The British Empire Library

No Time Like the Past

by Michael Fairlie

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by David Scott (HM Diplomatic Service 1948-1979)
I must begin by declaring an interest, which can in any case be deduced from reading this well-written and absorbing book. My wife and I first met Mike Fairlie at the beginning of September 1951, on his somewhat reluctant arrival at the High Commission in Pretoria, where I was already serving, to take up his appointment as Private Secretary to the newly appointed High Commissioner, Sir John le Rougetel. Since then we have stayed with him in Swaziland and Scotland and exchanged visits in various parts of the world; few years have passed without our seeing each other.

His autobiography covers nearly thirty years, from the outbreak of war in 1939, when he was 19, to the moment of his departure from Swaziland and HMOCS as "a time-expired man" (his own description) in 1967. The first third covers his war experiences as an officer in the Black Watch, serving in Egypt, Aden and briefly, but bloodily, in British Somaliland before being taken prisoner in Crete in 1941. It is clear that his experiences as a prisoner of war played an important part in his subsequent development. There is, indeed, a touch of nostalgia in his account of those four years, in which he made a number of lifelong friends and for the first time became aware of a growing gap, emotional as well as physical, between himself and his family, still understandably preoccupied with the problems of farming in wartime Scotland. Quite early on he came to the conclusion that when the war eventually ended the Colonial Service was the career most likely to offer him the necessary break both from confinement as a p.o.w. and, in the longer term, from the parental pressures which could be expected to result from an agricultural career on one of the family farms in Angus.

His description of his translation in 1946 from war-torn Europe to the wilds of the Bechuanaland Protectorate brings out vividly the culture shock involved, but he welcomed this as a necessary break from what had gone before and his life was now more or less under his own control. Even more important, he instantly fell in love with the country. Although most of the whites in the B.P. were South Africans, he admits that it was some time before he recognised the racial divide for what it was: it took the Seretse Khama affair, in which he played a personal part, fully to bring home the human problems involved.

After a relatively brief period in the High Commissioner's office in Cape Town and Pretoria from 1951 to early 1953, he moved to Swaziland, first as District Commissioner at Mankaiana and then to the Secretariat in Mbabane. There, apart from a secondment to the Commonwealth Relations Office from 1955 to 1956, he happily remained until 1967, by which time he was a member of the Executive and Legislative Councils and the country was on the brink of full independence. In his last years in the Colonial Service he was well ahead of South African-oriented white attitudes to race relations in the territory, and his multi-racial productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operas are still remembered with enthusiasm, as testified by a complete stranger met in Mbabane as recently as July this year.

On the book itself I have three comments. The first is a criticism which often seems to be made in these columns - the lack of an index. (How else, a friend remarked, can one find out if one is mentioned without having to read the whole bloody book?) The second is that not everyone with whom Mike Fairlie had dealings can have been as nice as, with very few exceptions, he makes them out to be. Some reading between the lines is essential. Finally, I wish he had not stopped where he did: the rest was not silence, as those who knew him during his years in the Overseas Development Administration and later can bear witness.

But these are minor criticisms: No Time Like the Past offers a vivid illumination of one aspect of the progress of Southern Africa into the Twentieth Century - a process which is still far from complete. That in the former High Commission Territories the transition was almost entirely peaceful owes much to the tact and foresight of men like Michael Fairlie. The Republic of South Africa could have learned a lot from him!

British Empire Book
Michael Fairlie
Pentland Press


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