The British Empire Library

Sudan Canterbury Tales

Edited by Donald Hawley

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by A H M Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-65)
What was I in for, I wondered, when I agreed to review a book with this title? A sassy edition of Arabian Nights Entertainments, based on a newly discovered manuscript of Sir Richard Burton. A collection of Nuer or Baggara folktales sung to the pampered cattle at full moon? Or of stories told to themselves by DC's to pass the lonely hours as they swayed on the camel's back in Darfur or plodded through "The Bog"? In the event, Sudan Canterbury Tales is none of these things. It is, quite simply, a new and valuable contribution, imaginatively designed and admirably executed, to that important genre of Service history introduced twenty-five years ago in Charles Allen's sparkling trilogy of Tales: The memories of a once-upon-a-time career in imperial service overseas, recorded as an unpretentious but essentially persuasive part of eyewitness history before it is too late to retrieve and preserve it.

What Donald Hawley has done is to bring together a score of personal narrative accounts by British men and women who served in the Sudan. "I had in mind", he explains, "a sort of Canterbury Tales, with individuals telling their stories against the general background of their work in the Sudan" . How "haphazardly and opportunistically" (the description is his own) the collection was assembled is made charmingly plain in the way some of them were commissioned: from a lady sitting in the row at a concert in Bath, from a guest at a wedding, or simply offered out of the blue.

Unlike many of the composite collections of reminiscences to date, Hawley has deliberately eschewed the common context of the Administrative cadre alone. Instead he has carefully sought his contributors from among the Sudan Civil Service's departmental offices - the agriculturist, the veterinary inspector and the surveyor, the doctor and the nursing sister, the soldier, the judge and the missionary and the university lecturer - as well as several from the Sudan Political Service. The Zoologist's Tale, apparently a production hiccup, is available as an 8 page separate, thanks to a truly noble gesture by the publisher. Some of the stories have echoes of Blackwood's revisited or read like diaries rewritten in extenso. Others read like exciting narrative job descriptions or the best of letters home. All are full of experiences, facts and - so important for Service cameos - names: for this is history, not creative literature. All amply fulfil the Kiplingesque criterion of recounting, with exactitude and with passion. The Day's Work'. Most of the tales are a comfortable five to ten pages in length; only two nudge fifty. There are three brief appendices and a good working bibliography.

Sudan Canterbury Tales represents more than a joy to read and a happy solution to what to give to Uncle G. this Christmas. It stands as a Colonial Service challenge. Might not those who served in the territorial Services consider compiling its own Canterbury Tales, not by just another collection of 'The Administrators' Tales' but by including reminiscences (fact, not fiction) not only from our professional departmental colleagues, but also from those in the private sector who shared in our work and lives, for instance missionaries, lawyers and lecturers, and those in commerce, banking and transport? Such a novel approach to what one might call the Colonial Service 'collections of recollections' could have a number of advantages. First, it would literally be a Service enterprise, not just a departmental project, presenting the fuller, rounder picture of what empire was all about at the grassroots. Secondly, it could help the administrators, who so far have dominated the 'composite portrait' field (often very effectively) to understand a little more sharply how they might have been perceived outside their own magic circle of sometimes self-assumed heavenborndom. Thirdly, only thus can we achieve the full picture of what colonial government was all about: the art, impact and legacy of colonial administration were far wider and far deeper than simply what administrators did. Finally, as Hawley himself hints, there could be the bonus of encouraging Africans, Malayans, Pacific Islanders, etc., to tell their own tales of how they viewed empire.

In Sudan Canterbury Tales Hawley has much to offer, to entertain and to teach us. One cavil remains. Might not the average reader, unlikely to have been brought up on who was who in the Sudan Political Service or the Diplomatic Service List (and maybe having over looked p.67 of the last issue of the Overseas Pensioner, rightly criticise the publishers for failing to say anything at all about who the author is? Reticence can have grave drawbacks. For all that the dust-jacket cares, we do not know whether the author might be the Chaucerian character "who hadde a fyr-reed cherubinnes face" and "Well loved he garleek, onyons, and eek leekes. And for to drinken strong wyn, reed as blood", or else (let's guess!) Chaucer's "Verray parfit gentil knight (who) loved chivalrye, Trouthe and honour, freedom and curteisye". Unhelpfully and unacceptedly, the dust jacket here is as blank as the Nonne Preeste's face on first hearing The Tale of the Wyfe of Bathe.

British Empire Book
Donald Hawley
Michael Russell Publishing Ltd.


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