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Charles Henry George Nida (1895-1985) was one of a vanished breed of men: a self-declared empire-builder – and proud of it. But not for him the titled ranks of the Heaven-Born. He earned his spurs as a box-wallah – a travelling salesman in India on the eve of the Great War. Always a great believer in trade as the way Britain must earn its living in the world, he was a chota sahib – “little man” – rubbing shoulders with the ordinary folk of India, treating them as equals and being treated likewise.
In 1914, at the outbreak of war, he volunteered for service with the Calcutta Motor-Cycle Machine-Gun Battery, a frankly bizarre unit which was disbanded on arrival in Belgium without seeing action. He then joined another unit of dare-devils mounted on new-fangled mechanical steeds – the Royal Flying Corp (RFC) – once again finishing his training too late to see action. After the Armistice in 1919, having been transferred into the newly-formed Royal Air Force (RAF) in 1918, it was his task to fly the unit’s aeroplanes home across the English Channel. He crash-landed the last one in a gusting side-wind – an accident which left him with one blocked nostril and an engagingly urbane drawl.
In the 1950s and 60s, when Britain dismantled its extensive Empire, he traded with the emergent nations, particularly Nigeria, as a journalist, publisher and advertising agent. Perhaps the crowning achievement of his career – it certainly made his fortune – was to produce for distribution in Nigeria 10,000 copies of a splendid four-colour edition of the Holy Q’uran. Hard to discern from its beautifully hand-calligraphed original, written in the strikingly bold script known as Maghribi (“Western”), it is a publication which has earned admiration from Arabists and Q’uranic scholars alike.
The world of Charles HG Nida has long since disappeared, but its legacy lives on. Here then is his story of life on the road in India at the start of the Great War, as he bequeathed it to me, his nephew.
Clark Nida, Whitby, 2007.