Wednesday 18 March 2015

For God and the Empire

Events in the UK and Vanuatu have both troubled my conscience in the last week.

Here the cause was Mothering Sunday, an event I had gladly filed in the dustbin of personal history after my mother died in 1992.

But then along came children, very late in life, and a sense of expectation in the household that they, unguided, were never likely to fulfil. So I ended up once again buying flowers and cards, and organising jolly lunch parties.

The five-year-old endeared himself to me on Friday evening when I outlined my plans for the weekend, and he sighed: “Why is it never Daddy’s day?”

Bringing him up to par with his three-year-old brother, who had played an absolute blinder that morning by escorting his mother to the checkout in Next yelling: “Put that back, Mummy! You don’t need another handbag!”

So naturally it was chocolate treats all round when I took them to buy their Mother’s Day cards and gifts on Saturday, as a step towards phasing myself out of the whole process.

The woman on the till fell into my clutches like a dozy bluebottle landing in a Venus flytrap. “Ooh, aren’t you lucky to have such an indulgent Grandpa!” she purred.

“I’m not their Grandpa,” I replied, inserting a sinister pause to savour the rising panic in her eyes before adding, “I’m their Dad.”

This always elicits a flood of apologies and explanations that can only make things worse, like trying to extricate yourself from the hole of asking a fat woman “When’s it due?”

I enjoyed it all immensely. But as I struggled to cook our Sunday roast (not too bad, but not as good as Mummy’s, which is surely how it should be) I did reflect on how much I take for granted.

So much so that I went back to my wedding vows and checked how I was doing. We had the 1662 full Monty, avoidance of fornication and all. My results were surprisingly good.

I may be falling a bit short on the “honour her” front, and will try to do better in future, but nothing like as short as Mrs Hann has consistently fallen in the small matter of “obey”.

A vow she was foolishly induced to make, along with “serve”, by the vicar’s assurance that the words had different meanings in 1662 and 2009. I think he probably had his fingers crossed at the time.

Anyway, what has all this got to do with Vanuatu? A place of which you had almost certainly never heard until it was flattened by Cyclone Pam.

Until 1980 Vanuatu was known as the New Hebrides, despite bearing no resemblance whatsoever to the Scottish originals, and was that rarest of colonial hybrids: an Anglo-French condominium (no, not an apartment) with two sets of administrators, speaking two different languages, and a similar choice of laws.

They didn’t go quite as far as driving on opposite sides of the road on alternate days, but everything else about the set-up seems to have been as absurd as you might imagine.

I know this because 39 years ago I started a PhD on British imperial history. Not long afterwards I was awarded a scholarship restricted to students “who intend to go on to devote their lives to the service of the British Empire”.

Reader, I have plainly failed in that duty. Though I can cite the reasonably good excuse that the British Empire had largely disappeared before I could get around to devoting myself to it.

What makes it worse is that one of my contemporaries did fulfil what should have been my mission. He joined the colonial service at its last gasp in the New Hebrides and was killed there when a camping stove exploded.

But for the subsequent Falklands War, I might have been able to cite him as the last person to lay down his life for the Empire on which the sun never set.

I can find no trace on the internet of his sacrifice, but if anyone ever deserved an MBE (Motto: For God and the Empire) it was surely he. Sadly, there is probably an equal chance of me getting one for cooking Sunday lunch.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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