The British Empire Library

Solomons Safari

by Colin H. Allan

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
Surely there must be some Melanesian proverb, despite their one-time pre-literacy, to admonish us bookish literati that "If a reviewer cannot be expected to be friendly, why expect a friend to be your reviewer?" As a non-Pacificer (and Sir Colin is forthright in his views of "the idiom and life style ... combined with a general contempt" by those he labels "African activists", transferring to 'Island Service' as the Continent's Colonial Services closed down and "imposing African mores on both Solomon Islanders and us who had been there since World War II - and some before") at once eager to learn from the memoir of such a distinguished colonial administrator and reluctant to step in where angels might fear to tread, I accepted the editor's invitation to review this book only because, with no review copies being sent out (I had ordered my own copy back in 1989), this was the only way Sir Colin's memoir could be noticed. Having had the pleasure of meeting Sir Colin Allan at a Corona Club party, dare I still hope to confound my home-baked item of Melanesian proverbial lore?

With this plea for mercy, or at least not Coventry, entered, let us turn first to the author. He is a New Zealander, one of that small but effective group of literal non-Britishers who made their career - often an eminent one, right up to Government House - in a very British Colonial Service. Graduating from Canterbury University, Allan joined the Colonial Administrative Service in 1945 and was posted to the BSIP. Thirty-three years later he retired, having spent his last twelve years as British Resident Commissioner of the New Hebrides (1966), Governor of the Seychelles (1973) and, enviably in career terms, back to his first territory as Governor of the Solomon Islands from 1976 to 1978. He retired to Auckland.

Despite the fact that his memoir is published in two volumes, though together they amount to under 200 pages all told, it is not a full-scale autobiography. Page 1 opens in 1952, when Allan already had seven years' seniority under his belt; and the story ends in early 1958, when the High Commissioner, Sir John Gutch, despatches Allan to the New Hebrides. It is Allan's travels, observations and work as Special Lands Commissioner in the Solomons between 1953 and 1958 that form the heart of the matter. And, like the best of artichokes, what a rich heart it is! We are treated to closely detailed descriptions of the scores of islands and settlements visited and the hundreds of people met. Indeed, Sir Colin is irreproachable on naming names, even when he is not very impressed by some of his colleagues, e.g. the "unhelpful" MacLeod-Smith, who thought the Commission a waste of time, and the "down-at-heel - ramshackle" Western Pacific High Commission Secretariat at Honiara, in 1954 "dominated by Africanists" and with an identified High Commissioner, a Chief Secretary and a Financial Secretary who, however outstanding, did not have a day's Pacific service between them! I learned more about the WPHC, and in particular the administration of the BSIP, from these pages than from any official handbook, report or treaties. Indeed, I was sorry to reach p. 193 and realise that there were a further twenty years of Sir Colin's upwardly mobile Colonial Service career that he might have written and I profited from.

So why, given such pleasures to be derived from Solomons Safari, do I wish I had left it at reading it without reviewing it? In a nutshell. Sir Colin's style does not match up to his content. It is heavy ("On 1 December I left Auki in Veronica on my circuminsular tour of Malaita"; "Then back to the airfield and we took off for Bilva on Vella Lavella, flying by way of Mundi Mundi and Bagga"; "Paralang could not be compared with 'Gunantamby', Emma Forsyte's famous old home at Ralum, near Kokopo"); and it is bumpy. The proliferation of upper case letters (p.37 is a notorious example) and the habit of jumping from the well-described present to twenty-five years on ("Years later, as governor, my wife and I ..."; "twenty-five years later I paid several visits to ..."; "As governor I returned to Roroni and spent the day with Vouza on 19 December 1977") make little concession to the needs of the wider readership. We cannot all expect to be Grimbles or Conrads or Robert Louis Stevenson, but, as so many colonial civil servants have shown in an exemplary fashion in both memoir and novel, readability remains an art and not a gift.

Perhaps, after all, Solomons Safari is best looked on as a book for the Pacific specialist and not for the general reader. If that is so, I regret it; for I have enjoyed its contents enormously. The book is superbly printed, on beautiful paper, as a handset limited edition. The map is excellent (it appears in both volumes), but oh! for an index to all those valued names!

British Empire Book
Colin H. Allan
Nag's Head Press,


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