Two Poems by Edward Joseph Lister Lowbury

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of around 50 or 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting one each Wednesday to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

It is hard to understand it now, but in 1938 five-year plans had a certain cachet, thanks to the prestige of the Soviet Union. Even the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures had one, according to the preface to a volume of anthropological papers published that year. Of course it was a success, as all five-year plans must be:

The Five Year Plan of the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures has given an immense impetus to the study of culture change in modern times…

My copy of this admittedly obscure work once belonged to Edward Joseph Lister Lowbury (1913 – 2007). Lowbury, whose father was a doctor, was named after the great surgeon, and his own work as a bacteriologist was in the control of hospital infection, an example of life imitating a name rather than art. Early in his career, though, he was a pathologist in East Africa, hence his possession of this book.

Lowbury was an extremely cultivated man, an accomplished pianist and a poet who won the Newdigate Prize for poetry at Oxford, as did Matthew Arnold and Oscar Wilde. On the inside cover of his copy of Methods of Study of Culture Contact in Africa are two sonnets in his own hand, written at Moshi in Tanganyika in October 1945, and not included in his published works. One is called From the Train to Moshi and the other Road to Kibo. (As it happens, I have been to Moshi.)

There is nothing specifically medical in the two poems. The second half of the first expresses revulsion against the colonial life in Africa, comparing the whites unfavourably with the Masai:

For laughter these are best
Value, as also for lolling at their ease,
The Masai! And again, who is so impressed,
So smiling even when shouted at as these
Whom nothing will persuade man is unblest
And sex is wicked – especially witnesses
Of the white man at his worst, drunken, depressed,
Stealing their women, catching their disease?

This is dated 30 October, 1945; the second poem (written in a surprisingly clear hand) the following day. Here Lowbury extols the children whom he sees:

The children line the road, click heels, salute,
And have the last word in every greeting.
Their eyes are deep, expressive, never mute;
They meet yours roundly, never flinch at meeting…
Their charm is so great that even their vices are forgiveable:
What matter if they lie and laze and steal?
When chances offer? – That’s reflected too.
You’ll soon forgive them when you see how real,
Under the lying and the ballyhoo,
Are the fine nerves, the touch fit like a glove
By the light fingers of the God of Love.

Either Lowbury – who wrote the poems with only a few crossings out, for he was famed for his fluency – forgot these sonnets, or did not think them good enough to be published. No doubt they resort to stereotypes, but which of us never does so, indeed goes a day without doing so?

Under the lying and the ballyhoo,
Are the fine nerves…

The feeling of the young pathologist is real enough, unmistakable I should say, and my experience of the Tanganyikans was like his. They were the best-mannered people I have ever met.

One thought on “Two Poems by Edward Joseph Lister Lowbury

  1. Pingback: Postcard from Moshi | A dose of Theodore Dalrymple

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