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
Saturday 31 July 1999
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.
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