Subtitled (a little grandly, perhaps) "The Last Years of British Rule in South-East
Asia", this is both one individual's view of the decline and fall of the British Empire in
the region seen through his own eyes and sensitive mind and a highly welcome autobiographical
account of one of the latter day (1946-58) members of the Malayan Civil Service.
Commissioned into the wartime Indian Army (what was then the
17th Dogra Regiment), Blake came into the Colonial Service through the British
Military Administration (neatly described - I had almost written caricatured - in
Ch.3) in 1945/6 and hence into the M.C.S. There he served until 1958, as District
Officer (including Upper Perak, once the all-but private domain of the all-but
legendary Hubert Berkeley who remained in and 'reigned' over the same district for 27
years) and, less happily it seems, as Private Secretary to the Governor of Singapore,
Sir Franklin Gimson (Singapore was outside the controversial and abortive Malayan
Union). There were, too, spells as Magistrate and in the Secretariat; eight months on
the Second Devonshire Course at L.S.E.; and, of course, first-hand experience of what
was wryly called the Emergency - Christopher Blake's ten-year "War by Any Other
Name". For him, it all culminated in merdeka in 1957, followed by retirement to
England the following year.
Chapters 2-10 form the heart of this interesting and well-written memoir of one who
was among the last British colonial administrative officers in South-East Asia. The
writer has a keen eye for pen-portraits, especially of his range of senior officers, and,
save in a few coy instances (e.g. pp. 44, 81, 89, 136 - and the beloved, rugged character
at p. 121) all yielding to a little research, he is, despite his own disclaimer, helpful in
identifying people. The quality of his narrative is enhanced by some fifty photographs,
two excellent maps, and an adequate index. The book is well printed and bound, a
pleasure to handle and a real publishing success at only 10 pounds.
In his brief Foreword Sir Robin Black, the penultimate Governor of Singapore
(1955-57), has a cautious phrase which reflects some of my own doubts about the
wisdom and the worth of Christopher Blake's final chapter, titled "The Reckoning".
The courteous Sir Robin accepts that the reader may or may not "go all the way with
some of Blake's judgements". Less diplomatically, this reviewer simply thinks it would
have been a better book without the borderlinely ponderous judgement on "the
imperial dilemma... the apologia of an old koi hai" (Blake's condemnations, not mine).
Honestly, the author himself admits that this chapter is in no way part of the narrative,
consisting for the most part of "flights of fancy"; true, he even encourages the reader to
skip it if we wish; yet I for one could have done without even that option, and would
gladly have seen the last chapter omitted and the 25 pages - a whole eighth of the
narrative - given over to yet more of Christopher Blake's welcome and enjoyable
reminiscences of his career in the M.C.S.