In keeping with that - get yourself a coffee or a cup of tea and settle in... you're about to learn why Diana Duff wrote "Leaves From the Fig Tree."
Thank you for taking an interest in Leaves of the Fig Tree and for asking why I started writing, which came about because of my childhood.
As a small girl in Ireland, living in a Georgian house buried in the heart of the countryside in County Cork, I had no brothers or sisters or children to play with and, until I was 11, with only governesses, unqualified by and large, who came and went and never stayed long because the place was so remote.
Originally built in the 1700s, the family has lived there ever since. It came to them through the marriage of a wealthy heiress called Mary Grove. At that time the house and estate was called Ballyhimmock, The Place of the Mound, and was owned by Mary’s father, Robert Grove. Like a fairy story, the Earl of Annesley, my ancestor, came down to Cork, courted and married Mary. Her shrewd father, far from being impressed that the Earl had made his daughter a Countess, said that the name Grove had to be tacked onto Annesley. The house was to be renamed Annes Grove and any property she inherited was to stay in her name.
The marriage was a disaster. She was childless, although the Earl had progeny and dozens of mistresses scattered around Ireland. He had made good use of Mary’s money so there wasn’t much left. Fortuitously, her father had written a clause into the marriage contract that Annes Grove remained hers, so Mary at least had that and could leave the house and estate to whomsoever she wished when she died. So she left it to Arthur, the Earl’s youngest brother, my great-great-grandfather! I don’t know much about him but he had seventeen children, so I suppose that kept him busy. Books, a few papers and a portrait of him are still lying around the house to this day.
I was always hearing all these stories from the past, stories and more stories, like the true story of another kinsman, James Annesley, kidnapped in Ireland and sold into virtual slavery in the plantations in Virginia. James’s uncle wanted the titles and lands so he arranged the kidnapping and it was about twenty years before James escaped from America. He managed to reach London to claim his rights and prove that he was alive and his entitlement.
That story was hot news in 1776. It has been told in a book by Prof Roger Ekirch of the University of Virginia in the States. He brought out the book the year before last – Birthright. (I always wanted to write the book myself). I have a 200-year-old book, falling to pieces in my cupboard, which tells the outlines of the tale but Prof Ekirch researched every law case relating to poor old James and had access to papers to do with James in Virginia. I would not have had such a plethora of information. Robert Louis Stevenson was enamored by this story of James and Kidnapped was based on it.
Apart from these stories, as a house Annesgrove did not hold much interest for me, apart from one room at the top of the house which was almost certainly haunted. There is an incredibly wide chimney space, in the dining room, with intermittent footholds going up it, which calls to mind poor Tom in The Water Babies. And down in the kitchen a large cupboard with an iron ring set into the wall where legend has it a monkey, two centuries before, was kept to turn the spit.
Otherwise the house held no magic. It was a dull house. It was the ancient prehistoric parts of the estate that held me fascinated and some areas of the twenty-acre garden – some of it wild – containing rare plants. The intrepid plant hunter Kingdon Ward, had percolated into Tibet at a time when it was closed to the West and risked being murdered when he smuggled cuttings and roots out in the 1920s. Then there was the Handkerchief tree and the Judas tree, reputed to bloom only on Good Friday and the Vanilla tree from Madagascar which smelt delicious when the sun was on it and the blue poppies from the Himalayas – and much more.
But the real fascination, the real magic, lay in the place on the Castle avenue where there was an ancient pagan burial ground known as the Killeen. It was there that the bones of the old druids lay and Irish dead thousands of years ago were buried. The actual area of the Killeen had been sanctified by a Church of Ireland bishop, summoned from his See in Cork in the 19th Century to consecrate the ground so that our family could be buried in Protestant safety among the pagans.
Sanctified it may have been with chanting and prayers, but it didn’t succeed in dispelling the strange and mysterious past and neither did the ancient cromlech standing amongst the graves, which to me had a tangible aura. I always felt, as I squeezed through the creaking gate and past the yew trees that I was disturbing something not visible but certainly there, although it was utterly silent in the Killeen wood. It was a sort of waiting silence, as though the People of the Mound were there – invisible, waiting for you to leave.
There were other signs of the past, although not so old. There was the oak cradle strung to a beam in an outhouse, used by the great-great-grandmother who had had seventeen children. There were the remains of a broken old carriage in the coach house. Dark remote paths down the Crow’s Walk and the silent woods. Between governesses I ran wild, wandering about the estate, listening to the stories of the old men who worked there, like the estate carpenter Ned Ginevan and Kiernan Doyle and old Bill Callaghan who left school at 11 because at that time there was no high school or further education for rural children. The stories they told had been handed down orally from old grandfathers and grandmothers sitting around the turf fire at night, with only a candle and the firelight flickering. Tales told and retold and some, as many as fifty or more, known and passed down the centuries since the days of the wandering bards. Doyle, for one, had never learnt to write but he knew poems, Republican songs like ‘The Rising of the Moon’, and the way the British poisoned Owen Roe O’Neill way back in the days of Elizabeth 1, which was still arousing his indignation in 1950.
In the not so very distant past the Iris were deprived of education. Teachers and priests were forbidden to teach and to speak the Irish language, so the teaching that went on was held illicitly in hidden places known as Hedgerow Schools. There was a field up at the Home Farm known as the Shepherd Field where these forbidden school classes were held. The curve of the field sloped over, making children and their teacher invisible from the roads above. Bill and Ned had a hundred stories to relate. Some of them would put the fear of God into me when I sat mesmerised by the description of the foxy-haired woman reputed to walk the Castle avenue at dusk in her grave-stained shroud. She had the name of Shevauneen and she was aggressive, according to Ned. Then there was the banshee, an old woman who keened in the wind when someone was going to die. “Jaysus God, didn’t she cry the night long when poor Lizzie Eddery was dying!” He would tell me this with great confidentiality, lowering his voice. “Did she die, Ned?” “She did indeed, God rest her soul.”
He had a wealth of stories from Deidre of the Sorrows, who was turned into a swan, to the goings on of the Tuatha de Danaan. And the Children of Lir. Listening to Ned and old Bill I didn’t have the need for Grimms’ Fairy Tales or Hans Christian Andersen. They could put more pep into what they related and make the stories come alive than any book.
I started writing then. I think I had the stirrings of a journalist who wanted to share experiences with other people. Or maybe, isolated as I was, there was the wish to put down some of the mysterious feelings of the old place where the past often seemed much closer than the present. As well as that, I was always being told by my grandmother, who had been born in 1868, that “the pen was more powerful than the sword” and how her grandfather William Howard Russell of the Times, the first War Correspondent, had brought down the British Government of the day with a crash. All because, apparently, of the impassioned dispatches he sent from the Crimea. He had also sent a few impassioned dispatches from South Africa at the time of the Boer War and wrote fourteen books (all boring, although he did have lunch with Abraham L:incoln, knew Thackeray and argued with Bismarck). A book written about him called Man of Wars showed he never stopped writing apart from the odd swig of brandy and puff of a cigar, both things to which he was partial. I wrote my first book in a grubby exercise book when I was ten, feeling if Daisy Ashford could do it with her Young Visitors, so could I. I didn’t know how one went about being published and I was too shy to show my scribbles to anyone except the novelist Elizabeth Bowen who came to tea and said, “Keep writing.”.
But nothing was printed until I went to Kenya years later and fell in love with Africa. Always I had loved Annesgrove so I wrote about it. Not the house but the woods and the Killeen and old Bill and Ned. Years later I wrote about them again, not wanting their memory to fade. They had had the gift of the gab, were silver-tongued and if some of their stories were heavily embroidered – as they say in Ireland – “Sure what harm sure?” Doesn’t embroidery add to the colour and fabric of a story?
And then there was Africa and the people there. Raymond Hook, who trained cheetahs for Maharajahs and lived at the foot of Mount Kenya. He took his cheetahs to the UK to race against greyhounds at the White City. “When the greyhounds were in danger of winning the great cats just bowled them over with the flash of a paw,” he said, and showed me paintings of cheetahs running next to chariots in ancient Egypt when the Pharaohs hunted in the desert. There was Davo Davidson the Scot, who had been one of Al Capone’s bodyguards, who swore to get the feared terrorist Dedan Kimathi. There was Punch Bearcroft who had only one arm and flew his small plane over forests teeming with elephant and rhino to drop supplies to troops in Mau Mau days. There was our Kikuyu cook who had once helped prepare a banquet for Karen Blixen and who had confessed to taking a Mau Mau oath to kill us but had “never got round to it”.
Myriads of colourful people so that one’s fingers itched to put them on paper. There was at the back of my mind the feeling that the people and places I wrote about were vanishing fast and I wanted to hold onto their stories before they were blown away by the winds of time. I wanted to capture a taste of days when life was less fraught. The title of Leaves of the Fig Tree came through an old Kikuyu chief, Socrates Gitau, who, when I asked him about things that had happened in the past, said that when leaves fall from the fig tree, the African sacred tree, they represent a year of your life that has gone.