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'I' problems: some anxieties of autobiography

“Generally, in what I write, I prefer to hide. I’ll duck behind a palisade of other people’s quotes or into a thicket of erudition, not liking to reveal my core.”
How can I write honestly about my own life? Generally, in what I write, I prefer to hide. I’ll duck behind a palisade of other people’s quotes or into a thicket of erudition, not liking to reveal my core. ‘The English,’ observed Doris Lessing, ‘vanish into camouflage at the first sight of a stranger’. Yes, I fear embarrassment. Rudyard Kipling called his own autobiography Something of Myself; definitely not Everything.

My first book, written in the early 1980s, had someone – me, in my thirties – going round the world on a literary quest and reporting what he saw. But the ‘I’ in that travel book, Dead Man’s Chest (1987), was only incidentally a person, much more a camera or a notebook, snapping and jotting for the reader. In my subsequent four books of 20th century narrative history, packed with incident, dense with dates, stats, stories and facts, there was not very much of me.

But the ‘I’ in my newly published book is my own self. My photo is on the front cover of Trapped in History (2023), and I’ve even elbowed my way into the subtitle – Kenya, Mau Mau and Me. How come the sudden appearance of ego? Why the shift from ‘objective’ history to ‘subjective’ autobiography?

It was sparked by the very end of my previous book, Defending the Rock (2017), which described a passenger-liner in Gibraltar being converted into a hospital-ship for the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas war. A galvanic jolt: I knew that vessel as a child. The SS Uganda took my family from London to Mombasa in 1954, to our new life in Kenya Colony, then racked by ‘the Emergency’ of an armed African uprising. ‘But that,’ I wrote there, ‘is another story.’

The little spark lit a fire. The need to write a personal story began to possess me with a compulsive power. I no longer wanted to write the book about Basques in the Second World War which Faber had already commissioned. My own story barged to the head of the queue. As a writer, I had both material and memories, didn’t I? Life had given me a gift only I could unwrap: I had actually been there in Kenya during much of the Mau Mau insurgency against British colonial rule. Foolhardy with enthusiasm, I began to plan my hybrid history-cum-memoir of 1950s Kenya. The first line I wrote is still the first sentence of the book, describing the fatal accident that helped my father get his new job in Africa.

But opening the tin-can marked ‘Autobiography’ you find worms. They’re there, writhing and wriggling, because the colonial past is a compost heap in a cemetery. You dig out a spadeful of soil and fork it over. Some of it is nasty, nightmarish, murderous. Perhaps you should have left well alone. But wanting to understand is obsessive. You keep digging, turning matter over. Other lives, other deaths. And your own horrors and fears inside.

I lived in Kenya Colony from the age of 4 to 13, a child with no power over my destiny. Writing Trapped in History from my sixties into my seventies, I was no longer innocent and could not remain ignorant.

There are other differences between these two ‘I’s, the boy and the man. What once seemed normal now appears grossly unfair. The pyramid of racial dominance established in Kenya Colony – 50,000 white Europeans over 150,000 brown Asians, above nearly 6,000,000 black Africans – could never last. People fought it to the death. In 1963 the independent Republic of Kenya was born under the leadership of Jomo Kenyatta, who had been jailed by the British for nine years.

I could never have written this book while my parents were alive. My scepticism is a critique of them. Don’t expect to be liked. Revealing family secrets will grieve the relatives you love. Other anxieties nag and bite. Can I, a white person, write about black struggle? Isn’t this ‘white saviour complex’? Can the oppressor ever understand the oppressed? I think authors must make the imaginative effort, because ‘Stay in Your Lane’ is both lazy and timid. You can but try. It takes courage, research, empathy: so dig deeper. Work harder. Fail better.

Trapped in History is about not being free in beautiful Kenya. Yes, a sunny garden crowned our 22 acres, but we lived in a bungalow with barred windows, an iron gate in the corridor and a siren on the roof. My parents carried a gun. We were in plenty, but amid poverty. I explain the system I grew up in – its narrow codes of caste, class, colour, creed, corporal punishment – and try to understand the other side, the rebel Mau Mau movement that had terrified me. Why did it start? What did the Kikuyu people believe? Why was land such a burning, desperate question? What injustices over decades led Africans to armed rebellion? Why did the Mau Mau kill women and children? And why did the colonial British forces react with such unbridled savagery and repression?

History tries to tell the truth of what happened in the past. It’s not always easy to face up to our own, but it has to be done. In 2023, King Charles III visited the ‘Hall of Shame’ in Kenya’s new museum of national history. There was ‘no excuse’ for the British abuses back then, he said in a public speech at the state dinner afterwards. Privately, in a gesture of reconciliation, the King later met a daughter of Dedan Kimathi, the charismatic Mau Mau guerrilla leader who had been hanged by the British as a terrorist in 1957.

Honest autobiography is also hard work. Much easier to hide, as W.B. Yeats put it, behind the ‘circus animals’, the ‘players and painted stage’ than to lie down ‘where all ladders start,/In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.’ In writing this book, I found I was not the innocent child in Kenya I had claimed to be. I killed birds and small creatures. I stole, told lies and was spiteful. I fought viciously with my brother. I feared and hated my father. I was racist. My gang at prep-school inflicted mental torture on another white boy. Welcome to our wounded world. I too became a human being in the cruel land where homo sapiens was born.

Nicholas Rankin

Nicolas Rankin was born in 1950. He grew up in Kenya Colony, was educated in England, and spent his 20s in South America and Spain. He began writing aged 30, his first play adapting some stories by Borges. His first book, Dead Man’s Chest, following Robert Louis Stevenson around the world, helped get him a job at BBC World Service, where he made radio programmes for over 20 years and ended up Chief Producer. One of those programmes, Gernika/Guernica, about the 1937 Nazi aerial bombing of the Basque town and Picasso’s famous painting in response, led to his second book, a biography of the war-correspondent George L. Steer, which was then followed by three more war-books – Churchill’s Wizards, Ian Fleming’s Commandos and Defending the Rock, all published by Faber. He is married to the novelist Maggie Gee and is father to the novelist Rosa Rankin-Gee.

© Nicholas Rankin