18 MAY 1962, Page 29


Blood Flukes and Hookworm

By KATHARINE WHITEHORN THE raw colonial officer's wife heading off to the About half the lectures at the three-day course 'were severely practical, and to the outsider these seemed to be the most useful. Those going to The tropics were warned about blood flukes and hookworm; they were encouraged to wear hats and discouraged from keeping budgerigars-- .t bat t quaint form of nuisance.' Those coming into this country were alerted to the dangers of gas and electricity, spiced food in cold climates and 'the icy blasts of cold known as fresh air' (ap- parently eleven immigrant feet had to be ampu- tated from frostbite at one hospital this winter— most of them belonging to people in their second British winter who had been deceived by the mild- ness of the first). There were films of some remote countries and a chance for the people going to them to talk to people who came from them; one or two inspirational things like Music as a Hobby; and one that came half-way between information and inspiration, on entertaining.

This was in the form of a hostess-guest dialogue between two ladies, both Ladies; it unfortunately failed to surmount the basic diffi- culty of all such talks on manners: that if you get people who are not utterly U they may give wrong advice, but that if you get people who are they may be unable to envisage the snags that really excruciate people at lower levels. They talked, for example, about how to give and go to dinner parties; they did not mention' the fact that half the nation dines at eight and the other half has tea at six, so that it is perfectly pos- sible for people to be asked in for drinks at seven (meaning before dinner) and stay to the ac- companiment of thunderous stomach-rumblings on the part of their hosts till eleven. One of the real difficulties about modern British society is just that the correct forms are so fluid; and though both ladies honestly admitted that some of their habits might not go with the young, one felt that some of the chat about the chief guest leaving at 10.30 might be hardly appro- priate to life in Gloucester Road or Grimsby.

But these, perhaps, are details : the real teaser remained the matter of trying to deal with this two-way traffic in one-way lectures. The or- ganisers explained that half the point of the course was not so much to dish out information as to allow the outgoing wives to meet black Africans on equal terms; and this seems an admirable idea (even if it was partly negatived by the well-known tendency of all British people to huddle among themselves). But 1 think the idea had a wider disadvantage which is becom- ing a problem in a good many discussions about underdeveloped countries: it made everybody too tactful. When hard truths have to be wrapped up in a great wad of deference to Africans and Asians (understandably touchy where white new- comers are concerned) nothing can ever be put quite bluntly enough to be effective. One simply cannot say that if these clear-eyed public-school wives are patronising to Africans the European throat will be cut the sooner, or that all the things the white residents will tell you about the smelly inferiority of Africans is bosh, total bosh and must be treated as bosh—even on occasions when it happens to be true.

All the time one was conscious of the ques- tions that couldn't be answered in simple terms. For newcomers to Britain, there was the im- possibility of getting people to accept' them not so much (not nearly so much) because of the colour of their skins as because their manner of speaking English sounds illiterate to people who make differently with the mouth (I once heard it suggested that half the dislike of British people for Germans is based on the fact that English broken in a German accent grates on the English ear, whereas English fracture a la fran- cerise is quite an agreeable sound). For the wives of businessmen and colonial officials going over- seas, there was the unspoken problem of what you do if you go out to Africa all set to meet interesting Africans and break the old memsahib tradition, only to find that the wives of your hus- band's colleagues will score it heavily against you and him if you do anything of the sort. I tackled one of the liveliest speakers on this privately (too many votes of thanks left little time for public questions) and she did come up with two suggestions: the first was to stand back and not rush into friendships as soon as you arrive, African or otherwise. As she sen- sibly pointed out, when you arrive in any com- munity it is unlikely that the woman who bustles up the day you arrive will be the one you ulti- mately like best, and in emergent countries there i3 always a fair chance that the first advances have a political rather than a friendly aim. She also said that the only accepted and easy way for all sorts of different women to meet was through the voluntary services, which were getting a lot more inter-racial than they were. 'In the old days people used to live in isolation, and Do Good,' she said. 'That's gone.' It would also, one gathered, go some way to solve the other problem that tends to beset overseas wives: the fact that when getting servants is easy and getting jobs is difficult, half the time the women have nothing to do. With all the work that aches to be done in any emergent nation, the remarks about Hobbies had an oddly tinny sound to them.

Possibly this is half the trouble, half of what makes it hard for newcomers to live naturally in other people's countries. The only way to

'They spent years saving that men's clothes are drab and now look!"

live naturally with strangers is to live naturally —and for those who are not aristocratic or moneyed or paralysed from the hip, a life of leisure is not natural. For all the miseries of coming to a Britain that is chilly in almost every sense of the word, it is possible that the Africans have this one advantage at least over the business and colonial wives. One cannot imagine a single jaded Graham Greene 'character who actually ever had enough to do. 1.