Dear Readers. one of the joys of going to a ‘real’ bookshop is that you spot all kinds of books that somehow never come to your attention otherwise. On a visit to Daunt Books on Marylebone High Street (in between our various lockdowns) I spotted some intriguing volumes, and, keen to support actual physical bookshops, I bought ‘Journeys in the Wild – The Secret Life of a Cameraman’ by Gavin Thurston.
What a wonderful book it is! Thurston has had more adventures than you can shake a stick at, involving everything from being stuck in a submersible 1000 metres under the ocean while filming crabs, being caught up in the civil war in Sudan and nearly being arrested while filming pigeons outside the Vatican. He catches amoebic dysentary, is bitten half to death by army ants, is nearly killed by lions and at one point is attacked in his hide by an irritated silverback gorilla. What I love about Thurston is that he admits to responding in the way that any sensible human being would, rather than being some kind of macho hero: he sees the gorilla approaching, and this is his reaction.
‘He’s coming directly at me and I can hardly breathe, my heart is racing, pounding in my chest with fear. I cower down by the camera as he gets closer and closer, and then when he’s inches from the hide I can see his towering shadow on the canvas…..This is it. there’s a smack and I hit the ground hard, knocking me off my seat, throwing the camera with it. The silverback has slapped at the hide, hitting me on the back, shunting everything inside. As I lie on the ground, physically shaking with shock and fear, I can still see his huge shadow cast on the hide of the canvas. Fearing the worst I try to make the appeasement sound as a last resort. In my fear, I can only muster a high-pitched whimper, a tiny, pathetic squeak. To my relief, the silverback walks off, leaving me a crumpled wreck. The rest of the gorilla family too melt back into the forest as I try to calm myself. I’m badly bruised on my back. That is the first, and hopefully last, time that I will be punched by a silverback gorilla‘.
It’s interesting that Thurston often ends up in difficult and dangerous situations – I often thought that wildlife film making must involve a whole lot of patience, but that’s not the half of it. He wonders a lot about why on earth he and his team are travelling across Sudan in the middle of the war, supported by an ‘armed escort’ of fourteen-year-old boys with AK47s, in order to film the Dinka people of southern Sudan. He films some amazing scenes and is welcomed by the Dinka, but some of the villages that they travel through en route are destroyed by the time he gets back. I wonder how those who commission these films can justify putting people into the middle of such volatile and dangerous situations.
And what is clear is that the cameramen who bring these extraordinary images into our homes, even the very famous ones, are often leading a hand to mouth existence. When Thurston turns down a couple of jobs because they would mean him being away from his home and young family, yet again, all over Christmas, he ends up in such financial straits that the bailiffs are about to move in. The only thing that saves him is, of all things, some TV advertisement filming, which brings in about three times as much as one of those dangerous wildlife films. Something to ponder next time I’m watching a ten minute sequence of komodo dragons fighting, or leafcutter ants marching along a vine.
But I would like to end with an encounter that Thurston has in Kenya. He has spotted a huge dead sailfish hanging from a hook on the quayside, next to the cigar-smoking American who has caught it. Thurston remarks on the beautiful colours of the fish.
‘To my surprise, the American very humbly replies, ‘Yeah, you should have seen the colours on it when it was alive. This is nothing compared to what it looked like when it first came out of the water’. He continues, ‘Actually I’m really ashamed that I’ve caught this fish. I literally saw the life slip out of it. I saw the colours fade as it died on the deck’. And then he admitted, ‘I have total regret having caught it. I really wish I’d never caught it. It’s only going through the process of catching it that I realise that I should never have done it. It’s such a beautiful animal – and now that’s it! I never thought I’d feel like this.
‘I’m going to tell all my buddies never to do it. I’m going to have to live with regret’.
Thurston has a keen eye for both the wildlife and human stories that he encounters. He is a great companion as we travel the world with him, quick-witted, compassionate, thoughtful and with a great sense of the absurd. This is a great lockdown book, full of travel adventures at a time when most of us can’t go more than a few miles outside our front door. If I had one issue, it is that the structure of the book isn’t always the clearest, as we jump decades and continents within each section, but each individual story is full of interest. It’s a rip roaring gallop of a book, and I recommend going along for the ride.
There’s a nice interview with Gavin here. I notice from his website that all his activities for 2020 have been cancelled due to Covid. I hope that sales of his book are helping to offset the loss of income at least a bit!