Africa Archive

Going wild at home with Brian Jackman

Over the past 40 years or so, in his wanderings across sub-Saharan Africa, Brian Jackman (right) reckons he has spent the best part of four years under canvas. He has become renowned for his writing on the African bush and its wildlife, and particularly for his chronicling (with the photographer Jonathan Scott) of the daily drama of life and death on the plains in The Marsh Lions and The Big Cat Diary. But he has also found inspiration closer to home. Close, indeed, to where I’m sitting as I write. I live in Stoneleigh, Surrey, and Jackman, now 82 and long resident in Dorset, lived as a boy a few streets away during the Second World War, over the road from my nearest sizeable patch of greenery, Nonsuch Park. In a new collection of his journalism, Wild About Britain (Bradt), he writes:

Nonsuch… had once been the site of a great palace built by Henry VIII and subsequently demolished to pay off the gambling debts of the Countess of Castlemaine, into whose hands it had passed the following century. But of course we knew nothing of this. Instead, enclosed by fleets of blowsy elms, its unshorn meadows were our prairies, its hawthorn hedges our African savannas. In one field a landmine had fallen, blowing a deep crater in the clay that quickly filled with rain; and nature, always swift to exploit a niche, soon transformed it into a wildlife haven…

Nonsuch was the perfect adventure playground, where I swung like Tarzan through the trees, made Robin Hood bows from young ash staves and built Apache dens among the cow parsley…

  But Nonsuch wasn’t the real countryside. He discovered the latter on annual holidays to Cornwall, made possible because his father was a railwayman. Then, when the Blitz was at its height, he was sent to live on a farm near Bude:

For two years I never went to school. Instead, I fed the pigs their daily slops, hunted for hens’ eggs in the nettle beds and learned to milk the cows by hand, leaning my forehead against their warm flanks while swallows twittered in the rafters and the pail foamed white between my knees… It was, I suppose, an unhappy time for an eight-year-old, alone and far from home, but its magic haunts me still… Hardship there was, heartache and cruelty, but beauty and wonder, too, and the awakening of a love of all things wild that has stayed with me to this day.

That love is evident in every piece in Wild About Britain — whether Jackman is in search of the spirit of Laurie Lee in the Cotswolds or watching an otter in Shetland; whether he is introducing us to his favourite corner of Dorset (“a rumpled, tumbling green-gold land of secret combes and sensuously rounded plum-pudding hills”), or striving to understand the single-mindedness of one of his angler mates in pursuit of roach (“A trio of mute swans float past like icebergs in the swirling current, and my mind drifts with them.”).

Many of the pieces appeared first in The Daily Telegraph, and some of them I read before they appeared in print. They never needed editing, just breathing on. My favourite piece in the book is one that embraces two of Jackman’s greatest passions: Cornwall and peregrine falcons. You can read it here on Deskbound Traveller. Then you really ought to buy the book.

Explorers of the Nile

In the middle of the 19th century, six men and one woman risked their lives and reputations in the quest to find the source of the Nile. Tim Jeal tells their story in Explorers of the Nile, concluding today on Radio 4. The series, first broadcast in 2011, is also available on the BBC iPlayer.

‘Life on the shifting tideline between plenty and nothing’

Much of the fish on dinner tables in Europe and the United States comes from West African waters. Along the 448 miles of the coast of Senegal, as well as mechanised boats, there are some 21,000 pirogues, carvel-built plank boats constructed shell-first on a keel made of a single, scooped trunk of wood. Last September, Anna Badkhen moved from the US to Senegal to work on the pirogues and research a book. For Granta magazine, she reports on “life on the shifting tideline between plenty and nothing: the haul and cast of fishing at the time of the Anthropocene”.

Into the Badlands with Simon Barnes

Intelligent Life, the bi-monthly cultural and lifestyle magazine of The Economist, has a new editor, Emma Duncan, and is shortly to have a new title, 1843 —  the year The Economist was founded. Under the last editor, Tim de Lisle, the magazine published some fine narrative travel writing, and that element of its coverage, I understand, is going to be expanded. The current (January/February) issue, still with the original title, has an excellent piece from Simon Barnes on Badlands National Park in South Dakota. On seeing the 50-mile Badlands Wall, he writes:

“There are a few – just a few – landscapes on Earth than make the first-time observer feel as if he had walked into a glass door. This is a deranged fantasy of a place: it’s as if Gaudí had cast aside all the restraint he showed when he designed the Sagrada Familia and really let himself go. Here is madness: glorious and forbidding at the same time. Both aspects are joyful things to those of us who are used to softer places and a softer life. But you can also feel the ancient desperation of all the humans and all the races who came here to travel through this land or, worse, to try and set up home in it.”

Barnes, who wrote about sports and wildlife for The Times for more than 20 years, has a new book out this week. The Sacred Combe (Bloomsbury) is about the secret, special places where we seem to find heaven and earth close together. He found his in the Luangwa Valley in Zambia.

Ferlinghetti, a traveller from space in Marrakesh

In an extract on the website Longreads from his forthcoming book Writing Across the Landscape, the poet and painter Lawrence Ferlinghetti reports on arriving in Marrakesh knowing nothing of the place, “like a space traveller in a time warp”:

“Sometimes it is better not to know anything about a country when you visit it. Especially it is important not to know its language or languages. Thus every sound, striking the ear like a small bell or animal cry, without any associative meaning, takes on the immediate quality of poetry, the quality of pure color in painting, with the percussive effect of pure sound in a void.

“It is only as these sounds accumulate inside us that some sort of composite meaning forms itself. Until then, we are like children newly arrived on earth, with virgin timpani, each a tabula rasa upon which all has yet to be written. Herein lies the true fascination of travel, not in the confirmation or contradiction of what we have been led to expect by the perusal of history or the learning of local languages, neither by the recognition of native customs in their similarity or dissimilarity to our own, etc., etc.”

A new way into ancient Ethiopia

Stanley Stewart, with Palm Sunday donkey, took a three-day walk down the Erar Valley in Ethiopia for Telegraph Travel. His trek was part of a new community project in which guides and transport were provided by local villagers who, with the help of NGOs, have also built hedamos, or guesthouses.

He writes: “There are moments when Ethiopia seems to belong to an atlas of the imagination – part legend, part fairy-tale, part Old Testament book, part pulling your leg. In this land of wonders there are medieval castles of a black Camelot, monasteries among Middle Earth peaks accessible only by rope and chains, the ruined palace of the Queen of Sheba, and the original Ten Commandments in a sealed box guarded by mute monks with killer instincts.”

A dream of flying away from the Congo

Anjam Sundaram, author of Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo (Atlantic), reports for the Telegraph Magazine on how children in that ravaged country dream up a better future – in  playgrounds made of aircraft graveyards.

A fortress home in South Africa

Absolution.coverWith the short list for the 2014 RSL Ondaatje Prize due to be announced later this week, I’m publishing here an extract from the last of three books I picked from last year’s short list. This one is from Absolution, by Patrick Flanery, a literary thriller set in South Africa. It’s an ambitious work for a debut, and one in which the ambition is fully realised. Its two central characters are both writers: one renowned and coming to the end of her career; the other starting out, hoping to make his name by writing her biography. It’s a book in which the Truth and Reconciliation Commission features, and in which the truth itself is constantly just out of reach. Flanery powerfully evokes the sights, sounds and smells of South Africa, as well as the fear (see the extract) that afflicts its better-off citizens in their fortress homes.

Back to Rwanda with Hilsum and Gourevitch

A longer excerpt from Lindsey Hilsum’s article on Rwanda (which I recommended a few months ago when it appeared in the print version of Granta) can now be found on the magazine’s website. April 7, Memorial Day in Rwanda, marked the 20th anniversary of the genocide, a systematic attempt to exterminate the Tutsi minority. July 4, Liberation Day, celebrates the genocide’s end. Until the latter date, The New Yorker is allowing all visitors to its site to read the articles of Philip Gourevitch, who reported for the magazine on the aftermath of the slaughter and went on to write We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, which won the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for non-fiction. They are introduced by his own commentary, telling how they came to be written and reinterpreting them in the light of subsequent events.

Teju Cole and the ‘yahoo boys’ of Lagos

everydayisforthethief.jktEver had one of those emails asking you to provide bank details so that your long-lost relation’s bequest can be deposited in your account? Many of them are sent by the young men who haunt the cyber-cafes of Lagos, Nigeria. In Every Day Is For the thief by Teju Cole, which Faber & Faber is due to publish in Britain on April 17, there’s a particularly good passage on how these “yahoo boys” peck out their messages on keyboards at night, when it’s cheaper to get online.

Teju Cole won the PEN/Hemingway Award, the New York City Book Award for Fiction and the Internationaler Literaturpreis for his novel Open City. He was also short-listed for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Ondaatje Prize of the Royal Society of Literature (of which you’ll be hearing a lot more on Deskbound Traveller over the next few weeks). Cole, a writer, photographer and historian of early Netherlandish art, grew up in Nigeria and then moved to New York. The narrator of Every Day Is for the Thief is a young man returning to Nigeria from New York. A note on the copyright page says that this is “a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.” Is it, now?

The places and locales are real enough to be pinpointed on a map, among them the Mayflower School in Ikenne, Ogun State, attended by one “character”, and the Tejuoshu Market (razed by fire in 2007 and still being rebuilt), the Ojodu-Berger bus terminal and the National Museum, all in Lagos. The book has the slimness of a novella (163 pages), but it might better be described as creative non-fiction. Its author, after all, told The New York Times recently: “‘The novel’ is overrated, and the writers I find most interesting find ways to escape it.”

However you read it, Every Day Is for the Thief is a vivid portrait of a country where everyone with authority or power is on the take, and the narrator in constant search of “a moving spot of sun”. There’s an extract on the website of The New Yorker.