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James Fenton's performances for the tribes


Why did we go to Borneo?
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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Well, he asked me to go with him. We really didn't know each other very well, and I went as his photographer for the Sunday Times, was the idea. So I thought all that was wonderful. I mean, the height of cool or whatever one would have said then, to go to a little office window in the basement of the Sunday Times and get cash, you know. Straight out of Evelyn Waugh, going off on a scoop. So that was very exciting. But I'd been reading about Borneo and the Far East for what? Six, seven years. Writing about Conrad and Darwin and Borneo. It never occurred to me for a moment that you could go to Borneo, you could actually get there. You know, to me, it was something in a library. And let alone, once you got inland, the tattoos that I knew intimately, as it were, from the illustrations in all these books, of the Kayan warriors, would be exactly the same now. It was just exciting beyond belief. Just wonderful, I mean, of course, after the book was published, but I got... these pictures were sent to me, and on the back it says, an original photograph used to illustrate the pagan tribes of Borneo, given by William McDougall to his nieces. Now his nieces sent these to me, these two wonderful old girls. And can you see that silver circlet that... around the waist there? Well, this is Iban in fact, but still exactly the same. Exactly the same. And then somebody else left me this, just a reader, in his will. I mean, look at it. It's Iban silver. It's the most beautiful thing. But I'm feeling a bit guilty about it, now. I kind of feel I ought to take it back, give it to them.

Yes, you can see, tiny waists. And that's another thing about Borneo: they all look like film stars. The most beautiful, suntanned girls you've ever set your eyes on. And the men, if you like that sort of thing. But of course, because if they're not healthy and wonderful looking and bright-eyed and muscly, they're dead. They die of terrible sepsis and one slip with a parang, and... tough life. But very, very happy, because it's run by women. And that's just a lovely river shot, but amazing for me that these are exactly the same as the illustrations in Hose and McDougall's great work.

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, Sunday Times, James Fenton, Evelyn Waugh, Joseph Conrad, Charles Darwin, William McDougall

Duration: 3 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009