Book Review: Guess who came to dinner?

The Africa House by Christina Lamb Viking, pounds 12.99, 346pp; A monocled Englishman built a stately home in the heart of the African bush, but detested his fellow settlers. Caroline Moorehead on the proper gent who died a Chief

ON GOOD Friday 1914, a tall Englishman wearing a monocle called Stewart Gore-Browne, who worked for the Border Commission in Northern Rhodesia, happened upon a stretch of land and fell in love. There was a lake, and behind it hills and flowering trees; and the air was clear after the rains and the sky very blue.

All through the First World War, he dreamt of returning there one day to build a house. When the war ended, he recruited 40 of the Bemba who had been working for him as porters and set off, with two somewhat truculent younger Englishmen, on the long journey to the place he now knew was called Shiwa Ngandu.

He took with him everything an Englishman would need in the bush: bicycles, a Union Flag, bed linen, crates of wine, boxes of biscuits and a gilt framed oil painting of his Aunt Ethel, which required two men to carry. Shiwa was all that he remembered. Gore-Browne bought 23,000 acres of land there, employed a team of local Africans and started work on one of the world's most bizarre follies, modelled on mansions he had seen along the Loire, in Tuscany and on English and Scottish estates. Bricks and tiles were made out of local clay and earth, using Mitchell's Advanced Course in Building Construction. Slowly, a vast manor house rose up in the African bush, which in time would include a swimming pool, a billiard room, a wine cellar, a library and an imposing tower.

Christina Lamb, in writing The Africa House, had one of those lucky breaks biographers dream of. Following up a chance encounter with one of Gore- Browne's grandchildren in Nairobi, she traced a fabulous collection of his diaries, photographs and letters.

Gore-Browne was a fanatical letter writer, producing over 100 every week. Her accounts of the details of daily life at Shiwa make enjoyable reading, for what Gore-Browne recreated in the bush was Edwardian England, with all its rituals. The Union Flag raised at 6am, the dining table set with Sheffield silver cutlery, and servants dressed in scarlet shorts and a fez (at the extraordinary expense of pounds 60 each). He changed for dinner, even when alone. One longs for more of this, and for a wider portrait of the life of other settlers like himself.

Gore-Browne was a deeply odd man but a moral one. "How miserably ashamed one is of the doings of white men out here and what a ghastly example of all the beastly vices we set," he wrote home, and he really believed in the possibility of creating a "decent, upright and uncontaminated world". Yet he carried around with him a long black stick, with which he beat clumsy builders.

He longed for someone to share his paradise and in 1927, aged 44, he married the 19-year-old daughter of a woman he had had loved. For a while, dressed in the hand-made dungarees he deplored, she managed remarkably well. He wanted a son; she produced two daughters. He called the elder Mark.

When she left him, she gave us one of her reasons that the house had been build not for her, but for his Aunt Ethel, a strong-minded woman back in England to whom he wrote constantly. Christina Lamb makes much of this relationship, sometimes on what looks like slightly flimsy evidence.

With the passing years, Gore-Browne grew ever more involved with African politics. He started behaving as few whites then did, inviting Africans to dinner. As he was often the only serving politician to feel sympathy for the African cause, he worked extremely hard on a number of different boards. Though his political career was short, he was knighted and he became the only white man, when he died in 1967, to receive both a State funeral and a Chief's burial.

The Africa House is a marvellous story. However, Christina Lamb adopts the maddening device of putting feelings into people's minds - "he thought", "he felt'". And, given the wealth of photographic material, it is sad that the pictures are for the most part printed too small to be easily identifiable. The only fine picture is a full page of Gore-Browne himself, in full military regalia, taken in the late 1930s. He has the demeanour and face of a Prussian officer, with thin lips and intelligent eyes. "If I can only leave a beautiful home for the girls and a better country for all my people at Shiwa," Gore-Browne wrote, "then it will all have been worth something".

Shiwa lies in ruins; one of his daughters was murdered in the house and the politics of what is now Zambia have reduced "his" people to a life in which arbitrary arrests, torture and censorship are routine.

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)

comedy

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own