Books: The Blaze of Obscurity — 4. Elephant Walk |
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The Blaze of Obscurity — 4. Elephant Walk


There was plenty of animal unpredictability on hand when we relocated deeper into the Mara triangle, where a bend of the muddy river was meant to be full of hippopotamus. We were all facing towards this as we filmed, but Denis was continually sneaking a peek in the other direction. When I asked him why, he said: ‘The most dangerous thing you can do out here is get between a hippo and the water.’ I was still shivering at the thought when a hippo surfaced just in front of the camera and opened its mouth to the full stretch. It looked like the entrance to a candy-floss parlour. Then a whole flotilla of them started surfacing all over the place. They must have been at a meeting down there. The river was palpitating with hippopotamus. Their numbers never grow thin, because nobody wants any part of them. The same would be true for rhinos if there wasn’t one part that everybody wants: the horn. Converted to powder, rhino horn is in demand all over East Asia as an aphrodisiac. If rhinos needed the powdered skull of an East Asian bank clerk in order to get their rocks off there would be complaints, but as things are, the rhino is doomed. We filmed a couple of them from our speeding car as they ran, and when one of them turned towards us to indicate that the fun was over for the day, his horn looked awfully big. In today’s terms, it would have provided enough aphrodisiac powder to meet the requirements of a whole cinema full of Chinese wage-slaves for whom watching a Gong Li movie had failed to do the trick.

Since it was well known that most of the poaching of ivory, horn and crocodile skin was organized by elements close to the government, the animals concerned were living on borrowed time, but when you saw them in the flesh they looked a lot more threatening than threatened. This particularly applied to the crocodiles, well-armed examples of a primitively savage life form that had flourished for a long time until it ran into us. We did a night shoot on how to feed the crocodiles, who are skilled natural predators but too dumb to realize that any extra food provided by human beings might come with a price tag. Clandestine representatives of handbag manufacturers feed crocodiles on the sly, but we were at an officially sanctioned spot, with floodlights provided. There was a kind of ramp leading down to the water where regular feedings took place so that tourists could get a snap, if that’s the word we’re looking for. The pampered crocs who hung out near the ramp were reputedly too spoiled to be aggressive. When one of them emerged to collect its free meal, we were told, it would be a model of ambling bonhomie. With Mike and the camera parked off to one side, I hoisted a large lump of raw antelope and edged down the ramp, with a local character at my shoulder to tell me what to do. A croc a block long came boiling up the ramp and I asked the local character — famously wise in the ways of these beasts — what I should do next. But the local character was no longer there. Taking this as a message, I dropped the meat and ran. Back in the car, I needed a nip of Scotch from Denis’s hip flask. Mike turned up to say that he had a great shot of the croc eating but needed one of me running. So I went back down the ramp for the minimum necessary distance and ran again, cleverly feigning fear by delving, method style, into my memories of being caned by the Deputy Head Master of Sydney Technical High School. No doubt the finished sequence would make it all worthwhile. When the camera is with you, you have to do the necessary.

The camera was not always with me. There were rest days. Though some of its rules added up to a frustrating curb on flexibility, the union was very right to insist on resting the crew at regular intervals. The programme maker always has reasons for working the crew continuously, and the crew, if left without protection against those reasons, would soon be worked to exhaustion. So you got the odd blissful day when no filming happened, but you had to pray that nothing worth filming would happen either. On just such a day, Denis, with Kungu at the wheel — I sat beside him so he could continue teaching me Swahili while Denis, sitting in the back, explained the finer points of grammar — took us out to get a broader view of the surrounding country, in which the meandering muddy river seemed always to be in view no matter where you went. Equally ubiquitous were the Volkswagen Kombi buses of commercial safaris. In any area of Kenya there were half a dozen safaris going on at once, and most of them travelled in Kombis. As a result, herds of Kombis were almost as common as herds of animals. If a clump of trees was thought to contain a leopard, a cluster of Kombis would form around the clump. We stopped near one of these Kombi gatherings while I watched the tourists do their thing. As so often, the Japanese provided the richest material for a possible commentary. Photographing everything to prove that they had seen it, they photographed the Kombi they had just got out of, photographed each other, and photographed the clump of trees in which the putative leopard resolutely declined to make itself visible. In those days even the most up-to-date cameras made noises. The multiple Nikons crackled like a firefight.

You couldn’t blame the Japanese for being mad about their cameras, most of which, after all, were manufactured in Japan, like the Land Cruiser we were sitting in. I made a note that we would have to get this kind of scene on film, because it was part of the truth. We would have to film the photographers as they took photographs. But it was a depressing spectacle. One felt for the leopard, whose instincts were geared up for hunting, not for being hunted. ‘Kwenda,’ said Denis to Kungu. He meant, ‘Let’s go.’ So we went, driving off to a stretch of river where no Kombi vans were in evidence. ‘You sometimes see one or two elephant crossing here,’ said Denis. As if on cue, a whole family of elephant showed up, moving out of the trees on our side of the river and plainly bent on fording it. As the family waded in, a few more elephant started arriving behind them. Then there were many more. Finally there were about fifty of them wading across or queuing up to take their turn. Among the adults there were infants, almost fully submerged and poking their little trunks up like snorkels. Some of the old males were yelling with impatience, as old males will in a traffic jam. Denis told me I was in luck: he had never seen anything as good as this in all his time in Africa. Kungu said he hadn’t seen anything like it since he was a boy. I had never seen anything like it in my wildest dreams. I didn’t need telling I was lucky, but I was feeling exactly the opposite, because we weren’t getting it on film. I didn’t say that, however: for once the adjective ‘breathtaking’ had a literal sense. The muddy water was being whipped to a froth. On the far bank, two clumps of Kombis were rapidly assembling to flank the path that the emerging animals would take. A hundred cameras crackled. The storm of photoflash put the herd into a panic. The leading tuskers trumpeted. The whole herd sped up. The ones getting out of the water slipped on the mud. To either side of the beaten path, mothers boosted their babies out of the water with their foreheads. I saw one of the mothers, while she was still hip deep in the water, wrap her trunk around her squealing tot, lift it and deposit it on the bank, where it trotted around in small circles of bewilderment. ‘I suppose you’re sorry you’re not filming this,’ said Denis, master of understatement to the last. But I had already decided that I would never mention what we had missed getting on film, and until now I never have. It might have sounded like bitterness.

The film camera is an instrument for creating rain. In Kenya we got lucky with the weather and I did not have to learn this lesson, but it had already become apparent to me that time was expensive. If you did not have a plan B ready for when plan A went wrong, you would be wasting money at a rate that the people supplying it would be bound to notice. A grasp of this fact is the beginning of realism. There are other artistic fields in which you can be creative without being realistic. In poetry there will always be a Dylan Thomas, and he will often do great things, even while borrowing more money than he earns, breaking his bargains, drinking the pub dry, pissing in your fireplace and wrecking every life with which he comes into close contact. But when film or television cameras are involved, you can’t lead a bohemian existence even for a week. Flaubert’s rule — live like a bourgeois, think like a demigod — applies rigidly. Against my own profligate nature, I was already learning to be parsimonious with my energy. It’s half the secret.

The other half, of course, is to seize an opportunity. I was getting better at that too. It was a firm part of our plan that all my commentary would be done later in voice-over, with no ‘pieces to camera’ on the spot. This principle had been hatched mainly at my initiative, and sprang from my belief that the walk-and-talk was not only something that I was no good at, but something that no normal human being looked sane doing. David Attenborough got away with it when he was walking towards you out of the desert while explaining that the erosion of the topsoil was due to the agricultural policies of the Roman Empire and then a 150,000-ton oil tanker crossed the screen behind him in the same shot, thereby encouraging the viewer to suspect the hidden presence of the Suez Canal. But without the oil tanker he would have looked exactly like a man walking for no reason except to prove that he could. I wanted to do most of my talking over the finished film, which could be cut together far more tightly in the absence of long filmed speeches that had to be preserved no matter what. But this future flexibility entailed a strict discipline of getting plenty of coverage at the top and tail of each sequence, so that there would be space to add the links. These bread-and-butter shots can be boring for young directors, most of whom fancy themselves as Federico Fellini’s natural heir. Such journeywork can even be boring to the cameraman, so you have to get him on side, employing gifts of diplomacy that did not come naturally to me. I learned them because I had to. Many a film has been ruined by lack of coverage. Luckily Mike was a workhorse as well as a daredevil. His only real drawback was that he spoke Cockney rhyming slang as if he assumed that I would understand what he was saying.

‘Can you,’ he asked, ‘just hold it there while we get some light on your boat?’ The time I took to figure out that ‘boat’ was short for ‘boat race’, which rhymed with ‘face’, could prove important if the other face in the shot belonged to a buffalo sticking its head out three feet away as we toiled uphill in the Land Cruiser on a bumpy track cut through thick bush. The shock of suddenly seeing the buffalo’s foaming nostrils and mad red eyes from so very close is with me still. It was like turning over a Sunday colour supplement and finding, on its cover, Donatella Versace after her latest encounter with the collagen. I yelped as if stung. Denis reassured me by saying that the buffalo needed room to run before it did any damage. ‘Give him a bit of space and he could take the engine out of this car.’ My boat turned white, like a yacht.

Onward to Kilimanjaro, where we camped out in the open with the mountain for a backdrop: a cyclorama three miles high. The mountain had Hemingway’s legend stamped all over it. It might as well have featured a giant sculpture of his head, like Mount Rushmore. Possibly as an elegiac closing scene for the film, we did a campfire interview in which Denis evoked the departed spirit of the Great White Writer. Denis did the old boy proud, but while the magazines were being changed he let slip a few things that would have been dynamite on film. ‘He couldn’t shoot straight to save his life, so he had to wait until the animal was practically on him. Quite daunting if you were standing next to him.’ Also it turned out that the master of language had never learned nearly as much Swahili as he liked to pretend. Since Green Hills of Africa is peppered with Swahili words, this was hot news. Why hadn’t he learned it? ‘He wasn’t a very good listener. Not like you.’ This was the only time that I had been called a good listener and I took it as one of the biggest compliments of my life. From that moment I redoubled my efforts as Kungu’s star pupil, and the time soon came when we spoke together in his language as a matter of course. Our conversations were a bit elementary from my side, but they were good for my brain tissue. An awful pity that Swahili is so short of literature, or it would be with me still.

There is a lot more that I could say about my safari but at this rate I would need ten more volumes just to recount my memories of filming in twenty years’ worth of foreign places. I have gone into detail about the Kenya film because it provided a foundation course in which I had to learn an awful lot in a hurry. One of the things I learned was the importance of leaving your prejudices at home. The story of the connection between the Europeans and the native Africans had seemed cut and dried in Nairobi: it had looked like no connection at all. But when Denis and Kungu were together you saw something else. It wasn’t a master—servant relationship. They were colleagues, working by agreement. Denis taught me a wonderful Swahili expression which had been much employed by the white masters of the old days. It could be translated as ‘Why? Because bwana says so.’ But he also said that it was an expression he himself had never used in earnest, and that it would have been all over for him in Africa if he had ever felt the need.

Near the end of the shoot, there was a day when I climbed out of the old Dakota that had brought us from Kichwa Tembo and I got the news from someone on the ground that the BBC had just announced the death of Philip Larkin. That prince of poets had always been very kind to me and I found the sense of loss hard to take. Kungu asked me what was wrong. Running out of words, I told him that a wise old man, a man who spoke beautifully, was dead. Kungu taught me the phrase for when you miss someone. When I left Denis and Kungu to lead the rest of their honest lives under a succession of corrupt governments, I often missed them both. But I never got in touch. Filming is like that: you get to know people well, and then you don’t see them again. And I’m afraid I’m like that: I get busy somewhere else, and nothing connects or continues except in my work, where I put the care and patience that I should have given to real life. It’s a character flaw, and filming gave it a licence. Already, back there at the beginning, I was wondering how long I could keep at it before everything else fell apart. I would have liked to have been in England when Larkin died. On the plane back to London I began a poem about him. In fact I wrote it to him, as an address to his ghost, and I included a lot of detail about Africa, which he had never seen. When you have a vision as powerful as his, of course, you can see the world without leaving home, but some of us are lesser spirits.