Book Review: Not a Hazardous Sport

First published in 1988, Not a Hazardous Sport by Nigel Barley offers an account of the author’s travels to and around the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. For a few months he lived amongst the Torajan people, known in academic circles for the carvings on their buildings and their traditional ancestor culture. Barley interacts mostly with the men and this is reflected in the narrative. As an anthropologist he is there to observe. To get the most from the book the reader would be advised to set aside certain western sensibilities – something I struggled with. I baulked at many of the attitudes described, especially towards women. Certain incidents involving animals were also upsetting.

The author travels to Indonesia to undertake ethnographic fieldwork. Funds are limited so he travels economically. His preparations and the journey, although undoubtedly trying, are recounted with humour. A stopover in Singapore, where he stays with a Malay family, includes a visit to a red light district much to the discomfort of his hosts. This set the scene for conversations that would occur throughout the book. Women are sexually objectified, expected to produce babies and look after the home, children and the men. Whilst recognising that this was the accepted culture I would have liked to read of the women’s thoughts on how they were treated and if they desired change.

Indonesia is described with fondness despite its dangerous transport, mosquito infestations and often uncomfortable accommodation. The author describes the people as largely welcoming – impressive given the appalling behaviour of other tourists. He visits several villages, befriending those he meets and staying in their homes. The exchange rate makes him comparatively wealthy and he enjoys his ability to pay generously for services rendered.

The book is written as a series of descriptions of journeys and encounters. I found the cock fight episode distressing – I suspect the author wished to demonstrate the humour of the situation. A ritual he attended that required the killing of a buffalo offers up a picture of a painful and drawn out death for the poor animal, yet this entertains the local children. In a later chapter a bus driver deliberately runs over a puppy.

Other behaviours described increased my distaste for these men. They would wake up each morning and noisily clear mucus and phlegm from noses and throats – not a scene I want to have in my head.  It was, of course, interesting to learn of western habits that they observed with similar disgust. My recoil is not an attempt to take any sort of moral high ground.

At the time of writing Indonesia was changing. Many traditional beliefs were being abandoned for Christianity. Buildings with galvanised iron roofs rather than bamboo tiles were regarded as modern. Woven cloaks coloured with plant dyes were no longer as popular as those made from rayon.

Following his stay the author invites a small group of men to travel to London and build a traditional rice barn at the Museum of Mankind. The final chapter describes the reaction of these Indonesians to English habits and behaviour. Their experiences have repercussions when they return to their country.

Although well written and witty in places, I struggled to engage with the author’s portrayal. He may have been fond of those he met, impressed by their openness and welcome; my reaction was largely negative. I would have preferred a more rounded representation of a country populated by more than just men. From an anthropological point of view there is much of interest. As a casual reader I was put-off Indonesia.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eland.

Book Review: For Love and Money

Jonathan Raban is a multi award winning travel writer, critic and novelist. Eland Books has recently released five of his published works including For Love & Money, a memoir of sorts made up of articles and reviews that offer a fascinating insight into the author’s early life and career. First published in 1987 it provides a glimpse of the London literary world before the internet and the subsequent decline of print media.

The book is divided into five sections. The first introduces Raban as a professional writer with close to two decades experience. There is a brief history of his childhood including the burgeoning of his long held desire to become a writer. Although privately schooled he does not describe himself as academic. He attended Hull University rather than Oxbridge. This was in the 1960s when higher education was expanding rapidly. Armed with his newly acquired qualifications Raban secured a salaried job as an assistant lecturer at The University College of Wales at Aberystwyth.

From Aberystwyth he moved to the University of East Anglia where he worked with Malcolm Bradbury. During his time there he encountered students who went on to write best sellers. Raban regarded his tenure as a springboard into what he refers to as Grub Street – the world of literary hacks who write for hire. Bradbury talked to him about the difficulty of freelancing for a living with its need to jump between fiction and journalism, broadcasting and print. Raban was not deterred. The first section of the book finishes with a story accepted by the London Magazine in 1969. On the back of this, the editor invited Raban to review books for the publication. He resigned from his safe, salaried job and moved to London.

The second section opens with details of how a writer could earn a living in literary journalism. Raban wrote book reviews for magazines, took part in arts and book programmes on radio and TV, and wrote pieces for national newspapers. Included is an article he wrote about living in London at this time. It offers a window into the business of reviewing and the importance of the literary editor. As now, the view expressed was that more books were being published yet review space cut. Critics were commissioned to produce a set number of words, often fewer than could do a work serious justice. The remainder of this section is made up of Raban’s reviews of various books about writers, providing a masterclass in the form. Several do end quite abruptly, presumably when the word count had been reached.

The third section is a short history of Raban’s attempts to write plays. He saw this as a gateway to sociability after the solitude of a writer’s life. Television at this time was regarded as the national theatre. Money was available to commission more scripts than would be used, enabling producers to experiment with untried writers. Raban wrote for TV and radio. He is self-deprecating of his efforts.

The fourth section explores the world of the literary magazine where editors value perceived quality over sales figures. This is compared to commercial ventures which could send writers to far flung corners, fully financed, for a commissioned article. The remainder of the section contains several pieces written by Raban for a number of outlets. I was particularly impressed by Christmas In Bournemouth which cuts to the quick – an astute, verging on cruel reportage from a hotel which offers time-tabled entertainments for those whose family’s have inexplicably failed to invite their mostly elderly relatives to join them for the festive season.

The fifth and final section looks at travel writing and, in particular, why people travel. It is mostly made up of reviews of books by other travel writers and articles written on visits to foreign locations. There is also a walk along the banks of the Thames which is a slice of history. Raban came to be known best for his travel writing. His adventures developed from an early enjoyment of fishing to a point where sailing grants him freedom.

Raban has an eye for detail. His use of language is concise and rigorous. Where he writes about his early family life, his relationship with his parents, the insights are piercing. He admits to dramatising facts for effect but suggests all writing does this. Reportage and criticism are still performances for the benefit of the reader.

A prolific American writer of genre fiction tells him:

“It’s a writer’s duty to be an observer, not to show a high profile.”

I suspect there are many authors today who wish this was the case.

Raban’s book is a fascinating history of a freelance writer’s life and methods, personal and professional. It is witty, at times caustic, but always precise and percipient.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Eland.

Book Review: Signal Failure

Signal Failure, by Tom Jeffreys, is a considered and often wry discourse on the impact of environmental change written after the author walked from London to Birmingham along the proposed route of the HS2 railway line. He writes of the aesthetics of the places he passes through and summarises discussions he had with a variety of individuals he met along the way. There are both financial and emotional aspects to their opinions about HS2. Some see potential benefits. Many object and struggle with the impotence they feel.

The narrative is not presented as an expert assessment but rather as the musings of an interested observer. As the author walks he has time to mull many aspects of the changes huge infrastructure projects can herald and the human reaction when a way of living comes under threat.

“Some of this walk will be about clinging on to the past; some about navigating the future.”

Jefferys set out on this walk with an idea but an apparent lack of experience of such an undertaking. He suffered from an over heavy rucksack and irrational fears when alone at night in his tent. He claims not to be a nature writer due to his lack of detailed knowledge but this means his thought processes are accessable. His reflections are interesting for their cogitation but also their ordinariness.

“For this walk I was keen to retain that sense of adventure, of an openess to the unknown”

Many of the arguments against HS2 are based on nostalgia, a desire to retain a vista or the bonds of community in which residents have invested. To be heard by those in authority these must be presented in quantifiable terms.

For example, in considering the impact on a well used and locally valued regional park an employee emphasises:

“the importance of usefulness […] the reduction of nature’s great complexity, its vast unknowability, to the level of a resource – to serve a single purpose or function. Nature as utility, valued only insofar as it serves a human purpose.”

This commodified idea of the English countryside does not promote untidy wildness but rather a taming of nature. Parks, farmland, managed forests and picturesque villages are all manmade.

Throughout the walk Jeffreys observes red kites, a species recently reintroduced by the RSPB.

“In a sense, their frequency detracts from what was once a splendid sight – although perhaps that reflects a misjudged appreciation of nature, whereby scarcity equates to importance, within the skewed economies of the collector.”

As miles are covered what is noticed is that working landscapes create their own aesthetics. There are fields filled with crops and livestock, pylons, roads and winding canals. He walks paths that follow abandoned railway lines. Enthusiasts have preserved some of these along with their accoutrements and appropriate steam trains.

A vast infrastructure project such as HS2 will bring massive disruption lasting many years. It will cut through what is considered beautiful countryside damaging the flora and fauna as well as established communities. That local residents resent this unwanted invasion is understandable, but the author ponders if this is reason enough not to go ahead.

Jeffreys passes by the results of other projects – landfill sites, a massive waste incinerator, electrical substations:

“the countryside, as I’ve already learnt, is not some zone of pristine purity. We have already altered it beyond belief with our agriculture, our transport, our waste.”

Over time, change is inevitable and sometimes for the better although there are will be certain losers in any transition. Jeffreys observes listed buildings and preserved parklands, neatly manicured and maintained. He mentions slum dwellings swept away and wonders where the occupants went and how they felt. In looking back, especially at the heavy industries in and around Birmingham, not all that is gone is to be mourned. He wonders which of our many pasts we wish to retain.

HS2 will have the greatest impact on those who value the tranquility of their lives along the proposed route. The line will be used by those who can afford it with any benefits accrued long term. What this book offers is not so much an opinion on this particular project as an eminently readable wider vision of how and why a variety of people value the environment in which they choose to live and play. Whether any change will ultimately be for good or ill, and whether it will then be considered worth the cultural and economic cost, is a layered and complex question. The reader is not offered answers so much as a broader understanding of the picture beyond that which invested parties wish to frame.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.