Most people have some memories of early childhood that remain vividly with them through life. Sometimes they are impossible to describe, being chiefly a quite indefinable feeling prompted by opening a particular book, or an atmosphere conjured by hearing a certain piece of music. Others are more easily converted into words: the details of a flower found in a lawn, the pattern on a hall floor, the smell of a great-aunt’s sitting-room.
As I find such things come more readily to mind now that I’m several decades away from them, I imagine that a similar time lapse might partly explain the extraordinary freshness of The Flame Trees of Thika, which Elspeth Huxley wrote in the 1950s about her life in Kenya in 1913–14. That is only a partial explanation, of course: the author also happens to have a gift for conveying the experiences of a curious child. She can recreate her younger self’s intense interest in details that pass others by: her minute observations of and passionate attachments to creatures of various kinds; her acceptance of circumstances that only age and experience judge bizarre or eccentric. And she is a talented story-teller. With a light touch and expert comic timing, she not only recreates a time and a place but also subtly develops the story of the adults closest to her, so that the end of her pre-war life at Thika brings a conclusion of another sort as well.
Elspeth Huxley’s parents belonged to that class of people who saw in East Africa an opportunity to do better than they had managed elsewhere. Her gentle, optimistic father ‒ known as Robin in the book though his real name was Josceline Grant ‒ had ‘unfortunately’ been left some money when young and had made a habit of going into partnership with men who were full of good ideas but short on capital: ‘By a series of extraordinary mischances, something invariably went wrong, and it was always Robin’s little bit of cash that vanished, together with the partner.’ After the final ‘mischance’, known amongst them as ‘The Crash’, the family arrived in Nairobi in search not only of sunshine, sport and independence but also ‘the rebuilding of lost fortunes’.
What they found were 500 acres of grass and bush, sold to Robin as the ‘best coffee land in the country’ on a 99-year lease by Roger Stilbeck, a splendid rogue wearing an Old Etonian tie and a perfectly cut suit. Notwithstanding Robin’s vision of a stone house approached by an avenue and surrounded by orchards and plantations, they remained for fifteen years in the thatched hut that had been built immediately they arrived as a temporary measure. On the beaten earth floor and against the reed-lined walls their few salvaged possessions looked incongruous in the extreme: an elegant French bureau, ‘a fat-bellied commode’ and some fine china coffee cups that, unsurprisingly, ‘dwindled rapidly in number’.
The contrasts between the values of the white incomers and those of the local people were baffling to many on either side of the cultural chasm and rich with comic possibility, which Huxley exploits with affectionate wit. The 6-year-old Elspeth, on the other hand, was almost as much a stranger to British social conventions as to those of the Kikuyu, and approached every encounter with an equal measure of interest. Her preferences, however, are clear: given the choice, she would far rather look for buffalo in the forest with a member of the elusive Dorobo tribe, for example, than conform to the bourgeois formalities of life in the house of her prim Scottish neighbour, Mrs Nimmo.
Mrs Nimmo and the Dorobo tribesman – who, incidentally, inhabited such utterly different worlds that little Elspeth was perhaps the only thing they had in common – are only two in a cavalcade of characters that dances through the book. Whether native farm workers or British Army officers, whether major players in the story or only briefly mentioned, they all leap from the page in the brilliant spotlight of Huxley’s prose. Here, for example, is the manservant Ahmed:
a tall, thin, proud Somali who wore a shawl of bright tomato-red wound loosely round his head, and who appeared to disdain all that he saw. To him, no doubt, we were fat, effete, root-bound heathen southerners who consorted with dogs and ate pork; only loyalty, the virtue next to courage, obliged him to come amongst us, like an eagle in a parrot cage.
Elspeth, being so young, has no preconceptions, merely an infectious curiosity about everything and everyone she encounters. She notices that when a neighbour laughs, ‘his teeth behaved as if they led a separate life and were saying something on their own’; the cook’s ghoulish (and untrue) warnings about the Kikuyu people only make her regard them ‘with a new interest’; and she loves the ‘hot, jungly smell, as thick as treacle,’ of a tent in daytime. She has particularly enjoyable encounters with lizards, the ‘nicest’ visitors in the house, with Twinkle, her pet duiker (a small antelope), and Moyale, a pony given to her as a present. Even-handedly she also describes the habits of red ticks and jiggers, the latter a sand flea that lays its eggs under one’s toenails. ‘It was the female who caused all the trouble,’ she observes. ‘Male jiggas [sic] either leapt about at large, or displayed the masculine habit of clustering together, in this case round the eyes or ears of dogs and chickens, evidently the clubs, lodges and messes of the jigga world.’
Elspeth was fortunate in her parents. Her father seems to have had a sunny disposition and her mother was evidently a woman of immense character, resourceful, positive and practical. They also appear to have shared a well-developed sense of humour: perhaps that was what kept them together through numerous turns of fate. Elspeth’s mother ‘Tilly’, as she is called in the book – in fact Nellie Grosvenor, daughter of an impecunious branch of that family – deals calmly with most things that life in Africa throws at her, including murderous fights between servants, an absence of amenities of any sort at her new home and an extremely limited social circle. En route to their land for the first time through ‘roadless country’, Robin wonders how the carts bearing their belongings will reach their property, since there are no bridges. ‘“Then we must get some built,” Tilly replied. She never dwelt for long on difficulties.’
The reader senses that Elspeth developed a similar cheery resilience early in life. Her experiences in Kenya included adventures with pythons, the loss of Twinkle and parting from her beloved Moyale, not to mention deaths, diseases, an unaccompanied overnight train journey and seeing her father go off in search of his old regiment at the outbreak of the First World War. Perhaps the most arresting moment in her story comes when she hears of the death of a friend of her mother’s, with whom she has recently stayed. Realizing that this death was the culmination of a sequence of events begun by her meeting the Dorobo, she resolves to put her faith in ‘the deepest magic of the Kikuyu’ to protect herself from the terrifying thought that ‘some force beyond all comprehension moved one about like a counter on a board’.
Throughout The Flame Trees of Thika runs the thread of another tale, that of the Palmers who come to live nearby. The delectable Lettice and her cardboard cut-out military husband bring with them a hint of mystery, since their reasons for being in a place to which they seem so unsuited are unclear. Elspeth is deeply impressed by Lettice, whose ‘skin was so thin that you could see the veins under it, like a leaf in spring’, and hypnotized by her friend Ian Crawfurd, whose face ‘drew your eyes because its expression was always changing, like cloud-shadows on mountains, and because the bones were so beautifully formed’. Lettice’s husband, Captain Palmer, meanwhile, provides an entertaining foil for Elspeth’s family: a fair, handsome man with a ‘vigorous moustache’ who ‘stood as stiffly upright as one of the posts, surveying the scene with an air of male superiority and contempt for women’s prattling, combined with a touch of pasha-like complacency’.
What became of the Palmers ultimately Huxley does not relate. But the Captain’s inflexible, uncomprehending approach to employing ‘natives’, besides being a source of amusement, only serves to highlight the Grants’ generous, tolerant and humane regime, at a time when white people assumed the right to appropriate land in Africa and employ its occupants for their own purposes. Those who like to make political judgements about books with the benefit of hindsight may find this book wanting – but the rest of us can enjoy it for its charm, sympathy, spirit and wit, and for the glimpse it provides of an extraordinary fragment of history.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Annabel Walker 2012
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 18: Elspeth Huxley, The Flame Trees of Thika