Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Cheetah Racing Remembered: An Exploration through the Sources

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Cheetah Racing Remembered: An Exploration through the Sources

Article excerpt

On the last four pages of Nigel Pavitf s photographic history of Kenya: a country in the making (reviewed in ARD 107, pp.55-56) are a series of pictures of Kenyan settler Raymond Hook catching and training cheetahs before bringing them to England in 1937 to race against greyhounds at the White City track in London. Never having come across this story before (although I subsequently discovered it briefly featured in a recent edition of the BBC television programme Inside Out), my curiosity was aroused, and what follows is my attempt to reconstruct the full story behind those remarkable images in Pavitf s book. Initially somewhat sceptical as to how much of such a seemingly ephemeral story would show up in the archives, I was encouraged to find much relevant material in the Bodleian Library of Commonwealth and African Studies at Rhodes House, and contemporary newspaper reports, held in the soon to be disbanded British Library Newspaper Library at Colindale, also proved invaluable. Other material was tracked down as far away as Kolkata in India, and I was particularly fortunate to make contact with Raymond Hook's daughter, Mrs. Hazel Holmes, who still lives in Nanyuki, and who generously made available to me transcripts of her father's letters home written whilst he was in England, as well as the photographs which illustrate this article. Other photographs can be found in newspapers and magazines of the time1, witnesses to the fact that for a brief time the venture captured the public imagination, only to disappear almost as rapidly once the inherent problems involved in attempting to train cheetahs to race against both themselves and other animals became apparent and significant vested interests came out against the project.

This exotic venture, which perhaps not surprisingly ended in failure and recrimination, was the brainchild of two remarkable men, each something of a 'character' in his own way. The first of these, Raymond Hook, was born in 1892. He first went to East Africa in 1912 with his father, the artist Bryan Hook, who wanted to paint Mount Kenya and other tropical scenes. When they reached Nanyuki, Raymond was so keen to stay that his father purchased an estate for him, and this remained his home for the rest of his life. As his father later wrote, the estate was "uninhabited land from which the Masai tribes have been removed, and which is now being surveyed and being marked out into farms for white settlers". Like other farms in the district the f acuities were at first somewhat basic, but when Bryan Hook returned some thirteen months later, there was already "a well-stocked garden, with plenty of good vegetables - potatoes, onions, peas, beans, cauliflowers, etc", together with "an acre or so of coffee, and a patch of maize".2

In the First World War Hook enlisted in the East Africa Transport Corps. He was promoted to Sergeant-Major and followed the campaign into German East Africa (Tanganyika), before being attached to the Belgian forces as an interpreter, and remaining with them until the end of the war. After demobilisation Hook returned to his farm, where he continued to live alone until in 1929 he married Joan Katie North, whose father was land agent to the Duke of Wellington. The couple separated in 1938, not least because by this time Joan, who, according to their daughter, Hazel, had tried to "install a sense of responsibility" into Raymond, could no longer stand "the chickens sitting under the stairs, the goats bouncing up and down the stairs, and the snakes under the kitchen stove".3

By this time Hook had already acquired the reputation of knowing "more about the fauna of the Mount Kenya region than any man living". He appears to have had an innate understanding of animals and was particularly skilled at handling them, no matter how wild they might be. Over the years, he built up a business supplying animals for European zoos, bred zebroids from zebras and horses, and allowed his house and farm to become overrun by the animals he had collected. …

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