Monday, November 3, 2014

In Search of an Author: On the Track of Agatha Christie


In a hot, airless little room in Bulawayo, an elderly man rummages through disintegrating brown envelopes and rusty files.  Faint labels carry captions such as: ‘Railway Staff 1932-33’ and ‘Wages March 1952’.  There are dusty black and white photographs on the wall of men in dark suits and hats.  Unsmiling, they all look alarmingly similar with their handle-bar moustaches and their arms crossed resolutely across their chests.
                ‘No.  I thought I might have something, but no.’ He reluctantly admits defeat, so convinced was he that he might be able to help me in my search. I am in the archives of the Railway Museum in Bulawayo.  The buildings themselves are run down and we are surrounded by the great hulks of rusting train carcasses. The museum, now a separate entity from the National Railways of Zimbabwe, is run by a couple of train enthusiasts, who are extremely knowledgeable and very anxious to answer any questions, but lack of money has meant that the upkeep has become too much to keep up with.

I came here to look for the visitors’ book of the Victoria Falls Hotel for 1922.  It’s a tall order I admit and frankly I am not surprised that my search has once more yielded nothing.  ‘What about the Empire Exhibition?’ I ask.  ‘Do you have anything on that?’

‘The Empire Exhibition?  Yes, of course!’  He leaps up, and extracts a large piece of thin off-white card from a drawer in a filing cabinet with such ease it’s as though I had asked to see that day’s newspaper. The item in question is a participation certificate awarded to Beira and Mashonaland and Rhodesia Railways for taking part in the Empire Exhibition of 1924.  I study it for a couple of minutes and take a photograph.  At this moment in time it is the closest I have come to tracking one of my favourite authors, Agatha Christie.
 

There is a great delight to be felt in being able to replicate the journeys of a favourite or admired author.  It is interesting to see where they got their ideas from and to see how places have changed – and stayed the same – since those journeys were taken.  It is more than a simple ‘oh, I’ve been there!’ impulse; it is a something shared with the author which makes the book‘s appeal more of a personal one. As an ardent Agatha Christie fan living in Southern Africa, I was quite delighted to discover that one of her books was set in Rhodesia. 

Agatha Christie based her third novel, The Man in the Brown Suit on her travels to South Africa and Rhodesia in 1922.  She accompanied her husband, Archibald Christie, on the Empire Tour, the object of which was to get as many companies and businesses in the colonies as possible to exhibit at the Empire Exhibition of 1924.  They travelled to South Africa, Rhodesia, New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and Canada in all, the trip taking a year to complete. The man who organised the tour and who invited the Christies to accompany him was one Major Belcher.   He challenged Agatha to include him in a novel and said he wanted to be the murderer.  As he was a fairly cantankerous man and quite difficult to get on with, I can only think it wasn’t difficult to include him in the writing of the novel and it’s a wonder he didn’t find himself the victim, rather than the culprit!
The book is an ambitious one, beginning as it does in London and ending in Rhodesia with numerous sea voyages and train trips in between.  In her autobiography, Christie describes very briefly her trip to Rhodesia: the Matopos was ‘exciting’ and they ‘had a pleasant time in Salisbury’.  Agatha arrived in Bulawayo on the train from Johannesburg in March of 1922.  In a letter to her mother, she described the town as ‘not very attractive, flat and sandy and a dirty Hotel full of smells.’  The hotel in question is the Grand Hotel, but not the same one you will find if you go to Bulawayo today.  The original hotel had been open for twenty three years when Christie stayed there and was considered quite the height of luxury as some rooms had their own baths and the chefs employed there came from the Savoy and Carlton Hotels in London.  Why Christie found it so disappointing is not quite clear.  After her long, hot and dusty train trip one would have thought she would have found it a veritable oasis. 
It is of Victoria Falls that she writes the most: ‘Great trees, soft mists of rain, its rainbow colouring, wandering through the forest with Archie, and every now and then the rainbow mist parting to show you for one tantalising second the Falls in all their glory pouring down.  Yes, I put that as one of my seven wonders of the world.’  At that time the hotel and the railway station were the only two buildings at the Falls.  ‘No road, only paths, just the Hotel, and primeval woods for miles and miles stretching into blueness.’ Christie wrote of her surroundings.  It was an ideal setting for a thriller cum romance novel. At that point, in 1922, Africa was still relatively unknown and the idea of the colonies was a romantic one to the reader in Britain.  ‘The Man from the Colonies’ appears in a number of guises in Christie’s novels.  Rather like the Chinaman creation of earlier novelists, he represents mystery, adventure and, quite often, misadventure.  He was the man who had gone to the colonies either to get rich or to get away, or both.  Sometimes he is the ill-treated younger brother who went off to seek his fortune by himself; at other times he is the black sheep of the family who was sent away for some sort of misdemeanour and to save the family name.

Many of the events in The Man in the Brown Suit, are actually based on real life happenings as recorded by Christie in her diary.  So close are her thoughts on the trip to those of the narrator, Anne Beddingfield, that it is possible to draw great similarities between the two.  I think when one thinks of Agatha Christie, it is of a middle-aged or elderly woman and an established author.  One of the great things about The Man in the Brown Suit is that its events correlate so much with events in Christie’s own life that one gets a glimpse of a person – a young, excited woman on a trip of a life time and one who was very much in love with life.  Just four years later, Christie would hit the headlines for her mysterious disappearance when she apparently lost her memory of who she was and ended up in a hotel in Harrogate, registered under a different name.  Her marriage was in ruins, her mother had recently died and she is assumed to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown. The spunky, adventurous Anne Beddingfield had sadly disappeared.

The Victoria Falls Hotel today
The railway station at Victoria Falls, once the only building besides the hotel

Agatha Christie described the Victoria Falls Hotel as ‘delightful’ – ‘long and low and white, with beautifully clean rooms, and wired all over like a fine meat safe against malarial mosquitos.’ Today Victoria Falls is a thriving tourist centre, probably the only town in Zimbabwe which can be described as such.  There are numerous hotels from the luxurious to chalets and camping sites.  The Victoria Falls Hotel is now ranked as one of the best in the world and a stay there is pure luxury.  It has expanded considerably since Christie’s stay there nearly a hundred years ago, but it has maintained its colonial look and touch of class.

My investigation into Agatha’s trip to Rhodesia began here at the beginning of the year. I had been travelling through Victoria Falls on my way home to Zambia and had gone into the hotel to ask if they kept any old visitors’ books, but was told that anything like that would be kept at the hotel’s head office in Harare.  The hotel buildings are still owned by the Railways, although they are leased to Sun International and the Meikles Group. 

A couple of months later I was back in Zimbabwe attending a Caine Prize writing workshop.  On the last day, we were treated to lunch at The Meikles Hotel in Harare and it was here that I met the owner of the Meikles Group, John Moxon and his wife, Jeanne.  I explained to them my interest in researching Agatha Christie’s stay in Rhodesia and asked them what sort of archival material they had.  As it turns out, the Meikles Group have only leased the hotel since 1998 and the previous lessees had not kept very substantial records.  Finding anything like a visitors’ book from 1922 would be an extremely tall order.

   My research took me to the National Archives of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, a rather cold, unfeeling place.  It was easy to get hold of copies of The Chronicle from March of 1922, but I was very disappointed to find nothing of Christie’s visit.  Although she wasn’t then the world famous writer she was later to become, I thought there may be some mention of her stay in Bulawayo.  I also looked for mention of the Empire Tour, but my search yielded nothing.  However, I was very excited to find mention of Archibald Christie in The Herald, the Salisbury based newspaper.

                The stories I discovered in the newspapers gave me an insight into the times in which Christie lived.  Every week, the newspaper published a piece about who was in town visiting and where they were staying.   ‘The Countess of Cathcart passed through Bulawayo yesterday on her way from Northern Rhodesia to the Cape. one such piece announces and another: ‘The Earl and Countess of Lonsdale
An extract from an article in The Herald
describing Colonel Christie's arrival in Salisbury
and the upcoming Empire Exhibition
and the Earl and Countess of Mar and Kellie return from Salisbury today, on their way to the Falls.  While in Bulawayo they are staying at The Grand Hotel.’  Another article declares that a coroner’s report recorded a verdict of accidental death in the case of a Lord Harcourt found dead by his valet with an unfinished novel on his bedside table and his reading lamp on.  It   made me wonder how easy it would be to come to Africa, feign position and wealth and run up a string of debts, but in reality be a nobody form nowhere? 
                The Man in the Brown Suit ends in characteristically happy way.  Anne marries the man she loves and ends up living on an island in the Zambezi with him.  How possible that would actually have been, even in 1922, is questionable, but it certainly wouldn’t be possible nowadays.  The world is a much smaller place since the Christies went on their journey.  Zimbabwe is barely recognisable as the place the Countess of Cathcart may have passed through.  The Grand Hotel was renovated and turned into an office block in 1994; The Victoria Falls Hotel has swelled far beyond ‘long and low’ and now offers five-star luxury to a mainly foreign clientele.  I think of the man at the Railway Museum who showed me crockery from the Royal Train of 1947.  ‘You see these,’ he said. ‘There are some on display, but the rest we keep in here.  I’ve seen them go for about $US800 each on e-bay.’  Each plate is worth three times his monthly pension allowance, but the whole lot would have to be sold twice over to save some of the other relics in the Railway Museum.
On the terrace at the Victoria Falls Hotel, I am surrounded by tourists in white linen and safari khaki taking high tea and enjoying their colonial experience.  It looks like fun, but I can’t help feeling a pang that it is hard today to find something genuinely itself and not a creation.  I think back to the Railway Museum and the Archives and of the past stored away in all those filing cabinets and drawers.  It is then that I am glad I never found the visitors’ book for I would have hated to have stopped there.  When I began my research I thought I was following Agatha Christie on part of her journey, but now I wonder if the journey hasn't become my own.

I am indebted to the following for all their assistance while writing this article: Jeanne Moxon and Karl Snater of the Meikles Group, Gordon Murray at the Railway Museum (Bulawayo) and the National Archives of Zimbabwe.

Victoria Falls Hotel  www.victoriafallshotel.com
Railway Museum  http://www.geoffs-trains.com/Museum/BulawayoRlyMuseumHome.html