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.

In Trouble Again becomes much more interesting once relieved of Stockton and his thuggish joshing. The trip is in two segments. Travelling in motorised dug-outs, they first head south down the Rio Baria to the Sierra Neblina, hoping to find a river called the Maturaco which is supposed to connect the Orinoco to the Rio Negro. Failing in this, they return north and set out in search of a remote and ferocious tribe called the Yanomami. The Yanomami are still hunter-gatherers and reputedly one of the most aggressive peoples on earth. It’s said that, because they glean so little food from the forest, in times of hardship they kill new-born girls so that there are fewer mouths to feed. This shortage of women accordingly leads to ritualised duels among the young men. In the most violent of these the antagonists take it in turn to smash each other on the head with ten-foot-long clubs; the extent of a warrior’s headscars can be used as a gauge of his courage and virility.

After much tribulation, and almost mutiny, O’Hanlon and his team finally track down a Yanomami shabono(village) and find the tribespeople at first almost welcoming; they share round their yoppo pipe – yoppo is a particularly potent powder drug blasted through a long tube up each nostril – and perform a palm-frond dance for their visitors. O’Hanlon takes polaroid pictures of the tribe, and these are universally marvelled at. Trouble starts, though, when it turns out that they’re also expected to feed the whole village. Unable to do this out of their meagre supplies, they leave hastily the next morning, accompanied part of the way back by a friendly Yanomami family.

As an explorer O’Hanlon is determined, ever-curious, and game. At one point his crew give him the eyeballs of a monkey to eat, insisting they’re a special delicacy, then howling with laughter at his gullibility when he actually swallows them. His penis turns green, colonised by tapir ticks. He lives in fear of the even more dreaded candiru, the toothpick fish, which so loves urine that it lodges in the urethra and eventually bursts the bladder; once invaded, the victim must rush to hospital and demand that his penis is cut off at once. A river snake boards their boat. Fire ants poison one of his hands. Whatever his difficulties, though, the immense delight he takes in identifying birds (‘So that’s what a sun-grebe sounds like, I thought, getting excited, pleased with myself’) provides a kind of all-redeeming justification of the journey. Bird-watching becomes, for the reader as well as O’Hanlon, a complex system of verification and alliance that floats magically above the morass of the present. When his crew get shirty at the idea of continuing their search for the supposedly murderous Yanomami, O’Hanlon takes out Schauensee, ‘always the best therapy’, and is comforted to identify what the locals call a pajaro vaco as the Rufescent tiger-heron: ‘big, black and brown, with chestnut head and shoulders’. On a day trip during their return from the Yanomami village O’Hanlon achieves what might be called bird-watcher’s high. Interestingly, it’s not the discovery of a spectacular new species that so excites him, but of a humble egg which reminds him of his own initiation into the avian world:

I had walked about fifty yards when a nightjar flicked silently from the ground in front of me, twisted over a patch of bromeliads, and disappeared. On the bare rock, in the shade of a low bush, lay one pink-brown egg, stippled, lined and spotted with black ... Suddenly the world seemed freshly made and the future ceased to matter. Beneath the tropical sun on Toucan hill, ignorant, momentarily, like a Yanomami, of the laws of science, gazing at that little egg, I might have been looking at one half of an empty eggshell, a message of brown and purple blotches on a background of browny-white, a present from a mistle-thrush dropped at my feet on a vicarage lawn.

Dulaba is a small village in the interior of the Gambia. In 1949 the British Medical Research Council set up a station there to monitor the conditions of the inhabitants from a variety of angles that ranged from the medical to the nutritional and the sociological. Dulaba was chosen because of the extreme poverty of its villagers and the complete absence of all medical facilities. In terms of sheer statistics, Dulaba is one of the most thoroughly documented communities in the whole world, yet its people are still hungry, and at the mercy now not only of droughts and erratic harvests, but of the demands of the IMF.

Our Grandmother’s Drums, Mark Hudson’s first book, is a record of the 14 months he spent in the village, not as a member of the Research Council, though he is lent a room in their compound, but as an independent observer. It is an arresting and fascinating work. Hudson is mainly interested in attempting to understand the lives of the Dulaban women. Not only do they do most of the manual agriculture, but they cook, keep house, rear children, all in complete subjection to their husbands, who are entitled to take several wives each. And yet, given the circumstances, Hudson feels, their lives are extraordinarily rich and fulfilled. His plan is to infiltrate their society and explore the rituals, hierarchies and beliefs that sustain them.

In this he is surprisingly successful. The women allow him to work their ground-nut fields with them and even invent songs about him. Indeed, by the end of his stay ‘Hey Al Marky joobay jambaro!’ (‘Hey look at Mark the champion!’) is the most popular song in the village, and the strange tubab (white man) and his tape-recorder have become absorbed into their folklore. Gambian women organise themselves for working and social purposes into kafos, and Hudson manages to get himself adopted by the Sanyoro kafo, or the kafo of the Golden Chain. His involvement in their daily routines yields insights into their culture that the more scientific methods of the research station inevitably overlook. Hudson is particularly good at conveying the intensely social texture of village life, its currents of gossip, drum dances, football matches, funerals, the communal misery of fasting during Ramadan, naming-ceremonies and so on.

Without a doubt, the Gambian custom which is most alien to Western sensibilities is that of female circumcision. It is also the one Hudson has the most difficulty investigating: the ritual is an exclusively women’s affair and his male translators refuse even to use the word for it in the presence of women. When a man was once discovered hiding in a tree overlooking ‘the place of initiation’ he was beaten to death. The women call it ‘the crocodile’, and their favourite song about it runs:

When you were in the village
You did nothing but insult the elders
– that was your job.
Now the crocodile has surprised you!

The ritual involves the most potent forces in Mandinkan demonology, and Hudson is sceptical from the beginning about his chances of comprehending the event’s significance. He is amazed to notice that any reference to it evokes in the women a mood of strange, almost indescribable lightness, elation almost: ‘The event was not only an ordeal, it was in its own right something beautiful and marvellous an occasion for the most profound happiness – not so much for the children themselves as for their mothers, and indeed for any woman who went there. To take one’s child there was not only a duty, it was an act of tenderness and love.’

Hudson is, of course, banned from the ceremony, which takes place in a small clearing beyond the village, but is permitted to attend the preparatory training for initiates and the party in the evening. The operation is performed by a ngangsimba, a woman of magical powers who places a spiritual net over the initiation area to prevent evil spirits from interfering. At the end of the circumcision season she unties it and the evil that has been temporarily excluded pours back into the clearing until she returns next year. Hudson’s chapter on ‘the crocodile’ attempts to be judicious but is finally baffled, for the very enormity of the rite makes it almost impossible to discuss with any degree of composure or understanding.

Hudson immerses himself in village life as fully as an alien possibly could, and he scrupulously records the varying degrees of acceptance he achieves. He has a love-affair but finds it impossible to assess accurately his lover’s motives. Many of the young men resent his curiosity. The villagers of Dulaba tolerate the research team’s direct questioning on practical matters, but are increasingly uneasy at Hudson’s probing into their emotional lives. Having pushed up against the limits of his quest to be assimilated, at the end of his second Ramadan he prepares to leave. In accordance with custom, he organises a massive party for the whole village, and this involves weeks of anxious bartering for supplies. A central requirement is oil, which he is forced to buy on the black market. ‘If they squeeze the food in their hands and the oil trickles down to their elbows, they will be happy. If it does not, they will condemn you,’ he is warned. Rival kafos insist on supervising the cooking, and squabbles break out. Bad weather means he has to wait until the last moment to secure an adequate amount of fish. The occasion is successful enough, but the party itself is less important than the quality and quantity of the ingredients he supplies:

For although they loved dancing and they loved eating – and they rarely ate food as sumptuous as had been provided that day – for them the most significant moment had come when the ingredients were unloaded from the Land Rover, when they had seen the appropriateness of the gesture that had been made. I had done what they wanted. They had seen it, they had held it in their hand, and that was the most important thing.

This is perhaps the most satisfying and intimate moment between Hudson and the village women: O’Hanlon’s failure to feed the Yanomami disgraces him in their eyes, but Hudson’s lavish provisions generate a touching and unequivocal nexus between himself and his kafo. It is here that he most significantly redeems his intrusion into their lives by publicly and materially repaying their trust, and it is an index of the great sensitivity and honesty with which he recounts his experiences that he is able to admit as much.

In Borderlines Charles Nicholl heads east. In his previous travel book, The Fruit Palace, he explored the ruthless cocaine underworld of Colombia: this time he is hoping to find the sources of spiritual rather than narcotic bliss by enrolling in a Buddhist forest temple in Thailand. However, the investigative journalist in him keeps hijacking the trip in search of more sensational material, and though he does finally make it to the Temple of Tupu’s Cave, where holy man Ajahn Pongsak dispenses the wisdom of the forest, he finds it all a bit boring, and soon leaves reproaching himself for assuming he could achieve instant enlightenment ‘as if on some spiritual package tour’.

He spends most of his time with a seedy, ageing pied noir entrepreneur out of Graham Greene called Harry, whom he meets on the train going up to Chiang Mai. Harry introduces himself as a small-time gem-smuggler down on his luck, but on the very verge of the big one. One evening he asks Nicholl to do him a favour. His Thai girlfriend Katai is arriving next day from Bangkok, but he has to leave that evening to check out a possible lead: will Nicholl meet her off the train and escort her up to Chiang Saen, where he’ll be waiting for them? In return, Harry promises to take Nicholl up into the Golden Triangle, where the opium poppies are grown, and maybe even over the border into Burma. Nicholl, scenting a story, agrees, and spends the next few weeks rather wimpishly trailing around with the happy couple hoping to be in on the action when Harry’s big deal goes through. He half falls in love with Katai, smokes a bit of opium, and is kept in the dark about everything by Harry. They do make a day trip over the border to some Burmese poppies, but the fields have just been harvested and look like any other fields. Fed up, Nicholl deserts his companions and heads off to his Buddhist forest temple, but then runs into Harry a few weeks later at another border town, Kayah. This time Harry somehow persuades him to fund a river excursion into Burma in search of a jade merchant called Captain Tuja, an officer in a Burmese rebel army who is eager to do business. Amazingly, they actually find him. Pleased to have been the means of effecting this contact, Nicholl returns to Thailand, where he learns to his dismay, again in Graham Greene style, that Harry’s big deal is, in fact, an arms-for-jade package. Nicholl, who has earlier made much of his pacifism, and who arrived in Thailand in the hope of finding inner spiritual quiet, ends up bank-rolling a gun-runner.

He writes up these rather bleak non-adventures with plenty of snap, crackle and pop, lacing his prose with borrowings from the Beatles, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. Occasionally this can be a problem. On his return to Bangkok, whose sexual sordidness he describes most vividly, he hunts down Katai to say goodbye, and eventually finds her working in a Thai massage parlour. Nicholl assumes this is a euphemism for a brothel, but Katai quickly disabuses him:

‘Look, this is my uncle here. He gives traditional Thai massage: he is real doktor nuen. You think I’m a little khai long, let the farang come and make love to me? ... You want to do that, you got to have more than dollars. It’s going to cost you all your love, Charlie. You can’t get it for money.’

Now the last two sentences here are lifted directly from the ending of the first version of Dylan’s ‘Idiot Wind’, available only on bootleg. How could Katai quote so accurately from this collector’s item? Obviously Nicholl, indulging an obsession, has put the words in her mouth, and this compromises the integrity of his whole story. How much else of it is made up? Probably not that much. For most of Borderlines he drifts around purposelessly like any stunned tourist. He admits at the end that the whole journey has collapsed into an incoherent miasma, but from this realisation he reaches out rather plangently for some stirring rock ’n’ roll clichés with which to intensify his conclusion:

I never really got to where I was going, never reached my destination. Perhaps the code of the road is as simple as that. You never do get there. There is just the road, and what it reveals along the way.