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Old-style Irish enterprise

3 January 2004

12:00 AM

3 January 2004

12:00 AM

Leaves From the Fig Tree Diana Duff

Summersdale Travel, pp.318, 7.99

Irishness is perceptible almost everywhere, if you look with eyes half closed, especially in China, Israel and the Latin Countries of the Mediterranean. Irishness traditionally means, above all, a strong sense of family and its web of interconnections, to furthest cousinhood and tribalism. However, there is not much Irishness in northern Europe, except for the pseudo-Irish pubs, and there is a lot less than there used to be in Ireland itself before the Celtic Tiger’s beguiling introduction of materialistic conformity, and the thraldom of early marriage, easy mortgages and credit consumerism. In the era of television homogenisation, Irish eccentricity no longer flourishes as it did, but is still sentimentally memorialised now and then by those no longer young.

Diana Duff’s charming indulgence in nostalgia, a memoir her publisher classifies as travel writing, is so Irish one needs to be reminded that it is nonfiction. There is no reason to doubt its veracity, but there are early passages in which the Anglo-Irish big house of her childhood and the people who live there seem to be caricatures as broad as figments of Somerville and Ross — leaves from the figment tree.

Her father was the heir to his family’s ‘200-year-old estate’ in County Cork, which must have been twice that old. According to Diana, it was where Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene. Anyway, it was certainly very old, and, in spite of its ‘chilly formality,’ ‘beautiful in its own way’. There were the obligatory ‘sweeping terraced lawns, peacocks and flowering shrubs and a vast velvet green croquet lawn’. The high stone walls surrounding the demesne were built to give work to the local peasantry during the Great Hunger. Twentieth-century visitors, including Eliz- abeth Bowen, Vita Sackville-West and the Duchess of Devonshire, came to admire the celebrated gardens.

The inhabitants of the estate were classic stereotypes, suitable for the Abbey Theatre — Diana’s grandfather, an irascible, scarlet-faced MFH, usually clad in hunting pink or green tweed plus-fours; Diana’s grandmother, who admonished her, ‘Do not behave like a housemaid on her day off. Emotion is for the lower classes’, and Diana’s closest early friends, Molly, the all-knowing housekeeper, Ned, the estate carpenter, and a dwarf hunchback who lived in the stableyard. There was talk of the banshee and other supernatural creatures. ‘The whole countryside was in the grip of the enchanted past.’ Diana was brought up by her grandfather after he disinherited her father for having married without approval. He went into exile in Africa, the continent to which she devoted the second part of her life, the second part of this book.

After the rigours of her upbringing in an Irish country house, Diana found it easy to adapt to remote districts of Kenya and Tanganyika. She writes of her years there with the candour of an honest diary and the verve of letters to an intimate friend. Her account of pioneer years teems with picturesque incidents and good humour. During the time of the Mau Mau atrocities, she became fond of her Kikuyu houseboys, whose status was as low as that of her grandfather’s servants. When her husband occasionally had to go away on business, he left her with guns and hand grenades.

She worked happily as a nurse in a cottage hospital, as Grace Kelly’s double during the filming of Mogambo, and as a teacher in a primary school she established for the children of international diplomats and businessmen. She always had the knack of encountering odd characters — a retired naval officer who threw out a chain and anchor when parking his Rolls-Royce, a wing commander who shot up a telephone exchange because the operator tended to sleep after nine o’clock. ‘He had public opinion on his side.’ A reunion with her mother after 20 years’ separation was an anticlimax.

One of the reasons Diana enjoyed Africa was that ‘all this seemed curiously like Ireland to me’. Very Irish, Africa.

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