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In Savage Africa

3 November 2009 No Comment

Fifth in the “Fish Stories” Series.


Title: In Savage Africa

Owner: Lilly Burroughs

Circumstances of Acquisition : Found in a bin at Lloyd’s


CIMG3397 copy

When Lilly found the book she thought it must be an unfortunate allusion of her current situation; she was just about to end a very long engagement. She was digging in a bin at Lloyd’s when her hand struck a hardback with a light crimson cover. “In Savage Africa” it read and she looked curiously down at the cover. Two illuminated figures roving about in a sea of high silver grass; a man with an axe and a bull with curved horns about to attack.

It looked very old and she checked the date within; 1897. Hmm, she thought, perhaps I should buy it for I do feel I’m in savage Africa at the moment and all men are terrible beasts and there is far too much exotica surrounding me. It was a good analogy for her life: she often found herself striking at tall grasses around her with a machete while the beasts swarmed about, clawing and biting and ready to place their calloused paws upon her body. But in reality, she saw herself, head down, arms draped tightly round her chest when she went out to bars and always, always there were the little furtive men who hung about, pecking at her like little meek birds for a taste of bread. It really did get tiring after some time.

Oddly enough she had gone to Africa years before and stayed a month or two with a local family in Zambia. When she thought back to this time, she decided she had never been happier; it was if the world was free of sound and distractions and she lived simply for awhile writing a book about Brachystegia longifolia–a native tree in the grasslands of Zambia. After she returned she had met Gar, not in a bar oddly enough, but at a hardware store. He couldn’t understand her desire to go to Africa and had almost decided Africa did not exist at all because it was not in the peripheral vision in his brain, had never swung about on his cones and rods, his rivulets of tiny brain nerves. He preferred cold, hilly places and often tried to get her to go to mountains of New Hampshire or Vermont (surely nowhere too exotic) to climb mountains. But she hated mountains, hated craggy, meaty environments. She preferred simple, flat lands; somewhat colorless. Zambia was not colorless, the city was bright and chaotic but once she got to the plains, she felt her skin settle a bit; breathe once again, it was more neutral and dusty brown. She should have known right then that Gar was useless but she somehow became entranced by his lack of character; she felt the need to understand his void, rest in its opaque, dull splendor for a while, almost like studying a common household  plant..

CIMG3396 copy She leafed through the book and came upon several illustrations. She didn’t remember  the indigenous people wearing such elaborate costumes and this was unsettling. She wondered if the author had in fact traveled to Africa at all. However it was the height of colonialism and she realized his eyesight was simply awash in the stilted colors of the colonialism and the local sites, and people were part of his storybook. He would present his endless plays and props and sideshows to the public. So, she bought the book and brought it home, leaving it in the den on top of her coat. Later when Gar came home, he sat on it by accident. He picked it up and peered at as if it were a suspicious package.

“There you go, talking about this place Africa and then you go and buy the damn book.” He spit out and gestured wildly at the book. “Are the snakes in Africa really that large? He asked and pointed to an illustration of  a man fending off a python the size of a giraffe.

“No Gar, it’s embellished a bit. It’s a 100 years old for Christ’s sake! Africa’s not like that. You wouldn’t understand.”

“You always say that, oh Gar, you wouldn’t understand. Well, I don’t understand why a lady goes to Africa and studies plants anyhow. there’s enough to study in this damn urban jungle for a million years, well a few years, anyhow.”

And she looked at him and studied him and a light bulb went off and she then decided he would be ideal for her next project. Plants had become boring; he was right about that. But banality was a subject that keenly interested her. And why not observe it in one person? The mind’s big grasp at nothing–how exciting! The severity of dullness, the trials and torments of being blank; a null spot on a wall.

Title: In Savage Africa

Author: Verney Lovett Cameron, C.B., D.C.L.,Commander Royal Army

Penned: In the gray kitchen of a Victorian flat

CIMG3394 copyCommander Cameron had  a deadline and was a month short on his promised draft of his latest African Book. His wife, Ivy, advised him to never take on the assigment;  first of all he would have to go back to Africa  and of course that would mean he would roam about and discover another tract of the cruel and unusual land on that god forsaken continent. And lastly, like last time, he would come home muttering bit and pieces of  some obscure and obtuse tongue that should never have been invented at all,  least of all spoken. He would stop wearing his overcoats and vests and roam about the house in his flannel knickers and the staff would rebel and all would be lost. He had also picked up a rash the size of Chelsea and was forced to bathe in milk for months.

“Oh it will be such an experience Lovey, how I long to go back… I dare say these roasts we eat here are terribly bland and I long for some Caterpillar Delight. There nothing quite like an African sunset, it puts ours to shame. I miss the great expanse, the great stretch of equilateral loneliness. And of course, I can’t go back to Spain.

He set out to Spain after his first stint in Africa. Ivy thought it would straighten out, suck out the wanton spirits that circled his heart and engulfed his sturdy little limbs. But in Spain, he had gained forty pounds and brought back a young teenager he claimed was his new assistant. His name was Amando and he was to write longhand while Verny dictated. His wife grew suspicious after she discovered he knew not a drop of English. He spent most of his time in the kitchen, whipping up disastrous paellas and shook his nimble fingers about the room in search of things to do. One night, his wife caught them on the chaise lounge late at night and he was certainly assisting Verny with his nimble little fingers.

CIMG3395His wife put her foot down and told him if he set foot in Africa again, she would ruin him. She’d take all the money, which really came from his father’s estate and tell the world about his escapades in Spain and Hyde Park for that matter. And she would reveal that she wrote most of his last book “On the Restless Banks of the River Thames” about the adventures of a young Shakespearean fisherman, who dreamt of the theatre but had little talent. It had received wide acclaim and made them some money which she promptly put away for  a rainy day. She wasn’t sure why he had ever decided to leave the Navy, despite the little rumors she had heard from that terrible gossip, Bethany Dids.

So it was decided he would not go and he invited over an old man that had spent half his life in Africa to refresh his memory a little. Verney jotted down the old man’s anecdotes, imagined a young sailor as a narrator and his story began. When his wife read the first few chapters she quickly took over and wrote the entire book herself. It was her idea to include the stories of the hideous over-sized pythons. “Every tale should have a proper beast,” she proclaimed.  “After all, we English are simply left here in our miserable gray fields with the dull stares of cows or the defeated bleating of the sheep.”

Then one day Verny received a letter in the post;  it was an ivory colored envelope with some strange lettering in the corner and his own name scrawled across the front. He sat down and read it the dark corner of the parlour, trembling in excitement that someone from the continent had remembered him. But his excitement faded like the sliver of an old moon and he collapsed on the floor. His wife grabbed the letter and read it rapidly. Apparently one of the hunting guides at the camp had been killed by a Leopard. His name was Fumo and was much loved by all. “Oh, Fumo, oh Fumo,” was all Verny could manage to say and she led him to his bed where he stayed for some weeks. Ivy put the death of the guide in her book as well but decided it was a  a rather typical death and added that cannibals had stumbled upon the soon to be dead Fumo and had themselves a fine dinner. Later when Verny read the finished book, he wept again and thought of Fumo, his backside flyed and mounted on a long strip of wood to be boiled.


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