In the twenties, and even more in the thirties, young middle class people fled from Britain, where they could not get work, to make a life in the colonies. Often they had no money, but knew they would be given land and loans. They struggled, and very often failed. If their families at home sent them their return fares, they went back to what they had left–genteel poverty–and, one presumes, to be rescued by World War Two. How many of them were there? A great many, I think, for the turnover of white people, certainly in Southern Rhodesia, was always large. There is no way now of finding out about them. What a story! What stories! Recently I read two of them, for I was sent a couple of manuscripts by women, memoirs of their lives as white settlers, one in Kenya, one in southern Rhodesia. These people, without any psychological or practical training, found themselves in the bush, usually without an acre cleared for planting, in some kind of shack, coping with floods, droughts, fires, wild animals and black labour which, forced out to work by a Poll Tax imposed for precisely that reason, were sullen, angry, inefficient. Not the least of the ironies was that the whites saw themselves as pitifully poor, and the blacks saw the whites as unreachably rich. Both were right. What comes through most strongly in these accounts is that it seemed–once these unsatisfactory members of the family had left Britain–that Britain was out of sight, out of mind. The most frequent note struck is how small sums of money–fifty pounds, twenty-five pounds–would often have saved a situation, but money was never forthcoming. That the middle classes tend to be mean to their own is well-known, but never have I seen it shown so painfully. Perhaps their families did not have any money to help out with? There was no money to help my parents: all our relatives were just surviving.

These memoirs forced me to think about the differences between my parents and those settlers who would never have left home if only they could have found what my father loathed so bitterly and left: a good, safe, respectable job. There were two kinds of immigrants: those who could not make it in Britain, and those who could, but who would not conform to ‘British respectability’. My father was one of the misfits who peopled the landscape of my growing-up, colourful characters whose eccentricities, suppressed in Britain, had plenty of room to expand in Africa.

Above all, it was my mother who was defined by these women’s memoirs: reminiscences of failure, incapacity, incompetence, muddle. They could not cope with floods and fires and snakes, or having to cook bread in ant heaps when the kitchen burned down, or making furniture from paraffin boxes, or curtains and dresses from flour sacks. They could not do more than just suffer what was happening to them, and of course they despised and feared the blacks. With what wails of self-pity and misery did they struggle to impose respectability on the veld, their main drive being to remain what they were–middle class; their fear being that they could become poor whites, on the level of the blacks, just as at home their nightmare was that they might be forced into the working class. “This continent of Africa,’ Denys Finch Hatton, says watching the little villas of sur-burbia marching across the magnificent wildness of the N’gong Hills towards Nairobi, ‘has a very fine sense of sarcasm’ (from Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa).


Herself in Love
Italo Calvino