A photograph of my mother shows her as a large, round-faced schoolgirl, full of the confidence I have to associate with her being Victorian. Her hair is tied back with a black bow. She is wearing her school uniform, a full white blouse and a long dark skirt. In a photograph taken forty-five years later, she appears as a lean, severe old thing, bravely looking out from a world of disappointment and frustration. She stands by my father, her hand on the back of his chair. He has to sit: as always, he is ill. It is clear that he is only just holding himself together, but he is in a proper suit, certainly because she has told him he must make the effort. She wears a rather smart tailored dress, made up out of a remnant bought in the sales.
The difference between these photographs is what this memoir has to be about. It seems that it has taken me a lifetime to understand my parents, with astonishments all the way. There is a mysterious process, frightening because there is nothing whatsoever you can do about it, that takes you from fierce adolescence – as if parents and you stood at either side of a battlefield, hands full of weapons – to a place where you can stand where they did, in imagination, any time you want.
Only when I sat down to write this did it occur to me that I could write about my father and hardly mention that dread word ‘class’, but with my mother it is a different matter. She never freed her judgements from thoughts of class, but then she did not see why she should. Class was then a straitjacket, an imperative, a crippler. Only that time, that place, could have produced her: London, Britain, the British Empire. But the Empire was in its last days: a thought she would have dismissed as treacherous, wrong-headed, soft.
On a mud wall of the old house on the farm in Africa where I was brought up was a large ornately framed portrait of my grandfather McVeagh. He is standing beside his second wife. He was fat-faced and over-fed, with hair slicked down on either side of a parting. He wore a tight smug suit, and a golden chain across his chest. I loathed him, this self-righteous prig, with a violence that stopped me from listening to my mother, whose reminiscences seemed only another attempt to bind me to her. Had she, had my father, not escaped from England? Why, then, was she winding me back into that shroud? I closed my ears, and I am sorry now I did. For instance, who was that elegant, fastidious lady he married? She was Jewish, with a fine curved nose and exquisite hands. Her dress was a miracle of embroidery and little tucks and lace. She came from a different world, by nature if not by class. I think she was a governess. Yet she had chosen to marry him: a thought that didn’t enter my head for years; he made two romantic marriages, this philistine bank manager.
Once I had a fit of wanting to know who my forbears were, and before I found what a fussy and tedious business it is and gave it up, I came across birth certificates of McVeaghs from Exeter and Maidstone. They were all called John and Edward and James, and were sergeants in cavalry regiments. In short, my grandfather McVeagh, or his father, had made the jump up into the middle classes, and he was as snobbish as one would expect. Yet his first marriage had been to Emily Flower, the daughter of a contractor for lightering. A marriage for love. There is no picture of Emily Flower. This is because she was such a misfortune. All my childhood I heard of this grandmother thus: ‘She was very pretty, but all she cared about was dancing and horses.’ It was said with the little cold sniff that probably derived from the servants who brought the children up after wicked Emily died, which was – my mother’s tone said it served her right – in childbirth with her third child. That was in 1888, and she was thirty-two. But how was it that the wife of a suburban bank manager was able to dance all the time and be mad about horses? In Blackheath? Blackheath was where my mother said the tall, grim, cold house was; but on Emily’s death certificate it says Canning Town.
My mother, Emily Maude, was the first child. Then came Uncle John. Then Muriel, who disgraced herself and the family by marrying back into the working class. Hardly a surprise, judged my mother, for Muriel was always happiest with the servants. In other words she was not happy in the competitive, striving atmosphere of getting on and doing well.
It was a cold home. Her father, so romantic in love, ruled his children as Victorian papas are reputed to have done, with the rod, and without love. There was no affection from the elegant stepmother, who was dutiful and correct and did not understand children. I never once heard my mother speak of her father with warmth. Respect, yes; prescribed admiration, certainly. Never love. As for her stepmother, she might have been a visitor or a distant relation.
Emily was clever at school, much cleverer than her brother John, who was destined for the Navy, and who found the exams difficult. He had to be coached and pushed and prodded. She loved examinations, came first in class, adored mathematics, and was expected for a time to become a professional pianist.
The children, as was proper in this Forsytian world, were taken to all public occasions of rejoicing or grief; and my mother spoke of Mafeking night, Queen Victoria’s funeral, the coronation of Edward VII, exhibitions, the visits of the Kaiser and of foreign heads of government, as if these milestones were the only possible way to mark the passing of a childhood.
If there was little family life, there was an energetic social life full of friends she kept in touch with for years, even from the farm in Africa. She played tennis and lacrosse and hockey and went on bicycle trips. There were musical evenings. They drew portraits of each other and pictures of appropriate landscapes; wrote humorous and sentimental verses to mark anniversaries. They pressed flowers and collected shells, birds’ eggs and stones. They visited the theatre with suppers afterwards at the Trocadero. All this went on in London: she was essentially urban, this woman who would find herself on a farm in the veld.
Modern-minded John William McVeagh, proud of his clever daughter, was thinking of university for her, but was confronted with a rebellious girl who said she wanted to be a nurse. He was horrified, utterly overthrown. Middle-class girls did not become nurses, and he didn’t want to hear anything about Florence Nightingale. Any skivvy could be a nurse, and if you become one, do not darken my door! Very well, said Emily Maude, and went off to the old Royal Free Hospital to begin her training. It was hard: conditions were bad, the pay was low, but she did well, and when she brilliantly passed her finals, her father was prepared to forgive her. She had done it all on her own, without him.
Whom, then, did she love, this poor girl brought up without affection? She was fond of her brother John, but this was a far from simple emotion, and of course he was at boarding school most of the time. Her sister Muriel was not her sort. Her many and varied friends? They were good sports, pals . . . . Why did she fight so hard to become a nurse, if not that she needed to care for and to nurture people and to be loved for it? I have only just had this thought: I could have had it before.
Her training completed, she resumed, as far as possible, her social life. She had given up dreams of being a pianist, but continued to play the organ for churches, for instance, in Langham Place. She was part, in a small way, of the musical life of London. ‘I could have been a real concert pianist,’ she would say, until the end of her days. ‘I had my LRAM. The Examiners told me I should go on.’ I wonder at her energy. Nurses worked harder then than now. Yet there were musical evenings, and concerts and excursions. Also, holidays – always sea trips, for she loved the sea. She read, too, as did my father. Both knew enough of Wells and Shaw to be affected, and both judged society from a perspective of critical independence. There was a generation of young people, before the First World War, for whom Wells and Shaw played the same tutoring role as Orwell did later.
Then began the War. 1914. She was a sister in the Royal Free Hospital, nursing the wounded soldiers who arrived in train-loads from the trenches. She had an album with verses written by the men she nursed back to life, and she appears as the traditional martinet with a heart of gold.
My father, at that time, was fighting in the trenches. He had two periods there. The first was ended by a timely appendix, otherwise he would have been killed with all his company in the Battle of the Somme. The second, timely again, was when he was wounded – shrapnel in the leg – preventing him from being killed with every other man in the company, at Passchendaele. I do not know exactly how long he was in the trenches, but altogether it was months. He said he was lucky not to have been killed a dozen times over. But the war did him in nevertheless: he lost his leg, and was psychologically damaged. He went into the fighting active and optimistic, and came out with what they then called shell shock. He was in bed for months. My mother nursed him. He was very ill, she said, and what was so worrying was his state of mind. I have a photograph of him in bed in the Royal Free Hospital, a handsome man, but minus a leg and inwardly in torment. Beside him Sister McVeagh sits wearing her full white veil, sewing, her eyes on her handiwork. ‘Before she was thought of,’ says the caption, meaning me, their first child. The date is September 1917.
She was thirty-three, a year older than her mother had been when she died giving birth to her third child. Sister McVeagh was facing a hard, a very hard, choice. She had been asked if she would accept the matronship of St George’s Hospital – an honour, at her age. Usually much older women became matrons and ran great hospitals. But she liked nursing: did she want to become an administrator? Besides, matrons were such martinets! She had suffered under these formidable women, did she want to become one? And here was Captain Tayler, of whom she had become very fond, wanting to marry her. There were no men left, they were all killed. Would she be asked again? She had always thought of herself as – had always been told she was – very plain. Did she want to marry him? Did she want to marry at all, since her real love, the man she ought to have married, was dead?
He had been a young doctor in the hospital with whom, my father confirmed, she had had an understanding. His little picture, torn out of a newspaper that recorded his death by drowning in a ship sunk by the Germans, stood forever on her dressing table. He had a soft, boyish face. The understanding between them, the death, my mother’s unhappiness were observed by my father who always spoke of him with pain. ‘Your poor mother,’ he would say, ‘he was a good chap, that young doctor.’
It took her a long time to decide, and she became ill with the strain of it all. As a nurse she should have known what she had to face in a man so damaged. Later she would say, often: ‘If we knew when we were young what was going to happen to us, then . . . . ‘
She really had no idea, then or ever, of the mental world my father lived in. I am not only talking of his depression after the war. Quite simply, he had a dimension that she lacked. For a long time I thought it was the awfulness of the war that had given him his sensitiveness to other people, his broadness of outlook. Their experiences, after all, had not been so different. His upbringing had been as bad as hers – savage, I was going to say, and yes, the word can stand: her impatient ruthlessness, I once thought, was the legacy of her childhood. But he had been much beaten at school and at home, over-disciplined, and harshly misunderstood. He, like her, had escaped as soon as he could. Years later I met people who had known him as a young man – and what the war had done was to confirm his essential nature: he had always been contemplative and philosophical. ‘Your father had his own way of seeing things,’ cried a former girlfriend, ‘and I would often rather not have known what he was thinking.’ And another said, not without ambiguity, that she had never been so well understood. He was kind; he was generous; she had not met anyone like him; but there was something detached in him which was hard to take. And this detachment was a part of his deepest characteristic – an understanding of impermanence, change.
I believe that his nature, so different from hers, was why my mother married him. She knew she had limitations – how could she not, brought up constantly against this magnanimity in everything? ‘Don’t you see, old girl, that’s how things are?’ he would say, amazed at her pettiness, her inability to see: he had been watching Life at it again, working out one of its little games. He was unsurprised, interested: she, always, rebellious.
To put her dilemma squarely: what she respected most in him, what gave her access to a largeness she would never have known without him, was precisely what did both her and him in: these fine ways of thinking, his scope, were always overthrowing her best self, which was a magnificent commonsense. She had married a weak man, then? But his weakness was obviously stronger than her strength, always pulling her further away from what would best suit her. A weak man? Yet he was not weak by nature; it was the war that had distorted him. Weak! How else could you describe him? Always refusing to make judgements, take stands; always insisting on what he called the long view – you’d think there was nothing he respected . . . . And yet. Life was not a simple business; she suspected he was nearer to understanding it than she would ever be.
I have an image of them, confronting Life in such different ways. He looks it straight in the face, with a dark, grim, ironical recognition. But she, always being disappointed in ways he could never be, has a defiant, angry little air: she has caught Life out in injustice again. ‘How can you!’ she seems to be saying, exasperated, to Life. ‘It’s not right to behave like that!’ And she gives a brisk, brave little sniff.
They were married. They did not feel up to a proper wedding. For one thing they were Wells and Shaw people, and white weddings were ridiculous (obviously soon to become obsolete!), and for another, his mother disapproved of Sister McVeagh: she was going to rule him with a rod of iron, said this ruler with the rod. My father was elegant, as always, when he still cared about clothes. My mother wore a dress she clearly had given a lot of thought to: only recently, when I was writing the Jane Somers books, did I realize that my mother (who could, I think, be something like Jane Somers if she lived now) very much enjoyed clothes, even though for most of her life she did not have the money to buy them, or the opportunity to wear them.
It was on the wedding night, they joked, that my mother must have got pregnant, though they were armed with the works of Marie Stopes, and had decided not to have a baby yet, if at all. He was still so low in spirits: he simply did not seem able to pull himself out of his ugly state of mind. And she was ill, she did not know why, but it was probably overwork from the war. And there was all that flu about, so many people dying everywhere: everything was so depressing after the war. It was 1919.
They left for Persia. He had to leave England – he couldn’t stand it – so why not Persia? My mother, being a woman of her time, was ready to go off and live in the Middle East, even though she knew nothing about it A close friend was a missionary in Japan; her brother John, never at home in the Navy, was about to become a rubber planter in Malaya.
Persia was then divided into spheres of influence, mainly French and British. Britain had finance, and my father was going to manage a bank in Kermanshah. Before the war he had been a clerk in a bank, and to have to go back to it was awful for him; but at least he was getting out of England, where he knew he could never live again. Coming back from the trenches he felt as all the soldiers of that war did: betrayed by the politicians who had lied to them and did not keep promises; betrayed by the civilians who talked patriotic nonsense and had no idea of what the trenches were like; betrayed by the jingoistic newspapers; betrayed by the Armistice which would make another war inevitable. It was stupid to treat the Germans like this, one should take the long view. None of the Tommies felt vindictive. Any Tommy could tell the politicians they were being stupid. A funny thing, wasn’t it? he would demand all his life (my mother half agreeing with him, feeling that she should, while her nature rebelled): any ordinary person could see it, the politicians couldn’t. Why is it that ordinary people have so much more sense than politicians when it is the politicians’ job to be sensible?
This was the first time in her life when my mother would need a lot of clothes, and she took trunks full of them. She also took the necessities for a middle-class nursery as prescribed by one Dr Trudy King and other mentors. The layette for a baby then consisted of dozens of everything. Napkins thick and thin, and napkin liners. Vests long and short, inner and outer. Petticoats of various lengths, of flannel and of lawn, embroidered and tucked and edged with lace. Long and short dresses of pin-tucked and embroidered lawn. Caps. Shawls. Not to mention binders made of thick material which supported the baby’s stomach as if it were a wound from which entrails might spill. This layette itself must have been enought to dismay any woman, make her feel helpless, feel at least that an ordeal lay ahead. It all assumed servants of course. Those exquisite dresses alone took hours to iron, not to mention the dressing and undressing of the helpless infant, who was also supposed to be fed every two or three hours day and night, and, if bottle-fed – a recommended practice – the preparations were like those for a surgical operation.
I used to read those lists on the farm in Rhodesia, dazzled by incredulity: I was surrounded by black babies living contented and naked inside a fold of cloth on their mother’s backs.
It was ‘Maude’ and ‘Michael’ Tayler who arrived in Persia. My mother had always disliked Emily, I suppose because it was the name of her mother, but she liked Maude, because of Tennyson’s Maud. She had been trying to shed Emily for years. She would not have Alfred for my father: a common name. And what did he think about it? I can hear him: ‘Oh Lord, old thing, who cares? What does it matter? If it makes you happy, then . . . . ’ He was made Michael because of Peter Pan.
The Westminster Bank allotted Maude and Michael an enormous house, made of stone that was carved and fretted, with great arches along the verandahs and arched windows, and surrounded by wonderful gardens. Servants – gardeners, cooks, people who cleaned the house, shopped – did everything. My mother hardly mentioned the servants, except to say that households were regulated by protocol, and that the mistress of the house knew her place and did what she was told. She thought this amusing: not a hint here of what in Africa became a neurotic preoccupation: the shortcomings of the black servants.
For my father Kermanshah was what he had dreamed of: an ancient town on a high empty brown landscape, the high blue sky, the mountains all around with the snow on them. When I went to Granada for the first time I knew it was like Kermanshah: gardens, the sounds of water running everywhere, the smell of the dust… My father was managing the bank; he was not at anybody’s beck and call. He rode everywhere, for he would not allow his wooden leg to make him less active. He liked the spacious house, and the release, at least to an extent, from English respectability.
My mother was having a difficult pregnancy, morning sickness being only one of the complications. She was expecting a son, Peter John. Why did she not even consider the possibility of a daughter? Her passionate identification with a son was, I think, because of her brother John, who was not clever, did not care very much what he did, and yet went as if by right into the Navy. I think she most bitterly envied him, but to feel like this was not being a good sort. She was the one born to be an officer in His Majesty’s Navy! She was the clever one, who adored everything about the sea, about ships, was never seasick. She was resourceful and quick-witted. She was decent and good-humoured and able to get on with people. An authoritarian personality, happy in a structured life, she was able to take and to give orders. Of course, the negative aspects of this particular personality were also hers: the inability to put herself into the shoes of people who were different; a contempt for weakness; a lack of understanding of what she described as ‘morbid’: the ambiguous, the witty, the equivocal – these areas would always be suspect, and she was threatened by them.
I can only guess, hurt for her, at how much she must have felt frustrated as a girl, seeing her slow brother get what ought to have been hers too. And yet she never said anything, except in jolly little jokes, brave jokes. What she felt had to come out indirectly.
The birth was difficult. I was delivered with forceps that left a scarlet birthmark over one side of my face. Above all, I was a girl. When the doctor wanted to know my name, and heard that none had been prepared, he looked down at the cradle and said softly, ‘Doris?’ This scene: the doctor’s weariness after the long night, his soft, tactful, but reproachful query, was vividly enacted by my mother, like many other scenes.
Of course I resented it all bitterly, particularly that she did not even see that it was likely to make me angry. How could she stand there, with her customary determined little smile, her brisk social manner, telling me that I was not wanted in the first place; that to have a girl was a disappointment that nearly did her in altogether, after that long labour; that she had no milk for me and I had to be bottle-fed from the start and I was half-starved for the first year and never stopped screaming because she did not realize that cows’ milk in Persia was not as rich as real English milk; that I was an impossibly difficult baby, and then a tiresome child, quite unlike my little brother Harry who was always so good. And so she let the nurse cope with me, and looked after Harry herself.
Better say, and be done with it: my memories of her are all of antagonism, and fighting, and feeling shut out; of pain because the baby born two and a half years after me was so much loved when I was not. She would recognize none of this, nor accept it. The way she saw it was that her childhood had been cold and loveless, and she would make sure that her children were governed by love. Love was always being invoked; and I became an expert in emotional blackmail by the time I was five. She didn’t like me – that was the point. It was not her fault: I cannot think of a person less likely than myself to please her. But it would have been impossible for her to admit it: a mother loves her child, a child its mother. And that’s that!
My father hated it when he was transferred to Tehran, to a branch of the bank where he was not manager and had to work under someone else, and where he had to live in a house he thought English and stuffy. But my mother loved it. At last, suitable nurseries, instead of those great stone rooms that curtains and rugs could not soften. I remember the tall square day-nursery, the heavy red velvet curtains and the lace ones behind them, the brass fender with the tall dangerous fire, the suffocating plenty of things, things, things. And, of course, my brother, the ‘baby’ (he was called Baby until he was seven and fought for self-determination) who was the centre of everything. And the scolding, fussy nurse.
In Tehran my mother also loved the social life, which was like the pleasures of her girlhood over again. About ‘the Legation set’ she would talk wistfully in Africa, while my father, half sighing, regarded her with his familiar expression: incredulity, curiosity, held in check by irony. How could she enjoy those boring jolly evenings with boring jolly people? He loathed musical evenings, with people singing the Indian Love Lyrics and ‘The Road to Mandalay’ to each other, while my mother played. (She played alone, for her own pleasure, music these people found highbrow.) He hated the dinner parties, receptions, garden parties and picnics; she could not have enough of them. He would tell the story of a certain Englishman in Persia who, urged by his family to let them have a picnic, put his children on donkeys, blindfolded them, and had them led around and around the garden for an hour, when they were unblindfolded, and saw the feast prepared for them in a corner of their own garden. Meanwhile he retired to the library. A fellow spirit! My mother only laughed. ‘Don’t you dare try it,’ she said.
Persia, particularly Tehran, was the best time in my mother’s life.
When they had been in Persia for five years, leave was due, after which they intended to come back. He did not much want to: would he really have to work in a bank for the rest of his life? He had had a country childhood, and always wanted to be a farmer.
It was summer, the Red Sea a furnace, and dangerous for children. They decided – which means, my mother decided – to travel back across Russia. Ours was the first family to use that route after the Revolution, through the Caspian to Moscow. 1924, and everything was in chaos. On an oil tanker in the Caspian, my mother sat up all night to keep the lights on us, for there were swarms of lice. A shadow fell on an arm: mine, which became red and swollen with bites. Typhus abounded. The trains were ancient, also lice-ridden, no food on them. On every station were crowds of starved children, orphans; and the peasant women selling a hard-boiled egg or some bread had to defend themselves against these besprizorniks, when my mother got off to buy something, anything at all, to eat. She was still on the platform once when our train left without her. I remember the terror of it: she had vanished. It took her a day and a half to catch up. She had to fight her way on to a goods train, had to ‘tell them what to do – they didn’t know – I had to make them telegraph our train to wait for me.’ All in English, of course. At the frontier, informed that we did not have the right visas, she had told the man at Immigration not to be so silly. For years my father collapsed into laughter, remembering the poor ragged half-starved Bolshevik with a rifle ‘that wouldn’t bring down a pigeon,’ confronted by a British matron. ‘Oh Lord,’ wept my father, ‘I can see it now. Don’t be silly, she said, and he was raring to shoot the lot of us.’ ‘Did I get us in or did I not?’ demanded my mother, not really understanding why he laughed so much, but knowing she was in the right. ‘Oh, you got us in all right!’
In Moscow, in the hotel, the chambermaids begged to bath and dress us, because they had not seen normal well-fed children. My mother spoke of this with calm, proprietary pride: that the Russians were in this terrible disorganized condition was of course only another proof of the virtues of the British and our Empire.
Six months leave, in England. My memories of it are many, all of cold, damp, dreariness, ugliness, a series of snapshots illustrating my loathing for the place. My parents took us to visit relations, such as my mother’s stepmother, now a distinguished old lady living on a minute pension. They did not enjoy it. My father wanted only to leave England, even more stuffy than he remembered, and my mother yearned to return to Tehran. They visited the 1924 Empire Exhibition at Wembley, and the Southern Rhodesia stand had maize cobs eighteen inches long, and the posters, yards high, claimed that anyone could make his fortune in maize farming within five years.
My father had about £1,000 capital and a pension because he had lost his leg in the War. This was his chance.
What did they imagine they were going to? Certainly they expected a social life not unlike that in Tehran, for my mother had trunks full of clothes from Harrod’s. Also curtains and hangings from Liberty’s, and visiting cards. Also a governess, Biddy O’Halloran, aged twenty-one. Perhaps they had heard of the lively goings-on in Nairobi? Not that my mother would have approved of those fast ways. She could not approve of Biddy, who had shingled hair and wore lipstick. These modern girls . . . all her life my mother would use phrases like this, without inverted commas.
It must have been painful, giving up Tehran, to go off to be a farmer’s wife in yet another new country. She would not really have minded staying in England – that is to say, London. She was still, every fibre of her, a Londoner. Remembering England, she thought of the streets, buses, trams, theatres, parks, of London. She did not mind the conventional in the way my father did. If he had been prepared to go back into the Westminster Bank somewhere in London, she would have given up the pleasures of Tehran with equanimity. And then she would have lived out her life in conformity with her nature, a useful and energetic middle-class woman in, let’s say, Wimbledon.
Instead, she set off for the middle of Africa with her crippled husband, who was steadily getting more prickly and solitary, with practically no money, and her two children, one of whom was born to be a trouble and a sorrow to her. Did she know anything about Africa, or about farming? Not a thing! But it didn’t seem to matter.
I think she saw Africa as some little interlude, a station on her way, soon to be passed. Nothing had ever happened to my mother to prepare her for what she would find.
It was a slow German boat. My mother loved the gales that sent the other passengers below, leaving her on the bridge with the captain. This, and the deck games and the fancy-dress parties, made up for her husband, who wanted only to sit and watch the sea, and for her daughter, who was being consistently impertinent, and who cut up her evening dresses with scissors when she was forced to go to bed early so as not to interfere with the evening’s good times. The boat loafed around the Cape to Beira where they caught the train to Salisbury. Outside Salisbury was a place called Lilfordia that boarded settlers while they were buying farms. (Lilfordia was the farm of ‘Boss’ Lilford, later Ian Smith’s guide and mentor.) My mother left her children with the governess, and went with her husband by Scotch cart to look at farms. The settlers were being offered land at about ten pounds an acre (at today’s values), the money advanced by the Land Bank. The land had been cleared of the black people who had been living on it: they were despatched to the Reserves, or told to move to land that hadn’t yet been allocated to whites. This was ‘opening up the country for white civilization,’ a description my mother never could see any reason to criticize.
The farm they bought was in Lomagundi, seventy miles from Salisbury, a modest 1,500 acres, but we were free to run our cattle, and to cut grass and wood on the miles of government land which remained unallocated all the time we were there. Our farm, then, was at the frontier of ‘white civilization’ with nothing between us and Portuguese East Africa a couple of hundred miles away.
The land was sparsely settled, the farms huge. The nearest farmhouses to ours were three, four, five miles away. It was virgin bush: a few trees had been cut for mine furnaces. Every kind of animal lived there: sable, eland, kudu, bushbuck, duiker, anteaters, wild cats, wild pigs, snakes. There were flocks of guineafowl, partridges, hawks, eagles, pigeons, doves – birds, birds, birds. Dawns were explosions of song; the nights noisy with owls and nightjars and birds whose names we never knew; all day birds shrilled and cooed and hammered and chattered. But paradise had already been given notice to quit. The leopards and baboons had gone to the hills, the lions had wandered off, the elephants had retreated to the Zambesi Valley, the land was emptying.
But it was still a wilderness that my parents were taking on. The farm itself was approached by a disused mine track, a dirt road. The railway was seven miles away. Not one acre had been cleared for planting. The labourers were people who had been savagely defeated in a war thirty-five years before, and who left their villages and came out to work only because they had to pay the Poll Tax imposed on them precisely to make them work.
Having found their farm, my parents came back to collect the children. Their daughter as usual had been very naughty indeed, much worse than ever before: she had lied, stolen, run away, sulked and screamed. My mother knew it was all the fault of this travelling about: children need an ordered existence. She got us into a covered wagon drawn by twenty or so oxen, while her husband rode alongside it on his horse. The journey took five days. Inside the wagon was everything they possessed.
While the trees were being cleared off the hill where the house was to be built, we lodged at the gold mine just over the ridge.
Settlers always built themselves mud and thatch huts, joined by verandahs, and were expected to last only a year or so, to be replaced after the first good season by brick and tin. Our house was a single elongated hut, divided into four rooms. Its walls were of mud smeared over poles and whitewashed, the roof thatch cut from the grass in the vleis, the floor of stamped mud and dung.
All the floors were covered with black linoleum, and furniture was made from petrol and paraffin boxes stained black and curtained with flour sacks that were dyed and embroidered by my mother. In the front room, which had windows all around it, ‘like the prow of a ship’ as my mother insisted, were Persian rugs, Liberty curtains, a piano and the heavy display silver of the period.
While my mother supervised the gang of black men building the house, my father watched the teams who cleared the bush for planting.
Then there was the business of Biddy O’Halloran, who turned out so badly. She had definitely expected something like Nairobi, and found herself stuck in this lonely and savage place with suitors of the wrong class. Every unattached male for fifty miles came visiting to propose to her, and she did not have as much time for the children as my mother thought was due. There were quarrels, and she departed back home. Then, about a year after the arrival in Africa, my mother became ill and took to her bed and stayed there. It was her heart! It is clear now that she was in an acute anxiety state, was having a breakdown. Neither her doctor in Salisbury, nor she (a nurse) could see it. The worst for her, of course, was the isolation. What my father revelled in – for he had at last found the life that suited him – was destroying her. Having always been surrounded by people, she now had only the blacks, towards whom she had had from the start all the attitudes typical of the settler: they were primitive, dirty, stupid. She was never able to see that there was anything interesting in them. Her neighbours were lower-middle class and working class, mostly Scottish, who had come out before the War and had got rich on maize. She did not want to seem snobbish, but what did she have in common with them? She had no intention of spending her life talking about gardening and recipes and dress patterns. But that was what her life now was, just like theirs.
She got out of bed, complained of a thousand aches and pains, went back again. She complained continually, and it was unlike her, for it simply wasn’t done to make a fuss! She lay in a bed specially made by a neighbour who ran a timber mill, with attachments for books and magazines, and summoned her children to her throughout the day, to comfort her. ‘Poor sick Mummy,’ she insisted, and we responded with fervent but (in my case at least) increasingly resentful embraces.
But this was certainly not all that went on at her bedside. Early childhood is when children learn best, and nothing was going to get in the way of our instruction, according to Montessori. In and out of bed, she read to us, told us stories; she was a marvellous teacher of small children. We were taught geography by means of piles of mud and sand left over from the house building – making continents and countries and mountains that hardened in the sun and that, for oceans and rivers, could be filled with water. She taught us arithmetic with seeds and hens’ eggs and baby chicks. She made us understand the solar system through games in which we were planets, the moon, the sun. We were made to notice stars, birds, animals. For a while we were taught by a correspondence course, but its lessons were not nearly as good as hers, and she ordered us books from England, and two periodicals whose impossibly high standards of writing would find no equal today. The Children’s Newspaper offered news about discoveries, inventions, archaeological finds, beasts and birds, and the Merry-Go-Round printed stories and poems by writers like Walter de la Mare and Eleanor Farjeon. It was my mother who introduced me to the world of literature into which I was about to escape from her.
And then my mother got herself out of bed, and went on living. She had been ill for a year. I wonder if she ever understood that her illness had been a way of denying what she knew she had to face. What courage that must have taken! I know it and I admire it, but I can’t put myself in her place. It was the farm, the veld, that she hated, that trapped her. She was planning, scheming, dreaming of escaping from it, from the moment she arrived. But the farm, the veld, Africa is to me, quite simply, the luckiest thing that ever happened.
Writing about my mother is difficult. I keep coming up against barriers, and they are not much different now from what they were then. She paralysed me as a child by the anger and pity I felt. Now only pity is left, but it still makes it hard to write about her. What an awful life she had, my poor mother! But it was certainly no worse than my father’s, and that is the point: he was equipped by nature for hard times, and she was not. He may have been a damaged, an increasingly sick man; she was strong and full of vitality. But I am not as sorry for him as I am for her. She never understood what was happening to her.
Photograph by South African Tourism