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Backs to the wall

Susan Gibbs begins her book by describing the death from cancer of her first husband after 13 years of happy marriage.

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

28 May 2011

12:00 AM

Call of the Litany Bird Susan Gibbs

Loose Chippings, pp.272, 17.99

Susan Gibbs begins her book by describing the death from cancer of her first husband after 13 years of happy marriage. She ends with her farewell to Africa and her journey to Britain in 1983 with her second husband, Tim, and four children. Between these events she led a tense life farming in Zimbabwe, watching her children grow up, relishing the beauty of her surroundings and the company of friends, but always conscious that time was closing in and that one day they would be forced to leave the country they loved.

They grew tired of the tension under which they lived,

tired of the uncertainty, of wearing side arms, of observing curfew, of springing out of bed in the middle of the night when the fence alarm went off, of keeping the wireless volume low so as not to drown out suspicious noises, of closing the curtains before turning on lights, of never sitting with our backs to the window, even during the day.

But the anxiety does not spill over into anger. Gibbs lightly sketches in the political background: the slow pressure of sanctions; the coming of independence, which was almost a relief, though it signalled the beginning of a new, darker chapter; the tense moment when the guerrillas struggled out of the bush, the growing list of murdered neighbours. While Mugabe personally broadcast reassuring messages, no action ever followed.

On a more personal level, Gibbs describes the excitement of a visit from Christopher and Mary Soames, the pleasure of a few hours of relaxation at a garden party, the gloom when her small son is packed off to prep school in Bulawayo. Though she was brought up in Australia, hers is in many ways a very English book.

Tim clung to the hope that the troubles would blow over, but even he eventually saw that life had become impossible. Back in England, when the children spotted the rangers in Windsor Great Park, they needed re- assurance that they were not Mugabe’s infamous Fifth Brigade, trained in North Korea, who had similar uniforms.

This is a moving book, calmly written despite the horrors it details. There are vivid evocations of the changing seasons, the contrast between tidy Harare and life in the bush, and of the elderly English lady living quite alone and putting her trust — mostly justified — in the Lord to provide.

Susan Gibbs does not indulge in self-pity, and counts herself lucky to have returned safely to live in England; but there is no doubt that she has left her heart in Africa.

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