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Recollections of desert calm and tsetse flies and the examiner who asked:""Do you think you could tell smoking-room stories to an African elder?"" The witnesses are former District Officers, for the most part, the backbone of British rule in Africa, 1900-1960; and Allen, also responsible for Plain Tales from the Raj (1976), has arranged their oral testimony into a composite portrait of the colonial ruler's lot. The lure, for most, was ""an intelligent man's outdoor life."" But there were otherwise as many variables as constants--in space and time. The pioneer, pre-World War I generation, their juniors recall, included lots of eccentrics: ""It was more important to be a character than to be conventional."" Extremes of behavior were fostered, too, by extreme living and working conditions. During the inter-war years, the recruits were public school and Oxbridge grads, many with family traditions of colonial service; these were the years of protocol and status, of obligatory pith helmets and five-grams-of-quinine-per-day (served to visitors with the pink gin); of a constant press of decisions and the lift of touring the district--""stepping out before dawn at the head of my line, with one policeman in front of me and a government messenger behind me and the Emir's representatives behind him, all in single line with a string of carriers. . . . The carriers were piping and neither then nor now would I be ashamed of the real romance, the Sanders of the River touch."" There's talk, as well, of the dual mandate, of governing with ""the existing native structures""; and some reflect on the difficulty, even the cruelty, of applying British law. (""It's a terrible punishment,"" says one, to lock up people who've ""never been in a building before."") After World War II, a new, egalitarian breed of DOs appears; planes ferry offspring from Britain on school holidays, the Land Rover opens up the bush; ""development"" makes the once-supreme DO the head of a District Team--but several decry the failure of colonial administrators to properly train their native successors. Overall, though, the focus is more social than political--a fascinating sojourn for adventurous souls who suspect they were born too late.

Pub Date: March 14th, 1980
Publisher: St. Martin's