Yesterday – Sunday – I was delighted to have been an invited speaker at Dublin city’s celebrations for ‘Africa Day’. My subject was Kenya, a country I have come to love and a land where I find my greatest inspiration to write and live.
It was in Kenya where I first encountered the first ‘tangible’ proof of the existence of one of my lifetime heroines; the author, pioneer, adventurer and a fellow European who shared my love of Kenya; Karen Blixen.
Karen Blixen and I met when I was still a young boy. I found her hidden among a tower of dusty and dog-eared books in the dark depths of our under-stairs closet. Behind piles of musty winter coats and boxes of ‘things’ no longer needed. It was here in this domestic treasure-trove that she waited patiently for my discovery.
I remember running my fingers downwards along the embossed spines of the books, one by one, reading titles and authors by the dim yellow light of a fading torch. Bronte, Thackeray, Trollope and Swift; all names I knew by heart but whose words in their complexity my youthfulness failed to grasp. Perhaps it was this complexity which had forced their exile into the darkness with only moths and scuttling spiders to act as their silent critics.
Half way down the pile my finger dallied on the green spine of an unfamiliar volume. ‘Out of Africa’ it declared in fading gold leaf ‘by Karen Blixen’. It was the word Africa which unseated my imagination and had me inching the book from its resting place until the prize was finally won. “Once I had a farm in Africa…” I read, and knew there and then that I had been irresistibly hooked by Miss Blixen’s exacting words.
It was my fascination with all things African that led to our introduction but it was Karen’s simplistic story-telling which stole my heart and painted the scenery of the landscape I knew I would someday see with my own eyes. It was her kindness towards the place and its people in a world beset by cruelty that I admired and her honesty with her own failings and misgivings which made me sympathise with her.
For days I carried her with me, reading from her pages at every spare moment, learning more and more about her African struggles and disappointments. With every obstacle she overcame my veneration surged and grew. With every tender act towards a dying child or an evicted family my heart swelled to bursting. I wanted to comfort her through her husband’s infidelities and nurse her through her illness. And yes, I was even jealous when she found the arms of a lover, Denys Finch-Hatten. But it was her spellbinding words which kept me faithfully by her side.
Many years after my first meeting with Karen I entered through the gates of a high-fenced estate sited on a verdant Kenyan hillside. At the end of the pebbled driveway a small red-tiled house crouched beneath the branches of a spreading Cyprus. I know this place I thought. Standing on the airy veranda of Karen’s Kenyan home I wondered if this was the very place where she had spent her lonely evenings; the place, where on quiet equatorial nights she wrote by lamplight in the pages of her notebooks and wished for the company of another human being. Was this where she had first embraced her lover? And was this place where she said farewell to her dreams and ambitions for a life in Africa before returning to her home in Denmark?
My guide was knowledgeable but lacked a passion for Karen I felt. He knew times and dates, facts and statistics but offered no insight into the person. “Was she really loved by the Kenyan’s who worked the farm?” I asked. In reply he tossed me some figures on the number of people employed by the farm (not by Karen). “Is that the gramophone she listened to in the evenings, the present from Finch-Hatten?” My guide nodded his assent and quickly moved on to point out his own ‘personal favourites’, the kitchen utensils. I was sure Karen had never even touched these vulgar tools; she was far too busy in the fields and the homes of her workers.
I was disappointed by my visit to her home, a disappointment which stayed with me for a long time. But it wasn’t until another visit to another estate in another, quite different part of the world that I was to get a real insight into Karen’s Kenyan home. Thirty minutes north of the Danish capital Copenhagen, in the seaside village of Rungsted, stands an idyllic country house. Sited at a point where the tall forest trees meet the edge of the sea, Rungstedlund – Karen’s Danish home – demonstrates visibly Karen’s deep-seated love of Africa.
It was to this house that she returned after her disappointments in Kenya. It was here that she wrote volume after volume of stories and novels: Seven Gothic Tales; Out of Africa; Winter’s Tales and many others. Here in a room adorned by paintings of Masai warriors, ceremonial shields and spears, and surrounded by a vast library of books she had sat and unbuttoned her heart and her love of Kenya. In this room both Karen, and her love of Kenya, still lived.
In a corner by the window a gramophone stood silent. The very one she had taken with her from Kenya I was told and not the other imposter delved from some local junk shop in an attempt to fool the tourists. I felt better. Here at least, in this place, she was still being loved by those who worshipped her. I left happy.
On the way to the train station I took the short-cut through the woods. The air was full of bird song as I entered a shadowy glade. For the briefest moment I was taken aback; I had simply forgotten that it was here, amongst the trees, that she had been laid to rest. Beneath a vast oak a simple granite slap bearing her name and date of birth lay prostrate eying the passing clouds. I wanted to mark the moment but had nothing with which to do so. From the lapel of my coat I removed the Irish tri-colour badge I wear on my travels and placed it reverently on the granite slab. The words, “Thank you Karen,” were all I could muster, “for allowing us to share in your life’s journey”.