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  Book review

Roads to Nowhere: A South Arabian Odyssey

Roads to Nowhere: A South Arabian Odyssey, 1960-65 by John Harding. Arabian Publishing Ltd, 2009. Pp. xxiii + 311. Illus. Bibliog. Index. Hb. 30. ISBN: 978-0-955894-2-4. 

In a short appendix to Without Glory in Arabia - The British Retreat from Aden (2006), John Harding contributed a note entitled 'Mukalla 1960 - Matters colonial, consular and curious'. This compelling foretaste of his writing left us hoping for a full account of his time in South Arabia. He has now obliged with Roads to Nowhere. The book offers a frank and illuminating picture of living and working in a succession of different posts during his five years in the territory. Having served not only in the Eastern and Western Protectorates but also in Aden Colony, his account, tinged with humour and some pathos, covers a wide field of experience. Harding is an eloquent and entertaining raconteur, and expresses with considerable feeling the frustrations and disappointments which he suffered as a young political officer keen to give of his best in increasingly adverse circumstances. 

Interwoven with his personal odyssey are the major political events defining the twilight of British rule in South Arabia, and the difficulties which these posed for colonial officials. Although critical of some colleagues and superiors, he praises the dedication and spirit of service which motivated most of them but which was insufficiently appreciated by the politicians in London. 

After National Service and Cambridge, and one or two false starts in other careers, John Harding followed the advice of the Cambridge University Appointments Board and joined HM Overseas Civil Service in 1959. Before sailing for Aden, Harding was introduced to several legendary characters who had spent a lifetime in Arabia. Many of his future colleagues had also served in Africa and fought in the Second World War. His generous description of their personalities and achievements (which to a new boy must have seemed quite daunting) is a warm tribute to a generation which saw the end of empire. Those of us who served in South Arabia will appreciate the mention of many familiar names - not only of British expatriates but also of local and other nationals who contributed to make Aden a thriving and prosperous colony, and who sought to bring stability to the hinterland. There were notable political officers like Shaikh Muhammad alKharusi, with whom John Harding had a difficult relationship, who had spent much of his life in government service away from home in Zanzibar. In retirement he was left destitute by the revolution there until he and his family eventually found refuge in Oman (where this reviewer met him). Harding mentions other colleagues who were less fortunate. Saif Ahmad alDhala'i, regarded by his British employers as a promising young civil servant, kept his National Liberation Front (NLF) affiliations carefully hidden until he emerged at Geneva in late 1967 to negotiate terms of independence for the future People's Republic of South Yemen (renamed People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1970). He was to serve as Foreign Minister of the fledgling republic until an internal NLF power struggle 52 resulted in his removal and eventual execution. A similar fate awaited other former colleagues (who remained loyal to the British) like Abdullah bin Ashur al-Mahri, Sayyid Hussain bin Abdullah al-Wazir, and many who had served in the army and police. 

The reader is given an entertaining account of what it was like to be a young colonial 'maid-of-all-work'. Initially, Harding's main business in the British Residency, Mukalla, was the issue of passports and visas, assisted by Noah Johannes, his Ethiopian passport clerk. To this were later added various dogsbody jobs which included acting as quartermaster, housing manager and purchasing agent for Residency memsahibs. Another more stimulating task was to run an annual Military and Administrative course for members of the local armed forces, a job for which he felt well qualified having spent his national service trainingWelsh Guardsmen. Harding traces the origin of this course to Curzon's plan to establish a school in Aden for the sons of hinterland chiefs. This was eventually set up by Ingrams in the 1930s (in Jebel Hadid), but the author confuses it with Aden College which was not established until 1952 (in Sheikh Othman). Fortunately Harding went on to manage many other projects, taking on ever increasing levels of responsibility as his odyssey proceeded. 

The black and white photographs were nearly all taken by the author and are arranged in two groups. The first reflects the relative peace and tranquillity prevailing in the Eastern Aden Protectorate and Mukalla, the territory's commercial and administrative hub; while the second, by way of contrast, depicts mainly military operations in the Western Aden Protectorate. A minor blemish is that the photographs are listed as being 'between pp. 216 and 217' when in fact they are to be found between pp. 192 and 193. That apart, the publishers have done the author proud and have produced a very fine book. 

John Harding's last posting before his final departure in 1965 was as political officer in Radfan. Not wanting to leave the reader in limbo, he concludes his odyssey with a short 'envoi'. Here he describes the final years of British rule and humiliating withdrawal in 1967. He makes the point that this was not the last time Britain would become involved in an Arabian misadventure, citing the invasion of Iraq which led to another inglorious retreat in 2009.

Julian Paxton