1924 Going on Safari

In 1924, newly-married Emilie May accompanied her husband Fred on a Tax collecting drive in the Native Reserve and on Squatters on farms near Machakos. Fred went on these Safaris at least once a month for around two weeks. 

She had married Major Frederick Chater-Jack DSO (and bar), MC (and bar), on 1st March 1924. Fred was an Assistant District Commissioner (ADC) stationed at Machakos, the erstwhile capital of Kenya lying some 46 miles SE of the new capital, Nairobi.

The money collected was an important component of the Colonial Office revenue, eventually comprising 85% of government revenue by 1923 to the Second World War, and was therefore a major part of the duties of colonial office servants, be it DC’s or ADC’s. The need to earn money to pay the taxes also ensured the provision of native labour.

Native male Kenyans within the Native Reserve paid either a poll tax, if un-married, or a hut tax levied on every hut they occupied – and every wife was deemed to have her own hut – or they paid a squatter tax if they lived on a farm in the so-called White Highlands. 

Part of the money raised by these taxes went on major road building (including bridges) outside of the Native Reserve. And by mid-1925 to March 1926, supervising both official tasks took Fred away from home on Safari for three weeks of every month. 

Emilie May went on her first Safari in April 1924 and documented the experience in a series of letters to her father, Leonard Goodhart Sutton (LGS). I am struck with how young they were – Emilie May was 23 year-old and Fred was 28 ­– and how entitled they felt. 

Emilie May’s letters are long, running for 18 pages or so, like a diary. I’ve snipped excerpts out of those letters below – adding my explanatory notes as required between [..]

April 10th 1924 – Machakos

My darling Father,

Here I am really off. We breakfasted with the Campbells at 7:30. Some meal too. I got some ideas. Porridge, Kedgeree made from tinned fish and then mushrooms from a farm not so very far away. – and then jam and fruit.

Everything except the fish were strictly forbidden [Emily May was recovering from a dysentery after eating unpeeled fruit] but we decided to risk it and so far I’ve been very fit today.

The Safari left about 7:30. You would have laughed to see the two rows of Porters, Runners and Police lined up behind their loads outside the back Verandah!

Fred had to go to the office and I just put more things away. Then we gave the third boy, who is left in charge, final instructions. Also showed the Shamba boy more minute details of the garden. 

[We] finally got off at 9:45 accompanied by a policeman and two porters and a few odd runners carrying my shooting stick, my whip [for the mule] and oddments. 

I walked the first mile and half or so and then mounted [a mule] and ambled along at Fred’s walking pace. 

The way was a native path, skirting a hill about three-quarters of the way down it. There were continual deep gullies where torrents had washed away everything and huge boulders, slabs of rock and crevices. The sides of some were very steep and I thanked Heaven that mules were sure footed, leant right back, dug my knees in and hoped for the best. I can’t think why the poor animal didn’t just slide down some of them. Then we careered up the other side and awaited Fred at the top. 

At first I was very nervous going down these places and also one place where the path consisted of only a few inches, at most 18” and then a big drop where the rest of the path had fallen into. I soon got accustomed however. 

The mule slide three or four times. It appears that he doesn’t like natives carrying bundles, or bundles on the ground. He is very small, 12 hands, all the mules are. Mrs Campbell warned me to approach and mount with care as this is the part he dislikes. The Syce (spelt literally) is a lad. Wakambas (this tribe) don’t make good grooms.

As we were about three-quarters of the way down the hillside, we saw the rest below and it was a lovely sight. Lots and lots of round hills intersected by river beds and in the distance much larger hills. Everything looked so small in the vast space.

It got very hot and Freddie wasn’t feeling very fit. We don’t usually trek as late as that. 

Got into Camp about 12:15. It looked so nice with our tent and beds ready, and everything unpacked. The Police, Porters’ and Boys’ tents up and the cook busy getting lunch ready. Our admirable Salehe, the head boy [Fred’s personal servant, Kikuyu from Nairobi, married with three wives], had large glasses of lemon squash ready and we lay on our beds and sipped it. Even the dog had his special bowl of water ready.

No wonder people don’t camp in England where you have to do it all yourselves.

There we sat under the front flap of the tent, eating excellent stuffed chicken and salad [with] a lovely view away in front. Then we slept till about 2:30 and then the local Nyama – the Council of Elders for the location came and squatted before Fred and the interpreter (Interpreter from Swahili and Wakamba). I was vastly amused as I lay on my bed and listed and watch. All their names were called, a very long process, as many of them didn’t seem to know them.

Then they had to elect a new Head Man. Fred seeing to it that the right one was elected. Then Fred discussed various in their local government which had lapsed.

They were just like children tho’ they were all very old and withered and were vastly moved to mirth at times.

Then Fred gave the New Head Man his badge and the Nyama flag and then tea.

I saw the mule groomed and then we had a stroll. Fred had a slight go of fever and went early to bed. I had an excellent meal of soup, roast beef, and caramel pudding and was really quite glad to settle Fred off early and turn in. It was a longish day after the slack time I’ve had since I got up and the 16 days in bed made me very soft.

I had an excellent night, feeling remarkably at home. That’s so funny – I feel as if I’d been doing this all my life! Now this morning, it seemed quite the most natural thing in the world to stride out of camp alongside of my husband! We were called with tea at 10 to 6 and Fred found he was well enough to go on. So the Cook, footman or second boy and the Chop Box etc. left soon after 6.

I took rather a long time to dress, not being used to dressing in a tent and it was hardly light. We eventually left at 7:00 accompanied by one T.R.(Tribal Retainer or Runner) in front to show us the way , which was over tiny native and goat tracks which were almost undiscernible at time, and followed by the Syce (or Sais) and mule and an Askari(policeman) and two other runners carrying mackintoshes, cameras etc and your invaluable umbrella tent.

I walked nearly all the way, only riding up some very steep, rough gullies. In one of these the sweet mule stopped and when I applied the Pearson’s whip he bucked. Most alarming when it was all rocks and stones, but ‘I retained my seat’ – please thank Mr. Targett! 

About 8:00 we arrived where we expected to see the cook and footman with breakfast. On and on with fast increasing language, till it became obvious that the Cominesariat (sic) was on a different path. We finally arrived at the camp about 9:15, very empty. The umbrella [tent] was erected and we sat under it and prayed for food. The old Head Men or Nyama were ready but Fred was quite incapable of dealing with them till the inner man was silenced. It is the first time he has ever missed his cook and food. It arrived however about half-an-hour later. The Chop Box became visible bobbing up and down between the thorns and the cook produced oranges from his pockets. The footman seemed to have plates and spoons ready and not long after we were sitting down to eggs and bacon and coffee and bananas, trying not to make pigs of ourselves. 

The original plan, which is usual, is that the cook and a boy and the table and chairs and Chop Box o off to an appointed spot We follow and feed, and while doing so the safari, having packed our boxes and the beds and the tent, over take us and go on to the camp so that all is ready when we get there.

At this camp, there are two or three mud and thatch huts and we use one, with an open front to feed in and this keeps the tent free. The tent is under ripping shady trees and we have a breeze.

Fred settled one lot of headmen this morning and now 1:45pm, we have fed and he is dealing with another lot now and then we shall probably sleep till 4:00!

In the evening I wish the mule was a pony but going up and down precipices and along ridges, I’m glad it is a sure-footed mule. 

We have contemplated buying a pony that is for sale in Machakos, but as we can’t use it on Safari, it hardly seems worth it, tho’ we do hanker after it so. Anyway perhaps our next station will be a horsey one.

I got a lot of different wild flowers this morning but they die almost at once. Only one has survived till my press came up.

I also saw a chameleon this morning, the first Fred has seen in this district. Also two weaver birds’ nests fairly yelling to be photographed. Two hanging on a long thin branch which they bent over by their weight. I hid myself in the bush within a few feet of the nest and waited about a quarter of an hour and then had the luck of getting the Weaver actually weaving. It is extraordinary how they weave grass with their claws and make a hanging nest. The birds look like Canaries and have a very shrill squeak.

At Machakos, we have lots and lots of birds about the size of starlings, which have bright blue back, wings and head and a brilliant red-orange breast. They are perfectly lovely in the sun and there are lots of them\We have two tiny, bright coloured birds building a nest on the verandah. They are ripping and so tame and we see it grow each day.

Today’s march was far more as I expected ‘Darkest Africa’ tho’ this is’t really the Blue yet. There isn’t much shooting in the South of the District and so far haven’t seen anything but small pigeon which aren’t worth shooting.

There was a post at Machakos today and we are expecting letters out by runner anytime now. 

I hope this has given you some better idea of Safari and the luxurious way we ‘rough it’.

I’ll finish this and send it back by the runner who brings the letters. There is a mail in on 14th and I’m longing for letters as I’ve not heard fro either of you [her father and brother Noël) for the last three mails.

I wish you could see your daughter seated on her bed in her extremely smart Peel Boots and Tauty Breeches, looking absolutely ‘it’. One of our Pioneer Women etc. Fred has taken several photos me me ‘on Safari’.

Now lots of love to both. I will write to Noël soon, but your letters and my diary take rather a long time. Hope you are both well – am longing to hear from you again

Your very loving daughter 


Sunday April 13th 1924 – on Safari  (received early June by her father)

I sent off letters our second day out. That evening we went out with a gun and Fred got all we saw – a green pigeon which made an excellent addition to dinner last night, tho’ more would have been acceptable.

We left camp as usual by 7:00, on a dull morning and walked for an hour over open country. A lovely breeze in our faces and both feeling much fitter. How pleased you would be to see me striding out for an hour before breakfast! We found breakfast laid in the shade of a tiny copse of Lucky Bean Trees and the oranges were simply ideal. Likewise the omelette, bacon, boiled eggs and hot coffee. Such a meal. 

We then trekked up a wide valley which was simply lovely – a high but gentle green slope on the left and much steeper and more rock on our right. The going was not so bad as before. It was gentle uphill most of the way over rather bad land. The last bit up to the Camp was a lovely smooth green sward and I got ‘Wilie’ into a canter, tho’ I can’t call it a comfortable one.

The camp was in a perfect spot on a sloping lawn, like grass with a lovely view up and down the valley and thro’ a gap in front. \We were opposite a hill called Kalawa, which I think is marked on the map you’ve got, about south or S.E. of Machakos. In the distance on the other side were four tiny tin sheds, an Indian trading centre, where the natives sell hides, maize etc. and buy blankets etc. 

It was a most wonderful moonlit night and we sat out sipping coffee by a roaring fire, lit in front of the tent so that I could lie in bed and look at it.

We had a little stroll and talked of March 1st [their wedding day], just six weeks ago and all the world was heaven. About 10 it rained but the tent was very snug and warm and there was no wind.

This morning we were off at 7:00 in bright sunshine … Fred went to the Dookas (trading huts) and then we climbed gently till we met breakfast. Not much shade on the barren hillside so we were very glad of the Umbrella Tent.

As usual did ample justice to the breakfast and then we had a long long uphill trek, round hills, up hill all the way from 8 – 11. We went up 200 feet and then on and on. The Safari had frequent stops and made very slow progress. This tribe make very poor porters as they are so drink sodden that they are unfit for anything. However, a fortnight’s Safari puts some strength into them. If they are young and very weak they are kept in Machakos for some work and then sent back strong and sensible.

We went along this road, a very hot one, passed a mission, where we intended to call but heard strains of ‘Oh come all ye faithful’ and gathered that morning prayer was in progress, so we went on to our camp set on a promontory overlooking two lovely valleys with river beds in the bottom of each. It is a lovely camp and I feel as if we were on the edge of the world. We had Marie Biscuits, oranges and lime juice on arrival, all very welcome. The day has gone very quickly as we were late for lunch and did not finish till nearly 2:00 – a good lunch too. A chicken and a pigeon having lasted us only for dinner last night and lunch. 

I fell asleep at once and Fred interviewed the Nyama. 

We went to tea at the American Mission (African Inland). The man and his wife are young, quite nice, but very American. They have a house on a hillock with wonderful views from both sides. We did justice a very good tea!

They are really rather sensible sort of missionaries and realise that the native must learn the dignity of labour and not lounge about with books under his arm as soon as he gets any education.

We discussed the native question in general and particularly this tribe. It was very interesting tho’ we all got depressed. It’s the [lack of] continuity of a policy which hinders progress so – Campbell [District Commissioner] has been here fifteen months now and is just getting a policy going. He has only eleven more months and the next D.C. may have quite another programme, utterly unsuited to this backward tribe. 

I do hope Fred is left here for at least two years. He feels he can do some good in that time, but its so disheartening to be moved after about ten months when you’ve lreally learnt about the tribe and just begun to work out the programme. 

After this we climbed a steep hill to a tree plantation, young gums and Black Wattle and I revelling the wonderful view while Fred inspected it. Just miles and miles of hills and valley down below on every side.


Bye the way, the proofs of the wedding photos have come at last. There is a very flattering one of me alone! Both groups of us and the two children are bad, one is better of me and ghastly of Fred or vice versa. 

Tomorrow we go down off this promontory, cross the narrow valley and have a lot more climbing. So we want to get away earlier. Tomorrow’s Camp is very high up in some hills and will be cold. This should be cold but is not tonight. We are wearing great coats but last night we were far more wrapped up and I slept with two Jaeger blankets over me. The great point is to have blankets under the bottom sheet as the cold rises. I slept like a log

Monday April 14th

We started off just before 7 tho’ we meant to get away lots earlier but 5:30 and 6:30 sound almost alike and the boys thought we meant 6:30. Down over the promontory we camp on the the edge of, over a river which had risen a lot in the night. We had no rain but it must have rained in the hills, then up, and we found breakfast was near, about 7:40. The Safari go ahead and then we climbed and climbed, feeling very lazy I did it all on the mule. From 7 to 9:40 we went up 1000 ft. My barometer registered this place as 6,700 ft and it should be right as I set it at Mombasa, but the map marks it as 6,300 ft.

Anyway we have a view surpassing almost any view I’ve ever had. I thought The Rift Valley had pre-eminence, but this is as fine I think. We’re on a sort of razor edge and on three sides we look down on the world far, far below. The hills under which we camped – Kalawa – look like tiny mounds and far beyond, the green and grey hill are barely visible blue ones. I wish I knew how far away they were.

This is a permanent camp, which means that there are three mud and thatch huts, one large new one we use as ours, a dining room and Fred is now sitting in the doorway while the Nyama squat in front of him. …

It’s really quite chilly up here even at midday and will be jolly cold tonight I expect. The evening Bath is such a cold proceeding. I usually have wine about 6:30 and then put on ‘chill proof’ undies, a woollen frock, jumper and over coat. A tent feels very solid till one disrobes. We have very hot water but not a full length bath out here and it’s difficult to keep the out-of-water part warm!


Just seven weeks today I landed and in some ways it seems barely a week while in other ways I feel as I’d been here for years. Odd.

Wednesday 16th

Yesterday we had a very easy trek, first along the level about the same altitude as the Camp and then we saw the mission a way below and came down to it. Mr. Clarke, the missionary, came to meet us and took us in to his house where Mrs. C. gave us tea and scones. 

They have quite a pretty little mission and a nice house of their own but most awfully bare and uncomfortable inside. People don’t seem to realise that, in this country especially, it is not al all extravagant to be comfortable. I can’t imagine how people can be so isolated for six or seven years and not make a house comfortable. They are on a hillside and have a lovely view and quite a nice show of flowers in the garden.

We are camped away on a hill opposite where there are some weird cactus trees. … Sticking up all alone, Kilimanjaro. It’s a most lovely mountain and the sun made the snow turn pink and then as I sat at dinner under the flap of the tent, the snow was all glistening in the moonlight, which looked so weird up in the sky as it was all one could see of the mountain.  …

Tomorrow we get down further and camp on Kilima Kiu Estate (you’ll see it on the map I think, not far East of Kiu Station on the railway, which is about three or four stations south of Nairobi). By the way Kilima = hill.

Part of this safari, after the jobs up in these hill locations, is to find an outlet for native arts and crafts. This tribe are hopeless at everything else but they do do very good carving, basket work, chair making, bead work etc. We have about two of each craft along with us, being taken to Kiu Station where we are going to show them how to sell their stuff. It’s only n experiment and may not work, but they have no initiative so some one must take them in hand. It will be rather amusing. Kiu is chosen because the down train stops for tea there and the up train for breakfast next day. We are getting there, we hope, for the down train on 19th and have ascertained that there are to be two Boat Specials up on 20th so we shall get them. It will be rather amusing to see a boat train like mine come in. Mr. Galt and a lady for Machakos will be on it too. Just seven weeks ago today I stopped there for breakfast.

… The interpreter, nicknamed the Bailiff because he chooses the site and swears at the porters etc, is trying to buy a calf for 16/- today. Fred will shoot it and before it is dead the cook will cut its throat as he and Saleh are Mohammedans and must only eat Mohammedan killed meat. 

If we can get one, we will collect about 10/- for it from the boys (we don’t feed them of course) and the porters’ money and give them a good half of it. We draw 20 cents (about 2d) per day per porter for their food. Fred draws an extra 8/- per day for Safari and pays the three boys of ours an extra 6d per day.

Yesterday we discussed the future as we came along. The probable future and the future we’d like as well. The latter being to have another interest in the Indies or S. America as well and travel about between tem and England. However, that’s a washout as it would have to be such a large interest to pay our travelling expenses.

No we intend to stick on as we are till Fred’s private income equals or exceeds his Govt. salary. And then we might move. In the meantime, we shall probably know details of the Kitale Estates progress and the progress re. the purchase of the farm on Mount Elgon where we have an eye to live and grow fruit. 

Mr Steyne, manager of Kitale and a friend of Fred’s, is shortly coming to stay with us. Farmland news in the Trans Nzoia is very encouraging and the railway has got to Eldoret, the nearest town to Kitale and will be there itself before long we believe. 

April 17th and Fred’s Birthday – on Safari

Here we are staying with Mr. and Mrs. Wilson on Kilima Kiu Estate. … Mrs. Wilson seems very nice indeed but is rather shy and so am I as I’ve met very few people yet and never stayed away with Fred before. … They have two tiny fat children who have those basket seats on a donkey or pony like we had on Macaroni. … 

This is a cattle farm, and a large one. Mr. Joyce his partner lives about two miles away and he and Mrs. Joyce came over to tea. 

They have a large contract for milk to Nairobi and down the line, so we have lovely butter and cream. In fact, tea was a toping meal, Bread, new brown scones, honey and three kinds of jam and fruit cake. It does sound greedy but Safari teas are only bread and biscuits and butter and jam.

We may sleep here again tomorrow as the object of our visit is to see some Crown Land over which Wilson has temporary grazing rights, and on which the Railway Fuel Contractors have been cutting. 

Easter Sunday April 20th – Kilima Kiu (your letters [her father’s] March 1 to 24th) [Emilie May stayed two days at the Wilson’s farm at Kilima Kiu as she was running a slight temperature]

… What a time you have had with Dyer. I gather Revell is the cause. I’m awfully sorry, I thought she would be so suitable tho’ I don’t think I could have stood her! Perhaps she will settle down now tho’ if Revell is the trouble I’m afraid a house parlour maid may make difficulties but a parlour maid is simply absurd. … When you get this you’ll be well into Wembley I suppose – do tell us about the Kenya Exhibit.

Page 3 … Now I seem to have mentioned most things in your letters, and am greedily hoping for more on the Norman which got in yesterday [at Mombasa harbour], the boat trains which Fred is meeting at Kiu today and tomorrow.

… Tomorrow we hope to go on to another farm for tea and do more after tea. It’ll be a long day for Fred as he will have already done 10 miles but Machakos is a good 20 from here and he has a rather important case on with on Tues with a solicitor coming from Nairobi so he must get in early. 

Salehe has been left here to wait on me. So luxurious to have one’s valet left. I was in bed all yesterday and he sat patiently outside my door in case I needed anything! Tomorrow he is to go to Machakos as soon as he can after sunrise that he and the lad already there can get the house ready. 

While here we’ve been thinking awfully hard about the future and while cantering about the other day it was very hard not to want a farm and ponies, but Fred would hate just to leave Machakos for that, while he feels that sometime his hand will be forced by being sent to a bad station or getting the offer of managing Kitale for 18 months. 

However, the manager Steyne will be down to tell us all about it soon. Only we both see that if we are going to have a farm, it will take fruit at least five years to get going and we don’t go for another five years yet. Fred feels he’ll be starting starting settled down so late. The Govt. still call him very much and he feels that it would be very selfish to give it up for the sake of a more settled and comfortable life – and he might quite well make very good (sic) in it, but it leads nowhere. Twenty years and a poor pension when one’s too old and quite unfitted for anything. But we are both so keen to have a home of our very own and if we did it would mean more family life and less separation. …

I heard indirectly that Kirby has been moved to another coast station, a bad one and no doctor. I wonder what Joyce will do. It’s an awkward moment for the move there. But it would do those two all the good in the world to get away together. If only they could do a Safari and she be quite dependent on him for a bit. They seem to be living two independent lives in on house. 

Its been quite nice sleeping in a house again [at the Wilson’s at Kilima Kiu Farm], but find my little camp bed very comfortable and a tent very cosy still. Fred loves the life.

April 23rd – there’s a post out tomorrow and it may catch the mail, so I’ll put this in my Safari Letter.  Fred got back to the Wilson’s for me about 11 on Monday and we left after lunch. They [The Wilsons’] very kindly mounted us so we were able to ride for the first 11 miles, which made a terrific difference as we were doing a long trek. … We sent the ponies back from Bondone where we had tea with the Shaws. They have not been married long and are building their home and making a garden. We had tea and did another six miles, total for Fred 25 miles and me 17!! I walked a little after tea and then mounted my mules, such a descent from a ponyu. It was dark when we got into camp, a pretty shady one by a river and we were very tired indeed … Off about 7:20 [the next morning’ and only a two hour trek to Machakos.

… will add this to what I wrote at the Wilson’s Lots of love Daddy, Your very loving daughter May

Second Safari 

April 27th – Machakos

… Last night we had a dinner and it was a really good meal I think. Mayonnaise of Eggs (done by myself, entirely a first attempt to make mayonnaise! But very successful), Hare Soup, Curried Prawns, Roast Beef, Oranges with jelly inside – done with my instructions half in English half in Swahili, with much gesticulation! Then cheese straws. Don’t you think it was a good dinner?

A man called Thompson, who was an ADC here is on his way to his new job 60 miles into the blue from here and we have to put him up while he is waiting for porters for all his stuff which was stored here.

He isn’t very nice and apparently all was not well with him and his wife when they were here. Their baby is farmed out on some rather rough people here and she went home with someone else. So its all very awkward when we meet people as he was well known and people come to see him, but at times conversation is awkward. 

Some people called Langridge wrote to say that the Brittains were staying there and wold we go to church today. We were going to tea yesterday but it was wet enough ot be doubtful we’d get thro’ They have an awful reputation here which is rotten. It is said that they always have missionaries and ‘good people’ staying there and they have a very saintly reputation, but under this he does most beastly things to people and the record of him in the office here is awful. Mrs. L is Sec of the Horticultural Society and I’d love to see her garden but its not done to know them. I’ll ask the Brittains in to tea if they can get in.

Second Safari

Wednesday May 21st (received June 30th) – on Safari collecting the Hut Tax

My darling Father,

Here we are ‘out’ again and at a place where we have been before but camped in a different spot. I do wish you could have seen us off yesterday. The safari left early the previous morning and of course there were innumerable things which we said we could not do without and we’d ‘put them in the car’ a hopeless state of affairs of course. Fred got over from the office about 9:00 to find the car already nearly full with the hold-all, my tin box, a huge pile of our own Beet and Turnips, fruit, petrol (here we have it in four-gallon tins), cameras, thermos, glasses, two basins and a jug etc. etc. Then I got in and Belinda (the Pointer puppy] lay on my lap. … [We] went on to the office where we picked up lots of boxes of stuff for the Tax Collecting and finally got off with the Interpreter (our Bailiff) with his legs hanging over one side and Salehe the other. Freddie driving, Laddie [mastiff dog] in the middle. …

In the evening, I went down to the receipt of custom. Queues of native with their money in tines, long shaped bap, bits of rag etc. and Fred at a table in the door of a tiny hut. Smell – indescribable – and cigarettes a necessity. I wrote the number on the receipts. It is very interesting to watch them come up and I hope to get some photos today. we went o till after 6:00 with a pause for tea and collected nearly 9000/- which is very good. Campbell is very keen on collecting and his record is 26000/- in a day, so ours wasn’t bad for four hours. …

Last night we slept on the money and I had a box of Receipts etc. to the value of over £1000 under my bed. Tonight we’ll have a lot more so we’ll have a Policeman on guard, but Laddie and Belinda both sleep inside the tent.

… pge 4 Fred has gone down to collect and I’ll go later, a little of that atmosphere goes a very long way. Each man pays 12/- per year per hut and he’s supposed to have one hut per wife, but as a matter of fact, he shoves ‘inherited wives’ in together if he has many of his own. They each bring a census paper with them and Fred checks their name and number of huts in the Census Book and give them separate receipt per hut. Sometimes they are the limit to get to pay and are full of excuses but yesterday nearly all paid up well. Fred says there is a Chief up country who has a banking account and pays hundreds of pounds per year for his huts as he as of 100 wives, but he is a very great man and imported Singer Sewing Machines and bicycles to his tribe. 

… I wrote yesterday reclining in a long chair under the tent flap and trees … guarding a few hundred pounds. Later on I put an Askari (policeman) on guard and went down to the hut where Fred was hard at it. I counted, sorted and did up the notes in bundles – notes that had been carried about and kept in unthinkable places for ages. 

It all done in a very efficient way – collecting I mean. They hand in their money to their headman or sub headman who stands on the one side of the hut door, their Census papers (per family) to the Census clerk who sits on the other side. The money is passed on to the Interpreter sitting on Fred’s left. He counts it – the papers go to Fred who checks the number of wives and huts in the Census Book and writes numbered receipts. The money and receipts are then checked and the coins pass on to an askari who fill a box which holds an exact amount of shillings (2000/-) and the notes come on to me. I add them up and they go in bundles of 100/- and then larger ones of 1000/-.  [page 6] The first night we only had a few thousand shillings but last night it was 26,000/- and valuables in the way of receipt books etc, so we had an askari, or rather three doing 2 ½ hrs each all night. 

The Stevensons from the Mission came down to lunch. In the afternoon Fred talked to the assembled crowd, and then went on counting till nearly 5:00 when we were fully ready to get out of that awful atmosphere. After tea we had a final counting up and screwing and sealing of the Specie Boxes which went to Machakos this morning.

… Such a short night. That’s the worst of this out of door life. One is asleep by 9:15 about and it scarcely seems a moment before tea arrives. We were called at 5:30. Saw the Specie off and got off early ourselves. The trek we did before, up over 1000 feet in about two hours. We had a most excellent breakfast on the way – oranges, cutlets of calf’s brains, fried egg and ham, bread and jam, coffee. I think you’ll agree that it was rather a good culinary effort. 

We are looking forward to the promised Bredenham (sic) Ham awfully, getting sick of eggs, eggs and again eggs every day for breakfast. We got a ‘ham’ at the local store. It makes a change and helps the eggs but F&M would probably groan at it.

Anyway it taught me about the cooking of one [ham], we’re ready for yours. The Book said soak for so long, then boil 1.2 an hour for every lb, but in translating this into Swahili I say boil 1 ½ hours per lb! As a matter of fact, the only fault is that the bone came out, the eating part is nicely tender, but I’ll know for yours better.

We got here about 9:30, taking the climb very easily, at least Fred and the mule did. I was on the latter. Collecting all the morning. There was a lot of notes so I was kept busy. Slept a bit after lunch and found piles and piles ready to be sorted and counted later. We went on till 6:00 and got in about 17000/- which is good. 

Belinda finds this a most disconcerting world … she’s stuffed into a box and carried on a porter’s head. Howls and yells proceeded us. Just getting used to her mode of travel when out she comes for breakfast and has a new world to discover. Getting on fine when up she goes again. Sun got up and what with heat and much breakfast she didn’t howl for long and was nicely asleep when she was dumped in this camp.

We are probably going to be here for another day and a half and move on to a French Mission for the night as the Priest wants to discuss plans for a new branch. Then on again. We are doing most places I’ve been to before (except the Fr. Mission) now, then will go to a few farms near the railway where neither of us have been, then still further south where we hope, by working hard now, we may find time to take a day off shooting, back by another route to Stevenson’s, take the car, down to another nearer Machakos and meet Galt, then by car to the farms, Kilima Kiu etc. round about where I’ve been before, on the farms we have to collect the Squatters Taxes. 

This time we may run in to Machakos for a Sat. night and Sunday near the end at J.B. Steyne, the manager of Kitale Estates, is as last able to come down and says he must see Fred and can’t wait till the end of June. 

We are very anxious to see him and hear the prospect of K.E. paying soon, also of other Trans Nzoia interest, and the farm of Elgon which he was arranging the buying of for us, over which there seems to be a hitch. 

As we sat in the moonlight on the first night out, I remembered that five years ago we were at Llanberis. It does seem more than that, and our drink part of the way up Snowdon, and a start off and somewhere in the car which punctured at once and so spare, and our visit to Capel Resrig. 

Friday May 23td – A busy day, but we’ve finished up here in two days instead of three, got in over 18000/- today. 

… all the world below us pouring out of it nightly wrapping of cloud and the hills gradually catching the sunshine.

Sunday May 25th – Yesterday we left the “Gate of Heaven’ camp at 7. The French Mission sent a mule along and told us they were only three miles off. However, it proved nearer six and we go very hungry. 

The mission is a most wonderful place. Right off the beaten track in a wonderful valley with a natural bridge across it. The first view of it is very fine. All the huts in the valley and on the hilltops are built of sundried bricks and each has wide eaves and thatch, a garden ad shamba. The on the Bridge is the Church, Presbytery etc. all of brick. Father Hober went there three years ago when the valley was empty and people collected round. He built a most remarkable church with tow towers and a flat front, a balcony for the organ which is an American [one]. 

He took me inside and it really is wonderful, far better than some I saw in the Pyrenees. Orchard in the middle of which a house with a verandah in the middle. In A they keep Angora Rabbits high up in wire bottomed cages, concrete all on the floor and wire netting all along the outside, most model. In B & D the hens sleep in good sized rooms and C is the bedroom of the boy in charge. Such a model place.\We were now raving with hunger and so thankful when we went to the Refectory. We had perfectly made coffee which is from the same farm as we get ours from. So the [..] cooking – two underdone fried eggs and chip potatoes, some vile stuff which they said they had to eat for bread as they didn’t know how to shoe the cook and make real bread, and then egg plants, cut in thin slices and fried in flour and spread thick with jam. Do not recommend your trying this!! (then garden and school)

We got away at last, with the borrowed mule and had a three hours trek up and down precipitous hillsides. In places no more than a goat track and narrow gullies. My nerve gave out and I decided to climb and slide down on my own feet and haunches rather than on the mule’s. Very tiring but much safer.

One place was as sort of goat bridge across a smooth rock wall with a precipice below. Fortunately, Fred was in front and shouted as we came on it. Suddenly round a corner and tho’ it seemed impossible to dismount in the narrow track where I was, you may be sure I did, but walking along it wasn’t much better.

We got into a grilling Camp at 1:00 very worn out and hot and Fred got a bit of sun and has had a bad head since However, the camp was so awful that we all worked tho’ we were dropping and got done by 7:30 when we were too tired for more than cocoa and bed, slept like logs so we didn’t get off till after 7, found breakfast set in a wide sandy river bed with a tiny stream winding down it. Most delightful place. Taught Belinda to paddle by putting her plate in mid stream. 

Trekked down the river bed for some way, very bot but awfully pretty – at the many bends there was a high wall on one side where the water washes round with terrific force in the rains, got very hot so ‘muled’ when we left the river. And thought my parasol would be a help. [It] was handed to me and I proceeded to open it. UUP went ‘Horace’s head, then down and up his heels all the while turning in circles. Fred yelled to me to drop the parasol to the Syce and to the Syce to hold the mule. The Police and Runners gasped. I began to wonder then and where I’d fall and thinking the ground was very stony. The Syce, who is the image of ‘Little’ Black Sambo’, was not nearly large enough to have any effect tho’ he embraced Horace firmly round the neck. Someone removed the offending umbrella from our vicinity and we gained control without coming contact with the ground. Fine Effort!! Fred decided to ride Horace with an umbrella for a mile to ‘larn ‘im’.

… I don’t like collecting (flowers) on Sunday, but we’ve got to get to a certain farm on a certain day so it has to be…. He [Fred] is now collecting under another large tree about 100 yards off I must go and help and also try a photo as from here it loos very picturesque with a large grove of bananas behind. I still adore bananas and eat many a day, but this doesn’t ruin Fred as we get 50 for 6d.

Tuesday 27th – Yesterday we trekked into Sultan Hamid Station which you’ll see on the map. A perfectly ghastly hole, nothing but a row of tin huts on a bare desert.  We met on Palmer Roberts who had come in with his squatters to pay tax, a far worse job than collecting in the Reserves. He was very nice but seems to have awful labour problems.

 June 1st – Mutyanyaa

That’s a tongue twister isn’t it, but its pronounced as its spelt.

I hardly know where to begin, tho’ its only three days since I finished my last letter, but I think I’ll begin with today while this evenings amusements is fresh in my mind.

We trekked for an hour then fed and then on for two hours till we came to a camp. There we rested and had lunch under a huge tree and stayed till about 3, when tho’ very hot still, it was beginning to cool down. Then another two hours’ trek to this place, a ripping camp. This is the far end of the valley … from Stevenson’s Mission. It’s a ten-hour trek all up the valley by quite a good road. Found a ripping box sent out by Mrs. Harley Mason – lots of our own beans, turnips, beet, radishes, tiny carrots and onions and a few peas, two cabbages and some grenadillos from the Market. It was great. Also our own tomatoes so we sat down to tea to those suitable to that meal and are looking forward to green peas and Lesser Bustard tonight.

After tea the fun began. You remember that old Headman Fred wrote about who brought news etc.? Fred had got letters from me when he was here and had told him that next he came to Mutyanyaa’s location he hoped to bring his wife. So today he arrived, supported by about 18 elders. … He produced a boy with a huge gourd, out of which he poured eggs. These were solemnly counted and then divided – 28 for myself and 20 for Fred. This over, Fred gave him a cigarette which the “Bailiff’ lighted for him. I was beginning to scream with mirth. Then five hens, three for me and two for Fred. (Tears streaming down my face by now, it was all so solemn). Then a sheep, all for me. Quite the first time in my life I’ve been given a whole live sheep, three hens and 28 eggs. It was all so amusing being conducted in a semi-circle of Elders. Then he expressed a desire to shake hands with me. Fred said I would do so tomorrow! 

Then an attendant brought his chair and he sat down, puffing his cigarette proudly, and said he wanted to introduce me to his wives. Fred said he might bring the wives to me tomorrow, but he decided that of eight of them, he would only bring the four best! 

I took his photo, sitting surrounded by his gifts and promised to take his wives and kids tomorrow. I wish I could make you see it all as amusing as it was. He’s a dear old dirty dodderer and it’s rather a nuisance as we have to give him something’s as we don’t take presents otherwise. 

We’re going to kill the sheep tomorrow and send the hens in with others we’ve collected so that we shall have twelve to hand at Machakos. 

A sheep is rather a lot for two people. The one we killed last week has given us a boiled leg, soup, a roast shoulder and a delicious little saddle, when even I eat the saddle I thin of how you’d like it, such a nice little one. When you come we’ll buy a sheep!

June 2nd  (page 4) – I meant to have continued last night but we had scarcely settled down to dinner when Laddie began rushing about and a search showed that we were being overrun by Siafu [soldier ants] There were million of them and the T.R. [Tribal Runners] .. tried to burn them. I was terrified that ehy would fire the tent. The bites are awful and we were soon leaving ourselves. 

… At 7 am today Mutyanyaa and four wives and many kids arrived. He had evidently left the elder wives at home as he brought four nice girls. There were a lot of children varying age from entirely clothless little boy of three upwards. He has 18 unmarried children. … He sat down in his chair in the middle while I took their photographs. 

We have been collecting hard all  morning, hoping to beat Cambell’s 26,000/- by doing over 30,000/- but we got a note from him telling us we’d better give up trying as he’s done a new record , 59,049/-. Isn’t it maddening. Of course we cannot do this in this area as there are not the huge numbers.

…page 10 we had what seemed endless miles of hard plodding in inferno heat back to camp. From which pricks and scratches, grass which creeps along the ground and trips one up, grass so tall as to shut out everything from one’s vision, thorns and other abominations. Twice I simply had to stop and sit down and dearly did I pay for it!

We got back to camp and I was ready to lie on my bed and never move for hours, – didn’t want any breakfast or anything – enter a runner with an English mail. I can’t say I leaped with joy but did sit up and open it and deal out the contents and then we read them to each other till I had so far forgotten y weariness as to be able to eat an omelette, a boiled egg, two oranges and coffee. Then we read more lying on our beds. 

I had been tearing at myself very much and on close inspection, Fred found I was literally covered in ticks. You may think you know what a tick is, but not this sort of tick. They vary in size from blue ones the size of a small beetle, which get on the dogs, to those half the size of a pinhead. They rather resemble a crab and they dig their fore legs and head into one’s flesh and suck the blood. One has to pull hard to get them out or else bath in paragon. We picked dozens and dozens off me. Fred had a good many but I had millions and am still suffering from their remarkably irritating results. And I couldn’t have a bath.

We left about 3:15 and had tea on the road. Later met the mule at the limit of the fly area and Oh! I was glad to get on it.

… The road I mentioned is one Fred made in January. He did about 26 miles from Simba and Hayes Sadler has just been out and added some more.  Fred’s bit is ripping and it was very nice seeing what he told me about in my Aden letter. And he showed me where he was camped when he sent the wire for my departure.

June 3rd. –… Fred has had F&M’s notice re the Ham and the boat arrived sometime ago but we are waiting for the customs bill from the agents in Mombasa and then it will come by rail to Kapiti and to us by wagon. It will be lovely.

… I wonder if you and Noël; are all dressed up and at Chelsea today. It makes me a tiny bit homesick to think of it, tho’ I’m so awfully happy. 

It’s just a year ago that Eleanor and Fred and I met together and I then went with Miss Cooper and General (Barker’s General) to the opening at Ascot.

There’s a mail due at Machakos tomorrow evening so we may hope to hear about Sunday or Monday, but I might send this in tomorrow when we are sending in more money. There’s a mail out on 6th I think.

We’ve been averaging 19,900/- per day which is jolly good isn’t it.

May 3rd  –  replying to LGS’ letter of Easter Sunday.

I’ve written a long letter of news or rather our daily Safaris and now will answer your letter of Easter Sunday 20.4.24

You ask about missionaries. I’ve already told you of the R.C. one which really goes into the Blue and lives among the natives getting at their home lives. It is the only one in this Reserve but everyone agrees that it is far the best. 

The others all belong to the African Inland Mission and the missionaries are all American laymen. They haven’t much of a reputation. Their only good point as far as one can see, is their keenness for making roads. This is good as it encourages the natives to trade and get carts to go to the railway, but one is apt to think that some of the keenness is because they have cars of their own. …There is a mission within a mile of Machakos but the man never comes in. We only get visiting parsons from Nairobi and the last came early in February. I believe the last one was that Canon who married Miss? Who lived up the Bath Road (was it Miss Bassett).

About Schools and Education – I’ve heard a great deal since I’ve been out as the Phelps-Stokes Commission set people talking and the new Government’s attitude is doubtful. Of course every Mission has its school. Some good, some bad, but there are Government Central Schools, each of which has several Bush Schools under it. The boys go to the Bush Schools first and then come in to the Central ones for five years.

The great Question is – How much of the time should be devoted to ‘literary’ Education and how much to technical? There is a strong agitation to have the Civil Service classes as they do now for the promising boys and make them into clerks, interpreters etc. etc. and to turn out all the others as well trained builders, carpenters etc. with enough knowledge of reading, writing, drawing and mathematics to be really good at their job. –– But, there are people at home who know nothing of the native mind or native needs and life, who think that they must all spend hours and hours at geography, history etc. What will J.H. Thomas think? He probably knows nothing at all of natives of any country, leave alone the backward ones in a backward Reserve like this. 

Yet the Governor and Colonial Secretary and all the members of the Council here voted £5000 for Education for this Reserve.

The recommendation has to go to Thomas that its money raised in this country, and he now wants to know how much of this is to spent on ‘the literary Education of the native’. It’s maddening of course.

…  You added a letter written at your Club after visiting Wembly. It must be a wonderful place. Then you went to F&M and ordered us a ham, which we are looking forward to awfully. The so-called ham we’ve been eating made a change from egs, egs, and eggs and gave us cold meat for lunch when we only got into camp by lunch time BUT the flavour of ham was not very apparent! Is it possible to get small cheeses or bits of cheese in tins> Cheese is exported from this country but we can only get stuff like soap which is dry in two days and perfectly tasteless.

Will you get us two corks for our Butter Thermos? We had this one boiled and it was only a composition one so it faded away. It is a Half Pound Butter Thermos got at a shop in the Haymarket, but perhaps Robinson could write direct to Thermos Ltd and get two and ask how they can be cleaned too. Thanks awfully.

… I’m sorry its on different paper, perhaps you can have it typed for the file you keep my letters in – and perhaps one day we might make something out of my letters and my diary. Another ambition which will probably not be realised!!  

Lots of love my daddy. Your very loving daughter May

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Jumping in Time within a novel and avoiding clichés

I seek out books that are set in different times and the story moves forwards and backwards between those times. I want to know how the author has handled both the passage of time and signals that time has moved on or the scene is set in the past. There are a number of devices such as using objects, white space or new chapters. It’s such a pleasure when it’s done well.

It was this that drew me to listen to Mary Paulson-Ellis and Kjell Ola Dahl at The Edinburgh Book Festival last week. Both Mary’s book The Inheritance of Solomon Farthing and KO’s book The Courier are set in World War I and the present, just like my memoir. That was the interest and where any resemblance to my book ends – both Mary and KO are established authors in the crime genre. Mary told me that her first book The Other Mrs. Walker also jumped forwards and backwards to different years and that all her books will probably do so too – that’s the way stories present themselves to her. It was very encouraging to know that when she started her first book, she too searched out books that did this too.

I asked them both what mechanisms they used in their books to signal the change so the storyline remained interesting and cohesive, and the reader didn’t get lost. @ko_dahl said that he wrote each story in the time zone out completely and then cut and spliced. @mspaulsonellis took a different approach. She said (something like) ‘I wasted eight to nine months trying to put the story into a conventional story arc and then let it take its own form’. Both of them used objects for the transition between the time zones, KO using a bracelet, Mary using a few objects among other ways. Of course I bought both books. I can enjoy myself while studying the masters.

The other thing I like are interesting turns of phrase. I found some lovely ones at the ‘Rewilding Fiction’, an Edinburgh Festival writers’ masterclass. The task was to make verbs dynamic and avoid clichés. It was a pleasure to be among such a diverse group, not only ranging from those just starting out writing to others with such an impressive number of published books under their belt that they could take the class, but also from all over the world. I particularly liked ”The rain was groping my collar; ‘the pen pirouetted across the paper’; ‘the train picked along the steppe like a sentence’.

The group also found some very satisfying alternatives to clichés, such as: ‘As hard as a pebble under foot’, and ‘As soft as the underbelly of a cloud’ – I particularly liked that one. It was a nice reminder that yesterday’s clichés can be burnished into todays interesting insight – one woman gave us ‘As black as Newgate’s knocker’, no longer the chiché of her childhood.

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How we view the world, then and now

I’ve reached the bit in my book where Emilie May has arrived in Nairobi to get married. It took her exactly one month to the day from setting off from Reading Station to arrive in Nairobi. I flew to Nairobi in a day – coincidentally on the same day, 92 years later because she was fog-bound for two days off Tilbury.

This set me thinking. The difference between an Edwardian and a modern woman isn’t just the solar topee and clothing, it isn’t that one of them doesn’t say ‘okay’, it’s that they think differently. Even such basic things as the perception of distance and the size of the world are different. If you wanted to get to Mombasa by sea in 1924, it took three weeks, via the Suez Canal or via the Cape and round the bottom of Africa. Astronauts to the Space Station orbiting the earth take 10 hours to get there (and hours to actually dock)and the Space Station takes 92.69 minutes to orbit the earth. It took only four days to land on the moon from Earth.  

While I was thinking that she and I had a very different view of  the world, a friend sent me an article on John Quincy Adams by James Traubmarch. In the article Traubmarch considers the relevance of Adams today and his different moral stance based on Plato and Aristotle, and a fixed cosmos – compared to our philosophical outlook today underpinned by Darwin and Freud.  After spending five years researching Adams for his book, Traubmarch concludes that Adams wasn’t like us at all. We don’t want to know what Cicero stood for to help us decide what we should stand for. We want to know what Cicero was like and what shaped him.

I want to know what Emilie May was like and what shaped her. With a firm view of Empire and Britain’s superior place in the world, Emilie May knew she was born to rule. Although there were few British, they were the ruling class and maintaining standards was important. These days such things are not material, but they do account for her actions. It was why she dressed for dinner and put the silver on the table even when living in a mud hut;  why she insisted on a British Nanny for her children (no small requirement when she lived 22 miles from a small town on the Kenyan/Ugandan border, with bad roads, no electricity and surrounded by wild animals); and why she kept distance from the nanny by always referring to her as Mrs —. Familiarity with one’s inferiors, even though they lived in very close proximity in the same small house, was not to be borne.

I think Emilie May would agree with most of Karen Blixen’s view of the English (read English aristocrats only), ironically unaware that Blixen would consider Fred and Emilie May socially beneath her and part of the noxious British middle class. ‘I always believed that the traditionalism of the English, that they themselves are always expressing, of their calmness and indifference being a front to hide their real feelings, in fact meant that they didn’t have any feelings at all; but now that I have come to know several of them better, I can see that many of them, even if emotion is not perhaps their strong point, have beneath their imperturbable calm at any rate a great deal of intelligence and a completely individual view of everything in life, much helpfulness and faithfulness in friendship – but not I think in love – and an absolute fearlessness that amounts to a contempt for death, and then a pleasant if not particularly interesting cleanliness of both body and soul, a straightness of thought and action, which I think is seldom found on average in other nations.’ (Letters From Africa 1914 – 1931)

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The challenges of writing Narrative Non-Fiction

It’s been five weeks since I had my first meeting and my first milestone was set: a strapline, a story arc and 20,000 words, much of it already written, so meeting the deadline six weeks away in mid-July should have been a breeze. It wasn’t and that deadline is now only four days away and I’ll just make it. Why?

My mentor Claire Wingfield set work before the first meeting to de-structure two books that have a similar structure to the Memoir I’m writing (See my blog of 8th June 2019). Through that process, especially from The Day that went Missing (Heat and Dust is fiction, but written as Memoir), I realised that I must be explicit that when creative narrative is used and has to be used. Dialogue is important to bring the story alive, to move the story and plot forward, but the events happened many years before and are only recorded in diaries, photos, diaries and newspaper cuttings.

The next part of the editing process was to consider the story arc and consider the first chapters as part of the whole book and checking that leads were laid and woven through to be picked up later. This then led to structural changes (some paragraphs were moved around, one chapter was split between two others) and content changes and additions looking at plot and setting and finding shorter, more exact ways to express myself. The result was that I had lost a few thousand words and had to write another chapter to reach the word count.

It’s been a very good process. I look forward to the feedback from Claire Wingfield and moving forward with the book.

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Grappling with straplines/loglines and tag lines

Straplines first (that’s the UK term, the American’s call them loglines). Use only 25 – 30 words in no more than two sentences. The descriptor needs three components: the protagonist, the antagonist and the goal. Don’t use names, use adjectives and descriptors, and make them strong, colourful and emotive. The stronger the better.

That was Alan B Gibson @gibsonauthor  advice at his how-to workshop on how to pin these pesky things down into a killer hook.

He gave us a fill-in-the-spaces exercise: When [inciting incident], a [protagonist] must or else [stakes/antagonist]  or In a [setting] a [protagonist] has a [problem] caused by [antagonist] and [faces conflict]

This last week I dusted down my notes and threw out attempts at the brainstorming session. This is definitely easier said than done. After pages of new drafts I’ve ended up with a new draft to work on: “Passionate 1920’s feminist seeks fame beyond the grave after war-hero husband kills the nanny thinking she was a leopard”


The catch phrase that goes on the front of the cover under the title like ‘One Ring to Rule them all’, ‘In space no one can hear you scream’. These are so good it’s not necessary to give the name of the book. I love them but I can’t write them. Nothing yet distils the essence of Emilie May’s story, or finds the emotion at the heart of it. That killer catch phrase is so far eluding me.

One thing is sure is that every book needs both a strapline (or logline) and a tagline. If you are grappling with the same problem, I would love to hear from you.

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Going back to the beginning and setting the first milestone

The mentorship starts. Before the meeting we chose these two comparative books to the memoir The Seedsman’s Daughter that I am writing. Claire gave me the brief to read the books and consider their structure within the context of narrative non-fiction – even though Heat and Dust‘s genre is fiction, it is written as if narrative non-fiction.

Both books share the same problems as I have, that the source material is mainly in letter, diary and photographic form with a general theme of fragility of memory. It’s a universal problem in this genre. Stories need dialogue to drive the story forward and narrative non-fiction should/is factual. As fiction, Jhabvala’s could freely use imagined scenes and dialogue to move the story forward. Beard invented dialogue and was upfront about it – ‘though I’m inventing her words after all this time’ (p10). I liked this.

Memoir in particular moves from the narrator to the protagonist and back, and this has to be handled so the readers don’t get confused and turned off. The mechanism in these two books was not revolutionary, symbols, new chapters and white space, but it was well done – especially in Heat and Dust, which is the reason why I chose this book to study.

Commitment for the next meeting and deadlines

  1. Writing a strapline for the book – that’s the one that’s short enough to explain the book as the lift door is closing;
  2. The book outline for feedback and discussion. Deadline mid June for feedback,
  3. Based on the feedback, the first 20,000 words by mid July for a meeting at end July.

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Day one, and a commitment (to myself) to complete The Seedsman’s Daughter, my Memoir of Emilie May, my grandmother, within a year. While on that journey I hope to find others who are on a similar journey, share a similar experience and/or find the blog interesting.

Well it’s not actually Day One, but a resumption of writing this blog from three years and one month ago. Then my intention was wider – to chart my writing journey since my return from Kenya. The blog took over from the diary of that trip in which I walked in my grandmother’s footsteps to the places she had lived in, and my quest to find KK, the house that my grandfather built 22 miles west of Kitale on the slopes of Mount Elgon.

So why did I stop writing then and why am I now restarting? What’s changed?

I stopped because my website was overwhelmed by a blitz of spam bots. Reviewing the comments to find ‘real’ comment took time, everyday. Usually, when I thought I had identified one, it turned out to be a spam bot after all, these bots are devilishly clever at disguising themselves, and once in the door the number rose exponentially. To say it was dispiriting is an understatement.

I tried anti-spam blockers but that did not deter the spammers. The only way to effectively deal with the epidemic was to close the blog to comment or pings – but what’s the point in writing a blog if nobody gets to read it. The whole point of a blog is to find an audience. Well maybe not the whole point, it’s also to create milestones and deadlines so the book gets written. When I was working as an editor or writing for magazines, I had deadlines and word count. But there are no deadlines for a personal project and the word count is whatever I decide, within sensible limits of course.

What has initiated this re-start? An agent found? A publisher? I wish but alas no, not yet. Nothing so concrete as that but I’ve reached a line in the sand nevertheless. Claire Wingfield, literary editor and author, has agreed to mentor me and the first meeting was last Friday. This is a major move forward in my goal of getting my book published. With critical honest comment and feedback, as well as agreed deadlines, this book has a real chance of getting written within a year.

Saturday morning last, I set to with great enthusiasm to get this blog written, but its taken a frustrating week to get it published – frustrating because I first had to wrestle with my website. ‘It’ wouldn’t allow me to edit or publish without ‘review’, which is obviously nonsense as it’s my blog, my website and there is no ‘reviewer’. Not being able to publish, though, is obviously a fundamental problem when writing blogs.

I went onto support forums for advice and many responded with their solution to the same problem – an upgrade to a new version. I learnt a lot of jargon, took advice and upgraded – but still I had no ability to publish. I had a different problem. Then by chance, and believe me I was running out of things to look at and patience, I saw that my database was full. That was easily expanded and proved to be the solution. I am now up and running.

As to that not-so-small problem with spammers, I’ve found an anti-spam warrior provider and with excellent reviews. I’ve paid the fee and reopened for comment. Fingers crossed for no more spam and trouble free blogging.

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April blog

Ok, my first blog. My intention is that these are at least monthly as part of my strategy to write this novel by setting goals and deadlines, but if you find it useful or interesting too then this is also good.

This is my progress to date:

I’ve completed the log of my Kenyan quest to find a remote farmhouse on the slopes of Mt. Elgon on the Kenyan Ugandan border. The journey is seen through the lens of a somewhat distant personality from the past, my grandmother, and her life. I see much of this log as back-story to weave into the book. The story is also my journey – the people I met, the ‘then and now’ environment, the smells and sheer fun of the detective work.

The detective work has continued: (1) The search could have been narrowed down if I had known that the owners of KK in 1962 were the Kerrs, that farm had become a dairy and that this dairy had since burnt down including the trees. (2) The letters make more sense. Of course she does write in shorthand because her father knew the context – as do I now I have been there – eg I now know that 1820/1 is a land registry number. (3) I also heard from Orie Rogo Manduli, who texted the history of her farm and provided another piece in the jigsaw. She also has promised to get me the title history of other farms.

Unfortunately much of the new information is back-to-front and received after I needed to know it. I knew this was a much used device to create suspense and storyline in ‘who dunnit’ fiction, but I now know it is the everyday experience of detectives.

Background reading goes on apace. I’m reading. The current books are Karen Blixen’s Letters From Africa 1914 1931, CS Nicholls Red Strangers and Julian Huxley Africa View.

Going forward:

I want to shift the distant lens to include the close up lens of today and coincidentally a friend sent me an article on John Quincy Adams by James Traubmarch. In the article Traubmarch considers the relevance of Adams today and his different moral stance based on Plato and Aristotle, and a fixed cosmos — compared to our philosophical outlook today underpinned by Darwin and Freud. After spending five years researching Adams for his book, Traubmarch concludes that Adams wasn’t like us at all. We don’t want to know what Cicero stood for to help us decide what we should stand for. We want to know what Cicero was like and what shaped him.

This set me thinking. The difference between a British Edwardian woman and a modern woman isn’t just the solar topee and clothing. It isn’t that one of them doesn’t say ‘okay’. It’s that they think differently to us today. Even such basic things as the perception of distance and the size of the world are different. If you wanted to get to Mombasa by sea in 1924, it took three weeks, via the Suez Canal or longer round the Cape. Astronauts to the Space Station orbiting the earth take 10 hours to get there (and hours to actually dock) and the Space Station takes 92.69 minutes to orbit the earth.

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Trans Nzoia Settlers and Roses

The further we go up this road, the more the poverty. Martin is shocked that Kenyans still live like this – women and children collecting water in Mutumgi (jerrycans) beside cattle drinking the same water. Primary school children are playing on a small bare earth playground beside a mud-built school. I see only brick buildings sponsored by safari.com and Coca-Cola, all the rest are traditional mud houses standing under trees surrounded by straw-coloured grass. The rainy season, called the long rains, are due to start in about four weeks. There is a glimpse of crops in the shamba at the back of the photo and the people look well-fed.

Familylife-ShuamArea1The road is black-top up to Endabess, but then red Murram. This is not good news, we are late for the meeting. Martin drives faster. On some parts of the road, the road has a steep camber on both sides of its pebbly pitted surface so a preference track has of course emerged which all cars and Matatu (minibus) use – vehicles coming from both directions.  If the preference track is on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, we lurch across at the last minute with the car pitching and bucking as if a ship on choppy water.

A red dust cloud burls down the road towards us and turns briefly into a Matatu as it passes us and is swallowed back into dust. Inside the bus I glimpse grimy people lurching like red anthills dancing. Martin grabs his phone to take a photo. “My friends won’t believe they still have Matatu ‘face me’s’ here.” The name describes the seating arrangement perfectly.

This is not a great idea, Martin needs both hands to hold the car, so Colin says: “You drive, I’ll take the picture.” Another ‘face me’ swoops at speed behind us, swaying drunkenly. There’s a man on the roof luggage – incredibly he’s waving at us.
Three kilometres from the Uganda border we reach the rose farm to meet long-term settler, Bob Andersen. My grandmother had all her roses grown by his grandfather Robert Akele for her horticultural business. Roses were his specialty. Bob gives me a catalogue from that time detailing dozens of roses for sale – as well as fruit trees. I have catalogues of my grandmothers dated 1936, 1937 and 1938 with a large section on roses to0. They are probably his.

The parallels of Bob’s Swedish grandfather Robert Akele time in Kenya and my grandmother’s are strong. Both came from famous horticultural families: my grandmother from Sutton Seeds and Robert Akele from five generations of famous horticulturists farming 1000 acres in Jonkoping, Sweden. They both chose their farms at altitudes around 6000′ – 6400′ in the Trans Nzoia because it has an ambient daytime temperature of 26 C – 28 C all year round and fertile volcanic soil offering a near perfect environment to grow fruit, roses, coffee, maize, pyrethrum and vegetables. Also the summer in Sweden lasts only three months. Robert Akele came with 45 different plants from Jonkoping and Emilie May was sent bulbs and seeds from Suttons Reading as well as Suttons India in 1920’s. They both sank their money into their venture, and like everyone else at the time, they all lost it all.

In the early days settlers were optimistic that fortunes could be made; coffee and maize prices were high – it seemed no one could lose. Robert Akele was one of those first settlers when The Kenya Colony was considered the destination for people with initiative. By 1923 he was propagating and exporting 60,000 roses. He was innovative and a visionary. He went to California and Mexico and brought back avocados, Fuerta and Pueblo, wrapped in hessian gunny bags, watering them all the way back to Chepata Farm. In the 1960’s and 1970’s they were the cash crop on the farm. Not everything was successful, he sent a drum of passion fruit to London and Sweden in 1930 but was told they would never catch on.

The 1920’s were the good years, then came the Great Depression in the 1930’s, plagues of red locusts flew over the land and the rains failed in some years. Prices halved for maize and coffee. Coffee rust saw 2000 acres of beans drop to the ground. No one had any money for roses. Most farmers went bankrupt and left, but Robert Akele sold the Swedish farm. Surely things could improve – but they didn’t. Drought came in 1953, destroying 1000 acres of wheat and maize. He lost everything. It broke Bob Andersen’s grandparents and his father inherited the farm. By 1960 the roses were grubbed out and avocados became the cash crop – which was successful until South Africa emerged from sanctions and subsidized farming.

Robert Akele and Emilie May were years before their time. Not for them the modern access to markets and refrigeration, they were at the mercy of hail, disease and locusts – quite apart from the world commodity price collapse. They were though quite right about the soil, the altitude and the climate – except that Bob told me that KK was in a microclimate hail belt of Mt Elgon.

Nine decades on, roses again bloom and avocados ripen on the tree on the Andersen farm. Flowers picked in the morning can be in the great Amsterdam flower markets within 24 hours. Roses, fruit and vegetables have become big business in Kenya with huge greenhouses, with misting systems and protection from the midday sun, block views of Lake Naivasha.

Settlers like Robert Akele and Emilie May had made this possible. They stumped out the trees, they built the murram roads, lived in mud huts while their houses were being built. And crucially, they put in their money, passion and hard work to try for that perfect bloom.

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Gertrude Mary Kuhn

Today I went to pay my respects to Gertrude Mary Kuhn – an Edinburgh lass and nanny to my mother and her two sisters – who is buried in the old cemetery in Kitale. She died on 18th September 1929 and was buried here at 5:30 pm the following day. My grandfather paid for the funeral and the headstone, but neither he nor my grandmother were able to come to the funeral because the authorities were still questioning them.

We did not know how to find the cemetery but a red-jacketed Boda Boda motorcyclist did. We followed Red Jacket and his girlfriend who swayed decorously, perched sidesaddle behind, while texting. We headed north. The town turned to shanty on one side and a eucalyptus plantation on the other – this cannot be the right direction, we were now five miles out of town. Martin waved his hand out the window and Red Jacket pulled over – Yes, he knew of another cemetery. So we headed back into town, dropped off girlfriend and went through the maelstrom of the town and out the other side – to the Commonwealth War Graves!

We pay off Red Jacket and decide to use logic – the Settler’s cemetery would be in consecrated land beside oldest Church in Kitale, wouldn’t it? We head for Anglican St Luke’s Church, the oldest according to Wikipedia. Logical but wrong. The foundation stone for this church was not put in until 18th March 1929, fully 10 years after my grandfather arrived with the District Commissioner Champion. Settlers needed earthen homes before then.

Martin asks again. Same instructions; so we retrace our steps and head north. After six miles and another enquiry we turn into a narrow lane and pull up by a stone arch leading into a rectangular grassy area with tombstones. There must be a reason the settlers chose this place for their loved ones here, but that is not apparent now. The settlers were already so far from home and this unkempt rectangle was even more remote even then. And there is no church of any denomination nearby at all. Graves from 1920’s were a small number with British, German or Boer names so presumably from different denominations therefore the eternal rest had to be irrespective of race or creed – but not colour, that barrier was not removed until after independence in1963.

DSC00050Four decades later, the 1960’s Settlers graves map could only name Gertrude Kuhn’s grave amidst other unnamed graves. Nine decades later, I could only find the general area using the photos taken last night of that map.Her grave may not be identifiable but  as long as we remember her, she lives on. Many of the gravestones are toppled face down and therefore unreadable. The quiet earthen homes are untended, the grass is long, the trees sparse with flowers. The fruit of their loins are flung far to prosper far from this place where their kind is welcome. There are few left to care or remember and seemingly none to cherish these ancestors. Indifference and time are erasing these people buried very far from home.

A man is employed to look after the cemetery and he trails after us, curious as to why two foreigners are looking at each old gravestone at the unfashionable far end of the cemetery. Newcomers to this commune of souls crowd in the area nearest the car park; their red mounds affront, like slashes between the green old graves and the pathways between. It’s a puzzle quite why these newcomers are forced on the older inhabitants, because the cemetery has plenty of space on the far side in an identical rectangular space, but only two graves, neither recent, lie there with a track beside.

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