Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop
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?
Friday 16 August 2013
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.
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.
Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awardsTheatre
Grace DentChannel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Rarest Beanie Baby of them all could be sold for £62,500 on eBay
- 2 Ben Affleck asked TV chiefs to hide slave-owning ancestry, new hacked Sony emails published by Wikileaks claim
- 3 Driving while dehydrated can be just as dangerous as drink driving, study suggests
- 4 Farmer told to tear down mock-Tudor castle after hiding construction behind hay bales
- 5 One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Better Call Saul creator Peter Gould on the creative concerns of a prequel, season 2 and the mind-numbing realities of the small courts
Britain's Got Talent 2015: RSPCA investigating Marc Metral's miming dog after cruelty complaints
One Direction: Louis Tomlinson launching his own record label, has already 'signed two acts'
Tidal CEO leaves Jay Z's music streaming service only a month after it launched
Star Wars 7: The Force Awakens: Luke Skywalker actor Mark Hamill admits he was suspicious of 'Star Trek guy' JJ Abrams
If I’m being racially abused I don’t need a stranger with a saviour complex to rescue me
The only black face in the Ukip manifesto is on the page about overseas aid
Ukip is the only main political party to not address LGBT rights in its manifesto
Food banks: One million Britons will soon be using them, according to Trussell Trust
Religion isn't growing, it is becoming vigorous in its demise, says philosopher AC Grayling
BBC election debate: The one photo that summed up the whole 90-minute leaders debate