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My tricks of the trade


Writing about the Borneo experience
Redmond O'Hanlon Writer
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I always wanted to be a writer since I was making up stories about seeing tigers on the vicarage lawn when I was four and a half. But no, this was the real thing, because after a doctorate, seven years of it, and, you know, 300,000 words or whatever had to be cut down to 100,000, it's just such a release. I could describe things that were external, that actually existed, that were there. You know, how do you describe a paradise flycatcher on its way across the river? The answer is: just as you first thought, what you first thought it was. I mean, missing such things at the time, there is a suspender belt with… with white stockings coming along behind it. No, that was wonderful. I did it in a year. And it was odd, it was written in the daytime, and after a run around the wood, it's a healthy, happy comedy, really.

I mean, there's bound to be dark moments whenever you're in the tropics, like being taken to... because everybody thinks you must be a doctor... taken to see some old woman and a great ulcer infection on her foot, and the fluid and the infections just flowing about with mould on top. And you know she's dying, and all you've got is general antibiotics for a week, you know, a couple of weeks. That sort of thing, but that will happen wherever you are along the equator.

It's just a society that is really, through and through, happy, with as good a system as can be invented for humankind. I mean, by contrast, what I'm thinking of is the middle of South America, people called the Yanomami, which has gone the other way. Instead of women running it all, and you're told, in Borneo, we, the men, take all the major decisions. So Fenton would say, well the translator would say, well, 'So when was the last major decision?' And the big talk went on, and they said, 'Well, we can't remember. It must have been our grandfathers.' Whereas in South America, on the border between Colombia and Venezuela and Brazil, the Yanomami, they've... that's really male. And the more people you've killed, doesn't matter if they're an old grandmother or a child or what, the more attractive you are. So it's real sexual selection. It's all the girls' fault, of course. They go for guys who've killed people, who get angry immediately, who are fantastically aggressive, so the society gets more and more aggressive. A constant low-grade but deadly, lethal warfare in between their own peoples and groups. That's why they have to live in a great stockade.

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: The Tropics, the Equator, Columbia, Venezuela, Brazil, James Fenton

Duration: 3 minutes, 27 seconds

Date story recorded: July - September 2008

Date story went live: 11 August 2009