Out of Luck

An Element of Luck: To South Arabia and Beyond,
by Michael Crouch. New York: Radcliffe Press (St. Martin's Press), 1993.
270 pages, map, appendix, index. $39.50 (Cloth). ISBN 1-85043-739-4.

Reviewed by Thomas B. Stevenson

Yemen Update 36(1995):32-33

In the forward to this series of firsthand colonial era accounts, editor A.H.M. Kirk-Greene notes it was not fashionable to discuss the British colonial experience immediately after its collapse. Recent popular films, television dramas, and books, he suggests, indicate there is now a strong interest in Britain and her former colonies in understanding the colonial encounter Out of this renewed interest in the empire has emerged the "colonial memoir," a genre built around the private papers and recollections of members of the Colonial Service that until now were relegated to stories for grandchildren.

Michael Crouch's account fits this description well. The memoir style allows him to focus on those events he chooses and insulates him from criticism for those he does not discuss. Crouch is neither apologist nor critic of British policy; he does not question the colonial system. This memoir describes his early life and his career in the last days of the empire

Like many of his peers, Crouch was British only by passport; his nationality was "British expatriate." Until1966 when he sailed from Aden, and the Colonial Office closed, Crouch was a dependent of the colonial system. He was born and raised in Kenya, Sudan, and Egypt where his father was a colonial service physician He spent only his college years in England, then reentered the colonial system as a player. Once selected for a colonial appointment he spent a year in training at Oxford, which included a modest language course. Crouch recalls much of the instruction, especially classical Arabic, as inappropriate to his assignment as an assistant adviser with no policy responsibility.

The colonial service was a web of interconnections Both Crouch and his father married the daughters of colonial service officers. When he was faced with the withdrawal from South Arabia, it was not England that beckoned, but places built by the empire - South Africa and Australia. By the time he reached his post in Mukalla the empire was in its waning days. He spent nine years in the Aden colonial service. His discussion tends heavily toward those incidents in which he played a major role. In recounting them he focuses on his actions and those of his associates, almost exclusively colonial service and military personnel Many antics, foibles, and defects of the latter are thoroughly drawn.

Since memoirs are selective, what can readers interested in Yemen glean from this volume? In some ways,this book offers very little. Crouch does not place his activity in context Readers unfamiliar with South Arabian history or the colonial structure will not be informed by this work. He notes but does not elaborate on the different ways the Eastern and Western Arabian Protectorates were administered. He spent almost all his career in the EAP, based principally in Mukalla. However, we learn little about the place.

Yemenis have virtually no role in this account and certainly no identity. This includes those Yemenis who opposed the British and those whose loyalty was in the end their undoing For example, the local partisan legions are referred to only by their initials. We learn nothing about local leaders, their relations to the colonial government, or their relations with other Yemeni This does not mean Crouch did not have contact with local figures He reports that he did, and that his Arabic fluency increased, and he includes a photo of himself in a futah. He mourns those Yemeni friends and acquaintances killed during the push for independence, but he does not elaborate on his relationships with them

Crouch assumes his readers, many of whom maybe former colleagues, are less interested in place than references to people they knew. He focuses on the out of the ordinary, dramatic,and amusing - the components that make a good story. As a result we are not given much sense of Crouch's job or daily life in Arabia. Occasional references to development work, such as road and health projects, or dealing with oil companies suggest there was more to the colonial officer's life than paper shuffling. The reader is led to believe, probably correctly, that the life of a colonial officer was lonely - indeed the isolation may have led to breakdowns among some officers - and dull, punctuated by moments of great and sometimes terrifying activity.

Apart from the focus on increasing danger,Crouch often seems little affected by events. But his depiction belies the truth. The collapse of the colonial system and its eventual replacement by an independent state were difficult enough for Crouch that he, and other ex-colonials, returned to united Yemen to lay to rest the ghosts of their past. This suggests a deeper,emotional involvement in South Arabia and the empire than he is willing to reveal.

When I picked up this book at the conclusion of another Yemeni war, I was hoping for some insight into the creation of South Yemen and its bearing on the present. No clues are found in this book, and it was probably unfair to expect them. While I find little to commend about this reminiscence, those researchers seeking to flesh out moments in the colonial era may find useful points on incidents and personalities in this work.

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