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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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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