Harold Nicolson, pretty flamingo, the pinkest of Elizabeth’s courtiers

… So off he flew to the land, more or less, where Stanley had met Livingstone. And he was hugely grateful in the end because the whole business proved wonderful for the soul. He found Africa stunningly beautiful. The approach to the airfield near Kampala, for instance, was particularly awe-inspiring. The strip was situated right by a lake; and from high above, circling to begin a descent, it looked for all the world as if this lake was edged in a coral necklace; and then, turning into a final approach, this necklace shattered, dissolved, fragmented, as thousands upon thousands of flamingos took to the air.

Day after day, there were further wonders to behold; and Harold drank them in.

The very air itself, he could have breathed it for a thousand days. Everything was clear and clean. Every experience seemed etched in peculiar sharpness. It was like Switzerland without the snow, hyper-real, more than vital. Even his allotted task, its endless meetings with uninspired and uninspiring colonial bureaucrats, seemed terribly stimulating. It was almost a shame to have to come home.

But come home he did to the last dregs of a filthy English winter.

And there was no mistaking the new mood. Edward VIII had gone and in his place as King, his brother, formerly The Duke of York. The Queen at his side, Elizabeth, was the mischievous little Scotch lady Harold had, in recent memory, failed to recognise at a cocktails reception. Yes, that Elizabeth, the twinkly-eyed pixie he’d attempted to shock to the very core of her being by taking her to a Sodom and Gomorrah show in Berlin less than ten years ago. O-ho! She had him now on toast if it pleased her. She could retain him as her poor fool.

Indeed, one of Harold’s first public acts on his return was a visit to Buckingham Palace. The new King and Queen, still feeling their way, threw a party for the Great and Good: and Harold, though insisting he qualified on neither count, was invited. He did his best to maintain a low profile and somehow blend in with the furniture; but all evening the Queen insisted on bringing people over to him, introducing him to friend and foe alike as “the pinkest of my courtiers.”

By which of course she meant his politics: his election as a National Labour member for one thing, his liberal views for another. She was teasing, naturally, and he didn’t much mind. In any case, the word “pink” now made him think of a coral necklace shattering into countless flamingo fragments, rising into the clear air above an African lake.

Extract from Book Seven of the 2016 draft of Flying Over Ruins


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