An excerpt from John Tidey’s Wet Behind the Ears in Nairobi, a Memoir.
Wet Behind the Ears in Nairobi is the second of two brief memoirs by John Tidey, each published as a monograph. The first was Newton and his Daughters (2013)
John Tidey is a Melbourne journalist who has worked in Africa, China and the UK. He is the author of biographies of Creighton Burns, Sir Andrew Fairley and Charles Hastings Barton (with Ric Barton).
WHEN I looked into his office a man with a teddy-boy haircut glanced up from his portable, kept typing, and grunted: ‘What do you want?’
Me: ‘I was looking for the Editor.”
Him: “I am the f…..g Editor. What do you want?’
What I wanted was a job in Nairobi for the next few months. A string of expletives later John Bierman offered me one on the sub-editors’ table of the Daily Nation. My salary would be 100 pounds a month (2,000 East African shillings). The whole recruitment process took about 10 minutes.
It was 1962. Those were the days when there were jobs for itinerant English-speaking journalists in East Africa, Rhodesia (as was) and South Africa. In fact, my first attempt to get a job in Kenya had been a miserable failure. It happened at the offices of the long-established East African Standard where I sought an interview with the editor. His secretary appeared a few minutes later to advise: ‘Colonel (Kenneth) Bolton sends his compliments. He said to tell you that he doesn’t hire blow-ins, but he wishes you well.’ Later I learnt that most of the Colonel’s editorial staff were hired from respectable provincial dailies in the UK on four-year contracts. Fortunately, my next call had been across town to the Daily Nation, founded in 1960 and part of a newspaper group that included the Sunday Nation and a Kiswahili daily, Taifa Leo. It was housed in a converted bakery and formalities, as I soon discovered, were kept to a minimum. Staffing arrangements at the new tabloid were radically different to those at the restrained and broadsheet East African Standard. For a start, there was John Bierman himself. In 1962 he was 33 years old, a former Royal Marine who had been recruited from Fleet Street (London) to launch the Daily Nation. He was not the first choice for the job. Originally it was offered to David English who accepted it but then withdrew and was later the legendary Editor of the Daily Mail in London from 1971-1992.
Bierman was once described as having “a scraggy, lived-in face” and this came with a formidable intellect and the aforementioned smutty mouth. The team included a couple of Australians, two “white Kenyans”, former Kenya Police Officer, a South African, two Scots (one of them a wild man once he had fuel on board) two or three regional newspaper sub-editors from England and a number of African and Asian reporters and photographers. Roger East, the Australian journalist killed in East Timor, passed through briefly. Fifty-four years on I can still see many of them in my mind’s eye: a memorable collection of newspapermen (and one- or two-women including Margery McCrindle) drawn to unlikely place at a historic time.
My own interest in Kenya had been sparked in my childhood by the stories of Jack Cusack, a family friend who regularly travelled to East and Central Africa marketing Queensland butter. So, in June 1962, with four years’ experience as a reporter, I sailed from Brisbane, Australia, aboard the Roma for Singapore and Bombay. To my surprise a picture I found (2015) shows me on the wharf in a suit and tie with a farewell party of six: my parents, my sister Jill, Aunt Minna and two friends of my mother, Mrs McCormack and Mrs Kenyon. My departure must have been a big deal in our family than I appreciated at the time.
Most of the passengers were Italian migrants taking the trip home. If there was a single unattached young woman on the Roma, I did not find her. It took about a week to get to Singapore where we berthed for two days before leaving for Bombay. That was the last ocean voyage I ever took. My intention had been to take the British India Steam Navigation Company (B.I.) service from India to East Africa. But after appalling seasickness in the Bay of Bengal and some R&R in Bombay at the Breach Candy Club, my crossing to Nairobi via Karachi and Aden was completed more comfortably aboard an East African Airways Comet.
In the early 1960s, the heart of Nairobi was quite an attractive and safe place: not much high-rise, wide avenues, jacaranda and hibiscus everywhere; and all of this on the edge of the central highlands, high above sea level, close to the Equator and under vast blue skies. Mine are long lost but there are excellent postcard shots of Nairobi in the 1960s on the internet. A few days after I arrived, an elephant wandered into town and sat on the roof of a parked Volkswagen. In fact, there is a large game park on the fringe of the city (Nairobi National Park and Animal Orphanage). Nairobi had been founded at the end of the 19th century and developed around the new railway line from Mombasa to Lake Victoria (Kenya-Uganda Railway) and a train colloquially known as The Lunatic Express.
By 1962 the city’s population was about 250,000. The entire population of Kenya was 8 million, compared to 50 million-plus today. Then were there were fewer than 60,000 Europeans in the country, principally settlers, administrators, businesspeople and they referred to the colony as “Keenya” (it was changed later to Kenya because Keenya sounded too much like an African swearword). It used to be said, unkindly but with some truth that Kenya was for officers, Rhodesia for other ranks.
Gerry Loughran who first lived in Nairobi in the early 1960s has pointed out:
Kenya’s triangular society was rigidly stratified with a tiny white governing class at the apex, Asian traders in the middle and a vast majority of powerless Africans at the base.
In 1962 that was all about to change.
Kenya had been a British Protectorate from the 1890s and a Colony since 1920. It would pass through the bloody Mau uprising of the 1950s at the end of which Uhuru (freedom) was in sight for the African majority. The Nation group of newspapers in the country were up and running before independence came in 1963. They were funded by Prince Karim, the Aga Khan, leader of the estimated 15 million Shia Ismalia Muslims around the world including a large community in Kenya.
The group was put together by Michael Curtis (1920-2004) a substantial newspaper figure who had previously edited the now-defunct News Chronicle in London. Curtis, a World War II veteran who read Law at Cambridge, provided management and editorial leadership for the Nation group and oversaw the introduction of the first web-offset printing press outside the United States (as well as the first computer-generated typesetting (as opposed to the archaic lead typesetting, albeit both types of typesetting survived side-by-side for a while until the computers were in complete control a couple of decades later).
By this time the main newspaper in the colony, the East African Standard, was on the wrong side of history. It had been founded as the Standard in 1902 and in the turbulent 1950s and early 1960s strongly resisted African Nationalism. Right up to independence in Kenya in 1963 it carried the British coat of arms on its masthead.