No Telephone to Heaven. Malcolm Milne. Meon Hill Press (Little Manor Lodge, Stockbridge, Longstock S020 6DS), 1999, 464pp, £20. ISBN 0-9535540-0-7
The sub-title of Malcolm Milne’s book is ‘From Apex to Nadir – Colonial Service in Nigeria, Aden, the Cameroons and the Gold Coast, 1938-81’. As this suggests, Milne chronicles what he sees as the highs and lows of his experience as a colonial officer in an unapologetically personal memoir. The reviewer in the TLS (12 May 2000), commenting on Milne’s book alongside Anthony Kirk-Greene’s British Imperial Administrators 1856-1966 (Macmillan), chooses to mock Milne and his colleagues, acknowledging their incorruptibility, public spirit and sheer stamina, but suggesting that they never really faced the fundamental flaw in their dedicated careers – namely that they were the unthinking servants of imperialist exploitation. In contrast to this approach, the Commonwealth Secretary-General, Dr Emeka Anyaoku, offers a preface to Milne’s book, in which he makes a much more substantial evaluation of these memoirs. Accepting that ‘for Africans of my generation [colonial memoirs] stimulate a whole gamut of emotions’, Dr Anyaoku acknowledges the genre’s value as historical and political documents, coming not through faceless official papers but through the true and honest experience of their authors. Milne’s book is, Dr Anyaoku continues, ‘the outsider’s tale of the colonised people’s most dominant experience of the turn of the outgoing century….a timely contribution to our shared heritage’.
Between the cynicism of the TLS and the generosity of Dr Anyaoku there is one point of agreement, namely that in the highly personal, often idiosyncratic, world of memoirs, is a feast of information and a stimulus for debate concerning the experience of both colonisers and colonised, that is not only fascinating in itself but also crucial to our understanding of historical actions and cultural attitudes. Of course such memoirs can make uncomfortable reading: early memoirs from the first years of the twentieth century with their titles such as The White Man in Nigeria (G D Hazzledine, London, 1904), work on the confident assumption of the inevitability and moral legitimacy of colonial rule. But equally works of which P Amaury Talbot’s Life in Southern Nigeria (London, 1923) is only one example, show British colonial officers offering serious and appreciative analyses of the culture of the people amongst whom they worked, and making a serious scholarly contribution.
Milne’s book is as much about himself as it is about the countries he lived and worked in. He shows a lively sense of the hierarchical structures of the colonial service with men (and their families) conscious of the most subtle nuances of rank and salary. This very human account is as concerned with the joys and difficulties of bringing up a family – sometimes at a distance - as it is with the details of colonial administration, politics and personalities. The author’s final chapter deals with the period he spent, in a senior capacity, in the Southern Cameroons during the period of transition from Anglo/French trusteeship to independence. I suspect that, for students of the politics of that place and period, this chapter, with its intimate description of political manoeuvring and the personalities involved, will be particularly important and may well cast new light.
Milne writes engagingly, and graphically. He either kept immaculate records or is blessed with excellent memory for he writes with great detail and is especially good at creating a full picture of the wide range of people he worked with. This long book is always a good read. He comes away from his life in the colonial service less satisfied than he hoped when he set out on it, unsettled by the ‘rush’ to independence, but never less than honest and revealing in his records and reactions. This is the value of the genre.
[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin 64 (2001), pp. 106-107]