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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The Barnley’s

Today we went to stay the night with long term settlers the Barnley’s – Jane Barnley in her 90th year and son Richard who’s Colin’s age. There must be something in the Kenyan water because Jane and Sylvia Davidson are remarkable for their age. I had been hoping that Jane would remember my mother and Valerie since they were the same age.  They are unlikely to have known each other in Kitale because Jane lived 23 km north of Kitale and my mother and Valerie lived 22 km to the South West of Kitale – all three went to Limuru Girls School and were therefore presumably in the same class. Alas no, it’s too long ago.

The Barnley’s lovely old bungalow is set in five acres of garden near the Cherangani Hills with mature native trees and five colobus monkeys, a breeding colony with a baby. These beautiful monkeys have nowhere else to go because all native habitat has been destroyed between this haven and Saiwa National Park 5 km away.

There is a direct consequence from this destruction for humans. Richard said that they had sold a sweet water spring with land adjacent to their house, and the new owners had cut down the native trees. The spring dried up so they planted quick growing but thirsty Eucalyptus! The spring came back but as a small trickle. It seems so obvious: no trees = reduced rain = springs dry up. The Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado made the connection and planted back part of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil which brought back rain to the drought stricken land.  How long will it take before the penny drops elsewhere?

During tea in the Barnley’s cosy sitting room with a lit fire – this may sound strange, but it is 6000′ here and when the sun goes down there is a nip in the air – Richard said that the bread and butter of his guesthouse business is returning settlers or descendants trying to find their roots. He keeps copies of the land survey map –  the same that Sylvia Davidson had had with the names against block numbers – and we gratefully bought one for a small fee. This will be a great addition to help with the quest.

imageRichard also had a 1960’s map of the settler’s graveyard from the beginning of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly the oldest dates were in the middle at the top end. Some of the names were missing but there was Mrs Kuhn – without her first name or date of death but recorded and therefore remembered. The photo above is of this map pointing to Mrs Kuhn’s grave site. I added the date of her death, 17th September 1929, onto Richard’s copy and Colin took a photo. Poor Mrs Kuhn, the children’s nanny, killed thinking she was a leopard. The circumstances so odd that it seems probable the poor woman had gone a bit mad.

Mrs Kuhn had arrived on 4th January 1928, my mother and her twin Valerie’s second birthday. Her arrival marked the end of a desperate search to secure a nanny – a French and an Irish nanny had not worked out at all. The former had taken one look at the house, without any electricity and isolated, and refused to stay, the latter was unable to discipline the children to my grandmother’s satisfaction. Subsequently an English nanny with passage paid had found a husband in her boat out to Mombasa and broken contract. Establishing the farm took all the energy of my grandparents and, in any case, Edwardian ladies did not do child-rearing.

Mrs Kuhn had been interviewed and contracted by my great grandfather, Leonard Sutton who had also paid her passage. Her arrival was greeted with great relief and my grandmother left the following weekend for Uganda with ladies from the Kitale Club for a get together in Entebbe, Uganda for a week. Despite living with this longed-for, indispensable woman in a small house miles from anywhere, to whom she entrusted sole charge of her three very young children when she went away for breaks, she never referred to her by her first name, it was always the formal ‘Mrs Kuhn’. Later I found that her name was Gertrude Mary Kuhn from an official Notice in the digitised on-line Kenya Gazette Archives following Letters of Administration.

Musing this, and with another piece in the jigsaw, we turned in. Tomorrow we’ll be up at 6 am to go to Saiwa national Park to see birds.

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