One of the great strengths of Helion is a willingness to publish books like this one. There is no combat or violence and the book ambles along at gentle stroll to more or less match the pace of a Caribbean life in our starry perceptions of the place.
The teenaged Tom Stevens left the industrial grey of south Wales for an army career and after a few ups and downs found himself on a slow boat to Jamaica with the Royal Welch Fusiliers. His story is infused with a mass of detail of life in post-war Britain when the gloss of empire had been well and truly rubbed off. It was a time when rationing was largely coming to an end after the privations of the post WW2 victory without spoils were set aside.
He is strong in asserting his Welshness and I wonder if this is not untypical of people who have lived a long time away from the country of their birth, especially in Australia, about as far away as he could get from the places of his youth. He has strong feelings about the end of empire and how the world had changed as he grew up after the war, highlighting how the old order of things was being swept away as the 1950s became a decade of optimism for a new era for British society with greater equality and more opportunities for the working man.He describes his time in Jamaica as being part of an army of occupation garrisoning the island at a time when the sun was setting on the British empire and moves to independence were beginning to take shape.
The book takes us through his three years in the garrison, which included the terrors of a disastrous hurricane, secondments to Belize (British Honduras as was) and to British Guiana where the Progressive People’s Party set alarm bells ringing with pro-communist ambitions in 1953 causing the London government to take action. Fears of a pro-Moscow coup came at a time when events in Korea and elsewhere had kick started the Cold War. The author makes a brief reference to the Falklands War of 1982 to compare events and closes the lid on empire.
We see him guarding Churchill as he held a summit with Eisenhower and the French premier and this fits in as a handy footnote to my recent review of Embers of War, where the three came together to find a way to sort the mess of French colonial rule in Vietnam. Tom Stevens is fairly typical in his view of Churchill with admiration on the one hand for his wartime leadership, but with sharp feelings about his uncompromising imperialism and his role in breaking Welsh miners’ strikes decades earlier.
Much of the book is taken up with barrack life with the perennial soldierly need for bars and brothels. He gives us a lot of detail of his love life with a cluster of local ladies, relationships he appears to cherish for all the right reasons. We read about nightlife in Kingston and elsewhere, calypso music, Red Stripe beer and rum. It all seems quite acceptable.
There is no escaping the fact that time in the colonial Jamaica of times long since past must have been immensely colourful for the likes of Tom Stevens. His ability to recall so much detail and share aspects of his life-awakening experience is positively endearing. It is sad to report that he became blind some years ago and perhaps it is his vivid memory that makes the book so colourful – like a pastel drawing of a favourite beach view.
This is a quick read and it won’t challenge you too much. It is as nostalgic as any recollection of a past life would be. But, the book isn’t schmaltzy or sentimental in a way that would drive me nuts and I appreciate the author’s candour and outlook. So, well done to the good people at Helion. Other books can be immersed in guts and glory. This one is awash in rum and Coke. We can have no complaints on that score.
Reviewed by Mark Barnes for War History Online.
A WELCH CALYPSO
A Soldier of the Royal Welch Fusiliers in the West Indies, 1951-54
By Tom Stevens
Edited and introduced by Peter Stanley
ISBN: 978 1 909982 67 3