The British Empire Library

Then a Soldier

by J. F. McClellan

Courtesy of OSPA

Review by Anthony Kirk-Greene (N Nigeria 1950-66)
This is a full-length novel about a British officer serving with the Royal West African Frontier Force in Northern Nigeria in the mid-1950s. Such a description will appeal, as it at once did to me, to many readers. The all-but eponymous young hero, Jos Maclean, is catapulted from chilly and purplish Scotland to do his National Service attached to a Nigerian battalion stationed at sun-baked, garish Kebira, a fictitious (in name: likely Zaria) city in Hausaland. Like all young men, and army officers often more quickly than most, Jos learns: and the novel recounts the succession of his learning experiences - difficult senior officers and easier local girls, cheap cars, dogs and horses, two potential courts-martial, and experimental sexual adventures all the way from Soho to Sabon Gari. The characterization is rather shallow and stereotypes are often around (though the Colonel and his cliches are endearing), but the atmosphere is often convincing and evocative. It is racily written, and the plot proceeds (rather than develops) at a spanking pace. It makes a good rather than an unforgettable read, especially for Nigerian aficionados on the look out for local colour or 'that's just how it was/was not' reactions. Perhaps it is merely my ageing that makes me petulantly wonder why we need so much pidgin English (elsewhere, I like to think I am still competent enough to imagine Lancashire or Somerset accents etc. in my Eng. Lit. reading without having them off-puttingly spelt out in every sentence) unless it is to 'amuse'; and to wonder, even more irritatedly, why on earth an intelligent writer will not check his vocabulary if he is going to insist on introducing vernacular terms.

All in all, a passable light read for those of us who relish the nostalgia of our own days and ways of yore, just the novel for that next undemanding holiday, even if you do decide to leave it in your room for the next guests.

The genre makes me think of two things of possible interest to readers of imperial history. One is, of course, other books about British officers serving with African troops: not so much fact, such as James Shaw's The March Out (1953) or Richard Lawson's Strange Soldiering (1963), dealing respectively with the Burma campaign and the Congo peace-keeping operation, but fiction, like George Brendon's The Charm of Mambas (1959) - Burma again; David Caute's superb At Fever Pitch (1959), about internal security in a fictionalized Ghana on the eve of independence; and some of Joyce Cary's Short Stories. The second reflection is how many National Service officers found their way to Africa and then, like the proverbial lure of the Nile, once having tasted its waters returned for more. David Caute exemplifies both; John Lonsdale, Michael Crowder and Derek Belshaw all took the Africanist academic track after their National Service years in Africa; and now J. F. McClellan, whose subsequent career took him to becoming an Under Secretary in the Scottish Office, is another example of a young man inspired by his National Service in Africa to turn the experience, albeit thirty-five years later, into an entertaining novel. Who can add to this very preliminary and off-the-cuff list, of both kinds of product? Is there a follow-up here to Trevor Royle's book about the impact of National Service on young Britons, The Best Years of Their Lives? And, mutatis mutandis, what about the parallel influence on an 'African' career, of one sort or another, of our Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) and America's Peace Corps (PCV) graduates? Food for thought, methinks... for some! Meanwhile, let's get back to Kebira and see what kind of jolly subaltern's scrape the gullible Jos gets into next.

British Empire Book
J. F. McClellan
Book Guild Publishing Ltd


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