The Ghosts of Happy Valley, by Juliet Barnes - review

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

3 August 2013

9:00 AM

The Ghosts of Happy Valley Juliet Barnes

Aurum Press, pp.320, £16.99, ISBN: 9781781310854

Rift Valley, Kenya

The other day when I told the headmaster of a top British public school that I came from Kenya, he quipped, ‘Ah, still living in Happy Valley?’

We will never shake it off, this idea of a Happy Valley in the equatorial highlands where aristocrats supposedly indulged in orgies and drugs — what Cyril Connolly dubbed the three As: Altitude, Alcohol and Adultery. It culminated in Joss Erroll’s 1941 murder. ‘Perhaps Africa was to blame,’ Connolly wrote. ‘It insinuates violence.’

It is 30 years ago that James Fox, inspired by Connolly, resurrected these tawdry events in his book White Mischief. It has never been out of print since. And who can blame readers, when you have characters like the nymphomaniac Idina Hay, or the smacked- up sex-bomb Alice de Janzé and the husband she shot at the Gare du Nord, Raymond de Trafford, whom Evelyn Waugh when he visited Kenya thought was ‘very nice but so BAD and he fights and fucks and gambles and gets disgustingly drunk all the time’.

A problem with the depiction of Happy Valley arises when you encounter stories like that of Mary Miller, to whom I am very distantly related. Juliet Barnes hears that Mary ‘lived off lorry-loads of champagne and booze before shooting herself…’ Also that she and her husband were on the edge of the notorious party set in their home near the Wanjohi or ‘Happy’ Valley, a chilly cleft in the Aberdare highlands near where Barnes herself lives today. The gossip is entirely untrue, as Barnes, a white Kenyan whose book thankfully begins to debunk the Happy Valley silliness, discovers.

Mary’s true story was even better: at 19, in Edwardian England, she was married in absentia to an old colonial in Uganda; on the ship out to British East Africa she fell in love with the Wanjohi settler David Leslie-Melville. In Mombasa they parted and she took the train inland with her grand piano. Later, she abandoned her elderly spouse and, transporting her piano by ox cart, trekked across Africa until she found David, whom she adored until he died. The poignancy of the tale is that on her long journey she got malaria and the quinine cure made her so deaf she could never again hear her piano — which today stands in my sister’s living room.

If there was a Happy Valley set, it probably numbered no more than ten — this is the estimate of the present Baron Delamere, who is Barnes’s landlord in the Rift Valley. He should know. His father took Diana, once Erroll’s girlfriend, as his wife.

Five years ago an important photographic book by Nigel Pavitt appeared — Kenya: A Country in the Making, 1880-1940 — in which you see visual proof of a completely different British East Africa story. The images are of hard toil, ox carts and ploughs, thatched huts with cow-dung walls — all in an almost empty landscape, since in 1900 Kenya had a population that was 30 times smaller than it is today.

This is the world pictured in the books of Elspeth Huxley, Gerald Hanley and other writers of Kenya’s colonial period. Erroll may have been a keen swordsman but he was also a farmer. He imported Kenya’s first Guernsey dairy cattle, while the Leslie-Melvilles introduced the first Ayrshires. And this is the picture of Kenya Barnes revives. For many years I have admired her articles about old churches and buildings across Kenya — and I recommend this beautifully written but somewhat strange and sad book.

Barnes exercises a morbid nostalgia I find rather attractive, and her story is about her visits to the farmhouses of Happy Valley. They have names like Clouds, Slains and Airdrie, and here in Africa she finds pear trees and climbing roses gone wild. The homes themselves are bat-haunted and derelict. One or two are now schools, while others were demolished, their tiles and fittings carried off to furnish huts as if this were a story of survivors looting a crashed aircraft.

Her guide through the Wanjohi is Solomon Gitau, an eccentric peasant who is ostracised by his Kikuyu neighbours because he wants to conserve the forest and the colobus monkeys that live in it, which they seem intent on destroying. Gitau is much given to nightmares in which he feels he is communing with the spirits of the dead aristocrats — hence the ghosts of the book’s title. He also observes: ‘As I read the book White Mischief I saw that there is no big difference between these white people and the modern African living in Happy Valley.’

I think Gitau and Evelyn Waugh would have got on famously, since they share the same moral irony. For on this journey Gitau helps Barnes interview African polygamists about their memories of white people who supposedly couldn’t stay monogamous. They find that Happy Valley’s ‘civilisation’ was such a thin veneer that it tore away as easily as the parquet floors of the old houses where the new peasant occupants put livestock in the bathrooms while they move into the kitchen larders. And when Barnes visits the one Happy Valley house that remains in a proper state, a female lunatic wielding a machete opens the door. Barnes has brought along an eccentric white woman who uses a pendulum to discover the authenticity of household items like a chandelier, which causes the machete woman to start shrieking.

What replaces the one-time paradise Happy Valley is a version of hell. Mobs of Christians sway to hysterical music, plastic bags clog the roads and hordes of the unemployed cluster around Barnes looking at her as if she is a freak because they have never seen a white person — all this against a backdrop of the last forests ‘fiercely burning’.

For the African Gitau and the European Kenyan Barnes, Kenya’s modern landscape is a slideshow of memories turned sad. Solomon recalls how colobus monkeys were once abundant among the trees, while Barnes has a

flashback to my own angry tears as a teen-ager, when I’d visited my grandparents’ former farm… hoping to relive happy childhood memories. The farm had been reduced to a barren, treeless waste, with no sign of the lovely old house, nor even the many varieties of fruit trees.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Aidan Hartley was born in Nairobi. He is the author of The Zanzibar Chest: A Memoir of Love and War, and The Spectator’s ‘Wild life’ columnist.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments