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: