in such a continuously readable and interesting way, that it becomes hard to put the book down before reaching the last page.

There is a photographic frontispiece to the book showing a farewell garden party in Accra -- then capital city of the Gold Coast Colony. It reveals Selwyn-Clarke feted by a very mixed group of locals comprising African chiefs and "intelligentsia", European Senior Colonial Officials and common mortals, black and white all linked in promoting Red Cross Services for local people of all races, colours and creeds. If this seems supererogatory to the modern reader, then he must be informed or reminded that it was in fact a very remarkable feat in 1936 to get such diverse social groups to work together to establish maintain and support what, after the country's independence became the Ghana Red Cross Service. Little wonder therefore that the market place in Accra is still named after Selwyn-Clarke.

Sir Selwyn has occupied a long life in selfless service to people and causes in many parts of the world. His activities, adventures, successes, disappointments, delights and tribulations are here related in a detached matter-of-fact way that starkly highlights events and induces in the reader the feeling that he is present and observing.

The author is revealed as a master of good English, modestly unaware of his own excellence or of the uniqueness of his extraordinary courageous experiences.

This is in keeping with an unrecorded affectionate remark by his wife, years ago, that "He's sometimes a bit difficult to live with -- its like living with a saint."

The ravages of first-war 'Spanish flu' and outbreaks of plague, smallpox, malaria, typhus and yellow fever are described with expert on-the-spot precision.

His Japanese prison and death cell experiences are detailed in an undertone, with generous emphasis on the unexpected brave kindnesses shown by some enemy individuals rather than on his own or his comrades' cruel sufferings.

Selwyn-Clarke's original devotion to a caring God came to be abandoned after witnessing the sufferings and death of soldiers and civilians during the 1914-18 war. Yet his religion and belief were restored following his 1939-45 experiences.

One learns from this book of personal adventure, much about medical history, social administration, political government oddities; of man's self sacrifice for man, of man's appalling inhumanity to man, of improvements in tropical hygiene from the provision of windows to the abandonment of human sacrifice -- and much much more beside.

The intimate history of war time Hong Kong; its horrors and suffering are set down with restrained comment while the account of its post-war recovery provides a more cheerful sequel.

Selwyn-Clarke was a medical student at St. Bartholomew's Hospital at the expense of his grandfather Henry Clarke whose life is epitomised by Sir Selwyn as "one who truly served his generation... the friend of all the world", a tribute which fits the grandson just as accurately.

'Footprints' the title Sir Selwyn chose for his book is borrowed from the poet Longfellow's 'A psalm of life'. It may truthfully be matched by this reviewer's quotation from Wordsworth's description of a man he admired and bears remarkably apt transposition to Selwyn-Clarke's own personality as seen in these memoirs.

'A full life, shining with the golden light of summer
ere the season of sere leaves.
See cheerfulness undamped by stealing time.
See studied kindness flow with easy stream.
Illustrated with inborn courtesy
And an habitual disregard of self
Balanced by vigilance for others' weal.'

Here then is an autobiography of barely 200 pages, which from title page to colophon provides a fascinating personal memoir of the travels through 80 years and five continents, of an unusual life and a very readable account of the events, thoughts, acts and adventures that filled those years.

British Empire Book
Sir Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke
Sino-American Publishing Company


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