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Meeting the Iban tribe in Borneo


Into The Heart of Borneo with James Fenton
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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[Q] You could have been an academic at Oxford?

Yes, well, shall I tell you straight? I was a junior don, an apprentice, after my doctorate in Hartford, teaching. And I taught my students the wrong century. I hadn't opened the letter. Who would have thought that Oxford would move up from 1945, or rather 1900 to 1945?

Anyway, I was teaching the 19th century, when it should have been the 20th, the early 20th. And it was terrible. So I had to leave, quite rightly. But I just thought to be removed for gross incompetence was bad. Now gross immorality would have been sexy. And it took me six months to tell Belinda that... why I wasn't teaching anymore.  I said, 'Well, I've got this biography of Darwin I'm writing, and I really can't do the two things'.

So then I joined The Times, The Times: Literary Supplement, where it doesn't really matter what century you're thinking about, as long as you're doing it with passion. And then James Fenton, a great poet, said would I like to go to Borneo with him, for a holiday, scuba diving? And I looked at the map and there's some pretty suspicious places, like Bum-Bum-Tutu. So I thought, 'No, no, we'll get this major poet up a major river and see what happens'.

So I read a great deal about it. He hadn't got time to read anything about Borneo. Because he was the theatre critic of The Sunday Times. And I discovered an ancestor of mine. To me, just known as Uncle Eggy. Now Uncle Eggy I remembered sleeping down the end of a corridor of a big flat in Earl's Court. My aunt had a four-poster bed, a massive luxury. He slept right down the end of the flat in a little cavalry bed, did Uncle Eggy. Now something must be wrong with Uncle Eggy. He was certainly not a brave man, I thought, as a boy, because the kitchen table was chalked off. That was the only part of the kitchen he was allowed to touch. Then I read, Colonel Egerton Mott, one of the toughest men I've ever met, regarded me with his steely blue eyes. And it really was above launderette, or I don't know, laundry it would be, wouldn't it? In Holborn, in the war. And he'd been a successful businessman in Shanghai with shipping and so on, but when the Japanese came in, quick training, and he was a man of great imagination and so tough.

And he actually was the founder, though I didn't know that, of Australian SAS, Special Air Service, in Australia. I mean, a sort of legendary guy, an icon. Except that nobody knew about him, because he took the secrecy to such lengths, he never told his wife. And they're dead now, so it's alright, but she thought that, because he couldn't tell her what he was doing, she was absolutely certain that he ran a brothel. That's why he wasn't allowed to touch her.

But then I read about him in Harrison's book about the Special Forces, the ancestor... I mean, you know, the forerunner of the Special Air Service, and how Harrison, you know, Mott had sent him for this training, blowing up trains, destroying bridges, parachuting and so on.

They were being trained to go behind the lines. But my uncle was actually in charge of special operations against the Japanese. He got sacked, too, I'm glad to say, just like me, because he… he planned a really successful on the Japanese Singapore Harbour, but he hadn't... hadn't told MacArthur that he was going to do this. And he said, 'Well, of course not', in his memoir, because you couldn't trust the Americans to keep a secret. Whereas Uncle Eggy went to the grave with all his secrets. I get letters now, because he's mentioned in Into the Heart of Borneo, from Australians trying to build up a picture of him. They don't even have a photograph of him. Anyway, so that was my... I didn't know this, but yes, this was my entrée into Hereford and 22 SAS, and they absolutely treated me the tops.

I mean, the major in charge of training, even though I was quite young, then, looked at me and said, 'Oh, in the peak of life lad, I see. Well, you can try the assault course.' They gave me all this wonderful equipment. And Fenton. Gave him some, too. And I was warned. They said, 'Well, lad, you know you're going with a Trot'? And I didn't know what a Trot was. I certainly wouldn't connect him with Trotsky. He said, 'But we don't believe our computers. I suspect he's an old Trot.'

So that was it. That was set, then. We had to go on this big expedition.

British author Redmond O’Hanlon writes about his journeys into some of the wildest places in the world. His travels have taken him into the jungles of the Congo and the Amazon, he has faced some of the toughest tribes alive today, and has sailed in the hurricane season on a trawler in the North Atlantic. In all of this, he explores the extremes of human existence with passion, wit and erudition.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Borneo, 'Into the Heart of Borneo', Hertford, The Times, The Times Literary Supplement, Sunday Times, Earls Court, Holborn, Shanghai, These Men are Dangerous: S.A.S. at War, Singapore, Hereford, 22SAS, James Fenton, Charles Darwin, Leon Trotsky, Lieutenant-Colonel G. Egerton Mott, Derrick Harrison

Duration: 5 minutes, 56 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009