Ionides was the nickname of an Englishman of Greek descent brought up in Brighton who went to East Africa and spent time there as an ivory poacher, a big game hunter, and a game ranger before becoming famous as a hunter and trapper of snakes. Margaret Lane, an established biographer married to the sixteenth Earl of Huntingdon, went to live with Ionides for some months and produced this charming and beautifully descriptive memoir.
The historical context is of an East Africa transitioning from British colonial rule into independence and the narrator is probably as empathetic as she could be given her privileged English background but there are still colonialist and racist overtones which make the book a little difficult to read. Ionides is unsympathetic to the colonialists who feel they are thrust aside; "Protests about the best years of one's life and the ingratitude of Africans leave him contemptuously cold. ... Those who claimed to have dedicated themselves to an alien people, and expected gratitude, had failed to observe nature. In the human as in the animal world, ingratitude was the rule." (C 5)
Ionides is trenchantly fascist: he goes through a list of great men and their main characteristic seems to be that they came from very humble backgrounds and ended up killing (or having killed) a lot of people. He has unrepentant Darwinist views of nature, seeing the occasional fisherman lost to a crocodile as keeping a balance of nature which would be lost if the crocs were killed. "He cannot bring himself to agree that the tribes around him are happier or better off than in the days when their prime occupation was tribal warfare. 'These people have been largely emasculated ... Their splendid virtues have been driven out of them; it isn't their fault if we've turned them into a rather second-rate lot.'" (C 9) He denies that he has a magical power to curse, as some of the villagers seem to believe, but "I've had a bit of luck on several occasions. Twice, when I happened to have been really angry with certain people, each time the man was shot with a poisoned arrow very soon afterwards." This seems a sinister use of the word 'luck'. (C 9) His is a fascinating character but not a comfortable dinner party guest.
It seems to me that books about nature and wildlife such as Gerald Durrell's corfu trilogy My Family and Other Animals, Birds, Beasts and Relatives, and The Garden of the Gods, perhaps even documentaries (David Attenborough), promote high description. This book starts as it means to go on. Its first line is: "The first sounds of morning, long after the frogs had finished and the silence had become total, were disagreeable: no dawn chorus of birds or papery rustle on wind in the banana leaves, but the sudden scrape of a chair on the concrete floor, a broom banging the table legs, Makanga's sniffs which were like the tearing of calico, and immediately, as though it had been long held in suspense for these permissive signals, the slow, painful crescendo of Ionides' coughing." (C 1) What I particularly like about this beginning is the way it immediately debunks the thought that this is some simpering evocation of noble savages in a rural paradise: it is actually a kitchen-sink-sober portrait of a man making a living in the bush.
Other great descriptions include:
- "The roads are deep in sand and full of holes, the bush paths overhung with thorns which scrape us as we pass, the hard tracks broken with eroded gullies, so that the boxes and the metal grab-sticks leap and crash as we lurch along, breathing the dust which rises from every crevice and settles softly in our hair and clothing." (C 2)
- "The head [of the snake] ... revealed itself as thick and spade-shaped, with steady topaz eyes underlined and emphasized with a cunning cosmetic stroke. The face had a curiously mild and dog-like look, and the tongue ... was moist and brilliant, a tendril of pink and black." (C 3)
- "The muzzle and the throat, I saw, were pale as ivory, and the spread hood, making the high-shouldered outline of a sitting hawk, was marked with moth-like patches of black, flushed with a tint which varied from cream to rose. The face was startlingly bird-like, accipitrine, flat-headed, the eye as deeply bright as polished jet." (C 8) I looked up accipitrine: it relates to hawks.
- "I could recognize the grey, dusty appearance of the skin ... which distinguishes a child suffering from malnutrition, and also, at this hungry time of year before the harvest, the gingery bloom on the hair which is another symptom." (C 8)
There were other things I learned:
- The locals wear kangas which are embellished with mottoes like our tee-shirts. "The mottoes ... were originally the speciality of prostitutes who favoured distinctive slogans on their garments such as 'Come sir, I am ready', and other less translatable invitations." (C 2)
- "Death from a gaboon viper is singularly unpleasant: the venom's haemotoxic and neurotoxic - haemorrhages, constricted breathing, bleeding from all the orifices of the body and from old scars." (C 3)
- "The snake must be sexed ... an assistant must grasp the thrashing tail and turn the vent upwards, massaging vigorously with a thumb until the sexual organs, powerless even in this humiliating posture to resist the stimulus of friction, moistly emerge from a neat aperture" (C 3)
- "Conversion to Christianity implies monogamy, all male converts being required to return the surplus wives and stick to one, with the results that in the villages where Christianity has made progress there is also the greatest number of prostitutes." (C 5)
- "The sadistic beatings endured at school were certainly a shock They taught him fear, but he sets a value on fear, and if one can accept the paradox, is not afraid of it." (C 6)
- "The driving force behind his single-mindedness ... a lifelong thirst for intensity of experience." (C 6)
- "He is a connoisseur of fear ... It is not a sensation he enjoys, but he is familiar with its features, has marked its curious ebb and flow in the presence of danger, and in the aftermath of languor and satisfaction which followed the most intense of his hunting experiences accepts it as having been a prime ingredient." (C 6)
- "The average hunter goes through four distinct stages of experience. In the beginning he's nervous and apprehensive, even over-careful. Then he learns that in normal conditions, with the wind right, very great liberties can be taken. He takes them, with impunity, and tends to get rather reckless. ... Then he gets ... a narrow escape ... and learns to be intelligently careful. ... The fourth and last stage is when he's getting old, and thinks his reactions are still as quick as they were ten years before." (C 6)
- "Every moment of pause ... you should relax and rest, even if it's only for a second, so that you don't become nervously exhausted. Carelessness on these occasions is entirely due to nervous exhaustion." (C 6)
- "One feels practically no fear when the animal charges. When it's all over, of course, that's a different matter. Trembling, lassitude, coldness" (C 6)
- "There was a 'white man's hut' in those days in every village, exceedingly comfortable you know, a roof and everything." (C 7)
- "There are no absolutes. Surely we all live ... on the principle of 'You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours." (C 9)
- "One must never expect too much of human beings. Always expect people to act as self-interest dictates, and you won't be unduly embittered when you're let down." (C 9)
- "It makes me sick to hear Europeans complain ... of being let down by Africans; one frequently hears of the base ingratitude of these people. What have they got to be grateful for? ... An African may be your paid servant, but his first loyalties are to his wife and family." (C 9)
This is a fascinating and wonderfully described portrait of a fascinating person. February 2020; 180 pages
This is the first book not linked to the subject that I have ever read that mentions Joanna Southcott (in the context of her false pregnancy rather than her preaching or her box).
My parents were members of the Readers Union Book Club. They must have had a great person to choose the books. This is one of the many I have enjoyed and reviewed in this blog. Here is a list:
- Life with Ionides by Margaret Lane: about a man catching snakes in East Africa
- The Golden Isthmus: the history of Panama from its discovery by Europeans
- The Incredible Mile by Harold Elvin: the travelogue of a journey on the Trans Siberian express
- A Pattern of Islands by Arthur Grimble: the memoir of a Colonial Officer on the Gilbert and Ellice Islands
- Invasion 1940 by Peter Fleming: an account of Britain's unpreparedness and preparation for a Nazi invasion
- Bus Stop Symi by William Travis: three years lived on the sometimes less than idyllic Greek island of Symi
- A Memoir of the Bobotes by Joyce Cary: a memoir of time spent in the Balkan Wars (before the First World War)
- The Great Trek by Oliver Ransford: a history of the formation of the Orange Free State and Transvaal by Boer farmers trekking from the Cape Colony