There is always a special risk, says Alexandra Fuller, when putting real-life people into books. Not all those who recognised themselves in her terrific memoir of 1960s and 1970s white-ruled Africa, Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, had appreciated their transformation. The author’s own mother, Nicola Fuller, was disquieted to find herself as a character in that ‘awful book’ (as she refers to it today). Was she really that flaky and drunk? Or was that how others perceived her? Most writers make life more interesting than it is; I suspect that Alexandra Fuller is among them.
In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness she returns to the Africa of her childhood and to her eccentric farmer family. Her mother, now self-styled ‘Nicola Fuller of Central Africa’, takes centre stage. For all her earlier objections, indeed, the book is effectively her biography. Flattered to be the subject of a memoir, she sees in her note-taking daughter a potential Boswell. Nicola Fuller has reserves of great charm and beauty, as well as moments of booze-inflamed vainglory. A larger-than-life personality, the challenge is to bring her credibly to life.
In pages of vivid prose, Cocktail Hour evokes an Africa of lost imperial glories, when lives were organised and given meaning by the Union Jack. Nicola Fuller emerges as a no-nonsense, horse-loving Scot, born to patrician stock on the Isle of Skye. She has a ‘deep mistrust of humourlessness’ of any kind, not to mention ‘wimpy behaviour’or left-wing pretension. (‘He’s so dictatorial’, she says of her pet Jack Russell, Papa Doc.) Her attachment to Africa and to the African people is almost mystical in its intensity, and goes beyond mere politics.
Recklessly, she and her husband had chosen to stay on through Kenya’s anti-British Mau Mau uprising as well as, later, the Rhodesian war. Along the way they suffered numberless personal tragedies, most awfully the death of three of their children in infancy. Still the allure of Africa binds them to their settler life and the beauty of the land. With her Highland morality, Nicola Fuller is at pains to stress her difference from Kenya’s hedonistic Happy Valley set as chronicled by James Fox in White Mischief. Those people were dishonest, emotionally damaged flapper types, quite unlike the ‘pukka-pukka’ Fuller sahibs, who have always tended responsibly to their African farmsteads and African staff.
Pronounced ‘Keen-ya’ by Nicola Fuller (with the long, colonial-era e), the country radiates a breathtaking loveliness and promise of adventure. Even during the tribal uprisings that led to independence in 1963, Kenya was ‘worth dying for’. (My own father went there on business then and was required to drink ceremonial cow’s blood with the Kipsigi tribe, which tasted ‘pretty good’, he told me.)
How Nicola Fuller will feel on encountering her biographical counterpart again is anyone’s guess. The portrait is conceived, mostly, in the spirit of light-hearted comedy. I particularly liked the parrot who squawks ‘And you can fuck off too!’ every time a guest asks for more gravy. In spite of the threats they experienced of land mines, mortars, abduction and ambush, the Fullers never lost their sense of humour or indeed lost sight of a better future. This is a life-affirming and altogether lovely book.