Magazine article The Spectator

The Colossus and the Birdman

Magazine article The Spectator

The Colossus and the Birdman

Article excerpt

MANLY PURSUITS by Ann Harries Bloomsbury, 15.99, pp. 342

Wills, it is my dream to fill my forests with the sounds of all the birds of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire . . .Their music is nothing less than the song of civilisation!

The speaker is `the Colossus', Cecil Rhodes, a `melancholy Roman emperor' who is nearing the end of his astonishing life and times. He sits brooding and plotting still in Great Granary, his mansion on the nether side of Table Mountain, Cape Town, in 1899, not long after the disastrous Jameson Raid. The doctors have told him he is a dying man. Francis Wills, the world's leading authority on birdsong, has been summoned to import and release 200 British 'songbirds into the South African countryside. Not only will the birds 'civilise' African darkness, they will 'purify' the great man's system and prolong his life. Never mind that it's the wrong time of the year for birds to sing or to mate. Never mind that they will be lost in an alien habitat, and become instant fodder for birds of prey. Rhodes has the money, Wills the alleged expertise. Let there be nightingales!

Francis Wills, narrator of this brilliantly funny and inventive first novel, is a fastidious, epicene, and repressed Oxford don who, we gather, has one or two discreditable episodes in his past life to live down, like his overbearing host. He is also a keen amateur photographer, a virtuoso whistler, able to imitate any bird at will, an expert in all fields of natural history, and a friend and contemporary of all sorts of famous names back in his student days at Oxford during the 1870s.

The novel unfolds his life story, and that of Rhodes, in alternate chapters breathless with drama and incident. As the birds droop and die in their cages a whole troop of exotics come and go at Great Granary, including Kipling and his family, Olive Schreiner, who has a mission to save the continent from disaster, the big game hunter G. B. Challenger (`When in Africa, shoot. It's the only language that everyone understands at once . .'), Jameson of the farcical raid, in which Rhodes has colluded, Alfred Milner, the perfervidly British politician who has come out to negotiate with the Boers and try to save `the Imperial position', and Frank Harris in his newfangled motor car:

The first person in the world to have seen the four great cathedrals of France in one day, driving his motor from Amiens to Paris to Chartres to Rheims, before the sun set.

There's also a little girl in the cast list, strikingly reminiscent of Alice Liddell, who breaks through Wills's icy reserve and ends up posing naked for his camera on the mountainside.

Events are no less dramatic in Wills's childhood. He is more or less responsible for the deaths of both his parents, one deliberately, one accidentally. At Oxford he attends Ruskin's theatrical lectures on Art and Life (and watches the great man road-building at Hinksey, where students must learn his aesthetic creed with pick and shovel), meets and falls in love with the young Oscar Wilde, who wants to know how to grow his own lilies (and later takes Francis out to a scandalous gay club in London), exchanges notes on photography with Charles Dodgson, and meets the young Rhodes himself. He got his Oxford degree, Olive Schreiner maintains, `in order to qualify as a superior human being'. She adds that `he never loved a woman. Men, certainly', from which we deduce that Rhodes too is yet another unconfessed homosexual.

Wills's cool, stilted, 'scientific' voice -- 'I consider imagination to be much overrated', he says at one point - is at odds with the guilty fires burning away inside his breast. …

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