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Anthony Gardner on Nicholas Best, Daniel Macklin

A Term at Haggard Hall

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Over the years I have been sent many proof copies of books, but very few that I have bothered to keep. They are, in general, unattractive creatures, with their misprints and vainglorious boasts of future bestsellerdom. But in a corner of an attic shelf I have half a dozen which seem too interesting to throw away, and chief among them is Nicholas Best’s Tennis and the Masai. The mere sight of its dog-eared, pale green cover – embellished only by the Hutchinson logo, with its curious resemblance to a buffalo’s skull – is enough to lift my spirits.

Published in 1986, this story of a Kenyan prep school is very much in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh – but where so many writers have offered poor imitations, Best shows a lightness of touch and zest for invention that mark him as a master of comedy in his own right.

He is quick to acknowledge his debt: one of the book’s epigraphs is from Waugh’s Remote People, and Black Mischief is mentioned on the second page. The opening scene is a reworking of that of Decline and Fall, with two figures in authority commenting on the wild behaviour of a group of revellers – but there is a twist. The pair taking tea at the Mombasa Club are not old colonials but Mr District Commander Karanja and Mr bin Seyd, the superintendent of police; the naked bacchants are German holidaymakers frolicking on the beach.

‘A pastoral people in their way,’ observed Karanja. ‘One can’t expect them to change overnight. They’re tourists, after all . . . There are times, you know, when I envy them their simplicity.’

The conversation turns to Karanja’s family. His younger boy is at Haggard Hall, ‘an exclusive establishment to which all the aristocratic settlers sent their sons’. In a skilful, filmic transition, Karanja’s attention is caught by the chuntering of the night train to Nairobi:

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Over the years I have been sent many proof copies of books, but very few that I have bothered to keep. They are, in general, unattractive creatures, with their misprints and vainglorious boasts of future bestsellerdom. But in a corner of an attic shelf I have half a dozen which seem too interesting to throw away, and chief among them is Nicholas Best’s Tennis and the Masai. The mere sight of its dog-eared, pale green cover – embellished only by the Hutchinson logo, with its curious resemblance to a buffalo’s skull – is enough to lift my spirits.

Published in 1986, this story of a Kenyan prep school is very much in the tradition of Evelyn Waugh – but where so many writers have offered poor imitations, Best shows a lightness of touch and zest for invention that mark him as a master of comedy in his own right. He is quick to acknowledge his debt: one of the book’s epigraphs is from Waugh’s Remote People, and Black Mischief is mentioned on the second page. The opening scene is a reworking of that of Decline and Fall, with two figures in authority commenting on the wild behaviour of a group of revellers – but there is a twist. The pair taking tea at the Mombasa Club are not old colonials but Mr District Commander Karanja and Mr bin Seyd, the superintendent of police; the naked bacchants are German holidaymakers frolicking on the beach.

‘A pastoral people in their way,’ observed Karanja. ‘One can’t expect them to change overnight. They’re tourists, after all . . . There are times, you know, when I envy them their simplicity.’

The conversation turns to Karanja’s family. His younger boy is at Haggard Hall, ‘an exclusive establishment to which all the aristocratic settlers sent their sons’. In a skilful, filmic transition, Karanja’s attention is caught by the chuntering of the night train to Nairobi:

Towards the same time tomorrow – assuming no elephants on the line, locusts in the engine, floods, bush fires or even shauri ya Mungu, the will of God – the train would be approaching Naivasha, six thousand feet up in what had once been the White Highlands; and Stephen Karanja would hear it in the distance, as his father heard it now.

Haggard Hall is a baronial mansion built by an ill-fated member of the Happy Valley set (the subject of Best’s first, non-fiction book) within sight of Mount Longonot, the extinct volcano which partly inspired Rider Haggard’s She. The addition of barbed-wire fences and watchtowers during the Mau Mau uprising has given the school the appearance of an upmarket concentration camp. Presiding over it is Desmond Gale, a former soldier and professional gambler who – after one narrow squeak too many – has opted for a life of relative respectability. The other members of the academic staff are Eugene Nodleman, a would-be anthropologist whose credulity is endlessly exploited by the local tribesmen, and the Padre, who has long forgotten his reasons for taking holy orders and devotes himself to breeding carrier pigeons. What the school lacks is a maths teacher. Desmond likes the idea of a military man; the nearest he can find is Martin Riddle, a recent graduate hoping to make a career in the Royal Army Educational Corps. Turned down by Sandhurst, Martin has been advised to reapply in nine months and ‘get his knees brown’ in the meantime. Martin is as wet behind the ears as they come. Brought up in suburban Purley Way, his only trip abroad has been to France; his mother still packs his suitcase and buys his underwear. His status as a tenderfoot is symbolized by the bush hat with a fake leopard-skin ribbon that she foists upon him – but no sooner has he stepped off the train at Naivasha than his passage to manhood begins. His first task is to join the hunt for Smith-Baggot, a 12-year-old serial runner-away trying to make his way home across the 13,000-foot Aberdare Mountains. His second is to oversee the school’s Guy Fawkes celebrations, during which he accidentally inspires a Somali groundsman – frustrated by his wife’s puritanical attitude to sex – to take revenge on the neighbouring Catholic mission. Other notable events during Martin’s tenure include a run-in with a hungry leopard and a cricket match at which the Padre’s pigeons come into their own. Some of these ingredients, the notes on the back cover tell me, derive from Nicholas Best’s own experience as a pupil at a Kenyan school during the 1950s. His tale is updated to the 1980s, with Martin’s soldierly instincts stirred by the Falklands crisis – but while the political map of Africa has been redrawn, attitudes remain largely unchanged. The spirit of the colonial past is embodied by Lady Bullivant, a daughter of the Raj who teaches riding at the school and thinks nothing of castrating a stallion before breakfast:

It was said of her, and no one doubted it, that when Mau Mau terrorists had rustled cattle from her farm, she had personally tracked down the culprits at the head of a Masai war party and supervised their annihilation. She was one of those settlers who never locked a door during the Emergency, so terrified were the natives of what she might do to them.

Clearly none of the staff is better qualified to lead the hunt for a troublesome leopard. When it kills and partially devours the groundsman’s son, Lady Bullivant pooh-poohs the idea of burial and insists that the remains must be dosed with strychnine and left out to tempt the returning predator. Most of the book’s humour is in a lighter vein. There is a good running joke about a flamingo which Smith-Baggot first befriends and then eats, with unfortunate results; the headmaster – a keen fisherman – is later found using its feathers to make flies. It is the Padre’s pigeons, though, that give wings to the author’s imagination as he explores their emotions with gentle anthropomorphism. The pride of the loft, Siege of Paris, is ruthlessly prepared for a vital mission – carrying the score from a cricket match against a distant school – by introducing him to a seductive mate who is then snatched away. As the team sets off, a rival male is added to the equation:

The hen bird preened happily. Siege of Paris goggled through the bars and fought to escape. This perfidy of womankind was new to him . . .

‘That should do it,’ the Padre thought. He allowed Siege of Paris one last, despairing glance. The hen continued to flaunt herself. Siege of Paris struggled against the bars, imploring her to reconsider. His fellow inmates gave him their sympathy. A rumble of disapproval arose and showed no sign of abating as the Padre loaded them into the minibus.

As for the pupils of Haggard Hall, they carry on in the manner of schoolboys everywhere, with small local variations. When Fife- Nugent is given a hundred lines, it is to write ‘No tarantulas in class’; his classmate Nightshade is discovered with a pot of honey in his hand trying to lure a column of safari ants into the staff room. Best only occasionally pauses to describe the African bush, butwhen he does it is with a deft lyrical touch: ‘They drove along the lake road, through a herd of Thomson’s gazelle grazing illicitly at the edge of the papyrus. A fish eagle hung mutely in the warm air, behind it a pair of pelicans. The umbrella trees formed a broad swathe of yellow against the blue depths of the water.’ Like Laurel and Hardy before him, Best recognizes the comic mileage to be had from incompetence. Eugene Nodleman’s dealings with the Masai are a case in point: though he fantasizes about making headlines as an outsider welcomed into the tribe, he is actually no nearer than the average tourist to discovering their secrets. Meanwhile Martin, as the only person at the school who does not know how to drive, suffers the indignity of being chauffeured by one of his 12-year-old pupils. Unusually, though, Best recognizes the flipside of this: the enjoyment that derives from a show of competence, particularly by someone of whom it is not expected. Who could help but admire Smith-Baggot as he methodically prepares for his first escape attempt?

He was a resourceful boy, small for his age but determined. He had already gathered his equipment for the expedition – a compass, a waterproof torch, and a bush knife which he had used to cut the throat of a Thomson’s gazelle which had unwisely strayed across the school boundary at the bottom of the playing fields. The Tommy would provide all the food he needed for the trip. After hanging the carcass to drain the blood, he had sliced the flesh into long strips to dry in the sun.

It is Martin’s progress from ineptitude to competence, culminating in a triumphant return to the Army Commissions Board, that gives this delightful book its shape. It would be wrong to suggest that Tennis and the Masai is a challenger to Black Mischief as the best comic novel written about Africa, but it does offer an unflagging sense of fun, and something that Waugh in his cynicism was never eager to give his readers: a really satisfying ending.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 34 © Anthony Gardner 2012


About the contributor

Anthony Gardner has never been to Kenya, though he once slept in the world’s smallest tent in Botswana. Nor is he much good at tennis, though he loves it. He edits the Royal Society of Literature Review, and is the author of a novel, The Rivers of Heaven.

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