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No stone unturned,
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This review is from: Explorers of the Nile: The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure (Hardcover)
Having the ability to write definitive non-fiction that reads fluently and easily as a good novel, so comfortably carried off here, is a rare skill. Necessarily dense with facts and place names it was reassuring to find myself interested in David Livingstone from the start; we get to know him as he endures lonely, frustrating months in a hut while trying to heal his "irritable, eating ulcers fastening on both feet"; without his full team and the equipment required; feeling abandoned by his supporters. Stanley of course later takes up his quest, after their fabled meeting. Perhaps, unless you are already familiar with 1850-1870's, you will quickly need to latch on to the individuals in order to be swept up into the story. In the past, books have fixed on the geography and re-creation of this adventure rather than the characters. `Explorers of the Nile' is delivered fully-grown and well rounded. It is the many human and even some animal encounters that flesh out the narrative. I'll never look at my (inherited) ivory backed hair- brush in the same light. I now know what it cost.
The author owns his Victorians as intimate friends; he really is the authority on these fired up chaps. Are you already fascinated by this period? Then Tim Jeal is your man - you are safe in his hands. His impressive back catalogue is already stacked with the well-received Stanley: The Impossible Life of Africa's Greatest Explorer Livingstone (Yale Nota Bene) and Baden-Powell: Founder of the Boy Scoutsbooks. Their substance, scholarship, intense focus, depth of research; the obvious time and trouble taken to get to the root of the story, makes these volumes stand tall and proud.
Early, pre publication date, accolade was bestowed on `Explorers of The Nile' when it was chosen as the Radio 4 Book of The Week. Neatly, considerably and efficiently abridged by Libby Spurrier, beautifully read by Alex Jennings; this enjoyable presentation indicated the expectation of a general appeal across the genres.
A straw poll across the dinner table reveals that many men profess to only enjoy `books that are true'. Women are more often interested in people, relationships, domestic family sagas and drama; plus we always love a good story. So Explorers of the Nile could tick both boxes...
Re visiting and refreshing misconceptions, and busily rights long-standing wrongs, this attractively presented, substantial volume sets out to put the record straight as to who actually achieved what, where and when - perhaps not a scenario that many readers will initially be very worked up about. To guide you in there are a series of hooks - the blatant rivalries and subterfuge, dastardly cover ups and self serving lies that founded a dynasty of hero worship based on some misinformation. The facts surrounding the slave trade, still a thriving business then are the most alarming. Accommodation has to be made with this despised activity, while planning to get it eventually outlawed. Cannibalism also abounds. The horrible consequences of the introduction of European guns to the continent; also some scandalous, immoral behaviour makes for a shameful record. X-rated, blood-chilling grisly anecdotes are scattered throughout. Forensic, painstaking detective work by Tim Jeal carefully untangles some very sticky webs. Bodies may not be spinning in their graves but they will certainly be sitting up and taking notice. Their descendants too, I imagine.
Happily, lively, quirky humour luckily lifts the mix; you can imagine that our genial raconteur sometimes has one eyebrow raised in amusement at what he has discovered. Wry understatement is his forte.
Generous illustrations, colour plates, photographs, black and white contemporary drawings, keep up the immersion process. My favourite was the matter of factly portrayed ` Royal wife led to execution'. I also enjoyed the language of the journals - the use of phrases I have heard from the lips of the previous century generations - "I was laid up" "people plaguing her" "Such rot about a rotten person" "don't intend to miss the spectacle". Here we have history lessons as we might wish they always been taught. My old school, founded by Lord Rosebery, had, in the sixties, houses named Livingstone, Stanley, Faraday, Raleigh and Nightingale; these names meant little then but are certainly coming alive to me now. Having been to Egypt and seen the Nile flowing through Luxor helped me engage more fully with the dream of understanding all its secrets.
The sheer scale of the expeditions, the glittering prizes dangled before them, sadly less rewarding than promised, general and reasonable hope for their names to go down in history, all beckoned the great men who we get to know so personally, `warts and all'. Perhaps surprisingly their ambitions were also really massive - they feared that the whole of the African race might be wiped out - imagining that introduction of European agricultural methods could save this nation. Missionaries were also appealed for, again with unforeseen consequences.
Uncovering the motivations for such determination, the author treats us to an in depth recreation of the contemporary mood that transports the reader magically back to the era of Empire; the days before instant communications, google street maps; when there were still so many places to discover; cleverly reproducing the colourful theatre that went with that atmosphere. `Different Times' have never been so enthusiastically nailed down. With long sight we can then more easily understand the roots of present day problems.
Reading this kept me going for many days as I became more and more fascinated. The gruelling illnesses, terrible dangers and impressive sense of purpose demonstrated seemed almost super human. Having the book on the shelf as a reference work will be useful in the future. A vast amount of research together with enormous effort to get things absolutely as right, as humanly possible, have created the text book anyone wishing to know more about the era will appreciate. Not all determination and single-mindedness leads to undertaking trips to challenging, dangerous and far- flung foreign environments - some of it leads to libraries, family archives, days spent painstakingly working through journals and papers, endless hours in solitary studies.
As a wife and mother of fishermen I was intrigued to read of the oystermen from the Medway who accompanied Stanley on his trip in the Lady Alice, these fishermen never having been abroad before. Then the group of villagers who shouted "Meat! Meat!" as the canoes went by, attempting to catch a whole crew with a huge net... You couldn't make it up!
Exhaustively annotated, with Contents, Illustrations, List of Plates, List of Maps, Introduction, and at the end, Fifty Years of Books on the Search for the Nile's Source, Acknowledgements, Sources, Notes to Pages and Index, never detracting from the accessibility of text which is left clear and straightforward. Offering adventures to keep you involved and excited throughout; rewarding, enlightening, thought provoking; here we do have `Triumph and Tragedy' in spades. In his thoughtful conclusion Tim Jeal carefully gathers up the strands; writing constructively about the value of such marvellous endeavours. He outlines their immeasurable contribution to the way we live today. Altogether this is an outstandingly worthwhile publication that deserves the high acclaim it will no doubt receive.