Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 3. White Knuckles of Africa |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 3. White Knuckles of Africa


The Kenya show was to be a documentary special called Clive James on Safari. From now on, in this book, I will try to leave my name out of the title of the shows, thus to circumvent the twin fears of wasting space and sounding more than necessarily like a self-glorifying pantaloon. But you can take it for granted that every programme I made for the next couple of decades, whether in the studio or on location, had my name in the title somewhere. Neither I nor my agent ever pressed for this. My agent, Norman North at A. D. Peters, looked very young in those days and remarkably he retains his keen, lean appearance to this day. Some people have access to the fountain of youth. Norman also had access to the fountain of wisdom, and would have scotched the use of my name in the title if he had thought it would be counterproductive. But Richard had no trouble convincing him, and indeed me, that we might as well use what cachet my name had already built up, and try to increase it. ‘Never trust anybody with two first names’ was a maxim of mine that I tried to make current until I realized it applied to me. (If you start a list in your own mind, don’t forget Bruce Willis and Victor Hugo.) But if the public does trust someone’s name for something, the name becomes what the PR people call a Brand. The only drawback is that its possessor has to live up to it. My Postcard travel articles for the Observer had established a reputation for a certain kind of eager curiosity that started out clueless but came back with what at least sounded like a reasonable set of opinions. This threatened to be harder to achieve on film, where the temptation to clown it up could easily make the cluelessness look like a pose.

Nevertheless, though still devoted to the ideal of evoking a picture with a few words, I was attracted by the prospect of combining a real picture with even fewer. In an Observer Postcard about Jerusalem, I had given a faithful report of what it was like for an overweight man to take a running dive into the Dead Sea and find himself lying on top of it, having failed to submerge or even scratch the surface. But at the time I wrote the paragraph I was already thinking that to actually show this happening would have left a chance to say something extra and more interesting at the very moment when the audience was absorbing the mixed signals about the state of my body. I could have been talking about the state of Israel. There would be opportunities to get more said, with a blend of expression like the texture of a song, in which the words and the music reinforce each other. I was thinking this again when we landed in Nairobi and ran full tilt into the comfortable remnants of the old white empire as they clung on to the last of their privileges among the poverty-stricken shambles of the new black state. The slums teemed. Presumably the natives out in the hinterland were leading more dignified lives. Meanwhile the whites in or near town were still taking tea, hitting the bottle and betting on the horses. The British upper crust are never more dauntingly self-assured than when presiding over the wreckage of the superseded order. This lot looked as if they had all once regarded Princess Margaret as a dangerous radical. The worst I can say about my young producer, Helen Fraser, is that she looked as if she would fit right in. When she stepped off the plane, it was as if the Baroness Blixen had returned. Pretty, elegant and well spoken, she immediately had the local beau monde eating out of her finely manicured hand. They loved her.

She found it harder to love them. Partly it was a generation thing: nice girls like her nowadays had real jobs, whereas the old colonial set-up would have condemned them to come out to places like this and help their husbands lord it over the benighted. But largely it was a difference in behavioural evolution: she wasn’t a snob, and this lot were. All the great names of the White Mischief era still drew their expected plenitude of mutual respect. The men, especially, seemed to like each other better than ever, just because their immediate ancestors had led the life in which there was nothing to do with the day except screw each other’s wives when not hanging around the clubs that had been built to keep the natives out. Let me hasten to say that there had once been something to admire about British rule in Kenya, even though the Mau Mau might not have agreed. Compared to, say, Belgian rule in the Congo, British rule had been benevolent, and precisely because the landowners and the administrative class put more time into living well than into belting the locals. Certainly there are plenty of locals today who wouldn’t mind having their erstwhile oppressors back on the case, at least to the extent of running the courts of justice. When I arrived, the white pecking order was still in full swing even though the system it had once imposed was long gone. It seemed to occur to few of its drawling members that the privileged life they still possessed was an historical anomaly, tainted as it was by the misery leaking in from all around them. Again, the misery could have been worse, but the slums were hard to ignore even if you drove around them in a Land Rover. Helen’s principal weapon against the plummy accents was a raised eyebrow. They didn’t notice. Tomorrow the horses would be racing and the gentry looked forward to meeting us there.

Waiting for that big day, we took the camera to dinner at a restaurant serving nothing but African game of every type and stripe. Hugely heaped plates of grilled and roasted meat were served. Everything was uniformly inedible, and not just because the original animal had never been designed to be eaten by humans in the first place. The topkapi, or whatever it was called, probably tasted like a whoopee cushion no matter what you did with it, but this bunch couldn’t even bring a tender touch to some form of gazelle that they billed as the most succulent dish south of the Sahara. You would have been better off chewing an anorak. The probable cause was that the cooks had no means of preparing anything except to leave it in the fire until its last drop of moisture evaporated. Over more than a quarter of a century of world travel I was eventually to formulate the rule that in any country blessed with an abundance of prime-quality meat roaming around in unprocessed form, nobody knows how to cook it. To make anything taste good, you have to freeze it, load it on to a ship and send it to France. While Helen laughed at my increasingly desperate expression — she had the rare gift of laughing at your face without laughing in your face, I was glad to note — our camera caught the scene, which was densely populated by the younger generation of the local whites out for their idea of a dangerously exotic night. Surely the racing horses of tomorrow would be more interesting. At least they would not be cooked.

A day at the races unfolded like a message from God that we had better get out of Nairobi pronto or we would never get to Kenya. Unless you film it from space, a horse race in Africa looks exactly like a horse race at Ascot, especially when the white women present are dressed for the Queen’s Garden Party. The white male elders stood around in tight groups, still discussing whether it had really been Jock Delves Broughton who had shot the Earl of Erroll. It was a wonder that they hadn’t shot each other, if a day like this had been the principal alternative to peeling the silk knickers off the expatriate vamps.

Next day, before we took off for the wilds, I had another message from on high. Out on my own wandering in the slums, I found a tiny street stall selling exactly one miniature rhinoceros carved out of wood. I presumed from its singularity that it was a rare artefact, and certainly it was accurately carved: nothing about it was not like a rhinoceros except its size. The stall owner, whose refined Nilotic features suggested that he might be a connoisseur dealing only in palace-quality bibelots with which he himself could hardly bear to part, assured me it was ‘Rare, very rare.’ It would be welcomed in my family home, where my daughters were still young enough to look on miniature animals with favour, and my wife had an eye for sculpture. So I bought the thing from the impassive vendor. He remained impassive at the sheaf of notes I proffered, so I doubled it into a bundle. Eventually he smiled, while shaking his head, presumably taking pity on the condition of a world in which a true work of art could be valued in terms of mere money. Michelangelo probably felt the same when he handed over his finished statue of David.

You can guess what happened next. A hundred yards further on, I wandered into a kind of indoor bazaar — half souk, half swamp — which in turn opened up into a long, low factory. Lining the walls of the factory was shelf upon shelf stacked with thousands of copies of my carved rhinoceros. Shaking and roaring on the floor of the factory, a machine the size of a Fleet Street printing press was turning out carved rhinoceroses which were touched by human hand only when a team of women loaders and stackers lifted them off the belt and found a place for them on the groaning shelves. I thought of running back to the hotel to tell the crew that I had stumbled on a great story about the Kenyan economy, but the deeper message had already hit me. The real rhinoceroses, or rhinoceri, were out there waiting.

Our light aircraft dropped out of the sky in the Mara country, where we were met at the grass-strip airport by Denis Zaphiro, our guide for the safari. Denis, last of the Great White Hunters, was now a Great White Guide, a condition he preferred, because he had never really liked killing animals. He especially hadn’t liked the kind of people who do like killing them. I presumed that he had made an exception in the case of Ernest Hemingway, whom he had accompanied on his last safari, the one that had culminated in the plane crash that had finally reduced Papa’s lethal urge to a glimmer. Until then, the Great White Writer had put a lot of time, effort and overblown prose into seeking out at least one of every animal that breathed and making sure that its head ended up on a wall of his house in Cuba. That had to have been interesting and I looked forward to getting the story, but meanwhile we were faced with the challenge of getting Denis to act.

When it comes to documentary television, ‘challenge’ is a bad word, just as ‘time was running out’ is a bad sentence. (‘We had not yet met our challenge and time was running out’ is an even worse sentence.) But this really was a challenge, and time really was running out, because soon the sun would be in the wrong part of the sky and we would have to reposition the aircraft in order to do the whole thing again. The thing we had to do seemed simple at first blush. Though Denis was old enough to be my father, he was still in good shape: flat stomach, loping stride, hawk-like features, the works. He even had the mandatory cut-glass voice, ideal for making polite suggestions in either English or Swahili. He was also very clever. In his lightweight khaki safari outfit and bush hat, he looked and sounded better qualified than Stewart Granger playing roughly the same role in King Solomon’s Mines. But Denis was no actor. Hardly anybody with an authentic personality is, but Denis was an extreme case of not being an actor. His challenge, after I got back alone into the passenger compartment of the aircraft, was to stride towards it while our crew, who had all got out of it, filmed him coming up to me as I stepped down.

He wasn’t too bad at the walking bit. He got it right on about the tenth take, after the standard nine different takes of the non-actor’s walk. Suddenly rendered self-conscious, the non-actor, when asked to walk for the camera, fatally starts to think about how walking is done, so he has to go through every variation of moving the legs and arms in the wrong combination. Since there are many more than nine combinations, Denis had done that part quite well. But he also had a line to say. ‘Well, Clive, you’re finally here. Welcome to the real Africa.’ He had to do this in a medium close-up while the rifle microphone was aimed from off-camera at his tanned and distinguished face. A rifle microphone will throw anyone who hasn’t seen one before, even when he has been carrying a real rifle all his life. ‘Well, James, you . . .’ Cut. Helen moved in to explain to Denis how we were taking for granted that he and I had already become acquainted on the telephone, and that he would therefore address me by my first name. Denis apologized profusely, saying that he had already known that but he had forgotten. Take two. ‘Well, Clive James, you . . .’ Cut. ‘Sorry, sorry. But I got the “Clive” in that time. Let’s do it again. I’m ready. Sorry.’ Denis did it again. ‘Well, Clive, we’re really in Africa. Welcome to here, finally. Oh God.’ The sun was charging across the sky. Time was running out. Soon we would have to reposition the aircraft and not just the camera. But Denis finally met the challenge. He was that kind of guy, and I already knew that I could bet on him not to abandon me when the rhino charged: the real rhino, very large and definitely not carved from wood.

In a convoy of Toyota Land Cruisers, we all drove off to camp, where Denis, out from under the camera’s looming threat, proved delightful company. We sat at tables between the tent-line and the campfire while Kungu, Denis’s personal driver and servant, got busy proving that there were better ways of preparing a dish of local meat than toasting it with a flamethrower, as they did back in town. Much of Denis’s talk on that first evening consisted of instructions about what not to do. Above all, nobody must go out walking alone, even by daylight and for the shortest distance. Denis, by sure instinct, aimed most of these homilies at our cameraman Mike, who looked like the adventurous type. Mike was about my age and equally bald, but there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him. Superbly muscled, he was afraid of nothing. Denis politely emphasized that in this part of Africa it was better to be afraid of everything. By implication, there were other parts that were different, but I had no real urge to pack up and go to one of those. This was the place to be. In the flickering half light, the beautiful Helen was doing a convincing Grace Kelly impersonation as she gazed at the masterful Denis. I’m bound to say I was doing the same. Father figures still affect me that way even now.

Next day at breakfast we were informed that a herd of about a dozen elephant had been through the camp during the night, so it would be a good day for filming elephant. I liked this use of ‘elephant’ in the singular: it made you wonder how many of them there had to be before they got into the plural. The problem of referring to more than one rhinoceros was thus solved: I had been in a warehouse stuffed with thousands of miniature wooden rhinoceros. But I kept all that for later and simply asked the obvious question. Why hadn’t at least one of the many elephant stepped on a tent? Dennis changed my life on the spot. ‘The elephant thinks that the tent is a solid object.’ You have to be there to find that kind of stuff out. I never forgot what he said. I never forgot anything he said. Usually we should distrust any memoir that features a lot of quoted speech, because nobody’s memory is that good. But there are some people to whom you pay extraordinary attention. When Denis spoke, I was all ears, like an elephant. Even at the time, however, I was silently wondering what would have happened if my tent had not been pointed on top, but flat, like a big box. If one of the elephant had harboured ambitions of being a circus star, it might have hopped up.

Within an hour I was finding out how big elephant are. Kungu trailed the herd and suddenly there they all were, pulling down small trees and feeding them to their young. Mike and the crew set up the gear in a tearing hurry, got the wide shots, and suddenly Mike was off with the camera on his shoulder, heading for a huge old tusker with one tusk: he was a one-tusk tusker. The one-tusk tusker seemed to have one task: to vent his anger. He spread his ears and bellowed. I raced off to include myself in a possible two-shot while Denis, no doubt feeling his age, raced after me. Denis was yelling something. I was not as deaf then as I am now, so I could understand the word he was yelling. The word was ‘no’. ‘No, no. Come back! When he spreads his ears like that it means . . .’ But I could already see what it meant. The one-task, one-tusk tusker was thundering towards us flat out. As we ran, Denis fell down a hole up to the waist, but luckily the elephant went steaming past him, heading for where I had been the last time he (the elephant, not Denis) had opened his eyes. I was already back in the car. Having run out of puff, the elephant returned from the horizon, gave one last bronchitic bellow and, accompanied by all the other elephant, moved on out of sight. Kungu was shaking his head. Denis showed up limping. He said, ‘For fuck’s sake don’t do anything like that again.’ We all registered deep shame, an effect Mike rather spoiled by asking Denis to fall down the hole again for a close-up. But surely we already had the footage that counted: the elephant charges and I run. Couldn’t be neater. I could already see it on screen.

Many days later, after the whole safari was over, it turned out that Denis had cracked a rib when he fell down the hole. We had thus come very close to ending the career of the last of the Great White Hunters on our first day out. As yet unaware of the full extent of his injury, Denis typically offered apologies when he should have been demanding them. He made no objection to going on. He even started to get the hang of the acting thing when we did a dung-spotting sequence. With a line of trees in the distance, we walked together on the open ground. Mike circled around us with the camera on his shoulder, getting the angles. Behind Mike walked Nobby the sound man, laden with the huge Nagra tape-recorder which in those days was the last word in technology. Nobby himself, however, was slightly deaf, which you might have thought was a bit of a drawback for a sound man. You, your mother and everyone else except the union shop steward, who was rewarding Nobby for long service by sending him on this luxury expedition, with plenty of overtime and an enhanced life insurance payout if, as seemed quite likely, he was trampled from behind by a buffalo he hadn’t heard approaching. Luckily this spoor-sniffing sequence was an easy one for him. He just had to keep rolling and pick up anything Denis and I said about the piles of crap we found. ‘Now this one is very interesting, James. Sorry, Clive. Can I start again? Sorry. Now this one is very interesting, Clive. This is the product of a giraffe, and you can see there by those flies that the giraffe was here quite recently, probably this morning. How was that?’ Already mentally rehearsing, for my commentary, a couple of giraffe-related gags about being shat on from a great height, I told him that it was fine, and that he should just keep it coming, not worrying about any mistakes because we could always edit them out later.

‘Sorry. And over here we’ve got some Thomson gazelle dung. Quite delicate, isn’t it? A refined beast, the Tommy. And these bones here are Thomson gazelle bones. Lion kill, I should think. Quite recent. Probably last night.’ He was looking at the trees. ‘I think we should go back to the car now.’ Mike, having sensed that Denis had seen something at the edge of the tree-line, wanted to go closer, but had to content himself with a bunch of giraffes who came drifting through with scarcely credible grace. All they needed was music by Tchaikovsky and they could have been ballerinas auditioning for Balanchine. Mike then set about getting individual close-ups of the various piles of poop until Denis pointed out that what he had seen in the shadow of the trees was a pride of lions and that any of them could get to us before we could get to the car, so it was time to go. Mike lingered over the heap of bones. Imagining my own bones lying in the same position, I kept sneaking glances at the tree-line, but I could see nothing except trees and shadows. Denis, I concluded, must have eyesight like a fighter pilot.

When we got back to the camp and the waiting Helen, I climbed down from the Toyota as if I were the sort of Battle of Britain hero who would climb down from his Spitfire or Hurricane and smile shyly as he walked in, holding up a number of fingers to indicate his kills. Actually, if I had done so, I would have been indicating only the number of dung piles I had seen, but the mere hint of lions had been enough to set my heart racing. Hippopotamus kill more people, and buffalo are more likely to rub you out from sheer spite, but there’s something about the big cats that connects directly to your reservoir of primal fear. The fear is well justified in the case of lions. The previous month, an old male lion had come into the suburbs of Nairobi and killed a man who had stopped to check one of the back wheels of his Volkswagen. In the previous safari season, out here where we were now, an Italian banker, in the back of a Land Cruiser with his whole family, was caught short by the squirts. The driver told him to do it in the car but the Italian banker was too fastidious for that. My sentiments exactly, except that I had already guessed, as you have, the next part of the story. He got out of the car to squat behind a bush and his whole family had to listen while the lions ate him. Although the old-man lion, like myself and most of the men I know, has no real ambition left beyond lying around impressively while the women shop for lunch, he nevertheless can live up to his billing with shattering suddenness when he is in the mood.

In theory, there is less reason to be wary of cheetahs. They probably won’t go for you. But they do look, even when in repose, as if they could go right through you. Next morning we were in the car trailing a brat pack of young cheetahs taking hunting lessons from their mother. There was a bunch of impala in the distance and mummy took off in that direction, accelerating like a drag racer. There is a beautiful poem by Amy Clampitt in which a cheetah’s petalled coat suddenly turns into a sandstorm as she starts to run. I scarcely saw the transition, but Mike said he had got the shot. He was sitting strapped to the bonnet of the Land Cruiser with the camera on his shoulder. (I might be making that sound easy: the camera was a hefty object in those days.) Kungu put the pedal to the metal as we raced towards the point from which the impala had dispersed in all directions. The impala, if I may pontificate for a moment, have been given their beauty only as a reward for being the unluckiest animals in Africa. There are a lot of them, they can run like mad and they might have safety in numbers, but the cats can run even faster over a short distance, and if you’re the one impala in a hundred that a cat catches up with, to have been as cute as Natalie Portman is no recompense when the lights go out. When we found the cheetah she was already tearing her victim to shreds. As her young trainees turned up to join her, the gorgeous killer turned to look at the camera. She was divine, but she had blood on her silky cheeks.

For the cheetahs, Denis had allowed Mike to stay outside on the bonnet, but for lions he had to come inside. A few hours later we found a whole pride of lions inhabiting an upmarket clump of bushes and immediately I wished the car had been a tank. Even Mike looked impressed, and he was the one who asked if a lion had ever tried to jump in through the big hole in the roof of a car like ours. ‘No,’ said Denis, ‘but you never know.’ Apparently the bunch we were filming were all males, so there wouldn’t be any violence, because the females were off somewhere doing all the hard graft, like researchers. A bit further on, we saw the women at work. One of them ran down a junior warthog and killed it with a bite to the neck. There was only a brief pause before the males arrived for lunch. A big male who looked like the one that had the contract for the MGM logo swallowed the dinky little warthog whole. ‘Usually,’ said Denis, ‘lions do most of their hunting at night. So you’re in luck.’ Mike zoomed in as the last of the warthog disappeared down the lion’s gullet, leaving nothing outside but its tail, as if the lion had ingested one of those old field radios with a whip aerial. All the other lions looked around glumly but they couldn’t have been less interested in us. Nevertheless the scene was scary enough and we had some good stories for the campfire that night. High on adrenalin, I sat up late with Kungu as he taught me my first words of Swahili. Simba I already knew from reading Hemingway. Simba meant lion. Kungu told me the word for ‘big’: kubwa. So a big lion was simba kubwa. The language was delicious to pronounce, with full syllables like Italian, and no awkward clusters of consonants, as in English. Denis spoke it fluently and he was also a good teacher (the two things don’t always go together), but Kungu was the teacher of my dreams, infinitely patient and very flattered that bwana should take the trouble. Bwana — that was me — resolved to study hard. Bwana had visions of himself as an old Africa hand, saving Ava Gardner from the charging simba kubwa.

Part of the plan, while we were in the Masai Mara, was to visit the Masai themselves. This took quite a chunk out of our budget, because the Masai were good at business. They still sent their teenage boys out alone to kill a lion with a spear; they still drank cow’s blood as a source of protein; but they also, by repute, owned half the taxis in Nairobi, running them on a franchise basis so that lesser tribes like the Kikuyu did all the driving. At home in their huts, the Masai charged serious money even to be looked at, let alone photographed. Recently a German tourist had snapped a Masai warrior without making a deal first. The tourist went home with a hole in his shoulder, made by a spear. He had a good story to tell in Wilmersdorf, but we didn’t want any of that, so all the right palms had been well greased before we showed up among the huts for the mandatory scene of me spontaneously joining a circle of warriors as they jumped to impress the women. Propelled by exactly the same impulse from which I wrote lyric poetry, the warriors ascended vertically to a startling height, simply by flexing their feet. Spontaneously I joined in, and after about half an hour we had the makings of a nice sequence about the visitor making an idiot of himself while the surrounding crowd of giggling women failed to be impressed. Some of the younger ones could have been models for Claude Montana’s latest collection, so I was really trying. I felt I understood the men. As a consequence I found the animals more interesting, because they were less predictable. When being watched by a cheer squad of young women who look like David Bowie’s wife Iman at the height of her beauty in No Way Out, a male human being of any age or colour will immediately start auditioning. But you can never tell which way a leopard will jump.