‘And do you think, Dame Freya,’ an interviewer once asked Freya Stark, ‘that travel broadens the mind?’ There was a pause. The explorer pondered; a distant, reflective gaze settled on her face. The young man sat back, well pleased to see his question taken so seriously: for a minute, he could have been forgiven for thinking he was onto a winner. At last it became clear that Dame Freya was about to pronounce. He lent forward, expectantly. ‘No,’ the clear voice enunciated with extreme finality. ‘No.’ There was nothing more to be said.
Travel books, like no other, and perhaps not like travel, possess that peculiar charm of being able to carry the reader for an instant of irresponsibility from the gloom of a northern winter afternoon into the heat of the tropics. They leave a smell of the impossible. Individually they may not be profound; they may not, like travel, be broadening. But the pleasure and the power are enormous. This taste of the unfamiliar has of course to come from the travellers themselves, from their expectations and their sense of the new. It is what they bring with them, and what, exhausted, exhilarated or astonished, they carry away.
Lovers on the Nile is Richard Hall’s account of Samuel Baker’s voyage in search of the Mountains of the Moon with his young companion Florence. It is not so much a biography as the story of a seven-year travelling honeymoon. In fact, the book flows at an easy pace, but only once the lovers are embarked upon their journey: before that, in the summary of Baker’s early life and the background to the expedition, the narrative falters a little. As with so many Victorian travels, the voyage itself is almost indescribable in its litany of disasters. The reader marvels at the way the travellers survived. But survive they did, and they were still the people they were when they set out, even though they had been physically attacked, and had come down with repeated bouts of malaria and dysentry. For one entire week Florence was unconscious with exhaustion and heat stroke, having fallen into a coma while crossing a swamp. She awoke to the sound of men digging her grave.
In 1851, having been thwarted by the Royal Geographic Society in his desire to join Livingstone in Central Africa, and prevented from looking for Speke and Burton, then in search of the vast lakes that were said to be the sources of the Nile, Samuel Baker left London with the effete-looking Maharajah Duleep Singh to shoot wild boar in Serbia and bears in Transylvania. The pair got stuck in Widdin, the main Turkish fortress in the Balkans. To pass the time, they attended a slave auction, and it was there that Baker, a widower with four daughters – who was never in his life to mention the incident – bought a slave girl, a slim, small teenage Hungarian called Florenz Barbara Maria Finian. She was 17, he was 38.
The event, and his new, not easily explained companion, only made him more keen to travel, to escape the prying eyes of his family for the time he needed to sort out what he would do about her. Now, as he set his mind more firmly on Africa, he wrote nothing of Florence’s existence, but explained somewhat tendentiously: ‘I am going to Khartoum, and thence God only knows where, in search of the sources of the Nile.’ The future Lady Baker’s first home in Africa was a thatch and wood hut on the banks of the Atbara, where Florence laid out a piece of chintz and placed on it her brushes, her scent and a mirror. It is at this point that the extraordinariness of this little-known story starts to carry the book along.
Neither then, nor later, was Florence prepared to be a mere camp follower. ‘She was not,’ declared Baker with pride, ‘a screamer.’ She soon became a good shot, she learnt some Arabic, she sewed Samuel a pair of laced gaiters out of gazelle leather to keep out the thorns. And when Speke, with whom they finally met up at Gondokoro, advised Baker to go in search of the Dead Locust Lake, since, as he put it, the ‘Nile is settled,’ there was no question but that she would go too. She left for the march into the interior in loosely-cut breeches and knee-length gaiters.
And yet the Florence who returned with Baker to England stares out of the Victorian photograph with all the primness and trappings of a colonial wife. If her eyes look rather wild, her jaw a little defiant, they are the only things that betray the irregularity of her position: that, Baker’s companion for seven perilous and tempestuous years, she was still not his wife. Samuel Baker and Florence arrived in London on the day of Palmerston’s funeral; they were married as soon as a special license could be obtained, and then, but only then, did Baker tell his daughters about their step-mother.
In 1870 the Bakers were off again. By now the man who had discovered and named Lake Albert and the Murchison Falls had been knighted, fêted by the London social and literary world, and befriended by the Prince of Wales. (Florence, universally acclaimed and admired, had still not been received by Queen Victoria, who had somehow got wind of the illicit seven years.) This second trip, to bring ‘peace, commerce and freedom’ to the centre of the African continent, was yet more frightful than the first. At one point the Bakers were surrounded by hostile tribes, their companions were murdered and they themselves nearly perished. Never did Florence seem to lose her calm: but never, either, did she lose that sense of rightness that seems to sustain the Victorian heroines, the feeling that the example and worth of what they stand for must be so overwhelmingly apparent to anyone who sees it that it cannot but triumph. In the house the Bakers built for themselves at Masindi, in the Kingdom of Kabba Rega, they hung gold-framed mirrors, sporting prints and life-sized posters of beautiful women in evening dress. It was all part of the absolute certainty that by imposing etiquette and ritual on alien and hostile surroundings, they could at the same time impose order of a familiar kind.
Florence set off on her journey up the Nile in 1861. Half a century later, another Englishwoman arrived in Africa: Nellie Grant. The continent she found was vastly different from the one Florence Baker left: tamed, colonised. But she, too, brought with her that immutable image of herself as English, as responsible, as fair. The record she kept in Nellie: Letters from Africa is a monument to that breed of Late Victorian travelling lady. She also brought with her great charm, and the solidity that comes from a conviction that what you are doing is right. Dora Russell made the point perfectly in the first volume of her autobiography: ‘As citizens of the British Empire we had been indoctrinated in a rather smug dignity, which offered us certain privileges, but at the same time, certain responsibilities. Maybe we had little need to search for our identity, it was only too well established for us.’
Nellie Grant was 27, not that much older than Florence, when she arrived in the East African Protectorate, as Kenya was called before World War One, to 500 acres of fertile and very wild country at Thika, 30 miles north of Nairobi. First here, later at Njoro in the Rift valley, Nellie farmed usually on her own, beset by drought, flood and financial ruin, but experimenting all the time with different herds, new vegetables, strange crops and a variety of poultry. In the evenings, she wrote letters to her daughter Elspeth Huxley in England. These shrewd, funny, very touching letters, sometimes gossipy, sometimes wry, form the bulk of Nellie: Letters from Africa and span 40 years, taking in the Mau Mau raids alongside all the minutiae of a dogged and staunch lady who wished not to complain but to entertain. ‘Mothers,’ she told Elspeth. ‘aren’t good subjects for biography unless like Queen Victoria or Cleopatra,’ and her daughter has prefaced these well-edited letters with a short and affectionate memoir.
Nellie Grant came as a settler to Kenya but she was in one sense at least no less of a traveller than Florence Baker. Kenya was home, but home only of a sort because the references remained English. December 11, 1935:
I did a come-back, also a come-off, in the polo world as Mrs Tyron wired asking me to take her place in the Mau-Molo ladies’ team ... The N’bi females are hot stuff, and really play very well ... Trudie has sent me £15 for Christmas, saying I was to spend nine-tenths of it on gin and one-tenth on a broken window pane ... Actually I’m taking some out in petrol to go to N’bi on Sunday to judge a flower show, one of my secret vices as you know, and to buy a few blankets for the more deserving of the farm and domestic staff.
The sense of identity never falters. Nor does the sense of comedy, the enjoyable self-mockery that comes with the realisation that African reality often pairs absurdly with European habits. ‘There are two huge puff adders on the boundary – such a worry because of the dogs ... Porcupines are eating my spuds.’ Or, on the outbreak of war: ‘Had about a hundred Kikuyu in the sitting room today to listen to the weekly broadcast. They certainly enjoy it.’ There are pairs of socks to knit for the Red Cross, California fuchsias to nurture for the regular flower shows; there are sundowners, safaris and tea parties. The life is hard but good. The setting could, sometimes, be Dorset.
The wives of the modern equivalent of colonial settlers – the aid technicians of the developing countries – arrive today in the countries to which they are sent by jet, in a matter of hours, but with the same paraphernalia of preconceptions, the same need to impose the conditions and habits of home on the acute foreignness of what they encounter in order to make it manageable. But they have lost the sustaining sense of rightness. Having just spent a year in West Africa, I remember the narrowness of these womens’ lives, the shock I felt when I watched new arrivals recreate, with a sort of avid desperation, the image of home, hastening to fasten unsuitable ornaments to improbable places and bake cakes in temperatures that defied all cooking, simply to combat the alienness of it all. Magnificent hi-fi sets, the latest in Japanese perfection, lovingly set up on specially-built bamboo shelves, soon to be thwarted by the flickering, often altogether absent, electricity supply.
When I moved into my house in Bamako, the previous tenant, a Canadian woman, showed me round, offering to sell me the baking tins brought with her to Mali from Montreal. There were 12 of them, one piled inside the other, a gleaming pyramid of stainless steel. When I refused, she was perplexed, a little condescending. She told me, almost with regret towards one so unappreciative, that my oven-to-be was the only one in Bamako whose thermostat could be relied upon.
When you come to Mali
You take a chance –
That the people there will like to dance
And play bridge and drink beer
And be full of good cheer ...
A la fin d’Avril
Au revoir Judy-Bill.
Nous nous verrons encore
Peut-être a Singapore,
sang the guests in the garden at the Canadian couple’s farewell party. They were moving on next day to Guinea Bissau.
In Niamey, in Niger, the American US Aid programme have shipped in fifty tall chrome ashtrays on stalks to decorate their offices. The ballast in these objects is sand. Niamey stands on the edge of the Sahara: sand returned to sand, all in the name of safety.
During my stay, I was invited on a couple of occasions to a weekly bridge morning. Sixteen women in their thirties and forties, children at the French lycée, babies with their nannies, met at 9 a.m. each Thursday for four rubbers of bad bridge, broken by elevenses: chocolate eclairs, crammed with cream, strawberry tarts, mille feuille, and wilting towers of blancmange and marzipan, sponge and angelica, baked by the sweating hostess to prove her domination, her mastery of the heat, cockroaches the size of mice, the unfamiliar mangoes and pau pau. Nor were these women pleasant to the people who waited on them: Nellie Grant’s decency, her feeling of fair, if superior play, was not much in evidence. Impatience was everywhere.
There are still sundowners and safaris, brownie packs and even barbecues and 7-Ups (for the mother culture is now American) flown in on a special food plane in vast refrigerated containers. But now the message is endurance, allied to the salesman’s nagging uncertainty whether the goods he is peddling are genuine: but sell them he must for that is his job, and unless he has customers he can never go home. Going home, to the house paid for out of the generous local posting allowance, is the dream; to stay on is pure eccentricity; to love the country quirkiness. ‘Where are you going next? Where were you before? How long have you been here?’ are the first questions at every meeting.
If you possess no sense of identity on your travels you have, it seems, to fabricate one. Nellie Grant had it automatically, conferred by the Empire; Florence Baker acquired one; Esther Cheo Ying, author of Black Country Girl in Red China, has written a remarkable account of a search for one that suited her, and one that she eventually found.
The child of a brilliant young student at the London School of Economics and the chambermaid in his hotel, Esther Cheo Ying was born in Canton in 1932. By the time war broke out she was back in England. There began her search for her identity. She started it in the Midlands where she was taken in by a succession of foster parents, ending up with a fond auntie but taunted as a Chink Chink Chinaman at school. She pursued it back to China, married to one of General Chennault’s Flying Tigers, but by the time she got there she had switched sides and was part of the triumphant entry into Peking as a cadre in the Chinese Liberation Army. For 11 years she willed herself into being Chinese: she joined the political campaigns and revered the political leaders, living a life of discipline and becoming the lover of her unit commander. The style is racy; the opinions tinged with pertness.
But in the end Esther Cheo Ying got out. She married a foreigner, and, long under suspicion as a revisionist and not wanting to have to ‘learn to love labour’, she seized her chance and came back to Europe. The search was not yet over. Her second husband was a correspondent for the Daily Worker and lost his British passport over the Korean War. The couple, with their two small sons, made their way to East Berlin, where the life turned out to be not so very different from the one she had led as English-language broadcaster for the Peking Radio. After a while she moved on again, her destination, once more, England. Within a year she had met and married a man who is now the editor of a West Country newspaper. Esther Cheo Ying, not quite Chinese, not quite English, has found what she was looking for in the shape of being a mother of three children, and the headmistress of a small village school.
Black Country Girl in Red China is a fascinating book, because of the rare glimpses it gives of the Chinese Republic, as seen by a muddled, earthy and rather funny young woman who refused to be cajoled or beaten into shape, and who simply writes it all down, politics, the army, love affairs and all, without any distancing digestion. She travelled in search of identity, and she found it: for Esther Cheo Ying, there is to be no more travel.