Saturday, March 12, 2005

BOOKS: James Fox, "White Mischief", and Errol Trzebinski, "The Life and Death of Lord Erroll"

James Fox: White Mischief. (First ed.: 1982.) Vintage, 1988. 009976671X. xii + 299 pp.

Errol Trzebinski: The Life and Death of Lord Erroll. London: Fourth Estate, 2000, 2001. 1857028945. xvii + 375 pp.

I first heard of the Lord Erroll a few years ago while reading David Cannadine's Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (ch. 9, sec. iv). Although many British settlers in Kenya between the two world wars were serious farmers, there were among them also a number of rather decadent members of the British upper classes. Many of them had already lost much of their wealth and reputation at home, and now came to Kenya where a dissolute and aristocratic lifestyle was more affordable. It was still possible to lord it over lower-class Africans who knew their place in a way that was becoming difficult or impossible in Britain at the time: they “sought to re-create a stable, rural, hierarchical, aristocratic world, which had already disappeared in modern, industrialized, democratic Britain” (Cannadine; cf. also Fox pp. 4, 20). Their centre was the Wanjohi valley in Kenya, which consequently became somewhat notorious and was known under the epithet “Happy Valley”.

In 1941, Joss Hay, the 22nd Earl of Erroll, one of the central figures of the Happy Valley set, was found murdered in mysterious circumstances in his car near Nairobi. Erroll had been known as a womanizer, and had recently begun an affair with Diana Broughton, wife of Sir Jock Broughton, another white settler in Kenya. Sir Broughton was therefore suspected of having murdered Erroll out of jealousy, and was in fact tried at Nairobi, but was found not guilty as his defence was able to demonstrate that the bullets found at the crime scene did not match any of the guns known to have been in Broughton's possession. Although the murder attracted a lot of public attention and speculation, no further steps were taken by the officials to find the murderer or explain what exactly had happened. Part of the reason for the continuing fascination of the murder is that it epitomized in a way the end of an era (Fox p. 2, Trzebinski p. 305); war followed, and after it the life of the Kenyan white settlers could never quite return to its previous louche and carefree state.

Decadent patricians, colonialism in its terminal stage — no wonder that I was fascinated by Cannadine's short sketch of the Happy Valley set. But it was really very short, a mere two or three pages (Erroll's murder is not mentioned at all, for instance), so I was very glad when I found that two whole books have been published on the subject, one by Fox approx. twenty years ago and another much more recently by Trzebinski. I read them in the same order in which they were written, i.e. Fox's book first and Trzebinski's afterwards, which I think turned out to be a good idea.

There may be spoilers beyond this point.

Fox's book consists of two parts. The first part starts with a series of brief sketches presenting the Happy Valley and its principal characters, with much emphasis on their life of partying, drinking and adultery. It then describes the days just before the murder in some more detail, and concludes with an account of the trial and acquittal of Jock Broughton. The second part of the book tells the story of how Fox and the well-known writer Cyril Connolly tried to investigate this murder mystery in the 60s and 70s. Apparently Connolly's interest in the case was almost obsessive, and he and Fox spent an immense amount of effort trying to gather more information and analyze it, trying to find and interview people who might throw a light on the case, etc. Their conclusion is that Broughton was the murderer after all, and he admitted as much on several occasions before his suicide in 1942 (pp. 229, 231, 283). There is a very handy “Cast of Characters” on pp. 289-293, but even so it was rather easy for me to get lost amidst the large number of people, events, and other details related to the case. Nevertheless this is a nice and very readable book.

Trzebinski's book starts with some criticism of Fox, who is said to have placed too much emphasis on presenting the decadent aspects of the white settlers in Kenya (pp. xv-xvii). Trzebinski's book instead presents a more thorough biography of Lord Erroll, and explores the possibility that he was murdered for reasons of politics rather than jealousy. Thus the book starts by describing Erroll's childhood and youth, his education; his father encouraged him to follow in his footsteps and take up a career in diplomacy, but Joss had to give it up after marrying a divorced woman (p. 59); they then moved to Kenya to take up farming. There they were eventually joined by some old friends and a few new ones, with whom they formed the nucleus of the Happy Valley set. Joss spent a lot of effort on various community- and sports-related pursuits, such as setting up a yacht club (p. 97), and on the management of his estate at Oserian (p. 105). He eventually became involved in local politics, becoming a member of the “legislative council” in which the opinions of the white settlers often clashed with those of the London-appointed administration which governed Kenya at the time. For a short time he was interested in British fascism (Oswald Mosley, the founder of the British Union of Fascists, had been an old friend of his), which at the time seemed to be mainly about ultra-loyalism to the British crown and protectionism in international trade (pp. 115-7, 127). Erroll also made some efforts to promote the fascist cause in Kenya; however, his involvement with fascism ended in 1936, partly because of the growing violence and anti-semitism of the British fascist movement, and partly because Mosley and his supporters started advocating the return of Germany's former colonies, including Tanganyika (Erroll and many other Kenyans strongly opposed this as it would have placed Kenya in a difficult position between German Tanganyika on the south and Italian Abyssinia on the north) (p. 131). He continued to play an active role in Kenyan politics; as the threat of war grew, he worked hard to prepare Kenya for the mobilization of its resources, becoming “deputy director for manpower” (p. 160). His photographic memory proved to be of much use in this (p. 168). The story then turns to the relations between Jock Broughton, his wife Diana, and Joss; and on the days leading to the murder (ch.  9). Chapter 10 tells in brief of the police investigation, the trial of Broughton, and his and Diana's subsequent fate. The police showed a surprising degree of carelessness in the investigation and the gathering of evidence (pp. 223-5). The trial attracted a lot of attention, causing people to forget Erroll's political career and remember him chiefly as an adulterer and philanderer (p. 228). Chapter 11 then presents the big scoop: the Sallyport papers, compiled by a former intelligence officer named Tony Trafford, show that Erroll was in fact murdered by a branch of the secret service known as the Special Operations Executive (p. 242). The investigation and trial of Broughton was really just a ruse, and in fact Broughton himself was also involved with the secret service (p. 281). The reasons for the assassination of Erroll (pp. 293, 303) aren't entirely clear (partly owing to the destruction of evidence, p. 304), but it seems that, due to his contacts in high places, he knew of the efforts made in certain circles, during the first year of the war, towards making peace with Germany (and a possible alliance directed against the Soviet Union). If this knowledge had reached the public, the consequences for the reputations of the people involved would have been disastrous, which caused them to organize Erroll's death.

These two books complement each other very nicely and I am quite glad that I read both of them (though if I had to read just one, Trzebinski's would probably be a better choice). They are both pleasant and entertaining reading. Fox has more emphasis on the decadent life of the Happy Valley set, as well as a helpful Cast of Characters at the end of the book, without which it would be even easier to lose one's way among the many people involved. The trial of Broughton is also presented in much more detail by Fox than by Trzebinski. On the other hand, Trzebinski has a lot of information about Erroll's younger years and his political career in Kenya, of which Fox has very little (pp. 46, 48). And of course, Trzebinski has all the above-mentioned details about the involvement of the secret services, whereas Fox explains the murder as having been committed by Broughton out of jealousy. Fox has a more detailed presentation of his and Connolly's quest to investigate the case, which includes many interesting bits about the subsequent life and fate of various people connected with the case. On the whole, Trzebinski paints a much more balanced picture of Erroll, showing also his good characteristics and his efforts in community life and politics, whereas in Fox he comes across as more of an aimless hedonist. Another advantage of Trzebinski's book is that is has a bibliography and it pays a lot more attention to footnoting and citing her sources than Fox does.


  • Out of Africa and Letters from Africa: 1914-1931 by Karen Blixen, who also lived in Kenya during the same period and in fact knew some of the protagonists of the Lord Erroll story (Fox p. 43). A suburb of Nairobi is named Karen after her (Fox p. 73).
  • Vertical Land, Duckworth, 1928; portraits of the Happy Valley characters by Frédéric de Janzé, a neighbour of Lord Erroll and his wife Idina in Kenya in the 1920s (Fox pp. 32-3).


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