by Ian McCall

Chapter 33 - THE CLUB

Expatriates are people who have imposed exile upon themselves. Being away from the mother country or the fatherland tends to make their hearts grow fonder and to ascribe to the land of their birth qualities they would never have imagined it possessed had they not left its borders or shores. It is only to be expected that such people will want to associate with others of similar origin to celebrate their shared uniqueness and to obtain mutual support in the face of real or perceived adversity. Hence the significance of the thriving Caledonian Societies, Yorkshire Societies and so on. Whether the toast is ‘Caledonia’ or ‘The Broad Acres’ or whatever, people want to celebrate their identity. It gives them a feeling of not being alone. Drinks like Atholl brose and food like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding heighten this feeling, all the more so for its only being available on such occasions.

In Nigeria they came together in the club. My introduction to it was the Ikoyi Club. Ikoyi was the island off the island of Lagos connected to another island, Iddo and all already joined together by bridges, where the desirable low density residences were concentrated. For many, the Club was the focus of their social activities. It was the only place where golf could be played - it had an 18 hole course with sand greens known as ‘browns’. It was also a difficult place for Nigerians to become members. It had its black members but they were few in relation to the white faces. In other words it was exclusive, not only of black faces but also of the artisanal white ones. I was taken there as a guest but never had occasion or desire to join even if someone had proposed me. Frustrated Nigerians eventually set up their own club, the Island Club, which became exclusive in its own way but was not knowingly discriminatory.

In Port Harcourt, the club took in most people and had that uncomfortable air from time to time that exists when the English pretend they are all John Thompson’s children (anglicisation of ‘Jock Tamson’s bairns’ meaning a group of people united by a common sentiment). In other words the class system reared its ugly head. The direct language of the construction managers and the more refined language of the colonial servants, and the differing attitudes their words expressed, sometimes led to misperception and acrimony. At the risk of my being accused of stereotyping, there is no one more adept at the art of putting people down than the archetypal English public schoolboy whose command of biting sarcasm is unsurpassed; nor is there anyone more ready to take offence than the self-opinionated man of working class origins inflamed by his culture of booze as an expression of his manhood. One social explosion came when a Senior District Officer made what was interpreted as a devastating comment to a construction hard man who had an arm round his neck before he could get out of his chair and broke his jaw. Port Harcourt club had the saving grace of a thirteen hole golf course with greens, the only one in Nigeria in these days. It was sown with Bahama grass which grows sideways rather than upwards and can be kept closely cropped. To sow you get handfuls of the stuff and chop it into small pieces, sow it broadcast on the ground and nature does the rest. Except of course that greens need to be tended with care and consummate skill.

We had a mixture of people in the Calabar club, but it was a smaller station with a greater degree of social control. The atmosphere was good and this was reflected in a series of social functions. On club night we dressed up in white mess jacket and black trousers complete with cummerbund. These latter were the standard black or green which was the colour for Nigeria. The club in Warri was similar to the one in Calabar in that the members were a close social unit and cooperated in all manner of activities but was more informal on special nights. The club night in Warri was enhanced by the odd cabaret act put on by volunteers in the station. I remember a pair who called themselves ‘The Western Regional Production Board Brothers’ doing a skit on the Western Brothers in their distinctive drawl as heard on radio immediately post-war. One of their acts I remember included a song

Then there’s D.O. Western Ijaw
He’s somewhere up the creeks
We don’t know what he’s doing
He’s been there for weeks and weeks.
All his troubles will be over in nineteen fifty six
Not to Warri, chaps, not to Warri.

The D.O. was Bill Pratt, the District Officer on a tour of the creeks. 1956 was the projected date of independence for Western Nigeria (it was actually 1957) and the last line a play on the Western Brothers’ concluding catchphrase ‘Not to worry, chaps, not to worry’.

They came to the club night from all the remote stations by road and/or creek. Jackie Cooper, Lt-Cdr Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve (rtd) of the Nigeria Marine based in Forcados (a very remote station by this time in its history) arrived by launch and would warm to the occasion as the evening wore on. He would take on himself the responsibility for lining up the champagne bottles and then give naval fire orders as he popped the corks one after the other calling out ‘Always keep one in the air or the bastards’ll get you’. The Warri club overlooked the river where seagoing vessels tied up. At Christmas, Santa Claus in the person of Harry Whitaker of John Holt’s Transport, arrived at the Club by canoe for the children on the station, clad in traditional garb. He received a welcoming cheer from children of all ages. Such people as Harry were deserving of public recognition for such activities and the fact many remember him after all these years is testimony to the fact that that recognition was given. To be remembered by people who cared was more valuable than official recognition. Particularly where there were families it was a real morale booster.

The Sapele Club, only forty miles away with a plywood factory and timber industry with its saw doctors and shipping people did not have the same atmosphere. Entertainment tended to be films or otherwise was of the housey-housey kind. Nevertheless the Sapele club kept open house for touring officers as did the small club in Aba. In the latter I met a judge on circuit, Mr Dove Edwin, who originated from Sierra Leone and who enjoyed a game of snooker. When he missed an easy pot he would call out ‘There’s no justice here’.

If anything killed the clubs it was the improvement in living conditions. With the growing practice of women accompanying their husbands, and latterly joined by their children, on their tours of duty to the coast, couples might go to the club but they had an alternative social milieu in their own homes. Whether this opened up the membership to those excluded is open to doubt. What is incontestable is that the clubs initially played an important role in the social life of a station. Events may have overtaken them but they provided an opportunity to bring people together who would otherwise have felt divorced from their roots. They also developed an attitude of superiority which was inward looking and ring-fenced. By that very fact the clubs tended to become exclusive, thereby creating and perpetuating a problem until they had outlived their usefulness. Of course there were exceptions, not least among many administrative officers who actively sought to bring in people who had been excluded, but those who had been excluded now had other places they could go where
they could develop their own interests and celebrate their own culture. There might now be a need for specialised clubs for particular activities but ‘The Club’ as a centre where people fell back on the support of people of similar origins was as dead as old Marley himself and became a refuge for those whose prejudices prevented them from indulging in a wider interaction with local people.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003