Africa Archive

New memoir from Brian Jackman

I was in touch recently with the writer Brian Jackman, who, I discovered about 10 years ago, was a boy during the Second World War just down the road from where I’m living now, before being evacuated to a farm in Cornwall during the Blitz. He has long been writing for the Telegraph travel pages as a freelance (and before that was a Fleet Street messenger boy and then on the staff of The Sunday Times). Many years before he set eyes on the Maasai Mara, which he has described vividly in his books with the film-maker Jonathan Scott, The Big Cat Diary and The Marsh Lions, Brian had imagined it in the London suburb of Stoneleigh. In Nonsuch Park — named for a peerless but long-gone Tudor palace — he and his mates turned hawthorn hedges into African savannah, “made Robin Hood bows from young ash staves and built Apache dens among the cow parsley”. He remembers, too, seeing a Hurricane shoot down a Messerschmitt over his own street.

About a month ago I was scribbling about Nonsuch, and sent the copy to Brian to check something. I got an email back saying that he had just received proofs of his new memoir — West with the Light: My Life in Nature — in which Stoneleigh and Nonsuch figure large in the early pages. Later on, he’s in the real savannah: over the past 40 years or so, in his wanderings across sub-Saharan Africa, he reckons he has spent the best part of four years under canvas. As well as observing the beasts of the bush, he’s met characters including George and Joy Adamson and Richard Leakey.

The book is due to be published by Bradt in August. It’s not one I’ll be able to review as I know Brian too well, but I wanted to mention it here.

I first registered the byline “Brian Jackman” in the early 1980s, in typescript on the sub-editors’ desk of The Sunday Times, on the fifth floor of 200 Gray’s Inn Road, where I worked initially as a casual. On Saturday my colleagues and I subbed stories appearing in the early pages of the paper, which tended to be “hard” news in several senses of the word (though not necessarily as hard as in the front page from an old New York Post stuck to a partition that screened off the picture desk: “HEADLESS BODY IN TOPLESS BAR”). On Fridays we worked mainly on foreign-desk stories and on softer pieces from other parts of the paper. Occasionally there would be something from Brian, either for the travel section, which sent him everywhere from the Falkland Islands to Everest Base Camp, or for the later pages of the news section, where he was among writers given space for the way they told a story as much as for the story itself. Dropping the copy on my desk, the then chief sub, John Wardroper, a lean and learned Canadian, would say: “Here’s a little treat for you: another lovely piece from Brian Jackman. Just tick it up.” In other words, breathe on it, but don’t edit it.

You can read more of Brian Jackman’s work, extracted from earlier books on Africa and Britain, here on Deskbound Traveller.

The new virtual world of the Edinburgh Book Festival

In 2017 the Edinburgh International Book Festival supported 10 writers to travel across the Americas. The idea behind the “Outriders” programme was that “in shifting, disorienting times, a writer can make a unique contribution to our understanding of the world, giving voice to untold stories and providing new insights on contemporary geopolitical contexts”. This year, 10 writers — including the poet and playwright Sabrina Mahfouz, the poet Nadine Aisha Jassat and the writer and visual artist Amanda Thomson — were sent on international journeys in Africa, with a brief to meet writers and local people along the way and engage in discussions about “migration, colonial legacies, inequalities and the impact of globalisation and environmental change”. The work inspired by those journeys, some of which were cut short by the Covid pandemic, will be shared at this year’s festival, which begins tomorrow — online only — and continues until August 31. All events are free and can be accessed on the festival website.

  Other contributors to the festival include:
  Kapka Kassabova, author of To The Lake, and Gavin Francis, whose latest book, Island Dreams (“an exploration of isolation and connectedness based on 30 years of travel”), is due to be published on October 1 (Canongate).
  Roger Robinson, whose A Portable Paradise won both the T S Eliot Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize, with his fellow poet Kei Miller, whose latest collection, In Nearby Bushes, was short-listed for the Derek Walcott Prize and long-listed for the Polari Prize.
  Kathleen Jamie, editor of Antlers of Water, a recently published anthology of Scottish nature writing, and two of her contributors, Chitra Ramaswamy and Amanda Thomson.
  Helen Macdonald, author of H is For Hawk, discussing her new collection of essays, Vesper Flights.
  The writer and editor John Freeman, introducing his new anthology Tales of Two Planets, in which writers tell their personal stories of climate change and action around the world. He will be joined by three of his contributors, the Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat, the Aotearoa poet Tayi Tibble and the British-Malaysian photographer Ian Teh.
  William Dalrymple, author of The Anarchy, a new revisionist history charting the “relentless rise” of the East India Company, talking to the BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane.

Africa, America and slavery’s fierce undertow

Ghana, once a hub of the transatlantic slave trade, is encouraging descendants of enslaved Africans to visit, and to see the country as their “home”. The novelist Jacqueline Woodson, with her family, was among those who responded to the invitation. In The New York Times, she writes: “There is nowhere in this country where the eye can land and the body not feel, at once, both a deep pain and an immense joy.”

The hitchhiker’s guide to the globe

Juan Villarino is a man in thrall to the siren song of the road. Since running away from a conventional life and career in Argentina in 2001, when he was 23, he reckons he has hitchhiked about 100,000 miles through 90 countries, or enough to circumnavigate the globe four times. For a stretch of his latest trip, through Africa, with his partner, Laura Lazzarino, he was joined by the writer Wes Enzinna. In an article that’s by turns admiring and inquiring, Enzinna reports for The New York Times Magazine on what he learned. His piece (with photographs by Brent Stirton) is one of four accounts of journeys published in a special “Voyages” issue of the magazine.

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.”