‘Some obscure sex twist’ and a lone petrol pump

by Martin Rose

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Turning to Willie Seabrook, a couple more of whose books have landed in my letter-box this week, I find a curious, unattractive, enigma. His books are enjoyable, self-regarding, mostly light-hearted journalism. They record his extensive travel in some of the remoter regions of the world in the 1920s and 30s. The time of which he writes, the time in which he travelled, makes for excellent stories, though he is always the external, often patronising, sometimes cruel and never self-effacing white American observer. One writer called him an “expert for the common man, or the basic middlebrow reader,” which may have been true in the 1930s, but which has to some extent been balanced by the evidential value of his middlebrow expertise, and its undeniable period charm. Another called him “old Willie Seabrook, the lost King of the Weird.” He wrote of journeys in the Caribbean, the Middle East and the Old Soudan – the southern shore of the great Sahara desert.

I shall focus on Air Adventure (1933) because it touches on some of the same people and places as The White Monk of Timbuctoo (1934), and the earlier trip was undertaken to collect manuscripts and other material from Père Yakouba for the biography. Air Adventure is an enjoyable, if undemanding, book, a sort of airborne Dornford Yates, telling of adventures in a Farman 190 monoplane criss-crossing the French Sahara. Seabrook sets out with an American novelist, Marjorie Worthington, on a carefree series of hops through the infrastructure of French inter-war aviation. His pilot is a French air ace called Flight-Captain René Wauthier who pilots them, “glass-aluminium-enclosed in the long, narrow body of an aeroplane so scientifically built and so beautifully equipped that, while permitting perfect visibility for both pilot and passengers, it was almost as comfortable as the cabin of a small but expensive speed-yacht or the compartment of a de luxe Riviera express train.”

scan_20161009-2After leaving Paris they stopped for lunch in Poitiers, and headed south with a wave to their hostess far below.  At Toulouse they landed at the hub of

the French Aero-Postal, with its concrete runways swarming like the docks of a great seaport with lorries, motor-cars, men in overalls, its half-mile of enormous hangars, its mighty, heavy-duty monsters of the air, aerial locomotives, winged leviathans which transport not merely bags of mail, but tons of it, from far-off Patagonia and Chile up to Buenos Aires, and then from Central Africa, up along the West Coast, via Dakar, Casablanca and over Spain to this monstrous central depot in France, from which it is re-distributed through Europe. It has cost human lives and millions, but it is worth it. The French Aero-Postal stands today as the world’s greatest monument of organized, sustained long-distance flying. There has been no other organized flying so dangerous, so adventurous, so epic, as theirs since the World War.

This still-heroic moment in aviation history is engagingly portrayed, the refuellings, the long lunches, the men in oily overalls waiting at desert airstrips, the Tuareg with their ‘crusader swords’ and their Bellah slaves, the champagne, the storms and the hasty landings on gravel; but also the sense that vast and sometimes hostile as the Sahara undoubtedly was, it was largely known territory where rescue was – generally – assured in case of accident. “The desert,” says Seabrook ruminating on a wrecked plane near Bidon 5, “is like the mighty ocean. It is safely navigable, but it does not forgive mistakes.”scan_20161009-3

They flew to Oran and then Colomb Béchar (where they were detained for an enormous luncheon by a colonel in a scarlet tunic) and on over the desert, stopping at Reggan and at Bidon 5. These were both way-stations on the land-crossing, too, and surprisingly comfortable. Reggan was a fort, fitted up for travellers and known as Bordj Estienne, “the principal hotel of the Trans-Saharienne Transport, founded by the two sons of the late General Estienne, the younger of whom, René, gave his life, massacred by the Tuaregs, in blazing the Trans-Saharan motor trail. The elder brother, Georges, who was the pathfinder for the famous Haardt-Citröen caterpillar expedition, still carries on as Trans-Saharan president.” At Bordj Estienne the travellers found “whisky and sodas at the bar, American cigarettes, a French table d’hôte dinner, illustrated French and English magazines less than ten days old in the lounge library, and bedrooms with electric lights, modern art curtains, and counterpanes.”

At Bidon 5 in the lonely and lethal Tanesruft, they landed more out of curiosity than necessity, to see the famous petrol pump. It was “a white-enamelled pillar identical with those you see along any road in Long Island, except that it stands there in the sand, in the midst of nothingness, in the almost exact geographical centre of the Sahara, stuck there like a pictorial infantile North Pole – the most lonely and isolated petrol pump in the world or the universe.” It is accessible only by air and truck: “No man on foot or horseback, no camel, no gazelle or jackal, can even today reach Bidon 5 alive.” Unsurprisingly, therefore, its guardian turned out to be stir-crazy and frightfully constipated (they “gave him some castor oil from the aeroplane engine”), tormented by a phantom Tuareg flautist with a long white beard. Bidon 5, despite all its odd glamour, “turned out to be rather a bore.” Well, what did they expect?

scan_20161009-4Shortly after leaving Bidon 5, the Farman was forced by a sandstorm to land on the desert. Waulthier, Seabrook and Marjorie secured the plane, anchoring it with a dozen huge sandbags, strapping  a cover on the engine and plugging the exhaust pipes, before digging a trench in which they took cover with their emergency rations for a gritty night in the open. A day later they dusted off their plane and flew on to Gao.

The details of their trip once in the Niger valley are diverting, but unimportant, including much society at Gao, Timbuctoo and Bamako, the collection of papers from Père Yakouba, and an irresistible hunt for armoured ducks in the lagoon near Timbuctoo: “The armoured ducks of the Niger are,” Seabrook tells us, “ornithological monstrosities. They are as big as a full-grown sheep and so thick-boned, so heavily feathered, that ordinary buck-shot won’t even ruffle them. But they are worth trying to kill, for they are magnificent eating. A fillet from one breast makes a flank steak for a whole dinner-party.”

Their return trip, though, was eventful. They were swept up in the search for a lost aviator called Reginansi whose plane had come down in the desert near Tamanrasset, and who walked and crawled 140 kilometres in search of water while some unknown mischief-maker radioed false co-ordinates for his position. Marjorie was left at Gao to cross the desert by lorry, courtesy of the Trans-Saharienne which laid on a special run for her (“They would shoot her straight up across the desert, following us by fast motor-lorry, to Reggan … where we would pick her up and all return to France together.”) Once Reginansi was found, in parlous state – and not by our hero – Seabrook returned to Reggan to await Marjorie, where he met Georges Estienne, “that is to say, ‘the Pope,’ the big boss of the works, founder, president and Director-General of the whole bordj-eTrans-Saharienne.” This character sketch is worth quoting – Estienne was the grand old man of trans-Sahara travel. “He wore baggy tweeds, a golf cap, tan shoes and an Army shirt … He was a big, muscular fellow, youngish – that is to say in his healthy early forties – with a clean-shaven face that was boyish, friendly, and at the same time as hard as granite. Though the son of a French general, he was not Latin; though now a Saharan, he was a man of the North. He suggested very strongly a certain type of American or English empire-builder …”. With Estienne, Seabrook visited and crawled along a fougara, a subterranean water feed that supplied the oasis, and discovered (almost predictably) a thriving temple to a phallic cult on a cliff at the edge of the Ahaggar, on which he supplies much information of a Reader’s Digest sort.

But then things began to go wrong. Marjorie’s soft-topped Renault lorry did not appear on schedule, and it became clear that it was lost, probably off-trail somewhere between Bidon 5 and Reggan. Estienne organised a search (“We’ve had casualties among ourselves – you know about my brother René – but we’ve never lost a passenger”) while Seabrook fretted. An English film company appeared heading north in “a big, grey-white. shining autobus de luxe of the Trans-Saharan, not unlike those of the PLM that ply between Paris and Monte Carlo,” giving Seabrook much to complain about, and later to be slightly ashamed – but entirely unrepentant – at having written.

Arrivé du car au bordj de Reggane en 1926 avec les représentants

It was three difficult days before Marjorie returned, and Seabrook was increasingly worried despite Estienne’s reassurance. Finally her truck was sighted on the horizon at night, distant headlamps blazing. He heard what had happened. “In brief they were lost, totally lost, circling blindly for three days and nights in that worst of all deserts, the Tanesruft, the traditional ‘Desert of Thirst’ the heart of the Great Sahara. And then, after they had finally picked up the trail and found Bidon 5, ‘the God-damned fool’” – she had a hastily impressed mechanic, who had never driven the route before, rather than a trained desert driver – “’lost the trail again.’” A search party found them and brought them in, a little traumatised but safe, and the last leg of their journey, north across the desert, the Mediterranean, Spain and France, to Paris, could begin, back to whisky-and-soda and counterpanes.

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It is a slight surprise to discover in accounts of Seabrook’s life that the long-faced and long-suffering asylumMarjorie, who became the second Mrs Seabrook in 1935, was a regular accessory of his more recondite carnal self-indulgences. There is photograph by Man Ray (part of a curious series called The Fantasies of Mr Seabrook) which is said to be of Marjorie in an all-enclosing, skin-tight, unperforated black leather hood that he called ‘the Justine mask’ (though the nature of the tenue clearly makes definitive identification tricky). Marjorie “willingly bore the marks of Willie’s whip and proudly wore his collar and chain to parties in Paris and New York,” even attended the launch party of one of her own books thus curiously clad. It is perhaps not entirely surprising that she found herself “in her later years, appalled by her own history” and divorced him in 1941, exasperated by his sadism and alcoholism, and later wrote a book about him, The Strange World of Willie Seabrook (1966). His own life ended in 1945, in a not unpredictable implosion, preoccupied with extra-sensory perception, casting magical curses on Hitler and “tying his mistresses up in chains on his New York farm.” He killed himself with a drug overdose.

m-islandThat’s probably enough about Seabrook’s personal life – as he wrote of Koupery, the French owner of a Timbuctoo trading-post, whose servant was kept dressed as Napoleon from the waist up, but naked from the waist down, “Koupery was queer and disturbing. I sensed something unnatural, abnormal. I wondered whether it might be opium, hashish or some obscure sex twist.” Indeed.

Oddly though, Seabrook’s slender claim to fame is not primarily through his florid sadism or his adventures in the Middle East, or Timbuctoo, but comes from other episodes in his life. The first was an experiment in cannibalism, which he described in unpleasant detail, at a Paris hospital: he wanted to write about a supposedly cannibal tribe which had denied him the experience on his travels but needed – for purely scientific reasons, you understand – to be able to describe the taste. The second was his self-committal to an asylum in 1933 – the year he published Air Adventure – an episode which he turned into a best-selling book called Asylum. And the third was an odd interest in Zombi-ism, which arose from a trip to Haiti and was written up in The Magic Island (1929), a book which made him a lot of money and set in motion the global obsession with zombies that seems still to be with us today. He was a hanger-on of the ‘Lost Generation’ poets, sneered at by them but persistent. His friends included Man Ray, Cocteau, the occultist Aleister Crowley and – perhaps – H P Lovecraft. Triangulate that lot and you have a very peculiar man. He would – as I concluded my piece on his biography of Père Yakouba – not have made a very good bishop.

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