Tuesday, 20 September 2011

My father

I believe that in memoirs it is considered the done thing to provide a little background concerning one's ancestors, or at least those of them who left a name and address. My father - Maj Willoughby Radagast "Stranger" Adthy-Gates - was best known as the conqueror of Balubalubaland, having won it at a hard-fought game of "Whoops Mrs Prendergast" against the last hereditary chieftain of the Wugga-Wugga tribe, the Hon Zaidi Bunduki (Harrow, Cambridge and Wormwood Scrubs) in 1898.

The tribe's witch doctor, Njia Yakijani, objected to this praiseworthy development and challenged my father to a duel with magic. Realising that the Wugga-Wugga had never seen a Maxim gun before, my father withdrew his from his trouser pocket - he was a tall man, with an eccentric but accomodating tailor - and claimed it was his own magic wand.

Yakijani then shouted the traditional Wugga-Wugga challenge of "Wewe ni kwenda nyumbani kwa idadi ya magari ya wagonjwa", which my father swiftly rejoindered with a cry of "Tafadhali acha anuani yako ya juu ya mwili wako hivyo wanaweza kutuma juu ya kichwa yako!" before firing a warning burst between his ears.

He would go on to have me christened Njia Marmaduke Ethelred - after I was born, obviously - partly in honour of the man my father described admiringly in his own memoirs (Unpublished, Quetta, 1927) as "The first African I ever killed - plucky, but certainly not bullet-proof".

This feat - one of the last great moves in the well-known "Scramble for Africa" - was all the more remarkable for the fact that he was not supposed to be in Africa at all, being absent without leave from the Malay Constabulary at the time.
At the subsequent court of inquiry my father used his customary defence of "Didn't otterer dunnit, but did it anyway. Let hist'ry be m'judge." The court handed down a well-nuanced and closely-reasoned verdict of "Can't be helped, I suppose. Next!" That plea, and indeed that verdict, would go on to echo down his career and - later - my own on many occasions. As he himself put it "Sailin' close ter the wind is the best way ter meck progress when the wind changes. Any sailor'll tell you that." He was well-known for seizing an opportunity with both hands or indeed - after the incident with the crocodile - his one remaining hand.

I still have before me on the leather-topped desk as I write the smoking pipe which he later had fashioned from Bunduki's thigh-bone.

His live thigh-bone.


  1. I don't remember you at Harrow.
    I take a very dim view of bloggers hiding behind fanciful sobriquets.

  2. Dear Mr Scurra,
    One was never at Harrow. Hope you're not confusing me with the Bunduki fellow. I have drafted, and will shortly be posting, reminiscences of my own schooldays in (and occasional under) the Highlands of Scotland.
    Hope this helps.

  3. Occasionally, even. Blast these stiff fingers!

  4. Blast these stiff fingers!
    Well better them blasted than eaten by a crocodile, as my dear old Nan used to say, as we huddled round the wood burning stove during the power cuts of the seventies.

  5. I served with your father during the Baloochi Washerwoman Uprising in '36. Questions were raised about the presence of the Malay Constabulary again, but there was nairy a band of fighting men the length and breadth of the Empire as wasn't ready to face those damp saris. The Russians sent a platoon from Irkutsk, as I recall, equipped with the first cine camera in Quetta. Film was found among Lloyd-George's effects on his overdue demise, but in no fit state for public display, before or after.

    I'm proud to say that his use of what is now called "The Deakin Defence" was prompted by my father's own acquittal at the Simla Assizes in '25. "Native girl was sick. She'd've died anyway," as Pater used to say.

    A little more of the Gates Spirit would have seen off the Mau Mau in town this summer, eh what? Even spoke their lingo.