Last Posted 23,10.06
Livingstone From the age of six until I was eight years old, I lived in Livingstone, Northern Rhodesia, as part of the British Raj, although then it was not thought of in that way, even if we behaved so. As a little boy, lifted out of a simple, stable environment, dumped into a totally rarefied existence, I was to find nearly everything alien and therefore a searing experience. For example, the ground was of loose, red sand, with sparse clumps of brown grass and insects and small creatures squirming away as I walked. To a child who went to the seaside only once or twice a year, the opportunity to run barefoot and enjoy the sensuous experience of loose, warm, or hot sand beneath my feet and between my toes, was a transition which was only renewed in my thirties and forties on the hotter beaches of southern Europe. Our house was on the edge of the Veldt, only a few hundred yards from land as it had been since the dawn of time. Certainly not like South London, you did not hear the roar of lions at night in Wandsworth. Cautionary warnings about the dangers of wandering outside the permanent encampment, our town of Livingstone, only fed my imagination and the sounds at night confirmed my wildest dreams, but then I was a dreamer who longed for impossible adventures. If I had any suspicions that the warnings might merely be some form of parental ruse to keep me within hailing distance, they were soon dispelled; at night I could hear the cries of animals in the distance.
In the garden at the rear of the house were huts, made of reeds from the river plastered with mud, and in these huts were seemingly huge black men, some single, a few with families, who were required, by a tradition imposed from outside, to be subservient, even to a little alien boy. I found that these huts and the occupants had a particular smell, one I remembered long after I had left Africa, it was neither good nor offensive, just distinctive. Years later I was to recall this with some embarrassment when I heard an African remark that whites smelled horribly to Africans. My father was a civil servant in the Colonial Service provided with standard, rubber-stamp type furnished accommodation, filled out by personal possessions collected along the way. To a boy of that age, the traditional civil service delineation of rank by the size and quality of the dwelling and its furnishings would have meant nothing, but the hardness of the tiled floors, the zinc lined boxes and steel trunks against the ravages of the red ant, stayed with me.
Livingstone, at that time, the seat of Government for Northern Rhodesia was also the Residence of the Governor at ‘Government House’. It was there visiting notables, such as Jim Mollison, the flyer, were put up, where parties were held , even for the children, and where one had to be on one’s best behaviour – children and parents alike. I still believe I can see most of Livingstone as it was then, the houses in rows, occupying such large tracts they seemed scattered, each with its small kraal for the servants, its chickens, its fruit trees and a few vegetables. The fruit trees made a great impact on me, the lemons were like Jaffa oranges, with thick skins which were as tasty as the fruit they wrapped, which in turn was so sweet no sugar was needed. There were tangerines, oranges, plantains and groundnuts – pea nuts, and what was more, for most of the year the sun shone and shone.
Looking back, now experienced in the ways of the Services abroad, I realise that the hierarchical system, the division between families according to the relative ranks of the bread-winners, certainly pertained, because my first few months were not all sweetness and light, there was a pecking order among the children which I didn’t understand, – at six, how could I? I found myself subjected to bullying by older and bigger boys, from families senior to ours. Strangely the most recurrent image of those days is the ‘Sundowner’ The white population of Livingstone was very small. The whites, by definition, were the masters, in authority; while many of the more menial jobs were either carried out by Africans or Asians. In the evenings, there being no commercial forms of entertainment, the whites tended to meet regularly at one another’s houses for drinks prior to the evening meal – for sundowners. The tantalus was unlocked, the whiskey decanter produced and the same old chat got under way. I, on orange juice, made myself invisible and sipped slowly – when the glass was empty I was sent to bed, and I suspect the real scandal was then discussed.