Turning down O’Hanlon

Mark Ford

  • In Trouble Again: A Journey between the Orinoco and the Amazon by Redmond O’Hanlon
    Penguin, 368 pp, £3.99, October 1989, ISBN 0 14 011900 0
  • Our Grandmothers’ Drums: A Portrait of Rural African Life and Culture by Mark Hudson
    Secker, 356 pp, £12.95, June 1989, ISBN 0 436 20959 4
  • Borderlines: A Journey in Thailand and Burma by Charles Nicholl
    Secker, 320 pp, £12.95, October 1988, ISBN 0 436 30980 7

In The Orators W.H. Auden classified bird buffs as ‘excessive lovers of self’: they illustrate the psychological type who is ‘unable to taste pleasure unless through the rare coincidence of naturally diverse events, or the performance of a long and intricate ritual’. Redmond O’Hanlon sees his own career as a bird-watcher originating along similar lines to this but rather more romantically. It all began when he was four and three-quarters. A mistle-thrush dropped half of an empty eggshell at his feet on the lawn of the Wiltshire Vicarage where he grew up: ‘Being unaware, at the time, of the empty cosmos, of the unfeelingness of causal connections, I concluded that this message of brown and purple blotches on a background of browny-white had been intended just for me.’

In both of O’Hanlon’s chronicles of his chaotic river jaunts, the first down the Rajang river in Borneo, this between the Orinoco and the Amazon, bird-watching develops into something much more than a merely absorbing hobby, or even a rigorous pursuit of scientific knowledge. Rather like the Chief Accountant in Heart of Darkness, who fends off the inexplicable jungle by dressing in starched shirt and collar, O’Hanlon finds in the very act of verifying an avian speculation in Humboldt or Wallace instant escape from the bizarre muddles of his tropical adventures. Indeed, in In Trouble Again bird-watching becomes not only a means of making sense of the exotic mysteries of the rainforest, but the key to a Proustian recovery of the paradise of lost childhood.

As a natural history reviewer for theTLS, O’Hanlon has shown himself to be one of those writers who can make a discussion of the arcana of his subject riveting to even the least interested of lay readers. For the most part, however, in his travel books, O’Hanlon disappointingly sheds his role of scholarly enthusiast for that of comic buffoon, old fatso, mocked by the natives and vilified by his travelling companion. Into the Heart of Borneo contains much pretty tiresome knockabout between the reverenced James Fenton, whose every quip is sacredly recorded, and the bumbling O’Hanlon. The precise descriptions of birds are far more entertaining.

For this next trip O’Hanlon again approached James Fenton but received from the poet a flat refusal to accompany him anywhere, ‘even to High Wycombe’. Craig Raine similarly turned down O’Hanlon’s entreaties. In the end he is forced to make do with a photographer friend called Simon Stockton, whose only claim to literary eminence is to have been in the same class at school as Martin Amis. But here O’Hanlon sees his angle. Stockton runs a seedy casino in Kensington, and as a photographer specialises in the nude pin-up. His darkroom writhes with portraits of naked girls. From a tree in his back-garden he hangs an image of his ex-wife which he periodically shoots at with a cross-bow. He addresses his girlfriend as Angel Drawers. In other words, he’s a cross between Keith Talent and John Self, a London yob whose conflict with the South American wilds is bound to produce much mirthful copy and rich scope for fatso-baiting. Stockton certainly lives up to his role, screaming for tomato ketchup in the middle of nowhere, sulking in his tent, insulting the locals, and complaining in Amis-speak about the rain, the mosquitoes and the food. Virtually everything he says is italicised. When they come across a rare coral snake O’Hanlon pleads with him to take its picture. ‘I ain’t taking no fucking picture of no fucking snakes, they give me the creeps,’ Stockton energetically retorts, diving for cover. Fortunately, after four weeks of jungle life, and much lurid threatening, goaded by the thought of all the sex and roast beef dinners he’s missing with Angel Drawers, Stockton deserts the expedition up ‘the arsehole of the earth’, leaving O’Hanlon to soldier on with his hired boat crew, a stray Colombian anthropologist called Juan and his tomes of Humboldt, Schauensee and Wallace.

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