by Basil Pao
Weidenfeld, £25, pp. 200, ISBN 0297843044
Michael Palin is a decent chap, I thought, after bumping into him for a nanosecond at the Hatchards Authors of the Year party a few months ago. It was just long enough for the briefest exchange of desert tales before he was mobbed by growing numbers of the Palin Fan Club, at which point he faded from view and I was left wishing I had cornered him for longer.
That was back in May, and this being October, it is time for the latest Palin tome to land in bookstores the length and breadth of Britain, for what could be a nicer Christmas present than this sleek volume from the man who brought us Around the World in Eighty Days, Pole to Pole, Full Circle and Hemingway Adventure?
Although this is not a BBC book, it’s still a spin-off from the series now showing on BBC1. You might have heard him plugging it on Radio 5, or in Radio Times, the Daily Telegraph or any one of a hundred outlets willing to give space to this affable fellow in a blue button-down shirt and chinos.
The problem with these sorts of books, though, is that they tend to be almost an afterthought to the television programme, rushed out to coincide with its broadcast. In other words, it’s a reversal of the time-honoured reviewer’s lament that Film X did no justice to the original book, be it Howards End, The Honorary Consul, or Nineteen Eighty-four. In this case, the book doesn’t do justice to the television.
This is not to say that Sahara is not an engaging read. It is. It’s just that with all the charging around 10,000 miles across nine countries in three months – the reader is no sooner drawn into wrestling in Senegal, the early days of aviation in St Louis, Michael on his moped in Mali, or Mungo Park’s efforts to chart the River Niger, than our adventurer is slipping into a fresh Brooks Brothers shirt and chinos and hitting the road again. It’s all a little disorienting.
As you would expect from Weidenfeld, it’s crammed with attractive photos, though there are rather too many of Palin for my liking. Michael munching kebabs in Morocco; staring into a honeyed Saharan sunset; enduring a bruising massage in a hammam; kicking around a football with a group of kids; watching, transfixed, as a motorbike rider zooms past on the Paris-Dakar Rally. You get the picture. You get lots of them, in fact.
Along the way Palin meets a colourful and invariably entertaining cast of walk-ons. There is the stereotypical masseur with his ‘villainous slash of a moustache’, a kleptomaniac manservant in Tangier who walks with a ‘slow, insolent swagger’. South of Ouarzazate he meets a man who introduces himself thus. ‘I am a nomad. Here is my card.’ There are artists, musicians, poets and boys making whoopee cushions from sheep scrotums. The tone is chatty and conversational, television regurgitated into book form. Every now and then he ventures onto more serious turf, interviewing the beleaguered Saharawi population, caught between Morocco and Mauritania, wishing to belong to neither. In Timbuktu he pays his respects at the house of Gordon Laing, the Scottish explorer who became the first European to reach the city in 1826 and was promptly murdered for his pains. He ranges widely, from discussing the rights and wrongs of female circumcision in Mali, to touring Algeria’s National Centre for Despatching Gas, an industrial blot on the Saharan landscape.
Like many English travellers, Palin is obsessed with his bowels, so lavatorial musings are everywhere. He is not, as he freely admits, particularly interested in slumming it and rejoices wherever he finds electricity and hot water. It might have been a lot worse if he had spent more than five days of his three months in the Sahara on a camel, but then travelling by camel is not so smart if you want to cross the desert on television. Camels, alas, are old hat for that sort of thing. Bring on the Toyotas!
All in all, this is a good-humoured romp through the greatest desert on earth and Palin is an empathetic guide to the peoples of this parched eternity. Two worlds collide as the BBC team roars through poverty-stricken settlements. ‘We remain us. They remain them,’ he concludes. ‘For how long, I’m not sure.’
If Sahara is a spin-off from the television series, then Inside Sahara, a collection of handsome desertscapes and portraits by Basil Pao, is a spin-off of a spin-off. If you’re thinking in terms of Christmas presents, buy Palin’s book for Granny and Pao’s for the coffee table.
Justin Marozzi’s South from Barbary: Along the Slave Routes of the Libyan Sahara is published in paperback by HarperCollins.