Can you swim?
Posted on September 18, 2019
I approached the large, oak-panelled doors with trepidation, my legs shaking and my three-inch Cuban-heeled boots almost propelling me headlong. A shaft of light hit me as I entered and approached the large wooden table where dark figures were silhouetted against the backdrop of Churchill and Anthony Eden and Downing Street beyond. As my eyes re-adjusted, I saw that they were mostly elderly, late 50s or so, wore dark, black suits and were exploring my every feature. I tried to control the mounting panic. The man who had led me in sat to my right and started to take copious notes. These were the Governors of the remnants of the British Empire now reduced to small colonies or protectorates in Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Turks and Caicos, Gilbert and Ellice and finally the British Solomon Islands Protectorate or BSIP as they called it.
A large, round man from Gibraltar led the interview and grilled me on China, its economy, its future prospects and whether I could cope with living in an overcrowded, urban sprawl such was Hong Kong. I calmed down, held my own and fell confident as they drew the meeting to a close. None of the others spoke until the end when the man on the extreme right who appeared remarkably tall asked if I could swim. I was somewhat stunned by this but replied that I was a good swimmer and had my Duke of Edinburgh’s award for this. He nodded, forced a hint of a smile and jotted down a note in his file. I rose, strode out without tripping and breathed a sigh of relief as the great doors slammed behind me.
A month later, I received the large envelope excitedly and prepared myself for the magic of the Far East and China. Two months later, I landed in the hot, sultry heat of Honiara, the capital of the BSIP. There was little to see except a very small terminal and some natives with a luggage trolley. I picked up my small son and walked with my wife to the welcoming party, which comprised the Deputy Governor and his wife, and one or two other men with pink legs and shorts. We checked into the small hotel, the Mendana on the sea front and I was amused to see the sign saying No swimming. Sharks. Very welcoming.
On the first Monday, I was told to go to the offices of the District Commissioner, which were between the market and the harbour, and he would tell me what my duties would be. I approached the offices and saw a large crowd of natives outside peering in through glass windows. This was the Magistrate’s Court and a young man in a wig was waxing lyrically. I climbed the steps, waited to be called in and sat down in front of a well-built man who looked all the world like Stewart Granger. He introduced himself as Low. Mr Low. He wore all white and had eyebrows that turned up at the end. He peered at me, welcomed me and asked me what I was good at. I explained that was an expert on the Chinese economy and was very keen on the environment and development issues. He didn’t write anything down but just kept staring at me as if the words didn’t mean anything. When he asked if I could play rugger, I nodded and noted a hint of an affirmation. Good he said, you can manage the police team. Then he asked if I had ever done any law. When I said I had as part of my business studies degree, he stood up suddenly and walked to the door and led me out. Good he kept muttering.
We descended the stairs and the crowd parted as he walked through them towards a Land Rover. He climbed in, pulled me in next to him and patted the driver on the shoulder. He was a large, thickset man in grubby clothes with no shoes. He introduced him as Chipi and told me that he would drive for me. As we sped down the road, I noticed that his lips were bright led and he incessantly spat red slime from the window. Betel Nut said the Commissioner, mix it with coral and it makes them high. You’ll be given some when you start travelling.
We pulled up outside a large white building with the Union Jack flying from its roof and I read the sign that said High Court of the Western Pacific. He jumped out, dragged me with him and led me into a large ante-room. A small Indian gentleman sat there behind a large desk. Is Sir Jocelyn in? said Low. The Indian nodded and pointed to a side room. We entered and there sat a small man in his vest and shorts eating a sandwich and reading The Times.
He looked at Low then me and stopped chewing. Yes, he muttered.
This is your new man, said Low. Just what we need Sir Jocelyn.
He stood up, walked a round me and stopped in front of me muttering to himself.
Knows the law, said Low. Masters Degree and all that. Sir Jocelyn eyed me and beckoned us towards a large door. We entered a large, ornate court room with a picture of the Queen and the Union Jack dominating the walls.
Stand there, he said as I shivered in the air conditioning. He opened a large cupboard, pulled out a wig and a large red, velvet cloak and returned and stood in front of me. He produced a bible and placed it in my hand.
Kneel down, he said and I did as I was told. He then told me to repeat the oath after him and then asked me to rise. Congratulations, young man. You are now the District Magistrate for the Central Solomons. We’ll gazette it by the end of the month so everyone will know who you are.
Low turned me round and led me to the exit. Just before we left, Sir Jocelyn spoke again.
Oh, bye the way, can you swim?
I nodded nervously and he relaxed. We don’t want a repeat of last time, do we Low?
We left and drove to the harbour. A schooner was tossing around in the waves. He took me on board, introduced me to the Captain and explained who I was and that I would be travelling around the island in the following week dispensing justice. I shivered with fear.
I tried to explain that I had minimum experience of law and this had largely been commercial but he was having none of it. He took me back to the office, gave me two volumes of the Laws of the BSIP and suggested that I read them before I left the following Sunday.
He was leaving to another appointment when I asked why everyone asked me if I could swim.
He looked at me somewhat bemused. Didn’t they tell you?
I shook my head. About your predecessor?
I shook my head again.
Very sad. Same age as you. Fell off the back of the boat in the middle of the night. Didn’t miss him till morning. Crew asleep or drunk.
Did they find him? I asked.
His head, yes….but nothing else. Washed up on the shore a week later. Sharks you know. Got a taste for humans. The war you know. Many ships sunk off here in Iron Bottom Sound.
Poor buggars. Survived the sinking but then picked off by Hammer Heads and Tigers.
Careful when you’re going ashore. Seas can be mighty rough on the Weather Coast.
Thank God you can swim!
Graham Walker, District Magistrate, Central Solomon Islands, 1974-75.