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March is a problematic month for me, being one of those two or three in the year in which anniversaries and memories–those both deliriously joyous and desperately sad–seem to congregate and coalesce in an inescapable, and sometimes overwhelming, swarm. My granddaughter’s birthday. Our dinner of grace and the death of Mr. She’s first wife. “Fifteen days to slow the spread” which, although I didn’t know it at the time, would signal the end of any chance for Mr. She and me to escape the house together ever again and go on the slightest or most gentle of expeditions before his death four months later. That moment when I realized that he wasn’t going to pull out of his downward spiral, and that this would be the end. More than one dear friendship lost. Much else of joy. Many other heartbreaks.
And, as always, my Dad. He’d have been 103 this month, and although it may be greedy of me to wish he was still here, it’s not entirely without precedent in my family, which Mr. She used to call “The Dúnedain.” Auntie Betty lived to just a few weeks short of her 103rd birthday; Uncle Arthur was 102 when he shuffled off this mortal coil. Numerous others family members lived well into their 90s. Auntie Pat (thanks for asking and may she live forever) will be 99 in July.
Dad died in 2007 (in September–another of those bloody awful months) at the age of 88. I was lucky to have had him in my life until then. I’d turned 53 the week before, and my sister, brother, and I knew that Dad’s time was almost up.
Dad was, as many who knew him remarked, a force of nature who lived the equivalent of several lifetimes during his time on this earth. He never gave up on life, and his child-like enthusiasm for all things that crossed his path never faltered. (Ricochet She: Stop moaning! Cue child-like enthusiasm! NOW!)
As I’m fond of saying: “Things didn’t happen to Dad. Dad happened to things.”
And so, as I often do, when I’m down in the dumps, I started thinking about Dad, because doing so almost always lifts my spirits. Just a daughter’s memories to start with, and then–this morning–when I was looking up “this day in history” on a few sites, I discovered that today (March 31) is the 122nd birthday of Prince Henry William Frederick Albert, Duke of Gloucester. He was the father of the present Duke–Richard–a name, as it relates to Dukes of Gloucester–which resonates in history. (When it comes to nominal resonances, I think Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester may have been the namesake for the latest “Duke” to bear the name, one Henry Charles Albert David, Duke of Sussex, better known, to his eternal shame, as “Just call me Harry.”)
But I digress. Imagine my surprise.
Back to Henry, Duke of Gloucester (March 31, 1900-June 10, 1974), and a family story I haven’t thought about for decades but which came back to me this morning, and which I found (equally unsurprisingly) fully fleshed out in Dad’s memoirs.
It’s May 1959, and suddenly we’re in Northern Nigeria on the eve of the country’s first general elections, just before it achieves independence and self-governance from its Colonial overlords:
The first months of 1959, we found ourselves–with one exception–fully occupied in registration and setting up of the Electoral Commission and in planning for the actual polling.
That exception was the Northern assumption of self-government, a necessary precursor to full independence for all of Nigeria. This was promulgated first at a brief ceremony on the balcony of Lugard Hall in Kaduna on 15 March, when the governor, Sir Gawain Bell, formally handed over the government of the Northern Region to the Sardauna and his ministers and, later the same day, at a brief but touching ceremony in Hurumi on the outskirts of Sokoto town, the site of the Battle of Sokoto, fifty-six years previously.
The official ceremony formalizing this turnover of government took place two months later, and was presided over by Their Royal Highnesses, The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester. [Prince Henry and Princess Alice. Henry was the younger brother of both King Edward VIII of ‘Mrs. Simpson’ fame, and King George VI, the father of Queen Elizabeth II.] As I had no formal role in this proceeding, I was looking forward to two or three days of ciné opportunity with no official responsibilities to distract me from my turn as Nigeria’s answer to Cecil B. DeMille.
Little did I know!
The centerpiece of the official celebrations was to be a Durbar, similar to the one that had so entranced Her Majesty in 1956–but this time, the Sardauna was determined that it should be on an even grander scale. I had managed to secure seats for Kay and myself for this spectacular, and was looking forward to it.
On the day before the Durbar was to take place, I got home from the office about four to find Kay in something of a flap. She had just put the phone down from talking to John Murton, an Education Officer with whom we had served and whom we knew well, but who was now responsible for organizing the Children’s Pageant for the second day of the Royal Visit. He had told her that the Duke wished to see me immediately at Government House.
Frankly, neither she nor I believed him. And so I put a call through to the Governor’s private secretary and asked him. He knew nothing about it either, but said he would find out. Two minutes later, he phoned back and said “Yes! The Duke wishes to see you at 5.30, if possible.”
After a quick shave and a change into a suit, I went to Government House, where the Duke’s equerry met me and took me upstairs. I was introduced to HRH, given the stiffest whisky I’d had in years, and shown half a dozen ciné cameras that were laid out on the floor. Prince Henry told to take my pick of them. I chose a Bell and Howell 16mm, which was the closest I could get to my own 8mm Bolex.
The Duke then said that he had heard that I had some success in making a film of Her Majesty’s visit earlier that year, and he would be very appreciative if I would make a similar one for him and the Duchess.* He had 16 rolls of film for the camera I had picked, which, he said, was the one he would have chosen himself.
He was extremely easy to talk to and was interesting on where and when he had used that camera before. I thought we got on well together and, after another whisky I took my leave, the Duke remarking that Chamberlayne-McDonald (the equerry) would see to it that I had access to anywhere I wanted to go to film.
I did and I had a whale of a time, always attaching myself to the North’s own official photographer, to whom I looked for help and guidance which was always forthcoming. The upshot, however, was that Kay and I got no photographs at all of the Duke and Duchess’s visit on our own ciné‚ or anything else and that Kay had to fend for herself in getting to and fro, which she did without too much difficulty.
The afternoon before Their Royal Highnesses left for Jos the next day to spend the last two days of their visit on the Plateau, I rang up the equerry and told him that it was all ‘in the can.’ He asked me to bring the films and camera over about six o’clock and I did. Again, I was taken to the Duke, to whom I handed back the camera and the rolls of film, all but one of which I had used. After another whisky, I left.
Although I found that swanning around with a camera around my neck filming the proceedings rather impinged on my ability to socialize, I did manage to renew acquaintance with Muhammed Abu Ranat, Chief Justice of the Sudan who, with Brigadier Muhammed Ahmed Irwa, headed the Sudanese delegation to the celebrations. They came to lunch with us, which was very pleasant, and I discovered there had been a radical change of government and that Abu Ranat had retired.
Looking back on those halcyon days it seems downright paradoxical that the Sudan and Pakistan were naturally (and rightly at the time) being held up as role models of liberal, cultured, and modernizing Islam such as Northern Nigeria’s traditional rulers and elites were anxious for the North to emulate. Today all three countries are sunk in the mire of a primitive religious fundamentalism that borders on the medieval, with the North importing “expatriate” executioners from Saudi Arabia, to show the locals how properly to dismember, stone, and behead. What an opportunity we so culpably missed.
(As far as Nigeria goes this is, in my view, largely attributable to the determination of successive military dictatorships (with a strenuous assist from many Western powers) to destroy every vestige of influence exercised by the traditional ‘Chiefs’–from the Sultan [of Sokoto] on down. I still believe that the power and influence that the Chiefs then exercised may yet reassert itself. It would be greatly to the advantage of emergent democracy, toleration, and progressive political governance everywhere in Africa if it ever does.)
After the Durbar, it was back to the grindstone and preparation for the election. Came the great day–which was Saturday 12 December–when the votes were cast and the exercise came to an end. The NPC (the Northern Peoples Congress) and its allies, led by the Sardauna, won 141 out of the 174 seats available for the Northern Region in the Federal House of Representatives, bringing them within sixteen seats of an overall majority.
Obafemi Awolowo’s Action Group and its allies won 25 Northern seats and the NCNC, Dr Azikwe’s Party and its allies, a mere 8. It was, in fact, the NCNC that had suffered the only incident that occurred throughout the whole Region and the whole Electoral Campaign, that might have amounted to a “sharp practice” or which could have led to a serious complaint, had blame ever been capable of being apportioned.
It concerned a political meeting that the NCNC wanted to hold at Minna in Niger Province, well before the voting day. Assembled there, three or four hundred strong, the largely Southern Nigerian audience awaited the arrival of the candidate and his sponsors (Dr Azikwe had been born in Zungeru, only a few miles up the railway line). Suddenly, five hundred or so Red Rehadji cattle, each with a spread of horns well over six feet across in the care of two twelve-year-old boys–literally talking to them in clicks (as the Bororoji do), appeared out of nowhere, determined to occupy the same space as the assembly.
It was no contest; the crowd just melted away. And when the cars carrying the candidate and his guests arrived soon after, there was nothing to show except for a few score steaming cowpats over which the scarabs were already excitedly scampering, some trodden bunting, a few overturned chairs, and a trestle table.
I wonder if anyone else realized that the Romans had precisely the same trouble in Byzantium, or that this had been a favorite tactic of the sainted Uthman Dan Fodio? Of course, nobody could ever find either the cows, or the two little herdboys afterwards!
For the announcement of the results, we had an enormous notice board, about 20’ X 20’ with all the constituencies’ names on it, province by province, with a hook below each for the initials of the winning party to be hung, already printed on pieces of cardboard, 174 for the NPC, 60 each for the AG and NCNC and 30 marked NEPU and IND, which I judged to be enough for all eventualities.
This was erected in the square, opposite the Local Authority’s Office in Kaduna. We were there until the small hours of the Sunday as the results came in and were posted up, but not all of them were known until later that day. The Public Works Department provided two men with ladders to post up the winners.
By the Monday, it was all over, and I was the recipient of a personal letter from the Governor-General in Lagos congratulating me on the conduct of the Election in the North. He said that Dr Azikwe, Rotimi Williams** and Chief Awolowo had all repeatedly expressed to him their complete satisfaction at the way that it had been handled in the Region, some of them even wishing that it had been as well conducted in their own areas!
The key to the NPC’s success, of course, lay in the electoral register. The final figures made it clear that North had a very much greater turnout of electors, percentage-wise, than either the East, the West, or Lagos ever had. It also had a very much larger proportion of the potential electorate registered, and a huge percentage of it actually turned out to vote.
The same thing occurred throughout black South Africa in its first democratic election of 1994. However, while the chatterati hailed the latter as being attributable to the charisma and statesmanship of Nelson Mandela, the same bien pensants and their left-leaning journalistic and academic cheerleaders, decried and denigrated the Nigerian election result because the turnout, they said, could be attributed solely to the malignant influences exercised by the tribal chieftains. In this, the BBC and others did a great disservice to future confidence in the democratic process throughout the whole of the African continent and made it all but mandatory for every defeated candidate thereafter, anywhere, to cry “foul” as a matter of course, thus totally debasing democratic endeavors.
For my part, however, I state quite categorically that the 1959 Federal Election in Northern Nigeria would bear favorable comparison with any County Council election in England (and I have seen a few of those) and would emerge with flying colors in comparison to similar operations in Scotland or in Wales; while in Ireland–North or South–it would simply be “no contest,” nor would there be in many parts of the USA either! [Note to self: Watch out for my Dad, the election fraud conspiracy theorist, way ahead of his time!]
I spent the rest of Monday getting ready to fly home from Kano on Tuesday, 15 December, for what I thought was a well-earned leave.
Just before I left Kaduna to go on it, however, an extraordinary event occurred, making me wonder exactly what I was letting myself in for, with my involvement with the United Nations, for I already knew what my next posting was going to entail. That morning, I was phoned by Bruce Greatbatch, the Secretary to the Premier (with whom I was actually staying as a houseguest) and told that a car was on its way to take me to the State House, there to confer with the Secretary General of the United Nations–none other than Dag Hammarskjöld himself. He was a “Guest of Government”, having dropped in on Lagos on his way back to New York from a quick tour of Africa and had come up North–so he said–because he wanted to discuss both the Federal Elections and the now discredited 1959 Northern Cameroons Plebiscite (that had also just been completed) with me.***
I was scheduled to be with him for “about forty minutes.” Actually, I was with him for over two hours, during which time–with no one else present–we talked not only about Africa, but about the World as well. He was frank and open with me and I was the same with him. I think that I surprised him when I voiced my total and absolute opposition to white settlers in East Africa and all that they stood for.
It was an enthralling conversation. But I have never met a man who was so palpably indiscreet. Nor a–world figure, if you like–whose trust was so casually (naively if you wish) bestowed and whose grasp of problems that necessarily required a fairly wide-ranging (even if only superficial) knowledge of the basic principles upon which primitive cultures are built, was so simplistic. Nevertheless, I left our meeting with a clear conviction that I had “a friend at court” and one to whom I would not have hesitated to refer if need be, for I was becoming increasingly filled with foreboding as to what was lying ahead. Looking back, however, I am not in the least surprised that an ‘Irish Pol’ like Conor Cruise O’Brien (for that, in essence, is all he was) could run circles round him, or that he paid with his life in Katanga for his trusting disposition, a scant year on.
Nonetheless, if I had got off the plane in London next morning and rather than going straight home had gone instead to Fleet St. and if I had related only a tenth of what he had told me, about the looming crisis in the Congo–which he said, as we shook hands on parting, “fills me with the greatest apprehension and fear”–about Moshe Tshombe, about the Rhodesians (and even about Macmillan and Eisenhower) coming from the source it did, I would have stopped the presses–and made myself a lot of money, as well as creating more than one international incident!
That leave was marked by two special occasions. The first was the formal notice of my promotion to Administrative Officer Class I (from Cadet to Resident in twelve years wasn’t bad going–it usually took twenty) and of the considerable salary increase that went with it (though in actual fact, my new pay only totaled £50 a week plus allowances, which is a very great deal less than a Lance Corporal in the Army gets today).
The second special occasion was an invitation to Kay and me to dine at St James’ Palace.
I was doing some work in the garage one day in late February when Kay called over to say that London was on the phone. I went back to the house, thinking it was the Colonial Office. Instead, a voice said “This is Chamberlayne-McDonald speaking, you remember me from Kaduna? Their Royal Highnesses would like to know if you are free to come to dinner with them on (here he mentioned a day in March, which I forget).” I said that I was sure we would be, whereupon he promised that the formal invitation would follow.
It did, two days later, in a large envelope on stiff card that so impressed the postman that he rang the bell to deliver it by hand instead of just putting it in the letterbox! Anyway, we went to York House in St James’ Palace, in a taxi from my club and were guided by a Palace policeman to the right front door.
The equerry and his wife were waiting for us and they and the Duke and Duchess and ourselves made up the whole party. I was glad to see that my Moss Bros dinner suit mirrored the Duke’s to the last button and the very pattern of the trouser braid. A formal dress from Marshall and Snelgrove came up trumps came up trumps for Kay as well.
Dinner was a memorable occasion, not least because, when Kay (sitting at the Duke’s right hand) was served first, she tried to take a portion of the smoked salmon with a fork and the whole lot stuck together and came up in one huge lump. “Shake it” advised the Duke, laughing, but the Steward (not Butler) intervened and it was borne off to a side table, there to be disentangled and returned. The Duchess, as the dinner’s hostess was served last of all.
When the meal was over, we broke up for a few minutes, the Duchess taking Kay with her and Chamberlayne-McDonald leading me down into the depths of the Palace, to show me what he said was the oldest loo in London, being untouched since the day that it was built by Sir Thomas Crapper himself. The stalls were enormous, with no chains or levers. Each pan had V.R. [Victoria Regina] and the Royal Arms emblazoned on it, which I thought was a trifle odd and on the right of the stool, set in the floor, was an inverted stirrup of brass. Duly advised, I pulled it up about eighteen inches, whereupon a torrent of water was released with such force that the whole room shook. The equerry assured me that it came direct from the Thames and eventually went back into it.
When we reassembled, we learned that we were to watch the film of Their Royal Highness’s visit to Nigeria, which had been professionally edited and put together by the Royal photographers. The Duchess asked if we would mind if the Staff came and watched the film as well! We had an audience, therefore, of about twenty, all told. While Kay sat with the Duchess, the Duke bore me off to separate seats, saying he wished me to explain “all the tribal bits.” The cigars were excellent, and as I’d come to expect while in his company, the whisky flowed freely as well.
First, we had a showing of ‘Giant in the Sun’, the Northern Region’s P.R. film which had been on general release in this country and which Kay and her mother had already seen at a local flea-pit.
Then followed the film that I had taken, lasting over an hour and, even though I say it myself, it had turned out very well. I met the present Duke of Gloucester [Richard] in Worcester many years later and told him I had taken it and that we had seen it and he said so had he, many times and it was still a happy memory for his mother years after his father’s death.
Afterwards, we adjourned to the anteroom for a final drink and I was intrigued to see that the Duke unlocked the tantalus (three decanters of single malts) with a key from his own key chain.
The equerry had gone to call a taxi for us and Kay was putting on her cape (borrowed from Great-Grandma****) when the Duke again called me aside and said, “Muffett, I want you to do something for me.” I said “Sir, anything…” He said:
“Cane bottomed chairs, m’boy! Cane bottomed chairs!”
I must have looked a bit puzzled (as I was) for he then said:
“There was I, full dress, covered in stars and ribbons, booted and spurred–sitting on those bloody leather chairs and sweating like a pig! I had prickly heat on m’arse for three weeks! Cane bottomed chairs, m’boy! Tell ‘em to get ‘em!”
I said “Sir, point taken. It will be done!” And it was. (I suppose the Duke must have made his feelings known at the time, and that this explains the Sardauna’s very measured observation, in his 1961 autobiography, My Life, that “The Duke felt the heat a good deal–though by our standards it was comparatively cool.”)
We then said our goodbyes, shook hands and a memorable evening came to its close. We shall never forget the Duchess’ grace and kindness. Or the Duke’s friendliness either.
My own recollection of the time of my parents’ glorious dinner with, and opportunity to hobnob with, royalty is rather different.
Five-year-old me had come down with chicken pox (as you did in those days) not long before. So rather than going to stay with Granny and Grandpa in Birmingham–the original plan–Granny drove to Droitwich to stay with me. She was 61 at the time, having been born in 1898, and she’d recently broken her arm, which was in a (real) plaster cast, and therefore, completely useless.
All I remember of those few days is the effort I had to make each morning to zipper Granny into her corset. We are not talking some sort of sexy, flithery. teddy-like négligée here; we are talking a seriously figure-constraining garment on the order of the one that Mammy winds the bedpost-hanging-onto Scarlett into–although in this case with a zipper rather than laces. Granny had helpfully threaded a shoelace through the zipper tab–the equivalent of a force-multiplier when it came to pulling the damn thing up–but still, it was hard. Oh, Lord. I remember. Laughing out loud. Crying. And that was just Granny.
Still, we made it through. And I was thrilled to discover (although not really a “doll” girl myself) that Mum and Dad brought me a lovely doll as a present when they returned. She was a “bride” doll, dressed in a beautiful wedding dress. (Can you say “oppressive patriarchal sex-typing”? Even if you can, it didn’t really take, since the only time (so far) I’ve gotten married, the bride wore shorts.) I remember that the doll had–unusually for such a thing–brown eyes, and I named her “Alice” after the Duchess.
When the Duke died in 1974, my mother (unusual for her to so exert herself) wrote a letter of condolence to the Duchess. She received a charming letter back from Alice’s Lady-in-Waiting, saying the Duchess remembered my mother well, and that she had fond memories both of the visit to Nigeria and the dinner at St. James’ Palace. I’m glad that Mum (an incredibly difficult woman in many respects) had that memory to hold onto (as she did) when things fell apart for her several years later.
And so. Forty-eight years on, here we still are. And I find myself hoping that Will and Kate aren’t going to go wobbly following their rather difficult Caribbean tour which (I can’t help thinking) blended what Dad would have thought to be a tin-eared attitude from Whitehall and the Palace with–perhaps–manufactured (by the usual suspects) outrage and extraordinary rudeness from their putative hosts. And, above all, I find myself wishing that men with the wisdom and humanity of my father (dead white males all, sometimes with surprising perspectives, as his memoirs show) were still on hand to advise them and us.
God Save the Queen.
*Another example of “Dad happening to things.” He had, indeed, enjoyed himself greatly filming Elizabeth and Philip on their royal tour in January of 1956. Subsequently, it transpired that–for reasons unknown to this day–much of the ‘official’ royal videography of the trip had been completely destroyed and no longer existed, and as a result, Dad was asked to provide his own film to fill in the gaps and complete the record. He was, of course, happy to do so. His film–having been copied–was returned to him at a later date, and before Dad died, my sister had it–and all the rest of Dad’s 8mm films–digitized. We spent a splendid day together, all of us, going through it.
**Rotimi Williams was a great friend of the family, and the largest man I’d ever seen. He was an attorney who served at one point as the President of the Nigerian Bar, and held several government positions over his long career. Like most Nigerians, he loved children, and (although I don’t remember it), he was my co-conspirator in a beloved family story. Apparently, the very young me (three or four) was admiring Chief Williams’s bulk one day at the local airport when I asked him how much he weighed. Chuckling, he heaved himself to his enormous feet, and gamely stepped on the baggage scale which almost went full tilt. “Daddy!” I shouted. “He weighs twenty-seven stone, two pounds!” (380lbs, 172.5kg).
***Dad’s next posting was to Mubi in British Cameroons, where my sister was born. He was charged with overseeing the 1961 plebiscite (referendum) on whether the territory should join Nigeria or become part of neighboring French-speaking Cameroon. The split in the territory was stark, with the North voting overwhelmingly to become part of Nigeria, and the South electing to join Cameroon. The wishes of the electorate were honored, the territory was split, the two parts went where the voters willed, and that was the end of that. Along the way, Dad formed lasting relationships with many UN representatives (his relationship with the UN itself was problematic; he had very little respect for the institution, but considerable respect for some of the individuals he met. Among them was a US Consul, whose intervention on Dad’s behalf ultimately resulted in our presence in the States, Dad’s remarkable teaching career, and–I suppose–the fact that I’m still here. Make of that what you will.)
****Great Grandma: A terrifying old bat who always wore purple, who was born in 1869, four years after Lincoln was assassinated, and who died in the fall of 1968 (when I was 14, so I remember her very well), not too many months before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon. She didn’t attend her own daughter’s wedding, a story I still haven’t quite gotten to the bottom of. (A grammatical solecism which the neophyte Winston Churchill [born five years after great-granny] wouldn’t have given two hoots about. Right?)Published in