Unfettered era 1

2-2. MORE EARLY YEARS

An unfettered era


Snakes had been rare on the Limuru farm, but they were common at Karen, and it was advisable to carry a stick on one’s wanderings. Twice, while I was living there, I encountered a cobra, head raised, on the flagstoned path between the house and the orchard. I presume they were sunbathing and on each occasion we briefly inspected each other, as I clutched my stick, and then we both retreated. However, the farm hands would regularly kill all manner of snakes and bring them for our inspection. My most horrifying experience was when I went to the downstairs cloakroom, having been told to wash my face and hands before lunch. As I bent my head down to splash water from my cupped hands on to my face a reddish brown snake appeared inches away, having slithered up from the plug hole. I screamed and ran, and the house servant came and killed it. The sink outlet had no water trap, the pipe from the basin passing through the wall before emptying directly into an open drain that carried “clean” water to a deposit, from where it could be drawn for the garden. The snake must have entered the pipe thinking it made a good refuge and when the water came down, unable to turn round, it continued upwards. That same afternoon chicken netting was fitted to the lower ends of all the drain pipes and rain gutters around the house.

It was during this period that I learned traditional African skills, some of which have been useful at various times. For instance, whenever any of the farm labour wanted some string they would make it from their stock of dried sisal fibres. I watched as they cut a leaf from a sisal plant and beat it against a stone, holding the leaf by its thorny end. The beating caused the pulp to flay away from the long, internal fibres of the leaf and once most of the pulp was removed they would hang the battered remnant over the top of a wire fence to dry out, then comb off any remaining pulp. When they wanted to tie anything, or make a noose for a hunting trap, they would take these sisal fibres and roll them in the palm of their hand to start them off. Then they would sit, feeding in fibre with one hand as they rolled it between a bare thigh and the palm of their other hand. When most of the fibre had been rolled they would take some more, overlap it with the existing fibre and continue the rolling process, until they had made a piece of sisal string long enough for whatever purpose they had in mind. For years, I too usually made my own string. I also tried my hand at elementary weaving, but I was never very good at it.

Sisal plants also grow in the arid areas of Spain and in my latter years, while I was working on the next issue of a magazine, I would sometimes let curious holiday makers “come for the ride” with me, pointing out landmarks and items of interest.

Unfettered era 2 In summer I wear shorts and I astonished one couple by cutting and beating a few sisal leaves, then using my thigh to roll some “raw”sisal string using the still moist fibre. I then twisted and doubled it a couple of times to make a short length of rope, which I “proved” by using it to pull my car a yard or so. I’ve always enjoyed being a show off!

In my childhood I also learned to look at life in a more natural way, rather than through an artificial veneer of “gentility”. Mummy Ingeni kept chickens and as well as fresh eggs we ate a lot of chicken, usually old “boilers”. The house servant would be instructed to kill and pluck an old hen that was past its egg laying best, and I would often trot along to help him catch it. Her house stood on a hillside and further round, hidden from view, there was a large rubbish pit. Whenever a pit was nearly full it would be covered over and a new one would be dug. The house servant would take the chicken to the edge of the pit, I would hold it by the legs, and he would use a knife to cut off its head, letting the blood flow into the pit while the headless body still wriggled. It was then plucked over the pit. Sometimes a decapitated chicken would break free from our grasp and run around while we chased it. However, on one such occasion a headless chicken excelled itself - it took off and actually flew! (Surely this is proof that chickens are daft. The only thing that had kept this bird from flying before was its head!) The two of us ran, laughing, down the hill, along the road across the dam, past the farm sheds and across the fields, keeping the zombie bird in our sight. I swear I’m not exagerating when I say it flew well over half a mile before coming to earth. At supper that evening I excitedly described the whole saga and was puzzled when some of the grown-ups didn’t seem very hungry. I personally felt that that chicken was truly worth eating.

We also had home grown beef. As well as her dairy farm Mummy Ingeni had a large ranch at Athi river, a few miles from the KMC (Kenya Meat Commission) abatoir and factory, where she reared her own beef cattle - plus thousands of flies! Up-country ranchers would also rent grazing rights from her after the long cattle drive, so their herds could be fattened up prior to being sold to the KMC for slaughter. On special occasions my grandmother would have an old breeding cow slaughtered and, after keeping a few fresh cuts for herself and taking a large piece of rump for salting, let the farm labour feast on it. Unlike today, refrigerators were rare and deep freezers even rarer. The common ways to stop meat going off were storing it in a container of salt water, curing it with saltpetre, sun drying it or immediately cooking it.

I would watch as the cow was wrestled to the ground, its head held back by the horns, then have its throat cut through with a large, sharp knife, starting at the dewlap, until only the spine kept the head connected to the body. The great beast would lie there, with panting gusts of air from the stub of its windpipe stirring up the dust, whilst powerful spurts of blood from the severed arteries pumped into a bucket until it eventually lay still.

Unfettered era 3

Having seen it from when I was a young child it all seemed remote but natural to me. It probably also helped me to cope with sights of violent death later on in my life.

I also started to investigate the mysteries of cooking. One Christmas, Rose received a toy, metal, doll’s stove with a small methylated spirit burner, which could heat a small pan containing water. This inspired me to start boiling fruit and sugar to make jam, hidden from the view of any grown-ups who would be certain to spoil our fun. Both Rose and I got a few blisters, but jam we made! Nowadays, I do the cooking. My wife washes up.

It was around this time that my mother became a stage assistant to Jasper Maskelyne, a period I have already mentioned in the first chapter. In Nairobi Jasper would perform in the Command Theatre and sometimes, when I was present, I would be called up on stage as a “stooge”, to add humour to the evening. This was probably my first experience of acting - a hobby fraught with unseen risk, such as leading me to marriage! (My son’s fate, too.)

My father was building up his new company and had residential rooms at the Salisbury hotel. Sometimes I stayed with him, and would pass the time he was away at work in the hotel’s very large public swimming pool complex. My father would leave me with enough money for a snack and a drink each day. Here I taught myself to swim underwater by the simple expedient of taking a deep breath, lying flat and wiggling my arms and legs, with my eyes open. Later, I progressed to being able to swim on the surface and lift my head for a snatch of air, but I’ve never been a strong surface swimmer. I could, however, cover two lengths of most pools underwater! My lunch was usually a ham sandwich and a Pepsi. Unbiased by advertising or peer pressure, I was able to decide for myself which drink I preferred, and Pepsi was somehow “smoother”.

In partnership with two Swedes, my father had established a water boring and diamond drilling business called Karlssons and Finne. His main clients for boreholes were farmers needing a secure supply of water, especially for livestock, whilst his main client for diamond drilling was the Williamson diamond mine in Tanganyika. He would sometimes take me with him “up-country”, as the area further inland from Nairobi was called. Here he would visit the company’s ever increasing number of rigs, each one run by an experienced, usually Swedish, driller in command of a small team of African labourers, and ensure that the farmer was happy. As his reputation for quality work and fair dealing spread he acquired a respectable market share, mainly at the expense of Craelius, a well established Swedish drilling company that is now part of the Atlas Copco group and for whom he and his two partners had worked during the war. The only area where he did not have a backlog of work was around Nakuru, where a maverick bachelor Swede called Molvig was “king”.

Unfettered era 4

Whenever my father had time, on the way back from visiting his own rigs he would drop in to wherever Molvig was drilling and spend a couple of hours socialising in Molvig’s large caravan. My father never tried to muscle in on his friend, and Molvig always passed on my father’s name to farmers outside the Nakuru area. On a couple of occasions my father even finished off a job for Molvig when he was ill or taking a holiday. At its peak, Karlssons and Finne held 80% of the East African market share. I reckon my old man created more holes in the land than one finds in a Swiss cheese!

My little sister, who had insisted on changing her name from Susan to Rose, remained permanently with Mummy Ingeni, but eventually I went to live at my newly-remarried father's house, about a mile from Dagoretti corner and one of four isolated houses at the end of a thin, mile long dirt road. They were adjacent to “Air House”, where the Air Commodore for East Africa lived, and on the edge of a huge tract of empty bush, which later became the Lavington Estate. I cycled each day to Kilimani primary school, about two and half miles away, where I re-met my old buddy, Johna. After school, we would often cycle together to his house, some three miles away at Dagoretti Corner, from where I would then cycle about one mile home in the late dusk, just in time for supper. (In Kenya, which bestrides the equator, both sunrise and sunset are always between 6.30 and 7.)

During this period I devoured books with a passion. I loved the Biggles stories, the Just William tales, and practical books “that explained things”; for instance, how a steam engine worked, and the biographies of the early scientists. I also enjoyed humourous books, like Oscar Wilde’s “The Canterville Ghost”, concerning an American couple, Mr and Mrs Otis, who move with their children to Canterville Chase, an English manor haunted by the ghost of Sir Simon. Interestingly, the story is related by the ghost and if you haven’t read it, and surely been moved by the pathos in its ending, I can strongly recommend it to you. Digressing a bit, little did I realise that I would one day work for an elevator company called Otis.

I had become a member of the Macmillan library in Nairobi and when I wasn’t at school would sometimes be dropped off there in the morning whilst my step mother went shopping. By the time she had finished, I would often be on my second book and would sign it out to take with me. On some days I cycled the 5 miles back to the Library that same afternoon to return the book and take out yet another. I certainly got my father’s money’s worth.

Next door to the library was the Jamia Mosque, a beautiful building with a marble facade. It was Nairobi’s main Muslim place of worship and on the facade carried the wording, written in large lettering in both Arabic and English; “None to be worshipped but Allah : Mohammed is his prophet.” One day, as I stood looking at the mosque, a worshipper, I think he was a Shah, stopped and explained the wording to me.

Unfettered era 5

What he said went along the lines of Allah is the only one to be worshipped, then continued that I too worshipped him, although I called him God. It was like when in Swahili one says “maji” and in English “water”; what was described was the same thing. However, it is the next words written on the wall that are of great importance. Muslims hold Mohammed to be the last of very many prophets chosen by Allah, the final one, and that he was preceded by other chosen men like Jesus and Moses and Abraham. However, they were all men, not gods, not even Mohammed. They are to be respected but not worshipped: worship and obeisance is for Allah, and Allah alone. Unlike Christian belief, Islam says no prophet has ever been God, although all prophets were godly men to whom holy scriptures, suitable for the times in which they lived, were revealed by God.

How I wish religious fanatics could bear in mind that worshipper’s words, be they fundamentalist Jew, Christian or Muslim!

During the holidays, or at weekends, I would sometimes cycle the eight miles or so to Karen to visit Rose or quite often cycle to Johna’s house for the day. Mainly, though, I would spend hours roaming the acres of empty bush behind our house as far as St Austin's church, some four miles away, barefooted and wearing only a pair of shorts. Often I was with the boy from next door, Andrew Pankhurst, whose father was the Air Commodore, and we roamed, explored and invented as only schoolboys can do. One of our inventions was to take pieces of wet clay soil, mould them into balls and push them on to the ends of sticks, some stout and stubby and others long and bendy. By holding the other end of the stick and swinging our arms above our heads we could fire the wet clay balls at targets. The long bendy sticks gave a good range, but with the short stout ones we learned to be really accurate, and sometimes had battles along the lines of today’s paint balling games.

Due to Andrew’s status, we sometimes went to the RAF base at Eastleigh (on the outskirts of Nairobi), where we were spoiled rotten by the airmen, allowed to sit in specific jet planes, given free goes on the indoor parachute training jump, and allowed to “fly” the training mock-up, not to mention watching cartoons and comedies in the “Astra” cinema at the base.

I think it was at Andrew’s house that I was knocked out cold for the second time. There was a rope hanging down from a high branch and we would run and grab it, and at the peak of our swing let go to see how far we could jump. One time, when I was determined to break all our previous records, I lost my grip just before the peak of the swing and landed face down, spread-eagled over a stone. It caught my solar plexus, putting me out for a long count, and ever since this area has been a weak spot.

Unfettered era 6

Many times I wandered the bush alone. This was "my" territory, where I could spend hours squatting quietly, often above a pool, waiting for signs of miniature life to appear in the water or just aimlessly exploring. This was at the start of the Mau Mau period but, although I was highly exposed, the thought of trouble never occured to me and I, personally, was never attacked or threatened.

My first brush with real horror came when I was eleven. I was staying overnight at Dagoretti corner with my friend Johna, of Miss Dors’ fame, when two elderly ladies who lived in a house about 300 yards away, were attacked by a Mau Mau gang. It was around 10pm that we heard their terrified screams. Johnathon's stepfather put on a pair of boots, grabbed a walking stick and a whistle, and ran down the road to their house, blowing the whistle, shouting out "Follow me, men" and stamping his feet while beating the stick on the ground to sound as though he wasn't alone. The gang ran away, but not before one of the ladies had completely lost her hand, slashed off at the wrist by a panga as she tried to protect her head, and she would have bled to death had he not applied a tourniquet. Both ladies (If I remember rightly one was called "Mrs Vane Pennel") suffered severe head wounds.

Johna and I spent the next few hours patrolling the area armed with two large kitchen knives and two heavy sticks. Johnathon's step father, Howarth Wood, was a truly brave, ex-military man. I'm told that during the First World War, in response to a threat of invasion by German forces in neighbouring German East Africa (after the war it became the league of nations mandated territory of Tanganyika and entrusted to Britain.), he had force-marched a large detachment of battle-ready men from Nairobi to Taveta, a distance of 250 miles through scrub, thorn bush and hot semi desert, in only 6 days. When I knew him he was an English teacher and actor, with a voracious love for fine literature, fine words and fine refreshment from Scotland.


For the next chapter click on“A Digression”in the (left side)CONTENTScolumn.