I’ve done what I’ve wanted to for ever such a long time: I’ve written a book. In fact, I spent so long writing it, editing it, rewriting it, changing a comma here and a semi-colon there that I’d quite forgotten why I’d written it at all. Not why I was writing – not that, never that – but why I had written that particular story. And then someone asked me.
‘It was the place,’ I said, thinking aloud.
‘The place? Africa itself, you mean?’ she said. I could see the scepticism on her face.
‘No. Yes. Well, sort of.’ I nearly gave up trying to explain then and there. I wanted to tell her just to read the book but I couldn’t because it’s not published yet, perhaps never will be, and I hate the idea of shoving my work at friends or family who haven’t specifically asked to see it. ‘East Africa,’ I went on. ‘Savannahs and wildebeest migrations; Masai herdsmen in checked blankets; Englishmen with money and ideals who imagined they could make it their land. That sort of thing.’
Her eyebrows, already raised, went a little higher but I was comforted by the explanation. It went some of the way to explaining the genesis of the book. It began with a place, and there’s always a reason why we go somewhere. Even if the reason is a bored travel agent telling us that our £200 budget will stretch only as far as a two star hotel complete with construction site and cockroaches in Kavos, that’s no more or less a reason than Gerald Durrell’s mother, Louisa, deciding to relocate her family somewhere warmer and cheaper than “Pudding Island”.
Like the Durrells – and perhaps because of them – it was to Greece that I was planning to go in the long ago summer of 1999, once I’d augmented that £200 budget with money from the premium bonds that had never given me back so much as a tenner. And then the friend for whom the trip was really planned – an American who was thoroughly seduced by the idea of island hopping in the Ionian Sea – came home early from work one day with a headache. As it turned out, it wasn’t just any headache: an unseen aneurysm bulged and then burst. Less than two weeks later, she was dead.
Anaesthetised by a grief I vaguely felt was not mine to feel, I cancelled the Greek trip. I was busy at work and, I said to myself, deadlines and late night cocktails would be as good a distraction as any. My best friend disagreed. She turned up at my door early one Saturday, woke me up and waved a sheaf of rainbow-hued brochures in front of my face. What about, she suggested, taking that trip to Africa we’ve been talking about for years.
Hobbled by a hangover and too much caffeine, I blinked. I picked up one of the brochures. Stretching across its cover was a blue sky kept from crystalline perfection by clouds like cobwebs. Warmth began to wash through my veins and an internal video player clicked onto a film gleaned from years of Attenborough documentaries: millions of wildebeest trekked across plains that shimmered in a hazy heat I never got to experience in England; indolent lions sprawled, sun drugged, in long grass; and flamingos, perched on absurd chopstick legs, coloured lakes pinker than candy floss.
And so it was, having cashed in all the premium bonds, a month or so later, my friend and I were on our way into Nairobi in a taxi with a sign on the dashboard that read God Speed Us. It was dark and once we had entered the city, we could have been anywhere, were it not for the splayed, spiky-topped acacia trees that paced the main road. The neon signs (Drink Coca-Cola! Sony Sounds!) were the same as everywhere and most of the buildings looked as large and high as those in any British city.
However, as we rounded a corner, the driver waved a hand vaguely towards the left and said, ‘Norfolk Hotel’. I saw a veranda, lit by hanging lanterns spilling streams of light into bushes gaudy with flowers. Behind was the hotel building itself, snug in the darkness. I knew that in the early twentieth century many settlers had started their trek, along the rough red roads to the Highlands, from that hotel. Most of those settlers are long gone and cars replace their oxen, yet the Norfolk remains. At that moment, something of the history of the place entered me. And it’s not left yet.