It is no disservice to either brilliant feats of memory-recall to say that Joan
Alexander has done essentially for the women of the colonial period what Charles
Allen has done mainly for the men (and some women) of the Colonial Service in his
Tales from the Dark Continent and now his Tales from the South China Seas. Both
writers, accomplished authors in their own right, have successfully set out to project
the images of the British overseas through the device of oral history. Joan Alexander
is more catholic in her territory, more kaleidoscopic in her focus, and consciously and
valuably brings in herself and some of her own experiences as a happily honorary 'one
of us' (e.g.. when she and Denis first met the 'Feet' in Cyprus). Drawing on over a
hundred interviews, she has skilfully stitched the threads of personal memory,
nostalgic reminiscence and oral history into an intricate tapestry of stunning colours
and fabulous patterns. Nobody has expressed the essence of being one of her colonial
women better than Joan Alexander herself: "In marrying into the Service a woman
married a job. a way of life, a privilege, and a deprivation." All too often it was. to
cite the title of one of her chapters, a case of "Women and children last"
Readers (or their children) too young to remember just how much of the school
atlas was coloured red will find evidence here as Joan Alexander moves from West
Africa to the West Indies, from the East to East Africa, and home through the
Pacific, the South Atlantic, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean - 'colonial' women
everywhere, save those in India and the Dominions. Photographs, a too short reading
list and a welcomely larger index of personal names, round off a splendid publication,
though even on the second happy reading this reviewer remains puzzled by the
primacy of the surely atypical Betty.
If the reaction of some readers follows the standard kind of response to this genre
of historical writers, i.e., either "But I could have told her more (scilicet "it better")!"
or else "Super - please give us morel", then the answer to both reactions, in the
opinion of a reviewer and admirer who is also Director of a colonial records
preservation project, is - "Please hurry up and do so!".