Tag Archives: Roger Cowell


‘1969: A Year in Tonga. Book 2: Volunteer: Survive or Thrive?’ is Roger Cowell’s second book. It resumes the story of his adventures in the Kingdom of Tonga, where he once served as a volunteer.



After being given only ten days to acclimatise, Roger begins his work as a teacher in a small primary school in the village of Houma. As he tries to share his knowledge with the children, he realizes that it’s not as simple as it initially appeared. So Roger learns…to teach, to understand the surrounding world, and to be an adult in a foreign culture. Despite his ups and downs, despite misunderstandings and the times of terrible loneliness, he gradually stops being a complete stranger and starts to fit into the close-knit community. He socializes with fellow volunteers, makes new friends, and creates a strong bond with his host family.


This book is quite different from its predecessor. The first volume is a pleasure to read. The beginning of Roger Cowell’s great adventure (this is what you can call a one-year-long sojourn in another country; especially if you are only 18 years old when it happens) fascinates and enthrals to such a degree that you simply don’t want to put the book down. And you think it gets even more interesting as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, it doesn’t.

To begin with, this volume – which can most kindly be described as mediocre – resembles a traditional journal. It is constructed from the author’s original diary entries and arranged chronologically, so in theory you are given a chance to ‘experience’ life in Tonga day by day and month by month. This would be absolutely wonderful if the narratives weren’t so…dull, brief, and sparse on details. Many of the ‘chapters’ end before they even start. Cowell’s cursoriness results in the stories being extremely sketchy. They appear to be only partially finished and therefore feel incomplete and undeveloped. What is more, quite a few of them recount the same – or almost the same – events and occurrences, thus making the memoir seem very repetitive and monotonous.

As for the Kingdom of Tonga, it is not an overly prominent subject. There are only few decent descriptions and virtually no information concerning the country’s culture, customs, or traditions. Of course, one does not have to write an anthropological analysis of an island society, nevertheless it would be nice to be able to ‘discover’ such faraway land and get to know it from a foreigner’s point of view. However, I shall say that Roger Cowell was a young man at the time of his service, so his lack of observational skills can be fully justified.

On a brighter note, the book doesn’t fail to deliver what a good historical memoir should. It gives you a unique glimpse of the past, bringing back memories and unraveling the secrets of an almost ancient world. This amazing journey is an adventure in itself. And, let me tell you, this is a journey oh-so worth setting out on.

As I don’t want to lie, I won’t say I recommend this book wholeheartedly. True, it serves as a literary time machine, and as such it provides a lot of enjoyment. But overall, it is disappointing. At least in my opinion. You may think otherwise. And this is why I’ll leave the judgement to you.


‘1969: A Year in Tonga. Book 1: Becoming a Volunteer’ is Roger Cowell’s first book dedicated to his one-year-long stay in the Kingdom of Tonga, where he served as a volunteer in the late 1960s.



Interested in other countries and cultures, 17-year-old Roger decides to apply for selection as a school-leaver teacher with New Zealand’s Volunteer Service Abroad. After getting through the interviews and completing the required training, he is prepared to leave his home and spend a year in a foreign land.

Equipped with basic instructions, one bag, and a cricket bat, Roger finally sets out on his adventure. He lands in Tonga, where he is introduced to his host family, and immediately begins the great journey of discovery. He gets to know the many wonders of the kingdom and the way of life of its inhabitants. But most of all, he gets ready to teach.


This is a good book, pure and simple. Roger Cowell definitely knows how to interest readers and grab their attention from the very first sentence. His memoir lets you travel back in time – in a split second you leave the digital world behind and find yourself in the late 1960s, where cell phones are non-existent, immediate deliveries unavailable, and instant communication not yet invented. He managed to revive the old days and, I must say, he did it amazingly well.

Of course, the book is not just a chronicle of the past. It is also the most interesting, the most informative account of one volunteer’s life, which should definitely be read by everyone who considers applying for the service. The author outlines the whole process: from filling in forms and questionnaires to attending interviews and courses to leaving New Zealand and reaching his final destination. You may think such delineations make the story mundane and dull. Well, they don’t. The chapters containing the descriptions are actually quite absorbing; almost as much as the ones documenting Cowell’s arrival and first days in Tonga.

The South Pacific kingdom… I wish I could say the country plays a central role in the story. Unfortunately, I can’t do that. The memoir does provide some insights into the daily life on the islands, but it is more a general overview than a thorough portrayal. The author focuses on his personal experiences, so if he mentions Tonga, it is always in relation to his engagements. Can this be considered a fault? Absolutely not. Roger Cowell was 18 years old at the time of his service; an innocent, young man with a naive eye, lacking in worldly wisdom. And yet, despite the circumstances, he tried to make discoveries and draw conclusions. His cursory observations give you a vague idea of what it means to live in a ‘tropical paradise’; especially if you come from a distant land. Cowell – like most visitors and travellers – had to deal with a certain set of feelings widely known as culture shock. He describes it at great length, helping readers understand this obscure phenomenon.

The book may not be exceptional in terms of literary expression, but it is a really good read. It’s an extremely enthralling, quite thought-provoking account that not only entertains but also teaches and inspires. I am sure you will enjoy it.