by Tom McGhie
Over the last two years, “Brexit” – a word which instils both confusion and annoyance in most, has surgically torn political parties, families and friendships alike.
Ever since its first appearance on the horizon, pro-Brexit politicians have backed the concept through playing on the fears of the public and eulogising about the past days of the British Empire. “Remember when we used to be great? We don’t need Europe, we could be great again!”
However, this ‘great’ Britain that people hark back to at dinner parties and political speeches is an invading, colonising country, the population seemingly unaware of the atrocities it was leaving in its wake. One such dark chapter of forgotten history takes place in 1950s Kenya, where thousands of Kenyans were detained in concentration camps, where the prisoners were ‘beaten, tortured, sexually abused’.
John McGhie became known as an investigative reporter for the BBC, and made a documentary titled Kenya: White Terror, which details the atrocities the British committed in Kenya in that period. Now retired from the journalist industry, his debut novel, White Highlands, tells the tale of photographer Jonny Seymour, who after being posted in Kenya slowly discovers this gruesome period of history.
Norwich Radical: Your book was based on ‘White Terror’, a documentary you made with the BBC which was given a special International Red Cross award. So why did you feel you had to make this into a novel?
John McGhie: The film was well received as you say. But like all journalism, it had a short life span. What we – the British – did to Kenyans during their struggle for independence was so terrible and on such a large scale that I wanted it to be far better known. Novels have a wider potential audience but I think that if you create characters who are believable then people will invest in them. White Highlands is a ‘page-turner’, it has a love story – two actually – there are good and bad people in it and most are, like us, in the middle. What I was aiming for was to tell a story that would excite and entertain, and along the way maybe educate a bit too. If it’s just a didactic exercise, it has failed, but the reaction to it as a novel has so far been really positive, so hopefully there’s a lot more to the book than that.
NR: Why do you think the period of the Mau Mau uprising is not better known?
The phrase I use is that we British are like psychotic goldfish, swimming around the bowl of history perpetrating terrible acts of cruelty, then forgetting all about them and so are doomed to do repeat them all again.
JM: Many reasons. Sometimes I fear that the ‘two world wars and one world cup’ version of history is the only thing that sticks. But to be fair, this is not the kind of material you find on most school curriculums. Everyone learns about Tudors and Stuarts but what about how we caused the Bengal famine? How we led the slave trade? How we ruthlessly suppressed independence movements with torture, mass detentions and extra judicial killings? Not so much. The phrase I use is that we British are like psychotic goldfish, swimming around the bowl of history perpetrating terrible acts of cruelty, then forgetting all about them and so are doomed to do repeat them all again. Only if we remember we can break the cycle.
NR: You seem to be suggesting that telling these stories about our past is important for us now?
JM: Absolutely – particularly now. There’s too much talk these days around the Brexit debate for example that paints a false picture of our past. There’s a kind of view that says ‘look, we were once a great power, we traded with the world – why can’t we do that now?’ And my answer to that is yes, we did, but we did so at the end of a bayonet which we held to the throat of the world. There are many things to celebrate about our history, but our relations with the countries we colonised is not one them. We subjugated them by force and then put down their attempts at freedom. We There really should be no rosy glow about the Empire. I don’t believe we should live in a permanent state of self-castigation. Of course not everyone behaved badly and there were some good things along the line but we do need to face the bad stuff first and make amends – not just for the countries and peoples we did this to but for ourselves too. We need to take ownership of what we did so that we can perhaps move on in a more enlightened and benign way – not to mention that our standing in the world would rapidly improve if we were seen to be sorry for what we did.
NR: That may be so, but weren’t other countries just as guilty?
And what do we do? We can’t even debate it because to do that we first have to know what went on.
JM: Undoubtedly other nations behaved badly too. The French in Algeria, the Germans in Namibia, the Belgians in the then Congo. But look, those other countries today have a radically different approach to facing up to what they did. In all of those three countries, there is a national conversation about what they did, a readiness to ‘fess up to it all. They teach it a school, there are many books and films about it, their national museums have been transformed into centres of learning about colony. And what do we do? We can’t even debate it because to do that we first have to know what went on.
NR: Are you suggesting that no one knows about this at all?
JM: No – not at all.There are some great movements around that force us as a nation to talk about this. For example there are positive signs that university curriculums are undergoing change. But we have a long way to go to catch up. As the old saying goes, before you know where you’re going, you need to know where you come from.
White Highlands has been shortlisted for the Author’s Club First Novel Award in 2018.
Featured image belongs to the Ministry of Defence POST-1945 OFFICIAL COLLECTION
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