BOOKS: Testosterone zone

Lost Cowboys: From Patagonia to Alamo by Hank Wangford Gollancz, pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Hank Wangford is Britain's most popular country singer and in daylight hours a gynaecologist, a fact that some years ago inspired the immortal Flamin' Groovies song "Hank Wangford Fitted My Coil." He made a journey from the bottom of South America to the top in search of huasos, gauchos, llaneros and vaqueros, and the point of it, besides having a storming good time, is to show us that the first real cowboys were indigenous, not the white replicas dished up by Hollywood and claimed by North America as their own. Wangford is not interested in the Anglo cowboy. Part travelogue, part history and part cultural commentary, the pattern in his carpet is the original cowboy soul.

The book reads like a country and western song, the prose loose and rangy and the delivery deadpan. The voice we hear in Lost Cowboys is as bold and breezy as the Patagonian steppe, and its owner is a cowboy in his heart. Some of the punning sticks in the gullet (a chapter is titled "Dai Hard"), though the book is very funny in places; on the Pope's boots Wangford comments: "I had suspected John Paul of having secret cowboy leanings for some time," and after a peroration on the gobsmackingly obvious Freudian interpretation of the mate-drinking ritual widely practised in the southern cone he says: "Best not to worry, though, for it keeps a lot of grown men quiet."

He gallops confidently through great swathes of time and space, and it is an occupational hazard of the genre that the history gets curdled occasionally. He trots out the usual line, for example, about the Mapuche being fierce and warlike, whereas in fact they were perfectly ordinary folk who took offence at the concept of their own genocide, the cheeky monkeys. And Uruguay isn't "unique in Hispanic America" for separating church and state: the Chileans did it in 1925.

On his own turf - cowboys - he is terrific. It is indeed significant that there is no such word as huasismo in Chile, as it is paradigmatic of the place the cowboy occupies in the national consciousness, whereas gauchismo in Argentina is a potent concept. This is the kind of subject that runs the risk of collapsing under the weight of its own testosterone, but Wangford makes it work, not least because he lobs in a healthy dose of self-deprecation and plenty of yeasty dialogue.

Lost Cowboys is festooned with quirky detail; I've spent a ton of time (though not enough) in Patagonia, but I never knew the verb patagonisar, "to become slow, easy-going, philosophical and thankful for small mercies". Brilliant! And did you know that our own "Hokey Cokey" is based on the saga of the barking mad, one-legged Mexican dictator and opium addict Santa Anna?

The sunlit south calls us all, siren-like, in our dreams, and when the author's long road ends in an antiseptic Texan airport, he conjures up a typically Wangfordesque image to express the chasm separating it from what Auden called the Moral North. "All the soul, all the warm, dirty reality of Latin America had disappeared like a turd down the instant vacuuming suck of the airport lavatories." This is a great book, proving once again that old cowboys never die. They just smell that way.