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Writing about the Borneo experience


James Fenton's performances for the tribes
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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It was just a ridiculous privilege to be going upriver with a poet, who really does think differently from other people. We had long periods of silence, and then you know something wonderfully profound is going to happen, especially if you can see him from behind, with a great bald head and the veins would be dilating and a thought is being had. And then, God will send a poem.

And it was wonderful. We'd go into a longhouse, and I would, of course, tell everybody, 'This is the greatest poet in all England', and James [Fenton] would recite. He'd do a mime, if asked to, and it was always... he was very hungry, we didn't have much to eat.

And it was always... the mime was, now listen, this is how you prepared a leg of pork. And it would be wonderful. And by the time he'd finished this very slow, wonderful mime, he'd baste it and cut the crackling, and then, at the end of it, the whole longhouse would stand up and clap. And all the men would burp, you know, they knew it was a wonderful meal. And then he astonished me. He knew all the music hall songs. I can't remember a single one, but they would be just wonderful. Everybody could see. They'd no idea, of course, what he was singing about, but they could see how wonderful it was. I mean, a real professional performing poet. And then even his dances were rather good. And then I'd have to get up and do something. Well, I don't know any songs at all, but a dance. So you have to mimic this wonderful, graceful, warrior dance where they're all dressed up in feathers and the whole bit and the war coat. And you stalk your enemy, and then, with your parang, you take his head off. And there's all the symbolic, systematised gestures. You've tripped him over on the sand and then off comes his head, like the head of a turtle.

So I tried that, and everybody would laugh, sort of uncontrollably. I, you know, just hadn't got the grace. And James would stab me in the back. He'd say things like, 'Now, come on Redsie. Just do your thing, whatever your thing is.' And at that moment, on this particular occasion, the war headdress, it jammed over my face, so I couldn't breathe and had to be rescued. So yes, it's like... it was sort of Paradise Bar in Ireland with everybody joining in. And then you get terribly, terribly drunk on the arak, all the rice wine and rice brandy. And taking their cue from James. I'm sure we were only greeted like that because of James, there's the poet, and he said to me, 'Redsie, we've just walked into Homer. Shut up.' And it was. The verses would start. And the only bad thing I have to tell you: it was always a woman, and with a female apprentice, singing these verses, which Leon, our guide, totally wonderful, he would translate. And they'd be all about history, how they moved here, how all these decisions were taken. And then the last verse, the last two or three verses, would be about us, how there was this shambolic fat man who really couldn't pull a canoe properly in the water, and I mean, an idiot, and it was me. And then this great poet, the greatest poet in all England, and what it was an honour that he'd come here, and now forever, the great poet's visit would be recorded in whatever group it was, in their longhouse, forever. Because this had been added to the history of... the epic, the rhyming history of that particular group. I mean, the rhymes were… well every other rhyme, you know, it was just wonderful, formal, and chanted in this wonderful chant. And at the end of every verse, everybody would have a drink. So a lot of people were lying flat, because it's a very long epic. And James starring at the end of it. And Leon translated, said, 'Well, this greatest poet in all England, he... it's very strange, but perhaps that's what happens to poets, because all the hairs migrated off the top of his head and stuck itself around his cheeks. Because they don't have a beard, you know, it's the most disgusting thing. So that you see them plucking out a hair. You know, the girls don't like it.'

[Q] And you said you didn't know each other very well when you set off, but obviously by the end you must have known each other extremely well…


[Q] So how did all that work out?

Well, I think it worked out wonderfully well, but I don't think he liked the book very much, because he has a... I mean, in public, public persona, has great gravitas, as a poet should. I shall get in trouble again. Wonderful, generous, man.

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: James Fenton, Homer, William McDougall

Duration: 6 minutes, 22 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009