A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble
Various tales from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands are recalled by Arthur Grimble commencing with his cadetship at the end of 1913. In a witty, honest, self-depreciating style this book makes light insightful reading ... "nobody could be always right, except an Englishman ... The Almighty was beyond doubt Anglo Saxon".
In London, his job interview commenced with "Let us see ... yes ... let us go on a voyage of discovery together ... Where precisely are the Gilbert and Ellice islands? If you will believe me, I have often been curious to know". The interview continued with a discussion about insisting "upon the dominion of romance, not the romance of dominion" and was ultimately successful in part because he was the only candidate to ask for the job.
Originally published in 1952, the book was luckily part of my English literature course in 1959 - an enlightened relief from the standard Charles Dickens fare. Its impression remained to 2011 as I remembered his anecdotes such as seeing the slitting of the belly of an attacking shark "rip itself open like a zip-fastener, discharging blood and guts"; the catching of a giant octopus allowing himself to be used as bait; and his cure of a French missionary by faith and lies. (Having administered the last morphine tablets with a rusty hypodermic syringe he injected pure water subsequently.) My impression resulted from the insight Grimble relates as he faced novel situations alone, and his thoughts while overcoming his feeling of lack of preparation. Plus the honest effort Grimble put into learning the local language and becoming an expert on the islands.
There is a kaleidoscope of topics covering geography, culture, traditions, phosphate mining, copra production, religion, administration - always entertaining never encyclopedic. Grimble gives the case for "Pax Britannica" but combining existing beliefs with Christianity - "A tree without roots dies, but new grafts thrive on a trunk that stands deep-rooted in the soil of its homeland".
The return of the book is to be welcomed, as is the information about these islands, now the two island nations of Kiribati and Tuvalu since independence in 1979 and 1978. Times have changed of course. Kiribati is expected to be the first country in which all land territory disappears due to global warming and, in the book, when a native pastor "... ordained that a wave should arise to the height of the Government's flagstaff and sweep away the Flag" it was not identified with a tsunami.
29 August 2011