Considering I’ve never been to Africa, it’s remarkable how much it’s influenced me over the years. No sooner had I watch the first episode of David Attenborough’s new BBC series Africa than I found my thoughts wandering both out across that vast continent and back through time in a surprisingly emotional stream of consciousness.
First the programme. As we’ve come to expect from Attenborough and the Beeb, it’s both a feast for the eyes and a masterpiece of wildlife storytelling. One episode in and I’ve already got a head full of unforgettable moments, from bull giraffes trading devastating blows in competition over a cow to black rhinos getting surprisingly sociable by the light of the stars. If you’re not watching the show, you should be. Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite:
Now to those wandering thoughts. One of my earliest memories of Africa is listening to a vinyl LP called Sounds of the Serengeti (1970). It was a Christmas present from my Uncle John. I was five years old (Uncle John was always one for unusual presents). The album’s a compilation of field recordings compiled by Grahame Dangerfield and narrated by Sir Peter Scott, and it’s packed with atmospheric recordings of lions, hyenas, crowned cranes and all the other extraordinary denizens of the Serengeti National Park. Maybe it’s testament to the power of audio to influence a young mind that I can still hear it even now.
Recalling those ‘incredible live recordings from the heart of Africa’ got me thinking about another of Uncle John’s gifts from around the same time: A Cast of Lions: The Story of the Filming of Born Free by Carl Foreman (1966). Back then, Joy Adamson’s true account of her life with Elsa the lioness was the iconic story of Africa, and this book was my first encounter with it. It was also the first time I’d read about the making of a feature film (another interest that hasn’t gone away).
Chances are that, whenever I was leafing through the Foreman book, there was another wildlife book on the table with it: The Living World of Animals (1970). This was one of those big Reader’s Digest affairs with about a million pages crammed with encyclopedic information about pretty much every animal under the sun. Including, of course, all the ones that live in Africa. Beside it on the table there would also have been a pad of paper and a bunch of pencils, because I spent much of my young life drawing animals copied from the pictures. I was so fond of this book that I even forgave it the weird cloth cover that made my skin crawl every time the palm of my hand brushed against it.
Both of the above books were far too big to read in bed so, by the time the sun went down, I’d switched to paperback novels. Top of the pile was Willard Price’s African Adventure, in which intrepid boy explorers Hal and Roger Hunt set off in pursuit of a man-eating leopard. I cut my teeth on Price’s thrilling tales of derring-do and, dated as they undoubtedly are, I’m delighted to see they’re still in print.
Even after I’d grown up I continued to think about Africa. I also continued to read novels. Old habits die hard. One of my favourite novels is Stephen King’s Misery (1987). It’s a gripping story of a writer kidnapped by a crazy lady who just happens to be his number one fan and … wait a second: “What’s this got to do with Africa?” I hear you say. Well, if you check the book’s flyleaf, you’ll find on it the two enigmatic words: Goddess; Africa. If you read on, you’ll discover that, as his mental state deteriorates, our hero Paul Sheldon comes to imagine the monstrous Annie Wilkes as an idol worshipped by some remote African tribe. A tenuous connection? Not for my purposes. Annie-as-idol is a powerful image at the heart of a disturbing story, one that continues to haunt me to this day. (In any case, this is my stream of consciousness – if you don’t agree with my choices you can always embark on one of your own.)
Still on the subject of books, the most recent addition to my eclectic African library is Don Shay’s Endangered Liaisons. It’s the perfect way for an untravelled adventurer like me to enjoy the safari experience in a vicarious way (ie without leaving the comfort of my armchair). The book’s a celebratory account of 20 years spent exploring the continent and it’s the closest I’ve come so far to sitting down with a mountain gorilla or setting off in chase of a cheetah.
I may not have reached Africa itself, but I have sat down in London’s Lyceum Theatre to watch Julie Taymor’s amazing stage adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. If you’ve never witnessed the show’s extraordinary blending of stagecraft, puppetry and performance then you’ve missed a treat. Normally when I leave a theatre or cinema I’m guilty of boring my wife to death with a lengthy deconstruction of whatever it is we’ve just seen. On leaving the Lyceum, all I could say was, “…!” making it the only time a theatrical production has left me literally speechless.
Well, The Lion King marks the place where my African stream of consciousness finally empties itself into the ocean. The things I’ve listed are just a representative sample of what springs into my mind when I hear the word Africa. If you’ve got some to add to my list, I’d love to hear about them.