|Chapter 26 - MUSING FROM A SICKBED|
do you hail from?’ the Medical Officer in charge at the hospital
in Ibadan asked when I was conveyed into his care after having been driven
over three hundred miles.
A hospital bed, particularly
as you think you are recovering and have neither company nor books, is
a good place to contemplate things until you slip back into feverish confusion.
I kept seeing the original advertising verse of Ross the Draper`s on the
bricked-up first floor window opposite the shop in the Castlegate, not
a stone`s throw from the plaque commemorating where William Wallace first
drew his sword to free his native land.
I got to thinking that if there were six of us from Lanark in Nigeria (this number does not include Spud Murphy) then if the population of Lanark was 8,000, there would be 0.75 Lanarkians per thousand of its population serving in the colony. If we then related the estimated 5,000 Europeans in Nigeria as a percentage of the British population of 50 million we get something like 0.1 British per thousand living and working in the country. Could it really be that dear little Lanark in relation to the number of people living there had more than seven times the number of its inhabitants serving in Nigeria than had Britain as a whole? Could Lanarkians more than others really do such calculations in their heads as a legacy from the teaching of mental arithmetic as a social skill? Would others be thrown by the catch question slipped in by Miss Cassells in Primary 4 ‘What’s the price of a one and sixpenny hammer?’ Was Lanark representative of Scotland or was this high percentage presence some kind of distribution that represented an extremity of statistical probability?
We shall never know the true numbers but without doubt the number of Scots was considerable. There were two Scots Governors-General during my time there. There were many in trade as well as in government service. Andrew Young, the Director of Marketing and Exports when I came out to Nigeria, was a Scot as was John Brown, my boss in Port Harcourt. Historically, Scotland always felt more a part of a Greater Britain, or Britain and its empire, than it did of a United Kingdom and maybe this exodus was a continuation of the movement that took the waves of emigrants to the Low Countries and the Baltic before the post-American Revolution empire. Were there places for which the Scots or English or Welsh showed a preference which did not show up on any distribution graph we tried to draw of the work destinations of the British overseas? Of course there are no figures to confirm or deny this. Was it something in the culture or just an opportunity for ambitious Scots to obtain elbow-room and achieve self-expression or for those who did not share the upbringing of the elite and were marginal at home to test the extent to which the spirit could soar? Such discussion is not useless as it makes us consider these factors we might not otherwise address. It does not follow that, if we cannot measure something, any consideration without numerical evidence is useless. I always suspect people who like to prove accountability or whatever else they are trying to demonstrate by producing numbers. There are, unfortunately, those among us who measure everything and understand nothing. The qualitative can have its own importance and awareness of it can release us from the tyranny of numbers.
The sun was something else that was always forcing its way into your awareness. It was forever distorting your vision and impinging on your consciousness at a time when you didn’t want to see it, making the bush shimmer in its intensity. Sometimes I couldn’t see what was out there for the bright, liquid heat. Then it would clear and enable me to contemplate how we all have different reactions to its harmful ultra-violet rays. Some of us who had recently soldiered or sailored in the tropics developed a darkening of the skin’s pigment and were able to expose our bodies if we chose to the direct sunshine after careful, prior and gentle exposure. Others without experience of it had to find out for themselves the effect on their skins often to their extreme discomfort. Yet others with a fair skin and those with red hair had to cover themselves for protection. I only exposed my body when swimming in the Ethiope River which was clear and almost fast running or in the evening sunshine on Bar Beach in Lagos. Why couldn’t these people who sought a tan ask themselves why Nigerians protected themselves from the sun with umbrellas which served the dual purpose of diverting the rain and providing cover from the sun? If they could be adversely affected by its rays, what hope was there for mere Europeans? Why am I worrying about them when they don`t worry about themselves?
Out of another bright-out appeared the face of Jim Walker. He must have been on my mind for I could see him, born and bred a white Jamaican, with his head covered whatever the conditions. He suffered from skin cancer and removed his hat only when he was under a roof. Even those bred to the tropical sun were susceptible to its harmful light. The authorities in London who advised officers going to work in the tropics suggested, nay strongly advised, the acquisition of a sola topee. Shades of British soldiers standing firm at Rorke’s Drift in the Boer War and the troops defending the Khyber Pass from marauding Pathans passed in front of me. Then I glimpsed myself bare-headed in Navy uniform in a tropical setting and I knew it was no longer necessary. Why then did I do as strongly advised and buy myself one?’ Didn`t I have a mind of my own, for Heaven`s sake?
Now, the sola topee has a long and magnificent history. I tried mine on only once and vowed I would not wear it again. I did not consider it went with my ‘ba` face’ as they have it in my part of Scotland, not that I would want people to know that. It didn’t go either with with my idea of comfort, light though it might be. My preference was for the bare head except when an extended period in the sun was likely. When I got to Nigeria I was pushed to find many who liked it. Apart from a mere handful of Europeans, the exceptions were Nigerians themselves, many of whom felt it denoted that they had arrived. Chief clerks wore them with dignity and they were to be seen on the heads of people who carried out menial tasks. If I had known that Richard coveted one, I would have passed mine on to him sooner. In the event, after taking possession of it in Ibadan, he wore it with apparent pride and the jauntiness of a man about town on the one occasion I met him wearing it. ‘That’s my boy, Richard!’ I said to myself. I felt proud of him.
A tear of British learning falls upon the fall from grace of the sola topee. Even some of us who had enjoyed the benefits of a classical education and many who had no knowledge of the Latin language, believed that the ‘sola’ bit was to do with the sun. Some even referred to it as a ‘solar’ topee, the English pronunciation of the ‘r’, or the lack of its pronunciation to be more accurate (this is a Scottish interpretation), compounding the misunderstanding. In fact, it has nothing to do with the sun. It comes from the Indian name for spongewood and its pith-like stems, hence the alternative name ‘pith helmet’. It is light in weight but overkill in affording protection from the sun, just like the reinforced spine pads on Navy shirts that used to be issued for wear in warmer climes. ‘Topee’ or ‘topi’ is Hindi for a hat. The Indian connection runs and runs in the English language. When the British left the sub-continent, they could not leave behind the ways in which it had influenced them.
My protection from the unforgiving sun was a lightweight French-made hat I bought in the Cameroons. It was a size 59, equivalent of a British size 7. and could be folded up and stuffed in a pocket, unlike a sola topee, and it would spring back into its original shape when pulled out. I referred to it as my ‘Douala hat’. It was to disappear from my parked car in Lagos just at the time that hats were going out of fashion and the hat-making industry did some joint advertising under the easily remembered slogan of ‘If you want to get ahead get a hat’.