THE FETISH ROOM: THE EDUCATION OF A NATURALIST
By Redmond O’Hanlon and Rudi Rotthier
published TLS, Friday May 13th, 2011
I had the good fortune to wheedle my way at the last moment into the launch party for this book. But listening to the speeches made me fear for its integrity. It became evident that The Fetish Room had not been born in the mind of a writer, or even of the two writers sited on the spine, but was conceived in the boardroom of a publisher’s office. It is not biography or memoir, not natural history or autobiography, but the project of a pair of canny Dutch publishers (Emile Brugman and Ellen Schalker of Atlas) responding to the cult status of Redmond O’Hanlon in the Netherlands. Rudi Rotthier, a diligent young Flemish travel writer, was packed off to the British Isles to spend a fortnight with O’Hanlon. I feared the worst, for few things are as irritating to read as an extended interview between writers, especially a young writer fawning his way towards some sort of literary blessing from an old master. The original Dutch title, God, Darwin en natuur, made me even more convinced that I was about to suffer a whole book-load of pretentious Sunday Magazine infill.
I am glad I got myself in such an advanced state of irritation. For The Fetish Room is a delight from start to its surprising finish: a journey into what makes a travel writer, if not into the nature of being a late 20th century Briton. The physical trail is in almost farcical contrast to what we might expect from O’Hanlon’s travels. We take an extremely slow and humdrum drive through the villages of Dorset, Kent, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire (so very far removed from the exotic and challenging jungles of Borneo or the Congo and the storm-tossed Atlantic - where Redmond carved out his name). Though fortunately the 208 page of resultant dialogue is fuelled by alcohol, and by the innate character tension between the two males: one an imaginative, expansive, hard-drinking and successful extrovert who loves animals and has accumulated thousands of fascinating objects, the other a natural observer of mankind, a diligent questioner happy to pad around in the background, wearing sandles, with his few possessions stuffed into a plastic bag. Flemish Rudi is consistently overshadowed by the fame and knowledge of British Redmond, and by the fact that it his task to get to know O’Hanlon, “an expert in fields I know nothing about, and for obvious reasons he knows next to nothing about me.” But in return Rudi is in complete charge of recording, editing and arranging their dialogue, and gets to repeatedly question and examine the innate assumptions behind Redmond’s established view of his own life. Urged on by the publishers who created the project – as Rudi freely confesses “Emile thinks we’ll think of something” – the pair first settle down in a pub to create a new genre, “part biography, part nature-writing, part Darwin”. Fortunately in the end they opt for a pub crawl through Redmond’s childhood and youth.
The project plunges immediately into the middle of an O’Hanlon family crisis….which speedily reveals to us Redmond’s various failings as a father, partner, driver, cook and map-reader. It also averts any tedious attempt at a biographical chronology, and instead we lurch our way into understanding Redmond’s extraordinary creativity as writer, academic, reviewer, traveller and naturalist, through chance loops of conversation fired off by exposure to the landscape of his childhood. We hear how the books of Norman Lewis and Charles Darwin helped liberate him from his truly appalling parents, a pair of book and knowledge-loathing, life-diminishing, fundamentalist Christians. How the horrific example of the suicide of his youthful best friend, both warned him of the dangers of a creative mind but made him wish to live for the both of them. So that even whilst knowing that “when I write I feel permanently oppressed. I live in my own little mind”, Redmond also tastes how writing can deliver shamanistic instances of reward, “at moments like that I am weightless. I don’t exist as a body, I only live in my mind…there is no greater happiness that that in the entire world.” We discover how his love for Conrad always underwrote his enchantment with the idea of travelling into the Congo and how the chance link-up with James Fenton’s brother, then running a small press in his garage, gave him the first break into travel writing. We also find out how he managed to blow away his hard-won academic career by teaching his first batch of students about the wrong century, and how a pair of dirty gum-boots helped him win the interest of the love of his life.
Rudi has to work hard for these insights, sometimes recording conversations that continued for 8 hours non-stop. For he finds that Redmond has developed an entertaining but effective screen formed from a hoard of hilarious anecdotes and runaway stories, sharpened by his long friendship with writers such as Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Bruce Chatwin and Salman Rushdie.
But Rudi, the dry if not drab foreigner from Benelux Europe, proves himself the perfect foil to all the hidden boundaries, assumptions and exclusions of British upper middle-class life and the rarefied tenants of its literary society. He discovers that Redmond’s wife’s dress-making initially kept the family economy afloat and how Helga (a Greek psychotherapist) became increasingly influential in Redmond’s life and helped him to understand that ‘love is more important than writing’ , ‘that drinking made me prone to fits of rage’ and that he had become ‘an absentee father.” Of all his famous literary friends, it seems that in the end, only Ian McEwan retains his continued respect, not least through his example of having always left his study door open and remaining happily accessible to his children. Darwin too, Redmond’s great scientific hero, Darwin, never allowed his towering genius to diminish his essential kindness, humanity and compassion. In the fetish room of the title we finally plunge into the complex rituals of an ardent atheist determined to try to remain sane, inspired, and a good man. Who despite his intellectual rationalism knows that “in daylight books don’t talk… but at night they come out of the shadows and speak to you directly.”
Like Boswell’s Johnson, it is impossible not to be inspired, entertained, provoked and uplifted by Rudi’s Redmond
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by Barnaby Rogerson