Book review: Red Nile, By Robert Twigger

Twigger of the Nile turns his crafty Old Hand to ripping yarns of the greatest river. Is he for real?

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The Independent Culture

Less well known than the famous Long Range Desert Group of the Second World War was the Short Range Verandah Group, which operated from Cairo's Shepheard's Hotel (motto: "a long bar, long drinks, a long wait"), its members downing gin-slings. Robert Twigger, veteran of many a 4x4 desert foray to lost oases and forgotten wadis, would have been at home in either set. Part ITMAs Colonel Chinstrap, part a GPS-equipped petrolhead desert Jeremy Clarkson, Twigger has a Boys' Own Paper, gung-ho style which recalls a bygone era of all-male bull-sessions at Nairobi's Muthaiga Club. Unlike most cut-and-paste histories from secondary sources, this is an insider's account, not just of the river Nile but of Egypt, Sudan and Uganda, their histories, geographies, quirks and characters.

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Twigger has lived in Cairo for seven years, is married to an Egyptian and stares at the Nile every day from his study; he has fallen in the Nile, swum the Nile, drunk the waters of the Nile, kayaked and rafted, and travelled the length of it by plane. He is, in fact, an Old Hand, Twigger of the Nile. The stock-in-trade of the Old Hand is warning the rookie how dangerous everything is: killer crocs, enraged hippos, bilharzia, the gay scene in the Pharaohs' day, floods, cannibals, mutilations, plagues – all are recounted with lip-smacking enthusiasm. Can baboons really rip your head off? Can crocs devour men hiding 12 feet up a tree? Do hippos eat people? "When a hippo turns red - then you've really got to watch out," Twigger admonishes. I'll bet.

Rambling, discursive, chatty, anecdotal, funny, often implausible, this account is laden with suspect information and dubious theories, often qualified with a "perhaps" or a "maybe". "The Nile is a clean river," we are told. Er, no it isn't: I inadvertently drank a glass of unboiled Nile water in Luxor, caught paratyphoid, was on my back for three weeks, and nearly died. "The Arabs discovered how to distill alcohol," Twigger claims. No, they didn't: archaeologists have discovered ceramic alcohol stills in Paphos, Cyprus, dating back centuries before Johnny Arab loped out of the Empty Quarter.

Many of the usual suspects have been rounded up - Napoleon and Champollion, Burton and Speke, the Mahdi and General Gordon, Flaubert and Florence Nightingale. Some slipped through the net – I missed Popski and his Private Army, Hicks Pasha, Slatin Bey, Bimbashi Valentine Baker, Colonel Stirling and his SAS, Evelyn Waugh and Randolph Churchill at Groppi's. Twigger could have had much more fun with King Farouk – and where is "Tears Before Bedtime" Barabara Skelton, Farouk's mistress, and the notorious flagellation session with a dressing-gown cord on the steps of his palace? Never mind. It's a series of ripping yarns, and highly entertaining.

My advice is – collar a pew, pour a stiff one, light up a Burmah cheroot, hoist your jolly old ankles over the arms of a Bombay Fornicator, and lie back and savour this Twigger cove's often dotty ruminations. Anyone who appreciates Julian Maclaren-Ross's classic cod-colonial tall tale "A Bit of a Smash in Madras" will adore this book. I think Twigger may have invented a new genre – the Ramblelogue.