by Ian McCall

Chapter 34 - THE FIVE EVENTS

The club’s activities also reflected social attitudes in the United Kingdom. Among the ruling elite of the United Kingdom and its official representatives overseas there had long been a prejudice against trade. All this despite the fact that the economic well-being which supported their activities and life-style came from the very trade they despised. It might well have been an attitude derived in Nigeria from the perceived unsavoury nature of the so-called ‘palm oil ruffians’ about whom we have already spoken, but the roots of the prejudice go back to the days when ‘gentlemen’ did not soil their hands with it. The public schools geared to preparing the sons of the aristocracy and the emergent middle classes for careers in the army and in administration of the empire perpetuated the view. It was made worse by successful businessmen aspiring to become ‘gentrified’ rather than evolving a mode of living that grew out of their business culture and setting their own style of behaviour with their own values embedded in it. This was silent witness to the deep roots of the class system in Victorian times and the legacy it had left. Although this attitude had been changing, particularly under the influence of recruitment into the service of officers chosen for their personal qualities and education and perhaps brought up in regional counter cultures, and later, of ex-servicemen whose war experiences had created a confidence combined with an education and maturity that gave them a sense of intellectual equality, it persisted to a degree in the minds of a number of people in business and administration and was exemplified in what was known in Calabar as ‘The Five Events’.

This was a series of sporting contests the outcomes of which indicated which of the two sides, the government side or the trade side, prevailed. It was administered as part of the activities of the club. A good-going rivalry was guaranteed as the perceived attitude on the government side generated an equal and opposite reaction on the part of those not paid from the public purse. It was originally confined to the expatriate community but was extended to include Nigerian nationals who were becoming a bigger proportion of government employees and indeed of the firms. Nigerians excelled at games like football and tennis but were excluded in games like golf that they had not yet embraced. Lest I give the impression that it was entirely a government versus trade or an ‘us and them’ situation, members of the two groups interacted in all sorts of ways. The tradition had probably outlived the circumstances it had arisen from. At the highest level, the general managers of the companies found common cause with the Residents in charge of provinces and later, when Nigeria was divided into autonomous regions with a relatively weak centre, with the people in the regional and federal secretariats. In small stations all participated in the social scene.

Choice of the teams would be made by persons chosen in theory by the Resident and the senior General Manager but in practice by reasonably competent individuals nominated by them. My own position was an odd one as I was officially a government officer but concerned with trade.
‘I don’t know where we should put you McCall; you have a foot in both camps’ the Resident, Cuthbert J Mayne, said to me.
‘I don’t mind which side I am on, sir’ I replied, ‘it’s only a game’.
‘Don’t you believe it’, the Resident declared, ‘it’s an important tradition’.

In the event I was put in the government team. Preparations went ahead with teams being selected with great forethought. Who should we play against the scratch player and cousin of Jimmy Adams, a well known golfer of his day (and known as the champion runner-up) and partner. Should it be a weaker pair so that there was a better opportunity of winning a later match? Who could best handle James Akinbiyi’s top-spin service? Who should open the bowling against Brian Thwaite, who had been a Cambridge University cricket blue, with the best chance of containing him? The Resident insisted on playing in the cricket match. I knew from experience that he was not averse to calling out ‘Drop it’ to someone in the outfield when he skied a ball. Whether he wanted to enjoy a little longer at the crease or just wanted to test the mettle of the fielder involved I do not know but suspect the latter. I would have been mortified if I had been in the opposing team when the ball came in my direction and I had muffed the catch on hearing the Resident’s call to spill it.

There was a feeling like the aftermath of a rugby match against Wales or Ireland at Murrayfield when the results were known. Win or lose, it was an excuse to have a special celebration. If someone had excelled, it had been customary at one time to donate a bar stool to the club, allegedly fashioned to fit the backside of the donor. Whether a cast was taken before it was made was not a question that came to mind at the time and I suppose there is no one to answer it now. The custom was dropped as the bar became crowded with stools and none of my contemporaries were required to leave their mark. So I would never know how the template was made from which the stool seat would be fashioned.

It was interesting to see that as companies prospered the conditions under which their expatriate staff worked got better and better while the government officer’s lot remained much as it was. Air conditioning and dehumidifiers came to the company houses to make living a little more comfortable and to facilitate a good night’s sleep in the high humidity of the oil palm belt. It also meant that those who lived in them were more likely to catch colds and feel the effects of the heat as a result when they emerged from it. - This gave us poor relations in government service a comforting feeling of Schadenfreude for those of us who had to spend our nights in less well appointed houses. With the advent of the Shell D’Arcy Exploration Company drilling to establish if there were oil deposits in commercial quantities and finding it by all accounts, it was obvious that ‘big bucks’ were going to be spent in the region and dramatic changes ensue if it were to be found, not all of them to the advantage of the people of the area who relied on the local eco-system for their livelihood. It would also swing the balance of advantage in any future events against the government side.

I wondered if there was just a connection between the fact that a Resident’s son had joined one of the companies was a sign of the times and also that the son of one of the company managers had become an administrative officer? Was some kind of role reversal taking place? If so, there was not much of a mileage to be had from it as Nigeria was assuming responsibility for its own affairs and exercised more and more direct or indirect control over who did what. While there would be a need for experienced officers for some years to come, there was not much of a future for a relative newcomer. In the companies, it was even further advanced and bore witness to the fact that commerce was more often than not at the forefront of change as it had been in the days of the change from slavery to a `legitimate` economy.

Ian Mcall Auchencrow
Berwickshire, Scotland July 2003