John Sandilands



Date published: 1970
Publisher: Observer Magazine

John was also a brilliant travel writer as this piece on Fiji, written over 40 years ago, shows.

Queen Victoria bought the Fiji Islands from their native chieftain for a trifling sum in 1874 and she could scarcely have added a nicer trinket to her splendid collection of mountains and deserts, lakes and rivers, palm and pine. Today, with the old monarch’s attic practically empty and the remnants going cheap down the Portobello Road, Fiji remains almost intact as a marvellous heirloom for anyone who still sees the Union Jack as more than a motif on a carrier bag.

Out there, aided by the trade winds, surely a British invention, it waves with slightly embarrassing bravura, standing stiffly away from the flagpole above the Governor’s Residence against a background of tall coconut trees with heads suitably bowed. Below, at the wrought-iron gates, stands a stalwart of the Native Guard, blood-red tunic straining across brawny chest, trusty Lee-Enfield at the slope, eyes front, dreaming of a place in the Coronation contingent or taking on the Queen’s enemies anywhere in the world, assuming she can afford to send him there.

The Fiji Regiment in their distinctive white skirts, fearsomely saw-toothed at the hem, are clearly still quite capable of thrashing filthy foreigners wherever they may be found, martially invincible, especially behind the brass band of the Fiji police under their British conductor in his razor-sharp khaki drill.

Walk through Suva, the capital, down Disraeli Road and Gladstone Road or along Victoria Parade past fine colonial buildings like the Grand Pacific Hotel, beloved inevitably of Somerset Maugham, and you start to look for gunboats with steam up among the piers of Princes Landing. There is cricket in Albert Park and rugby posts everywhere, for the Fijian adores that noble code, and with his superb physique can scarcely fail to excel.

The dream of Empah that comes upon you in Fiji, needless to say, is not quite as uncomplicated as all that. At the the other end of Viti Levu, the main island of the group, on which Suva stands, is Nadi, Fiji’s international airport. The big jets of Qantas and BOAC growl in and out daily on their way round the world and sinister influences are at work to turn Fiji into another Hawaii, that plastic paradise further along the route.

There is a school of tourism in Honolulu to which all the Pacific Islands awakening to this new form of conquest faithfully send their acolytes, and there is a resultant rash of conventional tourist bait which suggests that Fiji, too, acquired its geography, history and ancient traditions principally to make up a neat two-week tourist package.

“When you’ve gotten your bearings in Nadi Town head out to native bures (thatched huts) or travel by buremobile (a land cruiser built like a village hut)” says a typical effusion. “A five-day excursion to Nabutauntau, in the island’s dense interior, brings you face to face with the now-friendly cannibals who killed and ate their last missionary at the turn of the century! Don’t miss the Friday fun-nites at Viscisei village or Nausori where the whole tribe greets you to pose for photos!”  There is fire-walking and spear dancing, wardrum thumping and waterskiing, big-game fishing, snorkelling and native feasting, the whole modern mishmash of Ourts and Theirs that threatens to turn Bligh’s South Pacific into one big Butlin’s.

And yet, somehow, Fiji rises beautifully above its brochures, buremobiles, go-go mini-mokes and coconutshell cocktails. Somehow the immense dignity of having been bought by Queen Victoria reduces the hysteria of Honolulu tourism to no more than an occasional outbreak of indifferent taste, like an ill-suppressed burp at a vicarage tea-party. Somehow, the mountains and the palm forests, the villages – even Viseisei on fun-nite –the silver coral beaches, the thundering surf out on the reef at Korolevu, swallow the attempt to turn them into the multicoloured sundaes of the brochure photographs.

It will take 50 years longer than anywhere else on earth to spoil Fiji in all its 300 islands , and even then there will be the Fijians themselves, surely the most impeccably splendid natives of that huge troupe that Victoria acquired. In a world which rampant tourism has made increasingly grasping and grumpy, something – the Union Jack, the police band, rugby maybe – has preserved a race with a gift for making the traveller feel other than a painfully necessary inoculation virus stuffed into the bloodstream of the local economy.

After only a few hours in Fiji, you become aware of a benevolent presence, of ready smiles and small courtesies, of chuckles hiding reservoirs of mirth, an overall ambience of casual comradeship that you would never meet in northern climes except perhaps in a lunatic asylum. I would like to see Fijians take over the duties ofg New York taxi drivers, Australian customs officials, Spanish policemen, English traffic wardens, and in every other sector where warmth and friendliness, humour, good will and even physical beauty seem dangerously to have receded.

Where else but in Fiji would a hotel porter shake you warmly by the hand, inquire your first name and then tell you his, then throw an arm around your shoulder? In any other land you would sniff the fellow’s breath or send directly for the manager, but in Fiji even the suspicion that he is feeling for the size of your wallet barely crosses your mind. Fijians seem simply not to care about tips and other such vulgarities.

In these Arcadian circumstances it comes as no surprise to discover that the native population are a diminishing group already outnumbered by the Indian immigrants. These Indians, hardworking and businesslike, treat the idle, easy-going natives with the exact disdain learned under the British Raj from Victoria’s day. For a sense of continuity, you can scarcely beat the Fiji isles.

Observer Magazine, 15 Feb 1970


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List of John Sandilands articles

John Sandilands

John Sandilands Articles

  1. Obituary, March 2004 >>
  2. Introduction to Articles >>
  3. Article2 >>
  4. When the cure is sun, sea and mud >>
  5. Interview with Ava Gardner >>
  6. Interview with Dustin Hoffman, Los Angeles Times, 1968 >>
  7. Fiji >>
  8. Patrick Moore >>
  9. Mr Pastry >>
  10. Interview with Jane Fonda >>
  11. letters to and from John to editors >>
  12. Ballooning >>
  13. The Toad Cross Code >>
  14. Peter Sellers; that is the problem >>
  15. In bed with John Sandilands plus Jilly Cooper, Zandra Rhodes and Peter Cook >>
  16. Know the Type >>
  17. Animal poems >>
  18. The Toad Cross Code >>
  19. Albert and the Jaguars >>
  20. Herogram >>