Altitude Sickness: The Happy Valley Set

Originally featured in Issue 40 of The Rake, Nick Scott delves into the controversial lives (and deaths) of the Happy Valley set — a group of white, western expatriates who, between the 1920s and forties, turned a slice of Kenyan highlands into a hotbed of colonial debauchery.
Josslyn Hay (second left) and Lady Idina Hay, centre, with friends.

In the latter part of the first half of the 20th century, Britain was feeling anything but great. In the throes of abject austerity throughout the Great Depression of the thirties, only something catastrophic — becoming a leading protagonist in a six-year bout of global genocide, for example — could possibly have made it a bleaker place to be. Fate, with its characteristic perversity, obliged.

Throughout this period, during which the first syllable of the sobriquet ‘Blighty’ became chillingly appropriate, 6,000 miles to the south, where the Wanjohi River flows through Kenya’s highlands, a group of ultra-privileged white hedonists, ever since known as the Happy Valley set, engaged in a lifestyle of weapons-grade hedonism: English country-house living in an equatorial climate, spiced up with a carefree curriculum that English intellectual and literary critic Cyril Connolly dubbed “the three As: altitude, alcohol and adultery”. In his quest for alliterative resonance, Connolly left out hard opiates and — it’s painful to report — what would accurately be described as slavery. (The Happy Valley set’s ‘houseboys’, mostly of the Kikuyu people, were housed in tin huts with no plumbing, and acted on cursory orders barked by their white ‘masters’ in a primitive version of Swahili called ‘ki-settler’; Somali men had a slightly higher status, as indoor butlers.)

The British East Africa Protectorate, having been established in 1895, was transformed into the British crown colony of Kenya in 1920, and became a region to which aristocratic Brits fled in order to escape the overcrowding, high tax levels and Tupperware-domed climate of their native land. Their aim was to re-establish an aristocratic hegemony in a vast, exploitable and soothingly pastoral corner of the planet, full of native people to subjugate and devoid of modern industrial democracy (Blake’s “dark satanic mills”, and all that).

"A group of ultra-privileged white hedonists, ever since known as the Happy Valley set, engaged in a lifestyle of weapons-grade hedonism..."

But it was perhaps Britain’s now long defunct — but then culturally prevalent — sexual inhibition that they abandoned with the most gusto: wild orgies and wife-swapping were virtually a prerequisite for any who wished to be embraced in the Wanjohi Valley social scene, which had the Muthaiga Country Club as its focal point. Evenings that began with gazelle chops and champers, soundtracked by the tinny sounds of music-hall ditties from a wind-up gramophone, would degenerate into levels of substance-addled debauchery that made Gomorrah seem like the priggish Suffolk parish of Steeple Bumpstead. One post-dinner parlour game involved male attendees lining up behind a sheet, then poking their aroused appendages through holes in it, so that the ladies present could cast their votes on their favourite.

The capricious band of protagonists who made up the Happy Valley set could be the raw material for a thousand Tom Robbins novels, and the women of the scene were arguably an even more extraordinary bunch than the men. Beryl Markham was an adventurer, racehorse trainer, author and bush pilot who, during the pioneer days of aviation, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west. Neatly demonstrating the blasé attitude to adultery prevalent within this community, each time Markham took a new lover, her husband — the British army officer and farmer Captain Alexander Laidlaw ‘Jock’ Purves — would hammer a six-inch nail into their front-door frame. Then there was Mary Miller, who “lived off lorry-loads of champagne and booze before shooting herself”, according to Juliet Barnes’s book The Ghosts of Happy Valley.


    May 2020


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