A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble, Eland 2011, 272 pages. Reviewed by Craig Storti
“I was nominated to a cadetship in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Protectorate at the end of 1913,” this book begins. “The cult of the great god Jingo was as yet far from dead. Most English households of the day took it for granted that nobody could always be right, or ever quite right, except an Englishman. The Almighty was beyond doubt Anglo-Saxon, and the popular conception of empire resultantly simple. Dominion over palm and pine (or whatever else happened to be noticeably far-flung) was the heaven-conferred privilege of the Bulldog Breed. Kipling had said so.”
A Pattern of Islands, it has to be said—and I knew it would come to this sooner or later as your book review editor—is the one book everyone should read before they pass on. After all, you never know what’s going to be in that next library/bookshop on the other side. So don’t press your luck.
Nor is this advice just for interculturalists, though it is certainly for them; it really is the kind of book it's impossible to imagine anyone not liking, actually not loving. It is quite literally delightful, assuming that word means full of delights. Where else will you learn the right way to swim through a school of tiger sharks? The proper way to behave when you are the bait for a man-eating octopus? Why you must bring a coconut if you’re going to the Place of Dread? And why the word nikiranibobo is so hilarious in Gilbertese?
In 1914 Grimble and his wife Olivia were posted by the British Colonial Service to the protectorate known as the Gilbert (now part of Kiribati) and Ellice (now Tuvalu) Islands, roughly half way between Australia and Hawaii. Grimble was 26 at the time. A Pattern is cross-cultural from its first moments to its last two pages, which contain one of the best examples of the reverse-culture-shock conversations you’re going to find anywhere. But first this:
“We did learn to accept cockroaches as domestic pets (or almost), for…whenever foul weather threatened, whole rustling clouds of them would come flying into the house for refuge. Once lodged, they would stay for weeks so we decided at last to count them as an essential ingredient of Pacific romance—it was with either that or die of daily horror— and our only incurable pedantry about them in the long run was to keep them, if or when possible, out of the soup.”
The book is squarely in the education-of-a-naïf genre, which means it is stuffed with cross-cultural incidents, otherwise known as embarrassing, humiliating faux pas wherein Grimble is revealed to be an absurd, charming bumbler utterly incapable of taking himself seriously. Here is just one example:
“So I got up amid a great hush and said (the words are burned on my memory), ‘People of Tarawa, this is a beautiful island. This is the first time I have seen Tarawa. I think Tarawa is a beautiful island. This is the first time I have seen it. I think it is very beautiful….’ There are no means of estimating how long I should have continued had not Mr. Workman’s voice cut in: ‘Perhaps Mr. Grimble, we might now with profit move onward to the next thought. Time flies you know.’ I had no next thought save a wild desire to have done ‘Iam glad to meet you today [Grimble continued] and shall always be very, very glad to meet you….’ I did not expect the storm of laughter that rewarded my climax. It swept the maneaba like a hurricane, and lasted for minutes…. I got up amid the din and walked over to Mr. Workman…who wiped his eyes and explained that [what] I had said in effect was, ‘I am glad to meet you today, but I shall always be very, very glad to say goodbye to you.’”
And here’s a taste of the reverse-culture shock anecdote:
Uncle: ‘Hullo my boy, glad to see you back. Sit down. Have a cigar. Now tell us what you’ve been up to all these years out there.’
Self: ‘Oh, I’ve been—‘
Uncle: ‘You don’t look too well on it, whatever it was. Did you keep up your riding?’
Self: ‘Well—no—you see there aren’t any horses there. But I—‘
Uncle: ‘What? No riding? Hm! Now the other day Jackie Jack Jackson said to me (Jackie’s dicta on fox-hunting as an aid to health here omitted). But you must have got a bit of fishing.’
Self: Oh, yes, I had plenty of that. The tiger-shark—‘
Uncle: ‘Tiger shark? Now the other day I was talking to a feller back from Ireland…. But I suppose you had a shot at tigers in those jungles.’
Self: ‘Well, no. You see there aren’t any jungles or tigers. But I did—‘
Grimble is not only a first-rate story teller, he is also beautiful prose stylist. If you’ve ever read a more sublime summing up of the cross-cultural experience than this, you’re very fortunate indeed:
“It began to dawn on me that beyond the teeming romance that lies in the differences between men—the diversity of their homes, the multitude of their ways of life, the dividing strangeness of their faces and tongues, the thousand-fold mysteries of their origins—there lies the still profounder romance of their kinship with each other, a kinship that springs from the immutable constancy of man's need to share laughter and friendship, poetry and love in common.”
My only hesitation in recommending this book is the financial hit you will have to absorb buying copies for all your friends. You may choose not to buy copies, I suppose, but what kind of friend would you be then?