The British Empire Library

Tales of Empire: British in the Middle East

by Derek Hopwood

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
What better moment, I thought, to read this splendid book than a first visit to the Middle East (a troopship passage through the Red Sea does not count!)? In the event, despite the central loeation in the title, the Middle East here is not the classical land of Lawrence, Doughty or Glubb Pasha (though Philby puts in an appearance and Freya Stark flits momentarily across the screen). Derek Hopwood's Middle East is overwhelmingly Palestine and Egypt; and in turn, his rich selection from letters and diaries deposited in the Middle East Centre at St. Antony's College, Oxford, is heavily (and rewardingly) dependent on the perceptive accounts by those countries' Keith- Roach, Harry Boyle and Henry Gurney. Only the last 25 pages, accurately titled 'Here and There in the Middle East', gives us a brief insight into Saudi Arabia, Persia and the Gulf countries where that special Middle East kind of advisory empire was also exercised.

The British men and women who served in the Middle East and whose unpublished memoirs form the base of this splendid collection of 'Tales of Empire' certainly earn spontaneous acceptance as being servants of Empire. If G. W. Steevens goes an epithet or two too far, by today's criteria, in his colourful description of the passengers who embarked at Dover on the P & O's Brindisi Express in 1898, his account is all too familiar to those who similarly took the boat-train to Tilbury, Southampton and Liverpool over the succeeding sixty years:

'Their trade was not difficult to see. Fair-haired and blue-eyed, square-shouldered and square-jawed, with puckered brows and steadfast eyes . . . self-contained, selfcontrolled, and self-reliant, they were unmistakably builders - British empire builders . . . going forth to their long work again'.

In most cases, climate and overwork - what Hopwood calls 'some of the usual afflictions of the British overseas' - frequently took their toll. In many instances, too, for all the details of doggy domesticity which seem to dominate letters home, there is no mistaking the bottom line o f 'No sentiment, please, we're British' . . . at least in public. The last Chief Secretary of Palestine epitomised that misleading air of imperturbability and emotions kept under total control by the stiffest of upper lips in his 'ice-cool diary' of the last days of the mandate in Palestine, culminating in the bathos of the final British convoy moving off from the King David hotel to the airport:

"It was quite a bit of history, though it didn't look like it .. .It all went off soberly and quietly, with handshakes and some rather studiously casual waves hiding all kinds of thoughts and emotions.

"None of us would have had it otherwise; every sign of sentiment had been magnificently dulled'.

The Mayor of Jerusalem was surely not the only colonial subject to have thought that the British were cold fish. 'Oh, you English!', he once burst out in exasperation at the unruffled D.C., 'why don't you show some emotion?'

For those from the African services who might like to think we had an above average breed of colonial governors, regrettably neither of those who went on - and up - to Palestine seems to have made much of a mark there. Chancellor's first days in office were frighteningly unpropitious. On Day 1 his ADC was killed. On Day 2, the official reception ended in a violent storm from which the drenched Lady C. caught a cold. On Day 3, the Government House butler fell down the stairs to his death. Understandably, Chancellor was 'not pleased with Palestine'. Unsurprisingly, too, after only three years, 'he was glad to go'. As for MacMichael (the intellectually formidable 'MacMin' of the Sudan), here was simply a sad case of, as one Palestine source saw it, 'a poor man replacing a rich man (Wauchope)... quiet, cold, dignified ... a stickler for form in official minute and method ... who cut himself off almost altogether from contact with people'. Cold fish indeed!

As you read these excellent and illuminating excerpts from private papers, few will escape the pleasurable frisson feeling of 'But that could have been us!'. There are some good photographs, yet in a book which can be fully enjoyed by the general reader as much as by 'us' specialists who, too, as it were, once sailed east of Suez or drank the waters of the Niger and the Nile, might not the publishers have helpfully afforded an index and required a five-line biographical 'Who's Who' for the dozen key personalities (the style of pp.89 or 94 is arguably inadequate, in either format or ease of location)?

Charles Allen's Tales from India, from Africa, and from the China Seas; June Knox-Mawer's Tales from the South Pacific and her husband's from 'British Arabia'; and now Derek Hopwood's Tales from the Middle East: geographically finite the genre may be (perhaps the missing Tales from South East Asia have already been incomparably told in the colourful and larger-than-life tales of Somerset Maugham?), yet long may it continue to make such great reading. If the Hopwood volume offers a bonus of joy to the reader, one can equally sense the pleasure its writing must have afforded to its skilled author. Unlike the message of Chapter 5, we readers are full of gratitude!

British Empire Book
Derek Hopwood


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