Magazine article The Spectator

The First Recorder of Vox Pop

Magazine article The Spectator

The First Recorder of Vox Pop

Article excerpt


Curzon, 35, 16.99" pp. 468

In 1945, says Judith Heimann, Tom Harrisson was 'on his way to becoming a household word in England'. If so, he went sadly astray. Outside a small circle of people who shared his wide but esoteric interests he was never famous, hardly even modestly well known. When he was killed in a road accident in January 1976 his memory was cherished by a few, execrated by a few more; but most people were hardly aware of his existence. He is worth remembering and Mrs Heimann had done well to tell his story.

His career was eventful and rich in bizarre incidents. While still a schoolboy he organised 1,300 observers nationwide in a study of the great crested grebe which is still considered authoritative today. His exploits as an undergraduate explorer proved him resourceful, self-reliant and almost insanely brave. When still only 23 he concluded that he was more a 'censusologist' than an ornithologist - 'human statistics is my line' - and did important pioneering work among the Melanesians of the New Hebrides.

His new passion took him to the hideously impoverished mill-town of Bolton to study the structure of society, and then to join with the poet, Charles Madge, and the documentary film-maker, Humphrey Jennings, in the inspired amateurism of Mass-Observation. In the war he parachuted into Borneo and organised the Ibans to fight against the Japanese, winning the DSO for his efforts; he did not actually encourage recourse to their traditional fighting methods but, as Heimann drily points out, 'there is no denying that by June 1945 headhunting was back in vogue in Northern Borneo'. After the war he turned museum keeper and ethnologist, developing the Sarawak Museum as one of the liveliest and most enjoyable institutions of its kind and discovering the skull of what then seemed to be the oldest example of homo Sapiens Sapiens.

So far so very good, but every achievement was clouded by his truculence, his drunkenness, his tactlessness, his unreliability. 'Let us make no enemies in New Guinea!' he urged his closest friend. 'Do you honestly think you could go anywhere without making enemies?' came the reply. 'If so, forget it.' He was not an inveterate liar, Heimann judges, but

by slightly exaggerating and oversimplifying - telescoping the truth, as it were - he made his extraordinary genuine achievements open to question by many. …

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