All right, so why are we all doing it? There seems to be a natural gestation period
of about forty years for colonial autobiographies (possibly a new form of biorhythm?).
After that, all of us, and I do not except myself, seem able to convince
ourselves that the world needs our memoirs.
Some of us (and again I include myself, but I have no idea whether it also applies
to the authors of these two books) undoubtedly start out with inflated expectations.
Perhaps we model our first manuscripts on "A Pattern of Islands'', Sir Arthur
Grimble's publishing sensation of the fifties. Hoping for similar lucrative success
we send the texts with a curt note to a well known literary agent or commercial
publisher. While waiting for their reply we ponder the film rights and who should
pay the juvenile lead. Perhaps Hugh Grant or Brad Pitt?
The manuscripts are returned intact, but with a covering letter that at least starts
encouragingly. "I very much enjoyed reading your book. It is readable, good
humoured, amusing and interesting". Inevitably, however, it ends with a rejection
and a suggestion of self publication. To start with we ignore this advice. We recall
that many classics have only been launched after multiple rejections. We bombard
other publishers, quoting the flattering bits out of earlier opinions. We tell ourselves
that self or vanity publication would be a defeat and that if no one at all thinks our
work worthy of commercial publication, then maybe that, in itself, would be an
indication that someone up there was trying to tell us something.
But whatever the route, the result is the same. We are left with a heap of tattered
pages, and the comment. Intended to be encouraging, that "It is miles easier to sell a
rotten book by someone very well known than an excellent one by someone whose
name rings a more muffled bell" . Or the more succinct reply from an American
publisher, "Airport bookstalls only stock bonkbusters".
So why do we persevere? Why despite all the odds, the flood of reminiscences by
our contemporaries? Why these two books - self-financed in the case of Alan
Forward's elegant production and part-supported by a specialist publisher for Randal
Sadleir's more weighty tome, but both at prices that will ensure that no one is going
to pick them up at Heathrow for a good read on the flight?
Part of the reason must be that, if we don't do it now, we shall all soon be dead
and the myth will have overtaken the reality. Most of us were brought up in the
humanist tradition that truth will eventually prevail. But recent events, like the
London University conference on "Administering Empire", have shown that, at least 40
as far as Colonialism is concerned, the opposite may well be the case. The belief in
colonialist oppression is alive and well and living in Bloomsbury.
Another, not unworthy, reason for publication is that we want to tell our
grandchildren how we lived. Family reminiscences have a long and respectable
tradition. Occasionally this can be a bit confusing, particularly if the title leads one
to expect something else. For example Anna Osmaston's book "Uganda before Amin", turns out to be an engaging but unpretentious domestic chronicle, to the
bemusement of those who buy it expecting political history, (please don't take
offence Mouse, your book has an honoured place on all our shelves).
A third category, into which I suspect Alan Forward's book falls, is the labour of
love. Immaculately produced and with the best photographs I have seen in any
colonial memoir, it is a good nostalgic read for anyone who knows and loves
Uganda and the Colonial Administrative Service. If anything it suffers from the fact
that Alan is unwilling to be really unkind about anybody. He even manages to find
some sort of excuse for the early excesses of Idi Amin. Only the incoming
diplomats of the British High Commission really earn his contempt and then largely
because they ignored and appeared to try to humiliate Sir Walter Coutts, the last
Governor and the first Governor-General of Uganda.
Alan was "Wally" Coutts' private secretary at the end of his governorship and the
most interesting part of the book is his almost hero-worship of his ex-boss. In
building up Sir Walter's reputation, however, he even prays in aid the first Prime
Minister, Milton Obote, who proposed that Coutts be retained as Governor-General.
Conscious though we all were of Sir Walter's sterling qualities, I have little doubt
that the reason Obote wanted him to stay on temporarily was that he was not yet
ready to pounce on Buganda, first by making the Kabaka President to keep him quiet
and then by destroying him. I know that, and so must Sir Walter have done, because
I listened to Obote's telephone conversations on his behalf.
The most confusing aspect of Alan Forward's book, which a commercial
publisher would surely have talked him out of, is the concept of writing it post hoc
as if it was a series of contemporary letters to a possibly fictitious, friend. He
justifies this endearingly by the fact that the Editor of The Times has published a
number of his letters and he thinks he must be rather good at them. The main effect,
however, is to introduce a baffling uncertainty of tenses, where one is never quite
sure whether the past is really past or the present really present. Alan is a friend and
he will not thank me for a structural criticism which could not be remedied without a
rewrite. It does enable me to say, however, that I hope he will keep at it and maybe
produce a more straightforward historical account of the last days of the Uganda
Protectorate as seen from the private office of one of the major players.