Friday 23 January 2015

Seex House

I was between digs. In a few weeks I would have "proper" accommodation but right now I had nothing. A pal suggested I should house-sit. I said I didn't know anyone with a house that needed sitting and my pal said "Look in the paper". The very next day there was an ad for a house in Karen - one of the most exclusive suburbs of Nairobi - named after Karen Blixen. Since I had just been working as an extra on the movie "Out of Africa" I took this to be a sign and called the number. 2262 - although it is over 30 years ago I remember the number as 22-seex-2. A gentleman with a lovely precise accent invited me over for an interview. The house sat on 20 acres - I later discovered that Eric was the second buyer to purchase a 20 acre plot from the Blixen estate and, when I arrived 40 years after he bought it, it was one of very few that still had the same acreage! When I drove down the long, winding drive to the house and parked near the back door a sprightly, elderly guy popped out (looking quite like David Niven) and, without any request to see my references, launched into a set of staccato instructions. "Just over here is the water tap. The water is pumped up from the river but if you need to isolate the supply you must use this tap. Here is the door between the house and the kitchen and servants' quarters. There is one key (more of this later) and you must look after it at all times. I planted this tree (he paused and pointed up at a 100ft fig tree behind me) and two others as we were building the house 40 years ago." 

So began my relationship with Eric Seex. I had never met anyone who had planted a tree that had grown so high and I was captivated. He was an accountant and had come to Kenya in the 30's and set up his own practice. He was so good that he was seduced by Cooper, Lybrand to go onboard with them to form Cooper, Lybrand & Seex. He bought the plot and built a lovely stone mansion with verandas, a gallery and a huge fireplace. 

This isn't Eric's house but has the same style

Having lived through the Mau Mau, he still had a big issue about security and insisted that the servants were locked out into their own quarters after dark. In the morning they would enter the kitchen and make a cup of tea. Then the houseboy would go around and knock on the front door. I was instructed to open the master bedroom window and throw out the key. The houseboy would take the key and go around the house and unlock the door between the servants quarters, the kitchen and the main house and bring me a cup of tea - and the key!! At which point I would declare what I would like for breakfast.

When I say 'houseboy' I am using the traditional, local term. Kariuki was at least 75 and, although he was very sprightly, it made me feel very wrong to see him scrabbling on the ground for the key. But I dared not break Eric's rules so I made a parachute. I will never forget Kariuki's face when I threw it out and he was able to wait and take it out of the air! 

Every few days I would ask for a boiled egg and the first time I did this Kariuki's face lit up again and, when I went to the dining room, I discovered a beautiful, Victorian, silver contraption like a big Easter egg on legs with a little burner underneath. My egg was inside and Kariuki showed me how to fill the little burner which had exactly the right amount of fuel to heat the water and cook the egg to perfection.

He would then take my order for my evening meal and tell me how much to give him for the ingredients. The cost averaged about £1 for a wonderful meal. One morning I ran out of ideas and said "What do you like to cook?". His face lit up! (I have said this many times and it is very hard to describe how wonderful it was to see this man's face light up!) 

"Oxtail". I said "How much?" and he said "20p". That night I ate the most wonderful feast! I had always liked oxtail soup but had never had the real thing before!

One of the other fig trees was next to the main veranda and stood over a big stone bird table which was stocked with water and seed every day. One day after school I was sitting outside having a cup of tea. There were some nondescript little birds enjoying the bird table when suddenly a pin-tailed whydah launched himself from a branch about 30 ft above. He came screaming down like a Stukkah fighter-bomber and at the very last minute flared out over the table with his wings fully extended and his foot-long tail feathers flashing behind him. The little birds hunched up looking worried but, when he landed on the lawn, they went back to work on the seeds. 

He shook his feathers, preened himself and flew up to a branch 60 ft above the table, took off and repeated the performance with even more gusto - with the same result. 

He adjusted his feathers and went right up to the top of the tree. Took off, screamed down even faster and pulled off a stall right over the table which sent some of the seeds flying. The little birds hunched up, waited and then went back to feeding. 

The whydah bird flew across to the verandah, perched on a branch about 6 ft from me and for five minutes gave me an account of his efforts (which I will never forget - and will whistle to you tomorrow if you ask me) to protect my bird table which finished with what sounded like "So I have done my best and now it is up to you!" And flew off. 

I later discovered the dowdy little birds were actually female whydahs! 

Eric's son Chris owned and ran the best restaurants (at the time - now I would vote for Seven) in Nairobi and Mombasa - the Tamarinds - and branched out with the hugely successful Carnivore based on a Brazilian barbecue. We became very good friends and he would roar up the drive in Karen and shout "Lunch?" I would scramble out, jump into his Mercedes and cling on for dear life as we shot off. Most times it was to the Nairobi Tamarind or Carnivore but once or twice we actually went to Mombasa - normally a 3 or 4 hour drive which he would do in 2! 

He told me a story about a time when he was establishing the Mombasa Tamarind and was living in a very luxurious bungalow that he had built next to it. He had a pet python, about 6 ft long. It loved to coil around the cool, green, toilet pedestal and he would often (I suspect deliberately) fail to warn guests. He said the appearance of the head slowly rising next to the guest on the 'throne' had mixed results - visitors with "loose stools" would find themselves bound and those who felt constipated would . . . . . 

One day, after the lunch service was over, he decided to play a trick on a new barman who he thought was a bit cocky. Wearing just a pair of shorts he fetched the snake from the toilet and wrapped it around his waist with the top half of its body up in the air above his head, supported by his right arm. He strolled into the bar convinced that the barman would be terrified. As the door closed behind him he saw the reflected sunlight sweep across the bar - and glint off the bottles behind the barman. The snake freaked out and swung its head up and down across the front of his body, lightning fast, three times. Chris felt the impacts but no real pain; however when he looked down there were six little holes across his chest just starting to bleed where the (luckily non-toxic) fangs had hit. He looked across to the bar to see the barman doubled up laughing!

Chris was a consummate host and would stay up into the wee small hours entertaining (well-paying) groups of businessmen in the restaurant. His lovely wife, Jane, would stay up too but, when they finally hit the sack, she would go out like a light while he was still wired! His solution was to install a state-of-the-art stereo system in the headboard above their bed and when Jane went to sleep he would put on a huge pair of headphones - and light up a joint! His taste in music was truly eclectic and went from Led Zep to Bach. One night he hit on the 1812 Overture and as it went "Dah dah dah dah - BOOM. Dah dah dah dah - BOOM" the breeze-blocks from the wall above his head flew across the room with clouds of dust. He told me that he took the joint out of his mouth, looked at it and thought - "That is some serious sh*t" Then Jane took the headphones off and pointed out to him that they now had a new view through what used to be the wall behind the bed to what used to be the restaurant office. It turned out that their accountant had been syphoning off funds from the office for four years. He had kept a meticulous record, with dates, up to his target amount. At which point he bought a couple of sticks of dynamite, from his cousin who worked in a quarry, so he could destroy the evidence. Hence the Big Bang! Now it turns out that although dynamite is very good at blowing out walls it kind of ignores paperwork. The fire brigade almost did that but when all the smoke had gone the diary was still intact. The accountant went to jail and as soon as he got out he applied for a new job and quoted Chris as a reference. Chris called him. "Are you sure you want me as a referee?" "Yes sir - I have done my time so now the books are square!"

The Carnivore was centred around a charcoal pit where racks held metal swords with hunks of various meats roasting. 

You 'buy' an empty (very hot) metal plate on a wooden platter and take your drinks to your table where dishes of vegetables will appear. Then the first waiter arrives, holding the handle of a sword with a chunk of meat impaled on it in his left hand while his right hand holds a carving knife that supports the other end of the sword. He plonks the tip of the sword in the middle of your plate and upends the sword above it. He then declares what he has brought - "Impala!" - and you say "Yes please" or "No thank-you". If you say "Yes" he carves a couple of slices onto your plate and then sets off to the next customer. If you say "No" he looks slightly offended before he sets off! 

Just to be clear, the range of offerings could include "Zebra", "Ostrich" and "Crocodile" among others and the waiters would keep bringing new offerings until you gave up and could take no more! And I was offered a job on the game ranch where this food comes from - but that's another story!

Chris was always innovating. His menus were masterpieces because each dish had a small paragraph to whet your appetite. He also invented his own snacks which were free to eat as you sat at the bar and read the menu. (He did confide in me once that they were all massively salty and he made more profit from the drinks than the food)! He bought a dhow and converted it into a hugely successful floating restaurant. He planned to commission a brand new dhow which would have huge refrigerated holds and would go up and down the coast north and south of Mombasa buying fish from local fishermen. He offered me the job of being his agent on the dhow - but I chickened out! Sadly he had 2 strokes and died in 1999 aged under 50. A great loss to the world.

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