William Barlow is delighted by this veteran soldier’s memoir of cultural discovery
Life as a Curious Traveller
BY FREDDIE RAWDING MEMOIR CLUB, £22.50
‘Join the Army and see the world,” said General Hackett for whom, however, soldiering came first. This was not so with Freddie Rawding, the curious traveller and teller of these remarkable journeys over a period of 35 years, eight of them spent in Asia. What motivated him in becoming a regular officer in the Royal Army Education Corps was above all, he says, the excitement of travel and, secondly, the possibility of finding an opportunity abroad to learn languages and culture.
This very detailed account of service and travel, meticulously recorded and mostly made possible by the Army, shows he was true to his word and not disappointed.
Moreover, not only he, but many others benefited from it, his findings on Buddhism and account of the Indian Mutiny later being published by Cambridge University Press. There is a delightful account also of his encounters with those who had remained in India after independence.
His approach to service was not unsoldierly. He knew what being an officer was about and typified it, his firm Catholic faith giving to all he did the same vocational content as characterises the best soldiers. More than that, it enabled him to appreciate other cultures and religions openmindedly so that he never forgot that what mattered most was seeing other people as essentially human beings like himself.
In this respect too, he showed soldierly qualities. Not surprisingly, perhaps, since his grandfather and great-grandfather were both soldiers, one having been decorated for bravery in the Crimean War.
Beginning with National Service and including travel by troopship, both brilliantly and evocatively remembered, the record covers a time of great change in the Army and the world in which it was deployed. The author, determined to find out all he can about the places he serves in and record accurately and truthfully all he does, recognises also the need to understand it . So we are given reliable political backdrops to the Army’s involvement in countries like Korea, Malaya, Aden and Oman.
But the best way to learn about a country, says Rawding, is to travel alone and he often did. Every place he visits and the people he meets are looked at in depth. A country’s history is involved; we learn, for example, of the racial character of the Japanese, their xenophobia, and the role of religion in producing an ordered and disciplined society.
He is not afraid to make judgments, thinking the Japanese reaped in 1945 what they had sown. It also taught them a lesson beneficial to us all. His reflections, resulting from his Korean service, convinced him that the English have failed to become as democratic as the Americans, whom he admired. Elsewhere, he sees the positive effects of British rule as compared to other European colonial powers.
He was an inspired teacher and anyone teaching English as a foreign language can learn much from him. He believed in learning by doing, which suits soldiers. He was especially committed to the Gurkhas, visiting Nepal following service to establish a school. He never forgot a name and was never forgotten. He says he is not easy to get on with, so having cigarettes to pass around helped; but he comes across always as exceptionally well disposed to others.
In summing up, Rawding looks at immigration into Britain. He is calm, factual, realistic and has a certain objectivity. He is very fair to Enoch Powell, saying immigration has exceeded his expectations. Yet Powell had seen enough to say that “so great a catastrophe does not happen unless a whole people wills it upon itself. This is what we did.” There is a terrible finality about that which is missing in Rawding’s view. His treatment of the Koran, doubtless informed by uncommon experience and reading, will also be seen by some as inadequate. One does not have to wonder what Rawding thinks of recent disclosures about deliberate governmental deception over unchecked admission of immigrants to destroy our national identity. No soldier can stomach that one, and well he knows it, for his final paragraph tells how privileged he felt to have served with Tommy Atkins and Johnny Gurkha because both know what courage and loyalty are about, and can fight. Well said, and thank you, Freddie Rawding.