By Jane Plastow (University of Leeds)
The Freetown Bond: A Life under Two Flags. Eldred Durosimi Jones with Marjorie Jones. James Currey (Boydell and Brewer), Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2012. Pp. 174. ISBN. 9781847010551 (hb). £30.
Eldred Durosimi Jones was born in 1925 to a Krio family in Freetown in the then British colony of Sierra Leone. This memoire of the life of a privileged intellectual discusses a long, happy and distinguished career, but for this reviewer, unfamiliar with the life of elite black society in colonial Freetown, it is the early chapters on childhood, education and family life, all set against the backdrop of the city which moulded and nurtured Eldred Jones, which are particularly fascinating.
The picture painted by Jones of his youth is one of almost Victorian family values, dominated by family, church, education and community; and this image is enhanced by the inclusion of some wonderful photographs of boys suited and booted, of Anglican churches and grammar schools, all made in the image of similar British men and institutions. This Krio society bred its members to be community leaders; none more so than the Jones. We are told of sister Kezia, ‘a notable soprano soloist’ (p6) performing in church, at home, and for light opera productions, to the accompaniment of brother, Doc, on the harmonium. Doc went on to become the head of the Sierra Leone national library collection. Younger sister Ethline was similarly accomplished and married a diplomat with whom she travelled the world. The Jones live in a world of service to the community – with many members featuring in government service – but they also enjoy engagements requiring bow ties and evening gowns (p10), read Just William stories and enjoy amateur theatricals. It is perhaps hardly surprising, given this background, that Eldred Jones went on to become such an eminent academic; working for many years as Principal of Fourah Bay College until his retirement in 1985, writing on Shakespeare and pioneering the study African Literature, editing African Literature Today for thirty-three years, and running, for free, the National Policy Advisory Committee at the invitation of the President from 1999-2003.
Eldred Jones is an urbane, intellectual and thoroughly decent man; a man particularly fortunate in the possession of a very good wife. One of the most touching aspects of The Freetown Bond is the never sentimentalised but evidently hugely valued partnership between this couple. Such a relationship was in his later years absolutely essential to Eldred Jones who from the early 1970s gradually lost his eyesight until he became completely blind. Marjorie Jones, a designer, became his eyes; reading, writing and supporting her husband in all his endeavours. Hence although the authorial voice in this book is always that of Eldred Jones, Marjorie is quite rightly credited as being ‘with’ her husband in its production.
The later chapters of The Freetown Bond do become rather a procession. We see Eldred Jones visiting, working and receiving honours in various countries in Africa and the West. We hear of mostly academic, though also political and artistic friends, and are told in rather tiresome detail of their eminent achievements so repeatedly that I began to long to be told about someone who either came to no good or possibly was just a tad boringly ordinary. Even the one racist we are told about, shamefully in my home town of Leeds, is won round by the charm of Marjorie and the Jones’ white Mercedes.
The subtitle of this book, A Life under Two Flags, is of course a coy reference to the fact that Eldred Jones grew up under British colonialism before rising to eminence in independent Sierra Leone. Typically comments on the rights and wrongs of colonialism are minimal as, throughout, is any political commentary. Eldred Jones’ resolute and somewhat Olympian neutrality, while offering himself as mediator whenever he is asked to help state, church, university or charity organisation, is, I am sure, genuine and entirely benevolent. The trouble is that Olympian benevolence is not conducive to a particularly spicy narrative. The second half of The Freetown Bond, once young Eldred is grown and simply progressing from one achievement to another, does therefore read somewhat blandly. Gossip is entirely eschewed, and the inner man seldom gets a look in – even discussion of the distress of going blind is kept to a minimum. Ultimately this feels like the memoire of an exceptionally able committed public servant, who, in keeping with his quasi-Victorian upbringing, would find a requirement to discuss the personal somewhat unseemly. It is also a fascinating revelation of the unique Krio life and mindset in the latter days of the colonial period, and indirectly helps explain why this group produced so many eminent sons and daughters who for so long held the reins in Sierra Leone.
Reviewed by: Jane Plastow, University of Leeds.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 75 (Winter 2013/14), pp. 112-114]