Monday, March 21, 2016

Poisoned Binding

Hints for the Preservation of Health in Tropical Africa

The advice offered by The Crown Agents for the Colonies in this 1945 guide is brisk, if sometimes a little austere:

"Alcohol in moderation is neither essential nor harmful, and it is wise to take no spirits before sundown."

"The cocktail-party prolonged till nine o'clock and later, improves neither the dinner nor the digestion...".

"Where conditions or inclination do not favour the playing of games, a walk round the station, the making of a public or private garden, planting trees, a tramp into the bush after guinea fowl or pigeon, will provide the necessary exercise."

"Comfort and personal idiosyncrasy are the only criterion; but a sun helmet or solah-topee should be used by all newcomers."

"In the absence of mosquito boots, two pairs of socks, turned up over the trouser leg, will afford considerable protection."

"Prickly Heat may be very troublesome. Fresh lime juice rubbed over the parts is useful."

"For those working in outstations, a Fitzsimmons’ snake bite outfit should be kept with other emergency articles.”
(An example of this kit offered for auction contained "a tin filled with all the original serums etc., a glass NASAL DOUCHE, and a Benzedrine INHALER, as well as Greenbury's SUTURE NEEDLES, and a box containing five glass WIDAL TUBES").

Sound maxims, no doubt, for many walks of life. But the reason I got the book, from a charity shop in Kirkby Stephen, Westmorland, a place whose climate is not exactly in the tropical range, was the sticker, clearly added as an afterthought by the publisher, on the top left of the front fixed endpaper. It must be amongst the most singular i have so far discovered in a book:

Here for ease of reading is a close-up:

“Whatever did happen to that young ass Carruthers out in the Nyassaland station?”
“Oh, didn’t you hear? Well, he was always studying those health hints issued by the interferin’ blighters in the Crown Agents.”
“Yes, he was a bit keen. Well, what of it? Didn’t it keep him fit?”
“Nothing of the sort. Some clever pen-pusher had the book stuffed with fly-spray, d’you see? And he would keep licking his fingers as he turned the pages…”.

Of course, by now, I'm assuming that any toxin has long since dissipated and it is perfectly safe

Mark Valentine


  1. The remarks about sola topees are interesting. Obviously people were more conservative in their outlook in Africa. Only a few months earlier George Orwell was celebrating the fact that the Chindits in Burma had abandoned them:

  2. My grandparents lived in the Natal Midlands from the 1920's until just after the war. According to my grandmother, anyone who bothered with survival guides to the tropics had no business leaving England. Family photographs contain all sorts of wide brimmed hats as well as topees, not for fear of sunstroke, but rather sunburn. They had the same sun in Dorset, as she put it, and it had the same effect on pale British skin all over the world. I don't know about other colonial outposts, but it would seem it was always cocktail hour in South Africa in those days. The vistas were lovely there and they only lost one beloved dog to a crocodile. Her biggest complaint was the lack of variety of new books shipped over from England and America at the bookshop in nearby Pietermaritzburg, Shuter & Shooter. One of her greatest joys was a trip to far away Cape Town where she would spend an entire day on Church Street buying crates of books to take back home. Her books that have remained in the family are full of bookseller labels from Juta's, Foyle's, and Stuttaford's.

    1. Thanks for these interesting replies and, particularly, Anon, for that vivid description of a colonial experience. I'm sure collectors of booksellers' labels would admire (and covet!) those you have.