Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya
by Caroline Elkins
Henry Holt, 475 pp., $27.50
Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire
by David Anderson
Norton, 406 pp., $25.95
I met Pordy Laneford in Cyprus. We had arrived on the same flight from Africa, and were assigned a room to share in the Astoria in Nicosia. It was in the late 1950s, that decade of colonial wars. In Cyprus, the British were struggling to crush the EOKA nationalist movement; the Astoria had grenade screens over the windows and a bomb hole in the garden. The French were fighting in Algeria, the British colonial “emergencies” in Malaya and Kenya were winding down but still shedding blood, and President Nasser had just nationalized the Suez Canal. The Suez War, the ultimate fiasco of Franco-British imperialism, lay a few months in the future.
Pordy Laneford had come from Kenya. He sat on his hotel bed, a chinless wonder with watery blue eyes and a small moustache, and chatted about himself. He was even younger than I was. Pordy had been named after a Devonshire trout stream which ran past his family home, a bankrupt farm (as he described it) run by a military father who collected medals and taught his children about the Empire. Pordy also took up medal-collecting and Empire. He signed up with the Rhodesian police. But soon, to his surprise, he was discharged ignominiously for torturing an African suspect. He looked around for “something which was good fun and sort of helped to hold the Empire up.” In Kenya, the Mau Mau rebellion had begun, so Pordy joined the infamous Kenya Police Reserve, the paramilitary force recruited mostly from white settlers. He explained to me how important it was to kill captured suspects at once, without waiting for the “red tape” of trials and witness statements. “Killing prisoners? Well, it’s not really the same thing, is it? I mean, I’d feel an awful shit if I thought I’d been killing prisoners.”
It had been fun, he said. He went on to describe the mauve bubbles brought up by a Mau Mau suspect speared in the throat, and gave a rendering of the accompanying noises. But Mau Mau was winding down now, and Kenya was duller. What did I think of his chances of getting antiterrorist work in Cyprus? What sort of gun would they issue him? “It does feel so absolutely marvelous to have a gun, I mean you really feel you’re somebody, sort of thing.”
I had met other Pordys before, in different parts of the Empire. It was that schoolboy innocence which made them so terribly dangerous, because it was an incurable condition. They were worse, in many ways, than those compulsive sadists who emerge whenever licensed savagery is in prospect. For Pordys, torture was just a lark, a naughty sport like shooting pheasants out of season. Addicts are treatable. Fun-lovers will always hanker for more fun.
My advice to Pordy was to try Algeria, where French settlers were advertising for private gunmen. I thought he might not survive long there. But years later, I read in The Times that one Pordy Laneford …
The End of the Mau Mau June 23, 2005